Suburban Pioneers

The Adventures and Misadventures of Homesteading in 21st-Century America

Sarah: Get on Board! December 10, 2013

Keith is in graduate school.  I’m hoping that these long years and many dollars of investment into an engineering degree will pay off.  As a reward for me putting up with late homework nights and student loans, Keith has promised that, when he’s finished with school, I can do anything I want.  I’m thinking  that lounging with books and wine is the way to go.  Friends tell me that I would be bored within a week.  I think I could do it for at least a year or two.


But I digress.

How I feel about Colorado winters.  Yes, even if I'm indoors.

How I feel about Colorado winters. Yes, even if I’m indoors.


The upside of Keith being in graduate school is that we live in Fort Collins, which is a pretty awesome town in most ways–other than the loud parties outside our bedroom window.  But again, I digress.


Fort Collins is also in Colorado, which is a rather cold, mountainous state, especially if you’re a gal from the South.  I make do, though.  I put on long-johns in November and don’t take them off until April.  I snuggle under blankets.  I make a lot of hot chocolate.  And I blast the heater anytime I drive around town.


Until the heater started pouring smoke two weeks ago.


And then this happened.

Our poor pick-up truck, Steady Freddy, is so cold he's turned blue!

Our poor pick-up truck, Steady Freddy, is so cold he’s turned blue!

You might ask why we haven’t repaired the truck heater.  Graduate school, remember?


Well, all that snow was enough to give me second thoughts, so I looked up a bus timetable.  It turns out that I can get to work in 20 minutes by bus.  When I added up the time I would have spent shoveling snow off the truck, driving s-l-o-w-l-y to work to avoid skidding, parking the truck, and then walking to my building, I really come out about the same.


So I tried it last week.  Aaaaaand I’m sold.  Not only does someone else do the driving while I drink my coffee and try to wake up, the bus has HEAT.  Bonus: I feel like I’m back in Europe where almost everyone commutes by mass transit.

Screen Shot 2013-12-09 at 9.21.32 PM

Bus map, Fort Collins, CO (from the website)


I started wondering why I hadn’t done this months ago!  I think Americans have a bias against public transit.  I know, I know.  I’m lucky to live in a place that is close to a bus route.  And yet…I wonder how often there are actually other options (whether carpool or vanpool or bus or metro or bike), but we get so attached to the convenience of our cars that we forget there’s another way.  I admit it.  It took a massive inconvenience before I looked for something different.


Even if the car fairy comes tonight and leaves us a new vehicle (or a new heater), I think I’ll stay on board with the bus.  After all, where else can you get in great people-watching time at 6:30 a.m.?


Sarah: For Your Next Party… February 26, 2013

Fall Clothing Swap, 2011

Fall Clothing Swap, 2011

For your next party, might I suggest an instant crowd-pleaser?


It began in graduate school when I (and all my fellow grad students) were very poor (and, since we’re all now English graduates, we’re still poor, so the tradition has continued).  None of us could afford to buy new clothes.  I mean, we all rocked the thrift store fashions–like any self-respecting grad students–but after the first year of grad school, we were too poor even for thrift store prices (and have you SEEN the tags at Goodwill lately? $5.99 for a pair of pants?!).


Then a brilliant idea occurred to us.  If we just brought all those clothes we were tired of, the clothes that didn’t fit right, the shirts that were the wrong color, or the pants we’d bought meaning to lose 5 lbs., we could all have new clothes–for free!  And that’s how it started:


The Great Graduate Girls’ Garment Giveaway (hey, we’re English majors, folks; alliteration is apropos).

Cat Not Included in Swap

Cat Not Included in Clothing Swap


When we cleaned out our closets, we realized it was pretty amazing and distressing how many clothes we had that we didn’t want, need, or wear.  When we piled all of those clothes into one of our miniscule offices (and then crammed all of the graduate girls into that 6 x 6 foot space), not only did we have lots of fun, we really got to know each other better–nothing like seeing people’s castoffs and unmentionables to promote instant bonding!  Every person took home a few new things, and it was amazing how many of the things that didn’t fit me well perfectly fit one of my friends.


Now that I’m out of graduate school, I see no reason this gathering shouldn’t continue.  Some things have changed.  There are other wonderful friends involved (who also have clothes-trading traditions), and it’s called the Clothing Swap since only some of us are still in grad school.  Also, and very importantly, my friends and I now have actual jobs (or at least part-time jobs), so when we gather at someone’s house, we serve coffee and wine and dessert as we try on each others’ castoffs.


I highly recommend this form of entertainment, but I would issue a warning.  While wine (like unmentionables and castoffs) promotes bonding and hilarity, it also means that you might just come home with something you never imagined yourself owning…

the infamous tiger pants

The Infamous Tiger Pants


Sarah: 10 Common Products You Never Need to Buy February 4, 2013

reduce-reuse-recycle-4Trying to be eco-friendly? Much has been written in other places about how the recycling process itself has environmental consequences.  So what’s an aspiring environmentalist to do?  First, REDUCE!  Three R’s, remember?  If we just buy less, we’ve gone a long way towards being green.

Second, REUSE (a.k.a. repurpose)!  That might be why we’re thrift store junkies, but you don’t have to go Goodwill hunting to reuse.  Here are some simple things you can NOT buy but instead use common household items in place of.  And, on that note, I would like to dedicate this post to my Grandmother Elliott, who lives on in my memory as the most practical re-user I’ve ever known.  I like to think I’m channeling her thrifty spirit now and again.

10. Post-Its

How many pieces of paper with blank backs do you throw away or recycle each day?  And why buy special, oftentimes fluorescent paper (which can’t be recycled due to the heavy dye) when you can reuse paper with a tiny piece of tape?  I quarter my letter-sized sheets to reuse both at work and at home (I’m also the office fairy who hands out stacks of this paper to my colleagues).  Admittedly, this has caused some marital strife in our house when Keith tried refusing to pack and move to our new house a ten-inch high stack of quartered sheets that had once been drafts of my Master’s thesis. Fortunately, I packed it when his back was turned.   Now when he looks for a piece of paper, I say helpful things like,

“Wow.  It’s a really good  thing we have all this scrap paper handy.  So glad we moved it, huh?”

a funnel of the wide-mouthed variety

a funnel of the wide-mouthed variety

9. Plastic Funnels

How many plastic bottles do you toss every week?  Whether it’s a wide-mouthed juice bottle or a streamlined soda bottle, cutting off the bottom half of your plastic bottle produces a lovely funnel. I’m all about owning a nice metal funnel for canning and hot liquids, but if you’re going to buy a plastic funnel anyway, you might as well use some plastic you already have.

8. Microwavable Neck Pillow

My mother always had what she called the “Lonely Socks Club” sitting on the dryer, a repository for all of those singles to wait…and wait…to find their sole mates again.  But every now and then, it would become apparent that some of those lonely socks would never again be a pair.  If you, too, have a Lonely Socks Club, you have the casing for a microwavable neck pillow:  just add rice and herbs and tie off the sock with a piece of string.  No sewing is necessary, and you can congratulate yourself on having saved $14.99 you might have spent on Amazon.

oh, so many uses for this product

oh, so many uses for this product

7. Pet Fur Remover (brush or stone)

Our sure-fire method for removing cat fur from sofas, blankets, clothing, upholstery, carpet, and pretty much any other cloth surface is the magic of a rubber glove.  No, really.  Those rubber gloves that you have lying around for washing dishes can double as pet-fur removers.  Simply put on the glove and run it over the furry surface.  All the hair will clump together, and you can just pick it up and throw it in the compost–because pet fur is, in fact, compostable, as we have previously discussed (just make sure to get the really basic ones, not the ones with extra-lasting power or what-not…when they add extra plastic and stuff to make the gloves tougher, it decreases the fur-clumping abilities of the glove).

6. Travel Toiletry Containers


Reuse these and avoid buying more plastic!

Because we all need more small plastic containers in our lives…um, not really, no.  If you look around your domicile and in your purse or backpack, you’ll find you already have plenty of travel-sized containers: pill bottles, dental floss containers, hand sanitizer bottles, empty chapstick tubes or tubs, small plastic bottles, to-go dressing containers, empty spice bottles or jars, plastic containers for cake or ice cream sprinkles, plastic Easter eggs (come on, I know you hunted for those when you were a kid), jars of fingernail polish, small plastic containers with candy (M&M’s or Pez to name a few), tubs for face cream or other moisturizers, etc., etc.  When I travel overnight, I put the face wash in one side of an old contact case and the moisturizer in the other.  What’s that you say?  “Sarah, I don’t have any of these types of containers.  I live a plastic-free life!”  “Wow,” I respond, “Kudos for being more awesome than the rest of us.  But I’m pretty sure your neighbors or friends have some small plastic containers you can borrow.”

5. Rubber Bands

Each of these is reused--nothing new here!

Each of these is reused–nothing new here!

If you’ve ever bought produce at the grocery store, you have rubber bands.  They come around the green onions, the celery, the leeks, the asparagus, you know, things that are long and green.  However, if you never buy produce at the grocery store (I applaud your commitment to local produce or I question your healthy eating choices, depending on why you never buy produce), you can reuse those rubber gloves from #7.  When they are worn out from washing dishes or removing pet fur, just make a cut all the way across the wrist of the glove about an inch from the bottom.  Voila! A one-inch, heavy-duty, stylishly yellow rubber band (and you can make more than one rubber band from a pair of gloves…even a small pair yields at least three).  I learned this trick from my aforementioned thrifty Grandmother Elliott.  Thanks, Grandma!

4. Reusable Grocery Bags

Okay, I do buy these every now and then…as a tax on myself when I forget a bag.  In Europe, they charge you 10 pence/cents/pennies/pfenigs/whatever-you-call-it or so each time you have to use a plastic bag instead of bringing your own.  So if I forget mine, I buy a reusable bag because I figure I should have to pay for the resources I use.  BUT there’s no need to buy them on purpose because you don’t have enough.  You can reuse an old t-shirt to make a grocery bag…WITHOUT SEWING it.  There are two different methods, beautifully explained by our awesome friends at Trash Backwards: 1) The Upcycled T-Shirt Bag and 2) The No-Sew Hobo Bag (the English teacher in me loves the rhyming name of the second, but the time-limited crafter in me loves the first one and has made several).

3. Pet Poo Bags

Where all our bags go to die...

Where all our bags go to die…

Seriously, think about how many bags you already throw away or recycle: the bags inside your cereal box, the tortilla bags, the chip bags, the Triscuit or Cheez-It bags, the bread bags, the bag around your newspaper, the plastic packaging around your toilet paper, the bagel bag, the bag of lettuce…I could go on and on, and I haven’t even mentioned the obvious grocery bags or produce bags (because we really try not to ever get those–did you know there are reusable produce bags, too?).  Even if you, as we do, make a lot of your own bread or snacks, you still probably have way more bags than you want to admit.  So DON’T BUY SPECIAL BAGS FOR PET POOP.  Just don’t.  There’s absolutely never a reason to do so.

2. Cleaning Rags

We all like that virtuous feeling of cleaning out the closet and donating old clothes to Goodwill or the Salvation Army: “Ahhh.  My closet is clean, and I’ve helped the needy,” we think (perhaps a tad self-righteously).  However, I have worked in a thrift store before, and I’ve volunteered to sort things for many a donation center.  What I can tell you is that people donate the most awful, disgusting, and unusable garbage you can imagine.  They donate expired food to the Food Bank, sweat-stained clothing to the Goodwill, and broken toys to the Toys for Tots program.  Oh, yes, they do.  And if you think about it, you probably have done one of these things yourself.  My friends, if you are too grossed out to wear it, most other people will be, too.  There are places that you can donate old, stained clothes to farm workers spraying pesticides so that the clothing can be disposed of afterward, but some clothing with holes, you should reuse yourself as cleaning rags.  Really, there’s no need to buy cleaning rags when old t-shirts, boxers, and tank tops can be used to wash cars, clean bathrooms, and scrub floors.

1. Plastic Leftovers Containers

First, I try to be conscious of packaging.  Does the item come in glass, metal, or paperboard instead of plastic?  If so, I buy that.  Think of the few extra cents you might pay as an environmental tax of sorts.  Then reuse those glass containers for storing bulk foods, making yogurt, or holding leftovers (hey, glass is microwavable while plastic isn’t).  But when there is an item that does come in plastic and nothing else, keep the container.  For a kid’s lunchbox, for giving away food to friends and neighbors (I do a lot of this), or for freezing things, you might want plastic instead of your more versatile glass.  So save those cottage cheese, yogurt, and peanut butter containers to reuse!  You don’t have any of these containers?  That’s okay.  Your neighbor’s trash will yield plenty.  Just wait until nighttime to raid their garbage bin, or you might have some explaining to do!

Updated: Feb. 7 at 10:00 a.m.: Want more ideas?  Check out Trash Backwards’ new post: 10 Things You Should Never Have to Buy!  I challenge all of you to make and share your own top 10 lists of things to reduce and reuse.  If we all share our best practices, we can learn from each other!


Sarah: Leave It High and Dry January 21, 2013

Filed under: The 3 R's (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) — suburbanpioneers @ 2:00 am
Tags: , , , , ,

My mom has a saying about drying dishes: “Never spend time doing something that will happen by itself anyway.”  I apply the same principle to laundry: “Never spend energy doing something that will happen by itself anyway.”

Laundry in Slovakia: note the white top of the washer in the bottom right corner.

Laundry in Slovakia: note the white top of the washer in the bottom right corner.

My passionate love of drying racks came about in Slovakia.  When we first walked into our one-room apartment, we discovered the small, efficient washer in the bathroom.  “Where’s the dryer?” we wondered.  There wasn’t one.  Very few people in Europe have dryers, apparently.  However, they do use drying racks.

In addition to a nifty drying rack, we had a clothes line over the tub: INGENIOUS!  Clothes just dripped down into the tub with no mess on the floor.  It was plenty high so that you didn’t bump your head when you showered.

Of course, there was one slight downside.  It was too high for me to reach from the ground, so hanging laundry involved a balancing act, standing on the sides of the tub and bending slightly backward for the perfect laundry-hanging position.  It was also a fantastic gymnastic workout as I had to climb up and down off the tub sides to retrieve more wet laundry.

The other downside to our laundry system in that apartment was that the washer drained into the tub…very efficient for the original installation, I’m sure, but less appealing when I made the mistake of washing clothes and showering at the same time.  The gray, slimy water that came out was well up to my shins. Blrrrgghh!

Real life example of drying rack being used (yes, our clothes--please ignore any visible never-no-minds, if you know what I mean).

Real life example of drying rack being used (yes, our clothes–please ignore any visible never-no-minds, if you know what I mean).

On the plus side, laundry in Slovakia sold me on drying racks.  Many people

sing the praises of clotheslines, and I don’t disagree, but I think we should hang-dry clothes all year round, drying them inside in cold weather.  Advantages:

1) much cheaper and more energy efficient–dryers are incredibly expensive on your electric bill!

2) no clothes shrinkage

3) clothes don’t wear out as fast–I’ve had the same pair of jeans for over five years without them ripping.

4) free humidification

This last advantage is a very real one here in Colorado where the air is really, really dry…my skin drinks lotion here, and I can’t keep enough chapstick on hand!  I think, as we begin our spring gardening adventure, I’m going to put our plant starts in the same room as the drying racks.  All that diaper laundry we’re doing should keep the seedlings fresh and green!

The final advantage to drying racks?  Well, if you should ever get the inspiration to make your own pasta, they make excellent noodle-drying devices.




More noodles! Wow. That was a lot of noodles.


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