Grocery Budgeting, 101: The Basics

In another life, I was a teacher of fresh, eager college students. For most of my very short teaching career, I had the immense pleasure of teaching a group of fiercely-talented burgeoning designers — the kind of kids you really didn’t have to teach at all. They were competitive and eager, which made it easy to come into class the first day and tell them that if they did enough to get by in my class, they’d make a C. That B’s and A’s were hard work, and I wasn’t giving them away (insert my scariest mean face, pretty much the opposite of this one in the Indy Star where I was caught at DigIN with food falling out of my open mouth).

This is how I approach the subject of grocery budgeting, too. There are levels of how much work you can do — and the fantastic thing about living in our plush western world is that you can choose how much you want to do. This goes for me, too — and on any given month, I make anywhere from an A+ to a resounding, thud-like F! when it comes to staying within our food budget.

So, today: the bare minimum. Do these things alone, and you’ll be facing solidly in a direction of staying within your real-food budget.
Continue reading “Grocery Budgeting, 101: The Basics”

The (chicken) House that Tim Built

There are two questions people tend to ask when they find out we have chickens:

Do they smell?
Are you saving money on eggs?

I was surprised by the first question, because I’d noticed no odor at all from our chickens. I’m not sure if it’s the way we’re keeping them (in a coop with a large run, vs. in a shed or some other closed environment?) or if somehow chickens have garnered an entirely unwarranted reputation for stink — but our chickens don’t smell bad. Not even during that week that Tim was out of town, when I dutifully kept the girlies fed and watered and closed up at night, but failed to scoop the poop from the coop.

Scoop the poop from the coop. Say that three times, really fast.

(made you do it.)

Does having chickens save money on eggs? Probably not much. Especially if your initial investment includes purchasing or building a coop (you can buy them locally built, or order some uber-hip ones online) which can run anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars (check this “urban chicken residence“). Once your chickens have a place to lay their head eggs, they just need to be fed — and depending on type of feed, it’ll cost $15-30 a month for four chickens.

Our coop was designed and built by my big-picture-gifted, detail-challenged husband. He rounded up free-cycled materials, so our coop ended up costing about $75 (plus his time, which he assures me is worth mountains of cash). The frame was built using old shelving from an auto-parts-store-turned-urban-culture-center:

He said it was like playing with a grown-up-sized Erector Set — he just fit the pieces where they needed to be and bolted them together. My favorite part is the ladder, which was a shelf for oil filters in a previous life. Next up was adding the walls, roof and windows:

The particle board and trim pieces were leftover from DIY projects, and the windows and roofing were extras given to us by friends. I had randomly bought a box of cedar shingles at a yard sale about a year ago — we have them on our house, and I figured it didn’t hurt to have extras (classic thought-pattern of a hoarder) — so we decided to get matchy-matchy with house and coop.

At night, the chickens roost in the coop, and during the day they have access to a run. We close the run off each night with a sliding gate, since it’s not adequately wrapped underneath with wire to prevent dig-under predators (no one wants to wake to an early-morning bloodbath in the ol’ backyard). We can open the top hatch of the bump-out to feed them, and there’s a side door that opens to give us quick access to eggs in their laying box.

(I should note that one of my favorite things is accidentally opening the door on a chicken in the laying box. It has the same feeling as walking in on someone using the restroom — and the chickens react in a similar manner, warbling an embarrassed complaint.)

It’s not chic, not magazine-worthy. But it fits well in our not-huge backyard, looks like it goes with the house; the chickens seems happy (would we know if they weren’t?), and Tim followed our general life philosophy of spending as little money as possible.

The thing about chicken coops — there are about as many variations of them as their are houses. If you’re local to Indianapolis and are thinking about keeping chickens, I highly recommend seeing a variety of coops in action at Tour de Coops, on September 16. I went with a friend last year, and it was the first time I seriously considered having chickens. A fun way to see many coop varieties, first-hand, and be inspired to think about what could work well in your space.

(And if you go, take a whiff at each coop, and report back any smellage. Gotta know if our birds are anomalies.)

Interested in keeping chickens? Is there something I’ve not covered that you’ve been wondering about?




Kitchen reno, part 4: the wrap up.

Well, the major points of our Fung Schway Kitchen Reno have been covered (miss it? check out part 1, part 2, or part 3). Now for final details that put icing on the proverbial cake:


Jar pendants

I despised strongly disliked the pendant lights that came with the house (also, why just two? when the peninsula could clearly support a trio? odd numbers, people, odd numbers). Since the small space could easily be overwhelmed by lights too large or stylized, I was having trouble finding an affordable option for replacement. I’d lazily perused etsy a few times, looking at jar lights — but never could bring myself to spend $35 on a homemade jar and shoddy wiring — especially when I have a plethora of jars in my own basement.

One day I was cleaning the embarrassingly dusty pendants (because I only dust when it’s to the point of shame) when I realized that if I took them off, I (er, Tim) could just punch a hole in a jar lid and screw it into place. I used some regular canning jars at first, but then found these antique blue jars at a yard sale within a few weeks. I’m still not wild about how bright they are — I need to investigate softer bulb options — but visually they fit.



Our Ikea cabinets (they came with the house), while giving a nice overall impression, lacked a few finishes. To help them appear a little more grown-up, Tim added molding to the top edges. FYI, finding the exact white to match a factory finish is a BEAST.



And what kitchen is complete without a wall of chalkboard paint? If I were staging this shoot, I would have clearly erased my 8-year old’s drawing of a nondescript punk-ish girl and replaced it with a menu for the week, or a verse of inspiration. But I’ve never once written a menu on that board, and have a general mistrust of inspirational prose. I figured I was stretching reality enough by showing you an “after” pic of a clean kitchen, I wouldn’t perpetuate the lie.

To refresh your memory, the Before pic. In the grand scheme of things, not a horrible kitchen. Relatively new, bright cabinets. But no window, no warmth:


And, After. No underground-dish-washing, a bit softer, a little more color, a little more me:


So, on to the cost.

Cash breakdown:
window: $150
trim (window & cabinets): $40
paint: $45
shelving: $100
countertop: $200
backsplash: $140
pegboard: $20
pendants: $4

(which, incidentally, was very closely guessed by Kelly in the comments of the last reno post — though if she was playing Price is Right she would’ve gone over.)

Now from the never-satisfied department: while there were several very good guesses last post (I actually don’t love my stove, even though it’s gas and functions fine, and our refrigerator did have a “moment” a few weeks ago that had me moving everything to a neighbor’s and had Tim banging things around in the compressor area) — the thing I still hate about my kitchen is the floor. We have beautiful hardwoods throughout our house, and I love hardwood floor in a kitchen. But ours stop maddeningly shy of that room — and I have to repeatedly stop myself from harboring bad feelings toward the previous owners for putting in cheap travertine tiles. You know when you renovate something, it can make everything around it appear even more tired and outdated? The floor bothers me now more than ever — it stylistically doesn’t work, and always looks dingy.

But, really — I just have to get over it. Don’t look down, that’s my motto.

And overall? My hot contractor gave me a kitchen I love for under $700. Can’t beat that with a stick.

What would you do with $700 in your kitchen?



You might enjoy following the rest of our reno adventure:
Part 1: Julia Child Pot Rack
Part 2: The Window and Shelves
Part 3: The Countertop & Backsplash

This post was linked up to Simple Lives Thursday, via GNOWFGLINS.

Kitchen reno, part 3: the countertop and backsplash

Coming into our on-the-cheap reno story a bit late? You might want to first check our our Julia Child pegboard pot rack, or the window and open shelves that put the fung back into my kitchen schway.


From day one, I didn’t like the countertops in our kitchen. I remember when we were looking at the house, the day I fell in love with the kitchen sink, the owner telling us that they chose them because they “looked just like granite” and were “so cheap.” The thing is, they don’t like granite, they look like dark-brown formica (exactly what they are). And I’m not even wild about granite, so the perceived similarity was wasted on me.

But when it came time to do our reno, we just didn’t have the budget to replace all the countertops — and, truth be told, they could be worse. Since in our last kitchen we loved the butcherblock eating bar, we got a wild hair to replace just a portion of our counters here with the same material. At first I thought we’d have to stain the wood a similar color as our dark counters — but once we installed it, the mismatched surfaces worked surprisingly well, and the lighter color wood helped brighten the room.

The counter is from Ikea — called some forgettable combination of too many consonants and an umlaut-ed vowel or two. It’s crazy cheap — you can order a counter-depth 8-foot section for $169 (about $10/sq ft). We got the deeper version, since ours would need an overhang for our eating bar — but the deeper one only comes in a 6-foot length. This was the reason Tim had to build out the cabinets at the wall end of the counter — the 6′ length wasn’t long enough to extend from the wall to the end of the peninsula. He built the shelves out about a foot, and the counter covered the rest. Problem solved — and as it turns out, I love the variety the built-ins lend to the open shelves.

I also love the counter because I can knead bread and roll out dough directly on the surface (no knives here!). I wanted a non-toxic way to keep them water-repellent and conditioned, so I make up my own spoon oil and give it a coat every few months. My kids took a ball-point pen to it once, which required a light sanding — but as far as spilled wine, berry stains, etc., they will fade on their own in a matter of a day or two. It’s a little harder to give the counter a daily wipe-down, but the trade-off is worth it, to have a soft eating and prep surface.


The last major change was the backsplash. The original kitchen didn’t have one — and I wanted to go with something classic, something that wouldn’t lock us into a color scheme, something cheap. Enter the good ol’ white subway tile. Already precipitously close to being over-used, likely to become the infamous “avocado green” of the early 21st century kitchen, it was hard to argue against it. You can get 100 tiles for $60 (we used a shy 200 tiles, so the total was about $120). Plus, I love white. I have white cabinets, and wanted the white-on-white walls to match. My original plan was to have the entire kitchen wall, straight up to the ceiling, covered in tile. But in the end I decided a little splash of paint would be nice — it helped that my husband “strongly recommended” I not do that, and since he was doing all the work, well, you know.


In the last kitchen reno post, next week, I’ll wrap up the remaining details that brought the whole project to a close — as well as give a line-by-line breakdown of cost (as best I can manage, we’re not the best receipt-keepers). Anyone wanna take bets on the total project cost? Or, wanna guess the one thing I still hate about my kitchen? Leave it in the comments — the winner will get nothing more than the joy of knowing you guessed something right.

Who doesn’t want to be right?


You might enjoy following the rest of our reno adventure:
Part 1: Julia Child Pot Rack
Part 2: The Window and Shelves
Part 4: Final Details & Cost Breakdown

Kitchen reno, part 2: the window and shelves.


I know I said I’d be going in reverse order, on this whole kitchen-reno-reveal thing (feel free to start at the beginning), but truthfully my order is completely nonsensical (hey, a chaotic reno deserves nothing less than chaotic documentation, right?). So the main reason we did this, the instigator of change, the little flicker of an idea that became my new kitchen — The Fung Schway Window. On night I went happily to bed with this over my sink — the point of no return, the sign of tentative progress:


The hole in the wall wasn’t quite as much of an inconvenience as the fact that the cabinets had to come down first. We lived for a few months without those cabinets — even got to that point where you stop seeing the state of mild chaos you’re living in. We’d have a new visitor to our house, and I’d see their gaze fall briefly, but repeatedly, on our unexplained wall-of-no-cabinets. And then I’d remember that most people don’t live this way, with partially-painted drywall instead of cabinets above their countertops.

But soon the window was in, and it was glorious. Not, mind you, the view — while washing dishes, I get to look at our neighbor’s window air-conditioning unit and rotting backyard swingset, used for presumably-grown children I’ve never seen. But no matter, because like an overexposed photo, I can make it all go away, blow it out in my mind, replace it with blinding light.


And it was the light. And openness. And the fact that I could now stand at my sink, and not feel like I was facing a cave wall, or washing in a basement. For some reason, this is important to me (one of my personal imagined levels of hell is washing an endless stack of dishes in a basement).

And then, of course, the shelves. We had to have a place for our dishes and such, since those cabinets came down. I’m a huge fan of open shelving, even though a few members of my extended family perpetually wonder how we will deal with the dust. My answer is usually we don’t. Dust is so underrated.


The design was based on a problem that will be covered in a subsequent post about the countertop. But my contractor-husband basically had to build out a section of shelves on the far end, and then we filled in the middle shelves using Ikea iron brackets. It worked out great — I use the larger shelves for jars and storage, and the middle section is reserved for dishes.



I am not a matchy-matchy person, and even relish the fact that my dishes continue to be a hodge-podge collection of everything from restaurant-ware (the best, sturdiest white dinner plates EVER) to thrift-store finds. Most of my serving dishes are visible on the upper shelves so I can always scan the top to see what I need. The under-shelf teacup hooks were a recent addition, and I have plans for adding an under-shelf wine rack to further maximize space.


So thrilled I was with how this turned out, we could have just stopped there. But we didn’t — and after splurging on the most expensive part of our reno, a new section of countertop, we just needed to add a few tiny details to make it almost, so-close-to, just shy of perfect (I would be so bored — yet likely much more sane — without fixating on things that need improving).

Next up in the reno series, Best Supporting Actors: the countertop, and our cheap & trendy backsplash.


You might enjoy following the rest of our reno adventure:
Part 1: Julia Child Pot Rack
Part 3: The Countertop & Backsplash
Part 4: Final Details & Cost Breakdown

Kitchen reno, part 1: the Julia Child pegboard pot rack


Remember my bad kitchen feng shui? When, about 18 months ago, I decided I couldn’t live another day in a kitchen without a window above the sink? Because who can daydream about not doing dishes while doing just that and staring at a blank wall?

Well, I now have that window, plus much more, and it didn’t even take 18 months — more like a year. I just needed six more months to actually write about it.

I’m happy to report that my chee* now flows freely westward as I wash countless dishes every day. Freely westward for about 25 feet, until it stops dead at the window a/c unit of our neighbor’s house (6 yards is better than a foot, right?).

Anyway, I figured it was finally time for an update, and some pics. Because I really do now love my kitchen, and feel kinda like a proud grandmother whipping out her accordion of wallet-sizes.

So, in reverse-order of completion, I present the projects, one-by-one:

The Pegboard Pot Rack

The ice cream on the proverbial cake of our on-the-cheap reno was my Julia-Child-inspired pot rack. This is perfect in my kitchen — primarily because there is no place to have an overhead-hanging rack like we’ve had in previous houses. We have a 2-foot wall next to our stove that sits at a 45° angle, and it was begging for a large piece of peg board to house my collection of newish-and-vintage pots-and-pans right at arm’s length.

What I love about it:

  • the majority of my pots-and-pans no longer take up valuable drawer space
  • my cookware couldn’t be closer to the stove — I just turn on the burner and grab what I need
  • the wall rack allows me to use pans as color in the kitchen — my favorite is the tomato-red vintage Dansk enameled cast iron that my friend Sarah found on a Goodwill run.
  • the whole project cost about $20

Granted, my husband did the whole thing (I cook, he fixes things: it’s our agreement). But I totally could have done it on my own. If I’d wanted to.

You just need a piece of pegboard from your local hardware store — and if your board doesn’t come with them, make sure to pick up a package of hooks. While you’re there, go ahead and pick out a quart of paint, and some primer will help too (we had primer already, and used a $5 sample paint from Sherwin-Williams that had been a discarded kitchen color). If your board doesn’t come with spacers, you’ll need some small scraps of wood to use for that purpose.

Cut your board to size, and prime/paint it. Then using 1/4″ spacers (the board can’t sit flush on the wall, or the hooks won’t go through the holes — we made this mistake in our previous home’s laundry room), screw the board to studs in your wall. Tim used 8 screws for our 2×5.5′ board. Touch up any paint flaws (paint over screws), let dry, and arrange hooks as needed.

Julia drew the outlines of her pots on her board with a black sharpie, but I just can’t commit like that.

Voila. Pot organization, kitchen color, efficient use of space, dirt cheap. What more could I ask for.

Check back for a future reno post featuring: The Window, and The World’s Trendiest Backsplash.


* I know, I know. It’s qi. But even with a reno’d kitchen, I’m still as low-brow as I was in 2010.

You might enjoy following the rest of our reno adventure:
Part 2: The Window and Shelves
Part 3: The Countertop & Backsplash
Part 4: Final Details & Cost Breakdown

This post was linked up to Simple Lives Thursday.