Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Frugal Travel: Dubuque, Iowa

When people hear that I am frugal, they naturally seem to think that means our family doesn't travel.  For example, upon describing our yearly trip to Bayfield every summer solstice I'll inevitably hear "hey, I thought you were frugal?"  I am, and one can be frugal without giving up travel.

Love to travel, but need help fitting it into your budget? Consider these -- Rules of Frugal Travel:

  1. Center activities around nature and or educational venues -- these types of places are often free or have low admission costs.  Think nature centers, state or national parks, preserves, museums, aquariums, etc.
  2. Stay in the area of your activities -- find lodging that allows you to walk or take public transit to your actvities to save on time, fuel, and parking costs.
  3. Avoid restaurants -- eat breakfast in the room, bring food in a bag for lunch on the go, and return to your room for dinner.  Brown bagging it like this will slash costs on food.  And if you travel with small children it will decrease the pricey but unhealthy empty carbs you find on kids menus (mac & cheese for example).
  4. Bring home digital images -- unleash your inner Ansel Adams and use your own camera to make images from your travels.  Turn those into prints, magnets, or gifts.  You'll avoid gift shops and the prices that go with them.
  5. Keep it short -- you may be away from home, but you are still paying for home.  Each day of travel is added cost on our budget, the mortgage doesn't stop because you are away.  Recognize this and keep the trip relatively short if possible.  
  6. Prioritize your wants -- I want to travel, so does my family.  Knowing this we skimp on other luxuries so that we have the funds to travel.  There is no Netflix subscription here, no summer pool membership, we love 2nd hand stores for clothing, and we drive cars that are paid for and not flashy (a Honda and a Mazda).  Figure out the 2 or 3 things in life that you really want, and put your money there.  
We recently started a new tradition to help celebrate our children's birthdays (ages 5 and 3) -- a family vacation.  The plan is to travel at the mid-point of their birthdays, which fall in late July and mid-August.  We also want to focus on doing things that are special to the children.  She loves fish, and he has been reading Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn with his dad developing a new interest in history and the Mississippi River.  The destination this year was obvious -- Dubuque, Iowa.  

A mere 1.5 hour drive from our home, getting there was less than a tank of gas in the Honda.  It's proximity to Madison was nice, but the fact that it is home to the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium was the decision maker.  After a little internet research and talking with friends from the area it was decided we should stay at the Grand Harbor Resort and Waterpark.  The hotel and museum share a parking lot making it walkable for us, and I discovered that if I paid $20 more for one night we received admission to the museum for 2 days -- cutting the price in half.   Our room rate also gave us access to the water park, which offered several hours of fun for all.  Total price for two nights $226 (taxes included).  Note -- we selected nights with lower rates (low because it was not as full), so we stayed Sunday and Monday nights.

 Taken from our room.  Immediately below is the hotel water park.  
The brownish red building with the blue banner is one of the 2 buildings making up the museum

Deviating from our approach in Bayfield where we spend to get a condo with a full kitchen, here we opted for a standard room.  Equipped with a fridge and microwave many a meal were possible.  Why not a suite?The costs was higher, and it did not come with a full kitchen.  Knowing we were here to be out and about we decided more space was not really worth it for this trip.


The desk was converted into a dinning table for us, and worked quite well.


A favorite of ours is baked sweet potato.  The quilted bag it is on was a gift many years ago, and allows me to bake a potato in the microwave in 7 minutes or less.  Served hot or cool and bring along for a healthy snack.


Yes, we're Wisconsinites -- that is Bratwurst with cheese, plantain chips, and the sweet potato.  The brats were made back home and simply heated.  I use the same approach for meat filling for tacos.  Just added salsa and cheese, and we had Mexican for dinner.


The museum had numerous hands on activities for children, making it a warm and welcoming place for a family.  Mom and dad could relax a bit.


Staff at the center was extremely knowledgeable and friendly.  Here the children learned about crawfish and mussels.


Another section of the museum is devoted to Mark Twain and life along the river.  Kids love the chance to walk on logs.


And to get wet in Waterworks.  Hands on fun, and learning about the ecosystem along the river.


The Grand Harbor is situated on the river walk, a perfect place to sit or stroll.  We enjoyed it in the early evening.

Flowers abound!

And our little scientist with her nature sketch.  It cost $10 (I could have got one for $5 put it was pink and princess themed so I passed and went for this model) at Target.  Both kids have one, purchased for our 6 hour car trip to Bayfield.  It has provided endless hours of fun....and still does.


Talk to locals for tips!  Before leaving I asked a good friend who grew up in Dubuque about things the kids might enjoy.  Thanks Kate -- we loved the Fenelon Place Elevator.  Historical and an engineering marvel!  We took it down, the kids got an ice cream cone (I asked for a "kids" size, cutting the sugar and the cost) for them.  I found an excellent coffee, and dad read to us about the history of the elevator.....dating to the 1880s!  Total cost to ride, $6.

Our last stop before returning home was the Mines of Spain Recreation Center.  Free admission, stunning views.  The kids were quite tuckered by this point, so we opted to a short hike up, and then back to the car.  There is a nature center, but they were asleep by the time we drove passed (less than 5 minutes).


And there you have our frugal trip to Dubuque.  We spent just about $300 -- $226 on the hotel (included water park and museum), $25 on lunch at the museum, $10 on coffee and ice cream, and a tank of gas.  Well, there was one added expense, one that taught us an important lesson.  When both parents are packing the car, double check to make sure everything was put in!  As we unloaded the car in Dubuque I looked at the cart, then at my husband and asked where did you put the kids' suitcase?  His expression said it all -- it was back in Madison!  Oops.  Instantly I was reminded of a quote I read recently "perfect isn't fun".  We rolled with the oversight, found the local Target and outfitted the kids.  Items were either on deep discount because they were summer wear, or were items I had intended to buy them in preparation for school.  Remember, mistakes will happen.  Unexpected costs develop.  Plan for that a bit, and you can still travel without breaking the bank.  Thanks for reading, and may you have a lovely rest of the summer.


Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Power of a Pause in the Frugal Rhythm of Life

Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013

Every now and then a book falls into my hands that brings about multiple "ahas!".  Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman is one o:f those books.  It's the last thing I read at night, and this morning it was the first thing I picked up -- finishing off another chapter while the coffee brewed.

Every "aha" is followed first by "why didn't I read this book 5 years ago?" and "hmmmm, maybe we should move to France....this fits us!".  You may wonder what a parenting book has to do with frugal living -- the answer is simple.  Do you pause in your financial life?  If not, you should.

Pauses are the root of her parenting techniques.  Wait before picking up a fussy baby at night, they'll likely quite down.  Wait before offering goldfish crackers to a cranky toddler; constant snacking means they really aren't hungry come meal time.  And that idea of a pause dominates my financial world.  During a pause one can assess before acting.  One might ask:

  • do I really need to go to the store or can I make do with what is on hand?
  • am I bored and looking for stimulation at the mall?
  • can I find this cheaper someplace else (Amazon Prime, re-sale, Craigslist)?
  • do I have to own this, or can I borrow it somehow?
  • how much does" buy now pay later" really work out to costing/
I find that in that moment of pause more often than not I ditch my idea to make a purchase or somehow spend money.  The pause causes me to think, question, and figure out what is really going on.  I'm bored, I'm acting out of habit, I've had a bad day and want some sort of treat, etc.  The pause allows me to spend far less than my contemporaries. Yet I don't feel deprived.  Frugal living allows me to stash away the money I might have spent but for the pause.  And that nest egg yields security, comfort, and freedom to take risks in my career.  The pause is key!

Reading Druckerman's book I'm amazed, I pause in my financial life, but not in my parenting life.  Perhaps that should read, used to not pause.  Whether it is the demand to eat, play, or get up in the night, my children are entering a french influenced phase of their life.  Mama is branching out the power of the pause.  It will help them cultivate patience.  And if the book is correct, give me more pleasure in the day to day of parenting.

Thanks for reading, and please share stories of how pausing in your financial life brings about a frugal one.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Frugal Living Via a Compost Pile!



Compost -- most of us know that it is a wonderful way to turn kitchen scraps into a rich booster for soil.  And it provides a useful place for the leaves, cuttings, and other "plant" matter generated year round by a yard.  Composting is essential to the frugal heart - where you can turn cutting, scraps, and other odd things into a powerful fertilizer.  And save it from a trip to the curb.

And I was reminded this week that every now and then your compost may deliver another unexpected gift....a plant.  We found this gem in a patch of ground cover under the large tree that centers our backyard.  Most likely transplanted by a critter, we are not sure what it is.  Pumpkin?  That was my guess, and now the children's wish.  They want to carve pumpkins!  But after reading a recent post on The Other Side of the Ocean, I think it looks a bit like a cucumber.  The kids will be less thrilled with that if true.  Any guesses?


As for composting, don't over look items that can be diverted from your trash to new life via decomposition. Tubes from paper towel and toilet paper.  Newspaper.  Coffee grounds and tea bags.  Egg shells.  Brown paper bags that held your take-out.  Brown napkins that are not too soiled.  This time of year I have little to no yard waste (we use a push mower) so I need to be create on finding plant based items to off-set the food items.

Later this year, as we prepare the garden spots for winter, I hope to take some of the broken down compost out and spread for next years beds.  Tips on accomplishing that are welcome.  Our bin is mixed with materials that are well broken down, and yesterdays offering.  Some sort of strainer like device is needed....maybe what I'd use for pasta.  Suggestions?

Thanks for reading, and have a lovely frugal day!



Sunday, July 21, 2013

Frugal -- It Has Limits!

Quite the frugal day for us.  Church, then the Monona Farmers' Matrket where I turned $25 in Monona Moola dollars (promotional effort by the Chamber of Commerce to get people to spend there) into 3 quarts of blueberries and 10 zucchini.  My husband had purchased them over a year ago when working on-site for a client in Monona.  Not wanting to forget about them or have them expire, it popped into my mind that the vendors at the market would accept them.   A quick email earlier this week to the market manager confirmed that they would accepted. It was a lovely purchase, and reminded me how perfect a Sunday market is for our family schedule.  We'll be back.  Especially when I found a vendor who had iced hibiscus tea flavored with orange and spice -- I'll be attempting a home brew this week.

Berries on cookie tray -- into the freezer, then bagged for scooping into baked goods this coming winter!

My frugal ways met its limit later in the day.  My brain clicked on the fact I had never emptied the shop vacuum after using it to suck up water that came into the basement.  It was 2 weeks ago, and I anticipate a bit of a mess.  What I found was horrific.  Note to self, remove bag before sucking up the water.  Shocked by what I discovered, I stood in the basement for a good minute wondering, should I just clean it?  Reason prevailed and said take it to the curb, a new one is less than $100.  There is mold.  Black water.  Bugs.  Put the time you would have put into cleaning it into my legal work. To the curb it went, a post on Craigslist was made, and it was gone in less than 30 minutes.  Pat on the back to the brave man who scooped it from the curb.  Our replacement was found on Amazon Prime for $60, and will be delivered in 2 days with no shipping fee.  Usually I will salvage items, but not at the risk of my health (I have asthma triggered by mold).  For $60 it's time to get a new one, and Amazon Prime makes the shopping far easier than driving to stores or monitoring Craigslit.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Frugal Cat Lover


It is my pleasure to introduce Ms. Kiki Gervasi, the latest creature to call our house a home.  At five years of age Kiki experienced something far too many animals do; her human suffered a neurological event, one that dashed hopes of independent living.  Suddenly Kiki needed a new plan, and the power of the Universe set her path to our door.

For several months I have been entertaining the idea of adding a new cat to our house.  At 15 and 13 years old, our current cats are doing well.  But, at the last vet visit both had heart murmurs, ones never noted before.  Might this be the time to bring in another, younger cat to keep them active?

It was a Sunday in June that the minister at Prairie UU mentioned Kiki and her need for a new human.  Hmmmm, I wondered, could we?  I posed the question to my husband, expecting a firm "no", with a possible question of my sanity added on.  Instead I got "three cats, two cats, what's the difference?"  Then he asked," what will happen to her if we don't?"  I pounced as only a cat lover can, "well, she'd be taken to the animal shelter....and at 5 years old, in the middle of kitten season....you know, we'd be saving her from kitty death row, and give a cat already there a bi more time."  As his eyes teared up, Kiki secured a new human. She has been with us just about a month now.  Her humans are happy, and have learned a new skill -how to get into the garage without her joining us.  The older cats are a bit disgusted by this young miss of a cat, but there was no real "cat fight".  A growl here, a hiss there, but for the most part the transition went well.

How is this frugal?  Kiki did not cost a penny!  In fact, she came with two scratching posts (approx. value of $100), food, and several toys.  She was spayed and current on vaccinations.  All it took was an open heart, not an open wallet.

If you have room in your heart and home for an animal companion, and you consider yourself frugal, then find that beloved animal through friends, shelters, rescue organizations or a vet.  Why or why pay for a pure-bred animal.  Unless you are gunning for best in show, take the frugal route.  It will warm your heart, save a life, and discourage the dark side of pet for sale businesses.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Frugal Cooking -- The Art of Leftovers


Yesterdays lunch - made possible by the art of leftover cooking.  The blue plate featured melon chunks and a peanut butter tortilla for my elder child.  The tortilla has 5 grams of fiber, and I find it much easier to work with than traditional sandwich bread.  Sprinkled in is wheat germ.....gobbled up.  The bottom red plate is a variation for my youngest, and featured avocado spread.  It was nearly ready to go from counter to compost, but the spread saved the day.  In the white bowl is an egg salad, using up the last of the hard boiled eggs I had made for my girls weekend fridge.  Added were sliced onion, dill, and mayo.  In the center is our communal family plate, a method I find encourages the kids to grab and try something new.  Included were the remaining breakfast sausage from the morning, cherries, and tomatoes from the plants in our front yard.  Water with ice was added later, and the flowers were picked from our yard.

Leftovers, we all have them.  And all too often then go from fridge to trash without gracing a plate.  To be frugal means to maximize utility, even leftovers.  My obvious go-to is to add them to my husband's lunch bag, but that has its limits.  Be creative, transform, and and enjoy.  Home cooking is fresh, healthy, less expensive than take-out, and easier on our landfills.

Monday, July 15, 2013

When You Pass on Netflix...

"Have you seen ---insert title of recently popular film or movie?"  Upon hearing "no we don't have cable" nearly everyone says "oh, its on Netflix".  A puzzled look shadows their face when they hear "we don't have Netflix either".  Too which I hear, "Oh, it's only about $10 a month, you should get it!"  Sorry, not this frugal family.  Why not?


  1. $10 a month translates into $120 a year.  I could do a lot with $120 a year, and I bet you could too;
  2. Raising kids who spend time outside, exploring, watching the clouds, playing....is a not harder to do when endless titles of kids movies and TV shows are a click away;
  3. We already have Amazon Prime.  It offers a nice array of instant shows and movies, plus allows me to shop with no shipping fees for vast list of items.  Shopping from home means no impulse buys, no gas to get to the store, and I can shop when I want - not when store are open;
  4. The library offers countless DVDs, plus books, classes, toys, music, and more.  Also, we routinely take advantage of summer reads programs.  My kids have already earned coupons for free ice cream (at a store we already frequent) as well as passes to Wisconsin State Parks.  We get far more than $10 a month in value by using the library, and my fear is a Netflix subscription would eat away at our trips.
Are you frugal?  To me that means analyzing every purchase.  And yes, even something that is $10 or less.  Especially when it is a subscription......it sounds cheap, but it really isn't.  At least not in my mind.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Book Review: Let Them Be Eaten by Bears

Never the off-the-chart outdoors person, I gravitate towards books of the how to enjoy the outdoors genre. This is especially strong when it comes to getting my kids outside.  For some this may be easy, for me it requires research and planning.  Add to the mix a husband who does not like bugs and three of the four of us (myself and the kids) suffering from seasonal allergies, and getting outside is not simple.

And so there you have a recent book title I've just finished, Let Them Be Eaten by Bears: A fearless guide to  taking our kids into the great outdoors, by Peter Brown Hoffmeister.  All the more fitting, I read it while we vacationed in Bayfield, Wisconsin, home to the black bear (one island is currently closed to camping due to black bear activity).

My hopes for the book were high.  Approaching ages 5 and 3, getting the kids outside requires more than a blanket, a bucket and shovel.  Creative play, high jumps and a Gervasi form of Dodgeball now factor into outside play.  My Goodreads review of the book was 4 stars, primarily because the author promotes a concept car approach to enjoying nature with kids.  I love the idea of a nature walk, but snowshoeing to an outdoor winter camp, and then camping?  Well that is not likely to happen. Sounds magical, but is not practical.

Each chapter did end with more easy to embrace activities, but I felt there could be more middle ground offerings.  And a bit less emphasis on camping -- one can enjoy nature without having to sleep in it.  My overall opinion of the book is quite high given one very powerful quote, coined by his wife -- "perfect is not fun".  Stop trying for a Hallmark moment.  It will rain.  Kids will scrap a knee.  Bugs bite.  The heat will be sweltering at times.  It is not a perfect day you are after, but a day outside.  And as they say at the Madison Waldorf School -- there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.

If little ones have a place in your life, and you need ideas on how to get them outdoors, give the book a try.  I'll close with my personal favorite ways to spend time in the fresh air with the kids:

  • find a beach, give them spoons and buckets and them them dig....works from April to November here in Madison;
  • give the child a small nature notebook and have them or help them draw pictures of what they see on nature walks (record colors, animals, sounds).  Then revisit in a different season and compare notes;
  • read on a blanket under a tree;
  • picnic at the park;
  • nature walk in your neighborhood;
  • create a nature basket for the kids to collect items from the walk;
  • plants flowers;
  • plant vegetable plants (let the kids play in the dirt); and
  • do a trash pick-up in your park.

Friday, July 5, 2013

In Pictures: A Frugal Trip to Bayfield, Wisconsin

Readers who saw my earlier post today may might have noticed my end note -- our home internet was down, so posting photos was not an option.  We are back on-line, and here are some image highlights from our annual trip to Bayfield, Wisconsin.

First up, the public library.  No admission fee.  Tourists can borrow up to 5 items for 5 days.  An amazing children's section (books, puppets, doll houses, art supplies). And of the off the charts delight, free coffee and cookies.

Here is the building.


The art supplies.

The coffee, cookies, and locals full of tips.


Fresh fish, just off the boat.  I am still enjoying smoked trout that I brought home to Madison.  The storefront.


And the boats at the side.

A new destination this year, further north.  No admission fee.  Nature at its best.


Tupperware and kitchen spoons kept the kids running and playing for a good hour.


While the parents stared into the fog, sipping coffee we brewed back at the condo (complimentary coffee!)

And we all wondered, what made these prints in the shore?  Deer, bear, wolf?


Nature proved once again to be the ultimate playground.  Our daughter fetching water for her "sand cakes".


And our son putting his imagination to excellent use with seaweed.  Forget the toy aisle, let your kids run free in the wild.....it'll save you money, give new meaning to plants/twigs/sand etc., and stimulate the mind.

And there you have it, summer solstice 2013 on a frugal note.  Our main cost was the condo.  We filled the car up in Madison, and once in Bayfield.  A huge cooler meant little to no grocery purchases, and we avoided the restaurants.  Our 2014 reservation has already been made!

Another Year, Another Frugal Summer Solstice Trip to Bayfield

Delayed, yet this is a delayed post.  We are past the 4th of July and a few weeks past the summer solstice.  But but late than never!

Once again our little family packed up our Honda Civic, and headed north.  Ever the money wise, I scheduled a 2pm meeting with clients who live in Hayward.  Why have a client meeting worked into the launch of a vacation: 1) making a meeting gave the entire family motivation to get up and get moving, we were out the door just before 8am (note, Bayfield is a 6 hour drive north); 2) the mileage to and back from Hayward became a tax deduction; and 3) when you are self-employed you take client meetings when they come...there is no such thing as a "weekend".  Frugally speaking, we set off on the right food.

We returned to the Ada O'Day condo for home base.  Remember, frugal does not mean cheap.  We pay a premium for the place, but it is worth every penny.  A full kitchen means we eat all meals (except one breakfast at The Egg Toss) at home.  There is a dinning room table as well as a deck overlooking Lake Superior.  And when I say a full kitchen, I mean a full kitchen.  Crockpot, pans, measuring spoons, just about anything you'd have at home.  With a home feel we enjoyed simply hanging out reading or watching videos.....which off-set the cold rainy weather that engulfed the town for most of our visit.  And an essential ingredient to a frugal condo, the washer/dryer.  It drastically cuts down on what you have to pack.  Saves space, saves on gas, saves on time.

This year we skipped our trek out to Madeline Island.  The forecast called for heavy rains, possible hail.  Not exactly where you want to be with kids not quite 5 and 3, in a State park.  Plus the ferry fee for the car adds to the trip....close to $50.  Instead we took the advice of locals and drove even further north to Little Sand Bay.  No admission, and pure stunning nature.  Armed with kitchen spoons from that stocked kitchen and some tupperw-ware, the kids dug and dug.  We watched the fog and contemplated what critter made the footprints we saw the on the beach (bear are as common up there as squirrels are in Madison).

Water also took us to the Bayfield recreation center.  For $16 the family could spend the day in its pool, along with a hot tub and steam room.  It was hear that we decided an annual trip is insufficient.  Stay tuned for a winter solstice trip to Bayfield.  Note: the center is open year round

The coup on this frugal trip was our visit to the Bayfield library.  We'd never been before, and upon leaving I launched into a serious discussion -- should we move to Bayfield.  This place is amazing.  Children's sections of libraries are something I have come to know well.  And form opinions of.  My favorite local one is Verona, but by far, Bayfield blows them away.  Warm, friendly, free colors and coloring books available.  Puppets, quality puppets to check out!  A doll-house, and the most friendly staff ever.  I swear we'd stumbled into a Garrison Keillor story.  When my husband discovered the free cookies and coffee next the the circulation desk, he too began wondering -- should we move here?

If a frugal vacation is what you want, consider Bayfield.  The camping is plentiful (one island was closed to camping because of bears).  Nature is free and entertaining.  Tourist trap shopping is minimal.   And the town is walkable (we use the car one time, to drive to Little Sand Bay).

Images will follow-another day.....home internet just went out, unable to upload and post images.  Now off to deal with Charter Cable.