Thursday, June 30, 2011

Summary advice

May 23 Be ready to help others by spending less on ourselves
May 24 Avoid costly breafast cereal; eat toast, oatmeal, or hot rice instead.
May 25 Make quick waffles and pancakes (no refrigerated ingredients)
May 26 Save time baking by organizing a baking center
May 27 Where to look for the best yard sale experiences
May 28 Yard sales teach you what never, ever to buy.
May 30 Pay your kids with fake money ("Mommy Dollars")
May 31 Make the fake money yourself
June 1 How to earn and how to spend Mommy Dollars
June 2 Stop arguments by holding auctions with fake dollars
June 3 Teach real life lessons with fake money
June 4 Make muffins in 6 minutes of hands-on time
June 6 Fix heels on shoes with household materials
June 7 Save space and energy by clearing clutter
June 8 Clean a room by leaving the mess and clearing out the drawers
June 9 Keep a house cooler with "pop-in"s and passive solar cooling
June 10 Prevent wilted greens with a damp towel
June 11 Focus on spending less, not on "saving" more
June 13 Turn old t-shirts and bathrobes into useful cleaning rags
June 14 Clean quickly by using a large pile of rags and a small bit of water
June 15 Turn t-shirts into pants or carry bags
June 16 Preserve memories with a t-shirt quilt
June 17 Make a braided rug from old jeans (and why you might not want to)
June 18 Be as cheap as my dad
June 20 Yard sales are way, way cheaper than thrift stores
June 21 Teach kids early independence by drawing on their shoes
June 22 Start seatbelt races with your kids
June 23 Make simple meals fun: the No-Hands Dinner
June 24 Cultivate gratitude by playing "I like"
June 25 Stay with friends when you travel; host friends when they're in town
June 27 Full trash can = empty wallet?
June 28 Pre-cycle before you re-cycle
June 29 Toss the disposables; use the re-usables

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A paper-towel panic

A friend of mine came over to help me make strawberry jam last month.  We were talking about money, which I explained I don't like to spend.  My friend said, "I'm a very frugal person, too,"  Right after she said that, she noticed a spill on the counter and reached for a paper towel to clean it up . . . and all I could think in my head was, "Not the paper towels!!!    They're for my HUSBAND!!!!"

My husband is not a miser dad, at least not if you compare him to me.  He spends money on things like paper towels, whereas I use rags made from t-shirts.  (Even my like-minded friends say they use paper towels for nasty messes, because they don't want to wash nasty rags.  But I say you can throw away t-shirt rags if you want to, too).

My husband spends money on coffee filters.  When he's out of town, I use the gold filter I got at a yard sale.  It's true I get a few more grounds in my coffee -- puts hair on my chest, I say.

He loves having his coffee in paper cups.  I use reusable travel coffee mugs when I'm on the road. Our nearby coffee shop charges about $1 for a paper cup; my yard-sale, 25-cent mug is actually cheaper than the disposable kind in this case.

My husband doesn't use any kind of menstrual product at all, of course, but if he did I'm sure he'd use the kind he could toss.  My "Keeper cup" cost $37 when I bought it many years ago; Diva cups, Moon cups, etc last for decades and can cost as little as $10 now.

This list makes misers wonder how I can tolerate living with such a spendthrift guy; but it makes normal people wonder how my husband can suffer through my own oddities.  Fortunately for the two of us, we both agree that it's worth hanging onto each other.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


It makes no sense to buy something you're just going to throw in the trash, especially if you already have that something just sitting around.  Pre-cycling is even better for our environment and bank accounts than re-cycling!

Paper is a great example.   Think about all the flyers that we get through the mail, in our kids' school announcements, etc., and all the excess things we print out.   I don't toss papers that have writing on one side only.  I place them, blank side up, in a small box near my printer.   

  • I use them to print drafts of things I'm writing where the quality of the paper doesn't matter.  (An X on the back side makes it easier to see which side matters now).
  • I can cut them in half lengthwise to make grocery lists or other to-do lists.
  • I can fold them in half, blank side out, and staple several together.  These make small 5.5-by-8 inch "books" that my kids can draw in.  I like to take a few of these to church and other places where the boys have to play quietly.
  • In fact, I've made "books" in the method above with puzzles and activities on each page, sending these as birthday greetings to my nieces.  This cheaper and more personal than a greeting card.

Another example is plastic bags.  It seems that EVERYTHING comes in plastic bags nowadays -- so why do we toss them and buy more?  Frozen veggies, coffee filters, even my newspaper comes in bags.  I don't use newspaper bags for food, I admit (those are good for dog messes), but I save most other small plastic bags for food storage.  

Large bags can find second lives, too.  A few years ago I inherited a bunch of clothes from my mom, and they all came in those filmy dry-cleaner bags.  I couldn't stand to toss so much plastic, so I folded over the neck end a few times and stapled . . . they then became my large kitchen trash bags.  They're not as sturdy as regular trash bags, but come on!  We're just throwing that stuff in the garbage, not carrying it on a 25-mile march.  

One last reminder.  My home is not overflowing with piles of paper and plastic.  I have two one-inch stacks of pre-cycled paper, and a kitchen drawer with plastic bags.  I keep as much as I think I'll need, and then recycle the rest.  Space is another treasure, and I try not to waste that, either.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Throwing Money in the Trash (or not)

Why do we throw away money on things that don't matter to us?  Our garbage cans reveal the ways we waste money, literally.

There are a lot of traditional frugal activities that lead naturally to spending less money at the same time that we generate less trash.  The very act of buying used items instead of new store-bought items, for example, means that we don't buy all the packaging that comes with that toaster oven or racing-car-toy.  Cooking a couple of pizzas from scratch creates a lot less waste than having a couple of pizzas delivered in those huge cardboard boxes.  Patching a pair of pants means keeping one pair of pants out of the trash, and it also means not wasting money on a new pair of pants.  Being careful about what we put in our garbage leads to two positive changes:  more money and less trash.

The packaging around what we buy is one of the biggest sources of residential garbage in the United States.  It is often unintended waste, meaning that we didn't really want the plastic packaging or the cardboard box -- we really wanted the razor or the breakfast cereal that came inside it.

But another big part of the problem with our current society is that we buy lots of things that are intended to be thrown away quickly.  Plastic bags, coffee filters, paper towels, paper plates, plastic spoons, newspapers, magazines, and disposable anything . . . we throw away our disposable income on disposable items.

If your trash cans are full, that might explain why your wallet is empty.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Staying with friends

When I was growing up, my best friend was a kooky, caring gal named Mary.  Our younger sisters were good friends, too.  We did so much together back then, that it's hard to believe Mary and I now live half-a-country away from each other, and we hardly ever see each other.

But this past Thursday and Friday, Mary came into town with her sister and her two kids.  Wow, was it fun catching up!  Seeing her in person --- the way she carries herself, the way she laughs, her gentleness with all around her --- was so much better than letters or phone calls.  My kids got to play with her kids, adding more threads to the web that connects our families.  And it was great to be able to introduce her to the town that has become my home, so different from the suburbs and city where we grew up.

Traveling can be expensive; staying with friends and family instead of in hotels can make it less so.  But staying with friends, in a more important sense, can make your life richer.

Friday, June 24, 2011

I like . . .

This game sounds corny, I know.  If I were reading about this, I'd be skeptical.  But almost every time I've introduced it (to kids, to college students, even sometimes to adults), people have really gotten into it.  So I'll risk one more time being corny by writing about it here.

The game is called "I like".  The rules are, everybody takes turns saying things they like.

That's it.  There's no winner, even.  A typical game sounds like this:

    I like . . . having the sun on my face.
    I like . . . eating waffles.
    I like . . . holding hands with my mom.
    I like . . . reading books.

Now, I refine the game a bit with two more rules, which are
     1) No negatives.  You can't say, "I like not going to school".  But you can say, "I like staying home on snow days."
     2)   Use a verb.  (Instead of saying, "I like chocolate",  say "I like eating chocolate" or "I like smelling chocolate" or "I like getting chocolate as presents" or . . . well, you get the idea of what I like).

We also encourage one another ("That sounds fun", or "I like that, too").

We've played it mostly while we're walking to school in the morning.  This game is especially good for long car rides -- I started it one day when there was a lot of whining coming out of the back seat.   But I have come to appreciate how much this game reminds all of us how good our lives are.   My pastor could point out that we're supposed to give thanks at all times.  I'll be more earth-bound and point out (in my best miser mom voice) that we spend less money on new things when we're happy with what we have already.

     I like . . . playing "I like".
     Your turn.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The No-Hands Dinner

You don't have to spend a lot of money to have a great time.  My kid's favorite meal is actually the simplest in terms of food:  cut-up hot dogs, cubed cheese, pasta, and peas.  No sauces.  What makes the dinner special is the rule -- no hands.

Of course, even though the dog gets to eat this way all the time, you can see how jealous he is of the fun we're having!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Seat belt races

The truth is, my kids have been beating me for years.

If you want to make that sentence sound worse, you could even say they've been beating me with belts!  I started Seat Belt Races with my daughter when she was very young, and it worked so well I've done it with all my kids.  This is my second favorite kid-autonomy trick (the other is drawing on their shoes).

The contest is to see who can put on seat belts first -- we do this every time we get into the car.  An extremely important part of the rules is that this race is kids-versus-adults, not about individuals.  (This way my kids help each other, rather than fighting each other, in the back seat).  Another important tradition is that, whenever the kids get their seat belts on before I do,  I have to pretend to be bummed out.

When my kids were very little and just learning to put on their belts, I would be a little slow on purpose with mine.  But now that the boys are pre-teens, they're very speedy.  (I could whine that I have car keys and other things that slow me down).  In fact, just to keep the contest interesting, every once in a while I "cheat" by unlocking my door and not theirs so I can win the race -- but, wow! you should hear them ratting me out to my husband later that day!

I know that some of my friends have kids who are reluctant to put their seat belts on.  In my house, it's the opposite.  In fact, when I'm driving their friends in my car, my boys will make sure that all the kids have belts on -- I never have to do that myself.

I have even (slyly) lured my boys away from events we've been at too long for my liking.  They'll ask, "Can I just look at this one more thing?", and I'll say a little too sweetly, "Ohhkayyy, I'll just, um, head back to the car and wait for you there."  And they'll say to each other, "Oh, snap!  She's going to win the seat belt race!" and they make a dash for the car.  Of course, I have to pretend to hurry back to the car, too.  And when they beat me, I'm bummed out once again.  Darn.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

My favorite shoe trick

Here is one of my two favorite tricks for helping my kids become self-sufficient.

When my kids were first able to start dressing themselves, they were adamant about putting on their own shoes.  I wasn't allowed to help, even though they put their shoes on the wrong feet more often than on the right.

One day, I got a permanent marker, and on inner edge of each shoe, by the ball near the big toe, I drew a picture.  One one shoe, I drew "Daddy" (a smiley face with short hair); on the other I drew "Mommy" (a smiley face with long hair).   When the shoes are on the right feet, Daddy and Mommy can "kiss".  When the shoes are on the wrong feet, Daddy and Mommy are far apart.   This let my kids see for themselves which way to put on shoes.

While my son was still young,  I occasionally drew pictures on his undergarments to help him get those on right, too.

This is a small thing in one way, but to my kids it allowed them to do a tricky task right, with no grown-up correcting them or nagging them afterward.  From my point of view, it's one of their first steps on the road to being responsible and autonomous.  My husband would call this a "step in the right direction".

Monday, June 20, 2011

Yard Sale Finds

This past Saturday, I did some earnest yard-saling.  Here was the haul for the day:

11 long-sleeved school shirts
2 short-sleeve shirts
6 pair school pants
1 school shorts
2 play t-shirts
1 school sweat shirt
1 pair sneakers
a peg-board game (x-mas gift)
a shoe-box containing 19 bottles of fabric paint
a CD display case
a round tablecloth

I spent just under $18, and about 2 hours.  If I had bought this in a thrift shop, I would have spent a bit less time, but a lot more money (I'm estimating, a bit more than $100.  That's a difference of something like $80 for one extra hour of shopping!)

You'll notice that this list is heavily weighted toward kids' clothes.  Going yard-saling has the best pay-off for people with children, I think.  My boys are very hard on their clothes, so I've learned to get extra outfits I can pull out mid-year when their current shirts or pants are no longer decently patchable.

Yard sales are also good ways to furnish a house or apartment that doesn't have much in it yet.  But if you're shopping for something specific (like a round tablecloth), you might spend just as much time looking around at yard sales before you can find one you like -- a thrift shop begins to make more sense.  For that reason, my friends and I swap lists of things we're looking for.  (The CD case and tablecloth are examples of things I bought for friends). 

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A tribute to a miser dad

When I told my father I was starting a blog on being cheap, he immediately said, "Give credit where it's due."  So here's the credit.

My dad is so cheap . . .

. . . he would pay only $1 for an evening of babysitting.  (He paid me 50 cents to watch my sisters, and because they hated how bossy I was, he paid them each 25 cents to be baby-sat by me.  Now that's insulting!)

. . . he bought generic food, back before generics were nearly the same as brand-name.  My sisters and I thought green edges on potato chips were normal.

 . . . he paid me 7 cents a week to clean the dog yard.  We had two Irish Wolfhounds -- that's a lot of poop for a little money!

But as you might imagine, his cheapness had other aspects to it.  It was my dad who helped all of my Girl Scout friends earn our plumbing badges, teaching us to fix leaky faucets and toilets.  Since there is no official plumbing patch, we had to design and sew our own.  Dad also is the reason I know how to do electric wiring and rudimentary carpentry.

My dad thinks he's a cheapskate, but this summer (as in every summer for the past many years), he's flying our vast family out to a location of his own choosing for a reunion.  It is from him that I learned that spending money on people and experiences trumps spending money on things.  I'd rather have time with my sisters than have perfect potato chips.

When I was writing up my parenting statement, getting ready to adopt my kids, this is what I said about my dad:
My father is a patient man.  He is soft-spoken and self sacrificing, frugal of himself, but generous with praise and gifts for others.  I could count on one hand the times I heard him raise his voice, even if I were wearing mittens.  He made me, for graduation, an oaken roll top desk.  It took him four years.  Whatever patience I have with people is patterned on him; I will never have his patience with wood.
Happy Father's Day, one and all.

Post-script:  My dad responds:
I would point that your salary numbers should be corrected by an inflation factor of about 2.5 since the time you write about.  Thus in real terms current terms it was costing me 18 cents a week to get the dog yard cleaned and an astronomical $2.50 to get the children sat.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Denim rugs, clutter, and time

Today I finished a braided rug that I've been working on, off-and-on, for a few years.  I made it out of old jeans, torn into long strips.  In one sense, it's an incredibly frugal thing to make.  It hardly cost anything: the main materials were the old jeans I wore out.  In fact, my sisters and several of my friends donated their jeans to the rug once they heard I was working on it, so I had a lot of free material to work with.  A few years ago, at a yard sale, I bought a shoe-box-full of spools of thread for $2, so the cost of the thread I use is almost zero.

This is the second braided rug I've made, and I do it slightly differently than is standard.  Traditionally, you braid three strips of cloth into a long strand (I've read that wool wears best) and once that's done, you get a needle and some tough thread, and you stitch the strand into an oval or circle or whatever shape you want.  Instead of sewing the rug together, though, I do something like a french braid, weaving the rug together as I make it.  That is, I work with three strips of denim.  I braid them into a single strand.  When the end of a strip gets short, I'll use a zig-zag stitch to sew a new strip onto it to make it longer.  I braid the three strips together, but as I do that, I weave the braid in with the existing rug.  This makes the rug stronger; it also means that it's easy to stop mid-project but still have something to show for my efforts.

As I said, this is a cheap project in one sense.  But the fact that I didn't spend any money on it doesn't really mark this as a frugal project.  With a bit of patience, I can buy a half-decent rug for $5 at a yard sale -- so this didn't save me a lot of money.   The rug is about 4 feet across, and it took several years for me to finally finish it:  that took a bunch of time.  While I was working on it, I had to store the rug and all the strips of denim: that took space.

I say all this because I've read a bunch of books that are supposed to be about "saving money", but they devote a lot of space to how to make arts and crafts out of unusual items:  how to make a christmas tree angel out of coffee filters, or how to make refrigerator magnets out of shells and hot glue.  These books promise that these crafts make great gift items.  Faugh.  Christmas ornaments and refrigerator magnets are so cheap at yard sales that buying ANYTHING in order to make them -- even coffee filters -- is more expensive.  And knick-knacks are so abundant at yard sales that you can see for yourself their owners think they were not great gifts.  They're really just fancy clutter.

If I actually need to find some way to reduce the amount of money and time that I'm spending, I'll admit that arts and crafts aren't the best place to focus.   But making homemade things can be fun -- I am really happy with the rug I made.  I'm going to keep it, not to foist it off on someone else.  And as long as I'm doing some kind of craft and decoration,  I'm glad that this particular hobby doesn't cost a lot of money.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

T-shirt quilts

A t-shirt quilt lets you preserve, use, and display a bunch of sentimental shirts.  I first saw these (and got hooked on the idea) when a friend of the family made one for my sister out of her college athletic shirts many years ago.  I've made several since.  They can be very neatly made (all in rows and columns, with everything properly square), but they don't have to be.  My favorite was a crazy-quilt I made was for my young daughter out of her parents' old shirts.  The colors follow roughly a rainbow pattern -- very bright and cheerful -- but the sizes and shapes vary a lot.

When I made my daughter's t-shirt quilt, I first got two old sheets.  I sewed the t-shirts onto the sheet that I don't want people to see, and saved the other sheet for the backing.  I got the t-shirts ready by removing the bumpy parts (the sleeves with their seams, and the neck).  But I didn't cut the shirts into squares.  Instead, I spent a bit of time arranging the shirts on the sheet so they were in about the right places.  I folded over the t-shirts to "finish" the edges and get them the right size.  All that extra material makes the quilt thick and heavy enough that I don't need any batting -- yet another reason these are easy and cheap!

Once everything was in the right place, I pinned the shirts to the sheet.  I sewed the shirts down using a zig-zag stitch.  Then I attached the second sheet as backing.

I don't make these quilts very often -- I think I've made three in the past.  But I have two quilts that I'm getting ready to make this summer.  These will probably be more formal than my daughter's; I'll try to take pictures as I go along.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

New uses for old t-shirts

If your house is like mine, there are more t-shirts than you can count.  (One summer, my large family counted 100 t-shirts that we could easily get rid of, and we still had a lot left).  I've already written about how great t-shirts are for rags.  Tomorrow I'll write about a t-shirt quilts, which is a lovely way to honor  and preserve a set of t-shirts that have sentimental value.  Here are two other uses for t-shirts.

From a single adult-sized t-shirt, you can make a pair of pajama pants for a small child.  I first read about this in my favorite frugal book, The Tightwad Gazette.  I made a pair or two for my son when he was about a year old, and my then-teen-aged daughter was so jealous that I used a bunch (I'm guessing 4?) t-shirts to make a larger pair of pajama pants for her.  T-shirts are so soft and comfortable that they make great bed-time clothes.  And if the logos on the shirts have sentimental value, then turning them into pajamas is a way to keep the sentiment, get new pants, and reduce the pile of t-shirts all at once.

What pattern did I use?  I grabbed another pair of pants my kids wore and used that to approximate a pattern with the t-shirts.  Pajamas are nice because they don't have to be exact, and of course knits stretch and conform nicely. You can use the elastic from old pantyhose in the waistband, so the cost for these pants is really just what you'd pay for thread.

If you are not up to sewing pants yet and you have a single t-shirt with a design you'd like to save, you can use it to make a bag.  All you do is cut off the arms and neck holes -- that makes the straps you'll use to carry the bag.  Then you sew a straight line along the bottom of the shirt, to make the bottom of the bag.  I then make "gussets", those triangular folds that you see on the bottom of grocery bags or brown lunch bags.  Gussets are what give the bags a flat, rectangular base.  These bags are strong enough to carry groceries.  I imagine you could also use one to "wrap" a gift.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Speed cleaning with a rag basket

I hadn't realized until I read a book called "Speed Cleaning" (by Jeff Campbell, Dell Trade, 1991) that a large pile of rags could actually help me clean faster and better than before.  I liked his book a lot, probably because it shows how a bit of up-front organization and foresight can save a lot of effort later on.  That fits well with the way I approach a lot of my own life.

His cleaning system encourages people to take no wasted steps -- in particular, no backtracking or walking back and forth while cleaning.  He relies pretty heavily on a special apron that contains pockets for lots of cleaning equipment.  But the part of the book that had the biggest effect on the way I clean -- miser mom that I am -- was not the apron but his use of a large collection of cleaning cloths.  For me, that's a popcorn-tub-sized basket of rags (mostly cut-up t-shirts).

My bathroom rag basket
Nowadays, when I clean a bathroom or the kitchen, I first get out my basket of rags.  I spray down the area that I'm cleaning with whatever is appropriate (water, bathroom cleaner, whatever), scrub with a brush if that's necessary, and then wipe that surface clean with a rag.  When the rag that I'm using to wipe things down gets dirty, I don't rinse it out; I just toss in on a "dirty" pile and grab a clean one.  I will typically go through about a half-dozen rags cleaning a small bathroom; I'll go through maybe 20 rags cleaning the kitchen (including our kitchen floor).  When I'm done, the pile of dirty rags goes into the laundry.

This method save a bunch of time -- think about how often you might rinse out a sponge mop while cleaning a floor, for example, and how much faster it would go if the sponge were self-cleaning.  But this method also reduces water and energy I'd spend.  Tossing a bunch of dirty rags in a washer uses a lot less water (and also fuel to heat that water) than rinsing out a single rag or sponge over and over again in a sink.  Using a pile of rags, I can clean my entire kitchen -- including the floor -- with less than one gallon of water.  (Admittedly, I have a small kitchen.)

Often, saving water or fuel means spending more time and energy.  This way of cleaning is one of those rare and really wonderful instances where spending less money also means spending less time and effort.  Rah-rah, rags!

Monday, June 13, 2011

From Riches to Rags

About a month ago, I cut up a bathrobe into rectangular-ish pieces, folded over the edges once, and hemmed each rectangle with a zig-zag stitch.  The bathrobe had originally belonged to my daughter; she'd given it to me when she went off to college partly as an inside joke and partly for sentimental reasons.  And for both reasons, I didn't quite want to get rid of the garment, even though it had a few holes.  So now I'm using that old bathrobe to wipe down my kitchen counters -- and I think my daughter would approve.  She'd think it especially funny that two of my kitchen dishrags have pockets.

Those wash rags I hemmed are my "nice" rags.  When clothes get so stained or torn that we don't want to wear or mend them, it is not particularly nice to pass them on to charities; I try to give only nice clothes away.   (These don't-give-away clothes might include t-shirts with a logo that few people would want to wear, like those celebrating a one-time event. )  If the yucky clothes are pants, I might save some of the fabric to use in patching other same-color pants in the future.  The truly unsalvageable clothes, though, are likely to go in my rag baskets.  

My mother kept a huge rag basket in one corner of the house.  It contained all sorts of tattered clothes, which we used to clean up messes around the house.  In my own quest to be able to clean my house quickly without throwing money in the trash can, I've modified her method.

One important change is to cut the rags into rectangular pieces of cloth.  If a rag looks like a ratty old t-shirt, when you send it through the laundry it might get back into your kid's clothing drawer.  (I think my dad regained several of his well-loved undershirts this way!)   But a rectangle can't be worn.  Cutting a shirt into a few pieces takes hardly more time than throwing it away would.

I also have gotten picky about the kinds of fabric I'll use for rags.  Synthetic fabrics don't soak up spills; they'll just frustrate you and waste your time.  So I toss those and try to save mostly cotton or cotton blends.  Many t-shirts work quite nicely, actually.  Old towels are great.

One of the most useful changes, though, is to have several small baskets of rags around the house.  I have one basket near the kitchen and one in each bathroom.  That way, when I need to clean something up, there's always a rag near by.  Most baskets are between the size of a shoebox and a milk crate, so they're not the huge caverns that my mom's basket was to us.

I use these rags for most things that other people use paper towels for -- this means I hardly ever buy paper towels.  If I clean up an ordinary mess, I just toss the rag down the laundry.  If I clean up a vile mess (like the kind my dog occasionally makes) I toss the rag in the trash.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Am I saving money?

A lot of people who find out I'm frugal assume that I must use coupons, or that I buy things on sale.  I don't.  These people assume that coupons and sales allow them to save money.  They don't.

If you see a dress that originally cost $125 and you buy it on sale for $25, you haven't saved $100 -- you've spent $25.

This is an important distinction, because a lot of people who say they're interested in "saving money" really mean they're interested in getting a lot of stuff for less money.  But if you keep getting a lot of stuff, even if you "save" a lot while you do it, you end up spending a lot of money.

The truly frugal person doesn't think about how much she "saves" while buying something; she thinks about how much she spends, and also about what she spends it on.  I don't buy clothes on sale, but because I do yard sales, I can buy pretty much all of the clothing I want for $1 a piece or less.  Because I repair clothes, my clothes last longer and I need to buy less of them.  I don't use coupons, but because I cook from scratch, use very little meat, and try to buy vegetables while they're in season, there have been many months where I spent less than $100/month on groceries for two people.  [Why two people?  This was before we adopted our second son, and while my husband was serving overseas in Iraq].  I don't save any money at all on health club memberships or yoga classes, because I run with my friends (for free).

We will often justify this sense of saving by saying we "needed" something.  The dishwasher broke and we needed a new one; the store had one on sale so we "saved" $100 by buying that brand.  But in fact, the vast majority of what we think of as "needs" are really just "wants".  Many people in this world survive without dishwashers.  Many people in this world have so few clothes that they do not need closet organizers.  Many people in this world survive without color printers, or cars, or even refrigerators.  I'm not saying those things are bad -- I have all of those things myself -- but I also know that when I bought those things, I spent money; I didn't save it.

At the same time that I try not to spend money on things, I think it's important to make sure that I do spend money on people.  Taking a friend out to lunch, providing a decent wage for my sons' babysitter, supporting local charities -- those are areas where I try to find ways to spend more.

So here's how you really save $100:  you take $100 from your paycheck and you put it in the bank.  And then you leave it there.  The end.  

Friday, June 10, 2011

Lettuce last longer

Lettuce is coming in!  All our local farmers stands and farmers markets are overflowing with great, fresh, and inexpensive greens.  I get my summer vegetables once a week from a "CSA" (Community Supported Agriculture) group, and so every Thursday my refrigerator gets filled up again with green leafy things.

The deals on lettuce aren't so great, though, if you eat half of the it and let the other half wilt in the fridge.  I've learned that I can keep a head of lettuce crisp and green for a week (or sometimes longer) by wrapping it in a damp towel.  If the lettuce won't fit in the bins at the bottom of the fridge, I slip the whole thing -- lettuce and towel -- into a plastic bag.

Supposedly there are special bags you can buy that do the same thing.  My friend gave me one to try -- it didn't work better than the damp towel (in fact, the damp towel kept my greens crisper than the bag did). It also wasn't big enough to hold a large head of romaine lettuce or kale.  And of course, there's that whole "buy" thing: Why pay money to bring more plastic into this world, when you can do the same thing for free with renewable resources?  I prefer my way of saving some green.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Solar cooling

Several years ago, I went on a kick of reading all the solar energy books our local library had.  I was trying to find a way to heat our old home with solar energy during the winters.  To my surprise, the parts of these books that I found most useful was just the opposite:  how to keep our home cool during the summer.

We don't have central air conditioning.  We don't even have window units.  Our house does have a couple of things that have proved to be really invaluable:  a large tree on the east side and another on the west side of our home.  We also have a "whole house fan" in the attic.

Any tips you read about saving money air conditioning tell you to close curtains in sunny windows.  The greenhouse effect is a huge one, as you can tell by getting into your car on a sunny day.  We now take this advice even more seriously.  I followed the instructions in my books to make "pop-ins" for my southern windows -- essentially, styrofoam board inserts.

During the day, we cover windows and we close up the entire house.  Then at night, we open windows and turn on the whole house fan.  It helps that our bedroom window is low on the west side, and the fan is high on the east side -- the prevailing winds help blow the cooler night winds into the house; the hot air rises within the house and is blown out by the fan.  We pretty consistently keep our home temperatures about 10 degrees cooler than the outside daytime temperatures.

It's not perfect.   This works better toward the beginning of the summer, when the difference between the day's heat and the night's coolness is larger.   10 degrees cooler than 97 degrees is 87 degrees, so usually in August's really hot days, it can still get fairly warm in the house.  And the fan doesn't deal with humidity.  But it's worked out to be good enough for us.  Most of our summer guests who know we don't have air conditioning are surprised at how cool our house turns out to be.

Making a "pop-in" is really easy -- even easier than making curtains, I think.  Hardware stores sell large styrofoam sheets.  I measured our windows and cut rectangles that would fit.  I "finished" the edges with white duct tape, adding a little extra piece of tape as a tab that I could use to pull the pop-in back out of the window.  Instead of leaving the sheet plain, I decorated the fronts -- spray paint worked on one.  I taped fabric on another.  In my boys' room, I used blue painter's tape to attach a large spiderman poster to the pop-in.  During the winter when the pop-in isn't in use, it hangs on the wall as decoration.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Toy purgatory

This past Saturday, the boys spent an hour cleaning their room (earning themselves 30 Mommy Dollars).  By 9:30 in the morning on Sunday, the room was a mess again.  

I knew it was time for some intervention.  As I mentioned in my last post, sometimes the reason for a mess is that there is too much stuff, and in that case, the problem is not the mess on the floor but the stash being ignored--but stored anyway--in the shelves.  I ignored the visible mess, and went for the dark recesses of the closets and drawers.  I emptied them all out, taking anything that I thought my kids wouldn't need right away.  When I started, the drawers almost couldn't close because they were so full; by the time I left, the drawers had only 5 shirts or pants each in them, with lots of empty space.

Some of the stuff I took is destined for the trash or give-away piles; much of it is going to be stored away for next winter (the boys don't need 5 sweatshirts in their drawers now that the temperatures are hitting 90).  There's also a pile that I keep of "you have to ask for it" things, toys or clothes that they haven't touched in a long time.

I've found this last idea --- the "if you want it, you have to ask for it" pile --- to be a real help in teaching kids what they actually want.  If you just straight-up ask a kid, "do you still want this huge stuffed animal?" they'll always say yes.  But if you keep it in a safe place out of their bedroom, a place that I think of as "toy purgatory", then they know it's not lost.  And the only way for a kid to get the toy out of purgatory is to actually play with it.  When they complain about being bored, I ask, "do you want to play with the huge stuffed animal?"  Sometimes they'll say yes, and they get the toy immediately.  Most often, I was right in my guess that every other toy they own is more fun, and they say "no".   After about six months of saying "no" to playing with it, they figure out on their own that the toy would be happier at someone else's home.  

Of course, both of these ideas can work with grown-up things, too.  It's true that part of the reason our own closets get so messy is because they're full of stuff that we do not use, leaving little space for the stuff we do.  So a closet purge, accompanied by a closet purgatory, can be a great way to make space for the things we do value and use.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Enough is Enough

Somewhere on list of the Seven Deadly Sins is Gluttony, a vice that often loses out in the limelight to some of the flashier sins.  There's a list of Seven Virtues, also, and on that list Temperance sits quietly in the corner.

Faith, Hope, and Charity really do deserve the most attention in this roster of virtues, but Temperance is still vital to us.  Temperance means knowing when we've had enough, and then not taking more.

For me, I know that I have too much stuff when my stuff start to get in the way of doing what I want.  That can be little things -- about 2 years ago, I realized that I had so many plastic kitchen storage containers that I could never find the right lid or the right bowl.  I spent about 10 minutes emptying out the entire shelf of containers.  I decided to keep only two kinds of containers:  a set of microwaveable glass bowls with lids, and a pile of stackable,  rectangular plastic containers.   (Stackable means the containers store in a small space, and rectangular means that they waste less freezer space than round containers would).   Getting  rid of all the other containers was momentarily traumatic. But the clean, organized shelf made up for the trauma.

In a similar vein, when it starts to get really, really hard for my boys to keep their room clean, I know that the real problem is not all the stuff on their floor and their beds -- that's the stuff they like enough to keep getting out.  The problem is all the stuff that is still in their drawers and shelves that they do NOT want, but that is taking up valuable space.

But that's a topic for a different post.  This blog entry is getting over-full, and it's time to say "enough".

Monday, June 6, 2011

Fixing Heels

Here's how I fixed  some shoes with soda bottles, electrician's tape, and a dime.

A year or two ago, the heel tip of my favorite black dress shoes fell off.  The metal rod in the heel was a bit exposed at the bottom.  I knew I couldn't find another pair of shoes as nice quickly (even if I were to give up and go to the mall, it's not easy to find a pair of comfortable dress shoes).  And I wanted to wear them that very day.

I scouted around for a temporary fix.  I found a small lid (of Worcestershire sauce) and wrapped black electrician's tape around it to hold it on.  To my surprise that worked really well, and I made it through the day with no problems.

When I had a bit of time, I took the shoes to a nearby repair shop.  The clerk said that a more permanent repair would cost $15. [Note: you can buy heel tips on line for about $6 each.]  Since I had gotten those shoes for only 25 cents originally, and knew I'd be able to find another pair almost as cheap eventually, I decided to stick with my own method.

Bottle caps are not as durable as shoe soles, so the caps wore through after about 2 days of hard walking -- I probably walk about 2 miles a day in those shoes.  I've run out of Worcestershire sauce lids, and I had to switch to soda bottle lids, which are actually a bit larger than I'd like.  (How did I have soda bottles on hand?  Ask my non-miser husband).  After some experimenting, I discovered that if I put a coin in the bottom of the lid before I tape it on, the fix lasts longer.

I've since bought a new pair of black dress shoes (those cost 50 cents -- don't you hate inflation?), but I still wear this pair from time to time.  As I said, it's hard to find a pair of dress shoes I can walk 2 miles in in comfortably, and so it's hard for me to give these up.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Morning muffins

This morning before heading out for yard sales, I'm making muffins adapted from my very favorite book of its kind, Amy Dacyczyn's "Tightwad Gazette".  Because of my one-bowl system, I can mix up a batch in about 6 minutes (chopping the apples accounts for about half of that time).  Then I read the paper or shower while the muffins are baking.

Miser Mom Muffins

     1-1/2 cups water
     1 or 2 chopped apples
     1/3 cup dry milk
     1/3 cup soy flour
     1/3 cup sugar
     2/3 cup oats
     2 cups flour
     1 tsp baking powder
     1/3 cup oil
     (chocolate chips)

Mix ingredients together; bake in a greased muffin tin at 400 degrees for 1/2 hour.

Because this is so quick and easy to put together, I often make this as a party food -- it's very popular among my friends.  If I leave out the powdered milk and chocolate chips, it's vegan, which was helpful during the year when my step-daughter was avoiding all animal products.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Learning from Mommy Dollars

Mommy Dollars have given me lots of chances to teach my boys about lots of things -- even more than about money and math.

This money has been a good way to talk about arithmetic in our daily lives (especially helpful because both of my boys struggle with addition).  The usual bedtime routine now is that before their bedtime story, I ask, "How much money do I owe you for today?"  They go through the calculations, adding up what they earned, subtracting fines or monies spent, and explain the total to me.

The next question I ask is, "How do you want that money?"  I didn't realize the first time I asked it what a good question it is -- and I've seen how helpful it is for them to practice.  I'll ask, "Okay, how do you want that $38?"  and an answer will come back, "Three tens . . . no, wait!  One twenty, one ten . . . one five  . . . (very long pause) . . . and three ones."

I knew that Mommy Dollars would give us a lot of chances to practice mathematics, and also that it would give me a chance to discuss kid-level financial habits (like saving up for bigger things you want by foregoing smaller things).   I hadn't realized, though, how much it would help us learn so many other skills in life.

The boys love Mommy Dollars.  In fact, they both asked for wallets for Christmas, so they'd have a grown-up way of carrying their money around.  My older son loves flashing his money at anybody who will look at it.  (My husband has fished that wallet out of the laundry countless times since -- and breaking that habit is a good lesson for the boys to be learning early).

The auctions I mentioned in my last post are another example of learning new behaviors:  I think we've had maybe 3 or 4 auctions this past year.  By now, if there's a disagreement over who gets to do something, all I have to do is offer an auction, and the boys find another way to work things out.

In an ironic twist, one of the arguments I still intervene in regularly is who gets to make breakfast.  I almost never tell the boys they have to cook -- they both beg to be allowed to cook (and get the money that comes from their efforts).  So, yes, my boys make pancakes and waffles and oatmeal and muffins for me.  And I pay them 15 cents (I mean, 15 Mommy Dollars) each time.

I've learned to assign some strategic fines.  I used to nag, point at the clock, and order the boys around so I could get them out of the house on time in the morning.  But after the mommy dollars kicked in, I announced a new policy:  I wouldn't keep reminding them of the time, but if they didn't leave for school by 8:20,  they'd be charged $1 each minute until they left.  For a few days in a row I collected small amounts of money:  $5, $2, $7.  Now all I have to do is say casually, "Boys, it's 8:10", and they go into a frenzy to get themselves ready.  (Often, they remind themselves of how much time they have left, and I don't have to say anything).  I haven't had to nag OR collect money in a long time.

It's not a perfect system.  The boys often tell me in the morning they will want to make dinner, but when evening rolls around, they discover they'd rather keep playing.  And their bedroom is still usually a disaster-zone, in spite of the huge payment they could earn for cleaning it.

Still, overall I am thrilled at how this has spilled into so many parts of our lives.  About a month ago, my younger son showed me the book he'd checked out of the school library that day: a children's cookbook. On his own, he chose a recipe (sausage popovers) and made dinner for the whole family by himself.  That's not bad for an easily-distracted, 11-year-old boy.   I think we're on to something.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

More ways to spend Mommy Dollars

When my husband saw the list of ways to earn and spend Mommy Dollars (see June 1), he needled me about charging $40 for watching TV.  But the boys were both ecstatic -- they handed over the money and got ready to run down to the basement to watch.

Then they came back upstairs and asked me, "Who gets to hold the remote?"  It was something that they'd both argued over regularly, trying to keep the fights under the radar of their parents, but not always succeeding.  I was really getting sick of being the referee.

So thinking quickly, I said, "We'll have an auction.  Highest bidder holds the remote."  Bidding started at $1 and rose slowly until finally the older brother won the auction at $100.  The younger brother stomped off, but didn't argue.

We've had a few more auctions since then -- the funniest one was over what we call "the bling watch".  Again, the oldest son won the right to wear the watch for one day, and again, the winning bid was $100.  After he won the bid, he asked me, "Wait.  Is this a boy's watch or a girl's watch?"  "You won the bid," I answered, "you tell me".

He looked at the watch carefully.  "It's covered in jewels," he said.  "DEFINITELY a boy's watch".

The next day, the boys started debating who got to rent that watch today.  I mentioned an auction.  My older son paused, felt his wallet, turned to the younger and asked, "How about we take turns instead?"

Nowadays, when the kids start fighting over something, the mention of an auction will usually get them to figure out a way to share that doesn't involve paying up.  That's been a really nice side-effect of the Mommy Dollars.

And when my husband saw that the boys not only gladly paid $40 each to watch TV, but voluntarily chipped in $100 extra to hold the remote, he stopped teasing me about how much I charge.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Mommy Dollar Value Chart

When I rolled out Mommy Dollars, I posted a chart (below) on the bulletin board with lots of ways to earn and spend the new money.  The boys checked it constantly.  I can't match the formatting here in the blog -- it was hand-written.  Since then, we've added to this system, but it's probably helpful to others to see where we started.

The Mommy Dollar Value Chart
(All salaries and prices are subject to change).

Things to buy, rent, and spend your money on:

40 - TV time
50 - go out for ice cream
10 - 10-minute sewing lesson
20 - 10-minute dog-walking lesson
  2 -  rent a watch ($50 deposit)
  2 -  extra library books (beyond the first 2)
  1 - rent a normal seat at the dining room table (one week)
  5 - rent a special seat at the dining room table  (one week)
100 - rent Mom's seat at the dining room table (one week)
200 - beta fish
  1 - play Othello with Mom

Ways to earn salaries and commissions*
     * when Mama approves

20 - behave for the sitter/finish homework
  1 - take out compost (or trash, or recycling)
  5 - feed dog
10 - pick up dog poop
15 - make breakfast
25 - make dinner
  5 - empty dishwasher
30 - clean and vacuum bedroom
300 - beat Mom at Othello

My boys can trade US currency with Mommy dollars at rates that I set.  I am in charge.  I set the rates.  They can trade 100 Mommy dollars for 1 US dollar.  Going backwards, they can trade 1 US dollar to get 50 Mommy dollars.  This not only teaches them about exchange rates (for those days when they become international travelers), but it also makes it hard for them to swap birthday money for TV time.

I think this list is pretty funny, actually.  I've been surprised at how often my boys have come to me with a $10 bill (mommy money) asking for sewing lessons -- I don't think I could have convinced them that sewing is fun before this, but now that they have to pay for it themselves, they think they're getting a great deal.

We also have much less arguing about who sits where at the table -- the boys rent their seat at the beginning of the week, and then they own their spots until the next weekend.

And for the record, I almost always beat the pants off of them at Othello, but once -- just once -- my oldest son beat me.  And I paid up.