Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Good-bye to 2013 and Dairy!

Good-bye 2013, and hello 2014!  Another year draws to a close.  We've had a quiet and frugal day at home.  My husband is off working for a client -- when you are both self-employed you enjoy client projects even if they fall on a holiday.  While he is away, in the land of software engineering, we are home.  The main focuses was baking.  Specifically baking dairy free.

Over the past week we discovered that our daughters out-of-control eczema is likely the result of a dairy intolerance or allergy.  She is now "dairy free" for two weeks.  Alarming given that she has lived most of her three and a half years on cows milk products: yogurt, milk, cheese, butter.  But determined to make the pain stop, she has declared no more milk & cheese.  Embracing this frugal move, I've been experimenting with replacing oils for butter, soy milk for cows milk, etc.  The year ahead may offer some interesting new recipes.  We'll see a reduction in our grocery bill - cows milk products, especially organic varieties, are pricey.  But we'll likely see a drop in our consumption of medical interventions.  From expensive lotions and prescription creams to doctor visits -- it adds up.  And directs precious free time can now be spent on puzzles and playing in the snow.

Now I'm off to enjoy a kid's video, free from our library, with the kids.  And then we'll all head to a preschool friend's home for a kids New Years gathering.  Our contribution will be some tasty dairy-free cookies (we sampled some this afternoon, check it out).

Enjoy your New Years celebration, and thanks for reading.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Madison's Free Zoo: A Frugal Afternoon at Henry Vilas Zoo

Kids are off from school.  The temperature hit a balmy 37 degrees in Madison today.  What better place to take enjoy some outdoor time than at our local free zoo.  There are approximately a dozen free zoos in the United States, and to our delight one is just a few miles from home, located in the heart of the city.   Winter is always my favorite time of year to visit Henry Vilas as it is rarely crowded, even on a day like today.

During warmer seasons there is ample seating for a picnic lunch.  And in colder seasons, it makes for a make-shift climbing structure.

There are several indoor attractions, which provide warmth as you visit the outdoor habitats.  A favorite of ours is the home of the snakes.  Lots of education material around to read....assuming your glasses do not fog over when you walk in (mine did).

Hands on learning for kids with energy.

And more to catch the children's attention

And in the visitor's center one can find interesting displays.  A favorite of ours involves model trains.

In the future we hope to check out some of the other free zoos.  For now we are very content with what is offered here in the heart of Madison.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Frugal Motivation as 2013 Comes to a Close

In prior months I would have hired a babysitter or gone while the kids were in preschool for what I did today.  But instead of pay for child care or use the precious time reserved for my legal practice, today I did something I have not done recently.  The kids joined me on a trip to the Car Care Clinic.  It was time for my 6 month oil change and a front headlight was out.  Many families here in the Midwest have large networks of grandparents and aunts and uncles to turn to, we do not.  Free child care by family members is not an option.

Taking two young children on errands, in the winter, can be exhausting.  But I chatted with the kids before leaving and came up with a plan.  The car was dropped off, we walked next door to the bagel shop to wait out the 30 minute appointment.  For a grand total of $6.41 I accomplished a mundane task, but did not have to pay a sitter or use the time I should be practicing law.  It was a frugal move for our family. With diapers and bottles behind us, these types of outings are getting far easier.

The evening generated a quick solo-run to SAVERS where I picked up a pair of winter boots for myself, the next size up shoe for both kids to wear this Spring, winter slacks for my work clothes, a colorful but inexpensive rug for the upstairs cat litter (in an effort to avoid another $500 emergency vet bill we've moved one box upstairs to minimizing the "guarding" behavior), and a shirt for my husband.  With a 20% off coupon from making a donation, the grand total was $34.

Once home I helped the children get ready for bed.  There is some saying about frugal people squeezing every last bit out of the toothpaste tube.  Well here we cut into the container and swab out every last bit.  It's frugal overdrive for us.

In decades past I had various motivations to be frugal.  First it was to pay off the $97K in student debt. Once that was done it was to build a nice sized down payment for our house purchase and to have a savings cushion. My new motivation?  Building up the savings that was hit hard by a cut-throat preschool contract. Yes, the preschool litigation continues.

We used the school for 13 days. The contract says we ow $12k for those 13 days.  It's an amount we are willing to fight over.  Some penalty for using it for 13 days?  Yes, but $12K?  That seems absurd, and something I think a judge will agree with. My new motivation for 2014 comes from the preschool debacle. The school had been in sales mode, focused in on my weakness, my one are of willing indulgence, education. Sadly my assumptions of the school were wrong, totally wrong.  It was not a small school willing to work with us on our family's needs, but rather one that implements a 1920s educational dogma with unforgiving strictness.  So as others enjoy manicures, movies out, expensive New Years Eve dinners, and international travel, we are hunkering down to build up our savings account some more.  It was not total devastation, but it was more than I would have like to spend.  Never ever again will I not apply my frugal ways to another large purchase.  And by that I mean I'll leave my emotions at home....there is always another house, another school, another car, another pair of shoes.  When emotions enter the equation, the price will likely rise to high.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

It Was a Frugal and Joyous Christmas

Think a frugal life means a less than joyous Christmas?  If so, think again.  Our frugal family remained frugal for the holiday, and had two joy filled days.  Two restaurant meals, one out on Christmas Eve and another take-out for lunch on Christmas Day (Indian buffet lunch after a huge home cooked breakfast and before a traditional dinner) made the Chef's duties a bit easier to handle.  Here are a few frugal highlights from our holiday:

  1. Include home cooked meals with an emphasis on fruit and vegetables (strawberries frozen last summer for the pancakes, coconut macaroon cookies, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, etc.).  
  2. Cook and bake with the compost bucket nearby.....winter in Wisconsin does not stop me from making weekly treks to the compost pile out pack.  I just make an effort to include lots of brown paper discards for organic balance.
  3. Use gift bags, which can give and give, year after year.
  4. Store holiday cards to be used for homemade ornaments or cards next year.
  5. Shop online with Amazon Prime.  One morning in mid-December I logged on at 5am.  One hour later my shopping (and for my mother who was to ill to shop for the kids) was complete.  Everything arrived on my doorstep 2 days later.  And with Prime there is no shipping fee. 
  6. Direct cardboard, brown wrap, and any plain paper products to compost if possible.  If not, store for future mailing material.
  7. Spend as much time in your PJs as possible.  If you are home, in PJs, chances are you are not out shopping and running up a bill.
And those are a few of the ways our family enjoyed the holiday, but did not spend an amount that will have us fearful in January and February, when credit card bills from this time period come due.

Happy Holidays -- Author and daughter whipping up a batch of coconut macaroons!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Guest Post: Frugal ideas for the yarn-loving crafter by Cindy Koepke

Guest Post!!!!  Thanks Cindy for offering this great content, and sharing your frugal ways.  Yarn works is beyond my scope of knowledge, so this is great added content.  Enjoy loyal readers!

Frugal ideas for the yarn-loving crafter
by Cindy Koepke
Winter has settled in for a good long stay here in the North, so your thoughts may have turned to creative indoor activities. Maybe you also have a New Year's goal to save money. You don't have to break your budget to enjoy knitting, crocheting, weaving, or spinning. A great place to start is with the usual frugal advice: smart use of coupons and loyalty programs, and patience to wait for good sales. But wait, there's more to know.

There is so much free craft information online! If you haven't already, join Ravelry.com, a free online community. You can find free patterns, learn from other crafters, get ideas for your next project, and research yarns if you need to substitute. There are a lot of free video tutorials on Youtube if you get stuck on a technique. Craftsy.com and Creativebug.com offer online video classes you can do at your own pace, and they have several free courses. Knitty.com is a fabulous free online magazine with lots of patterns and a great archive from previous issues. There are a lot of craft blogs can be another great source of free patterns and technique info, not to mention inspiring ideas.

Look for groups or craft guilds in your community because nothing beats the learning and camaraderie that comes from doing your crafts with others. Often more experienced crafters will be happy to give you a few tips or steer you to someone who can teach you more. They might also be able to clue you in to good deals on gear and yarn (more on that below).

When it comes to books, make good use of your library and its interlibrary loan program. Some (not all, sadly) used bookstores have great craft sections, and they are well worth seeking out if you want to build your own library! Once a year, Interweave Press offers steep discounts on many of its excellent titles during its Hurt Book Sale. 

You don't need a lot of gear to get started in any of the yarn crafts. Scissors and a measuring tape are essentials, plus of course, the main tools for your chosen hobby (knitting needles, crochet hooks, handspindle or spinning wheel, weaving loom). Used gear is often a great way to go. Most craft "hardware" is sturdy and will still have lots of life left if you buy it pre-loved. Check out garage sales and Craigslist. Ask your friends and relatives; you might be surprised who has some craft gear tucked away in the basement that they don't use any more. I have an extensive knitting needle collection made up of hand-me-downs and new purchases I've made (some with coupons and loyalty points), with a good number of crochet hooks and assorted notions as well.

For spinning, you don't have to have a wheel; handspindles are inexpensive, very portable, and more productive than a lot of people believe. You can even make handspindles yourself pretty easily. There is a large community of spindle users on Ravelry if you don't have one locally. Outside the spinning community, a lot of people recognize spinning wheels from fairy tales and pioneer history but may not have heard of spindles. Spinning on handspindles is thousands of years older than wheel spinning and every bit as fun. If you do decide to go for a wheel, look for a used wheel in good repair. Unless you are very handy, stick with a name brand so you can find instruction manuals, spare parts, etc. Do your research and ask folks in your craft group if you can test drive their wheels before you buy. Buying new? Some shops will offer package deals with fiber and accessories that are a good value.

Large weaving looms can be very expensive if bought new, but I've seen some excellent values on craigslist for used looms. My personal interest is in smaller simple looms, and I made one out of PVC plumbing pipe (and I have very minimal construction skills) from the instructions in Sarah Swett's book, Kids Weaving. It's a great beginner book and not just for kids. Beware the small looms marketed to kids that are usually displayed with the creative toys. Some are very nice, but some have very wide warp spacing that is of limited use. Backstrap weaving is still used in several parts of the world; this versatile weaving method requires only a few smooth sticks and weaving yarn to get started! Check out the article in the Weavezine archives or the backstrap weaving group on Ravelry. 

There are a lots of places to look for yarn while keeping within your budget. The Knitmore Girls (http://www.knitmoregirlspodcast.com/)  recently discussed this topic on their podcast (episode 252) and in their Ravelry group, and you'll get some excellent advice there. Check out the sale shelf and sales events at your local yarn store. Ask for yarn store gift cards for your birthday. Look online for mill ends or discontinued yarns on sale. Organize a craft supply swap with friends: everybody brings their surplus items, spreads them all out on tables, and shops the swap for no money. You can donate any leftovers to charity. You can unravel an old sweater from the closet or the thrift store (tutorials online) and make the recycled yarn into something new. Unwanted T-shirts can be cut into long continuous strips of "yarn" for making rugs, bags, and other sturdy items.

For spinning, you can save quite a bit of money by buying unprepared fleece from a farm or shop. You would be spending time instead, washing the fleece, carding or combing it, and maybe even dyeing it yourself (Kool-aid and food coloring work quite nicely). A middle route would be to buy the fleece and get a wool mill to prepare it for you. If a whole fleece is too much for you, split one with someone in your craft group. So do some exploring, and let your creativity be fueled by your frugal goals!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Frugal Holidays: Celebrating the Winter Solstice and Marriage

December 21st marks two important events -- one important to all, the other to my little family.  As you may know today marks the Winter Solstice.  This will be the longest night of the year, with the sun setting here in Madison just before 4:30pm.  Starting tomorrow, we will begin our long crawl toward longer days, until we arrive on the Summer Solstice, which falls on June 21st, giving us the longest day of the year.  If you are frugal, we are now in the prime season to raid the chest freezers and use the bounty we froze during the growing season and harvest time.  From blueberries to cranberries to rhubarb compote, I've been making good use of the local goodness I preserved in warmer times.

And then there is the personal significance of this day.  Eight years ago, just at the sun set, my husband asked me to marry him on the following Summer Solstice.  The answer was obvious, and gives us great joy on to extremes of the year.  Knowing my frugal ways, he skipped an engagement ring and instead gave me an engraved key chain.  A delicate envelope hung from it, and inside was a small plate with words of proposal. Understated, romantic, original, and highly frugal.  Back then I was still carrying significant student debt.  Our wedding was just as frugal (just the two of us, a judge, and court employees as witnesses when we said "I do" on the courthouse lawn up in Bayfield County).  We began our life together on extreme frugal means.  Within a year the student debt was gone, and we built up a significant amount for a down payment on our current home.  Even after eight years we still enjoy the simple aspects of life, avoiding expense gift exchanges or pricey nights out on the town.  Here are a few pictures from our day together, with the children.  The Winter Solstice is the perfect time to pause, get outside (scatter bird seed in a local park), and enjoy the light.

We enjoyed a walk through the winter wonderland that is our neighborhood park.

Lovely berries, frozen for the birds....we scattered seed below.

Up to the Capitol to take in the holiday displays.

 Spent a few dollars on warm drinks at the cafe we went to on our first date

 Enjoying the warm light inside and the dark took over the outside.....it was just after 4pm

 And two favorites from our drive through the John Nolan light display (also free)

 And home to a dinner over candlelight -- slow cooker chicken, cheese, potatoes and beans.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Frugal in the Snow

Wisconsin received its first major snow fall yesterday.  I have not checked to see the final amount, but likely between 3 and 5 inches.  And unlike many of my fellow Wisconsinites, I did not use a snow blower to remove the snow.  I refuse to spend between a few hundred to thousands of dollars on a machine that is used at most 12 times a year (or as few as  1 or 2) and takes up precious garage space from mid-April to early December.  No, I just cannot spend the money.  Life without owning a snow blower is possible!  Keep in mind:

  • during large accumulations, shovel 2 or 3 times if possible.  This makes the amount you are moving more manageable;
  • it's a great reason to get outside and move during the winter months -- along the same lines as "if you own a dog you'll walk daily, which is good for you".  In my mind shoveling is the same idea;
  • some winters you may not need it much if at all;
  • some snows are too heavy for the machine to work;
  • machines require gas, maintenance, storage;
  • think community -- can you borrow a snow blower?  
In the past I have been blessed by the kind heart of a neighbor.   When mother nature has dropped a large amount of snow, he kindly takes care of our walk.  In exchange I bake for him.  It is a nice balance in life.  Now I know that shoveling does not fit into everyone's life.  But it does mine, and so I embrace the cold weather workout and love not spending money on a machine.  Check back in April, my tune may have changed if we get a ton of snow this year......

Included in this shot is my neighbor, taking care of his walk.  And our bird feeding station.  Seed is great, as are toddler scraps of bread with peanut butter, cereal, cheese, and other scraps that missed their mouths and hit the floor.  We'll have some happy birds this year!

Thanks for reading, and know I love reading your frugal comments.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Frugal Move -- Doing Away With Holiday Cards

An internal debate had been waging in my mind over the past weeks -- to do, or not to do holiday cards this year?  On one side was the frugal argument -- postage, cards, time to fill them out, it all consumes resources. And the other side -- it has been a favorite tradition of mine for nearly two decades.  I loved it!  The key word there is "loved".

There once was a time when Thanksgiving weekend would arrive, and then on Friday evening I would open a bottle of wine and tackle my holiday card list.  Music played in the background, and it was a wonderful feeling of connection to friends I'd known for years to those recently made.  And then life marched on.  First there was the acquisition of a husband -- doubling the names on the holiday list.  For our first two years of marriage we followed my pattern.  The Friday after Thanksgiving we'd sit down with a bottle of wine, his cards in one stack, mine in the other.  And then the kids arrived, and the cards went out later and later each year. What had been calm and relaxing activity, had become a labored task performed by sleep deprived parents.  This year the pure crush of being a sandwich generation adult has caused me to say good-bye to this tradition.

The Friday after Thanksgiving, at about 5:30pm, I received a call from my mother's medical alert company. She'd fallen, and I was needed.  After a quick call to her I realized it was 911 that was needed.  The call was placed, and I dashed off to let them in so that they didn't have to break the door down.  After a week at the hospital it was decided she'd move to a nursing home.  Being widowed and having only one child, an endless line of questions came my way. Coordinate a cat sitter, what about snow removal, transportation to the facility - on and on.  And in the crush of the rush I knew that this year there would be no holiday cards. Instead I will slowly send out the adorable school photos of the children to the people who will treasure them.  Cards may be for Christmas, New Years, Valentines Day, etc.  Beyond that, I'll be using my Facebook page to send a holiday greeting.  And there you have it, frugal wins.  Many people are ones I see at book club or gatherings.  I'll save on postage by handing them a card with the photos.  For those more remote, I plan to make a homemade card during the routine coloring sessions the kids hold after school on weekdays.  Yes, this frugal move feels right.  Sometimes it is just time to say good-bye to past traditions and embrace reality!

Our frugal art studio!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Frugal Philanthropy!

Longtime readers will know that over the past few years I have had a side writing project.  At times my work on it has left my blog posts neglected for days, maybe weeks.  Well, the writing, editing, and production for the book is now complete!  Middle Class Philanthropist: How anyone can leave a legacy was released November 1st!

This evening I had the pleasure of holding my first ever reading for the book at Mystery to Me books on Monroe Street here in Madison.  Now I do lots of seminars related to my legal practice.  I could do those in my sleep.  This was different, and it turned out to be a lot of fun.  And as I read one of the final passages I knew I should share it for my next Upside of Frugal entry.  No, it is not about the frugal V.A. government attorney who left hundreds of millions to charity.  But rather the power of "in lieu of flowers" donations.

You've heard of these I'm sure.  Obituaries commonly have a phrase at the end that says "in lieu of flowers, please make a donation to....and the name of a nonprofit is listed".  One can die penniless and still be able to create a legacy with these types of charitable actions.  No, it may not be up there with the donations of Bill Gates, but they are lasting nonetheless.  The following is a passage from the book:

Momentum continued to build at the Sewing Machine Project. In the fall of 2010, an influx of checks began to arrive in its mailbox. Most included some small reference to the memory of “Viola”, an unknown woman to the members of The Sewing Machine Project. Who was she? Curious, Margaret went online to search and found an obituary for a woman named Viola Kraemer. The announcement ended with a suggestion to donate money in lieu of flowers to The Sewing Machine Project. An avid sewer in rural Minnesota, her family did some internet research upon her death and found The Sewing Machine Project. While Viola did not have a connection to the organization in her life, it mirrored her passion for sewing and was a small grassroots organization the family assumed would benefit from donations. In total the donations sent in Viola’s memory represented ten percent of its annual operating budget, a very welcome bump. Over the years many of those donors continue to send in small donations, $10 here and $35 there, as a way to remember the passion of a dear friend.
Thanks for reading, and remember philanthropy does not belong just to those with millions.  Anyone with a generous heart can make a gift that will give for generations.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Frugal From The Roof to Freezer

Thanksgiving marks the time of year when I begin to pull from the chest freezer in the garage.  It holds a lovely supply of local fruits and veggies, procured during the plentiful growing season life in Wisconsin has to offer.  Most recently, blueberries were poured out to thaw.  Poured because I froze each one individually on a tray -- it worked wonderfully.  Easy to get the portion I wanted, and not one huge mass clump!

And Sunday we took to the roof.  Using our leaf blower we attempted to clear the gutters knowing if they are too clogged in Spring we'll increase our chances of water in the basement.  Previously we'd hired a company to do this for us, this year we followed their lead of the leaf blower and saved the fee.

As I pointed out how we were reducing the risk of a Spring flood (happened in 2010, right after we bought the house and costs several thousand in repairs) my frugal husband pointed out that it will also decrease the chance of a roof dam.  And then added, but our risk is already low because those are fueled by heat escaping through the roof, and we keep the heat so low!  Yes, it hovers around 60 degrees inside -- another motivator to keep the thermostat low, it may decrease your chance of a roof dam.

Enjoy the week ahead, and keep up the frugal ways during this chaotic and often expensive time of year!

Friday, November 29, 2013

Giving Leftover Turkey New Life

Greetings to you on this Black Friday.  No, I did not step foot in a mall.  Nor did I purchase one thing on-line.  We started the day by decorating inside the house for the winter holidays.  Next my husband ran with the jogger to our local post office to put four boxes in the mail. Cookies from a local bakery and school photos to the kids are on their way to: Boston, Tampa, Seattle, and Agat, Guam!  That was the extent of our spending money.

I took a few hours this afternoon to address the emails and client calls that do not stop, not even for national holidays.  Again, my husband used the jogger to ferry the children to visit his extended family and a local park.  No gasoline used, not a drop.  And tonight we'll dine on a variety of leftovers.  Our turkey supply was rather limited since I made a tenderloin breast yesterday -- just the right amount for one meal.  However, we are the exception, I am positive.  If you have a mound of turkey, consider the following options:

  • Turkey Bake -- toss in cooked pasta, sauce, chunks of turkey veggies, and a bit of cheese.  Bake for 30 minutes, 350 degrees;
  • Turkey Chili -- tomatoes, tomato sauce, black beans, onions, assorted veggies, chili powder, and shredded turkey.  Top with cheese or sour cream
  • Turkey tacos -- shred the turkey, saute with onions, peppers and tomatoes.  Serve in hard or soft shell tacos with cheese and or sour cream; and
  • Turkey soup -- saute onions and peppers, toss in chunks of turkey and other assorted veggies, empty in a can of chick peas, a container of broth, and your favorite spices.
And voila, turkey in a whole new light.  No need to waste.....stretch those dollars as far as possible!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving!

Just a quick note to wish my readers a happy Thanksgiving.  May you have had a joyous and relaxing day. Ours was a quiet affair.  Meals at home, all three: breakfast, lunch, and then the big meal for dinner.  All standard fare, most of which I've blogged about in the past, with one exception.  Breakfast consisted of fruit, sausage, and the new whole wheat cranberry walnut muffin.  Delicious!  Here is the recipe I worked off of (from The Tassajara Bread Book):
  • 2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup oil
  • 1/4 cup molassses
  • 1 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 cup cranberries (I chopped mine in a food mixer)
  • 1/2 cup ground walnuts
Mix and bake standard muffins at 400 degrees for 15 minutes!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Cheap or Frugal? There is a differnce

Wednesday before Thanksgiving -- many people are in cars, planes or trains, zipping from one end of the country to the other to be with loved ones.  This year, as most, we will stay put here in cold and quite Madison.  A simple meal, with only one guest, my mother, is on the agenda.  But it will be a day filled with baking, cooking, and lots of pots and pans.  Seeking an easy dinner the night before the cooking storm, I thought I was pulling off a frugal move.  Turns out I was wrong.

Armed with a coupon for a 1-topping large carry-out pizza (valid on Monday - Thursday) for $6.55 and a gift card with a $7 remaining balance, my daughter and I headed out into the dark to the nearest Pizza Hut.  As I pulled into the parking lot I noticed that La Baguette was still open!  If you have never been, well you are missing a true French experience.  We dashed inside and I picked up a croque monsieur, an almond croissant, and something my daughter pointed to that was labeled opera.  Thank goodness I had cash in my wallet, because La Baguette does not accept credit cards.  Total cost for our splurge, $13.20.  Back to the car we went, dropped off our spontaneous goodies, and then headed off to claim our frugal pizza. At the counter I handed over my coupon, gift card, and $0.59 to cover the tax. Then it was back home before the pizza got too cold.

Before leaving we had put some pasta and peas on to boil.  An apple waited on the counter to be sliced and shared.  And thank goodness I had a few other things to round out the meal.  Upon opening the box it hit me, this pizza is not frugal, it is cheap.  Essentially it was way too much dough, not enough sauce, and a scant amount of cheese.  I ate one slice, and decided my dinner would be the almond croissant!  Wow -- what a difference in quality.  Frugal to me is not just about spending as little as possible, but more about getting the most value of my dollar.  Obvious to me, my dollar went farther at the Parisian bakery.  For dessert we all split one decadent piece of opera, and the croque monsieur waits in the fridge to be warmed up tomorrow and served with creamy tomato soup -- my very American approach to a simple lunch before the Thanksgiving feast.

A random evening meal, but our stomachs are full.  Tomorrow we'll start the day with cranberry walnut muffins (which I'll back as soon as I finish this post), sausages, and fruit.  Lunch will be the grilled sandwich and tomato soup (to warm us up after a holiday family walk), and then the dinner.  A turkey tenderloin will simmer in the slow cooker, and the rest of the dishes will be variations of veggies -- mashed potatoes, baked squash, green bean casserole, pumpkin cake, and apple pie.  A relatively inexpensive meal when compared with what some families spend.

Thanks for reading, and enjoy the long holiday!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Running Errands, Literally

Want to live a frugal life?  An easy way to meet your goal is to literally run your errands, or at least walk them.  Over the weekend we needed to restock the childrens' medicine supply, from Ibuprofen to nasal spray, our reserves were running low.  Facing the combined storm of preschool germs and the upcoming Thanksgiving vacation / shopping bonanza, I wanted to re-stock now.  So my husband turned his normal evening run into running errands.  Off he went with his Target Red Card (the debit one, not credit) and headed to our neighborhood Target.  By far they have the best prices on off-brand medicines.

Not a runner or only a fair weather runner?  Don't let the long nights and falling temperatures force you to drive an errand you could otherwise walk.  Tonight I bundled up and walked to our library.  One DVD was overdue and I had a stack of materials to pick up.  I ditched my plan to drive to the gym and swim, and instead crossed an item off of tomorrow's to-do list and used my foot power.  I must say that a balaclava is key to surviving the frigid weather (it felt like 6 degrees F).  But I'm glad I did.  It was a nice long walk.  I didn't use gasoline.  And I enjoyed the pleasantness that is a wintry night walk.

So as we launch into the season of winter, challenge yourself to do one errand on foot or by bike.  You'll burn some calories, save gas, and walk a bit more gently on planet Earth!

Hmmmm, the cable to move photos from my phone to the blog is still missing.  I'll borrow my husband's when I can, and post a pic from my night walk later on.  If you have a photo from a wintery errand via foot, feel free to share and inspire......post it on my The Upside of Frugal Facebook page!

Found it!!!  Here is a picture from my cold wintry walk to the library, note the faint hint of my shadow.

Friday, November 22, 2013

From Compost Springs Simplicity Parenting

Simplicity parenting is a term that flies around certain parts of modern society with a far amount of zing.  The concept takes the "less is more approach" philosophy and applies it to parenting methods.  A common byproduct is a parent child relationship that centers around nature as its primary playground.

Then there is the compost movement.  It has left behind the image of tree-hugging extreme lefties and the tightwad of the year, and become a practice you can find in the average American's home (or apartment thanks to composting worms), college campuses, and even some cities (Madison, Wisconsin has a pilot program to offer curbside composting bins).  From trash springs fertilizer for our gardens, flower beds, and lawns.

And in the backyard of our frugal home the two have merged.  Thanks to my composting efforts, which are not remarkable really, our children are farther on the spectrum leaning towards simplicity parenting.  Here are two illustrations:

  • One -- most afternoons when we return from work (me) and preschool (them) we head to the back yard with the compost bucket.  I make the daily offering to the pile, adding in any brown source (leaves, trimmings, paper, etc.) and give it a bit of a mix.  The kids scamper around running, spinning, climbing the compost heap.  No, nothing all that special except the fact that we are outside after school.  Sometimes it is 5 minutes, others a half hour.  The TV and internet are bypassed, and twigs and other forms of nature become toys.
  • Two -- leaves in our home do not keep collected and heaped at the curb.  Why give away stuff that will benefit our yard!  Our raking this year has been spotty -- cold weather, rain, a mom who works evenings every now and then.  But what we have raked was done in large part by our 5 year old.  He went at it with a great deal of force, the pile was jumped in a few times, and then moved over to the compost heap.  Thanks to those leaves and compost we can take our time gathering them up and putting them in the best spot.  No pressure to get them to the curb by the date the city stops its collection.  And it is a simple source of play and wonder for preschoolers.
And there you have it, from compost springs simplicity parenting.  Frugal on so many fronts.  Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend.  Oh, and for those not in Madison -- leaves and compost will take on a new challenge because we awoke to a blanket of snow.  Hard to say if we'll have a warm spell that returns us to the green, or if it means we'll have a lot more to handle next Spring when winter recedes.  Stay tuned.

The view from my office, of snow, through the geraniums that winter in my window.  It has amazing Southern exposure.  No need for their glory to end with the end of summer -- continue here, 
and provide cheer to my clients!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Dinning In - Swedish Meatballs

365 days ago I marked the calendar for November 20, 2013 as "Dinner at Paisans".  Why?  Well of course I am an over-the-top Type A personality, so planning in advance is my M.O.  Why there and why today? It's simple really, today marks what would have been my father's 72nd birthday.  Sadly, his time with us ended in the fall of 2009 when his body simply could not fight any longer.  He was your typical blue collar Midwestern male: hardworking, came from a challenging background, and had quite a few struggles and demons to battle.  Cultivating joy was not a strength because it was not the way in which he was raised.  The "cultivating joy" bit always puzzled my husband when we first met.  Somehow it made him envision my parents lighting candles and meditating or something along those lines.  No, it meant the ability to savor and enjoy the simple pleasures in life.  It may seem basic to some folks, but to the people who populate my family tree it is not a skill they possess.  And so now that he is gone, and I see so many of his silly ways emerging in our son, I made a vow to enjoy his favorite foods on his birthday.  Honor something he was not exposed to, and instill the trait in his grandchildren.  We were aiming for a bit of joy tonight.

Paisans was his favorite pizza place in Madison, and was the last restaurant meal he had before passing on (I had got take out).  Even though it was marked as a dinner for our family tonight, I turned to Plan B.  We are still being very cautious with our budget while the preschool contract works its way to resolution.  And then there is the factor of tired children who would really struggle to eat out in public after a day at preschool.  So we ate at home, where I made a favorite meal of my fathers.  Swedish meatballs, and they were every bit as delicious as I remember.  It was a frugal and sensible way to take time to pause and remember my father, share a bit about him with his grandchildren, and cultivate a bit of joy.

Posting a picture of the simmering meatballs on Facebook resulted in a request for the recipe.  Here it is, and it is truly one passed down by my father's mother to my mom and now to me.  No exact measurements -- a pinch of this, a bunch of that.  Every time it turns out just a bit different than before, but does wonders do warm the stomach on a cold and dark November night.

Swedish Meatballs:

  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 pound ground pork
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 2 tablespoons chopped onion
  • 1 cup left over mashed potatoes (absent milk or butter)
  • Dash of salt and pepper
Mix everything together, using your hands is by far the most efficient manner.  Shape into balls about the size of a golf ball or a bit smaller.  Assemble in frying pan.  Drop in butter, and brown.  Once browned, cover 1/3 height with water and let simmer for 45 minutes to an hour.  And that's it.  I always love to serve with cottage cheese and green beans.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Holiday Shopping Via Gift Card, A Frugal Move!

Gift cards and the winter holidays are a common combination.  Most people think of the relationship being give a gift card, but not here in our frugal home.  I use gift cards to give.  For example, last week I finally used a $50 gift card I was given in September 2011.  Yes, it was two years old.  Tacked safely to my bulletin board in the kitchen, it was safe until I finally had the time to make the trek to Paoli (a small town outside of Madison) where the gallery was located.  $50 in the gallery would not buy all that much, a mug (a single mug) or a pair of earrings.  None were items I needed.  What I did find were two holiday ornaments for our children and a small light weight gift (no details since the recipient may read this) that will ship with ease to an island in the Pacific.  Essential purchases for my holiday traditions, all at no cost to our budget because I strategically used a gift card.  So this holiday season, flip the view on gift cards.  Are there any taking up space in your wallet or bag?  If so, ponder how you can use them to stretch your budget.  A few points to keep in mind:

  • keep your gift cards in one, visible location (bulletin board, dish on your dresser, section of your wallet);
  • know if you the gift card will expire or loose value after a point in time -- highlight this fact;
  • consider using gift cards for date nights or entertainment you would otherwise pay for out of pocket;
  • can you use the card to buy food items (i.e. gourmet candies, jellies, sauces, etc.); and
  • what does the store sell that you might be able to purchase as a gift for a loved one.
Sorry for the lack of pictures.  The cable that allows me to take photos off of my phone has went missing, and I'm not inclined to order one.  It will turn up one day.  Until then photos may be limited -- my camera phone is always with me, but my Nikon is often tucked away.  And of course, I have the cable for the Nikon, just not the phone.  Oh well, adjusting my habits and not stretching the budget.  That is a key to frugal living.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A $100 Holiday?

I love it when life works out !  No, the law suit with the preschool that has become my most recent frugal muse is still "developing".  No resolution there.  But sometimes simple things occur that makes life feel like is is unfolding nicely.  Such a situation happened this past Sunday at my Book Club With a Twist (a great frugal way to run a book club by the way).

Gathered around a conference table with coffee and treats at Madison's recently remodeled Central Library, a fellow member set out a copy of Bill McKibben's Hundred Dollar Holiday: The case for a more joyful holiday.  It was a book I had requested from the library, but never got to before the due date arrived.  My intention had been to re-request it the following week.  Based on her comments, I'll be leaving it at the library.

One message jumped off the page for her, and according to her it is one that pops up her on Frugal Upside.  Essentially, time is more valuable than stuff -- focus on experiences, time together, creating memories, and not so much on the tangible items available at big box stores or Amazon Prime.  From there the book was a let down.  Considering the author has another book titled The End of Nature, one would have thought the book would offer more on the environmental impact of "stuff".  Not the case.

Moreover, the joy referenced in the title is highly Christian.  The main tips offered by McKibben would resonate with church goers, but not so much with a more secular crowd.  So it is not a book I plan to look at any more closely.  I already know that I get more value from experiences than I do "stuff".  We'll have some presents under the tree, but will place great attention and detail to the time we spend together this holiday season.  For now I'll look for inspiration on a less material holiday in other sources -- and if you have an idea to offer, please leave a comment!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

We Went to the Mall!

Yes, you read the headline correctly.  Over the weekend this self-declared frugal family made a trip to our local shopping mall.  It was the big one -- anchor stores and all.  Why an act so far outside our norm? Simple, it is the only place that has a Build a Bear Store.  Readers may remember last February when a holiday gift card to the store drew us in.  Since then one of the bears, a jaguar technically, has been loved so much his stitching came loose.  And to my delight, a call to the store confirmed they would fix him at NO CHARGE.  So off we went on a Saturday afternoon.  And I am happy to report we did not spend one cent in that mall.  Not one, not even a coffee or treat.  We did stop at the sporting goods store on the way out to feed my husband's curiosity in shot-guns.  Those who know him will gasp, but it is what happens when an engineer lives in an area that has had a huge spike in break-ins.

Our only purchase that day was made at the SAVERS behind the mall.  There I selected a much needed winter coat for work.  With my 20% off coupon, the total bill was $12.66.  It is a lovely deep purple, and will work splendidly as the winter winds blow into Wisconsin.

Sunday ended on an frugal educational note.  As my daughter bathed and my husband went for a run, I pulled out the hair scissors and trimmed my 5 year old's hair on the bathroom counter.  With the exception of a nip to my finger, it was an easy project.  And I thanked my son in a language he could understand -- the home hair cut, done at a time when no inexpensive salon would be open, saved us the money equivalent to a new LEGO set.  It's never too early to start associating stuff with cost and cost with work.  He understands he is not getting a set, but rather that the home project was worth that amount of money (I'd estimate $20).

And so there you have it, a frugal weekend in our home.  There were a few treats, a coffee and dessert bought at my book club meeting.  But life needs some perks.  And stay tuned, later this week I'll blog about a book another reader read that I had intended to read, but after hearing her account am glad I skipped it. The topic -- having a $100 Christmas.

Jaguar, officially Purple Jaguar, who joined us on our family trip to Washington, D.C. back in April of this year.  

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Purchases Without Spending Monday -- The Art of Frugal Living

Those who know me well know that I am not one to make a purchase just because something was free or marked down.  My goal is to buy less, spend less time in stores, not just haul home a car full for pennies. But Friday was a day in which I gathered merchandise without spending a cent of our budget.

First stop, Morgan's Shoes at Hilldale Mall.  Situated next to my office, foot power delivered me to the shopping center.  Tucked in my bag was a coupon for a free pair of Smart Wool socks, sent back in September as a birthday gift.  In I went, bee-lined to the sock wall, selected a colorful pair, size Large.  At the check-out I was informed that while the free card was a bit old, they'd gladly honor it.  The only concern was why someone five foot one inch selected large socks?  They are going to be a gift for a college woman in Boston -- she needs a large, much taller than me!  And with that I dropped them in my bag and headed to the next stop.  $20 gift acquired at no cost to me.

My second stop was at an Aveda salon at the mall that offers pricey stylists, pedicures, and Aveda products. Another gift card that made its way into my life back on September was $65 for the salon.  The giftor hoped that for once I'd splurge and get a pedicure.  I've never had one, and starting out with one that costs $50 plus $15 tip is just beyond my mental grasp. Especially given our situation of having spent a large sum of our savings, and harboring  desire to build it back up.  Nope, can't do it.  Instead I leave with $62 in Aveda shampoo and color conditioning products.  Ones I regularly use, and now do not have to purchase out of the household budget.  Tacked to our kitchen bulletin board is that card with the remaining $3 and some odd cents, which I'll use the next time I have an Aveda product need.

Stay tuned for more gift cards transformed into as practical a purchase a possible.  Money, whether earned through work or received as a gift, is not something I can toss about without thought and care.  And that is what makes me a frugal individual.

Thanks for reading, and if you have a gift card story to share, please do.  I'm always inspired by reader comments.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Low-carb and Frugal: Is It Possible?

Chickens (and other livestock) everywhere rejoice in this post!
M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013

Loyal readers of Frugal Upside know several things about me.  The obvious, I like to save money by cooking meals at home.  And the more subtle, my health make-up requires me to avoid too many carbohydrates. The reality of that second fact is that no one meal of mine should exceed 30 - 50 grams of carbohydrates.  The challenge of this hit me tonight as I read the couscous package.  A 1/3 cup serving contains 48 grams of carbs.  That's my limit for an entire meal -- 1/3 cup of couscous!  Needless to say, I skipped my plate when dishing out the grain.

And my body is an equal-opportunity reactor to carbs.  It doesn't matter if they come from a glazed donut, a glass of milk, couscous, or fresh fruit.  If I exceed that mark, I pay the price.  As a result, my diet and grocery cart of late have tended toward animal products.  Meat and dairy to be specific.  Lots of protein, little or no carbohydrates.  And given the fact I prefer to buy organic meat and dairy, it drives our grocery bill higher than I'd prefer.  Plus, it causes unease in my mind knowing the environmental toll it takes to produce those animal products.

Fans of Dave Ramsey will know his signature phrase "beans and rice, rice and beans" -- the meal plan he advocates one follow during lean economic times.  I'd gladly embrace it, but know the health fall out will cost far more in both the immediate and long-term costs.  So tonight I write this post more as an exercise in personal reflection than education of readers. What is low carb, but not too pricey and/or too taxing on the earth?

  • Vegetables.  It's time to embrace roasting, sauteing, steaming an other ways to dress up these affordable and low carb goodies;
  • Nuts.   I'm thinking apple slices dipped in peanut butter might make an easy and affordable breakfast.
  • ????  And that is where I hope the blogosphere might step up and offer inspiration.  Do you have a favorite dish or recipe that might meet my needs?  If so please share.  I do face the challenge of cooking not only for myself, but for a 5 and 3 year old as well.  The universe is dishing back to me what I served out as a child.  Growing up I loved strawberry short-cake with whipped cream; I just had to have a separate bowl for each item.  You guessed it, my kids refuse to eat food that has merely grazed another food group on a plate.  Intricate dishes of melted food groups is likely out of the question for the next few years.  My current routine is to set aside the ingredients for them before I whip up a chili for example.  Disagree?  I'm sure some of you do, but the battle I need to face is not on how to get them to eat what the adults do, but to figure out some healthy higher protein options that are not animal based.  What do you have dear reader?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Pumpkins Post Halloween

October 31st may behind us for another year, but do not toss those pumpkins without first asking yourself what a frugalista would do.  Looking to extend the life of your Jack-o-Lantern?  Consider some or all of the following:

  • Roast and use the pumpkin "meat" as puree.  I do this every year, freezing the meat into individual portions. Over the year I pull bags out to add to breads, muffins, and pancakes.  This coming year I will give pudding and plain yogurt a whirl as well.  
  • Roast the seeds for snacks;
  • Save the seeds to use for next years homegrown crop; and/or
  • Compost.  What remains always goes to our compost bin, maximizing every cent we paid for the orbs.
Did I miss an idea?  How do you get the most of out your Jack-o-Lantern?

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Math Mind and the Frugal Life

From educators to parents to legislators, there is one very acceptable four-letter word - STEM.  It stands for:

  • Science
  • Technology
  • Engineering
  • Math
And it is all the rage these days, especially in the area of girls in school.  American students rank lower than many other countries on testing.  Throw in the top 10 highly paid professions out of undergrad, and you'll see all are heavy on the math skills.

Beyond ones career, confidence in your math skills can be a key life-skill.  And it may help you take your frugal to a higher level.  Case in point, my husband and what we call his "wet finger".  Earlier this week I opened a letter from our health insurance company.  It notified me that our rates would increase from $350/month to $850/month in order to comply with the ACA.  What!  I sprinted downstairs, waiving the letter in my hand to interrupt my husband's phone call with his parents.  I told him the numbers and he calmly said "no, that is not right."  Then he went back to his conversation. A few phone calls the next day revealed that it was the worst case scenario, we have other routes and options to take with lower costs.  His calm and confidence, as described in this article on what kids excel at math, allowed him to dispassionately analyze a significant monthly budgetary item.

For those wanting to take frugal to the next step, consider building your math skills.  Prior to a purchase give thought to what you expect the price to be, or what you believe you can spend.  Do not leave the math up to the person selling you a product or service.  From a home mortgage to your credit card statement to the hourly rate of a plumber -- pause, be as rational as you can, and give some thought to the math first.  If the number is way off, figure out why.  Did you miss something?  Did they give you a number for Cadillac products when a Honda level would meet your needs.

Image from Mississippi River Museum -- combine travel with education,
that's our frugal approach to parenting.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Book Review: Go Green, Spend Less, Live Better

Recently I took a look at a book by Crissy Trask, titled Go Green, Spend Less, Live Better: The ultimate guide to saving money, and protecting your health.  Trask is a long-established advocate and writer on green issues and lifestyle.

Organized into eight chapters, the book is user-friendly, calls out shocking statistics, and is full of practical tips to spend less, save more, and allowing you to walk a bit more gently on the planet while nurturing your own health.  From energy efficient to water leaks to healthy food options, she addresses a wide span of topics.

While I enjoyed the book, I did not take away any real new material that I can use in my own frugal life.  A complaint that I have about most books coming out these days on the green and or frugal lifestyle.  It's nothing new.

However, there was one quote that jumped out at me:
The amount of household garbage in the United States generally increases by 25 percent between Thanksgiving and New Years. -page 35
That fact will fuel my motivation to minimize our families carbon footprint as we move into the winter holiday season.  Ideas that come to mind are:
  • avoiding gift wrap
  • giving services or charitable donations for gifts without packaging
  • put as much brown paper as possible into compost rather than trash or recycling
  • purchase whole foods to minimize pre-package materials
  • save glass jars from sauces, etc. to use for making scented bath salts (which make lovely gifts)
  • cut back on the holiday card list by sending some people an e-card or thoughtful email with photos
Hopefully more ideas will come to mind as the winds blow in ice, snow, and usher in the season of giving.  If you have a great idea, please leave a comment to inspire others.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Should the USA Have a National Savings Day?

In 1988 South Koreans saved 24.7% of their income, I can only imagine what the USA's would have been (if I had more time today, I'd research that statistic). I know in recent years Americans have actually had a negative savings rate, spending more than they take in. Sadly, the South Koreans are tracking the west, with the savings rate dropping to 3.4% in 2012.  This story pulls forward an idea from my memory during the Great Recession we have just lived through.

The US Government allows income tax breaks on monies placed in retirement accounts, college 529 plans, and health savings account.  Why not extend that idea to savings accounts for emergencies?  Just the idea of a tax break may encourage some to squirrel away money for a rainy day.  We all know the economy goes up, then it goes down, it's a roller coaster at times.  Wouldn't a nest egg, of some sort, make that ride a bit easier for our citizens?  Okay, this is a bit beyond the South Koreans Savings Day - but still, I'd love to see a message out of Washington, D.C. that encouraged us to save and not just spend.  Yes, a collective gasp would be heard on Wall Street -- but it is the common sense advice of this frugal American.

Our household savings, at a rate which is closer to the South Koreans than the Americans, has allowed us to weather the ups and down of a volatile market and the ups and downs of a contract dispute.  That cushion prevented us from falling into crisis.  I'd love more more people to have that peace of mind.  Sure, we can say "it won't happen" or "people simply can't save".  And then I think of my 92 and 91 year old grandparents, still thriving today.  That generation pulled together and did amazing things.  Why can't we?

M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013 -- Taken a few years back, my grandfather climbing into a Fire Truck at the Department he volunteered at for several decades.  The Greatest Generation -- they just keep on going!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Trick or Treat? Frugal Halloween Candy

$6.9 billion -- that is the total dollar amount the National Retail Federation expects American to spend on Halloween 2013.  Followers of the blog already know that this frugal household spent less than $15 on costumes for two pre-schoolers.  That was accomplished by visiting our local Savers on a day when everything was 50% off.  And it is not just costumes where we aim to save, our approach to candy will save you some pennies.  The answer -- bulk candy!  At our warehouse grocery store (Woodmans west for you Madison area readers) bulk candy is $1.99 a pound.  This year we were conservative on our selection; last year we did not have a single child ring the bell.  Just in case things improve this year, I wanted a small amount on hand.  Total bill $2.47!  Plus bulk allowed us to select several different types of candy.  And any leftovers will easily mix into the candy dish I keep for clients at my office.  The only vulnerable spot is the easy to open bulk candy bag -- it is a bit easier for my husband's sweet tooth to break into than those large sealed name brand bags.  But I'm willing to risk it, plus there are only a few days to go and we just made our purchase!

How about you?  What is your favorite way to enjoy a frugal Halloween?

Monday, October 28, 2013

Frugal at Home, Frugal at the Office

My frugal ways do not stop when I walk into my office.  In fact, my frugal ways are key to the continued operation of my business.  Here are a few frugal ideas any business owner can incorporate into their business plan:

  1. Avoid debt.  Eight years ago I started my own legal practice and not once have I borrowed money for the venture.  When I started I was a solo with no office support, and in fact no office. I drafted papers in a home office and met with clients at their home. I joked that I was the lawyer who made house calls, which was an ideal fit for my focus area wills, powers of attorney, etc.  Over time I did get an office, and then a bigger one.  I had student office help, and now have hired a recent legal graduate as an associate. I call it organic growth -- I expanded when called for, but never once borrowed money to look like something more than I was.  The result -- no interest payments, and freedom to try new things without the pressure to make a loan payment each month; 
  2. Develop loyalty with an office supply store.  Oddly I use the national chain Office Depot, which has a small town feel.  The employees know me, and when I walk in without a coupon they find one for me. Last week I picked up some office chairs, and not only did they accept an expired coupon, they increased it from $10 off to $15 off.  A key feature of the loyalty is using a customer card, which sends me quarterly store credit.  Usually it is between $30 and $50 -- free money that I am happy to accept.  Don't accept loyalty blindly though. I do know their prices are competitive, and it is close to both my office and home; and
  3. Combine your social entertainment with networking.  If you launch a business you will be the recipient of endless marketing options.  From web search optimization to the relic yellow pages, people who sell advertising will target you.  I do not have an ad in the phone book.  I do not purchase ads in newspapers.  I know that referrals are by far the most effective means of attracting clients.  The art of referral could be a post, a book actually, of its own.  But here is a great frugal example.  Last Friday night my husband and I had a sitter and went out.  The event was sponsored by a client of his company (he designs and builds circuit boards) and was a fundraiser for the Wisconsin Bike Federation.  Early birds were given a break on ticket prices -- he bought 2 of the first 100, securing a discount.  The purchase was through his business, making it a write-off.  He got some nice face-to-face time with his client.  And with my legal practice I can walk into any room and likely connect with someone who could benefit from estate planning.  Last year I even made a connection with a women who is part of a nonprofit that became featured in a book I am about to release (Middle Class Philanthropist: How anyone can leave a legacy).  And this year my husband even won a free pair of high end biking socks for placing third in the power test.  All in all it was a very frugal date night!
There is a joke that business owners set their own hours - we decide which days we'll work our 80 hours.  Part of that is that fact that business does not stop when the office lights are turned off.  And the behind the scenes operations of a business are an excellent way to inject frugal thinking.  Something that is great for the bottom line, stress, and even planet earth!   

Sunday, October 27, 2013

From Newspapers to Chrysanthemums - Free is Great!

Sunday night - looking back we had several frugal highlights from the past 48 hours.  Today we used foot power to make a trip to both the grocery store and hardware store.  Fresh air, walking for 2 hours straight, a playground stop -- all great for our health and the earth.  The pocketbook damage was minimal -- bread for a dinner party tonight and a few other items, no gas used or wear and tear on a car.  The bonus - a free Sunday newspaper because we spent more than $10.  It's a great way to get Sunday coupons without a subscription.

Earlier in the day we attended services at Prairie UU, and yet again a generous member had a bucket full of perennial plants, free to a good home.  Today I knew I had enough spare time to get them in the ground, so I grabbed two bunches of chrysanthemums for the front yard.  Thanks to the generous members of Prairie, I did not pay a single cent for any flower or perennial vegetable I added to the yard this year.  Looking ahead to the next planting season, I will keep my plant purchases to a minimum -- pansies because they give and give all summer long and right into the fall, vegetable plants for planters, and some geraniums because I adore them so much.  When it comes to perennials I will keep my eyes open for the "free" posts I see on my neighborhood Facebook page, the folks at church, and anyone willing to trade -- some of my endless day lilies for something from their yard.

That's it for tonight, tomorrow I'll be back with frugal highlights from the business front -- I'm frugal at home, and at the office.

Friday, October 25, 2013

How To Live With the Thermostat Set at 61 Degrees

Fall 2013 in Wisconsin is turning out to be a bit cooler than normal, just as our summer was.  During the long sunny days of June, July and August we were thrilled to hardly run our A/C.  But the cooler temperatures this Fall have caused us to fire up the furnace earlier than we'd like.  In fact, earlier this week we have snow showers here in Madison.  While the temperatures outside begin to slide, and frosts settle in for the first time of the season, we are not like most households.  Our thermostat is set at 61 degrees when we are home, and when we are not it is set at 58 degrees.  On the web site for our energy company 68 degrees is used to illustrate what people tend to use when home.   All too often people will shake their head and say how to you live like that?  Here is how:

  1. Articulate your desire to save energy and costs.  Setting this as a priority allows you to withstand more than you might imagine;
  2. Open heating vents only in the areas that need heat.  For us that means our finished basement is not heated;
  3. Place a small space heater in bathrooms with baths and/or showers.  There is not need to freeze to death when showering, but there is also no need to crank the heat in the entire house.  Bathrooms tend to be small, and heat up quickly for far less money;
  4. Dress like it is winter, even inside.  Layers, turtle necks, scarves (the kind you wear to work, not sledding), wool socks, long under ware, and key for me.....really warm slippers to insulate your feet from cold flooring;
  5. Maximize solar heat by opening blinds and curtains during the day;
  6. Use your oven -- this is the time of year to bake!  When done, vent the heat into your kitchen by propping the door open; and
  7. Enjoy warm teas at night.
Thanks for reading!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

My New Frugal Muse...

M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013

Muse -- a source of inspiration.  There was a time in my life when my frugal muse was Great Lakes Higher Education.  They were the financial service company that serviced my enormous student dept.  Graduating with $97k in student loans, I jumped at every chance to save a few dollars.  Sadly, they'd dangle an item in front of me (auto debit for example) but then would not lower my interest rate as promised.  Finally I got fed up, I got mad, and I got fired up.  The debt was paid in seven years, not the 30 they were hoping on.

Our frugal ways continued after the student loans were paid off.  The only debt we carry is a modest mortgage.  Many people associate frugal living with deprivation, however, it comes with an upside. Because of our frugal ways we were able to walk away from a private school that was very ill-fit for our family.  In doing so we left a rather large tuition payment (a full semester for two children) on the table.  Freedom sprang from our frugal ways.  Now we are locked into a contract dispute with the school.  I have actually enjoyed revisiting the area of contract law, and am comfortable with our position that it violates Wisconsin law.  However, we have to convince them and likely a judge, before we get our money returned.

And so now I have a new frugal muse, thank you Madison Waldorf School, for reminding me that a frugal life is one that offers the ability to stand up when something is not right.  To speak our mind, to fight for what we believe is right.  And my ultra frugal ways will allow us to cover payments for a new preschool while we fight this battle.  Because of MWS nothing goes to waste in our house these days.  Food scraps, newsprint, and brown paper all go to the compost pile.  We turn the furnace down to 58 degrees when we are not home, and up to only 61 degrees when we are here.  Clothes dry on an indoor drying rack instead of running the dryer.  Date night was substituted for lunch when no cost of a babysitter was required -- complete with coupon and paid for with a gift card received months ago.  Bills are paid via our credit union's on-line system, saving us not only the cost of checks, but postage as well.

There is one bit of fat that can still be trimmed, you've heard of the latte factor I assume?  The idea that those daily or weekly expenditures on a gourmet coffee or other incidental add up.  Well I have that problem, not a latte, but rather a cafe au lait.  My work day ends at 3pm, and I've developed a new habit of picking up the coffee treat as I head downtown to collect the kids from school.  It does not seem like much at the time, about $2.50.  But then my frugal mind goes to work.  That cost adds up to about $12.50 a week, maybe a little less because I use a punch card and get every 10th one free.  But over the course of a year it totals $650, half a mortgage payment.  Yes, even this self-described frugalista has areas that could be cut.  We all need treats in life, especially when the karma gods seem to work against us.  My goal is to cut back in different ways -- get a black coffee instead of the au lait, saving a dollar or so.  Making more at home so I do not run out by mid-afternoon when I can use a pick-me-up.  And possibly bringing in a coffee pot to the office to brew a final cup of the day there.

Thanks for reading, and if you have any great frugal ideas for Fall, please leave a comment!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013

Plentiful - that describes the mood in my home today.  Thanks to the generosity of friends, the above pictured food was acquired at absolutely no cost to my frugal family.  The apples, which fill the bowl and overflow on the counter, were dropped off by a neighbor with an apple tree. This year she had more than she could handle, and a Facebook comment brought a bag to our home.  The rest was the CSA share that my associate at work could not pick up this week (she is away, getting married).  She didn't want to go to waste, and thought we'd be able to put it to good use.  Yes, we will!

Over the years our frugal ways have been boosted by the generosity of friends and neighbors.  One area in particular has been children's clothing.  Given so much, rarely do I have to shop for the children.  Wanting to give back and nurture the giving spirit, today I dropped off a large bag of boys clothes for a friend who has a 6 month old son.

And tonight, as I type, I wonder if the frugal karma gods will continue to shine our way.  Earlier this evening the Board at the school where our children once attended met to discuss our request to the finance committee to refund part of the tuition we pre-paid.  After 13 days of enrollment we determined we were unsuitable for the school.  Our hope is to part on friendly terms.  Sadly, the school immediately turned to contractual language stating if we decide to leave, we still owe 60% of the annual tuition.  That is a steep price for 13 days of service.  Our last meeting with them was a bit tense -- "we don't understand your legalese" was their reply to my comment that "your liquidated damages clause is unreasonable because it does not require you to mitigate your damages."  Maybe it was legalese, but I still think it is true.  This experience and protracted contract dispute continues to underscore my new found belief - it may not be frugal to pay for a service in advance.  Whether it be a gym membership, apartment rent, or school tuition, if you hand over your money and things do not go as planned, you'll have have fight for a refund.  Businesses close, work moves become a necessity, and sometimes a service and a customer are simply not a good fit. We "saved" $150 by paying in advance.  If we have to hire an attorney for the balance we feel is owed us, that savings will be gone in about 45 minutes of a lawyer's time.

Thanks for the frugal boost dear friends -- it was a dose of loving kindness that warmed my frugal heart. And I vow to continue to pay it forward, handing down perfectly good kids clothes to other families a few years behind us in growth.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Frugal Halloween Costumes: What's your degree of frugality?

M Gustafson Gervasi, 2013

"What are you doing on a web site called Craft Passion dot Com?" said my husband with a hint of annoyance and concern in his voice.  "Looking at patterns to make a skeleton costume....." was my reply, for which I could hardly garner any enthusiasm.  Yes, it is the time of year when the children want to purchase Halloween outfits, and this frugal Mama wants to save pennies when and where we can.  My husband's question helped me center on the fact that there are degrees of frugality, and not all suit me.

When it comes to costumes one has options:

  1. Homemade.  This require time, patience, skill, tools and supplies.  For someone who crafts regularly and can whip something up in no time, this is likely a good frugal fit.  I am not that person. There are no sewing supplies in my closet, and even less patience in myself for crafting.  My husband knew better than I did that while homemade outfits save money for some households, they would not save money here.  I lack skill, the tools, and the supplies.
  2. Purchase New at a Halloween Store.  Direct and quick, one trip to the mall would yield immediate outfits, but we'd pay for the efforts of others.  And risk all that comes with a trip to the mall: temptation from other stores, tasty snacks, and the expense of driving there.  Plus, I detest the mall, so it would have a negative impact on my mood for at least a few hours, if not days.
  3. Purchase New On-Line.  Readers of my blog know I am a fan of Amazon Prime.  Click and ship for free within 2 days.  This was the option I used last year, purchasing an owl and pirate outfit from the comfort of my kitchen table at 3am one night when I had insomnia.  But the price was close to $50, and days before the big day my kids changed their minds on what they wanted to be on Halloween.
  4. Buy Used. That was the frugal method for this year.  It was an email from SAVERS telling me that all purchases on Columbus Day were 50% off.  After pre-school pick-up the kids and I bee-lined for our local savers.  And there we found a skeleton outfit for our son, plus a purple dinosaur costume. Two for $10, one suited for a cold night outdoors, the other better for the church and school parties. Our daughter selected a ladybug outfit that will work both inside and out, and will provide hours of twirling fun (she loves, just loves to dance, and an outfit makes it all the more fun).  Total time, 1 hour. Total spent was less than $15.  The store supports Easter Seals, and is less than 2 miles from our home -- all a bonus to my frugal mindset.
As we launch into the holiday madness months, I urge you to use caution -- homemade may not always be frugal if you are like me and do not have the time, tools, and vision to pull of a homemade item.  Frugal, it's a matter of degree.  Select the one you can sustain for a lifetime and it will yield far more savings than a brief and intense tango with fabric patterns, glue and goodness knows what else.

Monday, October 14, 2013

From Pizza to Quiche, The Art of Leftovers!

As we sat down to a late and leisurely breakfast Sunday, a specific meal from my freshmen year of college came to mind.  It was late fall, probably a Wednesday or Thursday, and there in the cafeteria line-up of meal I found spaghetti omelettes.  My roommate was more adventuresome than I was, and placed it on her tray.  I quipped, well if we didn't eat the spaghetti for dinner, they'll make us eat it for breakfast.

Flash forward about 20 years and the same cooking technique emerged from my own kitchen.  Saturday I made a homemade sausage pizza.  It turned out well, but I found myself with extra sauce, cheese and sausage.  Tucked into tupperware in the fridge, I pulled them out Sunday morning.  I quickly mixed them together, tossed in diced mushrooms, an then poured a mixture of 4 beaten eggs and more cheese on top. Baked at 350 degrees for 45 minutes, it turned into a wonderful crust-less pizza quiche!

Going forward I vow to try this technique with other leftovers or bits occupying the fridge.  Eggs, cheese, and a little sauce can make a savory meal.  Served along side a salad of mixed greens, it was a wonderful start to a Sunday!  And an excellent way to make sure every drop of food is used here in our frugal home. While we are very good about eating at home for most meals or brown bagging our lunches, we still feel too much food is wasted.  Small children contribute to this, but so do the adults, often forgetting about a bit of this or that which is leftover from a meal.  Quiche to the frugal rescue!

Thanks for reading, and feel free to share your most creative quiche experiment -- good or bad!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

What's For Dinner? Check the Freezer

Living a frugal life requires embracing home cooked food in my mind.  And as I prepared my weekly shopping list, dinners were built around what is already in my freezer.  If you are like me, there are likely a few leftovers tucked away or a "deal" you bought months ago.  Instead of handing over cash each week for more food, challenge yourself to use up what is in your freezer first.  Extra ingredients are likely needed, but most likely the total cost will be less than purchasing what you need for an entire meal.  A few freezer inspired meals on our list include:

  • pork chops in the slow cooker paired with couscous and roasted veggies;
  • chili with toasted cheese sandwiches; and
  • ginger and cilantro lentil soup.
My current goal is to use up everything that is currently calling our fridge freezer home.  Once it is empty, I'll give it a good cleaning and return to normal.  This is my favorite way to prevent a kitchen storage area from hiding something past its expiration date.  Once were done with the freezer, the pantry will be next, followed by the chest freezer in the garage.

So the next time you find yourself asking what's for dinner, skip the drive-thru or grocery deli or the standards you always buy.  Find out what you already have and build around it.  You'll maximize your dollars, enjoy healthier home cooked meals, and tread a little less on planet Earth.