Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Frugal Is Making Do With What You Have

Far too often writing about a frugal life centers on the "great buy".  Sure, finding an item for 80% off is a savings, but in our frugal home we aim to avoid the buy altogether.  Recent example, my lunch bag.  Taking my lunch to work rather than buying food out flows naturally from a frugal path.  But recently I noticed that the lunch bag I used was a bit too small to carry a lunch, snack and thermos of coffee.

My mind first thought of Target. I would be able to find something there that would be more appropriate. And the cost would be off-set by me no longer walking to the mall to supplement when hunger struck.  As I mulled over the idea I thought, wait, not Target, get something used at a Thrift Store!  It would be a fraction of the cost!  The problem, I have no immediate plans to drive to one of the thrift stores.  And working in a trip with my work and family schedule is not easy.  Finally my eyes settled on the kitchen counter and frugal inspiration took hold.  I will literally brown bag it!

A new lunch bag secured.  Last year it was a gift bag from a local coffee shop, carrying a delightful holiday gift from a former employee.  I had used it to store Valentine's Day decorations, and it was recently pulled from the closed when the kids and I took down winter holiday decorations and put up hearts other pink things.  Sitting empty on the counter it was perfect for my lunch needs.  No cost, no trip to the store, and an entirely new use for all those random gift bags that find their way into my life during the course of a year.It Gift bags are relatively sturdy, and come with a handle.  My old bag was insulated, which was useful back when I used it at the law school (yes, I have had it since 1998) when I did not have access to refrigeration. But now I go from the house to the office where I have a dorm fridge, so keeping items cool is not an issue.

And that is a glimpse into our frugal world.  Challenge the common perception that something on sale is a smart buy.  The smart option is when you can avoid the buy all together.  Pause, think outside the box, and challenge the cultural norm.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Frugal Playbook: You Must Have an Emergency Fund

Are you on a frugal path?  Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013

Seeking to live a frugal life?  If yes, an emergency fund is essential.  Already have one?  Aim to increase it by 25% or at least keep it up with inflation.

Why?  An emergency fund does several things.  One, it gives you freedom.  To be crass, down in Tampa where my husband spent many years, it is called FU money (and not as is the school).  Money stashed away allows you to take risks, follow the path true to your heart, and not stick with something that is not healthy for you.  From a career change to leaving a bad relationship to leaving behind the deposit on your children's preschool contract (a long story there), an emergency fund grants you independence.  And two, an emergency fund allows you to access a pool of cash from which to make unexpected purchases.  Put down the credit card or financing papers, avoid interest payments, and watch the buying power of saying "You want, $5,200 for the car, I'll give you $5,000 in cash, now, or no deal" (my husband used that approach when he bought his last car -- and yes, it was only $5,000 and runs well now, four years later).

How?  Step one, get fired up about wanting an emergency fund.  If you don't want it, it likely won't happen. Step two, purge (see yesterdays post).  What around you can you sell?  Think Ebay, Craigslit, Amazon Resale, or if the weather supports it, a garage sale.  Step three, open a savings account that you call "Emergency Fund".  Make sure you cannot access it with a debit card, make it hard to get to to reduce spontaneous decisions, which are usually a bad idea.  Step four, stop shopping!  I don't care if an item is 80% off, if it is not essential (i.e. food, shelter, transportation) then it stays at the store.  Remember, this is not for life, just for the moment.  Step five, get to work.  Already have a job?  Get a second one! Freelance, pet sit, babysit, tutor, deliver pizzas.  Bring in extra dollars, and then put them in the Emergency Savings. Note: chances are, if you are working your are also not shopping unless you got a job in retail.

Aim to have 6 to 12 months of monthly expenses built up in the account.  Then when life happens, as it always does, you can pull from the savings.  Once you are back on your feet, build it up again.  That is where our frugal family is these days.  Thanks for reading and enjoy the frugal path!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Post Christmas Purge....

As we settle into a new year I cannot help but notice how bloated our home feels.  Perhaps it is because the holiday tree is still up.  The kids wanted to leave it up all year.  Recognizing the psychological boost little ones receive from feeling some degree of control over their life, we negotiated -- if not New Years Day (Mama's preference) then Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  They'll be off of school that day, giving us some extra time to pack away, tiddy-up, and decorate with hearts for Valentine's Day.

Anyway, I was saying, the house is full.  Too full.  Time to purge.  And this year I went for the elephant in the room.  Actually it was an armoir we'd used to store the TV, DVD, etc.  With some swapping and moving a bookcase from a bedroom was brought to the living room and now holds the electronics (which are quite small).  My plan had been to list the armoir on Craigslist, but inspiration hit Sunday afternoon.  Through Facebook I messaged the owner of Vintage Birch Barn -- might she be interested?  Yes, she was.  And at 11pm last night, when her husband finished his shift as a Dane County Sheriff Deputy, he pulled into our driveway.  Out the armoir went, through the garage and into the hands of a couple that will give it new life and a new home.  Into our hands came $50.  And no worries about the potential odd-ducks that might have contacted us via Craigslist.

The frugal takeaway -- frugal is not just in the buy, but in the sell as well.  What is sitting around your home, taking up space (space is not free, what is your mortgage/rent divided by the square footage of your dwelling), and could be converted to cash?  Remember, cash can be added to a rainy day fund or if you carry debt, used to bring down the balance and lower interest payments.  Back in 2005 I did a massive purge, selling childhood toys (think Barbie and Sesame Street) raising hundreds of dollars.  The profits went towards paying down my student loans.  Sure, the toys are gone, but do I really need them?  Those frugal moves helped erase $97,000 in student debt.  And now, nine years later my frugal ways allow us to build a college fund for both children.  Frugal always has an upside -- just look for it!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Frugal Travel -- Analysis Time for Us

Amsterdam 1

Amsterdam in August?  And so begins the frugal analysis that is bound to occupy the next few weeks or months.  An opportunity has been dropped in our laps -- free airfare and lodging for my husband to attend a professional conference.  Costs would cover lodging for the entire family, enticing us even more.  Many might say, why not, sign us up.  But here we are committed to analyzing our expenditures.  Remember, free does not necessarily mean frugal.

Factors we'll consider in making this decision include:

  • price of airfare for myself and the kids;
  • loss of work on my part (self-employed means no paid vacation, but I do have an associate these it should not mean a complete shut down at the office);
  • whether the location offers things that are a priority for us.  This is a very strong factor as our current plan was first Seattle then Costa Rica for vacations.  Why bump those just because we have some free elements of a trip;
  • can we use the hotel stipend to rent an apartment or condo instead -- hotels with small kids and food restrictions (forcing you to eat out more) is a huge limitation; and
  • the cost of activities and attractions.  A free ticket to an expensive local is not really a frugal decision.
Travel has been infrequent in our lives the past six years, ever since becoming parents.  For seasoned frugal travelers, comments on how to make travel happen are welcomed with open arms.  Thanks for reading, and enjoy the weekend!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Soup's On!

As we slog our way through a dark, cold, and very traditional Wisconsin winter, soup is making a frequent appearance at the dinner table.  Why?

  • It's relatively easy -- tonight's was prepared with the assistance of my three-and-a-half year old, which means it must be easy;
  • It's healthy -- lots of room for veggies and grains;
  • It's a low-cost meal -- broth, seasoning, beans, veggies, and some meat if you so desire.  Literally costs less than a $1 a bowl;
  • It goes well with leftovers -- minimizing waste in the kitchen; and
  • It's quick.  Maybe that is the same as easy, but it's worth underscoring.  
Here are a few of our current favorites:
  • Split pea (does take longer than most)
  • Chicken, Veggies and Chick Peas;
  • Ginger lentil; and
  • Black bean.
As I work my way through the freezer full of local veggies I froze back in the summer and fall, I am delighted to have soups to toss them into.  One road block -- we are aiming for dairy free meals, which puts a hold on things like Cream of Asparagus soup.  I wonder how it might taste with a dairy substitute?  Our little one's eczema was on the road to recovery, but an accidental snack of dairy yogurt (my husband thought it was her dairy free option, but was mistaken) has brought the red inflamed skin back -- and sleepless nights follow (I got more sleep when she was a newborn!). Anyone with suggestions on creamy soups without real cream, leave a comment!  I have oodles of asparagus waiting in the freezer.

Thanks for reading, and frugal on!

Monday, January 6, 2014

2nd Life for Toys

Our frugal home has been invaded by ponies, specifically a herd of My Little Pony dolls.  From none to fourteen, practically over night.  Never a fan of toys that are overtly boyish or girlish, the ponies were not acquired by yours truly.  The first three or four came as gifts for her birthday or Christmas.  And then on that visit to a great aunt's house that I mentioned yesterday, her herd expanded due to the generosity of an eleven year old cousin who has outgrown My Little Pony.  Oh, and it is not just the ponies and their accessories, the cousin also passed along a Pony Palace.  I am delighted to give these toys a second life, even if I am not the biggest fan of the dolls.  And it has inspired my daughter to consider passing along some of her baby toys -- clearing out clutter will do wonders for our house!  It is frugality at its best.

One draw back, we are not just raising a daughter who loves her My Little Pony.  Apparently we have a son who is a Brony (males who embrace the show and dolls as well, and tend to work as software engineers) -- purple is his favorite color.  And so there you have it, two kids, fourteen ponies for free, and one frugal Mama brokering a peace agreement on which child the purple and blue pony (I forget her name, Diamond something-or-other) would bed with tonight.  And given that the thermostat is set at 60 degrees and a polar vortex as descended on my great city of Madison, Wisconsin, all the more warmth at night the better.  For the record, my son said "fine, she can have it at bed (she had been throwing a fit)......and then I get it during the day".  Well played negotiation my little Brony Man -- daytime is when the pony fun happens.

Frugal take-away -- embrace discards from others, pay it forward, and know that it is possible to live with an indoor temperature of 60 degrees.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Frugal Notes on this Sunday

It's Sunday in our frugal home, and that breaks down as follows.  Since I was signed up to preside at our UU church service, I went off to church while my husband stayed home with the children.  The move conserves our energy by allowing them to play with their toys in their PJs rather than bundle up, buckle up and pile into the car.  On the periphery at home, while they play, my husband completes the 4th quarter payroll taxes for our businesses.  Yes, we do those ourselves. We attempted to outsource it twice, both times huge math errors were made by professionals.  We bought the software, figured out a system, had a CPA bless it, and now do it ourselves.  The saves were substantial, and the math errors nonexistent.

Once the church service was over, I made a quick stop at Trader Joes for the items I know they are well priced on: peanut butter, nuts, spaghetti sauce, and multi-grain pancake mix.  In and out in under 20 minutes since I was flying solo and it was basically on the way home.

Back home I put my indulgence, flowers, in a vase (one my mother no longer wanted) while listening to Wisconsin Public Radio (it's free) on my $6.50 radio purchased at Savers.  And those clippings to the left have already made their way to the compost bin.

While I type the children are enjoying a rare few hours at a great-aunt's house while my husband gets in a workout before turning to his writing this afternoon.  Efficient use of time, free child care, and a deepening bond with family.

And that is what frugal looks like, at least in our home.  Happy Sunday to you all, and now I am going to tackle some work emails while the house is quite.  I am loosing a few hours of work tomorrow because the deep freeze descending on us has closed schools.  Assuming the sitter's car starts, I will get four hours to work at home -- thank goodness for home offices!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Math at the Post Office.....

Today I took a nice walking lunch break at the office.  First stop, the small post office branch to drop some books in the mail (I gave 10 away as part of a Goodreads promotion).  While there I took a second to ask the clerk are there any rate increases coming?  To which he said, yes from $0.46 to $0.49 for a first-class letter, starts on the 26th.  Immediately I made a mental note -- buy 2,000 Forever stamps before January 26th!  Why?  My office does a mailing twice a year, once in the Spring and again in the Fall.  I send it out via US mail to just over 2,000 households.  Buying the stamps before the 26th of January will save me $60 on the Spring project.  Not enough to break the bank, but I'm in frugal mode this year, so postage savings it will be!

Afterwards I walked over to the local grocery and picked up a few items from the meat department -- all on special, and will use them to round out the foods I already had on hand, mainly grains and veggies. All in all it was a 45 minute walk, accomplishing errands via foot, no car or gas needed.

Upon returning home at the end of the school/work day, we found that my husband had turned the heat down while we were gone.....down to 52 degrees.  And it was just that, 52 degrees in the house when we returned just before 5pm.  As we watch the forecast for next week we wonder......will the furnace hold out?  It is already past its life expectancy.  Wanting to minimize the electric/gas bill as much as possible we are going to rather extreme measures to reduce energy output.....and our three cats did not seem that happy about it!

How did you save today?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Starting 2014 With Frugal Home Cooked Meals!

Welcome 2014!  We had quite the frugal day at home.  Not a penny spent.  All three meals from my frugal kitchen, making the most of goodies from the freezer.  Breakfast featured chocolate chip buckwheat pancakes topped with berries I froze last summer.

Lunch was a treat of steak, eggs, pear slices and corn muffins from last nights' meal with friends.  The beef tenderloin is from the stash I built up on a fall trip to UW Provisions -- a wholesaler for meat and other goods to restaurants and the public alike.

And dinner was inspired by a bag from the freezer (remember this post on wine ice cubes?) and a French slow cooker cookbook.

Into the crock pot went various local frozen veggies, the leftover red wine, vegetable broth, and stew beef.  After 8 hours I paired with Trader Joe's rice blend, and am eating while I blog.

Lots of local foods, fresh from my freezer.  Making the most out of items on hand.  No gas used for trips to the store.  No deliveries.  Simple, healthy, and very frugal.  Hopefully your first day of 2014 was equally enjoyable.