Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Nature's Open House Coming this Weekend!

Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013 -- UW Arboretum, on a family nature walk

Mark your calendars, June 1st and 2nd offer ample opportunity to get outside, explore, and be frugal.  Here are three that are on my radar:

Nature is a wonderful playground, which can cost next to nothing.  Other ways to keep it frugal:
  • carpool to your destination
  • bring a picnic lunch
  • carry lots of water
  • enjoy a vegetarian meal -- PBJ sandwich, nuts, and an apple will take anyone a long way
  • use a camera to take home mementos -- avoid the gift shops.

Monday, May 27, 2013

A Frugal Memorial Day Here

Memorial Day is set aside as a day to honor and remember those men and women who lost their lives as members of the American Armed Forces.  Typical public honors include flags, ceremonies, parades and the like.  We debated how we would recognize the day, wanting it to be more than a day to grill out, and use it as a teachable moment for the children.

After a very lazy morning of coffee and kids playing in the rain out back, we loaded up the bikes to run errands.  First to the library where we returned books, DVDs and music.  Libraries should be a cornerstone in any frugal lifestyle -- why pay when you can borrow for nothing!  Next it was down the road to a neighbor's house who had rhubarb for the taking.  Upon opening her chest freezer she discovered the crop from last year was still there, and there was no room for this year's crop.  We gladly accepted her bag -- what would have cost me $12 or more at the farmer's market.  We made a short stop at the park for play and a snack.  And then it was off to Office Depot.  Knowing a new computer was in my near future I took advantage of their Memorial Day sale.  Combined with $14 in coupons and my new 1% cash back credit card, it was a frugal purchase of the office.

All done by bike.  The clouds threatened rain, but we did not stay home. We did not pile into the Honda.  We rode.  Taking care of the Earth and country so many have fought and died for, stewardship.  Not the type of Memorial Day for many.  A different take on the upside of frugal living -- it's a lifestyle that respects all those who fought for the freedom we enjoy.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Efficiency at the Heart of Frugal Living

Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013 - Space Shuttle, Air & Space Museum at Dulles

Is frugal living a goal for you?  Are you already frugal but wanting to take it up a notch?  If so, then you must embrace the fact that at the heart of a frugal life is an ability to view life based on efficiency.  Defined, efficient means achieving the greatest output from the least amount of input.  Once upon a time I resisted this calculated approach to frugal living, I held on to my view that what mattered the most to a frugal life was the ability to stretch a penny.  Yes, that is a factor, but when you view life through the efficiency lens you will take frugal living to an entirely new plain.  Making this switch was facilitated by my marriage to an engineer seven years ago.  Engineers -- the masters of efficiency.  It's all about the numbers, not about the feelings.  Sound cold?  If taken too far, yes.  But when applied to an amazing array of financial decisions it will result in not only a frugal life, but the road to a nice net worth as well.

Take housing for example.  We married in 2006, the height of what we now know as the housing bubble.  Newly married professionals out of school, everyone assumed we'd buy a home.  Wrong.  My newly minted husband ran the numbers, scratched his head, and muttered "it just doesn't make sense....renting is by far more efficient based on the $ per square foot".  Unmoved by emotional attachments to property, we rented. And we saved.  And we rented even though a baby joined the mix.  And we saved, having no debt whatsoever.  And then a second baby joined the family in late summer 2010.  Three months later we were out walking and noticed a home (while renting my husband routinely scanned house listing monitoring the price per square foot), and it caught our attention. The numbers made sense, owning it would be more efficient than renting. And so, just as the housing market slid under water and people were shouting how horrible it was to buy, we bought, for $85,000 below its assessed value.  Our savings meant we had a substantial down payment, avoiding PMI.  Driven by the numbers, we avoided the biggest financial bubble in recent history.  All because of efficiency.

But it is not just the big financial purchases that we are efficient on.  He is an engineer and knows that all things have a failure threshold -- it will fail, the question is when.  As a result, we know make an effort to minimize opening our garage door.  In our new child care routine I have the kids while he works, and then he has the kids while I work, and we routinely trade off his car when we switch roles.  Instead of pulling into the garage, he just leaves it in the drive.  Metal wearing against metal will fail.  He estimates it has between 3 and 5 thousand openings/closings in its life.  So we use them knowing that we are using them up.  It might get us an extra year or two out of the device.  And the same goes with electronics (remember, he is an electrical engineer who designs circuit boards for electronics) battery life -- batteries on phones, computers, cameras, etc. can only be re-charged so many times.  The lesson -- don't run the battery unless you have to, otherwise keep it plugged in.  Want to drive him nuts, use your lap top to watch a DVD on battery mode -- highly inefficient.  Taking care of the products means we get more life out of them, and it saves money.

But the biggest efficiency change I have taken is in regards to time.  What does my time cost?  As an attorney my time in the office is well compensated.  I do not want to work a ton while the children are young, so I find myself home more than most working lawyers, a perk of having my own practice.   I now view most activities as "how will this enhance or drain my energy for work or parenting?".  If it is a drain, I just don't do it, even if it would be deemed frugal.  Case in point, garage sales.  Earlier this Spring I was dead set on holding a day long sale in conjunction with our annual neighborhood sale -- what is more frugal than selling your old stuff!  Items were sorted, little round stickers stuck on items, etc.  And then I watched the neighbor across the way have a sale.....for 5 days in a row he puttered in his yard, cars would stop, an item would be carted away.  It seemed....draining.  And then I ran the numbers.  I'd probably put a solid 8 hours into the sale -- set up, selling the day off, clean up.  And I realized it would be 8 hours away from both my kids and my clients.  And the potential revenue not that much -- most of the baby items I planned to sell were ones I had bought second hand.  If I put 8 hours into my legal practice I would be way ahead of the sale (something I know not everyone can do, but it is a factor in my efficiency thought process).  So I gave away a bunch of items to a young family expecting a child, and am using Craigslist to sell the higher-end products.  Far more time efficient, and I have more time with my kids and am more rested for when I am at the office.  Already sold was an REI Child Carrier. We bought it from clients of mine for $50, and used it exactly one time.

Think about financial transactions as though it were a machine.  Remove emotion from decisions, or at least identify whey emotion is motivating you (don't fall in love with "the" house).  Realize things break eventually, nothing lasts forever.  And figure out how much your time is worth.  Adopt those ideas, and you'll be traveling down the path of frugal living, towards a nice net worth.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Homemade Granola!

Over the weekend we took to the kitchen and made a double batch of homemade granola.  An ideal snack for kids or adults, topping for yogurt or ice cream, and an easy gift.  I'll be putting a small bag in the mail to a college student who just finished exams and is living in an apartment in Boston.  Granola, has many uses and when made at home is quite affordable.

Here is the recipe we used, modified as we went:

Mix 9 cups old fashioned oats (not quick or instant -- and save money by using a generic brand) along with 2 cups diced almonds.

Small pot on the stove: 1/2 cup unsweetened apple juice; 1/2 cup honey (you can use maple syrup); 2 tablespoons oil; 4 tsp cinnamon; and 1 tsp salt.  Cook and stir for 3 - 4 minutes.

Add sweetener to oats and almonds, mix, and Place in coated baking dish.  Bake for about 30 minutes, 350 degrees.

An easy recipe to tackle with the littlest of chefs -- here our nearly 3 year old helps mix.

Let cool and mix in 1 cup coconut flakes, 1 cup raisins, 1/2 cup dried cranberries.  Feel free to toss in other nuts or dried fruits.

My estimated total cost for this batch was about $7.  Far less than what you'd pay in the store, and you retain control about how much sweetener you add.  This recipe came to us when a friend gave us a gift of granola for the holidays -- and it remains one of my favorites!  Enjoy.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Frugal Living Means Embracing Nature

When a day passes and no vehicle was used for transport, yet we "did" a lot is a banner day here.  And today was a banner day.  In the morning my husband biked to his office, lunch bag and thermos packed.  While he spent a day focused on circuits, the kids and I tackled issues of food and yards.

Snug in their new to us jogger, I pushed and they rode to our local farmers' market.  For the freezer we bought 2 pounds of asparagus as well as another bunch of rhubarb.  Green onions and cheese curds were added to our current menu.  Once home we had a quick lunch (apples, curds, crackers, and a salad for me) and then headed to the back yard.  Out came our push mower, again no gas required.  And then my son and I tackled the chore of digging up the burdock spread throughout the yard.  Hopes dashed that the plant was rhubarb; burdock was leaves that are furry and a stalk that is hollow.  Yep, it was burdock.  Today was one of many that will likely focus on evicting it from our yard.  Mental note to myself, plant rhubarb next season, it is $3 a pound at the market!

In the kitchen leftover pork was turned into a black bean soup.  Asparagus was boiled, pureed, and froze for winter.  My scuffin recipe was introduced to peanut butter with chocolate chips (a winner!).  And again the cheese curds rounded out the evening meal.

As the day worked towards its end, the kids and I took an evening walk.  A new ritual they love, and I adore because no stroller is involved.  Behind our home is a small creek with a bridge.  Both kids enjoy taking a box of crayons, notepads, and backpacks.....they sketch and ask if they look like college kids.  Smiling I tell them, yes and know soon they will be headed off to a college campus.  Then I looked up and saw we were not alone.  In the creek stood a raccoon, watching us.  Delighted, both kids glimpsed this nocturnal neighbor.  After a bit we walked down to the "fallen tree", a huge one brought down by a massive winter storm last December.  And for fifteen minutes the kids experimented with the various sounds different sticks made when hitting the tree.

Nature -- its a delightful was to spend a frugal and rewarding day.

It's your typical suburban neighborhood, but with a curious eye toward nature it can yield hours of frugal fun.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Ice Wine Cubes!

Last weekend we had relatives over to celebrate my husband's birthday, and his aunt and uncle brought two bottles of wine.  To my surprise, when the guests cleared both had a good amount left.  Red wine I enjoy, but only a little bit suits me.  What to do?

A post on Facebook offering them up to a neighbor or friend passing bye went uncommented on.  Shocking since most people know my husband's family knows their wine, and import cases each year.  They'll store it, let it age, and pull it out just when it is perfect.  Sometimes that means waiting a decade or two.

Unable to pour it down the drain, I found inspiration on this web post -- 10 Ways to Use Leftover Wine.  My option was simple and practical.  Freeze it in an ice cube tray.  His family would likely be appalled that I froze the wine, but it is better than letting it go down the drain.  So it is freezing in the freezer and tomorrow I'll put the cubes in a bag.  When a red soup or beef stew is on the menu, I'll add a cube for additional flavor.

No drop wasted!  Not even the corks.  I am saving them in a glass spaghetti sauce jar -- when I have enough I plan to use glue and make a pot holder!  Wine -- if you have it leftover, what is your go to re-use?  Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend.

A Frugal Garden....The Story Continues.

Loyal readers will recall a recent post about curb karma -- put something out for another to take, and all of a sudden something appears in your path.  The magic struck again when out for a walk last week.  My daughter grabbed my hand and said "let's walk, girl time!".  So we did, and she led the way.  And to our delight we found a plastic bag with FREE on it....two peony plants in need of a new garden home.  Smiling, we picked them up, and yesterday they were planted in our front yard.  One that is evolving from suburban grass to a perennial wonderland.

We also decided to give vegetables another go around this year.  No hope of having a garden we sustain ourselves off of, but rather a lesson for the children in botany, science, and the simple fact that food comes from a place other than the grocery shelves.  This year we have a modest plot -- two pepper plants, two tomato plants, four brussel sprout plants, some melon plants, and future plans to plant lettuce seeds.  Already curious and eager about the plants, I hope it will instill a lifelong respect and taste for fresh vegetables.   Our plants were purchased at a greenhouse with a coupon; $10 off a $20 or more purchase.  Perfect!  Stay tuned to see if the critters consume them first.

If they grow it, will they eat it?  A brussel srpout takes hold in our garden.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Rhubarb Compote!

It's Spring, and chances are where you live rhubarb is abundant at the moment -- or it will be shortly.  Last summer I gave a new recipe a chance, and have what will likely be a lifetime favorite.  It's Rhubarb Compote, and it compliments a bowl of oatmeal, yogurt or granola perfectly.  Even better, preparation is about as easy as you can get.

Rhubarb Compote:

  • 6 cups chopped rhubarb (note -- not the leaves, just the stalk);
  • 1/2 cup orange juice; and
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
Bring mixture to a boil on the stove, cover and reduce to medium.  Simmer for 5 minutes with cover.  Remove cover and simmer for another five minutes.  Let cool, freeze, and pull out in the dead of winter.

Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013

What is your favorite use of the plentiful rhubarb plant?  Leave a comment and share.....more ideas welcome.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Frugal Garden Watering Tips

Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi -- Our 2012 potted garden.  T
he drought and critters did it in, but we are giving it another whirl this year in a new location.

Spring has sprung.  Green envelopes our yards.  The snow (in most parts is gone -- it's still on the ground up in Bayfield).  Spring also brings rain, and we've had our share of it here in Madison.  But soon the cooler temperatures will give way to the dog days of summer, and all that lovely green will start to wilt.  Water, it will need water.  And here are a few frugal thoughts on how to keep the plants going without busting your budget....water does cost money if it comes from the faucet.  Here are my four.

  1. After steaming or boiling food on the stove, set aside the pot and let it cool. Then dump outside on your plants;
  2. Place a bucket in the shower to catch "splash off water" -- not coming off the body, but the water that doesn't even hit you;
  3. Empty the dehumidifier bucket into your garden or direct the drainage hose to a bucket you can carry outside; and
  4. If you have little children who play in a splash pool, empty strategically.....and place the pool near that spot.  Hours of fun for little ones, and oodles of water for your plants.
I know, rain barrels are all the rage.  But they cost some money.  These are basically free options.  One day we'll install a rain barrel, but for this summer these are our go-to water saving methods.

Thanks for reading and have a lovely Spring weekend.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Frugal Mate

"I have a question to ask you."  It was that serious preface to a question that caught his attention.  Only two or three weeks after we had met, he was curious about why my tone had become serious.  "Okay, what's the question?"

"How do you feel about coupons?"  I asked, and a smile enveloped his face.  "I love them, why?"  And with that, two frugal hearts moved just a bit closer down the path of a life together.

Most people thought my coupon ways were over the top, a bit silly, not needed.  To my delight he liked coupons, and welcomed them.  In fact the female in his life prior to me had been a "shopper", actually a shopper squared......she earned very little but spent way beyond her needs.  He was happy to find another frugal minded person.

And as the relationship evolved into marriage, those frugal habits remained.  He jokes that his family once thought he was frugal, and then I entered the picture stealing the title.  I argue that we are both very frugal, just in different ways about different things.  For example, I am content with generic brands in the kitchen, he is not.  But my goodness, don't try and boil water without a lid if he is around -- you're wasting energy!

So if you are frugally minded and seeking a life partner, I encourage you to ask the coupon question early on.  If the person shuns coupons, thinks they are silly, or does not see the point, its a caution flag in my book.  However, if you have a conversation along these lings, "hmmm, I used a coupon but it didn't really save that much.  It seemed designed just to get us in the door.  I'd have spent less going to the other place, rather than the one with the coupon".  That is not anti-coupon, that is wise.  And the sign s/he is a keeper.

Earlier this week we celebrated my frugal mates birthday.  Coupon in hand we had a "date night" at the Nitty Gritty  -- Madison's birthday bar.  Buy one get one free burgers, and free beer for the birthday boy.  I had water. Over dinner we discussed the big steps he is taking with his business, hiring more staff to serve growing demand from clients.  The steps are big, risk is involved to a small degree, and it is all possible because we are frugal.  Even when frugal makes life a bit hard we keep at it; for the past month we have used little to no child care, taking the kids/home while the other works.  We shaved an expense large than our mortgage from the monthly budget, and relieved a huge amount of stress for me (my work hour flexibility increased).

What's your coupon story?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Curb Karma

Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013 -- Random shot, taken at Flower Factory.  
I'd love one of these for our yard...might one turn up on the curb needing a coat of blue paint?

You've likely heard of Karma -- following as effect from cause.  Have you heard of Curb Karma?  It's a phrase that popped into my mind this week.  While walking to work last week I found, on the curb, a perfectly fine garden pole for bird feeders or plants, and it is now front and center in my frugal garden makeover.  Over the weekend we cleaned out our garage, and I placed a car jack that had come with the house at the curb.  Functional but not needed, it found a new home.  So it seems like karma to me that as I walked home yesterday, what should I find but a few discarded planters that will perfect for a potted veggie garden we plan to plant this weekend.  There they were, sitting on the curb.  To keep the cycle going I opted to give away several baby items instead of attempting to have a garage sale.  I purchased them from garage sales, so the value is minimal. Time is precious, and I'd rather spend my non work hours engaged in easy and fun activities with my husband and children.  Running a garage sale does not fall into that category -- something I have a hard time admitting.  Having been raised on a used car lot, I have to fight my impulse to sell something, even if the time and energy I put into it far exceeds the monetary benefit.  Fighting back the urge, I found a home for the items.....and view it as another attempt to please the Curb Karma Gods.....what might I find next?

Monday, May 6, 2013

From Foot to Garden

Wow, it's been a week since my last post.  Can you tell I've been busy?  Happily, one reason was that I focused my attention on complete a draft of a book I am writing for my legal practice -- and it went to my editor on Friday.  And another reason, I've been commuting via foot, and when getting home I opt no to even turn on my computer.  Which makes blogging a tad bit difficult.

There are many benefits to commuting to work via foot.  It's healthy, you don't need gasoline, etc.  But have you ever considered what traveling on foot may allow you to spot...free stuff at the curb.  Now this is a line some "frugal folks" won't cross, but not me.  And last week as I sipped coffee and walked to my office I saw a house that had thrown out what appeared to be perfectly fine bird feeder / planter pole.  Obviously not something I could pick up and carry to work, so out came the cell phone and I called my husband.  And an hour or so later they took the same path, headed to a park, picked up the tossed gem, and had it waiting for me when I got home.  In its second life, it is front and center of our new flower bed in the front yard.

Sunday the kids and I picked up some inexpensive feeders at Woodmans, which we have given a second chance (it's a mega grocery that can try ones nerves, especially when the one shopping has two little kids) because prices on dairy are quite good.  Plus, I like spending my dollars locally when possible.  Afterwards we were joined by my mom (Sunday was a day my husband spent working, having covered me all of Friday when I was writing) and we went to a garden center I discovered last year.

The Flower Factory in Stoughton is not frugal at first glance.  Reaching it requires the car and a 20 minute drive into the country.  But to me it is frugal, and here is why.  One, they only sell perennials.  Those are plants that should come back year after year, barring any munching by critters or excessive heat or rain.  Two, they sell quality plants, emphasis on quality.  Three, they have highly knowledgeable staff who can answer your questions.  And fourth, they have a sand pile play area for kids!  This is the deal breaker for me.  I can shop, the kids can play as my mom watches over them. Then we trade roles while she makes a few selections.  No whining children.  No broken plants or containers.  Bliss among the birds, woods, and other shoppers.  Caution -- if you are shopping with young children and or seniors with health issues, avoid the hot afternoons of summer here....it can get blazing hot!

And as I made my selections (2 lavenders and 2 irises) I realized how expensive the plants in my yard are.  Peonies sold for $22 a plant!  Day Lilies and hostas are all over my yard.

So I will continue efforts to transplant whatever I can.  Which will be needed to fill in the hole created in the front of our house when I had the 1980s style evergreens removed a few weeks ago.  And here is the latest image of our frugal transformed front yard.  So far the cost has been less than $100.