Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Oh yeah...

My friend Elizabeth over at the unemployed librarian reminded me that since it's the last day of August, I should revisit my monthly goals. That also means I should come up with some new ones, I bet. First things first:

1. Start planning to menu plan

Well, that's just not going to happen. I planned to plan, and discovered that I just cannot plan. It's not for me. Now I need to let go of the guilt. That will be on the list for next month. It's just such a good idea! But, it just doesn't work for my life.

2. Cut down on spending and make a little more money

I think I can say that I met this goal... mostly. I did get back to freelance writing, albeit not as much as I could have. I managed to swing a couple extra shifts at a library where I'm a fill-in, and I got another job! From now on (unless something goes terribly, terribly wrong) I will be making a nearly liveable wage! I promise that I won't let it change me.

My food budget for the month was higher than usual because I had some last minute adventuring thrown in before summer's end, but I was way under budget in that column anyway. Patting myself firmly on the back.

3. Get back under budget

Well, that didn't happen in the food column but otherwise I was pretty much on target. I went over in clothes (for the new job--necessary expense), but used birthday money, so doesn't count.

Goals for September:

  1. Get over the guilt of not menu planning
  2. Cook more now that it won't be so hateful to run the oven. I have scads of good fall recipes from last Thanksgiving's Bon Appetit magazine and I should really cook some of them. Man, I love fall.
  3. Live as if I'm making the same amount of money as before. I said my new income won't change me, and I'm determined to not let it. I'm going to do my best to live on the amount of money I was making working only one part-time job and sock the rest away in savings or send it to direct loans.
That's enough for this month. I'm going to be worn out trying to learn names and settle into my new environment--best not overwhelm myself.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Why menu planning may not work for me

I've mentioned before that I have a huge mental block when it comes to menu planning, and I think I'm finally able to put into words why that is:
  1. I work at least two nights a week. That means that I'm having dinner at work between 4:30 and 5pm, and that dinner almost always consists of a tuna sandwich and yogurt--I really don't need to plan for that, and I don't like having a heavy meal when I've still got four hours of work left (makes me sleepy). I'm starting a new job soon, which means that I'll be working five nights a week. I may get sick of tuna sandwich and yogurt dinner, but I may prove to the world how truly boring my eating is...
  2. I don't really eat meals. That sounds odd, but I grew up in a household where we fended for ourselves. Because of that, we never had family sit-down meals, and I got into the habit of eating a big meal around 3pm, after school was over. I'm still in that habit, and I like it.
  3. I don't eat meat, and my boyfriend does. I'm not going to cook meat for him. I've never really eaten meat (I don't like it), and I'm certainly not going to learn to cook it just because he's lazy in the kitchen. That does make it difficult to plan meals though. Added to that, is the fact that I'm not around for a few of the meals, so it'd be like I'm planning two. Also, I don't know if he would eat something just because I told him to.
  4. Writing down a menu plan means admitting that I eat the same thing almost every day. Even though I'm okay with that, it doesn't make for good reading.
What I'm going to do in lieu of traditional menu planning is a bit of what I've always done. I buy groceries, and then Sunday night, I typically cook something that will last the week or part of the week. This can be a soup, lentil loaf, casserole of some kind, etc. Occasionally I bring leftovers to work, but usually I have these leftovers for my 3pm meal.

Maybe I'm just making excuses, and maybe menu planning can't work for everyone. Anyone have any ideas?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Travel Tips: Finding Deals

Obviously when traveling we want the most bang for our buck, but you always hear these fantastic stories like, "I went to Paris for a week for $50 and they kept giving me free cheese!" All you can think is "This person is exaggerating, and how can I make these amazing things happen for me?!?"

I don't have all the answers, but I do have some. Here's what I've found.

Look for packages.
The best way to get a lot for a little is to book a package, usually with the airline directly. I use travelocity for all of my "build your own" vacations, but I pay close attention to what else the airlines have to offer--especially the discount carriers like Southwest. Southwest's special offers page is full of deals on airfare and they occasionally include hotels. The tradeoff with packages is that sometimes they include things you're not too keen on, or they require a little more effort on your part. For example, before my recent trip to Ireland, I found a great deal for $600 round trip airfare and two hotel nights. The drawback was that it also included a lot of guided touring, which is not how I wanted to enjoy my vacation. Sometimes, you find an incredible deal, but have to change hotels a couple times. Weigh the pros and cons and you'll often find that significant savings outweigh minor inconvenience.

Bragging spot: The best deal I've ever gotten was in 2002 when my friends and I scored round trip tickets from Chicago to London plus three nights free in a London hotel for $223. With taxes and fees it ended up being closer to $300, but who cares! I could have spent that on hotel alone. The drawback was that we lived eight hours away from Chicago, and we had to book it direct with the airline over the phone--big deal. Since there were six of us, it was more economical to borrow a minivan from a friend's mom, drive to Chicago and pay for parking.

We got this deal because it was March, which is the slowest time for British travel since it's a bit soggy (it's always soggy, just bring a scarf), and British Airways ran a special that we happened to notice. No tricks, nothing fancy--I don't have an in at the airlines, we just pay attention.

Travelzoo is another fantastic place to find package deals, and you can sign up for a weekly email that delivers them right to you.

Priceline it first.
Do a little sleuthing to see the average price of whatever you're looking for, and then throw a lower offer into priceline just to see what happens. Priceline is particularly good for last-minute deals, but it's always worth trying before buying. I've gotten luxury hotels (normally $150+ per room) in Boston and Montreal (during jazzfest!) for 75% less than retail this way. It's certainly not guaranteed, and last time I tried to book a hotel in Boston, I barely saved anything, but it's still worth the try.

Couch surf?
This is one that I haven't tried yet, but find very intriguing. The new trend in frugal travel is to stay with other people in their homes either for free or for a significantly cheaper cost than a hotel. There are a number if sites dedicated to helping people find a place to stay without going broke doing it. As I understand it, the fee-based services don't require you to open your home in exchange for staying with someone else, but the free ones do. you can interact with your guests/hosts as much or as little as you like, but often it's nice to arrive in a new city and have an expert resident right there for the grilling.

Couchsurfing.org is one of the free ones, Airbnb is a pay-per-stay, which I read a fascinating article about recently.

To keep current on frugal travel trends, I recommend the New york Times budget travel section, and frugal traveler blog. They cover everything from making cheap international calls to how well you can travel with an iPad--good stuff.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Travel Tips: Planning a cheap(er) vacation

Vacations and travel in general just aren't cheap, but there are certain costs you can cut or options you can explore to make seeing the world a bit more affordable.

Trim your food expenses. Food is often the most expensive part of a vacation, and perhaps the one you plan for the least. You go from eating at home most days to eating out for every meal, and that can add up considerably. There are a few steps to take to trim food expenses on the road.
  1. Think of food when picking a place to stay. If possible, book a hotel with a kitchen so you can cook a few meals or pack lunches. It may not be possible or desirable to hoof it back to the hotel every time you get hungry, but if nothing else, eat a large breakfast and bring a couple snacks to get through the day. If you do get hungry (and I realize that many people may get hungrier than me) grab some street food or an appetizer to hold you until dinner. If you find an affordable Bed and Breakfast--take it! Unless you think B&Bs are gross and cutesy (and they can be, but not all are), take advantage of that breakfast. I've stayed at B&Bs in the UK that offered a huge, delicious breakfast that left me stuffed for the rest of the day, for the same price as I would have paid for a regular hotel. Plus B&Bs are cozier.
  2. Shift you meals. Instead of eating three meals a day and spending so much time of your vacation sitting at a table, eat two larger meals and skip lunch. As I mentioned above, you can make a large breakfast in your room, and bring a few granola bars or other snacks along. Depending upon how early you had breakfast, you might even opt for an early dinner and cash in on a deal that way.
Save upfront. Depending upon where you want to go, you have a number of options for whittling down the cost of travel itself.

  1. Travel in the off season. Cruise vacations peak from January-March, but it's just as nice to get away in April. You can often book airfare and the cruise itself for considerably less because they just want to fill the boat. Likewise European travel peaks in August, but if you go over in May or June, it's still quite lovely, cheaper and less congested. Be mindful though when booking a Caribbean getaway that often it's cheap because it's hurricane season--do a little research first.
  2. Consider a stay-cation or a mini break. There are tons of destinations within driving distance of my city, and I don't get large chunks of time off work since I work part-time. I manage to sate my wanderlust by taking short daytrips or overnight stays. This past weekend, we went to the Berkshires, stayed with BF's aunt and uncle and visited one art museum and two author homes. It was a fantastic time, and the biggest expense was gas. Even if we had gone and stayed at a hotel, it would have been very reasonable because we only stayed over one night. When traveling locally also try to find some local deals before you set out. I mentioned before that my area has museum passes that offer free or discounted admission when checked out (for free!) from the library.
  3. Don't neglect your National Parks. I am a huge National Parks nerd, it's true, but they are "America's Best Idea" for a reason. What's better than natural, unspoiled beauty that you can enjoy for practically nothing? I've never met a park ranger who wasn't eager to answer all my questions (no matter how inane) and tell me things I never would have thought of. I'm not a nature girl by any stretch, but I intend to visit every national park before I die. With 58 parks in the US, there's no excuse for not trying it out--you'll be surprised what you might find.
  4. Don't forget about your house. Unless you have someone staying at your house while you're away, turn off your water, turn down your water heater and make sure everything is sealed up. A unexpected rainstorm while you're gone can destroy house and possessions, and why pay to heat water you're not using? The savings may seem negligible if you're not gone very long, but savings are savings.
Skip the souvenirs. Souvenirs, chotchkes, gee-gaws what have you--they're almost always overpriced and poorly-made. I like rooting through a gift shop as much as the next person, but I very rarely buy anything because I've learned over the years that it's fun in the moment, and two years later, I don't really care. If you collect a certain item, that's one thing, but if you're just buying something to have a memento--take more pictures instead. My one big souvenir is I like to get a pressed penny. For $.51 I can get a shiny penny imprinted with a logo from where I'm visiting. It's cheap, it's small and it reminds me of my visit.

If you feel like you have to get a souvenir for every relative and friend--reconsider. I'm not saying that to be a jerk, but buying souvenirs for adult friends and family seems silly. They weren't there, so the souvenir is less special in that regard; and I've had friends who have spent entire vacations agonizing about what to get for other people rather than just enjoying the trip. Your friends will understand.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Travel Tips: Packing Light

First rule of frugal travel: pack light. Luggage fees are a ridiculous waste of money, and there is no need to bring more on a trip than you can carry comfortably. I'm not advocating bringing one outfit and wearing it every day, but by just using a little sense and limiting yourself to one bag, you'll be amazed how little you miss all the extra stuff. Travel is about experience not stuff. Rick Steves also has some excellent videos about packing light, but he's a guy and I'm a girl, Girls have needs.

First rule: You do not need a bunch of travel-sized items.
Unless you 're using a coupon and getting them for free, these things just aren't worth it, and they are a waste of plastic. Invest in reuseable containers and put what you need in there. I bought two three-ounce containers at Target filled one with shampoo and one with conditioner

Pretty sexy, eh? Decorated with the finest sharpie. They are exactly 3 ounces, so I can bring them in my carry-on, I won't need to make that frantic trip to the store the night before my flight ever again. Plus, the containers were $1.19 each (slightly more than one travel-sized shampoo), and the shampoo and conditioner probably cost about $.25. Less wasted plastic, less wasted money.

Do the same thing with body wash, face wash, hair goo--everything. The only travel-sized item I do buy is contact solution. I don't have a dishwasher, and I don't want to take a change with a reuseable container holding something that goes into my eyes. Maybe I'm just being paranoid, but there's also almost always a $1 off coupon for contact solution floating around the internet, so I'm not paying for it anyway.

Other ways to cut back on toiletries in both size and money:
  1. If you're staying at a hotel, use what they give you--and take it home. If you're staying at a nice hotel, and even some not-so-nice ones, they will give you soap, shampoo, conditioner, a shower cap, probably a sewing kit. Take it all. Leah Ingram, one of my frugality gurus even takes hotel soaps and grates them for use in home-made clothes detergent.
  2. Free samples. Free Sample Freak has the lowdown on where to get free samples for just about everything, but there's a drawback to certain gratis items. Sometimes, you have to buy something to get something, or remember to cancel a membership in three months--it can be more work than its worth. That said, I always take advantage of free samples for shampoo and conditioner, and the brands that I use most often, often give out samples regularly. Stockpile these items, bring them along, and you can usually get two uses out of each. Whenever I travel, even if I'm not buying anything, it seems like my luggage keeps getting heavier--it's nice to throw away something, even if it's just a shampoo sample.
  3. Those little extras. You know how sometimes you buy shampoo, facewash, bodywash and they come with an extra small bottle of the same thing or another product by the same company? Save those and use them for traveling. Usually, that little extra bottle is what gets me to pick that particular bodywash, and if I have coupons, I may get more than one.

Second rule: Don't bring that many clothes.
You probably don't need them all anyway. This is all dependent on the type of vacation you're taking. If you're going somewhere cold, you need more bulky items, tropical, not so much, but you can use the same type of thinking in all circumstances.
  1. Plan to wash clothes. If your vacation is that long, do laundry. If you're staying at hostels, there is usually laundry on site, if you're staying at hotels, ask about a wash and dry place in the neighborhood, if you can't find one of those, go to a laundromat or wash your clothes in your bathroom. Failing that, just don't wash your clothes every time you wear them. Hang them up to air out over night instead of crumpled in a ball, and they should be just as good. Unless you're sweating constantly or have body odor issues, wear your clothes more than once.
  2. Bring only one pair of shoes--two at most. Yes, I really said that. Shoes take up so much room in your luggage, and they're heavy and awkward. Just don't bring that many. If you're traveling for a wedding, wear the same pair to the groom's supper and the wedding and have another pair for non-fancy use. Match your clothes combinations to the shoes you bring, and quit worrying about how you look.
  3. Light layers. Light layers are your friend. Again, this all depends on the climate where you're traveling, but bring a light jacket or sweater and a scarf. This way, if it winds up cold and rainy, you will still be comfortable. If it's hot and sunny, you didn't fill your luggage with one sweater for each day of the week.
  4. Bring sturdy clothes that don't wrinkle. You don't have to wear outfits made entirely of nylon, but don't bring all linen either. Are you really going to want to spend your vacation ironing? When you're clothes shopping, select items that won't wrinkle easily. Crumple a part of the garment in your hand and see how long it takes for the wrinkles to fall out. That's your litmus test. Don't go out and buy a wrinkle-free wardrobe just for your vacation, you probably wouldn't mind ironing less in real life too--just change your shopping perspective a bit.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Things the are worth the splurge

I may actually be a pauper (not knowing the technical definition of pauper), but that doesn't mean I'm willing to live like one. I'm not talking about living beyond my means or living on credit, but readjusting my priorities and making the most of the good things that I can budget for. Little splurges, when planned for, are the best way to stay sane. Because you've planned and can afford them, there's no guilt. There's also a feeling of accomplishment that comes from being responsibly reckless; and by living within your means every other day, you actually do deserve to splash out every now and then.

A fancy meal every six months or so
Providence (where I live) does this wonderful thing every year called restaurant week--though now it's actually two weeks. What that entails is pre fixe menus at dozens of restaurants all over the city. For $29.99 you get an appetizer, entree and dessert in a fancy restaurant you would otherwise never afford. All the menus are posted online beforehand, so if you're a vegetarian (like me) you can see what sounds good, and what gives you the most/best food for the money. Since I eat out pretty infrequently, but don't want to just be that poor girl who never gets to have any fun, this is exactly what I need. Also, this is food I would never allow myself otherwise. I would rather eat gourmet food prepared by chefs once a year than go to TGI Fridays once a month.

Yes, I don't shut up about how much I love to travel, but as I've mentioned before, travel is the thing I save for. It is the thing that makes living frugally and giving up other stuff that I might enjoy worth it. Plus, when planning to travel and when actually doing it, I keep my budget in mind, and get deals... more on that later.

Well-made clothes
I hate to shop, it's a chore, so when I buy something I don't want to have to buy it over and over again. A lot of people save money doing thrift store shopping, and I commend them, but I just cannot do it. It's too much effort, and too hateful to me. Plus I hate trying things on, and you can rarely return stuff. Yes, this sounds whiny, but it's just not for me. Instead, I buy classic pieces that I intend to wear for years. I buy clothes I can layer, usually in solid and neutral colors that are well-made and will last. I try not to buy more than I need by keeping an inventory of what I already have, and then I just wear the stuff out. Yes, it's a little more up front that going thrift store shopping, or buying everything at Forever 21, but it saves in the long run--time and money.

Name-brand foods
You can trim your food budget significantly by switching to generic or store brands and often the items are of comparable quality. Sometimes they are not, and I certainly don't feel guilty buying the name brand if I've tried both and prefer it. I would rather eat food that I like rather than save $.50. I can find that savings somewhere else, if it's a significant amount. The brand of hummus that bf and I prefer is usually the most expensive and goes on sale less often (bastards!), but it's really, really good and eating it makes me happy. Hence, fancy hummus for me. In exchange for my fancy hummus, I buy the cheap cream cheese (which tastes no different), the store-brand milk and generic instant oatmeal. Crisis averted.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Split pea curry soup

I love split pea soup, but rarely eat it because all canned versions have ham in them (the ones that don't have actual chunks of ham have some kind of ham essence) or they're $2 a can and made by Wolfgang Puck. Wolfgang, thanks for thinking of the vegetarians, but I think I'll do it myself. This is Alton Brown's recipe from foodnetwork.com, and it's super easy and very, very filling--oof. I made a couple changes--omitted onion, subbed in veggie stock for chicken, but am pretty true to Alton's vision.

  • 12 ounces split peas sorted and rinsed--I'd use the whole bag (16 oz next time, just so I don't have four leftover ounces.
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic--I used fresh, about 2.5 cloves, I'm not a huge garlic fan
  • 6 cups vegetable stock
  • 1 tablespoon curry powder--The only curry powder I could find was Jamaican mild, which was a bit mild, I added an extra 1/2 tablespoon
  • Salt and Pepper
Place the butter into a large (4 to 6-quart) saucepan over medium-low heat. Once melted, add the garlic and sweat for 1 to 2 minutes.

Add the peas, stock and curry powder. Increase heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook at a simmer until the peas are tender and not holding their shape any longer, approximately 45 to 50 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Using care and a stick blender, puree the soup until the desired consistency. Watch out for hot splatters.

Fantastic and cheap! This is going to make me really happy this winter.

Split peas- $1.50 for a 16 ounce bag
garlic-- I had on hand but probably paid less than a dollar for the whole head
stock-- $.20
curry powder-- was $3 for a big jar that will last a long time so I probably used $.30 worth.
That's about $2.00 for six servings or $.35 apiece--not too shabby.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Things I can do without

When contemplating frugality, people often get worked up about what they'll miss the most. They think their new life will be beans and rice, going to bed when then sun sets to save electricity and wearing holey jeans from the thrift store. That's not how I roll. I want a full, fun life and a decent balance in my savings account. Naturally, I can't have it all, but there are things I can happily trade off in exchange for stuff I really do like.

Regular eating out
Eating out is expensive. You can often cook food of equal quality at home for 1/4 of what you spend in a restaurant. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy eating out, but it should be a treat, not the norm. Some people save money eating out by not tipping as well, or by sneaking in their own food. Both of those practices are appalling and rude, and anyone who does that is certainly no friend of mine. If you can't afford to eat out, don't eat out. Behavior like that is what makes people hate the thrifty--behavior like that is cheap, and I do not want to be cheap. Frugality is not stiffing a server, it's knowing what you can afford and adjusting your spending accordingly.

The other problem with eating out regularly is the huge quantity of food they give you. As a frugal person, I want to eat what I paid for, but often it takes me two or three sit-downs to get through one restaurant entree. That food doesn't last as long as stuff I make at home, so I typically eat it daily for three days, which is a bit boring. When I was eating out often, I gained a lot of weight just trying to keep up with the large amount of food I brought home all the time. I dislike gaining weight, but not as much as I dislike wasting food. The sensible thing to do is just eat out less often.

I've already said that I dislike shopping, but there have been times where I got into the shopping habit and did it more to get out of the house and feel like I was accomplishing something than to buy things I actually need. No more. I shop seasonally, and pick up a few pieces when the temperature starts to change. Now that I've been in my profession for over a year, I have a good base wardrobe to build on, so I end up needing less. The more you own, the more your things own you and I would rather have no more than what I actually use.

Books of my own
I've stopped buying books. I am an avid re-reader, so I used to buy books I knew I would read again, but now I don't even do that. I've found that I don't read anything unless it has a due date. I check out so many library books, and am very aware of them needing to be returned, that I never actually read any of the books I own. Once I realized that, I stopped acquiring them, and actively started getting rid of them. I now buy a few books a year from the sale rack at the library ($1 each) and then I bring those traveling and leave them behind along the way. If I really love something and want to read it again, I know I can get it but I don't need to own it. I make an exception for Nancy Drew books because I collect those, and the few books that I truly love and want to see on my shelf. Maybe someday when I have a bigger house I'll keep books again, but right now, they just look like something I'll eventually have to move.

I'm not going to be one of those assholes who says "I don't watch tv", but I kind of don't watch tv. I do have a few tv shows that I enjoy and keep up with, but I don't watch them on tv, regularly scheduled. I wait for DVD, and then get them from the library or netflix. It was an adjustment at first, but I've been living this way for so long that I actually get angry at the thought of promising myself to a tv show every Tuesday night. What if I want to do something else? Your life might be very different than mine and cable and tv might be more important, but there are workarounds as well. Try to find ways to watch your shows online or have viewing parties with like-minded friends. This is how my friends and I watched Sex and the City years ago. Someone's mom had HBO, so she would go over there, tape it, bring it to my house and then we'd all watch it together. It was free entertainment, and more fun that way.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Weekend Reading: Suddenly Frugal

Suddenly Frugal: How to Live Happier and Healthier for Less
By Leah Ingram
Adams Media, 2010

In the interest of full disclosure, I had to admit that I have a bit of a bloggerly crush on Leah Ingram. Hers was the first frugality blog I stumbled across (thank you google reader), and from that moment forth I decided that I kind of want to be her. That's the bias I'm bringing to my write-up on this book when I say that this is easily one of the best frugality books I've ever read (and that's a lot). Just like her blog, this tome is chocked full of practical advice that saves you money.

I'm not entirely sure what it is about her that I respond to so much but I think it's a combination of things:
  1. She's an actual writer. It's hard to find bloggers that can actually write. There are many talented people out there who have a style, but to find a professional, polished writer is a real treat.
  2. She's no-nonsense and doesn't make it about herself. There are little asides about how she and her family started doing x, y or z, but it's certainly not confessional or full of pictures of family weekends. That stuff is all well and good sometimes, but other times, I just want the advice.
  3. Religion doesn't factor in. This may be an odd thing to say, but one of my biggest complaints about frugality blogs is that many are run by stay-at-home moms who are very religious. I have no gripe with religious people, but it's really refreshing to just read about saving a bit of cash without having to wade through the whole "god directed me to save money this way" stuff. Again, I just want the advice.
While I find the claim on the front cover of the book that a person can save up to $25,000 per year just by reading a bit silly, she does back it up. At the end of each section, there is a breakdown of how much you can save by doing everything she says. Sadly, most of it doesn't apply to me, but maybe someday it will.

Best takeaways:

I need to get a drying rack for my clothes.
I've actually known this for a while, but this book really brought home the fact that I could be saving a lot of money, energy and wear on my clothes if I just sucked it up and bought one. Problem is, I did buy one a few years ago at Target, and the damn thing would not stay together. It was the kind where the wooden dowels fit into plastic brackets on the frame, and the dowels wouldn't stay in. I tried glue (several kinds) and duct tape before I finally just threw it out. If anyone has managed to find a well-made drying rack, let me know.

DIY Laundry detergent.
Borax, washing soda and Fels Naptha soap and you've got laundry detergent that works just as well as the stuff that smells like a meadow. She also posted this on her blog, but the DIY chapter in this book is exhaustive and a little bit awesome. I haven't actually tried making the laundry soap yet, but I will, and you'll hear about it.

How to Compost.
Explained in a way that actually make sense. I have a boss who is a master composter, and she's half explained it to me before, but since she knows it so well, she omits things. This book breaks it down in a way that actually resonates to me much more than boss's advice or anything I've read on the interwebs. Granted, I do not have a yard so cannot really compost--but someday! I'll be ready.

Random Reuseables.
This is an entire section dedicated to giving you ideas of other ways to use common items. It's not unlike the new uses of everyday items section of Real Simple, but that's one of my favorite parts of the magazine, so I can't get enough of this stuff. I love dual purpose and maximizing what you can do with one thing. Ever thought of using toilet paper tubes as seed starters? Genius.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Cardinal Rules of Clothes Shopping

Frugal shopping does not mean following every trend, but it shouldn't mean dressing like a frumpy old lady either. Buying classic, well-made items even if they cost a little more actually saves money in the long run because you're not replacing your clothes all the time due to wear or dated appearance.

Wardrobe Inventory--
Before you set foot in a store, know what you already have so you don't buy the same thing over and over again. Have you ever looked in your closet and realized that you have five white shirts, or six pairs of black pants? Unless you wear a white shirt every single day of the week (and you should probably mix it up a bit), there is no reason to own that many. Knowing what you have means you know what you need as well, and you won't be buying just for the sake of buying. You may inventory your wardrobe and realize that your work pants are getting a bit worn out--then go shopping for new work pants that will match the tops you already own. If you don't have any casual weekend clothes, go shopping for those. Having a plan in mind before setting foot in the store helps you reign in spending by making shopping and errand rather than entertainment.

Buy Outfits--
This is not always possible, but it's a good rule to keep in mind. Stacy and Clinton abide by this as well. If you are buying separates to mix and match (and you should because it makes a few pieces more versatile) make sure that you have in hand an entire outfit to avoid buying pieces that you can never wear. Say you're in a store and you find a skirt that you love but you know that you don't have anything at home (because you've done your inventory) to wear with it. Unless you are 100% confident you will be able to find something to wear with it, don't buy it. I can't count the number of times I've bought something, and been unable to find anything to wear with it, and then left hanging in my closet for years until I no longer like it or it doesn't fit.

The problem with not buying an entire outfit in one go is that it becomes much more work to create one later. Often you buy a lot of things thinking that they will go with the magical skirt, only to get home and realize that they just don't. Then you either waste time going back to the store returning things, or have a bunch more clothes to find things to match to. You could be one of those people (and I never am, but I know I should be) who bring the item back shopping with you and try to find other pieces to go with it. This is a good strategy, but if you wait too long to find that missing piece, you may be unable to return the initial item.

Shop online first--
Before I set foot in the mall, I often go to the website of the stores I plan to visit and shop there first. This helps me see the clothes and get some ideas before setting foot in the loud, chaotic and overwhelming store. I know myself, and I often buy things just for the sake of buying something. I feel weird if I leave a store empty-handed and have made ridiculous purchases because of it. If I shop online first and see nothing I like, then I either skip the store, or make a quick lap though reminding myself that I probably won't be buying anything. This keeps that impulse in check and also gives me an idea how much I'll be spending before I go.

Browsing & Returning--
Frankly, I hate shopping, but sometimes shopping with a friend is fun. However, I have that problem where once I'm on a store, I feel obligated to buy something--anything--I trick myself into thinking I like something and then I get it home and am baffled about its appeal. So in the interest of not repeatedly turning down requests to go shopping, I've forced myself to get better at both browsing and returning.

This seems like a total no-brainer, but when it comes to frugality, but a lot of changes are really that easy (in theory). I've forced myself to be much pickier about what I buy through regular inventorying of my closet. If I slip into the "must purchase something" mindset, I bring it home, leave the tags on, and re-evaluate after a little time has passed. If I don't love it, I bring it back. If I'm on the fence, I wear it around the house for a little while (tags still on), and see if I continue to love it. There is nothing worse than cutting the tags off a new pair of pants just to realize that there's huge gap in the back of the waistband, or that they're uncomfortable to sit in.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

French Bread Pizza

The BF is addicted to those frozen Red Baron and Stouffer's French Bread Pizzas. When we first started dating, he eagerly warmed one up for me and presented it with a hopeful flourish. I choked it down, and then later (after we'd been dating a bit longer) told him that it tasted like chemical-soaked cardboard. Since I'm trying to cook for him as well because he just can't/won't cook for himself and it's more cost-effective to cook for two, I decided to revamp this disgusting favorite meal into something tasty and healthy.

This is exactly what it sounds like--pizza on french bread, and therefore, it's super easy.

One loaf french bread
Pizza Sauce
mozzarella or preferred cheese blend
desired toppings--I used spinach, mushrooms, sausage and green pepper, but no more than three topping per pizza

  • My plan was to make up a bunch of these pizzas and freeze them so when I'm not around, he can eat real food. To start, I measured the french bread against the size container I had to freeze it in, and then hacked off a chunk.
  • Once the loaf was in chunks, I cut those in half, and scooped out a bit of the middle to create a nice divot for the toppings.
  • add sauce
  • add toppings
  • wedge into container for freezing
  • take the pizzas that you're not freezing, and heat them up on the George Forman grill and enjoy with a glass of sangria
These were super tasty, and I think they'll heat up well too. Sadly, the french bread doesn't hold a ton of toppings--it's pretty narrow, but still, good stuff. Also, I could not find non-shredded mozzarella cheese at the grocery store. All they had was pre-shredded in a bag, or fancy mozzarella balls--no brick, no savings.

Even considering how dirt-cheap the Red Baron and Stouffer's versions of these pizzas are, I still undercut doing it my way:
$2 for pizza sauce
$2 for cheese
$1.79 for french bread
$1 for toppings
Total $6.79 for 8 pizzas about $.85 apiece vs. $3.50 for two of the Stouffer's or $1.75 apiece.

...and I still have half a jar of sauce

Monday, August 9, 2010

Budget Beauty: Home Highlights

Note: I am not a hairstylist, I am a librarian, please consider that before taking my advice. That said, I've been dyeing my own hair since 7th grade, and dyeing my friends' hair since high school. I've learned some stuff.

If you are interested in the highlights that basically look like hair stripes ------------> I'm not interested in helping you. That's something that can be accomplished quite handily using those home highlighting kits they sell for $9.99 (though it's never a good look).

If what you want is natural looking layers of color on your head i.e. something that you might get from the sun, I can help you fake that with a box and a bit of bravery.

  • 1 box hair dye purchased with a coupon
  • 1 old but not gross toothbrush
  • 1 hairclip
  • a comb or chopstick--use a chopstick if you have a nice comb you don't want stained
  • 1 small bowl or plate that you don't mind staining
  • a hand mirror, or maybe a friend to help you do the back (bribe her)
This is an technique that my stylist taught me back when I was under my parents' roof and they paid for things like professional highlights. The idea here is not a sharp contrast in color, but subtle changes that can make your hair just look prettier and less flat.

Start with a color that is not terribly different from your current color, possibly slightly lighter or darker, maybe with a bit of red, if that's what you're going for. Don't trust the box completely, it rarely looks like that. Instead, bring along your most honest friend, and ask her which color looks most like your current color. Then take that box and compare it to others until you come up with a pleasing contrast.

Once you're home, put on your ratty hair-dyeing clothes, get your bowl and toothbrush and read the instructions in the hair dye paying particular attention to the time it takes to work. Then gather up most of your hair in your hairclip leaving a bottom section out. Mix the dye and squirt it into your dish.

Take the toothbrush, swish it through the dye, and start combing the dye through the section of hair not in the clip. Make sure to go all the way around your head (this is very important), and get it up to the roots (or you'll look silly). Saturate your hair with more hair dye if you want your hair dyed more, less if you want more of your natural color.

Once that section of hair is done, use a comb or chopstick to free another section from the hairclip and repeat combing the toothbrush through your hair, adding more dye as you go.

And so on and so on through all sections of your hair until you reach the top. Be sure not to pile a bunch of dye on the top of your head, and be sure to add some color around your face/temples. That makes it look more natural. Then sit back, and wait for the appropriate amount of time to pass. Rinse your hair, style as usual, and send me an email (findmefrugal@gmail.com) telling me how awesome you look.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Little Tweaks

Everyone seems to have small suggestions for ways to cut expenses without sacrificing much, if any, comfort. Some ideas are good, many are far too extreme or labor intensive and some just don't make sense. Over the years I've adapted a few ideas and noticed a marked savings.

Adjusting the temperature on your water heater:
We've all heard this one before, but I am a staunch convert. I moved into my current apartment a year ago, and for some reason it took six months for the gas company to find me and bill me for all the gas I'd been using. The bill was antonishingly high, and I didn't even know what gas powered besides my stove. Turns out, water heater. I was paying $50 a month, and never turned my shower's temperature above the halfway point. Now I'm paying $20-$25 less a month, and am not inconvenienced in the slightest. If you simply love a scalding hot shower, at least adjust the temperature over the summer months, you'll still feel hot.

Cut food waste by any means necessary:
There is no reason to waste food. You eat several times a day, and there's no reason that you can't eat something two days in a row. Throwing out food wastes hundreds to thousands of dollars per year, plus, it's wasteful. I've found several ways to cut out food waste painlessly and easily.
  1. Eat your leftovers. You made it, eat it. Unless a dish turned out really poorly, there's no excuse for not eating your leftovers. Bring whatever you had for dinner for your lunch the following day. If you really can't stand eating the same thing two days in a row, freeze it. Portion out single servings of whatever you made, and put it in the freezer immediately. That way you have ready-to-eat meals, and a little bit of time to want to eat them. Just don't forget that they're there because even frozen food only lasts about six months before it's not so good. Label them with a date, and maybe even what they are.
  2. Make less food. This seems like a no-brainer, but calculate how many you're cooking for, and alter you recipe accordingly. If you live alone, you may not want to make 12 servings of corn chowder. Yes, cooking is messy and it may seem like a waste to dirty all those dishes for a little bit of something, but when you're on day five of eating the same dinner, you'll understand.
  3. Re-purpose leftovers. Get a bit clever with your food. If you're looking at your leftovers and they won't freeze well, but you don't want to eat the same thing twice, get creative. Add a few new ingredients and turn it into a whole new dish. Leftover stir fry= stir fry omelet. Wilting spinach=creamed spinach. Leftover pasta=cold pasta salad, pasta bake, pasta stir fry, etc. If you're ever at a loss as to what to do with something, ask the internet. Someone out there probably tried something.
Use Craigslist or Ebay:
If you need to buy something, check these places first and see if you can get it for cheaper. If you're getting rid of something, list it first, and see if there's any interest. It stands to reason that if you can make a little money on something you were getting rid of anyway, you might as well. Yes, it's a little more work, but the savings can be huge.

Example: A few years ago, I was a member of a gym. I liked the gym, but my work/class schedule made it such that I could never really make it to any of the cardio classes, plus they closed at 8pm each night, which is about the time I'd like to start working out. This was a gym where you pay for a whole year up front, and when I got a bill for $600+ for the next year, I actually laughed out loud. When I thought about what I used at the gym, it was really only the treadmill. I got on craigslist, found a used treadmill for $75, and I've had it for almost two years. I'm all about gym memberships, but if you examine how you use the gym (if you're actually using it), and find a way to replicate that at home for cheaper, who not try it? You can rent workout DVDs from netflix or get them from the library, you can find cheap weights and cardio machines on craigslist, you can get outside to run, walk or hike.

Change your brand:
I drink a lot of coffee. I like good coffee and cannot drink the weak crap that is usually (surprise!) the cheapest. As a result, I am always on the lookout for a good quality coffee that doesn't cost too much. Usually, I load up on Starbucks when it goes on sale at Target (Target's coffee prices consistently beat my grocery store's per pound); if my boyfriend gets a free pound of Dunkin Donuts coffee for donating blood, I mix that with a darker roast to make it taste decent; and I buy strange brands that I find at Ocean State Job Lot or TJ Maxx. I've been burned, to be sure, but occasionally you hit on a brand that tastes fantastic for a fraction of what you normally pay. Those are the magical times.

Recently, I brought home a variety of coffees from Trader Joes, and I think I'm sold. I can get them in whole bean, which is increasingly hard to find, there are a variety of roasts, they all come in a very nice cardboard canister that I can potentially re-use, and they are up to $2 less per pound than the Starbucks I always felt guilty buying. We have a winner!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Keep an eye on your accounts

...especially if you're not using them.

I check my bank balance and credit cards regularly, but I recently let something slip by that could have been catastrophic. I've been a bit behind, moneywise this month. I just got back from vacation and I've had some unexpected expenses as well as a slight dip in income. So I've been less diligent with checking the balance on my American Express. Mostly, it's been because I've been hiding my head in the sand.

I looked at it a couple days ago, and found a mysterious charge for an airplane ticket from Zurich to London. I would love to be flying from Zurich to London, but sadly, it was not a ticket I purchased. I immediately opened a claim stating that this was an unauthorized charge, and that it should be investigated. Then I called my card and requested a new card with a new number and expiration date. The girl I spoke to said, "But you just requested a new card five days ago."

No, I did not. This is when things started getting a bit scary. This person had compromised my card, made a major purchase and had requested a replacement card--to what? Intercept delivery and run around with my card number? Who knows. That's not going to happen. Because I check my balances pretty regularly, I caught this early, but if I wasn't paying that much attention, who knows when/if I would have noticed.

When I was in high school, I went on a school trip to Kansas City, MO. I used my debit card to purchase some CDs. A couple months later, my mother (who was my banker at the time) noticed a point of sale (debit) purchase coming through on my account for $36.72. Since I rarely used my debit card at that time, this was odd, and it was more money than I had in my account. It was also for the purchase I had made in Kansas City two months before.

What had happened, was that the store had screwed up its credit card sales that day and had not charged all of the cards used. To get their money, they just re-ran all the sales of the day, and those who had already paid got charged again. This is illegal, but if you've used a credit card and dispute the charges, the credit card company will deal with it. Since I had used a debit card, the store had to issue the credit back to my account, and my mother spent hours on the phone trying to explain that to the people who should not have done this in the first place.

Had I not noticed, I would have overdrawn my account, and potentially not gotten my money back. Having my mother at my bank was certainly helpful, but most people don't have that.

A friend told me just a few days ago, that she had accidentally authorized her student loans to take out two payments per month from her savings account. Unfortunately, she didn't catch this until her savings account was wiped out, and then her car broke down almost the same day costing $700 she would have taken out of savings.

Other people can screw up your money, and you can do it yourself. All you have to do to combat this is just pay attention. Check your credit cards online once a week, maybe once every two weeks for the ones you're not using. Check your bank balances weekly. Either maintain your checking account register, or be mindful of where your money is going. This is why I make most purchases on one credit card, and make a payment every time I get paid. This helps me be constantly aware of where my money is and how much I've spent.

If there is a snafu somewhere, it is considerably easier to catch it right away.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Too True

Monthly Goals

It's August-- did you notice that? It certainly caught me off guard. In order to keep my spending in line, and because I like making lists, I'm going to try my hand at monthly goals. A lot of other frugality bloggers do this, and even though my big goal is always to spend less than I make, I thought I'd try to incorporate some smaller goals as well. We'll see what happens.

  1. Start planning to menu plan. This is like a pre-engagement ring (a promise to pledge that we'll one day consider getting engaged), but it's the best I can do right now. I cannot just dive into this because for whatever reason, I have a huge mental block when it comes to menu planning. Also, I need to start including my boyfriend in the meals I make because his diet is appalling and I don't want him to die in the next five years. So, I need to figure out what I can make that we will both enjoy, and that's cheap. By September, I should have a better idea of how to make this all work...hopefully.
  2. Cut down on spending, and make a little more money. I've been slacking in the freelance writing department, and haven't made much money in the past two months. I have a hard time accomplishing anything when it's hot out, but now it's starting to feel a bit more crisp and fall-like, which means I need to get back to work. I also have two half marathons coming up that I need to pay for--best get cracking.
  3. Get back under budget. I've been doing well in some columns, less well in others. I'm a bit proud of the fact that I reduced my prescribed budget amount for food by $50 and am still under budget for the year by $200. That's despite going out for restaurant week and going on vacation for ten days. Insert pat on back. But, I'm over in the clothes column, and my misc (which doesn't have a prescribed limit) has been higher than I would like. I need to reign it in, and start putting more into savings.
I think three is a good place to start, I like the number three.

Wish me luck!

Lentil Loaf

I realize that lentil loaf is a very unattractive name for something so delicious, but this really is one of my favorite things to eat. First off, it's hella cheap to make, it's filling and it's versatile. Lentils are low fat, low calorie, full of fiber and bursting with protein. They're basically a perfect food that you can prepare countless ways. Learn to love lentils, and you will be happier, healthier and wealthier. Even the name-brand lentils only cost $1.69 at my grocery store, and the generic are $1 a bag. All total, this recipe costs: $1.69 for lentils, $1.00 for cheese, $.10 for rolled oats, $.89 for tomato paste, $.10 for eggs, $.25 for salt, pepper, basil, garlic or other desired flavoring agents.

Let's add that up: $5:03 for about ten servings. Pretty awesome.
If you get sick of eating the same thing for ten servings, cut half or 3/4 of the loaf into slices and freeze. If you stack them with parchment in between, you can take them out one at a time.
  • Lentils, 1 bag (3 cups) soaked for 1 hour--place in a pot of water, bring to a boil, then let sit for about an hour--taste to see if they're soft enough.
  • 1 cup (ish) either rolled oats, or I used leftover challah bread–if using rolled oats, moisten first or they will dry out everything!
  • 3/4 cup grated or cubed sharp cheddar
  • 1 whole egg, + 1 egg white
  • 1 can tomato paste
  • 1 tsp minced garlic
  • 1 tsp basil
  • salt and pepper to taste
  1. Preheat oven to 350
  2. mix all ingredients in bowl
  3. taste test
  4. add more spices, if desired
  5. make sure it’s mixed well, then pour the whole mess into a greased loaf pan
  6. bake uncovered 30-40 minutes, let cool for 10
  7. cut into slices, melt Gorgonzola over top, or enjoy without

Monday, August 2, 2010

Extreme Frugality

Every now and then, and article or book will pop across my eyeline about someone practicing extreme frugality. Like this article in the New York Times about the Shopping Diet where people are urged to choose only six items of clothing and wear only those (plus fresh underwear) for an entire month.

There's also The Uniform Project, where one woman wore the same outfit every day for an entire year. She actually made six copies of the same dress, so she wasn't completely stinky by the end of the year, or staying up doing naked laundry all the time, but it was essentially one dress, every day with a lot of different accessories.

Whenever I read about something like that, I go through a range of emotions.
  1. Jealousy. Why didn't I come up with that?!? Then I could have written a book about it and sold it for a nice chunk of change
  2. Competitiveness. I should do it anyway, I can totally do that, and I'll save tons of money that way.
  3. Bargaining. This is where I start examining my life and figuring out how I can take on the project with the least amount of impact on my comfort level/free time. Any changes I come up with also serve to make this project of mine unique and in no way am I just imitating someone else.
  4. Acceptance. I will not attempt this. It's been done already, it would take too much time and it just doesn't work with my lifestyle.
I've tried my own version of extreme frugality, which didn't work out so well, but I remain slightly jealous of these people who seem to pull it off so handily. I may eventually stumble upon something that I can successfully pull off, but in the meantime it seems that any major attempt to save money ends up costing me more in the end.

I have a friend who successfully does a no-buy month every February where she only spends money on necessities and no extras, but when I attempted it, I found that all I could think about was money and the fact that I wasn't allowed to spend it. Similarly, I feel like if I attempted the clothes diet or something similar, I'd just yearn for everything else in my closet--including stuff I probably should have gotten rid of a long time ago.

I liken frugality to dieting pretty often, and like dieting, I've learned I don't operate well under an extreme philosophy. I'm good at frugality if it's something I'm mindful of, but an not thinking of constantly. Once I listened to the Shopaholic books in the car on my commute. I've read them before and enjoyed them immensely, but listening to them made me spend money like crazy because all I could think about was shopping. I guess I'm just susceptible.

How about you? Have you tried any kind of extreme frugality? How did you find it?