These are tough economic times. How often lately have you heard that statement, or some variation on it? Bankruptcies, budget deficits and bailouts have dominated the headlines for months. For individuals, it appears, the downturn isn’t going to end anytime soon.
To chronicle this episode in our collective lives, and to help us all get through it, Seven Days is launching a new feature called “Getting By.” Each week in this space, you’ll find creative, frugal strategies from Vermonters who are, like everyone, feeling the pinch.
To launch the series, I decided to interview the most resourceful person I know: my partner, Ann-Elise Johnson.
Ann-Elise graduated from the University of Vermont in 1999 with a degree in Plant and Soil Science. From 2000 to 2003, she owned a 7-acre organic farm in Burlington’s Intervale. These days, she works part-time at Gardener’s Supply Company and stays home three days a week with our two young children.
I used to tease Ann-Elise about being cheap — one of my pet names for her is “Stingepot.” But as our family has grown, I’ve been amazed at how she manages our household finances and keeps us out of credit-card debt. Her skills are keeping us afloat these days, so I asked her to share some of her belt-tightening tips:
Grow your own food. “We have two community garden plots. We grow sweet peas, tomatoes, potatoes, garlic, green beans, kale and chard, squash, rhubarb and herbs. The potatoes will last us through January. The garlic we use all year long.”
Challenge yourself to make dinner without buying more food. “It just takes some creativity. There’s almost always pasta in our cupboards. Chili and cornbread is something I can usually scrounge up. The big saver is breakfast for dinner. Crêpes, for instance: if you have frozen fruit and bananas, you can make crêpes out of flour, milk, salt and eggs. That’s all you need. Or eggs and mush — the mush is grits or cornmeal. You can call it ‘omelettes and polenta’ if that makes you feel better.”
Shop smart. “Don’t just buy what’s on sale. Always look at the per-unit cost. Often store brands are cheaper than a name brand on sale.”
Become a thrift-store regular. “I go to the thrift store at St. Francis Xavier in Winooski every week. Everything is 50 cents. Tons of stuff comes through there, but there are a lot of people going in and out. I saw this old-fashioned housecoat — it was white, and it had small blue and red flowers on it, and I thought, That would be really great material to make a quilt someday. But I didn’t buy it. Then I went back in the next day and it was gone. Even something like an ugly old housecoat goes quick.”
Use a sewing machine. “I don’t know how people live without a sewing machine. It’s great for fixing seams . . . I fixed the handle on a canvas bag that had ripped. And every time you use a canvas bag at many grocery stores, you get 5 cents off. I also use my sewing machine to make gifts. This Christmas, I made three aprons, a pair of slippers, baby shoes and a set of kitchen washcloths.”
Kill your television. “We don’t have a TV, so we don’t pay for cable. We watch TV series [on a laptop] when they come out on DVD.”
Use cloth diapers and cloth baby wipes. “I make cloth wipes out of small pieces of flannel that I sew together. I wet them with a solution of Baby Bath soap, vegetable oil and water. I found the recipe online. You use it just like a disposable wipe, but you wash it over and over.”
How did Ann-Elise get to be so thrifty?
“When I was a kid,” she explains, “my brother and sister and I would be out driving with my dad, and he would always stop the car and make us pick up the cans on the side of the road. If we complained, he said, ‘Where do you think your Christmas-present money comes from?’ You grow up with things like that, and they stick.”
Ann-Elise also credits her sixth- and eighth-grade classes in home economics, and a 10th-grade class in sewing. “I think home ec has been a huge help in leading a thrifty life,” she says. “I feel like schools stopped pushing it because they felt it was stifling, or it made assumptions about women’s future careers, but I think home ec is helpful and useful for everybody to learn in school. The skills you gain there can actually make you quite self-sufficient and liberated.”