Friday, November 30, 2012

Free Checks!

Yesterday I had time to order new checks for my business account, and was once again delighted with my decision to have my accounts at our local credit union.  In fact my husband and I have numerous accounts there:  our joint personal accounts (i.e. what we use to pay bills and an emergency fund), my business checking and savings, and his business checking and savings.

As I opened the last pack of checks for my business account I decided now was better than ever to order new checks.  I logged on to the web site, selected "order checks", selected the account, entered the starting check number, and selected from one of two FREE options.  Yes free. We get one free box of checks a year, for each of those checking accounts.  Ordered on-line, shipped to my house, at no cost to me.  And that is why I love the UW Credit Union.  Simple, easy, free, and a local business.

If frugal living is a focus for you, I highly encourage you to get a handle on your banking fees.  What do you pay?  Can you switch to another option?  Go on-line as much as possible.  You'll save your time, your fuel, and your money.  Being frugal, even with small purchases, allows you to direct your money to those things that really matter.  And we are living proof, pennies make a difference over time.

Thanks for reading, and I'll be back this weekend with more on our frugal life.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Clean Bin Motivation

Image credit: - free image

Weeks ago I cut out a page from the Willy Street Reader, the monthly paper of our local food co-op.  It featured the screening of a film, The Clean Bin Project, about a couple's effort to go one year without consumption.  The film sounded great, but the time did not work with my schedule. I held on to the clip in hopes that I'd find it on-line or something.  And tonight I had a chance to look and found their blog.  It ties in a lot with my efforts to live a frugal life.  Not only is it good for my pocket book, but for the earth as well as my health.

So tonight I renew a pledge to myself to not do a normal grocery shopping until I have put a severe dent in the bin at home.  This means the fridge freezer, the chest freezer and the pantry.  Oh sure, we'll need milk, eggs, apples, etc.  But I am done with my weekly trips here and there, replacing the staples and ignoring the items that are tucked into corners.  I've been doing this for about two weeks now, and feel even more motivated.

Skipping those trips means we are eating food we've already paid for.  My monthly expenses will be lower, and I'm ensuring that the food we froze will not be wasted.  I'm also reducing fuel consumption because shopping with two small children usually means the car....because we buy a lot when we go.  And because most of what is frozen was purchased at a local farmers' market, our veggie consumption should go up -- and we all know that is good for one's health.

As we march toward the end of the year I will avoid my typical shopping using the following methods:

  • walk with the kids to the store up the road -- walking means I only buy what fits in the stroller, and that is not much beyond a gallon of milk;
  • pick up items at the store next to my office -- I am already there and can easily get eggs or apples if needed;
  • ask our nanny to pick up items for us if we need a specific ingredient for the week -- I give her cash and now we have one car making a trip instead of two (have I mentioned that our nanny is amazing and I will cry in May when she graduates); and
  • when certain items are need to turn eggplant into a meal, I can ask my husband to stop at a grocery store.  However, when I do that he inevitably picks up his main food group, junk food.  This will be a last resort.
Thanks for reading.  If you have suggestions, tips or motivation please let me know.  I was so in the habit of shopping for groceries once a week it is very liberating.  I love the new found freedom with the kids.  Instead of bundling up, lugging them around, and dragging bags home we have a lot more time to simply relax.  That is priceless in our life these days.  And something I want more of.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Small Business Rewards Yield Good Savings

Followers of this blog likely know that I have a small business (I'm a solo estate planning attorney) and I hold a customer rewards card for the big box office supply store down the road from both my home and office - Office Depot.  I was there today and left with $100 in supplies, but only paid $35.  How is that possible?  First, my $100 purchase qualified for a $20 coupon.  Even though I did not have the coupon in hand, the store said "we have some here for our Reward Members".  And with a swipe of a card, off went $20.  Then I handed over a voucher for $53.  I receive a voucher every quarter.  The stores loyalty program pays me back for shopping at the store, and I also get credit for ink and toner canisters that are empty.  And so another $53 was deducted from the tab.  In the end, my purchase cost me $35.

Now I know there are many out there that detest big box stores.  But as a small business owner, one seeking to expand in the next year, I enjoy the savings they offer me.  And those savings are passed right along to my clients.  There is a local office supply store / book store within walking distance of my office -- I can see if from the the window.  And we go there for occasional items.  But the bottom line counts in my business.  There is a point at which my prices will be too high for clients.  And so in an effort to make a profit without blowing up my client's budget, I use the big box store.  Great customer service, within walking distance of my home, and great discounts.  It works for this frugal business owner.

Thanks for reading, and I'll be back tomorrow with more thoughts on the upside of frugal living.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Paying Off Student Debt, A Walk Down Memory Lane

It's Tuesday, and office day for me.  Clients, papers to review and phone calls to return.  It is also a day when one of two third-year law students is working for me.  In between tasks we chatted about a job interview she had had recently and the current state of the job market for new grads (bleak).  While chatting the topic of student loans emerged.  She is blessed with a scholarship and parental assistance, so she will escape seven years of higher education with little or no debt.  But I feel for some of my classmates, she said, I hear some of them have six-figures to pay back.  To which I raised my hand and said, that was me -- well actually it was $97,000.  But it is gone, long gone thanks to frugal living it was paid off in six years, while working at a State job.

If you are in the same boat, student or not, but have a huge debt to pay off do not give up. It can be done.  Decades ago I lived in Washington, DC and remember a friend quoting a friend of hers who had so much student debt that before reaching age 30 she had resigned to the idea that she would always be in debt.  So, why not use the credit card to finance a winter ski trip -- what the hell!  My well tuned frugal mind has a different response, what in the hell are you thinking?  Don't give up, you can get out of debt with some devotion, attention to detail and a tiny bit of anger at the lenders.

In my case that lender was Great Lakes Higher Education.  Promise after promise to reduce my interest rate was never fulfilled.  36 months of on-time payments -- I got there, no interest rate drop.  Allowing auto payment from my checking was set up, but still no reduction.  I was told oh sorry, the other person you spoke with was wrong.  Well, I had enough and I got mad.  And then I set off to pay them off.  Here are a few tricks from my bag:

  1. Create a spread sheet showing your daily balance, daily interest, and be able to in put information on payments and see how quickly the debt will reduce.  For example, if I was able to put an extra $200 a month to my debt, how much faster would it go away.  What motivation!  Use Excel, or Open Office and set up a sheet now;
  2. Earn extra money.  On top of my day job I tutored international students in conversational English.  Other ideas -- deliver pizzas, babysit, pet sit, get a seasonal job, bag groceries on Sunday;
  3. Maximize your earning potential -- after meeting the man I would late marry, he helped me see that I could earn more, a lot more, practicing law.  I had a government job in policy that I did not care for, and paid well below my earning potential.  I know this is not the situation for everyone.  But can you earn more through a job jump?  Can you ask for a raise and be worthy of it?  What about more hours or moonlighting in your profession?;
  4. Eek every bit out of a penny.  I was a lawyer, but lived like a poor law student.  Small student apartment furnished with items from dead relatives or curb discards.  Brown bag lunches instead of carry out or sit down.  A thermos for coffee.  Work clothes purchased at second hand stores, with an avoidance of those needing dry cleaning.  I bused to work, and was known to walk the three miles home to get exercise as well as avoid the bus fare.  I'd wash a load of clothes, but skip the drying fee by using a drying rack.  I got rid of cable and learned how to use the library for DVDs (my viewing of the entire Sopranos franchise never cost a dime);
  5. Send a payment every week.  And send those hard fought for pennies in immediately.  This decreases the chance of you spending money on other items, and reduces the principal and subsequent interest just a bit faster.
There is a financial planner that I enjoy listening to (Dave Ramsey).  I love his common sense approach to money, but his social values are way too conservative for me.  But I listened often -- stories of others paying off debt motivated me.  And one lesson I took was don't be normal.  Why?  Normal people are broke and in debt.  If you want to be out of debt you can't be normal. So if you embrace these ideas be prepared for others to be surprised, and even a bit annoyed.  That happened to me, but it was worth it.  My debt is gone, allowing my husband and I to save aggressively for our goals.  And having only a small mortgage and no other debt makes our decisions to be a dual self-employed family much easier.  

And that is a trip down memory lane for this Tuesday.  Thanks for reading!

Image credit: - free image

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Turkey That Keeps On Giving

Here we are on the Monday after Thanksgiving, and my Amish bird is still putting forth amazing quantities of leftovers.  But alas, today I have cooked up the final three leftover dishes.

For lunch there was a turkey egg scramble -- peppers, onions, eggs, turkey and shredded cheese.  Tonight's dinner is leftover turkey casserole: turkey, mushrooms, brown rice, celery, and cream of mushroom soup.  And finally, I made a turkey salad for lunch/dinner on Tuesday.  Chopped turkey, celery, onion, Trader Joe's Artichoke antipasta, and a bit of mayo.  Topped on a bed of greens or along with whole wheat crackers, it will bring the feast to a close!

Image: M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2012, - casserole pre-baking 

Image: M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2012, tomorrow's lunch and dinner

I must say, I was amazed to realize that even though I was born and raised in the Midwest, I did not have a clue about the basic recipe of a casserole.  This fact emerged over the weekend as I finished reading a library loan.  Eco Thrifty: cheaper, greener choices for a happier, healthier life by Deborah Niemann is your standard frugal living book.  Ten chapters devoted to food, kids, transportation, housing, getting stuff for free, etc.  Sprinkled in are number on annual savings.  I enjoyed flipping through, but not much jumped off the page for me as something new.  There were two exceptions.  One, the basics of any casserole: protein, starch, sauce, and vegetable.  And two, using a ball of wool in the dryer instead of fabric softener.

Dinner tonight was inspired by the first tidbit, and when I have a chance I want to experiment with the wool idea.  Recently I bought a box of fabric softener sheets that can be composted.  Total cost was $4, and I will use about 4 boxes a year.  So, replacing it with wool would save about $12 ($4 x 4, minus estimated price of wool) a year.  That will not boost me retirement savings, but it will allow us to tread a little more softly on mother earth and remove one item from the list of things that forces me to the store.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Library Day

As the holiday weekend came to a close, our little family returned to its naturally frugal ways.  During the morning I took the children to services at Prairie UU while my husband finished writing one of his freelance articles.  Before leaving I threw together a simple turkey soup: leftover turkey, corn, green beans, onions, garlic, carrots, barley, chickpeas, and broth.  It simmered, my husband wrote, and we returned centered and ready to eat.  What a great way to work our way through the holiday bird, but we still have a good amount remaining.

The afternoon adventure was a walk, 30 minutes each way, to the public library.  Before leaving my husband turned down the thermostat and we made sure the southern facing windows all had the blinds and curtains open to maximize on the free solar heat.

For those who have been to our home, you know that we often have a huge stack of library books and other materials.  Every now and then an item will become overdue and we'll incur a fee.  Other times something is water damaged or lost, but that is rare.  Even with those minor changes, we save hundreds if not thousands for dollars a year by utilizing our public library.  We have mastered the on-line requests, and receive an email when an item has arrived.  We also are well versed in inter-library loans (caution, those have a much steeper late fee per day!).  If you are looking to save dollars in your budget, I highly recommend you explore options at your public library.  If it is like ours, you can request materials from across your region and possibly any library in the country if inter-library loans are allowed.  Here are some of the resources we get through the library:

  • audio books;
  • children's fiction and non-fiction (frugal way to embrace ever changing interests of children);
  • CDs;
  • DVDs;
  • adult fiction and non-fiction;
  • materials related our professions (law and engineering -- which are often high priced books);
  • kids events (story time, craft time, special events);
  • travel books, cookbooks, gardening books, etc.;
  • magazines;
  • free weekly newspapers; and
  • email notice two days prior to an item's due date (cuts down on fees).
How about you -- are you a library addict as well?  What is your suggestions on how libraries can stretch a dollar?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Sustainable Holiday Decor.......and More

We are half way through the long holiday weekend, and it was a mix bag of frugal living today.  In terms of meals, not even close.  My husband and I started the morning out with a "date".  Our sitter arrived and we dashed off to La Baguette, a lovely french bakery in Madison.  For under $20 we enjoyed a Croque Monsieur, quiche, two coffees, and a pain au chocolat to go.  I put date in quotes because this was more meeting than date.  We often joke that we run our home like a corporation, and our discussion today focused on exact steps we both need to take as we plan to expand our businesses.  2013 will be an exciting year.  Afterwards we returned home and I tackled putting up our sustainable (as much as possible) outdoor holiday decor. Once complete, we dashed off with the kids to the UW Arboretum.

The wild turkeys may have thought they had survived Thanksgiving, but came face to face with our 4 and 2 year old.  It is a great, free way, to explore the outdoor world in Madison. On our way home we stopped in to the newly renovate Vitense Golf Land.  Nearly deserted, we opted to eat there instead of get take-out (we had a coupon).  One of the easiest meals we've had in a long time, but oh so not frugal.  But that is how it goes, some days are less expensive than others.  Too many in a row make frugal living near impossible.

Here are some images from the day, with details on the holiday decor.  Most were purchased at Johannsen's Greenhouse in Madison (Todd Dr. at the Beltine).  I purchased 50 feet of evergreen rope and two wreaths.  The rope covered the garage, our front door, and then some for a net below the bike riding deer (below the flag, to the left of the garage).  We did not have twine on hand, so I reused the twine that came with rope.  Another purchase avoided, and maximizing my purchases.

I also purchased a holiday flag.  The pole is a wood dowel I bought at the hardware store for $4.99.   If all goes as planned, this will fly above our home for years to come.  And for about $10 I purchased a small flood light that comes on with the LED lights, illuminating the flag at night.

At first, the flag keep sliding down.  For a minute I thought I'd need to make a run to the store to find something to secure it, but then remembered I had a jar (old curry paste jar) in the kitchen with a stash of pins.

 The thumb tacks worked perfectly.

At the front door I created two containers with holiday grennery.  The pots were from the summer, filled with top soil to give them weight.  In went evergreen, red sticks and pine cones.  All but the evergreen will keep and be an option for next winter.  I also bought a festive gold and ruby lawn ornament with hopes that it will add cheer for winters to come.  This turned out to be a far less expensive option than my plan a -- buying to live, potted pines.  Total cost for both finished pots, under $15.

 As for the top soil, it will go directly into the flower beds I am creating from leaves and mulch in the front yard.  My daughter stomped in some today; we had extra.  A 40 pound bag cos $1.99.

And here it is at night.  Not Rockefeller Center, but festive.  Most can be reused, recycled, and uses LED technology.  That is my 2012 take on sustainable holiday outdoor decor.

The holidays are a wonderful time of year.  Celebrating the "return of the light" as the days begin to grow longer after the Winter Solstice.  But sadly they can quickly become a source of waste and expense.  I find using nature, indoors and out, to decorate is far easier on the budget and earth.  And gathering those items can give you great motivation for some nature hikes.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Leftovers and Trimming the Tree -- A Day in a Frugal Home

The day after!  And the fridge is stocked with leftovers.  This year there is a lot more turkey than prior years. So much that I'll need to brainstorm some ways to put it to use as well as freeze it.  Suggestions are welcome!

Yesterday we also gave a Cuisinart ice cream machine a whirl.  On loan from a friend we discovered one short fall.  The canister needs to be in the freezer for a longtime in order to make a batch.  Lesson learned, treat enjoyed a day late.  But the result was amazing.  We'll enjoy the loan, and search on-line for a sale.  The thing that struck me most was pouring the sugar into the batch it hit me, wow ice cream is sugary.  I knew that, but now I know it.  That is one benefit of making your own food; increased awareness about what you are really eating.  The cost of the machine is approximately $75.  That, plus ingredients, will be off set by not buying store bought tubs.  I also think it will be healthier.  One question I want to research is using honey or agave nectar in place of sugar.  It will also be a great way to use frozen fruits or those that are about to expire.  I see a lot of promise in this purchase, and now want to search out a good bargain.

Overall our day was a quite one.  In addition to the food, I put up the tree with the kids.  My husband put in a few extra hours on a client's electrical needs.  When you are a dual self-employed home, you are thankful for long days of work, never knowing when a dry spell may hit.  The decorating was punctuated by a visit from family, allowing me to meet the latest member of my paternal family tree.  What an adorable child!  Here is a photo of the finished job.  Most decorations were purchased at a second hand shop, picked up on nature walks (i.e. pinecones) or given to us as gifts.  Holiday cheer is possible without maxing out a credit card.

M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2012 -- a frugal home ready for the winter holidays

No rushing about.  No parking lots.  No increased carbon footprint.  Just yummy leftovers, decorating the tree with the fire on, and bonus family time.   Yesterday's newspaper ran an article on a women who calls herself the coupon lady.  According to her plan, you can shop and shop, bringing home lots of stuff for mere pennies.  It seems that most books these days on frugal living really focus on how to shop as much as possible and spend as little as possible.  It's not for me.  My time is precious, and I want it focused on my family, health or career.  Shopping is not entertainment, but a chore to be completed with as little time and expense as possible.  And that is why I focused on quite time at home today, passing up the so-called Black Friday bargains.  What about you?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Gobble, Gobble

As the clock approaches 8pm on Thanksgiving Day, I am settling into the evening.  Soon the kids will be tucked into bed, the fireplace will be lit, and I'll find a cup of tea.  No, this self-declared frugal person will in no way take part in the frenzy known as Black Friday.  To me there is a distinction between frugal living and shopping for a bargain.  I suspect our day was not typical in America.

Our holiday was very low key this year.  We opted out of the usually 5k run we normally do.  Participating would have cost $60, driving 20 minutes each way, prodding the children to hurry to get ready, and to be surrounded by thousands of other runners.  One day we'll go again, but not this year.  Instead we had a late breakfast and I prepared most of the veggies for our evening meal, and then we set out on foot for a walk.  The destination was about a mile away, the office of one of my husband's clients.  We needed to retrieve an important phone number he had left at his desk.  Even though we were in the heart of Madison, our short walk allowed us to view horses grazing and a hawk hunting.  On the return trip we stopped at the park to let the kids burn off some energy.  Once home we put the turkey in the oven, and then tackled moving the Fall outdoor decorations to the compost bin.  In went the corn, straw bales, and various pumpkins.  They provided us with fall cheer, and will continue giving to us as they decompose for use next Spring in our flower beds.

The dinner was simple, served at 5:30, my mom the only guest at the table.  Turkey and a wide variety of veggies, followed up with my mom's apple pie and my pumpkin bread made for a lovely meal.  Our holiday was so low key that I was able to stay in yoga pants, a running shirt, and fleece all day.  No fancy day for us, but a very low stress and frugal day.

Now that Thanksgiving is winding down, the frenzy of Christmas will fall upon many.  Shopping to excess.  Charging this and that.  Rushing here and there.  Sending holiday cards out of a sense of obligation.  But not us.  No, not this year.  Our frugal approach to the holiday will hopefully keep it more in line with Thanksgiving.  Good food, time outside, and quality family time.  All things we need and love.  And keeping the stress low is a priority for us.  That phone number we went to retrieve was for a cardiologist that my father-in-law is working with.  The day after the election he was hospitalized.  A-fib and a blood clot were found, and the this week the doctor stated that signs of congestive heart failure are apparent.  Life swoops up and reminds us how short it can be.  How important your health is, time with family, appreciating the simple beauty of the world.  And our frugal approach to life helps us keep that focus.  Frugal, focusing on efficient use of your time and money, is good not only for your wallet, but the earth, and most likely your heart.

Thanks for reading, and wishing you all the best as you enter into the end of the year celebrations.  I'll leave you with a short saying, one we picked up at Waldorf, which we cay prior to our evening meal.

For trees so tall and skies so blue,
For family, friends and food,
We give thanks.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Before the Frugal Feast; Thanksgiving Eve

A recent newspaper article sat next to my computer, and I glanced at it again today.  According to the report, the average cost of Wisconsin Thanksgiving dinner is $49 and change.  It appears that our family is average.  One fact that was not addressed is how many people that feeds?  We will have two parents, two little children, and my mother (who is not in the best of health, so eats less than my 2 year old).

Tomorrow is one of my favorite holidays.  A celebration of food and family.  A day to slow down, enjoy the bounty, and relax.  The day after is my least favorite day of the year -- turning shopping into a sport.  And sadly it appears that more and more stores begin that frenzy on Thanksgiving Eve.  Oh I am so glad my days of retail work are long behind me.

As I type tonight a pumpkin bread is cooling on the counter.  An Amish Turkey ($1.59 a pound) is thawing in the fridge.  An assortment of other vegetables await preparation.  My mother will contribute an apple pie that she made today.  My goal is to enjoy November 22nd and not rush ahead to the next holiday.  I slipped up a bit today, turning on the all holiday music channel in the car while I ran an errand.  A holiday errand.  I spent a lovely hour, by myself, selecting some sustainable outdoor decorations from a local greenhouse.  And I went today because I simply do not want to go anywhere near a retail establishment this weekend.  More on the items later this week.  I'll post with photos, and hope it turns out well.

Enjoy the calm before the storm, and do not short change the wonderful simplicity of Thanksgiving.  At least that is my frugal two cents worth.

Image Credit:  M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2012.  Fresh roasted pumpkin was turned into pumpkin bread as well as some "scuffins" -- think a muffin meets a scone.  

Monday, November 19, 2012

Frugal Cafe au Lait

Yes dear reader, another post about food!  But food is one item in life that you can save substantial money on, reduce your carbon footprint, and boost your health when you maximize homemade yummies.  And up until this weekend I had a weakness....the coffee shop cafe au lait.  That perfect blend of coffee, warm milk, and froth was ideal.  And not accessible at home with a standard coffee maker.  Or so I thought!

My frugal mind got to wandering, and then my frugal fingers started typing in Google.  And sure enough, there is a frugal approach to a cafe au lait.  And no extra kitchen gadgets were needed.  If you have an immersion blender, you are set.

Add milk to a cup that is wide and deep.  Warm the milk in the microwave or on the stove.  Once warm, use the immersion blender.  You'll get the froth you desire!  Pour into a mug at the same time you pour the coffee.  The result is a delightful cafe au lait.

Image credit: M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2012.  Note - the mug was free, obtained by my husband while consulting for a client.  
No fancy mug purchases in our frugal home.  And we've found really cool mugs for pennies at thrift stores.

Frothers are sold for $15 or less on-line, but an immersion blender is an item many foodies already have in the kitchen.  I use mine for soups as well as smoothies.  And now cafe au laits.

Thanks for reading, and in the weeks ahead watch for posts on reducing the number of processed items.  I have an ice cream machine on loan from a friend, and an eye on a waffle maker.  Jump in with comments if you have some.  And have a great frugal week!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Frugal Foodie

Are you a self-described "foodie".  The type of person who classifies grocery shopping and meal preparation as a hobby or joy rather than a chore?  If so, we are in the same group!  And being a foodie does not mean that you have to spend you whole paycheck at the grocery store.  Case in point, our meal tonight.

Chicken was the focal point.  Pulled from the freezer, this bird was the free one I wrote about earlier.  Acquired via coupon from UW Provisions.  Once baked, it provided tonight's meal and will reappear in chicken omelettes as well as pasts with tomato sauce.  Whole chickens will get the most use for your dollar.

Acorn squash provided warmth and buttery sweetness on the plate.  Plucked from the kitchen counter by my four year old, it was acquired at the last out door farmers' market for $1.  Large enough to offer enough for not only this meal, but a small portion tucked in the fridge for a meal of leftovers later in the week.

And rounding out the plate was a quick quinoa salad thrown together at the last minute.  The left over grain was mixed with lemon juice, olive oil, fresh mint, diced cucumber and grape tomatoes along with some salt and pepper.  While more of a summery taste, it was a great way to use up the grain leftover from earlier in the week as well as some of the veggies.

For dessert I tried out the homemade applesauce, and was disappointed.  The vendor I bought the apples from had said I did not have to peel them -- just cook them all down and you'll have lots of fiber.  And fiber there was, a bit too much.  Plan B will be to use the sauce in pancakes, scones, muffins, etc.  I had a hard time with it, and so did the kids!  Live and learn, next year I'll take a different approach.

The part of this meal that feels the most frugal is that I was pulling from my stores....the chest freezer, the pantry and the leftover area of the fridge.  I am currently in a mode of eating what is on hand.  Grocery trips are for essentials we are out of, and I am trying not to stock up on tasty items that catch my eye or bargains. I have lots of food tucked away, and now is the time to start putting a dent in them.  As a foodie I find myself buying food items like some people buy shoes.  So, I'm cutting myself off a bit -- maybe I should say re-directing myself a bit.  Digging in the back of our stored food, rediscovering all of those fun things I had tucked away.

Thanks for reading and following our frugal life.  Leave a comment if you have a thought to share with others -- we can all learn from one another.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Our Frugal Home and Amazon Prime

Tonight when I logged on to, there was a message from the CEO announcing a one-month free trial of the company's program Amazon Prime.  And it reminded me that our annual payment will be coming up soon.  In an household that gives thought to every purchase, I paused for a moment, and then knew we'd renew.  Why?  It saves us time and money.  And even though mail order is considered hard on the environment, I find we actually consume less via Amazon Prime.

What is it?  For $79 a year we have

  1. unlimited access to on-line, streaming videos.  No, the hottest flick out there is not free, but there is plenty to entertain.  No more scratched DVDs from the library that disappoint and no need to own physical media that takes up space (housing is not cheap); and
  2. free shipping on Prime items.  Everything from holiday cards to books to waffle irons, I've bought it all and not paid shipping costs.  For my legal practice I ordered a small table for client meetings.  Shipped to my office for free.  I've also found the toner for the office printer, again, no shipping cost.  And when it comes to household items I love it.  I type in what I want, click the Prime button to weed out items that would cost to ship, and almost always find a perfect match.  No trip to the store, no lines, no gas, and more importantly, no impulse buys.
If frugality defines your life or is something you aspire to, I urge you to use the free month offer.  Analyze how it changes your shopping, and make a decision for yourself.  In our home time is precious, we dislike trips to the store, and usually have very defined purchase parameters.  It is well worth the $79 for us.  How about you?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Frugal Mailing Methods

As the holidays approach many people probably feel a sense of dread about a rather mundane activity....going to the post office.  The temperatures drop, lines go on forever, and good moods are hard if not impossible to find.  But I have a solution for you, and I consider it frugal.  Use on-line mailing.  And by that I mean get to know the US Postal Service's on-line shopping.  My two favorite options are:

  1. Click-and-Ship priority mail.  Every few months my husband or I stop in the post office and pick up a supply of FREE priority boxes.  We stash them in the basement and pull them out when it is time to mail a package.  The box is free and ships at a flat rate, so no weighing is required.  If you can stuff it in the box, it ships for the flat rate.  You go on-line, select ship a package, opt for flat rate, input your address, the destination, and the size box you used.  In the end you receive a form to print or save as a PDF for later printing.  Tape it to the box and leave it for the mail delivery person to pick up.  You know they will be going by your house six days a week.  No trip to the post office.  No paying for a box to ship the item in.  No long lines.  It is a wonderful option, and quite easy.  The small box flat rate is $5.15;
  2. Order stamps on-line.  Until recently I had my office assistant go to the post office and buy postage for my legal practice.  No more!  For $1.25 fee I can order postage on-line and receive it in the mail.  The cost is less than paying an assistant their hourly rate to run this errand.  And I also used this method to buy the holiday stamps I want to use on our holiday cards at home.  Again, they will be delivered to my door.  No extra trip to the post office; no gas, no wear and tear on the car, no time wasted in long lines.
Sure, if you have lots of time on your hands a walk to the post office may be a nice afternoon outing.  But, if like me you are balancing work, family, home, and a desire to limit errands, give the on-line option a try.  The fee is the same, so order bulk (Forever postage will forever be the cost of a first class stamp).  I have not received anything as of this post, and I do hope the packaging in minimal.  Watch for an update in the future.

Thanks for reading, and may you have a lovely and frugal holiday season.

Image credit: - free image

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Save Money, Entertain Children Without "Toys"

Is it just me or have the toy catalogs increased in frequency recently?  Farm & Fleet, Target, Toys R Us.  We are inundated with them, and oh how they work so well.  My four year old is drawn to them like a moth to a flame.  The prices of toys are also quite manageable, but just because they are cheap doesn't mean we have to purchase them.  And so I don't.  Oh sure, they kids have toys, plenty of them.  But they also entertain themselves with items and activities that did not come from the toy aisle.  Whether you are the parent or hosting young kids in your home, keep the following in mind as the a holidays approach:

  1. Laundry baskets make ideal boats.  Outfit with throw pillows, books, and blankets as well as a little exertion (i.e. pushing) you can give a child a wonderful high sea adventure;
  2. If the energy level is high, put the laundry basket at the end of the hallway and have a toss game.  Use tennis balls or rolled up socks;
  3. Build a fort with chairs, blankets, pillows and other odds and ends;
  4. Play hide-and-go-seek.  It is a great way to work on counting with pre-school aged children, and guarantees giggles.  Caution, avoid this in public places.  Kids can hide well, sometimes too well.  We only do this one at home;
  5. Fill up the bathtub and toss in plastic containers.  Filling, pouring, dumping can yield a solid 45 minutes of play....just stay in the bathroom with them!
Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2012, -- recent fort constructed by my children.  
You can't tell, but they are hidden underneath with a stack of library books.  This keeps them busy for hours!  
I love the creativity that comes from them, but a warning.....when structures tumble meltdowns are likely. 
 I think I know what Frank Lloyd Wright's mom felt like some days.

These are the five most common ones used in our frugal home.  How about you?  Leave a comment and share your ways to enjoy children without breaking the bank!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Cuts Costs in the Kitchen -- Reduce Use of Dairy

Reduce the use of dairy -- those might be considered fighting words here in my home state of Wisconsin.  But yes, if you are looking to cut costs in the kitchen, consider reducing the use of dairy products.  This is underscored, if like me, you prefer to use organic dairy.  A gallon of organic milk runs $7....and we can go through several in a week here at our home.  Reducing one or two gallons of milk a week saves grocery dollars, reduces your carbon footprint, and may broaden the variety of beverages in your diet, opening the door to other healthful items.

If you need inspiration, consider:

  1. Replace milk with a meal (or two) with herbal tea.  My kids love a cup of warm tea with a meal, especially during the colder months;
  2. Use almond milk in your coffee rather than milk or creamer;
  3. Try plain boxed soy milk for baked goods that call for milk; and
  4. Spread nut butters on waffles, pancakes and toast instead of the standard cows butter.
Have any ideas from your own kitchen?  We still consume a lot of dairy, but love the cup of tea with a meal!

Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2012.  And make sure the tea bag is tossed into your compost pile....maximize 
the use of all scraps that you can to stretch the efficiency of your budget.

Monday, November 5, 2012

My Inexpensive Commute

Followers of my blog may remember earlier in the summer my stated desire to commute to my office by bike or food.  A very warm summer, combined with the need to lug a lot of stuff to my office, dashed those goals.  But that was the summer.  It is a new season, and I am leaving my car home a lot more days now than ever before.  Because I bring my computer with, I opt to walk.  Biking with it makes me uneasy.  Plus, I simply enjoy walking far more than biking.  How did the change happen?

First, I now work two mornings a week.  This means I can leave earlier because my husband can stay with the kids until the sitter arrives.  Before I would have to wait for her, brief her on the kids, and then start my 30 minute walk to the office.  When you only have 20 hours to your work week, 30 minutes there and another 30 minutes back is significant.

Second, earlier this fall I hired two third year law students to help in my office. Wow, they are smart and efficient.  In no time flat they had converted my documents from Word Perfect (lawyers love it because of reveal codes) to Open Office.  As a result, I have a lot less stuff to lug back and forth.  Now I can put everything in my Eddie Bauer backpack (purchased in 1991!) and walk to the office.

And third, I have outsourced some of the tasks I used to handle to those students.  That means my schedule is not nearly as packed as it once was.

My typical work week is four days, and usually three of those bring me into my office (the other one is completed in my home office).  Now I am walking at least two of the days into work.  I am saving money on gas as well as wear and tear on the car.  Walking means little to no carbon footprint.  And I am increasing the activity level of my over life (that will have short and longterm savings on reduced health care expenses).  Plus, it is simply enjoyable.  I was aware of the heavy hard frost on the grass, the fact that the mums have reached the end of their season, and enjoyed the sun rising on the horizon.  None of which would have caught my attention from inside my dear Honda.

If possible, look for ways to add walking, biking or even bus riding into your commute.  My office was picked primarily because it was so close to our home.  My husband did the same with his office, in hopes that he can resume his bike commuting ways.  If work is not an option, what about the other routine trips you make to the store, library, church, gym?  Can you use something other than your car.  For those seeking a frugal life, it is worth the time pondering.

Thanks for reading, and have a great start to your week!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Frugal Living: The Chest Freezer is Stocked!

Yesterday I caught sight of the first snow flurries of the winter, oh so fitting it was also the day our chest freezer reached capacity.  No, it was not a trip to the farmers' market that resulted in the last installation.  A coupon, set to expire that day, brought me into a new business....UW Provisions.  With a $50 purchase, the coupon gave me free chicken and ground beef.  Why not...we'll check it out, and a new favorite was found for this frugal home!

UW Provisions, located in an industrial park in Middleton (oddly, right around the corner for the building that house my father's used car business in the 1970s through the early 90s), has been in business for over 50 years.  According to the manager, if it "walks, flies, or swims....we can get it for you".  Ninety percent of their customers are grocery stores or restaurants.  Bulk is how they sell most things, and the costs run about 20% less than what I'd see at Woodmans or Sentry.  And he was correct on selling any type of animal you can imagine.  The storefront, open to the public for no membership fee, featured shark, alligator, goat, rabbit (grass fed), and countless other animal products.  I was thrilled to pick up two packs of lamb meat for Irish stew later in the winter.

As I checked out I added my email to their distribution list.  The manager handed me his card and hold me that on Monday he'll begin taking orders for turkeys....fresh, Amish, and antibiotic free.....for $1.50 a pound.  Guess who I will be calling on Monday!  And I plan to ask if I can order, in bulk, the Klements breakfast sausage our family loves.  We saw many of their products, but not this specific one.  We have found a good price at Woodmans, but I bet this place can beat it.  Once there is more room in my freezer, a large purchase would save us on cost and the need to make a grocery run frequently.

My one complaint is that they have few meats that can be labeled organic, local, grass fed, etc. If this is not an issue for you, and you live in Southern Wisconsin, I highly urge you to visit UW Provisions (open 7 days a week, hours vary) for your regular use or for parties.  Bulk is the way they sell most things, so be prepared for huge cans of baked beans and boxes of hamburger patties.  Other options I saw included: pizza, frozen vegetables, liquor (not in bulk), wine, and any type of seafood you can imagine.

And so the freezer is full.  Bring on the season of eating.  Winter markets will be offered, and I'll use those for immediate meals.  But now is the time of year when meals are dictated more by what I pull from the freezer than what I find on special or at the market.  Our goal, finish it all before the next outdoor market season starts in May 2013.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Creative Use of Spa Finder Gift Certificate

Earlier this fall I was given a generous gift certificate as a birthday gift -- $100 for Spa Finder.  The giftor hoped I would take a half-day and visit the fantastic destination spa Sundara, about 45 minutes north of Madison. Sadly, Sundara stopped accepting Spa Finder one week after I received the gift.  

In need of some TLC, I searched out local options.  While listed as taking the gift cards, the yoga studio I frequent indicate that sadly they do not take them.  All of the other day spas in the area have prices that make my frugal heart skip a beat: $70 for a 30-minute massage; $100 for a hair color treatment, that would need a touch-up every 4 to 6 six weeks with each session taking up to two hours.  My goodness!  Our nanny can give us about 18 hours a week, which is devoted to my legal practice.  As long as I am working it makes sound financial sense.  A little here and there extra is an indulgence, but to use the gift card was going to be expensive event.  Plus, it would be mean time away from my children.  Sure, I know I need that, but I am not really in a day spa phase of life.  What to do, what to do.

And then a moment of clarity struck....products!  Sure enough, the day spas sell lovely Aveda products and I could use my gift card for them.  I opted for the one up the road, located next to the most delightful French bakery.  With the kids in the double stroller we stopped at the spa first.  It is amazing how fast $100 can be spent on Aveda items, but I know have a great stash for weekly pampering at home.  Included are two bottles of a leave in conditioner that "adds" warmth (a.k.a. subtle way to cover the gray).  What a great alternative to the expensive (money and time) coloring options at a salon.

From there we headed next door and entered one of the most lovely places in all of Madison, La Baguette.  Any Francophil in Madison has probably already discovered this gem, if not, you must.  For $19.55 we purchased: a pain au chocolat; lemon tart; two pieces of quiche to go; and a cafe au lait.  The kids enjoyed a tasty snack, me another jolt of coffee (superb).  While not how most would envision of spa day, it was perfect for me.  Relaxing time with my children, sharing my love of France with them, and a bag of beauty treats to take home.  Total cost, less than $20.

The pampering did not stop there.   Dinner was focused around the quiche, along with reheated breakfast sausage from the morning and pancakes (Trader Joe's multi-grain mix to which I added fresh pumpkin).  A simple and easy way to end our day.

The moral of this post -- think outside the box if a gift card does not easily fit into your life.  What else might they sell that you could enjoy.  One day I will have more free time and an afternoon at the spa will be tempting.  I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to pay $50, free or not, to have my nails done.  Possibly, but so hard to wrap my frugal head around.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Getting The Most Out of a Tank of Gas

Today's thought is compliments of a blurb in my church's weekly order of service.  To live a green life, make sure you are removing any bike or boat racks from you car if you will not be using them in the near future.  While handy, they increase wind resistance and drive up you fuel costs.

This reminder did not apply to my car, but it did remind me to remove the 50 pound stroller I had sitting in the truck.  There is no need to lug it around on trips when I won't be using it.  What's in your trunk?  Can you store it somewhere else when you do not need it immediately.  Over time these little things add up.  Easier on your wallet and the planet!

Thanks for reading, and I'll be back next week with more thoughts on our frugal life.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

Loyal readers of this blog will know that this time of year I spend a lot of time roasting pie pumpkins.  Rich in vitamins and fiber, they are far less expensive than canned pumpkin....and a lot cheaper.  This past week a the farmers' market I bought another three.  And while chatting with the vendor, was reminded to roast the pumpkins seeds as well.  Following his tip, I soaked them in salt water overnight, then roasted at 350 degrees for 15 minutes (drizzle olive oil).  Delightful and healthy snack.  I literally use every bit of those pie pumpkins: roasted seeds, roasted "meat", and the rest goes into compost to fertilize future flowers.

So, when you are at a farmers' market I highly recommend you take a few moments and chat with the vendor.  He or she like knows the produce well, and likely has ideas for use well beyond your normal routine!