A key component of frugal living is: Live within your means. One way to do that is to shed that which you do not need and consciously simplify your surroundings.

I freely confess that I’m a bit of a hoarder, and I’m definitely a collector. Knowing that, I either deny my collecting desire, or play games with my self to keep it under control. Making rules like “you can only add something if you get rid of at least one other thing” help me keep it in check. Thinking about how I’m spending money on <insert object>rather than saving for the trip to Venice also helps.

Simplifying your surroundings has a lot of benefits. It’s easier to clean, for one thing. It’s more restful on the eyes, for another. But it goes beyond that to a place where the conscious evaluation of your living space may mean that you entirely change your environment. That is rightsizing.

I am looking ahead to when I’m older and I know that I will want a very different space than where I am now. I live on three stories which is great when I’m confident my limbs will take me up and down stairs easily — but when I’m 60 (or 80!) those flights of stairs only add to my potential to fall and injure myself. (Which, I have to say, I’m likely to do given my childhood penchant for falling down stairs.)

Given that, living on one floor becomes much more important. Or maybe two, with the second floor for guests and storage. There is a strong possibility that my mother will live with us for a portion of the year, so my next home will have some kind of mother-in-law private space/apartment for her. I absolutely want a garden space, I want to grow more of my own food, and when I’m no longer working that produce will be a supplement to the household costs.

I think I want a smaller space, but when it comes down to it, I’m not sure that is strictly true. I can’t imagine not having my own office/ritual space. And J needs his. We’ll always need that guest space, and even if we combine it with the workout room (as it is now) that doesn’t *save* space. I don’t need two living rooms, though, just room for the books in what I’ll affectionately call the media room (that is, where we watch tv), but that room better be big to hold all of those books. We need a dining room that accommodates a table for 10 (12 would be better, but its hard to find a table that big that isn’t custom made) because we do entertain a couple of times a year, and often have people over for games.So, if not smaller, then it would be laid out differently, with more planning and practicality.

But a component of rightsizing is to deliberately review your life and plan for what you want to be a part of it, instead of what you’ve got. For me, that means reviewing what we have — and periodically getting rid of what we do not use.

This month, May, we’re doing just that. (We started in April, but the month got away from us.) Along with putting up the rugs and switching the drapes from the winter-weight to the summer-weight, we’re going through the closets and the garage and asking ourselves; do I use this? does it have a use at all? is it sentimental in value?

What it’s led to is that we’re going to store our CDs in sleeves ($4.99 for 100) in a box in the garage — this frees up quite a bit of space in J’s office and a shelf in mine.  Photos are either getting put in an album, or tossed. Non-memory-related paper materials are being scanned and stored on an archive drive. J is selling his Dwarven Forge terrains and we’ve already taken a lot of scrap wood and materials to the dump. There are a number of appliances that are now on ‘probabtion’ — if I don’t use them in 2009, they are going away. This includes the Atlas pasta maker I’ve owned since 1994 and have never once used and the Donovi ice cream maker that I use every couple of years.

And, of course (and most importantly) we’re talking about it. Js expectations are different from mine, and we’ve got to negotiate our way through the differences.

A whole chicken is a marvelous way to produce three (or more) meals inexpensively and with little time on your part. Here’s how we do it.

Night One: Roast Chicken Dinner

3.5-4.5lb chicken

2 Tbl pesto, OR

lemon and 1 Tbl olive oil and 1 tsp salt

Remove neck and innards; discard innards but put neck in the freezer for now. Rinse chicken and pat dry. Heat oven to 450 degrees.

If using pesto: take about 1/2 Tbl in your (clean) hand and run underneath the skin on the breast up into the thigh area, smearing the pesto on the flesh. Repeat on the other thigh, then all over the breast area. Rub any remaining pesto on the outside of the chick, any where there is flesh. If using lemon: wash lemon and carefully pierce several times with a fork (this helps release the lemon essence while cooking). Place in cavity. Rub exterior with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. (I don’t like pepper, but you can use it if you do.) Its a good idea to tie the legs together with a bit of twine, it helps keep the moisture in the cavity and improves flavor.

Place in roasting pan on a rack (this keep the chicken from sitting in its own juices, which makes the bottom kind of soggy) and put in oven. Roast until done, about 60 minutes (check after 50 minutes though, because oven temperatures can vary widely).

Remove from oven and let rest 10 minutes (this is the perfect time to make a salad to go with the chicken). Carve, discard lemon (if used) and enjoy.

Night Two: Creamed Chicken with Grits alternative: Chicken Salad (for warm weather)

Now, having used up all of the meat, make Chicken Stock

Place chicken bones and neck (retrieved from the freezer, but you don’t have to defrost it) in a large heavy pan. Add water to just cover. Add a celery stalk, a medium carrot, and an skinned onion. (For a subtle flavor, push a clove bud or two into the flesh of the onion). Halve the vegetables if you need them to fit more easily in your pot. Cover and simmer over low heat for 4-6 hours until the liquid is reduced by at least 1/3. Let cool for 30 minutes, then strain and pour into wide-mouth jars or old yogurt containers. Cover and let cool for another 30 minutes.

If you want to reduce the fat, place in refrigerator overnight. The next morning, skim off the fat that has risen to the top and solidified. Label and freeze. Otherwise, just label and freeze.

Night Three: Easy Chicken Soup using Chicken Stock

1 c chicken, cubed

2 1/2 cups chicken stock,

1 carrot, chopped smallish

1 celery rib, chopped smallish

1/2 onion, chopped smallish

1 c egg noodles (or other pasta, adjust amount to suit the style)

salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients except noodles in a medium sauce pan over high heat until just coming to a boil. Reduce heat and cook 8 minutes at a low simmer. Add noodles and cook another 5 until carrots are crisp tender.

One chicken: three meals. That is a very frugal bird.

The other night I didn’t feel like cooking, but wanted to eat something based on berries. I was hungry, so I didn’t want to wait too long. Although a Dutch Baby would qualify (and yummily so), I didn’t have enough eggs. Time to be creative.

I found a box of cornbread/muffin mix (you know the brand, its the little blue box and is exceedingly cheap). I try to keep a box or two on hand because it makes the best topper for my chicken pot pie (and much healthier than pastry). It only required 1/3 cup of milk and a single egg — I had that on hand. In the freezer I found a bag of mixed berries from Trader Joe’s — 16 oz. of strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries.

I put the frozen berries into an 8×8 glass baking dish and sprinkled 1/3 cup of sugar on top. I added 2 tsp cinnamon and 2 Tbl cornstarch, then stirred until the berries were coated fairly evenly. In a bowl I mixed the cornbread batter and increased the milk to 1/2 cup — I wanted the batter to be a bit thinner than usual. The key to this mix is to not overbeat it (which is true for all quickbreads) and I was careful to stop just before I thought it was completely mixed. I poured the batter over the berries, made sure the top was almost completely covered, and then baked at 400 degrees for 25 minutes (which is a little longer than the cornbread recipe calls for, but I figures the frozen berries would need more time. If using fresh, or defrosted, I’d cut the time to 20 minutes).

The berries were bubbling up on the sides (like they do with a good pie or cobbler) and the top was a pale golden brown. I let it sit for about 20 minutes to cool and then ate 1/4 of it with a spoon from a bowl.

It was SO good. A little sweet, but not like a dessert, and nourishing. It was pretty inexpensive (the mixed berries can be expensive, but I buy a bunch of them in the late summer and keep them in the extra freezer, so I saved there as well), and I’d have no problem serving this to company. It would be easy enough to make the cornbread from scratch, thereby making this 100% homemade.

We are planning to make a major upgrade/remodel in the master bath. This is primarily because our current tub is barely four feet long and I want one we can really soak in.  (Yes, the impetus is purely aesthetic and absolutely not necessary.) When we do this, we’ll be working with a design/builder who is comfortable with using recycled and sustainable materials, as well as incorporating ‘green’ principles into the design.

That paragraph looks impressive, doesn’t it? Let’s go back through that a little more carefully and see what it really means.

For one, a soaking tub has a number of different shapes, depending on culture and time frame. For  many people, a soaking tub is what I think of as a hot tub or jacuzzi: about 4 feet in diameter, made of wood or molded plastic, and has its own heater and filtering system. In Japan, a soaking tub is a commonplace in every home. Their version has a much narrower diameter and is very deep. One takes a shower and cleans off before entering the tub, where one sits in very hot water up to the neck. It is a very smart design in a country where space is at a premium but soaking is a cultural necessity.

Recycled materials include components rescued from the dump, from a construction site’s trash, and from deconstructing other buildings. Technically, this means that I might find every item in the new bathroom elsewhere (people dump paint all the time, in fact), except perhaps the drywall material. This isn’t likely to happen with me, however, mostly because I don’t have the time or contacts to find all the materials needed. What is probably going to happen is that I may find some materials — the tub, sink, cabinet(s), fixtures, flooring — through craigslist and the rest will be new. That’s an acceptable compromise for me.

Sustainable materials are those materials composed of renewable, rather than nonrenewable resources. This is based on a matrix of decisions: are the materials natural, plentiful, or renewable? is their manufacturing resource-efficient? are the materials locally available? are they durable? Other considerations include: how much pollution is created in the manufacturing process? is the manufacturing process low in waste production? is recycled material included? is the energy required to produce the material efficient, or low? does the use of these materials produce low levels of on-site waste? For me this means looking at the elements I don’t recycle from elsewhere and making decisions about what to use. I like wood, but it is difficult to use in a bathroom, so I will likely incorporate tile, paint, glass, and metal as being the best choices for durability and resource management.

What about design elements? Here’s where it can get very tricky and why I want to hire a professional. The tricky aspects are (in no particular order): the whole room will need to be gutted and re-installed (unless I get that Japanese-style soaking tub); I’m not sure the tub I want will be supported by the current floor (mine will likely be significantly heavier); I am seriously considering installing a tankless water heater to cut down on our heating bill costs and guarantee hot water on demand (which is a bit of a crap shoot at the moment); I like the idea of radiant floor heating; and I like the idea of a cork or marmoleum floor. The window is double-glazed, and likely protected by the HOA rules, so keeping it is probably a necessity. But I want to incorporate a curtain instead of the blinds we currently have (easier to keep clean, for one thing). We currently have a double sink cabinet, but I hate keeping it clean, so I’m willing to switch to a single sink, if we can keep the same amount of storage space that we have now. I would love to have a linen closet, but I’m not sure how the space for one would be found. The lighting fixture is not the original, which was hideous, and I’d like to keep it (recycling!)

You’ll notice I’m not talking about ‘French country’ or ‘modern’ styling. That’s far less of an issue at this point than the overall feel of the room in terms of where everything is and what recycled, sustainable, elements we can incorporate.

We live in a town home — which in Washington is defined as a single family unit with at least one shared wall (a condo is multiple units within a single structure) — which makes ecological living more difficult. This is because we do not own the exterior of our house, need to get approval for interior changes, and don’t have our own landscape. But there are still a number of ways we’ve managed to ‘green’ our home.

  1. Before we moved in, we painted nearly the entire house. This meant delaying our move until more than a week after we took ownership, but it made the process 1000 times easier. In response to consumer demand, household paint is becoming increasingly low vocs (volatile organic compounds which can include bezoin and formaldehyde  — its the stuff that makes paint fumes so hard to breathe).  One alternative product is milk paint, which has a velvety and surprisingly durable finish. But paint manufacturers like Benjamin Moore, Glidden, Kelly Moore, and Sherwin Williams have all created low or no VOC paints for the mass market.
  2. At the same time as we were painting, we took out the wall-to-wall carpeting in the front room (a combination living room/media room/library area) and laid down bamboo. We bought the bamboo from an construction overstock retailer and hired an installer through craigslist. He was in and out in an evening, and we have an easy-to-clean, durable, floor made from sustainable wood. the other half of the first floor (the dining room/kitchen area) was already hardwood and its in decent shape. We won’t replace it (thereby reducing the amount of materials we send to the dump) unless we’re in the house 10 years.
  3. As bulbs have gone out over the years, we’ve been switching to the new compact florescent bulbs. The variety is increasing each year, and manufacturers are providing more alternatives to the slow-to-light, stark white bulbs that were first offered. Because they look very different, it can be hard to tell which is the best cf bulb to use to replace an incandescent. The government has a pretty good breakdown here.
  4. We’ve also switched to rechargeable batteries for our smoke alarms (all four of them) and remotes. The only thing that we can’t recharge is our telephone handsets, which remain plugged in all of the time.
  5. In the wintertime we lay down rugs (100% wool, with the thickest rug pads we could get) on the hardwood floors. This single change cut out heating bills by 40%.
  6. We also hang up polar fleece liners under our regular curtains — the doubled curtains keep heat transfer loss to a minimum.
  7. A fleece curtain hangs across the doorway to the front room, trapping heat effectively and fooling our thermostat into thinking its warmer, quicker.
  8. All of our appliances are Energy Star rated. They are also the best we can afford in a matrix of reliability, economy, performance, and durability.
  9. When we recently had to replace our washer and dryer, we did so with a front loading washer –saving gallons of water every year, as well as laundry soap — and an efficient dryer with a moisture sensor. It will stop the cycle when the clothes are dry, not when a timer says they are. I’ve noticed that our clothes are cleaner, and lasting longer (the washer’s cleaning action is vastly more gentle than top-loading machines). As well, the drying cycle seems to be anywhere from 10-15 minutes shorter than with the old machine.

Creating an environmentally responsible, sustainably-based home is easier when you own it,  and the land it sits on, entirely. But its not impossible to make a positive impact on your surroundings. These changes increase your health, your families, and only benefits the environment.