Sunday, May 24, 2015


Friday came and went without posting an update for loyal readers on the status of our efforts to purge 2,015 items in 2015.  Why not?  There was nothing to report.  The first week to pass with not a single item donated, recycled, given away.   Technically we did remove some items, but each offset recent purchases of kid clothing and shoes for the summer season.  Closing in on half the year gone, we'll need to increase our efforts and focus over the summer months when I am working fewer hours during the children's school break.  For now, I am enjoying the rain fall on the few garden plants we put in yesterday, cuddled on the sofa with the kids watching their favorite Star Trek film while my husband works in a run in our neighborhood.  Ignoring the clutter, and simply enjoying the moment.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Frugal Observations

"Mom, we don't eat out as much as other families." My oldest child's statement set the topic for our 10 minute walk up the hill to school.  Bundled in fleece jackets, hands inside of mittens on a mid-May morning in Wisconsin, I have grown to savor these talks.  A perfect time to deepen our bond, and most days work in a teachable moment.

"Why do you say that?"was my response.

"Everyone else eats out a lot more, I mean a lot more." he replied, not really answering my why question.

Being the lawyer I returned with, "how do you know that?  Is it something kids share at morning circle time?" I queried.

"Yes!  They go to Noodles, to Culvers, they get take-out subs, have happy meals.....have I ever had a happy meal mom?"

"Nope.  You've had some of the nuggets and their ice cream, but never a happy meal. Don't some kids talk about eating meals at home?"  Curious now, we're we really that odd?

"Yeah, but even Mrs. ----- eats meals out!" Changing gears to emphasize habits of a teacher both my husband and I adore for her amazing talents as a teacher.

"Well, we'll do Culvers sometime, probably even this weekend....your aunt and Grandma are flying up and you know how they love Culvers."  This satisfied him and the conversation turned to his convincing the 6 foot stick he'd acquired on the walk must be carried home, by me, and added to his collection.  He won.  We may have another lawyer in the family one day.

For now these moments allow me to set the groundwork for our family.  Our family eats out, but only every now and then, usually with coupon in hand.  Dining at home is not free, but it is certainly less taxing on our family budget.  One day Rooster will fly the coop and fly off to college.  I will take a moment to remind him that the college education fund his father and I used to aggressively save for college was made possible in part by not eating out all the time.  Once having been a student saddled with heavy student loans, I am saving so that our two children will not need to worry about a FAFSA score.  I hope to write a check, and that will be that.  Made possible by not only frugal living, but hard work, and diligent savings week after week, year after year.  And over that time it is my wish that some of my frugal life choices will not only be observed by our children, but adopted by them as well.  Time will tell.  For now, meals at home are the norm.

P.S. This post was written at the kitchen counter as I consumed a spinach, chicken egg scramble with an apricot and jelly toast -- homemade, fueling me up before heading off to my office.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Recent Grads: Toss The Cap, Keep Common Sense

Mid-May in Madison,Wisconsin means that most likely our last night with frost is behind us, most likely.  We can safely tuck away our wool socks and the long-underwear that got us through another Wisconsin winter.  Put away the fleece? Well that is really a year round option here -- summer nights can be quite cool, especially for those trips north, so we keep it handy.  Mid-May also brings a flurry of activity on the University of Wisconsin - Madison campus.  Over the weekend tens of thousands of undergrads, graduate and professional students will toss a cap into the air and leave the campus for the next phase in life.

Many will likely carry the same burden I did upon completing my last and final degree (1995 Undergrad, 1998 Masters, 2001 Law degree) -- student loans.  When I crossed that stage down on campus in May of 2001 I had three degrees, and just over $97,000 in student loans.  Fourteen years later I live just a few miles from the graduation venue, returning to my hometown after stints away. Unlike many of my fellow graduates, I am debt free with the exception of a small mortgage. The $97,000 in loans was gone by 2006 -- and do no instantly say "oh, well you're a lawyer, it's easy to pay off loans when you pull in six-figures."  I was not that kind of lawyer.

Those nine years of school focused on government and policy, and upon graduation I accepted a job with a State government institution here in Madison.  My salary was not six-figures, it wasn't even close.  How did the loans disappear?  I didn't win the lottery or receive a windfall inheritance.  What I did do was live frugally, more frugally than I ever had before.  Determined to free myself of the shackles known as student loans, I got fired up and paid them off.

Sure, there were lots of little tricks I used -- using a drying rack rather than paying $0.75 to use the apartment dryer or sending in payments twice a month in order to eat away at the loan principal.  But the big one, the key -- I didn't live like "a lawyer".  Reflecting back on that transition in my life from a student to a professional I remember very clearly a conversation I had with a relative.  We were sitting on bleachers watching middle school baseball (wearing fleece!), "well now that you'll be a lawyer you should buy the kind of car a lawyer drives".  I took this as a dig towards my 1991 Honda Civic.  Understated it was, but such a step up from the 1984 Honda I'd previously owned -- free of air conditioning, but also power locks and power steering.  Yet in her mind, lawyers drove sparkly new imports.

The thought that immediately came to mind, but  one I held in was "I am a lawyer, so whatever I drive is what a lawyer drives." Not interested in a debate on my frugal ways, I let the comment pass and changed the topic to the game in front of us.  But it was that comment that captures the key to paying off loans -- don't live the life marketers or others think you should live.  Keep living like a student, a very poor student, for just a few more years and you'll receive the delight of saving for your kids college via 529 plans rather than chipping away at the mountain of debt you acquired before American Idol was even an idea let alone in its last season on TV.

My advice dear Grad --throw that cap high, and then return to your student ways.  Think bus passes, roommates, restaurants with no white table clothes, clothes drying on your shower rod, and if you must have a car, one that is paid for, outdated, and reliable.  Do this, and the debt you needed to get that degree will fade, opening yourself to even more opportunity than you have today.

Friday, May 15, 2015


Loyal readers will note that it is Friday and this post is titled with a number.  Must be the number of purged items, a reader would guess.  And that reader would be correct.  As of today our family has purged 1,121 items from our home.  With the ultimate goal being to rid our home of 2,015 items in calendar year 2015.  We're doing well it seems.

After hitting the sum symbol on the spread sheet I am using to track this venture, 1121 appeared and it felt odd.  Why?  That was the house number of my youth.  That was the house number of the home I recently emptied after the death of my second parent. That was the number of the ranch house packed with items from decades past, most of which held little or no meaning to me and were sold, recycled, donated or trashed.  The experience of emptying a departed loved ones home reinforced my desire to live in a home with few but deeply loved and treasured items.  Clutter be gone!

Nearly half-way through the year it has been an interesting exercise.  I've found myself delaying and delaying shopping for spring/summer clothing.  Heavy basket after basket of outdated paperwork I reflect on times past -- the days of in-home nanny payroll are behind us now -- recycle that binder after shredding the materials.   The goal is to fill our home more with memories and happy times rather than a relentless pursuit of stuff that has to be maintained.

1121 -- a cartoon floating around Facebook comes to find.  It's Winnie the Pooh and says it is not the places you go that matter, but rather who you go with.  Spinning off on that I would say, it is not what you own that matters, but who you share your time with.

I am not completely devoid of sentimentality.  Each morning, after walking our oldest to school, I return home and just before passing through the bright red door on our ranch home I pause to gaze at the ferns, hostas, and  peonies that once bloomed in my parents yard.  Those very plants were dug up with my own plans and loving transplanted to my yard.  They made it through the move, and have greeted the Spring as I hoped.  1121 -- there were some things I simply had to hold on to.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Frugal Focal Point

What is your frugal focal point?  Put another way, where do you center your frugal habits?  For some it may be transportation, shunning a car and going with public transport and pedal power.  Another may opt to live in sustainable housing, turning to rain barrels, solar power, and other strategies to limit their use of, or entirely get off the grid.  Some people may purchase little to nothing new, frequenting thrift stores on relying on a barter system.

What is our focal point?  It is tempting to write, stretching the dollar of every penny -- our focus being on maximizing the efficiency of a dollar.  From using index funds (with lower fees) to credit cards that pay us cash back....but that just does not feel focused enough.  So much of what we do is focused on efficiency.  Mulling this over a chili simmers on the stove, two loaves of banana bread bake in the oven, and my lunch of leftovers gives me moments to pause between sentences.  Yes, there it is, our focal point -- the kitchen!

Eating out is not unheard of, but it is rare compared to most American families.  Case in point, I cooked up yummy dishes on Mother's Day rather than paying for a fancy brunch out.  All four of us head off to work or school with a lunch bag with food from home and a thermos of water (for the kids) and coffee for the parents.  Even the very chili simmering while I write is an example of our frugal ways, tossed together with leftovers from the counter and freezer.  Making the most of what we have on hand before it goes bad.  No chili is ever really the same here.  Today's version:

  • two onions and a tablespoon of garlic sauteed in olive oil
  • chopped turkey (leftovers that were frozen in the freezer)
  • 2 cans kidney beans
  • 2 cans tomato sauce
  • 1 can diced tomatoes
  • 1 package of cherry tomatoes threatening to go bad on the counter
  • remaining spinach from last week's farmers' market
Simmer for 1 hour, add chili powder as well as cumin.  Serve with toasted cheese sandwiches, and you have a healthy and frugal dinner.  Perfect for the cloud covered and chilly night we have here in Madison.  And with a pot this large, there will be plenty of leftovers for work lunches.

What is the focal point of your frugal life?  Leave a comment and start a conversation!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

A Frugal Mother's Day Brunch

No reservations, no fancy clothes, no tip to leave on the table for waitstaff. This mother's day I took refuge in my happy place, the kitchen, where I whipped up some dishes from foods that have lingered, calling for consumption.  Yes, I cooked.  And I am content.

  • Crab Quiche
  • Roasted asparagus (from the farmers' market)
  • Baked walleye
  • Spinach salad with mandarian oranges, pecans, and cranberries
Matched with homemade cards and gifts from the children, and a $0.99 card (he put the first selection back when it rang up at $7.32) from my husband, this frugal Mama could not be happier.

Here is the crab quiche recipe:
  • 1 egg
  • 4 tsp flour
  • 1/2 cup mayo
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 8 oz grated gruyere cheese (I use Trader Joe's Swiss & Gruyere mix)
  • 8 oz crab meat (I use Trader Joe's canned)
  • chopped green onion
Using a pie shell from Betty Crocker, mix and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.

Once we are done with dinner, we are headed out for a hike, in the rain if the clouds let loose. Embracing nature for a frugal, healthy, and eco-friendly Mother's Day -- wishing you all the best dear reader.

A favorite bowl, one that once graced my mother's kitchen.  
It's the simple things we treasure when a loved one is no longer with us, 
simple things like a mixing bowl.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Happy Birthday Frugal Style....

"Happy Birthday Sweetie, I cleaned the basement and baked you cookies!" -- says this author to her husband.  That my dear reader is the extent of birthday gifts between spouses in our frugal home. Today, May 8th, my dear husband enters his 40s.  Flying in on a red-eye from meetings in Seattle, he will be greeted at home by two handmade signs on the door from the garage.  Our oldest wishing him a happy 40th, our youngest welcoming him home.  One the counter he will find a double batch of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies the three of us baked last night, and cards from the family await on the dinning room table.  The biggest "surprise" of all will likely be that I used some down time while he was out of town to purge in our our basement, bringing our year-to-date total to 1,093 items removed from our home. And once the purging there was done, I cleaned and tidied up a bit.  No, this is not the type of gift you'd see promoted on TV or glossy magazines, but I can tell you with 100 percent certainty -- my frugal other half will be delighted.  That is our frugal approach to spousal birthdays -- what's yours?