Friday, May 29, 2015

A Gain of 16

Friday, check in day here on Frugal Upside.  For those tracking our progress to rid our house of 2,015 items in 2015.....we discarded 16 this past week giving us a grand total of 1,137 items purge!  Just 16 this week, down considerably from the first few weeks of this effort.

Initially I assumed the low number was due to lack of time.  The more time I spend at the office, the less time I have at home to sort and purge.  And I have been busy, so busy typing away at the office I have developed a nasty case of tendinitis.  However, I realized that what is really missing is the low hanging fruit,not a time issue.  The time has come to role up my sleeves and dig in, really seeking out things that we do not need to house.  The approaching end of preschool for our youngest gives me the focus on ridding the house of all toddler related items.  Lurking there in drawers and cabinets are items from the days of naps and pacifiers.  Really, our kitchen does not need to hold on to the red handled spork.

Our backdrop of frugal living still supports our daily lives behind the purge efforts.  With the fast approach of the month of June, the dandelions in our yard have begun their retreat.  Unlike many of our neighbors we do not use an sprays to "beautify" the lawn.  Weeds sprawl, bees buzz, and I turn the solicitor from "Weed Man" down with a smile.  Good for my budget, likely better for my health, and certainly better for the area lakes and ground water.

As we transition into a another weekend, I find myself with an impressive "to-cook" list.  A double batch of chili (using leftover pork roast and corn on the cob), chicken soup, and a creative take on corn bread, improvising from the cheddar & chive scone recipes I've been reading.  Chives -- they've flourished in our front yard, and it is high time I put them to use!

Sunday, May 24, 2015


Friday came and went without posting an update for loyal readers on the status of our efforts to purge 2,015 items in 2015.  Why not?  There was nothing to report.  The first week to pass with not a single item donated, recycled, given away.   Technically we did remove some items, but each offset recent purchases of kid clothing and shoes for the summer season.  Closing in on half the year gone, we'll need to increase our efforts and focus over the summer months when I am working fewer hours during the children's school break.  For now, I am enjoying the rain fall on the few garden plants we put in yesterday, cuddled on the sofa with the kids watching their favorite Star Trek film while my husband works in a run in our neighborhood.  Ignoring the clutter, and simply enjoying the moment.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Frugal Observations

"Mom, we don't eat out as much as other families." My oldest child's statement set the topic for our 10 minute walk up the hill to school.  Bundled in fleece jackets, hands inside of mittens on a mid-May morning in Wisconsin, I have grown to savor these talks.  A perfect time to deepen our bond, and most days work in a teachable moment.

"Why do you say that?"was my response.

"Everyone else eats out a lot more, I mean a lot more." he replied, not really answering my why question.

Being the lawyer I returned with, "how do you know that?  Is it something kids share at morning circle time?" I queried.

"Yes!  They go to Noodles, to Culvers, they get take-out subs, have happy meals.....have I ever had a happy meal mom?"

"Nope.  You've had some of the nuggets and their ice cream, but never a happy meal. Don't some kids talk about eating meals at home?"  Curious now, we're we really that odd?

"Yeah, but even Mrs. ----- eats meals out!" Changing gears to emphasize habits of a teacher both my husband and I adore for her amazing talents as a teacher.

"Well, we'll do Culvers sometime, probably even this weekend....your aunt and Grandma are flying up and you know how they love Culvers."  This satisfied him and the conversation turned to his convincing the 6 foot stick he'd acquired on the walk must be carried home, by me, and added to his collection.  He won.  We may have another lawyer in the family one day.

For now these moments allow me to set the groundwork for our family.  Our family eats out, but only every now and then, usually with coupon in hand.  Dining at home is not free, but it is certainly less taxing on our family budget.  One day Rooster will fly the coop and fly off to college.  I will take a moment to remind him that the college education fund his father and I used to aggressively save for college was made possible in part by not eating out all the time.  Once having been a student saddled with heavy student loans, I am saving so that our two children will not need to worry about a FAFSA score.  I hope to write a check, and that will be that.  Made possible by not only frugal living, but hard work, and diligent savings week after week, year after year.  And over that time it is my wish that some of my frugal life choices will not only be observed by our children, but adopted by them as well.  Time will tell.  For now, meals at home are the norm.

P.S. This post was written at the kitchen counter as I consumed a spinach, chicken egg scramble with an apricot and jelly toast -- homemade, fueling me up before heading off to my office.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Recent Grads: Toss The Cap, Keep Common Sense

Mid-May in Madison,Wisconsin means that most likely our last night with frost is behind us, most likely.  We can safely tuck away our wool socks and the long-underwear that got us through another Wisconsin winter.  Put away the fleece? Well that is really a year round option here -- summer nights can be quite cool, especially for those trips north, so we keep it handy.  Mid-May also brings a flurry of activity on the University of Wisconsin - Madison campus.  Over the weekend tens of thousands of undergrads, graduate and professional students will toss a cap into the air and leave the campus for the next phase in life.

Many will likely carry the same burden I did upon completing my last and final degree (1995 Undergrad, 1998 Masters, 2001 Law degree) -- student loans.  When I crossed that stage down on campus in May of 2001 I had three degrees, and just over $97,000 in student loans.  Fourteen years later I live just a few miles from the graduation venue, returning to my hometown after stints away. Unlike many of my fellow graduates, I am debt free with the exception of a small mortgage. The $97,000 in loans was gone by 2006 -- and do no instantly say "oh, well you're a lawyer, it's easy to pay off loans when you pull in six-figures."  I was not that kind of lawyer.

Those nine years of school focused on government and policy, and upon graduation I accepted a job with a State government institution here in Madison.  My salary was not six-figures, it wasn't even close.  How did the loans disappear?  I didn't win the lottery or receive a windfall inheritance.  What I did do was live frugally, more frugally than I ever had before.  Determined to free myself of the shackles known as student loans, I got fired up and paid them off.

Sure, there were lots of little tricks I used -- using a drying rack rather than paying $0.75 to use the apartment dryer or sending in payments twice a month in order to eat away at the loan principal.  But the big one, the key -- I didn't live like "a lawyer".  Reflecting back on that transition in my life from a student to a professional I remember very clearly a conversation I had with a relative.  We were sitting on bleachers watching middle school baseball (wearing fleece!), "well now that you'll be a lawyer you should buy the kind of car a lawyer drives".  I took this as a dig towards my 1991 Honda Civic.  Understated it was, but such a step up from the 1984 Honda I'd previously owned -- free of air conditioning, but also power locks and power steering.  Yet in her mind, lawyers drove sparkly new imports.

The thought that immediately came to mind, but  one I held in was "I am a lawyer, so whatever I drive is what a lawyer drives." Not interested in a debate on my frugal ways, I let the comment pass and changed the topic to the game in front of us.  But it was that comment that captures the key to paying off loans -- don't live the life marketers or others think you should live.  Keep living like a student, a very poor student, for just a few more years and you'll receive the delight of saving for your kids college via 529 plans rather than chipping away at the mountain of debt you acquired before American Idol was even an idea let alone in its last season on TV.

My advice dear Grad --throw that cap high, and then return to your student ways.  Think bus passes, roommates, restaurants with no white table clothes, clothes drying on your shower rod, and if you must have a car, one that is paid for, outdated, and reliable.  Do this, and the debt you needed to get that degree will fade, opening yourself to even more opportunity than you have today.

Friday, May 15, 2015


Loyal readers will note that it is Friday and this post is titled with a number.  Must be the number of purged items, a reader would guess.  And that reader would be correct.  As of today our family has purged 1,121 items from our home.  With the ultimate goal being to rid our home of 2,015 items in calendar year 2015.  We're doing well it seems.

After hitting the sum symbol on the spread sheet I am using to track this venture, 1121 appeared and it felt odd.  Why?  That was the house number of my youth.  That was the house number of the home I recently emptied after the death of my second parent. That was the number of the ranch house packed with items from decades past, most of which held little or no meaning to me and were sold, recycled, donated or trashed.  The experience of emptying a departed loved ones home reinforced my desire to live in a home with few but deeply loved and treasured items.  Clutter be gone!

Nearly half-way through the year it has been an interesting exercise.  I've found myself delaying and delaying shopping for spring/summer clothing.  Heavy basket after basket of outdated paperwork I reflect on times past -- the days of in-home nanny payroll are behind us now -- recycle that binder after shredding the materials.   The goal is to fill our home more with memories and happy times rather than a relentless pursuit of stuff that has to be maintained.

1121 -- a cartoon floating around Facebook comes to find.  It's Winnie the Pooh and says it is not the places you go that matter, but rather who you go with.  Spinning off on that I would say, it is not what you own that matters, but who you share your time with.

I am not completely devoid of sentimentality.  Each morning, after walking our oldest to school, I return home and just before passing through the bright red door on our ranch home I pause to gaze at the ferns, hostas, and  peonies that once bloomed in my parents yard.  Those very plants were dug up with my own plans and loving transplanted to my yard.  They made it through the move, and have greeted the Spring as I hoped.  1121 -- there were some things I simply had to hold on to.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Frugal Focal Point

What is your frugal focal point?  Put another way, where do you center your frugal habits?  For some it may be transportation, shunning a car and going with public transport and pedal power.  Another may opt to live in sustainable housing, turning to rain barrels, solar power, and other strategies to limit their use of, or entirely get off the grid.  Some people may purchase little to nothing new, frequenting thrift stores on relying on a barter system.

What is our focal point?  It is tempting to write, stretching the dollar of every penny -- our focus being on maximizing the efficiency of a dollar.  From using index funds (with lower fees) to credit cards that pay us cash back....but that just does not feel focused enough.  So much of what we do is focused on efficiency.  Mulling this over a chili simmers on the stove, two loaves of banana bread bake in the oven, and my lunch of leftovers gives me moments to pause between sentences.  Yes, there it is, our focal point -- the kitchen!

Eating out is not unheard of, but it is rare compared to most American families.  Case in point, I cooked up yummy dishes on Mother's Day rather than paying for a fancy brunch out.  All four of us head off to work or school with a lunch bag with food from home and a thermos of water (for the kids) and coffee for the parents.  Even the very chili simmering while I write is an example of our frugal ways, tossed together with leftovers from the counter and freezer.  Making the most of what we have on hand before it goes bad.  No chili is ever really the same here.  Today's version:

  • two onions and a tablespoon of garlic sauteed in olive oil
  • chopped turkey (leftovers that were frozen in the freezer)
  • 2 cans kidney beans
  • 2 cans tomato sauce
  • 1 can diced tomatoes
  • 1 package of cherry tomatoes threatening to go bad on the counter
  • remaining spinach from last week's farmers' market
Simmer for 1 hour, add chili powder as well as cumin.  Serve with toasted cheese sandwiches, and you have a healthy and frugal dinner.  Perfect for the cloud covered and chilly night we have here in Madison.  And with a pot this large, there will be plenty of leftovers for work lunches.

What is the focal point of your frugal life?  Leave a comment and start a conversation!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

A Frugal Mother's Day Brunch

No reservations, no fancy clothes, no tip to leave on the table for waitstaff. This mother's day I took refuge in my happy place, the kitchen, where I whipped up some dishes from foods that have lingered, calling for consumption.  Yes, I cooked.  And I am content.

  • Crab Quiche
  • Roasted asparagus (from the farmers' market)
  • Baked walleye
  • Spinach salad with mandarian oranges, pecans, and cranberries
Matched with homemade cards and gifts from the children, and a $0.99 card (he put the first selection back when it rang up at $7.32) from my husband, this frugal Mama could not be happier.

Here is the crab quiche recipe:
  • 1 egg
  • 4 tsp flour
  • 1/2 cup mayo
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 8 oz grated gruyere cheese (I use Trader Joe's Swiss & Gruyere mix)
  • 8 oz crab meat (I use Trader Joe's canned)
  • chopped green onion
Using a pie shell from Betty Crocker, mix and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.

Once we are done with dinner, we are headed out for a hike, in the rain if the clouds let loose. Embracing nature for a frugal, healthy, and eco-friendly Mother's Day -- wishing you all the best dear reader.

A favorite bowl, one that once graced my mother's kitchen.  
It's the simple things we treasure when a loved one is no longer with us, 
simple things like a mixing bowl.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Happy Birthday Frugal Style....

"Happy Birthday Sweetie, I cleaned the basement and baked you cookies!" -- says this author to her husband.  That my dear reader is the extent of birthday gifts between spouses in our frugal home. Today, May 8th, my dear husband enters his 40s.  Flying in on a red-eye from meetings in Seattle, he will be greeted at home by two handmade signs on the door from the garage.  Our oldest wishing him a happy 40th, our youngest welcoming him home.  One the counter he will find a double batch of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies the three of us baked last night, and cards from the family await on the dinning room table.  The biggest "surprise" of all will likely be that I used some down time while he was out of town to purge in our our basement, bringing our year-to-date total to 1,093 items removed from our home. And once the purging there was done, I cleaned and tidied up a bit.  No, this is not the type of gift you'd see promoted on TV or glossy magazines, but I can tell you with 100 percent certainty -- my frugal other half will be delighted.  That is our frugal approach to spousal birthdays -- what's yours?

Thursday, May 7, 2015

I Am Not An Urban Farmer.....

Repeat after me, I am not an urban farmer.  This is my new mantra.  I am frugal, but that does not mean I have to be an urban farmer!  One can be frugal without raising kitchens, planting rows of corn, and baking pizza in a solar oven all from the comfort of the suburbs.  We know you can do all of these things, there are countless books and blogs about how anyone can grow spinach on an apartment patio or navigate a new movement - backyard goats (Oh Portland, Oregon - how you tease so many Madisonians).  It sounds lovely, but it is simply not for me at this point in life.

You see, I plan to be frugal for life.  And that my dear reader requires a lifelong mindset, not embracing the latest concept phase until it fizzles in the end.  Why am not I not an urban farmer? Well, let's look at the evidence:

  1. I did not grow up on a farm or even in a house that had a garden.  Leaving me with no memories of how to turn a seed into something my kids can eat, and no one to learn it from.
  2. I haven't a clue how to farm. I went to school for 9 years after graduating high school, where I studied government and law.  While I can talk at length about legislative intent, the challenge of "satisficing" when managing government employees, or the role of a trustee -- I cannot explain how compost works from a scientific perspective.  My science studies were scant at best.
  3. Time is not plentiful for me.  Between raising young ones, nurturing a marriage, purging 2,015 items from our house in 2015, attempting to kindle an authorship branch to my career path, practicing law, and maintaining a basic sense of health and balance.....there is no time for the Extension Master Gardener classes.  One day there will be, but that day will not be falling into this calendar year.
  4. I like actual farmers.  Fresh, locally grown organic spinach and asparagus are sitting in my fridge at this very moment.  I bought them yesterday from a delightful farmer at the farmers' market that, a market that pops up on Wednesdays in the parking lot next to my office.  The men, women and children selling and growing these items are delightful.  They are farmers, they do it so well, and I am happy to pay them to do this service for me.
You will find me outside these days, with dirty hands, rummaging around plants.  But it will be part therapy and part science project.  Fresh air is great for calming the mind, enhancing muscles, and bonding with kiddos.  We, in modern society, often need a temptation to get outside when our indoors have so much to offer (Netflix with your addictive House of Cards!).  My garden is that temptation.  And when public schools let out for the summer, I will be opening Mama's Home School for the Summer - learning does not stop in June!  Front and center of my "classroom" will be the sun flower seeds my daughter planted last weekend, that are now sprouting.  And other little experiments with favorite fruits and veggies.  We may actual eat some, but were are not counting on it.

Note -- an egg carton is being used in an attempt to grow seeds. Will it work?  Who knows!

There you go -- my frugal confession shared with all.  I am not an urban, nor a suburban farmer, and I am not going to pretend to be one.  Although owning a goat is terribly tempting!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Why "Pricey" Does Not Scare Me Off

Even though Spring has barely spread across Madison, Wisconsin, parents galore are finalizing summer activities for school aged children.  Our planning (okay, confession, my planning - I am quite Type A) began in late January.  Options were considered, Facebook queries posted to gather information from parents with older kids and thus more experience.  Key programs were selected and then successfully reserved, securing the days and times I would be available to work at my legal practice.  In the end we went with Madison Swim Camp (where they currently take lessons) for two afternoons a week, as well as all day Fridays at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center.  Just recently I took time to seek out introductory sports activities for the kids, again seeking input from others.

What struck me the most were the repeated refrains along the lines "try XYZ, but I know they are pricey."  Why the fixation on "pricey?"  Being frugal does not translate to gravitating towards the opposite of "pricey", which would be cheap.  In fact, I avoid cheap.  Cheap usually means it does not cost much money, but that the product is not all that great either.  No, for me I am happy to pay, and pay well for quality products.  And in any area of my life that willingness is for the care and education of my children.  

Expensive is not the litmus test for me.  To be frugal is not to always go with the least expensive path. I look at several factors:

  • location -- how close is it to work/home -- keeping travel time to a minimum is key
  • interest -- are my kids "into" the program or subject matter
  • 2 for 1 -- can both children attend?  One drop-off/pick-up is far more efficient than taxing two kids all over the city for programs
Finally, as a business owner myself, rarely do I find myself shocked at the price of kid programs. They cost money to run. Factored into the cost will be: cost of space, pay for teachers, marketing, and insurance just to name a few.  What shocks me the most is how inexpensive some programs are, leaving to ask "is it subsidized by another source". If not, then I fear it is too cheap, promising more than it will deliver.

Since becoming a parent nearly 7 years ago, my husband and I realize that that cost of caring for a child on a full-time basis (i.e. five days a week for about 8 hours a day) is roughly $1,000 per month, per kid.  From our years using a nanny to paying tuition for a child care center, that is what it cost. And we assume the cost will stay the same, if not increase, with the exception of time in a public school.  And there the cost is simply subsidized by tax dollars.  When you approach summer planning this way, things may actually look less expensive.  

To be as efficient as possible, we are only purchasing summer programming we know we will use. That decision ruled out any all-day, five day a week programs.  My work slows down in the summer months, there are tons of fun things to do and explore, we vacation, and in my opinion, kids need some days to sleep until their eyes flutter open rather than be pried awake by a parent rushing to get in the car.

My point to all of this?  Don't let pricey scare you off.  Pricey may just be the ticket to an efficient and frugal choice.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Out With The Old, In With The ....... Nothing!

Happy Friday dear reader!  My posts have been less frequent this month; busy with legal work, raising kids, and nurturing a marriage.  Frugal thoughts pop in and out of brain, but time runs out by days end and I am unable to put them into a post.  But Fridays, Fridays are accountability day and I feel required to delay the grocery shopping to share with you that as of today, we have purged 1,073 items from our home.  Yes, we are still making progress towards are goal of eliminating 2,015 items in 2015!

This week the bulk of progress was made by me taking no pity on my closet.  Motivated by Facebook chatter of creative people wearing a "uniform" I dove into the idea harbored in my mind.  Have the most simple wardrobe possible.  I mean 1 pair of jeans, some basic white t-shirts, and then work clothes centered around black, brown and gray.  I am an estate planning attorney -- shouldn't black be my color?  The idea is to have key pieces that basically go with one another, that are "spiced" up with color via a scarf, shoes, maybe a belt (confession, I do not currently own a belt).

Time, I talk about it all the time as my most precious resource.  Put another way, I only get 24 hours to a day and it seems as there are always more items to enjoy than hours in the day.  So why no eliminate the daily "what am I going to wear" or the rummaging around in laundry trying to find something to go with the cardigan.  No -- drastic measures are playing out in my closet!  Basics, basics, basics......mostly in black!

Thank you BecomingMinamilist for this inspiring post.  Now, let the "commentary" begin....I know a few of my regular readers will gasp at such an idea!  I love discussion -- go!