Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Good-bye to 2013 and Dairy!

Good-bye 2013, and hello 2014!  Another year draws to a close.  We've had a quiet and frugal day at home.  My husband is off working for a client -- when you are both self-employed you enjoy client projects even if they fall on a holiday.  While he is away, in the land of software engineering, we are home.  The main focuses was baking.  Specifically baking dairy free.

Over the past week we discovered that our daughters out-of-control eczema is likely the result of a dairy intolerance or allergy.  She is now "dairy free" for two weeks.  Alarming given that she has lived most of her three and a half years on cows milk products: yogurt, milk, cheese, butter.  But determined to make the pain stop, she has declared no more milk & cheese.  Embracing this frugal move, I've been experimenting with replacing oils for butter, soy milk for cows milk, etc.  The year ahead may offer some interesting new recipes.  We'll see a reduction in our grocery bill - cows milk products, especially organic varieties, are pricey.  But we'll likely see a drop in our consumption of medical interventions.  From expensive lotions and prescription creams to doctor visits -- it adds up.  And directs precious free time can now be spent on puzzles and playing in the snow.

Now I'm off to enjoy a kid's video, free from our library, with the kids.  And then we'll all head to a preschool friend's home for a kids New Years gathering.  Our contribution will be some tasty dairy-free cookies (we sampled some this afternoon, check it out).

Enjoy your New Years celebration, and thanks for reading.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Madison's Free Zoo: A Frugal Afternoon at Henry Vilas Zoo

Kids are off from school.  The temperature hit a balmy 37 degrees in Madison today.  What better place to take enjoy some outdoor time than at our local free zoo.  There are approximately a dozen free zoos in the United States, and to our delight one is just a few miles from home, located in the heart of the city.   Winter is always my favorite time of year to visit Henry Vilas as it is rarely crowded, even on a day like today.

During warmer seasons there is ample seating for a picnic lunch.  And in colder seasons, it makes for a make-shift climbing structure.

There are several indoor attractions, which provide warmth as you visit the outdoor habitats.  A favorite of ours is the home of the snakes.  Lots of education material around to read....assuming your glasses do not fog over when you walk in (mine did).

Hands on learning for kids with energy.

And more to catch the children's attention

And in the visitor's center one can find interesting displays.  A favorite of ours involves model trains.

In the future we hope to check out some of the other free zoos.  For now we are very content with what is offered here in the heart of Madison.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Frugal Motivation as 2013 Comes to a Close

In prior months I would have hired a babysitter or gone while the kids were in preschool for what I did today.  But instead of pay for child care or use the precious time reserved for my legal practice, today I did something I have not done recently.  The kids joined me on a trip to the Car Care Clinic.  It was time for my 6 month oil change and a front headlight was out.  Many families here in the Midwest have large networks of grandparents and aunts and uncles to turn to, we do not.  Free child care by family members is not an option.

Taking two young children on errands, in the winter, can be exhausting.  But I chatted with the kids before leaving and came up with a plan.  The car was dropped off, we walked next door to the bagel shop to wait out the 30 minute appointment.  For a grand total of $6.41 I accomplished a mundane task, but did not have to pay a sitter or use the time I should be practicing law.  It was a frugal move for our family. With diapers and bottles behind us, these types of outings are getting far easier.

The evening generated a quick solo-run to SAVERS where I picked up a pair of winter boots for myself, the next size up shoe for both kids to wear this Spring, winter slacks for my work clothes, a colorful but inexpensive rug for the upstairs cat litter (in an effort to avoid another $500 emergency vet bill we've moved one box upstairs to minimizing the "guarding" behavior), and a shirt for my husband.  With a 20% off coupon from making a donation, the grand total was $34.

Once home I helped the children get ready for bed.  There is some saying about frugal people squeezing every last bit out of the toothpaste tube.  Well here we cut into the container and swab out every last bit.  It's frugal overdrive for us.

In decades past I had various motivations to be frugal.  First it was to pay off the $97K in student debt. Once that was done it was to build a nice sized down payment for our house purchase and to have a savings cushion. My new motivation?  Building up the savings that was hit hard by a cut-throat preschool contract. Yes, the preschool litigation continues.

We used the school for 13 days. The contract says we ow $12k for those 13 days.  It's an amount we are willing to fight over.  Some penalty for using it for 13 days?  Yes, but $12K?  That seems absurd, and something I think a judge will agree with. My new motivation for 2014 comes from the preschool debacle. The school had been in sales mode, focused in on my weakness, my one are of willing indulgence, education. Sadly my assumptions of the school were wrong, totally wrong.  It was not a small school willing to work with us on our family's needs, but rather one that implements a 1920s educational dogma with unforgiving strictness.  So as others enjoy manicures, movies out, expensive New Years Eve dinners, and international travel, we are hunkering down to build up our savings account some more.  It was not total devastation, but it was more than I would have like to spend.  Never ever again will I not apply my frugal ways to another large purchase.  And by that I mean I'll leave my emotions at home....there is always another house, another school, another car, another pair of shoes.  When emotions enter the equation, the price will likely rise to high.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

It Was a Frugal and Joyous Christmas

Think a frugal life means a less than joyous Christmas?  If so, think again.  Our frugal family remained frugal for the holiday, and had two joy filled days.  Two restaurant meals, one out on Christmas Eve and another take-out for lunch on Christmas Day (Indian buffet lunch after a huge home cooked breakfast and before a traditional dinner) made the Chef's duties a bit easier to handle.  Here are a few frugal highlights from our holiday:

  1. Include home cooked meals with an emphasis on fruit and vegetables (strawberries frozen last summer for the pancakes, coconut macaroon cookies, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, etc.).  
  2. Cook and bake with the compost bucket nearby.....winter in Wisconsin does not stop me from making weekly treks to the compost pile out pack.  I just make an effort to include lots of brown paper discards for organic balance.
  3. Use gift bags, which can give and give, year after year.
  4. Store holiday cards to be used for homemade ornaments or cards next year.
  5. Shop online with Amazon Prime.  One morning in mid-December I logged on at 5am.  One hour later my shopping (and for my mother who was to ill to shop for the kids) was complete.  Everything arrived on my doorstep 2 days later.  And with Prime there is no shipping fee. 
  6. Direct cardboard, brown wrap, and any plain paper products to compost if possible.  If not, store for future mailing material.
  7. Spend as much time in your PJs as possible.  If you are home, in PJs, chances are you are not out shopping and running up a bill.
And those are a few of the ways our family enjoyed the holiday, but did not spend an amount that will have us fearful in January and February, when credit card bills from this time period come due.

Happy Holidays -- Author and daughter whipping up a batch of coconut macaroons!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Guest Post: Frugal ideas for the yarn-loving crafter by Cindy Koepke

Guest Post!!!!  Thanks Cindy for offering this great content, and sharing your frugal ways.  Yarn works is beyond my scope of knowledge, so this is great added content.  Enjoy loyal readers!

Frugal ideas for the yarn-loving crafter
by Cindy Koepke
Winter has settled in for a good long stay here in the North, so your thoughts may have turned to creative indoor activities. Maybe you also have a New Year's goal to save money. You don't have to break your budget to enjoy knitting, crocheting, weaving, or spinning. A great place to start is with the usual frugal advice: smart use of coupons and loyalty programs, and patience to wait for good sales. But wait, there's more to know.

There is so much free craft information online! If you haven't already, join Ravelry.com, a free online community. You can find free patterns, learn from other crafters, get ideas for your next project, and research yarns if you need to substitute. There are a lot of free video tutorials on Youtube if you get stuck on a technique. Craftsy.com and Creativebug.com offer online video classes you can do at your own pace, and they have several free courses. Knitty.com is a fabulous free online magazine with lots of patterns and a great archive from previous issues. There are a lot of craft blogs can be another great source of free patterns and technique info, not to mention inspiring ideas.

Look for groups or craft guilds in your community because nothing beats the learning and camaraderie that comes from doing your crafts with others. Often more experienced crafters will be happy to give you a few tips or steer you to someone who can teach you more. They might also be able to clue you in to good deals on gear and yarn (more on that below).

When it comes to books, make good use of your library and its interlibrary loan program. Some (not all, sadly) used bookstores have great craft sections, and they are well worth seeking out if you want to build your own library! Once a year, Interweave Press offers steep discounts on many of its excellent titles during its Hurt Book Sale. 

You don't need a lot of gear to get started in any of the yarn crafts. Scissors and a measuring tape are essentials, plus of course, the main tools for your chosen hobby (knitting needles, crochet hooks, handspindle or spinning wheel, weaving loom). Used gear is often a great way to go. Most craft "hardware" is sturdy and will still have lots of life left if you buy it pre-loved. Check out garage sales and Craigslist. Ask your friends and relatives; you might be surprised who has some craft gear tucked away in the basement that they don't use any more. I have an extensive knitting needle collection made up of hand-me-downs and new purchases I've made (some with coupons and loyalty points), with a good number of crochet hooks and assorted notions as well.

For spinning, you don't have to have a wheel; handspindles are inexpensive, very portable, and more productive than a lot of people believe. You can even make handspindles yourself pretty easily. There is a large community of spindle users on Ravelry if you don't have one locally. Outside the spinning community, a lot of people recognize spinning wheels from fairy tales and pioneer history but may not have heard of spindles. Spinning on handspindles is thousands of years older than wheel spinning and every bit as fun. If you do decide to go for a wheel, look for a used wheel in good repair. Unless you are very handy, stick with a name brand so you can find instruction manuals, spare parts, etc. Do your research and ask folks in your craft group if you can test drive their wheels before you buy. Buying new? Some shops will offer package deals with fiber and accessories that are a good value.

Large weaving looms can be very expensive if bought new, but I've seen some excellent values on craigslist for used looms. My personal interest is in smaller simple looms, and I made one out of PVC plumbing pipe (and I have very minimal construction skills) from the instructions in Sarah Swett's book, Kids Weaving. It's a great beginner book and not just for kids. Beware the small looms marketed to kids that are usually displayed with the creative toys. Some are very nice, but some have very wide warp spacing that is of limited use. Backstrap weaving is still used in several parts of the world; this versatile weaving method requires only a few smooth sticks and weaving yarn to get started! Check out the article in the Weavezine archives or the backstrap weaving group on Ravelry. 

There are a lots of places to look for yarn while keeping within your budget. The Knitmore Girls (http://www.knitmoregirlspodcast.com/)  recently discussed this topic on their podcast (episode 252) and in their Ravelry group, and you'll get some excellent advice there. Check out the sale shelf and sales events at your local yarn store. Ask for yarn store gift cards for your birthday. Look online for mill ends or discontinued yarns on sale. Organize a craft supply swap with friends: everybody brings their surplus items, spreads them all out on tables, and shops the swap for no money. You can donate any leftovers to charity. You can unravel an old sweater from the closet or the thrift store (tutorials online) and make the recycled yarn into something new. Unwanted T-shirts can be cut into long continuous strips of "yarn" for making rugs, bags, and other sturdy items.

For spinning, you can save quite a bit of money by buying unprepared fleece from a farm or shop. You would be spending time instead, washing the fleece, carding or combing it, and maybe even dyeing it yourself (Kool-aid and food coloring work quite nicely). A middle route would be to buy the fleece and get a wool mill to prepare it for you. If a whole fleece is too much for you, split one with someone in your craft group. So do some exploring, and let your creativity be fueled by your frugal goals!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Frugal Holidays: Celebrating the Winter Solstice and Marriage

December 21st marks two important events -- one important to all, the other to my little family.  As you may know today marks the Winter Solstice.  This will be the longest night of the year, with the sun setting here in Madison just before 4:30pm.  Starting tomorrow, we will begin our long crawl toward longer days, until we arrive on the Summer Solstice, which falls on June 21st, giving us the longest day of the year.  If you are frugal, we are now in the prime season to raid the chest freezers and use the bounty we froze during the growing season and harvest time.  From blueberries to cranberries to rhubarb compote, I've been making good use of the local goodness I preserved in warmer times.

And then there is the personal significance of this day.  Eight years ago, just at the sun set, my husband asked me to marry him on the following Summer Solstice.  The answer was obvious, and gives us great joy on to extremes of the year.  Knowing my frugal ways, he skipped an engagement ring and instead gave me an engraved key chain.  A delicate envelope hung from it, and inside was a small plate with words of proposal. Understated, romantic, original, and highly frugal.  Back then I was still carrying significant student debt.  Our wedding was just as frugal (just the two of us, a judge, and court employees as witnesses when we said "I do" on the courthouse lawn up in Bayfield County).  We began our life together on extreme frugal means.  Within a year the student debt was gone, and we built up a significant amount for a down payment on our current home.  Even after eight years we still enjoy the simple aspects of life, avoiding expense gift exchanges or pricey nights out on the town.  Here are a few pictures from our day together, with the children.  The Winter Solstice is the perfect time to pause, get outside (scatter bird seed in a local park), and enjoy the light.

We enjoyed a walk through the winter wonderland that is our neighborhood park.

Lovely berries, frozen for the birds....we scattered seed below.

Up to the Capitol to take in the holiday displays.

 Spent a few dollars on warm drinks at the cafe we went to on our first date

 Enjoying the warm light inside and the dark took over the outside.....it was just after 4pm

 And two favorites from our drive through the John Nolan light display (also free)

 And home to a dinner over candlelight -- slow cooker chicken, cheese, potatoes and beans.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Frugal in the Snow

Wisconsin received its first major snow fall yesterday.  I have not checked to see the final amount, but likely between 3 and 5 inches.  And unlike many of my fellow Wisconsinites, I did not use a snow blower to remove the snow.  I refuse to spend between a few hundred to thousands of dollars on a machine that is used at most 12 times a year (or as few as  1 or 2) and takes up precious garage space from mid-April to early December.  No, I just cannot spend the money.  Life without owning a snow blower is possible!  Keep in mind:

  • during large accumulations, shovel 2 or 3 times if possible.  This makes the amount you are moving more manageable;
  • it's a great reason to get outside and move during the winter months -- along the same lines as "if you own a dog you'll walk daily, which is good for you".  In my mind shoveling is the same idea;
  • some winters you may not need it much if at all;
  • some snows are too heavy for the machine to work;
  • machines require gas, maintenance, storage;
  • think community -- can you borrow a snow blower?  
In the past I have been blessed by the kind heart of a neighbor.   When mother nature has dropped a large amount of snow, he kindly takes care of our walk.  In exchange I bake for him.  It is a nice balance in life.  Now I know that shoveling does not fit into everyone's life.  But it does mine, and so I embrace the cold weather workout and love not spending money on a machine.  Check back in April, my tune may have changed if we get a ton of snow this year......

Included in this shot is my neighbor, taking care of his walk.  And our bird feeding station.  Seed is great, as are toddler scraps of bread with peanut butter, cereal, cheese, and other scraps that missed their mouths and hit the floor.  We'll have some happy birds this year!

Thanks for reading, and know I love reading your frugal comments.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Frugal Move -- Doing Away With Holiday Cards

An internal debate had been waging in my mind over the past weeks -- to do, or not to do holiday cards this year?  On one side was the frugal argument -- postage, cards, time to fill them out, it all consumes resources. And the other side -- it has been a favorite tradition of mine for nearly two decades.  I loved it!  The key word there is "loved".

There once was a time when Thanksgiving weekend would arrive, and then on Friday evening I would open a bottle of wine and tackle my holiday card list.  Music played in the background, and it was a wonderful feeling of connection to friends I'd known for years to those recently made.  And then life marched on.  First there was the acquisition of a husband -- doubling the names on the holiday list.  For our first two years of marriage we followed my pattern.  The Friday after Thanksgiving we'd sit down with a bottle of wine, his cards in one stack, mine in the other.  And then the kids arrived, and the cards went out later and later each year. What had been calm and relaxing activity, had become a labored task performed by sleep deprived parents.  This year the pure crush of being a sandwich generation adult has caused me to say good-bye to this tradition.

The Friday after Thanksgiving, at about 5:30pm, I received a call from my mother's medical alert company. She'd fallen, and I was needed.  After a quick call to her I realized it was 911 that was needed.  The call was placed, and I dashed off to let them in so that they didn't have to break the door down.  After a week at the hospital it was decided she'd move to a nursing home.  Being widowed and having only one child, an endless line of questions came my way. Coordinate a cat sitter, what about snow removal, transportation to the facility - on and on.  And in the crush of the rush I knew that this year there would be no holiday cards. Instead I will slowly send out the adorable school photos of the children to the people who will treasure them.  Cards may be for Christmas, New Years, Valentines Day, etc.  Beyond that, I'll be using my Facebook page to send a holiday greeting.  And there you have it, frugal wins.  Many people are ones I see at book club or gatherings.  I'll save on postage by handing them a card with the photos.  For those more remote, I plan to make a homemade card during the routine coloring sessions the kids hold after school on weekdays.  Yes, this frugal move feels right.  Sometimes it is just time to say good-bye to past traditions and embrace reality!

Our frugal art studio!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Frugal Philanthropy!

Longtime readers will know that over the past few years I have had a side writing project.  At times my work on it has left my blog posts neglected for days, maybe weeks.  Well, the writing, editing, and production for the book is now complete!  Middle Class Philanthropist: How anyone can leave a legacy was released November 1st!

This evening I had the pleasure of holding my first ever reading for the book at Mystery to Me books on Monroe Street here in Madison.  Now I do lots of seminars related to my legal practice.  I could do those in my sleep.  This was different, and it turned out to be a lot of fun.  And as I read one of the final passages I knew I should share it for my next Upside of Frugal entry.  No, it is not about the frugal V.A. government attorney who left hundreds of millions to charity.  But rather the power of "in lieu of flowers" donations.

You've heard of these I'm sure.  Obituaries commonly have a phrase at the end that says "in lieu of flowers, please make a donation to....and the name of a nonprofit is listed".  One can die penniless and still be able to create a legacy with these types of charitable actions.  No, it may not be up there with the donations of Bill Gates, but they are lasting nonetheless.  The following is a passage from the book:

Momentum continued to build at the Sewing Machine Project. In the fall of 2010, an influx of checks began to arrive in its mailbox. Most included some small reference to the memory of “Viola”, an unknown woman to the members of The Sewing Machine Project. Who was she? Curious, Margaret went online to search and found an obituary for a woman named Viola Kraemer. The announcement ended with a suggestion to donate money in lieu of flowers to The Sewing Machine Project. An avid sewer in rural Minnesota, her family did some internet research upon her death and found The Sewing Machine Project. While Viola did not have a connection to the organization in her life, it mirrored her passion for sewing and was a small grassroots organization the family assumed would benefit from donations. In total the donations sent in Viola’s memory represented ten percent of its annual operating budget, a very welcome bump. Over the years many of those donors continue to send in small donations, $10 here and $35 there, as a way to remember the passion of a dear friend.
Thanks for reading, and remember philanthropy does not belong just to those with millions.  Anyone with a generous heart can make a gift that will give for generations.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Frugal From The Roof to Freezer

Thanksgiving marks the time of year when I begin to pull from the chest freezer in the garage.  It holds a lovely supply of local fruits and veggies, procured during the plentiful growing season life in Wisconsin has to offer.  Most recently, blueberries were poured out to thaw.  Poured because I froze each one individually on a tray -- it worked wonderfully.  Easy to get the portion I wanted, and not one huge mass clump!

And Sunday we took to the roof.  Using our leaf blower we attempted to clear the gutters knowing if they are too clogged in Spring we'll increase our chances of water in the basement.  Previously we'd hired a company to do this for us, this year we followed their lead of the leaf blower and saved the fee.

As I pointed out how we were reducing the risk of a Spring flood (happened in 2010, right after we bought the house and costs several thousand in repairs) my frugal husband pointed out that it will also decrease the chance of a roof dam.  And then added, but our risk is already low because those are fueled by heat escaping through the roof, and we keep the heat so low!  Yes, it hovers around 60 degrees inside -- another motivator to keep the thermostat low, it may decrease your chance of a roof dam.

Enjoy the week ahead, and keep up the frugal ways during this chaotic and often expensive time of year!