Thursday, August 28, 2014

I Did It!

I've been thinking about trying my hand at making home-made yogurt for a while, but I always balked thinking it would be too difficult... or I'd poison myself.  Finally, as a birthday gift to myself, I decided to just go for it.  My reasons for wanting to do this are threefold:

  1. I bring yogurt to work pretty much every day for lunch.  Buying a ton of small cups is a hassle, I hate going to the grocery store, and my steps into my apartment are incredibly steep and narrow. Everything that comes in must go back out via those steps.  I try to reduce both bringing things in and out as much as I can since if I load myself down with groceries, I am often too wide to make it easily up the stairs--thank you 1800s property.
  2. I tried buying the larger container to save plastic and keep my fridge less chaotic, but the large container doesn't really come in any good flavors.  I'm sick of Chobani vanilla and strawberry, and I never really liked those kinds anyway.  I'd been experimenting with just getting plain and adding things to it, which is fine, but not great.
  3. For the ~$4 I spend on one quart of store-brand yogurt, I can buy a gallon of milk that yields four quarts of home-made yogurt.  That's enough of a savings that I owe it to myself to at least try.
I used The Frugal Girl's recipe, and it was actually pretty easy.  It's a few steps, but there's a lot of downtime in between them, so you can still be doing other stuff. Typically, on Saturdays, I go for a long run, then laze around the house reading or internetting, so this fit into that schedule nicely.

I used one quart mason jars, which I had already, so I didn't have to bring anything new into my house (though I did buy some plastic replacement lids because the original ones that came with the jars were rusting).

I did have to buy a 'starter' yogurt, which is basically just yogurt that is already yogurt.  You add that to your heated milk, and it adds the live yogurt cultures that you need to make something other than just hot milk.  I accidentally, because the grocery store was crazy busy when I went, bought coconut flavored yogurt instead of plain.  At first I thought it would be horrible, but the whole batch has a subtle coconut flavor that is quite pleasant.

The yogurt came out pretty runny, unfortunately.  I don't mind runny yogurt, but it was kind of messy to eat, so I decided to strain it to thicken it up a bit.  I took one of my reusable mesh produce bags, and washed it out.
Then I rigged up a mixing bowl with my fine mesh sieve resting on top.

Then I put the whole thing in the fridge for the afternoon, and when I check on it a few hours later, I had a bowl full of whey, and slightly thicker yogurt!

If you like *super* thick yogurt, you can let it sit straining for much longer than I did (approximately five hours), but I didn't want greek-style yogurt, just something with a bit more tenacity.

Overall, I'm pretty please with the way this all turned out.  After straining, I had a little over three quarts of yogurt, which is quite tasty.  I used only equipment I already had, and saved about $8 off the cost of three quarts of yogurt in the store.  The amount of time I spent doing this was, I think worth the $8 in savings, and the savings in time spent at the store buying yogurt, hauling it home, trying to find space for it in the fridge, and then having to take out the recycling.  Also, since the mason jars are cylindrical, taller and don't bow out at the top like yogurt containers, they fit better in my fridge.  

The batch I made should be good for a month, but I don't think it will last that long.  I bought a bag of frozen fruit to add to it to mix up my lunch, but I also have dried fruit, powdered peanut butter, jam and I whole bunch of other things that would be tasty.

I think I'm a convert!

Ever made your own yogurt?  Any tips or tricks to share?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Blast From the Past

I haven't bought a book in years--except Nancy Drew books, because I collect those.  In keeping with my semi-minimalist philosophy, I have exactly one bookshelf that is not quite full, and I don't intend to add anything too it. I get all the books I need from the library and so any money I spend has to be on books that are rare or unique.  Note: I know most Nancy Drew books are not unique, but they cost $1 at thrift stores and it's a collection.

Recently, however, I made the decision to buy a new book, and it's amazing how much I both thought about this idea and was insanely excited by it.

I'm an a book club, and we meet once a month.  For our next meeting, due to extended vacations in August, we're not meeting until September, so we picked a slightly longer book--The Goldfinch.

This is a book I've been planning on reading anyway, but I also know that the library waitlist is huge.  Also, this is a book that I kind of want to savor.  I love Donna Tartt, and she writes a novel every 12 years, I feel like I shouldn't rush through reading it.

I used to buy tons of books.  I was the girl with the overflowing shelves, stacks on the floor and piles on every available surface.  When I was a kid, I would save up all my money for trips to the bookstore where I would maximize what I had in a way to get the most words.  For instance, I always wanted to buy the beautiful Nancy Drew hardcovers, but at $3.99/each, that was too rich for my blood.  I could get the new Babysitter's Club and the new Mary Downing Hahn book for the same amount of money.  Then I would try to incorporate a classic, since the price point on those was a bit lower as well.  Love of reading meets personal finance at a very young age.

Then, in college, I worked at Barnes & Noble.  I read a lot of books for free while working, but I also purchased hundreds.  I just spent wily-nily, on anything I thought sounded interesting or looked good on a shelf.  I wasn't nearly as discerning, and my collection shows it.  I wound up with so many books that I didn't (still haven't) read, and a happy pile of credit card debt to boot.

Now that I work in libraries, I have no need to buy books.  After spending so much money on books I either didn't like or didn't read, it's too much of a risky proposition.  Plus, who needs the clutter?

I will say though, when I finally made the decision to actually buy this book, I felt that old flutter of excitement.  There is something truly magical about thinking through a purchase, deciding it's something you really want and then waiting a bit before actually getting it.  At first, I was going to just order it from Amazon, but then I remembered that there's a great independent bookstore close to my house, and I always lament that as a non book buyer, I can't really help them stay afloat.  Now I can!

The plan is: I shall walk down to the bookstore after work some evening and purchase my book.  I shall read it at my own pace without the threat of a three week due date and a long library patron waitlist hanging over my head.  Then I shall donate it to the library, because they need more copies and I don't need the clutter.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Save Time

Time is money, right?  This is the age-old frugality debate--if your time is worth X and it takes Y minutes to save $, is the savings actually worth it?  Note: I did not do well in Algebra, so that equation may make no sense, but hopefully the point comes across.

I'm a huge fan of saving time, and the biggest way I do it is by trying to live as unfettered as possible.  I try to minimize the amount of stuff I own, so that I don't have to spend a lot of time maintaining it; I try to streamline my grooming so that I don't spend 45 minutes of my morning staring into the mirror; and I try to streamline my tasks by doing a few things at once (if possible--and safe), taking out the recycling piecemeal as I leave the house to do other things rather than all at once, washing some dishes while my dinner cooks, etc.

One thing that I can't streamline is running errands.  I know a lot of people rely on amazon prime + subscribe and save to cover this need, but I can't really predict when I'll need the things I buy on the regular (or I could, but I'm too lazy), so trips to Target and the grocery store remain a necessity.

One thing I am a bit intrigued by is the Dollar Shave Club.  I remember seeing on Oprah (I think it was Oprah--a talk show of some kind, anyway), a woman who said she replaced her razor every six months--maybe.  I'm fully guilty of that as well, especially now that I've had laser hair removal on my legs and underarms (saves time!).  I still need to do some maintenance, and so I reach for my year old Mach 3, and wonder why it doesn't do the job as well as I'd like.

I would never become a member of something like Birchbox (cause I don't really wear makeup), or any kind of fruit of the month club, but I am intrigued by the notion of having things I like or need sent to my house on a monthly basis without me having to think about it.  I find it comforting.  I also like the fact that dollar shave club's basic razor actually costs a dollar, AND it's not pink.

Has anyone tried a service like this?  How do you save money and time on daily tasks?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Monthly Check In

It has been a somewhat frantic July, which was very unexpected for me.  Being an academic librarian, I was told that summers are slow and relaxed, people take vacation, and it's quiet and peaceful in the library for once.  It may be because I slept the entire month of June, but I feel like I've been frantically playing catch up all of July.

I'm teaching a summer school class, which is three hours a week.  This is awesome because I'm team teaching with someone who is really cool and we get along well; it's extra money since I'm technically an adjunct for another department on campus; and we got a great group of kids who I am very proud of.  But man, is it exhausting.

We had a syllabus and a vague idea of the lesson plan starting out, but then we realized that our particular group of students seem a lot smarter than we anticipated.  I know that sounds like a terrible thing to say, but these are all students who have been identified as "at risk", and we were told repeatedly to keep things really basic.  Then we got a group of geniuses and panicked about our course being too easy!

So yeah, this class is pretty much all I'm thinking about right now, which is proof I made the right decision in not becoming a full time professor--if I'm exhausted teaching 1/2 on one class, I could not handle doing four at once.

In addition to that, BF (now fiancee) is planning on moving into my place next month, so we're slowing siphoning his stuff over and trying to figure out where it's all going to fit.  He's frantically trying to finish his dissertation and apply for jobs, so I may be the sole wage earner for the foreseeable future.  Since I'm pretty much breaking even right now, that's a pretty scary thing, but we'll get through it--cause we have no choice!  Hopefully he'll come around to my frugal ways and also get a job somewhere close by--cross your fingers!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Savings of Being a Shut-In

Whenever people make the bold decision to slash their spending and live a frugal life in the most extreme manner, they usually stop going out.  After all, socializing is expensive. One drink leads to two, which leads to a need for a late-night snack.  Going out a lot requires outfits, which require shoes--it's a whole, expensive cans of worms!

I can now officially say that yes, the best way to save money is by not leaving the house, but also, it's totally not worth it.

Let me back up for a moment and take you back to the beginning of the month/ end of last month.  Life has been pretty sweet.  Work has shifted from being student focused to summer project focused, which is equally interesting, but a little less frantic; I've been taking rowing lessons, which I love; running has been going really well and I logged nearly 100 miles in May; weather has been mild enough that just having the windows open has been comfortable.  In short, everything was hunky-dory.

Then I got Mono.

That's right--the kissing disease.  The scourge of the Junior High School set. The disease that I was actually a bit smug about never having to deal with way back when, and that I kind of didn't realize that adults can get.

Symptoms of mono, for the unfamiliar include:
  • Extreme fatigue--like sleeping 18 hours a day or more fatigue
  • Sore throat--like swallowing knives
  • Loss of appetite--best diet ever!
That's it.  Lather, rinse repeat for about 4-6 weeks.

So far, the savings have been impressive.  I have zero interest in food and everything I eat tastes terrible to me, so I haven't been to the grocery store except to deploy bf to buy me the occasional jug of juice and a few other things.  I also haven't been out to eat, though I have ordered a couple pizzas (if I'm craving something, I'm going to go for it, even if I can only eat half a slice). I can't really drive, so that saves money on gas and wear and tear on my vehicle.  Drinking is just as out of the picture as eating. As much as I yearn to enjoy a beer, in practice, I do not. 

So there you go.  The theory that you will save money but never eating out and staying in all the time is true!  I've tested and verified it, though I will say, it is not worth it.  Despite the fact that I sleep 18 hours a day, I still have a fair amount of partly awake/drowsy time that needs to be filled with something non-strenuous.  I can't read, because I fall asleep immediately, but I can watch TV.  And I have, I have watched ALL the TV.  I am now officially sick of watching TV, which is something I didn't really know was possible.

So yes, staying home all the time will save you money, but it may also make you a crazy person.  At least I know I am getting the most out of my Netflix subscription!

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Reviving Lip Gloss

One of the biggest and most obvious rules of frugality is to use up every little bit of the things you buy.  Most of the time, even if a container feels empty, there are at least three more days worth of product in there--maybe more.  Yes, at first you may feel like a crazy person for cutting open a tube of toothpaste or something similar, but I prefer to think of the situation as what would I do if I was all out of product X, but couldn't make it to the store for a couple days.  Plus, you paid for the stuff, might as well use it.

Today's story is about lip gloss.  It has been a long winter, and I have been going through lip gloss like crazy it seems. I have a really bad habit of washing my lip gloss, so I've made some executive decisions in that area recently.  For the home, I buy Eos lip balm:
The reason I buy it is because I would never accidentally put something that shape into my pocket, and therefore I don't have to worry about washing it.  Also, it sits up quite nicely.  I bought one for my desk, my reading chair and my coffee table so that way I always have some lip balm at my reach.

On thing that is weird about this container as well is that the lip balm itself, sits in a sort of rounded cone on top of a lip gloss grate that holds it up.  Below the lip gloss, is just empty space, so as you use it, more and more gets smooched down through the grate until it looks like this:
There's still a lot of lip gloss in there, it's just really hard to get out.  Thankfully, the container comes apart quite easily (with a pair of pliers), which leaves you with 7 small triangles of perfectly good lip gloss that are a real pain to actually apply.

What I ended up doing was taking those triangle, melting them in a ramekin on the heating element of my coffee pot, and then pouring the liquid back into the bottom half of the lip gloss container.  It took about five minutes total, and now I have enough convenient, useable lipgloss to last at least another two weeks.  I save myself a trip to the store where I will inevitably forget to buy the one thing I went there for, and I get the smug satisfaction of MacGyvering something.

SCORE!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Tips For Getting Better Customer Service

There is no 100%, foolproof way to get excellent customer service every time, but there are good ways to make sure you get what you want,  even if the person you're dealing with may be being a bit rude.

Tip #1 Never Yell
It can be incredibly frustrating when you have a legitimate complaint and the person who is paid to help you is not at all helpful, but yelling will only make the situation worse.  Be calm, but firm, ask to speak to a supervisor if necessary.  It's also much easier to be assertive if you know exactly what you need to communicate.  Sure, sometimes a conversation can throw you for a loop, but as a customer, you can have expectations, but it's harder to give you what you want if you're screaming the place down.

Tip #2 Be Organized
Especially when you're dealing with important money issues that could require following up.  For example, I mentioned a while back that I get my birth control through a federal program called Title X.  This means that every three months, I go to the clinic, talk to a nurse for about two minutes, and then take home my stuff. For some reason, I kept getting bills in the mail from my clinic.  This is not right, because this is a free program, and the bills made it look like I was visiting my doctor, whom I haven't seen in nearly a year.

I called the billing office a while back and the woman I spoke to said that it was just a charge that my insurance had charged them, so the sent me a bill, she didn't know what it was for.  So I went ahead and paid it, since it was a small amount.  Then I got another, larger bill earlier this week.  I called my insurance provider, and they told me that they were not charging me for anything, but if the clinic continued to do so, they would open an inquiry.  I called the clinic again, spoke to a different woman, who realized they were making a mistake, and the whole thing got cleared up.  After the call, I made a note in my google calendar of what time I called and who I spoke to, just in case I need to follow up again.

For my student loans, since I make extra payments that I only want to go to the principal balance of the loan, I have to send them an email requesting that the adjust the payment manually.  This always takes forever, but when I follow up, they do it right away.  They might think I'm the most annoying person ever, but I don't care.  I make a note in my calendar to check in a couple weeks to make sure they did what I asked, and then I follow up--again.

Tip #3 Use and Remember People's Names
This might feel a little awkward at first, but repeating someone's name back to them let's them know that you're paying attention.  Similarly, if you need to follow up on a situation again, you know the last person who helped you.  If someone in person is not wearing a name tag, ask their name.  People on the phone should always introduce themselves by name, so jot it down at the beginning of the call and make sure at some point to say something like, "I understand what you're saying, Martha, but..."  This is something I figured out when I was working in telephone sales.  I had to introduce myself to people at the beginning of each call, and the people who addressed me later by name were always the least distracted.  I adopted the habit, and it has worked very, very well over the years.  Plus, it makes the interaction feel more like an actual conversation, which almost makes the two of you friends for a brief moment in time.  Who doesn't want to help their friends?

Tip #4 Be Honest
Thankfully, I've never had this happen to me, but apparently there is a trend in retail where people just complain for the sake of getting free things--even to the point of trying to get staff fired.  For instance, the customer will act as if something wrong has been done to them, or as if there's something wrong with what they're purchasing, and then demand a discount.  Certainly you can ask for a discount if something is legitimately defective, but don't lie just to save a few dollars!  That's insane behavior!

Tip #5 Be Reasonable
If you're at a restaurant and you find a hair in your pasta, it's perfectly reasonable to expect a replacement dish and for it to be taken off the bill--probably for free dessert as well.  It's a unreasonable to demand the entire meal to be comped.  This does depend on the level of fanciness of the place, but I kind of feel that demanding extras when you've only been mildly inconvenienced is just unnecessary.  By not being greedy when something goes wrong for you, you're making it much easier for that restaurant to do right by someone else in the future.



Any other tips that you've discovered work in your favor in customer service situations?

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Tracking the Savings

I did it.

I bought my first smart phone.

I still feel weird about it, but I'm adjusting.

Basically, when I switched to Ting a while ago, I could not get my picture messaging to work.  I never thought I would consider picture messaging a necessity, but being without it for two weeks was driving me crazy.  Not only could I not see pictures sent to me, but I also couldn't take any to send to myself or other people.  I like to take pictures while out running, so I knew I would miss that, but I just didn't realize how much I rely on that feature.

I emailed back and forth with Ting's support staff, who were really great, but eventually I came to learn that Sprint is discontinuing that feature for all non-smart phones.  Since Ting uses the Sprint network, that meant me as well.

One of the great things about Ting is that there are no contracts.  One of the drawbacks of not having a cellphone contract is having to pay outright for a phone.  That means, depending on what kind of smartphone I settled on, I was staring down the barrel of a very big charge on my credit card.  So I waited.

I managed to go a whole month without my beloved picture messaging, but finally, in the span of one afternoon I:

  1. Found a really good deal on a used phone via Amazon
  2. Got a picture message of a friend of mine wearing Google glass that I couldn't actually see
  3. Got offered an extra shift at job #3
These occurrences were the perfect storm I needed to make me pay the $226 for an excellent condition Apple iPhone 4s.  I ended up going with the iPhone because pretty much everything else I own is Apple (which makes me feel a little hipster and filthy), and I just wanted the transition to be as easy as possible.

Now, I'm $200 over on my cell phone budget according to mint.com, but My monthly bill is half what it used to be, and I intend to use little-to-no data, so my bill should stay low.  I'm also going to keep track of the money I save via various apps, and count that toward how long it takes to recoup the expense of the phone.  I've already used Target's Cartwheel app to save a cool $.63 and earn a badge! It's amazing how excited I get about badges which both do and mean nothing, so I'm well on my way.

Now I need help from my frugal friends.  What apps can you not live without? How do you save money using your smartphone?  I shelled out a lot of cash for this thing, I want the savings to be worth it!



Wednesday, March 19, 2014

But What About...?

I'm a little obsessed with the show Shark Tank.  What it is, if you're not familiar, is a show where entrepreneurs pitch product ideas to venture capitalists--the sharks-- in an attempt to get financial investments to expand their businesses. It's interesting because I'm fascinated but the ideas people come up with; I'm curious about venture capital and investing; and it's just a strangely entertaining show.

Some of the product ideas are just terrible, and occasionally people get laughed out of the room, but a lot of the ideas are surprisingly smart.  I even realized a while ago that a company that is next door to my yoga studio was on Shark Tank, and apparently their business has blown up.  The downside is that it sometimes feels a bit like advertising, but I've only ever bought one thing I saw on the show, and it was actually a product none of the sharks invested in:

The Rapid Ramen Cooker.  It's basically a square bowl the size of a dry cake of ramen noodles.  Certainly it didn't change my life, but it was pretty cheap (a set of two for $12.99) and we use it at least once a week.

I was watching a recent episode though, and I was just utterly confused by one of the products that got pitched.  A husband and wife came on pitching an alternative to paper towels called Bambooee.  The difference was that these towels are made of bamboo and they can be washed and re-used up to 20 times.  The couple went on and on about how the mission of their company was to reduce waste and be green.  That's awesome, but there are also things that already exist called: TOWELS.

I have towels that I've used far more than 20 times.  I use paper towels too, but either because I'm cheap or because I grew up in a house that considered paper towel use to be extravagant, I don't use them much.  


Bambooee is at the 20 minute mark

I bought a four pack of 3M microfiber cloths and a two pack of Trader Joe's Super Amazing Reuseable Kitchen Cloths.  I'm pretty much set.  The Trader Joe's cloths are the right size that I can clip them into my Swiffer Vac and mop the floor that way (found the Swiffer vac on a curb and it charges with the same size adapter that powers my tv speakers--free FTW!!), and I use the other cloths for cleaning everything else.  I wash them all with my gym clothes once a week.

Maybe there's something I'm just not getting here, but isn't the greenest option out there to just buy regular towels? I guess it's hard to keep turning a profit on something that people rarely need to replace, but I feel like I'm the smartest guy in the room.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Even Free Comes With a Cost

There's nothing better than a free lunch, or a free prize or a free sample.  My bathroom is full of hotel soaps and samples I've gotten over the years, and I've spent the last few months trying to use them all up before I'm allowed to go buy new things.  It's working pretty well, actually, and I'm sure I'm saving some money, even if I can't exactly track it.

I had a thought though the other day when I was doing some online shopping for a new bag: The things you own often cost you money in ways you couldn't really predict when buying them.

For example.  A co-worker of mine drives a Smart Car.  Smart Cars are great because they get excellent gas mileage and you can park them practically anywhere.  One big drawback, however, that I only learned about recently is that apparently Smart Car was acquired by Mercedes Benz a little while back.  That means, when my co-worker recently had to buy snow tires for his car, the sticker price was significantly higher because he had to buy them from Mercedes.  Also, most people who own Smart Cars must not live in places where you need snow tires, because he had to special order them, which also cost extra.

At least he saves money on gas, but I frequently envy Smart Car owners assuming that their car costs must be lower than mine--perhaps not so.

Similarly, when I started my job, work gave me an iPad.  The boss wants us to comfortable with them, so everyone is given one when they start.  It's a nice little bonus, and I really appreciate it since I would never have bought one myself.  I took mine, brought it home, and used it to play a lot of games on or to watch tv on while I was falling asleep.  I never brought it back to work because my purse was too small to hold it.  Turns out that work kind of doesn't like it when they give you an iPad and you never actually have it when you need it.

So I had to buy a new bag.

Sure, you're thinking well, you didn't have to, you can just carry the thing (lazy dumbass).  But I honestly was so worried that I'd either drop it, set it down and forget about it, or have it stolen that I just never took it anywhere.  Whenever I had it with me, I was just so on edge all the time.  Also, there were plenty of times I intended to bring it to work and I just forgot to grab it on my way out the door.  There was also the time I was juggling purse, iPad, recycling, lunch box and lunchtime reading material when I almost threw the iPad in the outside recycle bin.  First world problems, for sure, but it became a bit of a real problem.

Because I'm super picky about bags, it took me months to find one that I would actually like to carry with or without iPad, and it took me even longer after finding one to actually pull the trigger and make the purchase.  I am glad I have it, and I now bring the iPad to work every day, which is pretty handy, but it's also rather annoying that I had to spend $40 on a new purse when my old one works fine (though it's kind of falling apart).  However, I am ultimately pleased with my decision--more than I thought I would be.

Have you encountered some hidden unexpected extras with purchases?