Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Frugal February #29: Down With Disposables!

Disposable items are one of my favorite pet peeves.  American society is in love with the convenience of disposable.  Use it once, throw it away, forget it ever existed.  No washing, no storage. 

The irony of it is how Americans at the same time cry how tough the economy is, how tight finances are, how they have no 'disposable' income for enjoyable things, what a mess the environment is in, how landfills don't decompose as quickly as they are touted to, how we need to reduce our trash!

Well, down with disposables!  If you want disposable income to have fun with, you have to be disciplined enough to do the work of not using disposable items like paper plates, paper/styrofoam cups, disposable food storage containers, plastic water bottles, plastic baggies. . . 

At this little place here, just about everything that comes in as 'disposable' plastic ends up serving us for at least a year.  We wash, dry and reuse plastic cups; it's fun to be someone else when you reuse cups from a party or gathering where people have written their names on the cups in Sharpie. . .suddenly an eight year old girl becomes "Da Man", and a twelve year old boy can be "Aunt Alice" or "Grandma". 

We do the same with plastic knives, forks, spoons, water bottles, and all reclosable baggies get used dozens of times.  Gives you a laugh when you take a piece of last night's homemade pizza to work for lunch in a baggie that says "broccoli 2010".  At least, the strange look your co-worker gives you is funny.  Or, when the bully at school wants to know what little Junior has in his lunch (so he can swipe it) and Junior replies "broccoli", it's not a complete lie; that's what the bag says he has for lunch.

For the hardcore saver, ditch the disposable diapers and yes, even the conventional disposable feminine hygiene items.  Cloth diapers and cloth feminine napkins can be reused for years, not only saving you money by only having to purchase them once, but also by not having to pay to have them hauled away in the trash.

Cloth diapering I all ready talked a little bit about in my post Babies on The Cheap (Sept. 2011).  Cloth feminine napkins I hadn't come out about yet.  I've been using them for over a decade, and most of the original ones I made are still in action.  Since I didn't buy any fabric to make them out of, electing to use flannel scraps from pjs I made my kids, my only cost was the snaps.  And snaps are cheap.  You can get a whole card of them (ie dozens) for a couple bucks.

If you haven't heard of washable 'mama pads' before, well read on!  For even more enlightenment on the subject, do some research on the internet.  Tampon users, there's a reusable alternative for those too although I can't give first hand testimonial on that product.

For those of you who are totally grossed out, stop reading now.  If you're made of tougher stuff, read further.

I heard about washable pads around the time of Y2K.  Since bodily fluids don't freak me out, and my sensitive skin was horribly irritated by bleached paper disposable pads, I was intrigued with the idea of all cotton washable pads.

I found a pattern online, and,  after spending an hour or two of time doing a little cutting and sewing, I had enough washable pads to get me through my next period.

When the time was right, I tried them, a bit doubtful that they were truly as wonderful as what I had read online.  The claims about less cramping, lighter flow, and shorter periods when using cloth vs disposable pads; I was going to find out for myself if these were actually possible.

Here's what I discovered:
  • I didn't have irritation down there.  For the first time ever.  One negative aspect of being on my period was now deleted.
  • I definitely didn't bleed as heavily, or for as many days as what had been my 'normal' with traditional feminine products.  Who doesn't want shorter periods?
  • The cloth pads didn't feel any more bulky than the 'overnight' disposable ones.  And they were a lot softer.
Wow.  I was hooked.

Okay, so it wasn't all peachy.  There is a little thing called leakage that I had to learn to deal with, since we are talking about only several layers of cotton instead of a paper pad laced with moisture absorbing crystals and backed by plastic.

By monitoring the pad every couple of hours, it was easy to change it before any leaking occurred.  And for nighttime, I could make pads with a few more layers, pads with thicker 'wings' (where most leakage seemed to occur), or make special ones with a waterproof nylon backing.

But overall, I'm sold on cloth pads.  I've been using them for more than 10 years.  At home, at work, while traveling.  Like using cloth diapers, they do take some care and planning, especially for the times when you won't be home and need to change your pad.  But not impossible.  It's just learning a new habit.

When I look at how much one cycle's worth of disposable pads costs these days, it boggles my mind that I am using pads that cost me nothing (being made of scraps from other sewing projects) other than a bit of thread and a snap per pad and one load of soap and water for my washing machine.  (See my post of DIY laundry soap for savings there).  I'm still using some of that first set of pads, although some did get fairly thin over time, and I made a second batch so I'd have more.  Just the other day I made a few more to replace some of the oldest ones (I'll show pictures of the construction further down in this post) and to experiment a bit with thickening those wings for better leakage control overnight.

If you'd like to give these a try, and have sewing skills, there are websites that have printable patterns.  Just do a search for 'washable menstrual pads pattern'.  Or, if you have never sewn before and don't really care to learn just yet, there are many websites where you can order these pads.  Do a search for 'where to buy cloth menstrual pads'.

And now, here's a brief description of how I constructed mine.

It begins with scraps of flannel from other projects.  Or, in the case of the newest few that I made just this month, a flannel nightgown I got at a rummage sale for a quarter.  It was not the nightgown itself I wanted so much as the cheerful fabric it was constructed from. . .  Why not have some fun with your period?  Why not have suns and flowers and butterflies on your pads?

I laid out my patterns on the fabric (after cutting the nightgown apart at the seams) and cut the pieces.  6-8 layers for the thick pads  and 4 for lighter weight pads.  A bottom piece, and two top pieces (the top pieces overlap to make a pocket) to become a cover to put the pad into.

Then I sewed the layers of the each pad together, about 1/4 inch from the edges.

Once all the pads had been sewn together, it was time to sew the covers for them.  I conducted an experiment with this new batch of pads.  I'd decided to see if I could find a solution to occasional 'leakage' at the wings without having to resort to a non-cotton material (since my sensitive skin much prefers cotton).  So, one cover I made of double thick flannel on top and bottom, giving it 4 layers at the wings instead of just two.  A second cover I decided to sew pieces of an old towel into the wings and see if the terry cloth worked well.  The second cover is the one I took pictures of constructing.

To make the covers, you need a 1/2" hem on the pocket flap of each top piece.  Then, just put the bottom and tops (tops overlapping) together right sides in, and sew 1/4" around the edges.  Turn right side out, and that's all there is to it. 

For the cover with the towel liner, I sewed the liner into the wing of each 'top' piece. (Because when you use them, I've found it works best to actually have the top down and the 'bottom' up.  Confused yet?  The pad stays in the cover better this way no matter what kind of contortions you get yourself into while wearing it.)

Then just complete as with the instructions above, putting tops and bottom together right sides in, sew the edges, flip right side out, and you're done.  Sew a snap onto each wing, and the cover is finished.

To use, put the pad into the cover via the pocket. 

For more info or more detailed tutorials on making and using washable pads, do an internet search.  You'll find tons of reading material and several variations in design.

Have some fun with your pads!  Here is a picture of some of my covers (top), and pads (bottom).  All were made out of scrap fabric, be it outdoorsy bear, moose and camouflage, or more ladylike florals.  I used to have some with pink ballerina bears, but those were my first batch, made in 2001, and they've worn out by now.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Frugal February 28: Teenagers and Their Expenses

This frugal post is another one aimed at those of us who own teens.  The teen years should be fun, but don't necessarily have to be expensive.  Hopefully as you have raised them up this far, you have taught them some frugal habits, like not being afraid of hand me downs or second hand clothes, not having to follow the latest fads, having fun in old fashioned (non-electronic) and cheap ways. 

But there are uniquely teen things that do come up that are expensive.

Like cars.

You can buy your child their own, if you wish and can afford it.  Or, you can encourage them to work and save money to purchase one of their own.  Or, you can let your child earn the right to use yours from time to time.  Either way you chose, having a teen driver is going to increase your expenses.  Insurance being the one you have the least control over.  Not no control, however.  Talk with your insurance agent about the most affordable option for adding your teen to your policy.  Usually it is putting that child as driver on the oldest vehicle you have, with just minimal (known as PLPD around here) coverage.  Unless that older vehicle doesn't have safety features like air bags or anti-lock brakes, in which case it is actually cheaper to put them on a newer car.  Now, they don't actually have to drive that vehicle, mind you, their name just has to be attached to that one in the insurance files.

Parties.  Another thing that seems to go along with teens.  These don't have to be extravagant and expensive.  Got a big back yard?  Have a camp fire or bonfire.  Provide some music and a few munchies.  Let the kids hang out.  That's all they really want to do anyway--hang out with their friends and be seen by the opposite sex.  A basement will do the trick if your yard is lacking in size.

Prom.  This is a big deal.  Also an expensive deal.  But it doesn't have to break the bank.  In Frugal February #12 Bargain Clothing, I shared how I scored a prom dress in pristine condition for just $7.99.  If you own a teenage girl, keep your eyes open for used prom dresses.  They're out there, and not just in the spring.  Try Craigslist, consignment stores, thrift shops, eBay. . . don't be too shy to ask around of parents whose daughters are now in college.  I bet they'd love to off load those formals their daughters left at home and will never wear again.  Even for guys, you can save money on clothing.  Our school is rural enough that not many guys rent tuxes for Prom.  Most just wear a suit.  Some all ready own a suit that they wear to Sunday services at church.  If your son doesn't own a suit and wouldn't mind wearing one for prom, try the same places I suggested above for finding dresses.  Buy or borrow a tie that matches/compliments the color of his date's dress, and you're all set.  If your child and their date agree they don't care about flowers, then you can eliminate the cost of corsages and boutonnieres.  Girls can get together with their friends to do each other's hair, or seek out someone in cosmetology school (our local vocational ed has a program for this) willing to give them an updo for cheaper than a hair salon would charge.  Fancy cars or limos don't have to be rented to go arrive at the big dance in.  Maybe you know someone who trusts your teen enough to loan them a car for the night.  Or, perhaps your teen is perfectly happy driving their own car (helps if it's all ready some what sporty and red, with a manual transmission).  Or they can carpool with a friend who does have access to a 'cool' car.  Or a large van--one son had a friend whose parents owned a 12 passenger van; five couples rode to prom in their 'super tall limo'.

Graduation.  The cap and gown/announcement companies will try to take you for a bath on graduation items if you're not careful.  Think long and hard.  Does your child require anything more than a cap, gown and tassel for the ceremony and some announcements to send to relatives alerting them to the big day?  Have you had one child graduate all ready and a younger one who can reuse that robe?  (And cap if you still have it?)  DS1 is about 3 inches taller than DS2.  So, I hemmed his robe up a few inches and saved on having to buy one for DS2 to graduate in.  My girls are only 1 inch different in height from each other, so I am planning on reusing DD1's robe for DD2 when the time comes (here the girls wear a different color robe from the boys, otherwise you can bet I'd be doing some more alterations on the gown we all ready own!).

Announcements I do purchase, but not hundreds of them.  We get them mostly for giving to our close relatives. Those friends and family  who we know don't care so much about the actual commencement as the open house, we just give an open house announcement that we have designed and printed out ourselves on heavy duty paper or cardstock.  You can design your own at most online photo storage sites. I don't bother with the fancy initialed stickers or any of the other extras offered for purchase by the graduation supply company.  Years ago I bought a rubber stamp of a cap & tassel.  Inked up with some appropriate color ink for our school, that gets stamped on the back of each announcement envelope.  Cheap, fancy, and no need for stickers with our initial on them.  Plus, I can reuse it for all four kids!

I could go into more detail on graduation, and cover the party/open house itself, but that will be quite long.  I'll save that for it's own post this spring.

Teens can have a lot of fun without costing you tons of money.  They can drive, have parties, go to prom, and graduate in a frugal manner that won't detract at all from their enjoyment of these milestones.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Frugal February #27: Just Say No!

No to the extras.  No to the guilt trips.  No to the things you don't want to spend money on that others are trying to con you into.

Be honest, how many things do you spend time or money on because you are too nice to say "No"?  How often are you
  • hit up for donations to causes you don't care about or don't want to contribute to?
  • shopping for gifts you don't want to give in the first place?
  • driving miles you don't want to drive to go to places you don't want to be?
  • loaning money to family or friends and never getting repaid?
  • buying your kids things they don't need and that they get tired of within a few weeks?

Just say "NO"!

We tell this to our kids about drinking, about drugs, about sex, about all kinds of peer pressure stuff.  But do we actually say no to the above adult peer pressure-type things?

Saying "no" is not easy, and just because you are a grown up doesn't mean the person you say no to won't be upset with you or make you feel bad for turning them down.  I doubt, however, they will hold a grudge for long.  If they do, they have bigger issues than just your little "no."

If/when money is tight for you, you have every right to say no to requests for loans, donations, gifts, and extra driving to or from events.  You are responsible for yourself and your household (which includes your spouse and children, if you have them).  You need to meet those needs first (needs, not wants, in the case of children who beg for toys, treats, etc) before you hand out money to anyone else, no matter how much they wheedle or try to play on your sympathies or lay on a guilt trip.

If you are in a position where you have some extra cash that you would like to help someone else with, do it with forethought.  Determine the amount you have available to spend in that manner, and whom it will go to.  You can make charitable contributions, you can give out loans, you can give gifts, just do it according to the guidelines you have set up.  Then stop when you reach the end of your extra funds.  Don't feel bad about telling a bleeding heart phone caller that you're sorry, but you have all ready reached the limit of your charity for this year.  Don't feel bad about telling cousin Billy Bob (who never paid you back the last three loans you gave him) that the bank of you has closed down.

Or, alternately, do what DH and I finally learned to do after a few unrepaid loans to relatives: give the loan, but take collateral in return, and get it in writing.  That was how DH got his snowmobile--a loan to a relative we knew most likely wouldn't get repaid.  DH had been thinking about buying a snowmobile, and the relative asking us for money had one that was going to be put up for sale if he didn't find a source of cash fast.  So DH offered to make the loan, taking the snowmobile as collateral.  The deal was that if the loan was fully repaid within twelve months,  the relative got the snowmobile back.  If the relative chose not to repay the loan, DH would keep the snowmobile.

It's your money.  You probably worked pretty hard for it.  Don't let anyone make you feel bad for not forking out cash to their causes if you don't have the funds to, or the desire to. Contribute where you want, not where you don't.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Frugal February #26: How Many Pairs of Shoes Do You Need?

Ladies, this one is mostly for you.  Although I do know of a few guys who love shoes.  But mostly, it's women who like to have shoes for every occasion, real or imaginary.

I have more footwear now than I ever have in my life.  A whopping 17 pair. Mostly because my feet have been the same size for over 14 years, since DD2 was born, and some of my dress shoes are that old.  Partially it's because I need work boots that I didn't need years ago--mud/waterproof ones for spring, sturdy hiking type for summer and fall, warm ones for hunting and winter farm chores.  Some of it is because I'm not afraid of lightly used hand-me-down or second hand shoes. Some is because as sandals or tennis shoes get too worn out to be seen in public, they become chore/barn wear for around this little place here, not getting thrown out until they are totally disintegrated.  And, once in a while,as I've come across really great deals, I've expanded my shoe collection to include brown loafers that make even jeans look dressy and some fun zip-up boots that go with skirts or leggings.  I wear many hats: farmer/homesteader, dressage rider, mom, church-goer, wife, deer hunter, and occasionally high school and middle school (substitute) secretary.  Many hats require many different types of footwear.  Can you imagine showing up to church or school in my mud and manure bathed shit kickers?!?

But for many, many years I had just the essentials: a pair of tennis shoes, a pair of black dress shoes, a pair of white dress shoes, a pair of sandals for summer, and a pair of warm winter boots.  Those covered pretty much every occasion I needed footwear for at the time, and so money went for more important things than slingbacks, pumps, or "fun" shoes.

My kids have always had the same selection: a pair of dress shoes (aka 'church shoes'), tennis shoes for school, boots for winter, sandals for summer.  DH, again, had just as small an assortment.

When we needed specialized footwear we didn't all ready own, such as soccer cleats when the kids played on the school soccer team, track spikes for the school track team, riding boots for horseback riding, or waterproof tall boots for slogging around the homestead in the spring, we looked for bargains and purchased them.  But frivolous footwear, those shoes we didn't have a need for, just a want, were not in the cards.  Too many other more important things in need of our money.

So, if money is tight, take a look in your closet before you go shoe shopping next time.  Do you all ready own something that will work?  Do you really need a fourth pair of black heels just because these new ones are 3 inches instead of 2.5?  Or because the new ones have a slimmer heel than the ones you bought 5 years ago and have rarely worn?  Black shoes and white shoes will carry a woman through the entire year of dress occasions--professional attire for the office, footwear for weddings or other special events, shoes to wear to church.  Navy, brown, taupe, and other colors are all nice to have, but not essential.  Those are extras, not needs.

Take an inventory of your shoes, boots, and sandals.  Do you really need to purchase any this year?  Or could you take that 'shoe money' and put it toward something else?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Frugal February #25: College Costs

Teenagers and parents of teens, this one's for you!  How do you save money on college costs?

We told our kids years ago, like about age 10-12, that we would not be paying for them to go to college.  That no one had paid for DH's education, or mine, except ourselves.  That our children should plan on working hard in school, getting good grades, applying for scholarships, and also think about taking on part time employment through their teen years.  That life was not a free ride, and neither was college.

Tough stuff, and not very PC.  One son chose the military.  He knew he didn't care for school, and didn't have the patience or self-discipline to get through four years of college, let alone four years of good grades in college.  It was the right choice for him, and now, in his last year of service, and five years more mature and disciplined, he is looking at the possibility to getting out of the military and going to college on the GI Bill.   Or, staying in the military, going to college, becoming an officer, and retiring at the ripe old age of 38 with a full military pension.  Then he could take his degree and his experience, get a job in the civilian world for 20 more years, and retire again at 58 with two pensions.

Second son is an overachiever, and loves to see A+ next to his name.  He did very well in school.  He applied for many, many scholarships, but unfortunately received few (being a 'not poor white boy', truthfully and again not at all PC, is rather a detriment in the competitive world of grants and scholarships).  He did receive some funds based on his graduating valedictorian from high school.  But mostly the way he has funded his college education was by working extra hard in high school, taking AP courses (and scoring well enough on those finals to get college credits, eliminating 4 required college classes) and doing dual-enrollment through the local community college for his junior and senior years.  He has also taken out a student loan, with DH and I as co-signers.  His loan, his education, his responsibility for his own future.

From personal experience then, I can talk to you about four ways to cut the cost of college:
  • joining the military
  • taking AP classes
  • doing dual-enrollment while still in high school
  • starting your bachelor's degree at community college, then transferring to a 4-year university.
Military: don't discount it.  Especially if you (teen/young adult) or your child (parents) is not fond of school or does not have a good track record with completing and turning in homework.  Four years of military life can make just about anyone into an organized, responsible, goal-oriented person.  And the government will then assist with or cover the cost of college.  Four years is a drop in the bucket if you look at the big picture.  How many of us have spent four years piddling away our time, energy, and money at something?  Why not spend four years doing something that not only pays you to do it, gives you a place to live during that time and medical/dental/vision insurance (not to mention life insurance), but also gives you money for your education?

AP classes, if you can score well enough on the exams, are a great way to save money on college tuition.  Yes, you still have to pay the exam fee ($80 per AP class this year for DD1), but you save the cost of the class and the textbook by not having to take that same course in college.  Three credit hours times however much your child's college of choice charges per credit hour most likely is much more than $80.  And have you looked at the cost of the average book for college? 

Dual-enrollment you do have to purchase the textbooks and other materials for, but you do not have to pay tuition for.  That is covered by the public school district, and that money is provided by (your) taxes.  DS2 took about 15 credits of dual-enrollment.  At a cost of $79 per credit, he saved $1185 by taking those courses through dual-enrollment while in high school instead of waiting until he graduated and officially went to college.  Actually, if you look at the cost his 4-year university charges per credit ($857 per credit according to their website), he saved himself $12,855.  That's a boatload of money!

Community College: Even if your child is not able to take AP classes or do dual-enrollment in high school, don't despair.  Most 4 year degrees can begin at community college, then transfer to a university to finish up.  That is how DH did his college education.  He went as far as he could at community college (and met me, lol, so not sure in the long run what his savings was because he picked up a wife and eventually four kids!) then transferred to the same college DS2 attends now and only had to do two years at the higher tuition cost of the specialized college.

If you have young children, it's never too early to start looking into options for financing their educations.  We were never in a position to contribute to college funds for our kids (the plan we had burst with the housing market bubble right when the eldest was finishing high school), but we have assisted in financing their college through knowing the options (and co-signing their student loans).

Friday, February 24, 2012

Frugal February #24: Home Brew

Mmmm, beer!  Do you like beer?  If yes, read on!  If no, what is it that you don't like?  Barring religious objections, is it a flavor issue? 

Once upon a time, I did not drink beer.  In fact, until I was 30 I refused to drink beer.  The few times I had tasted it, I did not like it, and I'm not one of those people who can choke down something yucky tasting just to be polite.  Peer pressure has nothing on picky eaters (or picky drinkers, lol).  So, no beer for me. 

Then in early 2002, DH took me on a trip to Montana, and while there I tried a microbrew.  He'd been raving about them for a few years, and had even started brewing his own.  The one he had on that trip was a different style than what he usually drank, and he offered me a taste, telling me I might actually like it.  I had to admit, it smelled pretty good.  So, I tasted some of what he was drinking that night.

One sip and I was in love!  It was so good, so unlike any beer I'd ever tasted before.

I changed my mind.  It's not that I don't like beer, it's that just like with food, I don't like bland, tasteless, watery beer!  I don't like common beer.  I don't like mass produced, commercial beer.  I like craft beer.  I like quality stuff, lol.  Especially quality stuff I can personalize.  (And yes, I've attempted to make my own Moose Drool, but have come to the conclusion that Michigan water does not taste quite the same as Montana water when making beer.  Close, but not identical.  Anybody from Montana want to come for a visit and bring me about 20 gallons of water?)

This post is about making your drinking (especially your craft beer drinking) more frugal by home brewing.  It's not all that complicated, and it's fun.  Kind of like playing with a chemistry set that you get to drink the concoctions from.  :0) 

The most expensive part is getting started and amassing the equipment.  There are many ways to do this, and being creative can help--like making a wort chiller out of copper tubing from the home improvement store instead of buying one ready made. . . or making a mashtun out of an old igloo cooler and some pvc pipes and a ball valve. . . or using that turkey fryer you fried a turkey in exactly once, to boil your malt and hops.  After you've got the basic stuff, let the savings begin!

We began home brewing in 2000.   I got the kit--carboy, bottling bucket, racking cane (the siphon you use to get the beer from the carboy into the bottling bucket), capper, hydrometer, thief (what you use to get a sample from your fermenter for taking a gravity reading with the hydrometer), and a couple dozen bottles, for $7.50 at a garage sale.  The same kit that cost, at that time, over $100 brand new at the local homebrew store.  Those who scoff at garage sales really should keep an open mind.  They're more than old tools, musty books, knick knacks, outdated clothes and cassette tapes from the '80s.  Especially the ones in fancy subdivisions where the homeowners must have the latest fads but then don't use them.  We all ready owned some large pots (like 4 & 5 gallon sized ones) since we had four kids and were used to cooking in big quantities, and the first few years we brewed on the stove in the kitchen.

Over time, we moved the brewing out of the house.  In the summer, it's done on the patio at the back of the house.  In the winter or in inclement weather, it's done in the garage, with the doors partially open for ventilation.  DH is dreaming of the day he can erect a brew haus at this little place here, complete with running water and heat piped in from the outdoor wood boiler in the winter. Maybe in another year or two. . .sooner if we can get ahold of some more free lumber!

We've progressed from the ready-made kits with malt syrup, yeast and hops included to buying 50 pound bags of barley, specialty grains by the pound, and doing whole grain brewing. We also grow our own hops now too. We own a malt mill, several carboys, a keg converted to a 10 gallon brew kettle (complete with ball valve on one side near the bottom), a wort chiller, a mashtun, a few 5 gallon 'cornie' kegs, a CO2 system and a fridge with taps in the side of it.  Not to mention several books with recipes for different styles of beer.  Oh, and DH's Christmas present from DS2 last December: a periodic table of beer. (It's a homebrewing/engineering kind of thing DS2 discovered at that engineering college he attends).

Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures to share the beer making process with you. . .mainly because I'm usually too busy assisting in the brewing to remember to take pictures of each step.  But I'm sure there are lots of tutorials out there on the internet if you do a search for them.

If you like fancy beer (in other words, it doesn't come mass produced in aluminum cans, and there are no commercials on TV for it), becoming a home brewer is a step toward long term frugality in your beverage consumption.  Brewing 5 gallons for about the price of a case of lesser quality beer just can't be beat.  Beer is, afterall, mostly water, so why pay an arm and a leg for somebody else's flavored water? Take your own water, add grains, hops, and yeast, and make some beer!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Frugal February #23: TV--How Much Do You Really Need?

Do you subscribe to cable or dish TV?  How much does that cost you each month?  How much TV, in hours, do you actually watch in that month?  How many channels do you watch regularly?

At this little place here, we don't pay for TV.  We have a set of rabbit ears, and with those we get in more channels than we actually watch.  At last count, we got reception, depending on the weather and where we position those ears, for about 20 channels.  We only watch about 5 of them.

The decision not to pay for TV came many, many years ago.  When DH was still in college, when we lived in the Upper Peninsula and only got one channel with our rabbit ears, we tried cable for a month.  One month.  It was a free installation and free one month trial. It was a classic marketing game: give them something free in order to get them hooked into long term payments. Because what college aged people wouldn't want more than one television channel and be willing to pay for cable? 

Well, apparently two: me, and DH.  After our one month trial was up, we called the cable company and told them to disconnect it.  Because we had learned that even with dozens of TV channels available, we only cared to watch three of them regularly.  One was the one we'd always gotten reception for.  One was the Weather Channel (boy, we were wild!).  The third was Country Music Television.  We realized we didn't need to watch CMT all day long, and once you've seen the weather forecast for the next 24 hour period, you don't need an update every 15 minutes (especially in the U.P.--today: snow, tomorrow: snow, day after tomorrow: snow).  So why pay for TV?

About eight years later, Mother-In-Law gave us a $100 gift certificate to an appliance store one Christmas, with the instructions that we were supposed to spend it on a satelite dish so we could "get more TV channels".  At that time, our rabbit ears were pulling in about five. We really only watched three, and the kids were allowed to watch one of those: PBS. DH and I discussed it, and decided we really didn't want satellite TV.  It took some explaining to Mother-In-Law, but we used that gift certificate toward part of the price of a new bed instead (ours was getting to be in bad shape, having been another hand-me-down we'd gotten along the way). 

She had the hardest time trying to understand why we didn't want more TV.  Alot of people don't understand.  Maybe you don't understand.

You might say "But it's only $50 a month" (or however much it costs, I really don't know.  We don't even look at those offers when they come in the mail.)  Think about the math for a minute.  $50 a month is $600 in a year.  In ten years, it's $6,000.  In twenty years (how long it's been since DH & I tried cable), it's $12,000.  You can buy a car for that much.  In some areas, you can buy a house for that much!  You can attend college for an entire year for that much at many institutions of higher education.

Do you really need more TV channels than you can pull in with an antenna for free?  Do you really need to spend thousands of dollars in the next decade just so you can watch TV?  Wouldn't you rather pay cash for a new car, or be able to pay a chunk of change for a house instead of having to take out a thirty-year mortgage for one?  What about a brand new living room set, or a kitchen remodel ten years from now instead of paying for TV in that time frame?  Or one year of college loan-free for your child?

Not only is it cash out of your pocket, it's time out of your life.  How many hours of TV do you watch now?  How many of it is spent on channels you can only get through cable or satelite?  What could you be doing with those hours instead of staring at a TV screen?

Give it a long, hard thought.  How much TV do you really need?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Frugal February #22: Kid's Birthday Parties

Here's something that must be a secret, because it doesn't seem like too many modern parents know about it.  Kids' birthday parties don't have to be extravagant or expensive.  You don't have to invite dozens of guests.  You don't have to rent a place.  You don't even have to buy a big fancy cake.

Nope.  Birthday parties are the ultimate DIY.  Especially for younger children who are just as happy with a cake Mom baked and wrote 'Happy Birthday Junior' on and a pinata hanging from the tree in the backyard.  Even older kids can have fun parties that don't require noisy play places with greasy pizza or dark rooms with vests and laser guns.  Party favors don't have to--and shouldn't--break the bank.  If I'm giving out goodie bags valued at twice as much as the presents the guests are bringing Junior, I'm doing something wrong.

Here are some ideas for children's birthday parties, based on what my four kids have had through the years.  If you have a house with a big room or a garage, or in nice weather, a yard, you're all set for space.  No need to rent one.  Remember, for children's parties, the idea is for everyone to have a good time and not go home crying.  The idea is not to have the biggest, most talked about party in the town.  A party doesn't need to be extravagant to be enjoyable.  It doesn't need to cost you an arm and a leg.  Be creative, be frugal.  Use what you have.  For several years we owned a pony.  At DD2's fifth birthday party, we used him to give pony rides.  We borrowed a Polaroid camera, and each guest went home with a photograph of themself on the pony.  Did they feel disappointed they didn't get pizza, arcade games and a giant ball pit?  Not hardly.

How Many Guests?
As a rule of thumb, little kids don't need to have parties with more guests than however many years old they are.  It gets too overwhelming for them. 
  • So, for a three year old, three guests is more than adequate.  Of course, when doing your invitations, keep in mind that not everyone who is invited will be able to attend.  You might want to draw up a guest list of 5-6 preschoolers, with the hopes that 3 of them will actually show up. 
  • After elementary school, that number doesn't necessarily increase in direction correlation with age (age in years = number of guests).  In fact, for the middle school years, ten to twelve guests is too many.  Too big of a chance for cliques to form, with ensuing hurt feelings (especially if you are having a party for girls).  A handful to seven or eight guests in attendance is plenty.  Actually, for middle school girls, a sleepover with a total of three to five real good friends works best.  They'll have fun just listening to music, doing each other's hair, giving make-overs, and watching movies.
  • Teens go either way.  Small and intimate best buddies parties work well, but then again, if you're brave and want to throw something co-ed, a large crowd actually works better (as long as you have enough chaperone eyeballs to keep track of them all!) than eight to twelve party goers.
What Do I Do With Them?
Okay, now that we've established population density, let's talk party games!  First, are you having an indoor party or an outdoor one?  Indoors, you will, of necessity, want to keep things calmer and quieter.
  •  Pin the tail on the donkey (monkey, dinosaur, cat, whatever animal you can recognizably draw on a big sheet of paper tacked to the wall) is a good game from preschool thorough about age seven. 
  • Dropping clothes pins from waist height into a wide-mouth jar works up to age 12 or so. Believe it or not, 12 year olds will find it kind of cool because they probably haven't ever seen this game before.  You can also use a narrower mouthed jar to increase the difficulty.
  • Cotton ball on a wooden spoon and speed walked from one end of the room to another will work indoors for preschool through middle schoolers. 
  • Don't forget the classic musical chairs.  This is also good for a wide range of ages.
  • Telephone.  You know, the game where you set in a circle and the 'leader' whispers a sentence or phrase into the ear of the person on their right, who then whispers what they heard (or thought they heard) into the ear of the person on their right, and so on around the circle until the last person says it out loud, and it's so far off from what the leader said (who then tells everyone what it started as) that everyone laughs and wants to do it again with a different leader that time.
  • Memory--collect about a dozen small items and put them on a cookie sheet or in a baking dish.  Cover it with a towel.  Set all the kids in front of it, then uncover for a minute or two.  At the end of that time, put the towel back on.  Now give each kid a piece of paper and a pencil.  Give them 3-5 minutes to write down as many of those items as they can remember.  This works with all kids old enough to write (even teens, increase difficulty by increasing number of items).
  • For older kids, write the first, middle, and last name of the birthday person on a sheet of paper for each guest.  Give them 5 minutes to see how many words they can make using only the letters of the birthday boy or girl's name, and the letters can only be used as many times as they appear in the name.
  • You can also do creative activities.  Let the kids decorate their own goodie bags--use plain brown paper lunch sacks and markers, stickers, stencils, glue, glitter, etc. 
  • Bake some sugar cookies ahead of time, and let the kids frost and decorate them. 
  • Or instead of serving cake, bake cupcakes and let each guest frost and decorate (then eat with ice cream!) their own.

Outdoors, the possibilities are only limited by what you have on your property. 
  • A pinata.  In my opinion, even adults like whacking a pinata and releasing the candy held inside.  So this one is for all ages old enough to swing a stick and stay on their feet while blindfolded.
  • Duck Duck Goose for preschool through first grade or so.
  • Wheelbarrow races
  • potato sack races
  • three-legged races--even teens will do these! 
  • Get two suitcases or duffel bags and fill each one with adult sized pants, shirt, belt, hat, tie, shoes, etc.  Make sure each suitcase has an identical number of items.  Then split the guests into two teams and it's a dress-up relay!  First person on each team must run to the suitcase, put on all items in the suitcase, then once dressed, take all items back off again, put them back into the suitcase, and run it to the next person on their team. Next person runs to the original location of the suitcase, puts on the clothes, takes off the clothes, runs the suitcase to the third person, and so on.  First team done wins. 
  • Have a scavenger hunt, either using cell phones to take pictures of the items, or give each team a bucket to retrieve items with.  We've hunted for things like a dandelion, a chicken (or bird) feather, a pink rock, a maple leaf, a pine cone, a stick, an apple, a purple flower, a rock the size of your fist. . . try to have at least six items for younger guests and a dozen for older kids.
  • Send them on a wild goose chase: write 5-6 coded messages (provide a decoder key) and stick them in various locations around your property.  Each message will send them to the next location for the next message.  Final message could tell them to head to the kitchen or picnic table for cake & ice cream, or be a riddle for them to solve for a prize.
  • For younger kids with summer birthdays, sprinkler parties are a hit. 
  • For older kids, have the party in the evening and light a campfire they can roast hot dogs and marshmallows over. 
  • For teens, a bonfire is popular.  So is playing tag or hide and seek in the dark.  (Keep an eye on those kids, lol, you may need to invite some chaperones along with the guests).
  • This one won't be possible for most people, but, if you live way out there, and check first with parents to make sure it's okay with everyone, chaperoned target shooting goes over really well with the teenaged set.  We've done both skeet shooting (for the experienced or more brave), and stationary target shooting (for beginners or those who are shy).  A thirteen year old girl who explodes a jug filled with water will go home and brag to her dad and her brothers.  I guarantee she'll never forget that one party she went to where she got to shoot a .22 (or a 20 gauge!).

What About Party Favors?
Party favors, I confess to phasing out in the middle school age.  In my opinion, at that age it's more about getting together and having fun than taking home trinkets. By age ten or so, kids aren't so enamored by little plastic gifts.  Some things older kids do like would be post-it pads, nail polish (for girls, of course), glitter pens and markers, gum and small chocolate candies. Boys like bouncy balls, hacky sacks, decks of cards,  maybe a matchbox car. For younger kids, we've given pocket-sized notepads or drawing pads, stickers, cool pencils (you know, not plain yellow or orange ones, but brightly colored and wildly patterned ones), gum, etc.

Think outside the box.  Don't look in the yellow pages for party facilities.  Instead, look in your photo albums and remember the sorts of things you did at parties when you were growing up.  If you really are having a creative block and can't think of anything, go ahead and search the internet for ideas.  Just don't get sucked into signing up for a $12 per guest party package at a place that gives you a headache from all the screaming kids.  My goodness, for a quarter of that  (or even less!) you can give your child a great, fun, party in the peace of your own home.  And you'll save gas by not having to drive there and back, lol.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Frugal February #21: Stop Needless Driving

This was not an easy lesson for me to learn.  I was used to jumping in the car and running here or there for this item today, and doing the same for a different item tomorrow.  Then cash got tight.  The economy went sour.  Gas prices soared.  DH's job became no longer a sure thing as the company he worked for struggled with looming bankruptcy. We needed to pinch pennies even tighter than normal.  He had to pound it into my head to stop driving around more than necessary.  I needed to plan my excursions, to be efficient with my gas usage.

Now, however, it's second nature.  Even my kids know there will be no impulse trips to the grocery store.  When they are asked to bring a food item for a school or sports function, they think not of "oh, Mom can run to the store and buy whatever I sign up for", but "I should volunteer to bring such and such because I know we all ready have it at home or have the ingredients to make it."  So they never sign up for the 'easy' things like a couple 2-liters of pop or a bag of potato chips.  They volunteer for the 'difficult' things like 2 pounds of taco meat or 3 dozen decorated sugar cookies.  Or veggie platters in the early fall, when the garden is still pumping out cucumbers, carrots, celery and peppers.  Sweetened whipped cream for the AP English class tea party.  Chocolate sauce for an ice cream sundae party (chocolate sauce recipe to follow; it's another cheap and easy thing to make from scratch).

Think of all the places you go on a regular basis.  How many of those places are not on your normal route to work or school?  How many times a week do you find yourself driving to those places anyway?  Is there any reason you couldn't go to all the places in a certain area once a week (or a few times a month) instead of almost daily? 

From this little place here, there are two main directions I go regularly. One is south, the other is north.  I try my darnedest to do everything needed at the south direction in one trip.   Same for the north.  That way I'm running each way once a week (or less), which saves a bunch of gas.  It also saves time since my closest destination in each direction is about 20 minutes one way.  By running south once a week instead of three times, I'm saving myself 80 minutes (driving time for 2 round trips) and several gallons in gas .  I can use that saved time for other frugal things, like cooking and bartering, and that saved gas money can go toward paying our mortgage down faster, or into a 'fun fund' for a family trip.

Can you reduce trips by planning them more and doing impulse driving less?  How much money and time could you save?  Give it a thought.


Homemade Chocolate Sauce
1 1/3 cups unsweetened cocoa
2 1/4 cups sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/3 cups boiling water
1 1/2 tsp vanilla

In a sauce pan, mix the cocoa, sugar, and salt.  Slowly stir in the boiling water (must be boiling, not just hot from the tap).  Turn the burner to medium, and stir contents of pot frequently until smooth and slightly thickened, roughly 10 minutes.  It does not have to come to a boil, and shouldn't, because if you let it boil it will splatter and burn you while you stir it.  When thickened, turn off the heat and stir in the vanilla. 

Your sauce is now ready to use.  Store it in the fridge in a covered container for up to 3 months, but I bet you will have used it all up by then.  Especially if your kids discover it makes really good chocolate milk.  ;0)

Monday, February 20, 2012

Frugal February #20: Pizza From Scratch

You've read mentions in my blog more than once about making pizza from scratch.  Like most cooking, it's not so much complicated and mystical as just deciding you are going to do it, and perfecting the technique through practice.  The dough is the hardest part, and that's not even so difficult.  If you rip it while stretching, well, just patch it best that you can.  Eat the pizza with a fork, if you have to (been there, done that).  It will still be edible and you can try again next week or next month.  Practice makes perfect.

Why make pizza from scratch?  Well, it's a heck of a lot cheaper than ordering it.  It tastes a heck of a lot better than frozen pizza from the grocery store.  It's also a lot healthier--no preservatives--you have more control over what goes into and on it, and you can adjust for your dietary needs or desires.  Want healthier crust?  Use whole wheat flour.  Looking to cut calories?  Use less cheese, or make it thin crust instead of thick.  Want less grease?  Skip the pepperoni and sausage, or maybe use a different kind, like turkey sausage.  Want flavored crust?  Add herbs to the dough, or sprinkle seasonings on the edges just before putting the pizza into the oven. Not so fond of tomato based sauces?  I made a pizza with yogurt once, for kicks, and it was awesome (plain yogurt for the sauce, feta, romano, parmesan and mozzarella cheeses, and tons of veggies and garlic for toppings).

Pizza making is another thing that can be a fun family activity.  Especially if you let the kids make their own personal pizzas--give each one a hunk of dough to stretch into their very own pizza crust, and let them put their choice of toppings on it.  Mine have been doing this since before they were old enough to go to school.  Each, in turn, has gotten a kick out of classmates who say "You mean, you can make pizza?!?  You don't have to buy it?"

I've posted my homemade pizza sauce recipe before, but I'll add it in here so it's easy to access with the pizza making directions.

Pizza Sauce
1 15 oz can tomato sauce
1 6 oz can tomato paste
1/4 cup red wine (optional, but really adds to the flavor and the alcohol cooks off, if that's a concern to you)
2 tsp onion powder
1 tsp dried basil
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried parsley flakes
1/2 tsp fennel seed
1/2 tsp garlic
1/2 tsp salt

Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan.  Bring to a boil, turn down heat and simmer about 10 minutes.  Makes approx. 3 cups of sauce.  Leftover sauce stores well for about two weeks in the fridge. 

Leftover sauce is great for pizza sandwiches, french bread pizzas, mini pizzas using leftover hot dog or hamburger buns, pizza roll-ups using tortillas & cheese, dipping breadsticks in . . . use your imagination and that leftover sauce will never end up a fuzzy (literally) memory in the back of the fridge.

Pizza Crust Dough
1 cup very warm water (about 110 degrees)
1 packet or 2 tsp yeast
1 Tbsp sugar
2 Tbsp veggie oil
1/2 tsp salt
2 3/4 to 3 1/4 cups flour

Dissolve the yeast in the water.  Pour into a large bowl, then add sugar, oil, salt and 1 cup of the flour.  Stir well, until mixture is not lumpy.  Add remaining flour, 1 cup at a time, until dough is workable and not sticky.  Place on a lightly floured surface, and knead about 5 minutes, adding more flour if necessary.  Put in a greased bowl, cover with a cloth, and let rise in a warm place about 30 minutes or until dough is doubled.

Then you get to commence pizza assembly!  Heat your oven to 425 degrees.
 Grease a large pizza pan or two smaller pans.  The pizza I show in my pictures below is made in a 14" pan.  If you want 2 big pizzas, double the dough recipe; sauce should be enough as is.  Lightly sprinkle pan(s) with cornmeal.  Punch down risen dough.  If making two pizzas, divide dough in half.  Otherwise, just start stretching the dough with your hands, shooting for a shape about 1/2 the size of your pan.  When you've stretched the dough to that point, place it on the pan and continue stretching evenly to edges of pan.  Form the crust edges by rolling the extra dough (hopefully you've got some extra when you get the whole pan covered) upward and pinching with finger and thumb into a 'lip' on the edge of the pan.

Now I take a fork and stab the pizza all over, to prick the crust and keep it from forming large air bubbles while cooking.  Don't forget to do the edges and the very center, too.

At this point, I stick the pan of crust into the oven to pre-bake for 7-8 minutes before I put the toppings on.  This lets the crust get about half done so that you don't end up with brown cheese before your crust is cooked all the way through.

After 7-8 minutes in the oven, I take the crust out and proceed to butter the edges and sprinkle them with garlic powder (or whatever your favorite flavored crust tastes like).  Then I apply sauce to the rest of the pizza.

Once you have the sauce on, add your favorite toppings.  I start with some freshly shredded parmesan and romano cheeses, and a sprinkling of mozzarella.  Then it's pepperoni, ham, mushrooms, onions, green peppers, olives (the olives go on DH's half--not on mine!).

You can, of course, put on whatever toppings you like.  It's your pizza!  Customizing it is half the fun of making it.  Sometimes I fry up some sausage or bacon and put that on.  Other times I throw hot pepper rings on DH's side.  My girls don't care for green peppers or onions, so they usually have ham and mushrooms or just pepperoni.

After you have your selection of goodies on your pizza, cover it with a layer of cheese as thick as you like.  Since I 'sandwich' the toppings between two layers of cheese, I don't put a very heavy layer of cheese on the top.  I want to see where those olives are so I don't cut it the wrong way! 

Then put the whole thing in the oven for about 10 minutes.  When the crust is lightly browned on the bottom--check by sliding a spatula or pizza cutter under one edge and gently lifting up--your pizza is done cooking.

Because you partially baked the crust before adding the toppings, when the crust is browned on the underside, the top will be beautiful, like this:

Since the main idea of pizza from scratch is saving money by not having to order pizza, here are some tips to keep the cost of your toppings down:

I buy pepperoni from the local meat store.  At their deli counter, I buy it by the pound and have them slice it to the thickness we prefer.  I believe last time I bought some (I stick it in the freezer, and can get 3-4 pizza dinners out of a pound of pepperoni) it was $5.99 a pound. The slices are as big as slices of lunch meat, so I cut each piece of pepperoni into quarters before using. Compare that to the cost of those little 3-4 ounce packages of pepperoni circles at the store, and it's a big savings. 

I also buy blocks of cheese and shred it myself, versus buying shredded cheese.  It usually works out to be cheaper per pound, plus you don't have extra additives to keep the cheese 'free flowing'.  Or, if you don't care about those additives, buy shredded cheese on sale and put it in the freezer until you want to use it.

Peppers from your garden (or in season from the farmers market/store) can be diced, flash frozen on cookie sheets, then put into reclosable freezer bags.  All year long you can have pourable peppers to put on your pizza, in your omelets, etc for cheaper than buying 'fresh' ones at the grocery store, especially in the winter.  Or, learn to check your store's discounted produce area.  I often score peppers there for cheap--like a bag of 3 red ones that are just starting to wither for 99 cents total versus 1.99 each for ones in prime condition. 

If you buy yeast in bulk (by the ounce, or in 1 or 2 pound packages), you can save a bundle over buying it in those single use packets.  It stores well in the fridge, and larger quantities will freeze with no detriment to the effectiveness of the yeast.

You can have great pizza for cheaper than high quality take out.  It just takes a little time and effort on your part.  Instead of popping a frozen pizza into the oven for 25 minutes, spend 25 minutes working on building one from scratch.  It will only take 20 minutes to cook, so total time from thinking about making pizza to actually eating pizza will be less than an hour once you get the hang of making and stretching the dough.  Give it a try!

Frugal February #19: Barter

This is a corollary of sharing.  Bartering is another old timey thing that shouldn't die out.  It's enormously frugal, and it can build community.  Bartering is where two people trade services or items even-Steven, no money involved.  There are endless possibilities.

I love to barter.  I often have more time than extra cash, so bartering is my favorite currency.  When my kids were small, I had several people I would barter babysitting with.  I would watch their kids in exchange for them watching mine an equal number of hours on a different day.  That worked great for another mom of four, and boy, what a blast eight kids had together!  For my sister-in-law with only two children, sometimes I would watch hers for double the time she watched mine, but sometimes not (sometimes her two were more trouble than my four, lol!). 

I once, back in the days when I used WIC, had a mom friend who also received WIC.  Back then, my family didn't eat many eggs, but loved breakfast cereal.  My friend's family didn't care for cereal, but loved eggs.  So, after we'd done our shopping with our WIC coupons, we'd barter my eggs for her cereal.  Not sure if this was technically legal according to the rules of WIC, but it worked fine for us (and I never told anyone until now.  I'm pretty sure the statute of limitations has run out.)

Once, DH and I bartered tree trimming and brush removal for a used car.  We had a chainsaw and knowledge, someone we knew had an older car they didn't need and a yard full of trees needing pruning and/or removal.  So the three of us worked out a deal.  DH and I gave about 10 hours of tree care and hauled off the wood and brush, and we received a 14 year old car with low mileage in exchange.

We've bartered labor for knowledge and experience in several areas.  Car repairs.  Deer processing.  Home building.  Cement work. 

I've bartered hair cuts for groceries.  Baked goods for raw honey.  Rides for my children to or from school or sports practices with the same--you take my kids in, I'll pick yours up when I go to get mine.

You've got talents that others are probably looking for.  You've got time that maybe someone else doesn't.  Somebody you know has something you wish you had.  See what kind of barters you can work out.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Frugal February #18: Share and Share Alike

Here's an old frugal concept: share your belongings.  Kids are expected to do this.  At least, I hope they still are.  Mine have always shared.  We expected them to, and saw it as a life lesson.  Mine shared bedrooms, and toys, and as they got older, sports gear and cars.  Sometimes they even shared clothes and friends. 

There was no such thing as a TV in each bedroom.  Until things went digital, we had only one TV, and it was in the living room.  Talk about sharing!  You had to coordinate who got to use it when for TV viewing, movie watching, or video game playing.  We bought a digital TV in late 2007, and the old analog one went into the basement. . .without rabbit ears, so it did not get any stations.  It was (and still is) strictly for movies and video games. 

Same with computers.  My two sons have computers of their own. . .which they bought for themselves after they graduated high school and moved away from home.  The rest of us at this little place here share one laptop.  Gets a little complicated sometimes, when someone has research to do or a large paper to write for school, but we work it out.  Much cheaper to share than to shell out $$ for each person to have their own computer at this point.  DD1 is planning to use some of the money she will receive as graduation gifts this coming June toward purchasing her own computer when she heads off to college in August.  She is all ready researching what she needs in a computer, and looking for the best deal possible.

Adults can share too.  Just because you're a grown up doesn't mean you can't share.  Adults can share not just with their spouse and children (in the case of our TV and computer), but also with friends, neighbors, and extended family members.

As an example, we have several items that we share with friends or other family members.  Tools.  Our pig  roaster.  A smoker.  A commercial grade meat grinder.  Our 16' utility trailer.  Our Suburban, from time to time.

And those friends and family members have shared their things with us, when we needed them, and asked.  A laser transit.  A utility trailer before we purchased our own larger one.  A toddler sized bed.  A PTO powered post-hole digger.  DS1 even got to borrow a restored 1969 GTO to drive his date to the senior prom.  That was one awesome case of sharing!!

Sharing is frugal.  Sharing helps you, or your friend or relative you are sharing with, save money by borrowing an item for a short while rather than having to go buy or rent an identical one.  If you are only going to use it once, or for a few weeks or months, why purchase one when someone you know and trust (and who trusts you) all ready owns one.

Share and share alike.  It's frugal.  It's friendly.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Frugal February # 17: Game Night

Wondering how to have some fun at home on a Friday night or a weekend?  How about a game night!  Instead of paying to go out and be entertained, stay in and have some fun playing board games or card games.  Invite some friends.  Invite some neighbors.  Make it a potluck meal!  Everyone brings a dish to pass and a game to play.

Break out those games you have tucked away and forgotten in a closet.  The old classics: Scrabble, Parcheesi, Monopoly, Sorry, Life, Risk, Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary. . .  Maybe you have some newer ones like Apples to Apples, Imaginiff, Scattergories, You Might Be a Redneck. . . Take a look in those dark, cobwebby recesses of your storage areas and see what you come up with. 

Or grab a deck of cards for Uno, Rummy, Euchre.

Step back in time to when there was no electronic entertainment available.  When there were no reputable businesses open in the evening. When family members associated with each other.  When neighbors knew each other's names.  When saving money didn't mean a life of drudgery and boredom.  When people got together to socialize and have fun without it costing them a dime.

You own those games.  Use them.  Have a game night some night soon.  Have some free fun.

Frugal February #16: No More Fat Pets

Have you noticed how the American obesity epidemic has spread to our pets?  Do you have an overweight dog or cat?  Do you know anyone who does?  Mine aren't, but I do know of many tubby tabbies and portly pooches.

It saddens me.  Not only is being overweight just as bad for our animals as weighing more than we should is bad for us, keeping those chubby critters fed is costing us more than necessary.  That's not very frugal.

If you have pets, have you ever read the feeding instructions on the back of the bag or can?  If so, do you follow it?  Do you actually measure out the food, or just pour/dump some into the food dish?  Most people I know don't usually bother with the measuring. They just pour and eyeball, or fill the dish, thinking that doing so is saving time, that the animal will eat the correct amount, and when the dish is empty, they fill it again.

Guess what?  Like us humans, our pets will overeat.  Boredom, stress, and yes, even cravings induced by the ingredients in the food, will make a canine companion or feline friend chow down more than necessary.  As their caregiver, it's up to you to help them eat properly.

Read the label on the pet food you buy for them.  Take the time to find out what is the proper amount of feed for the size of pet you have, and how many times a day it should be offered.  Then measure it out at incremented feeding times. 

Giving your pets the correct amount of food not only saves on your pocketbook now by not overfeeding, it also saves later.  Just like fat humans, fat pets are more prone to health problems.  Feed right, feed healthy, and reduce the chances of needing long-term veterinary care.  There should be no such thing as diabetic dogs or cats with high blood pressure.  These are things that mimic human lifestyles; they don't occur in the natural world.  Because in the natural world, animals don't often get the chance to overeat.  And they certainly don't pop pills every day to keep their sugar levels or blood pressure under control.

You love your pet.  Keep him or her healthy.  Feed the right amount.  Save yourself some money.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Frugal February #15: Accept Handouts

I'm not talking about the government kind, unless you are in a spot where you really need them.  In that case, there's no shame in doing so.  I've been in that spot a time or two early on in my adult life.  I've been on Medicaid, I've been on WIC, I've been on food stamps, and I did get 'welfare' for a short period when I was a single working mom whose hourly wage just couldn't pay the babysitter and all the bills too.  They were a great help during a time when I was doing my hardest and just wasn't quite on my feet yet.  As soon as I could get by without them, I stopped using them.  It's been many years, and several kids, since then.  That's what those programs are there for: when you are doing the best you can and that best isn't quite paying for the bare necessities.  To tide you over while you get yourself to better financial footing.

But that's not the kind of handouts I want to discuss as a frugal tip.  The kind this post is about, is the kind where you are offered something, for free, by someone you know.

This could be food.  MIL is awesome about offering us food.  It started back before I even met DH, when he moved out of his mother's house, and she would  send him home with meat from the freezer or veggies from the garden whenever he visited her.  It continued after I met him, when we were living in Michigan's Upper Peninsula while DH finished college.  Those boxes of farm raised pork and lamb were sometimes our only meat.  A 5-gallon bucket of freshly dug potatoes kept us eating through the Fall.  I learned to eat rice because MIL gave us a big bag of it one Christmas, and there came a time that was about all that I had in my cupboard.  Even when times got better, after DH got out of school and his engineering career got underway, we have still appreciated the occasional box of food that MIL sends our way.  Especially meat from animals she has raised.  There is nothing better than home-grown meat!  Similarly, I've been able to try some really good game meat by accepting from friends what they had in their freezer that they didn't think they would eat fast enough--bear, pheasant, duck. . .

This handout could be clothes, as in my post about hand me downs and hand me ups (FF#13).

This could be furniture.  The first ten years we were together, every piece of furniture DH and I had was either free or very cheaply bought from a friend/relative.  Some of it was on it's last legs and we wore it out.  Other pieces are still around and in use at this little place here today.

This could be appliances.  We've gotten a stove, a refrigerator, a washing machine and dryer, a crock pot, and a television this way.

It could be plants.  Most of the perennials in my flower beds came to me not from a nursery, but through friends and relatives who were dividing their own perennial beds and were looking for someone willing to take the 'extras' off their hands. 

I have several hundred beautiful purple and white iris that I got free for the digging from someone who just didn't want them anymore. My strawberry bed began with just twelve plants given to me by a neighbor who was cleaning out her overgrown strawberry planter.

It could be tools or other types of power equipment.  MIL knew someone who was moving to a retirement community and was trying to find a home for his push mower.  We didn't have a push mower, so that person gave us the one he needed to get rid of.  Several years ago I was given a rototiller with adjustable tine spacing by a friend who had decided they no longer had a use for it. I can't think how many acres of tilling it has accumulated in my garden since then.

It could be lumber.  We've gotten lots of free lumber in the form of old decks we were offered.  We've also gotten dozens of oak pallets too.  Pallets are very useful things, and being oak, they last for years even outside in the elements.  We have also been lucky to get a couple of large machinery shipping crates.  We had to take them apart to haul them, but once at this little place here, we were able to reassemble or reconfigure the pieces and have made two nice hunting blinds from those crates.

The handout could be something you would never conceive of being able to afford for yourself.  We have a pool table in our basement.  I didn't plan to own a pool table.  Yeah,  when DH and I were younger, we thought it would be kind of nice to have one, and as the kids started to grow toward their teen years we thought again it would be a fun thing to own.  But purchasing one?  Not on the feasible list.  Then a friend of DH's told us about a friend of his who was moving and was desperate to get rid of his pool table.  Score one free pool table for us!

It could be lessons in something, either for yourself or your kids.  If Grandma wants to buy piano lessons for Sissy, and Sissy thinks she wants to play the piano, why not accept Grandma's offer?  In fact, we almost had a free piano once, but it went to a school instead.  Just as well, not sure where we would have put a piano. . .

The only exception, in my opinion, is when you are offered something that is
  •  no longer useful (someone else's trash you will end up paying to discard),
  • something dangerous (like something you have an allergy to or is in a condition it's not safe to use),
  • something you just plain can't use and don't foresee ever needing to use it. 
Then you should definitely decline the handout as politely as possible.  But other than that, keep an open mind and see what comes your way.  Even if it's not something you personally can use, perhaps you know of someone else who would benefit from a handout. Maybe they have been hoping for a pool table, or a piano.  Or just some flowers for their front yard.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Frugal February #14: Know A Guy

This post could be subtitled Making Connections. 

Making connections is a way of expanding your frugal resources.  Those people you know, who have skills or businesses that are handy and relevant to things you are interested in or might need.  Somebody who, because of their relationship with you, might be willing and able to save you money on a purchase or a repair, or a lesson in an area you want to learn about. 

Get out a piece of paper and a pen, and let's brainstorm for a minute.  Do you know a guy or girl who--
  • fixes cars
  • knows about plumbing
  • knows about roofing
  • knows about electrical systems
  • knows about drywall, insulation, or flooring
  • lays concrete or does brickwork
  • is remodeling their home and has 'house parts' they want to get rid of (old doors, windows, cabinets) that might be useful for your home
  • cuts or styles hair
  • sews, does mending or alterations
  • has an appliance or furniture store
  • plays a musical instrument
  • landscapes or gardens
  • knows how to weld
  • raises meat, dairy, or fiber animals
  • heats with wood or waste oil
  • bakes or decorates cakes
  • hauls junk
  • is a volunteer fire fighter
  • is a doctor or nurse
  • has a talent you'd like to learn

These are useful people to know.  Most people who love what they do also love to share it with others either by talking about it (teaching) or lending a helping hand.  Sometimes by offering to pay them for their help instead of hiring an 'expert' or repair shop, you can get a big discount and they appreciate the business coming their way. 

One of DH's best childhood friends owns an appliance and furniture store.  Guess where all the appliances came from when we were building the house at this little place here.  He gave us a great discount; he still made money on the sale, and we saved a bunch.  All our furniture purchased in the last dozen years has also come from his store.

Another of DH's growing-up buddies started a DJ service in high school.  Guess who we hired to DJ our wedding, costing us a little cash and all the beer he could drink that night?  It was a great party.

For years, Mother-In-Law has raised a couple piglets, and now and then a lamb or a calf for meat.  She has gotten them all for free, usually taking the runt piglet or a free martin calf from a farmer she knows who is just looking to get rid of it.  For the commercial farmer, these animals are just a liability, costing more to keep alive until butchering time than they will ever bring as income.  For Mother-In-Law, a few weeks of bottle feeding and tending a newborn that eventually grows into hundreds of pounds of meat, is worth the effort and expense.

Sometimes the people you know are willing to give free advice, as in the case of a nurse friend who verified DD2's case of the chicken pox, saving me not just the hassle of getting an appointment with the doctor's office, but also the exam fee. 

If you have an old building that is falling down and would make a great training opportunity, knowing someone on the local volunteer fire department can get that building taken care of without costing you a penny. 

Need a professional looking cake for a big event like a graduation, shower, or wedding?  How about that 4-H'er you know who always wins blue ribbons at the county fair for her cake decorating skills?  She'd probably love some extra cash for her pocket or college fund.

Had a big storm blow through and knock a tree down across your driveway?  What about that guy you know from work who said he heats with wood?  Would he be willing to come cut and haul that tree away, saving you the cost of hiring a tree service to do it?

So make connections, and know a guy!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Frugal February #13: Hand Me Downs and Hand Me Ups

Hand me downs.  What was your gut reaction when you read that phrase?  "Oh, yay!"?  Or "I hate them."?

Hand me downs are one of those things that people either love or hate.  It's all in how you look at them.  Are they an insult, a glaring neon sign that says "You're too poor to buy new stuff; you have to wear somebody else's old clothes"?  Or are they a gift that says "Now you can put the money you would have had to spend on this item toward a higher priority"?

When I was very young, I loved hand me downs.  A bag of clothes from the revered older neighbor girl was like receiving a Christmas present any time of the year.  As I got older, however, my attitude swayed more to the "I'm ashamed; they think I'm poor" side of things.  Especially as I had my first child and really needed those hand me downs that various people offered me for him, I felt like I was somehow lacking by not being able to buy brand new stuff for my son.

Then I got in touch with my frugal persona, the one who saw those hand me downs as a tool instead of a kick me sign. Hand me downs weren't an insult, they were a blessing.  I could take the money I saved and use it on more pressing things, like food or utilities.  Or, occasionally, for splurges like taking him to the zoo or other fun things. Not downtrodden, but empowered!

By the time I had two kids, I realized that hand me downs not only saved me money now, they also had the potential to keep saving  me money for years.  For instance, a hand me down winter coat for DS1, if kept in good shape, could be saved after he outgrew it and used again for DS2.  Savings now, savings later! 

Hand me ups, I'm betting you've never heard of before.  I like to think I coined that phrase.  At least, I don't consciously remember ever hearing the term 'hand me up' before it came out of my mouth about 12 years ago in reference to a big bag of winter clothing I was given by a younger cousin who was moving to Florida.  While growing up, she had received all my outgrown-but-in-good-shape clothing since we were the only two girls in the family.  Now that we were adults, and in the same size, she passed along to me the cold weather clothing she wouldn't have a use for in that subtropical climate she was relocating to.

By definition, then, a hand me up is something you receive from a younger relative or friend.  Get it?  Hand me down goes down the line in age, hand me up comes up from someone younger. 

Hand me ups are cool.  Especially those that you can plan in advance.  Like when DD1 hit her middle school growth spurt and I realized she would soon be wearing the same size footwear as me.  With luck (luck for me, anyway) she would grow into and out of my shoe size quickly enough that anything I purchased for her in that size would be in good enough shape that I could use it after she outgrew it.  So, when she hit a size 8, I purchased a nice pair of Sorel boots for her to wear in the winter.  The next winter, they were too small for her, but still in nearly new shape.  Oh, darn (NOT!).  I then had a very nice pair of warm winter hand me up Sorel boots for myself.  :0)  I wore them for two winters before DD2 grew into them.  Following her older sister's growth pattern, DD2 wore them for one winter.  Then I got them back (re-hand me ups? lol).  Are you still with me?  The boots are four years old at this point.  Still warm, still water and snow proof, and just starting to look a little worn.  I'm still wearing them, three years later.  They've been demoted from out in public boot to barn boot, but still useful and going strong.  I wonder how many more winters I will get out of them.  The original money spent in purchasing them over a cheaper made pair has now amortized out to where I would have had to spend double or maybe even triple on buying and replacing cheapo boots for the last seven years.

Hand me downs and hand me ups are good things.  They are not just a blessing to receive, but also to give to others.  Handing on usable items to someone you know and care about gives you space in your house and warm fuzzies in your heart.  I think that makes them great things.

Frugal February #12: Bargain Clothing

Clothes.  We all need them. 

How much money do you spend in a year on clothing, including shoes and outerwear?  2011 was a heavy clothing expense year for us at this little place here; kids needing shoes and boots, both girls needing dresses for the winter formal, some sports related clothing (embroidered warm ups) for school sports teams, and DS2 needing a new winter coat as he headed off to college (something about not being cool to wear your high school varsity coat at college. . .so guess what his Christmas present was, a bit early.)  I spent about $1800 on the five of us.  That's huge for us.  Usually we average less than $1000 in a year.  Less than $200 per person.  According to info I found on the IRS website, the 'national standard' clothing expenditure for a family of four is $244 per month (so, $61 per person, or $732 in a year for just one person). Even with spending approximately $360 per person in 2011, we were still way below average.

So, how do you save money on clothing?  Or, should I say, how do I save so much?

Discipline that you don't need the latest fashion.  That, right there, will save you a lot of money.  The clothes you wear this spring will work for next spring, unless you've worn them completely out in one season.  In which case you should be buying better quality clothes!  You don't need a whole new wardrobe each time the seasons change.

Winter outerwear should last you years, if not an entire decade (OK, not high school varsity coats.  I guess they have a 3-4 year max).  Buy classic tailored stuff, not the latest fad.  I've been wearing a Land's End Squall Parka as my going-out-in-public winter coat since 2002.  I bought it on clearance for something like $60.  You know what?  It looks just like the ones in this winter's Land's End catalog.  Ten years later!  Even the color, royal blue, is still stylish.  Compare that to DH, who insisted on getting a cheaper quality winter coat at a local store, in season, for $50.  Three years later, he had to replace it because the zipper broke, and he'd worn holes in the elbows.  Quality is always worth paying for.  But don't pay full price unless you absolutely have to!  Catch it on sale, or wait for end-of-season clearance, which is usually only a few months into the season.

Give clothing as gifts.  The new winter coat that became a Christmas present did double duty: gift and needed clothing at the same time.  I should say that is how all my kids have acquired their varsity coats, which run up over $300 by the time you  get all the stitching, letters, and patches put on.  DH and I made a deal with the kids when they each started high school: they earn their varsity letter (and/or academic letter) and we would pay for their varsity coat.  BUT, the coat would be their birthday and most of their Christmas gift for that year.  If there is something trendy that your child is absolutely dying to have, and you know it won't be worn after this season, give it to them as their birthday gift, or as one of their Christmas gifts.  They're happy, and you saved money by combining gift expense with clothing expense.

If you have children, or are planning to someday, know that it is perfectly okay for a younger sibling to wear clothes than the older sibling has outgrown.  So save those baby clothes if you are planning to have more than one child!  Little girls can wear navy and black and red, not just pink, so it doesn't matter if their older sibling is a boy.  And little boys can wear pastel blue and green and yellow.  It's okay.  My girls never had snow pants that weren't black or navy blue.  Because they had older brothers, and if the boys didn't wear out their snow pants, they got passed down to the girls.  No sense buying pink ones when we had perfectly useful dark colored ones!

When buying "new" (or should I say "new to you") items, it's all right to buy gently used ones.  Be a savvy shopper.  Check garage sales, consignment stores and thrift shops (aka Goodwill, Salvation Army, St. Vincent's. . .) before hitting the clothing stores and malls.  My kids wore Osh Kosh B'Gosh when they were babies and little kids, which was not just fashionable, it was very durable.  I handed that stuff down from DS1 to DS2 to DD1 to DD2, and then sold it at our "No More Babies!" garage sale.  I think a few nephews may have even worn it along the way.  Did I get their name brand duds from the mall?  Heck no!  I scoured garage sales and consignment stores, never paying more than $1 for a piece (usually overalls or denim jumpers), getting most for fifty cents or less.

If you've been through the garage sales, been to all the consignment shops, been to Goodwill, and still haven't found what you're looking for, then and only then go brand new.  Start with the clearance or sales racks.  You'd be amazed at the great finds you can get sometimes.  I've gotten brand new jeans for $5.  Now, those aren't high dollar designer jeans, but I don't care about that.  A $20 pair of jeans works for me, and if I can get those $20 jeans on clearance for $5, all the better!

Also, keep your mind open to future needs. You just can't beat a $110 prom dress that you happen across at Goodwill for $7.99 in August!  So what if DD1 was just a sophomore at the time?  I knew she'd be going to Prom as a junior or senior, and the dress was a classic color and style, not to mention the exact style she'd been drooling over when we'd gone shopping for a winter formal nine months earlier. 

Affordable clothing is out there.  You just have to know how to look for it, and be willing to spend a little time doing so.  Be below average!  ;0)