Thursday, December 22, 2011

Found artwork

One of my favorite pieces of artwork was saved from the trash. After salvaging parts from some old computers, I hung a couple pieces on the wall that I found particularly captivating.

There is no need to purchase expensive prints, original work, or posters to decorate your home. Display whatever you find beautiful.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

How to Have a Lower Gas Bill

Shortly after the first winter gas bill arrives, many people vow to keep the thermostat set lower to avoid paying a third of their income to the gas company. If these lower temperatures are too uncomfortable, the thermostat will quickly be adjusted back up to its normal setting. Even if not, no one should spend an entire winter feeling cold, uncomfortable and possibly sick. There are some ways that you can feel more at ease in a lower temperature.

Drink lots of warm beverages. Hot tea, coffee, hot chocolate, hot cider, and warm lemonade are all great beverages to warm your insides. And a shot of whiskey is wonderful on a frigid night.

Crochet/Knit an afghan. Working with the yarn will keep your fingers warm, and you can snuggle under the work in progress as you go.

Move your bed. Move your bed to an interior wall, rather than an exterior wall. The exterior wall puts you closer to the elements, and subjects you to drafts. By putting your bed on an interior wall, you are closer to another warm room instead. If you live in an apartment, this can be a great way to lower your bill. My neighbors run their heat constantly, so I move my bed to a wall next to their apartment and make use of the heat wasted. One winter, I only had to turn my heat on three times.

Switch your bedroom. During the summer months, I sleep in one room of the apartment that has lots of big windows so I don't use the air conditioning. During the winter, however, I move my bed into another room that has smaller windows. There's fewer drafts and it is upstairs which works great as heat rises.

Wear socks constantly. Cold feet are one of the greatest trials of winter (besides digging your car out of a snowbank, catching a cold, and paying the gas bill), so by keeping those toes warm, you can bump the thermostat down a bit. Get thick wool socks for the greatest benefit. If you are a knitter/crocheter, you can buy wool sweaters when you find them cheap, unravel the yarn and make your own!

Eat appropriate foods. This is not the season to eat ice cream. Period (unless it's your birthday, then it's a judgment call). You also should avoid any frozen blended drinks, cold cut sandwiches, jello, pudding, etc. Soups and stews are perfect as they are warm and yummy, and you can cradle the warm bowl in your hands.

Bake lots of goodies. During the summer, baking isn't very pleasant as it requires excessive use of the air conditioning to compensate for the heat lost from the oven. In winter however, that heat is wonderful! So plan a day of baking and enjoy the warmth of both the kitchen and the yummy breads and sweets. You can freeze some to eat during the summer when you don't want to bake.

Try to stay active. You may be stuck inside, but you can still be productive. Tackle those tasks you mean to do all year long, cleaning out the closets, organizing the pantry, high dusting, caulking around windows, cleaning out closets. You'll warm up quickly, and by staying active you'll be better able to battle the winter blahs.

If you have to be still, cuddle under a blanket. You can find afghans and lapghans at thrift stores for a few dollars.

If you have a big house, use a space heater (while you are awake and in the room) close to where you are, so you can turn down the thermostat significantly. Your electric bill will be a bit higher, but if you use it correctly, your gas bill will be lower. Turn down the thermostat for the rest of the house down significantly, say to around 45-50 degrees. Don't run the space heater on high constantly, turn to low or medium as you can. If you live in an apartment, this will likely not be of much use to you. If you work from home, this can be a great way to stay comfortable.

Turn down the thermostat significantly when you leave the house. If you'll be gone for more than an hour, turn it town ten degrees or so. The house will be a bit uncomfortable when you first arrive home, but the savings on your bill will more than compensate. The U.S. Department of Energy says that for each degree you turn down your thermostat for 8 hours, you'll save up to1% on your bill.

Exercise. Winter tends to lead to weight gain since you're cooped up inside all the time. Battle this by lifting hand weights, walking up and down the stairs, doing pushups or situps or jumping jacks/rope. You'll not only save money by not buying new clothes, but you'll feel warmer.

Dress for success. If you think that you can wear shorts and a tank top in winter, you deserve to be cold. Instead, wear warm pants, a long sleeved shirt or two, thick socks, and maybe a hat.

One of the great, beyond money benefits is health. I've found that when I keep the thermostat set at a lower temperature for a winter, I get sick fewer times than in previous years. I am not walking out of an 80 degree house into 5 degree weather, which is definitely less shocking on my body.

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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Use It Up: Socks

Many things are tossed into the garbage can when they still have lots of good life left in them. Use It Up is a section on how to use this "trash" to make new, useful items for your home or to re-purpose items to avoid a purchase.

If you have ragged socks or that lonely sock who's partner was eaten by the dryer monster, here are a few ideas to divert them from the landfill.

*First, if it's just a little hole in the toe, mend it. If its got a larger hole, darn it. Learn how over on youtube. A search for "how to darn a sock" yields over 150 videos.

* Two words: Sock monkey.

Use socks in good condition that are missing their mates. Use thread bare or hopelessly torn beyond repair socks as stuffing. You can use these as gifts for that beloved puppy in your life.

* Dusting. Put an old sock on each hand and run your hands all over walls, windowsills, shelves and trinkets for easy dusting.

* Window and mirror cleaning. I use an old cotton sock to clean my mirrors and windows with glass cleaner or vinegar. It's free and doesn't leave the little bits of paper that a paper towel would.

* Pet toys. Sew or tie old knee high socks end to end and use as a tug-o-war rope with your dog. Take an old medicine bottle or panty hose egg and throw in a few dry beans. Place in the toe of a sock and tie or sew it in place. Use as a fun toy for your cat to wrestle with.

* Use really old socks as BBQ mops. This tip comes from Facebook reader Sheri.

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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Trash Chili

One of my favorite practically free meals is Trash Chili. Don't let the name gross you out; it's actually a tasty meal.

I have a half gallon container in the freezer. Whenever I have a bit of food that would go well in chili, I toss it in. If I have a bit of leftover pasta, in it goes. I save  bits of tomatoes (fresh, stewed, diced, however), onions, beans, and peppers. I also save small amounts of leftover cooked ground beef. If something is going to go bad in the refrigerator before I can use it, I cut it into appropriately sized pieces and put it in the freezer. When I use a jar of tomato sauce, I rinse it out with a little water and dump the rinse water into the container. Once it is full, I make chili.

I pull the container out of the freezer the day before so it can thaw completely. Before I head out for the day, I dump it all into the slow cooker. I add whatever it is lacking. If it is a little too thin, I add a can of tomato paste. If it's bland, I add some jalapenos. I season with whatever it needs: hot sauce, chili powder, oregano. I let it cook on low for 6-8 hours.

A few weeks ago, I made some cornbread that was really crumbly. Utter fail. Rather than throw it away, I crumbled it into a container and placed in the freezer. When I have chili, I can add a bit to the top shortly before serving.

A batch of Trash Chili costs $.50-$1.50 depending on what is lacking. It makes enough for around four meals for two, bringing the cost of each meal to as little as 6c. Most of the ingredients would have been thrown away otherwise. I reduce my contributions to the landfill and I save money.

07/21/2013: Update: Today I made a big batch of trash chili in the crock pot. I had lots of dehydrated veggies in the pantry so I decided to add some of them to the batch. I dumped them in dry and let them rehydrate during cooking. I didn't add any extra water to the chili. Usually, since I use the tomato sauce jar "rinse water" as the liquid in my chili, it is usually a little on the thin side. With the dehydrated veggies rehydrating in the chili, it thickened up perfectly.

I call it Trash Chili. My friend calls it Feral Soup. What do you call it?

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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Stocking a pantry

Winter is coming. Food prices are rising. Job security is waning. The zombie apocalypse cometh.  These are all good reasons to start stockpiling food. I'm not one of those nuts that hoards years' worth of food. I simply prepare for those little (and big) crises that always seem to strike. If everything starts to fall apart, at least we can still eat.

When the recession of 2008 first hit, my business took a plunge, leaving me with very little income for a few months. Fortunately, I had a filled larder. I fed my family from the stockpile and our grocery bill was around $10 a week. It lasted us until I was able to find work. During winter storms, it is wonderful to stay out of the grocery stores where mobs of the unprepared are snatching up bread and milk. As food prices rise, I take comfort in knowing that I have purchased food at a good price and can wait until I see a good sale to buy more.

Before you start hitting the stores, find a good place to store your food. A traditional pantry is amazing to have, but if you don't have one, look to cabinets, closets and shelves. You can also hide them in random places throughout the house (the top shelf of my linen closet is filled with bargain-priced cereal). Make a list that you keep in the kitchen so you can find what you need when you need it.

When first building your stockpile, you need a plan. Don't blindly follow the lists of necessities that work for other people.  For a couple of weeks, keep track of the meals you prepare. Make a thorough list of the ingredients you use most. Collect coupons for these items. Plan to take at least a few months to build a thorough pantry.

Scan your grocery ad and look for your listed items on sale for less than the price you typically pay. If possible, combine the sale with the coupon. In this way you can often find rock-bottom prices, and that's when you stock up. Check salvage grocery stores and dollar stores for the occasional amazing find.

Stockpile enough to last you for up to a few months. If the pasta sauce you like usually costs $2.50 but is 10 for $10 this week, you might want to buy 10 jars. I never pay more than $1.50 for salsa, but when I found jars of cilantro salsa for $.10 a jar, I bought 20 (I use it often). Know your limits, however. If you only eat pasta a couple times a month, don't stock 30 boxes, but if you eat it a few times a week, it would not be excessive to have a few dozen boxes.

Most of your stockpile will most likely be shelf stable so you can store it in random places throughout the house. Shelf stable items also have long life so you can stockpile more without fear of it going bad. It is good to stockpile some perishable items as well. My freezer holds bread, meat, cheese and seasonal veggies. I mark each package with the date so I know what to eat first. When I find a great markdown in the meat department, I snag a bunch and then re-portion and repackage for the freezer.

Create your own list based on the items you use most. Some items that are on my stockpile list are:
* pasta
* pasta sauce
*dry beans and some canned beans
* some types of canned veggies
* breakfast cereal
* salsa
* baking supplies (flour, sugar, molasses, yeast)
* coffee, tea
* some meals in a can for sick or busy days
* meats that are less than $1.50/lb (usually manager markdowns)
* seasonal fruit (frozen for smoothies and desserts)
* dressings, condiments
*all sorts of tomatoes-whole, diced, stewed, paste, sauce

Once you have a fully stocked larder, it will be easy to lower your grocery bill. You will never have to be subjected to regular price again. You will be shopping to restock the pantry rather than for the night's dinner, so you can wait until the next big sale. You won't have to run to the grocery because you don't have a vital ingredient. Should disaster (natural, job, illness) strike, you can rest assured that your family will still have plenty to eat.

Happy living!

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Friday, October 21, 2011

Eat for Free!

I'm one of those nut jobs that thinks that profit and food don't mix. Food is a basic human right, and so I don't like that 14.6% of Americans struggle to put food on the table (One in six families in my city lives in food insecurity). Not okay. Then there are those of us who don't struggle to keep just any food on the table, but instead struggle to keep the right kinds on (junk food tends to be cheaper than healthy foods, unless you really know how to shop). Or we have money to eat, but it takes away from our ability to pay for other needs (health insurance, gas for the car, new shoes).

Dandelions are edible from root to flower top.
The fact is that American households spend an average of $6372 on food each year, which is around 13% of their income, and European households spend far more. Cutting the expense by even a modest 10% can help a lot. So I have made a list of ways that you can eat free. Some you may find gross, immoral, too time consuming or weird, but I'm sure you can use at least a couple. Enjoy!

Dandelion roots can be eaten as a
vegetable or roasted for a
coffee-like beverage.
Plantain seeds are great for adding
to baked goods.
Eat wild foods. Wherever you live, there is something edible growing nearby. Mushrooms, berries, nuts, fruit, greens and flowers are all possible. One of my favorite foods is dandelion which is probably growing in your yard; I eat it as a pot herb, a soup, a fritter, a wine, a tea and a coffee substitute. Get a good, local plant guide and make sure that you positively identify anything before eating it.

Eliminate waste. Even though you've paid for it, by rescuing food from the trash, you basically get free food. Americans waste around 14% of the food they buy. Using the numbers from above, that is around $892 a year. Tell me you couldn't use that kind of money. Plan to use leftovers before they go bad: have a buffet night or use for lunches. Take inventory of the refrigerator every other day and plan meals around food that is about to go bad. Don't buy more than you can use.

To cubes of dried bread, add seasoning and just enough
 stock to moisten then bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes
 for out f this world stuffing.
Eat your trash. Some parts of foods that are commonly thrown away can be eaten. Save veggie scraps (onion skins, potato and carrot peels, celery leaves, etc) in a container in the freezer until you have a good quantity. Then save the bones and skins from a chicken. Simmer together and strain for some out-of-this-world stock. Radish and beet leaves can be eaten as a cooked vegetable. Potato skins can be made into snacks. Juice apple peels and cores left over from making applesauce. I keep a container in the freezer for bits of foods such as tomatoes, leftover pasta, beans and onions and use to make Trash Chili. Stale bread can be made into any number of foods such as bread pudding, croutons, or breadcrumbs. Roast pumpkin seeds from your jack-o-lantern. Make cake pops out of dry cake.

Combine sales with coupons to get free stuff. With a bit of planning, I frequently get free food from the grocery. For example, I get a $1 coupon (say for pasta), then wait until it goes on a 10 for $10 sale in a couple weeks. When a new product is being rolled out, it is not uncommon to find coupons for a free product.

Look for neglected food in your neighbors yard. If your neighbors have fruit or nut trees in their yard that they obviously don't plan on using (the mulberries are staining the sidewalk) ask if you can harvest it for them. Offer to split it if you want, but often they'll just be glad to get rid of it. Many older homes have fruit trees left over from a more self sufficient time, and their new owners can't be bothered to harvest it all. I get lots of pears, mulberries and apples this way.

Dumpster drive. I know what you're thinking, it does sound gross. Often, however, food in a dumpster is often just as safe as it was in the store. Once food reaches its sell-by date, it's tossed, but it's not as if that date is magic and the food will instantly spoil at midnight. It's probably fine. I only take food that is in sealed containers and non-perishable (whereas others have eaten meat, produce and dairy with no ill effects). I don't take anything that leaks or bulges. Bakeries that bake everything fresh daily have wonderful dumpsters; you can fill the freezer with any excess you find. Obviously, it is a safer bet to dive a store's dumpster than a residential one.

Get online freebies. Many websites have lists of free samples that you can request from manufacturers and stores. My favorite is You just enter in your info and in 6-8 weeks, you get a mini-sized product. I've received spices, sauces, cereal, candy and granola bars. A plus is that you also receive coupons.

Ask. If you can't afford a food that you really enjoy (or need), it never hurts to ask. Write a letter to the manufacturer and ask for coupons. They'll often send them to you. As a thank-you, write a glowing letter that they can use on their website. Also, writing letters with questions, compliments or complaints will often net you great coupons.

Accept all freebies. If you are hungry, you should always say yes if offered food. Go to free community meals, such as those at churches or community centers. Sometimes chain cafes offer free coffee and samples. Sample all the goodies at the grocery store on Saturday morning.

Take advantage of work freebies. Some industries as a rule provide more in the line of free food than others (restaurants vs. construction), but it's often possible to find something. If you work in the food industry, you know all the ways to find free food: meal vouchers, discounts, discontinued products, leftovers and mistakes. Definitely make sure that you have your boss's permission first. Don't lose your job over a broken bread stick (it happened to a former coworker of mine). If you work in other industries, you may still find free food in the break room or at company parties or meetings. One of my previous employers would supply all employees with tickets to most local events. I often got tickets for pancake breakfasts and spaghetti dinners.

Regrow your trash. A lot of vegetables can be regrown from scraps to get more food just for a bit of water and effort. Green onions in particular are easy to regrow. Just place the white bulb of the green onion in a small glass with water covering the bottom. Place in a sunny windowsill. Change the water every day or so and it will grow new greens. You can also experiment with regrowing romaine lettuce, celery, bulb onions, lemongrass, potatoes, beet greens and bok choi. If you plant a single clove of garlic from the bulb, it will regrow a whole new bulb. (Thanks, ioianthe, for the tip!)

By using some of these tips, you can easily cut your grocery expenditures by 10%. If you really want to, you could even eliminate your grocery bill all together. If you are living with a very low income, don't be too proud to ask for help (government, community or family), especially if your children are hungry. In this civilization, there is no reason for anyone to go hungry.

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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Use It Up: Food containers

Many things are tossed into the garbage can when they still have lots of good life left in them. Use It Up is a section on how to use this "trash" to make new, useful items for your home or to re-purpose items to avoid a purchase.

Many store-bought food items come in reusable containers, but we tend to just throw them into the recycling bin, or worse yet, the garbage can. Even recycling, while better than throwing away, is wasteful. It takes energy to recycle the raw materials, and if you buy storage containers, you have lots of waste in the manufacture, advertising, and retail of the items.

When I buy an item, I opt for a reusable container whenever possible. Rather than buying my pasta sauce in an aluminum tin, I buy it in glass jars. By shopping sales and using coupons, I can pay the same amount for the nicer brands in a glass jar as the aluminum tin of store brand. I also use wine/whiskey bottles with a screw top, pepperoncini/pickle jars, or condiment bottles.

Clean them out very well before using. Soak in warm water for awhile so you can scrub off the label, if desired. Scrub the inside and outside and take pains to clean every last bit of food from the lid to avoid mold. Sometimes a bit of scent remains if the jar is from a strong-tasting food such as pickles or salsa, so I take this into consideration when filling the jars with bulk-purchased or home-made food items. For example, I don't store loose leaf tea in a pickle jar or sugar in a tomato sauce jar. I will, however, store rice, TVP, or beans in the more strongly scented jars. These items are not negatively affected by the scent, but absorb the smell so I can use it for something else in the future.

Tiny glass jars are great for spices. I was once given a tiny 2 ounce sample jar of peanut butter spread. This jar is the perfect size to store a frequently used spice near the stove for easy access. A fun space saving idea is to save baby food jars with metal lids. Screw the lids onto the bottom a cabinet. Fill the jars with spices and screw in. Your spices will be easily accessed while you cook, and don't take up any valuable counter space.

I once found a bottle of salad dressing with a spritz top at a bargain price. I cleaned it out very well, then refilled it with olive oil. When I pop popcorn in my air popper, I can spritz a small amount of heart-healthy olive oil onto it, rather than dousing it in butter, or pouring on too much oil. Any condiment bottle with a thin neck and a screw top can be used for homemade dressings and sauces.

When I buy cream cheese, it is the same cost to buy it in a plastic container as it is to buy it in a little box. These containers are the perfect size to freeze an individual portion of soup. This makes packing lunch for work a breeze.

An old wild-mouth jar stores bacon grease in the refrigerator to add a bit of flavor to cooking.

Wine bottles make excellent vases.

A collection of bottles of various sizes and shapes can make for a nice country decor. Fill with foods of different shapes and colors: veggie pasta, beans, TVP, rice, etc.

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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Lovin' the Local Music Scene

I heard that my favorite band is passing through town, so I decided to check out ticket prices. The cheapest I found was $80!  This is common for national acts. The average concert ticket price for 2011 is $31.57. The last few times I've gone to big concerts, I've been uncomfortable because of the huge crowds, and the drink prices were high enough to make anyone go straight-edge.

That's why I go to local concerts. I get a bigger bang for my buck and enjoy some local bands as much as the national acts. Despite what some critics say, this is not necessarily second best. Some of my favorite bands are locals.

The  obvious advantage is the price. A high end local concert usually doesn't exceed $10, whereas the cheapest national act is never so cheap. Often, I find shows for $5 or even for free. I can choose venues where there are drink specials, or everyday low prices. One of my favorite places has $1 beers and free shows, so I can have a night out for a few bucks.

As a locavore, I don't like seeing my hard-earned money going into the pockets of billionaires somewhere far, far away. I would much rather see it go to a person that lives right here. By going to a local concert, my money is going to a local bar owner, concert promoter and band.

My city has an amazing scene. There are many, many talented musicians that it has been my pleasure to see. Once, my favorite local band actually brought me up on stage and sang to me for my birthday! I doubt Alice Cooper would ever do that!

I also buy CDs from local musicians. The price for a new local CD is about the same as a used CD online, and, again, I'm supporting individuals.

Comparing a national act to a local act, there really is little question which is the best deal. Seeing my favorite national act is $80, seeing my favorite local band is $5. Would I really enjoy seeing the big-guy 16 times more than the local one?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Literary Savings

The cost of books has risen to an astonishing level. It's hard to feed your lust of the written word when a new book costs $25. Fortunately, there are some great ways to save some money while reading as many books as you'd like. is my first go when I have a specific title in mind, but I don't order from Amazon. Instead, I check out the Amazon Marketplace where I can buy used and new books from individuals. Some books are still pricey, but others can be found very cheap. Some books (especially older bestsellers) can be found for a penny; with shipping it's $4 for a book. This is a great deal if you are looking for a specific title.

Paperbackswap ( allows you to give your books to other readers and then pick out books for yourself. When you sign up, you are given 2 credits. After that, to earn credits you list your books to trade. When someone requests a book, you ship it at your expense. Then when you order a book, you pay nothing for shipping. This is even cheaper than Amazon, as the shipping is usually around $2.50.

Thrift stores don't usually have an amazing selection, however the price is right. Chain thrift stores usually charge around $1-2 per book, but the smaller stores sometimes offer them as low as $.10. Even with the limited selection, I occasionally find a specific title that is on my wish list.

Yard sales have an even poorer selection, but prices are good. Sometimes I'll find a box full of similar books (romances, mystery, etc) and will make an offer. Once I got a box of 100 books for $5.

Library sales are great. The selection is usually pretty good, and it's sorted by genre or topic. Prices are usually $1, or less for children's books. At my library, the last day is bag sale day where I can fill a bag for $3. I carefully fit the books into my bag and can get between 30 and 50, more if they are smaller kids books.

The library itself is the obvious go to. Any book you want is there or can be requested from another library. There are books, children's books, audio books, magazines and more. You can enjoy it all for free. I always read a book from the library before adding it to my wish list.

Sharing with friends is great if you have a similar taste. You might want to write your name in the cover so it doesn't get confusing. 

Project Gutenberg ( is a wonderful online resource that boasts free access to 36,000 books. You can read online, with your portable device or listen to audio books. A link to affiliates gives you access to over 100,000 books. You could be reading for free for a long time with that.

Amazon offers some free Kindle books. If you don't have a kindle, you can still download the free Kindle app. A search of "free ebooks" pulls up many, many websites. Also, if you are subscribed to any e-newsletters, check their websites for any free ebooks.

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Monday, September 12, 2011

Early Winter Preparation

I know, I shouldn't be talking about it. It comes quicker every year. Like it or not, winter will be here soon, but it is never too soon to start getting ready. I start preparing for winter early on in the season,  to keep my family warm, safe and comfortable. There are many little steps that can be taken and most will not take much time at all. Start now so that when winter comes, you are warm and cosy.

* Caulk around drafty windows and doors. To check for drafts, close all windows on a windy day, then hold a lit candle up. Move it slowly around the border of the window. If the flame flickers, you've got a draft.

* Make draft busters for all doors. These can easily be made by using a leg from an old pair of pants, tying on end closed, stuffing (with anything from a rolled up towel, scraps of yarn, old rags) and tying the other end closed. Just lay them at the bottom of the door-either the outside door, or to a room that you want to keep warm (or cool) so air doesn't move between rooms.

* Start shopping for more blankets. Thrift shops and any yard sales still going on will have them at good prices. If you wait until winter is here, the selection (and price) will be less desirable.

* Make blankets. If you craft, make an afghan, quilt or blanket.Since it takes forever to crochet an afghan, starting now will allow you to cuddle under the length of it while you finish it later.

* Stockpile food. You don't want to be one of those people crowding at the grocery because there's a storm on its way. Stock up when you find something on sale and have a coupon. Fill the freezer with meat and veggies. Have some canned foods that can be heated for easy meals if you can't get to the grocery.

* Evaluate your wardrobe. Do you have warm pants, long sleeved shirts, flannels, warm socks, scarves, a good coat with no rips, winter boots that will repel water and keep your toes warm, ear muffs, hats, and gloves or mittens that actually block the wind? Find your weaknesses and fill them with thrift store finds. Once November gets here, you won't be able to find this stuff easily at thrift stores and you'll be forced to buy new.

* Take care of the house and lawn. Any odd jobs that need done around the homestead should be done sooner rather than later. Mend the fence, fix the roof on the chicken coop, clean out the dryer vent. Get it all out of the way so you won't have to think about it when it's cold.

* Get a new apartment. If you are in the market for a new apartment that you'll be in this winter, it is worth considering your utility bills. Since heat rises, look for a second or third story apartment so you can take advantage of your downstairs neighbor's lost heat. Consider if the bedroom is against an interior wall or an exterior wall, as the exterior walls allow a lot of cold in. Consider where the air will flow in when you open the door. In my current apartment, the front door lets in a lot of air directly into the room I sleep in, which will not work during winter.

By getting a few of these little jobs out of the way now, you can lower your bills and increase your comfort levels during the frigid months.

Happy living!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Prioritizing your Spending

Most of the suffering that comes from frugal living is not about cutting expenses, really, but from cutting the wrong ones. I am frugal so I can have the things I need and want. I just don't pay for anything else.

Often, personal finance gurus will tell you to know the difference between wants and needs and to spend only on the needs. That's a load of crap. No one can live a happy, frugal life without some of those wants! If you really want something, you should have it. The expenses you should cut are those things that you don't need, and don't really want either.

Every few months, I sit down for an hour and add up all of my check/debit/credit card purchases and organize them into different categories: groceries, utilities, eating out, business expenses, coffee dates, concerts, shopping, etc. From this, I can tell where a bulk of my money is going and figure out if it is going to the right places. On the more recent audit, I found that  "pleasure" shopping and eating out combined cost more than thrift shopping, coffee dates and concerts combined. In fact, we spent 3x as much on shopping/eating out as thrifting/coffee/concerts. However, we really don't like shopping and always feel guilty and less than satisfied with the quality of the food when eating out. Why were we spending so much on it then?

I am a pretty amazing cook, if I do say so. I also have a small apartment, so stuff takes up valuable space that I just can't spare. There is no need for me to spend money on those categories and I don't get very much pleasure at all from doing so. In fact, sometimes I feel sick after eating out (especially at Chinese buffets), so I am paying a high price to feel sick. On the other hand, I like going to local concerts and having coffee with Trucker where we read and talk for hours. I like finding things I need (or really want) for pennies on the dollar at thrift stores. I get a lot of bang for my buck.

There are a few of ways of looking at this. One: by cutting out the eating out/pleasure retail shopping categories, I would free up enough funds to go out for coffee/concerts/thrift stores four times as often as I currently do. This would certainly provide much more enjoyment for me. Two: I could take that money and throw it into savings for a big goal (right now my house down payment). Three: I could cut back my hours worked. The amount spent in this unwanted/unneeded category was the equivalent of 5 hours a week ($$$ spent divided by my pay rate after taxes). That's a lot of time spent for something I don't enjoy.

For now, I will combine the first two options. I will eliminate going out to eat, except under very rare circumstances (out of town guests, anniversary). I may go out for coffee once more a week. Otherwise, I will throw that extra money into my house fund. Just a note: by the time I am planning on buying my house, the savings will equal one third of my needed down payment! Once my goal is met, I may decide to cut back my hours, or I may wish to start saving for the next goal.

Look for things you spend money on that don't bring you pleasure and stop spending! If you make a rockin' homemade pizza that's far superior to any take out joint, stop ordering out! If you are annoyed constantly while driving three miles to work, start biking! Take the time or take the money for other things that will bring you happiness.

Happy living!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Longing for Poverty

I am not rich. My income is in one of the lower brackets. However, I'm making more money now that I have in the last few years. Truth? I kind of miss being poor.

Sure, I know that I'm in a good place. I have stability and am saving for a house of my own. I own my truck, and am not without anything I need. I suppose I should be glad, but I still long for some of the aspects of my lower-income life.

When the stock market crashed in 2008, my business failed and Trucker's hours were cut back. Once I got a job after 3 months of looking, I still only got 15 hours a week. Trucker was working 25. Since we were living in Chicago, rent was high. We had very little money left after paying rent and our utility bills. I only had $10 a week for groceries and had only a few bucks (literally) left for fun money. We were really happy.

We had lots of time to explore our city and spend time together. We played board games, went swimming in Lake Michigan, and used the library extensively. -

We had dollar date night twice a week. It wasn't anything particularly grand, but we had some of our best dates during that time.  For example, McDonald's rolled out their McCafe and gave away free 6 oz lattes on Mondays. We would walk a mile to the nearest location, each would get a latte and we'd purchase two pies for $1. We would sit and laugh together or walk around the neighborhood. Other times, Baskin Robbins had 59c ice cream cones on Wednesdays, or Dunkin Donuts would offer 25c iced coffee. During the worst month, we would walk to the grocery store and get a 25c soda from the vending machine to split as we'd take a two hour long walk.

We would spend one of our many days off by walking to the Chicago Public Library and check out a museum pass. We would walk or bike several miles away to enjoy the displays. We went to nearly every free festival in the city, from Blues Fest to Celtic Fest. We went to the free movies in Millennium Park.

We didn't have money, and sometimes did without the things we needed (such as new socks; ours were darned over and over). We weren't saving for future goals, and we weren't very secure. But we had something that is too easily lost: time. What we lacked in funds, we more than made up in creativity and innovation. We weren't bored and it was the time that we first really got to know each other and became incredible friends.

I may never be in such dire circumstances again, and I should hope to never be so close to the edge. However, I try to find a balance, somewhere between enough time and enough money.

Friday, September 2, 2011

For More Than Money

This week I was in Chicago visiting family. While there we stopped at a bakery in Archer Heights. The smell was amazing. I wandered around deciding what bread to bring home with me. After I selected a pan de canela, the baker started bringing out items for us to sample as they came out of the oven:  cream cheese and jalapeno filled rolls and corn muffins. His eyes lit up as he described each to us. He watched as we smelled, tasted, moaned and tasted again and smiled when we told him just how amazing it was. His baked goods were some of the best I've had and his passion for his occupation was awe-inspiring. Even his helpers looked proud to hear our compliments.

I have been to other bakeries that are vastly different. The baker looks frustrated and stressed. The helpers look bored and tired. Their products are okay, but far from excellent. Imagine stopping by the bakery department of one of those big grocery chain stores and expecting the baker to come up to the counter and talk with you about all the details that go into making that boule perfect. It's not going to happen.

Most people work because they need the money. And it shows in their quality of work. They are in a hurry to get the work done and go home, rather than taking time to produce the highest quality they can. This goes beyond bakers and includes those in retail, offices, finance, restaurants, grocery stores and landscapers. You can tell just by looking at the end product if the person was in it only for the money.

You can also tell the person that takes pride in their work just by watching them at it. The baker who loves to just look at their bread at the end of the shift. The waitress who knows everyone who comes in the door. The barista who perfectly steams the milk and makes latte art. The nursing home worker who looks for opportunity to engage the residents and make them laugh.

We all have to make a living somehow. However, when we are in jobs that drain us, or that we lack passion for, we spend more money forgetting work. We go out and get wasted after a shift, or need to go shopping because we work too hard not to get a little something for it. This drains our money away and we have to start working harder and longer hours. Conversely, if we work in jobs we love, that passion fills us up with happiness and the rest of our lives gets better. This might mean a lowering of expenses. When I worked as a retail manager, I hated every moment of my working life, so I spent a lot of money to try to make myself happy outside of work. Now, as a proud baker, I am happy at work. When I am away from work, I don't have to spend as much money on stuff and entertainment, so I can easily live on a lower income. When I got into a passionate career, I bought my life back.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Feeding Your Wanderlust

I have always loved to travel. If I stay in the same place too long, I get antsy. There is something amazing about seeing more, doing more, meeting new people, trying a new life for a bit. If I could, I would travel constantly. The problem is that it's so damn expensive! AAA says that the average family of four will spend $261 each day of vacation for just food and lodging. And some of the best stuff isn't even included in that amount. Yuck!

On top of that, there's the whole issue of "vacation time" from work. Many jobs don't offer vacation time anymore, or they offer just a week. This is hardly acceptable for the avid wanderer. It's hardly acceptable to chose to take just one vacation a year or to take time off without pay.

For the first few years that I lived on my own, with no vacation time, and little extra money, I was stuck at home constantly. I was miserable. Now, I travel several times a year, sometimes even taking a couple trips in a month. How? By rethinking my idea of a trip.

For me, a trip is about exploration and awe, not about seeing your typical Navy Pier, White House, Mount Rushmore tourist traps. I have no need to see what everyone else is seeing; I just want to see something new. So I take day and weekend trips within my state or one state away. This is cost effective and I still find amazing places.

Because I am staying so close to home, my transportation costs are minimal. I don't have to buy a place ticket or spend $1000 on gas. I don't waste precious time waiting in an airport when I could be out exploring.

I live in the middle of the state, so I can get everywhere in the state within a few hours. There are lots of great little towns within an hour and a half. I love to pick a town and then explore it thoroughly. I find coffeehouses, thrift stores, antique malls, strange museums, state parks, and amazing little restaurants.

I don't waste money on things that aren't important to me. I would rather eat at a diner in a small town than at a fast food joint on the way. I plan ahead by packing a lunch and some snacks for the drive. I can eat dinner at a local place if I want. I don't like seeing what everyone else sees, so instead of going to the mainstream museums, I'd go to the Hopalong Cassidy Museum. I don't care to have souvenirs filling my house, instead I'd like some photos of an amazing state park. Gas is always more expensive than I'd like to pay, so I look for ways to optimize my gas mileage (cleaning out the trunk, proper air levels in tires, not speeding) .

When I decide to spend the night somewhere, I will not pay $200 a night for a hotel. I can camp out in a tent at a state park for under $20. The Evil Place (Big Box Store) allows campers to sleep overnight in the parking lot in the hopes that they will buy supplies the next morning, although this is not required. On some trips, Trucker and I will take turns driving and sleeping. If we want a hotel, there are two options for dirt cheap accommodations. Either stay in some terribly seedy dive along the old highway, You know, the kind that you can't sleep in because you know someone died in the bed. Or you can find discounts for a nicer place. My entertainment book gives me discounts or two-nights-for-the-cost-of-one coupons. Google can turn up discount codes. For most of my trips however, I will simply park someplace safe during the day and get a few hours shut eye.

Food on the road is wonderful if it's local dives and small bakeries. It's terrible if it's the golden arches or day-old gas station coffee. I always pack food and drinks so I don't have to stop for gross food and can either save my money or hold out for some great local place in my destination. For drinks, I make a thermos of coffee and fill up two travel mugs. I make kool-aid and fill two reusable bottles 2/3 full. I freeze these and before I leave the next morning, I fill the rest of the way up. I bring a couple tea bags, hot chocolate packets, and some instant coffee. Most gas stations let me get some hot water if I fill up the tank. For food, I pack a meal such as pasta salad, lunch meat sandwiches, or chicken salad for sandwiches (packed with ice). I also bring snacks such as granola bars, beef jerky, homemade muffins, cookies, chips, trail mix and fruit.

My best vacation so far was for my birthday last year. Trucker and I decided to drive until we felt like stopping. We stopped in the first small town for lunch at a local restaurant (I had a BOGO coupon in my coupon book). A few towns down we stopped for a few hours of wandering through an antique mall. The next town had a museum dedicated to one of my favorite old-time actors. Next we stopped at a thrift store that just so happened to have a bag sale going on, so for $5 we were both able to find some goodies. Then we crossed the state line and went to a couple art galleries before taking a sunset stroll down the river. The total cost for the day, including gas: $65.

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Friday, August 26, 2011

Part time Self Employment for Security

Job security is a thing of the past. We live in a system of at-will employment and have no protection from employers who lash out at employees for a variety of reasons, from political stance to sexual orientation to attractiveness. Gone are the days when you were guaranteed a good job, with pay increases, bonuses, health benefits and a pension plan so long as you did your job well. You could walk in to work any day and find yourself unemployed.

You have to be prepared for the worst. Having a large emergency fund is an ideal protection against the terror of unemployment, but if you're making minimum wage, it can be nearly impossible to build up. One of the best safety nets I have found is to have a few streams of income (Note: a great read on the subject is Multiple Streams of Income by Robert G. Allen).

First, it allows some flexibility in a strapped budget. If your minimum wage job just barely covers your expenses, it will be impossible to build up a safety net of 6-12 months living expenses. However, if you can start a side business at home, even if it's only earning a couple hundred a month, you can bank it all and increase your security in event of illness, layoff or firing.

This second (or third) income can also increase your independence from your employer. If your boss controls your paycheck and your paycheck is the only way you can pay your bills, then your boss controls whether or not you become homeless. However, if you can start generating some income from home, you have control. You may not be able to become completely self-employed, but you might be able to make enough money to pay rent and a few bills if the worst happens. Add up all necessary bills (rent, water, electricity, gas, etc) estimating on the high side. Leave out such expenditures as internet or cable as these are not necessary for survival. The amount you come up with should be your goal income for your side business. That way, if you found your main job gone, you can still survive with the aid of unemployment and perhaps a food pantry.

Self employment can be a wonderful way to make a living, if it suits your personality. You can pick your industry and your hours and you can maintain your ethical stance. When I worked in finance, I had a little side business selling books online. Years later, Trucker was able to take over and within a year was able to quit his day job. Out of your passion can grow a career.

There are many ways you can bring in extra money each month. Some offer a great return on the time, some offer little money, but may be enjoyable.

* online sales-antiques, collectibles, books, movies, magazines, records, games and CDs can be sold on,, and ebay.
* is a great way to sell crafty stuff-from homemade bags, to candles to crocheted dog sweaters as well as crafting supplies. You could try collecting pine cones, acorns, shells and pretty stones to sell for others to use in their crafting.
* Selling your body. No, not that. There are other ways to make money with your bod besides a street corner. You can sell blood plasma up to twice a week (if you make $30 each time, that's $3120 a year). Sell your hair online (, Donating sperm can be an easy way to make some cash, although the pay won't be astounding. Ladies can sell their eggs for a large amount (I've heard various amounts ranging from $3000 to $7000), although you have to put a lot of time in for tests and procedures.
* Mystery shopping, if you go through a reputable company, can be a way to make a bit of money and reduce your expenses. If you like to go out to eat, you can mystery shop restaurants for free meals and perhaps a small check. Or you could go to a store to buy something you need and get reimbursed later, making the item free.
* Mypoints, swagbucks, inboxdollars and other "paid email/search" sites won't pay the bills. They do however, provide the occasional check to throw into savings, and the points can be redeemed for gas cards.
* If you enjoy writing and have something interesting to say, try selling your writing to both print or online magazines and newsletters. You could also write books, children's books, greeting cards, ads, business letters, etc.
* Craigslist gigs offers listings of short jobs such as extras for film, modeling, moving, housekeeping and babysitting. If you regularly respond to jobs, you can earn a decent amount.
* People are busy, so you can make money by saving others time. Errand running service, lawn/garden care, grocery shopping, housecleaning, pool cleaning, and organizing all pay well and you can work as little or much as you'd like.
* Direct sales are a mainstay in the "work-for-yourself" world. Avon, Mary Kay, Nature's Sunshine and other direct sales companies can bring in extra money if you are a good salesperson. Generally, you'll only be able to make a living with direct sales companies if you can sign up lots of other people to sell under you.

I try to always have at least one or two small jobs in addition to my main gig. I keep them on a smaller scale, as most of my time is dedicated to my job, but if I had to, I could pour a lot more time and energy into them to increase my earnings. I can also increase my earnings if I am saving for a particular goal, such as buying a new car/house or to take a vacation.

A Less Boring Life

When looking for ways to cut expenses, most people assume they will have to give up entertainment if they want to become financially stable. Of course, this can only last so long. No one wants a boring life, even if it does help them lower their credit card debt, so back they go to the world of movie theaters, Big Book Stores, pricey hobbies and expensive concerts. Are these our only options? A life of boredom or a life of high-interest-rate credit card debt? No.

My entertainment budget is lower than most people, but I have more entertainment because I diligently search out free and cheap entertainment. I am able to go out as often as I want to without worrying about the cost. Alternately, I have lots of options for entertainment at home if I'm not up to leaving the house.

Here are some ways I've found cheap entertainment.

* Library. Free books, movies, CDs, internet, lectures, classes, magazines, concerts and discussion groups. Some libraries (Chicago Public Library for one) even offer museum passes that can get you and a friend or two in for free.

* Local concerts. Top-40 concerts are pricey, too pricey for me, even if it's a favorite band. I just can't drop $40 for a few hours listening to music. I do go to concerts often, especially since my current city has a rocking music scene. There are dozens of concerts going on each night for free or perhaps a $5 cover. Before I go, I google specials and Happy Hour deals for that bar. (Lovin the Local Music Scene)

* Museums. Museum entrance is usually costly, ranging from $5 to $15 a person. I never pay. I check out the website for special promotions. Most museums will have free entrance at least once a year, and some will offer one day each week. It's crowded these days, so go as soon as they open to beat some of the crowd.

* Reading. I love to read and always have a good book with me. I never pay full price. I acquire my books in these ways: library (free!),  paperbackswap (free, but I pay to ship books to others), (a penny listing book after shipping will be $4), library sales (especially on the last day when it's Bag Sale Day!), thrift stores (my favorite sells some books for $.25), yard sales, Project Gutenberg (free ebooks, You can also search for free Kindle books.

*Movies. I used to go to the theater, but don't anymore because it's too loud and I'm fussy. I do love movies though, and enjoy them cheaply in the following ways: library, Family Video's bargain section (2 for $1), redbox (sign up for their codes for free or discounted movies), online free streaming (, thrift stores (I have a VCR and I get tapes for a quarter), library sales, amazon (penny listings are $2.99 after shipping and most popular movies are a penny due to over-saturation). On the rare occasions when I want to see a movie at a theater, I go to a second run theater on the discount day for $1 entrance. There are also early bird specials, miliary/student/senior discounts and free days during summer for kids.

* Restaurants. I like to eat out, even though I can cook at home for a lot cheaper. I have an entertainment book (purchased late in the season for $8, that gives me buy one get one free meals. Happy Hour specials often offer 1/2 off appetizers; a couple can replace an entree. Lunch is almost always cheaper than dinner. Hole in the wall ethnic restaurants usually offer delicious, authentic meals at ridiculous prices. My favorite little Greek dive is priced similarly to fast food joints.

* Outdoorsy stuff. Biking, hiking, walking, jogging, swimming, roller blading, and skateboarding are all free or relatively cheap and they keep you in shape. I also like to get something to eat in addition to enjoying the outdoors, so I enjoy mushroom hunting (after having field training and I don't eat anything that I am not completely positive is safe), berry picking, edible wildcrafting, and fishing.

* Travel. I can't afford to take six months off work to drive around the country eating bread from local bakeries (my ultimate fantasy trip!). I still have a raging wanderlust, so I take day trips. I'll fix a nice breakfast in the morning, fill up the coffee mugs and hit the road. I'll drive an hour or so to some small town and explore. I've found wonderful restaurants, quirky museums and wonderful little antique malls. My day trips, including gas, usually run around $50-75. Not cheap, but much cheaper than any typical vacation. (Feeding Your Wanderlust)

There are lots of other ways to get free or cheap entertainment. All it takes is a bit of flexibility and research. Search "Cheap" and your city, or "free festivals". If your city offers a free paper, pick it up and you'll find lots of free events, special promotions and coupons. You never need to be bored again.

Happy living!

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Monday, August 22, 2011

Use It Up: Scrapghans

Many things are tossed into the garbage can when they still have lots of good life left in them. Use It Up will be a section on how to use this "trash" to make new, useful items for your home. I'll try to give a variety of projects so that you'll find some that are useful for you.

My first Use It Up project will be the Scrapghan. This is an afghan that is made of scraps of yarn that are left from other projects. Any avid crocheter or knitter undoubtedly has bags full of little pieces of yarn, you know, just in case you need 3 feet of mustard yarn for...something.

Well, here is your something.

For several years I had been saving bits of yarn just in case I needed them. Some scraps were a foot long, others were just shy of a skein. All of it was beyond use for a traditional project, but I couldn't bare to throw it away.

So I decided to make an ugly afghan. All of the yarn for this project is medium weight worsted acrylic yarn. I have other projects going with the scraps of wool and cotton. I kept the length around 1-3'. I threw in in some longer and some shorter pieces for variety. All of the scraps went into a box as I cut.

I reached in and grabbed random pieces without looking. As long as it was a different color than the last piece, I would work it into my ball of yarn. I tied the ends together with a double knot and then wound the yarn into balls.

Then I started crocheting. I used a size G hook. I crocheted in a single crochet stitch which seems to work very well, although it is a slow process. If anyone else tries this with a different stitch, post a comment and let me know how it goes!

For the first foot of the scrapghan, I thought it was ugly and it made me kind of happy to be working in public on such an obnoxious piece. As it grew, the colors came together and it is very fun. It is a bold material that adds a great splash to my decor.

Once I am done crocheting, I will pull all of the knot ends onto one side, so one side will be smooth and the other fuzzy. I can hide the ends, or if it looks good, put the fuzzy side up.

You can make this any size and shape you want. Make a lapghan for an elderly family member, a throw blanket for your couch, a baby blanket, or a full-sized bed cover. You could also use this to make scarves, shopping bags, washcloths (in this case, the knot ends are great for scrubbing plates), or throw pillows.

2/4/2013 Update: Kristin on facebook shared this video on how to join yarn without knots.
Russian Join

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