Tag Archives: Saving Money

Buying 25 percent of a cow: 100% worth it

When buying the best pays off — buying a quarter cow

quarter cow

What a quarter cow looks like

It was almost a decade ago now that my girlfriend (now wife) and I made the fateful decision to pick up some delicious Jones Barbecue and bring it back home to eat. It’d been a tough week and a Friday night at home watching TV while eating an amazing beef brisket dinner with sides was just what the doctor ordered.

We came home and started mowing our beef like we’d done so many times before, commenting on the spiciness, soaking up the sauce with cheap bread. About two-thirds of the way through the meal, however, she suddenly stood and quickly walked to the bathroom. I set my plastic fork down as the sounds of someone violently puking her guts out immediately ruined my appetite.

Shaken, but clearly feeling better, she emerged from the bathroom with her stomach as empty as it had been 20 minutes earlier.

We didn’t really know what to make of it and just assumed that the spices were too much for her delicate tummy. That theory went out the window some months later when we were cooking steaks at home. Same thing: immediate, violent vomiting. OK, clearly it had something to do with the meat. Could she simply be allergic to cow meat? That didn’t really seem to be the case because we had certainly eaten beef many other times without a problem. And it also didn’t appear to be food poisoning because I never got sick even though I ate the exact same food. Plus, the reaction was so immediate and so violent that it seemed more like an allergy than a bacteria problem.

After doing a bit more research, we realized that it may not be the beef itself, but rather something in some of the beef we ate that was causing the problem. Something she reacted to, but I didn’t. I finally found an article (now long lost) pointing out that most supposed beef allergies are actually allergies to the antibiotics given to cows on overcrowded cattle lots.

This was worth testing. After doing a bit more reading, we found out that corn makes cattle sick so the beef factories (they’re not “farms”, don’t kid yourself) give them massive doses of antibiotics. They, in fact, give them the antibiotics even when they’re not sick as a preventative. Why are cows being fed food they weren’t evolved to digest? Because it’s cheap. Why is it cheap? Frankly because the government subsidizes the landowners to grow lots of corn thus feeding it to cows is a good way to get rid of it.

If you want a wonderful overview of the modern food system with ways to positively rethink our approach to food, be sure to read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. (Did you catch that? My first affiliate link!)

So we sought out grass-fed beef. In fact, you have to look for grass fed AND grass-finished as some “grass-fed beef” is actually corn-finished as a way to add more fat marbling to the final cut. We carefully selected some overpriced steaks that were reliably sourced and well-labeled. Guess what? No problems at all.

The test was repeated many, many times after that point. And so we continued like this for many years, until I finally read the Ominvore’s Dilemma while in vacation in Kauai a couple years ago. This is where I learned of the concept of “pasture-raised” beef. Without giving away the whole book, the idea is that every creature and plant on the farm has its role to fill, which it was given by eons of evolution. So the basic approach when it comes to cows is that the cows eat the grass, the cows fertilize the grass, the chickens eat the bugs out of the pasture so the cows aren’t covered in insects and the whole system is moved around frequently so no part of the system is overtaxed. In fact, interestingly, even the grass did much better as it had evolved to be trampled (creating water pockets) and fertilized regularly. Simply put, the system is in balance. No antibiotics are needed because there isn’t a stress on the system causing illness.

Fate intervened again when our fridge started to die. We weren’t sure if it was going to be savable, but most of the food we were worried about was our frozen stuff. Plus we had an old bar fridge in our basement that wasn’t being used. We decided to spring for a deep freezer and then use the bar fridge as back-up if our refrigerator truly did bite the dust. (We’d been thinking about getting one anyway as a way to be a bit more self-sufficient and to buy in a bit larger quantities.)

So we were all set when we decided to take the plunge and buy our first quarter-cow. It worked out great when my wife was pregnant as she was told to up her iron intake. So about a year ago my wife, then six months pregnant, and I drove up to Snohomish to pick up our meat.

It’s taken us about a year to eat that meat, with the lesser steaks and some of the roasts taking awhile to get through. (It was just a couple weeks ago that we gnawed our way through some nasty chuck steak.) We still have a few pieces left from last year, ribs (I’ve never cooked them, so that’s something I’ll have to figure out) and a couple roasts left. We also gave away all our offal last year (we just didn’t take it this year) and we gave away a few other choices as gifts.

Is buying a quarter cow a good deal money-wise?

Well, we paid $764 for about 120 pounds of beef. That was $511 for the cow and the rest for the butcher’s time. That puts us somewhere around $6/pound. However, we didn’t actually weigh our product, plus we didn’t take the offal, which is included in the price. On the other hand, this is organic and we know where it all came from and, of course, it also includes plenty of premium cuts like T-bones and rib steaks. I’ve heard a clean rib eye can go for as much as $20/pound. There’s also the difference between “pre-hang” weight and the actual weight of what you buy, so it’s a true apples and oranges problem. To really tell you what our value was compared to supermarket meat, I’d have to weigh each cut and compare each one to retail prices and total it up. I’m way too lazy to do that! Instead, I’ll roughly estimate that we eat beef 1.5 times a week on average and that this amount lasted over a year. That is around $63/month, or $15/week. At one and a half meals per week, that’d be around $10/meal (for two people). That doesn’t include power for our freezer and gas to go up and get the meat, but you get the idea.

Bottom line to us is we don’t feel we’re being gouged, we’re getting quality, clean meat and we have it on-hand when we need it — plus, no puking! To us, that’s a great deal!

What do you think? Is clean meat worth it? Has anyone else tried buying a quarter or half cow? 

Save money with a tool library

All the tools, none of the price

The tool library workshop space

The tool library workshop space

As I mentioned previously, my wife and I clearly bought too much house when we moved into our current home. We paid $625,000 in 2008 in a collapsing market, thinking we totally scored. Unfortunately we didn’t wait quite long enough as home prices continued to decline, putting our potential sales price well below our purchase amount. (We’re about back to even now, not including commissions, interest and work we’ve done to it.)

This mid-century classic home is built like a tank and is the first home I’ve owned with completely straight and plumb walls. It has a warm, cozy feeling throughout and has a classic layout that makes most areas of the home quite usable. It has a lovely view of the Puget Sound and beautiful Vashon Island.

But, as always with real estate, there have been a few issues. The upstairs and downstairs bathrooms were both shot. The kitchen had been remodeled in the 80s or 90s and was poorly done. We’ve replaced all the windows and switched the giant, dirty oil furnace for a new, natural gas model. We almost immediately remodeled the upstairs bathroom and rushed to redo the kitchen last year before Pretired Baby showed on the scene.

As we became more serious about getting to our full pretirement as soon as possible, however, we made some abrupt spending cuts and looked with some dismay at the money we’d put into this house. If we had bought a totally adequate $400,000 home and put the difference into our pretirement accounts, we’d be just about there. Whoops! It’s a lesson I hope anyone thinking about buying a home can learn from me and avoid their own mistake.

So we developed a strategy to get out of our situation and still reach our pretirement objectives. Without diverting to a whole post on our house situation, we decided we need to make some prudent updates to this house to position it for eventual resell at a higher price (hopefully in an appreciating market as well). One of the tactics we came up with is to update our open and awkward basement layout to add two more bedrooms (will function as a storage room and an office for us) and to update the completely disgusting downstairs bathroom. That should let us sell for $20,000 to $30,000 more. Note that we may even downsize into a rental for a few years before we sell as part of a grander plan we have cooking.

Break out the tools

Tools

Tools

Thirteen years ago when I bought my first home, I didn’t even own a hammer. I always wondered how old men always seemed to know how to fix stuff on houses. Now I know. After owning half a dozen pieces of property over the years, I have acquired a massive collection of tools. My operating plan for tools has been this: Don’t buy any tool until you absolutely need it. When you need the tool, buy the best quality tool that will fit your needs and repeat as needed.

Projects take much longer and are more dangerous if you don’t use the proper equipment and as much as possible I’ve tried to avoid buying cheap, junk tools because they fail too quickly. Those tools (**cough** HarborFreight **cough**) are basically disposable, which is usually more expensive in the long run. There are a few exceptions to that rule, particularly related to tools that I am pretty sure I’ll never need again. And while renting tools can be a great option, it’s very often cheaper to buy these days, depending on how many hours you’ll need it.

Enter the Tool Library

More tools

More tools

Today, though, I have another option. I had the opportunity to help, in a very minor way, launch a local “Tool Library” in our community a couple years back. It was a project put together by Sustainable West Seattle, a thriving nonprofit where I served on the board of directors for a few years.

The concept is simple: Instead of every person in the neighborhood storing, say, a pressure washer in their garage for 364 days per year, these tools are centralized and checked out as needed. There are other benefits, too. The group loans tools out en masse to community groups doing work in the area. For example, this this recent project where a garden was created to help a local food bank. (Now hopefully the food bank will be able to offer more fresh food in addition to the more processed fare so often donated.) In addition, tools are available to the community in times of natural disaster, with shovels, axes and saws available as needed.

Nowadays there are even classes to learn how to take on various projects and there is a rentable workshop space with some larger tools.

It came with extra nails -- sweet!

It came with extra nails — sweet!

The tools came from donations and from some purchases using start-up funds received via some government grants and private donations. Many of the initial purchases were rounded up during the massive community-wide garage sale that occurs here every year. Many of those were picked up for just a dollar or two with many more just being given freely as people learned about the concept.

Since I already had such a massive tool collection and haven’t been doing as many home projects lately, I haven’t really needed to borrow anything since we started the tool library. But since we decided to kick off our basement project, I did my first check-out last week.

Everything you need to attach wood to concrete

Everything you need to attach wood to concrete

At first I had forgotten it was even there! Needing to attach my walls to the concrete floor of my basement, I had gone in search of a powder-actuated tool. This tool fires a nail into concrete with what is basically a .22 bullet shell. I first checked with family (lots of construction folks in my family) to see if anyone had one I could borrow. No, it’d been loaned out to another family member and was now lost. Next I checked the prices over at Home Depot. Wow, $559 for the Hilti DX 36. Looks sweet! Old me might have just went down and bought that baby on the spot. Or more likely one of the cheaper versions since I won’t need it much after these walls are up. Like this one for $22. Plus I’d need to buy nails and shells. There was nothing decent on Craigslist.

But then I remembered: I have a tool library right here in my neighborhood! I even helped with the launch! I checked the inventory and sure enough, there it was, a Remington Powder Actuated Tool just like I needed. For the low, low cost of FREE. When I got it home I found it even had leftover shells and nails in the kit. Score!

It was busy at the Tool Library while I was there. Someone was loading their car with a load of rakes and shovels to attack a spring project while another person was returning a small rototiller. A couple folks were using the rentable shop space.

Now I know some of you are thinking: “Well I don’t need a Tool Library because I never need tools. I don’t even own a house!”

The embedded nail

The embedded nail

Sorry, but we’ve got you covered, too! In addition to having tools available for community projects, the definition of “tool” has been expanded as well. Available are canning tools, a cider press and even books. Wait, books at a library? Mind=blown! There has even been talk of having some loaner dishes available for banquet events and even some sound system equipment or projectors for meetings. We’ll see what happens as it grows.

There really is something for everyone. Do you ride a bike? Check out the bike repair tools! Need to move something heavy? Or just concerned about Zombies? We’ve got you covered. It’s a pretty cool concept. Check around. You may have one in your community as they’ve been sprouting up in recent years. If not, why not help start one? Our team has put together a sweet starter kit to help you get going.

So how did my powder actuated tool loan work out? Awesome! I started by framing in the walls, getting them all dialed in just the way I want. After YouTubing how to use the tool (these donated tools often have no instructions with them), I was ready to go. You insert the nail into the barrel end. Then a cartridge (the “bullet”) is placed in the upper section. You press down hard where you want the nail to go and whap with the hammer. It pops like a gun going off and your nail is safely embedded into the concrete. A few more and the wall is totally solid. The basement is looking awesome so far. I just have a few more walls to go and I’ll be well on my way to a home that’s ready to rent, sell or just enjoy!

Anyone else have a tool library in their community? If there was one available, would you use it? 

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