Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Frugal Twist on Cupcakes

Skip the fancy wrapper that will simply end up in the trash.  For cupcakes use ice cream cones instead. Wafer cones work best for me, however, consume within 24 hours or the cone will begin to get soggy. These chocolate ones were a hit at our four year olds recent birthday party.  And I find them to be a fun way to serve a treat at a winter time party -- here in the Midwest we like reminders of summer fun in the dead of winter.  Ice cream cupcake holders - edible, no waste, and pure fun.  That is frugal living.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Frugal Birthday at Aldo Leopold Nature Center

It was a hit!  Inexpensive considering what $160 bought us.  Kids had a blast.  Enjoyed the outdoors.  And very low stress for the parents.  The cost included 10 kids; access to reusable cups, flatware, silverware, etc, table set up with decorations; two hour naturalist; gift bags for each guest; and coupons for free admission - two of them.

Here are a few photo highlights:

Gathering flowers on our nature walk, used later to build ferry nests in the woods.

Coupons on my coupon board, which we'll use on a day off from school.

Naturalist leading a walk to gather flowers and plants.

Corner of party room, set up for nature stories.

Other part of party room - perfect for food.

We brought in our own food - keeping it healthy and frugal.

Such a wise choice, and delighted we'll be back in about 3 weeks when our son turns 6.  He opted for the space themed party.  If you are local to Madison, give Aldo Leopold Nature Center consideration for hosting a child's party.  No stress on cleaning my house before, and then after.  No worries if a guest suffers from cat allergies; we have three cats.  And an idea setting to celebrate another spin around the sun in a way that does not overly tax Mother Earth (or a frugal Mama).  Thanks for reading!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

It's A Keeper: Cream of Cauliflower Soup From Crockpot

Yesterdays post mentioned my first attempt at a crockpot cream of cauliflower soup.  The results, in a word, winner!  Okay, the kids would not try it, but I loved it and look forward to this being on a weekly rotation in the kitchen.  My take on the recipe from this book:

  •  Florets of medium cauliflower (mine was from the local farmers' market);
  • chopped leeks (2 small, I'll add more next time, also from the local market);
  • container of broth (I used chicken);
  • salt and pepper
  • simmer on low for 5 hours

Immersion blend, add 1/2 cup of heavy whipping cream as well as more pepper, blend and serve.  It was excellent alongside fresh cucumber (gift from frugal friend and neighbor) as a hotdog.  Delicious, fresh, frugal and took very little time to make.  Added bonus is the use of a crockpot; it was a cool evening, but on a hot summer day, the crockpot is far more efficient that a soup from the stove. That is a winner in my recipe book!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Frugal Friday With Cauliflower Crockpot Soup

It's a lazy Friday afternoon.  Having taken the day off from work at the office my morning was errands, mainly grocery but a few birthday prep related.  The early afternoon was in indulgence of Netflix's viewing -- House of Cards, Second Season.  Honestly, I cannot remember the last time I watched something for fun in the middle of the day. True treat, and free!

Before vegging out, I gave a new crockpot sous a whirl.  Cauliflower florets, leeks, broth with salt and pepper have been simmering on low for two hours, with three more to go.  Then I'll add heavy cream and use the immersion blender.  Inspired by my French slow cooker cookbook.  I'll report the results once it has been sampled.  May be the easiest dish I've made in a long time.

We are headed into a birthday filled weekend.  At ages 4 and 6 both children, who have summer birthdays, are getting "friend parties".  I'll report on how those go. After much debate we opted to rent a room at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center.  The first hour comes with a teacher to lead a theme inspired party.  Our daughter selected ferries and gnomes, our son went with space exploration.   There is a cost, but the ease, lack of cleaning and ability to bring in our own food all indicate it was the most frugal approach.  Let's see if that is true after the weekend.

Be well, be frugal, and thanks for following along.  I'm off to view the garden of a frugal friend and neighbor. What will I learn?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Foot Power: Healthier Me, Earth and Wallet

Lugging my Honda Civic on errands is not my first choice, but for too long it has been my autopilot.  Habit set in  motion with the arrival of our first child, reinforced with the birth of our second, and cemented when I adopted a far too strict time schedule for work.  I either had too much to schelp to do errands on foot, was purchasing insanely bulky items (two kids, both in diapers, plus cats need litter), or there simply wasn't time to leisurely walk for errands.

But, things change.  Both kids are out of diapers and attend preschool five full days a week.  My work load was drastically slashed when I opted to go back to flying solo in the world of estate planning.  Okay, we do still have three cats and the subsequent litter purchases, but today and going forward I am pretending I live in a cute little European town with a City Center for daily errands.

After dropping the kids off I park the Honda at my office.  The space is charming; bricked walls and southern facing windows looking over a fountain and garden.  The rent is inexpensive, and the location ideal, situated just on the edge of the Hilldale Mall campus.  Aimy for a daily walk before, between or after meetings, I tend to immediate needs, and not worry about too far off.

Stop one - farmers market.  Veggies to go with eggs for dinner.

Admire lovely flowers along the mall that I would have drive by had I been in the Honda.

Stop two - Target for allergy meds and the tomato soup my kids adore, rejecting all other kinds, including homemade.

Shrewd in the aisle, I figured that the 30 count Target Brand of allergy meds was $0.14 per tablet versus $0.16 if I bought the 100 count or more.  Never assume bulk is cheaper, run those numbers.  Pennies add up.

Stop three - Metcalfe's market for bread, bananas and a salad/soup bar for my lunch.  Reminder to self -- figure out a way for more time to brown bag healthy lunches.  Efforts impeded recently by older child's growth spurt.  He basically eats from 4pm to 10pm, not leaving much time in the kitchen to prep for the next day.

Stop four - post box, where I drop off mailings from the office.  Pick up is at 3pm, so they will go out today.  Then it was back to the office, do a quick post, and return my focus to a client.  After, on to pick up the kids and figure out how to keep feeding that growth spurt of our sons'.  An upside -- working in a little more walking/activity into my sedentary day, plus, no added gas costs for operating the Honda.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

3 Ways to Repurpose Water for the Garden

To Do List.....
#27 - Install rain barrel.

Yes, it is still there, on our to-do list.  One day we will install a rain barrel, allowing us to reduce watering costs for the garden. Rain barrels are great, but installation takes time and money.  We'll get to it, but in the meantime we have our own little repurposing tricks.

  • Pour cooled water from cooking pots onto potted plants.  This time of year we boil a lot of vegetables: spinach, corn, beans.  And once it cools I pour it on the potted plants on the front steps, just beyond the kitchen;
  • Dump dehumidifier container into watering can and head outside to the tomato and pepper plants.  This is water literally pulled from the basement air, and it nourishes the garden plants!
  • Catch water in the shower with a watering can.  Our kids love to play and splash in the shower at the end of the day.  Once they are inside the shower, I drop in a watering can and after they are in bed, head outside to finish watering any plants that are too dry.
Do you have another great way to repurpose water in the garden that is virtually free?  If so, please leave a comment!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Efficiency At The Corner Of A Frugal Life

Most posts here on Frugal Upside focus on what I do in my daily life to be frugal.  Some include quips and practices from my husband, who is also frugal. Today I turn the focus on him directly, and literally.

When an inexpensive pair of sunglasses breaks, he does not toss them out and head to the dollar store. Nope, he pulls out the crazy glue and fixes those dollar store shades.  Twice.  Yes, he has glued this pair back together two times now.  He says after the third time he will break down and get a new pair.  They work just fine, all they need is a little adhesive, which he keeps handy in a kitchen drawer.

The fix is a vertical line, on top, aligned with his nose!

And then there is the subject of his cell phone.  Having lived without one until late in 2005, he is very reluctant to buy the latest and greatest phone.  Just recently his old carrier, a regional one, announced they were going out of business.  He was forced to go with a new plan, and with it received 4G service.  His phone however is still at 3G, or as I type I think it might actually be a 2G.  Oh well, the phone still works and he sees no need to replace it.  The model was purchased on-line, and had default settings for Ireland.  The price was right, and did not require a trip to a mall store.  No financing was needed, it was basic, it worked, it was frugal.

Thinking what's the big deal, lots of us use okay phones and service plans that are becoming outdated.  Sure. But how many of us are electrical engineers with a masters in digital signal processing that spend our days designing and building circuits boards that make all those snazzy tech devices work?  My husband is, yet he uses old technology.  He can design the very brain of these tech devices, but will not part with them, or the money to buy the latest and greatest, until the old one has been used up.  And then he will sell it on Ebay where it will head to Mexico or Africa for another life.  That my friends, is frugal.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Simplicity Parenting: A Saturday With the Kids

Dance class, errands at Target, cat sitting, beach.  Those were the ingredients in my simplicity approach to parenting yesterday.  Doing the necessary, with a splash of adventure and a pinch of appreciation for the mundane.

Stop number one, the Madison Ballet School.  Minutes from our house, we could walk, and will in the future.  While my youngest enjoys "creative movement", the precursor to pre-ballet, my son and I cuddle on the floor.  Between his trusty copy of Legos Stars (used, from Goodwill, a gift from an aunt) and his stop watch for practicing number recognition -- well it was a parenting dream.  Quality time and really no expense other than the $70 for six Saturdays of dance.

Stop number two, Target.  From cat food to tooth paste to selecting match box cars for a classmate's birthday gift we chatted and wandered and took advantage of the Target Red Card DEBIT card, which saves us 5% on every purchase.  Note, it is a debit, not a credit card.  And Target always offers up great conversation topics with the kids -- such as pink aisles do not equate to "girl aisles", at least not in this mom's approach.  Once I start going on how offensive the "boy" vs "girl" sections are, both kids are eager to find the check out.....and a little bit more of my philosophy sinks in, all at Target.

Stop number three, cat sitting.  A dear friend is out of town caring for her ill mother.  Giving us the opportunity to scope our her amazing collection of cookbooks and bond with Paulie and Tiny.  Well, just Paulie, Tiny is a bit anti-social around my kids, who we affectionately call "the gibbons" because of their energy level.  Again, it was quite time together.  Another chance for me to talk with my kids about why we were her, why friends are so important, what it means to be a friend.  And to top it off, we learned that Paulies' favorite spot is perched on the closed toilet.  Classic memories in the making.

Stop number four, our last for the day.  Saving the best for last as my Smidge declared, was the beach at Fireman's Park in Verona.  Total admission was $13 for one adult and two kids. They splashed and dug and splashed some more.  We snacked on cold cuts, cheese, crackers, and lemonade girl scout cookies I pulled from the freezer.  Then they splashed some more.  We opt not to join a neighborhood pool, we simply would not use it enough to justify the $700 one-time admission fee to the pool, and the $700 annual fee.  Sure, swim lessons are included, but the kids are too young to be too structured.  At the moment they spend five full days in preschool, that's quite enough structured time.  One day we may join the neighborhood pool, but for now we'll swim in various spots around town, fitting it into life and our budget.

All in all it was an ideal day.  Errands completed.  Little bodies exercised.  Faces enveloped in smiles.  And a feeling of warmth in a frugal mom's heart.  What more could I ask for?  And that is the upside of a frugal life.

I will leave you with Paulie, just too darn memorable!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Sidwalk Sale In a Frugal Life

Both children have summer birthdays, just three and a half weeks a part (because my daughter arrived three and a half weeks early!).  One huge advantage of late summer birthdays?  Frugal mom has a chance to scope out the sidewalk sales for gifts.  Now don't be alarmed regular reader, I did not make a special destination trip to a mall or shopping center.  No, I walked to Hilldale Mall from my office located next door.  Once there I visited three stores: toy store, book store, and a favorite clothing store of mine that is moving.  And bargains were found.  Keep in mind that before walking to the store, in fact before July 2014 came into existence, our family budget contained a line item for such an adventure -- gifts and repair/replace.

The toy store had Legos on sale, 25% off, not something you will see every day.  A box was selected for our old child, a self declared Lego addict.  For the younger, a floor puzzle of a farm, also at 25% off.  Inside I selected three other items for the younger one, who's birthday is first.  All of those received 20% off because I had saved my frequent customer reward coupon for this time of year.  Rarely do I buy the kids gifts unless it is for a birthday (summer) or winter holidays (winter).  But during the year we have occasion to attend a classmates birthday.  When that happens I pop into the toy store before or after work, without either of my children, and select a small gift.  Gift wrap is free, and the points add up.  Once we hit $150, we get 20% off the next purchase -- not just one item, but the entire purchase.  Now that it has been used, it will take me another year to spend the $150 -- or so I hope.

Then it was on to the UW Bookstore.  Bucky t-shirts were half off, and several were selected for the kids.  It is never to early to start promoting Bucky, and that fact we have a nationally ranked school minutes from home, with in-state tuition (and my alma matter).  An added bonus was finding 8 boxes of holiday cards at 75% off!  They are now stashed away, ready for November and December.  At the register I pulled out my Belly Card, which tracks customer loyalty.  The UW Bookstore is also a point of frequent purchases for my office, just next door, and the spending will turn into future discounts.

Last I stopped at Terese Zache, a favorite store of mine.  There I found a lovey black and white cotton fitted sweater that was 80% off, from nearly $200 to $40.  It fit well and could easily be worn for client meetings or with jean and a t-shirt on a weekend.  I predict a decade of wear.  And then I could not resist a lovely fall scarf with creams, plumb and browns.  At $14 it was no real bargain, but it will put a smile on my face once the fall weather arrives.  Frugal is not always about cheap, it is about the wise expenditure of money -- and time.

So, that is my recap of how a frugal one uses sidewalk sales.  In my youth I was attracted to them like bugs to a light on a summer night.  No real thought or purpose, just a reaction to SALE!  No more of that, I am much more purposeful with my time and money.  Regular readers know I tend to shun shopping, but not entirely.  I just shun mindless shopping or shopping as a form of entertainment.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Frugalista's Coffee Break

Work purposes took me to downtown Madison earlier today.  After my drop offs at the Register of Deeds and courthouse, I found myself with 45 minutes paid on the parking meter.  Cool and overcast, I opted to walk around the Square, a place I once went to daily when employed by a government service agency. While meandering, noting the new store fronts and my old favorites, I crossed paths with American Family DreamBank.  My first visit was on a "date night" with my frugal husband, who insisted we stop.  And oh I'm glad we did.  Not only does it featuring inspiration installations in a museum style, designed to fuel your inner dream, but they provide free coffee.  Perfect, I'll sip coffee and read a bit before picking up the kids.  And then I saw the note on the door - closed 3pm-6pm for a private party.  Of course, the clock on my phone informed me it was 3:02, too late.

I kept wandering, remembered a Barriques on the corner near my car AND the Belly Card in my wallet, granting me a free beverage at Barriques.  Off I went, obtaining my Magnum Cafe au Lait, squeezing in a few pages of my current library loan.  And that is how a frugalista enjoys a coffee break, or at least it was today.

Thanks for following along as I take a frugal journey through life.  Always looking for new ideas, please leave a comment or Like our Facebook page!

Monday, July 14, 2014

When the Washer Goes, Gather "Data Points" Before Making a Purchase

In a frugal home, the fading performance of a washing machine does not go unnoticed.  In the past week or so it became clear our washing machine was not spinning properly.  At the end of a wash cycle the clothes were sopping wet.  Repeated spin cycles hardly helped.  A new washer was needed, but not immediately.

First we went to Menards, a regionally owned mega hardware store.  This place has 130 aisles and counting -- it is massive, and the staff are not all that helpful.  We had low expectations.  Honestly, the only reason we walked through the doors was because I recently received a $146 rebate check, earned from the bathroom remodel project we are doing as part of my mother's estate.  My husband, the numbers guru in our relationship was not overly impressed.  He kept going back to what he paid for a washer/dryer in the late 1990s, and felt the prices were more than inflation.  Red flag!

The next day we went to another local shop, Brothers Main Appliance, the location of our last appliance purchase.  Again, we had some sticker shock with the models.  And I was feeling overwhelmed by these washers with more features than I could imagine.  I did not want a machine that cost the equivalent, and in some cases more, than our mortgage payment.  To my husband I pointed out that the washers sold today had more bells and whistles than in the 1990s -- a setting for steam is apparently in vogue.

Needing just one more data point, aka price, we piled the kids in the car and drove the short distance to the mall and scoped out the appliances at Sears.  And with that visit we knew we had a winner, back at Menards. Several things made the first store the one we'd purchase from:
  • Rebate check of $146 applied to purchase price
  • Lowest price
  • Guaranteed next day delivery
One downside was my failed effort to sell our old washer on Craigslist before the delivery van arrived.  I likely priced it too high, at $75.  Oh well, I had hoped to get a bit of cash out of it to offset this purchase, but it was not to be.  And there was no way I was going to leave the old unit in the basement.  After dealing with the issues at my mother's home, I have a new intensified aversion to basement clutter, something I'll write more about here, on my work blog.

We were told this model has a ten year life expectancy.  So I've filed that nugget away in my brain, and should it come true the next time I purchase a washing machine I will have two children in high school, and my oldest will be beginning to drive (note to reader, they are currently weeks shy of ages 4 and 6).  That is a thought to ponder, and now I'm off to fold laundry.  

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Focused at the Mall

Yes, you read that correctly.  I was at a mall today, shockin!  The mission to replace our washer took us to Sears; we were gathering "data points" on the cost of a new washing machine.  More on that process in a future post, the purchase is still playing out.  But, we were at Sears.  The sign for $2.99 t-shirts caught my eye -- that is the price of a thrift store, and white is nearly impossible to find unstained at thrift stores.  I snatched up three: white, cream and brown -- perfect for work or play.  Off to the register I went, and because my husband was along on this trip, he focused on the kids.  I focused on the cashier. And good think I did because the scanned price was $8.99, not $2.99.  I pointed this out, she dispatched another teller to confirm, and with the nod of a head the price was re-entered for the posted amount. Lesson learned -- always have focus at the register.  Paying in cash had me focused on what the total would be -- paying with credit often leads to swiping a card without confirming the price.  Oh, and if they offer you the hangers for free -- take them, I did.  Our little ones enjoy pulling their own clothes off the hooks.  However, they are a tad short and more often than not snap a plastic hanger.  So I left with new t-shirts at thrift store prices and free hangers.  That was my frugal move of the day.  And as I said, tune in later for our frugal approach to a washing machine acquisition.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Following the Beat of a New Drum....

Heart arrhythmia -- that phrase grabs one's attention.  Especially if one's mother had a heart attack at age 47 and one is on the brink of turning 41 herself.  Coffee, far too much coffee, is the likely cause of my recent mild heart arrhythmia (can mild be an adjective for that kind of phrase?).  Routinely I quipped "I don't measure coffee consumption in cups, but rather pots!"  Far too American, I fueled myself to power through my day. And then one night I noticed my heart, beating a bit too hard, a bit "off".  Noticing one's heart is not usually a good thing, it should simply be there, quietly doing its work while you live life.  It does not require a cardiologist to tell me to slow down, to make changes.  I did that myself, and they are largely made possible by a frugal life style.

The biggest change was at the office.  Regular readers will know that I am an estate planning and probate attorney.  Recently I had made the jump from being a solo to having student help and from there hiring the student when she became an attorney.  All of a sudden I was working hard than I had since becoming a parent.  I had to have enough business to pay her, and the associated costs, before I could pay myself.  On paper it appeared doable.  But reality was another matter.  Doing all that was needed to develop a practice to support two attorneys required time, lots of it, and continual.  Coffee got me up in the morning, propelled me into the afternoon, and was my companion into the early evening as I shifted from lawyer mode to parent mode.  And then I said enough.  Life is too short and precious to power through.  The profit was not nearly what I had hoped for, and the expense, money, time and health far greater.  So here I am, back to where I started.  A solo who gets a little help from eager students on the UW campus.  And it feels great.  Gone are the inflated expenses of payroll, payroll taxes, training, malpractice insurance, worker's compensation insurance, and more.  I still have some employee and insurance costs, but far, far less.  I now "own my job" rather than being held captive by my business.

Doing this shift may actually result in an increase of my overall salary, however, it may not.  And our frugal life allows me to choose a healthier work life.  Our mortgage is small compared to most couples in their 40s with small kids.  We bought half of what "the bank" would have qualified us for, and brought a significant down payment to the table. Not only is it small, but it is our only debt.  Student loans?  Gone years ago.  Car payments?  None, we own both cars, having paid cash for the most recent one.  Minimal utilities - internet, heat & electric -- no cable, no landline, no security system.  Credit cards are paid off monthly.  Some say we are blessed, we both have sound educations and work in lucrative fields.  But our financial life is a product of choices, not salaries.  We could have these say professional credentials and live to the brink -- more house, newer fancier cars, fancy trips, nights out on the town.  But then we would have more bills and less savings. And not the ability to say "whoa, time to slow down for a few weeks....months....years?"

Thanks for following along on our frugal journey.  There is always some new refresh button on our decision to be frugal.  Once it was paying off student debt.  Then it was saving for a downpayment on a house.  There was the matter of the little law suit we had to bring because something was not ideal for our children.  And now it is working less to live more.  Stay tuned as I navigate life on the frugal side......our aging washer and dryer will likely make an appearance here soon.  Performance is not what it should be, and we are contemplating what is the most economical approach.  Repair, replace, tolerate for a bit longer?  Time will tell.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Bike Envy

Construction season has taken my home city of Madison, Wisconsin by storm.  Above is the daily maze I must navigate to deliver and retrieve my children from preschool.  It is housed in the basement of the church you can see in the far back center of the photo.  Amidst the clamor, dust, mud, beeping, and side steeping I find myself asking "why do I drive so much, why do we all drive so much?"  This mess is to keep the cars humming along, but what if there were no cars?

For many years my husband did not own a car, just two pedal bikes.  One for summer, the other for winter. A first child did not even force him into vehicle ownership.  Nor a second child's arrival.  It was the nature of his work, having to be on site at several different client locations, that necessitated the purchase of our 2nd vehicle.  Sadly, he is entrenched in navigating via Mazda.  And here I am, coveting those who set up life to allow biking, bus, and foot for transportation.  How can I have more of that, yet still have time to get to work on time and not uproot our entire life?

Suggestions are welcome as I ponder this question.  Now I am going to sign off and walk for errands before piling them in my Honda trunk, and then driving to retrieving the kids for a construction wonderland (insert another word of choice if earth movers are not your thing).  Thanks for reading, and enjoy your 4th of July!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Want It For Free? Seek Used, Offer Money, and Likely Get It For Free

Over the weekend I tossed an idea out on social media.  Using both the Facebook page for our neighborhood association as well as my own page, I asked if anyone had booster seats (for kids use in the car) that they'd be willing to sell.  My thinking was it would be less than the cost of new and save me a trip to the store.  I did not expect to see so many offers of "free, just take it off our hands".  And that is how we obtained two booster seats for our daughter, who is poised to leave the 5-point harness seat behind later this month.  Before using I will check the models for recalls, etc.  It is amazing what others will simply handover.  Being thankful, I plan to do the same with the little kid and baby items that we are done with here in our frugal home.

This strategy of ask for used, offer a small amount, and likely end up with it for free works well for:

  • perennials
  • kids clothing, toys, etc.,
  • items for the garden,
  • miscellaneous household items (nails, pans, hangers, etc.)
Freecycle sites are great, but cover a large area.  Consider social media limited to the folks you know or who live in your immediate area.  You'll reduce the pool yes, but also the pool of others seeking an item. That is all I have from this frugal corner of the world -- how about you?