Saturday, April 30, 2011

Weekly groceries-4/30/11

This week was back up a bit, $59.95, mostly because we're buying some stuff to get us through finals with limited cooking, and we bought one relatively expensive bulk item. 

Dairy ran $4.98, meat and eggs for $3.43, produce at $6.22, breads, oatmeal, pasta, and corn starch cost $14.51,  healthy snacks for between exams for $8.51, $9.39 in canned goods that were on sale, $7.29 for a large jar of paprika, and the rest in odds and ends. A lot of the breads were things we wouldn't normally buy, but you can make a lot of quick meals around bread. 

We don't normally eat pre-made pasta sauces (too much sodium if nothing else), but a good name brand was on sale for $1 a large can, less than it would cost to make it ourselves, so I stocked up on some of that. I also bought a couple of cans of ready-to-heat whole grain canned pasta on sale for emergency meals during finals. I found some 7 oz packages of small pasta shells for $.29 each, and a couple of packages of my low-fat turkey hot dogs for $1 each. Strawberries are a $1.50 a pound this week, and I'm looking forward to homemade smoothies.

I think I'll make quickie pizzas using one of the cans of pasta sauce plus some hoagie rolls we got on the day-old bread rack. Then I'll fix some of the cheap shells we picked up with the rest of that can of pasta sauce plus a little pre-cooked meat to make lunches for the week. The heat's supposed to break for a few days, a good time to use the oven. The paprika was the expensive bulk item, but we use a lot of it, making our own taco meat and chicken paprika, among other things, and this large container will last us for months. 

All in all, a good, though not great, week. I like having some things around that can be warmed up over a candle-stove or eaten cold if we ever have a prolonged power outage. I think we have enough things like that for about a week right now. I'd like to have about twice that, plus a single burner camp stove. One step at a time...

Friday, April 29, 2011

More gardening

Here are my favorite small garden books that have good ideas for the frugal gardener:

Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew---if you're only going to have one book on gardening, this is it, especially if you're a beginner.

The Postage Stamp Garden Book by Duane Newcomb---This book predated Bartholomew's book, but was less well-known. The original edition is probably hard to find, but I think they've published a newer edition.

How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back by Ruth Stout---I love this one, first published in about 1955. This one is fun to read (I want to be this kind of old woman), but the main thing to take from it for use in your garden is the use of deep mulch to make gardening as time-efficient as possible, and done right, it will build soil fertility over time. 

How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land than You Can Possibly Imagine by John Jeavons---There's a lot of activist stuff in this one, but you can breeze past that and get to the meat of the approach which focuses on getting the highest level of production out of the least space. It can be labor intensive getting started, but this is a great approach for someone with very little space. There are also some great tables. There are more recent editions, I think, including one that I believe includes Fruits in the title...

I'll write more about gardening for frugality on other days, but I did want to suggest that you focus on garden plants that get the most value for the space and work. Eggplant and tomatoes and peppers are fairly expensive at the store, but while they need between 12 and 18" of space each in a garden bed, 3 or 4 plants of each will produce as much as most people can eat and keep producing over a period of time if you pick the right varieties. Potatoes, while very productive, are cheap at the store and only worth growing if you have the space and time. You can grow a lot of carrots and onions in a small space, but they're cheap at the store and labor intensive to grow. Cucumbers and squash tend to be space hogs. Leaf lettuce and swiss chard can be a great choice because you can keep cutting a few leaves at a time for a long harvest. Herbs can be particularly good because they tend to be very expensive at the store, but most can be harvested continously over a long period (and some like rosemary are low maintenance perennials).

Money and relationships

If you aren't already in a relationship, start out remembering that this is an important issue to a relationship's survival. Keep in mind that how a person spends on a date does not necessarily reflect their attitude toward budgeting, either. Many tightwads spend money on a date that they will later be uncomfortable spending in a relationship, which is an unintentional form of false advertising. You need to actually talk about money before you go from dating to relationship (I find it amazing that people can talk about and have sex but are too embarassed to bring up money).

If both people are tightwads, then they're probably well matched as long as they can work out the details. If both people are spendthrifts, well, they're probably well matched again, though I suspect they'll have a rude awakening to reality eventually. But if one is a tightwad and the other is a spendthrift, they really need to work out how finances will be handled before beginning to share expenses.

You need to find a way that works for you, but keep in mind that if one partner is a spendthrift and goes along merrily knowing that the thrifty partner will bail him or her out, you have a recipe for a LOT of conflict. The same goes if the thrifty partner tightly controls the money and the spendthrift feels angry or poor. If neither partner is willing to compromise, then you may need to think long and hard about whether you really want to be in this relationship. Even if you just live together, getting back out of a relationship is generally expensive.

I rather like my daughter and her partner's solution and variations on it. They calculated monthly expenses, plus a bit extra to go into their emergency fund, then each put half that amount into a checking account that my daughter uses to cover the bills and manage their emergency money. I think some bills they are individually responsible for as well. Then, whatever is left, they each can spend or save as they like. Her partner has the option to blow all of his extra on toys (which he does not, btw), and she has the option to squirrel away hers, and both feel they have control of their money. 

It seems to be working well for them, though she's pointed out that talking about things and respecting the other's feelings is VERY important. And they're learning from each other. Many of his expenditures are for practical things that they can both enjoy for a long period and she has been able to admire many of these choices, and he's seeing the value of having emergency money and little or no debt.

A variation on this that works for some families is to divide the bills, with each partner responsible for certain bills. My recommendation here is that the more responsible partner be responsible for the most vital bills, such as the mortgage or rent.

One that I personally don't like but seems to work for some couples is for one person to be solely responsible for all the money and bills, with the other asking for cash or getting an allowance as needed. I know one couple that this works very well for, but they have an unusually strong, trusting relationship, and the person managing the money is very sensitive to the other partner. They communicate about things a lot. For a couple that can communicate this well, this can work very well as a solution when one partner is a spendthrift but wants to do better. Far too often, however, I've seen this approach lead to just as much or more conflict, and sometimes outright abuse as the person with the pursestrings uses it to control the other person.

The important thing is to find what works for you. And even if you think you're being cautious, you may find that the person changes later. When I met my ex, he had a nice bit of savings and seemed to be reasonably frugal while also willing to spend a little on fun. I never talked specifics to him about budgets, though, then after we were married discovered he had very different ideas. Later, he wore me down about credit cards, and although he'd promised we'd pay them off every month, he immediately began maxing them out. My mistakes were not talking to him about details of handling money and priorities, and, frankly, what he wanted out of life. I'm still not sure he knows the answer to that last question...

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


I should warn anyone reading regularly that for the next couple of weeks, my posts may be a bit brief, even disjointed. Why? Heading into finals, among other things, and studying comes first.

Which brings me to my topic for tonight. The other side of a frugal budget is income. If you're in debt or work in an unstable field (I spent a year working for a computer company where everyone expected to be laid off and have to job hunt every 3 or 4 years), want to build up your retirement funds, or just want to save up enough to take 6 months off to travel around the world, then being frugal with spending is only half the equation. Maximize income. 

I'm sure you're saying, oh, yeah, THAT'S easy. Well, no, but I didn't say it would be. But there ARE possibilities, especially if you're thinking in the long term. Some of these ideas will work for some people and not for others, it all depends on your circumstances, resources, and personality. 

First: take on a part time second job or seasonal work. This can be as little as babysitting for the neighbors on Saturday so they can go out together or as much as an extra 20 or 30 hours a week. Just don't take on something that will tire you so much that your performance at your primary job drops. That babysitting job may only get you $10 extra a week, but that's $520 a year. 

Second: Change jobs for one that pays better. This could be hard to do in the current economy, and I would recommend against it if you like your current job, and if you have family, consider quality of life in any job change. If the commute or required hours are too long, think carefully about any job change. If changing jobs isn't an option but you don't like your job, consider the next option.

Third: Get retrained or get additional training to improve your prospects. Even though the education system is under attack, community college technical training classes can be a bargain. But unless you're going back for a degree, aim for specific classes in job skills or to earn a certificate. My sister makes decent money as a paralegal, for instance. But be wary of claims about earnings for jobs-talk to people in the field. For those who are college educated but got a degree in a field that isn't doing very well, consider grad school or a certificate of some sort. There are online programs if you aren't near a good school. But if your goal is a better job, make sure you're getting practical job skills out of it. A masters in medieval French literature might be fun, but it will probably only help your prospects if you can find a school where they want that taught. Think like an employer. 

Fourth: Start a micro business or small business. The difference isn't very well defined, but I'd say a micro business is very parttime, and could be only a few hours a week, producing very small amount of income. An example would be someone who does custom cake decorating to order, maybe one cake every week or two or someone who translates documents occasionally. The idea is that it provides a small extra income stream. A small business might be something that's run in a couple of hours in the evenings or a couple of days on the weekend up to a business with no more than 10 employees. (I'd define anything bigger than that as a medium-sized business, but I'm sure many people would argue.) This is usually intended to provide a full time income to the business owner, eventually.

Fifth: make some extra money through a hobby if you can. This one can be tricky because people don't like to pay for quality work. If it's something that can be made relatively quickly and sell for the cost of materials plus at least $5 or $6 an hour, it could be worth trying. 

When asked if she was going to sell a beautiful shawl she had knit, a friend laughed and said that she'd make less than minimum wage if she sold it for $700. Time intensive ones aren't the most efficient, but in some cases they could be worth considering. I knit and crochet, and a lot of small baby items can be made relatively quickly from patterns simple enough that I can watch a movie while working on them. I suspect I'd make less than $4 an hour even for that work, but on the other hand, it's time I would not have been paid for at all, and I've considered doing this. I currently use part of my lunch hour to work on projects intended for gifts.

I've already written more than I planned, but I'll try to go into more detail on these ideas on other days...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


This can be a great frugal living strategy, IF you have some useable ground to do it on and can do it without a large investment in tools, etc. It's too late to do it for this year, but breaking ground is easier if you spread out a thick layer of hay (not straw) and leaves across the area you want to work and leave it alone for at least 6 weeks. When you rake this back (ideally, to either cover a new area you want to turn into garden or use as a mulch after the plants come up), the ground is generally very easy to dig.

Community gardens can be another option. You may have to pay a small fee for the use of a plot of ground, and of course there is the travel time if it isn't truly close to you to consider, but the trade-off can be that there are sometimes tools available for use and knowledgeable gardeners for advice. 

Gardening in pots is also an option, but be very cautious about the costs of starting up. 

Start small, and I mean really small if you aren't experienced at gardening. 4' x 4' is big enough to grow more than you might think. 

More on gardening later, but this week's going to be short posts...

Monday, April 25, 2011

Stocking the kitchen

So, what is the the minimum outfitting for a kitchen? You can get by with very little, at least for a while, especially if you are starting with nothing. Can opener and bottle opener. A 2 quart sauce pan with a lid is big enough to make soups, warm vegetables, and can even be used, in a limited way, in place of a skillet. Add a sheet pan, a slotted cooking spoon, a decent knife and a pancake turner, and you can manage basic cooking for yourself. If you're willing to wash dishes as you use them (wasteful of water though), you can get by with a single plate, bowl, mug, spoon, knife and fork.

At the next level, add a medium-sized skillet, preferably with a lid, a mixing bowl, a couple of more cooking spoons and knives, a glass measuring cup, measuring spoons,  possibly a spatula, tongs, or whisk. Add at least one more set of tableservice.

Things that are handy but can be added as you have the resources: a lidded soup pot (6 qt is a good size, but a really big one is nice to have), a bread pan, a cake pan, round or square casserole dishes with lids if available, a cutting board, a vegetable peeler, collander, a 1 qt lidded sauce pan, and an omelet pan or small skillet. For singles or couples, I'd recommend 3 place settings per person so you don't have to wash tiny loads of dishes, larger families can probably get by with 2 per person. Probably a little extra glassware beyond the basic.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Bad idea

A friend mentioned this one to me: Rent to own stores. This is probably one of the worst ideas possible, financially (unless you own the store.) What made her think of this one was a sign advertising TVs for $99 a month FOR 36 MONTHS. That's $3564. FOR A TELEVISION! I could comfortably furnish a 1 bedroom apartment for that much money.

A television is NOT a necessity like food and shelter, and expensive TVs are definitely toys. Toys should be bought in cash, with money left after you provide for real bills and necessities AND fund your emergency fund. If you can't afford to pay for that huge home theater in cash, you can't really afford it no matter what your buddy has in HIS living room. You can get a perfectly good new flat screen HD TV for $200 or less. If you can't afford $200 in cash, why are you even THINKING about committing yourself to $99 a month for a TV when you don't even have the money for a used car payment? Go to Goodwill or a similar shop and buy a cheap working second hand TV for less than one month's payment.

If TVs are your passion and you really, really would love and use that elaborate TV, save up for it sensibly. Go out and buy that cheap TV from Goodwill and save that $99 a month. Within 4 or 5 months, you'd be able to buy a 30 or 40" flatscreen TV in cash. If that isn't enough TV, you can probably save up enough to buy a TV very much like the one that the rental place was selling for over $3500 in about 15 to 18 months, probably for less than $1800. That's because the price tag on the rent-to-own items is generally MUCH higher than retail stores, the models they sell are usually older models that are close to going out of production (remember, that means repairs will be harder to come by) and the actual interest on the purchases is very high. Also keep in mind that these sort of things tend to be impulse purchases. By the time you have the money saved,  you may find somewhere better to put your money.

And rent to own furniture. I should go by the local store and price these, but I don't have the free time right now, and the on-line store won't give me any information on pricing until I actually start filling in personal information to BUY the item (always a bad sign). But from things I've seen in the past, you're probably going to pay more than twice what the furniture is really worth. Even if furniture is a necessity, if you can't afford to just buy it, you probably don't really need it.

Instead of dropping almost $2400 over 2 years for a sofa, loveseat and coffee table, try used furniture stores and for sale ads (Craigslist, used with CAUTION for safety, can be very useful) and yard sales. You can probably get similar items within a couple of months for less than $300. You can probably get high quality items (which the rental stuff rarely is) for less than $1000.

A bed is the only normal furniture item that is essential enough that a case can be made for going into debt to buy. Even then, the frame can almost always be bought cheaply second hand. You'll probably want to buy a mattress new, though, and get a decent quality one that will last. But do NOT buy it from the rental place. If you can't buy it in cash, and you don't qualify for normal credit, sleep on an air mattress for 3 or 4 months while you save up to buy that mattress before you blow money at the rental place. And shop before you buy. My daughter, whose partner has back problems, shopped around for a very particular type of mattress, and found a reputable place where she could get the mattress she wanted for 40% of the usual retail price, less than half what they'd have paid if they went down to the local bed store.

There are a very few cases when rental furniture (note I said rental, not rent-to-own) may make sense. One: medical furniture, like a hospital bed, that you need temporarily or absolutely HAVE to have now and can't get any other way. Two: an extra bed for a house guest (for instance, your elderly MIL is staying with you for a month or two while she recovers from surgery but isn't moving in permanently).  Three: you're moving somewhere temporarily, and you can't take your own furniture with you (and if you're staying more than 3 or 4 months, buying a few pieces of second-hand furniture then reselling may still be a smarter idea). Four: you're moving and your house hasn't sold yet, and you want a few pieces in the house so it doesn't look bare when the realtor shows it or when someone looks in the windows. These last two cases I think you should be really cautious about, especially the last case. If you do chose to rent for a short period, study the contract CLOSELY. Make sure you aren't committing yourself to a long term, aren't paying a high delivery and pick up fee or a cancellation fee, and you can end the rental with no more than 30 days notice.