Friday, March 29, 2013

Frugal Home Haircuts

It was time.  Bangs were in their eyes.  Hairdos rivaled that of Einstein.  My children were in need of a haircut.  So I had to decide, break out the home scissors or take them to a "salon" with a coupon.  The later is the choice de jour among many parents these days.  There is even a full function salon for girls at Hilldale mall.  I shutter to think of the prices! My frugal ways prevailed, and the kitchen became salon.

Water bottle, comb, hair cutting scissors, a towel over the shoulder.  Clip, clip, snip, snip.  Done in under 15 minutes.  Do they look like models for GAP Kids?  No.  But it is not that far off from the last salon cut they received.  No need to waste fuel and drive to a mall, which is full of other expenditure temptations.

And the ultimate frugal kids have awesome college savings accounts because of our frugal choices.  From thrift store clothing to home cooked meals to a schedule free of "lessons" to home hair cuts, we avoid spending here and there.  And more importantly, those could have been expenditures are tucked away in various savings mechanisms.

As I swept up the mess I half joked....home hair cuts today mean when you are in college, and really care about your appearance, you'll be able to afford a salon cut.

Thanks for reading, and I'd love to hear your cost savings de jour.  Also, you can "like" The Upside of Frugal on Facebook.  There I post links to stories and short thoughts on living a frugal life.  A link is embedded here.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Frugal Living: Beauty School Drop Out

Yesterday morning was typical at our house.  The morning sandwiched between my too afternoons and evenings of client meetings, we opt to stay home, in PJs, just relaxing.  On the stereo was a CD I found at the library, it was the soundtrack to the musical Greese.  As the song Beauty School Drop Out belted out of the speakers, two thoughts sprang to my frugal mind.

One, I love the library!  Thanks to its endless supply of CDs, my daughter and son are being exposed to countless musical styles.  As a result, I do not sign them up for baby / toddler music classes.  Wonderful in theory, not the perfect fit for us in practice.  My work schedule is tight, and shifting from mom role to lawyer role at break neck speed most days, I keep our "classes" to a near minimum, preferring to sign and dance in the comfort of my living room while watching birds forage for seeds in our backyard.  Doesn't cost a penny, keeps my stress low, and requires no extra car trips, etc.

And two, I've never updated my readers on the beauty school perm I got last summer.  It was the solstice, just before we drove north to Bayfield for our annual trip.  In an effort to put some body in my limp hair, I got a perm at the Aveda Beauty School on campus.  Overall, it was a good move.  My hair was crazy curly for a while, but full of body.  I have received only one hair cut since, around the winter holidays.  Low maintenance at home, no expensive trips to the salon, no need to hire someone to watch my children or have my husband miss work, its a win win in my frugal book.  And the body in the hair is still strong.

A life with thoughtful and wise expenditures that are kind to the earth, my body, and my wallet -- that is the goal of my frugal adventures.  Thoughts and suggestions are always welcome so leave a comment and share.

Oh, and happy Spring 2013.  For those is cold and snowy Madison, I leave you with this....greener warmer days will return...eventually!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Now on Facebook!

I am certain there is an easier way for you dear reader to connect with me on Facebook, and it evades me.  So for now, I will announce that I have created a Facebook Page - The Upside of Frugal.  Put that in Facebook's search bar, lit "like", and receive Facebook messages with thoughts and stories on frugal living.  I will also share when I have a new blog post.  Thanks for reading and sharing my posts.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Giving Junk a Second Chance at Life - Vintage Birch Barn

Old, rusty, in a word "ugly".  We all know what I'm talking about.  The garage sale finds, family "heirlooms" and other assorted junk that occupies the dark corners of our basements and walls of the garages.  We are relatively new into our home, having lived here only since November 2010.  But my mother, that is an entirely different story.

She has lived at her present address since I was two, that translates to having lived there since 1975.  Married to my father for 39 years, their home became a repository for all of his and her finds.  Yard sales, estate auctions, heaps on the curb when the students move in Madison.  You name it, they found treasures there.  And they did, many nice things.  But life marched on.  They sold the cabin up north, and all the decor there took up residence in the garage and basement.  When my father died in 2009 my mom realized that she should give some thought to "what happens with all of this stuff".  The loss of my father has been too harsh for her to take action, until today.  Realizing that the items in her ranch house were not going to migrate to my newly acquired ranch house, she decided it was "time".

And a phone call to the women behind Vintage Birch Barn of Evansville, Wisconsin was made.  Erin and her husband Frank arrived with a truck.  Several loads later my mother's home was less cluttered.  She was paid a nice sum of money for her items, and they are now headed for a second life.

Interior of Vintage Birch Barn, Main St., Evansville, Wis. - Image, 2013, M. Gustafson Gervasi

Erin and Frank call themselves "pickers".  What you discard they spiff up and sell in their store in Evansville, Wisconsin.  There is no web site, just a page on Facebook.  A hidden gem in my opinion.  How did I find her?  A typical connection, we've known one another for nearly 30 years; she is the younger sister of a close childhood friend.

Can this story be any better?  A cluttered home is cleaned, at least partially.  A widow on a fixed income just got a nice sum of money for parting with unwanted items.  A daughter has a little less to think about "what to do" if an when mom needs to move.  Items that most likely would have ended in the dump will now provide revenue to an enterprising local business in a town where my family once lived.  My only sorrow is for those who don't live close enough to benefit from Vintage Birch Barn -- either as seller or shopper.  If you are too far out of the area, see if you can't find a similar venture in your area.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Be Frugal and Say Good-Bye to Student Loans

Image credit: - free image

It may seem hard for Wisconsinsites to imagine, but May graduations are just around the corner.  In the blink of an eye the snow will not only stop falling, but melt and give way to Spring flowers and green grass.  Sitting in my office this week one of the law students who works with me said "wow, I meet with the financial person at the law school today....and we ran the numbers on what I need to do to pay off my loans."  Clearly deflated by the reality of the numbers I quickly said, "hey I paid off $97K in 6 years and didn't work for a huge firm, but a government agency!  It is not as hard as you think!"  Looking up from her computer she asked "how did you do it?"  And I launched into an afternoon of client meetings punctuated with a tip here and there.  What follows is my advice to recent grads, or anyone facing a mountain of debt.

One -- get mad at the debt.  Don't accept it as a fact of life.  No, be determined to rid it from your life.  This took me awhile myself, but after jumping through hoops in hopes of a reduced interest rate, and constantly told "oh sorry, the agent who told you that was mistaken" I got fed up with my loan processor.   That focused my actions, and what was supposed to be paid off in 30 years was gone in six!

Two -- before tackling debt establish a small emergency fund.  Life happens, and you don't want to rely on credit cards with sky high interest rates to get you through the hard times.  I'd suggest somewhere between $1,000 and $3,000.  Fund it by selling items you don't need or want, not spending graduation gift money, and any other way you can think of.  If you use it for an emergency, build it back up before turning back to debt payment.

Three -- stay motivated.  I used to listen to Dave Ramsey's radio show (in fact numbers one and two are straight from his playbook).  I did not agree with his conservative religious view points, but we see eye to eye on operating in cash, living within your means, and disliking the cycle of debt.  Look for blogs, books, and even simplicity groups.  You'll find strength in numbers.

Four -- moonlight!  Sure you may have a job, but get another.  I find that when I am working I am not spending money.  Down time often leads to relaxation and fun, which is not cheap.  Very flexible options are: babysitting, pet sitting, yard work, running errands for someone who can't, cleaning houses, tutoring and or editing (great if you are in a college town).  In addition to my government job, I tutored on nights and weekends.

Five -- sell your stuff!  Clothing went to consignment stores.  Childhood toys were sold on Ebay (I'm still shocked at what people paid for 1970s Barbie items).  Put it on Craigslist.  Hold a garage sale.  People love to shop, and you'd be surprised at what they sell.  The less you own, the less space you need....and space costs money.

Six -- send money every week to the processor.  Don't wait for the day of the month the processor will pull your minimum payment.  Get extra coupons and send money each week.  You'll decrease the chance you'll spend it on something else, and the lower the principal the lower the interest you'll pay.  I highly recommend a spreadsheet to track payments and keep the companies honest.  Irregular payments can cause them confusion.  At one point the company with my loan was holding them until the 25th....I had to call and say apply it today.  This mattered because I knew my loans were kicking off $20 interest a day!

Seven -- commit to a few years of living like a poor college student.  For some they may have never lived like a poor student, so this could be a shock.  A few of my favorites are:

  • no car!  Walk, bus, use public transit, ride a bike.  If you own a car, keep it inexpensive and make sure you are not dependent on it.  You'll save tons on gas, insurance, upkeep, parking and more.
  • brown bag it.  Graduation does not turn into 3 martini lunches.  Bring your lunch from home, and coffee, tea or other beverages.  Yes food from home does cost money, but far less than $12 at Panera.
  • Line dry clothing.  Electric dryers are not efficient.  Get a drying rack and use the rod in your shower to dry clothes.
  • Live with roommates.  Shave costs in half or more, but make sure you are living with people who are frugal.  If they order pizza every night and blow money at the bars, it will be a stress on your debt load.
  • Learn to cook.  If it is prepared by someone, you are paying more.  Avoid restaurants, and prepared meals in the stores.  Learn to cook 5 or 6 basic meals.  Eggs, veggies, rice, beans....great sources of protein that won't break the bank; and
  • Embrace thrift store shopping.  You may have an education, but you don't need to shop at the mall to look professional.  Thrift stores are not only abundant, but hip.  I'll never forget the dove gray Banana Republic pant suit I found for $17 at Goodwill.  Every time I wore it, my boss commented on how lovely it was.  She had no idea.  
Oh, I could go on and on, but that is what this blog is all about.  My debt may be long gone and my frugal ways have morphed to reflect my life as a wife, mother, homeowner and business owner.  But my frugal ways can be applied to many phases of life.  Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Thrift Shop -- now a hit song!

Ever heard of Macklemore?  I hadn't....until my husband shared his song about thrift store shopping with me on YouTube.  You should write a post about this!  And the idea went into the mental file of things to do when I have time.  And then time marched on.

Tonight I found this piece on Macklemore and his viral hit in a newsletter.  I love the message and story behind this song, even though I never listen to pop music on the radio (it's either NPR or country for me these days.....or toddler CDs).  I can't help but wonder, is a new generation emerging who really care about consumer impact on the earth and personal budgets?  This man grew up thrifting.  What will my kids take into adulthood from our frugal home?  At age 4 my son has already expressed a desire to drive less because "it is better for the rainforests".  Frugal living -- the end results are limitless!

So if anyone gives you a hard time about being frugal, tell them it is hip.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Be Frugal, Buy a Coach

There was a time, back in the mid-1990s, when I was not really known for my frugal ways.  Gasp, yes it is true.  Fueled by "real" money from a job as a law clerk for a high powered east coast firm, and a work schedule that was non-stop, I was known to shop for entertainment.  My friends and I would engage in some "retail therapy" at the store.  A little here, a little there, and quickly the debt grew.

And then there was the day in March 1996, the worst day at work I have ever had.  I mean ever.  Horrible. I was in New York City, working on site for "the client".  No friends nearby.  I left the office and headed to Lord and Taylor.  Lord, that is the wrong place to go when you are emotional about work.  My work bag had broken around that same time, and I decided to perk myself up with a new bag.  I poked around a bit, but nothing seemed right.  And then I saw "it", Coaches' Beekman Brief.

The moment I laid eyes on the bag I had dreamed about for years, the sale was done.  I'll take it.  The only frugal aspect of this purchase was my opening and Lord and Taylor credit card to save 10% on the purchase.  Back then the bag sold for $500, so it was worth opening a card to save some cash.

Fast forward 17 years.  My beloved Beekman Brief resides on the floor of my closed, towards the back.  The key latch in front pops open now, and the strap hardware has come undone.  Unusable, but not something I can put in the pile for Goodwill.  Once again I've had a series of inexpensive shoulder bags, now called computer bags, that break.  Sick and tired of spending $50 on something that barely lasts a year, I start thinking about getting a "nicer" bag.  A post on Facebook yields many suggestions for bags that are eco-friendly, and waterproof.  I look on-line.....$200 gives me pause.  Why invest in another bag when I already invested in one that needs some TLC?  Out comes the Beekman Brief, and off we go to the mall where Coach has a store.  I handed the clerk my bag and $20 cash.  In four weeks time it will arrive, via UPS, on my door step.  Fixed for no extra charge.  A lifetime guarantee.  So yes, be frugal buy a coach.  Not all coaches, but "a" Coach.  It will last a lifetime.

So, when you buy a Coach bag and you are willing to use it for decades, it can be considered a frugal move.  I would advise you not to: 1) shop when emotional; 2) buy on impulse; and 3) buy a new bag with each new season.  Thanks for reading, and feel free to post on comment on items that cost a pretty penny, but give years of quality use.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

March Madness Frugality

March - it is Wisconsin's snowiest month!  And today the State stuck with tradition.  The snow started at daybreak, and has kept on going, just like the Energizer Bunny.  It is still snowing as I write, with the clock approaching 9pm.

As a result of the snow, things started late today in Madison.  Unnecessary outings were scrapped, and folks hunkered down waiting for it to let up enough to shovel.  Several clients canceled meetings, a wise decision in my mind.  A seminar that I was scheduled to give tonight was canceled, and so my normal Tuesday routine was twisted around a bit. But I still went into the office for those brave (maybe stubborn is a better word) enough to keep scheduled meetings.  But in all the madness, I did not loose my frugal way.

Frugal food is a core attribute of my frugal persona.  Which means I spent a good amount of time in the kitchen.  Leftover chicken from Monday's dinner morphed into a pasta bake for lunch (and dinner for my husband who is still at his office).  Tossed together in under twenty minutes, it consisted of: 1/2 box cooked pasta, chicken, sauteed veggies (garlic, peppers, onion, and mushrooms), and a tomato sauce from the freezer (one I made two season ago -- yep, some things hang around longer than they should).  Topped with fresh mozzarella, it was ideal for a cold and snowy winter day.  Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.

Since my seminar was canceled, my normal "late night" of work was cut short.  Arriving home I found that my fairy godmother had visited.  He goes by the name Richard, and is a retired mortgage broker who now works as a school crossing guard.  In addition to having received a pacemaker this past year, he is also our neighbor.  The neighbor with a snow blower.  And once again he cleared our walk!  Before loosing the light (and warmth if you can call upper 20s warm) I headed outside to tackle the driveway while our sitter finished up the kids' dinner.  As I stepped outside, I noticed Richard and waived. He raised his hand in the way older Midwestern men do, about half way up, meaning -- hey, how ya doin'?  My appreciation for his efforts is cooling in the kitchen -- Cinnamon oatmeal raisin bread and apple sauce whole wheat muffins.  It will be delivered in the morning along with a thank you note.

My husband and I have made a decision not to buy a snow blower.  They are expensive.  They take up a lot of space in the garage.  They break.  They require gas.  And shoveling is a great work out.  So we use shovels.  But appreciation of this magical machine is not lost on us.  We adore them, but from a distance.  One day, when we are not physically able to shovel, we will buy one.  And I'm certain that at that point in life we'll have a bit more free time, and will pay forward the good deeds of Richard.  We'll clear the walk for a neighbor who is tight on time, and watches what they spend.  Until then, I will bake and bake as a thank you for neighborly generosity.

With an easier shoveling job than I expected, I was back inside in 20 minutes.  On the table was the standard dinner our sitter prepares on my late nights: pancakes (with homemade applesauce added), scrambled eggs, cheese, and sweet potato left over from their afternoon snack.  I love this meal because there are always extra pancakes that I can use for Wednesday's breakfast.  But tonight I would be at the table, and used the meal as a chance to clear out some of the food lingering in the fridge.  On my plate were greens with veggies, the last piece of crab quiche, shrimp with sauce, and a cup of green tea.  A simple, tasty, and efficient meal.

So March, bring it on.  Your snow will not cause me to buckle and spend madly on take-out meals or snow blowers.  I know Spring is coming, not until at least April.  Sorry fellow Wisconsinites, but March just started and March is about snow.  Don't let depression cause you to go into retail therapy mode.  Have a plan to deal with the mess, make the kitchen your happy place, and savor the cold.....the humidity and mosquitoes will be here soon enough.

Getting Paid-in-Full Discounts Part of a Frugal Life

"Do you offer a discount for paying in full, with cash or check?"  This is a standard question in the life of a frugal person, or in my opinion it should be.  From dental cleanings to car repairs to gym memberships, I am know to ask for a discount.  One exception, I skip it at a big-box or chain store.  It is a waste of time because the clerk checking me out has no authority to grant such a discount.  But in small, locally owned businesses the chances are quite high that one of the people helping you with your transaction is an owner.  They do have this power!

My most recent frugal find came with our gym membership.  It was time to renew, and if we signed up for another two-year contract they would give us a rate of $65/month.  If we went with month-to-month it would be $75/month.  Looking to save some more money I asked if paying in cash and or in full would help.  The managers eyes literally lit up.  "Yes, we'll knock off 5% if you pay one year now and the remainder in a year.  And a check would be great.....saves us a lot on credit card fees."  And so we signed up for 2 years paying the first year in full, via check, costing us $741.  Paying in front shaved $40 off the bill....not quite a month free.  But I'll take it.

Living frugally means we examine how we spend our money.  We are known to say "no, not now" to many things.  It also means we are known to save our money, and save we do.  It allows us to have ample funds to pay for a year of a gym membership, and secure a slightly better rate.  We will be using this same approach in the fall when we pay our children's school tuition.  Discounts are offered for paying for the entire semester at the beginning.

Try it, saving money can be fun.  And you'll know you've made a small business owners day when you avoid credit cards.  One caution, if you pay in full and the store goes out of business or you decide you don't like the service you may be out of money.  I have been a member at this gym since 2001, and am not going anywhere.  Knowing we paid in full is also a stronger motivation to actually go to the gym.

How about you?  Any pay in cash or advance stories you'd like to share?  Leave a comment, I'd love new ideas.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Frugal Girls Clothing: From Dress to Shirt

Raising children does not have to break the bank.  From my observation, those who complain about the cost of kids usually fall into the category I'd call "shopper".  These are the people who enjoy going to the mall.  A bargain justifies any purchase in their mind -- why pass up a deal!  Well, this frugal mama hates the mall.  And no, hate is not too strong of a word.  Shopping is not entertainment for me, it is a chore.  And it is a chore I try to put off as long as possible.  As a result, we have spent very little money on clothing our children....and one of them is even a girl!

In addition to gladly welcoming bags of hand-me-downs, in our home dresses turn into tunics and then to shirts.  And if you think she is a fashion outcast, think again.  The compliments flowed last Sunday when we attended church.  "That sweater is adorable, where did you find it?" or "That outfit is lovely, did you make it?"  The answer is no, it is not handmade, and I found it on the clearance rack at Gap Kids in late 2010.  We had a gift card, and I scooped it up for $8.

She first wore it for her naming ceremony (think Baptism but Unitarian Universalist style).  Sized 9 months, it was perfect for her special day.  And too precious to discard so I hung it in the closet.  Later that year, the winter of 2011 she wore it as a tunic with tights.  And now in the winter of 2013 she wears it more like a sweater, paired with a turtle neck.  There is a slim shot that she can get one more winter sweater out of it in 2014, time will tell.

There is nothing special about this one dress; we do this with all of her dresses.  It is a great trick to get as much mileage out of a girls' wardrobe as possible.  And it means a little less pressure on this frugal mama to have to go clothes shopping!  A win win for our budget, my stress level, and mother Earth.

Thanks for reading.  It's been 8 days since my last post.  Our lives are amazingly full at the moment, but my frugal habits are still here.  The time to sit down and write about them is not as abundant as I'd like, but so goes life.  And given that we just signed our children up for 5 full days of instruction at the Madison Waldorf School, my frugal ways will be in overdrive.  Stay tuned, and keep reading....and commenting!