Sunday, May 31, 2009

Interior decorating without breaking the bank

As a homeowner, I want to make the house I bought into a home I can enjoy. This comes down to creating a look inside and outside that I like and want to spend time in and around. So how to beautify the inside without losing a large amount of money in the process?

Paint with colors.
By the time I bought my house, I was eager to put colors on the wall rather than look at the eggshell white so prevalent in apartments. Other than my ceilings, none of my walls are white. I have green, yellow, blue, yellow sponged on green and rose walls. All are dramatic departures from off white. Painting is not all that difficult except for getting the color to meet between ceiling and wall or so I have experienced. Painting with friends and family make it go faster. And if you are not as particular about colors, save money with paint returned to hardware store. Painting supplies can be purchased secondhand or borrowed; the only item to purchase new is a cover to put on the roller.

Furnish with used items.
As soon as the house is purchased, many people go and buy new furniture to fill all the rooms in the home. While I did not feel there was a gap that I needed to furnish instantly, I did slowly add to my collection from craigslist and secondhand stores. Buying used saves money and pushes you to think creatively about what will work in the room you are decorating. Make your own curtains by sewing them from fabric or threading a rod through some lovely sheets. Start an pot collection for all your indoor plants. Use an old trunk as storage space and a coffee or end table.

Use texture.
I have an unhealthy attachment to my velvet love seat. It is purple and so smooth, I stroke it every time I sit in it. Many surfaces in my home are smooth but some have corners, some not. Some are made of natural substances, some are metal, plastic or ceramic. All the items from furniture to curtains to decorations on the all add to the ambiance of a room. Shop at different venues, see what you like and do not like, and judiciously bring the stuff you do like in the house. A rich fabric draped over the back of a plain chair can really add dimension to a room. Plants of different types and sizes planted in different pots all in a cluster will catch the eye, adding both color and texture to an area. Bring out that collection of glassware or figurines for decorations. I have a platter from my china collection hanging on my wall.

Bring in natural elements.
I love wood items. My bookshelf, my tables, my commode, my dresser--all items made of wood, all stained to show the grain of the item and all a welcome part of my interior. The items show up well against the painted wall and either blend or contrast with the curtains chosen for the room. My plants are happy in the living room but the one in the kitchen enjoys hanging out. (I have the plant suspended from the ceiling with a hook.) I love fresh flowers from the garden while interesting tree branches can be used in many ways--to hang curtains, entertain the cat or as a funky corner decoration.

Decorating your home can be a frugal endeavor. Think differently about that box or that globe and you may find the next treasure to adorn your home. I know some of you might be saying "but I am not creative!" While I might be better at sewing something for the house, you might find that oddly colored rock interesting and bring it home, or enjoy refinishing that small table that would fit in that corner you have trouble decorating. Reuse, repurpose and a little imagination can help furnish and decorate a home without abusing the credit card.

In my next post, I will offer some ideas for beautifying the outside of your new home.

Friday, May 29, 2009

My frugal way of life

When choosing to live frugally and within my spending plan, I use whatever resources I have to minimize spending. My actions also tend to be more green by keeping my resource use lower.

I buy used items whenever possible.
This includes clothing, gifts, gardening implements, beauty supplies, fabric, canning supplies, furniture, housing and vehicles. I shop the local charity thrift shops and visit garage sales. I save money by not buying new, I reduce my demand on the earth's resources when buying secondhand and my money goes to a family's savings or helps people in need. That seems like a win-win situation to me.

I reuse or repurpose items.
I enjoy yogurt but the curbside recycling will not take plastic that has held dairy other than milk jugs. The yogurt cups are perfect for starting seedlings. Two liter bottles can be used to get water to the roots of plants if holes are poked in the sides and buried into the ground next to tomato plants. I wrote about a few other gardening repurposing ideas in 2008.

I consider whether I need the new item I want.
There are some things I cannot easily find used. For example, paint for the exterior of my house. Other issues include how to get items into my car and to my home. Considering how necessary the item is and what it will do for me ensures that it is something I will use and will not add to the clutter in my household.

I take advantage of scavenging opportunities.
If you put it on the curb and I have an idea how to use it (and it fits in my car), I will take it home with me. My three new raised garden beds were made of scavenged wood. One of my potato plants is tucked inside a wood bushel basket picked up from a neighbor's curb. (I would prefer not to dig far into the ground for the potato harvest.)

These strategies have served me well, and I like finding treasures at the thrift shop, on a curb or at a garage sale. It is fun in a way that going to a large retail store lacks. Do you have a favorite way to save money?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What works for me

I have not been writing much about frugality or my money. Gardening, which is part and parcel with self-sufficiency and frugality, has taken much of my time. My current situation has a good-paying job that looks fairly secure, a lack of consumer debt, and always spending less than I earn. I keep my strategies simple:
  • Transfer money automatically from my checking account to my savings accounts every pay period.

  • Pay my bills immediately using electronic bill pay.

  • Subtract any spending from my budget within two days.

  • Spend no more than I allocate for each spending category.

  • Contribute to my retirement accounts regularly.

  • Keep a well-funded emergency savings account (at least two months worth of spending).

My emergency savings has come in handy as one of my cats was extremely ill. With all her treatments, an emergency over a holiday, room and board for several days stay at the veterinary clinic, the costs really added up. My emergency fund was able to cover this unexpectedly large expense.

Being a homeowner is an expensive responsibility. The lone mature tree on my property has never been in good condition but looked to have some years left. A recent diagnosis left me with a shortened life span and the need to plant a new tree close by as soon as possible. My house savings account has enough money to help me fund this unexpected expense.

The bottom line is I spend less than I earn by keeping myself on track with automatic savings and a spending plan. What have you found that works for you?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Trepidation about green living choices

When I moved from doing the simpler going-green actions like composting my food waste, using cloth napkins and handkerchiefs and combining my errands to using cloth wipes in the bathroom and bringing my own hand towel to work, I felt a certain bit of trepidation. With the towel, I carry it from my cube to the bathroom and leave it by the sink as I use the toilet. It is not something I can hide. My initial concerns were "what were people going to say?" Honestly, no one has said anything to me. They may be thinking all they want but I have not been confronted with "why are you bringing your own towel?"

If that was not bad enough, I have sewn cloth wipes and reusable menstral pads. With the anonymity of the blog, I feel comfortable enough writing about these facts. However, I do not go around telling other people that I use cloth rather than paper in the bathroom. Line drying these items is a bit nerve wracking. I either hang up other larger pieces of laundry then the wipes or pads behind them, or I hang up the pads and wipes and quickly put larger items up to hide what I am placing on the line. Who knows what the neighbors and people driving by think.

When my family was over recently, I had a choice: do I put the cloth wipes under the sink so no one will see or just leave them out? Despite my concern, I left them out--and no one said anything to me. Either they did not know what they were or did not want to touch the subject at all. The bonus for using cloth wipes: I take months to go through a 12-pack of toilet paper.

It can be scary doing things outside what many people call "normal" but I like the feeling of self-sufficiency and the greener lifestyle. I made these items out of fabric and scraps I had onhand, I freed myself from having to buy disposable items, and I like that I am reducing my consumption and the amount of stuff headed for the landfill. I encourage you to stretch your greener and frugal wings and try something a bit radical. You may find you like it while helping your bottom line and living a bit easier on the planet.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Eating what you want for less

I love dairy products. Part of this is a legacy of growing up the daughter of a dairy farmer but I also really enjoy dairy foods. Give me a glass of milk with my meal, cheese on whatever I can, sour cream in dishes, ice cream for dessert, yogurt for a snack, cream cheese in sweet or savory dishes, butter spread on freshly baked bread or toast, heavy cream whipped to top my pies, and half and half in my cream sauces. My position is dairy is about 50% of my diet. This may not be the healthiest especially the items made of cream and full-fat milk but they are very satisfying. However, they are also quite expensive. How do I afford my dairy habit?

1. I buy in bulk.
Not all items are amenable to this and you will need a chest freezer or similar to store your purchases. However, I have found that purchasing three pounds of sliced American cheese is cheaper than a single 12 ounce package (and has less plastic as well). Furthermore, the sliced cheese can be frozen. The same holds true for cream cheese, 1% milk and butter. For the sliced American cheese, butter and 1% milk, I noticed no change in taste or texture. For the cream cheese, the texture become more grainy when used but loses no flavor. If you purchase shredded cheese, that can also be frozen and thawed when needed.

The bulk buying comes when you know the price is good and you have room to store it in your freezer. For the American sliced cheese, I keep out one pound and store the other two. Milk needs to have liquid removed from the top prior to freezing but stores fine. Of course, a good price on ice cream means you can stock up.

2. I buy whole cheeses rather than presliced or shredded.
Aside from American cheese that I use in toasted cheese sandwiches, I buy cheese by the pound and shred it myself. When the price of dairy went up last year, I found this saved me money so I could still buy cheese in the same amount. Preslicing and shredding are conveniences and the price reflects that. By slicing the cheese and shredding it yourself, you save money with only a minor time investment.

3. I go with what tastes good and has a reasonable price.
I will buy cheese from a lesser known cheesemaker that costs less and continue to do so if I like the flavor. I select milk from a smaller dairy because the milk is 10 cents cheaper than the big name. I comparison shop and chose based on both price and flavor. Your price point may be different from mine but I have found little difference in taste but a great difference in price per pound of cheese.

These strategies keep me well-stocked with dairy products and add to the quality of the food I make and eat. Not everyone shares my love of dairy but these principles can help you with your preferred food group like meat, wine, fruit and vegetables. Do you have any tips on saving money on your desired foods?

Friday, May 15, 2009

What gardening means to me

This is the time of year where gardening becomes an all-consuming activity as the work has to be done now. Since all my raised garden beds are now full of topsoil and the weather is warm, I am in the middle of mapping out the best arrangement, amending the soil, sowing seeds and transplanting seedlings. My strawberries are blooming, my asparagus crowns are making an appearance almost 20 days after planting, my peas are coming up and my greenhouse is still in service.

However, it is easy to get overwhelmed--and behind. In fact, I had to push myself to plant some lettuce, carrots, peas and beans by saying "What if your garden is your only source of food?" The truth is relying on my garden for self-sufficiency would have me starving. I only have about 250 square feet of garden space right now, some of which still needs to be reclaimed from sod. While that is more than some people have available, I lack the space to grown sufficient amounts of food to feed myself for an entire year. The dandelion crop on my lawn is truly impressive but currently going to seed and honestly, I am not a fan of dandelion greens.

My motivation for planting a garden is twofold: self-sufficiency and less lawn to mow. Saying that I loathe mowing the lawn is strong but I prefer to put off mowing the grass for as long as I can. With the rains every few days and the cool spring temperatures, the grass (and weeds) are growing vigorously so mowing once a week is expected.

And while my garden is not ready to feed me for an entire year, I will take a few weeks. Plus, it is difficult to argue with fresh fruits and vegetables grown locally and picked at the peak of ripeness. The more I successfully grow and harvest, the better I improve my skills for the future when I have a larger plot of land, the healthier I eat, and the more I save by not having to buy the items in a grocery store. Gradually easing into the demands of my suburban plot, growing more food and figuring out what to do with all the homegrown produce helps me learn what I like to grow, what I do not like to grow or eat, and what techniques work best for me. I am a scientist at heart and I like to experiment. And if I get something delicious out of the deal, that is just a sweet reward.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The benefits of buying secondhand

Making the choices I have over the past few years has brought me to a place I like. I take pride in entire outfits including socks that were purchased secondhand, washed in my homemade laundry detergent, softened using vinegar, and dried outside in the sunshine. My secondhand spade made it easier to dig the trench through the sod to plant my asparagus while I amended the soil with free composted horse manure. The metal rods and chicken wire, purchased at the thrift store or free, will help protect my garden. My nieces and nephews have been gifted repeatedly with books, toys and clothing I purchased from garage sales or the thrift store. I smile at the hosta poking through the ground, the tulips blooming and the wildflowers coming up I either dug from another's yard or purchased from someone who dug it right out of her garden for me. I enjoy every loaf of bread I bake in my craigslist-purchased bread machine. Why am I listing the results of my choices?

I can live this way simply as a frugal measure to help me pay less for what I need and save more money toward my financial goals. However, frugality is not my sole motivation. I help out families looking to make some extra money themselves by shopping a garage sale. I find gifts and items I can use and the families get rid of stuff in their house and gain a bit of cash. At the charity thrift shop, I find items I am looking for and they put my money to use in the community, helping out those in need. Finally, I am living a greener life because I am not asking to have raw materials extracted from the environment to make something new, contributing to overproduction. The environmental benefit alone is important to me but the frugal side has its say as well.

This way of living requires patience. It is easy to drive, bike or take mass transit to one of many stores like Target, Wal-mart or Costco, and buy whatever you need--instantly. I discussed making a list of things I need to purchase and hunt for during garage sale season. It took me nearly three months to find jeans in my size to replace the fraying ones I was wearing. Still, I paid half the typical sale price for nearly new jeans. Right now, I am looking for navy and gray pants to replace the one I just ripped, the other is on its last legs. This search may take even longer but I have all summer to replace them.

Shopping secondhand is not about instant gratification. However, if you have patience and search regularly, you will get what you want at a fraction of the price of new. I like the adventure of trying to find what I want. It can be frustrating but I find it more emotionally rewarding when I finally find what I can use.

What are your experiences with purchasing or finding used items?

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Hidden treasures in plain sight

I am not new to scavenging on curbside but I have not done it in a while. Frankly, I am somewhat uncomfortable with it especially when doing it alone. If I know the people are not home, I am less self-conscious. However I know if the people wanted the items, they would have figured out what to so with them prior to placing them curbside for garbage day. In the end, I am rescuing usable things so they are not consigned to a landfill. My prize: several aluminum rods that with some trimming of the ends will make nice anchors for the sides of raised garden beds, an old wooden basket that would be great to grow potatoes so I do not have to dig into the ground for the harvest and a piece of fabric that has a use yet to be determined.

However, I am a novice compared to the authors of The Scavengers' Manifesto and the blog Scavenging. One of the entries I read highlighted their recent post on no-cost gardening. It was a fascinating read that made me admire the bloggers ingenuity. In fact, I started exploring the entire Scavenging blog. If gardening is not your interest, the two women have entries on bartering, where free stuff is being offered (e.g., food for teachers and free comic day), how a couple furnished and refinished their Victorian home with curbside treasures, and more.

I recommend visiting the blog and seeing how you can think differently when looking at someone else's trash.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Why "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" is important

There is a reason the earth-friendly mantra is "reduce, reuse, recycle". Having fewer things means less to throw away. Finding a new use for an old item allows you to save money and repurpose something that was just taking up space. Recycle is for those items that you do have and are finding difficult to repurpose. The last thing you want to do is consign the item to the landfill.

One of my coworkers proudly stated that the plasticware and cardboard containers provided by our company's food service is biodegradable. The cardboard is made from recycled paperboard, a positive move, but is coated in plastic so moist food can be added to the container for eating and storing. The cups, utensils and soup bowls are made from plant-based plastic PLA. On one hand, the corn starch-based items are made from a renewable resource. On the other hand, a home compost system is not going to break down PLA.

When I pointed out that unfortunate fact (the compostable plasticware will not break down in a backyard composter, only a commercial one), she informed me that it will biodegrade in a landfill. Unfortunately, that is not true. Most composting happens under aerobic conditions with water, heat and microbes with a nice stir to add oxygen occasionally. A landfill is lined with clay and plastic, items are packed in tightly and the few microbes found are working anaerobically, that is without oxygen. So no sunlight (for photodegradable items like plastic bags), no water and no oxygen means little breakdown is occurring in a landfill.

The truth is once an item is sent to the big hole in the ground, it just sits there. That is why "reduce, reuse and recycle" sends fewer things to the landfill, keeps more money in your pocket and stimulates the imagination (e.g., what can I do with a penny whistle, some old nails and a plastic cup starting to split). For more information on biological activity in landfills, visit the following links:
How Stuff Works (love this site)
Summary of Garbage Breakdown (
US Composting Council (technical but interesting page)