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?
A key division between personal finance/Mustachian bloggers like myself is whether or not one keeps a strict budget.
Some bloggers keep excellent budgets. The Goblin Chief comes to mind, as does The Barefoot Budgeter. Both account for every penny and The Goblin Chief does a particularly impressive job of keeping set-aside funds for a variety of categoires. The other school of thought is, essentially, “just spend as little as possible.” My favorite examples of this approach are Frugalwoods and, of course, Mr. Money Mustache. These people track their spending, but they don’t sit down and draw up a list of how much money they are allowed to spend in each category. For the record, the Frugalwoods family and the Money Mustache family both practice a level of fiscal discipline to which I can only aspire.
I tend to embrace a hybrid approach. In most categories, I simply try to spend as little as possible and choose carefully where my dollars go to make sure each purchase is really enhancing my life. I do, however, set a goal for my grocery expenses that I try not to exceed. (The folks over at Planting Our Pennies seem to have a similar approach, albeit with a much larger amount of income to work with.)
No approach is “right.” In general, I think keeping a strict budget is advisable if you
- have a very limited income and limited savings, meaning that a slip would mean debt; or
- have had trouble controlling your spending in the past, such that you need to figure out a “reasonable” number and practice limiting yourself to it; or
- just really like budgeting.
None of those things apply to me. I have two other reasons that I don’t budget:
- Mr. FP will not keep to a budget; and
- I have a bad tendency to live up to the budget.
Years ago, we experimented with each having a set amount of personal spending money each month. Mr. FP didn’t always arbitrarily limit himself, and I would up buying things I didn’t necessarily need or splurging on edible treats just because I could. To be clear, Mr. FP is generally a frugal fellow. But in October, for instance, he went out and spent over $400 on coats, and no budget would have stopped him. He wanted new coats, he researched them carefully, and he wanted the best damn coats he could get. Now, I might have objected to this, but the two coats he was replacing dated to approximately 1997. One was a delaminated raincoat, and the other was one of those giant puffy Starter jackets popular in the era. If he gets 17 years out of these, too, I will consider it money well spent.
Grocery money is a separate issue more amenable to budgeting, I find. One’s needs month to month are more similar. And my goal amount is so low, there is no danger of my spending up to it. I’ve always been over it, but I keep trying! “Budget” isn’t even really the right word, because I always keep buying groceries when I run out of grocery money before I run out of month (I do, however, keep it minimal—I stop buying luxuries like almond milk and we eat more of our cheapest meals, like black bean burgers and homemade pizza).
Do you keep a budget? Why or why not?
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My Local Bike Shop is a delightful place and conveniently located right by the YMCA, my most frequent biking destination. Every time I’ve tried to come through the doors with my trailer, someone has rushed to assist me. The salespeople are pleasant and not too pushy and the mechanics, though terse, are not unfriendly.
Still, I would rather not give the LBS any more of my money than absolutely necessary, so I am trying to learn something about bicycle repair and maintenance, one modest step at a time. So far I have learned to remove my front wheel and replace an inner tube (or install my new Innova studded tire, which scoffs at slush), but hey, it’s a start.
Last week’s goal was to clean my chain. I had some rattley sort of noises coming from my chain and was not particularly optimistic that cleaning it would help much–it didn’t look all that dirty–but it seemed like an obvious first step. My bike is about four a half years old (though I was pregnant or caring for an infant much of that time), so it was definitely time.
The best method is to actually remove the chain, but that was a bridge too far for me this time. Another method is to scrub the chain with a toothbrush. We already had this White Lightning chain cleaning kit*, though, that Mr. FP had bought, so I used that. The design of the thing was cumbersome and the little bottles of cleaner it came with were hard to use, but even allowing for all the time I spent spilling the cleaning fluid (both from the bottle and from the cartridge) and then cleaning it up, I probably saved time and got it cleaner over using a toothbrush.
The results were surprisingly impressive. Giant chunks of black crud fell off. The chain suddenly looked… smaller. Most importantly, the rattling noise disappeared. So if you’ve been putting on new layer after new layer of grease to your chain and putting off degreasing it, procrastinate no more. It won’t take long and you’ll be glad you did.
What are you learning to do this week? Have you ever degreased your bike chain?
*Our kit came with four bottles of cleaner, actually–I think we bought it at Walmart. I would not count on the two-bottle kit actually cleaning two chains, because we managed to use up and/or spill all four bottles just on two cleanings.
It’s official: I’m an employee again! Having finished my master’s of library science back in December, I started sending out applications as soon as we knew where we were moving to. And I sent out a whoooole lot of applications, most of which were ignored completely. Finally, a chance playground encounter led me to a valuable contact who really stuck her neck out for me (meanwhile, I volunteered at her library) and got me a couple of interviews, and I finally landed a part-time entry-level professional librarian job.
I really think that for me, personally, right now, having a part-time job is the best thing for both me (I count, too!) and my family. It will bring in some welcome extra money, even when the not-insubstantial child care bill is paid (partly because my new employer has such generous part-time benefits, we’ll be saving close to $300 a month on benefits and actually getting more coverage). By an even wider margin, it will increase our income, which we’ll need if we do look at buying a house in the next year or two. And it will get me started on a career that I can continue to develop as the boys get older.
Full-time would, I think, have been a little uncomfortable for all of us right now. Too many long days for the boys, no time for laundry and meal planning and all those thousands of little tasks.
The catch is that the money will only work out if I continue to be a Frugal Paragon when I’m at home. If I slack off on the grocery budgeting, yogurt-making, laundry detergent-making, home mending, etc., then my job won’t pay off. If we can’t make one car work and we buy a second one, then I’ll be working just to pay for the car.
So either I’ve found a brilliant way to have just enough career while still being a part-time homemaker, or I’ve bitten off way more than I can chew! Stay tuned to find out which one or make your predictions in the comments below. Or tell how YOU are balancing your career with your other interests and your domestic responsibilities.
Getting along with one car was easy for the first few months. The weather was lovely all fall; even into November, there were almost no days requiring more than a heavy sweater or light windbreaker. Saturday, for instance, I biked to the gym in shorts and a sweatshirt.
Then… winter came, and it came hard and fast. Can we still make it work with one car? Our financial position improved markedly when we sold our CRV, and I hate the idea of giving up our gains. We don’t have enough cash to buy something we would really want to drive, meaning we might have a car payment. Then there’s the insurance, the taxes, the gas (having a second car would make it too temping to drive in marginally bikeable weather), and the maintenance–according to Edmunds.com, for instance, a 2009 Honda Fit (the kind of thing we might buy) would cost us close to $30K over five years.* It would certainly delay our short-term goal of owning a home in a year or two.
The first big test came Tuesday, when it was fourteen degrees outside. Mr. FP had to work, I was home with the kids. There were basically three options:
- Badger Mr. FP into taking the bus to work so I could have the car.
- Stay at home all day with the kids.
- Bundle up, get on my damn bike, and take us all to the YMCA for pilates and a change of scenery.
Option #1 might not have been effective and would certainly have bred resentment. Option #2 might have resulted in damage to the furniture and/or my sanity. So I chose option #3.
You will probably not be surprised to hear that my bike was the only one on the rack at the Y! The ride was actually
not as bad as I expected, but I do want to get some better gear. Some parts of me were overheated, some were too cold, and my gloves were too stiff. The kids, fortunately, looked comfy as could be in the trailer, which has a windscreen, except that their puffy coats made it hard to fit them in.
Wednesday and Thursday, I needed the car because there was snow on the ground (Big Brother’s preschool was closed Tuesday, but he has to be dropped off normally, making staying home not an option). Cold is one thing; snow is quite another. I bundled the kids into the car and drove Mr. FP to work, once by design and once because he missed the bus. (He took the bus home.)
So far, so good. Now, let’s be honest: I am not our primary breadwinner, and I do not have full say whether or not we get another car. But I can control my own attitude and use it to further our goal of staying a one-car family. So here are my mini-goals:
- Do not ask for the car on any day when I could safely bike.
- Do not complain about winter biking.
- Do not complain about driving Mr. FP to work in a pinch, and don’t make him late getting the kids ready.
I’ve already invested a little money in good multi-purpose gear, most notably some really nice Merrell boots on which I dropped $90. But as Grandma FP remarked, I can buy a lot of boots for the price of a car payment.
Who else is biking this winter?
*Realistically, we would pay less than this, because we don’t drive as much as the average person, but the number is still instructive.
My kids eat a lot of yogurt. I mean, a lot. My mother used to buy them YoBaby when we would visit, for a treat, but she had to give that up when they wanted two and three cartons—each. They easily go through an entire quart-size carton of plain in one long weekend visits.*
As you can imagine, even plain yogurt by the quart adds up when you are buying up to two quarts a week. As I struggle to get my grocery bill down, it seemed like a good time to reconsider my position that homemade yogurt was not worthwhile. After all, all the other bloggers were doing it. Not just the Prudent Homemaker, with her nine mouths to feed on a shoestring budget, but even Mrs. PoP at Planting Our Pennies, who works full time and could clearly afford to buy yogurt. Maybe they’re onto something.
The potential savings were significant, if not huge. I usually buy yogurt for $2.78 per quart, although I sometimes find it on sale for $2.50 or even, once, $2.25 (I had to buy five quarts for that price). The milk we buy, on the other hand, is anywhere from $2.08 to $2.49 per half gallon, depending on where we happen to be shopping. That would make my per-quart cost more like $1.04 to $1.25, plus a spoonful of old yogurt (about nine cents).
My first few efforts were, as I suspected, a tremendous pain in the ass. I heated the milk in a pot on the stove up to 180 degrees, which was time-consuming, then had to wait for it to cool down to exactly 110 degrees, which takes a surprisingly long time and requires constant monitoring. Then I kept obsessively checking it during the day to make sure I was keeping it warm but not too warm.
Something had to change. Two key realizations pulled it together for me:
- Ultra-pasteurized milk does not have to be heated to 180. You can heat to just 110 and go straight to the next step.
- You can heat the milk in a glass jar in the microwave. Fewer dishes to clean (no pot) and much easier. Plus, it won’t burn the hell out of your pan if you forget about it.
So here’s my method so far:
- Fill a glass jar nearly full of milk. I’ve been using an old forty-ounce jar that used to contain Costco strawberry spread.**
- Heat the jar in the microwave until the milk is 110 degrees, if it’s ultra-pasteurized. If I happen to have milk that is just regularly pasteurized, then I do 180. I do longer increments at first, say a minute, and then shorten the intervals as it gets warmer. Each time the microwave bings, I stir the milk (to prevent hot spots as well as skin formation) and check the temperature. A candy thermometer would be good, and maybe I’ll get one, but I’ve been using an instant-read analog meat thermometer.
- If necessary, wait till it cools down to 110. Then I pour a little milk into the old yogurt carton (if I am starting from commercial yogurt) and mix it with the last dregs of the old yogurt, generally a couple of tablespoons’ worth. Pour the milk/yogurt mixture back into the jar (don’t stir!) and cap it.
- Put the jar someplace warm. I sometimes put my oven on “warm” for a few minutes, then turn it off and put the jar in. Or I often put the jar in a sunbeam, since I tend to mix this up in the morning.
- Wait a long time, at least eight hours. Last time I forgot about it and it went more like fourteen with no ill effects.
- Pour off any visible whey and put in the fridge.
Now, here’s something you need to know about homemade yogurt: It is very thin. I have just been using it that way. The kids don’t mind, and anyway I usually use it for making their overnight oatmeal. I just omit the milk and use extra yogurt. I tried straining it once, but I (a) made a giant mess and (b) let it sit too long, winding up with a teeny tiny portion of extremely sticky yogurt and a whole lot of whey for which I had no use. I’ll probably try straining again in the future. I like Greek yogurt for myself. Since I buy this for either three-fifty or four dollars a quart, I can lose some volume and still save money.
Do you make your own yogurt? What’s your favorite method?
*They are happy to eat plain yogurt with Cheerios or fruit in it, and I have found, too, that plain yogurt is much less sticky in the clean-up phase than commercial sweetened yogurt.
**Coincidentally, this is an excellent thing to spoon into your yogurt. Like fruit on the bottom yogurt, but much cheaper!