I first started teaching myself about simple living, scratch cooking and all the other dollar friendly ways to run a house when we had our own crisis several years ago. We had three small kids, I stayed at home. I wasn’t writing books then and we had no income other than my husband's job, 70 miles away in Seattle.
We were chugging right along like everyone else with dreams and goals. And we were meeting those goals. We had a small but respectable savings and lived on a budget.
And then, all hell broke loose.
When my youngest was just four months old, my oldest fell at school, broke three ribs, each poking a hole in her spleen. She was rushed to Primary Children’s Hospital where it was touch and go for three days to see if she would require surgery. They did everything they could to save her spleen, including transfusions and I.V. fluids while the holes clotted. (Then popped out. Then re-clotted. Then popped out again.) At one point they prepped the O.R. because her blood levels dropped too low and then by some miracle, her next set of hourly blood work showed a small but promising rise.
Thankfully, my sister had just come into town the day before and she was able to stay with the younger ones while we went to be with her. My infant son stopped breastfeeding that day and was switched to formula. He was not happy.
Three days after that, my middle child had a previously scheduled surgery on his hip to reverse ball joint damage caused by Perthes Disease. A lot of planning had gone into that surgery and we couldn’t reschedule.
After my son came out of his surgery, we were now splitting our time between two hospitals and the baby. The cost to drive 60 miles each way to the hospitals and back, plus meals out was starting to add up, as were the co-pays and deductibles on the dual hospital stays. After my husband missed a week of work, I was starting to get nervous.
Then the Urgent Care visits started for the youngest. He was not taking to formula well, would scream for hours and go days between poos. We spent a lot of money on different formulas to find one that worked and even when my older children emerged from their health crisis, we were still trying to figure it out. The formula got me. It was anywhere from twelve to eighteen dollars a can (at the time) and we’d try it for a few days and have to throw it out and try something else.
After a week, my husband had no choice but to go back to work. We had one paid-for vehicle and thankfully my children were doing better by that time since I couldn’t toggle between hospitals all day. I went in the evening, every other night to see each. That doubled our gas expenses. The savings was dwindling fast.
Then, my son came home. Both legs were casted open so the hip joint would stay still during healing. He now had to use a special rented wheelchair that allowed room for his spread eagle legs.
Soon as we got him settled into a makeshift bedroom downstairs, my oldest came home. She was on strict bed rest for a month. The risk of the clots dislodging was still high if she ran around and played. And, my youngest was still having trouble with colic and constipation.
And then - because Murphy’s Law wasn’t quite done with us - the very last straw reduced me to a crying, sniveling mess. My husband’s truck broke down. We had the money to fix it and fix it fast, but, it drained the very last of our savings.
I was left thinking, “What now?”
The hospital bills were coming in and they were nasty. I made arrangements on everything I could, went down to basic cable (at some point I turned it off completely because I was too darn busy to watch tv anyway, carrying two children to the bathroom every few hours) and we shaved every expense possible. An income that supported us and allowed for some savings, was now barely supporting us, allowing for no savings while trying to pay off the medical debt that totaled impossible. (Yes, impossible is an actual number. It just varies depending on your situation.)
In the span of one week everything changed with all three of my children having mounting hospital bills and our vehicle sputtering to a stop on the freeway. The end result, after much struggling, was bankruptcy.
Before it got to that I dove deep into the world of frugality.
The cute tips and tricks that were out there weren’t quite enough to get us through our crisis. Couponing wasn’t the rage back then but it existed. I was leery of spending ten dollars a week on newspapers with no guarantees I’d end up with more than a freezer of frozen peas and a closet full of shampoo.
Couponing rocks, don’t get me wrong. But, as you’ll see in the menus and recipes that I’m going to post and still use to this day, coupons don’t serve me well outside shampoo and deodorant.
Shopping sales at the mall? There were no trips to the mall. I had a hard time finding anyone who knew how to get through real lean times with as little misery as possible. Where the hell were all the smart old people anyway! Everyone else was going about their lives, spending money, going on vacation and I was left in no man’s land. So, I turned to the generation that defined lean times. My grandmother's. Unfortunately, she died while I was still pregnant with my youngest, but I remember her stories. I remember a lot of what she told me and I remember thinking she was super woman to have lived through all that she had. So I knew that her generation was the one I wanted to study.
I got a lot of inspiration from World War II, as well. There were shortages and rationing and while jobs were plentiful for the war effort, eating well was the bulk of the fight on the home front. I read biographies, history books and recipe books. I adapted our entire diet to one of simplicity. (Simplicity that tasted darn good, I might add.)
Our crisis passed and we went on about our life, eventually resumed saving and rebuilding.
I just love it. I really do. When things got better, I didn’t rush back into over spending and rampant consumerism. The week that changed everything for us had changed me forever and I was hooked on security, not things. I wanted to know that should (if, when) something comes flying out of left field again, I’d be able to handle it this time.
That’s not to say that I don’t eat out or buy box food or sometimes buy expensive food now. I do. But, I can take my grocery budget down to amounts that would shock you when I have to. Or when I want to, for that matter. To this day I will choose to spend more time in the kitchen so I can put more into savings.
While I was playing full time nurse to three practically invalid children, they were in the "pancake" phase. They could eat them all day long if I let them. Before, I bought boxes and even big bags of Krusteaz mix. (It's all the rage in the Pacific Northwest to this day)
That was the very first thing I learned to make for next to nothing. My son, an infant then, a teenager now, still requests them 2-3 days a week.
Bulk Pancake Mix
12 cups flour
4 cups instant non fat milk
1 cup baking powder
1 cup sugar
1 tbsp salt
Mix well and store in an airtight container. (I use 5 gallon buckets)
2 cups mix
3 tbsp oil
1 cup of water (more or less for consistency)
Stir until smooth and cook as normal in a little oil.
Can't have pancakes without syrup! Here's the most basic recipe that I use.
1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup water
2 tsp Mapleine
Mix all over medium heat stirring constantly. Slowly bring to a boil and boil for three minutes. Makes about a pint. It says this recipe can be canned, so if you wanted to ten times the ingredients and can in pint jars, you'd have it on the shelf creating your own convenience staple.
M. L. Gardner is the bestselling author of the 1929 series. Gardner is frugal to a fault, preserving the old ways of living by canning, cooking from scratch, and woodworking. Nostalgic stories from her grandmother’s life during the Great Depression inspired Gardner to write the 1929 series—as well as her own research into the Roarin’ Twenties. She has authored eight books, two novellas, one book of short stories and a serial. Gardner is married with three kids and three cats. She resides in northern Utah. Find the first book in her epic series here.