Friday, October 31, 2014

Why Frugal?

The conversation sticks out boldly in my memory,  Recently married, my husband and I stopped in at the home of his extended family.  Out on the back porch we joined the conversation, fast moving among the large family and its various friends of the family.  Somehow or other the topic migrated to eating out.  My comment about saving money by cooking at home is faded, but the response from another is not.  "Why are you two so frugal?"  Blogging does not allow me to capture the tone of the question, but let's just say frugal as akin to a shunned four-letter word.

Having complete the endurance and transformation of a law school education, I immediately responded with three points on why we were frugal.  Those points -- I cannot recall them so much -- later became the basis of The Upside of Frugal blog.  The feeling I remember, one of being on the defensive, one being attacked or ridiculed because my husband and I opted to be prudent with our spending.  To this day, it puzzles me why my frugal spending habits can bother other people so much. I will never know.

Why are we on the frugal path?  That answer depends -- again, a byproduct of my legal education.  In the past it was to pay off a mountain of student debt.  Other times, mere habit.  I grew up poor -- really poor.  My mother was a machine operator in a plastics factory, my father was a disabled construction worker who tried to make ends meet buying and selling used cars -- frugal was a way of life, not a choice.

Today?  In a word -- Freedom!  Being frugal makes a dual self-employed family possible.  I operate my own small, solo legal office writing wills and administering probate.  My husband, an electronics engineer, freelances and builds a business designing and building circuit boards.  Self-employment brings a lot of freedom, but also the need to buy your own health insurance and fund retirement.  But we love it, we love the freedom of steering our work in the direction we want, no questions asked.

Today is Halloween and the lights at my office are off.  I too the day off -- no one to ask or seek approval from.  I will be able to watch our 4k daughter in her costume parade at school.  She will leave school early, where we'll join her brother's Fall Party at the school up the road.  After -- we'll be carving pumpkins, roasting pumpkin seeds, and knocking on a few doors in our lovely (and warm) Big Cat costumes from Savers.  Why am I frugal?  It means I get quality time with my kids -- when I want, how I want, no approval needed.  Thinking back to that summer conversation about restaurants, I wonder if that person would change his tone hearing my current reason?

That is me.  What is your story?  Why the frugal path for you?  Is it permanent, temporary?  Leave comment and share if you like.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Don't Compost Us! Using up the Veggies.

Mid-week: energy is running low; previously bought but yet to be used produce is making its way to "compost bin" suitable; and there are still quite a few breakfasts, lunches and dinners to be made this week.  What's a frugal gal to do?

Dinner dishes done, radio turned on, kids unleashed to romp and play as I turned to the stove for 30 minutes of intense frugal kitchen maneuvers.

Sundays remain crock-pot turkey with chickpeas became the base for turkey soup, which will be the focal point of Thursdays dinner followed by a container or two frozen for future lunches.  Broth, garlic and toss in the vegetables that had been screaming "use me before I'm compost material!"

Other veggies were tossed into an egg ring eagerly waiting on a frying pan, followed by one beaten egg and a dose of shredded cheese.  Cook for 2 minutes, flip, and slide it onto a whole wheat English muffin.  Four of those later, and my husband has some breakfasts to go for the rest of the week.

A very well worn frying pan, one my grandparents (in their 90s) discarded when they downsized from a house to condo a few years back.  Happy to give it more life in our frugal home.

And that was it for tonight.  One can only do so much in 30 minutes.  In that time I extended the life of food on the fridge shelves.  We have easy and ready to go, healthy veggie stocked home cooked meals.  Our food dollars did not end up in the compost heap.  And we reduced household waste, which pleases mother Earth.

Keepin' in healthy in the kitchen, frugal style.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Golden Leaves

Fall in Wisconsin brings many things: corn mazes, apples galore, pie pumpkins, frosty mornings, and leaves.  Tons and tons of leaves, falling from trees, painting the ground a vibrant mix of reds, yellows, oranges, and a few pinks.  What puzzles me about Fall is why so many folks put so many leaves at the curb?  Tossing value to the street department!

There is the traditional compost heap to consider.  Pile them up, let mother nature do its thing, and soon you'll have rich nutrients for flower beds, gardens and lawns.  Or take the lazier approach, and pile the leaves on those flower beds now.  Spray the water hose every now and then to prevent the winding taking them away.  That was my approach Monday.  Next Spring I'll have a new layer of mulch added, covering the remains and maximizing the nutrients -- all for free (well the mulch is not free).  These beauty is tucked in well for our upcoming winter.

As a child of the 70s, I have faint memories of parents putting leaves in black garbage bags and tucking them next to the foundation of our home for added insulation.  I cannot remember seeing that frugal move in recent years.  You?  Seems like a smart way to insulate, and then dump the wintered contents into a garden of flower bed.

Enjoy the frugal path, and thanks for reading.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Frugal Halloween Treats

Sunday's order of service at the Prairie UU church we attend offered an interesting statistic in it's Green Note Section:  the average Halloween candy haul per child is 10 pounds!

That is 10 pounds of individually wrapped sugar intensity. Not all that healthy, and certainly not eco-friendly.  How can we keep Halloween fun and treat filled, but go easy on the wrappings?  The article offers suggestions:

  • Pennies or larger coins for UNICEF boxes;
  • Halloween styled pencils;
  • Erasers; and
  • Boxed raisins (in eco-friendly boxes).
I would add bulk candy!  This is what we've done in years past.  The candy is individually wrapped, but not nearly as much waste as you will find in Halloween candy sections of the store.

How about you?  Suggestions on keeping treats in Halloween, but making it a little more frugal?  It's good for our budgets, our health, and the planet.  Please share any ideas!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Wintering Geraniums

Lower and lower go the night temperatures as we Madisonians work our way towards the Winter Season.  And so it was time to move the summer geraniums off the front step.  But to where?  Plants of summers past have taken refuge on the window sill at my office, adding a much needed splash of cheer to a legal office.  But the sill is full, what to do?  It was a spark of memory that I went with, something I'd tucked away in my mind while emptying out my childhood home this past year.

In the basement of the home I was raised in, among many things, I found my mom's geraniums.  She would put them in a brown paper bag, pot and all.  When summer weather returned to Madison, she'd place them on her back porch for another season.  My mother left this world in February of this year, but her plants were there in the Spring as we began to sort and clean.  Sadly, even though I had meant to bring them to our home, the plants were sold with other odds and ends.  I may not have her actual plants, but I do have her frugal idea.  When you pay for quality plants, why toss them in the compost heap with the fall leaves.  Have them "winter".

My allergies make bringing lots of plants into the house a challenge, but as I write, the three geraniums that graced our front steps all summer long are snug as a bug (please, no real bugs) in Hy-Vee and Trader Joe's bags.  Nestled close to the exterior door, the one I had meant to replace this year.  The old door is still there -- life happens, items get pushed off and off on a to do list -- and I hope the plants will stay cool, and do a little bit to block any draft from that old door.

Check in next Spring when the plants re-emerge.  Suggestions or tips on extending their life are always welcome, so please leave a comment.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Off to Savers We Went

Friday after school I handed my children half a bagel each, and we piled into the Honda.  I knew the bagel treat would dampen their after school ravenous appetite and give them just enough stability to tackle Halloween costume shopping.  Off to Savers we went, just as we had the prior year.

On the drive over I explained to them that their desired outfits were not going to be easy, after all, my attempts with Amazon Prime and a general Google search had yielded pitiful results.  A unicorn and snow leopard.....we needed some Gervasi luck if they were going to get their wish.

With coupon in hand (20% from a prior donation to Savers) we walked to the kids section.  If a shopping experience can have fireworks, we had them.  There on the rack hung a size 4-6 unicorn outfit.  New, it was priced at $24.  My daughter was delighted, my son sank into despair -- if we'd had so much luck for her, his search was a lost cause.  But we proved him wrong.  One rack over, buried at the end, hung a darling snow leopard (or some sort of spotted big cat) outfit, complete with hood and face.   Next to his find was a smaller, pure black cat outfit, just the right size for our daughter.   Now she had a unicorn, appropriate for indoor events (school and church) and one for going out on Halloween night.  A few minutes later, our son found something akin to a Star Fleet uniform, and he too had one outfit for indoors and other for the cold Wisconsin night.

We threw in a huge black spider that we now have hanging from our bay window as well as Halloween t-shirts for the kids and a Poncho for my cow girl outfit.  We were done shopping in 20 minutes.  And the total price came to $70.  Far less than any of the not-quite-what-they-wanted outfits I'd found on the internet, with prices coming in between $40 and $60 each.

Savers, an essential ingredient in the frugal life we are carving out for ourselves.  Stay tuned, cute kid photos will follow in the next few weeks.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Waste Not, Want Not

Waste not, want not.  That is an underlying belief of our frugal home.  Minimizing waste maximizes our budget, allowing us to save and live a comfortable life.  Frugal for me is two part -- yes, finding "deals" at the store is one factor.  But the second is stretching your household budget. 

Two images from today illustrate how we aim to avoid waste when possible.

Drying rack doubles as a laundry detergent holder -- an ideal way to let the contents drain into the cap, eking out every last drop.

Organic waste (banana peels, apple cores, coffee grounds, egg shells, etc.) have a temporary residence under the kitchen sink.

Until I take the short walk, pail in hand, to the compost heap in the backyard.  Compost -- it happens without much prompting.  Looking for a low key approach, check out this article, posted by a fellow frugal friend of mine earlier in the week.  We have a similar approach.  The part on the left has been decomposing for longer, and is ready to be placed in the yard.  To the right, our recent contributions. It works, it is simple. And it is highly efficient!

Waste not, want not.  Look for savings, maximize every dollar you spend.  It's the frugal way!

Thursday, October 16, 2014


Picked over a month ago, these little Japanese Lantern plants started in our backyard.  Now they add a splash of color to our kitchen counter.  How long will they last?  I am not sure, but I'm thankful for the cheer and no need to buy flowers at the market.

How do you frugally decorate your home for Fall?  Thanks for reading, and leave a comment if you wish!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Frugal Fast Food: Burrito Assembly Line

The cost per burrito may be equal to or slightly more than those at Taco Bell, but they are the preferred fast food in our frugal home.  When finding a stack frozen in the freezer, my frugal husband's eyes light up!  Here is why:

  • Fast food -- pull from freeze, microwave and 2 minutes later the perfect lunch for an efficient and frugal engineer.
  • Perfect place to stash left over veggies -- from spinach to squash to mushrooms, just mix them in.
  • When making dinner, put 2 cups of brown rice in the rice cooker.  Serve a small portion to wee ones with olive oil and parmesan cheese, set aside the rest to cool.  Dump in a jumbo can of beans, add a jar of salsa, drop in those veggies.
  • Far healthier than the sodium filled burritos sold by Taco Bell and the like.
  • Use heavy duty foil, which can then be reused again and again.....assuming the absented minded engineer remembers to toss the foil in his lunch bag.
And there you have it, fast food in a frugal home.  What's your favorite frugal fast food?  I'd love some new ideas.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Fall in the Frugal Home

Car tires generate a hissing sound as they drive past on the rain soaked road out front, filling the background of my afternoon working at home.  It's a busy road that we live on.  Yes, that brings traffic and its noise, and a bit of danger.  But it also brought a lower price per square foot purchase price for our own, and it is high priority for plows -- this is Wisconsin after all. Not once in the years we have lived here have we been late because of snow!

As the garden has retreated, so has has the whirl of the clothes dryer.  Items hang from racks and bars, indoors, making the most of the dry and cool air.  Drying without energy use, putting a touch of moisture in the air, stretching the life of our clothes, sheets, etc.

Pumpkins roast in the oven, providing "pumpkin meat" for countless breads, muffins, scuffins and pancakes for months to come.  The oven ads a bit of extra heat.  A happy extra since our furnace has yet to come on during the day, how could it with a thermostat set at 61.  Yes, 61 degrees, we call ourselves frugal for a reason.

Looking ahead there are more pumpkins to roast and a trip to Savers for the wee ones to select Halloween outfits, and I'll have my 30% off coupon in hand.  That is what fall looks like here, in our snug and frugal home.  How about yours?  Leave a comment, share and inspire.

Friday, October 10, 2014

"Do It Myself!"....from the mouths of Frugal Folks

Image by author.  "Who me?  Yes, me!"

Fiercely independent since birth, my daughter's two-year old catch phrase was "do it myself!"  While her grammar has improved over time, her attitude remains that of "I can accomplish tasks on my own, no assistance needed."  She shares this attitude with many young girls, and also those who lead a frugal life.

Enjoy yogurt?  Make your own!

Halloween is approaching -- pull out your mother's (or grandmother's) sewing machine and whip together stellar costumes.

Cutters filling with leaves -- just hop up on the roof and shovel them out!

Do it yourself resourcefulness is a perfect way to stretch family budgets.  Why pay when you can do the work yourself!  However, while it is possible to stretch a budget of money, one's time is rather finite.  There is the need to sleep, eat, bathe, and bond with family and friends.  Oh yeah, and work. For those without an employer or clients, the stay-at-home parent crowd or recent retires, they have a bit more time to stretch and manipulate.  For me, time is my most precious commodity and I guard it like no other.

So recently I found myself considering hiring someone to clean our house.  There was my husband, encouraging me to outsource, knowing that each item off my to-do list opened the door for either more time at the office or more time with my family, he would endorse either.  A champion of the phrase "Jack of all trades, master of none --- Why clean a toilet when you can write a will and earn a lot more?"  His argument, a condensed version.  Friends urged me to call "their person", singing of the joy of returning home at the end of the work week to a clean home.  All I would need to do is make sure the "kids' stuff is put up and away so they can clean."  Easier said than done.

Back and forth I went, and in the end I followed my daughter's mantra -- do it myself.  Why?  It certainly isn't a decision based on math.  Our budget would be higher if I spent more time at the office, leaving household cleaning to someone else.  But the thing is, I like my house.  I like tidying up the place we call home.  Besides, 2/3s of the work is picking up after the kids and then cleaning. Why hire someone and have an on-going obligation, requiring me to work.  When I clean my own house there is no duty, obligation, pressure -- call it what you like -- to keep the cleaning person. And that is priceless.

My decision was reinforced on a recent morning walk.  My daughter and I had just dropped my son off at kindergarten.  On the walk home we met Doris, a neighbor.  She did not look at day over 70, but conversation revealed that she was 86!  She had raised six children, all going to school my son now attends.  "And I still clean my own house -- feels great, keeps me young!" --thanks Doris for the nudge.  Not only am I saving money, but a good cleaning is a decent workout if done correctly.  Also, my inner control freak knows that the products used will be one's I prefer (i.e. vinegar to chemicals I cannot pronounce).  Keys to forgoing the cleaning person when you also work outside the own and so does your partner:

  • Surround yourself with what you need and or truly love;
  • Recognize disorder as a sign of a home bursting with love;
  • Admit that you will not mop every day/week/maybe longer -- it is ok; and
  • Avoid comparing your home to others, especially those in a photo spread or TV show

Friday, October 3, 2014

Frugal People Read the Fine Print....

Opened the mail today and found two surprises.  One was a reimbursement check for $169.99, issued by the manufacturer of the dehumidifier we purchased over three years ago.  This past summer the unit was recalled -- the model had a tendency to start house fires.  Out with the old, in with the new. And today the cost of the new was reimbursed.  Fine print - it is worth the attention.

Mailing number two that really got my attention was a bill from American Medical Response out of Modesto, California.  Wow, they sure do not waste time.  After 60 seconds of scanning the bill it was clear it was for the ambulance we'd called while vacationing in Seattle.  As my son and I drove off into the dark Seattle night to Seattle Children's Hospital because of his croup I wondered "Hmmmm, a Mercedes ambulance, what will that cost?"  Regular readers will recall a post from earlier in the week when cost was not a concern, more of a curiosity.  Our frugal life means that when it comes to medical expenses for our family, we've stockpiled over the years in our Health Savings Account. Concerned?  No.  Curious? Yes.  And I bet some of you are as well.

Based on the bill the ambulance drove us 5 miles, at $18.39 a mile.    So, the mileage totaled $91.95. Ah, but we are not done yet. For reference, the cab back at 2am cost $20 with tip. The ambulance itself, all compact, shiny and new, and European ala the Mercedes symbol -- well that cost $758.00. Ouch!

As my eyes scanned the total I heard a voice in my head (one that sounded just like my equally frugal husband) "wow, that does not seem right, way too much!"  More eye scanning, quick check of the memory bank, and I surmised that our insurance had not been billed.

Now this is not an HMO type of insurance.  We are both self-employed, so we buy it on the marketplace.  There are no HMO hoops, but we do have a $12,000 annual deductible.  Translation, we pay the first $12,000 of medical expenses out-of-pocket.  In our case, we use the tax advantaged HSA dollars to cover those expenses.  In turn, we pay a lower monthly premium.  But even with the out-of-pocket cost on our part, I know from previous medical purchases that we get a negotiated rate. And $758 for an ambulance does not seem to be a negotiated rate.

A quick call to the company confirmed, they had not billed the insurance because it was not on file. Now it is, and in 4 to 6 weeks we'll receive an EOB (explanation of benefits) that will, fingers crossed, give us a lower charge for that ambulance.  And may I point out, this is the charge for the ambulance only, not the hospital.

Oh Seattle 2014, what a trip you turned out to be for our frugal family.  Beyond turning our kid's on to the wonder of Otter forts and sparking in me a new love of lobster chowder, this trip has underscored that fact that life happens, make sure you budget that fact in each month.  And just as important, make sure you take the time to read the fine print.  If you find that hard, use a highlighter, a little trick that got me through three years of buried to the eyes case law reading in law school.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for what the final bill actually turns out to be for that ambulance ride!

Image by author -fruit stand in Pike's Market

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Saving at Savers

October has arrived, and the forecast for tomorrow night here in Madison, Wisconsin includes a chance of flurries late Friday.  Ugh.  Winter coat time is upon us.  How fortunate for me that I just picked up two "new to me" Lands End winter coats at our local Savers.  An email from the company drew me in, offering 30% off for Red Card holders.  Yep, that is me.  Into the cart went two coats, one for cooler temps the other for more serious plunges in the thermometer.  Both are washed and air drying in the basement.   Total cost was $17.48!

Winter - I am ready for you. And thanks to my willingness to shop 2nd hand, my acquisition was easy on my wallet, gave items a second life, and provides peace of mind that something as essential as a winter coat need not be a huge expense in our budget (i.e. costing more than $100).  How about you - do you shop 2nd hand?  Why or why not?  Any taboo items that you simply refuse to put in your cart?  Do you prefer the deep discounts at stores offering new products, skipping the thrift store genre all together.  Drop me a comment, discussion is always fun!

Be well, and frugal on!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Frugal Visit to Seattle

A few thoughts from our recent trip to Seattle; how we kept it frugal on the road.

  • Airfare:  we opted to drive 4.5 hours to Minneapolis to fly direct on Alaska Air.  When you are flying with kids (and their booster seats plus an umbrella stroller) direct is key.  Purchased in advance the initial price was $800 for four of us.  Bargain!  And then life happened, my husband had to fly to England for business, and our travel dates were shuffled.  Still, paying an additional $1200 to change our travel dates put us at what we thought we'd pay for tickets intially.  Lesson -- life happens, work that into your travel budget.
  • Lodging: I cannot praise Residence Inn at Lake Union enough.  Our suite had a bedroom and a kitchen/living area with a sleeper sofa.  The kitchen had a range, microwave, sink, dish washer, and a regular sized fridge.  Complete with dishes, cups, pots and pans -- we whipped up a few meals in the room.  The part that blew me away was the food they offered -- a huge buffet breakfast with eggs, sausages, yogurts, fruit, cereals, and self-made waffles!  And Monday - Wednesday nights they offer dinner as well.  Monday of our stay we ate  ton of grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato basil soup.  At $237/night it was well worth the price.  Lesson -- pay more for lodging, but save by avoiding pricey restaurant meals.
  • Location: the above mentioned business trip shaved 1 day off of our visit, so we opted to maximize our time in Seattle (family was busy with wedding events, the very event that prompted us to go).  Our central location with several public transit options meant we did not need a car to visit the sites.  From the airport we took a car service.  The cost was $40 plus a $10 tip, each way.  Again, time is money.  The driver met us there, and dropped us at the right departure gate.  No time standing in line for a rental or hailing a cab.  With the kids and their car gear, the train from the airport to the hotel was not a wise option.  Lesson - aim for central and figure out ways to be car-less.
Many people scoff at opting for a frugal life.  They joke because we do not have cable or drive ten year old vehicles.  They question if our kids feel deprived at the holidays or birthdays.  I can offer this, an upside of a frugal life is that when life happens, fears of money are not at the top of the list. A point reinforced on this trip.

Monday night, just before midnight Seattle time, I was jarred awake by the call of Mama from our 6 year old.  In an instant I knew he was having breathing problems.  Finding my glasses and the light switch, I immediately woke my husband and rushed to our son.  Within two minutes it was clear he needed medical attention.  Imagine -- it is the middle of the night, you are in a strange city and have no vehicle.  Your 6 year old is struggling to breathe.  Croup, again, at 6?  Could it be the virus making its way around the midwest, hospitalizing children?  I knew enough to call for help.  The front desk put me in touch with a hospital, Virginia Something or Other.  Um, I'm not sure you can bring him here - said the women who answered their emergency line.  If I were you, I'd take him to Seattle Children's Hospital, that is where I take my daughter.

Okay, where the hell is that!  Again, call to the front desk.  When they said, we could Google it for you, I said no, call 911.  I'm not waiting any longer, and a cab takes 30 minutes in this City.  We dressed quickly and left my husband and our sleeping four year old in the room.

Downstairs an ambulance arrived, and yes, the EMTs agreed he needed attention.  His status was stable, so we could wait for a transit ambulance?  I'd never heard of that, but it would have medics and know where Children's Hospital of Seattle is located.  And when that Mercedes ambulance arrived I was happy we opt for the frugal path in life.  Not once did I think Shit, how are we going to pay for this. No, I wanted my son to have the best and most immediate medical care money could buy.  That is why we opt for a high-deductible HSA medical plan.  No HMO hoops to jump through, and very tax advantaged savings mechanisms.

Once arrived, croup was confirmed, even though he is too old for it.  The care offered by the hospital was fantastic.  They even gave us a booster seat for the cab ride back to the hotel after his breathing responded to the medications.

Lesson learned - before our next trip, I will spend 15 minutes researching where one of us will go if there is a medical emergency.  Until then, we plan to continue maxing out our HSA savings each year.

And that is one upside of the frugal path in life.