Friday, September 30, 2011

Frugal Nanny Search -- It's A Small World After All

Sadly, our current nanny has decided to move on and do some extended travel. We simply love having a child care provider come to our home, and want another nanny. Last time we ended up using a nanny placement agency. We were happy with the service, but the fee was $2,000 and even with a discount it would be $750 to use it again. And that was just a finders fee. So, we've decided to have that be our back-up option and give it a try ourselves. Our current nanny has given us plenty of notice, so unlike before, we have time to find a good fit. Here is our approach to finding a nanny without the step finders fee:
  • emailed job description to family, friends, and colleagues to see if they know of a good fit;
  • posted the job description on the local university's job board (UW Job Board); and
  • posted the job description on www.care.com.
Other options include Craigs List and www.sittercity.com. We held off on those, and may not need them on this search.

The third option is amazing. $35 for 1 month of use gives me the ability to post our ad, search profiles already listed, view resumes, and even conduct a background check. Today we interviewed a candidate and believe we have a good match.

If you have children, pets, disabled family members, or elders in your life that need assistance, I'd encourage you to use www.care.com. It maximizes the great aspects of the internet and reduces the stress in a stressful part of life. And it underscores how small the world can be. When I opened the door to greet the applicant, I discovered that we'd met earlier in the year at a park. I was there with my children, and she was there with the kids she had been caring for - It's A Small World After All!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Crock Pot Apple Sauce

It's fall, and that means it is apple season in the Midwest. This past weekend I made a crock pot apple sauce to have at our Fall Party. It was a hit with kids and adults, and was incredibly easy. If you are looking for an aromatic, healthy, and inexpensive treat -- give it a try:
  • 9-12 apples (I used Macintosh) peeled, sliced away from the core, and chopped;
  • pile in crock pot;
  • add cinnamon and a hint of nutmeg;
  • pour in 1 cup of water; and
  • simmer on high for 3-4 hours.
The cores and peels were added to the compost bin, maximizing every cent of this purchase.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Frugal Flu Shot

It 's that time of year -- leaves are turning colors, the wind is whipping up, and everywhere you turn you're being told to get a flu shot. This year I will be getting my flu shot at the Target Pharmacy. The cost at Target $24.99 (sadly my 5% discount with the Target debit card does not apply since it is considered a prescription). However, I can pay with my HSA card, using tax free dollars. And, thanks to a coupon that came with a prior purchase, I'll receive a $5 Target Gift Card. I've priced the amount, and determined it was the lowest around. And far less expensive than a doctor's visit. Now, just keep your fingers crossed that this years shot covers all the pesky bugs that will float into the area later in the year.

Note, I was told by the Target Pharmacist that you must be 6 and older to use their service. That means the kids will be going to their pediatrician. The cost will be $103 for the mist, requested by my 3 year old, and $84 for my 1 year old daughters shot. We checked with Anthem, our health insurance provider, and were told that preventive medicine is now covered 100% by the insurance, a requirement under the new federal health care law. Since we have a high deductible plan, we are happy to hear we don't have to foot the bill....but will watch the doctor's invoice carefully to make sure it was not charge to us.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Don't Be Afraid to Haggle

Everyone knows that when you travel to certain parts to certain parts of the world, haggling is normal, expected in fact. Yet, here at home in the US, haggling is not always encouraged. Today I encourage you to haggle. And it doesn't need to be confined to an open air market. Haggle, you'll actually have a conversation with someone, and you just might save some money.

Last week I received the annual premium for my legal malpractice insurance. Upon opening the bill the first word that popped into my mind was WHAT? Then I wondered why it seemed to have gone up so much. I called my carrier, located here in Madison, and spoke with a very helpful agent. We determined that 1) the hours I work were incorrectly entered, and 2) there has been a 5% coverage for estate planners this past year (apparently claims are on the rise). We talked about a few tweaks that could be made, and I shaved 40% off the bill I had opened.

Haggle -- to question, to explore, to ask for a lower price. Try it an you may be surprised. Not sure how to fit it into your life, consider:
  • asking the grocer to cut the price of milk that is near expiration (my husband did this routinely in college). If you know you'll drink it fast, it is worth it to ask;
  • at restaurants ask for flexibility on coupons...do we really need to buy one get one free for a soda and sandwich, what about just for a sandwich;
  • when buying anything second hand at a garage sale or off of Craigs List -- people clearly don't want it anymore, see if they'll take less, be prepared to walk; and
  • at medical offices -- ask if they'll take a discount if you pay with cash the day of service. They may be happy to save on processing fees. This works especially well if you have a high deductible plan with an HSA.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Guest Post: In Defense of the Adjustable Rate Mortgage

Guest Post: Today I bring you a guest post, written by my husband as a birthday gift. He opted to give me the gift of time as I celebrated my birthday over the weekend. Instead of working on a post, I planted Spring bulbs. A truly lovely gift.

This is one of the best times to use a fixed-rate loan, but that doesn’t mean fixed-rate is the best choice for everyone.
In the wake of the collapse of the housing bubble, adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs) got a bad name. The Option ARM loan, which gave borrowers the option of paying more or less than the amount of interest accrued played a big role in the housing bubble. Each month the borrowers chose to pay less than the accrued interest, their balance would increase. When their balance hit some preset cap, they would be required to start paying at least the interest owed. In effect their minimum payment would jump. The fact that these loans had adjustable rates contributed to their volatility, but the primary problem was each month borrowers took the “option” of the minimum payment, they went deeper in to debt.

This is completely different from a standard ARM loan. The ARM amortizes (pays off) just like a fixed loan. An ARM’s rate is fixed during an initial fixed-rate period. After that it adjusts yearly based on some index rate. Usually there is a limit on how much the rate can change each year and on how I the rate can adjust.
Fixed rate loans have higher interest rates than ARMs. The longer the period of time the loan is fixed, the higher the rate. When you take out a fixed-rate loan, you’re are in effect paying insurance against rising rates. Each month you pay a little more. If in several year’s time rates go up significantly and you still have the loan, the insurance pays off. In any of the following scenarios, however, the fixed-rate loan does not pay off:
  • You pay off most of the loan during the initial fixed-rate period.
  • You sell the house during or shortly after the initial fixed-rate period.
  • Short-term interest rates are low after the initial fixed-rate period.
How to select the right type of ARM:
  • Select the fixed-rate period close to the amount of time before you plan to move or pay off all of the loan.
  • Find the highest payment possible in the worst-case scenario. The worst-case is that you make no extra payments to principal during the fixed-rate period and rates go up to the cap.
  • Pay a little extra on principal during the fixed-rate period. When the loan adjusts, they calculate the payment based on your balance at the time of adjustment and the new rate. A lower balance means a lower payment.
  • If you cannot easily afford the payment on a 30-year fixed loan, be very cautious about getting an ARM (or any type of loan). The ARM has lower payments, but it’s not a good way for someone who can barely afford a loan to save money.
Reasons not to Use an ARM
Interest rates are at historic lows. If rates rise significantly, it’s possible that people who take out a 4% 30-year fixed-rate loan today will be able to invest their money risk-free at 8% in the future. It is possible that inflation will rise above 4%, making the effective cost of a fixed-rate loan less than 0%. This situation last occurred the 70s when inflation and rates skyrocketed. The US Federal Reserve is currently taking steps to suppress long-term rates, reducing the cost of fixed-rate loans. Some critics fear this will lead to inflation similar to the conditions of the late 70s. This makes now one of the best times to use a fixed-rate mortgage if you plan to keep the loan for a long time.

If you chose to pay the higher rates associated with a fixed loan, make sure you are doing it for an intelligent reason not out of fear.

Charles J Gervasi is an electrical engineer who tries to be a frugal husband.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Haggle With A Coupon

Have you ever tossed a coupon aside saying "this is expired"....or "this is only good for dinner, not lunch". If you, you may have tossed good money in the trash. I am a huge fan of coupons. So much so that when I was dating my future husband I asked him at one point "how do you feel about coupons?" To my delight he said he loved them, and was equally happy to hear how I insisted on using them. Frugal love!

Not only do we use coupons, we push the limits. On more occasions than I can count I've asked a vendor to make an exception. Usually it is to substitute for another item on a buy-one-get-one-free deal. My husband is a vegetarian, and most of the coupons we find are for meat-based meals. The vendor is usually happy to substitute because veggie options are less expensive. We've also had luck with restaurants taking a coupon at lunch even though it says "for dinner" only.

A key to making this work, ask BEFORE you settle in. In this economy a potential customer is a customer the manage wants to please. They want you to take a seat, and a usually happy to be flexible with a coupon. But, be prepared to walk.

Any great coupon stories out there that you want to share?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Frugal Entertaining

Having a party does not need to put a dent in your household budget. Here are 5 tips that we used to have a low cost Fall Get Together with friends.
  1. Provide beverages and dessert. You can purchase water, soda, beer, etc. when it is on special and save it for the party. If there are unused containers, put them aside until you have another event. Use seasonal foods for your desserts. Our menu includes crock-pot applesauce, caramel apples, vanilla ice cream with nuts and caramel sauce, and a baked apple cake. Oh, and smores on the grill. All relatively inexpensive items, but very tasty.
  2. Purchase second had mugs and cups instead of disposable ones. I went to Goodwill and picked out a dozen eclectic coffee mugs. This should cut down on people not knowing which drink is theirs, and will minimize the amount of trash we'll toss in a landfill.
  3. Purchase cloth napkins, again from a second hand store. You can wash the and store them between events.
  4. Use sturdy plastic utensils and plates. Have a bin to collect dirty ones, wash, store, and use again at the next event.
  5. Ask guests to bring food to share. You'll be amazed at the variety of foods that will appear.
Have another tip? Please share by posting a comment.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Dryer Sheets in the Kitchen

Recently I made a delicious vegetable frittata; the only problem was the mess it made of my stainless steel pain. Egg under a broiler can create a near-to-impossible pan to clean. But, thanks to a wonderful book I keep with my cookbooks, it is clean as a whistle (The Queen of Clean). Drop in a used dryer sheet from your laundry, let it soak a few hours, then wipe the pan clean. It is a great way to save your cookware and get the most out of a dryer sheet before dropping it in the trash.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Are you a Moonpreneur?

Moonpreneur -- now that is a new word for me. But, apparently I was one once. About six years ago I was working full-time as a analyst for a non-partisan legislative agency. The career I thought I would have in government did not materialize. On paper the job sounded great, but in reality it took every ounce of energy to get through another day "in the cube farm".

A desire to return to a traditional legal track emerged, but saddled with $97,000 in student debt, I was cautious. Once I had a practice area in mind (estate planning and probate) I did some research, bought some materials, found a mentor. Then I spent my nights and weekends laying the foundation of my current legal practice. I was a moonpreneur, a word I found in this wonderful article.

If you are thinking about supplementing your income or paving a new career path, the article offers great advice. One of which is frugality. Be frugal, both with your time and money. That frugality will help you set sail on new adventures.

Where to find the time? Start with the fact the average American watches 30 hours of television a week. Turn off the tube, and you'll find lots of time on your hands. Reading this article I realized, I haven't watched television (with the exception of the occasional Presidential address or Green Bay Packers game) since 2006...the same year I started my legal practice. Saving time is just as important as saving money as long as you use that time wisely.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Back of the Envelope Calculation: Is It Worth It?

I am probably the only person in the Greater Madison area who purposefully drove to the east side of town to "experience" the construction on Willy Street. Ah, the things a mother will do to please her 3 year old son who is obsessed with construction. While taking in the cement mixer pouring a new sidewalk, we found ourselves in front of the Willy Street Co-op. Having two little ones (ages 3 and 1) it is almost always "snack time". On that day I decided to check out the co-op; they've opened a west side location not too far from our home. My main objective was to note their price on milk and eggs. The price was a good deal higher than either Woodmans or Target. We did pick up an apple and some amazing bulk "energy chunks" for a snack.

At the checkout we were asked for our member number. "We don't have one" I responded. The clerk asked if we belonged to any other food cooperative in town. "No" I replied. To which he asked, "would you like to join, it is $10/year for an individual, otherwise there will be a 5% surcharge on your purchase". I paused. $10 -- that isn't much money, but how often will I actually shop here? I told him I'd pass for today and keep it in mind for next time. I paid my $4.87 and we enjoyed our snack on their outdoor terrace.

Later that evening I recounted the event to my husband. He muttered to himself a bit, as most engineers are inclined to do when calculating something in their head. A moment latter he said, "you'd have to spend $200 a year there to break even". These moments should not stun me as they still do, but I thought, goodness, how I wish I could be a human calculator at times. My gut told me the $10 wasn't worth it, this confirmed it. I doubt I'd spend $200 a year at the co-op. Primarily because they do not have carts set up for two kids in diapers. It's amazing how much of a pull those mega-carts have on a mom with a 3 and 1 year old. If, like me, you are wondering how he reached that number, here is his back of the envelope calculation:

  • X*0.05 = 10
  • x=10/0.05
  • x=200
That translates into dividing $10 by the 5 cent surcharge, which comes out to $200/year. With this number I can make an accurate estimate of how likely I am to benefit from the $10 expense. I'd have to spend $200 in year in order to benefit from the $10 membership. This tool can be applied over and over again as you make educated purchases!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Crock Pot Spaghetti Sauce


It's tomato season! If you frequent farmers' markets or produce stands, this is the time of year to inquire about "second" tomatoes. Those that are bruised, dented, or just not all that pretty. I picked up a small bucket full for $2 and have turned them into a spaghetti sauce for the freezer. It was a simple approach, and my fingers are crossed that it yields a tasty product.

  • 10 tomatoes, cleaned, and chopped;
  • 1/4 cup olive oil,
  • diced onions,
  • diced green peppers (substitute any veggie you like)
  • several good dashes of Italian seasoning mix (or use fresh if you have them)
  • Put in the slower cooker for about 15 hours.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Free Books!

Regular readers have probably noted in older posts that when I am not blogging or being a Mama, I am a solo estate planning attorney. It is from a legal world experience that I compose this post. While I obtained this experience in the legal world, it can be applied to your life as well. How to get FREE books.

I'm a reader. Whether it is the cereal box, creative non-fiction, children's board books, and a NY Times bestseller, I can't stop reading. My main source of free books is the public library, but the down side is the library eventually wants these books returned. I do not crave many possessions, but books are a weakness for me. Whenever I've moved, I never feel settled into until my books are unpacked and lined on the shelf.

Reviewer copies are the way I've found to get books for free; books you can keep forever. I routinely write book reviews for the Wisconsin Lawyer Magazine. As a reviewer, I am given a free copy of the book. This has been a great way to build my professional library, and most recently add a crime drama novel to my shelf.

If you love to read, but are watching your dollars, I challenge you to ask -- how could I review books and write reviews?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Pinching Pennies and Lightbulbs

Driven by a desire to reduce our electric bill, I've been zeroing in on light bulbs that suck more energy than necessary. Recently I removed a 13W CF light bulb that had been on 24x7 in our laundry room. We wanted a light on all the time in our basement, but this seemed excessive. I purchased a 1W LED night lite for $4.99 and it now illuminates the laundry room. And being a light sensitive night lite, it shuts down when the main light is turned on our nature provides enough through the windows.

Sure, this will probably save us pennies in energy costs. However, when this attitude is applied throughout our home, those pennies start to add up.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Indoor Cilantro and Spinach

The growing season is winding down fast, except of course for me. Being a bit of an odd ball, I've decided that we should grow cilantro and spinach on the kitchen counter. Two small pots, seeds, water, sun. I hope it is a success. If you have suggestions on making the most out of kitchen garden pots, please let us know! I have grown tired of spending $2 on cilantro and only using half of it before it goes bad.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Homemade Pizza Dough - 1st Attempt a Failure

Pizza is a frequent meal at our house. We often buy two on Saturday night with our "uby one get one free coupons" from the Bucky Book. We also keep several Target brand frozen cheese pizzas in the freezer. They are great once you toss on some fresh veggies and mozzarella cheese.

The fast few weeks we've been in frugal overdrive, so I decided it was time to give homemade pizza a chance. I pulled out my trusty bread machine and its cookbook. Within minutes the pizza dough was churning in the machine. When it was done I pulled it out, kneaded it for the 1 minute the recipe called for, and then let it stand for 20 minutes. At this point I realized I'd rather make pizza the next night, so I covered it and put it in the fridge.

24 hours later I pulled it out and attempted to roll out the dough. I struggled. I attempted again, but it wouldn't stretch out. I began to mutter about understanding why pizza was an expensive item to buy. The ingredients aren't much, but the labor involved. Frustrated, I tossed the glob of dough in the compost bin and pulled out a frozen pizza. The taste was far from memorable. Homemade pizza, from scratch, that is my goal.

Loyal readers what did I do wrong? Several of you have written about making your own pizza dough. I've got the dough down, just not the rolling part. Suggestions please!

Friday, September 9, 2011

An Irish Chef and Frugality

I stumbled across this interview earlier in the week. It is with an Irish chef (one in Ireland, not America). I love the fact that he does not have a credit card. I do, one that gives us 1% back in cash each January. However, I am working towards using it less. Why? I've read that when you pay with credit you actually spend 20% more than those who pay with cash. No wonder they can afford to give me 1% back.

How about you -- cash or credit?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Having Kids Does Not Need to Break the Bank

We've been parents for just over three years now, and going into this adventure we were constantly told -- kids are EXPENSIVE. So far that warning has not turned out to be true. I don't think it is that we have a huge income compared to others, we don't. The difference is that we are frugal. And those frugal efforts have made the financial stress of parenting pale in comparison to the lack of sleep it brings.

One huge area of savings is in the area of clothing. Here are a few tips for to-be parents or those with young children:
  • embrace 2nd hand clothing. If wearing other kids clothes makes you squirm, think again. Do you really need to pay $10 for a onsie the child will wear for 4 weeks tops? With both pregnancies we gladly accepted used clothes dropped off by friends. Not everything fit our tastes, but there was SO much we could pick and choose. Combined with yard sales and second hand stores, we have more than enough clothing for both kids until they are 4 years old. What we spent was a fraction of the cost you'd spend on new clothes;
  • get organized! I spent more money on bins than I did clothes. Go to big box store and get several large storage bins with a top. Label them 0-3 month, 3-6 month, 6-9 month, 9-12 month, 12-18 month, 2T, 3T, 4T. As you receive items, put them in the appropriate bin. If this bin is full, you have pretty much all you need for that size.
  • if you are blessed with a daughter, look for dresses that are loose fitting. Why? As she ages that too short dress can be used as a tunic with leggings or jeans. The dress my daughter wore for her naming ceremony (purchased at the end of the season at Baby Gap with a gift card for $9) will go great with jeans next fall.
  • buy quality goods in neutral colors when you have to buy new. I use this approach with boots. My kids are 23 months apart. My son gets them first, then my daughter. Whether they are rain boots or winter boots, when it is for my son I have my daughter in mind. We opted for bright yellow rain boots last Spring. Once the snow falls later this year I will tuck them aside for my daughter in the future.
Sure, this approach might not be all that fun. But the savings are huge, and we used them to give a boost to college savings. Now that will be one expensive purchase some day!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Frugal Fall Shoes

The temperatures are falling here in Madison, so it is time to get fall shoes for our son, and now for our daughter as well. We are still in frugal overdrive at our home, but that did not stop me from making this purchase at Morgan Shoes / Stride Rite at Hilldale. Having a reputation as an "expensive" shoe store, I maintain my devotion. The quality and service are first-rate, and they know how to throw in discounts and coupons.

First, I used the birthday coupons. Loyal shoppers can sign up for their birthday mailing. I received a coupon for a free pair of Smartwool socks. Value of $17, not a penny out of pocket. Then I used 20% off for my son's shoes. The clerk figured out whether that coupon or the other I had would save the most. If you shop there, work with Kay, she's the best. For my daughter I used the $10 off coupon from the Bucky Book, set to expire at the end of the month. Having arrived in summer shoes, Kay got a pair of socks for my son to wear while trying on this new shoes. At the end she threw them in for free -- bonus!

And I wasn't done yet. Before leaving I received two punches on my frequent shopper card. Once I have it filled (10 punches), I'll receive $50 off my next purchase. Now I just need to hand out more of my referral cards, which give a new customer $10 off, and I get $10 off as well. If you want a card (Stride Rite only), let mt know and I'll mail it to you!

Morgan's, of how I love thee!


Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Getting Every Bit of Life Out of a Microwave

As I blogged last week, our microwave has become its decline to the landfill. Unlike most American families, we did not set it at the curb and run out to the nearest big-box store to replace it. No, we are frugal, thus we are different.

First, we attempted to repair it. My husband is an electrical engineer who designs circuit boards for a living. So, we have a strong advantage here. As soon as the machine began giving us a failure signal he attempted to de-bug the problem. This involved removing the screws and the outside enclosure. Once inside he discovered schematic drawings. This machine was built to be repaired, not just tossed. Unfortunately, no problem (a.k.a. short) could not be found. Stumped, he put it back together and brought it back to the kitchen.

There it sits, unplugged except for when we need to use it. You see, it still works. We just can't leave it plugged in. If we do, it will start beeping after about 2 minutes. And the clock no longer works. But, it gets the job done.

Knowing it needs to be replaced, I've begun gathering data. We know we want a machine that has at least 1000 watts of power; this one has 1500 watts. Target had "college" versions on sale but they were either 700 watt for $49 or 900 watt for $69. I wasn't impressed by the power or price. So, on my next trip to a thrift store I'll be scouting the aisles for a "new" microwave. Until then, we'll plug ours in when needed.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Frugal Thoughts

As we enter into this Labor Day weekend, I want to remind readers that live in the Madison area of a large garage sale that will benefit a local, non-profit school. I blogged about it earlier in the summer -- The Madison Waldorf School's Annual Rummage Sale. It runs Friday - Sunday and is at a home on the west side of Madison; 446 Charles Lane. I'll be there at some point, keeping my eye out of a "new" microwave.

On a more general note, I've decided to reduce the frequency of my posts. Since starting last April I have posted EVERY day. Looking ahead, posting Monday - Friday and taking weekends and major holidays off, will be a better formula for my thoughts and writing.

With that, enjoy the long holiday weekend. I'll be back Tuesday, September 6th.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

How The Frugal Handle a Broken Microwave

Over the weekend our microwave, one that came with the house, starting beeping and giving a failure mode. Delighted at the sudden need for the technically savvy, my husband, an electrical engineer, jumped into action. Rare is the occasion that he feels more comfortable in the kitchen than I do. So, how does a frugal family handle a microwave on the fritz?
  1. fire up laptop computer and search for information on the failure mode, via model of machine, on Google;
  2. learn that it means moisture has built up in the machine causing a short in the switch;
  3. take off the back of the microwave with a tamper resistant Torx -- and that is where we hit a snag. My husband's tool box does not contain this tool, so it has been ordered for $16. It is something he has been wanting to get (I know, that seems odd to me too), and is coming via ground.
  4. wait for now...the mircowave is unplugged, awaiting the tool to open up the back. The thinking is that a hair dryer can remove the moisture, we'll see.
  5. If it is beyond repair, off to Savers we will go....which is where I donated the extra microwave we had last year when we moved into the house. Lesson learned, store extra appliances downstairs, we'll likely need it in the future.