Sunday, December 31, 2017

Baby It's Cold Outside!

For the week between Christmas and New Years our hometown of Madison, Wisconsin found itself in the swath of frigid arctic air; daily highs were in the single digits (F), lows at night were well below zero.   What is a family with kids to do when they live frugally but plans for lots of outdoor time evaporated with the warmth? 

Coupons and Discounts!  One night we used a Bucky Book coupon for buy one-hour get one-hour of bowling for free at Schwoegler's Entertainment Center.  Combined with a $22 rebate we had on a rarely used credit card we paid $7 to bowl and rent shoes.  Memories were made without spending much money!

Water fun!  Our annual gym membership with Supreme Health & Fitness allows us to take the kids to the salt water pool.  The kids and I shared a lane.  While I swam laps they played with a water ring toss game our youngest received as a holiday gift.  One hour of healthy fun for all; cost was nothing beyond the yearly fee we pay to the gym!

Hit the Library.  Free movies and books line the shelves.  Two films the kids had requested waited on the hold shelf, waiting to be watched tonight and tomorrow.  Several books, both fiction and non-fiction, were taken home to be read in the coming weeks.  Price, nothing as long as we return them on time.

Embrace the frozen tundra.  Long ago we heard a saying at a preschool, "there is no such thing as bad weather, there is only bad clothing!"  With that in our minds we piled on the layers and piled into our trusty Honda for a drive to Governor Nelson State Park.  On the last day of the year our 2017 admission sticker gave us 45 minutes of fun in the sun.  The kids skidded and skated on the very spot they swam in 6 months ago.  Fresh air, the empowering rays of the sun and vitamin D, and the awesome feeling of walking on water -- a lovely way to say good-bye to 2017.  Again, no cost to us other than our annual sticker fee paid long ago.

Winter break can be long, leaving large amounts of time to be filled.  There are so many costly activities -- indoor trampoline parks, movie theaters, restaurants, shopping centers.  When you live on a frugal path you need to resist the mainstream and think outside the box.  The result can nourish the body, be kind to the earth, and not strain your budget.

Thanks for following along.  Best wishes as you say good-bye to 2017 and toast the arrival of 2018.  Follow along in the new year as we carve out a frugal life here in Madison, Wisconsin.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Last Call for Rewards

Lincoln Park Zoo Lights, Chicago, IL -- FREE

Propelled by urgent issues at work, kids holiday events, and planning a short trip to Chicago pre-holiday, one item on my to-do list could not wait.  Claiming the Healthy Living Reward Points offered by the health insurance provider we used in 2017, SSM Health.

The web site was not easy to use at first, but clicking here and there, noting the preventive and healthy steps we took this year, in under 30 minutes I secured $200 in gift cards for Target.  Our claim was submitted around the 15th of December, and the gift cards were waiting in our pile of mail when we returned from our visit to Chicago. 

With a few days left in 2017 ask yourself, are there any reward points I should claim before the clock strikes midnight on the 31st?  Don't let precious dollars slip through your fingers!

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

$11 A Day Matters In A Frugal Home

"Well, that was unexpected" said our son upon seeing approx. 100 Santas on bikes.  

More on the mortgage front.  When I lasted posted I shared our goal to pay off our home mortgage.  The bulk of the pay down would come from a few clicks on the computer, by which we'd cash out our brokerage account and put the balance towards of mortgage.  Click, click, click....but then a brick wall.  

Our credit union told us that we could not transfer that large of a sum to the bank holding our mortgage in one transaction, we'd have to break it into two.  And it got worse, it would take several days for each transfer to be set up and processed. 

It is my partner in frugality, and life (aka my husband) who is handling to logistics of this payment, and his electrical engineering brain that is super charged when it comes to numbers quickly calculated that each day of delay due to financial institutions would cost us $11 in interest per day.  That was unacceptable.  We had the funds, we wanted to pay the balance down and not pay that added interest.

Old school it would have to be.  Just before our son's Cub Scouts meeting, my husband and son piled into his trusted old Mazda and headed to the bank holding the mortgage with checkbook in hand.  At the counter he slid a check with six-digits to the clerk along with a form indicating the payment should go to principal.  Click, scan, printed receipt, and bam -- the mortgage balance fell to an amount roughly equivalent to a new Mazda.  Interest be damned!

And with our frugal fire burning bright, my husband and son headed to the Scouts meeting.  Along the way his long-trusted Mazda lost some steam.  "Don't fail me now" was muttered under my husband's breath as the car chugged its way up a hill.  Our son  may never forget that night.  Our car does not scream fancy or even reliable for that matter.   But both children are getting front row seats to lessons in compound interest, tax deductions (that are evaporating with the new tax bill), and the beauty of used cars.  I'm curious to see if they'll be as frugal as we are, time will tell.

That night we made a decision to operate as a 1.5 car family.  The Mazda, purchased for $5k in 2010 is fading.  We don't want to pose a risk on the roads, nor do we wish to pay for a tow or investigate the repairs to revive its utility.  For now, it's parked in the garage and  my husband is relying on his bikes (his winter bike has studded snow tires), bus, using my car, and an Uber here and there to get to and from work.  My need for a car is low during the school year since I walk the kids to school and can walk/bus/bike to my office that is a few minutes from home.

If an expense is not necessary, it's likely not going to happen in 2018 as we aim to get that mortgage balance to zero.  Will it happen?  Time will tell.  Words of encouragement or tips on wise spending habits are always welcome, so leave a comment and be well.  Thanks for reading.

Following Santas lead, we are embracing winter biking in our frugal home.  Madison is such a gem of a city!

Monday, December 4, 2017

Digging Out: Saying Goodbye to the Mortgage

In the past few weeks we surveyed our expenditures and income, wanting to come up with a fresh approach to our frugal life.  Where could we make a change and see a difference?  We live frugally, could anything significant be done?

The elephant in the financial numbers was there, but we'd ignored it in the past.  We justified the expense.  Mortgage interest is a deduction.  Having liquidity is important when you are both self-employed.  With the apparent end of the mortgage interest deduction due to an increased standard deduction, and the stability of my legal practice after 12 years of putting it together, we were ready for a big change.  With a few clicks here and there, we moved money from our brokerage and paid down a significant portion of our mortgage.  Instantly saving $350 a month (we were paying $460 in interest, now it will be about $110).  But we are not stopping there.  A conservative path has us mortgage free in 24 months.  My aggressive personality says let's pay it off by 12/31/18. The fire I had to pay off $97K in student loans in 7 years is back.  Will we do it?  Time will tell.  The big unknown will be our 2018 health care costs.  We opted for something other than the $1,300/month with a $13,000 annual deduction health plan off the exchange, electing coverage that kicks in only with hospital and surgeries.....other medical, dental, and eye expenses will be ours to bear. 

2018 is brewing up to be a sail down uncharted waters.  Joins us for the journey.  We welcome suggestions on both sides of the frugal equation -- living on less and maximizing income.  Be well, and thanks for reading.

Winter 2010-11.  Our first winter in our home.  Digging out from a major snow.  Symbolic of our efforts to dig out of our last debt, the home mortgage.

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Power of Cash in a Frugal Life

Whether it is Icelandic Kronor or American Dollar Bills, cash is a powerful tool in the life lived on a frugal path.  Cash keeps you honest.  Cash keeps you on your toes.  Cash evokes a feeling when you hand it over more so then swiping a credit card or punching in numbers on a debit card.

On recent travels to Kentucky and then Iceland we paid in cash for our discretionary items.  And in both cases we came home with a surplus.  A voice in my head tells me we'd have gone over budget, just a tad, if we had paid with credit cards.  Now we pay those credit card balances in full each month, but spending at or under budget is key in our frugal life.  So we've lifted the travel with cash and applied it to everyday life.  Each week I head the bank.  I deposit payments received into my business checking, and from our joint checking I take out what I'll need for the week ahead: groceries (that's the big one); fun activities, and other miscellaneous items. For the first month in I cannot remember, we've spent less on groceries than we budgeted.  I credit that to knowing we have $x, do we want to spend it on take-out or just make a meal at home, and only putting items in the cart that will be eaten in the week ahead.

Cash -- it's a powerful tool. Anyone else with me on this aspect of a frugal life?

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Life at 60 Degrees

It used to be 62 degrees, Fahrenheit where our thermostat rested.  Over the years it was our comfort zone, but near freezing for the unaccustomed visitor.  With our push to fill the hole in our budget caused by drastic increases in our health insurance premiums our new norm has become 60 degrees.  At times we nudge the thermostat higher to 62, and will make sure we keep it high enough to prevent frost from forming inside -- two spots are most prone, the corner of our son's bedroom and the seat of our oversized bay window in the living room.

Life at 60 degrees, made possible by:

  • space heaters in the bathrooms -- an efficient way to heat up a room in the morning or after an evening shower.  We can be comfortable without heating the entire home;
  • slipper socks -- when your feet are cold everything is cold;
  • letting the sunshine in as much as possible -- enjoy the free warmth of mother nature;
  • long underwear make great PJ's and are not reserved for sledding or outdoor play;
  • sipping hot tea;
  • put on a sweater.....and a scarf doesn't hurt either.
Pushing new limits to save costs.  It will help our budget and ease our strain on the Earth.  Not sure if it will help or harm our health (just kidding, all that tea is a good thing, right?)

Sunday, November 5, 2017

That's A Big Hole: Paying for 2018 ACA Health Insurance Premiums

On a icy night in March 2005 my husband and I met, and chief among our common interests were a fondness for coupons and all things frugal (not cheap, but an efficient use of time and money).  Twelve years later we both own our own businesses (me a legal practice, him an electronics engineering design firm), where frugal living goes a long way in allowing us to follow the path of ownership and not navigating the forest of employment.

With the decision to both employ others and not be an employee comes the purchase of health insurance independently.  That, as you may guess, is down through The Exchange.  This year we have a policy through Dean SSM, where we pay $700/month as a premium, but have a $13,000 annual deductible (we pay the first $13K before insurance co-pays kick-in).  In reality it means we need to earn $1,000 a month, pay our income taxes, and then have $700 left to pay the premium.  We opted for Dean SSM because they were cheap.  And the quality of care was not great.  In fact we started going to our old providers, paying out of network fees.

With 2018 we are going to go with a plan that works with our preferred providers (Associated Physicians and the UW System).  But we will pay a price.  Our premium is increasing to $1,275/month with a $13,000 annual deductible (for reference, the 2017 plan would be $1,005/month).  We earn too much for a subsidy, so it is up to us to fund the entire bill. That is a pretty big hole to fill.  Since there is no money tree in our backyard, we have to fund the gap through increased revenue and decreased spending.

As we move into 2018 follow along as we take a pretty frugal life even deeper.  When we look at the numbers there really is very little room to cut towards the $500+ gap.  That means we need to earn more, something we can do since we both work for ourselves.  Our kids assumed this meant we were simply going to work longer hours.  Yes, in part, but it really means we need to work smarter.  Where can we increase profits by cutting expenses?  

We are grateful to be able to afford this increase, many cannot.  We are also grateful that pre-existing conditions do not deny one coverage.  But this is a hard pill to swallow for a family focused on living frugally where we can follow our passions and save for college, retirement, and the health care costs that will come with old age.  In 2018 we'll pay just over $28,000 in health care before insurance assistance would kick in.  

Taken in Iceland this past August, Kerid is an ominous crater lake, but is surrounded by empowering color and power.  This lake will be my meditation as we march into 2018 and answer the call to pay more for health insurance.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Perfect. It Isn't Fun. And It's Expensive

Smile, it's picture day!  Yes, Friday the 13th was school picture day for our 2nd and 3rd grade children.  Last week I thought I had perfected a parenting task -- the School Photo Hair Cut.  No, I did not pick up a pair of sheers.  I did a 180 and booked the kids appoint with my stylist at a nice salon.  She is a junior stylist, so the price is quite favorable plus you get the perks of an Aveda salon -- neck massage, fancy scalp oil, free coffee. It is quite divine.

We had an appointment, no waiting like we normally do at the classic barber shop we've used in the past.  My son got a cut while I sipped my free cup of herbal tea.  Then my daughter hopped in the chair for an extensive brushing session -- oh the tangles!  She only needed a bang trim in the end.  Then we were off to pay.  I wasn't charged for the bang trim, and even with a generous tip, the bill was $30.  That was $20 below my budgeted amount, planned earlier in the month when I thought we'd go to the regular barber shop, where both kid cuts and a tip comes to $50.

It all seemed to come together, but a few days later it was clear my son's cut just wasn't quite right.  Too long on top, not enough cut around the ears.  My hyper-Type personality thought about dashing them off to the regular barber before picture day.  The only chance would be this past Wednesday.  But my son, keeping with our frugal ways said "nah, it will cost more money and I'd rather just play after doing my homework."  Wise beyond his years!

A passage from a long-ago read parenting book immediately came to mind, "perfect is not fun".  And I'd add, perfect is expensive.  We let the hair go as is.  We didn't pay more for another cut.  We didn't rush about after school and then cram in the nightly homework.  Instead we got our work done and went into the back yard where I tossed a ball with my son while my daughter made musical instruments with containers, water and a stick. 

Today was picture day.  Was his hair perfect?  Probably not.  Does it matter?  Not at all.  We had fun, and we came in under budget.  When walking the frugal path remind yourself of my new mantra, perfect isn't fun, and it's expensive.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

A Frugal Halloween

October has arrived.  Leaves are turning color and falling.  Flowers have dried and turned brittle.  Pumpkins are all that remain in our little garden.  And the question of "what to be for Halloween?" dominates kid conversations.

October also marks the arrival for Q4, otherwise known as the Fourth Quarter of the year.  Our family has set some aggressive savings goal for this quarter.  To meet them we'll need to work some more (we both own businesses, so that is easier to generate than if we were employees), sell some unneeded items, and cut expenses.  Here are a few ways we'll be cutting expenses in the area of Halloween:

  1. Creative Costumes -- we have close to two dozen costume props from various holidays, gifts and toys.  From those the kids had the idea to create an outfit.  Our son is considering going as the #1 Seattle Seahawks fan using all the clothing and fan gear he has.  There will be no purchases this year; 
  2. Halloween is for Kids -- there will be no "family costume" for this frugal family.  We are "older" parents compared to our peers at the school.  We are doing this 80s style.  The kids dress up, the parents do not.  I shutter at the cost that goes into family costumes -- and time to create is a cost just the same as cash; and
  3. Bowl of Trinkets -- in the 7 years we've lived in our house we have had 1 or 2 trick-or-treaters.  Kids, with the exception of ours, do no live on our street.  We do not get traffic for the holiday, so I refuse to buy a bunch of candy or things to hand out.  I do want to have some on hand, just in case.  Over the year I've saved the tattoos, pencils, book marks, and unopened candy from all those birthday party treat bags and school give-aways. 
Those are three frugal approaches to Halloween in our home.  What are your ideas?  Please share and inspire, and thanks for reading. 

Friday, September 22, 2017


What may be the most neglected garden in America today, it continues to produce a harvest.  Last Spring I put up some fencing on the south side of our house, expanding what had been a perennial bed into a vegetable garden.  We hauled some stepping stones out of a remote part of the yard, having been buried under weeds when we bought the house in late 2010, and voila, we had a path to navigate.  With shovel in hand I turned the grass over to soil, tossed in some plants from Jung Garden shop, put down a layer of newspaper topped with straw.  Tomatoes, zucchini, cucumber, and pumpkins went into the ground.  Pepper plants were relegated to pots -- I had bought more than I had space for.

The calendar pages turned, summer arrived, and I worked the busiest summer at my legal practice that I ever have since launching a solo practice in 2005.  Mother Nature had my back; gentle and frequent rains combined with cool temperatures kept the soil moist during my neglect.  And the plants put forth a harvest.   August arrived.  We left the country to visit Iceland and the same time an exterior house painting trampled all over the garden.

September has brought the heat we normally have in July.  I've watered a few times, but have really ignored the garden.  And still it produces.  Earlier this week I broiled tomatoes with sweet peppers and onion, sprinkled with salt.  Into the food processor, add some lime juice, and you have a very mild salsa.  Perfect to top a burger or plate of slow cooked pork.

2017, the year I ignored our garden and ended up with a continual harvest.  My interest in gardening has been sparked.  What might happen if I actually gave it some attention?

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Dropping the Ball and Skipping "Enrichment" Activities

What is the saying, make a plan and then life happens?  I had a plan.  Once our son's NFL  Flag Football ended in mid-October I would sign both kids up for Sunday swim lessons at our gym.  And that would end just before the winter ice skating lessons for our daughter AND basketball league for our son.  Did I mention that the kids are only 9 and 7?

Then life happened.  The swim instructor email went out saying lessons would be on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.  Wait, what?  My hyper-active Type A planning mind froze-up.  I work late on Tuesdays and Thursday, the kids go to after school. We CANNOT due swim those nights.  This past summer the kids had swim on Tuesdays, after a full-day of summer camp, and on more than one occasion our oldest was in tears in the pool because he was being pushed so hard.  For 24 hours I asked around for recommendations.  My plan was to have them swim on Sundays.  And then the storm clouds cleared and my mind settled.

My kids are 9 and 7.  We are entering cold and flu season.  What are the chances they'll both be healthy enough to swim on Sundays in late-October to December.  What will the weather conditions be like for driving?  I may have been born with a Swedish last name (Gustafson), but I really dislike driving in snow (we live in Madison, Wisconsin -- we get snow, and ice).  And then I realized I could simply take them swimming with me at the gym.  Friday night and Saturday as well as Sunday there is "family swim", and other times we could just share a lane.  They know HOW to swim, for now we just need to keep swimming.  Lessons aren't essential.

Gone was the stress of scheduling, opening up time for the kids and I to share a way I love to stay active - swim just to swim.  I have no dreams that a swim scholarship will put them through college. Our frugal ways and devotion to funding their 529 college savings plans will pay for school.  They are not yet double-digit age and have a hefty amount tucked away for higher education.  My undergraduate and law degree are from public universities, so I don't buy into the "you have to do x, y, and z to get into the ivy league sales mania."

So I dropped the ball and found: piece of mind, more relaxed schedules, no stress of missed lessons due to illness, and more money in my budget.  Today the Washington Post ran an article on teens delayed development.  Oddly there is little to no discussion of the modern trend to "enrich" our children's lives with near constant organized activity.  Kids these days have little to no time to just play in the back yard or splash in the pool.  I'm bucking the trend with our kids and backing off of the enrichment activities more than I have in the past.  Where are you on your frugal path?

Friday, September 8, 2017

Icelandic Inspiration: Leading a Frugal Life

The upside of a frugal life is that one has funds to travel if one makes travel a priority.  And in our frugal home, travel is a top priority behind a cozy home and quality education. Five years ago the city of Reykjavik, Iceland hosted 300,000 tourists a year, in 2017 they expect 1.7 million. Recently we spent a week in the island nation of Iceland, and I left more inspired than ever to lead a frugal life given the domination of climate change in the news cycle.

While I could not read the actual story as it was in Icelandic, the headline was clear.  Even in this remote gas station in rural Iceland, Harvey caused the world to take note.  As I write this post Irma is headed to Florida, where we have extended family.  Fires out west, earth quakes, more hurricanes; denying climate change is not the path to follow!  I spend a great deal of time thinking about my children's school experience and the return on their college savings accounts.  And more than ever I think about the state of the planet will are handing to them.

Join me on my path to re-affirm a frugal life.  One that is not only easy on our planet, but good for our wallets and health.  Have you taken any new steps to off-set climate change?  I am not waiting for our elected officials to take action; I firmly believe public policy lags social norms.  Since my return from Iceland I have increased my efforts to leave my trusty Honda Civic parked in the garage, and get about without a car.  Forbes reports that parents with kids increase their carbon footprint by 6% because they "need" to use a car.  I can attest to the fact Little Americans can walk more than one might expect.  We experienced this first hand in March 2016 while traveling in Southern Sweden, going 2 weeks without a car.  And this past August in Iceland.  Granted, Northern Europe is more walker (and biker) friendly.   But I'm up for a challenge, I think I need to be given the historic storms brewing in the Atlantic.

Share your thoughts and ideas here, let's inspire and motivate one another.  Public policy will eventually catch up with us.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Celebrating #9 Frugally

Recently our oldest turned 9.  Contemporary birthdays are beyond over the top, something our frugal family simply cannot embrace.  Parties often strain a family's budget, tax the children (too much sugar, too much noise, too much consumption, etc.), and trash Mother Earth. We wonder, what are we teaching our children?

Every year we tweak our approach to the kids' birthdays.  As infants and toddlers it was nothing more than a day with mom and dad (we both own our own businesses), an outing to a favorite place (the beach, museum in Milwaukee, Day trip to Chicago) and a home cooked meal with their favorite foods.

With preschool came the pressure to "throw a party".  A few times we rented a venue, invited 20+ kids, and let chaos unfold for 2 hours.  For dual career parents flying without any grandparent assistance, this was doable.  It took very little of our time, but felt over indulgent.

This year we went with a home party and a smaller number of kids for each party.  My husband was delighted to see the furnished basement we've been paying for since buying this house in November 2010 finally being put to use (the kids have been too scared to play down there until recently).  We also gave the kids a budget of $500 to cover: gifts, party, and supplies.  Any remainder would be cash for them to save, spend, and or donate.  Why the budget?  It's a hidden gift, giving our kids the power to spend, and learn from overspending.  We rather they make money mistakes at 9 rather than 19.

After watching his sister spend money on a lot of party favors (which she did not regret), he took a more austere approach:

  • homemade cake which he helped to bake and decorate -- toppers ordered of of Amazon, recipe is Betty Crocker Midnight Chocolate (he gets it every year)
  • Evites saying "let's reconnect" before school starts
  • Guests built Lego free-style cards upon arrival, that were then raced down a homemade ramp
  • Guests took plastic bracelets and did a modified ring toss over Lego towers
  • Dinner of pizza (using Feed an Army $26 coupon from Rocky Roco's), corn on the cob, and melon.
  • Prizes were given out to Lego Race winners, with 1st selecting 1st, from a stash of over-sized candies;
  • Candy and popcorn consumed with watching Lego Batman movie (purchased at Barnes & Noble with a 30% off coupon plus another 10% off for being a member)
Connections were reinforced, friendships strengthened, and fun was had.  Our son received all his presents, ordered off of Amazon Prime.  I used my Amazon Prime credit card, which is paid in full each month, receiving 5% cash back that will be added to our travel fund.

The experience of having a budget for a party forced the kids to think about what resources at home we could use.  For example, the ramp was a huge piece of cardboard that had been in the garage since we bought the house, coated with black spray paint purchased for a bat house yet to be mounted.  We could see the wheels turn behind their eyes -- do I need to spend money on fancy plates when we have plain paper plates at home?  One kid said yes, the other no.  Frugal isn't about depriving yourself, but about maximizing your spending power to enjoy your time on this little blue dot sailing around the sun.

 Dad was the judge of the races.

 Football themed cake for our sports crazed son.

 Watching a DVD on our 1990s TV and VCR!

His actual birthday, with a 2nd cake.  Happy 9th our love, next year it will be double digits.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Frugal Family Photos

Sunflower Days at Pope Farm here in Madison just ended.  We made the annual pilgrimage to this lovely field again this year.  In addition to stunning sunflowers one is likely to find families, clustered together in coordinated outfits with the lens of a photographer focused directly on them.  It's holiday photo time.  It's time to document the children's growth, to capture those radiant smiles.  It's time to hand over a lot of cash for those Kodak Moments.

Last week I also received an email from a local photographer I had used to take candid photos of both kids in the days after they were born.  Since then I've taken my own frugal path and not paid the annual fee for a family photo session.  The cost is too much for me to wrap my head around; $600 for 1.5 hours.

Instinctively I read $600 and think, that's one international airline ticket!  I also own a decent SLR camera and spent a lot of time and money developing my hobby photography interest in my pre-husband and pre-children life.  Because I have decent equipment, enjoy taking my own photos, and love to travel, you won't find this frugal family spending that kind of money.   Here are my thoughts on creating lovely family photos without breaking the bank.

There is the frugal cell phone selfie, this one taken in Copenhagen, Denmark.

There is the option of asking a stranger to capture your family among the flowers:

And then there is getting down to kid level (down on your knee, possibly your belly) and shooting hundreds of frames, knowing a little bit about the power of light, and then sort through for a gem.

What's your frugal path to capturing life with a camera that does not cost a small fortune (to me, that is the cost of an international plane ticket)?  Leave a comment and share.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Frugal Travel Tip: Skip Restaurants, Aim for Kitchens

Followers of this blog know that our family loves to travel, and we travel as often as we can.  They also know that there is no money tree in our backyard.  Each and every month we make a decision to allocate the prior months earnings (yes, we budget) to the current month's expenditures: mortgage, health insurance, transportation, food, etc.  We also save money each month towards travel.  And when it is time for travel, we pull our funds from the savings.  As we launch into one vacation we usually have plans for the next simmering in our mind.  That causes us to know what we spend on vacation #1 impacts our ability to take vacation #2.  One way to stretch our travel dollars is to eat in.

Rarely on travel do we eat out at a restaurant because we select lodging that comes with a full kitchen: fridge, stove, cookware, etc.  Upon arrival we unload what food we brought along and then head to the local market.  Simple meals are the staple: pasta, eggs, grilled sandwiches, etc.

From years ago on a trip to Bayfield, Wisconsin to last years 2 week adventure in Southern Sweden. We find hotels or apartments to rent for home base, and enjoy traditional family meals for a fraction of the cost of a restaurant meal.

What's your key to frugal travel?  I'd love some more ideas since my to-see list continues to grow!

Monday, August 21, 2017

Cost Per Wear!

Rarely does our frugal family approach a purchase price by looking only at the cost of an item.  When it comes to clothing we ask what is the cost divided by the likely number of times wearing an item. There are exceptions, with special event clothing we assume a low number of uses.  Something I did in 2011 when I found a lovely knit dress for our daughter to wear at her naming ceremony at First Unitarian Society of Madison.  It was a bargain buy at Baby Gap, the cost was less than $20.  This is our little one in April 2011.

And to my delight, here is my little one a week ago wearing the same dress, just as a shirt.

When it comes to girls' clothing -- aim for loose fitting dresses that can become tunics and then a shirt.  If you're lucky, your frugal ways will find 6 years of wear.  And yes, I see that we are likely at the end of the road for this shirt.  We'll either pass it on to a new family, but since it has special connection to her naming ceremony we may fit it on a  favorite stuffie.

If you want to go the frugal path, ask yourself what will this item cost per use, don't focus on the price in isolation -- it tells you nothing.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Wonder Woman: A Movie Leaves Me Wondering, How Do People Afford The Movies?

Earlier this summer my husband stayed with the kids (no sitter expense) while I joined a close friend for a viewing of the summer hit, Wonder Woman.  Movies have been a huge part of my life, especially during my law school years. I would finish an exam, and then escape to a dark theater and lose myself in the story on the screen, giving my mind a break from the intensity of a legal education.  After graduation movies remained a staple in my life, often seeing all of the films nominated for awards, etc.

Time moved on, I married and children joined the picture.  No longer was a movie a simple pleasure, but one that required paying a sitter ($14/hour) plus admission.  Over time my habit of going to the movies faded.  And as work pressure and parenting duties mounted, even watching a movie at home became a thing of the past.  If the kids were asleep, I opted to sleep as well.

Now the kids are older and I thought I'd venture back out to an old favorite, the theater.  It had been awhile.  Now you select your seat at the point of purchase and hand over $10.50 for a ticket.  The night I went I wanted to get a bottle of water or small soda in case I needed to take a pain pill; earlier that day I had had a root canal (ouch to the mouth, and ouch to my pocket book).  My jaw dropped at the counter; $3.50 for the smallest soda and not basic bottled water.  I'm far too frugal for those prices, and found the water fountain and took the medication in advance of the movie starting.

Wandering into the theater my jaw dropped again.  I believe each and every seat was a huge recliner with drink holders, etc.  It took me a few minutes to figure out how to adjust the seat and then an image hit me -- this is like Rome.  What the heck, we are too decadent in America.  How do people afford to bring an entire family to the movies ??!?!?!?!?

I enjoyed Wonder Women and am glad I saw it with a good friend and supported the production of this movie.  But I will think twice before feeding my movie habit with an outing to the traditional theater.  There is only so much money and I have yet to find a money tree.  We prioritize our hard earned salaries to pay for quality food, travel, and good health care.  Movies are not high on the list.

If you, like me, are turned off by the over-the-top cost of watching a film, here are some frugal ways to enjoy films without breaking the bank:

  1. Be selective and don't watch everything released.  Time is our most precious commodity, and movies can take up a lot of time.  Life is too short to spend hard earned money on a mediocre film;
  2. Borrow films from your local library.  I was patient and this weekend all four of us will watch Hidden Figures for free in the comfort of our own basement.  If the kids lose interest, it didn't cost a penny;
  3. Rent from vending machines, stores, or on-line services;
  4. Subscribe to Netflix or Amazon Prime -- we use Amazon Prime and will watch what is free if the stars align and we have time for an entire movie, or pay a small rental fee to watch one we specifically want to see;
  5. Find out if the theater has discount days, coupons, or find a theater that shows films just before they go to DVD -- they are often a fraction of the cost (but the popcorn is just as pricey); and
  6. Ask for gift cards to theaters for birthday and holiday gifts.  Experiences beat stuff any day.
Thanks for reading, and leave a comment if I've overlooked a method you employ to live frugal but stay current on Hollywood releases.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Efficiency: The Key to a Frugal Life and the Reason I Freeze Leftover Coffee

Efficiency, it is what drives our frugal path in life.  Whether it is ditching US Cellular in favor of the new Google Phone network (a move I made earlier this year, and LOVE it) to asking your insurance agent to look for savings when a policy comes up for renewal to freezing the leftover morning coffee into an ice cube tray to be used in home brewed iced coffees later in the week - efficiency is the driving force behind each decision.  That is our key to frugal living.   Ask yourself, how can you be more efficient in your life?  The answer will likely benefit your health, your wallet, and your Earth.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Avocado Smoothie - Keeping Frugal in the Kitchen

Did one too many avocados land in your grocery cart and now you are wondering how to use this pricier produce item?  My favorite way to use up uneaten avocado is to toss it into a smoothie, giving the drink heft, creaminess, and fiber.

My latest version involved frozen chopped mango, plain whole milk keifer, and a bit of vanilla yogurt along with the avocado.  Blend and pour.

This drink, combined with apple slices, left over bread, and some salami and I had an easy and filling meal that made use of items approaching their end in my fridge.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Frugal 7th Birthday!

Our youngest has recently turned 7, and even with all the over-the-top birthday parties these days our family followed the frugal path.  First there was the party with kid friends at our house.  Why pay for a venue when you have a finished basement.  We hired a former preschool teacher who is a certified art teacher, purchased modeling clay on Amazon, and it was "Art Night".  Classic French sounds acquired on CDs from our local library provided the background music.

The food was pizza from the locally loved Rocky Rocco's -- coupon for $26.99 got us two huge cheese pizzas.  We added apples, grapes, water and lemonade.  Dessert was homemade cupcakes.  Now that we are done with that #7 candle we'll be passing it along to a family with younger kids -- still plenty of burn time left, and no immediate need here in our home.

 Kiddo energy was burned off out back with a short but lively water balloon fight.

Her actual birthday involved opening gifts from friends and family, breakfast featuring her favorite, Morning Buns (acquired at Classens with a buy-one-get-one free coupon), and the most precious gift of all - time.  My husband and I, both self-employed, take the day off for each child's birthday (both summer babies) and simply spend it as a family.  Given our demanding work life, this is precious time.  Below the birthday girl explores the ins and outs of her Rock Tumbler; a great gift for an science curious child.

The afternoon involved time spent together in nature.  Once again we used on Wisconsin State Parks sticker and enjoyed the beach at Gov. Dodge State park.

A final key ingredient to keeping it simple, we had a budget. This year each child has $500 for his/her birthday.  That money has to pay for the party and parental gifts.  Anything not spent is given in cash to the birthday child.  Wow, my kids were looking for bargains knowing that a trip to the Party Store was coming out of his or her wallet.  Watching his younger sister put together a fun party for a fraction of the price a local venue might have cost encouraged him to plan a home party for his 9th coming up later in August.  This has proven to be a great lesson in passing frugal mindsets onto our children.  They don't just put things on a list and hope it will show up, and there is no tossing this and that into the cart with no regard to cost.  We loved this approach and will likely follow it next year.  For the record, those morning buns and birthday meal did not factor into the birthday budget, they were part of our normal grocery expenses.

How do you keep frugal on birthdays?  Leave a comment and inspire.  Thanks for following along.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Composting Again!

Unearthed!  And back to composting we go at our frugal home.  Vines cut down, a small tree sawed and hauled to the curb.  Throw down and old rug (from says when an elder cat had litter box challenges), and there you go.  We can compost again.

Our garden experiment has gone better than expected.  Sited on a slight sloped along the side our house, the recent downpours have not caused flooding.  Harvested so far: 2 hand fulls for green beans, 3 zucchini, and 1 cucumber.  Peppers are not doing well, but we may have a record number of tomatoes along with pumpkins.  All in all the garden is a reason to go outside and putter after a week at the office.  There are small toads and other wonders to greet me after a hectic week of client meetings and transporting kids to summer camp.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Compost Confession

I compost.....most of the time.  Yes, one can compost but take breaks in the daily chore when preserving one's sanity takes priority over preserving the Earth.  Oddly I often find it easier to put my scraps and peels in the heap out back during the fall, winter and spring.  Summer is busy, especially this summer.  Toss in a compost heap buried under the jungle that is my backyard, and well I'm pausing in my compost efforts.  One day I'll have down time to clear cut the jungle and return to my favorite frugal habit.  But not today.  My point with this confession is to underscore that a frugal path has bends and turns, sometimes you are more frugal than other times and that is okay.  It is better to be frugal when you can than never at all.  Adjust your speed to meet you where you need to be and sustain the frugal way.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Daydreaming -- Frugal International Travel

Later this summer my frugal family will explore Iceland.  Why Iceland?  Simply, it is a short flight, approximately 6 hours from Minneapolis (we are driving to MN to fly out, not risking a connection). When you are both self-employed you know the cost of not working, and long travel times add up in cost.  Other than that, Iceland is not an inexpensive place to travel.  We have done a nice job on keeping costs low.  We fly out on a Tuesday and return on a Wednesday, which saved us hundreds of dollars according to the flight matrix we used.  We've rented a "hotel" that is a room with a kitchen, located across the street for a grocery store.  When the cost for two to eat out is $100/meal and you are a couple with 2 kids, eating in is the obvious choice.

We love to travel and plan to do an international trip a year, but after looking at the costs of Iceland we want our 2018 international trip to be to a local that is relatively easy to access, but easier on the pocketbook.  Above is a picture of library books I brought home to examine, seeking ideas.  But advice from actual travelers is always best.  So, my fellow frugalista, what would your recommendation be for a frugal 2018 adventure?

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Walking The Frugal Path At My Local Hy-Vee

Frugal means getting the best quality for the best price, it does not mean "cheap".  That philosophy follows me to the grocery store, where we aim for quality foods and reasonable prices purchased with relative ease.  Convenience is far more important than spending time and gas to track down the lowest price or buying food that has a shelf-life long enough to see my 2nd and 3rd graders off to college.  Quality, ease, and decent price, that is what is in my mind when we need to re-stock the fridge and cabinets.

Recently my go-to for shopping has been our local Hy-Vee.  It is walkable (rarely do I have that kind of free time), bikeable, and on my driving route to both our gym as well as summer camp.  Toss in a cafe where I can get a coffee fix and a postal window, and this place wins convenient hands down. Hy-vee's prices are not the lowest, but I use a few steps to make our dollars go as far as possible:

  1. Fuel savers card -- weekly promotions ad up on $0.05 cents off here and $0.10 off here.  If you buy an item it is added to your fuel card at the point of purchase.  Your cents accumulate and if you visit a participating gas station, those cents are deducted from each gallon of gas.  Points do expire after 30 days.  In the past few months the store ran some great promotions, such as $0.45 off a gallon with a $100 purchase.  Ease for us to hit the $100 mark with a family of 4 and a preference for organic.  On two separated occasions we earned $2.25 off per gallon.  We basically filled up my car, and my spouse's for free....we did pay the gas tax that came to about $0.16 for nearly 30 gallons of gas;
  2. I shop on Wednesdays when I can because organic and "health" section items are 10% off;
  3. When applicable I use the store coupons that come in the mail.  Today I used a $10 rebate card I received from a recent contact purchase; and
  4. At the register I use my Amazon credit card, which reimburses us 1% back (5% back for Amazon purchases).  We let this built up all year and then request the rebate monies in January to deposit into our travel savings -- far easier to use than frequent flier miles, etc. 

What is your secret to getting quality food for the best prices without spending hours traveling all around time?  Our food budget is equal to our just higher than our mortgage, so if I can shave off some cost I'd be delighted.  Leave a comment with any ideas!