Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Financial Escape Plan

As I've said before, I really do love my job. Despite that, though, I have days when it's hard, when it feels like it's just too much, when it's emotionally draining and exhausting and just takes so much out of me. There are things I would like to do, creative things and fun things and domestic things, that at the end of the day I just don't feel capable of doing.

These are the days when I start plotting my escape.

I know that at this point in my life it makes no sense to quit my job. I'm in a lot of debt, my husband is still in school, and honestly if I quit my job I would have very little to make me feel fulfilled. But sometimes it's nice to fantasize about all the things that I could do if I didn't work full time.

So on those evenings I devise a financial escape plan. I sit down with a notepad, a calculator, or sometimes a spreadsheet, and I figure out exactly how much money I would need to survive for one month. I figure out ways I could generate extra income, through part time work and ventures, and I try to make those things as close as possible. Then I figure out how much more money I would need to spend a few blissful jobless months and how long it would take me to save up that much money.

What do I take away from these exercises? Well, besides a strange nerdy kind of satisfaction and sense of calm, I do develop a greater understanding of some truths about my financial situation. For one, I will never come close to financial freedom until I can knock out all the debt, so that is a serious priority. Also, when I can see a goal, like 2 months with nothing to do but bake banana bread, do yoga, and sleep late, my idea of how much money I can cut on entertainment changes significantly. And finally, that the better job I can do at generating alternate income, the easier it will be for me to eventually switch to part time work.

Of course this is a long way off, but for now, a girl can dream.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Fun and inexpensive christmas gifts

In my quest for a frugal Christmas, I thought I'd share some inexpensive Christmas gifts that I've given over the years.

A home manual

When one of my college roommates moved into her first apartment, I put together an instruction manual for her on how to live on her own. It was basically a binder in which I put favorite recipes, cleaning checklists, shopping lists, money saving tips, and other assorted tips that I'd written. I decorated the front, and I taped a Bed, Bath and Beyond giftcard to the inside of the back cover. If I were doing this again, I might also include a coupon envelope and some other assorted knickknacks to help her get started. It was a very inexpensive Christmas gift for me because the only thing that cost was the giftcard, and I think I got that from a rewards program. It was really useful for her, though, and I think she still uses and adds to it herself.

A stress relief bag

A few Christmas ago, I put together a "stress relief" bag for my best friend for Christmas. It contained two boxes of herbal tea (from the grocey store, purchased for next to nothing), 50 cent marble notebooks in 3 different colors, a coloring book (from the clearance table at Borders) and 8 pack box of crayons, a small bottle of bubble bath and various little toys and balls. Most of the things in this bag, besides being useful, were appreciated because they had meaning for the two of us rather than because of how much they cost.

A love journal

The year my husband and I were engaged, I gave him a journal in which I'd written to him every day for several months. I had also glued in things like the stubs from movies we'd seen and pictures of what we'd done. He still keeps it next to his bed.

Pleas share any ideas you may have for inexpensive Christmas gifts which are also extremely meaningful.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The End of My Frugal Rope

(Originally posted at my now defunct writing up blog on 6/24/06. Apparently these things come in cycles)

Lately I feel like I'm at the end of my frugal rope. (A frugal rope, as I envision it, would probably be made of a series of plastic grocery bags, twisted up and braided together. But I digress.) When I first started being frugal and recognizing places that I could cut back, save money, and live in a more simple and deliberate way, it was very gratifying. I could see the impact of my big changes, could quantify the money savings, could feel the difference as the space opened up in my life.

The longer I live this lifestyle, though, and the more like habit these actions become, the less visible the impact. There are no more big changes to make, no more egregious factors in my life, and that means that there are far fewer victories to be made. I read blogs and message boards where people write "I saved $20 this week by not buying lattes!" For me, this is not a savings. I never buy lattes. I don't get to count that.

I'm afraid that I'm at the point when most people get frustrated and give up. My expenses have leveled off and there is no more big excitement or glamour involved in reducing bills. The changes I have yet to make are much smaller, and are the kinds of things that in the past I have considered trivial, but they're the only changes I have left to make.

It's not so much that I need to cut my lifestyle more because we still don't make enough money to cover out bills; I want to cut deeper to find more money to put towards loans. Most of all, though, I want that excitement back of finding something to cut. Without that sense of victory and success, it's hard to continue to live this way forever.

In order to stay motivated, I'm trying to come up with little games for myself. Every day, I try to stretch one more day before having to run the dishwasher. I'm experimenting to see how I can reduce dryer time by hanging heavier items, running the washer's spin cycle an extra time, and keeping the machine free of lint. (I know I'd do even better by hanging all of my clothes, but I'm still trying to find a productive way to do that in this tiny apartment.) I'm trying to turn my water heater off during the day, to see if that reduces my energy bills at all.

Right now, any victory would be enough to keep me at it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

In search of a frugal Christmas

I really love Christmas. I have images of snowy mornings, childhood innocence, family caroling and tree decorating and every one of these ideas makes me feel warm and fuzzy and happy. For the past few years though, I have gotten so caught up in the business of Christmas, and the business of the end of the semester of school, that I have not really let myself get into the spirit of Christmas.

It really doesn't take much for me. In college, we set up a tiny Christmas tree, put tinsel in our hair, and danced around. I baked cookies at my mom's house and went from dorm to dorm delivering them to all my friends on campus. I sat on the floor quilting a Christmas present and eating Chinese food out of boxes while my roommate and I crammed for a psych final together.

That's the kind of Christmas I'm looking for again. The kind that's not about gifts or travel plans but is just about love and giving. I want to really feel like it's Christmas again. I'm sitting here now with my Christmas lights lit, the "holiday music" channel on my television, and a big pot of applesauce on my stove. I'm wearing snowman socks. . . shhhhh, don't tell my boss. When I finish writing this, I'm thinking about cutting some paper snowflakes out of white scrap paper. I might even find some tinsel to put in my hair. :)

I am interested in finding frugal ways to buy Christmas presents and deorations, and in the next few weeks, I hope to share some of those. But right now, the only Christmas I need is in my heart and mind.

And that kind of Christmas doesn't cost anything at all.

Monday, November 26, 2007

"TV's going to end! Honey, what will we do?!?"

My husband and I watch a lot of TV. Unlike some of my more frugal counterparts, I have never made the effort to give up TV. We really enjoy it. We enjoy it even more since we got a DVR and can watch Heroes, House, Life, or Prison Break any time of day sans commercials. We can watch while doing homework, grading papers, folding laundry, knitting, cuddling. . . all of our favorite activities.

But now the writers are on strike. Go labor. Fight the man. I've got your backs and all that. But it does leave us with one little question:

What are we going to do with our evenings?

Sure we have some movies on DVD, but not very many and almost nothing from the past year. And my husband's plan of watching less TV now in order to stockpile shows on the DVR, though valiant in its efforts seems somehow flawed (I'm sorry, but those four episodes of Chuck we have saved? Those will get us through two evenings). So what shall we do instead? Oh, I have big plans.

Listen to Christmas music.

Play Backgammon.

Go to the park and look at the Christmas light display.

Play card games.

Talk to each other more.

Play Guitar Hero. :)

Read Lord of the Rings out loud to each other.

Actually get our homework and grading done.

Bake cookies.

Visit with friends (on a weeknight! Gasp!).

Anyone else have any great ideas for free or cheap things we can do once TV ends?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Black Friday reflections

On Black Friday, more than any other day, it becomes very obvious that there are two kinds of money-saving bloggers: those who tell you where the deals are and those who tell you to run the other way. While I do occasionally enjoy a good deal, on Black Friday I fall very firmly into the latter category.

I could begin here a rant on commercialization, on the system that convinces us that we NEED to shop the day after Thanksgiving, on the evil of feeding that system and how we should all refuse to shop on that day and should instead give away all our possessions and pray or meditate on our living room carpets all day long.

Okay, maybe that's a bit extreme.

The truth is, I admire a little bit people who get good black Friday deals. One of my friends is almost done her Christmas shopping. Another stayed up all night and got a $400 laptop. Wow. That's dedication, and since he needed the laptop for his business and his wife's school, it was a great deal that's really going to help him.

But me? Here's how I spent my black Friday:

I slept until 9:30, then spent another half an hour in bed just snuggling with my husband and being glad for my blankets. Then I got up, made oatmeal and coffee and poured my husband cereal, and sat on my couch until my best friend - who's visiting for Thanksgiving - woke up. She came into the living room with the blanket from the guest room and we curled up on the couch with our coffee and dished for an hour or so. Then we watched What not to Wear on cable while my husband finished his homework. I put up my tiny Christmas tree, hung stockings and set out all my little handmade Christmas knickknacks. Around 1, we got dressed and went to Sonic for lunch then drove around town for a while.

In the evening we went to "Santa's Wonderland" with our friends and their 6 month old, who was less enthralled by the petting zoo than we'd all hoped. We had some hot chocolate and stood around a campfire while a guy with a guitar played Rudolph. Then we came home and watched Walk the Line on DVD.

I can't imagine a more perfect black Friday.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Why I teach

I'm a teacher. I've probably been a teacher, in some way or shape, since I was about thirteen years old. In 10th grade, I was the girl in math class who - when the overeager teacher would turn his back to the class to answer a question totally different from the one he'd just been asked - would quietly write out the answer to my neighbor's question in the corner of his notebook. I remember lying on my friend's living room floor, explaining buoyancy to a group of my very eager friends the week before our science midterm. In 7th grade, I scolded my friends at the lunch table when they were being rude or uncharitable to each other. "Be ni-ice" became my catch phrase, and my name was attached to it whenever anyone else said it.

Just the other day, I was telling an old friend how bizarre it was that I knew what I wanted "to be" by the time I was in 7th grade. I want say, I knew what I wanted to do, but really in my heart I know that I am a teacher, not just a person who teaches.

What do I love about it? I love working with teenagers. High school kids just ... make sense to me. Maybe it's a sign of my maturity level, but I'm not sure that's true. Even though I'm young, I'm rather mom-ish with them, but then again I've been that way since I was 12. I think one of my especial gifts is my ability to really listen to kids. A colleague said to me today "Kids tell you an awful lot" and I thought, but didn't say, "they tell you too, you just don't really hear them."

How cool is it that it's my job to go to school everyday, read fantastic books and watch kids react to them? Sometimes I just want to walk around bragging about some clever remark or comment one of "my kids" made in class. I can't think of a better job in the world.

There have been times in my life when I was tempted to quit teaching, but it was never because of what happened in the classroom. Grading can get overwhelming, especially for English teachers, and there's so much paperwork that I can't even imagine ever getting to the bottom of it. There's always drama among faculty members, confusion among even the best administrations, and disagreement about how a school should be run. But as long as I'm in my room reading books with my kids, none of that exists.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Feeling drained, and feeding the spirit

e.c. left a comment on my last post asking if I'd given up the blog. Sigh. I didn't intend to, but every time I sit down and think about writing, I feel completely uncreative and drained and can't think of anything to say.

I am not a big fan of whining. I have a giant "No Whining" sign in my classroom. The idea of coming on here and complaining about not having anything to say seems completely unappealing. But here it is, and it's the truth. It started out as "I don't have time," then it was "I don't have energy," and now it's just "I don't know what to say." I always forget how draining teaching is: physically, emotionally, spiritually, and creatively. I feel like all the good stuff goes to my kids and there's nothing left for me.

But really, I know, somewhere in my heart that when you do what you love, it feeds you and doesn't drain you. So, I know that I need to write, and if there's anyone still here, I would like to start writing here again, as long as I can find things to say. So if you'd like to leave me some encouragement, or some suggestions, I'd love to hear them.

(And as I read my own paragraph above, I hear my own voice telling a ninth grader not to start all her sentences with "so." Ugh.)

Sunday, October 14, 2007

CouponMom: A great resource for busy people (like me)

Many of you who have been reading know that I enjoy coupon shopping, and like to shop at at least one grocery store and two drug stores every month. This summer, I was trading coupons, participating in a coupon train, clipping, sorting, filing, store hopping, and rebating like a champ.

Then school started again.

I've been working like a madwoman for the past eight weeks or so, and one of the things that started to fall by the wayside was the couponing. It really just wasn't a priority for me.

Coupon mom has helped me get back on track. Every week, she matches store savings to all the unexpired insert coupons she has on file. I just go to her website, click my store, and it generates a list. I like to sort the list by percent saved, so I can be sure to catch the best deals, but I usually read to the bottom of the list. With a few clicks, I can create a printable list of just the items I want. I then take that list to my file of unclipped inserts, where it tells me in exactly which dated inserts I can find the coupon I need. This saves me hours a week, and I've gotten my grocery budget back down to $40 a week for two of us, even with some luxury items thrown in. Best of all, this is a 100% free service.

$40 a week is not as good as I was doing this summer when I was doing this all out, but who cares? It's good enough and it's helping my family.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Retail Therapy

I've been having a rough time lately. I feel like I'm either working, working, or trying to get caught up all the time. I'm cranky and tired and miserable and starting to get sick.

So tonight, I came home from work, flopped on my couch and turned on a re-run of Gilmore Girls (I'm sorry, I can't help myself . . it's the season when Rory gets together with Logan and Emily tries to break up Loralei and Luke. . . I was too busy in college having a life to have watched it the first time around). Lying on the couch in a state of semi-consciousness, I almost started crying when I remembered that I had laundry to do, my husband was leaving for a business trip at 5 tomorrow morning, and I had to email 5 tutoring clients.

After pulling myself together, making, eating and cleaning up after dinner, and finishing 1.5 loads of laundry, I jumped in my car to run to Sam's Club and see if I could get my tire patched and get some gum for my husband. The tire bay closed at 7. I got there at 7:05.

Walking around Sam's in search of gum, all I could think was how much I wanted to buy a cake, or a movie, or a trashy magazine, or SOMETHING, something to make me feel better about my crappy, crappy life.

Oh how the mighty have fallen.

I have never been a recreational shopper. I didn't even know this impulse was in me. Why, why, would I think that buying something would make me feel better? Is it some inherent part of my brain chemistry, or has it been programmed there by years of marketing (hmmm, perhaps that episode of Gilmore Girls didn't help)?

This, I guess, is the key to frugality: not having self control or good stewardship when it's easy, but having it when it's hard. Because I didn't, in the end, buy anything. I realized that while I probably do deserve a cake in some sense, and it might make me feel indulgent or worthy or even momentarily blissful, it's not something I actually want and it really won't make me happy. I also realized that, while I do feel bad and I do have a right to, my life is of course not crappy. Rather than another trashy magazine or lame chick flick, I need to invest in some quiet time for exercising, meditating, even folding laundry.

Knowing that, and being wise and composed enough to say it even when I feel as overwhelmed and anxious as I have, is more of an accomplishment than any number on my bank statement.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Dorm Living on the Cheap

Whether you or your children are going off to college to live in the dorm for the first time, you probably have a number of very reasonable fears about what you need to do and how you can afford it. With college getting more and more expensive, it is wise for ways to learn how to cut costs. First time dorm residents can save a bundle of money by following some simple advice and guidelines.

What to bring

You should always make sure to bring enough school supplies, like notebooks, paper and pencils. Notebooks purchased at campus bookstores, usually with college logos printed on the covers, are very tempting but usually very overpriced. You would to much better to purchase these items on sale at a discount or office supply store – preferably one not near the university, so you are less likely to get ripped off.
It’s also a good idea to bring some food. Even if you have a meal plan, you will be likely to want snacks or meals at odd hours, when the dining hall is not open. Some good dorm-friendly pantry staples include cold cereal, coffee, mac and cheese, Ramen, and apple sauce. Again, stock these before you go and you won’t need to pay rip-off campus store prices. Another good investment is a good quality microwave cookbook. There are several of these aimed directly at dorm residents which will suit your needs very well.

Another good thing to bring is some form of free entertainment, preferably something that will help you meet new people. Board games such as Risk or Monopoly are very popular in freshman dorms and will help you be at the center of the social scene, without having to spend a ton of money going out. Your high school yearbook is also an excellent conversation starter.

What not to bring

While nearly every college student on the planet has a white board, I don’t suggest you buy one of these before you go to school. If you troll the activity fairs the first week of class, you will be likely to get tons of these for free. It’s also possible to get free calendars and posters, if you aren’t fussy about your decorations. These will help you keep up with free events happening on campus, which can provide cheap entertainment for the rest of the semester.

Speaking of posters, posters are just about the only thing that’s actually cheaper to buy on campus than off campus. Generally some student organization will host a poster sale within the first few weeks of class. Check it out for some really good deals on posters.

You probably also don’t want to bring every article of clothing you own, particularly ones that need to be dry cleaned. One of the cheapest things about campus life is that, because everyone looks casual and ridiculous, you are free to look casual and ridiculous. Free t-shirts, sweats, and pajamas are the norm for walking around campus or to the dining hall. You can leave your expensive, high maintenance clothes at home.

What to do once you’re there

Make sure you take advantage of all of the wonderful free opportunities available. Chances are, you have access to free concerts, lectures and shows, a gym, and a pool. Technically these aren’t free: you’ve already paid for them. There will never be an opportunity in your life when you will have this much available to you.
Also, remember, you are there to get a good education so GO TO CLASS. The most expensive thing you can do in college is not graduate.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Cheap vs. Frugal, a gentler distinction

Just about every frugal blogger that I read has written at least one post on the difference between being cheap and frugal. While I very much understand and agree with the need for a distinction, I don't always agree with the way they draw the line. Generally, things that require care and discipline, such as hanging laundry or eating less meat, are considered frugal. Cheap is usually defined as an excessive desire to save money, and the examples are almost exclusively immoral or illegal, such as not tipping in a restaurant or filling a free water cup with soda. While the word cheap certainly has a negative connotation, I'm not sure I agree that everything cheap is bad.

The way I understand it, frugal means trying to use less goods and resources. Cheap means trying not to pay for goods and resources. This can, of course, mean trying to cheat someone, but I don't think it always has to.

Some cheap (but not frugal) things I do, which I don't think are immoral"

    I always take a free logo pen when it's offered. I keep myself and my classroom well supplied with pens this way, and I never have to pay. I could probably stand to be more frugal with them, as they often get lost or wasted, but I don't think it's wrong to be cheap at acquiring them.

    I eat the free lunch that's offered me at work. I never take more than my fair share, but I don't feel the need to bring my own gourmet lunch from home or to skip lunch entirely.

    I use coupons and rebates to buy groceries. If the manufacturer wants to pay for my groceries, I will gladly accept.

    I go to the bathroom right before I leave work. I figure that way I'm using someone else's water, paper, and soap. Okay, this one might be a bit silly, but I still don't think it's immoral. Now, rolling TP onto a roll in my pocketbook would be immoral.

I'm sure there are more examples, but I'm a bit fried right now. What are some things you do that are cheap and perfectly moral and legit?

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Posting goals for the school year

I'm going to try to refocus on my blog now that the school year is up and running. Unfortunately because it's also SAT/PSAT season, my posting frequency will not be what it was. I am going to try to post at least twice a week. I'm hoping that will be reasonable enough that I won't be overwhelmed and feel like I can't do it.

Sorry it isn't more. Hope you stick around.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Links I love this week

Frugal, easy, and healthy school lunch

Momma and the Boys' tips for upgrading your (or your children's) lunch without spending too much.

On Christmas

Putting the City in Domesticity wants to try to make all her own Christmas presents. I wish her much luck.

Income from going to nightclubs

Wise Bread's advice on how you can augment your income by going to nightclubs. A fun read, I won't ruin it.

The personal and political

No Impact Man once more gets me where it counts with this post on personal peace.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

5 reasons why I love knitting

1. It's repetitive. It requires a kind of focused attention that is so unlike the passive task of watching TV that it couldn't be called mindless but which is also completely unlike the intellectual and social activities of my day. Once I get started, the rhythm becomes so ingrained and so pleasant that I can start to process my day while keeping part of my busy brain quiet.

2. It's productive. Rather than idling away my time, I'm producing beautiful things that I can use to decorate my house, give as gifts, or donate to charity.

3. It's cheap. Yarn can cost a few dollars a ball, which will keep me busy for weeks if not months.

4. It's quiet. And I need more quiet in my life.

5. It's domestic. It makes me feel womanly and wifey and homey. Not that writing, teaching, and the other things I do make me less of a woman or wife, but it makes me feel connected to my female ancestry to make something with my hands.

I suppose it doesn't really take all that much to make me happy.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Cheap used books (and what to do with the books I have)

One day last year, when I was substitute teaching, I went to my completely full bookshelf on my way out the door to grab something to read during my prep time. Staring at the bookshelf, I realized that there was absolutely nothing I wanted to read. That made me start to reflect on how much money, space, and time I was spending accumulating books, and thus began my great book purge.

Since then, I have acquired more books - people do like to give them to me as gifts - and I've certainly read many books. Instead of investing a lot of money, though, in really expensive, hardcover, new books, I've been buying a lot of cheap used books and have generated a strategy for avoiding the full but empty bookshelf that got me into this.

My strategy is twofold: first, I decide which books I really want to HAVE then I figure out how to get them. The key here is that there are many books I want to READ but don't want to OWN. Most novels, for instance, are very enjoyable to read . . . once. What I realized that day I stared at my bookshelf is that, while I like re-reading, I would almost always prefer to read something new. I find that if I spend a lot of time at the library I read more and enjoy what I read more. There's no more hemming and hawing over whether a book is worth getting; if I don't like it, I can just bring it back without finishing it. No muss, no fuss, no cost.

There are some books I want to have though. Cookbooks, reference books, books for my classroom, and even some novels by authors I really enjoy, so I've put together this strategy for acquiring cheap used books.

1. Paperback swap is usually my first stop when I'm looking for a specific book. Because I had so many books I was willing to part with, I always have a surfeit of credits just sitting in my account. If the book is available on PBS, it's almost free for me to get. (Not quite free, though, since I paid the shipping on my outgoing books to get the credits.)

2. Half.com is my favorite used book marketplace, although I do use the one on Amazon as well. You can usually get cheap used books for less than $5 (if not closer to $2) and since you pay media postage, it comes out very cheap.

3. Used bookstores are my last stop, or my first stop if I procrastinated and need the book immediately. They are usually a little more expensive, since the markup is high, but they are very convenient and allow you to browse.

I also enjoy library sales and garage sales, but I find that if I'm looking for a specific book, this is a very difficult way to find it. And since I try not to buy books "just because," I've steered more away from this in recent years.

The flip side of buying cheap used books is of course trading and selling the books I own that I no longer want. If you want there to be books available on half.com, then you need to reciprocate by selling your books for reasonable prices. I usually list mine for the lowest price available, since I've decided to let them go already and am guaranteed to make more than the cost of postage to get the book out of my house.

I do occasionally also sell my books to used bookstores, and have found them especially useful when I was about to move because I didn't need to wait for someone to purchase my book and then go ship it, nor did I have to pack it up to move. Even more than the markup on the sales, though, these stores make money on the buy. I've had whole boxes of books sell for less than I would get for one book if I sold it myself.

One other thing that I remind myself: buying and selling cheap used books is also good for the environment. Trading in secondhand items prevents trash from going into the waste stream and limits the amount of production needed for making new ones. So, the buyer, the seller, and the environment all benefit! Nothing like a win-win-win!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Cascading changes: small ways to help the environment

In the past couple of days, I've been spending a lot more time enjoying the quiet and bring more love and peace into my life. In that time, I started to realize how important it was to me to help the environment.

I moved from a tiny state where recycling is required by law to a much bigger state where it is the exception rather than the rule. At first, I felt guilty about not recycling but still didn't do anything about it. Then, I just stopped thinking about it.

Until this week. I started thinking about it, and realized how much I have not been living according to my values and conscience, so I took my glass and plastic bottles and put then in a paper grocery bag, with the intention of bringing them to the recycling plant when it was full.

Well, last night I was thinking I needed a new reusable water bottle (since I broke my other one), but I didn't feel like driving to the store just to get one. If I had not been thinking about the environment, I would just have grabbed a disposable plastic bottle to bring to work and that would be the end of it. I'd feel guilty, but I'd do it anyway because I wanted water.

Except that last night, it was different. I glanced down into my recycling bag and saw a 20 ounce glass bottle from a juice beverage that my husband bought last weekend. Suddenly, the creative frugality that comes best in the quiet clicked in. I don't need to drive to the store and spend money, or drive to the recycling center in town, or feel guilty about my water consumption. I pulled the bottle out, washed it carefully with soap and water, filled it with water from my filter and put it in the fridge. Wow! So simple a solution. It saved me time, saved me money, and saved on waste.

Just as I was finishing, my husband said we were going to go to our favorite coffee shop to meet some friends, an event I very much enjoy. Because I'd been thinking about reusing and reducing waste, I was immediately concerned about the disposable cups. So, I went to the coffee shop and asked for a regular coffee in a ceramic mug. Sure enough, they were glad to do it, and they only charged me for a small coffee. This saved money over my usual medium, saved the cup from being thrown away, and brought me much more joy because - let's be honest. It's more pleasant to drink from a big ceramic cup.

It gets even better. My friend who we were meeting heard me order my coffee in ceramic, so he did the same. He may never have thought of it if I hadn't mentioned it, I may never have thought of it if I hadn't been on that track already. So I saved not one, but two paper cups from going into the garbage.

And all because I started a recycling bag. Once again, doing something instead of nothing has unbelievable and far ranging results.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Short Shout Out

A very short shoutout this weekend.


Carnival of Personal Finance

Festival of Frugality

And one post I think every human should read:

The Most Radical Political Act

Emotional Fatigue and Money

For the past few weeks, I've been thinking a lot about what's important. I'm starting work again, I'm still tutoring from time to time, I'm blogging, I'm running a household, and I'm reading and writing more than I have in a long time. The more I write, the more I start to realize how much my values and my past are important to me, and I start to realize that the money stuff has been such a fixation because it's easier to deal with than the other stuff. I've been focused on ways to make a little bit more money because it always seemed like, if I had enough money, I wouldn't need to worry and I wouldn't need to work and I'd be able to spend more of my time doing things that I love and getting to the bottom of some of the nonsense in my head.

What I realized, again and again, is that that's not how money works. The harder I worked on accumulating money for the sake of money, and the more I sacrificed the thigns I loved to be able to get the money, the more tired I would get. I didn't have the energy to think or read, to learn anything new. I couldn't imagine going out with my friends on a day when I worked because I just felt so drained.

What I realized is that money is not going to make me happy. I feel like I say this again and again, like I'm being redundant, but I also feel like it's what I need to say. The pursuit of money robs us of the things we really love. No amount of money will take away the fatigue, will take away the anger or the anxiety.

The only thing that will fix those is, that will make me finally less tired, is love. It's an amazing experience when I leave work tired, go to a social event and spend time with people I care about, and then come home to schoolwork, cleaning, and housework to do. It's amazing because I come home less tired, more able to do all the things that need to be done.

And so, I realize, I'm going about things backward. I've been too tired to do the things I love, and too tired to get any traction with my money. If I come home tired, then I want to get takeout, want to cave to unnecessary spending. If I come home tired, then I don't want to work any more.

I thought that you needed to work hard for money so you had time for the things you love. Instead you need to do the things you love in order to get the energy to work hard for money. It's not a one way thing. You have to do what matters to you, what's truly important, if you ever want to be successful, and if you ever want to experience abundance.

So, I'm going to slow down my life a little. I'm going to enjoy each bite of food more, hug and kiss my husband more, spend more time with my friends, and really love each stitch of my knitting. That might mean I'll blog a little less, but I'm going to make an effort to really love everything I write. Hopefully, my theory will prove true and my time and energy will open up, so that I won't need to give up anything at all.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

7 Habits of Frugal People

Most frugal people do so by habit more than anything else. By observing the frugal people in my life, I've noticed some common habits; some of them I have and others I'm still trying to cultivate.

1. Turning things off. If you make a habit of walking around your house or office and turning everything off, you can save tons of money and energy because the lights, computers, etc. will be off ALL DAY or all weekend, or however long you're away without any extra effort on your part.

2. Making things. Frugal people make things from scratch, rather than buying more expensive, more packaged, and more processed versions of things. Most truly people I know will look at pins, blankets, or food items and say "Oh, what a good idea. I can do that" and then go home and do it.

3. Comparing prices. Most frugal people have a good idea of how much something should cost before they buy it. If they don't know, they don't buy it until they've figured it out.

4. Waiting. Patience can prevent you from buying things without enough research, or prevent you from buying something on impulse.

5. Strategizing. If you have a plan, you are much more likely to do the frugal thing. Making a careful and creative plan for the resources you have available can help you to spend less money without feeling deprived of anything.

6. Cooperating. If you need a carpet cleaner, and your best friend has one, borrow it. Then when she wants a powerwasher (or string trimmer or anything else you only use occasionally), let her borrow yours. There's no reason to go through the waste of each having your own. Similarly, share magazine subscriptions with friends; they go a lot further that way.

7. Balancing and prioritizing. Frugality is not about deprivation. Truly frugal people know how to reach a balance that makes them feel fulfilled.

Eating out for cheap

(This was originally posted on my old writingup blog.)

My husband and I love food and we love restaurants. I know that this is not good for people who are trying to get out of debt, so we usually limit this to once a week - that way it stays special, and we can keep it within our budget. A few additional tips have allowed us to eat out more often, and at places we really like, while still staying within the $100 a month I have budgeted for it.

1. Always order water This is probably one of the more obvious tips, and the first one people usually mention. Alcohol, or even soft drinks, will drive up a bill pretty fast. We don't need the extra expense, or the extra calories. It's the food we're there for, so that's what we keep the focus on.

2. Make it an experience We have completely cut out fast food and deli lunches. I get my lunch for free in the school cafeteria at work, and my husband brings a lunch I pack. There's no reason to spend our eating out budget on quick food grabbed on the run. That money is reserved for time that we spend together, sitting in a restaurant and actually enjoying the food.

3. Use coupons and discounts There is a pizza place that we really enjoy, that offers a buffet for $8 per person on Mondays and Wednesdays. My husband got a student discount card that allows us to buy one get one free up to 5 times. That means two of us can get all we can eat pizza for $8 - cheaper than a fast food meal. I scour the newspaper and Internet for coupons for places we enjoy.

4. It's your birthday I have signed us up for birthday discounts at just about ever restaurant I've ever heard of. Off the top of my head, I can think of Red Robin, Souper Salad, Cold Stone Creamery, and Baskin Robbins. All of these places offer you something free on your birthday, and sometimes (as with the ice cream) it's enough food for the two of us to share. While some places are fussy about you going on your birthday, most give you enough leeway that we can eat out almost every day for the weeks before and after both of our birthdays for very little money.

5. Got a giftcard? Use it! My husband's family and my students at school gave us several restaurant giftcards for Christmas this year. I have a special compartment of my wallet where I carry them with me so that we don't forget to use them. It's not worth saving them forever, since they do not increase in value like saved money does; if anything, they decrease.

6. Sign up for everything Some places have a newsletter that you can sign up for in store or online, and they often send you an initial coupon for signing up: a free appetizer, a half price meal, a free dessert. I try to wait until right before I know I'm going to go to a restaurant before signing up for their newsletters because those coupons often have expiration dates, and you can't get the initial sign up bonus a second time if you let it expire
Often these places will continue to send out coupons and discounts to subscribers throughout the year, or will offer some kind of a loyalty program. Whatever they offer, sign up. For example, a TGIFridays points card is free, and the points dont' expire, so you might as well get one even if you don't go there often. You never know when you'll be out with friends and they'll suggest stopping somewhere.

7. Mystery shop Lately, this has been a goldmine for me. I googled mystery shop and signed up for several companies, and they occasionally send me shop jobs in my area. I'm not really interested in most of the shops, as I can make more money doing other things, but the restaurant ones are a great way to get a free meal for me and my husband.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Married Money

I've officially been married for over a year now, and I'm finally getting this joint money thing under control. It hasn't been easy, and we've had our share of unexpected fights about it (it's amazing when I talk to my single and engaged friends and they tell me that they have never fought with their significant others, how I always want to point, laugh, and loudly yell "Bah!"), but we're finally getting into a place where we have a plan and a system.

The technical

We have a joint checking account. Rather than hashing out whose checking account we were going to keep, we dumped both of ours and opened a new one. It made more sense to us because we were moving to a new town anyway, and it helped to diminish the "mine" feelings.

On the other hand, we each kept our own oldest credit card. We simply added each other as authorized users. We did this because of the conventional wisdom about credit score and length of credit history. However, after a few months of trying to balance "yours, mine, ours" credit, we decided on a single card to use for all of our regular needs. We use the other when only when a promotion or offer makes the cash back better than the primary card.

We set up our investments to automatically deduct from our checking account, so that we don't have to think about it.

The practical

I am a budgeting nerd, and my husband is not. Therefore, it makes sense for me to write up the budgets every month. However, if I made the budget by myself, my husband just ignored it and there went our savings goal for the month. So, we developed the system of me making the budget and my husband having the right to review and edit it. This way he doesn't need to worry about the technical stuff that bores him, but he gets to assert his own priorities in the process by adjusting things up or down.

I physically pay the bills and balance the checkbook because again, that's my personal orientation. We discussed it and it makes the most sense.

Hubby on the other hand gets a real kick out of researching investments, so he is in charge of our portfolio. He chose our mutual fund, and he checks the balance every day. Personally, I'd rather not see it.

The emotional

Unfortunately, we do not always agree on how money should be spent. He really likes having toys, whereas I really really want to rid myself of clutter. I'm committed to getting out of debt, but that's not something he cares about nearly as much. We agreed never to spend more than $100 on something without asking each other first, but it's difficult for me to always say no.

We've argued and cried and hashed it out again and again. Sometimes we can come to a compromise, sometimes we just have to accept each other's decisions (and remind ourselves how much we love each other). I'm sure we need to work on this part even more as we go on, but we're getting to a better place, and that's necessary if we ever want to grow our money.

Started School today

I started school today, so my posting frequency may decrease. I feel completely washed out right now emotionally and mentally. I will try to get back later with something more useful.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

DealBarbie stuff

In the past 3 days, I've completed three Deal Barbie trial offers for a total of over $60, bringing my total so far for August to over $90. I used to be pretty timid about doing trial offers, but I've had great success with these on Deal Barbie so far this summer, so I went all out. I always read the terms and conditions and copy and paste the instructions on how to cancel an offer into a notepad file on my desktop, then mark it with the last date I can cancel without being charged anything. For a few about which I was nervous, I even called the cancellation number before signing up, just to make sure I could get someone on the line.

I noticed that I have 5 referrals on Deal Barbie, none of whom have earned anything. If any of you signed up from here and still read (a tall order indeed), I'm just wondering why you haven't completed any offers. Were you confused about what to do, afraid to fill out trials, or did you have offers that you signed up for not qualify or reverse? I'm going to be honest, I'd make more money if my referrals were doing offers, but mostly I'm just worried about ruining my cred by recommending something to my readers that ends up causing them problems.

If you have any experiences with Deal Barbie, good or bad, please share.

How to achieve your goals, priorities and dreams by defining them

Before we get started, let's get some definitions out of the way:


2 : the end toward which effort is directed : AIM


2 : a preferential rating; especially : one that allocates rights to goods and services usually in limited supply (that project has top priority)
3 : something given or meriting attention before competing alternatives


2 : an experience of waking life having the characteristics of a dream: as a : a visionary creation of the imagination : DAYDREAM b : a state of mind marked by abstraction or release from reality : REVERIE c : an object seen in a dreamlike state : VISION
3 : something notable for its beauty, excellence, or enjoyable quality
4 a : a strongly desired goal or purpose (a dream of becoming president) b : something that fully satisfies a wish : (IDEAL a meal that was a gourmet's dream)

Courtesy Merriam Webster

I've been thinking a lot about goals, priorities and dreams lately. Financial Dominance wrote last week about how it's important to define investment goals, and I completely agree with that. I've been wondering what the goals are for our own investments, I've been wondering about my own career goals, and I've been wondering how all of these things fit into my dreams. How can I define my goals, dreams, and priorities if I don't know what those things are? Where do I begin? Where does it all fit together?

It's really a little overwhelming. As I pondered on this, journaled about, agonized about it, and had a few panic attacks, I came up with a way to think about this that would make all the pieces fit together.

Dreams, the most overarching of the concerns, are also the hardest to define. They have to do with the perfect state, with how things would look if you had everything you wanted. The best way to figure out what your dreams are is to sit in a quiet room and see what you think of. Write, draw, or talk about what your life would be like if you were perfectly happy. This is your dream life, so you can have whatever you want, whether it's a Manhatten apartment or a country cottage, wealth and fame or peace and quiet. What would your perfect state look like?

Goals have to do with the end result, what you want to have in the end. These need to be defined and measurable. "Be rich" is not a goal. "Save $3 million by retirement" is a goal. What measurable end results do I want to see? I wrote down about three of these: "Pay off all debt." "Save $3 million in retirement funds." "Save 20,000 for a house down payment." These goals are pretty far out still, but they give me something to work toward. Your goals will be based on moving toward your dream, but will be realistic and concrete steps along the way.

As far as money is concerned, priorities have to do with how you would allocate something in limited supply (whether it be time or money). If I could do only one thing with money, what would it be? If I could do a second thing with money, what would it be? I took out a notepad and just started listing. My priorities had to do with what is important to me on a day to day basis (food, visiting family, etc) and with what I need to do to achieve my goals. I made this list longer than the amount of money I have each month; if I'm short on money, where can I stop? If I have extra money, where can I go forward to?

Once I've done this, I feel much calmer. I know that I'm making positive decisions with my money that will get me toward the perfect life for me, and I notice what I've been spending my time and money on that don't add value to my life.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

I want to do everything

This is going to be kind of a strange post today, in that I'm not really going to talk about money, frugality, or simplicity. I'm not going to talk about values and ideals, about how to help people, about what it means to be successful or fulfilled.

Well, maybe that's not entirely true. Maybe I'm going to talk about all of that a little bit, but mostly I'm going to talk about life. Bear with me if you can, but if you're looking for some straightforward answers, move along. I won't be offended.

I'm starting school again at the end of this week. I haven't really started preparing, mentally or physically, because I have such complicated feelings about going back to work full time. As much as I really love teaching, I had a very frustrating end of the year last year and am having trouble building up the enthusiasm to get started again.

So every day, instead of facing head on the possibility of what it means to go back to work and be a full time teacher again, I'm finding more things to do. I'm blogging, writing articles, doing free online classes. I'm taking on more part time work, I'm looking into volunteering, I'm writing in my journal more, I'm reading three books at once. I've started knitting again, I'm being very conscientious about going to the gym, and my laundry is more caught up than it's ever been.

I'm hiding.

The truth is, if I do everything just a little bit, if I don't focus on any one thing, then I will never have to face up to my feelings about what it means to really be this person who I am. If I dont' ever make any choices, then I won't ever make the wrong one. I want to be a domestic goddess, I want to work in a museum, I want to be a full time writer, I want to travel the world. Do I want to be a teacher?

The strangest thing has happened. As I've gotten closer and closer to returning to work, and tried harder and harder to avoid thinking about it, I've been running into my students. This hardly happened all summer and now, this week, it's happened three times. And when I see them I feel warm and comfortable, I feel successful, I feel like I'm somebody, like I'm good at something. And boy is that terrifying.

I've said from the get go that one of my financial goals was to eventually make enough money that I could afford to leave my job if I wanted to, afford to work part time. Everything I do to reduce my expenses and increase my side income is predicated around this idea of escape. If my side income exceeds my outgo, then I have a safe route of escape from my full time job, from my life. And that makes me feel safer about the whole thing, makes me feel like it's okay to have this job, to be this person, because it isn't forever. It isn't real. It isn't me.

So why don't I want it to be me? Why am I so interested in trying everything at the expense of being anything? Yeah, my job is hard, and it's frustrating. It's a lot of work, the pay isn't very good, things go wrong. Kids are rough, parents fuss, administrators can be downright heartless. But I don't think that, really, that's what bothers me.

The thing that I realize more and more is that this is the first time in my life I've EVER had the same full time job for more than one year. We moved around so much, and I was in school so long, that I have a host of experience on my resume, but the one experience I don't have is going back.

I think it's time to be brave and accept that that is my next adventure.

Monday, August 13, 2007

What ever happened to the break even challenge?

Some of you who have been around my blog a little while may remember that at the beginning of the summer, I set a Break Even Challenge for myself. Then at some point, I just stopped.

The truth is, I really just got too lazy to keep tracking it. At the point where I left off, I was making enough money from my part time job to break even on a week to week basis, but I was so far behind from the first three or so weeks of not working outside my home at all, that I was not likely to ever catch up. So I kind of just stopped.

What I realized is that, yes, I can break just about even by working about 20 hours a week at my tutoring job, even without doing anything else, as long as I stick to my budget. This proved to be a somewhat useless piece of information. "Breaking even" didn't leave any extra money for Retirement, Investing, or paying off debt. The budget I had made was also a stranglehold kind of a budget, without a whole lot of room for play, and one to which my husband never agreed. So every week I would consistently go over budget, make no progress on my financial goals, and be extremely frustrated.

The other thing I realized was that some of the "make money fast" internet stuff I had been counting on to supplement the part time income during slow periods just didn't cut it. While it is some nice extra pocket money that I can use to play, it takes up a lot of time that I should probably be spending thinking about the future instead of the present. If I spent more time doing tasks that would, in the long term, improve my career or my husband's career or generate a long term stream of passive income, I would be much better off than grabbing a dollar here and a dollar there.

So, no, I didn't break even for the summer, but I really did learn a lot from the challenge. I know that if I keep working at the long term stuff, investing wisely, and paying down my debt, there will be a time when my part time income exceeds me outgo. Until then, though, it's back to work for me.

See all the challenge posts:

The challenge
Week 1
Week 2
Week 3
Week 4
Week 5 - Success

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Belated Saturday shoutout

I got a little behind this week and never posted a shout out or carnival links! So here goes, and let's pretend it's Saturday okay?

Favorite Posts

Green Living is good for the pocketbook at Suddenly Frugal

Ice cube trays your passport to savings at Wise Bread


Dawn posted the Festival of Frugality at Frugal for life. As always a lovely job.

I had my Best Week Ever at Frugal Law Student's blog in the Carnival of Personal Finance

Colbert and Cramer on subprime mortgages

I have to hand it to Stephen Colbert for summing this up so succinctly:

"Apparently some billionairs gave millions of dollars in mortgages to people who couldn't afford them, and somehow it went sour."

Friday, August 10, 2007

Cheap easy meals for 2

Time for another Frugal Friday!

As much as I like good food, I really do like cheap food too. As a stop gap about eating out too much, I like to keep a few cheap easy meals in my pantry and my recipe book that I can make without much fuss.

When you are initially trying to cut your grocery budget, try to include one of these cheap easy meals per week in your regular meal rotation. They're also quite handy if you come to the end of the month and realize you have almost nothing left in your budget.

As always, I really love food, so these are meals that I consider really good eats or I wouldn't serve them.

Baked potatoes

These strike me as really good quality comfort food while being the ultimate cheap easy meal. I always buy baking potatoes from the loose bin rather than using bagged potatoes (which I find useful and frugal for other purposes like mashing or slicing) because I like to hand pick some big beautiful potatoes. I always have trouble getting mine to bake long enough, so I start them in the microwave. I just puncture them a few times, microwave for about 3 minutes, then roll them in oil and kosher salt and put them in a 350 degree oven for about an hour to get a nice skin on them (yes I eat the skin. Mmmmmm. )

You can top a potato with just about anything. It's most frugal, if you're in a pinch, to just eat it with a little butter or sour cream and some salt and pepper, but that's also BORING. I like steamed broccoli (you dont' need much, so I usually wait until I have leftovers) and cheese, leftover shredded barbecue meat, or chili. It's still cheap even if you use chili from a can, but it's yummier and more frugal if you use homemade.


Yes, in my opinion, chili itself is a cheap easy meal. You can use the cheapest of meats - a cheap roast of beef or pork, or some 70-30 hamburger or ground turkey you got for $1 a pound - or even make it without meat by increasing the beans or adding TVP. I say beans because, in my opinion, chili is better and MUCH more frugal if you make it with beans (my apologies to Texas). Personally I like a variety of white beans, black beans, pinto beans and kidney beans, but hubby just likes the kidney beans so that's how we make it here.

We make a big pot of this at a time. We simply brown whatever meat we're going to use in the bottom of the pot, sweat some onions if you like them, then add in your beans, some tomato paste or sauce, some water, and a variety of spices (we've bought the seasoning mix packets, and they aren't bad, but we tend now to just use chili powder from a can along with cumin, garlic powder, and some pepper). Cook it for hours. You can do this in a crockpot also, and that way you can leave the house while it cooks.

We usually eat it by itself at least once, then portion the rest into several smaller containers. The chili can be stretched even further by serving it over rice (flavored race, from a packet or homemade, is divine), and you can make several different cheap easy meals by making chili mac, chili pie, even frito pie if you are from certain parts of the country. And of course, I always save enough to serve over baked potatoes.


Pasta is definitely my drug of choice. I know it's not the most healthy food in the world, but it makes me feel calm and happy. It also makes an incredibly cheap and easy meal.

We try to keep several containers of homemade "cooked all day with a bay leaf and secret seasoning mix" sauce in our freezer for pasta and pizza at a moment's notice, but when we run out, I have a quick fix that carries the day. I buy petite diced tomatoes by the can when they are on sale. When I need sauce in a hurry, I just put some olive oil and garlic, maybe onion if I have it, in a sauce pan, add the tomatoes and some dried basil and toss until it's coated and heated through. If you don't like the tomato chunks in your pasta (as I do and hubby of course does not), you can hit this with a stick blender or throw it in you food processor for a more authentic sauce.

This post has gotten quite long, so I will stop there for today and hopefully get back with more cheap easy meals at some point in the future.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

More uses for vinegar and baking soda

While vinegar and baking soda can come in handy when you want to clean your kitchen, they certainly have plenty of other uses as well. Here's to the whole house virtues of these very frugal supplies. I'd buy them in bulk if I were you.

Clean your oven

I've already written about how to clean your oven with a tray of vinegar, but it's even easier to maintain it with baking soda. Whenever something drips onto the floor of your oven, sprinkle baking soda on it right away, and when it cools it will be easy to wipe up.

Make baths more bubbly

A bit of baking soda added to a bubble bath will sooth your skin and make your bubbles bubble up some more.

Boost your laundry

A cup of vinegar added to the rinse cycle of your laundry will soften clothes, brighten colors, and make your detergent more effective.

Shine windows

Vinegar water is a handy nontoxic solution to cleaning any glass. If your glass is a bit streaky, it's because of the products you've used before. Add a drop of dish soap to the vinegar mixture the first time; you shouldn't need to again.

Whiten your teeth

A bit of baking soda with water on a toothbrush makes a very effective whitening paste. I don't do this every day, but once in a while I find it packs a mean punch.

Brighten your hair

Rinsing your hair with diluted vinegar will help to remove any residue from the shampoos and styling products you usually use, giving your hair more body and shine.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Reclaim your time with a written cleaning plan

This is my first entry to Works for me Wednesday.

I got this idea from a single mom who was a year ahead of me in teaching college. She said that the only way she ever managed to get her grading and planning done on top of everything else was to reclaim small bits of time throughout her day. Instead of waiting until she had a free hour, she would find five minutes while waiting outside her daughter’s school and pull a 5 minute task out of her work bag to accomplish.

I try to use this tactic with my grading, but I’ve definitely found it to work with my cleaning. I save lots of time cleaning by figuring out how long things will take and getting them done whenever I have a moment.

Over the past year, I have noted how long various household chores take, both of my active time and of passive machine time. For example – Sweeping kitchen floor (5 minutes) vs. Run Dishwasher (5 minutes active, 45 minutes passive). Some of these are in my head, but some tasks that I do less often I still write down in a notebook which I keep in the kitchen. If I’m microwaving something for two minutes, I grab a two minute task from my notebook (shine my sink), and it’s amazing how much I get done.

If I have a whole hour, I will devise a more complicated plan of attack. For example:

Switch clothes to dryer (1 minute active, 50 minutes passive)
Start dishwasher (5 minutes active, 45 minutes passive)
Sweep floor (5 minutes)
Swiffer/damp rag mop floor (5 minutes)
Update blog (10 minutes – see how I snuck that in there?)
Wipe down counters (2 minutes)
Shine sink (2 minute)
Dust (10 minutes)
Vacuum living room and hallway (10 minutes)
Fold clothes (because of course, they’re done now) (5 minutes)
Empty dishwasher (5 minutes)

It looks like a lot, but I can get all this done in an hour specifically because I made the plan. If I didn’t have a plan, I would waste a lot of time, dawdling, procrastinating, and trying to figure out what to do next. Things always seem to me like they will take longer than they do, so actually timing myself and putting it in writing keeps me honest about how much I can accomplish. It’s funny how once I’ve written down that I can do something, I really can.

Well, anyway, it works for me.

More ways to help charities

In my post about Free and easy ways to help charities, I promised to write about higher impact ways to help charity. . . and that was over a month ago. So without further ado or delay....

Make something

If you have a hobby or a talent that involves making something, then this might be an inexpensive way to help other people. If you like to knit or crochet, make blankets, scarves or hats for a homeless shelter in your area. One organization that you can work with for this is Warming families. If you prefer quilting and sewing, consider making a blanket for an abused or abandoned child through The Linus Project. You could even make some muffins, cookies and cakes and host your own bake sale to fight hunger in America through The Great American Bake Sale.

Think you don't have any talents? You're wrong. Be creative. In one of her books, Natalie Goldberg talks about how she was asked to do something for a charity carnival and did the only thing she knew how to do, write poetry. She hosted a spontaneous writing booth and raised money for the charity that way.

Write a letter or sign a petition

If there is a cause that is important to you, one of the best ways to effect change is to sign a petition or write a letter to your local newspaper or your congressman. There are literally hundreds (maybe thousands) of different petitions available on The Petition Site where all you have to do is click and sign, or you can take it up a notch and add your own petition. You can get even higher impact by writing to your congressmen or the president. You can find contact information for your senators and representatives.


This is definitely an inexpensive way to help charities, but it doesn't necessarily need to be easy. Call or stop by local organizations that deal with issues you consider important and see if they take volunteers. You can volunteer on a regular basis or go in for one afternoon to help sort food or file papers. If you are interested in volunteering but don't know where to start, check out Volunteer Match or Online Volunteering

Give a portion of profits

This sounds like it costs money, but it can actually be a win-win. If you donate a committed amount of money from all your online earnings (from your blogs, for example, or your ebay auctions), it may help you to make more money in the long run because people will bid up your auctions or revisit your site a bit more because they respect what you're doing. This may sound like a rather mercenary way to look at it, but the way I see it, if you're upfront about what you're doing, then you benefit, the charity benefits and your readers or customers feel good about things. Everybody wins.

Monday, August 6, 2007

A contest link

I decided to throw my hat in the ring for this contest. This may be one of the most brilliant linkbait schemes I've ever seen, but I figured it's worth a shot.

Over at Ashwin's blog, you will find one crazy blog owner!! You can win $2500!! To enter just copy this text and paste it in your blog!! But hurry, this competition will not last long! So get posting!

Edit: This contest was bogus!! Read this article at contest blogger and please delete your linkes to ashwin.

What your budget says about your values

I think it's very true that we put our money where our hearts are, and that what we choose to spend money on says a lot about us. As I made my August budget, I really tried to think about what my spending says about me, and whether my spending is in line with my values and priorities. So, without further ado, my budget items from greatest to least (I've omitted actual numbers).

1. Rent - I'm okay with this one. Shelter is one of the four essential necessities, and while our apartment certainly goes beyond a basic roof over our heads, I'm okay with it being the top line item in our budget. It would be possible for us to cut this a little by moving to a less nice place, but there are a variety of reasons (proximity, amenities, etc) that we chose this in the first place, and moving to a new place would bring us much less happiness. While I understand that rent is not an investment in any equity, it's the right decision for us now, so again, here my budget and values are okay.

2. Car loan - Ouch. Do I really value my car this much? No, not really, and I certainly don't value car car debt. I'm pretty sure it was a mistake to buy it, but I'm still not sure it's a good idea to sell it now. I'll have it paid off in about 10 months, and then I'll hopefully drive it for another 6-7 years or until the wheels fall off (and use the payment toward retirement). This is one that I think for now I'm just going to suck up and deal with, although it is a break between my budget and my values.

3. Groceries - Yeah, I'm okay with this. We really love food. I could probably cut this back a bit more, but in some ways I feel that good quality food is not the place to skimp.

4. Student loans - Well we definitely value education, and the increased income that will (hopefully) eventually come from it, but again we don't value debt which is why I'm glad we're not taking out any more. I would love to see these gone, and I'm going to throw my might behind getting out of student loan debt in the next year.

5. Gasoline - This is another place where my budget definitely does not fit with my values, but I'm not sure what else to do about it. I already drive an efficient car, keep it maintained and relatively empty, combine errands, and walk whenever viable, but the gas budget keeps creeping up. Frustrating.

6. Restaurants - I must admit, eating out really does make me very happy, but I don't like that this item is so high in my budget. I wonder if keeping more high quality tempting food in the house would make eating out less appealing.

7. Investing - I'm actually really proud of the money we've put aside for investing every month. I feel like it's going to do something very important for our future and our family's future.

8. Cell phones/cable/internet - These are all things that I regularly use and that I feel I get sufficient value from for what I pay for them.

What's missing:

Charitable giving - This is something that used to be very important to me, and I wonder whether my money obsession got the better of me let this get away from me. I definitely want to start reworking my budgets to allow for more of this.

So, that's what my budget says about my values. What does your budget say about yours?

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Lazy Saturday shoutout

Welcome to my lazy shout out post. (I'm sorry if you were hoping lazy Saturday had something to do with Mr. Pibb and Red Vines. There's just frugality and finance here.) I'm enjoying my Saturday and hope you do too! Meanwhile, here are some posts from the week that got my attention:

Bullet proof your finances from Married and Broke
The Two Fry Pan Theory at Money Changes Things
Embracing the plaid couch at Stop the Ride
3 Ways I Live Frugally Without Feeling Deprived from My Money Blog

The Carnival of Personal Finance
The Festival of Frugality
Make Money Online

Friday, August 3, 2007

Frugal Friday: 4 sources for free or cheap entertainment in the summer

This is my second submission to Biblical Womanhood’s Frugal Fridays series. See my first submission on lowering my monthly bills here.

In the summer, I am generally looking for fun things to do that don’t cost very much. Personally, I like spending time outside and could just sit out in the park with a journal and a book for hours every day and be very content, but since it’s topping 100 degrees here my husband is not too keen on that, so lately I’ve been on the lookout for free and cheap entertainment in my area.

Free concerts

In the evening, in certain places in my town, there are free concerts, but they’re not always easy to find. I find these concerts by regularly searching google (or Search Kindly if I remember to use my powers to do good) for the name of my town and state and the words “free concert” in quotes. I’ve found a few good pages that regularly update on various series of concerts in my area, but I do the google search anyway because I never know what I’ll find. You can also sometimes find these by checking your local town’s parks website.


Another source of free or cheap entertainment in the summer is at museums. Many museums, especially in cities, have free days once a month or so, so scour each museum’s website for that information. Even if they don’t though, museums will often offer lectures, classes, or tours that are included in the price of admission so check the schedule to see what’s going on and plan your trip around it.


Just like museums, libraries often have classes, lectures, or groups, except that these generally don’t cost anything at all (or simply request a small donation). Check your library’s website or ask for a brochure on summer programs, classes, and book groups.


The state park near where we used to live regularly had free nature hikes or workshops. Parks may also host holiday events (one of ours has fourth of July fireworks, while another has Christmas light hayrides), playgroups, or concerts (see above).

College Campuses

If you live near a college, try doing a search for student shows, lectures, or seminars. Often you can see a high quality play for a few dollars or see a lecture by a famous speaker for free. Another great way to find these is just to take a walk around campus and through the student union and see what there are fliers for.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Trying Squidoo

I decided to try my hand at Squidoo and I created a lens on Frugal Living. I'm new a this and it's very much a work in progress, so if you have time to give it a look I would greatly appreciate critiques and suggestions of what other content to include.

Retire with $3 million by driving paid for cars

Can you imagine how much there is to gain from driving a paid for car? Ever since I started investing, I’ve been thinking about what the possible returns are, and how worthwhile it is to focus my intention on investing in quality mutual funds inside tax sheltered accounts. Since my car will be paid off by next summer, I decided to run the numbers and see what would happen if I did nothing else other than putting my $420 a month car payment directly into a mutual fund Roth IRA.

According to this calculator, if I invest $4000 a year (the maximum contribution in a Roth, and noticeably less than $420 a month) into a mutual fund with a 12% rate of return inside a tax free Roth IRA, when I turn 65 I will $3,064,000.

If I continue to earn 12%, I can draw the interest of $360,000 (tax free!) every year and never touch the principal. Can I live on $360,000 a year? I think so.
But what if I’m wrong? What if something happens, and the market doesn’t do as well? If I only earn 8%, then when I retire at 65, I will have about $1 million, and I will be able to draw $80,000 a year. A little less exciting, but still probably quite reasonable.

And all this is by doing nothing but putting my car payment into a Roth. I could do that without our income ever going up, which it almost certainly will once hubby finishes grad school (well, it better anyway!). I could do that without sacrificing any lifestyle we have now. In fact, since $4000 a year is less than $420 a month, I would actually have a little more disposable income each month. And truthfully, chances are I will have at least some kind of a teacher pension by then, and at least one if not both of us will have some kind of a 401(k) of 403(b) with an employer match.

Now of course there are some other issues here. I will, eventually, need another car (although, if I get my way that’s at least 6 or 7 years out). We are eventually going to buy a house. But again, our income will go up and we just have to decide not to do either of those things until we can afford to without stopping that Roth contribution.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Cutting out coffee

Every summer, I try to cut back on my caffeine. When I don't have to work at 7 in the morning, suddenly going without coffee seems like a much less onerous task. I can enjoy a cup of tea, or just have water or orange juice in the morning, and I can still get through my much simpler day. I have never set it a goal to give up coffee entirely, as it is something I really enjoy, but I don't make a pot of coffee every morning and guzzle it by 9. I maybe make a cup in the afternoon and sit on the porch and enjoy it while reading a good book (a perfect afternoon if you ask me). I might go out with friends to a coffee shop at night and get a cup of coffee (definitely worth the price for the time out - I just try to avoid the fruity mocha-latte-double-espresso nonsense that racks up the cost and the calories).

Doing this allows me to kind of give my body a rest from the stress put on it by drinking so much caffeine and helps me to really get a feel for what my body needs in terms of food and sleep. It does save me money, I've noticed, as I glance at the can of coffee in my cabinet which is still almost full, and when I do drink coffee I can drink higher quality coffee and really appreciate it because I don't drink it often enought for the cost to be prohibitive. It also helps me to readujust to the effects of caffeine; by the end of the school year, I'm slurping 4-5 cups of coffee a day just to ward off exhaustion, and hardly feeling the results. After a light summer, when I start again in the fall, a cup of coffee really does the trick.

But this summer I've had the hardest time cutting out coffee. I don't know if it was because I had such a difficult end of the year, because I'm getting older, or simply because I had tipped my caffeine levels over the top, but I had the worst headaches and cravings. Because of this and the health worries it brought up for me, for the first time, I really felt the need to completely cut out caffeinated coffee, for at least short detox periods, instead of just to cut back.

Here are some of the strategies I've been enacting:

1. Drink more water. A lot of times my exhaustion is caused by dehydration, and when I try to fix the exhaustion with dehydrating coffee, I make it worse. The key here is to fix the problem while replacing the coffee habit with a water habit.

2. Switch to tea, then to herbal tea. I can assuage some of my caffeine cravings with a cup of green tea. If the inclination is not as strong then I have a cup of herbal tea, enjoying the experience of tea without the buzz.

3. Decaf coffee. For the first time, I've started getting decaf coffee when I go out with my friends at night. I really do like it almost as much as coffee, and there's no reason for me to be drinking caffeine at night. I'm trying to get my sleep schedule back on kilter here and rest up for the coming year.

4. Indulge. While I am consciously letting my body go through periods of detox, I am still enjoying a good cup of high quality coffee from time to time. When I simply forbid the coffee, I find myself stopping at coffee shops on my way places because I so desperately need the buzz - this definitely does NOT save me money, nor does it help my health. Rather, I keep some quality ground coffee in the apartment and every so often (not so often now), I brew up a cup in the afternoon and enjoy that perfect afternoon on the porch. Coffee should be something I associate with that one, relaxing cup that I enjoy as a treat, not with a giant paper cup that I am slurping down because I need it to survive.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Saving money with frugal principles: Part 1 – Use it up

Frugality is about more than just saving money. Since I started reading and writing about it, I’ve seen more definitions of frugality than I thought could possibly exist. Frugality has to do with thrift, with efficiency, with stewardship. Frugality helps the environment, it saves money, it saves time. Frugality makes our lives simpler, happier, and more worthwhile. Sounds like something I want more of in my life. My money life has been going in so many different directions lately, and I want to focus in this idea of less, this idea of making everything simpler.

So how do I go about being more frugal?

The most basic frugal principles, according to The Complete Tightwad Gazetteare “Use it up, use less, make do, or do without.” Each of those things uses the basic principle of “less” and applies it in a different way, so I thought that might be a good place to start thinking about my frugal victories and failures.

Use it up

What it means: Using it up is essentially cutting back on waste. Use food before it expires. Get all the soap out of the bottom of the bottle.

Why it’s frugal: It’s fairly obvious that reducing waste is a frugal thing to do. When you throw out less mayonnaise or cilantro, you save yourself money and make more efficient use of the resources available to you. You also reduce the trash you’re putting into the environment – more from the packaging than from the actual food you throw away – and the environmental impact of the production of the product.

How I’m doing: I made what to many would be a very silly discovery recently: you can take the lid of squeeze bottles of mustard. That might sound really dumb, but I had been balancing bottles on their tops, shaking them for several minutes, practically standing on my own head to get the mustard out of the bottle. Then it occurred to me that I could just take the lid off the bottle and use a knife, like I would with a normal mustard jar. When I did that, I got at least 3 more sandwiches out of a mustard jar than I would have by getting frustrated and throwing it out.

On the other hand, I need to get better at using food before it expires. I have piles of mushy greens and herbs in the bottom of my crisper and science experiment leftovers in the back of my fridge. The food you don’t even eat is the least frugal purchase of all.

My frugal goals: Use food in a timely manner. Plan meals so that food with a likelihood to wilt or go bad is used earlier in the week and more hearty vegetables are saved for later in the week. Buy less of things (like cilantro) that I simply cannot finish before they go bad. Find at least one product – dish soap, laundry detergent, shampoo, toothpaste – each week, and see if I can find a way to get just a little bit more out of the bottom of the container.

Pondering PayPerPost

I got an email yesterday that my blog had been approved for PayPerPost. I had honestly forgotten that I had even applied. When I first signed up a month or so ago, I got a message that my blog was ineligible because I had to maintain it for at least 90 days, but now I suppose I have overcome that burden and qualify.

For those not in the know, payperpost is a company that pays bloggers to post about various products and services (a marketing scheme known as astroturfing). I'm not sure how I feel about it now. When I signed up I saw dollar signs, but now I've become much more zen about my blog and see it more as a way of interfacing with the world than a way of making money (really, the two cents or so per day from adsense is not paying my bills). I'm wondering if implementing paid posting would in some way damage the integrity of my blog, and am relatively certain that it would hurt the readability and in some way annoy my loyal readers. On the other hand, if I can pick and choose what to write about and limit paid posts to once a week or less, I could maybe minimize those issues while still picking up some (much appreciated) extra money. I'll have to think about it some more.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Lowering my monthly bills

This post is my contribution to Biblical Womanhood's Frugal Fridays series.

I've focused so much on increasing my earnings and decreasing my spending on
groceries and restaurants this summer that I didn't give much thought to my monthly bills. In my calculations, I always just assumed cable and phone to be fixed expenses, like my rent or health insurance. They are, of course, not.

So I decided to examine them and see what could be eliminated. Cable and internet, while discretionary expenses, are things we really use and enjoy, so cutting them off entirely wasn't really on the table at this point (although they might be in the future). Our house phone line, on the other hand, seemed worth looking into.

We rarely, if ever, call out on our house line, and since we always have extra minutes leftover on the smallest cell plan we could get (we mostly use free weekend or mobile to mobile time), we could easily make that substitution. Nobody calls us except one friend who is local, and he could easily make the switch too. Our apartment call box is hooked up to our local phone, but for $5 a month we can have them use our cells instead. To cut out a $25 expense in favor of a $5 expense seemed like a no-brainer.

Except not.

Our internet right now is DSL through the phone company for only $20 a month. When we used cable internet it was between 40 and 50. I called the phone company and asked what happens to our DSL if we cancel our local phone, and I was told we'd have to switch to "dry loop" DSL which would cost $40 a month. Not much in the way of reducing our expenses. Our options became cable internet for $45 a month, DSL for $40 a month, or DSL and phone for $45. Hmmmmmm.

She then offered to link my cell phone bills to my landline bills and give me a one time credit of $25. While not the $20 a month decrease I'd been hoping for, it sounded worth doing, especially since I could just cancel next month. When she went to do it though, she found she couldn't because of the 15% discount we're getting on our cell phones through hubby's job (15% every month > $25 once). Hrmppphh.

Frustrated, I thanked her and hung up. Desperately wanting to do something about my monthly expenses, I called my cable company and asked for a special. For those of you who are timid about doing this, as I used to be, I wasn't rude, I didn't threaten to quit, I didn't abuse anyone or ask for a manager. I simply called the sales department and said "I was wondering if we were eligible for any discounts." She checked and said they could give me a rate $15 lower than what we were currently paying for the next three months. So with that phone call I saved $45. I just have to remember to call back in three months.

But what to do about the phone and internet? Hmmmm. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Money and happiness

I've been thinking a lot lately about what it is that makes me happy, what is worth working for, what life it is that I'm looking for. Yesterday, I wrote about how much I enjoy quiet, and how a media fast and a good book can make me feel at peace.

The more I think about, the more I realize that it's not abour the money.

There are some things I want that money certainly can buy me. I want to travel, I want to take a cruise, I want a house, I want to be able to afford to work part time. But then there are the things that I want that money can't buy, and the more I think about it, the more I realize how much those are the things that I want, the things that will make me really happy.

In You Don't Have to Be Rich: Comfort, Happiness, and Financial Security on Your Own Terms, which I just finished reading last week, Jean Chatzky writes about how after a certain point, money doesn't actually make people happier. People are most likely to be happy when their lives are organized, their relationships are strong, and their careers are in line with their values; money can help or hurt, but usually doesn't have as big an impact as one would think. It is, instead, the misconception that our happiness is tied to money that leads to most of our unhappiness. In her words:

"So what do we do? We go after the money. We chase it like there's no tomorrow. And as we do that, we lose time that we could spend having a leisurely dinner or taking a long walk with the love of our life; we lose time we could spend hitting the StairMaster or making a sandwich rather than driving through a fast-food joint for a grease-fest; we lose time we could spend taking classes that might lead us to a career we'd truly enjoy."

And the more I think about my own life, the more I realize that the things I'm giving up while I'm chasing the money are really things that are more important to me. Chatzky suggests that the things most likely to correlate with happiness are things which don't cost any money at all: dancing and volunteering. So what do I want, what makes me happy?

I want to exercise several times a week. I love the calm and release that comes after a long walk or a short run, and I love the feeling of getting stronger.

I want to spend more time with my husband and really enjoy his company more, to fully focus on him.

I want to spend more time with my friends, to be able to have a cup of tea with a girl friend in the middle of the afternoon and have a nice long chat.

I want to lay in the sun with a good book more often.

I want more quiet in my life.

And yeah, dancing and volunteering sound pretty darn good.

And so I pose this question, dear reader. What do you want that money can't (necessarily) buy? I'm most interested in what it is that pfbloggers think, but even if you're not one, please join the conversation. Leave a comment below, or write a post on your own blog and I'll link to you. What brings you happiness? What do you want?

See Tehnyit's list here

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Some peace, at least

I haven't turned on my computer since Friday. That's amazing to me. What's even more amazing is that I haven't been sitting, anxiously desiring to turn it on, worrying that something would happen that I didn't know about, that somehow I'd be missing out on something.

On Saturday we went out of town to celebrate our first wedding anniversary (goodness does time fly), and spent nearly two whole days just enjoying each other and the world around us. Then I came back Sunday night to find my copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7)had already arrived. While hubby went to take a nap, I curled up on the couch to read. And haven't stopped since.

Which is of course a lie. We went out to dinner Sunday night. I worked 3 hours yesterday morning and went grocery shopping. I went out for coffee and cards with friends last night. But in between and when there's been time, I'm reading. Not racingly, hungrily like some of my friends. I am in no hurry for this to be done.

Yesterday I got my oil changed in my car, a task I've been putting off. When I went though with my huge span of afternoon, and was told it would take an hour, I cheerfully helped myself to a cup of of coffee and a cookie and curled up in a chair in the waiting room.

And I'm starting to realize, the longer I leave the computer and radio and TV off, that this is the kind of life I've been searching for. If I could do nothing but tutor a few hours a day, read books, and play UNO with friends, I would be the most content person on the planet. This is what I should have been striving toward all along. And truthfully, it's not such an expensive lifestyle.

I will, of course, go back to work full time in the fall and then I won't have so many hours of coziness stretched out at a time, but I can learn to carve out the quiet where it is. The simpler life I'm looking for probably isn't something so external at all; not something to search for, but something to live.