Friday, April 20, 2012

Paying the Bills

At least we are reducing the load.
Image by renjith krishnan

The last few days I spent quite a bit of time sorting through my stack of medical bills.  I had received a decent payment from the flash card project and decided that, despite my desire to use it on more entertaining endeavors, taking care of this mess would probably be a much better decision. 

We had recently received a notice from the Most Evil Collection Agency Ever (hence after referred to as MECAE), one that we had finally paid off before, but was now back.  I’ve (unfortunately) dealt with collection agencies before, and this company is the most aggressive, nasty one I’ve ever worked with.  Explaining the situation does not help.  They would be perfectly happy with you living on the street as long as they get paid.  They are also the agency that our primary medical providers work with.  Our providers don’t dink around either; as soon as you are late you get sent to this agency.  Fun.

After numerous phone calls back and forth and several hours spent on hold (no, I’m not joking), I was able to set up payment plans with just about every creditor we have left.  Do you know how good this actually feels?  The initial payments have been made and the remainder of the payments are scheduled.  The plan at this point is to finish this wave and then pull our credit reports and see what else is lurking out there.  We will also have receipts in hand to dispute any debts that have been paid and not yet erased.  I feel pretty good about this plan.

Here are the steps I took to sort through the mess and get it all straightened out:
  • Gather together all of the bills.
  • Open each one.  Yes, I hate this part, too.
  • Sort them into piles according to creditor. 
  • Go through each individual stack and try to eliminate duplicates.
  • If you have bills that have gone to a collection agency, try to link up the agency with the creditor.  You don’t want to accidentally pay the same bill twice!  You may need to call the creditor to find out which bills have gone to the agency and which ones the creditor is still holding.  Eliminate any duplicates.
  • If you have medical bills, scrutinize them carefully.  Have any mistakes been made?  According to Consumer Reports, 80 percent of bills from hospitals contain medical errors!  While errors are less frequent at clinics and labs, they are still possible.  Some of the most common errors you might find are procedures that were never performed or failing to bill to your medical insurance.  If you encounter an error, contact the number on the bill to straighten it out. 
  • Go through the remaining bills and pay off the small ones.  This will give you a great sense of satisfaction and prevent future problems. 

Once this is done, contact the creditors with the largest bills and make payment plans.  I know this part sucks.  It sucks for me too.  Some of them will threaten and try to coerce you into larger chunks, but others will be glad you called and will willingly work with you.  Use your nice, indoor voice and be polite.  This will actually work wonders, since they are used to dealing with people who are pissed off and nasty. 

The other step I took that helped me keep my sanity throughout this mess was to work in 25 minute segments and take a break between each segment.  I got up and walked away from the computer and the phone.  This helped to reset me for new phone calls and reduce the stress and tension I was feeling.  I think if I hadn’t done this I would have started getting snarly at the people on the other line and probably wouldn’t have made such good plans. 

Fun, huh?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

My Struggle with Entropy

Photo by Stuart Miles

For the most part, I have no beef with the natural laws.  I mean, gravity and I get into it every once in a while, but we tend to just keep a healthy distance and respect each other.

Entropy, on the other hand… entropy is my mortal enemy.  I do battle with it on a regular basis.  Sometimes I emerge victorious and you get several pictures of how nice the house looks, other times I take a break.  As soon as I do, that sly little bitch sneaks in and invokes chaos when I’m not even looking.  Then I take a peek around and wonder what happened to my nice clean kitchen.

How do people do it?  Without constantly cleaning, day and night, how do their homes stay neat?  How does entropy stay beaten back?  I’ve tried a number of schedules to get both the housework and my writing work done and caught up, but one or the other always seems to suffer. Limited number of hours in the day and all that.   My most recent attempt has been taking 15 minutes at the top of every hour to clean up, but I never seem to get any further than a load each of laundry and dishes and maybe the kitchen counter get cleaned up.  And the next day, that same area is trashed again.

It doesn’t help that the kids go behind me actively undoing everything I’ve done.  Plenty of systems are out there, but they never seem to take MY life into account.  The problem is that the people who developed these systems (think Flylady) now have lives that completely revolve around these systems.  Keeping their homes clean is actually their job; they are quite literally being paid to pick up!  I think the Flylady system started out really practical, but it’s gotten completely out of hand.  Her website is (ironically) a cluttered mess, her emails primarily pitches for her products, and don’t get me started on her philosophy (I’ll bitch about nobody helping me as much as I damn well want to, lady).

This blog is essentially about the steps I am taking to get organized and get my life in gear.  It started out just being about the financial aspect of that, but over time it has emerged into something larger.  Getting organized really seems to be at the heart of it.  And there is actually a financial aspect to this as well.  Being organized will save me money and allow me more time to get my work done – I’m sure of it.  But getting to that point is costing me a fortune in time. 

So here’s what I want to know:  How do you do it?  How do you keep up the house AND keep up with your work?   What are your tips for me?  How can I make this work?  

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Harsh Reality

Basic Biology lesson -- Plants need sunlight.
Photo by Sura Nualpradid

This isn’t working.  Today is one of the first really gorgeous days we’ve had this year.  Full-on sunshine, temperatures in the 60s…  and I came to a sad realization.  The way my deck is situated allows for almost no sunlight during the day.  My poor plants!  I can feel them – reaching… reaching… trying to get to that sliver of sunlight.  Poof!  It’s gone. 

My radishes sprouts have all fallen over, the beans are looking a bit leggy (and really are reaching for the light), and my romaine doesn’t want to move past the sprout phase.  The blueberries are hanging in there (they’re zombies, after all -- it’s gonna take a blowtorch to take them out, apparently).  You can’t garden without sun.  Well, maybe moss. 

I’m looking forward to the move.  (Oh, I haven’t told you about that?  I should probably remedy that soon).  I’ll have a deck with full-on sun and no neighboring building to block it.  I might just have to hang in there until then and realize that container gardening in the dark isn’t an effective method of growing vegetables.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Zombie Blueberries!!

Wouldn’t that be an awesome movie?  I mean, of course, so terrible it’s awesome.  Blueberries, back from the dead!  It’s actually happening in my garden!

Since I’m a lousy gardener, I failed to mulch my poor blueberry plant last year.  By January, it looked like a dead stick someone had shoved into a pot of dirt.  Sounds like something one of the kids would do, to be honest.  I shrugged my shoulders and figured that I was simply not cut out to raise blueberries.

So imagine my surprise last week when I went outside to start checking out my gardening gear and found this!

Check it out!  Little green shoots!! 

Blueberries, back from the dead!  That poor plant hasn’t even been watered in months!  I ran inside, grabbed a watering can, and gave the poor little guy a drink, then moved it out where it could get some sun.  I checked on it again today, and the new little leaves are actually beginning to unfurl.  I gave it some fertilizer and another drink.  I’ll keep a close eye on the little guy, but I think it’s going to make it.

I read up on blueberries.  Apparently they’re a fairly hardy breed.  No kidding.  I’m planning on getting this guy a friend so they can cross-pollinate each other.  Breeding zombie blueberries!!!  Coming soon to a theater near you.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Baking Good Bread to Save

Photo from

So it is no secret that we are trying to save money however we can.  In addition to making our own laundry soap, dishwasher soap, and spray cleaner, we’ve also been working on finding a good recipe for easy sandwich bread.  My goal was to be able to shy away from the store bought bread since the prices average between $3 and $4 a loaf for the healthier brands.  

Here is what I was looking for in a recipe:
  • Soft crusted with a texture that mimics store bought bread
  • Easily adaptable to pan baking since I don’t have a bread maker
  • Makes two or more loaves at a time
  • Uses  whole wheat flour and no “junk” for a healthier loaf of bread

I set about hitting the interwebs, and tried a couple of recipes.  We have some of the Bob’s Red Mill wheat flour that I was planning to use, so I checked that site first....  The recipe was good, but the bread was a bit too dense to really fit what we were looking for.  After a bit more poking around, I came across a blog called “Tammy’s Recipes”.  I gave this one a shot, and right out of the gate, it was a hit!  According to her breakdown in one of her  recent posts, it only costs about a dollar per loaf to make your bread at home!  I can handle using a hand mixer for a bit and doing a bit of baking to save some cash! The full recipe for this wheat/white bread is on her blog that is listed above, but here are the single loaf ingredients:

1 cup warm water (110-115 degrees F)
1 tablespoon milk
2 tablespoons oil
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons instant active dry yeast (active dry yeast will work also; get more info on active vs. instant active dry yeast here!)

Not much to it really!  I would highly recommend checking it out if you want to try baking your own bread.  It is very easy,and if you have a mixer with dough hooks, it takes like five minutes to get the ingredients together and then the rise/baking time. 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

I Started Some Seeds Today

Today I went ahead and started some radishes, spinach, and romaine lettuce.  Sounds like a tasty salad, doesn’t it?  I had some help from my little gardeners, especially Elias, who is working toward his gardening merit badge.  Unfortunately for Elias, the merit badge is more than just sticking seeds in soil; he also needs to do some research to complete the badge.  He’s not so keen on the actual reading and writing part!

If we can get these seeds to harvest, he will have completed a portion of his badge.  He also needs to raise three vegetables from seedlings, so once the weather gets warmer he can choose some seedlings to transplant.  I wonder if it counts if I start the seeds and then he transplants the seedlings?  I have some beans planted and I was going to start peas once things get a bit warmer.  We’ll probably be doing tomatoes from seedlings.  That just seems to work better.  That will complete the vegetable portion of his badge.

He also needs to start three flowers from seed and three from seedlings.  I’m not quite as keen on that part, since I would prefer to use my gardening space (which is very minimal) to grow veggies.  I suppose we could have another crack at sunflowers, but that didn’t go too well last year.  Strawberries, tomatoes, and zucchini grow out of flowers… does that count?? 

I used some pellets we had left over from last year to start the seeds.  I picked these since they are cool weather plants, and the weather has definitely been cool!  We did eight pellets of radish (two seeds per pellet), eight pellets of spinach, and four pellets of romaine.  I labeled the rows for a change, so we’ll know what’s actually coming up. 

My labeled seed in their pellets in the "mini greenhouse."

 According to the seed packets, here’s the details on each of these:

Radish – Scarlet Globe:  I can keep starting these every two weeks to keep a nice crop of radishes going.  The seeds should sprout in about seven days.  I’ll thin them then (and have a little microsalad, haha!) and transplant them outside.  I can harvest them in just 24 days!  Talk about immediate gratification.

Spinach – Olympia Hybrid:  This one should sprout in about seven to ten days.  It sounds like I can have a spring harvest and then another one in fall.  I can start thinning when the plants reach about three inches, so I’ll transplant at that time too.  I should have a harvest in about a month and a half.

Romaine lettuce:  This should sprout in five to ten days.  I’m supposed to thin when the plants have three true leaves.  I’m hoping the temperature isn’t too warm inside for these.  If they don’t sprout when I’m expecting them too, I’ll just start a batch outside since they apparently really like cold weather.  Another batch I can start up again in the fall.  I wonder, since we don’t get that many freezes around here, can I plant spinach and romaine year around?  It would be great to constantly have fresh salad greens right from the garden! 

I’ll snag some pictures when the little guys start sprouting.  I’m looking forward to it!  I’m going to pick up more seed starting stuff the next time we go to the store.  Hopefully I can start kicking the garden into full gear now! 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

How I'm Learning to Start a Garden From Seed

Starting from seed is the cheap way to garden.
Image by Master isolated images

Tonight I had the opportunity to attend a Seed Saving Workshop (free!).   The people giving the workshop were fantastic.  I’m such a gardening novice, and I confess to having forgotten nearly everything I learned in Biology 101 (let alone Microbiology).  I tend to be of the “stick a seed in a pot and cross your fingers” variety of gardener.  This, of course, means that my garden generally doesn’t produce much.

After this workshop, I’m really excited to get some seeds started this weekend!  I got to take home some beans in potting soil, so hopefully they will get going.  I also want to get started on my radishes and lettuces.  Apparently, it’s getting to be prime time and they grow pretty good in cool spring.  I could be having my first homegrown salad in about a month’s time!   Looks like I need to pick up some potting soil and fertilizer this weekend too. 

This is how big a novice I am when it comes to gardening:  I was under the mistaken impression that fertilizer was fertilizer.  Bzzzzzt!  Wrong!  I wasn’t even aware of the nitrogen/phosphorous/potassium ratio.  I have a pretty good idea now why my tomatoes last year went insane with the greenery but only produced about three tomatoes.  Apparently my fertilizer was too heavy on the nitrogen side.  For tomatoes, I should have been using a low nitrogen, high potassium blend.  (Don’t laugh—I’m aware of my gardening ignorance!)  But I’m betting that what I used last year will be great for my lettuces.

One of the speakers at the workshop was a local gardener named Caitlin Moore, aka the Urban Food Warrior.  I highly recommend you check out her blog, since it’s just loaded with great information.  I plan on making it a regular resource.  She also works at a place called Cascadian Edible Landscapes, which is apparently not too far from me.  I fully intend to check it out, maybe this weekend.

I wanted to share with you some of the cool things I learned at the workshop.  If this isn’t news to you, I apologize.  Once again, gardening idiot in the house!  I fully intend to grow a decent garden this year!

  • If you want to save seeds, don’t buy hybrid.  You don’t know what you will get.  Open pollenated seeds are the best for seed saving.
  • You can store seeds for ages as long as you keep them in a cool, dry place, like a jar in the refrigerator.
  • Don’t fertilize seeds.  Fertilize seedlings about once a week.  Use liquid fertilizer if you are using sterile seed starting soil, pellets if you are using potting soil.
  • Plastic strawberry containers make great miniature greenhouses!
  • You can reuse your gardening containers as long as you sterilize them with a vinegar/water solution.
  • When thinning seedlings, you should cut, not pull, to avoid disturbing the surrounding roots.
  • Seedlings need 16 – 18 hours of light per day!
  • You should “pet” your seedlings to encourage them to develop strong stems that will help them survive once they are planted outdoors.
  • Soil temperature should be about 50 degrees before you plant seeds outdoors.  Containers (like I use) tend to keep soil slightly warmer (so what they heck am I waiting for??). 

I’m looking forward to getting the garden growing this year!  What other great seed starting tips do you have that aren’t commonly known?