Saturday, November 29, 2014

Memories from the Kitchen

Black Friday, Americana at its best.  Just not in this frugal house.  No, I did not hop on-line or dart down to my nearest Target on Thanksgiving Eve.  I washed dishes and cuddled on the sofa with my family.  When Friday rolled around my husband set off to his office, the kids and I transformed the house for the holidays.  Up went the tree (artificial -- I am a Christmas Tree Asthmatic -- real trees grow a mold, too which I am severely allergic -- explaining why ever winter break as a kid I was deathly ill), up went the lights.  The mantle adorned with random candles and pine cones collected in years past.  By 10am we were done.  What to do?  Head to the mall?  Not a chance.

From the garage I pulled out a bag of lids I had started saving mid-summer.  Stashed on the kitchen counter was a bag of supplies, purchased at Wisconsin Craft Mart, just down the road from our house.  This year we started a new tradition -- sending handmade ornaments to family who live far away.  Since it was the first go-around, I made a few mental notes.  Primarily, spray paint the tops in the garage our outside at least a day or two in advance.  Wow -- the smell.

Second, coffee lids are ideal -- light weight, circular, and they come with a ready made hole for the string.  Tops from jelly jars, pickle jars, or an assortment of goodies from Trader Joes -- just get a hammer and a nail, and tap away.  A huge thank you to the clerk at Wisconsin Craft Mart for telling me this when I showed up in the store looking to buy something from which to make a hook. Thanks, and we'll continue to support such a great store!

Decorations?  A few were gem stones and mini-presents I picked up at the craft show.  But the big winner were 2013 holiday cards that I had kept, from which the kids used their advancing scissor skills to cut out stockings, stars, trees and polar bears.  The end result?  Re-purposed gifts, from the hearts of tots, and priceless memories of a day in the kitchen with mom.

For those who enjoy the deals and the crowds, I hope your day(s) of shopping were productive and fun.  Our world needs all types, and the store owners, employees, and in some case stock holders, are thankful for your patronage. Having worked my way through college and grad school by working retail, those extra hours were welcomed.  But now, you could not pay me to go near the mall this time of year.  That is what one too many holiday shopping seasons at Hallmark and TJ Maxx can do to a gal.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Pumpkins, Cranberries and a Swim

The day before!  Both kids home from school, we started the day with cooking lessons in the kitchen. Our boy was in charge of mixing the wet ingredients, our girl the dry.  Units of measure, basic chemistry, fractions -- all in the middle of whipping up some fabulous desserts for the Thanksgiving table.  Kitchens provide not only lessons in math and science, but essential life skills of the future frugal -- how to cook.

Lunch took us to the local Pizza Hut where our son redeemed a coupon earned from reading 20 books a month at school.  A free personal pan pizza.  Not the greatest food option for this mom, but it was a treat and he was excited to get something free.  With the amount we read we'll need to reconsider how we use them in the future.  The three of us dined there and with a decent tip the total came to $15.  Not a free lunch, but a great way for the company to get families in the doors every month. Watch for future meals where take home the free pizza and surround it with healthier options from our pantry -- pasta with veggies, chicken, etc.

Snow earlier in the week prompted me to reschedule the kids swim lessons for this afternoon, perfect with them having the day off.  Added bonus -- mom was able to use the adult lap lane for free.  My work out completed while they enhanced their "otter" skills.  Yet another win win in my frugal book. It is not just money I strive to spend wisely, but time as well.

Pie pumpkins roasting on the bottom rack, which turned into pumpkin bread. One loaf for our Thanksgiving table, another to take to friends when we visit later in the day.  Cranberry Walnut Pie bakes on the top rack.  My modified recipe is as follows:

  • mix 2 cups fresh/frozen cranberries with 1/2 cup chopped walnuts and 1/2 cup brown sugar in a 9 inch pie dish.
  • combine 2/3 cup butter, softened with 1 cup almond meal (instead of flour), 2 eggs, and 1/2 cup sugar.  Blend and pour mixture over cranberry mixture.
  • Baked at 350 degrees for 40 minutes.
As you can see, I started my roasting pumpkins and then added the pie for the last 40 minutes.  A very efficient use of the oven.

Enjoy the day in whatever manner your select to pause, give thanks and savor the wonder of life.  We'll enjoy a quite day together, and likely light a candle in memory of my mother -- the last meal I served her, in fact the last time she was in my home, was Thanksgiving 2013.  Life is short -- spend your time and money wisely, and aligned with your priorities.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Extremes in Frugal Living

Evening descended upon Madison, bringing with it a nice dosing of snow.  Enough so my children put on their outdoor gear and headed to the back yard with visions of snowmen dancing in their heads.  While the snow was too fine to pack into the shape of a man, it was perfect for snow angles and sprinkling bird seed.  I joined them outback, and quickly grabbed my counter top compost bin to join me.  Yes, the snow falls and I still compost.  Just toss it on the frozen pile, and come Spring mother nature will continue the decomposition process that yields nutrients for the yard. Unable to toss away the value in coffee ground, egg shells and pumpkin skins, I compost year round.  

On my feet we another frugal purchase, but some my question the label frugal.  At the start of my day I look my trusted four year old Lowe hiking boots down to Morgan shoes at Hilldale.  The daily foot pain could not be ignored, and my hope was all I would need were new inserts.  But now, after four years of nearly daily wear, the boots were nearing the end of life.  The clerk suggested I spend $30 to $40 at a cobbler and use them for gardening, but as for my morning walks with my son to school, the hikes, etc. - it was time for something new.  

To get even more versatility out of the shoe, she brought me the version of Lowe hiking boots that went to my ankle.  She'd listened well - I wanted something for summer hikes, daily walks to school in rain, snow and heat, and something for shoveling and sledding days.  All of that in one shoe. Slipping my foot in, I realized how unsupportive my old pair had grown.  I'll take them, and I need a good house shoe as well.  Within 10 minutes the house shoe was added to the pile.  I took advantage of the buy 4 get the 5th pair of Smartwool socks free, and added a canister of water proofing spray.  I handed over my client loyalty punch card and the $20 off coupon from the Bucky Book.  In under 20 minutes I spent just over $500.

Some may choke on the price, but I don't.  The frugally minded factor in the price per wear, as well as the fact shopping takes time -- time I could spent at my legal practice, working out, playing with kids, or preparing a healthy meal.  I paid for time, quality, and will argue until I am blue in the face that it was a frugal purchase.  Spur of the moment yes, but when you watch your pennies daily, maximized the efficiency of everything you can (note the winter compost) your budget allows this type of expenditure.

And now it is time for me lace up those boots and head up to my son's school for a Thanksgiving feast his teacher is preparing in the classroom.

Be well, enjoy the holiday, and keep it frugal!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Mental Note to Self

Sitting on the bleachers with my kiddos enjoyed their weekly swim lesson, it was the nudge of the deck manager that pulled my nose out of my library book.  Here is a flier about upcoming events here at the pool!  And off she went to touch base with other parents.  Glancing at the flier I made a mental note -- free family swim on November 22 for those who bring canned goods for the food drive.  Perfect.

Our youngest adores the water, just like her mom.  We've been meaning to come here as a family and play in the water, and now we had a free ticket.  And today was that day.  We turned over a bag with lentils, rice cakes, hot coco, and some canned veggies.  Off we went to enjoy an hour of jumping and splashing.  Perfect for this frugal mom.

Mental notes, I make them all the time and as soon as possible jot them down in a way that I will remember the deal that has caught my attention.  The swim flier became my bookmark, and then reminded me to 1) note the event on the kitchen calendar, and 2) tell my youngest, who then asked me daily - is today the day we go to family swim?

We live in a deluge of deals, make mental notes, then real notes to maximize your ability to cash in on said deals.  

Friday, November 21, 2014

Low-Hanging Fruit

Would you pick up $96 if you found it on the sidewalk?  Don't wait for luck to come your way --  instead take a close look at the little monthly charges and figure out one to eliminate.  That is what I did at the office today, saving myself $96 a year.

Some time ago I had a landline installed when an associate worked for me.  Having abandoned that model of business, I am now back to using college student help and handling all calls on my own.  While I made this switch back in mid-summer, I still had a landline.  Even worse, the phone had been turned off because the only calls that came in on that number were telemarketers.  Finally I turned on the speaker phone, called TDS, and waited while balancing my business checking account. Thirty minutes later the request to terminate the landline, going just with DSL was complete, and my profit grows by a tiny amount for the year ahead.

One action like this really does not make a huge difference, but channeling this mindset day after day, looking for long-hanging fruit of the frugal world will add up over time.  What can you cut, disconnect, terminate?

Thanks for reading, and keep on with the frugal path.  It's good for your health, your wallet and the planet.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Swedish Meatballs

Tempted, oh so tempted was I to get take-out for dinner or order a pizza.  Happy my husband, fresh off a transatlantic flight from England, took the day off to be home, my plans for dinner were seriously neglected.

Wow!  It's totally dark out! -- said our four year old as we left the after school program her brother attends.  Yes, even though the days are getting shorter and the sun sets earlier and earlier, this was the latest pick-up in the 2014-15 school year history for our family.  As we piled into the car, it was clear that two of the four of us were starved, cold and tired.

Should we order a pizza?, I whispered to my husband who shot down the idea.  Less from a financial perspective and more from a health one, No, you always feel sick.  What was the plan for dinner?  For the past few weeks I knew that tonight I would make Swedish Meatballs, a favorite of my late father's.  Why today?  November 20th was his birthday, and I make a point of fixing some of his favorite foods to feel closer to him, and connect the children with a man they will never know.

Swedish meatballs, but they talk 1.5 hours to make.  These kids are starved.  My look of defeat did not deter my husband.  Hmmm, they can wait, they won't die.  So home we went.  The car door knocked into our daughter's head and her utter melt down, which somehow pushed her brother over the edge, put two screaming kids in my kitchen.  While mixed up, the meatballs were not even shaped.  What to do?

Enter the incredible, edible, frugal egg.  Two eggs, scrambled in butter, paired with cheese, pumpkin bread, and banana slices.  In under ten minutes the kids had a healthy, fast, and inexpensive dinner. While they ate, I prepared the meatballs to be enjoyed later in the evening by my husband and I.  As I write the night time music filters down the hall, my husband is finishing a reading of Star Trek Legos to our son, and we'll dine in a few minutes.

Home cooked food -- it is at the core of our frugal home.  Take-out is easy, but pricey, usually not that healthy, and a burden on the local dump with all the containers.  Parents in a rush?  Turn to the scrambled egg.   Eager to try new dishes in the kitchen, here is my mom's highly simplified version of Swedish Meatballs:

  • 1 pound ground pork
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 mashed potato
  • diced onion
  • dash of allspice, salt and pepper
Mix, roll into balls (golf ball sized), brown in butter, then simmer in water, covered, for about an hour.  Authentic?  I cannot say.  Delicious on a cold November night, yes!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Meet Sir Frugal, Jr.

Mama!  Today I earned a BONUS penny!

Really, why?

Hmmm, I don't remember.  But I got a bonus one!

So how many pennies do you have now?

About 80.

Wow! What are you going to spend it on?

Hmmmmm, I don't know, but I will at some point.  You know, some kids are really bad with their pennies, they have like 10.

Sir Frugal, Jr. -- always an intense thinker.

For context, this was a snippet of the after school talk I had with my six year old son.  His kindergarten teacher operates a penny reward system.  On a daily basis kids earn one or two pennies for a day of good work and or behavior.  Excellent behavior leads to a bonus penny.  And you guessed it, bad behavior results in a fine.  Every now and then the teacher opens up her "store", allowing the kids to use their pennies to make purchases.

And to think last year my husband and I paid private school tuition, at school with soured with us after 13 days, and down the road was our free public school brimming with brilliance.  The Penny Store -- oh I adore thee.

First, it is a great introduction to math in the real world.  Second, it connects behavior to something tangible.  Third, it provides real world experience for kids on the use of money -- giving them a chance to make foolish decisions, from which wisdom emerges.  And fourth, it works from what I can see -- kids gauge their behavior because of those pennies.  My only concern? Hoping my apparently frugal son will actually spend some of those pennies.  Having a stash is nice, but one cannot savor certain aspects of life without making a purchase.  For now, I delight in his restraint and discipline.

My point today -- it is never too early to help children learn about money.  Just like drugs and sex, it is out there, they'll be exposed to it, and you want them to be able to talk with you about decisions they made and what happened.  Learn these lessons young, not in your 30s and 40s with mortgages, student loans and credit cards -- when the consequences are much higher.

If you are local (Dane County, Wisconsin) and what to enhance your money management skills, consider the offerings at UW Extension Financial Education Center.  Not local?  Turn to Google and plug in Extension Money Management to find a resource in your area.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Tis The Season....To Sell Stuff

Even though we have not roasted the turkey, mashed the potatoes or savored a slice of pumpkin pie -- the stores are engulfed with Christmas decorations.  Santa has arrived at a local mall here in Madison. Sure, the temperatures (a whopping 16 degrees F) feel like the dead of winter, yet we have not even given thanks and watch football -- or in my case the American Dog Show.

Holding on to Turkey Time -- wild turkeys, UW Arboretum, 10/31/14

Stores are prepared with Christmas items, clerks eagerly mark down fall and Thanksgiving stock-- this afternoon I bought a garden flag that was 50% off, costing me $5 and giving me more than a week to display it out front. While many may be shopping and crossing items off their list, I am "opposite girl".  Instead of buying, I'm in a selling mood. Whether it is a box of furnace filters in the basement (sold to a friend) or unread books (listed on Amazon) or outgrown Halloween costumes (donated), I am in full blown cleaning house mode.

If you are frugal, give some thought to these points.

  1. You have to put your stuff somewhere, and that place costs money.  Whether it is a storage locker where you pay a monthly rental fee, your basement, the attic, etc. -- space costs money. Even if you are mortgage free, that space needs to be insured and is subject to property tax (although that varies greatly between states).  The more you own, the more space you need, the more you pay;
  2. Before you can clean you have to put the stuff away.  This is a huge issue in a house with a 6 and 4 year old.  Growing up in an age when stuff is made of cheap plastic means they get trinkets at an alarming rate.  I covet the simplicity of the home decor in the Little House on the Prairie books (but not the bathroom facilities).  Back then a single toy may have cost a months pay.  Today toys explode out of packages, birthday grab bags, library rewards, and birthday and holiday gifts.  All that stuff requires time to be put away before I can even clean the house that stores it.  Stuff, it costs you time and money.  Sure my kids and help clean up, but their time is valuable too.  Read books with mom on the sofa, or pick up the piles of toys?
  3. Cash talks.  I'd rather have more cash and less stuff, it's as simple as that.  Well stocked emergency fund, small mortgage, no consumer or education debt, hefty 529 college plans for the kids, a decent health savings account, and the big one, IRAs.  In a dual self-employed home cash is key, we have no illusion of stability.  Cash gets us groceries or medical care, an awesome pair of designer boots (even if bought at 50% off) does not.  It's all about balance -- what is enough stuff, what is enough cash.
  4. It's easy to sell.  From Amazon to Ebay to Craiglist to a Facebook post to your neighborhood page, it has never been easier to transfer the stuff you are done with to new owners and receive a little jingle in your pocket.
Liquidity is a main motivator for me, but on the back burner sit the images from this past year as I cleared out my childhood home.  With both parents now deceased, the job of emptying their ranch home fell to me.  Sell, share, donate, toss, keep -- asked over and over again.  Given the work I do as an estate planning and probate attorney, daily I face the reality that at some point in time someone will have that job for my possessions.  In the end I hope they are simple, prized, filled with meaning -- and the rest of my "stuff" can sit in an investment account with a transfer on death label.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Same Old Story....

Another frugal weekend:

  • library books and DVDs, stacked nearly the same height as my four year old.  Enlightenment as well as entertainment, free thanks to a single library card.
  • Home haircuts or the kids -- a trim of her bangs, and overall chopping of his hair.  They will not look like an ad from Gap kids, but they have awesome college funds because I rarely splurge for a professional cut.  What I don't spend means the more we save.
  • Split pea soup simmering on the stove as I type -- healthy, hardy, kids adore, and oh so frugal in cost -- and veggie style is kind to the earth as well.
  • Removed our own snow from the walk here as well as at the house I inherited (fingers crossed the closing happens tomorrow, making future snow falls someone else's responsibility).  We could have hired out the work, especially since my other frugal half is in Europe for work, but I'd rather pay my kids and show them that work equals money.  That, and it is a great way to get out and enjoy Wisconsin winter weather and burn off some calories.
  • Our three cats compete for the best spot in the house now that winter has arrived; in front of the vent in the smallest room in the house, making it the warmest.  The indoor temp will hover between 61 and 63 degrees.  Winter in a frugal house means it is time for slippers, layers, and a lovely scarf around Mama's neck. Yes, warmer would be nice, but not as nice as low energy bills this time of year.
The same old story.  Frugal is about marathon speed.  To intense can be too hard to sustain.  A little frugal every day, it adds up to a life without debt, a secure emergency fund, hefty college accounts for kids aged 6 and 4.  It's peace of mind that a furnace going out or a new (as in used being new to us) car will not force us to turn to credit.  We are not glamorous, we are not overly fun and exciting. We are frugal -- free to do as we please.  I could not ask for more.   For that I give thanks.

Gobble, Gobble -- wild turkeys at the UW Arboretum -- a perfect spot
for a solo or family hike any time of year.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

On Target for a Frugal Life

Target.  Yes, a big box store is a key part of my frugal life.  Reason number one, I can walk to one from my house and or office.  That alone gives shopping at Target huge bonus points on my frugal scale.  No gasoline required, I buy only what I can carry (lug), and it is a perfect way to keep an active lifestyle.

Then there is the bag credit.  If I bring my own bag, the cashier deducts $0.05 off of my bill.  Saves the store on bag purchases, saves me money, and is kind to the Earth.  A win-win if I ever saw one.

Next -- the Red Card.  Either a credit or debit (we are a debit family) that deducts 5% off the purchase price -- from socks to milk to a latte in the cafe.  I'll take those savings any day.

Off brands -- oh how I love them.  A few years ago I saved a huge amount buying Target brand diapers, wipes and formula (yes, I am "earthy" -- but the natural route did not work for our family).  Now days it is the allergy meds, cough syrup, etc -- the Target Brand, Up and UP, is great and I don't pay for ad costs.

But the latest frugal find involves fundraising.  With a few clicks on the computer, my son's school now receives 1% of my purchases from Target's Take Charge of Education Program.  There is no cost to me, the shopper.  It works for the Red Card, credit or debit.  All I did was log on, create an account, and then link my card to Stephens Elementary on Rosa Rd.  Anyone in the country can link and support his school, or a school that is near and dear to their heart.

I must say, other fundraisers pale in comparison.  Gone is my guilty pressure to purchase trinkets or candies or holiday decor, from which the school may receive 30%.  Instead, I am focusing my purchases at my local Target.  Things I need anyway, now resulting in a 1% donation to his school.

Here is a big thank you to the family and friends who have signed up since I started making noise about this program!  Care about the future of education in America?  Here is a great way for frugal crowd to make wise purchases and direct corporate dollars to America's future.  Yes -- corporate! Frugal folks can embrace locally grown and international companies, it takes diversity to make the world go around.  And for the record, my kids 529 college savings (i.e. mutual funds) own shares of Target.  Corporate is not necessarily evil.

Thanks for reading, and please share other frugal ways to fund raise that do not involve glossy magazines!