I had hoped to have for you today an analysis of our highly distracted but well-intentioned uber-frugal February. But I have not had time to compile this analysis, as we spent half the day yesterday at the ER with Little Brother. He had a sledding accident, you see, and when he was still complaining of pain the next day, we thought perhaps he had a sprain of some kind.
It was an honest-to-God broken leg.
- We are buying a house! Our boys will have their own rooms and a backyard for the first time ever.
- I can afford to pay the bill, unlike the last time I went to the ER and, as I mused about during my flat-tire debacle, I had to ask for three different payment plans. I even have a medical FSA; I only put in $400, which may not be enough, but it will keep me from having to shell out a giant wad of cash all at once.
- My kids are healthy enough to break legs sledding. No one is guaranteed even one healthy, typically developing child, and I have two. How great is that? This is one month of my life that I’ll laugh about later, not my long-term reality.
- We have easy access to top-notch medical care. We drove there in our totally functional car and got him X-rayed and fixed up. In much of the world, that’s not possible.
- Because of that prompt access to top-notch medical care, we can expect Little Brother to make a full, uncomplicated recovery.
- People love us. We got lots of Facebook well-wishes, plus calls and e-mails from our loved ones and presents from Grandma FP.
What are your first-word problems this week? What are you grateful for?
I think Valentine’s Day is a silly holiday, and I would like to go back in time and tell Geoffrey Chaucer* not to start the whole thing. It comes with too many expectations, too much romantic competitiveness, too much obligatory cheer.
But my children will have to make up their minds on the subject, and, well, Valentine’s Day at the preschool/elementary level is A Thing. I successfully dodged this Thing last year by scheduling a doctor’s appointment for the boys that morning and not taking them to school (it wasn’t their usual day of the week anyway), but this year Big Brother goes to school every day.
Obviously, I did not go out and buy printed cards for his preschool classmates. Rather, Big Brother and I spent an agreeable hour together making extremely simple construction paper doodads like this:The beauty of the design was that we could really work together. Big Brother worked extremely hard cutting out all 16 paper hearts while I cut the squares and wrote on the backs. Then we glued a few together; he got bored gluing and put on stickers while I glued the rest.
We already owned the paper, stickers, and glue stick, so the cost in new materials was $0. Priceless: Big Brother’s obvious pride in his hearts.
How do you work Valentine’s Day? Those with older kids, how have you negotiated the minefield of expectations?
*Geoffrey Chaucer’s piece The Parliament of Fowls, about amorous birds, is the first known reference to Valentine’s Day as a romantic holiday.
After a month delay, we at the FP family did finally undertake our Uber-Frugal Month challenge, as prescribed by the folks over at Frugalwoods. Sort of. The idea has hit a minor and a major stumbling block. The minor stumbling block is less than complete buy-in from Mr. FP, who has been making some special effort but has not been willing to forgo a couple of solo weekend day trips featuring gas and dinner and especially not willing to forgo buying the Dave Matthews tickets that went on sale this month.
The major stumbling block: We got a contract to buy a house. Yay! While this is great news, it involves the writing of large checks. It has also cut into our intellectual energy and free time for identifying places to cut and for blogging about the process, which is why it has taken me until halfway through the month to finish this spending analysis.
But I did it! I laboriously combed through Mint records to take a look at where our money has been going and took a look at the Frugal Woods questions. Folks, it was pretty illuminating. You can read my answers or just skip to the end for the totals.
Is there anything we could completely eliminate?
Well, yes and no. We COULD completely eliminate restaurant meals, evening babysitting, all paid entertainment (ie, concerts) and activity fees (my YMCA membership, classes for the kids, and Mr. FP’s occasional sports leagues), but we’re pretty sure we would be unhappy about it. But skipping the first three just for Uber-Frugal February may help us get a better idea of what we really find worthwhile. These categories are definitely too high.
How’s our grocery bill looking?
Pretty good, really. We have twice as many people as Frugalwoods and spend less than twice as much, so we must be doing something right! (Not that it’s a contest, I just generally admire their spending habits.) Aside from food, we spend very little on toiletries (no shampoo or conditioner for me; bar soap for all of us; reusable substitutes for tissues, most paper towel uses, and lady things) and cleaning products (I make my laundry detergent and we clean with vinegar and water). I make my own hummus, granola bars, and yogurt, shop for best prices on staples, and use meat only as a flavoring (never a main dish). The things that I don’t make from scratch, like bread, are things that don’t seem to be worthwhile (I can get whole wheat bread at the used bread store for $1.50 a loaf, for instance).
That said, we identified a couple of areas for potential improvement: breakfast (going to see how much Mr. FP’s Grape-Nuts habit is costing us and if there’s an alternative), Greek yogurt (I made it! yay me! that stuff is expensive!), and certain luxuries. I’m going without my juice-and-seltzer treat this month–now I will appreciate it better next month–and I didn’t buy the boys any Ovaltine this month. They haven’t asked for it! Also: Get more sleep and drink less coffee.
What can I substitute for a similar, less expensive experience?
We’ve been getting a babysitter and going out to concert or just to walk around downtown most months. I’d like to try to make a point of doing at some at-home date nights, with some sort of special adult snack and some boxed wine. It will be hard, because I tend to put the kids to bed and then crash unless Mr. FP has made plans for us, but I’ll give it a try.
Where can I trade time for money?
Honestly, I dunno that there’s anything left in this category. See above all the things I make! I also mend and hem our clothes (look for a post soon about my battle to keep my menfolk in pants). While I’m not one of those people who’s like, “Oh, my house is such a mess because I’m such a good mom that I spend all my time playing with my children” (I have two; they can play with each other), I do need to get out of the kitchen eventually and, you know, read them some books or something.
Unfortunately, we will probably actually be doing LESS of this time-for-money thing this month because, well, we’re moving. I’m sure we’ll keep moving costs down (we have a good track record in this area) but there’s probably some takeout pizza and convenience food in our future.
If you want the details…
Here is my Google Sheet detailing my best analysis of where our money goes. We’ve been spending about $2175 a month outside of housing and childcare or $2054 if you subtract travel. (Mr. FP wants, in the long run, to have a separate budget for travel.) To buy our house, have money for travel, and save for the future, we’d like to cut that down to closer to about $1750. Restaurant meals, babysitting, entertainment, and shopping are all obvious targets. Mr. FP is motivated by travel and I’m motivated by a growing bank balance, so we’ve both agreed to track our spending very carefully to stay under the limit. Stay tuned for an actual budget when we have a chance to work it out together.
Any of you tried a financial fast or uber-frugal month? What were the results?
Not a lot of action over the last few months but a lot of holding steady. Here’s what it looks like:
Investments: $60,769 (up 2.6%, all of it market gains)
Property: None of interest. I used to count my car here, but have decided not to do so. It’s not an asset unless we would sell it, and we wouldn’t. So it’s not an asset so much as just a big, expensive thing we happen to have.
Credit Cards: $784
TOTAL NET WORTH: $68,195
That’s an increase of $4659, or 7.3%. It’s nice that the market has gone up, but again I think we should have set aside more ourselves–it looks like we only managed $1335 even with some generous Christmas gifts. I’m a little behind on my dependent care FSA reimbursements, though, which is several hundred dollars.
Next month: Uber-Frugal February! The goal will be to figure out a little more clearly where all our money goes and hopefully have more left over!
One of my very first blog posts was about the minimalist third birthday party I threw for my older son. That was my peak of fanciness so far. This year, we haven’t lived here as long and I don’t know any of my son’s school friends or their parents, so we just skipped the party when Big Brother turned four this week.
I gave him a fourth birthday in line with his expectations. When the subject of his birthday came up, he said, “I want a balloon! And a cake! And deco-wations!” Note what he did not ask for: presents, a party, or even a whole bunch of balloons. So I made a cake and bought a banner and some balloons. (He only asked for one, but let’s live a little.)
Since I haven’t even unpacked all their Christmas toys yet, I didn’t buy this kid any birthday toys. I did decide to get him a present: a kid-sized Klean Kanteen water bottle, so my four-year-old won’t have to carry a sippy cup around to school any more. I like the idea of a useful present that’s related to his getting more grown-up: not another toy, but more interesting than underwear. I don’t post pictures of my kids’ faces on here, but please believe he was very excited and wanted to drink out of it immediately.
Happily, other relatives had similar ideas. Grandma FP sent a check and Granny FP (aka my mother-in-law) sent a book and a pair of binoculars, which were also a huge hit.
Besides the banner ($1.75),* the present, and the ingredients used in the cake (all staples), the only other thing I bought was wrapping paper ($4.47 for large roll). Big Brother was with me in the store and wanted to buy Spider-Man paper. I explained that there was not nearly as much paper on that role as the regular birthday paper rolls, and showed him the rolls he could choose from. A lady passing in the store noted approvingly that she wished she had done a better job teaching her kids about the value of money and that I must be on the right track.
I’m not saying don’t have a party for your kids. I’ve done them before, and I’m sure I will again, but it was as much for me as for him. But please don’t get caught in the trap of extending adult/societal expectations onto your kid. He probably just wants a balloon.
*Normally I would have made one, but this one was quite cheap, and our printer is broken (which makes it more difficult, of course) and I’m awfully backed up on chores already. Sometimes it’s okay to give yourself a pass.
How have you celebrated birthdays for your babies and preschoolers? How do you manage expectations?
A couple of month back, I blogged that I wanted to raise my mediocre credit and wasn’t too happy about the only way I could find to do it: Taking on more credit, in the form of a brand-new Amazon rewards card and asking my credit union to raise the limit on my existing card.
The good news is, at least it’s working! Credit Karma shows that my score has gone up by a solid twenty points. Credit Karma is not super exact, but it does at least show the overall trend. They have me at 695, or poised at the top of “Fair,” but it gets better.
Mr. FP and I wanted to start looking at houses, at least to start getting an idea of the market, and real estate agents don’t like to drive you around unless you are preapproved for a mortgage. So we went ahead and did that, and of course the lender pulled our credit scores.
They showed me at every bit of 725. That’s right, folks, they consider me someone with GOOD credit. And now, this part is petty, but it made me happy: I now have better credit than Mr. FP by a coupla points. His was higher than mine because he carried all our credit cards and had taken out an ill-advised car loan, and I never thought it was fair that an ill-advised car loan ought to raise one’s credit.
I’m happy that our credit looks good, but the system still seems off. Why should taking out more credit cards make me more mortgage-worthy when, let’s remember, I defaulted on my mortgage* a mere four years ago?
Other oddities in the system: According to the lender, our incomes—which are less than $90K a year, even with my side gig editing trivia questions—are adequate for a mortgage of, brace yourselves, four hundred and seventeen thousand dollars. We would have to come up with 5% down, which we could do by cashing out or borrowing against our retirement accounts, and no one would stop us. Yikes, that’s a scary thought. You’ll be relieved to know we are not looking at $400K houses.
Have you ever had to game the credit system? Any brilliant suggestions for how to fix this seriously limited metric?
*Still not proud of this. I remember now, though, that we were required to pay for private mortgage insurance on account of our low down payment, so… I guess the system worked.
Update: I earnestly promised an Uber-Frugal January before realizing several things: (1) I had no time to prepare, (2) Big Brother’s birthday is this month, and (3) the results would be tainted by my annual Target gift card shopping extravaganza. So the challenge has been postponed until February.
Wash less? I can hear you going ewww. But the fact is, excessive washing is unfrugal in more than one way. Obviously, it wastes water, energy to heat the water, and soap, plus it slowly destroys the very thing being washed by drying your skin, turning your hair to straw, and wearing out your clothes. Also, it’s time consuming, and I don’t know about you, but I have better things to do than fold laundry. (Actually, with a glass of wine and something on TV, it can be very relaxing, but I digress.)
Fortunately, you can get away with a bit less soaping and scrubbing with no one suspecting that you are deviating from Standard American Washing Behavior.
Not every part of your body exudes odor. You know which ones do, right? Try sometimes taking a soapy washcloth to just those parts instead of showering. Not only will you save on water, energy, and soap, you’ll also need less moisturizer. Here in arid Colorado, I have to slather my limbs with generic Aquafor every time I step under the shower head.
If you just can’t or won’t give up your daily shower, you can also try using soap on only the pertinent areas. My boys both have eczema, and the pediatrician advised that I use soap only on their “skin folds” (the parts that would smell if they were grown ups). Water is enough for the rest, she says. Try that if you simply must get under the water.
First of all, if possible, stop using antiperspirant. I used to get “sweat stains” on my clothes. Guess what? Sweat doesn’t stain, and neither does natural deodorant. What stains is antiperspirant. If you can get rid of it, your clothes will thank you.
You probably already know that you don’t have to wash your clothes every day. If it doesn’t look or smell dirty, it’s clean (with, of course, narrow exceptions for hygiene).
Even if an item DID pick up a bit of an odor, though, you might not have to wash right away. Put it outside in the sun (if it’s something sturdy) or even just outdoors in the shade (for delicates) and let the fresh air do its disinfecting work. If the item smells fresh after a few hours, back in the drawer it goes. I try this trick particularly often for hand wash items or delicates.
First, try switching to a baking soda and vinegar wash method. My hair stays cleaner longer since I gave up shampoo, probably in part because my shampoo and conditioner were leaving nasty buildup in my hair. (Natural brands seem especially prone to this.) You can also experiment with replacing just your conditioner with a vinegar rinse, but I never tried this.
Once you’ve got that worked out, you can push the envelope by using cornstarch baby powder.* Apply it to your brush, not your head unless you want to look like you’re wearing a powdered wig. It will soak up grease and make your hair look cleaner and feel smoother, and it’s an especially useful trick if you are one of those people who “fix” their hair in the morning. (I usually remember to brush mine.)
What do you think, readers? Am I frugal or just gross? What are your tips for frugal cleanliness?
*Don’t use talc baby powder. Sure, it’ll work, but it’s chemically related to asbestos and probably causes cancer, besides being very bad for the lungs of its intended audience (actual babies). Really–I looked it up.
I’ve mentioned before how enamored I am with the folks over at Frugalwoods. They have spending habits I envy, clear goals, mad photography skills, and apparently the world’s most patient and photogenic. (Seriously, I’m not even a dog person, but those are remarkable dog photos.)
Anyway, one of their suggestions is that you do an “Uber Frugal Month” as a personal challenge. You can and should read the details here, but the basic premise is that you go through your spending with a fine-tooth comb, categorizing it based on its level of necessity, and then, well, spend less than that. Possibly much less.
January seems like a good month for this because it gives one a chance to detox from any holiday excess. It’s also good timing for us because we are starting to toy with the idea of becoming homeowners again. The Uber Frugal Month will (a) let us see how low our budget can go and (b) hopefully load up our savings a bit.
I haven’t gone through our spending yet, but I already have some targets in mind. Like Netflix: Sure, it’s cheap, but we don’t need it. I work at a public library! The tiniest amount of pre-planning, and anything we want to watch is waiting there for me to pick up. (Mr. FP isn’t sure about giving this up, but negotiations are underway.) I’ll try getting a little more hand-on with the groceries–see if I can make Greek yogurt, for instance. The Frugalwoods family combined their Uber Frugal Month challenge with an “Eat All the Things” challenge, which sounds like a good idea to me. Got a freezer full of cooked-ahead rice and beans, cheese, and other oddments waiting to keep our bellies from rumbling. I’m not going to eat up expensive things, most notably beef, that we eat regularly but in small quantities, but everything else is fair game. I’m looking at you, quinoa! I WILL make something with you this month!
I admit, I have this cheat in mind: I’m allowed to spend any gift cards that I get for Christmas. And I haven’t decided about wine, but coffee is non-negotiable! Maybe I’ll drink smaller cups.
Who wants to join me for Uber Frugal January? Or just ogle my results? Stay tuned for initial spending analysis…
Update: Due to complete lack of preparation time, Uber-Frugal Month has been postponed until February. Please join me then :-). I apologize to anyone who was really excited about seeing my spending analysis.
Mr. FP and I are both devoted brown-baggers. I can count on one hand the number of times I went out to lunch from work, and the last time I tried, back when I was briefly a university office manager, I became spectacularly ill in front of my student assistant. (I was in the family way.)
Bringing your lunch is a huge savings even if you pack convenience foods, but you can, of course, save even more with a little work. So if we want to bring yogurt, we buy quarts and scoop some into a little dish, for instance. One expense that caught my eye was Mr. FP’s granola bars. He favors Nature Valley dark chocolate (because they are delicious), but those suckers are expensive.
I don’t believe in torturing loved ones by taking away their favorite treats willy-nilly. So the big question was, could I make granola bars that would be equally yummy? Something he would want to eat? Happily, the answer was a resounding yes. These are very different from the crunchy Nature Valley types, but they are desert-quality delicious, hearty, and full of healthy fats.
I started with this Red and Honey recipe because it required only a few ingredients, all of which I already owned. The main change I made was adapting it to be made in the microwave. Stovetop is the least efficient way to cook, energy-wise, plus I find it tedious. (I already blogged about how I make yogurt with the microwave.) The Red and Honey has a lot of different options, but here’s my variation:
2/3 c. peanut butter
2/3 c. coconut oil
2/3 c. honey
2 c. rolled oats, raw
1 3/4 c. coconut flakes (I toast them in the oven first, but this is optional. Unsweetened are ideal, but they are bizarrely expensive. So I usually compromise by using about half unsweetened and half of the much cheaper sweetened kind.)
1/4 c. chocolate chips
Combine peanut butter, coconut oil, and honey in a microwave-safe bowl. Nuke on high, starting with thirty-second increments and decreasing as you go along, stirring in between, until the coconut oil and peanut butter are melted and it’s all nice and smooth.
Stir in the oats. It looks about like this at this stage:
Once the oats are coated, stir in the coconut flakes, then add the chocolate chips. Now, I like my chips to melt all through, so I stir them in while it’s still hot, and stir until the chips melt and mix in, like this:
Press the mixture into an ungreased 9×13 pan. Stick in your fridge for a few hours, until it sets. Then cut into bars (a flat metal spatula is an ideal tool). You can wrap them individually for use in lunches, or store in an airtight container with wax paper (or cut-up cereal bags) between the layers. Since a lot of these wind up getting eaten at home by our preschoolers, this is how I keep mine:
Store in the fridge and enjoy!
What are your favorite granola bar variations?