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. 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, 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.