Saturday, December 29, 2012

Cheap Date Night

If you've ever felt that dates were too expensive, or if you are saving for a big goal and need to cut costs but don't want to cut out the romance, or if there is just too much month and not enough paycheck, this list is for you. Here are some of my favorite free or affordable dates.

* Check out a movie from the library. Pop popcorn on the stove top or in an air popper.
* Have a campfire in the backyard. Roast marshmallows and snuggle under a blanket.
* Take a long walk through the neighborhood (provided you aren't saving money by living in a dangerous area). It's a great way to spend time talking and be active together.
* Call area museums and ask about free days. Some museums have free days weekly, monthly or annually. Have fun, get a bit of exercise while walking around and learn a little something.
* Go to a concert or poetry reading at a coffee house. Unlike a concert at a bar, you can get away with buying one drink and nursing it through the evening, or get a bottomless cup of regular coffee. For $5 you can have a night out.
* Look for special promotions for area restaurants. Some that we've enjoyed: free coffee at a chain coffee house on Earth Day when we brought in reusable mugs, free coffee and samples at a cafe when they were rolling out a new menu, $.50 iced coffees on the first day of summer at a fast food restaurant, free small lattes when McDonalds was starting McCafe, $.25 kiddie cones on Wednesdays at a chain ice cream shop, $1 coffees at another chain one day each week.
* Go to a second run theater for special promotions. My area theater sells tickets for $1.25 one day a week and $1.75 all other days. Skip the popcorn and soda.
* Go to the beach for swimming, tanning and playing.
* Have a do-nothing day. Don't get dressed. Don't run errands. Simply hang out at home, cuddle, talk, eat junk food, take a bath, whatever. Relax and enjoy each other.
* Go for a bike ride.
* Make a good meal together, especially a labor intensive one. Trucker and I like to make Chinese food together. He'll chop the veggies and meat for stir fry while I'm assembling egg rolls and crab rangoon. We get to talk and giggle together while preparing the food, and the cost and taste are far superior to what we find at our area Americanized Chinese buffet.
* Go to an antique mall and explore. There are many things to amuse or awe you. We look out for antique kitchen wares that are affordable and in good, usable condition. You don't have to buy anything though, so this can be a free date.
* Take a drive. While high gas prices make this less of a good deal than in previous times, this is still a fun date. Drive out of the city to explore the countryside or drive through the woods during autumn for a color display. A favorite of ours when we were saving for our house was to drive through different neighborhoods and discuss whether we would buy a house there and why.
* Take the bus to a new neighborhood with a set amount of money in cash, say $10, and see how long you can make it last. Explore the neighborhood on foot. Stop in every store and look around. Spend your money on small things, like the $.50 rack of books outside the used bookstore, penny candies, or a bagel to split from the small corner bakery.
* Go to a used book store and look around. Look for bargain racks or clearance sections.
* Look for coupons in the Sunday paper for restaurants. Once, I found Buy One Get One Free coupons for Caribou Coffee. I dived a recycling bin for extra coupons and for months we had $1 dates (Two regular coffees using coupon, plus additional money off for bringing reusable mugs and correctly answering trivia questions).
* Sign up for thrift store newsletters and text alerts. A few times a year, our favorite thrift store sends out coupons for $5 off a $10 purchase. We go to the thrift store and try not to spend over $10 so we can get half off. We score some great finds, but don't fall into the trap of buying a ton of stuff because it's so cheap.
* Go for a hike/nature walk. Most cities have a decent metro park system and you can find lovely walking trails. Take your camera for nature shots and silly pictures. Look for interesting plants or weird bugs.
* Have a picnic in the park or the backyard.
* Go to a free concert or play in the park. In my city a theater troupe puts on Shakespeare in the Park. Some people go all out, bringing little tables in and setting up elaborate picnics complete with wine.

What are some of your favorite affordable dates?

Shared with
The Welcoming House Welcoming Wednesday


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Practically Free Chicken Noodle Soup

As a follow up on my post on Making The Most of my $.20/lb Chicken, I wanted to share how I made a nice pot of chicken noodle soup almost for free.

After we had finished cutting off chunks of chicken for different meals that we made, I put all of the bones (along with the bits of meat I couldn't quite cut off) into my stockpot and simmered them with onion skins and carrot peels for a few hours. By this time the last bits of meat had fallen off of the bone.

I strained the broth off and packaged it into a few re-used plastic food containers. I picked through the bones for the last little bits of meat. I packaged that into another container and put it all in the freezer to make soup later.

Last night I pulled the containers out of the freezer to thaw. Today I scooped the fat from the top of the containers and dumped the broth into my slow cooker. I added the chicken pieces.

During one grocery shopping trip, I got a coupon for a free 1 lb bag of baby carrots (I got organic ones since the coupon didn't have any restrictions printed on it). I used about 1/4 of the bag cut into coins.

The only ingredient (besides seasonings) that I paid for was the onion. I paid $.11 a pound at Aldi by stocking up when they were selling 3 lb bags for 3 for $1. I used about 1/2 an onion. I sauteed this in a little bit of vegetable oil before adding it to the slow cooker.

This cooked on low heat for several hours. When I make soup for dinner, I usually get everything going while I make my breakfast and let it cook all day.

For this soup, I added the pasta about 20 minutes before we were ready to eat. Any sooner and it would get way too soggy. I used bits of different kinds of pasta: broken spaghetti or fettucini noodles, or bits of pasta that weren't enough for a meal, but were too much to throw away.

At the same time that I added my pasta, I added seasonings. Tonight it was simply a bit of salt, garlic powder (free from a previous employer of Trucker's), a pinch of cayenne pepper and some Italian seasoning blend. Before serving, I ground some black pepper and it was done. It turned out pretty good. I added a bit too much cayenne pepper (I admit, I accidentally added more than a pinch), but it was okay since Trucker's had a bit of a cold. Sinus busting power soup!

I love that all told, this soup cost around $.25 including seasonings for 4 meal-sized servings of soup. It was a perfect meal with some garlic toast made from bread I got for free (job benefit of being a baker!)

What are your favorite practically free meals?

Shared with:

Homestead Barn Hop

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Rolling With the Punches

As some of you may remember, I recently purchased a house. With that has come the awesome and terrible responsibility for taking care of everything that breaks. Oh boy. And, of course, everything breaks within the first 3 months. Right now my oven is not working. The stove top works, but not the oven. I have the part to fix it, and Trucker has done all of the research. We could easily fix it. Fear of accidentally blowing up the neighborhood has thus far kept us away from what should be a simple fix.

For now, I'm using my stove top, microwave, slow cooker, waffle iron and electric wok to make most of the meals we enjoy. There are some meals that we have always baked in the oven, and for those, we've had to get creative.

Baked potatoes are a great cheap meal. Mum gave me a little cloth pouch that you put the potatoes in, and microwave for 7-10 minutes. It steams the potatoes really well. While not as amazing as baked, it is still great. A bonus is that it uses little electric. We will continue to use this even after we get the oven fixed, as it seems a shame to fire up the oven to bake two potatoes.

Pizza is a favorite in this house. When the oven first crashed, we started ordering out. A lot. While we used coupons, and went with a local pizza joint that offered low prices, it added up quickly. We decided that that had to stop, but giving up pizza just wasn't an option. I have learned to make Stove Top Pizza. I make my usual crust, and roll it into a circle a bit smaller than my saute pan. I add a good amount of shortening, bacon fat, or veggie oil to the pan and heat over medium heat. I place the crust in the pan and cover it. I let the crust get nice and golden, then flip it. I quickly add sauce, toppings and lots of cheese and cover again. I let the other side of the crust get brown and the cheese to melt. It actually turns out pretty good. The crust is very sturdy and crisp. My only complaint is that the cheese doesn't brown, and has a different texture due to the steam, but it is not too big an issue. This summer, I'll still use this on those sweltering days when I'm craving a pizza, but can't stand the idea of turning on the stove. This will save us some gas, and will definitely keep the house cooler.

We hadn't had homemade cookies since before we moved, so tonight I was craving them. Again, I turned to my stove top. I made a regular cookie dough, rolls it into little balls and fried in a pan like pancakes. They taste great. They look weird. And I made the dough balls a little too big, so when the cookies were brown on both sides, the inside was still a little doughy. Next time I'll make smaller cookies and cook over lower heat to allow it time to cook through. However, I got my chocolate chip cookie fix and
used negligible energy.

When I was in high school, living with my parents, we had a crazy ice storm that left us without power for 2 weeks. My parents supplemented their furnace with a wood stove, and so I learned to cook on that. I made rice and veggie stir fry and always had a pot of water on the stove for added moisture and for tea. I also made my first cookie/pancakes during that time. While most families on our street were eating cold canned goods with white bread, we were eating fairly well.

When Trucker and I moved into an apartment once, the gas had been turned off. By the time the gas company came to turn it on, then found that there was a leak, then we fought with the landlord to fix it, then the gas company found another leak, and we fought to have that one fixed, we were without gas for 3 weeks during a very cold October. We refused to take frigid showers and get ourselves sick. We had an electric stove, so we got out our pots and heated water to a boil on the stove top. We would then carry the pots all the way upstairs to dump in the tub. We were able to take lukewarm baths. We also heated water on the stove to use in washing dishes.

It is never pleasant to have an appliance break, or to have an emergency take your utilities away. However, if you foster a bit of scrappiness, you can more easily weather these difficult times. You will get through the difficult time without spending all of your savings, racking up debt or being completely miserable. You can also learn new ways to do things that can be useful later. And you'll definitely have some fun stories to tell.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Making the Most of My $.20/lb Chicken

Last week I went on one of my late night grocery trips. I go to my 24 hr grocery store at 3:00-4:30 AM because that's when all of the best mark downs happen (as the night crew restocks shelves, and marks down the items nearing the sell-by date or that have damaged packaging) and I can walk out with almost free food. I was armed with a sales ad and lots of coupons. One of the coupons that I had was a Catalina coupon from a previous trip. It was good for $2 off any meat or seafood purchase. It didn't have any restrictions on how much I had to spend to use the coupon.

After I finished most of the grocery shopping, I stopped by the meat department to look for some great bargains. I lucked out! There had been a lot of markdowns that night in the poultry department. I found a 4+ lb package of chicken quarters for $2.89. I used my $2 off coupon and got it for $.89, or around $.20 a pound.

That night I cooked up all of the chicken on the stove top. Once it was cooked through, I cut it into bite sized pieces. Over the next few days, this was used to make stir fry twice (for two) and once for wraps with lettuce, tomato and cheese (for two).

After that, I was left with the bones and skins. I put it all in a pot along with the onion skins and carrot peels left over from the stir fry, and covered with water. I covered and simmered for 3 hours. I strained the resulting broth and poured it into re-used plastic containers.  I got around 1 1/2 quarts of broth. I put the broth into the freezer for later use in soup making. I picked through the bones and was able to salvage around a cup of meat. This meat was just bits and pieces, but that's perfect for soup. I put that in the freezer also. I will be able to use the broth and chicken, along with carrots, onions, celery and pasta, to make 4 servings of chicken noodle soup.

So for $.89, I got enough chicken to make 10 meals (5 meals for two), for a cost per serving of $.09. To keep my meat costs low, I first look for a great deal when purchasing the meat. Then I chose meals that use meat as simply an ingredient, rather than the main course. Meals such as stir-fry, soup, casseroles, omelets, wraps, and tacos can use meat for flavor but not as the main ingredient. Then I make sure that I don't waste anything.

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Friday, November 23, 2012

Not Buying It

I don’t shop on Black Friday (and definitely not on Gray Thursday). I like to save money, and I love to find a good deal, so why wouldn’t I love Black Friday?

Most of my purchasing is for things that I need, but I also do allow myself some things that are just wants. However, I do not buy things that I don’t really want. Black Friday and related days are about buying stuff that I’m supposed to want.

Most people buy things that they think they want, things they are told they need: fancy cell phones, flat screen TVs, and high-power blenders; 50 pairs of jeans, 100’s of T-shirts and even more shoes; New luggage, new computers, and new gaming systems; DVDs, name-brand sneakers and toaster ovens.

Do these things really make anyone happy? Has anyone ever gotten a high out of using their new blender? Do you watch all of your new movies and conclude that your life is awesome? Do you jump higher when wearing your new basketball shoes? Does your new cell phone really make you more connected? Do your family members enjoy those Christmas gifts so much that they are glad you skipped Thanksgiving dinner so you could go buy them?

Black Friday is a scam. Just like television commercials and programs that show us all of the wonderful, shiny, delightful things we just must have, Black Friday is about making us think that our lives will get better if we buy this stuff. Our food will taste better when prepared with power blenders and fancy coffee makers. Our friendships will be richer once we have an iPhone to chat with others. Our sex will be better if we wear the right underwear. We’ll finally feel rested if we cover our bed with the right high-thread count sheets.

Full-color sales ads are delivered to every house shouting out ridiculously low prices on great things. There are extremely low stocks of the “good stuff” for which people will wait in line for 12 hours, but that doesn’t stop the hunger for more goods. People trample each other, vying for the best position to get the newest gadgets. Fights break out. People die. Somehow we turn into more primitive versions of ourselves.

And at the end of the day, our cars are packed full of all these attempts at happiness. We drive home, unload the car and spend the evening alone in our house. Our only companions are silent; somehow they don’t seem quite as dazzling now as they did mere hours ago in the store. But never worry, soon the credit card bills will come in. The phone will ring off the hook as the collectors come calling.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Happiness is Recreating Memories

Tonight Trucker and I recreated a date night we had over 5 years ago when we had just moved into our first apartment together. We were hard up financially. I'd just moved from two states away and didn't have a job lined up yet. We had spent what little money we had stocking up the pantry with some of the basics, filling in the gaps with cleaning supplies and buying a new bed. So even though we were young and crazy in love, we didn't have any money for fancy date nights.

One of our early evenings in that first little apartment, I was craving smores. We didn't have a yard, let alone permission from the landlord to start a fire on his property. So we grabbed marshmallows, graham crackers, chocolate and chop sticks. We roasted our marshmallows over the flame on the gas range and giggled and talked while we ate our delicious snacks.

Now we're living in our first house together. And while our income is a little higher, we're spending every little bit of extra money painting the bathroom, putting up shelves in the laundry room and all the hundreds of little things that need done. And so tonight, we grabbed our marshmallows (on sale for $.79), graham crackers (generic brand $2), chocolate ($1) and chopsticks and made our smores over the gas range and talked about how far we've come.

Romance doesn't have to be costly. Sometimes the very best date nights are the ones where you spend nothing but time together.

Shared with: Penny Pinching Party

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Cheaper Cup O Joe

I love coffee. I especially love to go out for coffee. While at home there are many distractions, namely lots of renovations in the new house and an overly affectionate cat that wants to play fetch, at a coffee house, there are comfy seats, relaxing music and not a care in the world. I could spend every evening sitting in a coffeehouse. However, it is hard to justify when the cost of a latte is $4 plus tip. Here are some ways that I save money so I can go out more often:

* Drink regular coffee instead of espresso-based drinks to save a buck or two on purchase prices. Remember that frozen blended drinks are almost entirely half and half. Hopefully the caloric horror will be enough to convince you to order the regular joe.
* Find a coffee house that offers free refills on regular coffee or iced tea. This is especially great for entire afternoons spent relaxing with a novel. Chains that usually offer free refills: Caribou, Panera, McDonalds, Einstein Bros Bagels. Locally owned coffee shops usually offer free refills or a discounted price on refills.
* Bring a travel mug for discounts at many coffee houses. Discounts can be 10% off the bill, or $.50 off each drink. I have a coffee mug for hot drinks and a reusable cold-drink cup for those days when I just need an iced coffee.
* Take advantage of customer loyalty programs. Whether its buy 10 get one free or a percentage off when you use a mug with their name on it, you should sign up for the programs at any coffee houses you go to.
* Look for coupons in the paper. Once, I found a buy-one-get-one-free coupon for a chain coffee house near my house. I raided the recycling bin for several more coupons and got cheap coffee dates with Trucker for the next month.
* Ask about any special promotions. Panera currently has a promotion where you buy a travel mug for $10 and get free coffee refills until November 11. Trucker and I each bought one and they paid for themselves after 5 uses. We'll save around $40 each over the course of the promotion and still have use of the mug.
* On Earth Day, Starbucks often gives free coffee if you bring in your own travel mug.
* Check Groupon for specials. When a new coffee house opened in my area, I paid $15 for a punch card good for 10 drinks.
* Check the Entertainment Book ( My book has coupons for several coffee houses, and many more I can print from the website. I save enough on coffee to cover the cost of the book. Any other coupons I use are just extra.
* Go to a local coffee house on a night when they have live music or poetry readings. I discovered one of my favorite musicians at one such event.

Happy living!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Non-Shopping for the Recovering Consumer

I used to be a consumer. I liked to buy stuff. Good stuff. Stuff that made me happy. A lot of it. Especially books. My favorite thrift store used to sell books for $.10 apiece, and I would stop in every payday to spend a few dollars. Eventually, I realized that I had to get my spending under control, or be buried under a mountain of books.

When I go to a used bookstore just to browse (or while waiting for them to make an offer on my old books), I practice non-consumption. When I find a book that sounds interesting, I resist the urge to buy it. Instead, I take a photo of it with my bottom-of-the-line camera phone. Later I visit my library's website and put a hold on that book. I get to enjoy reading it and usually find that, while I enjoyed it, I don't need to own it. I get the pleasure of reading the book without paying a penny.

Sometimes I find the book so amazing that I know I'm going to come back to it again and again. In that case, it goes onto my wishlist on Paperbackswap. If after six month or so, I haven't received it from a fellow swapper, and it still sounds just as amazing as it did before, I might check out Amazon's Marketplace to buy it from an individual seller. Otherwise, I keep waiting for it to either become available at a good price, or I may find that I lose interest in owning it. However it works out, I always save money over just buying whatever books sound interesting as I shop.

I do the same thing with movies. I have a "Films to Watch" file on my computer. Whenever I see a trailer that looks good or hear of a new movie, I add it to the list. I then request these titles from the library. Some aren't available, but most are (I love my library). If I watch a library movie and find that it rocks my world, it goes on my Amazon wishlist or perhaps my birthday wishlist. I do the same thing for CDs.

Sometimes it's not a book or a movie that I want to try out, but an appliance or gadget. I will post a request on Freecycle and watch for listings from others. Sometimes I get items for free to try out. If Freecycle doesn't provide, I will start to keep an eye out at non-traditional outlets such as yard sales and thrift stores. Since I don't know how I'll take to the item, I don't want to spend big bucks purchasing it new.

If you are a recovering consumer, it can be hard to stop shopping cold turkey. Practicing non-shopping can not only keep you from making a purchase, but get you to think about why you want something, or even if you do.

For further reading, check out Penny Pinching PartyFrugal

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Leftovers Pizza

I make pizza a couple times a week, but it never gets old. I don't stick to a basic tomato-sauce-pepperoni-and-mozzarella combo, although that's nice sometimes. I find that homemade pizza is a great way to use up leftovers.

I access my leftovers and any perishable items that I need to use up soon. I have come up with many different pizzas, most of them pretty good. Here are a few of my favorites.

* BBQ-Mix BBQ sauce and ranch dressing for sauce. Top with leftover shredded chicken/pork, diced peppers, onion, tomato and cheddar cheese. After baking, top with lettuce and BBQ sauce.

* Taco-Use taco sauce or salsa in place of tomato sauce. Add leftover taco meat of any type (ground beef, steak, chicken or even TVP), onion, black olives, peppers. Top with cheddar, queso blanco or a taco blend of cheese. After baking, serve with lettuce, tomato and a dollop of salsa, guacamole, or sour cream.

* Breakfast-Eggs, bacon, sausage, peppers and other breakfast goodies make an amazing pizza. Visit eHow for the instructions.

* Veggie-This is a great meal to have when your garden is going nuts. Most veggies are excellent on pizza. My favorites are spinach or dandelion, olives, peppers, broccoli, garlic, onions, mushrooms, green onions, basil and tomato. 

* White- Use alfredo sauce, shredded leftover chicken, caramelized onions, minced garlic and mozzarella. Oh my.

* Greek-leftover gyro meat (is there ever really any?), tomato, kalamata olives, pepperoncini, spinach and feta.

* Cheeseburger -  If you'd like you can press sesame seeds into the pizza dough. Make a sauce of ketchup, mustard and relish. Add leftover ground meat, onions, peppers, and diced pickles. Top with cheddar or a mix of cheddar and mozzarella. After baking, top with lettuce and tomato.

* Bacon Cheeseburger -  Same as above, but add crumbled leftover bacon.

What are your favorite homemade pizzas?

Shared on:

13 Heritage Homesteaders Hop #3The Chicken ChickThe Self Sufficient HomeAcre

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Living Well On $25k Or Less: Financial Goals

It's hard to save money. It's even harder when your income is in the lower brackets. It can feel impossible to save up enough money for a new car, a house, retirement or a vacation when you barely have enough money to pay your bills on time. Unfortunately, delaying saving for the future until that distant day when you earn six figures might mean that you won't get there. The good news is that it is possible to not only save for, but meet your financial goals, even when your income level is low.

First, think about where you want to be. Daydream. What do you think will make you really, truly happy? What needs do you foresee? Here are some common goals:

* Buy a house.
* Get married.
* Have a child.
* Take a trip.
* Start a business.
* Replace a car.
* Remodel a room/whole house.
* Go back to school.
* Retire.

Next figure out a realistic time frame. How long do you think your car can last before it needs major, costly repairs? How long do you think you will be able to and enjoy working? 

Put a dollar amount to each goal. It doesn't have to be exact, but do try to be reasonable. Now, figure out how much you will need to save from each paycheck to meet that goal. Is that amount reasonable for your current budget? If not, can you push back the date or increase your income through a part time second job?

Make a reminder. If you want to buy a house, post pictures of houses you love around your apartment. If you want to take an extended hiking trip, post breath-taking scenes. If you're expecting a child, get those ultrasound photos up. Look at them often and allow yourself to daydream about when your goals will be met and how happy that will make you.

Open an interest earning account that charges no fees for small balances. You don't want to pay $3/month while you are trying to build up your balance. A savings account is great, but you could also purchase $25 savings bonds or open a CD that allows deposits. For the latter two, make sure that you won't need the money before the funds are available; these are best for moderate-term goals, 3-5yrs out. 

Make it automatic, if possible. I've found that it is much easier to save money if I don't see it. I save for retirement automatically through my employers 401k. Since it comes out of my paycheck, I never miss the money, but it sure adds up fast. Ask your bank about setting up an automatic transfer to your savings account. Otherwise, treat this savings goal as any other bill. Pay it before you start spending on entertainment or other non-essentials. 

Now I know that it is not easy to come up with big amounts of cash when you're making a smaller income. Saving a small amount regularly adds up very quickly, however, and it's relatively easy to do. Here are some ways that I have had success finding money to save:

* Clip coupons for groceries. Deposit the amount saved into savings.
* Redeem rewards points for cash back. My card nets me $20 about every month ($240/yr).
* Tax refunds.
* Birthday money. I only do this if the goal is really exciting for me (taking a vacation vs buying a new commuter car)
* Sell stuff that you don't want/need. Old books, movies, and collectibles can earn you a bit of savings money and you'll have more space.
* Whenever you get an extra paycheck in a calendar month, put at least half into savings.
* If your employer offers a match, take it (401k).
* Cut unnecessary services such as netflix, even if for just a short while.
* If you pay off your current car payment, continue to make payments, but into your savings account. Same with credit card bills.
* Fill out rebate forms and deposit the checks, however small.
* Figure out how much it costs in gas to commute to work. Bike or walk and deposit the savings.
* Live below your means. Buy cheaper clothes than you can afford. Rent a cheaper apartment (as long as it is safe enough). Drive your car a little longer before replacing. 
* When you get a raise, deposit that little extra bit each paycheck. If you don't plan to save it, you'll quickly adjust your spending to use it all.
* Buy goods (groceries, clothes, household items) on sale and deposit the savings.

It may not seem like it, but these tiny amounts add up. If you use $10 worth of coupons per week, that is $520 a year. If your car gets 20 mpg and you commute 4 miles each way by bike, you'll save 2 gallons of gas a week ($4/gallon currently) for a savings of $32 a month. Several tips can quickly add up to a sizable deposit and get you closer to something that means a lot to you. 

So how does this work in real life? Actually, pretty well.

Three years ago, Trucker and I decided that we wanted to buy a house. We wanted space, hardwood floors and a huge backyard for gardening. We spent this time stretching our dollars to the limit. We deposited money into our savings account as soon as I got paid, and learned to live on what was left. Sometimes we didn't go out to eat when we wanted to. We learned to enjoy cheaper or free entertainment. Any extra money we received was deposited into our savings account. Sometimes it was hard. Sometimes we felt like we'd never save enough for closing costs and down payment.

Yesterday we closed on our house. It is roomy, and has hardwood floors and a big backyard for me to plant veggies. We were able to reach our goal through hard work, even while our income was well below the $25k mark. 

Don't wait until you get a better job to start saving for your future. Start now to work towards the things that matter to you.

So let's hear your story. What savings goal have you met? What did you do to make it happen?

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Apple Processing Day

My mum has a couple apple trees on her property. At harvest each year, she gathers the clan together for apple processing day. We spend the day talking, listening to music, and usually order out a pizza from our favorite local pizza shop.

Just some of the harvest.
This year we got everyone together: mum and dad, my sisters and their beaus, my grandparents, Trucker and me. We spent six hours working, and produced enough that each family was able to fill their freezer with apple goods. We all pitched in whatever we had access to: apples, freezer bags, cinnamon, sugar or snacks for the workers. We spent around $5 for ingredients and another $5 for freezer bags by shopping sales. We each brought our own knives, cutting boards and a large pot to supplement Mum's kitchen.

Mum picked the apple trees before we arrived so we could get started immediately. She filled a wheelbarrow, 4 5-gallon buckets, 2 large coolers and three large boxes. 

Each family received two plastic grocery bags full of apples to eat out of hand. The rest were processed into slices for pie, applesauce, and apple juice. Next year, we hope to try out some new items such as apple jelly, dried apple rings, apple butter, fruit roll ups, and perhaps some hard cider! 

I filled up two sinks with water. One sink was filled with apples and we gently scrubbed them before moving them to the rinsing sink. We cut out any really nasty spots.

We peeled, cored and sliced most of the good apples for mum's famous apple pie. We packed the slices into gallon-sized freezer bags. These will save her a lot of money over the holidays as she bakes dozens of pies for parties, family gatherings and church/social functions.

Next came the applesauce making. All of the not-so-pretty apples (odd shaped, small, bug-bitten or fallen) were chopped into large pots. We weren't concerned about having white applesauce, but if we were, we could have added lemon juice to the water while slicing to prevent browning.

We added a small amount of water (about 1/4 c per pot) to help in steaming the apples before they released their juices. We added a lot of cinnamon to each pot. Since some of us have blood-sugar concerns, over half of the apple sauce was left unsweetened. To the remainder, we added about a 1/2 c of brown sugar to each pot. The apples cooked until fork-tender, and then I pureed them in the blender until smooth. By using the blender instead of just mashing the apples with a fork, I could leave the peels on without compromising the texture of the sauce. This saved a lot of time and had the added benefit of a higher fiber content.

Pots and bowls of applesauce were placed on cooling racks all over the kitchen. Once the sauce was cool, we ladled it into quart sized freezer bags. We marked each with the date and whether it was sweetened or unsweetened. The applesauce is great to eat as is, or warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream (oh my!). We can also use it in baking cookies, muffins, breads and brownies. 
We also made some amazing apple juice. I hope to eventually get my hands on a cider press, but they are so pricey. For now, my dad and I both supplied our juicers. We juiced the cores and peels and ended up with several gallons of juice. This went into one-gallon freezer bags to drink warm during chilly winter evenings.

Any rotten apples as well as the pulp left over from juicing went into the compost bin. How wonderful to know that none of the apples grown went to waste!

I look forward to this day every year. It's a great way to spend time with my family. We also all get to have some amazing organic applesauce and juice almost for free. Not only that, but we are also learning about food preservation and increasing our self reliance.

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And an expanded version is published here: Five Ways to Preserve Apples

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Saturday, August 18, 2012

Spend-Free Challenges

How much did you spend last month? How much did you really need to spend? Most of us have a tendency to spend without thinking. We spend money on things we don't really want and then we have to work longer hours and don't get to attain our goals.

A great practice that I commonly participate in is Spending Free Months. For the entire month, I don't spend anything except for utilities and rent. No going out to eat. No groceries. No shopping. No gas except to commute if the weather is particularly nasty.

It takes some planning to pull this off. Before the month, I make sure I have food in the house, especially staples such as flour, sugar, cheese and milk. I fill in any obvious gaps (such as no pasta), but don't spend extra to stock up. I make sure I have refilled any prescriptions and filled the gas tank. In general, I make sure my basic needs are met. Also, in preparation, I may put a temporary hold on services such as Netflix, if possible.

Once the month begins, I plan meals around items in my pantry. It helps me to grow as a cook and I try lots of new recipes. I particularly like to use up any items that have been in the pantry for awhile. On a recent month-long challenge, I found a can of garbanzo beans that I had forgotten I had. I made hummus for dipping and veggie sandwiches. Once I roasted a 15 lb turkey that I had bought during the Thanksgiving sales for $7. That made for many sandwiches stir-fry, casseroles, omelets, wraps and a big pot of amazing turkey noodle soup.

I don't spend a penny on entertainment. I go to free concerts or movies in the park and free community theater productions. I go for bike rides and hikes. I have friends over for dinner or tea instead of meeting them out. I also look online for free fun in my city such as festivals and free days at local museums. I check the free local daily for any announcements of giveaways at restaurants (Once I found that a large coffee chain gave away free coffee if you bought a travel mug).

Since I am not spending time in stores, I have lots of time for frugal tasks. I darn socks and replace buttons. I harvest wild foods to supplement my pantry or to stockpile for winter. I work in my garden. I walk or bike to work when the weather is cooperative. I clip coupons and dumpster dive.

I visit the library often. I get lots of free entertainment. I check out a lot of good books and will pick a new skill to learn or subject to explore. I check out movies and documentaries. I check out CDs, and try a few new bands each time. I can also read the newspaper or magazines. Some libraries have free concerts, lectures, movies or classes.

The benefits of these challenges are great. I save around $600 extra each month that I complete a challenge. In the next few months, I am more aware of my spending, and as a result, don't spend as much as I did beforehand. This enables me to save an extra $200 a month for a few months after. I learn what things mean a lot to me that I missed greatly (having coffee at my favorite locally owned coffee house) and which things I didn't miss at all (commuting by car).

By doing a challenge every 4-6 months, I keep my spending in check all year round. This helps me speed up my savings for big goals. When I am not up to a full-month challenge, I may take a week-long or weekend-long challenge. Since my days off are usually my biggest-spending days, taking a two-day challenge has a high yield for the duration.

By doing a challenge every 4-6 months, I keep my spending in check all year round. This helps me speed up my savings for big goals.

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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Preparing for a Big Move

A couple of years ago I moved two states away using only my large car. I didn't have enough space to bring everything, so I used this as an opportunity to clear out the clutter. I used up everything possible in the weeks before the move. I made meals out of items in the pantry and freezer and didn't buy any non-perishable groceries. I used up the last little bits of lotion, shampoo and perfume so I could throw away a few bottles, rather than bring several half-full bottles.

I threw away any non-essential papers and scanned those that I needed. I burned these to a disk and also emailed copies to myself as a backup. I recycled all those magazines that I thought I would read again, but never did. Old gifts that were no longer enjoyed (or never were) were donated. I sold books, CDs and DVDs that I no longer wanted to the secondhand stores around town to clear out space.

There were many items that were falling apart and needed to be replaced. A wobbly pizza cutter, thread bare socks, outdated clothing, and a terribly ugly lamp were all items that I desperately needed to replace. I used them until we moved and threw them away the morning I left. I replaced them after the move.Some items were so big that it would be more costly to move than to replace, such as my mattress and old couch. I threw away the mattress and sold the couch and armchair. The first couple of days in the new home, I was sitting on the floor, but I soon found a nice set for a low price.

Even if you rent a truck, by simplifying you can rent a smaller truck to save money. You'll also save the cost of boxes, tape, and the chiropractic bill after loading and unloading all of that stuff!

I originally published this as a tip at The Dollar Stretcher as part of their "Yes we can help this reader" section. You can see the original publication as well as other reader responses at

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Not-so-Extreme Couponing

Extreme couponing fever is everywhere. At the grocery store I see a lot of newbies trying to get free stuff. Most of them don't know the rules well enough to do it correctly; others try to break the rules and get mad at store managers when it doesn't work out. I have been couponing before the TV show, before the madness, although I have never devoted 20+ hours a week to clipping. So here is my guide for you. Here's how to apply EC tricks to save you a decent amount on your groceries, occasionally get freebies and still have enough time for a life.

Source coupons. If you get the Sunday paper delivered, you already get coupons weekly. If not, you have to try a little harder to find them. In some cities, you receive a weekly delivery of sales papers for local grocery stores and coupons. Ask friends, neighbors and relations to save the inserts for you. Print coupons from manufacturer's websites or sites such as, and  Red Plum. Women's mags often have kid's foods or cleaning supplies coupons. Look on specially marked packages of food you already bought, store shelves or sales ads. Write letters of complaint or praise to manufacturers. Only clip coupons for items that you like and that fit with your goals (don't clip ice cream coupons if you are trying to lose weight).

Cut coupons whenever it works for you. Watch a documentary or listen to music while clipping. Trucker and I like to play a CD and sit on the floor and clip and talk. It really doesn't take much time.

Organize your coupons and keep them organized. The system that works best for me is a large index card box. I sort all of my coupons into the following categories : Dairy/refrigerated foods, frozen foods, meat, breakfast items, ethnic foods, general shelf stable, cat stuff, beverages, hygiene, household, and "Too good to pass up" (this holds freebie coupons and other great finds) I sort these into small envelopes that are marked on the front and these fit perfectly into my file.

Read over your sales papers with a highlighter. When you find an item that's on a great sale, flip through your coupons to see if you have a matching coupon. If so circle the item on the sales paper and mark a C next to it so when you are shopping you remember to use your coupon.

Carry your coupons with you when you shop. You never know when something will be on an unadvertised sale or on clearance. Also carry the sales paper so you remember to check out great sales.

Unless otherwise stated on the coupon or on the store's coupon policy, you can combine one store coupon and one manufacturer's coupon for one item. You can also combine these with a good sale price. Let's say Post cereal goes on sale for 2 for $3. You have a manufacturer's coupon for $1 off of 2. That brings your price down to $1/box. If you have a store coupon that offers $1 off 2 boxes, it becomes $.50/box. I have found that it isn't common to have both a manufacturer's and store coupon for the same item at the same time, but it does happen sometimes.

If you shop at a store that doubles coupons, you can really save. Using the previous example on Post cereal, let's say your store doubles coupons up to $1 face value. You have two coupons for $.75 off one box of cereal. The coupon doubles to $1.50 making the item free.

Shop clearance racks. When an item is dented, crushed, discontinued or changes packaging size, the item is often marked down and put in a back corner. Often the items are marked down 50% or more. Even though they have been marked down, you can still use a coupon. Example: Pantene shampoo was marked down on clearance for $2/bottle. I had several coupons for different deals ($3 off 2, $1 off 1). I used every coupon I had and cleared away enough shampoo for a year's use for my family and my parents at an average of $.75/bottle.

I do not go to three stores a week; I go to one. I look at the sales papers for two stores near me (Meijer and Kroger) and pick whichever has the best sales that week. I do not spend hours in the store; it takes me around a half hour to forty-five minutes depending on how much I'm getting. I don't walk out with $250 worth of groceries for a nickel. I do, however, save between 40-80% off my total. Usually I spend $20-25 for $50 groceries on a standard trip. I don't buy anything I wouldn't use anyway (I have no need for 100 half gallons of ice cream).

On a typical week I spend 15 minutes clipping and organizing coupons (while doing something else), 15 minutes perusing sales papers and a half hour in the store. I save $25 on my groceries, which means an hourly rate of $25/hour tax free. It is worth my time to do this. Those "extreme couponers" who save $200 on a trip may spend 20+ hours getting ready for it, which is around $10/hour and they might not use the items they buy.

Combined with seasonal shopping, gardening, and meal planning, couponing can help you get your grocery bill down to free up some extra cash for saving or paying bills. You don't have to make couponing a lifestyle to use it to save money. Feminine Adventures

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Living Well on $25k or Less: Clothing

According to an article I recently read on Psychology Today (here), households spend between 2.1 and 3.4% of their income on clothing. If your income is around $25k, that means $525-850. That's hard to work with once you factor in shoes, work clothes, special occasion wear and undergarments. Here's how we clothe ourselves affordably:

Develop a strong personal style and stick with it. Keeping up with all of the latest fashion trends means that you will be spending a lot of money on clothing and getting rid of a lot of clothing that still has life left in it. Decide what style you like to wear and build a decent wardrobe around that. Each item in your wardrobe will go with lots of other items, so you can put together more outfits.

Think of how and where you will wear an item. Sometimes it's best not to spend a lot on an item if it is going to be subject to abuse. A coworker at a food service job bought a pair of $45 khakis and spilled fruit juice all over the front after wearing them twice. Because I knew that stains would happen, I spent less than $2 on each pair. If, however, you are buying  something to wear when you need to make a good impression, such as a suit for a job interview, invest in it.

For some items, you really do get what you pay for, so invest in high quality. Examples are work shoes (especially if you're on your feet all day), bras, jeans, coats, boots and socks. Other items don't warrant paying big bucks if they won't be subjected to wear or won't be worn long: accessories, flip flops and trendy items.

Thrift stores are great sources for affordable clothing. While new jeans start at around $25, I often find jeans for $2-5. An added bonus is that they are already broken in and very comfortable. I also find lots of quirky t-shirts for $1-2. Many thrift stores have color-tag sales when all items with a particular tag color are discounted 25-90% off. I make a point of buying all of my work pants when on sale and usually only spend $1-2. Ask the cashier about end-of-month sales, holiday sales and bag sales for greater savings.

If you must buy clothing new, shop the clearance racks. This is an easy way to save 25-90% on your clothing. Sure, it's a season or two out of style, but if you plan your outfits carefully, most people won't notice.

Create an all-season wardrobe. Many items of clothing can be worn year round, and careful planning means that you need to buy fewer items. A t-shirt can be worn alone in warm weather or over a long-sleeved shirt in cold weather. A pair of leggings makes a short dress appropriate even in fall; you can also wear the leggings under pants in the winter for added warmth. A winter coat with a removable inner lining can be worn from autumn to early spring, whereas a regular winter coat is only useful from November to March.

Seasonal shopping. If your weight stays relatively the same, buy clothes for next year at the end of the season this year. Savings can be phenomenal; expect 75-80% off. Look for winter boots, thick socks, coats, sweaters, long underwear, gloves, hats and scarves in February or March. Buy swimsuits, shorts, tank tops and sandals in September. Sometimes thrift stores have end of season bag sales. You fill a bag of off-season clothing and pay a set amount per bag (often $2-5 for a paper grocery bag).

Alter found/cheap/old clothing. Sometimes you can modify an existing piece that just doesn't work and make something great out of it. A delightfully quirky t-shirt that's a size or two too big can be taken in to make a more snug fit, or turned into a dress. Jeans with ragged hems can easily be made into cut-off jean shorts or capris. You can even find instructions online to make underwear out of old t-shirts (here).

Make your own trashy accessories. If you are crafty, consider every item before you throw it away; you just might have the perfect material for your next piece of jewelry. Magazine pages can be cut and rolled into beads. In high school I used to make necklaces and bracelets out of junk I got at the scrap yard. I've seen earrings made out of pencils and bracelets out of computer parts.

Sometimes you'll find an item that is perfect. It fits perfectly, is comfortable, the color compliments your complexion and it goes well with your wardrobe. In this case it is sometimes a good idea to stock up. For example, if you find a pair of work shoes that is perfect and 40% off, buy 3 pairs.

When it comes to cleaning your clothes, obviously it is better to have an item that can be machine washed rather than dry cleaned. If you do have items that need to be dry cleaned, consider the at-home dry cleaning bags for the dryer. Wash full loads of clothing. Line dry clothing to save on electricity and to prevent excessive wear. Some items (e.g. jeans) don't need to be washed after every wear, especially if it is only worn for a few hours and it's not excessively hot.

Mend everything. Don't throw something away just because it's damaged. It's easy to replace a button (you did save the little button that was attached, right?). Sometimes at thrift stores I find big jars of buttons for $1 and those have saved many items of clothing. If a pair of pants is too long, sew an quick hem to keep it from dragging on the ground. Mend little tears before they become huge gaping holes. Darn socks. Treat stains. Your clothing will last much longer and save you the replacement costs.

For work clothes in an office setting, or other nicer items, shop at consignment shops in nicer neighborhoods.  Prices are a little higher than at thrift stores, but the items are of high quality and in good shape. At a consignment shop I used to frequent back in my banking days, the owner would keep an eye out for suits in my size and style and give me a call when something came in.

Look for coupons in the Entertainment book, newspaper, local weeklies, or on bulletin boards for dollars off your purchases. Sign up for mailing lists or loyalty clubs for stores that you shop at; some will send good coupons for your birthday.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Use It Up: Stale Bread

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.

I love a good loaf of artisan bread either made from scratch or purchased at my favorite local bakery. Since my bread isn't packed with all sorts of gross preservatives, it gets stale quickly. Given the higher cost of good bread or the loving hours spent baking it, I don't want to let a crumb go to waste. Fortunately, there are a ton of amazing dishes to be made with bread, and they work best with slightly stale bread.

French toast is a common stale bread recipe, but that doesn't mean it isn't wonderful. Beat together egg, milk, a pinch of sugar and a dash of vanilla extract. Coat each side of the bread with the egg mixture and fry in a skillet. To serve, top with butter and syrup. For a truly decadent breakfast, add a pinch of brown sugar and sprinkle with berries or toasted walnuts.

Bread pudding is a favorite in my household. It is decadent fresh out of the oven or cold from the refrigerator over the next couple of days. When I have company, I like to make bread pudding for dessert. As soon as it comes out of the oven, I place individual servings into a bowl and top with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a sprinkle of cinnamon. To make just tear up bread into bite-sized pieces until you have four cups of bread. Heat 2 cups of milk or half and half with 1/4 cup of butter. Mix with bread; add 1/2 cup of sugar (brown or white), 2 eggs, 1/2 tsp cinnamon and a bit of vanilla extract. Bake at 375 degrees until it is set in the middle. You can add raisins or other dried fruit if you like.

Toad in a hole (also known as eggs in the basket) is a fun breakfast I used to make as a kid. Cut a circle out of the center of a slice of bread. Butter one side of the bread in a pan and brown lightly. Crack an egg into the hole and cook until set. 

Croutons are great for snacking or to add to soups and salads. My quick and easy recipe is to cut bread into cubes and toss with just enough Italian dressing to coat. Spread onto a sheet pan and sprinkle with the herbs of your choice. Bake at 350 degrees until it is browned on the sides.

To make bread crumbs for topping casseroles or to coat chicken, toast thin slices of bread. Toss into the blender and pulse until it is fine.

Garlic toast is a great side for pasta or soup. Butter and sprinkle with garlic salt. Place under the broiler until browned.

Lyn on Facebook shares....Our animals here in Spain love our old bread even the cats. I soften it with water

Feel free to comment with your favorite ways to use stale bread.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Trying my hand at cheese making

My mom gave me some goat's milk the other day. Her friend has a small dairy and sells the milk to her for $5 a gallon. It took me longer to get home than I anticipated and the milk was left out of the refrigerator for more than 2 hours. I didn't feel okay about drinking it, so I thought I'd try my hand at cheese making.

I heated the milk (1 1/2 quarts) up to 190 degrees, then removed from heat and stirred in 3 tablespoons of white vinegar. The milk immediately curdled. I let it sit until the temperature dropped to around 100 degrees.

I didn't have any cheesecloth, so I lined a colander with a thin dish towel and placed the colander into a bowl. I poured the curds into the colander and added a teaspoon of salt and a 1/4 teaspoon of pepper. I pulled the four corners up, tied it and hung it from the handle of one of my cabinets. I left it hanging over the bowl for about an hour and a half and collected the whey.

I squeezed the ball of cheese to get out as much whey as I could and then pressed the curds into a small tupperware container. It is now in my refrigerator cooling and will be ready for breakfast tomorrow.

The whey is in glass jars awaiting use in baking this week. I'm planning on making biscuits to go with soup within the next couple days. I've also heard of people using whey as the liquid in pizza crust to add a nice sour flavor to it.

I was initially disappointed when I lost my goats milk as it is a great treat in my house. Instead, I got to have some great cheese (store bought goat's cheese is around $18 a pound here). I also got to learn a new skill. Sounds like a win to me.

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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Keeping Cool the Frugal Way

It's still only May, but the forecast for my city this week says I'll be enjoying 90 degree temps. I'm not ready for those insane electric bills yet, so I'm trying to keep cool without running the air conditioning constantly. Hundreds of people die each year from the heat. As climate change rears its ugly head(11 degree temperature rise), we can expect to suffer a bit more in the dog days of summer.

Here are some ways that I use to be a little less miserable as the mercury rises.

* Open your windows to get some fresh air (assuming you don't have bad allergies). Use fans to get a good breeze blowing through your home. Set bowls of ice water in front of the fan to cool the air.

* Get out of the house when it's really hot. Go out for coffee or to the library to enjoy their air conditioning for free.

* Don't use the oven if at all possible. Use the slow cooker or microwave to prepare meals rather than use the stove top. Grill and eat your meals outside.

* Don't be modest. Go naked. Just be careful of peeping neighbors. Otherwise wear lightweight clothing in light colors. Wear shorts, skirts, sleeveless shirts or just walk around in your swimsuit. Avoid denim or any other heavy clothing.

* Cut your hair short or pull it up.

* Keep hydrated. Drink lots of water. Have a pitcher of iced coffee or tea in the frig at all times. Make mini Popsicles with an ice cube tray and toothpicks. Freeze fruit for smoothies or as a cooling snack.

* Exercise in the early morning  or late evening hours. Avoid over-exerting yourself during the hottest hours of the day.

* When you feel really sweaty and hot, run your head under cool water for a minute. It is very refreshing and has gotten me through many a night of 95 degree temps in my bakery. Also rub ice cubes over your face, arms and neck. Keep a spray bottle nearby to mist yourself throughout the day when you need a refresher.

* Take a few short, cool showers throughout the day to feel less gross and to cool off.

* Consider getting away to the woods on scalding days. When it gets really hot in our area, Trucker and I go hiking in the woods. Since it's so hot, there aren't too many people who want to go hiking so we have the park all to ourselves. Also the shade keeps the temperature cooler. Just bring lots of water.

* Lose some of that winter insulation. Eat light meals and do moderate exercise.

* Go for a swim. This is a great way to stay cool, get some moderate exercise and get out of the stuffy apartment. It's also (usually) free entertainment. Go to the lake, ocean, pond, river or community pool. If you live close enough, make it a daily outing.

* Talk with your utility company if you need fans or help with higher-than-normal electric bills. There are programs in place to help senior or low-income households to avoid heat stroke. Don't be too proud to ask for help when you need it.

Happy living!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Dumpster Diving Surprise

Last night I was digging around in a dumpster looking for some magazines to read. This particular bin is always filled with magazines and newspapers. I always find a few magazines that interest me and will later recycle them. 

This time I found an extra goody: a pair of Dockers pants in excellent condition.
 I looked them over and found no tears, no stains, no ripped hems, no fading and no frayed edges. I checked for the stains that announce bedbugs. They were perfect. I checked the tag. They were my size.

When I got home, I tried them on and they fit perfectly. Yay! I wash clothes immediately upon returning home in hot water to sanitize and get rid of any bugs that may have tagged along.

Even if the pants hadn't fit, they still would have been worth pulling from the dumpster. There is no need to allow good usable material to end up in the landfill.

First since they were in such awesome condition, I could have taken them to a consignment shop to try to make a couple bucks. One of my friends dumpster dives in nicer neighborhoods and sells any clothes or accessories she can't use to a consignment shop.

I could also ask my sisters or a couple friends if they wanted them. One of my sisters is still wearing a great leather jacket I pulled out of a dumpster in Edgewater a few years ago.

There was a thrift store a couple blocks away, and I could have just dropped the pants off. Someone would have loved them and the thrift store would have made a few extra dollars for a good cause.

I also will sometimes take clothes that aren't in pristine condition. There is still the possibility of altering an item (cutting off the bottoms of ragged-bottom jeans to make jean shorts), using the items for chores/painting/gardening or to use for crafting (unraveling a sweater for the yarn or cutting denim quilting squares from old jeans).

Friday, April 20, 2012

Family Gatherings that Save Money

Getting together with friends or family almost always costs quite a lot for a day's entertainment. When I want to spend time with Trucker, my parents and three sisters, if we are going a traditional entertainment route, it is going to cost $100 or more for a single day. We avoid the traditional and found some great alternatives. We have just as much fun, sometimes much more, save money on the costs of entertainment and often find ways to save money as well.

Fishing is a great way to spend the day. It's relaxing and quite pleasurable. A family friend allows us to fish in his two ponds for free. If we are ever unable to fish there, we will buy fishing licenses. They cost around $15 apiece for a year. Spread out over the warm months, it is a very cheap method of entertainment. An added bonus is that we take our meager catch home, where my dad and I clean the fish. We usually only have enough for a fish fry. Perhaps eventually we will bring home enough to freeze some for later.

Mushroom hunting is great exercise and great fun. Several friends throughout the state allow us to wander through their woods searching desperately for morels and puffballs. Sometimes we find none, other times we bring home enough for a few meals  and some extras to dry.

Wild-crafting is a favorite pastime for my sister and I. We go for walks , talking and picking wild berries, acorns, wild onions, chickweed, chicory, red clover blossoms and digging up dandelion roots. Then we'll sit in the kitchen to clean it all up and preserve it, often by drying.

My mother has a few apple trees on her property. During the harvest season, I go over to her house for processing day. My grandparents come over, my sisters stop by after or before work and the seven of us preserve it all. Mum is known for her apple pie, so most of the apples are chopped and frozen in batch-sized portions. Seconds are peeled and chopped for applesauce. The peels and cores are made into cider (see here for instructions on making cider without special equipment). The seven of us can get through more than two wheelbarrows full in a day. We split the cost of cinnamon, sugar and freezer bags and share all of the proceeds.

 Preserving food is a great way to spend time with a couple friends. Split up the costs between everyone for produce, ingredients, equipment and supplies. You can plan to can tomato sauce or jam/jelly. You can chop up vegetable blends to freeze for stir-fries or casseroles. You can dig up dandelions to dry and roast for dandelion "coffee".

Pick-Your-Own-Farms are great fun for an afternoon. Go to a strawberry field or a cherry or apple orchard. Split the cost and the harvest. If you'd like, you can then go home and make jam.

Other ideas are quilting bees, knit-ins, chopping firewood, planting a garden, and cooking dinner together.

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Thursday, April 5, 2012

Library Book Sales: Bag Day!

Today was the last day of my local library's quarterly book sale. That means: bag sale! You fill a bag with anything you want for $3. I always wait until the last day to go and I am never disappointed.

I first go through the entire sale looking for books that I definitely want to read and each time I find an item that is on my wish list. Once I have found these items,  I carefully start packing my bags. I make sure to use every available square inch of space. I put big books in first, then slide thin books or mass markets into the sides. Once I have fit them all in, I look again for more books, this time picking up books that sound interesting, but might not necessarily want to keep. I fill the bag to the brim.

By careful packing, I can fit 40 books into a bag, for a price of  $.075 per book. At that rate, I can risk not liking a book. Worst case scenario, I can always list it on PaperBackSwap or resell it.

I also find great deals on Audio Visual items. The first day of the sale there are lots of DVDs, but those are usually gone by the time the end of the sale comes around. Fortunately, I still have a working VCR (don't judge me), so I can scoop up those VHS that are still piled high. I can fit 25 VHS in a bag, for a price of $.12 each. If I don't like it, I can donate it and still be ahead compared to renting the movie. I'll also buy CDs that look interesting ever if I've never heard of the artist. Since I work alone, I listen to a lot of audio books and always pick up several titles. Once I'm done, I list them on PaperBackSwap (audio books earn 2 credits).

By shopping at the library book sales, I am helping to support one of my favorite public services. I am also supplying myself with lots of entertainment for a few dollars.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Getting Fit Without a Gym

I hate gyms. I can't stand being in a room full of huffing, puffing sweaty people all facing a television as they trot along on their stair masters or treadmills. I don't like dressing room floors. I really don't like paying $50 a month for the feeling that I'm doing something good for my health. Let's face it, you never get to the gym as often as you are certain you will (For a great read on this, visit: Paying Not to Go to the Gym).

Now that the weather is nice, I'm starting to think about wearing bikinis and tank tops, so of course I'm thinking about the winter weight that always seems to creep up. With that, here are some ways that you can get/stay in shape for free or really cheap.

Walk around the neighborhood. I like to go for power walks with a friend and talk rather than go out for coffee.

Swim at the beach. If you are near the ocean or a lake, find a free beach and go often. When I lived in Chicago, I was 8 blocks from a beach, so Trucker and I would head over a few times a week to swim and roughhouse. The nice tan was a great bonus.

 Commute by bike. If you live relatively close to work, you can ditch the car and take the bike. One job I had was 3.5 miles away from home. If I were to drive, it would take me 20 minutes to walk all the way to my car, drive to work, park and walk in to my job. It took 30 minutes to bike the same distance. So I got an hour's workout for the cost of 20 minutes, and I saved gas wear and tear on my car, and parking.

Go hiking at a park. I love to spend an afternoon hiking. I like to visit metroparks and state parks and delight in getting lost in nature. These don't usually charge fees like the National parks do, but are still beautiful.

Rent a video. If you do well working out in your own living room to exercise videos, you still can do it without spending anything. Libraries offer all sorts of videos from Sweatin' to the Oldies to dance to yoga. At Family Video, they have a small selection of exercise videos for free for five day rental.

Lift hand weights. I picked up a couple 5 lb hand weights at the thrift store for a couple dollars. I lift while watching a movie or listening to music.

Take a class. Community centers have lots of great programs from groups sports to dance to martial arts. At my community rec center, classes are usually around $25 for a 3 month class, no more than $50 and sometimes free. I've found yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong, volleyball, tango lessons, Zumba, and belly dance.

Dance around your living room. I'm the first to admit that I am a horrible dancer. I am not graceful and no one will ever be awe-struck to see me move. That doesn't stop me from dancing all over when I'm alone and a good song comes on.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Spring is Here, It's Dandelion Season!

All winter I wait eagerly for this day: the first day of the year that I will eat dandelions.

Many people think of dandelions as weeds and try to get them out of their yards. According to some accounts, dandelions are not native to American soil, but were purposely grown as a food crop. Things got out of hand, and they spread all over the place and now we can't get rid of them. Lucky me.

Dandelions are edible from flowertop to root.
Early in spring, before the flowers bloom, the leaves are tender and delicious. They are bitter, but not unbearably so at least to a palate not spoiled by excessive sugar and salt. I pick a few handfuls right before I prepare my salad so they are still very fresh. I make sure to avoid any areas frequented by dog walkers or the stray cats, and to be safe I clean them very well before eating them. I mix with other greens if I have them around, but dandelions make a nice salad alone. I add a bit of cheese, some onion, a drizzle of olive oil and a splash of apple cider or balsamic vinegar. Oh my. They are also delicious steamed with onion and bacon or sauteed in a bit of bacon grease.

Then comes flower season. I love the sight of all of those bright yellow blossoms studding my yard. I pick the flowers and remove as much of the greenery as I can while keeping the flowers intact. I make a basic batter, dip the flowers in top down and twirl. I pan fry them in corn oil and eat them while they are still hot. They are great with mustard, mayo or sweet chili sauce.

Dandelion roots cleaned for making
dandelion root "coffee".
Dandelion "coffee", dandelion bud soup and blossom jelly are other ideas to use this free food.

Dandelion is not just free, but it's nutritious. According to, dandelion contains 2.1 grams of protein, 3 grams of fiber, 147 mg of calcium, 25 mg of magnesium, 18.9 mg of vitamin C, and 2.6 mg of vitamin E in just one cup of wilted dandelion leaves. The root contains vitamins A, B, C and D as well as magnesium, calcium, zinc, iron, and potassium. It is used by many as a liver tonic, diuretic and anti-inflammatory.


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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Living Well on $25k or Less: Housing

Many young people are graduating from college and finding that they are not getting what they were promised. They thought once they graduated, they'd find meaningful, well-paying jobs with good benefits. Instead, many of them are working as baristas, servers and cashiers. At my last job, I knew a guy with a doctorate who was washing dishes. Despite a salary much lower than anticipated, student loans still have to be repaid and at least a little bit of money left over for rent and food.

If you are in this situation, it may be frustrating and more than a little scary. Fortunately, there are many ways you can cut your expenses without completely eliminating your quality of life. For the last several years, I've been living on a lower income (between $15k-25k/yr), but for the most part, I've still been able to eat good food, go out, and even save money for my goals.

Over the next few months, I'll share my experiences and tips from others on living well on less than $25,000 a year. This week, I'll talk about housing expenses.

First, limit your accumulation of "stuff." The more things you have the bigger a home you must have. If you have several thousand books, you'll need at least an extra bedroom to house just that collection. If you can keep your number of possessions low, you can rent a smaller apartment, perhaps a studio or one-bedroom apartment instead of a two-bedroom townhouse. This will save you a lot over the course of a year, plus you'll save money from not shopping.

Live near your favorite neighborhood instead of in it. A few years ago, I found a neighborhood in Chicago that I really enjoyed. It had lots of coffee houses and galleries and was just wonderful. It was also expensive. By living a little further north in a slightly less fashionable neighborhood, I was able to save a few hundred a month in rent. It was still close enough that I could walk there in fifteen minutes. That minor inconvenience was more than compensated by the lower costs.

Living with a roommate is a common way to cut expenses. You can split a two-bedroom apartment with one other person or rent a house with several others and save big bucks over renting a one- or two-bedroom apartment yourself. You'll also save on internet, cable, heat, electric and water. Find someone compatible and responsible, and make sure you both sign a written agreement.

Work for rent. While you might have to search to find such a situation, you may be able to find an opportunity to work in exchange for free or discounted rent. A friend of mine lives in an apartment at a car dealership. He keeps an eye on the place overnight in exchange for free rent.

You can be a live-in nanny or housekeeper and may get a small salary in addition to free housing. Some people are companions for the disabled or seniors who aren't ready for a nursing home but need a little help with cooking and cleaning. House sitting is great for transient types. For singles or couples, managing or maintaining an apartment complex usually provides free rent in exchange for basic care of the property and showing units occasionally. During the early years before children and lots of other commitments, you could really save up a lot of money (or pay down student loans) if you didn't have to pay any rent.

Communal living is great for those who like living with others of common goals and ideology. You can become completely self-sufficient or work on an organic farm. You'll have to work for the good of the community, but you'll have free housing, possibly free food and the opportunity to build relationships with like-minded people.

Rebound. Okay, this one may temporarily reduce your quality of life. Living with mom and dad for a short period of time may be a great way to set a strong foundation for your future. For the couple years after I graduated from high school, my parents let me stay with them rent-free so I could get my life together. I was working a full-time job  and banking 65% of my gross pay. I started funding my retirement accounts, paid for school while I was attending and built up a 6-month emergency fund. To help the family, I did most of the grocery shopping and cooked several meals a week in addition to helping clean and maintain the property. If you decide to go with this approach, make sure everyone involved is on the same page. Ideally, get it in writing just to avoid drama. This situation works best if it is on a short-term basis, perhaps for 6 months so you can build up a 20% down payment for a house.

Live in a cheaper city. Living in a city like Chicago or New York is wonderful, but pricey. Paying 60-75% of your pay towards rent gets old really quick. A few years ago, I moved from Chicago to a cheaper city where the rents are around 2/3 of the price, and the houses are even cheaper. I've been able to save up money for a house rather quickly. I'd love to live in Chicago again, but for now, I'm enjoying building up my savings account.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

End of Season Clearance

Now that March is upon us, the stores are starting to bring out their summer clothes. They need to clear out all that winter stuff to make room for the swimsuits, flip flops and tank tops that we're supposed to start buying. The winter stuff is about to go on a really good sale.

Take advantage of this end of season markdown to prepare for next winter. Early in March every year, I take inventory of my winter supplies: coats, hats, gloves, long underwear, scarves, sweaters, thick socks and warm, waterproof boots. I make a list of all of the items I will need for next year.

I hit the thrift stores and check the clearance racks. Some thrift stores have bag sales on end of season merchandise and I can supply most of next year's needs for $10.

If I can't get everything on my list at thrift stores, I'll visit a couple of department stores. Often the winter items will already be marked down 50% off or more. You can find really great items during this time. Last year, I bought Trucker a pair of really nice hiking boots marked down from $120 to $19.95. By planning ahead, I was able to get a boots of a quality that I could not usually afford.

Also, be on the lookout for comforters and blankets on sale. You could even knock out some of your gift giving for the next year.

Happy living!
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