Archive | December 2014

Uber-Frugal January: Who’s with Me?

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!

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For someone with just a fridge-top freezer, I store a lot of stuff. Please don’t judge me for the chicken nuggets.

 

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More oddments in the door. We buy our bread several loaves at a time at a bakery outlet (aka “used bread store”) and store the excess in the freezer.

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.

7-minute Microwave Granola Bars

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:

Glass bowl of melted oil, honey, and peanut butter with rolled oats poured on top.

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:

Glass bowl full of oats coated with melted oil, chocolate, etc., with a child's foot visible.

Baby foot not included.

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:

Plastic container of homemade granola bars.

Store in the fridge and enjoy!

What are your favorite granola bar variations?

 

To Budget or Not To Budget

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?