Monday, June 30, 2008

Simplify, simplify, simplify

I was reading this post on Simplifying your life over at Zen Habits, and it's made me realize how much I want to cut back and simplify. I already talk a lot about being frugal and simplifying my stuff and consumption, but I also need to be more frugal with my time.

There are several reasons that living a more simple life would make me happier:

1. I would have more time available to devote to things that I love and enjoy, things that I find meaningful.

2. I would feel less rushed and overwhelmed.

3. I would feel less guilty for not accomplishing all my (often perceived or invented) obligations.

I think I have gotten myself into a very bad cycle with my time. First, I perceive a problem or absence in my life. I decide what it is that I want to do or wish to do. I decide it's impossible and instead fritter away my time on things that don't add to my life. I realize that it now really IS impossible, and dig deeper into the existence of the problem.

Part of this has to do with my complete lack of understanding of how long tasks will take, part of it has to do with my learned helplessness, but a lot of it is just procrastination and helplessness.

So, I'm going to start cutting back. In order to have more time to do the things I want to do (Read books! Go outside! Talk to friends! Spend time with my husband!), I'm going to spend less time doing the things I don't want to do.

1. I'm going to spend less time online. This will probably solve 90% of the problem. I spend hours searching for solutions to problems instead of just taking action. I fill my head with information that I have no time to process and which instead just makes me feel more stressed in the end. I actually feel guilty or anxious when I can't read all my RSS feeds or check my email, or keep up with every free online class I've ever looked at. I don't care about these things really, I don't value them, they're just easy, but they take time away from the things that do matter to me, so I have to say enough.

2. I'm going to develop a more doable routine for housework and laundry. I waste so much time re-washing laundry and get so overwhelmed by overflowing laundry baskets that I could just get it done instead of worrying (and medicating that worry with more mindless procrastination).

3. I'm going to stop checking my freaking blog stats, and my bank balances, and anything else that doesn't change significantly on a day to day basis.

4. I'm going to look for ways to streamline my other routines and I'm going to start timing some of my more frequent activities so that I know how long things take and don't find them as overwhelming.

And, above all, I'm going to make sure that I spend all of my found time doing things that add value to my life instead of just finding new ways to fritter it away.

Carnival is up!

The Carnival of Personal Finance is up at Greener Pastures. I'll post a wrap up later, but right now just go check it out!

Friday, June 27, 2008

Summer energy saving tips for the kitchen

Since summer tends to be the time when my energy bills are the highest, I thought I'd start sharing some of my best summer energy saving tips, and the easiest place for me to start is in the kitchen. The kitchen has the potential to both use a lot of energy itself, and to heat your house significantly, causing you spend even more on energy to cool it back down. By employing these energy saving tips this summer, you'll keep cool, eat well, and keep some of your money in the bank.

1. Don't cook. The most efficient way to keep your kitchen cool and green is by eating raw or cold foods. Try to eat more salads and cold sandwiches, more fruit instead of baked goods, and cold beverages in place of hot ones. This serves double duty: you don't spend energy on the cooking process, and you keep both your house and your body cooler. Bonus: higher water content foods like fruits and vegetables will be more appealing and refreshing to your dehydrated body. Who wants to eat heavy foods when it's 100 degrees out anyway?

2. Cook outside. If you are going to cook, try to move it outside and away from your house. You'll spend some money firing up the grill, but it will keep your house cool. Besides, nothing tasts more like summer than dinner off the grill. Bonus: I can't remember where I read it, but last summer another blogger suggested putting your crock pot on your porch. While they don't give off that much heat, this can't hurt. Plus, if you are eating outside, it will be more convenient to have your side items outside with your grill.

3. Use smaller appliances. Don't turn on your oven if you have a toaster oven that will do the trick. Use a microwave whenever possible. The smaller the appliance, the less energy it uses and the more heat it gives off.

4. Mind your refrigerator. Your fridge has to work harder and use more energy in the summer anyway, so be extra careful to keep the door closed. Before cooking, plan everything you need so you only have to open the fridge door once (in one monstrous trip, like Rachel Ray does where she always likes like she's thisclose to dropping something). When putting things away, stage them next to the refrigerator for the same reason. Put the things you use most often in convenient locations so you can get to them quickly. And I shouldn't even have to mention standing in front of the refrigerator deciding what to eat.

5. Keep your dishwasher closed. In the winter, I like to open my dishwasher to vent (I always have it set to air dry). In the summer though, I leave it closed during the dry cycle. The steam that goes into the air during the dry cycle will both heat up your home and add a lot of moisture to the air, which makes it feel hotter. Instead, dry the dishes with a towel if they are still wet.

6. Be careful of vent fans. If you are running the air conditioning, turning the vent fan on will vent all your cooled air out into the world, so use it sparingly. Of course, if you are a champ and keep your AC turned off, the vent fan will vent the hot air from your kitchen and may actually help.

For more frugal tips, chek out Frugal Friday

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Break even 2008 week 3 check in

Just a Break even quick check in this week:

I was $20 overbudget on restaurants again this week, partly from the last day of the adventure and of having company, partly because I have a problem.

I was $12 overbudget on groceries. For all that I preach grocery savings strategies, I can't seem to make it in and out of a grocery store for underbudget lately. My pantry and freezer are nearly overflowing and yet I just can't seem to help myself. Argh!

I had some rare ebay earnings too. We bought an extra copy of Wii Fit, knowing there would be a shortage, and sold it on ebay. After shipping and fees, we made about $25 profit. ::Shrug:: I'm kind of an amateur.

And I worked. A lot. By a lot, I mean 4 hours most days. It doesn't sound like a whole lot when I say that, lol, but hey this is my summer vacation.

Break even # $245
Overbudget groceries $12
Overbudget restaurants $20
Ebay earnings -$25
Part time work earnings -$490

Net expenses -$238

Since I was $62 behind last week, that puts me $176 ahead for the summer so far. Woo hoo!

This is the last week of the month though, which means that on next weeks' check in I have to settle up for my projected versus actual spending on gasoline. Trust me, I'm not looking forward to that.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

My spending weakness

I am always fond of the confessional style of personal finance blogposts, so I thought I would spill the beans on my own weakness. My biggest spending weakness, my gazingus pin as the authors of Your Money or Your Life would call it, is eating out.

I like restaurants. A lot. We eat out at least once a week, sometimes two or three times. We don't go to super-expensive restaurants, we go to small local places, but we can still easily spend $10 each on dinner, plus tax, plus tip.

Now, I know compared to a lot of other people my age, I don't really eat out that much. A lot of my friends, many of whom are single and a surprisng number of who are in grad school, eat out most nights. They dont', however, consider themselves frugal, and they aren't (necessarily) trying to pay off significant amounts of student debt.

Sometimes it seems silly to me to save 50 cents a week on electricity by shutting off a power supply or unplugging my phone charger, and then to go out and spend $25 for dinner for 2 in a restaurant, when I could make dinner at home for $5. At the same time, I really do like restaurants, and I really don't necessarily like having my phone charger plugged in. Part of frugality means that you save money in areas that aren't important to you so that you can spend it on things that are important to you.

But, while eating out once a week, in a sit down restaurant, is a treat and really does make me happy, two or three times a week doesn't really make me any more happy than once. A lot of the time I eat out because it's easier, because I'm feeling uncreative, because I'm sick of the food I have in the house. I get that the solution to that is to include more different meals, to experiment, to play, to have fun in the kitchen, but none of that is as easy as it sounds. I read through cookbooks and cooking blogs and touch everything in the grocery store, and I still feel uninspired.

So, if you kicked the eating out habit, how did you do it? Or if you have another spending weakness that you beat, how did you do it?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

How to Grocery coupon Week 4

This is the third in my series on how to use grocery coupons. Be sure to also check out week 1 and week 2.

By now, you should be building up a stockpile and a decent pantry. You should see your need list shrinking, which frees up more money for your sales list and stockpile list. You should also have a somewhat decent coupon file by now. Keep your total grocery budget at the same level, but change the proportion of needs: sales. You should be spending more money on stockpiling every week. Also, as your price book fills up, you should start to recognize which sales are good sales and which are not. Something may deserve to be on a “sale” list but not a “stockpile” list.

Remember, you won’t see the big savings until you have your pantry completely stocked, thus allowing you to buy only those items which are on your sale list and for which you have a coupon, often reducing the price to almost zero.

Consider adding these tricks to your arsenal:

Trade coupons or buy from a coupon clipping service. This is a must if you want to get those 90% savings you read about. Your goal is to get multiples of coupons for items on your stockpile list (and I don’t mean 2 or 3, I mean 10 or 12), so that when canned corn or cereal or granola bars go on sale, you can use all your coupons at once and get these items for pennies.

Shop at a warehouse store. I put this back here in week 4 for one major reason: you have a pricebook now. This will allow you to see what is actually a good deal and what is not. As you develop a good coupon file, you may find this tip to be less and less useful. Warehouse stores often don’t accept coupons, and if they do probably don’t double them. You’ll often find better prices at the grocery store. Make sure that if you are doing your stockpiling at a warehouse store you are still staying within your grocery budget.

Sign up for companies’ mailing lists. Write to or call companies to tell them you like their products. You would be amazed at the coupons that companies mail to loyal customers. They are generally much better than the coupons in your newspaper.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Sneaky frugalities

This Frugal Friday, I want to talk about what I call sneaky frugalitites. There are plenty of big, obvious things I do to be more frugal in my life, but I never want to forget the sneaky little things that I do. These are the things that stretch everything just a little farther, or make it last just a little longer, without anyone even noticing or feeling the difference. For example:

I empty free sample packets into my shampoo and body wash bottles. I used to try to use the packets, but it was a terrible pain, and plus this helps me decide how much to use, instead of being bound by the "single use" packet.

I sometimes add a cup of reconstituted milk or frozen concentrate orange juice to a half bottle of their fresh counterparts. It's not enough that I notice any difference in taste at all, but it stretches me to my next grocery day and saves me a run to the store.

I add a little bit of water to liquid hand soap and dish soap. Again, not enough that there's a noticeable change in consistency, but enough that it makes it last longer. I know I could just use less, but I don't need to ask everyone who washes their hands to use less.

I whip my butter in my stand mixer. This one is a bit more trouble than the rest, but it actually gives the butter a nicer texture, making it easier to spread, while at the same time mixing in air to increase the volume. This way less butter seems like more, saving us calories and money.

If I serve a stirfry, or other dish containing both meat and vegetables, two nights, the second night I'll just add more vegetables to stretch it a little further.

What sneaky frugalities do you have?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Break Even 2008 Week 2

So, this week was not the most stellar week of the break even challenge. Because of the Adventure, and because we had company for the whole week, we were a full $50 overbudget on eating out for the week. (Yup, that means we spent 3 times what we were supposed to spend. Oops.) We also had to give a wedding present, which was not prebudgeted (double ooops). Plus, I'm sure we are already overbudget for the month on gas, and I think our electric bill is likely to be higher because, with company here, I couldn't turn the air off during the day or leave all the lights and fans off. But, as the rules state, those will get settled up at the end of the month.

Also, with company here, and with several days out of town, I wasn't able to work much on generating any online or alternative income, so most of my income came from work. Since the hours I'm working now are temporary, I'm going to need to make more of an effort to get some other income streams started before they end, or this project will definitely sink.

There are benefits though. I worked quite a bit, so that makes up for some of the additional spending. Also, because we ate out so much, we were able to save some money on our grocery budget: I just had to make a quick stop for some cereal and fresh fruit.

Settling up:

Break even number $245
Over budget restaurants +$5
Unplanned spending +$150 (wedding present)
Underbudget groceries -$35

Part time earnings $260

$105 short

Last week, I was $43 ahead, which puts me a total of $62 behind for the summer. Yuck. Guess it's time to start working harder.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

My So-Called Adventure

I'm 27 years old. I'm married, I have a few jobs, I have debt. I have an apartment full of clutter, and I am remarkably inefficient at getting things done around it. I feel tired, overwhelmed, and cranky.

So what I wanted to do this summer, more than anything (well almost anything. staring at a wall did come first) was to have an adventure. It didn't matter to me what I did, or where I went, but I wanted to briefly feel completely irresponsible, and to explore. We won't live in the lovely state that we currently call home (deliciously vague, am I not?) for all that much longer and I wanted to make sure I saw it before we left.

So this weekend we went. My husband's college roommate came down, we got in the car, and we saw 4 cities in about a week. We went site-seeing, ate at restaurants we'd seen on the Food Network, wandered through downtowns, and even went to a friend's wedding in between.

So why was it not satisfying? Why was it not everything I wanted it to be?

I'm not sure what the story is. I am glad I went, I'm glad I can say that I went, and I did have a good time, but by the end all I wanted was to be home and to get my laundry done. I guess I'm more of a homebody than I would like to be.

And because I can't help but mention it, while it wasn't an incredibly frugal adventure, I did manage to get through it relatively inexpensively (hmmm, I guess I fail at irresponsible). We only went places to which we could drive, in our car that gets more than 30 mpg (32 avg for this trip), we shared hotel rooms with our friend (who got one of them for free with his accumulated hotel points), and I even printed coupons for one of the museums we went to. My favorite frugal travel tidbit, though, is that because we researched restaurants, we went to some of the best places in the country - which were often out of the way and inexpensive - and when we did eat at expensive places, we ordered small dinners a la carte, so we could get exactly what we wanted without spending a ton.

But, all in all, I'm glad to be back.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Frugal Principles: Make do

It's Frugal Friday again over at Biblical Womanhood. This is the next installment in my extremely sporadic series on the frugal axiom "Use it up, Use less, Make do, or Do Without.

Today I'm going to talk about making do, and how this frugal principle applies to my everyday life. To me, making do is the heart of creative frugality: it's finding a way to make what you have or what you can afford work in place of what you don't have or can't afford. You might use this tip to avoid buying an expensive tool (an electric sander? I can make do with this sand paper), a high end brand of coffee (make do with the store brand), or simply to avoid an extra trip to the store (make do with blueberries when you intended to make a peach cobbler). This is a step towards frugality that can seem difficult and tedious - having to forego all the "luxuries" - unless you find a way to use your creativity to make it into a game.

I'm not the most creative person in the world, so this is one I still struggle with, but here are some things I've come up with:

  • Instead of buying a new dress for the wedding you have to go to this summer, make do with one you bought last summer buy adding a snazzy accessory, cute cardigan, or even by adding some stitching or changing the hem length. Hey, if there's different people at this wedding, you don't need to change anything at all! :)

  • Instead of running to the store to buy buttermilk to make a certain recipe make do with the following substition: add 1 teaspoon lemon juice or vinegar to your cup of milk and wait a second for it to start to bubble. There's a great list of Cooking Substitutions on Tawra's website, Living on a Dime.

  • Instead of buying trash bags, make do with the plastic bags from the grocery store.

And since I'm fresh out of creativity right now, here's a creative frugality challenge for you:

I have a stack of newspapers, a cardboard box, and a ton of plastic grocery bags, plus assorted household odds and ends (some leftover ribbon, yarn, twine, plenty of tape...). How many different making do substitutions can you come up with?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Monday, June 9, 2008

Break even challenge 2008

Just like last summer, I decided that one of my goals for this summer was to break even. Essentially, what this means is that I intend to make at least as much money as I spend, even without my full time job.

Last summer, I didn't make it. I got behind, and even though I broke even by the seek for most of the second half of the summer, I could never catch back up. Somehow, through magic, the money all worked, and we made it through the summer just fine on what we had in the checking account.

This summer is a little different. This year, I consciously saved money every month in my ING account, so that my savings are equal to my share of the expenses for two months. In short, I don't need to make any money this summer, so it's almost entirely a game. Also, because my car is paid off this month (Yay!) my break even number is a little lower this year at only $35 a day or $245 a week.

Other than that, the rules they remain the same:

1. Anything I spend over my budgeted amounts for groceries, eating out, or personal spending gets added to my break even number for the week.
2. Anything I earn or any money I save gets subtracted from my break even number.
3. Money I earn from my part time job is counted the day I earn it. Money I earn online or from other ventures is counted the day it pays out (because the lag time is usually so long, and sometimes the returns are questionable). Savings interest is counted at the end of each month, as are spending on household bills and gasoline.
4. Gift cards count as neither earning nor spending.
5. Money spent earning rebates, mystery shopping, etc, must be counted as spending, and fit in the actual budget. When the reimbursement comes, that counts as earning.

The biggest lesson I learned last year was that I have to work. I had some idea in my head that I would be able to make it primarily from online earnings (GPT offers and some article submissions), and so spent the first couple weeks lounging, and getting further and further behind, confident that when things came through, I'd be okay. This year, I'm working right from the start, and if more money comes in later, all for the better, but it's easier to keep up than to catch up.

Week 1:

Break even number $245

Over budget groceries +$35 (We have company this week)
Over budget eating out +$12
Unplanned entertainment+$42 (We went to a museum)

Part time earnings -$290
Revolution Money exchange check -$42.50
Deal Barbie Payout -$45

Which puts me $43.50 ahead so far. Don't know if that rate is sustainable, but I feel pretty good about it right now.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

20 frugal or free summer fun activities

Looking for something frugal or free to do this summer? Here's a list of 20 summer fun activities which cost little or no money and provide endless entertainment.

1. Go to the park.
2. Go to your local library. Check out a book or movie, and check out the schedule for book clubs, reading rewards, lectures, and story times.
3. Consider joining your local museum or zoo. Usually, for the cost of visiting twice, you can go as much as you want for the whole season.
4. Stargaze.
5. Get wet. Play with a garden hose, run through sprinklers, get yourself a squirt gun - it doesn't matter how old you are, everyone likes to cool off.
6. Read. Sit on your deck or in your backyard, read out loud with your honey or kids, just read.
7. Be a tourist (in your own hometown). Check a guidebook out of the library, or read an article online, and check out all the local attractions you would take family to if they visited.
8. Learn to knit or sew.
9. Build a solar oven in your backyard and use it to keep your house cooler.
10. Do crafts with your kids or on your own.
11. Have a friend over for lemonade. My ideal day would be sitting in a rocking chair on my porch, drinking lemonade and gossiping with the girls.
12. Browse your local farmer's market. If you make friends, you might even be able to visit some farms.
13. Fly a kite.
14. Volunteer at your local food bank sorting food or filing papers.
15. Go to the mall. Not for the shopping, for the free air conditioning.
16. Take daily walks around your neighborhood or on the beach/boardwalk/nature path. Smile at strangers.
17. Sleep late!
18. Rent a movie from Redbox or take your kids to some free summer movies.
19. Go to a local winery that has a free tasting. Mmmmm.
20. Search the Free attractions directory and find something within driving distance of where you live.

What's #21? Please leave me a comment with your best frugal or free summer fun activities!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Two high impact free donate opportunities

Usually click to donate sites will donate between 2 and 10 cents per click. Sometimes companies offer higher impact click drives, on a temporary basis, as a marketing campaign. Two such click drives are running now:

Right now, Country Crock is donating a meal to America's Second Harvest for every small change you share at their website, Your Family Table

Listerine will donate $1 to Right to Play's Red Ball Challenge, which uses sports and play to help kids in developing countries when you click the red ball

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Cleaning out my apartment: donating

The three bags of health and beauty items above went to my local food bank yesterday. The bags mostly consist of shampoos and toothpastes, but there is also some lotion and some packs of feminine products in there too. Most of this is stuff I purchased for free with grocery coupons, and which has been languishing under the sink in my guest bathroom for months. I feel lighter for it being gone, and I have all that extra storage space back, but mostly I feel good because it's going to go to good use.

If you donate goods to a food bank, soup kitchen, or shelter, you can deduct the full value (i.e., not what you paid with coupons and rebates, but what someone else would have to pay) from your taxes. Since we don't itemize deductions, I don't worry about this, but if you do make sure to get a receipt.

This is my first bit of progress on my goals for summer. Try to keep me honest at making steady progress!

Monday, June 2, 2008

My Goals and Priorities for summer

1. RECOVER. Rest and heal my mind, body, and spirit from the tortures I put them through the past few months. No matter what else I accomplish, I want to finally take some time for me and feel better, to invite more quiet into my life and more space in my brain.

2. Break even. Just like last summer, my goal is to make enough money to cover all of my share of household expenses. Extra money to put toward debt would be great, but only if it doesn't interfere with priority #1.

3. Have an adventure. I've been so busy, and so narrowly focused, for the past couple of years that I've forgotten to be young and have fun. This summer hubby and I want to take a (relatively inexpensive) vacation, without too much excessive planning. :)

4. Clean out my apartment. I really want to have less stuff. I'm going to start sorting, ebaying, recycling, freecycling, and donating as much as possible this summer. I'm going to start with my stockpile of health and beauty products purchased for free or pennies. Donating to the food bank always ups my mood, as does clearing stuff out of the apartment.

5. Get fit. Between Wii Fit and my apartment complex's fitness room and pool, I have no excuse for not getting in shape this summer. I would like to lose a few pounds, but mostly I would like to feel stronger, stand taller, and Fight the blues.

6. Write. I want to get into the habit of writing every day again. It doesn't matter so much where I write or what I write, I think that will work itself out in the end, I just want to make sure that I write every single day.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

School's out for summer

School ended Friday. My grades are in, my classroom cleaned out, my forms signed, and my last check in the bank.

I wish I had more to say right now but my incredibly frugal plans for the next couple days mostly involve curling up on the couch and staring at a wall for a while.