Monday, April 29, 2013

City of Madison Competition to Reduce Household Waste!

Each week the order of service at Prairie Unitarian Society contains a Green Note.  This past Sunday it pointed out that reports the average person throws out 1500 pounds of trash every year.  But with composting that number could be reduced to 375 pounds!

For those living in Madison, Wisconsin who are not yet composters or enthusiastic recyclers, might a reward tempt you to reduce what ends up in the dump?  City Officials believe so, and have launched a competition to see who can reduce waste the most.  Sadly our household does not qualify; we already to both composting and recycling.  But if you don't and want to give it a try, prizes are involved.  Details are on this news posting.

Happily I can report that my feet carried me to my office this morning, not my car.  Frugal transportation, either via bike or foot, is an area that our household can improve on.  No competition is going on, or at least not one I've heard of.

Thanks for reading, and have a great week enjoy the upside of a frugal life!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Frugal Transportation -- Leave the Car at Home

It was a few minutes past Noon when we returned home from church.  Scheduled to be in Middleton for my Book Club with a Twist at 1pm, I thought to myself, oh I should have planned better and been able to bike there!  Moments after sharing this thought with my husband he pulled up a Google map showing a route, saying it would take 20 minutes by bike.  Even if I went slower, I'd have plenty of time.  His facial expression told me he thought he was wasting his breath, assuming I'd opt for the car instead.  Wrong!  If not today, then when would I get into biking.  Temperatures were in the upper 60s, the skies were clear, perfect for transport via bike.  I arrived in plenty of time, enjoyed the discussion, and set out to return home.  Descending a hill I heard his voice in my head, pedal hard, crouch down to lower wind resistance, and get as much momentum as you can before the next ascent.  I might have pedaled a bit too hard, because off came the bike chain. Thankfully I was only about 1.5 miles from home, and the day was perfect for walking my bike home.

Once home we discussed options for how we'd accomplish picking up produce and meat for the week ahead.  I could drive with our daughter to Trader Joes, my husband could bike and pick up the items....we went with option three.  Our son wanted us all together, and so I put on running shoes and we jogged down to Sentry, a neighborhood store.  While they picked up a repaired door/lock at the Hardware store (cost $5 to fix, versus $20+ to purchase a new system) I bought food to round out our meals for the week.  We returned home walking and stopped at the park.

My motivation today to take the frugal transport route was not primarily based in a desire to save some money on gas or minimize wear and tear on the car.  Nor was it based in an effort to walk lightly on the Earth.  Both happened, yes, but my primary motivation was to take car of my health.  The year 2013 marks the year I will turn 40.  Not until the Fall Equinox, but approaching fast.  Why the concern over 40?  Forty was the decade in which my mother suffered a heart attack. It was the Fall of 1991, I had just turned 18 and was a freshmen at UW-Madison.  She survived the episode (at age 47) but has had a life of constant imaging, tests, and the implantation of a pacemaker.  But for technology she would not be here.  And at every doctor appoint I've attended with her the message has been clear, her problems are the direct result of life style. 

As 47 comes into my foreseeable future I know that a similar path for me is simply not acceptable.  When I am 47 my children will only be 12 and 10.  Far too young to have a mother with serious medical issues.  Yes, I know somethings I cannot control.  But many illness I can, or so I hope.  My motivation is further fueled when I read the blog of a former law professor.  Her posts on The Other Side of the Ocean have nothing to do with the study or practice of law, but rather offer a glimpse into a very active and healthy life.  She has just turned 60, and I hope that my modeling my behavior after hers, I too will reach 60 able to bike for miles, cross country ski, and climb mountains in Europe.

So, leaving the car at home and using bike and feet are frugal choices.  They are good for my wallet.  Good for the Earth.  And if my instinct and research are correct, good for my health.  That's the upside of a frugal life!
 Bike chain, which fell off. Thankfully my husband was able to get it back in place in a few minutes once I got home.  Let the biking begin!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Frugal Go-to Meal....Soup, and Other Highlights From a Frugal Home

We had an atypical Saturday morning, a rare day when all four of us were together.  What was the catalyst? The Great Midwest Alpaca Festival!  An annual event that I adore, I long ago requested my husband to schedule "family time" for this AM.  Cost of admission, free.  But parking was $6.  If could have biked it would have been ideal, but we are not quite outfitted for a family bike outing, but we're working on it, stay tuned.

Noticeably smaller than in prior years, we still enjoyed viewing the alpaca, watching the judging, climbing the steep stairs in the arena, and this year purchases skeins of alpaca yarn (great for me, who is allergic to wool).  My plan is to knit a winter scarf for each child to use this fall.  The school they will attend believes "there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes."  Warm outer wear will be key, and alpaca wool should deliver.

Afterwards we made a quick stop at Johannsen's where I picked up asparagus crowns that will be planted in the next day or so.  Grabbing quickly I did not notice the label "purple passion".  A google image search confirmed, I bought purple asparagus, not green.  Roasted they will be tasty, and the color may tempt my oldest child to eat them....purple is his favorite color.  I also picked up two geraniums. I would have gotten more, but the nights are too cool for them to stay outside.  So two will grace our front steps, coming in at night, until later in May.  I will be back for a few more for the backyard when the weather warms up.  The plants I bought last year thrived, and are still going strong in the window at my office.  And for a first time, I bought pansies for the front and back.  Hardy, but lovely, they can already stay outside.  I find them a frugal buy because the give color from Spring to Fall.  Why a pricey greenhouse and not a big box store?  First, service.  These people know a stunning amount about what they sell.  Two, quality.  The plants last, for a long time.  Three, they have a loyalty card.  With each $25 I get a punch. When full, there is $20 off my purchase.  Too bad for me though, my bill today was $41, I got one punch...oh so close to 2, but I didn't add more to the cart just to get a punch.

Then it was a quick run by Dream Bikes, who had serviced both of my husband's bikes. A non-profit operation, their fees for bikes is by far the best in the area and we've used them for several years.  My husband is back to biking to his office, nearly ever day.  It's a great way to lead an active lifestyle, cut down on gas consumption, and is just as fast, if not faster than his car.  It is a return to a more frugal way of life, and encourages me to bike to my office as much as I can now that the snow has left for a few months.

Our last stop of the morning, yes there were four in total, was the West Side Farmers' Market.  Arriving close to Noon we found the cheese curds had been sold out as was the spinach.  I did score a tomato for a meal this week, and a few food items as a thank you gift to the friends who had us at their home on our trip to DC.  If they lived closer I'd make a meal or two for them, but they don't.  Hopefully these locally produced goodies will bring extra joy to a meal of theirs.

Having been cooped up in the car a bit, we took to the back yard after a quick lunch.  My husband used our neighbor's ladder to climb to the roof and clear the gutters.  Savings of $85, something we previously hired out.  It took less than an hour, allowed for a neighborly chat, and gave him some exercise. However, when we are not in frugal overdrive we may outsource this again, one wrong move and a fall would result in injury. Obviously not fun, and not ideal when you run a business.  We carry disability insurance, but hope to never use it.  The flowers were planted, allowing the kids to get their hands dirty.  What a low-cost way to play with children!

My day was more full than expected, throwing a wrench in my dinner plan.  With not enough time to make a pizza dough, I opted to order-in.  Using a coupon I got two large pizzas delivered.  It will provide food for at least three meals.  And the sausage I had set out for a topping was converted to soup.  I called it Italian Sausage Soup, and prepared it on the fly.  Soup, it is by far my most frugal go to meal.  The main reason -- it is a great way to use up items on the fridge shelf.  Here is how I prepared it:

  • brown sausage (removed from casing);
  • saute onion and garlic in olive oil;
  • add in diced green pepper, celery, and carrot;
  • sprinkle parsley, basil, salt, and pepper on veggies;
  • pour in left over liquid from spinach earlier in the week;
  • pour in second have of veggie broth from container in fridge;
  • add 2 cups of water plus broth concentrate;
  • chop up frozen swiss chard from freezer;
  • add a can of chick peas; and
  • simmer for 45 minutes.
One of the tastiest soups I've thrown together this weekend!  Soup, turn to it when veggies need a second life or you need a relatively simple and quick meal.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Frugal in the Garden

Spring has finally sprung here in Madison, and this afternoon the kids and I took our frugal ways to the yard. Raking away last falls leaves from the flower beds, and dumping them into our every growing compost pile.  Once removed we found a patch of day lilies smack in the middle of the berry patch.  Perfect for transplanting to the front yard.

My four year old son gets orders from mom to dig, he was in heaven!

A much improved front yard in my opinion.....who wants grass you have to mow when you can have blooms and flying friends.  
Bird feeders and baths to be added this summer.

Plants are pricey, something I learned last summer.  On a trip to the Flower Factory I saw how much day lilies can cost, and vowed to never purchase any, but rather transplant.  Whomever lived in our house before had a think for day lilies (probably because the critters appear to leave them alone, selecting to chomp down our tulips instead).  So up them came.  And later tonight, after dinner (which is cooking while I type), I will relocate them to the front yard.

And here it is, in its latest phase.  Add mulch and things look so much better.  The entire area in the front was covered by our landscaper for $65.  It would have taken us a long time to do what they did in under an hour.  Longtime readers may recall how last fall I covered this section of lawn with leaves.  I decided to work with the drought and kill off part of the lawn.  Now covered with mulch, it would turn into a lovely garden this summer.  Gone is the need to mow, and hopefully it is a home to some perennial fruits and vegetables we plan to plant in its midst.

Tomorrow's agenda calls for a stop at Johannsen's Greenhouse here in Madison (high quality plants, very informed staff, and a loyalty card make them a stop for this frugal gardener).  I called ahead and they have asparagus buds ready for planting.  It will take a few years before we can harvest, but a few plants will go in this weekend.  I also plan to pick up some geraniums and new this year, pansies (thanks to my fellow blogger on The Other Side of the Ocean) I have learned that these hardy annuals flower from Spring until Fall, assumes critters don't turn them into dinner.  Fingers crossed for some lovely color over the next few months.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

There Goes the Newspaper, and Other Frugal Moves

I did it, today I pulled the plug on our newspaper subscription.  I adore the news, and often read stories aloud to the kids.  But thanks to smartphones, I usually see the headlines before going to the end of the drive to pick up the paper.  And the amount that goes to recycling is absurd, especially considering that when life is busy I don't read the paper.  And life has been busy.  So today I pulled the plug, and am looking forward to the $135 refund that is on its way.  It covers nearly all of the cost of our "new" jogger.

We did opt to spend money on mulch, something we'd considered getting for free and doing ourselves.  But when priced, I opted to hire out.  For $65 the mulch as delivered and spread.  Far less than us trying to transport free mulch, spread, and then clean out the car.  And with a small Honda, more than one trip would have been required. Time, gas, cleaning....the frugal choice was the professional.  On the flip side, we are going to clean the gutters ourselves this Spring.  Thanks to our neighbor, who lent us his extension ladder, it is something we can do when home with the kids.  Savings....$85.

And on a final frugal note, I was tickled pink today when the kids got into the dress up basket.  Pirates, bees, owls, and an astronaut outfits from Halloweens past emerged into creative and fun new attire this morning.  Having purchased some costumes, I am glad I keep them out and accessible for play.  It may be April, but bring on the costumes!

What was your frugal move of the day?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Earth Day Trek!

Happy Earth Day my dear readers!  Frugal living goes hand in hand with an Earth friendly lifestyle -- what is good for your wallet, is often good for your budget!  So, how did you spend this day?

Mine got off to an early start of legal work, a literal flurry of calls, clients, and papers.  Frugal both at home and at the office, I took notes on the backside of discarded sheets of paper.  Water the geraniums that grace my office window, which last summer beautified my backyard at home.  Sadly my commute to work required a vehicle; meetings started too early and ran too late for me to work in the 30 minute walk each way.  Something bothered me throughout the day.

After my morning of work in the office, I changed into mom mode and cared for our children this afternoon.  And our big task was to find a "new" bike stroller.  Our first one, which we found for $50 on Craiglist about 2 years ago had broken beyond repair.  Without it, options of walking to the grocery store or library were gone.  We needed a new one.  There were some on-line options, but we hesitated to purchase something like a bike stroller / jogger without touching it first.  Once again we turned to Craigslist, and there it Verona A Trek Deluxe in need of a new family.  They were asking $250, but took $200 cash.   A lot more than we paid for the Pacific Cycle one we first bought, but in far better condition.  Our hope is to get another two years of use with the kids, and then have it as a trailer for the bike to use on library and grocery rides.

While in Verona we stopped at our all time favorite library, and once again left with a bag so heavy I feared the canvas would break before getting to the car.  Books!  I love them, my husband loves them, and our two kids love them.  We can indulge their every whim on varied topics, and not pay a cent.  From books about sea life, to air craft, to Winnie the Pooh, they are entertained and amassing quite a vocabulary.  If you are frugal, I hope you have a library card!

Dinner was crockpot chicken paired with a variety of leftovers from the fridge.  Afterwards we embraced the balmy 65 degree weather and took the backyard.  My kids tug, gathered sticks, examined a fuzzy caterpillar, spotted budding flowers, and helped me empty the compost bucket.  After an hour they were muddy, tired, and ready for some cuddle time with library books in PJs.  Quite the low-key, low-impact day.  Perfect for Earth Day, and the other 364 days of the year.

Thanks for reading, and I'd love to read comments on how you celebrated Mother Earth.  I'll leave you with a YouTube Hymn of a favorite song of mine, one UUs sing every Sunday around Earth Day.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Market Day Arrived!

Yesterday took me downtown, for work.  There I was with my briefcase, pearl necklace and overcoat.  But before checking in at the speaking event I was signed up to give, I made an efficient run off the downtown Madison Farmers' Market.

The temperatures were not above 40, maybe even 35.  Vendors were bundled, breath was visible, and yet I was one among many.  As I drove into the parking ramp I wondered, what might the farmers possibly have to sell?  We've had flurries in recent days, where is Spring?  But to my delight I found numerous fresh and local options.  I left with a bag of organic sweet potatoes ($5), a bag of spinach, a cilantro plant for the kitchen, and a free Farm Fresh Atlas.  My hope is the atlas will provide for some fun and frugal food outings this summer -- lists and lists of pick-yourself farms, etc.

First haul of 2013 Farmers' Market Season, M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013

Spring spinach graced our Saturday evening meal as well as Sundays.  The first was steamed, and I kept the water which will re-emerge later this week in a soup of some sort.  My freezer still has some frozen preserves from the last market season, but just a few, mainly fruits that won't be available for a few months.  This week was for pure immediate consumption, but as soon as I spot local asparagus, I'll be back into "fill the freezer" mode.

Tomorrow marks another Earth Day -- how will you observe?  A publication for the school our children are slated to attend has a flier that says "every day is Earth Day here". I kind of feel that way about our home.  Living a frugal life is not only wise for your budget, but generally coincides with treading lightly on the Earth.  Not always, but most of the time.  As we prepare to slide into another week of intense professional and parenting obligations, I pause to think, what can we do tomorrow that is just a bit more kind to the Earth.  I'm still pondering.  But that is what a hot cup of tea and dark nights are for.  Check in tomorrow and see what happened.  And feel free to leave a comment if you have suggestions or know how you plan to mark Earth Day 2013.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Be Frugal, Make the Most of Money Smart Week!

Today marks the beginning of Money Smart Week.  An initiative created by the Federal Reserve Bank to increase awareness of all matters financial, the events across the country provide free or low-cost seminars on a variety of issues.  Take a look at the web site and see if there is a topic in your area that you would like to know more about.

For me, a frugal life is an informed life.  Go, listen, ask questions, and then make a decision for yourself.  A frugal person does not take financial advice without analyzing it independently.  Or at least they should not in my opinion.

If you happen to be in the Madison, Wisconsin area and want to know more about wills, powers of attorney, etc., I am speaking in a few hours and then again on Wednesday.  But the other class offerings are numerous and varied.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Great Use For Fallen Tree Branches

Image credit: M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013
This past winter Madison received a very heavy and intense snow; I believe it was one of the largest amounts to fall in a 36 hour period.  Sadly, it cracked the branch of a mature walnut tree centered in our backyard as well as seven limbs off a huge pine.  Clearly beyond our skill set (limbs on the roof, dangling branches, a foot or more of snow on the ground) we called in Gere Tree Care.  They did an excellent job, but it cost $900.  All out of our budget because we have a deductible of $5,000 on our homeowners insurance.  Why so high?  It keeps our premiums low, and we maintain a nice size emergency fund.  Thankfully we worked this unexpected expenditure in the budget that month, not touching the emergency fund.  And Gere left behind several of the larger limbs, which now circle the children's mulch bit.  From disaster to toddler benches -- it is a great way to make the most of fallen branches.

No kids at home?  Do you have a wood burning fire place?  Ours is gas, so firewood was out.  How about turning them vertical and placing a container on top for a natural bird feeder?  Or turn to Craigslist and sell the wood for a small price.  To be frugal is to pause and ask, how might I extend the utility of this.  In our case, fallen tree branches are perfect perches for our kids.  And once they outgrow them, we'll work them in as natural bird feeders.

Any ideas come to your mind?  If so, please leave a comment and share.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Culver's Coupons!

Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013

Do you like Culver's Frozen Custard?  Do you have small children who enjoy reading?  If so, you have a perfect combination on your hands if you are in the Madison area and it is still April 2013.  Why?  During the month of April, if your children draw an image from a favorite book and turn it in to the librarian, the librarian will hand you a coupon for a free dish of frozen delight from Culver's.

We stumbled upon this free treat last week when exploring the coloring section of our local library.  And wow were my children happy.  The coupons are tucked safely in my wallet, and will be pulled out on a day when were are out and about, close to a Culver's, and in need of a tasty treat.  Plus, it gives reading just one more boost on the enjoyment scale for kids.  My daughter drew a rainbow from her favorite story, Elmer and the Lost Colors, and my son drew a tree and bear that he associates with Winnie the Pooh.

Now the key will be to redeem these coupons without spending money.  I know I can go and leave with a $1 coffee for me.  If my husband is along for the ride, the bill will go up a bit.  So, this will be used for a day when it is adventures with Mama.

Thanks for reading and commenting!  Also, feel free to "like" my facebook page where I post links, cartoons, images, etc. that don't fit into formal blog posts.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

A Very Frugal Saturday!

As the sun sets on this Saturday, I am content that we had a very frugal day.  The start of my day was spent at our annual well-cat visit.  At ages 15 and 13 the cats both received positive reports, although slight heart murmurs were detected in both.  Something that was absent last year.  Our older cat received his two shots and had a blood draw; slight weight loss and the murmur signal possible thyroid issues.  Our younger cat had not other symptoms, and it is likely a trait of older age in a cat.  All in all we received 4 shots, 1 full blood panel, and a case of canned as well as a bag of prescription cat food.  The total bill was $250.  The price and quality of care is why I dive to Oregon for this service.

After spending a large chunk of change, and seeing the red flags that additional medicines or procedures may be in their future, I went into full frugal mode at home.  Forget taking the car anywhere.  We put on rain boots, hats, and yes gloves (in mid April) and headed to the backyard. My husband headed off to his office to work on his writing -- he is paid to blog on electronic issues!  First order of business was to empty the four cat litter containers I had filled with compost materials of the winter.  Mixed in with fresh leaves from the yard, it was left to decompose.  After a bit of play, it was back inside for a lunch of grilled cheese with a salad of bananas and apples.

Our afternoon took us by foot to Garner park.  We opted to skip the zoo and save the earth by using food power, not gas power.  The kids were troopers.  In what appeared to be flurries they hiked up hill to the park, found the swings and then the slides.  We examined tracks in the mud, and made a mental note to return with an empty bag to collect trash.  The snow is gone, and the debris is plentiful.  If you need a free activity with kids this Spring, consider collecting trash at a local park!

Late afternoon brought home haircuts.  Yes, I gave them one recently, but it was less than stellar.  Trimming was needed.  I kept them still by using Amazon Prime; thank you Dora the Explore and Bob the Builder for entertaining them for a home cut.  Amazon Prime, for $79 a year we get free shipping and free streaming for anything labeled "prime".  Wow, we work that to the full extent.  Kid content viewing.  Supplies for our businesses.  Books for personal use.  And ordering specific items, such as a 4T boys airplane themed raincoat.  No need to wander at the mall, I let my fingers do the shopping.  Two days later it is dropped at our front door, with no shipping fee!

Dinner was homemade pizza, spinach, pasta, and a salad for the adults.  Dessert used a whole wheat muffin recipe with applesauce from my freezer stash (local apples, with peel, and apricot added).  A delicious meal, and quite inexpensive.  My rough calculations put the cost of the pizza at $4.50.  I purchased Italian sausage for $4.00, and have half of it in the freezer for another pizza pie.  The jar of sauce will easily cover three if not four crusts.  And speaking of crusts, it was homemade from our bread machine.  Finally the shredded mozzarella bag has enough for another pizza as well.  It did take 2 hours to make the crust, etc.  But it was perfect for a cool and damp Saturday afternoon.

Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013

Lastly we continue to gather items for a yard sale.  With a bit more time on our hands we've decided to hold a yard sale when our neighborhood has its annual rummage sale.  It will allow us to clear out a lot of baby related clutter, help the kids learn about money, and put a little more green in our bank account.  We'll allot 6 hours to the actual sale, and will select the day based on the best weather forecast.  Assuming we open at 7am and close at 1pm, that means one of us can still "go to the office" in the afternoon for a few hours.  We figure we both need to be here; one to sell, the other to supervise the children.  We have not family to assist, which is one reason we've never done a sale before.  When we are both slammed with work, it makes more financial sense to focus on billable hours.  Now that time is a little more free, we figure it is a great exercise in frugality.  Tips on running a successful sale with little ones under foot is welcome.

Friday, April 12, 2013

To Garden, or Not - That is the Question

Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013 -- My Garden Buddah

The calendar says it is nearly mid-April, yet the weather hovers in the low 40s on a good day.  Rain, sleet, flurries fall day after day.  But one day, soon hopefully, warmer weather will arrive here in the Midwest.  And with it's arrival I will be forced to decide -- to garden or not?

One one hand, I say no.

  • My knowledge is basically non-existent.  I did not grow up in a gardening family.  Science has always been a challenge to me;
  • Time is short.  Really, another item to add to my "to-do" list?;
  • Southern sun hits the front yard of our home....situated on a very busy road.  Add two small children, and the stress of monitoring them negates any zen like moments gardening is supposed to bring; and
  • There are ample farmers' markets all over Madison from which I can purchase locally grown veggies and fruits.
And then on the other hand I say yes, at least give a little bit a try.
  • plant some perennials that will come back year after year;
  • kids you garden are more likely to eat fresh fruits and vegetables;
  • learning something new is a good thing, and I love to learn (hence the 9 years of college and grad programs); and the motivation to put me over the edge was in the Ted Talk by the Renegade Gardener -- taking control of my family's food means taking control of our health.  It is 10 minutes long (not the cleanest language, so no kid viewing), but pushed me to the side of giving it a try again this year.
So, for anyone who knows a little something, or a lot, about gardening in southern Wisconsin, please leave comments with advice.  What perennials might be a wise choice?  Blueberry bushes?  What about container gardening or an herb garden?  Please remember that my "work" is in the legal field -- this is not a natural for me.  But 30 years from now I hope to have learned enough and set an example so that my children will be adults holding a basic knowledge and fond memories of fresh veggies and fruits that Mama grew.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

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Good To the Last Drop! Frugal Overdrive Continues

Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013

Upon entering the kitchen last night I noticed the coffee pot was still about half full.  Long ago cooled, I poured the contents into my glass jar.  It was once a juice bottle our nanny (the one before last) used, and now it is my iced coffee jar.  Tucked into the fridge, I will pull it out later today for an afternoon pick me up.  Good to the last drop, that's my frugal motto.  Lesson -- end of the day coffee can still be used, just be creative.  I have also been known to freeze cold coffee in ice cube trays, which can be turned into a nice homemade iced coffee or shake.

We are nearly at the end of our first week of frugal overdrive.  And wow, we have had a great week.  Child care costs are gone.  My husband has a much smaller time frame in which to complete his work, and loves how efficient he has become.  Scoring two big wins in the evolution his business model this week, we are in good spirits.  Costs are down, way down.  Business deals are being made.  And when he has the kids he tackles household chores with his engineering focus....efficiency at its best.  Furnace?  Who needs heat during the day, he turns it down to 58 or 59.  Groceries are obtained by putting the kids in the jogger and running to the store.  Accomplishing not only his work out, but saves on gas.

Adding his focus to shopping and other errands allows me to easily make homemade meals.  Out came the bread machine, erasing the need to buy a loaf at the store (my preferred brand costing $4.29 each).  At home instead of running errands, I had time yesterday to let another soup simmer (green split pea) for lunch, and prep a dinner of meat sauce for pasta, spinach, and oatmeal bread in the machine.

Less running for me also means I have more time to think about expenditures.  As the snow melted I was reminded that we'll need much to cover the leaves I spread out front.  I knew the cost of the lawn service would be about $100.  Hmmm, I wondered, let's figure out how to save.  I remembered the City of Madison used to have mulch for free at a nearby park, but a neighbor said that had been discontinued.  So I Googled it; he was correct.  No more free mulch at Garner Park.  But, we can get up to 30 gallons free at a central location.  Can you guess what field trip one of us will take the kids on?  Watch for picture and details in the days ahead.  From $100 to basically nothing.  Assuming it works, it underscores the important of not being on a treadmill like existence.  Pause, reflect, wonder.  It will lead you to spend less!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Brown Bagging It!

My black and red "brown bag".  Note the tupperware -- why buy when you can reuse deli containers!

Here is my approach to brown bagging it.  My work hours are not conventional.  Two days a week I leave the house before my family is awake, and return just after lunch time.  The other two I leave just after lunch and work until the sun is down, sometimes quite late.  And bringing food is essential mainly because I have such a tight meeting schedule there is no slack time to "grab food" in between meetings.  Last Friday was an exception.  We had just returned from vacation and I was slated to work a solid 6 or 7 hours before heading to a family funeral (my husband's grandmother passed away while we were in DC).  With only a few meetings and mainly paperwork to review, I walked over to the grocery to get something from the salad bar.  The Chinese food caught my attention instead.  Not until the self-check out told me the total was $12.35 did I realize just how expensive it was.  And sadly, it didn't taste that great.  So as we continue in frugal overdrive here, I have recommitted myself to brown bagging food.  Staples include:

  • apple or banana;
  • whole grain crackers;
  • cheese;
  • nuts; and
  • a thermos of black coffee (no milk, which as cut down on the gallons of organic milk we buy each week).
What about you fellow brown baggers?  What do you like that is portable, healthy, and does not require a fridge or microwave (both are currently non-existent at my office, something that will hopefully change this summer as I look for bargains when the college kids move out).

Monday, April 8, 2013

Frugal Food: I'ts a Soup du Jour

Looking for frugal option in the kitchen?  Try a soup du jour!  And to keep it ultra frugal, make it from scratch.  This past weekend I turned out three different pots of soup.  Providing not only a healthy and easy meal, but populating the freezer with several containers that will provide brown bag lunches for my husband in the weeks ahead.

#1 - Split Pea Soup -- half-bag (i.e. 1/2 pound) yellow split peas, 1/2 container broth, 1 bullion cube, 2 cups water, bay leaf, salt and pepper.  Bring to a boil, then simmer for 1 hour.  Options to play with this include adding chopped onions, celery or carrots.  I choose to keep it very plain given the toddlers at my table.  But they both ate their entire bowl full.

#2 - Lentil and Cilantro Soup -- garlic and onion sauteed in sunflower oil (2 tablespoons), and 1/2 cup red lentils, one container (box) broth, bring to a boil and simmer for about 40 minutes.  Add chopped cilantro for another 5 minutes.  Pairs wonderfully with Mexican skillet-- ground beef, black beans, cilantro, cheese, onions and avocado.

#3 - Bean and Ham Soup -- before flying out to DC for Spring Break we had some family over for a pre-Easter meal.  One feature was a small ham, and it was not entirely consumed.  I tossed it in the freezer, and Sunday it gave us another meal in the form of soup.  First, 1 pound of black eye peas were brought to a boil and then left to simmer for 1 hour.  Second, in went diced ham, red pepper, onion, garlic, and celery along with a container of broth and a bay leaf.  Simmer for another hour.  Served with apple slices, leftover zucchini bread, and cheese.

The skies over Madison are wet and gray today, and forecast to be that way for the next several days.  Soup goes perfectly with this weather.  Enjoy if you opt to give a recipe a whirl, and feel free to comment leaving suggestions for your own favorite soup.

Frugal food has been an intense focus of this blog, and it will become even more so in the weeks ahead.  Yes, we are in frugal overdrive, but more importantly we were reminded of an important lesson Saturday.  My husband had a violent attack of food poisoning.  Cooking at home not only saves money, but gives you greater control over the quality and preparation of your food!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Entering Frugal Overdrive

Engine on display at the Dulles Air & Space Museum
M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013

Overdrive -- 1) a gearing mechanism in a vehicle that maintains speed but decreases output, or 
2) a state of heightened concentration.  
Either way of defining the word applies to our current situation.  We are in frugal overdrive!

Change is upon us.  And change can be tricky, especially when it is in a dual self-employed household and the change is occurring in the business of the person who works full-time as opposed to the other who works part-time.  The goal of said change? To move from being the consultant on-site for 40 hours a week towards the company who places an employee at that job for 40 hours a week.  Profit comes off the spread, allowing room for growth.  There are only so many hours in the day no matter how many energy drinks one consumes.  After a while you hit a ceiling on earnings.  And navigating this change means stepping back from what was in place, from what was working and paying well.   Life is too short not to aim for your dreams.  So we are tightening the belt around our house to give this business as much runway as possible.

How do you make those cuts in an already frugal household?  Easy, there is always some slack that can be found and trimmed.  For us the answer was obvious.  The largest expense on our monthly budget was child care, substantially more than our mortgage.  Did the word "was" jump out?  It should, because that is what we decided to cut.

Embracing the concepts in a book we read upon first entering parenthood, we are halving the work.  Deutsch's book Having It All: How Equally Parenting Works is a wonderful illustration in how parents can work together to achieve financial goals and maintain careers.  As the new model of my husband's business grows he has more time and more flexibility.  And working in the tech field means late starts to the day and late evenings is customary.  When I go off to the office to meet with clients and other matters related to my legal practice he is now in charge of the children, not a sitter.

Should this model work, we will maintain earnings but substantially decrease the hours he once worked.  It is worth a try for a few months.  The change means I no longer having someone making the Tuesday night pancakes to my specification (add pumpkin), but the children have their father fixing dinner.  And pancakes are his specialty.  And even more important, the cost savings mean we do not have to dip into our emergency fund.

Frugal living may get a bad rap at times, but it allows both of us to chase after the business dreams we love.  It's worth it in my mind.  Thanks for reading, and I'd love some fresh ideas on saving money -- it's good for the budget, but also our health and planet!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

When Free Is Not Frugal

Free does not always equate to the frugal choice.  Nothing new to me, but the concept was underscored on our recent trip to Washington, D.C.  All too often our nation's capital is touted as a great destination for families because so many attractions are free.  True, but that draws in soooo many people, decreasing the enjoyment of the destination.

During our five days in the city I once called home, we took in the National Zoo.  And a zoo it was!  Masses of tourists, school children, and locals descended upon a "free" cultural attraction. So deep were the crowds, our young children were confined to their stroller for fear of getting lost or stepped on.  The animals were an after thought, tucked behind vending stations, employees armed with cameras to "snap a quick photo" (for a fee) and police on segways.  The only positive was our ability to bring in our own food for the kids, saving us some money.  For the adults, the food options were actually rather healthy and not overly priced.  Something I cannot say for the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum at Dulles.

The saving grace of the zoo trip was the Amazonia exhibit, which oddly was nearly empty.  Don't let the photo fool you....the telescope station was actually broken.  As were many other features of the zoo.

Amazing display from the ceiling at Air and Space.  M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013

The first stop on our trip, we drove into the lot and handed over $15 for parking.  A small price we thought, knowing how much our young son loves all things related to space.  Here we would see rockets and a space shuttle.  As we crammed the kids and stroller through security, we quickly realized that this was going to be a let down.  First, the guard told us "under no circumstances can you eat the food you have in here while in the museum and if you need to eat, it can only be in the McDonald's Cafe, and there you have to ask the manager for permission to eat outside food.".  I need to emphasize here, this museum is in a huge field, there is nothing within walking distance.

A bit miffed we opted to take in the exhibits, hoping to feed the children after we were done, on a bench outside.  Our daughter had other plans and was quickly in meltdown, demanding food.  Off I went with her, leaving my husband and son to absorb the many wonders housed on the site.  In the McDonald's Cafe I saw all that is what I call "wrong with America".  Fast food, tables with no chairs to discourage lingering, little to no healthy items and to my amazement, no $1 menu.  What?  The saving grace of the golden arches in my mind is that the $1 menu allows you to purchase a small amount of junk food, but no here.  I handed over $20 for a salad, 2 milks, some nuggets, yogurt parfait, and a burger for my husband (McDonalds being a favorite junk choice of his).  I told the manager that my children had dietary restrictions and would be eating some food I brought.  He response was to stare are me, dazed and confused.  We managed to find one cramped spot and "ate".  As we walked out my husband started crafting the letter he plans to write to Smithsonian management, what a poor display of Americana!  Interestingly, outside was a family clearly new to the states based on their dress and language.  How I admired them, bowls in hand eating healthy food brought from home.  They knew more than we did about these "free museums".

McDonald's Cafe, notice the lack of chairs or stools for these tables?  Such a disappointment considering the wonder on display in the museum.

Free is not always horrible.  In fact, thanks to the brilliant recommendation of a former co-worker who travels to New Zealand alone with her two children, ages 6 and 2, once a year, we did not purchase a single item for the kids to use on the plane.  She and I share the frugal gene, and I knew she'd have practical suggestions for in-flight entertainment.  The emergency card in the seat pocket is not only free, but amazingly entertaining for young children.  Our two year old pointed to the letters she recognized, counted the letter As, and chatted about the colors and pictures.  In the hands of our four year old son, it was great fodder for stories about rescues, etc.  Not one penny spent, kids engaged and happy, what a great experience for their first flight.

We had a lovely time exploring Washington, D.C., but sadly I will use great caution in ever planning around "free" or "reduced priced" admission.  The crowds take away from the exhibits, and it really isn't pay for it through food restrictions, parking, etc.  I'd rather spend a little and enjoy the day then get something for free.  Which was reinforced our last full day there when we took in the sites at Mount Vernon.

 Ahhhh, Mount Vernon.  Space to enjoy the birthplace of our country!

Frugal travel -- how do you save on exploring our world?