Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Should the USA Have a National Savings Day?

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Trick or Treat? Frugal Halloween Candy

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

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

Monday, October 28, 2013

Frugal at Home, Frugal at the Office

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

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

Sunday, October 27, 2013

From Newspapers to Chrysanthemums - Free is Great!

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

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

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

Friday, October 25, 2013

How To Live With the Thermostat Set at 61 Degrees

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

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

Thursday, October 24, 2013

My New Frugal Muse...

M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Plentiful!

M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

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

M Gustafson Gervasi, 2013

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

When it comes to costumes one has options:

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

Monday, October 14, 2013

From Pizza to Quiche, The Art of Leftovers!

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

What's For Dinner? Check the Freezer

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Life After The Bucky Book

Somehow or other the calendar got to the point of reading October 1st!  My hopes to post daily were deflected by children who do not sleep well, teaching late night seminars, and a wireless card that does not play nicely with our home router.  So there you have it, days pass and I find myself in October.  And for the first year time in my recent memory, I do not have the new Bucky Book in hand.

For those readers outside of Madison, the Bucky Book is a coupon book you purchase each year.  It contains hundreds of coupons along the lines of buy-one-get-one-free.  Without a doubt I save more than the $30 (or has it gone up in price) cost of the book.  But I find myself not wanting to purchase it this year because I think the book's residence in my kitchen drawer causes me to spend when I otherwise might not. For example -- oh look, buy one large pizza, get one free.  It was a long day at the office, let's use this to save money!  Instead I should ask, do we, a family of four with two kids age five and under, need that much pizza? Might scrambled eggs with toast and fruit be just as easy?  It's certainly healthier.

How far into the October 2013-September 2014 Bucky Book year will I get before I break down and purchase one?  Hard to say.  I will attempt to brainstorm other ways in which to get some of the coupons that save us big dollars: Stride Rite Shoes and HJ Pertzborn Plumbing for our annual clear the roots from the pipes maintenance.  Might another owner be willing to trade a coupon for some homemade granola or take one of the millions of day lilies that populate our yard in exchange?  If you have other ideas, please share via the comments section.

And I'll be back as often as I can to post....I just need the planets to align giving me time, energy, and wi-fi access!

Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013