Making from Scratch–And Not

Joke: “Of course I made it from scratch. Scratch is what comes in those boxes, right?”

We’ve actually never been big spenders, so when we started trying to cut back even further, one obvious place was buying fewer things in their final, more expensive form, and instead making them from cheap ingredients. Another leading factor was that we wanted to avoid certain toxins and chemicals, and organic/natural/etc. products can be a lot more expensive.

Our time, however, is not infinite, and if I wind up using my work time (that is, paid daycare time) to make things from scratch, it probably doesn’t pay off.  So we focus on the things that are most worthwhile and give the best return for our time.

So far, here’s what we used to buy but now make:

  1. Hummus. Commercial hummus often contains the preservative sodium benzoate, which we’re trying to avoid, and is often made with cheaper oils like soybean and canola instead of just olive oil. It’s also pricey. One pound of dried chickpeas will make three containers of hummus; even with the tahini, EVOO, and toasted pine nuts, it costs about a third what the store-bought stuff costs.
  2. Laundry detergent. I use a common Internet recipe for powdered detergent made from soap, borax, and washing soda. Vinegar in the final rinse helps keep the clothes from turning yellow. ( I do NOT use this on my cloth diapers as the manufacturer says not to use soap or vinegar; I buy BumGenius detergent for them.)
  3. Granola. There’s a pretty high disparity between the cost of granola ingredients and the high cost of prepared granola. This is about the cheapest cold cereal that exists, although we actually don’t eat it that way–we mostly put it in yogurt
  4. Sugar wax for my eyebrows. I never bought wax, but I used to pay to have my eyebrows done professionally.

Not exactly “made”:

  1. Hand soap. We bought containers of Method foaming hand soap and refill them with one part Dr. Bronner’s Liquid Soap to four parts boiled water (cooled). The foaming action saves a lot of soap and it’s the only way to use Dr. Bronner’s in a dispenser without clogging it.
  2. Shampoo. I’ve switched to baking soda with a vinegar rinse.

And here’s what we still buy:

  1. Yogurt. I am not convinced that the cost of milk vs. the cost of quarts of plain store brand yogurt would really make this worthwhile, as it sounds labor-intensive.
  2. Dishwasher detergent. I tried homemade, but got bad results. Unfortunately, I also didn’t get good results from natural brands, so I am back to using large boxes of Cascade, purchased at Costco. I only need to fill the compartment about half-way.
  3. Bread. I know how to make bread, but Mr. FP just prefers store bought for his sandwiches and again, I’m not sure that the cost of my time would make it worthwhile to make it from scratch. (We get Sarah Lee Soft and Smooth 100% Whole Grain Bread, which Mr. FP has selected as having a good price and fewer undesirable ingredients.)

Let me know in the comments if you want to see full recipes for any of these! Or share your own make-from-scratch money savers.

The Frugal Paragon Rescues Her Money

Investing can be a lucrative hobby for those with knowledge and luck. But it is not, and has never been, one of my hobbies. My favorite ways to advance our family financially are more along the lines of cloth diapering, hemming my own pants, making laundry detergent, that sort of thing. Or working at my laptop, especially with Leapforce at Home. So while I ambitiously created a “Finance” category for this blog, it is nearly empty.

Frankly, we don’t have a lot of money to worry about anyway, but we do both have 403(b)s. I had half-forgotten about my orphan TIAA-CREF account from back when I used to be a middle school teacher. I remembered it last week when Mr. FP asked me to look over his allocations.  HIS were fine; his current plan has a lot of good fund options. But MINE were dreadful. Many of my funds were underperforming and I had few better options.

rescue_money_in_crisis_21983Time to rescue my money! Since it’s an old account with no money going into it from an employer, I can move it at will (with permission from Mr. FP). By moving it to Vanguard, I can get much lower fees–especially by buying Admiral shares–and therefore better returns. Here’s what it took to move:

  1. 40 minute phone call with Vanguard, later conferencing with TIAA-CREF. I already have a Vanguard account, so it took about one minute on the phone to create the rollover IRA.
  2. Form to fill out, get notarized, scan, and upload to TIAA-CREF.
  3. About an hour researching investment options and choosing how to allocate.
  4. Check Vanguard every few days to see if the money’s there yet.
  5. Click some buttons to put money in the right baskets.

That’s less than two hours of time now that could add up to thousands of dollars by the time I retire.

I have about $16000. My first thought was to break it up into four or five funds to “diversify.” Then I realized that I could get Admiral shares of the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index. The general consensus on the interwebs is that that particular fund is the best one that exists. By making a $10,000 initial investment, you can reduce the already-low fees by getting Admiral shares. So why not put most of my money there?

I eventually decided to put about $13K in the VTSAX and the balance, about $3K, in the Small-Cap Value Index Fund, which is also well-regarded and increases exposure to smaller companies. When I get more money, then I will worry about adding more diversity in the form of foreign markets, REITS, bonds, and other fanciness. (Mr. FP has some of those in his 403(b) anyway.) But for now, I think most investors would agree I’m making a wise choice.

March Report Card

Setting goals for March really helped me stay focused. The whole last week, I kept reminding myself that if I didn’t get another ten minutes of work here and there, then I would have to admit (horrors!) that I had not met my income goal.

Here’s how I did on my goals

Money-making goals:

  • Earn a full $1000: Done! In fact, I beat it by $10. That’s even though the kids’ daycare was closed for two weeks, cutting into my work time pretty majorly.
  • Consign baby equipment and clothes: Took a bunch of things to the consignment store* and gave away the leftovers to an expecting mom. I’ve already made about $20; the car seat sold immediately and it looks like some of the clothes have as well, but the Travel Lite Crib hasn’t yet. That should be another $25 or so depending on when it sells.

Money-saving goals:

  • Save 3 disposable diapers a week: Well, yes and no. SOME weeks I managed it, but then Big Brother got diarrhea, and I am not a martyr. And in fact, we were using extra diapers because he would wake up at night needing a change. But when I used them, they worked, so I’ll keep trying.
  • Spring consignment sales on half-price day: I only found a few items, but they sure were cheap. I wanted to do a second sale on “regular” price day so I could get better selection, but Mr. FP was out of town with the car.
  • Food spending: Mr. FP did the shopping and I didn’t go along behind him with a calculator, I admit. But we ate a lot of eggs and oatmeal and bananas, so I’m sure we did well.
  • Food waste: No edible food went to waste. Actually, I got so carried away eating bread ends that I forgot to save some for making bread crumbs!
  • Baking soda and vinegar hair care: I’m one week into this and it’s going well. Hair is squeaky clean and I don’t see any differences.

My new goals for April are so simple, they don’t need their own blog post:

  • Earn $1200.
  • Buy nothing but groceries and possibly clothes for the children (they still need summer things).
*In theory, it would be more profitable to sell things myself using Craigslist instead of letting the consignment store have half the money. But our area does not have its own Craigslist and we have not gotten good response in the past.

More Proof That Free Never Is

Last year, Mr. FP decided to cancel our cable subscription (I probably would have done it years ago, but he watches sports). It was costing us about 70 bucks a month, so even with our new MLB TV subscription, the savings were substantial.

We wanted, though, to keep our cable Internet service, especially since I do a little work from home with it. And when Mr. FP called to cancel the TV part of our subscription, he was told that it was actually cheaper to keep the most basic television service. The bundled price for that and Internet was lower than the price for just Internet to the tune of about five dollars a month.

Well, fine. We could pick up local channels in HD right through our TV and we used it once in a while to catch The Big Bang Theory on a Thursday night or to pacify the spawn with a little Dinosaur Train. Then, seemingly inexplicably, the service stopped working. We turned on the TV and there was no signal. Disappointment!

And suddenly Mr. FP got sucked into a fairly draining series of events to maintain our “free” service:

  1. Call cable company, push buttons, wait on hold. Find out we now must have a cable box; get irritated.
  2. Drive to cable office on way to grocery store to retrieve box.
  3. Install box. Have difficulty; call cable company again. Get irritated.
  4. Realize that our TV service is no longer in HD. Get irritated.
  5. Get over it.

Did anyone else notice that that’s a lot of time, energy, disappointment, and irritation to invest in a service that we never actually asked for? Since it was cheaper for us, we allowed this unnecessary service to clutter up our lives. We got it working now and I’m sure we’ll watch The Big Bang Theory again on Thursday.

But you can bet I will be more selective as to what “free” goods and services I accept. I see now, for instance, that Mr. FP was right to talk me out of the free landline phone service we were offered. What about you, readers? Have you been burned by “free”?

The $0 Toddler?

British mom Hattie Garlick lost her job in late 2012 and made a radical decision: She would spend no money on her two-year-old son in 2013. No clothes, toys, haircuts, special kid food, Mommy and Me classes, or even disposable diapers.

Garlick found myriad benefits to her new arrangement, from getting to know other parents in her neighborhood through swap meets to  making her son a less picky eater. She enjoyed the lifestyle change so much that she has maintained it through welcoming a new baby and on into 2014, with the modest change of permitting herself (and her readers) and one purchase per month.

I’m glad it’s working so well for her, but I won’t be jumping on the bandwagon. Counting my purchases is a gimmick that I don’t think we need. For one thing, I don’t have enough excess “stuff” to trade away at swap meets because I never went through a stage of big spending on my boys. I have always spent on them more or less the same way I spend on myself, which is to say, minimally. The gimmick seems to come from the idea that parents have been treating their children better than themselves–spending the kind of money on the kids that they wouldn’t spend on themselves. Frankly, that just hasn’t been true at our household; our children have shared, not exceeded, our household’s standard of living.

For another thing, I like buying my children the occasional book or toy, like a set of Thomas and Friends puzzles half-price at the end of a consignment sale or a copy of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie at the library book sale. Garlick did not buy her son any Christmas presents. I spent the amount that seemed proper to me on my sons’s Christmas presents: about $28, plus a few special snacks for their stockings.

If you have the nagging feeling that you’re blowing too much money on your kid(s) and not getting much value for the money, you might try Garlick’s gimmick or at least learn more about it, but it’s not something I need. I’m not saying I’ve never spent stupid money on something for my kids, but I’m generally happy with my level of restraint. Am I being too easy on myself? Would you consider taking the “Free Our Kids” pledge?

In Which the Frugal Paragon Mends Her Mom Jeans

We all have our crosses to bear. Being someone who is made fun of for being too skinny has never been one of my personal crosses.

IMG_4335

Before–see where the fabric is separating along the inseam.

Being a lady not plagued by “thigh gap,” my jeans always wear out in the same place–along the inseam. Now, I just bought new jeans this season! No more than six months ago. And already, the fabric was pulling apart at the inseam. It offends my frugal sensibilities to buy a second pair of jeans in one season. Besides, I hate to buy new clothes at the end of the season because I always hope that I will miraculously change sizes during the off-season.

So, inspired by the words of my father, who always encouraged me to jump right in to a repair project by pointing out, “You can’t make it worse. You already need a new one,” I decided to try mending them to see if I could get them to limp along until shorts season.

IMG_4341

After–the pulled threads have been tucked inside the new seam.

The approved method would be to patch the area from the inside, but I wasn’t sure how a patch would work right over the seam area. So instead, I decided to try sewing about a quarter inch in from the old seam, creating a new one just for the length of the pull. I was afraid that using my sewing machine would make a mess of it, so I sewed by hand. In retrospect, though, I kind of wish I had tried the machine. It took me a full episode of House of Cards to sew by hand, and hand-sewing denim is hard work.

For now, though, it’s holding. I am no longer in imminent danger of developing a large and embarrassing rip the next time I squat down to wipe a toddler nose. Let’s file that under “success,” shall we? Now if I can just figure out something to do about those tiny little holes that all my knit shirts develop…

What about you, readers? What half-assed (or full-fledged) repairs are you trying lately?

Goals for March

Aside from selling our fancy car, February was a rough month financially. We had unexpected expenses (i.e., the shiny new computer I am typing to you on right now) and I earned only $776, thanks to a week with no computer of my own.

March may not be much better, income-wise: My boys’ on-campus daycare will be closed two full weeks for spring break, which makes it hard to get work done! (They usually go two days per week.) Still, I think if I hustle I can push it to a full thousand.

Money-making goals for March:

  • Earn a full $1000 through Leapforce At Home and my trivia job.
  • Consign boys’ outgrown summer clothes and my post-pregnancy summer clothes.
  • Consign one of the car seats from the CRV (keeping the other as backup) and the Graco Travel Lite Crib (basically a small play yard) that the boys used when they were tiny.

Money-saving goals for March:

    Cloth diaper.

    It doubles as crash padding. Regular size cotton prefold wrapped around BumGenius infant insert on top of 2 Hemp Babies doublers, with Econobums cover and Gerber pants over all. No leaks!

  • Save 3 disposable diapers per week. Big Brother has been sleeping in them every night. I don’t have enough heavy-duty ones for him to wear one every night, but hopefully we can swing a few nights a week. I’m thinking cotton boosted with hemp and/or microfiber, for the added bonus of feeling wet for him, and Gerber pants over the cover for better leak control.
  • Hit the spring consignment sale on half-price day to get Big Brother’s summer wardrobe started. Check his hand-me-downs for Little Brother; we might need to buy little or nothing for him.
  • Keep food spending over spring break to the dollar-per-person-per-meal level suggested by Mr. Money Mustache. (We usually eat our dinners in the dining hall, but it will be closed for spring break.)
  • Eliminate waste of edible food. I’m not going to start eating orange peels and whatnot and we have no place to compost, but throwing away the bread ends is soooo 2013.
  • Try the baking soda and vinegar method of hair care instead of buying new shampoo and conditioner. Stay tuned for updates!

What about you, readers? What are you trimming in March?

Doing Without–And Not

In December, Mr. FP realized that we might be as little as six months away from complete freedom from debt if we made some smart changes. We slashed our cell phone bills, sold our fancier car, and stopped all but the most essential shopping. We had already dropped cable TV in favor of a variety of ad hoc entertainment options. I’ve avoided using disposable diapers, baby wipes, tissues, and paper towels whenever humanly possible. Instead of running the dishwasher every night, I wait until it’s packed solid, and I’ve developed much stricter standards for what is dirty enough to go in the hamper.

With the finish line so near, we’ve put off things that we might have once considered essential. Here’s a selective list of things that we’re going without, at least until we’re debt-free:

  1. This year’s dental cleaning. I have pretty good teeth; I think they’ll hold another nine months or so.
  2. New glasses for Mr. FP. His prescription hasn’t changed, but the frames are pretty worn out. He’s making do.
  3. Yoga pants. Mine wore out and I have been getting by just fine wearing regular pants to and from the gym, then working out in shorts.
  4. A new coat. My newest coat is circa 2005 and the oldest is circa 1995. I want a new, stylish one–but all the old ones still keep out varying degrees of cold and wet. So not this year. Come to think of it, six coats(!) seems excessive for one person’s use, no matter how frumpy they may be.
  5. Professional haircuts for the kids. Mr. FP is getting pretty good with the clippers.
  6. Babysitting. We went out at Thanksgiving, when we visited my parents, and again a couple of weeks ago, when they came to visit us. In between, we’ve been hanging out at home.
HP Pavilion TouchSmart laptop

My new computer. It’s so fast and shiny.

Unfortunately, there have been a couple of things we haven’t been able to do without. Mr. FP and I are still leery of cutting each others’ hair, so we’re getting our hair professionally cut. And I got a new HP Pavilion laptop, because my computer is my livelihood and my 2008 Macbook broke down for good.

What about you, readers? What are you doing without, temporarily or permanently? And what have you NOT been able to do without?

Net Worth Same, Financial Security Up

Glacier blue 2007 Honda CRV

Farewell, fancy car. We enjoyed you, but you tied up too much cash.

I’m feeling a lot richer today, even though on paper, our net worth hasn’t changed. What has is that we have made our first major Mustachian lifestyle change: We sold off our 2007 CRV. We are now a one-car family, relying exclusively on our 1999 Accord (only 126K miles and running great, knock on wood).

We were including the CRV’s value in our net worth (minus what we still owed on it), so from that perspective, all we’ve done is moved money around. But what a difference! When we first decided to sell the car, we owed about $5700 on it. We sold it for $10,300, meaning we cleared about $4600.  Actually, by the time we sold it, we only owed $500–having thrown a lot of money at it in the meantime–so we have a lot more than that to play with.

Here’s how we’re better off:

  • Save $150-$200 in interest over the year and a half left on the loan.
  • Save $200 in insurance every six months, plus registration, taxes, etc.
  • Paid off Mrs. FP’s student loan, eliminating a $65 monthly payment.
  • Cut Mr. FP’s student loan in half.
  • No more $300 monthly payment for the car loan. That’s a total of $365 in freed up cash every month.
  • Built cash savings up to $3000.

With only a few thousand dollars left on Mr. FP’s student loan, we anticipate being completely debt-free by the end of May. Getting rid of that additional  $90 monthly payment will give us a lot more breathing room after this summer. We’ve had free housing through Mr. FP’s employer, but that ends in June, so our expenses will rise dramatically.

How we sold a car with a lien

Our home state makes it extremely difficult to sell a financed car to a private buyer. In other states, you can use a service like escrow.com’s lien payoff and have the title mailed directly to the buyer, giving the buyer much greater security. Pennsylvania titles are more complicated than that, and there is no way to have the title sent to the buyer. What we wound up doing was using a cash advance on our credit union card–there was no fee for this service in this case–to pay off the loan and get the title.

We actually could have saved ourselves the trouble. After not getting any nibbles through our Autotrader and Craigslist ads, perhaps because it’s winter and there’s been snow on the ground for weeks, we wound up selling to We Buy Any Car. They gave us a reasonable price–less than we would have expected from a private buyer but much more than trade-in value. (A Honda dealership had low-balled us at $6500, for comparison, which is why we were so anxious to get the title.) They do take cars with liens on them, so they could be a good option for getting rid of a car when you don’t have the title (assuming you’re not underwater). Our experience was positive and hassle-free.

What about you, readers? What major and minor lifestyle changes are you making in the name of frugality and financial independence?

If I Can, You Can: Sharpening Knives with a Whetstone

Now, I hope title of this entry isn’t too misleading. I certainly do not mean to suggest that I am an expert knife sharpener whose knives can cut paper and all that. I claim only this much: 1. My knives are sharper than when I started. 2. I didn’t damage them. 3. I’ll get better as I get practice.

When my knives first started getting dull, I did basically nothing about it. Ignoring a problem–or let’s call it waiting and seeing–can actually be a great first step. Many problems go away if ignored, and with others, taking a little time will help you avoid panicking and spending too much money on trying to fix it. (Obviously, I’m not talking about roof leaks here. I’m talking about minor household annoyances, parenting problems, etc.) I looked into have them sharpened professionally, but it turns out I had just missed a semiannual sharpening event at our local Joanne’s.

Besides, I didn’t really want to pay to have it done. So I started doing research on whetstones and water stones vs. oil stones and so on and trying to figure out what kind of whetstone to buy.

Which was my first mistake. Fortunately, I never actually got around to making the purchase. Then I had this conversation with my father:

Me: I’m thinking of trying to sharpen my knives with a whetstone. But I haven’t gotten around to buying one.
My father: I have one you can have.

See how easy that was? Then I only needed to buy some honing fluid, which I ordered from Amazon. Asking around to see if I could beg, borrow, Craigslist or Freecycle some supplies should have been my first step. With something like this, you never really know what exact supplies you like until you get started anyway.

Then I consulted a few how-to sites, watched a couple of videos, and gave it a try. They’re sharper, and I figure with practice I’ll get better at getting them very sharp.

What about you, readers? What skills are you trying to learn? What services are you “insourcing” these days?

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