Archive | January 2015

Uber-Frugal February: Spending Analysis

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?

January 2015 Net Worth Check

Not a lot of action over the last few months but a lot of holding steady. Here’s what it looks like:

ASSETS

Cash: $8210

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.

LIABILITIES

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!

 

 

I Want a Balloon! Reasonable Preschool Birthdays

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.)

He specifically asked for sprinkles. The #4 candle is leftover from Mr. FP's 34th, and I will try to save it for Little Brother's 4th as well.

He specifically asked for sprinkles. The #4 candle is left over from Mr. FP’s 34th, and I will try to save it for Little Brother’s 4th as well.

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.

12 ounce Klean Kanteen water bottle with green sport top.

Now if I can just keep him from losing and/or dropping it…

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?

It’s Working! Winning the Credit Game, FWIW

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.

Graph showing increase from 674 in October 2014 to 695 in January 2015.

Upward trend! The shape we like to see.

 

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.

How To Wash Less and Not Be Gross

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.

Shower cap, wash cloth, baby powder: Three things that can save lots of water. Bonus: baby powder is also good for de-sticking sticky skin.

Shower cap, washcloth, baby powder: Three things that can save lots of water. Bonus: baby powder is also good for de-sticking sticky skin.

Skin

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.

Cream cardigan sweater over mesh patio chair.

I use my patio chairs as clothes-airing racks. For very delicate items, I cover them with a towel.

Clothes

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.

Hair

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.