Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Fed rate cuts and my future fiscal policy

I am a saver and proud of it. However, with the Federal Reserve cutting rates by 0.75% and a projected 0.5% at the end of January when they meet, it has really dinged the savings rate in my accounts. My emergency savings are in high-yield savings accounts and CDs, rates that get dropped when the Fed cuts the overnight lending rate. I have some immediately liquid cash in a low-yield credit union savings and checking accounts (0.75% and 0.5% respectively, last time I looked but I am sure lower now) but that is it. I was happy to see my interest earnings from 2007 but 2008 does not look as promising.

However, mortgage rates have been on the decrease as well. My mortgage was locked in January 2006 and I ended up with a 6% interest rate for 30 years. I have been seeing rates around 5.5% for a 30 year mortgage and even lower if I want to consider a 20 or 15 year mortgage. Refinancing is a strong possibility for me this year. While there are closing costs, I am strongly leaning toward refinancing my home when 30 year mortgages fall to 5% APR. That may be a while or may never come.

I have been looking at 15 and 20 year mortgages but I do not think I will apply for one when I refinance. Why? The payments will increase enough that I will feel the pinch. Right not, I pay enough to feel comfortable and afford an extra $35 toward principle. Being in the start of the third year of my mortgage, this amount will not go far, but it is a balance between paying more on my mortgage and putting money in savings. I think increasing my mortgage payment (which does include PMI, property taxes and escrow) even by $100 will be uncomfortable. I could list lots of reasons for it and maybe looking more closely at my budget, I could fit it in with less difficulty than I anticipate. However, this means more of my income is locked into a fixed expense and although I have a savings cushion, the necessity to fix a furnace and replace a water heater plus several vet bills and that cushion would be diminished. If I had to get a new car on top of the increased mortgage and decreased savings account, I could not afford the auto loan payments.

Granted, the above is a worst case scenario, but as a single woman, I need to consider what the effect of my actions would be. Therefore, I need to carefully weigh a shorter-term mortgage and long-term savings against the possibilities of more immediate emergencies and the funds I would need to cover such instances. I was planning to refinance into another 30 year mortgage, but these other considerations did need to be measured to figure out what is my best path. A 25 year mortgage, if one can be found, might be a compromise between fewer years to pay and lower monthly payments. I will have to see what the future brings and how my plans for refinancing fit into it.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Patience pays off

I have written before about wanting to get a bicycle for an alternative means of transportation. In addition, I wanted to buy used, hopefully around $20 and desired the old fashioned look with fenders. My patience on craigslist finally paid off! I found the listing for a used bicycle, in the style I want for $25. Tonight, I drove after work in good weather (above freezing and no precipitation) and was able to ride the bike for more than three feet. It was not too tall, I liked the color, did not care about the rust and it was in working condition.

The seller was really nice too, helping me out with the fit, getting it into my car and just being helpful. I owe him a bungee cord (could not find mine) but the bike is mine! I have no intentions to ride it in the winter months but come springtime, I will be attempting to ride around the neighborhood!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Update about my green living improvements

Earlier, I posted specific steps I wanted to take or specific items I wanted buy to improve my sustainability as an individual. How have I done so far?

I have purchased brand new greeting cards for the slew of birthdays this month as well as various over the counter mediations for a variety of ailments. The former I could have purchased used but not the latter so I am doing okay with room for improvement.

One of my purchases ended up in a plastic bag so that was bad, but it was only one trip to one store and I neglected to bring additional reusable bags with me for the three stops I made. Again, I made most of my trips with reusable bags so one lapse is not a tragedy, but I know to prepare better next time.

I have made no progress on purchasing the cat poo composter so I will have to consider that soon. Other issues are more immediately important so this possible purchase has fallen by the wayside. I am reminded each time I use another plastic bag that I need to decide on this matter soon before I need to find more plastic bags.

On the plus side, I have purchased two sweaters, a long-sleeved knit top and a nightgown all at the thrift store. In addition, my niece will be receiving a gift of clothing also purchased secondhand. It kept me in my budget and allowed me to get three pieces for her to wear. I have been looking for denim jeans to purchase but none have appeared in my size. I also purchased a DVD secondhand even though it is more plastic. I rented the movie first, decided I enjoyed it and wanted a copy of my own.

Since I have been consuming more soda over the last several months (in parallel to my pizza consumption), I am considering making my own soda. Not only would this be more frugal but I would consume less plastic since I do not need to buy more plastic two liter bottles. This is a plan in the works but with all the snow my area keeps getting, I have not been motivated to visit the beer and wine shop that carries the supplies.

I am also looking at ways to use worn clothing and fabric scraps. I was stunned when I found a woman who crocheted her own rug out of secondhand denim. It is a great idea and prompted me to look at rag rugs and how to construct them. I found two books, Twenty Easy Machine-Made Rugs by Jackie Dodson and Rugs from Rags by John Hinchcliffe and Angela Jeffs, to help me figure out what techniques I can use to construct a rag rug. I found ideas in both that I may use for my home. Again, I can reuse materials I have to construct something useful.

As if these ideas are not enough, I had an epiphany at work after seeing a colleagues hand-knitted socks: I can make my own socks! I will preface the following statements with I cannot knit (attempted unsuccessfully) and I do not know how to crochet, but creating my own clothing and being more self-sufficient is part of what I want to do and who I want to be. I am planning on having a friend guide me through knitting and I borrowed a book from the library to instruct me in how to crochet. Both methods can be used to construct socks. Time is at a premium right now and my concentration is not on how to make new things, but the possibilities have my creativity cooking. I hope I can report one of my new ideas bears fruit in a few months.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

How I use those hardware store rewards and coupons to my advantage

While I tend to use few coupons for grocery shopping, I am mailed several coupons a year from my two local hardware stores including for my birthday! Some of the coupons I receive because I have earned enough points purchasing items in the store and they mail one as a reward. Usually, they are $10 off my next purchase. The rest are to entice me to spend money in the hardware store.

As a new homeowner, I have visited these stores for various needs so it is to my benefit to sign up for the rewards cards. It was one of the first things I did when I arrived in my new residence and I brandish them consistently to maximize my rewards. I highly recommend the rewards cards not only for the future earnings but also for immediate discounts as some stores give price breaks for having the rewards cards.

It seems easy enough to spend a coupon for $10 off your purchase in the hardware store. However, this is when I decide what I want and need to purchase. In my latest shopping spree, I ended up buying foam pipe insulation, freezer paper and a door sweep. I would have bought the first item even without the coupon, but the second two items I upgraded from my normal purchase.

My previous door sweep purchases were the self-adhesive kind. While they work, they also pull away from the door until the adhesive no longer sticks. Not a great way to keep out cold air in the winter. I purchased a door sweep that screws into the door hoping that it would be a more permanent solution to my air infiltration.

I bought the freezer paper because it would make portioning and freezing meat easier. I can buy larger quantities and then freeze in smaller portions for single meal. My mom did this when I lived at home and if I get a chest freezer, I would like to buy large quantities of meat and freeze them into usable portions.

I also keep to using the discount coupons on items I would already want to purchase. Higher-grade pleated furnace filters, window film insulation, garden soaker hoses and other items were both wanted and needed for the house and bought using "Get $5 off your purchase of $20 or more". I maximized the savings by buying items that total around $20.

I am by no means perfect. I needed to buy mouse traps when I found a mouse drowned in my cat's water dish in the basement. However, I happened to buy the mousetraps when there was a rebate so I saved some money later. And there will always be other situations where purchases will have to be made regardless of price. However, putting a bit of thought into the use of the coupons will help save some money on home maintenance and that can only be to your benefit.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Repurposing items

In my previous post, I discussed how I try to extend the useful life of various items by fixing them rather than throwing them out and buying a new one. However, there gets to be a point where the item is too worn for its original use or cannot be fixed. Then what do I do with it? I have found new uses for various items in my home and hope they may inspire you to look at worn items in a new light.

I upgraded my sheets to a higher thread count but there was no real reason to get rid of the original set I had. I love my cats but their tendency to leave fur everywhere makes it difficult to clean furniture. Well, I could clean it but I got tired of the maintenance. Enter old sheets. Laying them over the furniture means the cats deposit their fur on a washable cover. It is easy to remove when company comes over and protects the fabric from cat fur and crumbs from dinner. For one piece of furniture, I sewed two full flat sheets together and it completely covered the sofa. Extra bonus: discourages my cats from scratching at the sofa corners.

Other uses for old sheets: dropcloths. When painting or refinishing, they soak up splashes and splotches. Any old worn fabric can work for this. I can imagine old curtains, blankets or tablecloths could work as well.

I had some pillowcases my mom gave to me in college or just after for my own use. I used them regularly until the fabric was thinning and the corners were starting to unravel. The cats not only lay on the sofa, but curl up in the corner against the throw pillows, another fur collector. To protect them, I stuff them inside the old pillowcase. They get a bit compacted but the ease of cleaning far surpasses that minor drawback. I also use old pillowcases on top of the cushions on my kitchen chairs. Again, cats lay on them so it is easier to remove and wash the pillowcase than defur the chair cushion.

Recently some of my socks have been developing holes in them. To me, it was not worth repairing so they ended up in my rag pile. Old socks are great for polishing shoes or rubbing off stain from wood. Old underwear or t-shirts are also thrown in the rag pile. These items are used for dusting or cleaning. I use Pledge and spray the rag before dusting. It works well and after a wash, it is ready for another round. I have used rags to wash down outdoor furniture or wash the car. With the exception of cat messes, I try to use cotton towels or rags to clean many dirty items rather than paper towels.

Old towels are repurposed in various ways. Depending on how worn they are, they may end up as towels for beach visits or folded up inside a pet carrier for cushion. Old towels can be relegated to the rag pile or used to dry a car after washing. Since I have laminate flooring, I use a towel on which to press my sponge mop to minimize the streaks on my floor.

Repurposing can also mean reusing an empty, one-time use container. For example, there was a tall slender tin that had chocolate-covered pretzels in it. Once empty, I took it home and put my spaghetti pasta in it. The container is nicer than the Creamette box and I have something sturdy in the kitchen. Pill bottles are used to hold various nails and screws or as travel-size containers for cotton balls. An empty gift basket holds all the cat toys.

A bit of imagination and there are new uses for old, worn items. While I illustrate some uses by protecting furniture from my cats, I believe it also works for humans. I have been repeatedly thankful there was a cover on my sofa when I dropped food while I was eating. Sending fewer items to the landfill is good and if all else fails, cotton and other natural fabrics can be cut up and added to the composter!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Fix it and use it again

In an earlier post, I discussed items I had purchased but not rendered useful quite yet. Although I am frugal, it is a waste of money to buy fabric for curtains and not sew them or buy a clothesline and not install it. While I vow to finally use these items, there is a related topic to mention and one which is firmly in the camp of sustainability: to fix or mend an item.

I own a cut glass butter dish I thought I had gotten for a steal: $0.25 at a garage sale. I was thrilled to find it and it takes up a lot less room than a small dessert plate to hold my butter--and there is a cover. It took me a couple months to notice there was a crack in the butter dish cover, right through the middle. I continued to use it and it took nearly eight months before it finally broke. Since the glass broke so cleanly in half, I intend on repairing it and using it again. I do have a replacement butter dish, but I would like to use an item until it is rendered useless. As long as the cover can be repaired, I will continue to use my garage sale find.

I purchased two matching rugs from Pier One about ten years ago. They were bought to add some color to my apartment and minimize those shoe marks that indicate where I sit on the sofa. The rugs were made of thick fluffy cotton yarn and jute with jute fringe. Unfortunately, my cats really liked to play with the fringe. It took years and a few washes but the cats finally started to unravel the rugs. Other than the edges, the rugs are in good shape, but the edges needed to be repaired. Since the edges were unevenly unraveling, I decided to take fabric, of which I have a lot, and encase the ends. The cats would not unravel the rugs further and I would still be able to use the rugs.

So I cut two 8-inch-wide stripes of fabric that coordinate with the rug, ironed the edges under a half inch and after cutting off the unraveled fluff, hand sewed the fabric onto the rug. One bonus: the cotton and jute can be added to my composter! Now I have my large rug repaired and ready for use. The smaller one I will have to wash before repairing it. This way, I use what I have and do not have to buy a new rug for my entryway.

I have also fixed clothing by sewing buttons back on or mending holes in seams. I not only put off replacing the item but I am investing time in something I enjoy wearing. I have fixed sunglasses, had metal-frame glasses repaired and reglued wood chairs. While not always successful, I try my best to extend the life of items with a small investment in repair. I minimize my waste, reduce my expenses and keep something useful for a bit longer. And there is always repurposing the item, a subject for my next post.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Generations of frugality

Yesterday I made my weekly pilgrimage to the charity thrift shop in my hometown. It is a joyous occasion and I look forward to it each week. What will I find? Will I use it now or am I saving it for when I need it? Plus the prices beat most anywhere else as where I live is in deep winter and garage sale season is months away.

This trip yielded two children's books for a future niece or nephew ($0.10 a piece), three pieces of size 10 clothing for my nearly six-year-old niece and a waffle maker (I saw it last week, passed on it and decided to buy one if still there this week). The clothing will go to my niece for her sixth birthday party. The two shirts and a skirt were in good shape and kept me within my budget for gift giving. I love it when a plan comes together!

At the same time I was hitting the library and then my thrift shop, my mom and my youngest sister were making their own pilgrimages to not one but two charity thrift shops. Why? My sister just signed the lease on her first solo apartment. She had lived with roommates in college and has been living with our parents at their house and commuting 40 minutes one way to her job. This allowed her to save money (if not car wear and tear) while she figured out where she wanted to live and what options she had. My lucky sister is leasing a two bedroom apartment in a eight-plex with underground heated parking. I never had a two bedroom place before my house and heated underground parking was a luxury I did not have before I was 30. She's only 22. Of course, I went to grad school and she wanted to forge ahead into the working world so two different choices and two different pathways.

Since she has only shared living spaces, she does not have enough furniture to furnish a place herself. So, like when I leased my first apartment, Mom was taking her shopping at local thrift shops to buy furniture. Both places had 50% off, but the first had no furniture left. The second, my sister did not like what she found.

My mom shops at these stores regularly. She finds clothing for all the grandkids, various toys and books for the same grandkids and occasionally, a furniture steal. My mom is quite frugal--when raising five kids, you have to be. My dad is a farmer and my mom was a stay-at-home mom for many years. One income is a challenge any time. One income that varies month-to-month--even more so. My mom knit mittens and hats, sewed and repaired clothing, canned fruit, froze vegetables, made jams and jellies, grew her own produce in the garden and learned to wallpaper and refinish furniture. Over the years, she has spent a lot of time finding and buying antique furniture, refinishing them and proudly displaying them in her home. I have two dressers that my mom refinished and they were great buys and look fabulous.

I know her mother attended estate sales and auctions to buy items at discount. She raised four baby boomer children and experienced World War II. My grandmother did know the value of a dollar as well and I suspect my mom received some frugal tutoring from her mother.

In turn, my frugal nature was nurtured by my mom. I do not have her knitting or wallpaper skills, but I did refinish my own wood trim for the window I had installed--and then stained and varnished the bare wood window. I plan on trying to refinish the top of a wood veneer table this spring and reusing the wood trim that was removed from the window (another refinishing job). I took a summer school sewing class when I was 15 and have used that skill to great advantage. During high school, I sewed about half my wardrobe. I learned to quilt about ten years ago and would like to learn how to crochet. I hope to try canning this year and am planning what to grow in my small garden bed. I also have a great contact when I have questions about things.

So learn from your mom or grandma or aunt or uncle or anyone who demonstrates frugal ways. They can help guide you and give you ideas on how to integrate frugality in your life!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

My annual meeting with my financial advisor

My credit union offers many benefits to its members including investment services. Of course, the credit union makes no guarantee about the rate of return, but does host the third party investment company right in the credit union building. Last year, I made the decision to rollover my 403b. In addition, I was not happy with the performance of my Roth IRA, a mutual fund I had stared with the previous investment firm hosted by my credit union. To make sure I was on the right track financially and to find out my options, I called my credit union and made an appointment with an investment representative. He laid out some options, gave me a recommendation and told me if I wanted to invest in index funds for my Roth IRA, I would have to do that myself.

He did recommend the TransAmerica IDEX Growth Asset Allocation Portfolio for my 403b rollover as I am young and have many years for the stock market to grow my money. My 403b was quite modest as it was my first retirement investment and I invested my money in 1999-2001, buying in when the prices were high and then the market took a downturn. I lost nearly half the value of the portfolio and since I moved to a different job in 2001, watched it grow over the next six years back to its original value. The portfolio I bought into was a front-load mutual fund. As my reading has shown me, maybe that was not the best choice, but I liked how the portfolio worked.

As it turns out, my advisor showed me that my net gain was
-0.5% on the TransAmerica fund. Considering the front load was 5.5%, I nearly broke even the first year. Not too bad really so I am pleased. I wonder what this year will look like?

We discussed my current situation (cash, 401k, other retirement accounts) and he recommended that I fully fund my Roth IRA. I have funded half my Roth IRA in 2007 and was hoping to make it to $3,000 this year. I am contributing 10% pretax to my 401k and the company matches to 6%. Since the money in the Roth IRA grows tax free and can be withdrawn in retirement tax free, my advisor suggested I max out the Roth IRA.

I am a bit squeamish about not putting money into my 401k, but I have heard that recommendation before. Suze Orman recommends the same strategy but I have not fully absorbed it. After my discussion with the financial advisor, I am considering dropping my 401k contribution to 8% and applying the extra money to the Roth IRA. I would not max it out but I would be contributing more into the index fund I have chosen.

Otherwise, my financial advisor said my situation looked good with my cash reserves, not buying too much house, having term life insurance (just the policy through work) and my contribution of 16% of my income to retirement funds. He indicated anything over 10% is excellent but not to contribute so much it makes me feel constrained. That I do not feel therefore, I am on the right track for me. I was glad to meet with my advisor and I will see what next year brings for me!

Friday, January 18, 2008

Practical purchases I have not used (but should)

Generally, I am frugal and consider the effect spending time and money on a particular item or project will have on my comfort or my home. However, I know there are more than a few things in my house that sit around waiting for me to take that last step and make them functional. Maybe you do as well. The following is a list of projects that would benefit me to have finished:

Install a indoor clothes line. I do have one in the basement but it is only eight feet long, not enough to put much on it. It is a travel one a previous resident put up and has its uses but I need more space. I purchased a retractable clothes line that goes to 40 feet, but it sits in my basement waiting for its time to flourish. This could save me some energy as I would have to run my dryer less even in the winter.

Sew curtains. This has been a to-do project since I moved into the house. For two years, I have had precut and washed fabric just waiting for me to sew into lined curtains for my bedroom and office. The finished curtains would not only add more color and vibrancy to the rooms but they would block light, heat and cold. For my bedroom, the roman shades do a great job but for the office, the blinds are not so good. I have curtain rods and hardware--I just need to make the curtains.

Recaulk the bathtub. I did some recaulking when I first moved into the house. There were some very obvious gaps where the caulk was applied too thinly to cover. I also noticed that when the previous owner had the ceramic tile installed, a new subfloor was put in as there is old water damage around where the bathtub is. However, I have noticed some of the older caulk is now molding and pulling away from the side of the tub. I have the tools to remove the old caulk and put in nice new caulk but have not done it yet. Making sure the tub is tightly sealed to the surround keeps it water tight and minimizes rot.

Install a GFCI outlet in the garage. I have several outlets in the garage, none of which are ground-fault circuit interruptable. Depending on the direction of rain or the amount of snow on my car, I do have water that collects in the garage. While I tend not to mix electricity with water, the potential is there especially with my electric snowthrower. In addition, one of the outlets is broken right where the third prong rests. This means the outlet cannot even hold a three-pronged cord. I did buy a GFCI outlet to replace it but it sits in the garage waiting for that perfect sunny, warm (but not too hot) day. That is at least three months away.

I do have some projects in mind for this weekend. I doubt any of these will make the list, but this post is a reminder that I need to get these practical purchases to their final destination. Protecting my home and making a more comfortable place to live is only to my benefit.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Grocery lists and calculating costs for the monthly grocery trip

For my once monthly grocery trips, I consider more than just menu planning. The magnetic list on my refrigerator is an important part of planning my grocery trip as well.

Not only do I have a list of planned dinner and dessert items on my refrigerator, each of which get crossed out when made, but I also have a running list of items I use up or am running low on. For example, I did not plan my flour purchases well for the month of December and ran out of unbleached all-purpose flour. However, I did have plenty of bread flour which substituted well in cookies but not so well for sauce thickening. Therefore, I needed more all-purpose flour. I also used nearly all my cinnamon so I put that on my list of grocery items I needed to purchase.

This running list is important so I keep it in a location that is easy to access. The magnetic pad on my refrigerator is easy to find and I have a pen just a step away that I can note whichever item I need to purchase. The key to continually using an item: make it simple and easy to implement.

In addition to necessary items to stock and the planned menu foodstuffs, I need to keep under budget. This can be a challenge. In fact, my grocery trip for this month, January 2008, was barely under budget. Since I had run low on more items than I anticipated in December and the cumulative effect of trying three new recipes in one month, my purchases added up quickly.

However, I usually end up with more breathing room than $1.96. Therefore, I can add staples to my pantry. When I noticed that I was going through five pounds of bread flour a month, I started purchasing 10 pound bags. While the initial outlay of money was more, I lowered my overall costs (lower cost per pound of flour) and that left a bit more room in the budget. I have stocked various condensed soups, tomato paste, tomato sauce, canola oil and other staples I use regularly with the room left in my grocery money allocation. This helps decrease food costs as I have an item or two needed for a dish I want to make and do not have to purchase it the month I want to make the dish.

The best way I have found to keep on budget? My calculator. Each item I place in my grocery cart, I punch into my handy calculator. This tool is also useful for deciding between items of two different sizes and prices. I write down my current total on my grocery list and then divide the price by the unit size of the item I am considering. This ability helped me determine that the largest size of a box of powdered milk really was a better deal than the generic brand at the large or medium size. And it will take me a long time to go through 64oz of powdered milk.

Among my posts on my once monthly grocery shopping trip, I believe this covers the planning that goes into my trips. One final note: I used my eight hemp bags and they fell short by one bag on the trip. If you plan on reusing bags you have or are purchasing some reusable bags, bring or buy a few extra. It does not hurt and may give you a per unit break on the price of reusable bags. Let me know your thoughts and comment!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Menu planning for the once monthly grocery trip

While my blog's comment rate is low, I have seen quite a few hits to my once monthly grocery shopping trip posting. Since there is interest in single people trying to keep grocery costs (and hassles) to a minimium, I thought I would expound on the topic. Here I will cover my menu planning.

The goal of the once monthly grocery shopping is cover all your needs for an entire month. I do make one or two trips at the end of the month if I need to replenish an item (e.g., need another gallon of milk) or there is some room in my budget and I cannot go another day without those potato chips. (I really try to fight those temptations but I do succumb occasionally.) So how do I do this? I plan what I will cook to cover three meals a day. Generally this means that what I make for dinner will be lunch and dinner for a two or three days. I also plan for quick meals like toasted cheese sandwiches, meals with moderate preparation like homemade pizza as well as the full cooking experience.

For example, here is what I have eaten this week:
Breakfast: Two slices banana-cream bread toasted, buttered and sprinkled with cinnamon; glass of milk
Snack: Bag of Baked Cheetos from vending machine
Lunch: Part of 1/7 portion of Shrimp Pasta Pie, microwaved and ice water
Dinner: Made Bacon-Cream Cheese filling and baked into crescent rolls with glass of diet cherry cola. There are another three servings of the Bacon-Cream Cheese rolls so refrigerated for later.

Breakfast: Two slices banana-cream bread toasted, buttered and sprinkled with cinnamon; glass of milk
Snack: Slice of pound cake spread with strawberry cream cheese
Lunch: Remaining 1/7 portion of Shrimp Pasta Pie, microwaved, applesauce and ice water; dessert Chocolate Chip Cream Cheese bar
Dinner: Bacon-Cream Cheese Crescents with glass of diet cherry cola.

Breakfast: Two slices banana-cream bread toasted, buttered and sprinkled with cinnamon; glass of milk
Snack: Bag of Harvest Cheddar Sun Chips
Lunch: 1/7 portion of Shrimp Pasta Pie, microwaved and ice water; dessert Chocolate Chip Cream Cheese bar
Dinner: Bacon-Cream Cheese Cresents with glass of diet cherry cola.

I project that my menu will continue to be the same for Thursday and Friday with the exception of dinner on Friday. Currently, I am considering making pizza dough in my bread maker so I can have pizza or a quick salad or I might cook the Spaghetti and Meatballs recipe I chose to try. I might save the last item for Saturday where I will have more time to cook and fewer demands from the empty stomach.

One complaint: I am getting awfully tired of the Shrimp Pasta Pie. Here is where more freezer space would come in handy--freeze it for another time. However, it is obvious that the Pasta Pie did last for lunch an entire week and that is usually what happens to my leftovers. Plus one loaf of banana-cream bread will last an entire week for breakfast. So what other items do I have?

Breakfast: bagged cereal, pancakes, toast
Lunch: leftovers, frozen prepackaged meals (limited to three or four a month), occasional eating out
Dinner: homemade pizza, salad, toasted cheese sandwich, casseroles, meat dishes, ethnic foods, rice
Desserts: bars, apple-based desserts, cookies, chocolate
Snacks: popcorn, salad (I like crunchy!), nuts, chips, toast

I do not break down my menu into a day-by-day listing. I do have the menu items I specifically bought groceries for listed on my refrigerator to remind me what they are and put out items to thaw in preparation for them. My pantry is well-stocked if I want to try something not on the menu. Therefore, I really only make a separate trip to the grocery store for milk. Otherwise, my meals are planned and give me enough variety I tend not to get bored except when I have the same leftovers four days in a row.

Does this information help you? Do you want other details? Please let me know.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Strategies for keeping warm without breaking the bank

I try to be frugal with my money and minimize the heaviness of my tread on the earth. This involves saving water in the shower and the washer, recycling, reusing, buying secondhand and composting what I can. However, I live in the Midwest and that can involve high costs in the winter due to heating. I will outline my techniques for keeping warm and not overtaxing my checkbook.

Keep the thermostat low. For me, a setting of 64 degrees Farenheit when I am home is sufficient for warmth. I know people who keep it warmer and those who keep it colder, but this is the most comfortable conservative setting for me.
Use a programmable thermostat. When I am not home, the house does not have to be kept warm. I love my cats but they have a nice fur coat and can survive lower temperatures without adverse effects. When I am gone or sleeping at night, my programmable thermostat lowers the temperature to 55 or 56 degrees F. In the morning, it kindly rises to 64 so I can shower in relative comfort. When I come home after work, the thermostat brings up the temperature to 64 from the daytime low and keeps it there until bedtime.
Put on a sweater or a blanket. This is simple but really adds to the comfort. If the thermostat is going to be lower and I generally am reading or using my laptop, I need some extra layers to keep warm. I have a blanket handy to put over my lap and always wear my bathrobe in the morning. I was stunned one day last winter when I saw I man in shorts outside letting the dog out. Wearing shorts in winter is ridiculous. Wearing sweaters is practical and increases comfort.
Insulate the windows. I have single pane windows and energy efficient they are not. Therefore, I apply plastic film to the inside of the windows every winter. It gives another layer of insulation to keep the room warmer and is likely to cut down on drafts. I have thrermodrapes in my living room and Roman shades in my bedroom. I purchased these to help increase energy efficiency and they are working well. The other windows have blinds that came with the house and there is definitely more air infiltration. Consider throwing a blanket over the window to keep heat in and cold out. The more layers insulating the warm room from the cold air, the better.
Use a down comforter and an electric blanket for the bed. My down comforter has been wonderful with cold weather, but my skin did not like the cold bed linens when first climbing into bed. The down comforter kept me warm all night and made lowering the thermostat worth it. The drawback during the cold months is it took half a minute to get to warmed up under the covers. I purchased an electric blanket off craigslist and for those single digit nights, it is a wonderful asset. Plus having a blanket and down comforter on the bed is quite toasty without the electric heat. The electric blanket targets the heat where I want it and warms the bed so I do not shiver under the covers.
Use supplementary heat judiciously. I purchased two oil-filled electric heaters from craigslist, a running theme in my life. The one in my living room is usually dormant, but sometimes, the lap blanket is not quite enough. I use the electric radiator to supplement the heat in the room I am in, and it is enough to take the edge off the cold. I rarely use the radiator to keep costs down but occasional use does not perturb my electric bill.
Wear slippers. I wear slippers even with socks. One reason is I like to keep my socks clean. The other is to keep my feet warm. If my feet are warm, I feel warmer overall. Any extra insulation on my feet can only be good. Plus it saves wear on shoes and that can save money.

Consider using any of these ideas to help keep a bit warmer this winter. Small steps can only help and reducing your fuel consumption to heat the house is a frugal measure and living a bit greener.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Why I bought china rather than Corelle

A recent tradition my family has adopted is gathering in a home at noon on the second Sunday of the month to have a family dinner. One of my lovely brothers suggested we all get together on a regular basis and family dinners have been going strong for over three years. The premise is to keep in contact with each other on a regular basis. Each Sunday is hosted by a different member of the family. My parents are first in the rotation and then it follows birth order with the exception of our youngest sibling, who currently does not have her own household. It is lucky that we all live within easy driving distance of each other. I have to drive the furthest (1.5 hours); everyone else lives within five minutes of each other.

I was the one to suggest having different people host for my own selfish reasons: I did not want to be driving each and every time especially as I had to travel the furthest. Our family has grown in during these years with my oldest niece (six) and youngest niece (one) celebrating their birthdays in the same month. The current total is ten adults and seven children. That means when I host my family, I have to have plates for seventeen people, both small and large.

Early on I realized my dish number was inadequate. I loved my Corelle pattern but it had been discontinued, making it difficult to add to the number of plates. I started my search on Replacements, Ltd but they were quite expensive. I then searched eBay for my pattern and found that it was in high demand. I refused to pay over $10 for a dinner plate.

What could I do to supply my hungry family with a plate from which to eat? Well, I had a china pattern I picked up at an antique store. It was such a good deal, I could not ignore it. For a four-place setting, a serving platter and a serving dish, I paid $5. However, I bought it in college, used it a few times and kept moving it from place to place. The name of the china manufacturer, a domestic one, and the pattern name were printed on the back of the pieces. I did a search on eBay and waalah! My pattern was available on eBay at more reasonable prices than Corelle.

I will confess I went a bit auction crazy and have ended up with nearly 200 pieces, but how could I ignore an auction that ended costing me $2 per dinner plate including shipping? I estimate I have paid about $6 per setting and have enough pieces not only to serve my family, but enough for the future increase in numbers (or breakage). I would still like two more serving pieces, one of which is rare enough I refuse to pay the asking price, but eBay has been good to me and my quest to acquire china.

As you can see, my choice to buy china rather than Corelle was based on cost per item but also, I like serving my guests on really lovely plates. Now that I have found additional Corelle dinner plates at my thrift shop for $0.50, I have enough to serve my family regardless of pattern type, but prefer to continue to use china.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Planning for a frugal vacation

I confess I rarely take vacations. Truthfully, I enjoy taking time off, spending it at home and maybe getting a to-do project done. This may be unacceptable to some but I like to do it as there is little I have a burning desire to visit. My recent trip to Germany was partially happenstance. I would like to visit the United Kingdom, but not enough I pursued all my options. Three years ago, I did take the step of purchasing a passport so I had the option of leaving the United States without waiting for a passport to be printed. That came in handy planning the trip to Germany since my parents had to order their passport and waited over five months to get it with the backlog of many others needing to get it for travel to Canada and Mexico.

However, for those who want to get away, how can a vacation be made frugal? The first step involves planning. This planning portion includes saving the money for spending on the designated vacation, where to go, what sites to see and how to travel. Other than the trip to Germany, which I saved money each pay period to pay for my trip including airfare, hotel accommodations, fees, food and spending money, I had only one other vacation that required me to fly. I used the internet to find a good deal, visited a friend in Florida and stayed with her, saving on hotel costs, and asked to go to specific sights while in Florida. My budget was only $500, but I managed to keep it in that number with little difficulty.

Otherwise, my vacations were taken with my family and involved driving to local siteseeing spots. My dad was limited in the time and distance he could go for our vacations. He is a farmer and as such, is tied to the land. Our family vacations were never longer than a week, involved the entire family from when there were two children and up to five in one vehicle and meant a lot of planning. There was a camper early in the family vacation sagas, but later, my parents reserved a hotel room. And yes, two adults and five children slept in the same room during most vacations. Snacks were purchased prior to the trip, but Mom and Dad did take us children out to eat. It may have been McDonald's or Denny's but we ate as frugally as possible.

I know Mom and Dad also took a specific amount of cash along. Most sites did have entrance fees and I know the numbers multiplied by children could add up even with lower fees for children. I now appreciate learning about my state's history (and the sites in nearby states). I can talk to people about where I have been, but many residents have not even visited the sites of the Underground Railroad or villages of early settlers here in their home state. My family lives in the upper Midwest/Great Lakes area so we have even ventured into Canada on family vacation.

So what are the lessons my parents have for other families?
*Plan your route. My dad would examine maps for the routes between the sites my parents had chosen to visit. He would estimate time of arrival, make reservations for a budget motel for the night or nights we were staying in the area and bring the relevant maps and brochures along to ensure he drove us where we planning on going. Plus, he could plan for gas expenses with some idea of the miles being driven prior to taking the trip.
*Have a budget in mind and stick to it. My parents took a specific amount of cash along for most expenses. The credit card was only used for the accommodations. Saving a little bit each month for the family vacation makes that credit card bill less stressful since a balance is not carried nor is money taken from the emergency savings account.
*Take snacks and sandwiches along. Feeding a family is not cheap. Feeding a family on the road is downright expensive. Trips to the grocery store to get sandwiches, chips and soda, a rare treat in our family, serve as well as eating out at a family diner. Packing a family lunch or two in a cooler will also cut food costs.
*Have something for the kids to do in the car. I know my parents' temper flared more than once when we children fought during long car rides. My siblings and I were encouraged to bring toys, games, book or other items to keep us occupied. More than once, I brought a notebook to write in. Have only a few items per child or too much space is taken with toys rather than clothing or tolietries. You might consider a game of "I Spy" or counting blue cars or different state license plates, whatever is age appropriate, to help engage them.
*Enjoy your time. Vacations are meant to be relaxing, for getting away from the grind and maybe learning something new. Hopefully, you do not feel further stress at the end of the vacation. If you do, reevaluate the trip, see where things could be improved or where things went well. Use that new-found knowledge to plan for the next trip.

Happy vacationing!

Lesson learned: Be prepared with backup postings

I learned a hard lesson the past two days: I need to have at least one posting ready to go rather than choosing my subject the same day and typing it up. Why is this important? Because I was too ill to post two days ago and did not have time yesterday. My personal goal was to post to my blog every day with something my occasional readers might enjoy. I did consider having a backup post ready previously, but did not execute the thought. While I do practice having backups to many things, I neglected this area. So when life intereferred quite heavily, I did not meet my own deadline.

So, with time and energy at a premium as it is for everyone, I will be planning and writing two extra posts to keep in reserve for those days where time gets away from me. Practicing what I preach is important. Sometimes, I miss applying the lesson to a part of my life it can easily apply to. Here is hoping I plan better for the future.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

How the purchase of a yogurt maker was not frugal

To contrast with my enthusiastic post about my bread maker, I will reveal why I believe I made a poor choice to buy a yogurt maker.

Not long after I purchased my bread maker, I decided to buy a yogurt maker. This decision was based on two premises. First, I wanted to eat healthier. By making yogurt and blending it with frozen fruit, I could have smoothies in the morning and increase my fruit intake. Secondly, I would save myself a lot of money by making my own yogurt for smoothies.

Therefore, I purchased a Salton yogurt maker, the kind with five individual cups, on eBay. After using the machine for a while, I realized this was not a great choice. I had more items to clean and more spilling of the starter mix as I try to pour it five different times. A 1-quart container yogurt maker would have worked better for my purposes.

For nearly three months, I happily made yogurt, created smoothies and even branched out into making my own granola and putting it on the yogurt for breakfast. In addition, I bought a second yogurt maker of the same type to help rotate out the yogurt containers and keep a continuous supply.

But then I continued to buy yogurt with live cultures in the store but the containers just sat in my refrigerator. The yogurt maker sat in my pantry and the extra one stayed in a box in my office. Right now, I have several containers of yogurt in my refrigerator and three bags of frozen fruit in my freezer, but no more smoothies. At least the honey is used in my honey wheat bread.

What is the lesson here? Truly think about the purchase of a single-use appliance. For a person that really loved yogurt or used it as a base in many recipes, the yogurt maker is a good purchase. Not only should she enjoy the yogurt but she should also not get tired of eating the same thing. However, if tastes change or she is following a fad, this may not be an ideal purchase.

My breakfast habits go in cycles. For two months, I ate nothing but oatmeal for breakfast. Now, the box sits in the cabinet untouched for 10 months. I have a yogurt smoothie occassionally (have to use up the excess yogurt somehow), but nothing to justify having a yogurt maker. Other than pancakes, there really is not a breakfast I never get tired of eating. Therefore, I could have saved my money and not bought the two yogurt makers. Maybe eBay will be my salvation.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Ideas for reusing paper and plastic items

There is an awful number of paper and plastic items that make its way in and out of my life. For example, I love milk so I go through 4-5 gallons a month. This means I have 4-5 empty plastic gallon jugs to recycle. There are also plastic bags, mail, paper bags and other items that can be recycled but do have some life in them. Here are a few ways I reuse items before they are consigned to the recycling or garbage bin.

Plastic bags: The easy choice for reusing these is as trash can liners. Even a few of the grocery stores have printed on their bags "Today, carrying groceries; tomorrow lining a trash can" or something similar. I use them to carry cat waste from the basement for flushing. They are reused to wrap items I would like to keep dry or for storing items that might spill or make a mess. Plastic bags can also be balled up and used as packing material. I know of people who cut them into strips and knit them into more sturdy reusable bags. My skill with a knitting needle is nonexistant, but I think making a bag out of bags is a great idea.

Paper bags: The paper grocery bags without handles are used on top of the plastic bag in my kitchen trash can. While I throw away less food than I used to, there are times when sloppy stuff is thrown away. The paper bag soaks up the liquid and helps reinforce the plastic bag and prevents breakage. I also use them to hold the items I will donate to charitable stores. The handled paper bags are great to reuse. I carry around Christmas gifts in them or use the smaller bags for gift bags or to carry my lunch (if I cannot find my reusable bag). A handled paper bag holds the plastic, glass and metal recycled items in the house and is used repeatedly until it is too tattered and dirty to function. Paper bags also hold paper to be recycled and can be placed on the curb without empyting the bag.

Empty plastic gallon containers: While I really only recycle the milk jugs, collecting the caps for the school my mom works for, I do keep and reuse the distilled water containers purchased for my cats. I have water left from my rainbarrel in a few of these plastic gallon jugs to water my plants. Since it is winter where I life, the rainbarrel is detached, but I saved some of the water for the wintertime plant watering. I also use these containers to mix up beverages, especially powdered milk. I use powdered milk in recipes that call for milk, saving me some money by not using my 1% drinking milk for cooking. I have also stored some tap water in the basement for emergency use. Milk jugs are not recommended for water storage so the distilled water containers are ideal.

Mail: An oldie but goodie: write on the back of envelopes. This really is worthwhile. I find envelopes a great size for making lists, to do or grocery. I have them scattered all over the house so I have no excuse not to write something down. Finding a pen might be more of an adventure. I also save some of the letter-size paper if blank on one side for printing. I am attracted to the colored paper but use white as well. I have taken to reusing the colored paper to print my monthly grocery list on and that makes it easy to find in my purse. Usually what I print I am not saving long term so reusing the paper and then recycling it works well.

Cardboard boxes: I like the ones at work that copier paper comes in. They have a nice lid and are great for stashing the endless amount of paper that filters into my life. I should file it but instead, it ends up in one of these boxes and stored. I also use brown cardboard in the garden as a weed-suppressing mulch. Really sturdy boxes I keep and use for moving more delicate items. I also keep paper packing material (and bubble wrap) for future reuse as well. However, I limit myself to just one box of each type of packing material or I would have a full basement. I also give excess to people who sell on eBay since they are always looking for free packing material.

These are strategies I use regularly to get at least one more use out of an item before it is consigned to a recycling bin. Some still end up in a landfill, but all are used again to minimize waste.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Saving on the cost of technology

I love my iBook, my wireless Airport network, my G4 Tower and my iPod mini. Obviously I like my Apple Computer products and have been an enthusiastic Mac user for over 10 years. In that time, I have owned six different Macs and until 2005, upgraded every two years. I used to have technology envy, wanting to upgrade to the next newest technology. By the names of my computers, I am obviously a few generations behind current Apple technology. However, there were some strategies I employed in order to minimize the cost of my brand new technology.

First strategy: I purchased the newly discontinued model.
What this means is when Apple announced its brand new models of iBooks (now MacBooks), I would purchase the one that was just discontinued. Since the company would want to sell more of the newest model, the old "new" model would be discounted to clear inventory. Therefore, I would be able to get a discount on technology that was not obsolete and certainly an upgrade compared to what I had. It just was not the shiniest new bit of technology. I saved $200 on my iBook using this methodology.

Second strategy: I bought refurbished items from the manufacturer.
Apple Computer sells refurbished items in its Apple Store. These items are discounted from new but are guaranteed like new products. When I bought my Airport Express, it was $99 refurbished versus $129 new and shipping was free. It was worth me setting up a wireless network in my home and saved me a few dollars with a easy-to-use system.

Third strategy: I purchased a special bundle through my educational institution.
I worked for my local university for nearly 2.5 years. There is an educational discount that Apple Computer gives to any student or teacher or other worker in school. My former institution also had a in-house store and as long as I worked for the university, I could also get the educational discount. I was looking for a new desktop computer and saw the in-house store had bundled a G4 tower and a 17" LCD screen (highly desired) together at a substantial discount. The G4 tower was being discontinued and larger LCD screens were on the way. However, I ended up saving nearly $500 on this combination and all are still going strong. I loved the larger screen (an upgrade from my 15" CRT) and the lower heat gain.

This last strategy is more limited in application but if you know someone who works for a school or know a student in school especially at university, you have access to great deals on hardware and software. Lessening my need for the newest technology has also saved me money, but I am also considering buying a laptop used rather than going for new. The price is even lower and there is more bargaining room.

Regardless of what piece of technology you are interested in purchasing, considering these strategies may help you save a few dollars.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Adjusting the spending plan January 2008

I received my first paycheck of the new year on Friday, January 4 and the new total take-home salary meant I needed to adjust my spending plan for the month. What did this involve? There were three factors that required me to change my spending plan:

1. The first of several $50 deductions for charity were subtracted from my income. I could choose to have my charitable contributions (matched by my workplace) deducted from my biweekly paycheck. In fact, I have my company do it at the beginning of each year so I know I have some charitable deductions for tax purposes for the new year.

2. Contributions for medical and dental insurance and FSA increase at the beginning of each year. I did not know how much effect these would have on my take-home pay.

3. The rising cost of gasoline meant I needed to allocate more money for gas. It is difficult to change a spending plan when the income decreases caused by #1 and #2 have yet to come into play.

In fact, when I added up my take-home pay both before and after the changes, I found I had $2 more in my spending plan than I should. Not a big deal since I usually have a category or two with money leftover, but I did fix it as I was reevaluating my spending plan.

The end result: I only had to decrease my total spending plan amount by $4. The changes to my insurance and my voluntary increased contributions to my FSA seemed to have less of an effect on my take-home pay than I anticipated. While the $50 per paycheck is not insignificant, between no longer saving $25 per paycheck and adding back some of the money I had previously saved from the $25 per pay period, I have easily covered this $100 per month decrease without major changes to the spending plan.

As for money allocated for gas, I subtracted $5 from eating out and $5 from entertainment to give myself an extra $10 for gasoline. There are still other categories I can use for additional money if my spending plan for gas proves insufficient. The extra $4 I needed to remove from my spending plan came from the gift category. I still had some money for gifts carried over from the end of 2007 and anticipate I will not need much more money than the $26/month that remains.

My annual workplace review is approaching and that may affect my take-home pay at the beginning of my company's fiscal year (April 1). This means I will review my retirement savings, spending plan and any other savings in four months, sooner if any of my spending plan categories need adjustment. Stay tuned for those changes!

Sunday, January 6, 2008

How a breadmaker changed my frugal life

In October 2006, I bought a Toastmaster model TBR2 bread maker for $20 from a craigslist posting. It was one of my first craigslist purchases and the woman said she used it only a few times. I had been searching for a horizontal loaf bread maker for a while and did not want to pay the eBay prices so finding this bread maker locally was a great purchase for me. After testing the bread maker and liking the final product, my goal was to make all my own bread and no longer purchase it.

I was aware my bread consumption patterns waxed and waned. One week, I would make toast every morning for breakfast and then the next, I would not touch the stuff. The preservatives in store-bought bread would keep it for a long time, but I thought the smaller one-pound loaf my bread maker could produce would work well for me. I could always make more when I had a high-demand week and compost the moldy parts if I did not quite finish the loaf in time. As homemade bread is perservative-free, it does mold a lot faster.

However, I did not realize the full benefits of a bread maker. Not only could I made the honey wheat I enjoy, I could make other items such as pizza dough. This has meant that pizza is a staple in my diet. I can get tired of the same thing, but oddly enough, I have been enjoying pizza at least three times a month with little sign of stopping. In fact, I prefer my pizza to much of the chain takeout pizzas.

Not only have I made bread since I purchased the bread maker (without ever resorting to hitting the store for a loaf), but I have experimented with other breads. I bought a used cookbook on making lots of breads in a breadmaker and have found a banana-cream bread that makes fabulous cinnamon toast! I use bread flour for best results and have purchased yeast in bulk since I bake several times a month.

My $20 bread maker has really helped me become more frugal and enjoy a greater variety in my diet. I estimate that a loaf of honey wheat bread costs me no more than $1 to make even with the recent price increase in flour. My pizzas (since I buy jar sauce and pepperoni) are closer to $3.50-$4, depending on toppings. I make everything fresh in my kitchen, I really enjoy a meal I make myself and the smell of baking bread is hard to beat.

There are two drawbacks to breadmaker bread: the hole in the bottom from the mixing paddle and the crumbly nature of the honey wheat bread. Neither is enough to affect my usage or the bread's taste. I appreciate what the bread maker has done for me and believe this a great purchase for me. Ask friends if they have a bread maker in their basement. They might let you have it and you might discover a new frugal meal-maker for the kitchen.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Unexpected compost contributions

My workplace is fairly progressive regarding recycling. Every year, we have a month dedicated to deleting and purging old and unneeded records. Recycling bins are set up all over the building to make it easier for employees to place their paper there rather than throwing it away. Any office supplies no longer needed are placed in boxes to be made available to others for reuse. While there are extra paper recycling bins made available during this time, there always some present in each department grouping. Communal garbage cans usually always have a comingled recycling can right next to it. Employees can recycle glass, plastic (#1-7) and paper in the same bin.

My department also reuses paper. Any paper with printing on one side is placed in a paper holder next to the printer so a person can print using the remaining blank side of paper. This is a simple thing but few other departments practice this method as recycling is easier.

However, there is no bin for composting food waste. Now, much of the food waste is unable to be composted (fat or meat), but many people also bring fruit to work. This means peels and cores end up in the garbage because how else is a person supposed to dispose of it? One of my colleagues eats a banana a day and I asked her to start giving me the banana peels. This way, they were not going to the garbage and my composter received some new contributions. Since the pile inside my composter is small, I need all the help I can get to bring it to critical cooking mass.

This same colleague prepared vegetable trays during the holidays and saved two ice cream buckets worth of peelings and veggie inards. When she told me after the holidays she had a gift for me, I wondered what it was. Then she revealed she had saved these compostable items for me and I was surprised. First, she made the effort to save them for me and second, I imagine other people would be thinking "Ew! Why would someone want vegetable bits?". Truly, I was happy she thought of me and saved her carrot peelings and green pepper inards. The more I add to my compost pile, the sooner I might get some compost to use in my garden. And I know the scraps would have gone in the garbage normally so compostable items were prevented from going into a landfill.

I intend on bringing an ice cream bucket to work and asking (harrassing?) others into adding to it. I would like to rescue more compostable stuff from the garbage if I can. It would be wonderful if my workplace would consider this idea as well but I will start within my department first. The company has extensive grounds including landscaped areas. I would like to think that they could use compost to help the plants grow and maintain soil health.

Do you view vegetable peelings given to you by friends or coworkers as a gift or poor idea? I would love to read your thoughts.

Friday, January 4, 2008

A little dab will do ya!

I have a notebook of blog ideas to help me when the reading finance web sites and blogs or my experiences that day do not prompt a post. However, the idea to talk about squeezing less toothpaste seemed a bit spartan for one post. Upon further reflection, I thought "this idea still has potential for more applications than just toothpaste". I will give some suggestions that I implement in my life that you may find useful as well.

Those toothpaste commercials tend to show toothpaste squeezed from the tube and taking up the entire length of the toothbrush bristles. This is an awful lot of toothpaste, which foams quickly and necessitates spitting (sending the product down the drain) so brushing can continue. This also encourages the consumer to buy more often because more toothpaste on the brush means fewer applications per tube of toothpaste. It takes me well over a year, ~18 months, before I buy another tube of toothpaste. My usage is once daily with occasional twice daily application. I usually brush twice a session with toothpaste applied for each session.

How do I get away with buying toothpaste so rarely? I found just a dab will clean my teeth. I barely squeeze the tube and get just enough to cover the end of my pinky on the bristles and brush my teeth. I consume less of a disposable product. I throw away less plastic in the garbage and I save money by not constantly purchasing toothpaste for my overloaded brush. In addition, I only run the water to wet my brush and rinse it between uses. Water conservation is beneficial as well.

I have a front-loading washer that came with my house purchase. It was only two years old according to the manufacturing sticker on the appliance. The owner's manual said to use high-efficiency detergent. Instead, I use my regular liquid laundry detergent and use less than a quarter cup for each load of laundry. My clothes are clean, there are little to no suds left at the end of the rinse cycle and I go through 64 ounces of detergent about every nine months. Less functions well and I save a bit of money in the process.

I used to have a top-loading washer and I was quite happy to add lots of detergent. Therefore, I have no specific advice for cutting back other than recommending the empirical method. Frankly, I thought more was better but with a front-loading washer, this philosophy does not work.

I also use less hand soap than the pump will give me. Again, I find I can effectively wash my hands in half the liquid soap the dispenser will allow you. I have diluted the soap (somewhat effective), but found the rubberband trick works the best. This involves winding a moderately wide rubberband around the stem of the pump part, thus preventing it from going all the way down when pressed. I have noticed I fill the dispenser less often with the rubberband in place.

Other frugal people have suggested this idea and I have found this to be true: using half or three quarters of a pound of ground beef in recipes that call for a pound does not affect flavor at all. Using less will cut costs immediately and still satisfy the carnivore in your family. (I certainly like my meat.)

These are a few suggestions that reduce consumption (and waste) while leaving a few more dollars in your pocket. What other items do you use less of and still get results with use? I would love to read your comments!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

My first monthly grocery trip with reusable hemp bags

Last month, I purchased eight Dual Handled Lightweight Hemp Totes made by ACME Bags™, and two large and two small organic cotton mesh produce bags to reduce my plastic and paper bag consumption. I had used one of the hemp totes for trips to the grocery for a few items, to my pharmacy or the thrift store and they worked well. I liked being able to choose between the long or short handles. However, I was not sure how the grocery store baggers would like using my bags instead of paper bags, my usual choice.

This shopping trip, I reused one of my plastic produce bags for my cucumbers and took a second new one for the green onions. My white onions and tomatoes went into a large and small cotton produce bag respectively. The bagger graciously used my hemp totes to pack all my groceries when I asked him, but I did need an extra paper bag to hold all the items. He had no complaints when I asked him about using the bags so a plus.

When I unpacked my car, it was nice to carry a couple bags over my shoulder (even in my bulky wool coat) and two items in my hand into the house. I made fewer trips, and the bags held up well even with some heavy items. My reusuable bags are definitely a success and I plan on purchasing more bags (for me and as gifts) and additional produce bags. Best of all, I can pack the reusable bags inside one of them and they are ready to go for the next big trip.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Netflix--is it a valuable service or waste of time and money?

I decided to take the Netflix free trial offer and see whether I was interested in keeping it as a service or just see a bunch of movies and cancel at the end of the two weeks. The latter fits in better with my values. Here is why:

1. I prefer to entertain myself other than by watching television.
While it is nice to catch up on some movies I missed and did want to see, that means I have to invest at least four hours a month (at the low end of Netflix's subscription rates) in front of the TV watching the movies, assuming each movie is two hours. That does not even include any extras or listening to commentary on a DVD. At a higher subscription rate like the most popular one (subscribers can have three movies at once and unlimited number during the month), assuming three movies are watched each weekend, that is 12 movies a month and a whole day spent just watching movies. I would rather talk to friends, do crafts, read or write than watch that many movies.

2. My interest in movies is limited.
While I enjoy movies and own several DVDs and videos, there are just not many movies that capture my interest. I like action movies and am a fan of Pixar films, but most of the movie ads really do not capture my interest. In the end, this means I cannot really sustain the interest in a monthly movie subscription.

3. I would rather spend my money on other things.
It comes down to voting with my money. If there is a film I really like, I will make it to the theater and see it on a big screen with surround sound and even an IMAX screen if the film supports it. I have been to the theater twice in 2007 and both films were enjoyable. Plus I have some free movie tickets I want to use before they expire so I have alternative viewing options that reduce my movie costs.

Netflix is a very convenient service. I like having the movies delivered to my mailbox and they have an easy system for choosing films. They also let you know when the movies are sent out and when their warehouse receives them back. However, as I outlined above, I have more reasons to discontinue the service than to continue it. If you really enjoy movies in a wide range of genres and have the time to watch them all, I would recommend Netflix. If you horde your personal time, think TV viewing is a waste, and only rarely enjoy a movie, I would suggest finding alternative entertainment.

It would be easy to sign up for Netflix with the best of intentions, use it for a few months and then allow the company to keep charging you for your nonuse, draining your financial resources. Carefully consider if a subscription service is the right move for you.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Financial goals for 2008

As I mentioned in my earlier post, I wanted to see where my financial situation was at the end of December 2007 before considering what I should do for 2008. I first calculated my net worth (including home and car) in mid October 2007. Therefore, my 2007 numbers do not include a year's worth of financial data. To calculate my debt, I also created a simple mortgage calculator to keep track of how each payment decreases what I owe.

In 2007, assets increased 1.16% , debts decreased 0.44% and my net worth increased 3.34% to $85,360. I have enough liquid assets to cover 5.5 months worth of expenses. My debt-to-income ratio is 23% of my gross monthly income (below the 30% or less target), and I save 28.5% of my gross income (covers liquid and retirement savings).

My 2008 financial goals (to be fulfilled by December 31, 2008):

1. To reach a net worth of six figures ($100,000).
I will have to work hard on this one. I do not think it is out of my reach on my current income but I will need to keep assessing where I am. My monthly calculation of net worth will help me keep on track for this target and allow me to adjust my savings to reach this goal.

2. To have $15,000 in liquid savings for emergency expenses.
My liquid savings includes what I am saving for a car, a small amount for fun items which I am discontinuing and my "found money" account. Excluding these and my planned window replacement expenses means this is a challenging goal for me. I have just over $9,000 now and my current savings rate should get me to this number. However, being an emergency expense fund, I cannot count on current numbers getting me to this point.

3. To have $500 in my "found money" account.
This account is funded by rebates, bonuses, gifts or other irregular and unexpected amounts of money. I do not put all of a bonus in this account, just the odd dollar amount (e.g., $8.37 from $38.37). I currently have $81 in this account and my final goal is $3,000 to open a Vanguard account. It is difficult to predict how much I can put in there in one year as I have only started it in October 2007.

4. To increase my contributions to my Roth IRA to $3,000.
I opened a Roth IRA in 2001, contributed twice, watched my money lose half its value and promptly ignored it. In 2007, I rolled it into a T Rowe Price index fund, contributed monthly and threw my state income tax refund at it. My contributions fell just short of $2,000. In 2008, I will be contributing for the entire year and adding my state income tax refund. I anticipate I should be able to get to this amount.

5. To generate $2,000 from an alternative income source.
This goal is more nebulous because while I know I want to make money other than through my job, I have yet to figure out what my alternative income source will be. My track record finding a retail job speaks for itself (they do not even call me back), and I am not sure what skill to use on behalf of others. This will be a challenging goal for me for these reasons but I want to limit my dependence on a single job and income. I believe in having back ups and I need to have another income source.

I expect that my percent saved (28.5%) will fall a bit but not below 27%. This will change depending on my raise and alternative income stream. I am looking forward to learning if I can meet these goals. To exceed them would be fantastic. What are your goals?