Monday, August 27, 2012

Taking A Summer Vacation

The outgoing message on my email and voice mail alert those trying to contact me that I am "out of the office" until Tuesday, September 4th.  For those who've heard the message, they assume I am taking a long vacation.  No, I'm not.  The time has been blocked off to allow me a chance to focus on a large project that has been on again off again for several years.  I'm writing book.  A little one.  The topic is how anyone, even the middle class, can be philanthropic.  So, in an effort to give my writing all I have, I've decided to take a break from both of my blogs until Tuesday, September 4th.  I told myself that I'd have a draft by the end of summer.  And summer's end is quickly approaching.

Thanks for checking in, and I'll be back after Labor Day with new thoughts.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Frugal Quotation

The week has been long for me, so I'll leave you with a simple post, a quotation I find inspiring.
"Industry is the fortunes right hand, and frugality is its left".
-John Ray
Why inspiring?  Because it states the truth.  One cannot be industrious without also being frugal.  My primary industry is operating a solo law office where I help people address illness, death and taxes via wills, powers of attorney, etc.  Frugality has been key in the continued existence and growth of my practice.  Thanks to frugal ways, I have never borrowed a cent for my practice.  Not one.  And with it has come freedom to do what I see fit, and what I think is right.  No pressure to pay back the damn bank.

Whether you want to hang out a legal shingle, start a flower shop, or create the next Twitter, keep the following in mind:

  • keep overhead to a minimum.  I traveled to clients for meetings my first few years, and drafted out of a home office;
  • hire students because they are bright, energetic, and willing to work for less because in addition to pay are earning experience.  Delegation is essential, but do so wisely;
  • use coupons and loyalty cards for office supplies.  This will save you hundreds of dollars a year;
  • buy in bulk when possible.  Numbers will make or break your profits;
  • do not drive a car, own a house, or wear clothing that you will be able to afford once you start making money.  Accept the reality of where you are and buy accordingly; and
  • market yourself wisely.  How might customers find you? Don't let an ad person "sell" you on paying for advertising.  Word of mouth, providing education, and simply being liked by a lot of people will do wonders for creating referrals.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Americans Toss Out 40% of Food!

Wow, this article caught my attention.  With two little kids in the family, we are well aware that far too much food ends up in the garbage.  Every time I toss away food, I recognize that I might as well just throw money away.  When it can go into the compost I feel somewhat better.  But still, 40%!!!  For the average family of 4 it is more than $1,000 a year in wasted funds.  And that motivates me to decrease our wasted food.

Containing the gibbon like behavior of our 2 year old may be out of my control (the girl loves to whip food about the kitchen, hop off her seat, dance in it, and then sometimes eat it.....and that is why we rarely eat out).  But there are steps I can take.  For example:

  • decrease the portion size I give to the kids.  If and when they finish it, give more, but a small amount;
  • eat foods that can go to compost instead of the trash.  At least the waste will nourish our flower beds in the future;
  • keep the fridge clean and relatively empty....too many times I'll move things around and "discover" a forgotten item that has started to wither...or decompose.
That is what comes to my mind.  How about yours?  What do you do to limit the food that never graces a plate, but goes from store to fridge to garbage can?  $1,000 is a lot of money, and worth consideration!

Image Credit: - free image.
I love the contrast of a trash can against the lovely blue of the ocean.  
Reduce waste, save money, and protect the natural world.   A win win in my book.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Frugal: Being a Luddite Helps

Driving in the car last week I heard a story on NPR that made me feel 1) old, 2) more of a luddite, and 3) angry.  All Tech Considered aired a story about how little plug in devices for Smartphones will one day replace your wallet. Instead of pulling out a credit card, somehow your phone via an app will spend your money.  This struck me hard because two days prior my husband and I made a decision to move more of our spending from credit to cash.  Why?  We feel it makes us more aware and mindful of our spending. Using cards, even debit cards, we felt that too often we were simply swiping our card.  If we take the time to do a budget, which we do, we want to make sure we are executing just as well.  So, cash it would be for as much as possible.  Then I heard this story.

I will be of the generation that remembers phones being attached to the wall.  The sound of a rotary dial.  And I like cash.  That makes me feel old, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Old and wise often go hand in hand.  I already avoid technology because I find it stressful to learn, and usually it is a budget buster.  But the part about the Girl Scouts made me angry.  The man interviewed was so fired up about getting into people's bank accounts.  The Girls' aren't just customers, they're merchants too.

After hearing the story I feel even more committed to paying in cash.  I want to control my money, and there are forces everywhere trying to suck it out of my wallet....or in this case Smartphone, but I don't have the app for it .

If frugal living appeals to you, I urge you to think about the forces that are trying to get your money.  Just because something is marketed as being "innovative" or is discounted does not make it a frugal buy.  Frugality is about the efficient use of time and money -- and it requires thought.  When spending becomes too easy, thought goes out the window.  Along with your cash.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Frugal Living Via Farmers' Markets

Image credit:  August 2012, M. Gustafson Gervasi

Sunday was market day for us last weekend.  And what a fun morning.  We met up with good friends.  The kids enjoyed the park, and the mama's enjoyed fresh veggies.  Sometimes I hear comments that I make my life hard because I take my two young children to things like the farmers' market.  An outing requires diapers, snack cups, my double stroller, and various other accessories. It is hard, but it serves a long-term goal; to raise children who become self-sufficient adults.  And that includes the ability to cook basic food.  From that skill will come positive health effects, minimal expense, and people who tread a little less harshly on the planet.  Time in the kitchen is one thing, learning how to identify and buy food is another.  We aim for both.  Featured above are:

  • melon, $2
  • 7 ears of corn; $3
  • green onions, $1
  • 2 huge zucchini, $1
  • and 2 sunflowers, $2
My four year old can identify all of them, my two year old several of them.  My 37 year old husband....well, he can identify the colors.  The product of a home where meals were restaurant take-out six to seven nights of the week, my brilliant scientist husband is at a loss when it comes to the kitchen.  I vow not to have that trend continue to the next generation.  

And here is a bonus picture, taken last week.  Both of my children joined me in the kitchen to make a chocolate cake, from scratch, for my son's 4th birthday.  A relative described me as "brave".  No, I just love to cook/bake, and I want to share that joy with my children.  Craft projects are another story, and it is domain (except for coloring) that I have handed over to our sitter.  

Image credit:  August 2012, M. Gustafson Gervasi
My overall point -- if you want to be frugal cook.  If you don't know how marry/partner with someone who does.  Take cooking lessons.  You don't need to be Julia Child, basics will take you a long way.  And if you want your kids to be frugal (and healthy), bring them in the kitchen.  It is far easier to turn on a DVD while you prep dinner, but that short term relief is at the expense of a great life lesson.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Frugal Fun at Chuck E. Cheese

Yes, you read that correctly.  This post is about frugal fun at Chuck E. Cheese.  Those who know me, either in person or through reading my blog will be surprised to learn that my frugal family went to the well known establishment.  Here is how it transpired.

It all started with Christmas 2011.  We were given a $20 gift card for Chuck E. Cheese.  Neither of us were eager to introduce the place to the kids, so it hung on the fridge, month after month.  Recently, in a clutter removal effort I decided to list in on Craigslist for $13.  Not one email, nadda.  A few days later I happened across a coupon; $19.99 would get us 1 large pizza, 2 drinks and 25 tokens.  Hmmmm, I clipped it out and set it aside.  Then, a few days later my daughter and I returned from doing errands while my husband and son painted a wall in his room (purple, his favorite, and something that was part of his 4 year birthday celebration).  My husband simply raved at how mature our son had been, doing great work, in fact, his paint work was better than dad's.  A reward was in order for such hard work.  Inspiration hit!

"Let's have lunch, and then I have an idea".  Once some healthy leftover were consumed by all, I floated my idea by my husband.  Let's put the kids in the bike stroller and walk to Chuck E. Cheese.  He was all for it, and so we were off.  The walk took about 30 minutes, and when we arrived a challenge faced us. The parking lot was absent of a bike rack or any obvious place to park and secure the stroller.  We improvised and were ushered in the door.  Being "tagged" as a family with ultraviolet ink was.....odd.  But hey, it was an adventure.  My husband and kids gravitated towards the "rides" section, and I went the counter with the coupon and gift card.  With tax the total was $1.09.  I paid in cash.  And not another penny was spent.  The pizza was okay for frozen pizza....please don't try and tell me they serve anything other than frozen food there, I won't believe you.  Instead of two sodas they let me get a coffee instead.  The 25 tokens were more than enough.  Our kids were too young for most of the games, and slightly stunned by the mania of the place.  Most tokens were enjoyed by me, playing ski ball, and my husband reliving childhood moments on video games.  Oddly we amassed quite a few tickets for prizes at the counter.

Inside a Chuck E. Cheese -- an experience most parents 
have these days, but not one I am eager to repeat.

No, we did not turn them in for over sized sun glasses or rubber toys.  My kids have everything they need and nearly most of what they want.  And our home does not need another drop of clutter.  So I handed the tickets out to a young boy who had been so polite to my son.  At first he was shocked, then beamed.  We went for the experience, not the stuff.  And it felt great to put a smile on a child's face.

So there you have it, a frugal way to enjoy two hours at Chuck E. Cheese.  Use a gift card combined with a coupon.  Don't spend a penny more.  Focus on the experience, and give any game tickets away to a kid who may not have as much.  You'll feel great.  Oh, and it helps if you can walk there....burn off some calories and save a little gasoline.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Frugal Transportation

Regular readers of my blog may recall earlier in the summer when I declared my intention to bike as much as possible, especially to my office.  Well....that hasn't quite happened.  I know, excuses, excuses.  But you cannot deny the following challenges:

  • excessive heat;
  • the need to take my computer because Open Office doesn't work well with Word Perfect Legal (I use that in my home office);
  • sleep deprivation caused by my lovely 4 and 2 year old children, and the occasional cat;
  • car travel to clients who are too sick to come into my office; and
  • lugging bulky office supplies to work because my new assistant does not have a car.
So, biking to work hasn't materialized like I had planned.  However, I have made some good progress on leaving the Honda in the garage when in comes time for errands.  Case in point, a week ago Friday I found out that the home warranty insurance would fully cover replacing our leaking kitchen faucet.  The kicker, I had to buy the faucet.  The idea of a car trip at 2pm on a lovely summer afternoon to Home Depot felt like a kick in the stomach.  Inspiration hit, and I called my local Ace Hardware.  I gave them the specific features I needed for the faucet, and sure enough they had one in stock.  Price didn't matter because the insurance was covering it.  With the faucet waiting for me at the counter, I loaded my two children into our bike stroller and laced up my tennis shoes.  I spent the next four hours on foot, doing errands at Hilldale Mall.
  • first stop, new a box larger than I expected, but I made it work;
  • next to Morgan shoes where my son redeemed a birthday coupon for free Smart Wool socks (approximately $15 in value).  While we were there we picked up fall shoes for both, and I got my loyal customer card punched.  Once full it will be worth $50;
  • rounding out the mall stop was a spin through Sentry (yes, with the bike stroller) to pick up meat for the week ahead.  Stored in the cooler bag tucked in the "trunk" of the stroller, it kept well even though the August sun was shining down on us.
  • On the trip home we enjoyed an hour or so at the park before heading home for dinner.
Not one drop of gas used to run these errands.  Great exercise for me, and fresh air for the kiddos.  We bought only what fit in the stroller.  On the way home my son asked "when can we go to Bayfield again?"  When I inquired what prompted him to ask, he said he loved our time in Bayfield because we walk everywhere, just like today.  "Honey, we don't need to be in Bayfield to walk....we can do this here too, and we will."

Review view of stroller.  My backpack, circa 1991, which I've blogged about in the past was key to maximizing hauling capacity on this foot trip. 

I love a store that accommodates my stroller!  
No wonder they won best grocer of the year - thank Metcalfes Sentry.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Happily Ever After In A Small Home...

Today's post is compliments of a dear friend who happens to be a loyal reader of Frugal Upside and quite frugal as well.  Longtime readers of my blog know that I challenge people to live in smaller homes, to avoid the pressure to "upgrade" according to social norms.  Below is a post that makes me miss the the 750 square foot apartment my husband and I began married life in....back in 2006.  My working from home pushed us out of that apartment and into a small duplex when our son was born.  After the birth of our daughter my husband began working from home, and we moved from the duplex to our current home.  Just as she alludes to, it isn't all it is cracked up to be.  Open space attracts clutter, and expense!  Thanks for this post!

Guest Post
By Elizabeth Wheeler
5 tips for living in a small house

I live in an 849 square foot condo with my husband, my three year old, and our two cats. Sure, it’s no tiny house but the U.S. national average home size is 2,349 square feet - almost three times larger than our home. How do these five beings peacefully (and happily) coexist in such tight quarters? Here are my top five tips for staying sane in a small space:

1. Prioritize

What are your favorite hobbies or activities? Use your space to accommodate these. We both love to cook so we have a lot of space dedicated to cooking accessories. My husband enjoys music and movies, so we have large storage units for cd’s and dvd’s. These things come at the expense of space for other items, but they are important to us so the choice is easy to make.

2. Simplify

Do you really need it? Is there something you could get that would be more versatile, that could do 2 (or more) jobs instead of just 1? For example, I have replaced almost all of our cleaning supplies with baking soda and vinegar - seriously, one or the other of these - or in some cases both - can usually get the job done as well as any specialized cleaner. I also use vinegar as fabric softener. Similarly, we invested in a Playstation 3 which is a DVD/Blu-ray player in addition to being a video game console, and streams Netflix and Hulu. It was an expensive item, but it saves space and is still cheaper than cable.  

3. Borrow, don’t buy

If you only need it once in a while, or once a year, consider asking your friends if they have the item you need and would be willing to lend it to you. I have done this with canning supplies, which take up a lot of storage space. But I can think of many items that could be easy to share: holiday themed cookie-cutters, power tools, sewing machine (I lend mine out frequently), etc. Another thing you can do is “rent” items from St. Vinny’s. Having a dinner party but only own 2 wine glasses? Run over to Vinny’s (or your favorite thrift store) and buy a few at 50 cents each. Wash them and take them back the next day. You could do the same with coffee mugs, silverware, plates, etc. This option is more environmentally-friendly (and classier, IMO) than using paper plates.

4. Plan ahead

Recently, my husband and I were shopping for a new medium-sized pot. I pointed out that we should make sure that we could slip the lid handle over the handle of the pot, so we could easily store it on our pot rack. We don’t have extra cupboard space for pot lids, so this was an important consideration for us. Thinking about how the item you wish to purchase will fit into your space will help minimize frustration when it comes time to incorporate it into your home.

5. Play outside instead of inside

Many families, especially those with small children, fill their homes with toys and play equipment. Our modest-sized home can’t accommodate larger kids’ toys like a play kitchen or a climber. So we get out of the house as much as possible on the weekends to explore the world out there. We love the children’s museum, the library, and the many parks around Madison as great play options. Outings are a great alternative to stuff.

There are a lot of ways to adapt to a smaller home, it just takes some small tweaks in lifestyle. Our small home is close to downtown, and there are a lot of benefits of the location that for us that outweigh the slight inconveniences associated with living in a small space.

Oh yeah, and our family is due to expand in November. And no, we’re not moving.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Going Dutch

Last night, as I headed down the hall to shower and get ready for sleep my husband stopped me and said, "Melinda, you know you do have a lot in common with the Dutch".  For those who know my  husband this does not seem like an odd statement.  Very much the philosopher personality he is known for grand statements, which are often followed by what borders on a mini-college lecture.  Good for him I adore education and spent 9 years in college and graduate programs!

His message last night was rather concise.  Based on his travel to the Netherlands and what he'd learned from friends who lived there, the Dutch are a very organized and efficient society.  Waste of any kind bothers them.  So much so that the concept of splitting the tab on a meal extends to meals enjoyed at home, not just in a restaurant, what we Americans call "going Dutch".  He sees a lot of that in me.

Image credit: - free image

Why bring this up at the end of a day?  We'd just spent 30 minutes discussing how I felt bad that I just did not have the energy or focus to write my frugal post for the next day.  My daughter has reverted to waking in the night, and the sleep interruption is taking its toll (yes, I know there are those who say let her cry it that I respond, sure and then she wakes up her older brother, which happened last night).  Knowing my sleep will be punctuated by children, and if not them, cats, I have become very efficient with my time once there are in bed.

Our conversation started with "why do you write Frugal Upside".  To which I responded "it is a great way to get all the thoughts swirling around in my head, out of my head.  If not, they just swirl away, distracting me."  That is why I started.  But there are more reasons now.  One, writing it makes me actually lead a frugal life.  We are blessed with two sound businesses and are well compensated.  Frugality is not a necessity, but a vestige from the days I was working my way through school and then the mountain of debt I'd accumulated.  Two, we are Unitarian Universalists, and a frugal life is very much in line with several core principles.  Not only do I want my kids to get the UU religious education, I want them to experience their parents living those values. And three, I believe what I write helps others become frugal or maintain frugal living.

So, I will continue to write Frugal Upside.  It is actually fun for me.  But I want to keep it positive and fun, so I will blog when I have something to say that is worth sharing and the time to compose a decent post.  There may be days when not post occurs.  If so, that is just me being efficient with my time.  Loyal readers are welcome to write a guest post if that appeals to them.  Just drop me a message.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Frugal Gamble Pays Off

Last November my husband and I were faced with a decision about whether to extend our home warranty policy; it had come with the house when we bought it in 2010.  Shortly after paying several hundred dollars we broke even; the dish washer control panel went out.  The repair was equal to the policy extension.  And now it seems we are saving even more.

Last week the "drip" on the kitchen faucet exceed annoying and became a pain.  Water was pooling on the counter, and standing water is not a good thing.  A quick call to the home warranty folks put a smile on my face, leaking faucets were covered!

Assuming it needed a washer or tightening, I was prepared to pay the $85 co-pay and be done with the watery mess.  Turns out the whole thing is shot.  We were given a credit of $500 to have it repaired.  I bought a new faucet for $180 and it was installed today.  I am delighted to pay only $85 for this repair, and have the ease of working with a repair company associated with the insurance.  Prompt and great work -- a hard combination to find these days.

And as November approaches we are already wondering -- would we extend it for yet another year?  The furnace and air conditioner are beyond life expectancy.  We'll see what the fee is and make an educated guess this fall.  But we scratch our heads and wonder, how does the insurance company make any money.  This seems like such a great deal for us.  My speculation is that people forget about the policy are assume something is not covered.  It pays to be organized and ask!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Monday's Market Report

Rain clouds loomed in the distance, but we opted to test our luck.  My daughter, age 2, and I were out running errands Sunday morning.  My husband and son, who will turn 4 next weekend, were at home paining  a wall in our son's room.

Checking some errands off our list for the week and removing our two year old from the home was a win win.  After returning some shirts that did not fit my husband correctly, we decided to hit the Monona Farmers' Market.  Saturday's trek to the walkable Westside Market did not happen; we are short on sleep in our house thanks to a summer cold that is entering week two for the kids.  Missing my market day, we headed to the beltline and the lovely Sunday market.  Small, but complete.

For $7 we picked up:

  • cherries for $2 -- great for dessert or with breakfast in the week ahead;
  • large cabbage for $1 -- slice into quarters and frozen until March when lamb stew is on the menu;
  • tomatoes for $3 -- combined with cucumber (previous buy) and mozarella with olive oil and red wine vinegar or simply served, sliced with salt -- easy veggies for lunches this week;
  • two eggplants for $1 -- diced and blanched with chopped zucchini, frozen into four freezer bags, marked for "curry" this winter.

As we enter a new week, give thought to how local farmers' markets can save you money and put amazingly fresh food on the table.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Sundara Spa: Frugal Use of Gift Cards

My life is blessed with some truly amazing friends.  One friend gave me an early birthday present on our recent girls weekend in St. Paul.  She had thought we might get a pedicure over the weekend, and had purchased a Spa Finder gift card for an early birthday gift.  I opted to sip a coffee at a french restaurant instead, saving the gift card for closer to my birthday.

If you have never been to Sundara Spa, well you are missing a slice of heaven on earth.  It has been several years since my last visit, but I am headed back this fall....and again in the spring.  All thanks to my friend.  With her gift I can purchase to manicures, the least expensive salon service provided.  But, at Sundara any salon service comes with access to the relaxation center.  There one finds hot baths, steam rooms, a tranquil lounge, outdoor pool, all tucked in by pine trees.

Instead of spending the gift on one mega service, I will split it into two.  Maximizing some tranquil time and getting the most of her thoughtfulness.  Knowing I'm headed there in a few weeks is a treat, and this winter I will be further delighted to know another trip awaits in the Spring.  Her kindness is greatly appreciated, so much that I want to make it last as long as possible.

Keep this approach in mind if and when gift cards enter your life -- how can you make the most of them?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Reuse Is King

Sometimes things happen in spurts.  For example, I am on this kick to put as little into my trash can as possible.  Why?  First, it piles up and will be there for generations to come. Second, landfills aren't free -- they cost local government, which means eventually they'll cost me money.  And third, tossing out items with utility equates to throwing money in the trash.  And so, I've challenged myself to find useful ways to re-use items that would either go into the trash or recycle bin.  Recent refuges include:

  • cardboard for toy packaging (our daughter recently turned two, and unsolicited gifts arrived on our door step) as well as pizza delivery (my husband's version of dinner when I was out of town).  Added to a growing pile in the garage, I will use them later this year to kill parts of our lawn to make floor beds.  You layer down cardboard, dirt, and mulch.  After a Wisconsin winter the grass will have died, and we'll have new floor beds.
  • glass jars -- from spaghetti sauce to apple butter to crushed garlic, I run them through the dishwasher and store them in a cabinet.  So far I've used them to freeze soup.  Future plans include paint, votive candles, and giving them away as gifts or using them for holiday parties.
  • straws -- a few times a week I still find myself getting an iced coffee and a store.  Fueled primarily by a gift card from a client, I can recycle the container and lid, but not the straw.  It is durable and perfectly fine.  For now they are washed and stored in the cabinet.  As the kids get older I'm certain they can use draws for drinking or craft time.  A use is waiting to be discovered.  And
  • discarded toddler food.  This stuff usually cannot go into the compost pile because it contains butter, jelly, or olive oil.  Instead, I toss it out for the critters in the yard.  The drought has left them with slim pickings, and the kids and cats both delight in the feeding bonanza that are yard becomes.
How about you?  Any great saves from the trash?  Please leave a comment and share. And thanks for reading!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Teaching Kids Frugality

As the parent of young children (ages 4 and 2) I often find myself watching them tear around, jumping, climbing, throwing, and think to myself these kids are one day going to ask for my car keys!  Other times statistically improbable phrases litter our conversations, such as we don't dance in the cottage cheese dear (my daughter loves to throw her food to the floor, hop off her seat, and dance!).  And then there are days like yesterday, when a smile envelopes my face and parental pride wells up inside.  These kids are learning to shop wisely!

It was a regular morning.  Breakfast was over, an episode of Sesame Street watched, and it was time to head out for a morning adventure.  We decided to visit our favorite little park, Spring Harbor, after making a quick stop at Target.  Until very recently my kids did not realize that Target had a toy aisle.  It is now a fact they are keenly aware of, and very intrigued by.

Son:  Mama, can we go down the Target Toy aisle?  I need a new truck.
Mama: Want or need a new a truck?
Son: Want!  Please.  I'll give away that talking bulldozer to make room for it!
Mama:  [to myself, hmmmmm, he does listen when I say we need to give something away to make room for new things].  Okay, but we need to clear out space now, not after we buy something.  Let's find it, and we can donate it to the playroom at church.  

It was quickly located, and to my delight he added four more unworthy trucks to the bag.  Safely tucked aside for donation this weekend, we headed to Target.

Mama:  Okay, first we to find the things we need.  Then we can look for wants.  You have a budget, it has to be in the $5 range.
Son: Okay, but please hurry!

After a few minutes:
Mama: Okay, we have our needs.  Now to the toy aisle. 

And to my delight we spent 15 minutes examining various toys in the toy aisle.  Upon finding a new line of Circo trains for $2.99 a piece I thought we had a winner.  But my son asked to think about it and see other options.  Wow, most adults don't have this restraint and analysis skills.  I was giddy.  Can you believe that -- a parent giddy in the toy department.

In the end he selected a Tonka set containing 5 construction vehicles, something he and his sister agreed to share.  The price was $5.96.  Immediately removed from the package, they played with the trucks at the park.  Sharing with one another, and another child with no toys in hand.  On the ride home he reported that he had three of the five trucks.  I asked how many his sister would have, and he knew, two.  A day of amazing maturity for my son.  And a reminder that he does listen and model our shopping style.  I was the one who introduced him to the toy aisle as a reward for toilet training.  And thankfully he is modeling his parents behavior of really thinking about purchases first, and learning to live within a budget.

No, I don't want to impose frugality on my kids.  My primary goal as a parent is to raise children who grow into happy adults.  I do think that frugality promotes happiness, but I won't be disappointed if they deviate from their parents' ways.  I did receive the feedback and motivation I needed to keep modeling behavior that I think will allow them to lead a full and productive life.  All that from a trip to Target.

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

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Frugal Living: End of Season Sales

It's official, August has arrived.  To retailers it means the push to increase revenues through back to school sales.  In an effort to make room for rain coats, folders, back packs, umbrellas and the countless things we associate with Fall, they are slashing prices on summer related items.  Here in the Midwest we still have a solid 6 to 8 weeks of hot to warmish temperatures.  Plus, we know next year we'll be in summer all over again.  This is a great time for frugal folks to save big bucks on summer staples.  Here are few suggestions to make the most of your dollar:

  1. Shop with a list, no impulse buys.  If you didn't think you needed it before you left home, you likely don't need it at the store.
  2. Focus on staples you know you'll use next year.  Think sun screen, swim suits, garden supplies and pots, summer clothing, sandals, sun glasses, hats, bedding (pastels and summer styles are marked down), summer toys (sidewalk chalk, bubbles, pools) and kids clothes in larger sizes (i.e. if they are 2T now, buy 3T or even 4T if the price is low enough).
  3. Be organized.  Have a specific spot in your home where these items are stored.  Make sure you see it often, which will decrease the change your forget what you bought and end up buying it again next year at full price.
Enjoy the savings!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Frugal Living Via the Kitchen

It is my belief that a key component of frugal living is the knowledge of cooking.  One need not be Julia Child  to be a success in the kitchen.  Knowing a few basics and feeling comfortable at the stove can save thousands of dollars by avoiding restaurant meals as well as processed food from grocery stores.

My interest in frugal living, combined with a love of cooking has me reading a lot of cookbooks.  All are requested from the library first, and the gems are found used on Amazon and put on my counter.  Recently I read a cookbook that I heard about at my book club; Farmstead Chef by John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist.  It was a great read, but probably not one I will purchase.  Why?  It is a bit too involved for my life.  Eating gluten free plus cooking for a 2 and 4 year old requires a simple approach to meals.  There was one recipe that is a must -- homemade playdough.  Simple, pure, kid friendly, and cheap.  Who doesn't love that!

If you are looking for inspiration to grow your own veggies or make the most of farmers' markets, read this book.  The back story is great; high powered couples flees the rat race of Chicago and buys a bed and breakfast in rural Wisconsin.  Photos, stories, recipes all make for a lovely read for yourself or to give as a gift.

As children head off to college, think about tucking a cookbook in their supplies. I still use the battered Betty Crocker cookbook my mother gave me in 1991 as I embarked on the odyssey of college.  It's one book I still reference weekly.  And those home cooked meals save  my family money, encourage fresh food on the table, and tread a little lighter on planet earth.

What's your favorite cookbook?  For beginners or those up there with Julia Child?  Please share your thoughts, and thanks for reading.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Upside of Living Frugally - Indulge in Travel

Upon learning that I am a frugal person people commonly offer something akin to their condolences.  Frugal living gets a bad wrap in my opinion.  Why does restraint equate to deprivation?  Frugality to me means the efficient allocation of time and money.  Impulsive purchases are nearly non-existent.  Time allows me to ask if I truly need something, determine if I can enjoy it in a way other than ownership, and locate the best purchase price.  When applied to the big ticket items in life, it can save you thousands of dollars a year.  And the upside is that you have a pool of cash freed up for passions in life.

And for me one passion is travel.  So, as you read this I will likely be driving north on I-94 to St. Paul, Minnesota.  For the first time since becoming a mother (four years on August 18th), I am taking a Girls Weekend with a dear friend.  We opted for St. Paul because the weekend coincides with a 5k run.  The hotel I selected is on the river and is the site of the event.  I booked the room, no coupon, no discount.  Ease was what I wanted, and it is what I'm getting.  No rushing to find parking.  Just get up, go downstairs, and run.

If I lived every day that way, and executed every financial transaction that way, this would likely not be feasible.  So, after my weekend on the river, I will return to Madison and my frugal ways.  If you want to free up space in your budget for indulgences, consider the following big picture frugal methods:

  • rent housing if the price per square foot is less than owning (we rented for several years, right through the bubble, holding off because rent was less expensive than owning);
  • if you take out a mortgage, take it out for 50% less than what the bank wants to loan you;
  • challenge property assessments if you bought during the bubble.  Ours was lowered and saved us several thousand a year;
  • drive a reliable, older car (a 7 year old Honda and 9 year old Mazda reside in our garage). Paid for in full, there are no interest payments to worry about and insurance savings considerable;
  • be a one car household if you can (we were for the first 4 years of marriage, adding the second because of a change in work habits that made biking simply impossible for my husband);
  • borrow or rent instead of own as much as possible (extend the lending library concept to anything you can);
  • determine what you can spend money on that will allow you to make money (for me this was hiring a college student to do basic administrative tasks in my legal office, freeing up hours in which I could see more clients); and
  • buy used -- from clothing to books to cars to homes, you realize a steep discount once the shine has worn off.  
With that I leave you to your weekend.  Thanks for reading, and I'll be back next week with more thoughts on frugal living.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

When Free Isn't Quite Free

It's been on the news, talked about at parent gatherings, posted on Facebook.  J.C. Penney's is giving free haircuts the month of August to kids in kindergarten through the sixth grade.  But before you pile the kids in the car and tear off to the mall, pause and reflect on what this free offer likely means.

One, you have to get there.  Cars require gasoline, and malls are usually a few miles if not more from home.  Two, once you arrive you'll be in the midst of a shopping frenzy.  Something tells me J.C. Penney will have some great buys.  One's you just can't pass up.  Third, the place is going to be packed.  No appointments, walk in service.  You've now spent a lot of time getting a free hair cut.  What else could you have done with that time?  Fourth, malls have food courts.  And kids love that kind of thing.  Watch your pocketbook....the price of fast food adds up quick.  And fifth, you'll be in a mall.  An endless sea of stores, kiosks and others pedaling goods.  Unless you leave your cash, credit cards, and ATM card at home, I'd bet that you spend something at the mall.  And chances are better than not that it will be an impulse buy.

So, free does not always mean free.  Stores are smart.  They hire marketers to think of ways to get money from your wallet into their tills.  If you are hoping to save money on the family's grooming budget, try these suggestions:

  • walk to the nearest Cost Cutters, Great Clips, etc.  You'll save money on transportation;
  • go to a fast-food style hair cut shop with a coupon in hand;
  • find a local beauty school in your area (there is a great one in downtown Madison) and see if they have a discount day;
  • leave the credit card at home and take enough cash to pay the bill.  You'll avoid any impulse buys; and
  • try doing haircuts at home.  My kids are young enough that peer pressure isn't an issue.  It's worth a try, and if it isn't great, then go and get it fixed by a professional.
To be frugal requires analysis, questioning, and skepticism.  As the old saying goes, there is no such thing as a free lunch.  Always ask, what are the hidden costs of this transaction.  If you do that you will save money, consume less, and probably improve your health in some fashion.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Frugally Feeding Feathered Friends

Birds, I am growing to love them.  And attracting them to our backyard feeders is a new mild obsession.  Learning about a mother turkey and her young that live in the area brings out my slight competitive nature.....wouldn't that be a treat for the kids and or cats!  But spending a fortune on bird seed is not at the top of my list.  Nor are treks to the bird stores for more seed, and the exposure to tempting birding accessories.

So I was delighted to read Cheap Eats: Attract wildlife to your backyard without breaking the bank by David Mizejewski in Birds and Blooms August/September 2012 edition.  Nearly the entire article is devoted to ways to feed birds without buying seed. There is the obvious suggestion to plant sunflowers in your yard (note to self --  plant these next year).  Challenge yourself to make baths and feeders out of items from rummage sales.  Plant trees and shurbs that produce fruit to attract birds.  And then the abandon approach...let part of your yard return to its wild state and simply see what springs forth.

This article will be close at hand as we work this fall to create flower beds in part of our front yard.  The plan is to kill the current lawn and replace it with shrubs, plants, flowers, etc that will create a bird haven.  And thanks to Birds and Blooms, I feel like it is an achievable goal.

One tip that was not in his article, but I read in a book about cooking for birds.  Eggshells.  Instead of tossing them all into the compost bin, I save some, bake them for 15 minutes at 200 degrees, smash them up a bit, and out them in a perch feeder.

What low-cost methods to you use to attract birds and other cute critters to your yard?