Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Frugality: The Answer and End to Student Debt

The stories are popping up everywhere - the burden of student loan debt is a huge problem for many Americans.  As a former political science major, student, debtor, and parent with young children, these stories capture my attention on many levels.  I understand the weight on those who took out the loans.  During my 9 years of higher education I piled up $97,000 in student debt.  I too felt my job opportunities were limited because of the debt.  But, unlike a lot of the folks featured in the news stories, I do not think there was anything wrong with living a frugal life.  Frugal is not a four letter word.

The UW Law Library -- where I spent quite a few hours reading and reading and reading...

Last week I picked up a copy of The Isthmus, a free, weekly paper here in Madison.  The Burden of Student Debt by Mary Ellen Bell was the cover story.  Inside were profiles of students, very similar to me, who racked up debt just shy of $100,000.  One women was very similar; a BA, a masters, and a law degree.  She too worked in a public sector job (my first 5 years out of law school were spent working for a legislative service agency), avoiding the "sell out" of working for a firm.  Granted, she has a small child and when I got out of school I was single and not a parent.  But there are two more profound differences.  One, it appears that she thinks frugality is bad.
"We are on a really strict budget...we don't make large purchases unless we absolutely have to.  We bought much less house than we qualified for; and we drive an inexpensive car.  We are thoughtful about little things like buying coffee."
What is wrong with thinking before you spend and making sure you don't go too close to the edge of spending too much?

Second, she seems to accept that her fate is to have this debt for 25 years.  According to the article, she will spend $550 a month for 25 years to pay off the loans.  I too had a similar payment plan, but it was closer to $800 a month, for 30 years.  Unlike Spector, I was fired up about paying off those loans early.  I wanted to pay them down as fast as I could.  This drive was fueled by Great Lakes Higher Education's questionable practices.  Telling me if I made 36 on-time monthly payments they would drop my interest rate.  I met that requirement, and upon requesting the decrease was told "oh, sorry, your loans don't qualify".  I got mad, and I took action.  Here are a few things people burdened with student debt can do to bring an end to those loans, and not wait two and a half-decades to send in the last payment.  Every cent you save should be sent to the creditor!

  • live like you did when you were a student (share housing, use public transit, don't travel);
  • sell stuff (I made a few hundred dollars selling the Barbie items from my childhood on Ebay -- they were just collecting dust);
  • listen to something motivational (I loved Dave Ramsey's financial common sense, but ignored his politics);
  • create a spreadsheet that allows you to project what putting an extra $50 this month towards your debt will save you in the long run -- this is an extremely powerful tool!; and
  • take on extra work (I tutored international students wanting to improve their conversational English skills on nights and weekends -- other options: babysitting, house or pet sitting; freelance in your field; deliver pizzas).
Six years after graduating, I sent in my final student loan payment.  Six years, not thirty!  I didn't go work for a big firm.  I spent a few years of my life not living like most people.  I worked some nights and weekends for extra cash.  I didn't accept the fate of a life of debt.  Nor do you!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Frugal Fur Ball Treatment

Years ago my vet recommended giving the cats a weekly treat, with one added ingredient - vaseline.  Why?  It is a highly effective and inexpensive way for the cats to pass fur balls.  I had tried the gels at the pet store, the ones that "smell" like salmon.  They never worked with my cats.  Wasted money was all I accomplished with the purchase.  I tried the vet's recommendation years ago and still use it today.  Two treats held together with vaseline.  If you are a cat owner, give it a try.

How about my readers -- what frugal pet care tips can you share?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Freezer Report

It's Monday again, and here is another report on my efforts to use up all the local veggies I froze last summer and fall.  Thankfully, since making this effort combined with pulling out 4 or 5 packs of frozen goodies from the chest freezer in the garage and moving them to my kitchen freezer, I can report progress on using up the winter supply.

Kale and garlic scapes were added to some grape tomatoes that were approaching the end of their life on my counter.  I chopped and tossed them into a pan with olive oil and soy sauce.  Once sauted, they were heaped on top of a bowl soba noodles and served alongside a pot roast that had been in my slow cooker all day.

Image credit: taken by author, M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2012

And, those sour cherries I mentioned last week were turned into a french cherry clafoutis.  Improvising a recipe from the local paper, here is what I did:

  • 1 cup of frozen cherries were thawed, then I removed the pits and stems;
  • scattered them on the bottom of a pie dish and tossed in a few spoonfuls of ground walnut;
  • combined and mixed the following: 1/4 cup whole wheat flour; 1/4 cup flour; 1/2 cup honey; 1 egg; 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract; 1/2 cup almond milk; 1/8 cup butter.
  • I poured the batter over the cherries and baked at 350 degrees for 25 minutes.
And here was the result.  A perfect end to a wholesome dinner!

Image credit: taken by author, M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2012

My frugal efforts also included washing the freezer bags these yummies were stored in; now I can use them next season!

Tune in next week for a report....I still hope to give cranberry walnut chicken a try.  And one of these days I'll uncover the asparagus I froze last Spring!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Embracing Almond Milk

Several months ago, in an effort to limit our son's sugar consumption in the hopes it would help him feel better we discovered he had an intolerance to cows milk.  The ah-ha moment happened when 4 days after stopping cows milk, which is rather high in sugar, we noticed that the severe cradle cap that had plagued him for 3 years was gone.  Almost overnight.  Ahhh -- no more milk.  But calcium is still important, and so is something tasty to drink.  We turned to organic almond milk.  The price is a little under $3 for a half-gallon -- less expensive than organic cows milk.

I too have been working to keep my sugar intake low.  Milk is something I adore (I am a Wisconsin native after all) and sneak into my food whenever possible.  I kept telling myself to try the almond milk instead.  I know I should, but I just hadn't changed my ways.  And then I was flipping through a library book on Cows, and had my ah-ha moment.  According to Cows: A Closer Look by photographer Paul Thoresen (whom I know from a photography group I used to frequent before marriage and parenthood), the following is required to yield 6.3 gallons (or 54 pounds) of cows milk:  100 pounds of food and 417 pounds of water each day, per cow.  Resulting in the elimination of 65 pounds of manure.

Wow - that is a lot of resources for a relatively small amount of cows milk.  I am now sneaking almond milk into my diet.  I'll probably never give up cows milk all together, but I can reduce my consumption.  With that comes a slightly lower grocery bill, lower daily sugar consumption, and a slightly smaller carbon footprint.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Coffee Give Away in Madison, Wisconsin

If you live in Madison or are passing through, the new Einstein Brothers Bagel Shop at 2701 University Ave (across from UW Hospital) will be giving away a free cup of regular drip coffee with any purchase until about the second week of March.  Free coffee -- that's something to put a smile on your face.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Thinking About Compost

February is usually a bitter cold month here in Wisconsin.  If the skies are blue that means the days will be even colder....clouds would keep in the "warmth".  But not this year.  Our winter has felt like one big long March.  And Spring thoughts are on my mind as well as those of other Wisconsinites.  And at the top of my Spring To-Do list is "fix up the compost site".

After moving into our home in 2010 I had originally set up two black trash bins to hold the compost.  We eat a lot, and I mean a lot of veggies in our house.  It was clear they were not large enough.  I dumped them both and started an open-air pile instead.  All went well until my neighbor complained.  She claimed that my pile was attracting mosquitoes and critters to the neighborhood.  Which puzzled me because she has a koi pond in her backyard.  Standing water with carp versus banana peels and apple cores, something tells me her yard is more of the problem than mine.  She asked me to move it to another corner of my yard, but my two pines rule out two corners, and the other is too shady.  The pile is going to stay where it is, and I need tips on making it more neighbor friendly.

Image Credit: - free image

The internet is full of compost sites.  But I could read and read forever.  I need tips the old fashioned way, from friends.  Or readers.  I received one from a client that seems ideal.  Add Farmer's lime to the pile.  It will eliminate any smell, and turn my yard green.

How about you dear reader, what compost advice can you send my way.  The calendar may say February, but it feels like Spring and I want to empty my "frozen" compost that has been building up all winter.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Am I Loosing My Frugal Way.....?

If my credit card company takes a close look at my purchases over the past two weeks, they may put out a fraud alert.  Why?  Let's just say I've done my fair share of helping restore the American, consumer driven, economy.

Image Credit: - free image 
(note, I look nothing like high heels, no mini skirt.  It was the only free image of a women shopping I could find)

First it was shoes for the kids.  My 1.5 year old daughter was in need of a new pair of shoes.  The trip to the second hand store did not yield any 6W shoes.  That is the one draw back of second hand stores, you can never guarantee they'll have what you need in stock.  But they do stock lots of great impulse buys.  Beware.  The next attempt was at Target.  I did make a purchase, a somewhat hesitant one because the only shoes in her size were tennis shoes.  And upon getting them home I discovered they flashed a blue light when the heel hit the floor.  At $20 they weren't that great of a buy, and I wasn't thrilled.  Delighted may have described my mood when I discovered they didn't even fit her feet.  Back they went, and off we went to the "high-end" kids shoe store at Hilldale.

Yes, I know many of my loyal readers will be shocked that I returned after my posts from last fall.  But, that was directed at the adult section of the store.  The kids side is expensive, but the service is good and the shoes are nice quality.  The trip went amazingly well.  After measuring both kids feet, I learned that they both still fit into the current shoes they had.  And both were thrift store finds.  So I bought the next size up for both, finding one for him and one for her, on sale.   We are set for Spring and Summer! Add in a $5 off coupon and the $50 credit for having filled my loyal shopper card, and this was on track to be my least expensive trip to this store ever.  And then I saw the rain boots.  My $50 credit wouldn't be used up, I'd have a credit to carry...and to remember.  So I decided to take a pair of red size 9 rain boots.  They are large enough to get my son through the 2012 Spring, Summer and Fall, and they are durable enough to be worn by my daughter when she is older. Knowing that Target will have classic "his", aka fireman, and "her", aka butterfly, rain boots I decided that $35 (less the partial credit) was not too much to pay.  In the pile they went.  Up until now I was still frugal, but as I checked out I saw kids snow shoes.  When the clerk said they were mine with 20% off, I took those as well.  Both kids should be able to get 2 winters out of them.  Surviving a Wisconsin winter is all about finding a way to enjoy a Wisconsin winter.

In the end I paid $90 for four pairs of shoes, two of which will be able to be worn by my younger child.  The  total before discounts would have been $145.  I saved money, but didn't really feel that frugal.  When I told my husband he was puzzled.  He thought $90 for four pairs of good kids shoes was "decent" price to pay.  Plus, the shopping trip was easy, fast, and fun.  Something that has to be factored into our purchases.

The purchase that may have put me over the top, leaving frugal land, may be my new cell phone.  My ancient model was starting to give me trouble.  I could hear the people I called, but they could not hear me.  Given that I use my phone for my legal practice, that is not a good thing.  The problems were sporadic.  But I know that once it starts to drip, it will soon pour.  Not wanting to buy a phone in a crisis, I started gathering info.  I called my current plan, learned my contract had expired and that I could go anywhere.  In the end I stayed, got a plan with data service, and bought a 3G phone.  I'm giddy about my new toy.  I didn't get the 1 cent version.  I just didn't want to go cheap. I wanted something that I could use.  Something that made sense. And I found it.  Sure, it has a $100 rebate, but even with the rebate it cost me $180 -- technically it cost my legal practice that amount, so it is deductible.  But still, those who know me will be shocked.

So that is why I feel a little off.  It has happened in the past, and is usually followed up by periods of even more extreme frugality.  What's the point to this lengthy story of my spending habits?  You can be a frugal person without always having to be frugal.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Freezer Report

It's Monday, and that means time for me to report on my efforts to use up the goodies frozen from last season's farmers' markets.  This past week those efforts were sidetracked a bit by my 3.5 year old first bout with a "stomach bug".  Needless to say, bland foods dominated our diet. Bread, banana, rice, crackers.  However, I did try out one new recipe for Cranberry Almond bars.  Wonderful!  I used ground almonds instead of slivered.  In the next week or two I plan to give Cranberry Chicken a try, which was recommended by a reader.  Even the leftovers could be turned into chicken walnut salad...just chop, add walnuts and mayo.

This past week also brought a frozen pack of eggplant and cauliflower.  And once again, I turned them into a beef, eggplant, cauliflower curry.  The twist was using my crockpot.  I put the beef (cubed for stew) in in the morning with the curry paste.  At noon I added the pack of frozen veggies.  Curry is never usually to hard, but this was by far the easiest Indian dinner I ever made.  And it will be repeated this next week.

And I could use ideas for the bag of sour cherries that came with this week's draw.  As a reminder, low GI recipes are ideal as I am attempting to follow a diabetic diet.  Thanks for reading, and thanks for the comments.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Give Your Trash a Second Life....Donate

My new years resolution was to focus on reduce, reuse, and recycle.  I have to admit, I can not easily look at an item that is headed for the trash and see alternative uses for it.  Found art is a gift, one I do not have.  Yet, I have a brown paper grocery bag in my garage that receives the paper towel tubes, egg cartons, and rubber bands from produce that I would otherwise toss in the trash.  Why a bag?  Because once it is full I will drop it off at my church, where the items will be transformed into art as part of the children's religious education program.  The things those teachers can do with cardboard amazes me!

Image credit: - free image

So, if you are looking to reduce your footprint and help out a local organization, I suggest you do the same.  Whether it is a church, library, nursery school, or community center -- all of them would be delighted to receive FREE supplies for craft programs.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Health Savings Accounts - Why I LOVE Them

A Health Savings Account is kind of like an IRA, but for health care.  They go hand-in-hand with health insurance coverage that has a high-deductible.  For our family that deductible is $7,000 a year.  What does that mean?  First, we pay our carrier (WPS) $350/month in premium.  Second, we pay the first $7,000 in health care costs.  After that, our insurance pays 100%.  Third, we use money we put in our HSA to pay those out-of-pocket expenses.

When I've heard HSAs criticized in the media it is usually saying they are vehicles for the "rich".  I am not the rich.  I am a professional however.  But more importantly, I am frugal.  And so is my husband.  He had an HSA when we got married, and was nearly giddy when, upon saying "I do" we were able to double the amount of money we stored in our HSA.

Unlike a Flex Spending Plan, money deposited into an HSA does not go away at the end of the year.  We put money in, and receive both a state and federal tax break.  The money grows tax free.  And, if used for health cares costs (excluding insurance premiums), comes out tax free.   And, after retirement age, it can be taken out for anything, tax free. Recognizing the advantages of minimal taxes we built ours up as much as possible and then did not use the balance until after our first child was born.

This year the first item on our savings check list was to max out the HSA contribution.  It's February, and we've met our goal.  I know that HSAs do not fit everyone's life, but nothing does.  If you are self-employed, a business owner, a natural saver, or don't have a lot of health expenses at the moment, I encourage you to learn more about HSAs and high-deductible health insurance.  Thanks to these vehicles, we have saved thousands of dollars.  And gained quite a bit of control over our health care costs.
Image credit: - free image

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Facing Fears, Health Insurance, and Huge Savings

My husband and I are both self-employed, and a day I had dreaded was getting closer and closer.  The day we'd have to stop using COBRA for health insurance and buy our own on the open market.  My husband was clueless, and still is, as to why I would be afraid of switching.  He kept saying we were paying was too much under COBRA, just under $800 a month. And that was for a high-deductible plan; we paid the first $7,000 of medical costs (that's beyond the premium) out of pocket.  But, fueled by news reports and the general sentiment in America these days, I was convinced I was not insurable.

Image credit: - free image

I have never been diagnosed with cancer nor had a heart attack or stroke.  I am also not the model of health. With asthma, allergies, gestational diabetes, mitral valve prolapse, and an emotional sweet tooth waist size, I figured each of these would result in a denial.  But the end of COBRA was a few months off and we wanted to make the switch so that our new plan was in place for the new year.  We filed applications.  One with Blue Cross Blue Shield (the carrier we had under COBRA) and one with a local company, WPS.  Both accepted us.  Oddly, WPS first rejected my husband because of some heart tests he had had.  But after a letter coming from his doctor saying they were nothing, they signed him up.  With WPS we are now paying about $350 month and have a high-deductible plan, again with a $7,000 out of pocket limit to be met before the insurance kicks in a share.

One other caveat, our new policy does not have maternity coverage.  The chances of another baby being added to the family are slim.  But if we do decide to expand the family we can simply pay direct, with money we saved.  Why have maternity coverage, where you are giving an insurance company money that you'll have to beg back from them, if another child is not likely?

Lesson learned?  The media had fueled a fear in me that almost paralyzed me.  I faced that fear and am now saving close to $4,000 a year.  Of course this is not an option for everyone, but it doesn't hurt to try.  Our insurance is not linked to job changes.  We have a great deal more control.  And a back-up plan is to apply through group coverage, which is available to me through the State Bar of Wisconsin (at a much higher cost).

Are there areas in your life where you are spending a ton and think you have to because that is the story you hear on the TV?  My advice, turn off the media, do a little research, get some quotes, and you may save some money.  And in my case, I had to tell my husband, "dear, you were correct, we were paying too much in premiums.".

Tune in tomorrow for my thoughts on Health Savings Accounts!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Thoughts on Frugality, Valentine's Day, and Engagments

Happy February 14th everyone!  Today is Valentine's Day, and it is likely a day when quite a few couples are deciding to spend their lives together.  And for those couples who consider themselves frugal or are at least interested in the idea of frugality, I offer you one suggestion.  Skip the engagement ring!

An engagement is the beginning of a life together. Use this chance to set a tone.  If the ring is over the top (and that is relative depending on the couple's financial situation), so to will be the wedding, the honeymoon, the home, and if little feet enter the picture, the nursery.  One in two marriages will end in divorce, and financial troubles are a key factor the trip to the courthouse.  Skipping an engagement ring, or at least bucking the normal engagement ring, gives a couple the chance to 1) minimize financial stress, and 2) talk about how finances impact life.

There will be those who say "a diamond is an investment". Sure.   And so is a mutual fund.  And remember, an investment has to be sold to get the liquidity out.  Will you really sell that ring if your spouse is suddenly disabled and you are under insured, if insured at all?  There are lots of investments you can make. In reality, this argument likely falls into rationalization because I admit, those rings certainly are pretty.

I do not have an engagement ring.  I didn't want one.  My husband was shocked to learn I was not interested in an engagement ring.  Personally, I had problems with us paying out thousands of dollars for a gem stone cut from the earth, most likely by a child, using toxic chemicals.  Moreover, the feminist in me wondered "why is it that only the bride wears this marking?"  In the end we both purchased simple, inexpensive wedding bands.  My finger is absent of bling, but we had a strong enough down payment on our home so that we didn't need PMI.  Sparkle is all in the eye of the beholder.

I've heard from some women that the ring is important to the man. When hearing that I am reminded of a question asked to me several years ago by a then teen-age nephew.  "Why do people love things so much when things can't love you back?"  If someone is dead set on having a ring, get at the reason why.  It may uncover some unsettling truths, those that will causes financial stress and troubles down the road.

I know that I am an odd-ball on the no ring decision.  If one or both of you are set on a ring, I offer the following suggestions:

  1. Buy a ring after hitting 10, 15 or 25 years of marriage.  Getting married is easy, making it last is what calls for a reward;
  2. Buy an imitation ring.  Faux can save money, and most people can't tell the difference;
  3. Go with an alternative stone....fresh water pearls for example; and
  4. Buy an antique ring or use one that has been in your family.

How about you dear reader, what camp do you fall into?  Any additional suggestions on frugal approaches to engagements?

Monday, February 13, 2012

Freezer Update -- Delicious Meals from Frozen Farmers' Market Finds

Last week I shared with you my freezer troubles.  I have a chest freezer, full of delightful farmers' market veggies.....and I am not using it up fast enough.  Spring is around the corner, and that freezer is 2/3s full.

After my post I had an idea.  Grab 4 or 5 bags of frozen items and put them in my kitchen freezer, making it easier to incorporate the food into our meals.  This method seems to be working.  My first grab yielded eggplant, pureed broccoli, cranberries, and shredded zucchini.  All but the cranberries have been used.

The eggplant was combined with diced beef and mushrooms for an Indian curry.  The shredded zucchini turned into zucchini bread.  And the pureed broccoli made an excellent crust-less quiche.  The cranberries still linger.  Muffins are an option, but I'm hoping to find some other recipes....I froze a lot of cranberries.  Suggestions anyone?

I'm ready to grab another couple of packages....and will report back on my progress.  I will leave you with my recipe for crust-less quiche:

  • 9 inch quiche dish;
  • spread purred broccoli, diced green onions, and a sprinkling of wheat germ on the bottom;
  • toss on a hand full or two of shredded cheese;
  • mix 5 eggs, salt and pepper and any other spice you enjoy;
  • pour egg mixture on top;
  • bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Out With the Old, In With the .....

You know the saying, "out with the old, in with the new". Well, if you are frugal you may want to chop off the last half of that expression.  You'll have money and resources, and may discover the loveliness of empty space.

Last week the coffee table finally reached the point of no return.  It had been with me for years. Purchased in the year after I graduated from law school, I think it cost $40 from one of those Big Box outlets I now do my best to avoid.  But it held up through 2 cats, 3 moves, a marriage, and the arrival of 2 children.  The chaos of our lives took aim on this table, the center piece of our living room.  It was showing its other words, it was falling apart.  My son's extremely active creative play pushed it over the edge.  One too many Lunar Rovers made of legos cause the interior to droop to a point where nails were exposed.  I carted it down the hall and put it in our bedroom.

My initial thought was to repair it.  We'd take out the drooping center, get a new piece of wood, put it in place, and maybe experiment with mosaic.  And then reality whispered in my ear "when my dear will you find the time and energy for such creativity?"  I would not, at least not in the next 3 years.  I didn't want this piece of broken down furniture cluttering up the house, so I offered it to our nanny.  She has a degree in "found art" and has plans to transform the table.

And no, we did not implement the "out with the old, in with the new" mantra of so many consumers these days. Within minutes of the table being removed from my living room, I felt more peace in that space.  And I wondered, what do I need with a coffee table anyway.  It really just serves as a flat surface for clutter to congregate.  We don't have people over who put steaming hot cups of coffee in the center of our living space...not with two little kids running around.  Our "coffee table" books on our shelves in the lower level of our house.  Really, there is no need for it.

And so you have it, out with the old and in with the nothing.  No money spent.  A discarded item is finding new life at our nanny's home.  I didn't waste time or gas seeking a replacement.  And my living room is just a little be less cluttered.  Oh how energized I feel.  What can I toss next?

Photo credit: - free image

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Book Recommendation: Cinderella Ate My Daughter by

Last month I picked up a book with a catchy title, Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein   I thought it would be an interesting read, especially since my youngest child is female.  I was unprepared for how powerful Orenstein's book would be.  A journalistic exploration of what it means to be feminine in our current culture, it informs, angers, and astounds the reader.  I had no idea that between 2000 and 2005 the number of female college students opting to major in computer science dropped 70 percent!!!!

So, why I am writing about this book on my frugal blog?  Read it and you'll re-think mass produced consumer items for the children and or women in your life.  I have been anti-Disney since my son was born nearly 4 years ago. However, after reading this book that resolve is even stronger.  Is the company itself evil?  No.  But the end result is a generation of girls that associate feminine with an alarmingly narrow range: princesses, hearts, butterflies, and fairies.   And we have a generation of boys that classify anything pink as "for girls".  If real world jobs were classified the same way toys are in catalogs, federal law suits would be filed.

If you are a parent, aunt/uncle, grandparent or friend to a person under 12, read this book.  Once you reach the end Oreinstein offers tips on toy selection that embraces childhood without stripping it of creativity and forcing it into the narrow box of pink versus blue.

The Disney Princess empire got its start when the head of marketing saw little girls going to shows in homemade princess outfits.  Homemade!  Now is yields more than a $1 Billion a year in sales through sales for 4 or 5 princess lines.  You can embrace a child's interest in Medieval times by purchasing frilly items from local thrift stores, crafting swords out of empty diaper boxes, and making crowns.  You'll save a ton of money, re-use items otherwise bound for the dump, and ensure that some kids will actually have an imagination.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

What I've Been Reading: Food Rules, an eater's manual by Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan, to foodies little else needs to be said.  If you are frugal, a foodie, and or an avid reader I highly recommend anything written by Michael Pollan.  My admiration for his writing started with The Omnivore's Dilemma, grew with In Defense of Food, and finds continued inspiration in his latest work, Food Rules: an eater's manual.

At 200 pages, with lovely drawings scattered within, the book is a perfect pocket guide to those seeking to eat true, whole, and wonderful food.  It offers 83 rules to follow.  The following jumped out at me on my last reading:

  • Number 29: eat the spinach water.  After boiling spinach or other veggies, keep the water for soups or sauces;
  • Number 31: if you have the space, but a freezer.  He states that buying locally grown veggies at a farmers' market is less expensive, and the food is more nutrient dense.  I agree, but as with yesterdays post I would add....make sure you use the items you froze; and
  • Number 80: compost.  He writes that if a person knows that unused food will go from pot or plate to the compost pile, where it will offer more use, people are more inclined to buy produce.  
I could list all 83 rules, but that would not be fair to Pollan.  This is a quick read, one you will pull off your shelf time and time again.  Enjoy, and let me know what your favorite rule was.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Freezer Trouble in the Frugal Kitchen

I have a chest freezer problem.  No, it not break nor did it come unplugged.  Last summer and fall I worked hard to fill it with veggies from the local farmers' market.  Just like a frugal cook would.  My is far too full for the beginning of February.

Veggies that are currently frozen, waiting to be cooked.
Photo credit: author, Melinda Gustafson Gervasi, 2011

We opted to purchase a chest rather than upright freezer, mainly because it was less expensive.  However, things are tossed in randomly.  It is in the garage, which keeps the energy bill even lower, but is rather dark.  And life has been rather intense lately.  All reasons as to why I have not been pulling out ingredients and rather purchasing food for weekly meals.

This post is intended to hold me more accountable.  Going forward I promise to pull out two packages a week and use them in our meals.  May is coming fast, and my preserves are too full.  If you have suggestions, please send them my way.  Items that I froze quite a bit off and do not regularly use include cabbage, cranberries, and eggplant.  One caveat -- we are eating a low glycemic diet, meaning we are limiting meals with lots of flour and or sugar.

Stay tuned for more on my quest to empty the freezer before the first farmers' market of the 2012 growing season!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Frugal Scrambled Eggs A.K.A. Depression Era Eggs

Do you have one women who stands out at the matriarch of your family?  I do.  Her name was Fannie Lamb, my great-grandmother.  She was such a loving and strong force in my life, I even named my daughter after her.  Well technically my daughter is named after my great-grandmother's mother.  While I adored my great-grandmother (who passed away when I was in college), her name offered slim pickings.  In addition to naming my daughter in her honor, I still prepare scrambled eggs in the same method she taught me.

I was probably no more than eight years old.  Perched on a stool in her kitchen with a black and white checkered floor.  At her side, next to the stove, she told me to add a bit of water when making scrambled eggs. "They'll be fluffier" she pointed out.  Years later, recounting this conversation to my grandmother (her daughter-in-law) she doubted them "depression era eggs" because my great-grandmother was know to stretch a penny in the kitchen.

So, my advice to frugal readers.  When making scrambled eggs crack them into the bowl.  Add water, vary the amount depending on the number of eggs.  I use about 1/4 cup for 6 eggs.  Mix and then pour into a hot pan.  You will have fluffy eggs, and you'll have stretched the dollar in your kitchen.

Photo credit: - free image

Friday, February 3, 2012

Patience and Frugality

Those who know me well will agree that I have an impulsive side.  However, to be frugal, I have found that patience is key.  Avoid impulse buys, and you'll save money.  In fact, you may end up getting what you want and not spending a cent.  

Once again a few items have found there way to our home, and I didn't spend a penny.  My list of items to look for during my monthly thrift store excursion included: hand juicer, frying pan, DVD player.  Yes there are more, but all three of these were on the list.  And when my 90 year old grandparents sold their home, where they'd lived for nearly 40 years, they had stuff they didn't need.  Included were a DVD player, new frying pan, and a hand juicer.  Yes, all three just because I didn't get around to purchasing them first.  Some bonus items included  a meat grinder that belonged to my great-grandmother (meaning it is over 100 years old, and it still works), some serving spoons, and a wooden car for the kids.

Thanks universe for the generosity.  Now it is my turn to pay it forward.  I am putting together a bag of baby items to pass on to a family member who will be welcoming a baby at the end of March.  Hopefully they will be able to put to use items we no longer need.  

What's your story on the benefit of avoiding an impulse buy and saving money?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Inexpensive Home Decor

It has been over a year since we moved into our home, and I am still working at putting items up on the walls.  Home decor is not my strong suit, and between running a legal practice and parenting two children in diapers, it is not a priority for me.  Plus, I hate spending money on decorations.  That is unless I can find frugal decorations.  And recently I did just that.

Around the holidays my mother brought over some items that had belonged to my grandmother and great-grandmother.  Included was a pristine needlepoint, stitched in Swedish.  The green, gold, and cream complimented a hanging quilt I already had on the wall  The quilt was made by an Aunt of mine who has since passed on.  I knew the two would work wonderfully together, and I set out a plan to have the needlepoint properly displayed.

A few weeks ago I took it along with a coupon to a frame shop when the frames were also 60% off.  I spent $125, but now have a family heirloom gracing my wall.  The actual cost of the item, especially when factoring in time NOT spent shopping for something to hang on the wall, was relatively inexpensive.  And it is a piece that I one day hope to pass on to one of my children (if they want it).

Even if you do not have creative relatives in your family tree, inexpensive and unique items can be found at thrift stores, flea markets, garage sales, and street artists.  Whether it is the store down the road of the stand you pass while traveling, it pays to keep an eye out for some to decorate your home with.  How about you, what is your favorite frugal decorating find?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle -- A Progress Check

In January I declared it my New Years resolution to more fully embrace the idea of "reduce, reuse, recycle" -- which places greater importance on reduction, then reuse, and finally recycling.  One month into the year and I have made some small positive steps.  But, there seems to be more I could do.

On the reduction front, I have reduced the number of restaurant meals we consume.  I had often said "Saturday is take-out night" and declared the night off.  After a bit of reflection, that seemed wasteful and expensive.  Especially since my kids still seemed to end up eat peanut butter, cheese, and fruit.  Running out for take-out is not all that easy with two small kids anyway.  I have replaced it with "crock pot night".  Beef stew with homemade muffins has been a big hit.

Reuse has been an area where I've made the most progress.  I'm keeping wine corks in a jar so that I can glue them together to make coasters.  The idea was sparked by a handmade birdhouse I saw at a train display (Olbrich Gardens) -- it was made entirely from wine corks.  Now I don't drink much wine, so this will be a slow moving project.  I also noticed that the cardboard backing that had come with posters we bought our kids for Christmas (yes, we just got around to actually putting them in a frame and on the wall) would be a great canvas for painting.  They are set aside waiting for a warm summer day....and paint.

On the recycling front, I plan to replace some of our bedroom pillows in the next month.  And instead of tossing the old ones in the trash as I have done in the past, I will set them aside to donate at our local animal rescue / humane society.  I had seen this idea posted months ago on Facebook.  What a great way to get additional life out of old pillows.  Now I just need to manage a drop off without adopting another cat.

How about you?  Have you been able to up the effort on reduction, reuse or recycling?  Other readers would enjoy your input.

And yes, I am recycling this video link.  Jack Johnson makes the 3 Rs delightful.  Enjoy.