Saturday, May 21, 2011

Frugal convenience

For those who really don't cook, but want to save money, the trick is to learn which convenience foods are most worthwhile and learning to take advantage of sales.

This week, for instance, our third grocery store has catfish nuggets for $.99 a pound, a heat-and-eat food. Canned vegetables are 3 for $1. Fresh strawberries are $5 for 3 pounds. Large eggs are $.99 a dozen. And there are some deli items. If you're willing to boil eggs and cap and wash strawberries and heat vegetables, there's a good start on the week, from the store that's usually our most expensive.

Our main store has fresh strawberries for $1.25 a pound, premade salads for $2 a bag, a decent brand of frozen dinner for $1.18, all-beef hotdogs for $.99. Plus there are a lot of things that are normally a good deal.

Sandwiches can be a cheap convenience food. You can broil them, open-faced, in the oven for a change. Or toast the bread in a toaster. Buy a cheap pizza and add your own extra toppings.

Cheap art

Just a couple of quick ideas for today. There are lots of ways to put up something on your walls to make them look less bare without spending much money.

The common one---framed posters.

Take a really pretty card or scene from a calendar or magazine and frame it.

Family photos. This is a lot easier to do these days with digital cameras. Get good ones then go have them printed on a good quality color printer, then frame.

Make and hang a quilt or applique fabric hanging.

Shelves with a few knick knacks or a theme like old farm implements.

Look for art and frames at yard sales.

Hook a rug and hang it.

Embroider a picture, frame, and hang it.

The one thing I'd suggest is try to pick things that aren't jarring with each other.


Friday, May 20, 2011

Kids and money 2

I started on this subject some yesterday, mostly focusing on clothing. Sports is another area that can be expensive if you aren't willing to set limits. This seems to be more of an obsession of affluent parents, especially with sports because they feel it will make their children more "well-rounded" when they apply to a university. In moderation, that's fine.

Unless sports are a child's driving interest (and in that case, they usually are obsessed with only one or two), there's no reason not to exercise a little restraint here. One sport at a time should be enough for most children during the school year, though since most of them are seasonal, this can still allow for a child to participate in more than one over the course of a year. In the summer, it can be tempting to sign a child up for several things, but even then, one team sport and one individual one like swimming are probably plenty.

The idea here is quality over quantity. A child who is going to a different sports practice every night of the week is unlikely to be very good at any of them because he or she never focuses on that one sport. Ask yourself what the real goal is. Realistically, is your child a gifted athlete in that sport? If not, is the goal for the child to get physical exercise and learn to love a sport that he or she continues to play for life? Is it learning team-work? Is it filling out a resume? Is the child playing a sport for the love of it, or because you think he or she needs to?

Honestly, this is as much an area to set limits as clothing. If you just want a child to learn a sport in order to stay fit and have fun, don't jump into an expensive one. Some are VERY expensive. Some are quite cheap. Many don't actually require joining a team---swimming, skating, hiking. If you want to fill out a resume for college, you'll need to join a league sport, but you still don't have to choose an expensive one.

However, I'm not saying to refuse a more expensive one if a child really sincerely wants to participate in that sport and you can afford it. You can still limit it. If a child really wants to fence, for instance, see if you can rent equipment for a few months until it's clear he or she is going to stick with it. A child may try a sport to discover he or she doesn't like it, that's fine (but a good reason for a kid to play some backyard softball before signing up for a league).  Once or twice is understandable. But I'd hesitate to spend a lot for a child to keep trying new sports if he or she never sticks with one beyond a couple of months. At that point, it's time to set a "sports" budget or quietly insist the child help pay for the equipment, lessons, fees, etc.

Honestly, unless there's a particular team sport a child wants to try, if all you want is for your child to be fit, why not buy bikes for both of you? You're probably spending that much time driving to practices and waiting for them to be over. This way you can both get fit, probably in less time, and have a good time together. If you want to use this to fill out a college resume, you can sign up for charity rides or bike clinics for young kids. Also, don't let a child's sports practice schedule overrun your life. If that starts happening, talk to other parents you're friends with to take turns carpooling the kids. And if the sport becomes stressful, it's time to reevaluate.

I do want to add that I have reservations about many organized team sports for young children; I question whether most young kids actually learn the lessons of teamwork and good sportsmanship that are claimed for these things. However I played several years of intramural basketball from the ages of 12 to 15 and loved it, and though I never considered swimming competitively, I spent every minute I could swimming for many years. I do have serious issues with the growing trend to "private" sports leagues that charge a high fee, effectively locking out poorer kids without having to openly discriminate as well (but potentially allowing them to offer scholarships to exceptional kids, thus siphoning off the best athletes from the open leagues), while often playing on tax-payer funded public sports fields. 

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Kids and money 1

This can be a particularly difficult subject, and not something that can be addressed in just a few paragraphs, so I'm going to address a single idea to start. Parents find that they have to deal with a lot of pressure from kids to buy things in order to "fit in," and parents' own experiences with this sort of pressure often make them inclined to give in. And, based on economic circumstances, a certain level of this may be appropriate, especially in clothing.

However, I don't think you do a child any favors by giving them everything they want and setting no limits. Learning to accept "no" is an important character lesson for adulthood for anyone, no matter how wealthy. I also firmly believe that people will value something far more if they earn it. Yes, parents do assume the responsibility for providing the necessities of life when they choose to have a child. But keep a clear idea between needs, wants, and luxuries. Even the wealthiest child does not NEED more than about a week's worth of everyday clothes and possibly a few additional special items of clothing if that child has social responsibilities for their family.

I believe every child should do some work for their family and understand that that is part of what a family is. Poorer families find the financial burden of peer pressure to dress certain ways very difficult to manage, but reality tends to make most of them find ways to limit it (and I give lots of ideas for that in other posts). Affluent families are often more reluctant to ask children to either limit themselves or earn the extras. But children need limits.

One approach for an affluent family is to set a clear "budget" for clothing for a school year. $500 is more than enough for normal clothing (excluding a winter coat, perhaps), but set a reasonable amount for your income (my kids averaged less than $75 a year including things like shoes and coats). Then give the child the choice. If he or she really wants to spend $125 for a pair of sneakers and $75 for a pair of jeans, he or she is going to be wearing the same clothes over and over a lot. Then offer the opportunity for the child to earn additional money over and above whatever that child normally does for chores to pay for extras.

Learning to make choices is one of the most valuable lessons a child can learn. A child can choose to stay within that budget, buy ordinary clothes and shop sales. Or he or she can shop consignment shops and get great clothes for reasonable prices within that budget. A child can get one or two pricey items and buy cheaper or fewer other clothes to stay within the budget. Or he or she can earn the money to buy the expensive clothes. Myself, I think a child should make no more than minimum wage for household work, which is as much or more than adults make for the same work (and have to complete a job reasonably well) so they appreciate just how much work those items cost---with the bonus that they may learn some empathy for less affluent classmates and resist the urge to join into teasing. It's amazing how many kids suddenly decide those things aren't that important when they stop magically appearing.

My daughters have been shocked to hear college classmates talking about maxing out a credit card over the weekend buying new clothes or having something done to their truck and having to call "Daddy" to pay off the balance so they can spend more. No limits and few repercussions, and usually the same people do the same thing a few weeks later. More telling, these same kids were likely to skip classes, ignore assignments, and show little interest in actually working. After all, they've always been given whatever they wanted, so why should they value the cost of their education? They just have to get by (and sometimes not even that) to meet the minimum requirements of Mom or Dad to keep paying for their 4 or 5 year party, er, education. The thing is, many of these kids will not become responsible adults until they've made major mistakes, and some never will, expecting family to always bail them out.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Word of mouth

As a frugal living strategy, word of mouth can sometimes be very effective. It's amazing how often someone has the very thing you want sitting around gathering dust. People replace furniture and don't want to haul the older pieces down to the resell shop or they bought a sewing machine then decided they didn't like to sew. Or an elderly relative died, and they now have an extra car that they'd really love to sell. Simply mentioning to a few friends that you're looking for something can put it in their minds when someone else mentions that they want to be rid of something.

This works well with important items like furniture and even cars, but it can extend even better sometimes to luxuries. One example is my little tabletop loom. I used to have a floor loom, but I got rid of it because it takes up far too much room for an apartment. While I could do some small offloom weaving pieces, I really wanted to try some things that called for a loom. I ran into a friend who lives several hours away, a fellow weaver, and I was laughing about all the people we knew who just stumbled across bargains in small table looms because I had been watching for one for years. As it happened, she knows a lot more weavers than I do, and within a month or two, she e-mailed me to say that someone she knew needed to sell hers. She looked it over and assured me it was in good condition, and I knew it was more than worth the asking price. I mailed her the money (something you should only do with someone you trust, of course), she paid for the loom and kept it for me until we could get together again.

Another friend once brought me a box of crochet cotton from a garage sale, easily over $40 worth of yarn that she'd bought for less than $5 and asked if I wanted it. I was thrilled to get it for that price as I needed quite a bit for some practice projects at the time. She knew about this and knew that I'd been reluctant to spend the money for it.

I got a kitchen table 25 years ago when my oldest was a baby the same way, for free. Someone came across a man about to haul one out for the garbage and knew I didn't have one and asked if she could have it. That one wasn't even word of mouth, she knew we'd only been able to bring a little furniture back from our overseas assignment and noticed we didn't have one. 

I once swapped a pair of mukluk boots, suitable for ice fishing or hunting, for a more practical pair of snowboots because the other person mentioned that SHE needed a pair for ice fishing and couldn't afford them. As it happened, I had a pair of mukluks from my time in the military that I had no particular use for.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Walnut chocolate chip coffee cake

I'm not entirely sure what to call this. It isn't quite a muffin recipe and isn't quite a cake recipe. But we like it.

2 cups flour
1 tblspn baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar

1 egg, slightly beaten
1 1/4 cup milk
1/3 cup oil

about 1/4 to 1/3 cup of chopped walnuts (or pecans)
about 1/4 cup of choc. chips

Mix the first four ingredients. Stir together the 3 wet ingredients, and stir into the flour mixture just enough to wet things down. If it's too dry, add a tablespoon of milk at a time until it's moistened. Then add and mix in the nuts and chips. Don't try to make a smooth batter out of it, lumpy is probably better.

Preheat oven to 375F. Grease a round cake pan, pour in the batter. Bake until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean which can take between 35 and 45 minutes. Allow to cook a little, then slice and serve like a cake.

This is relatively cheap, not too high in fat or sugar. You can cut costs a little by mixing up powdered milk instead of using fresh, the taste isn't affected here. You can substitute some whole wheat flour for some of the white flour, but you'll need a little more milk if you do. I wouldn't recommend using less than 50% white flour. You can decrease the amount of nuts, but if you go much less than 1/4 cup, it won't have much nut to it.

You can also probably add a brown sugar cinnamon topping or something like that, but it vanishes pretty fast in my house without it.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Just to follow up on a few things I've mentioned previously:

The rice steamer works beautifully, and we use it at least 3 times a week, usually more. It's taken up permanent residence on the counter next to the microwave, and as I hoped, it generates very little heat. Most of the time it gets used to make rice for supper, but I've found it works very well for making my brown rice and beans and for steaming vegetables and hot dogs. This has definitely been a good buy, as long as it holds up. The one difficulty we've found is doing both at the same time. The water tends to foam up through the openings of the steaming pan. This probably isn't an issue when cooking rice, but it's very obvious when I steamed hot dogs with the brown rice and black beans because the hot dogs ended up with darker spots from the cooking water. If you've never used black beans, trust me, they turn the cooking water dark and anything they come in contact with. So, at least when I'm using the black beans in my lunch, we won't be steaming anything at the same time.

I mentioned fried pasta last night, and tested it this morning. I cooked whole wheat macaroni until it was a bit less than done, then drained it and dried it on a paper towel over newspaper. I then fried it in a bit of oil until it was just crisp, then drained it on the same paper towel. I used about a cup of dry pasta, and about 2 tablespoons of oil, total, but at least half of the oil was left behind or drained away and made enough for two people, so I'd say frying added about 50 calories per person. It's good with salt and pepper, but makes a good main dish with low-fat mozarella melted over it. It's a bit of work to make from start, but it would be a great quick way to use up leftover pasta. Or make a double batch of whatever pasta you're making and save the extra half to fry the next day.

The French press coffee maker we bought in September 2008 had a part give out this week. We could probably have patched it to be useable, but it would have required me to be more patient and alert than I am at 6AM, and while we could get a replacement part, it was simpler and faster to spend the $20 on a new one. We'll keep the old one for camping, making looseleaf teas, and for spare parts since the new one is virtually identical. We got about 32 months of use from that coffee maker, which is longer than the last two drip makers lasted combined, and we haven't had to buy coffee filters, so I think it's been a good buy.