Archive | February 2014

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?

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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?

Pay the Cancellation Fee and Start Saving

Almost as soon as we signed our last Verizon contract, we started to regret it. Our service was modest by modern standards; we had 700 minutes to share (plus free nights and weekends), which we never even got close to using up, and no texting plan. We had basic phones, not smart phones, so we didn’t need data. Yet with the few texts we did send and receive, our bill hovered around $90 a month. We realized that we could have gotten something cheaper through a prepaid plan with one of the other major carriers.

But we felt stuck. After all, we had a contract! It was too expensive to get out of! And we needed good service because, like a lot of people these days, we don’t have a landline. So we kept plugging along, paying out the nose.

Then we found out about super-cheap cell phone plans (thank you, Mr. Money Mustache) from upstart competitors. If we could pay THAT much less for service, then the cancellation fee would be worthwhile. Mr. FP, our cell phone decision maker, spent hours and hours researching Republic Wireless, Ting, Airvoice, and more.

Unfortunately, there were no really good options that worked with our Verizon phones. We were going to be paying a $200 cancellation fee (ouch! That’s $150 flat plus $5 per month remaining on the contract), so we needed to keep down upfront costs and decided to hold up on upgrading to smartphones.

Samsung phone Amazon link

Isn’t it quaint?

So we bought even dumber phones! Our little Samsungs–no camera, and you have to set the time manually, but they have FM radio tuners–cost about $20 each. Now we could get Airvoice plans for $10 a month each.


Yes, you read that right. Our total cell phone bill is now exactly $20 a month for two lines. With savings of $70 per month, the cancellation fee plus new phones pays for itself in just over three months. Over six months, we’ll save $180. Over the ten months remaining in our Verizon contract, we’ll save $460. That $10 per line can buy you 500 texts messages or 25o minutes of talking, or some combination thereof.

How is that enough, since we don’t have a landline? Well, for calling and texting from home, we now use Google Voice (free calls and texts!). Especially because, I must admit, our new phones are terrible. The coverage seems to be acceptable, but texting is unspeakably tedious and we get terrible static on the lines. (We suspect this is a problem with the phones themselves rather than the service.)

Sure, our old Verizon plan was “better”: more convenient, more comprehensive. But it was absolutely not “better” to the tune of $70 a month, $840 per year, in perpetuity. Over 10 years of compound interest, that $70 a month adds up to over twelve grand. If you’re still regularly shelling out three figures or close to it for your family phone bill, it’s time to stop indenturing yourself to the phone company and start feeling the freedom.

Cloth Diapering: What Not To Buy

 If you have a baby, you simply can’t claim that you’re serious about frugality unless you cloth diaper. On the other hand, plenty of people get into cloth diapering thinking that they will save money, but instead turning it into one more thing to shovel money at. They allow to not only suck up their money, but their time as well, spending hours and hours doing research on different kinds of diapers, troubleshooting problems with their diapers, looking for cute new diapers on Etsy…

Don’t let that happen to you! The key to maximizing your savings is to buy nothing, and I mean nothing, more than you need. For every single diaper or accessory you purchase, ask if it will save its value in disposable diapers. If the answer is no, don’t buy it. It’s better to need an emergency disposable now and then than to have dropped too much money on diapers that don’t get worn. For a newborn, try starting with eighteen diapers of various kinds, and make sure that you register for cloth diapers for your shower. If you are switching over an older baby to cloth diapering, try just twelve or fourteen, again of various kinds, then start adding in more if you keep coming up short. Look for deals, sales, and secondhand options–I got a lot of mine on the BabyCenter swap, and they were all fine. Anything I bought that didn’t work for us went right back on the swap.

For a point of reference, here’s a typical day in cloth for Little Brother, who is now twenty months:

1 prefold for the breakfast hour

1 pocket for going out and about in the morning

1 pocket for naptime

2 diapers for the afternoon; whatever I have left

1 pocket with 2 inserts (1 full-size BumGenius insert, 1 Thirsties hemp) for nighttime

Total: 6 diapers per day, maybe 7 in case of an unusually timed poop. At this age, I rarely have to wash the covers; three is plenty.

Unless you are routinely running out of diapers and having to use a disposable, don’t buy more. No matter how cute it is. And besides resisting the urge to buy more adorable diapers, you can probably avoid these purchases as well:

1. Cloth wipes. Either buy some of those four-for-a-dollar baby washcloths, or, better yet, make your own. Ask your friend and relatives for their old, gross receiving blankets–the ones that they weren’t going to give you because they’re not cute enough anymore. Cut these up into 8×8 squares; either use a double layer of flannel or one layer of flannel against one layer of old t-shirts. If you have a friend with a Serger, borrow it; otherwise, just zigzag around the edges. The legs of old pajama pants work nicely, too.

2. A diaper sprayer. Surprisingly hard to install, doesn’t do the job as well as you think, and will cause you to accidentally spray bits of poop into undesirable locations. Instead, try keeping a pair of dishwashing gloves on the back of your toilet so you can rinse diapers without getting your hands nasty.

3. A fancy diaper pail. If you have room for a pail, use a regular trash can–not even necessarily one with a lid. You can use a cheap nylon laundry bag as a liner if you want to be fastidious about it. If you absolutely have no room for a pail at all, you have the Frugal Paragon’s permission to buy a FuzziBunz Hanging Laundry Bag. But you may buy two only if you have two kids in cloth diapers. If you’re just getting started, keep the dirties in a trash bag or something until you have a better idea what will work for you.

4. Flushable liners. Don’t be a wimp. Put on your big girl panties (and gloves, see above) and rinse the damn diapers.

5. Special odor control substances. If your diapers smell that bad, they need bleaching or some other special washing.

6. Special cleansers for your cloth wipes. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with plain water, but if that really, really offends you, you can make your own solution. I have sometimes used 1 1/4 cups of boiled water and one tablespoon each of Dr. Bronner’s and olive oil.

7. A wet bag. I’m not saying you can’t have one–I have this one myself and I love it–just that you don’t need one. An old bread bag works just as well. My fancy wet bag? I never actually want to put dirty diapers in it. I generally wind up using an old grocery bag or something anyway, and “saving” my nice wet bag for keeping the boys’ change of clean clothes.

8. Cloth training pants. We went straight from diapers to Gerber pants. You know how kids know that Pull-Ups are really just diapers? They know the same thing about snap-side cloth training pants.

If you have a child in disposable diapers, or have a baby on the way, stop making excuses. Just get some diapers and some special laundry detergent and work out the details as you go.

Why the Frugal Paragon Loves Leapforce at Home

UPDATE: As of June 2015, I am no longer working for Leapforce at Home, simply because I haven’t had the time. My referral link will no longer get me any money. Please feel free to post your own referral link on the comments for people to use! I remain grateful for the time that I spent with Leapforce and I continue to recommend it as a flexible way to earn a little extra money.

If you are an enterprising type with a passion for something and energy to spare, you can make a good bit of money working out of your home. This post is not about that. It’s about how to work from home and make a modest amount of money with only a modest effort, when your other commitments (children, full-time job, education you may be pursuing, etc.) mean that “modest effort” is the best you can muster.

For me, since several months before Big Brother was born, my answer has been Leapforce At Home,* where I work as a Search Engine Evaluator. The main advantage of this company is flexibility. You can work as little as twenty or thirty minutes a day; you can work twelve hours straight if they have enough work available. You can work for five minutes and then log off because the baby woke up early from nap, or you can squeeze in a couple hours if you have a good sleeper. Most importantly from a stay-at-home parenting perspective, you can bring in money without paying for childcare.

Leapforce is an obvious choice for stay-at-home parents, but I also worked at Leapforce pre-kids when I worked full time. It’s a way to get a second job without actually, you know, having to get a second job. You can do it in the evening or on the weekend even if you are too tired to get off your couch.

There are other companies that do similar work, but I’m going to dance with the one that brought me. I love working for Leapforce, and it has made the lean times a lot less lean.

That said, it would be disingenuous for me not to acknowledge the complaints that some people have about Leapforce. For one thing, there’s the pay–it pays like low-level office work, think file clerk or answering telephones. (But without commuting costs, work wardrobe, etc.) And there is extensive, unpaid training, mostly upfront but also continuing at a low level. They can do that because you’re an independent contractor. Personally, I’m a fast reader, so I don’t find this requirement too onerous.

It’s also impersonal, but that, too, can be an advantage. I have never, ever interacted with a real person. I receive e-mails so polite and emotionless that they could have been written by the computer from Star Trek. Then I never have to worry that so-and-so’s feelings are hurt or that such-and-such thought I should have done a better job on some project. I don’t have to get to know people or try to remember whose kid was sick and whose father was having surgery and so on.

For some people, having to pay self-employment tax is a big turnoff. You may need to either adjust your spouse’s W-4 or make estimated tax payments. I haven’t had to do either because the child tax credit swallows up anything I might owe. Actually, I got tax benefits–when I was in my grad program, I needed child care to get my classwork done, but you can’t take the child care tax credit unless you are either bringing in money or in school full time–not part time, like I was. But since I did have some earned income, we qualified for the tax credit. (Usual disclaimers… talk to your accountant, this is not real tax advice, etc.)

For me, it’s perfect. Here’s how the middle of my day goes: After lunch, I change Little Brother’s diaper, read him a story, and tote him upstairs to nap. Then I get Big Brother on the potty, read him a story, and install him in his room with strict instructions to read quietly until his OK To Wake! Owl turns green, which happens after an hour and fifteen minutes. (His compliance with this instruction is spotty, but he stays put.)

Then I maybe put some laundry in the dryer, get a cup of coffee, and sit down with my laptop in a comfortable chair. I log into Leapforce and clock about an hour before that damn owl lights up. Meanwhile, I’ve been relaxing, drinking coffee, and essentially getting paid to look at stuff and respond to it. I have felt productive without having to get off my ass and clean something. Sometimes the work’s reeeeally boring; sometimes it’s pretty interesting. I might learn an interesting science factoid or discover a funny series of YouTube videos, for instance. And if I log another hour that evening, I’ve probably made more actual profit than if I had a “real” job but was paying for full-time day care.

*This is my personal referral link. I don’t get paid just for people clicking on it, but if you like it, sign up, pass the test, and complete some work, then I would get a little bonus. In other words, I don’t paid unless you do. If you’re interested, please do use the link and support this blog!

UPDATE: As of spring 2014, Leapforce At Home has gotten a little better! They have simplified their invoicing requirement, which used to be fairly onerous; instead of laboriously entering each individual work session using drop-down menus, now you simply enter your total for the day. And I found a Google spreadsheet template to calculate all my time for me.

Sometimes the Hardest Thing To Do Is Nothing

Last month’s post from Mr. Money Mustache on Are You Cleaning Out Your Own Wallet? really got me thinking. His point, essentially, was that excessive cleaning (not tidying up, which he’s in favor of, but actual scrubbing, spraying, wiping, mopping, etc.) of one’s abode is a waste of both time and the money spent on cleaning supplies.

Like a lot of mothers (and a smaller but growing number of fathers) of young children, I don’t find it worthwhile to work outside the home. So I have a couple of work-at-home gigs and part-time childcare, and the rest of the week, it’s me and the little dudes.

The problem with all that time at home is it gives you too much time to notice things about your house that you could clean. A spot on the kitchen floor? Better mop it. The towels have been up for a week? Better change them. The entertainment center looks dusty–better wipe it. We’re low on bread–better load up the kids and head to the grocery store. And while we’re there, let’s get yogurt, apple sauce, Goldfish crackers…

All that busy-ness made me feel like I was taking good care of my family and filling an important role. Really, though, what I was doing was consuming resources. Water, vinegar and ammonia for cleaning, laundry detergent for all that towel washing, gas for going to the store, and just as importantly, my own time.

Turns out that my towel can hang there for at least three weeks before it shows any signs of being dirty. A wet rag can get that spot on the kitchen floor, or I can just ignore it. Dust? Really? Unless the Queen is dropping by for tea, who cares? And if we’re low on bread, how about I just make oatmeal instead of sandwiches and put the store off for a few days? (Mr. FP will eventually go himself if I am patient.) Now, when we push the envelope on taking out the trash, I think, “Awesome. Look how long we made one trash bag last!”

Do I still feel important and useful with less bustle? Probably even more so. Not only am I conserving our family resources, but I’m finding more important ways to fill my time. I  get a few more minutes clocked on my pay-by-the-minute work at home job, or sit down and relax with my husband, or let my kids help with simple chores, even though that makes them take longer. Or maybe instead of fussing around cleaning something in the kitchen, I just plunk myself down the floor and watch them play for a while. And if there’s granola on my pants when I get up from the rug, then I’ll vacuum… eventually.