Saturday, April 16, 2011

Frugal housing 2


Look for a rental in neighborhoods very close to where you work. Sometimes, paying a little extra in rent is more than offset by the savings of a shorter commute. Look for the smallest, least expensive one that's realistic, then SAVE the extra money toward the costs of your next move. Pay attention to maintenance, safety, how the landlord or manager handles repairs, and try to talk to people already renting from them. Find out what percentage of tenants renew their lease after one year, and what percentage has been there more than two years. READ the lease closely and remember, if it isn't in writing (i.e. pets, additional tenants, included utilities, guaranteed parking), then don't be surprised if the landlord doesn't remember agreeing to it. 

Also, singles especially, consider less traditional situations. People sometimes are looking for roommates or to rent out a single room. But get any agreement in writing (or get reliable references for them from someone you KNOW), or you could get badly ripped off. If you look hard, you probably can find a comfortable situation that saves you money that you can then save for that move. Remember, moving costs money, not only the movers or moving van, but also new deposits on the new place and replacing things you can't take with you. Or, if you really want a house, a good down payment and closing costs. 

If you've hit bottom financially, but are now employed again, consider something really non-traditional while you climb out of that hole. An old camper if you have a place you can park it or trade work for a place to sleep, especially if you're known to be honest and reliable. If you live in a mild climate and have a safe place to set it up, a tent and a sleeping bag can let you save up money for a few months for deposits for a rental. I lived in a platform tent while working at a camp for 2 months when I was about 19, and I've been camping more than once when there was a hard freeze. Other than the social stigma or safety, I don't see a valid objection to doing that in a pinch as long as you have some access to sanitation facilities. 

For those who do buy a condo or house, be cautious and conservative. Make sure you know exactly what you're getting in terms of deed restrictions, covenants, owners fees, and loan terms. Buy the smallest place you can reasonably live in while planning for any family additions in the near future (don't buy a one-bedroom condo if you hope to have a couple of kids in the next 3 or 4 years). If you can have your income cut by half and still manage the payment and put food on the table, you've got the right idea.

Even those who are well-paid in stable industries should allow for the unexpected. Think small, think longterm and think surviving a crisis. One of the most traumatic things that can happen is to lose your home, and treating it as an investment is pure gambling.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Frugal housing

This is a subject that many people have odd ideas about. Or perhaps I should say that they tend to let culture set their expectations, and US popular culture recently has been mostly controlled by the idea of profit.

I have to admit that I believe a lot of the housing bubble was the result of people confusing housing, the necessity, with real estate, an investment. The reality is, even if you buy a house that increases in value, so do your expenses and so do the value of other homes. When you go to sell that house, you're going to spend as much as your "profit" when you buy the next house, unless you sell in a particularly high value area and can move to a much cheaper area. In my non-professional opinion, there were very few people other than realtors and bankers who really benefited by sky-rocketing housing prices. 

However, to leave that somewhat controversial subject behind, let me make some simpler points. Buying and selling houses costs realtor fees and loan fees and other expenses. If you may move in less than 3 years or you're likely to have to sell to move on relatively short notice for a job, forcing you to sell at a loss if the housing market is down, really think twice about buying a home. You will probably have little to no equity and probably spend more in the long run than renting might have cost. It *may* make sense to go ahead if your income is high, you have a good down payment, and you can get by with a house that's substantially less than you can actually afford, especially if the house has good potential to be rented out temporarily if you have to move quickly. It *may* also make sense if you have a large family that would be difficult to house in rental housing that may limit the number of people per bedroom. 

If you're a single or a childless couple, and you expect to need to move within a short time, seriously consider renting as an option. The biggest drawback to this may be if you have to leave mid-lease. Some places, you may be able to get out of a lease for this reason, but in others, you'll still be responsible for the balance of the lease if it isn't re-rented. If you're going to be in the same place for at least a year, some small landlords will consider a one year lease then (assuming you've been a good tenant) continue the lease month-to-month with 30 days notice to move out or short term extensions to the lease. They'll often consider the expenses in the turnover against the savings of having a known tenant. Large apartment complexes tend to have set-in-stone rules, but sometimes you can continue a lease month-to-month for a surcharge. 


Thursday, April 14, 2011

Quality as a consideration

I'm not actually a fan of the idea of the absolute cheapest price. It's often far more expensive in the long run, and we should take the long view if we really want to save money. 

One of my favorite examples is modern mass-produced clothes, usually imported from countries where the work is shoddy and the materials even worse. Clothes that can't be worn (i.e. socks that won't stay up) or fall apart or come apart at the seams within two or three months of light wear are essentially disposable. In fact, the quality of most of the clothes being imported is now so bad that I think that paying someone to tailor at least some clothes for you (skirts and possibly pants and jackets) is probably a viable money-saving strategy. Of course, learning to sew yourself is better, but I admit to being sewing-impaired, and unfortunately I don't know anyone local to me capable of tailoring clothes for me.

Another place where I opt for quality over cheapness is my peanut butter. I buy the natural PB that has to be refrigerated, and admittedly, I could save money with regular PB. But the natural PB doesn't have partially hydrogenated oils or added salt, plus there is almost no comparison in taste to me, and I think those things are important enough to spend the extra. I do watch for sales and stock up then, and recently I've been able to get one pound jars for $1.25 each. That's less than $.10 for an 8 gram serving of protein, which is still a good deal. And this is my "emergency" food: when I don't have much time in the morning, I make PB toast for breakfast, helps me resist the temptation to buy fast food.

I've mentioned our reasons for drinking organic milk before. I also use an organic toothpaste. Yes, it's more expensive. But one tube lasts quite a while, which means the actual difference in expense per month is pretty small, and it's produced in the US. Most important, I trust this brand, and that matters. A lot. I'm very leary of food and oral products produced in countries with much lower standards of quality.

Which brings me to food safety (and any other kind for that matter). Saving a few cents is NOT worth risking food poisoning or anything else. If we have meat that goes past what I feel is a "safe" age limit, based on safety recommendations, it goes into the garbage. $5 for a roast, or a $100 copay for an emergency room visit, plus possible treatment, missing work and classes. It's just not worth it. 

Just last Saturday, I made my lunch for the next week, fixed myself a bowl, then put the rest in a container. It was still pretty warm, so I left it on the counter to cool before putting it in the refrigerator while I read for a few minutes. Two hours later, I woke up from a nap. Ooops. I did eat the one bowl out of it, and I comfort myself a little with the knowledge that this particular one was an experiment that was barely edible. But while I hate wasting food, I'd feel a lot more guilty about ending up in the hospital to save about $.60...

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Spicy beans and rice

I think I've mentioned that I live in the southern half of Texas (for those not familiar with the geography, that's an important distinction. You have to drive almost 600 miles from the area north of Dallas/Fort Worth to Brownsville, and it's almost 900 miles from the northern part of the panhandle to Brownsville, about as far from northern France to Madrid...) We eat a bit differently in this area, with some seasonings like powdered cayenne pepper being about as common as black pepper most places, not to mention fresh peppers of every sort. Salsa can appear on almost anything, and you can serve almost anything on a tortilla.

This past weekend was Chilifest weekend in the small town of Snook, Texas, a town which I'm glad isn't to close. I'd love to sample a few of the prize winners and listen to the live music, but large quantities of beer will be consumed, especially by the local college students, almost always a dangerous mix. I'm not a non-drinker, but I avoid situations with lots of drunks...

As every Texan knows, real chili doesn't involve beans (a surprise to most people). However, there are various dishes, sometimes called "ranch beans" that do involve beans and chili powder, and can be delicious, nutritious, and cheap. In honor of Chilifest, here's one of my versions:

Start with 5 cups of water, add some beef bouillon (it can be made without this, but isn't as good). Add salt, pepper, a dash of cayenne pepper, and some garlic salt or fresh, crushed garlic. Then, add some sort of chili powder. We have a local brand that's cheap and has a kick (actually a chili mix intended to be added to chili meat and water). The first time you make this, be cautious with the cayenne and chili powder until you get some idea how spicy your brand is.

Bring to a boil, then rinse and add about 3/4 cup of pinto beans and 1/4 cup of brown rice. Bring back to a boil, then cover and lower to a simmer for about half an hour, stirring every 10 minutes at least. Add about 1/2 to 1 cup of diced onions. I use the frozen ones, which means I have to raise the heat for a few minutes, then lower back to a simmer. Simmer for another 20 minutes, then test the beans for tenderness. Keep testing until they're just right. Test the broth for flavor and add salt and pepper as needed. This is even better if you add some browned meat, with the beans and rice if using cubed meat or with the onions if using ground meat.

The beans for this cost about $.12, the brown rice, about $.05, the bouillon, about $.05, the onions, about $.40, and the spices, about $.08. That's a large pot for about $.70, probably enough for 3 or 4 lunches, served without bread, or 4 or 5 with. The cost could be cut further by reducing the onion or chopping your own, but onion is a high-nutrition food, so I'd only recommend that if you're really desparate. Meat would add considerably to the cost, but it would still be between $1.50 and $2 for several meals worth. It does take experimenting to get the seasoning right, but if you end up with a batch that's too bland, you can always add some more seasoning and cook longer, or just add the cooked beans and rice to another pot of soup if they're impossilbly bland. If they're too spicy, you can bland them down by adding potato and cooking until that's tender. At this price, you can afford to do some experimenting.

One note about beans and grains---insects. Freezing dry beans is probably the best solution to this, but be careful of dampness when thawing them. We use bay leaves around ours, but if I had a choice, I'd freeze them in small quantities and thaw enough for a couple of weeks at a time.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Local shopping

A companion idea to seasonal shopping is local shopping. Local shopping is buying foods that are grown or produced locally, which are often cheaper. For instance, when we lived in Michigan, we bought fresh locally produced apple cider every fall for much cheaper than I've seen it elsewhere. In our area of Texas, we can get 60 corn tortillas for $2. Really good salsa, avocados, peppers and similar things are also reasonably priced locally.

Don't forget local pick-your-own operations. Some of them are pretty outrageously priced, but others are a great deal for an hour or two of your work. I remember taking my older child out to pick blueberries at one near us in MI (for about 2/3 the cost of buying them at the best price in the store) with the younger child in a baby pack on my back. It was an exciting adventure for the older child, we got delicious fresh berries, and the younger child happily babbled at us while we picked. This is a particularly good idea if you like to can or freeze your own produce.

Another strategy is to find someone who grows their own and may have surplus from time to time. They may be willing to part with that surplus for a good price or even for bartered help with their garden. If you live in a rural area, get to know your neighbors and who is growing or raising what. If you can find someone who keeps their own chickens for eggs, fresh eggs from yard-raised hens have a taste that the store eggs (usually stored until almost too old to sell) can't begin to compare with. If someone raises livestock, you may be able to get a bargain on meat. My parents used to make a deal with friends of theirs to split the cost of the friends raising a calf each year in exchange for a share of the beef (between an acre garden and this, we had two freezers full of food all the time and shelves filled with home-canned vegetables and fruits).

And don't forget hunters and fishermen. Some may have more meat than they can use, and while laws may preclude selling it, they can give it away. I once worked for a delightful outdoorsman who made the most incredible venison jerky you can imagine, and he brought in bags of it to work to give away. If you know one who's generous like that, show your appreciation by offering to keep a pet or check their mail or water their plants when they're out of town.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Seasonal shopping

Last week, eggs were $1 a dozen, which reminds me: look for seasonal bargains. Chickens, even in industrial conditions that try to even out production over the year, begin producing more eggs in the spring (there's a reason for the association of eggs and Easter.) It's a great time of year to eat a lot of eggs, which are almost always a cheap protein, if you don't have health concerns with them.

That's an important idea, try to shop in season. Even in this day of vegetables shipped in from the far end of South America in the winter, most of the time the vegetables and fruits in season are going to be cheapest. That means the best time for most berries is spring into early summer, apples in the fall and winter, summer squash in the early summer through late fall, winter squash in late summer through winter, and so on.

Even meat tends to have "seasons," though that's less the case than it used to be. However, everyone knows that turkey tends to be cheap in the fall because the producers aim for the Thanksgiving market. Traditionally hogs were slaughtered in the fall, and probably still are. Why? Because if you breed hogs to have their litters in the spring when the babies won't need much artificial heat, the hogs will be at market weight in the fall, and feeding a hog any longer than necessary cuts into your profits. If you track prices, you may notice a trend for different meats.

Another "seasonal" price variation is around holidays. Usually, there are particularly good sales on baking ingredients like sugar near the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Ham is often on sale near Easter, as are eggs. Hot dogs and hamburger are often on sale near the "grilling" holidays like Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day, but so are things like BBQ sauce, mayonnaise and ketchup.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Entertaining vegetarians

This is intended for those who not only aren't vegetarians, but aren't terribly familiar with them either. I am not a vegetarian myself (I'm too Texan to give up my steaks, thanks), but I have vegetarian friends of most sorts. This isn't necessarily a post on being frugal, but once you know a little more, you can make lower cost choices.

OK, your brother's just announced that he's bringing someone with him to dinner this weekend, and oh, by the way, she's a vegetarian. Once you get over the shock that your brother is actually bringing a (possible) girlfriend to meet your family, don't panic at the idea of having a vegetarian at your table.

The first question is: what sort of vegetarian is she? Many people are very surprised to discover how many shades of vegetarianism there are. The first basic level, in general, is people who simply don't eat red meat (i.e. no beef, pork, lamb, or other mammal). They will eat poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy. The next level of vegetarian is someone who doesn't eat any meat but will eat dairy and may eat some eggs. Beyond that is someone who eats no animal products whatsoever, including dairy and eggs (called a vegan). Then fructarianism (or fruitarianism) are people who eat only fruits, nuts, and seeds. The most extreme form I'm familiar with are jainists, which is a religion so opposed to violence that some of them only eat  foods that can be gotten without harm to a plant. If your brother's girlfriend is one of the last two groups, you might suggest going out to eat someplace that she finds acceptable. But the rest are easy enough to work with.

Oh, and most of those levels divide into two "camps": those who are vegetarians for "health" reasons, and those who object to animal products as cruelty to animals---an "ethics" vegetarian.

At the "no-red-meat" level, just serve a chicken or fish main course and watch out that you don't use things like beef broth. At the next level, consider a main dish that relies heavily on cheese and/or eggs. Pizza or homemade macaroni and cheese or a pasta dish without meat in the sauce. One caution, though. If she's a "health" vegetarian, cheeses aren't a problem. If she's an "ethics" vegetarian, forego the cheese, they'll only eat cheeses made in certain ways, and you'll find those expensive and risk making a mistake.

With vegans, you're getting into somewhat trickier territory, but you can still produce a good meal that everyone can enjoy without buying exotic foods. If she's a "health" vegetarian, you can probably also serve a dish with meat for the rest of the family if you fear family riots over a completely meatless meal. But there are lots of common, delicious foods that a vegan will enjoy. You can buy vegetable broth and use it to make mushroom and potato soup, or some other sort of vegetable soup (these usually need more salt that regular meat broths). Gazpacho. All sorts of salads, complicated and simple (just be careful of the dressings). Vegetable side dishes (baked potatoes, steamed carrots). Brown rice or breads (but make sure they're made without eggs or butter). Desserts can be fruit-and-nut salads, apple crisp, eggless-and-butterless pastries, and some fruit ices (make sure they don't include dairy).

Avoid most pastas (they're made with eggs), but there's a small grain-like pasta called couscous that is delicious, fast and easy to cook up, and not very expensive if you buy it in bulk (this is one of my favorites when we need a quick starch with a meal).

And just as a matter of perspective, meatless doesn't mean deprivation: when I was a kid, we had a huge garden (a full acre at times), and during the summer when we had huge amounts of fresh produce and it was too hot to cook much, our suppers were often platters of fresh produce with bread and butter and some kind of cooked grain---fresh sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, canteloupe, celery, carrots, steamed corn on the cob, beans, breaded fried squash and okra, cabbage, a huge salad, mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes, and dill and sweet pickles. There usually was a small main dish with at least a little meat (often a leftover casserole), but not always. And once the weather cooled, we had many suppers that were big pots of bean soups or bean casseroles with corn bread and a salad with no meat at all. I doubt my parents had even heard of vegetarianism then, and there were many nights we had meat-heavy meals. But the produce-heavy summer suppers were just what you did when you had a garden, and my mother's bean soup and corn bread were delicious. We certainly didn't consider either of those suppers a deprivation: I think we ate much better than most people I knew, and some of my best meal-time memories are of the fresh summer produce on the table.