Friday, September 30, 2011

Summary advice

Summary advice from September

September 1
Make charitable microloans
September 2
Cheap water/exercise is healthier than costly soda/videogames
September 3
Make tool hangers
September 5
Cut toothpaste tubes in half
September 6
Sort clothes into one-week piles
September 7
Pull good stuff out of trash piles
September 8
September 9
Label coat hooks and light switches
September 10
Set aside "special toys" for special times
September 12
Make homemade bread
September 13
Decorate soap dispensers with children
September 14
Hand-me downs come with a story
September 15
Consider adoption (or don't)
September 16
Have patience before buying furnishings
September 17
Make storage containers from boxes
September 19
Store travel mugs with other travel items
September 20
Take family pictures instead of school pictures
September 21
Invest in the grocery market
September 22
Share what you don't need with those who do need
September 23
Mommy dollars can change kid's behavior
September 24
Ask around before you buy something big
September 26
6 ways to spend less money on clothes
September 27
Decorate a cake with toys and buckets
September 28
Frugality gets a bad rap in the press
September 29
Share status

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Sharing status

My husband and I have passionate debates about theological virtues.  (This beats having arguments over money and politics, in my book!)

For me, the hyper-rational, geeky mathematics professor, it's no surprise that wisdom/prudence is the pre-emnient virtue.  For my husband, the uber-manly/bicycle-racer/National Guard re-enlistee, it's courage/fortitude that rises to the top of the list.  I think we both acknowledge that charity and justice ought to be high up there, but the truth is our own strengths shine brighter in our eyes than our weaknesses do.

Today I'm going to side with my husband and write about the virtue of courage.  And I'm going to do it by placing myself in a position I hate being in -- that of victim/underdog. You can probably tell from my posts that I like seeing myself as completely in control, master of the situations I encounter.  But when I go to math conferences, I often find myself in the unhappy (I think) position of being asked to talk about the status of women in math.  Dang.  I HATE that!!!  No, really.  The men at the conference get to talk about math; why can't I just talk about math, too?  Why do I have to talk about social issues, something I'm really, really not good at?  Do the men at these conferences appreciate how lucky they are, not having to deal with this stuff?  Why don't the men talk about gender imbalance, while women talk about math?

But the truth is that most people are in a position of unappreciated power.  I speak English well; there are parents at my children's school for whom English is a second language. How often have I spoken up for them?   I'm caucasian.  How often have I spoken up at conferences about issues affecting mathematicians of color?  I'm able-bodied.  How often have I spoken up about handicap access?  (Answers: never, hardly ever, not at all).  My mathematical colleagues and friends who are African American, or who are in wheelchairs, or who are blind -- they'd certainly appreciate not having to be the ones to speak up about diversity; they'd love to talk about mathematics, their chosen field.  Just like me.

It takes courage to realize that you have power just because of your gender, or just because of your skin color, or just because of your current level of health.  And it takes a LOT of courage, I've learned, to speak from this position of power.  My friend Amanda, an African-American Quaker, says that it's her white friends, not her black friends, who are nervous about talking about race.  We white folks are worried that we'll say something that brands us as racist or insensitive, so we err on the side of caution and say nothing at all.  I admit it; I'm a coward.

Giving money to a cause I believe in is easy.  Speaking up in public about that cause is intimidating.  Still, I've come to believe that a devotion to charity and justice isn't just about writing checks.  It's also about putting your mouth where your money is.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A brush with the media

In my job as a math professor, I've had a bunch of different experiences with the media, some of it more different than others.  I've been interviewed for the nightly news, quoted in newspaper articles; I even (this is the "different" one) made it into the New York Times magazine fashion spread once, all togged up in "Gucci boots, a Proenza Schouler coat, Dries Van Noten dress and necklace, and a Marni belt".  None of those clothes were mine, of course.  The magazine had something it wanted to show people, and I was just the body they put the clothes on.  (They weren't really as much fun to wear as you might think).

You might wonder how reporters find all the people they write about.  Sometimes, they look for "experts". (If they want to know the chances of winning the lottery under various circumstances, it makes sense to call the local math department).  But sometimes, they just put out an email to local PR (public relations) people, called a "media query".

Here's a query my husband got last week.  This was query #21 in a list that was 38 questions long.
The Search For America's Most Frugal Family 
We're looking for the thriftiest people in America! Is it you, or your husband, or mom? Do you have binders of coupons? Will you only buy something if it is on sale? Do you find every opportunity to cut costs, pinch pennies, and stretch a dollar? Have you been accused of being cheap? Do you buy clothes, wear them, and then return them? Do you frequently "re-gift" items you've received for free? What's the most embarrassing, innovative, or outrageous thing you've done to save a dime? If you are a proud penny-pincher, or want to tell us about someone in your life who is, the [Name-withheld] Show wants to hear from you.
My husband suggested the reporter contact me, even though he knows this list doesn't perfectly describe me -- I don't do many coupons, for example.  [Note:  I think buying something with the intention of using it and returning it is reprehensible:  don't try this at home!]  The reporter called me up, and she was very, very interested at first . . .

. . . but we figured out that she was really looking for people who embarrass their families, whose penny-pinching is so bad it requires "intervention".  It took a while to figure that out.  For example, she told me her mom used to water down their juice so they'd use less.  I told her that I just make my boys drink water straight up. They get one glass of juice and one glass of milk a day, and the rest of the time it's water.  "Are they okay with that?" she wanted to know.  I pointed out that most kids, if you asked them, would be happy to have 5 Twinkies if you let them, but they accept the fact that they can't eat that much junk food.  In the same way, my kids would happily drink juice all day if you let them, but they accept the water rule as normal.

"Do you do that to save money?" she asked.  I said that this saves money both on juice and also on long-term health bills (fewer cavities, for example), but she shut me down quickly with "this isn't a story about health."

She was briefly interested in my getting clothes for cheap, but lost interest when she realized we look normal (no embarrassing skirts made out of umbrellas).  She asked if we do all this because we're living close to the financial edge, but once again I had to disappoint her and say, no, we do this so we can share with others.  She finally told me, "You're just too up-lifting.  That's not the story we're writing.  I might call you back during the holidays when we're doing up-beat stories."

When you see tightwads on TV or in the paper, they're seldom the people you want to be like.  They hoard so much stuff the neighbors complain, or they drive their families nuts, or they are dishonest cheaters.  That's because conflict sells, and contentment doesn't.  

I don't think the reporter was a bad person; she's just doing her job.  But I do think she's painting a bad picture of what "frugality" really means.  It's as false a picture as that photo of me in the Proenza Schouler coat and Gucci boots.

A cute follow-up story:  When I was describing this conversation to my family, including my answer to "are your kids okay drinking water?", my younger son asked, "What's a Twinkie?".  We realized that neither of my sons have ever eaten one.  I tried to tell him that it's a sponge with sugar on it, but I think my husband is going to do an intervention after all.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Bionicle Hero Birthday Party

My son turned 13 years old on Sunday; he asked for a "Bionicles Hero" party.  Since I don't watch TV or movies, I'm  glad the internet could help me figure out what he was talking about!  It also helped me design suitable invitations.

We had about a dozen kids over for three hours.  The idea to serve individual pizzas flopped when I couldn't find a source of cheap, small pizza trays, so the boys and I made two large pizzas for the crowd.  That and popcorn for the movie were the dinner.

Oh, the movie.  A trip to our public library earlier this week netted three DVDs:  movies featuring Bioncles, Green Lantern, and X-men.  The kids watched part of the Bionicles together before deciding our basketball net and tree house were more fun after all.

We made the cake from scratch and decorated it with blue and red frosting (my daughter helped with the batter and described it as "a bowl of diabetes").  I used to be  control freak who decorated the cakes myself, but I'm now a control freak who hands the icing over to my sons and leaves the room so I don't fuss at them constantly.  I come to touch up at the end.  What the cake lacked in elegance, it made up for in altitude.  Putting it up high on a "mountain" of red buckets and decorating with my son's bionicles gave it enough 'wow' to conceal our pitiful lack of skill.

I often worry that I'm so weird that my kids will suffer socially for it, so this party was a little test for me.  We played a few funky party games (picking up my husband off the floor, and "mouse").  Three hours after the kids first arrived, the parents started showing up to take them home.  Some of the parents played  a round or two of "mouse" with us, and the kids begged to be allowed to stay longer . . . I was really happy.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Peanuts for clothes

I don't dress ratty, but I do have a style that I might overly kindly call, um, "flair", and that other people might describe with less flattering words.  I'm not particularly good at matching colors, so I go for the "sin boldly" approach -- I tend to dress a little wild.

Similarly, I get a sort of perverse thrill out of paying less than anyone I know for clothes.  This year, I figure I'll spend about $150 to clothe myself and my two sons (that includes shoes, school clothes, work clothes, coats, and play clothes).  With yard sale season dying out (for me, that means shopping season is nearly over), it seems like a good time to recap how I do this.  I figure, if you actually know what you're doing when it comes to clothes, this approach might be even better for you!

Here's how I conserve money on clothing.
  1. Re-use whenever possible.  Hand-me-downs are a great example of this; I've also gotten "hand-me-ups" from my teenage daughters.  Many of my son's clothes for this year were clothes they wore last year;  so I don't have to buy them a whole new wardrobe.  As for me, I still wear one or two outfits I bought 20 year ago.  If the clothes are durable and good-looking, they can serve for many years.  [Money spent: $0]
  2. Mend clothing.  My boys -- particularly my younger son -- can be really hard on the knees of pants.  I've gotten good at patching these pants in ways that are reasonably good.  Re-stitching a seam or a hem on my own dresses isn't hard.  Thread is a lot less expensive than new clothes.  [Money spent: about $0]
  3. Swap with friends.  We have several friends who give us their used clothes; we pass along our too-small clothes to friends, as well.  Some of my favorite pairs of shoes came into my home this way (I still think of them as "Jan's shoes").  As I wrote in an earlier post, I love getting clothes that have a history and a connection to our community. To me, these connections are even more valuable than the clothes.  [Money spent: $0]
  4. Volunteer at charity events.  My college hosts a yearly giant sell-off of items the departing students leave behind.  I love helping out at this, on a number of levels.  For one, I'm a resident expert on how to price things at yard sales, so I feel useful.  But also, I can nab clothing for myself that is in style.  For a few years, I got flip flops; lately, I've been picking up UnderArmor shirts.  [Money spent: $0]
  5. Yard sales.  I love yard sales!  But this summer, because of rain on many weekends and obligations on other weekends, I really only went to about 4 weekends of yard sales (averaging one weekend a month).  That's low for me.  Still, during these 4 weekends I managed to purchase almost all of the school clothes that I'll need this year -- that's about $20 of the money that I spent.  By combining techniques 1-5, I won't need to buy any more school clothes for the boys this year.  But this explanation hides some important early costs.  I've spent several years building up an inventory of school clothing; I've also spent several years learning how to purchase clothes at yard sales for 50¢-to-$1 a piece.  I often spend closer to $50 during the summer.  Like many things in life, this method gets better with practice. [Money spent: $20]
  6. Thrift-shop purchases.  I'm one of the few people who thinks of thrift stores as "too expensive". Why pay $5-$7 for a pair of jeans when I know I can get it for $1 at a yard sale?  So I use thrift stores sparingly.  This year for my older son's birthday, I gave each of my sons a $25 gift certificate to Goodwill.  There's a "bulk" Goodwill about 20 minutes from our home, next to the "fancy" Goodwill.  At the "bulk" store, each item costs 85¢.  This will allow my boys to buy non-school "fashion" clothes they want.  By allowing the two boys to spend at total of $50 on whatever they want, I figure I'm spoiling them ridiculously.  Just call me a softy.  [Money spent: $50]
  7. Bulk clothes.  For underwear and socks, I haven't managed to find a good hand-me-down/yard sale/thrift store solution.  I go to one of those huge discount stores or go online and buy new (sigh) clothes.  This accounts for the other $80 I spend (this is both for my boys and for me).  I buy in bulk -- at least 12 pairs of whatever at at time.   [Money spent: $80]
Here's what I don't do.  I don't go to the mall.  I don't go shopping (anywhere) "just for fun", unless you count the boys' birthday presents at Goodwill.  I don't buy things "on sale".  I'm not saying that any of those things are bad; I'm just saying I don't do them.  And that's how I clothed three people for $150 this year.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

A high-pressure gift

I've been having fun learning to can foods over the past two years.  I wrote in a previous post how the "mysterious" part of canning is really just boiling the jars.

I've had so much fun with canning that I've started thinking seriously about pressure-canning, which will allow me to put up low-acid foods (soups and squash, for example).  But a good pressure canner costs several hundred dollars.  So I've been going slow.  And I've been putting out the word, letting people know that this is something I'm thinking about.

Putting out the word is a particularly valuable way to think out loud.  One of my friends pointed me to a nearby Amish store that has a collection of pressure canners.  Some of my more extravagant family members considered splurging on a holiday gift for me.

But then I scored big time.  A woman at our church has a beautiful pressure canner, given to her by her mother-in-law 63 years ago.  It's a "Kook-Kwick Steam Pressure Cooker 16", heavy metal piece.  Mrs. Menges figures that somebody gave it to her mother in law, so this pot is at least 100 years old.  What a piece of history!  It's beautiful and solid.  And Mrs. Menges says she'll tell her children that the pressure canner is being stored at my home.

Now, did I mention that I'm going to be looking for a new waffle iron?

Friday, September 23, 2011

A morning with Mommy Dollars

We've settled into a comfortable routine with Mommy Dollars.  My boys have become both savers and spenders:  my older son has about $500 in his BoMama (Bank Of Mama) account, and the other has about $600.  Because the September MPR is 1.4%, this means the boys are liable to earn $7 to $8 dollars (that's U.S. dollars) for the month.

The main things the boys spend their money on nowadays are bedtime snacks, TV time, and late fees.  (Yesterday, while we were at the pet store, the beta fishes really tempted one son, though.)   But every once in a while, something new comes up.  On Tuesday, the boys started arguing over who gets to put the napkins on the table.

Oh, the napkins . . . (sigh).  Because we use personalized napkin rings, the person who puts the napkins on the table essentially decides where everyone sits.  This is a HUGE deal to my boys, so much so that when I first set up Mommy Dollars, I had a scheme where the boys rented a seat at the table for a week, just to stop arguments.  The system worked so well we've abandoned it . . . but obviously, it's time to reconsider.

At any rate, the boys were muttering to each other in low tones, hoping I couldn't hear the bickering.  Hah! Moms hear everything!  So I proposed an auction:  highest bidder gets to set the table.
  • Son 1 immediately says, "$10".  
  • Son 2 counters right away with "$20".  
  • Son 1 comes back with "$30".  
  • Son 2 now realizes something is wrong but says, "$50".  
  • Son 1 is now torn . . . on the one hand, he doesn't want to pay that much, but on the other hand he doesn't want to lose a contest, so he says, "$100".  
Son 1 "wins" the auction.  And then he chickens out, because he knows that the money in his account is earning him more money.  He's decided he'd rather be rich.  He says, "Actually, I don't want to put the napkins on the table.  You can do it, brother.  I need to save my money."

I could have enforced the auction, but I think the lesson was learned.  Still, we're going back to renting seats at the table starting right now.  Not coincidentally, the boys were 5 minutes late out the door, so they each paid a $5 fine.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Charitable onions

And when you reap the harvest of your land, you should not gather the extremes of the corners of your fields; neither should you gather the gleanings of your harvest:  you shall leave those for the poor and the strangers.  I am the Lord your God.
It's hard to feel virtuous about giving onions to other people.  It's even harder to feel virtuous about that when I really, really don't want the onions.  Our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) is winding into its fall vegetables, and my next-door neighbor and I feel like we both have onions coming out of our ears.  Ugh.

But it's even less virtuous to let good stuff go to waste.  The city where I live has a lot of refugees who have fled from Nepal, Iran, and other war-torn countries.  Because of my students who care deeply about issues of social justice, I've learned a lot about how hard it is for these people to show up in a new country.  They've fled terror and famine; they arrive in America with very little money, minimal english, and no possessions.  All they have is permission from our government to resettle here, plus 6 months of help from local organizations.  Every time I re-read Exodus or Leviticus (which frankly, isn't very often) I remember that these are exactly the people I'm supposed to be thinking of.

One of the people who works at my college has helped a group of resettled women start a catering business.  I'm just in awe of this idea.  My own tiny contribution to this is passing along extra onions from the CSA to these women, sort of like letting them gather from the corners of my fields.  If you want to see how my onions taste, you could order something from Upohar.

Giving onions to resettled refugees isn't exactly the noblest thing I've done with my life.  But it's not the worst thing I've done, either.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Am I saving money?

I've written before about the difference between "saving money" and "spending less money".  This idea is so important that I want to write about it again.

It was a recent newspaper column that brought this idea back to mind.  A New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, wrote this about a Kenyan woman who sewed her way out of poverty:  “There is growing evidence that the most powerful element of microfinance is not microlending, but microsavings, and that’s how Jamii Bora [this support group] starts:  it encourages members to save small amounts, perhaps just 50 cents a week.”

A lot of people who hear that I'm a tightwad want to know how to get stuff cheap -- but then they want to get more stuff.  Here's the problem with that approach: if you're used to getting one cute dress for $100 and you learn to buy ten cute dresses for $10, you haven't saved money.  Either way, you've spent $100.  [This example gets even more ludicrous if you use my own standards for prices, and you buy two hundred dresses for 50¢ each].

The true power of "saving" money happens when you do one of two things:  either you really do save it (put it into the bank), or you "invest" it back in your family.  Here's an example of an investment:  with some money we'd managed to set aside, I paid about $400 for a share in a CSA (community supported agriculture).  This $400 provided vegetables for our family from May through the end of September.  I can't estimate the nutritional value of the locally produced, organic vegetables.  Because the CSA replaced both our previous grocery-store-bought vegetables plus some of the meat, I am guessing we spent at least $200 less-than-usual during the next six months.  That is, six months later we had $600 ($200 + $400) set aside.  Try earning 50% return on stock-market investment in six months, and you'll see why home investments are so powerful!

We used that $600 to purchase a freezer.  The freezer, unlike the vegetables, is something we wouldn't have purchased anyway.  The freezer has allowed us to preserve a lot of food (including the inexpensive corn and hamburger that I wrote about in late August).  Already, it has allowed us to purchase and then preserve bulk-bought, nutritious, locally produced food.   I'm guessing we have "saved" about $150 on food so far, so if this continues, we can expect that the freezer will pay for itself in less than 4 years.  Once again, the Dow Jones pales in comparison.

The truth is, you need to have money to save money.  Buying in bulk or buying a freezer to store cheaply bought food is expensive, initially -- it costs less in the long run, but costs a LOT more up front.  If you keep buying cheap things you don't need, you're not saving money.  But if you set aside money you would have otherwise spent, you can use it to make strategic investments in your own household.  And that's the true value of the frugal life.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

School picture day is coming

The flyers that come home with my kids are letting me know that School Picture Day is coming!! Get ready!!!   The prices are high (the flyer says "$9 per item"; an "item" is either one 8x10", two 5x7", or four 3x5" photos).  It's very easy to drop serious money on school pictures, especially if you have multiple kids (as I do).

Many years ago, when my three girls and one son were all in school, I decided to gird up my courage and suggest that maybe we should NOT buy school photos.  Maybe we could do "family photos" instead?  I ducked and got ready for the "bad mother" accusations.

To my surprise, the girls all thought that was a GREAT idea (and their younger brother went along).  They hated their school photos, which always came out -- they thought -- awful.  We've done family photos ever since, and we've saved hundreds and hundreds of dollars because of it.

Why do school photos exist?  Long ago, personal photography was very difficult.  Cameras were notoriously tricky to focus and use, and film was expensive.  My grandmother's family used to get occasional photographs taken at Olin Studios, a professional place, and I think I'm lucky to have some of these lovely photographs hanging up on my walls.  School photographs came into being as a way for ordinary families to get good, professional photographs of their own children and (eventually) of their children's friends.

But like the QWERTY keyboard, school photo days have taken on a life of their own that don't match modern life.  Now it's very easy for parents to take good photographs -- even better photos, my kids pointed out, than the assembly-line photographs that the school provides.

The first year I did family photos, I had my picture taken for the Year Book at my college, and I paid attention to how the photographers posed me.  This helped me get the "school photo look" for our own pictures.  Here are some tips I learned.

  • Turn the child's body slightly, with one shoulder closer to the camera than the other. This gives the body a nice, gentle asymmetry.
  • Turn the head toward the camera. 
  • Tilt the chin down just a bit.
So for me, the flyers that come home remind me that it's time to pull out my photograph paper (I picked up some when it was marked way down); I'll pose my kids, take a bunch of photos, and choose the best ones for printing.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Mugging around

On Saturday, I was getting ready to run out of the house and drive off to an all-day meeting.  I reached in the mug shelf to grab a travel mug . . . and then I hit a wall.  Not a literal wall, of course.  I just found about 5 travel mugs mixed in with the other 20 ceramic mugs, and I found about 7 travel-mug lids.  And nothing matched.

An ordinary person would have just decided that that's the way life is: mugs are confusing, and the lids never quite match the containers.  But I have this thing about being hyper-organized, and if I can't put my hands on exactly what I want, I figure that there's something wrong with the system.

I pulled all of the travel mugs and travel lids off of the shelf, put them on the dining room table, paired up lids with containers, and drove off into the sunrise.  As I drove, I got to think.  The problem, I eventually realized, is that I was still sorting things by what they "are" (that is, they're all mugs), but not by how I actually use them.  When I got home from my trip, I moved all my travel mugs away from the many-mug-shelf to the same shelf where my husband keeps his paper cups.  (My husband is not a miser; he throws his money in the trash).  This way, all of our "to go" cups are together.

The "to go" shelf is brighter and smaller, so it's easier to match a lid with its mug.  Heck, maybe my husband will decide once or twice to use a reusable mug now!  But even if not, I'll be able to find what I'm looking for a lot faster than before.

Maybe you don't drink as much coffee as we do, or maybe drinking coffee on the road isn't as important to you as it obviously is to us.  The real moral of this story is that it helps to organize our things around the way we live our lives, instead of spending bits and pieces of our lives rummaging through out our things.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Storage solution

Here are some pictures of my "Round 1" version of storage containers for the boys' rooms.  I took regular printer paper boxes and trimmed off one corner.  (The cut takes off 7 inches of the top of the box and about 4 inches off the front of the box).  The tops aren't attached; they just add a tiny bit of stability, and they allow me to stack things on top.

They aren't gorgeous, I admit.  But it's still Round 1 -- we're still testing the concept.  If these end up working as well as they seem to (and two weeks into the experiment, I'm really pleased), it'll be easy to decorate these with paint and stickers. 

Based on the criteria I listed yesterday, here's how well they work.
  • The holes make it easy for the boys to put things away.
  • The holes make it easy for the boys to take things out.  Each box is for one kind of thing, and each box is  portable, so a kid can carry it to where he's playing and get things out there, if he wants.  It's also easy to see what's in the box.
  • They're cheap.  I salvage the boxes from work, for free.
  • They're environmentally kind.  When a box gets ruined (which will definitely happen), I can recycle the cardboard at work -- in fact, since these boxes would have been recycled anyway, I'm just postponing the inevitable.
  • They're versatile.  Like the cinder block/board construction of shelves that were popular among thrifty folks of my parents' generation, these boxes can be easily repurposed for lots of uses.  I've started using them in my garage for lots of things (hazardous materials waiting to go to the dump; books to donate to our public library; gardening supplies).  I've got a box or two in my towel closet now (one for light bulbs; one for ace bandages and heating pads).  I've got another set of boxes in the closet in my sewing room now.  I could imagine doing a similar thing with smaller boxes (like shoe boxes) to hold smaller items.
There are disadvantages.
  • Aesthetically, these aren't Martha Stewart.  My boys don't at all seem to mind, but I'm still thinking about spray paint or other cosmetic changes.
  • The boxes fit well on our closet shelves, which are deep, but they don't fit well on standard bookshelves.  So I'm trying to decide whether I want to modify the boxes or the shelves they sit on.  Based on how well this is working, I'm leaning toward building larger shelves.
As I said before, so far, I like the design of these boxes a lot.  If this set-up doesn't work out in the boys' rooms, at least I've found a good storage solution for out-of-the-way places like my garage.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The things that hold our things

In a bunch of posts, I've written about the anguish my kids go through cleaning up their room.  The rooms have gotten a lot better lately.  A huge part of the improvement is due to getting rid of things the boys don't care about (using "toy purgatory").  Another help is that I've been getting storage space that works better for them (including the trash-picked plastic shelves I described a week ago).

Generally, I've been trying to find the best long-term storage system for them using a technique you might describe as picky-but-patient.  The "patient" aspect means I'm not just going to go and buy something right now -- I want to do this right.  Thinking is more important than purchasing.  But the "patient" part also means that I have to be willing to live with imperfection (a bit of mess, and less-than-aesthetic solutions) in the meanwhile.

Here are some of my "picky" criteria.

It has to be easy to put things away.
How often do you NOT put something away because it belongs on a high shelf or in the back of the closet?  Difficulty can vary from person to person.  One of my sons has developmental issues with his right hand, making a lot of two-handed activity inconvenient (but not impossible).  Holding something in one hand and opening a drawer with the other hand is easy for most people, but he's often inclined just to dump something on the floor near the drawer instead.  Clothes hangars might as well be rocket science.  We use hooks, not hangars, in his closet.

Anything my kids put away has to be easily retrievable.
This large trunk holds only wooden railroad track pieces.
Toy chests are usually miserable for this.  It's easy to throw everything in one box, but if you have to root around under all the stuffed animals to find the matchbox car, you're not going to want to put the matchbox car back in the toy box again.  In fact, any storage container that contains lots of unrelated items (whether it's the junk drawer, or a poorly labeled filing cabinet, or the garage) can be hard to get things out of if they're so jumbled you can't find things.  So my storage containers have to be big enough to hold what they're supposed to, but they shouldn't require the kids to mix several things together.

The one toy chest I am happy with is the one in our living room that holds our vast collection of wooden train tracks.  It works because it's single-purpose.  (When I drilled holes in the side and added rope handles, I became even happier with it).

The storage system has to be cheap.
'Nuff said.

The storage system has to be environmentally kind.
The plastic shelves I trash-picked are -- it is true -- plastic.  On the one hand, I saved them from going straight into the landfill.  But on the other hand, they're not very easy for my son to use, and for environmental reasons I don't want to rely on plastic when I expand the boys' shelves further.

The storage system has to be versatile.
Speaking of expanding, I want to be able to add to the storage space as the boys become responsible enough to keep and maintain more stuff.  And since they like to change rooms, I want to be able to move/combine shelves if necessary.

I've hit upon a solution that I think really like; I'm going to write about it tomorrow.  (Today is the why; tomorrow is the how).

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Another idea for too-small clothes

My son came up with an ingenious plan -- one that he thought was blindingly obvious -- for using those too-small kid clothes.

His revelation came about when the boys were trying on a bunch of clothes given to us by a co-worker, whom I'll call D.   D is NOT (she emphatically told my husband) a Miser Mom.  No kidding.  The clothes were all very trendy, in great shape, and very new.  In fact, one t-shirt still had the price tag on it:  $75.  (Wow?  You mean someone would actually buy a $75 t-shirt for a kid and he never even wears it?  Okay, I'll pick myself up off the floor and resume the story).

My son asked why somebody would get rid of a shirt that nobody ever wore before, and my husband explained that D has just one kid, and he grew too big for the clothes before he could wear it.  My son had the obvious solution to the problem:
"She should just adopt another kid, like we did, and then HE can wear the shirt."
Somehow, I don't think that solution has occurred to D.  In fact, I'm pretty sure D wouldn't think it's quite as brilliant a solution as my son did.  But I pass the idea along to you, just in case you have a few too-small clothes that you're wondering what to do with.   Just sayin'.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A common idea for too-small clothes

A standard thing people do with too-small clothes is to pass them along to someone else they know.   Our family is often the recipient of other people's clothes; people tell us that they know we'll appreciate the clothes if we can wear them.  Below is a pair of Syracuse Lacrosse shorts with a rich lineage.

My son, is the latest proud owner, got them from one of his older sisters, who got it from her friend Claire, who got it from her friend Jocelyn, who got it from her high school boyfriend.  Perhaps the shorts belonged to someone else before him; we haven't traced the pants back any farther.

Aside from the personal history lesson, these shorts demonstrate an important, frugal aspect of used clothes ownership:  those used clothes that get passed along tend to be durable.  They've survived both washing and wearing, and they are likely to hold up better than new, cheap clothes.

In the past, I've written about using t-shirts to make quilts, or carry bags, or even rags.  Tomorrow, I'm going to offer one of my son's suggestions for dealing with too-small clothes.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

X-mass production

The fall is when I start working in earnest with my kids to help them make Christmas gifts for our many relatives.  There are about 20 family members on our gift list, so mass production and assembly line strategies help a lot.  (Get it?  X-mass production?  heh).

I have a couple of self-imposed constraints on these projects.  I try to keep costs low (but of course).  I do my best to avoid those cutesy things that are just going to clutter up somebody else's home.  And, of course, the project also has to be something within the capabilities of my boys.  These three constraints require a lot of creativity on my part.

Here's a gift that worked really well two years ago:  decorated soap bottles.  I had a bunch of supplies left-over from a "stained glass" project -- really, painted glass that looks sort of like stained glass.

I bought a bunch of soap dispensers (in the store, I surreptitiously checked one corner of the label on the bottle to verify that it really could peel off).   At home, I removed the labels and then got out the leftover arts and crafts material that inspired this project.

When we did this, my son was at an age where he was enthusiastic but not particularly neat or artistic, so I "drew" the design on each bottle with the black tape (fake lead) myself.  My son then colored mostly in between the lines with the stained glass paint.

This soap bottle was for my son's basketball-playing older sister.  We also did butterflies, owls, rainbows, and suns, based on what my son thought would fit well with the intended recipient.

Monday, September 12, 2011

A fool-proof, frugal food

It's hard to ruin bread.

I learned to make bread by following recipes, diligently waiting the 1 hour specified and then punching it down, and then repeating the rising/kneading time precisely as directed.  If you read most cook books, you get the sense that you have to be home during the day to have fresh-baked bread in the evening.

Then I went to England for one summer while I was working on my math doctorate.  I stayed with a woman named Nicki who would often mix up a batch of dough early in the morning.  But she wouldn't stick around to babysit her dough; she'd abandon it all day long to go to her office.  When she got back home at night, she might punch it down or not, and then she'd bake it.  It always came out great.

Nicki did a lot of experimenting.  She'd throw all sorts of things into her dough -- different kind of flours, or handfuls of spices, eggs, nuts -- and (I repeat) it always came out great.  Since then, I've tossed in even stranger things, including mashed potatoes, olives, cheese, tomatoes, and apples (but not all at once).  The people I share my bread with always gush, and then they say they wish they could make bread.

Perhaps it's true that paying attention to rising time makes the difference between a great loaf of bread and an awesome one.  But it doesn't seem to be easy to make bad bread.   In fact, just about any homemade bread you can make will taste better than store-bought.

Homemade bread costs a lot less than comparable store-bought bread.  A standard loaf that I make is a variation on this theme:
  • 1 1/3 cup warm water (body temperature)
  • 1 Tbsp yeast
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • about 4 cups of flour (close to one pound)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 Tbsp vegetable oil
Individual packets of yeast are horrendously pricey (75¢ to $1).  Buy yeast in bulk to save -- it will keep indefinitely in the freezer if you seal it.  I keep a large sealed bag of yeast in my freezer, and transfer smaller amounts to a jar in the fridge for every-day use.  

Flour prices vary a lot, depending on whether you go for non-nutritious white flour or more expensive but wholesome wheat, rye, and oat flours.  If a 5 lb bag of flour costs $5 (very high!), then the cost of the flour in your bread is just $1.  If you bake several loaves at once, or if you bake the bread while other food is baking, the heating costs are minimal.

Overall, it's super easy to make a delicious, nutritious loaf of bread for less than, say $3, and with only about 15 minutes of hands-on time.

Comparing this price to store-bought bread is only half the story.  Home-made bread tastes so good that it's easy to have it take the place of much more expensive foods.  Even my boys, both avid carnivores, love soup-and-bread dinners.  

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Snooze alarms and special toys

One of my survival tools when I was a single mom with a small, active child was a basket of puzzles.  My daughter loved puzzles, but I only let her play with this basket early mornings on weekends -- and even then, only if she played VERY quietly.  Because of those puzzles, I got an extra half hour of sleep many Saturdays and Sundays.

[Note:  I think lack of sleep was really the hardest thing about being a single mom.  Kids don't have snooze buttons; when they wake you up, you can't hit them on the head and go back to sleep for 10 more minutes. If you're ever considering how to help a single parent you know, I'd recommend inviting her kid for a sleep-over, and keeping the kid the next day until noon.]

Since then, I've been a real fan of "special toys".  These are toys that my kids just love to play with, and that I get out only for special occasions when I want the kids to play very, very quietly.  Hiding the toys away most of the time keeps the kids from getting bored with them.

Here are my sons with their "special toys", travel version.  These puppets work great in airports, math meetings, and more.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Labeling the house

Fabric paint is good for labeling things around the home.  It is easy to see, and if you want to change the labels later, you can just peel it off of plastic or tile.

Which switch goes to which light?  Which goes to the fan?  Now it's easy to remember.

I've color-coded the hangars by our back door.  Red is my younger son; blue is the older one; multi-colored is my honorary daughter.  I can tell at a glance which kids have their stuff ready for school.

You can buy fabric paint at a craft store.  I get most of mine from (of course) yard sales.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Serving time

Time isn't really money, despite the famous saying.  When we have more money than another person, giving money to other people can make sense as charity.  But even the richest of us has only 24 hours in a day, and it often feels like the more successful we are, the more demands there are on that finite, precious resource.  Sometimes it really feels like giving my time in service is just serving time.

I have done a lot of different kinds of volunteering in my life, but I've done it in bits and spurts.  There was the year when my daughters had grown to be mostly responsible pre-teens and we hadn't yet adopted our infant son; I volunteered with our local Hospice.  Last year, when I was on sabbatical, I taught math classes one morning a week at a nearby Spanish-American community center.

Giving up time is hard.  There is so much else I want to do, and often volunteering includes inefficient, redundant jobs.  I'm thinking particularly of the time I was with Hospice; one assignment I had was to sit with a patient in the nursing home to keep him company.  But he had nurses and orderlies around him a lot of the day.  Did he really need me?  My being there made his wife feel better about his care, so maybe the answer is yes.  Still, sitting still is hard for me.

On the other hand, volunteering my own time and talents has almost always changed my own life for the better, introducing me to people and experiences that have stuck with me.  I met my honorary daughter through a hospice assignment, and I wouldn't give that up for anything.  And just last week, I got the following beautiful letter from one of my students from last year, telling me she's graduated.

Hola mujer, deseo que haya tenido un dia espectacular y asi mismo se el dia de manana le deseo mucho exito en sus labores diarias
le esccribo para contarle que me gradue de Recepcionista Medico y que estoy practicando en la computadora .
Disculpe que perdi su llamada ayer le agradecemos se recuerde de nosotros, usted sabe que la extranamos.
Her husband (who was also in my class) now has a job driving long-haul trucks, and they've both gotten their GEDs now.  We're going to get together for dinner soon . . . I think I've got myself a new friend for life.

Coming up Friday: Labeling the house with fabric paint
Coming up Saturday:  Snooze alarms and special toys

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Taking a walk on trash day

I am a person who admires dumpster divers and "freegans" (people who try to get all their stuff for free).  My impression is that the lifestyle is best suited to single, city dwellers, and not to suburban mothers-of-many.  There aren't a lot of dumpsters near me, really.

But going for walks or runs around my own neighborhood on trash morning can be very (ahem) rewarding.  I don't dig through my neighbors' trash cans, but I've found some really nice large items next to their trash cans that have been very useful.  Here's a partial list:
  • a large, pink beanbag chair
  • 12 yards of garden fencing
  • a microwave oven
  • a 5-foot long stuffed dog that now serves as a wrasslin' rug in our living room
  • a large colorful umbrella, which I disassembled and made into a cape for Halloween.
I have a new, honorary daughter who moved into my home last May and who has sort of been watching me wide-eyed.  It was a real kick, then, to get a phone call from her one day while she was walking around down-town:  there was a set of storage shelves by the curb with some other trash cans; wasn't I looking for something like that?
The shelves had been left with a pile of trash outside of an apartment of someone who seemed to be moving away and doing both cleaning and purging.  A quick outdoor cleaning with soap and water, and the shelves were as good as new.  Now they're up in my younger son's bedroom.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Clothes for seven weeks

This past Friday after work, I spent 10 minutes figuring out what clothes I'll wear for the next 7 weeks.

What this means is that I looked through my closet and organized my clothes into clusters of four outfits per week.  Why four?  I teach three days a week and dress more formally for those three days.  I give myself one "dress-down" day at work.  I also dress-down on the weekends.  On those days, I grab something from my drawers, not from my closet.  So I'm really just picking out the more formal sets of clothes.  This set-up gives me structure (on my formal days) and flexibility too.

After bunching the clothes into groups, I linked each group of four outfits with a hair elastic, so I'd see which clothes belong together for the week.  If there was an outfit that required an accessory (special stockings or a belt or such), I found that item and hung it on the hangar, too.
Before you think that this is over-the-top OCD behavior, I'll share with you what I've discovered about the advantages of doing this.

The most immediate advantage, and the reason I started organizing my clothes this way, is that picking out clothes calmly and quietly on a tranquil evening saves me a bunch of stress  on hectic week-day mornings.   Even though I have a good morning routine and my boys know how to make their own breakfast, there is still a lot of last-minute craziness that can lead to "Decision fatigue".  I don't want choosing my outfit to be the reason I snap at my sons when they ask whether they're allowed to make pancakes instead of waffles, and whether I have lined paper for their notebook, and what to do about the dog barf in the living room, and whether I'll be free at 6:15 this evening to pick up their friend for a sleep-over.

But I've learned that banding my clothes together has a lot of frugal advantages, too.  Like these:
  • I learned I have a lot of clothes.  When I did this the first time one early October, my groupings took me all the way into late November.  Who knew?  All of a sudden I realized I don't need new outfits as much as I thought.  Similarly, the summer outfits I banded together last Friday (September 2) will take me into mid-October.  By then, I'll put them all away and get out my cold-weather outfits.  This means that for more than three months, I won't wear the same outfit twice.  Realizing this cut my personal shopping this past summer down to almost nothing.
  • I learned about the redundancies in my clothes.  When I pick out my clothes by thinking only "what will I wear today?", I focus on single outfits that I might like.  But when I organized ALL my clothes into groups, I was surprised to discover that I had 6 black sweaters.  This is because every time I see a black sweater listed at  50¢ at a yard sale, I think, "that would be a good thing to own; it'll go with lots of outfits".  Now I know that I already own quite enough black sweaters, thank you.
  • I finally decided to get rid of a few of those outfits that seemed like a good idea at the time, but that I just don't like wearing.  It's one thing to keep passing over that outfit, saying "not today, but maybe later."  But when I admitted that I don't want to wear that outfit even 5 weeks from now, I knew that meant "never".  There are some clothes that look good on the hangar but bad on me.
  • A surprise discovery was remembering that the opposite can be true: there are some clothes that look bad on the hangar, but good on me.  There's a black fitted dress I have -- in spite of my penchant for black sweaters, I really don't wear much black, though.  So I avoided that dress for a year or more.  But when I finally put that dress in the groupings and wore it, I got a huge number of compliments on it.  
What I'm about to say might sound like goofy philosophy, but the biggest thing I got out of all this is reconnecting the bulk of my stuff back to my life.  It's one thing to know that my closet and drawers seem to be awfully full -- that's just a sentence about how my stuff fits in my stuff.  It's entirely another thing to translate those clothes into several months of my life.  That's understanding my abundance in a more personal, meaningful way.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The last little bit: toothpaste and deodorant

Any frugal person knows how to put one bottle of goopy stuff up-side down on another bottle to drain out the last little bit.  We frugal-meisters consider it completely normal to transfer the small remnants of ketchup (or syrup, or vegetable oil) from one bottle to another.   I've been surprised to find that this isn't universal practice.  Wow!

It's possible to use the last bits of not-so-goopy things, too.  How do you use up the last little bit of toothpaste?  You can cut open the tube and stick your toothbrush right on in.

It's also possible to salvage the last pieces of lip balm or deodorant with the help of the microwave oven.  To do this, take several nearly-done containers of deodorant.  With a spoon or knife, scrape the stuff from all but one container into a small microwavable bowl.  Heat for a very short time  (5-10 seconds?).  The stuff will soften up.  Pour/scoop it into the remaining container.  (I've found that deodorant bottles have holes in bottom.  If I nuke ALL of the stuff, then the mixture leaks through those holes.  Leaving the stuff solid in the bottom of one jar avoids this mess).

The mixture takes about a half hour to cool and harden again.  Then it's ready to use!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Hang it all

If fixing a household object first means hunting for and then digging out the tools I need, there's a good chance I'll put off doing the repair.  So I've taken a tip from my uber-organized mom and made a tool-hanger that goes on a wall in my kitchen.  This solves the hunting and digging problem, allowing me to get straight to the fixing.

My mom's hung on her pantry door, tucked out of sight.  It seemed like it was a weekly family ritual that my mom would have to holler, "WHO TOOK MY SCISSORS?" (or screwdriver, or hammer . . . ) It was clear that these were the easiest tools to get to; but somehow we weren't always so good at putting them back!

I've had a tool hanger in my kitchen basically all my adult life.  Recently I realized that the reason I keep putting off tasks that involve using my drill is because my drill was tucked away on an overfull shelf in the garage.  So I made a very simple hangar using a canvas tote bag I got from some conference I went to.  The bag had a fold-over flap that, when I folded it up, became the "tools" section.  (All I had to do was sew on some nylon straps, scavenged from other projects, to hold the tools).  I threaded a pole through the top to add some support, and added a loop at the top so I can hang the thing up.  
This bag now hangs on a door in my sewing room, where it's easily accessible for household projects.  Why didn't I think of this before?

Friday, September 2, 2011

Why depriving my children is good for them

The August 21, 2011 Parade Magazine had a "Kid's Health Quiz".  The answers to this quiz reminded me that a lot of the ways I rear my kids -- ways that look like cheapskate deprivation to others -- are actually helping me to bring up my kids to be healthier and happier than "un-deprived" kids.

Here's one of those miserly things I do.  My kids are allowed at most one cup of fruit juice each day.  They are allowed one cup of milk each day.  They get no soda.  The rest of the time, whether at meals or just because they're thirsty, they drink a lot of water (fluoridated tap water, to be specific).

Is this horrible?  Parade Magazine has two quiz questions related to this topic.  Here they are.
  1. Which is the biggest source of calories in a youngster's diet?  (a) Baked desserts, (b) Pizza, or (c) Soda/fruit drinks.
  2. What's the most common chronic childhood disease?  (a) Tooth decay, (b) Diabetes, (c) Obesity, or (d) Asthma.  
The answers to these questions -- for the average American kid -- is (c) Soda/fruit drinks and (a) Tooth decay (although all four conditions are on the rise).  For my kids, spending LESS money on drinks actually means BETTER health.

I still remember a social worker asking about what our new son would be doing when he joined our house.  She knew we were a very active family that doesn't spend a lot of time on electronic entertainment.  She asked, "But you will let him play video games, right?"  I don't remember how we answered; I think we said something about spending time together as a family.  But the direct answer is that neither of our sons has video games in our house.  They watch TV only rarely (we make them pay with Mommy Dollars for the privilege).  Is this a terrible hardship?  Here are the relevant Parade Magazine questions.
  1. Which of the following is an actual medical condition that kids can develop? (a) Guitar Hero Wrist, (b) iPod Finger, (c) Nintendinitis, (d) Cell Phone Elbow, or (e) All of the above.
  2. Which essential vitamin are 70 percent of kids not getting enough of?  (a) Vitamin C, (b) Vitamin A, (c) Vitamin D, or (d) Vitamin B12.
The answers are (e) all of the above, and (c) Vitamin D.  Regarding Vitamin D, Parade notes that "It's hard for kids to get enough from food alone.  Consider letting them play outside for 10 minutes without sunscreen."  In this case, my scavenged basketball net with our many found and donated balls is not only a form of exercise, but also a form of nutrition.  Video games are neither.

No caring parents would let their children skip needed medicines just because the kids didn't like them.  We buy our kids costly things -- medicine, nutritious foods, education, bike helmets -- even if the kids don't want those things, just to make sure they stay healthy.  

Doesn't it make sense, then, to make sure that we do those cheap things that accomplish the same goal?  

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Charitable loaning

One of my favorite "charities" is actually not truly charity, and it doesn't involve giving away my money.  Instead, it's about loaning money.

Through Kiva (a non-profit organization that links up lenders with people who need micro-loans) I've loaned a total of $8,800 to 40 different people.  My actual outlay for that money is a bit over $1000, slowly added into that loan-pot over several years.  As my loanees repay the money, I just lend it back out again.  I really enjoy the chance to see what people all over the world are doing -- Kiva posts their stories and gives me updates.

Because I can loan out at little as $25 at a time, and because I could always choose to get my money back or to reloan it to another person, this is a frugal way to help people all the way across the world.

The stories of the people I'm loaning to have an indirect impact on they way I view my own life, too.  For example, in the US there are actually more automobiles than drivers.  But when I loan somebody $100 so she can buy a bicycle to transport her goods to market, that puts my own car into a different context.  I like those reminders; they make me more content with what I already own.