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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