Monday, February 26, 2007

Scrounging Money Around the House

For me frugality is a means to an extra principle payment on the loan we have for our vacant land where we plan to build a log home for our retirement. This mortgage has the higher interest rate of our two loans, and it's the property that means the most to us. So every nickel I scrape up is earmarked for that purpose. The extra principle payment is why I don't drive my car more than a couple times per week; why I keep the thermostat set at 64 during the day; why I'm selling our extra stuff on ebay, and looking for any possible way to cut expenses.

Recently, I discovered a bag of money just sitting in our home office. It contained not American greenbacks, but a large variety of foreign coins and bills we'd collected over our pre-mortgage years of vigorously decadent travel. I opened it up and sorted through the bills, some of which were for obsolete European currencies replaced by the euro. There were Australian dollars, Hong Kong dollars, Iranian rials, Estonian kroner, Finnish marks, Venezuelan Bolivars, New Zealand dollars, Russian rubles, Swedish kroner, British pounds, Irish pounds and Italian lira. I didn't even bother trying to sort the coins.

After sorting through the paper money, I called up my wonderful bank, USAA, and asked about depositing foreign currency in my account. They said they'd take everything but the Iranian rials and the expired European currencies: the lira, Irish pounds and Finnish marks. Best of all, they wouldn't charge me a currency conversion fee. Yet another reason why I love USAA! Running a few quick calculations on the exchange rates, I estimated that I'd just scrounged up around $250 towards next month's extra principle payment. That felt great! It may be a drop in the bucket, but it all adds up.

I was a little sorry to see the Estonian currency go. It's among the prettiest I came across in my travels. And also a little disappointed that we'd hung on to the old European currencies long enough for them to be worthless today. I have no ideas about how to cash in foreign coins. I'd probably do it if there was a somewhat easy way. In the meanwhile, the coins are fun for my nephew to play with, and they're nice mementos of our travels. We might see about selling the Iranian rials to some Persian acquaintances of ours who occasionally travel back to that wonderful country. We'll keep at least one 10,000 rial note as a souvenir. The rest would only be worth around $9 anyway.

At some point, I'll tell you about USAA and why you should definitely do business with them if you're eligible.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The frugal mindset

I'm not sure that I've said this before on this blog, but a frugal way of life crept up on me. Though the decision to start conserving money as much as possible was a rather abrupt one (we took on two mortgages nearly simultaneously), the ways in which I practice frugality have evolved over time. I don't think I obsess about money, but I do recognize that there are lots of things I now do that have an ingrained and unconscious character about them. At the same time, there is a mindfulness about the way I live that helps me conserve tiny amounts of money all the time. Here are a few examples.

I often eat my lunch, or even dinner off the same plate I put my breakfast on. A few crumbs from my toast and a smear of butter or jam doesn't seem that worrisome to me. I can eat my sandwich off that same plate and fill the dishwasher up a little more slowly.

I save any full-sized sheet of white paper that arrives in the mail with only one side printed on. More often than not, what I need to print out is for personal consumption and use only. So I don't care if there's something random printed on the back. This was even more useful to me when I was in school and needed to proofread term papers before turning them in. Also, unless there's a good reason for doing so, I always print stuff out on the lowest quality print setting. It's called "draft" on my computer. This uses less ink, so I get more mileage out of the cartridge.

I don't like to throw things away that might have some use left in them. Granted, this attitude could contribute to pack-rat accumulation if left unchecked. But I've found that by giving myself a little time to mull it over I often come up with good uses for things that would otherwise be tossed. I also don't like paying for disposable items, particularly when there's a free alternative. Pages ripped from an old phone book work well for cleaning glass in place of paper towels. They are nicely sized and free. They're also the perfect size for wrapping up tampons or sanitary pads, in place of toilet paper. Plastic produce bags can stand in for plastic wrap in many cases. Brown paper grocery bags and newspaper are absorbent enough to drain bacon or other fried foods on. Use the stuff you get for free instead of something you have to pay for. I'm currently saving up wine corks in order to duplicate a lovely large bulletin board made entirely out of used wine corks.

I like to feed birds, but I don't like paying for birdseed. So I actually save crumbs from the bread we slice at home, along with any seeds from store bought crackers that accumulate in the container. When the crumb bag fills up a bit, (and it does so surprisingly fast) I mix the crumbs and seeds with reheated fat saved from cooking meats. When it's cool enough, I gather it into a ball inside some wax paper and then put it in the freezer. Once it has solidified nicely, I unwrap the ball of fat, seeds, and crumbs and put it into a mesh onion bag and hang the bag from a tree outside our living room. The birds cling to the bag while they feed. I love to see them eating things I would just have thrown away otherwise.

I re-wash and re-use my ziploc bags and my aluminum foil until they fall apart. I see no reason to get only one use out of these items, except where raw meat is involved. I now know that heavy-duty aluminum foil is worth the slightly higher price because the extra thickness allows it to stand up to repeated washings. I'm beginning to grudge the use of plastic wrap because I haven't figured out a way to either clean it or store it after the first use.

All my task lists and grocery lists are written on junk mail envelopes.

A cup of tea warms me better than cranking up the thermostat. I routinely dress in warm layers during winter. But when the thermostat is set to just 64 degrees, sometimes I feel chilled anyway. If it's not time to burrow under the covers for a nap, I've found that just a warm cup of tea can take the chill off my bones for an hour or more. I've also left pots and pans around to be cleaned on cold days when I know that my hands are going to need warming at some point through the day. Spreading the cleaning chores out over the day gives me a tool - physical exertion - for keeping warm. In hot weather, I plan physical exertion, especially outdoor exertion, for first thing in the morning or late in the evening.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Sweating the small(er) stuff

I've mentioned Amy Dacyczyn's wonderful Tightwad Gazette on this blog a few times already. Her collected books were the perfect fulcrum for shifting my viewpoint to a more frugal mindset. Most of all, she assured me that it was okay to "sweat the small stuff." More often than not, the thousands of tiny economies we could be practicing are pooh-poohed by both spendthrifts and frugalites who are more "big picture" types.

But the philosophy to be found in the Tightwad Gazette struck home for me so profoundly because Amy Dacyczyn's family and mine are similar in a financial sense. I'm not raising six kids on a single modest income, as the redoubtable Mrs. Dacyczyn did. But I am free of credit card debt and other crippling sea-anchors that so many other households struggle with. I don't worry about meeting my basic needs from paycheck to paycheck. I've never had a financial, life-altering crisis. I really admire those who labor long and hard to get out from under mountains of debt. But I'm not in that position, so I come to the frugal lifestyle from a different place and with a different perspective.

Still, I hope that my experiences and my advice can be of use to a wide variety of people in a lot of different circumstances. Today, I'm going to focus on some tips for energy efficiency that can be of use to new homeowners and other money-saving tips for those who are just breaking free of debt other than the home mortgage. Credit card debt is obviously the single highest priority for those trying to make it into the black. If you're still carrying a balance on credit cards or other loans, I would urge you to skip these most of these tips (because most of them are going to require some outlay of money) and instead make a higher monthly payment. But if you've finally arrived at the point where your car loans, your credit card debt and your student loans are things of the past, congratulations! There must be a symphony of emotions for people in such a position: euphoria, pride, relief, gratitude, giddiness. And this is where I step in with some grounding, no-nonsense suggestions on how to use some of the money you've been putting towards paying down the debt each month, now that it's gone. Implementing these suggestions will cost money, but it's money that will be working for you for years to come. If the monthly surplus you have freed up by eliminating debt is tiny, then choose the cheapest of these tips to make a start. In time, the savings from each tip will snowball into a larger and larger saved amount, which can then be plowed back into more expensive cost-cutting measures or an extra principle payment on your mortgage. So dig deep and find the money to do these things early on.

  • Change out your regular light bulbs for compact fluorescent bulbs. These bulbs are more expensive than incandescents, but each one will save you 50 cents per month on average. If money is tight, buy just a few bulbs and put them in the lights you use for the most hours per day. Add more compact fluorescents as your budget allows. Do not install a compact fluorescent bulb in any light that is on a dimmer switch. The bulb will get burned out in seconds and you'll have wasted the money spent.
  • Insulate your hot water pipes and your hot water storage tank. Long tubes of foam pipe insulation are cheap and easy to install. If money is really tight, start with the tank itself and the pipes in unheated spaces, closest to your water heater. Be sure to measure the diameter of your pipes and buy the smallest tubes that will fit them. Also be sure not to cover the thermostat on the tank.
  • If you rely on forced air heat, make sure your ducts are well insulated. You can lose as much as a whopping 60% of your heated air if your ducts are passing through unheated areas of the house. You may need professional help to insulate and/or repair damaged ducts. But if you're relying on this form of heat, it's well worth the investment.
  • Check your outlets and light switches that are mounted on the exterior walls of your home. Remove the plate covers and see if there's a piece of foam insulation there. If not, buy some and install them.
  • Wash all your clothes in cold water. If you're not satisfied with the results, use an overnight soak before returning to a hot water wash. The average load of laundry run on a hot cycle uses 32 gallons of heated water, compared to 20 gallons for a hot bath. If you've been washing in hot or warm water out of habit, give the cold cycle a try and see if you can really tell the difference.
  • Buy some clothespins and rig up a clothesline inside. You can use it anytime, despite rainy or cold weather. On average, it costs 50 cents to dry a load of laundry, and more if your dryer is electric. If your family goes through just two loads of laundry per week, that's $52 per year. No excuses here. There are plenty of suitable spaces for a line or two in most homes. Consider the attic or the basement if space is really tight. I have two 7-foot lines, one above the other, just inches from the wall in my small laundry room. I also hang socks and underwear right off the edge of my rubber-coated wire shelving in the laundry room. A collapsible drying rack handles the rest. If you can't abide scratchy towels or clothing, it is permissible to put the dried towels in the dryer on "air fluff" (or whatever the unheated cycle is called on your machine) for 5-10 minutes. That's really all it takes to soften fabrics up. So long as the clothes are already dry and you use the unheated cycle, the dryer will use an acceptably minute amount of energy.
  • Add insulation to your attic if it needs it, and it probably does. Heat rises. So a poorly insulated attic is the equivalent of an open door during the wintertime. Same goes for crawlspaces. Though the expense is higher than for many simple fixes, this is one of the most cost-effective investments you can make to improve energy efficiency.
  • If you live where the summers are hot, install an attic fan to vent hot air. These can be hooked up to sensors that only turn on when the space reaches a certain temperature. They can make an enormous difference to the overall temperature of the house, and thus to your cooling bill.
  • Check with your local electric company about a home energy audit. Many utilities offer these for free. Heed their suggestions as your budget allows.
  • If you rely on window unit air conditioners to cool your home in summer, place them on the shady side of your home. Or plant a fast growing shrub where it will shade the air conditioner. This also applies to condensers for central air conditioner systems. Operating in the shade can increase the efficiency of the unit by as much as 10%.
  • Air dry your dishes, either in a drying rack, or by not using a heated drying cycle on your dishwasher. If you can time it right, the dishes in a dishwasher will still be hot enough to dry very quickly if the machine is opened and the racks pulled out for better air circulation.
  • If you're going to be living in your home for years to come, consider replacing your windows with newer high efficiency models. Windows are often the biggest culprits in heating loss during the winter, losing as much as 25% of the heat in the home. Be sure to run a return-on-investment analysis if you don't plan to live in the house for years to come.
  • When it's time to replace a major appliance or furnace, buy an EnergyStar rated model.
  • Install a programmable thermostat, especially if you are out of the house for hours each day.
  • Plug your electronics into power strips with on/off switches. Turn off the power on each strip when you're not using the appliances plugged into it. TVs, VCRs, DVD players, digital projectors, kitchen appliances and stereo equipment all continue to draw power when they are turned off. In fact, on average an astonishing 75% of the energy these appliances draw is consumed when the appliances are not in use. Power strips eliminate this problem by cutting all power to our gadgets.
Most of these tips involve a once-and-done monetary investment. Pick and choose among them according to the budget you must operate within. As the small savings accrue, you will be able to afford the more expensive investments.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The USDA's Cost of Food - How we measure up

The cost of feeding ourselves is one area where I've been focusing a lot of my efforts in saving money lately. Eating out is a thing of the past for us. Our grocery bill therefore represents our total expenditures on food. I wanted some objective indication of how well we were doing at saving ourselves money in this area. A link found on a frugal discussion forum sent me to the USDA's Cost of Food page. Here the US government breaks down the average price of food at home across the country on a month by month basis. There are four different budgetary plans, ranging from "thrifty" at the low end to "liberal" at the high end. The chart makes it easy to look at average food costs for families of different sizes, and as of this writing the data is complete through December of 2006.

Although I have shopped carefully with my price comparison book, baked our own bread, prepared home-made breakfast items, and relied on cheap staples for dinners, I had never actually tracked our grocery expenses to the dollar. I decided that this month - February, 2007 - would be the month to start. With my husband's cooperation, the receipts started piling up. And yesterday, with a well stocked refrigerator and no need to shop before the end of the month, I toted up the grocery bills and checked in against the government website.

Since no data is available yet for this month or even last month, I looked at both the December, 2006 and the February, 2006 figures for a family of two adults. Extrapolating from these figures, I estimated that under the thrifty plan, the figure for this month would be only about $315-$320 dollars. I'll check this against the actual posted figure when the government catches up on its data.

At first I thought we were doing just fine, with almost $29 to spare until the end of the month. But then of course I remembered a receipt I'd set aside for an item that needed to be returned. That receipt put us over the USDA's thrifty plan figure by $6-11, even when we eliminated the vitamin pills we purchased, moving them out of the grocery budget and into the health care budget. The good news turned to not-so-good news.

My husband and I spent a little while going over our collected receipts. We'd done some stocking up this month, buying a couple cases of "three-buck Chuck" wine for less than $75. I noted that there were quite a few snack items and beer listed on my husband's receipts. He keeps a small apartment in another city that he travels to regularly for work, and the urge to splurge just a little is irresistible for him, I think. He suggested that we not count the beer he bought because he hadn't yet drunk all of it. I demurred, pointing out that we've been eating foods throughout the month that were purchased earlier and stored in the pantry and freezer. Besides, stocking up during sales and once-a-month runs to specialty stores is our usual practice. So it's not our consumption costs, per se, but our food expenditures that we're tracking. In the long run, it should all even out.

The exercise of tracking all our grocery expenses has been a good one - one that we will undoubtedly repeat in the coming months. I'm a little bit disappointed that we didn't meet our goal of living within the thrifty plan as defined by the USDA. But I'm glad that we definitely come in at the low end of their "low-cost" plan, even when purchasing organic products whenever we can. The snack foods and beer that my husband buys have been noted, but that's as far as I'm willing to go in addressing the issue. He's the bread winner, and I'd much rather have a contented spouse than see him feeling deprived and unhappy for the sake of another $20 per month.

We learned that even under the thrifty plan, we could buy organic products and a fair amount of meat, or buy a small amount of snack foods and alcohol - but not both. This is very useful information for me as the primary grocery shopper for the household. I'm not sure yet how it will change our spending habits, if it does at all. But having the knowledge is always a good thing.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Frugal Menstruation - the Diva Cup

The High Price of Menstruation in America
A recent frugal practice in my life is the use of the Diva Cup instead of tampons. I had long resented the high cost of tampons and other "feminine hygiene products." As with many toiletries and grocery items, when making the switch to a frugal lifestyle I initially looked for the cheapest price on the items I was accustomed to using. Unfortunately, I came up empty when looking for good deals on my preferred brand, OB tampons. The best unit price I could find was about 15 cents per tampon. I never actually counted the number I used each month, but I know that I bought the large boxes (40 count) and used at least half a box per month. Estimating conservatively then, I was obligated to spend $3 for a disposable, non-environmentally friendly product each month.

I didn't want to switch to the cheaper Tampex tampons because they introduce even more waste into the landfills. Finally, I got annoyed enough by the high prices that I looked into menstrual cups as a radical alternative. I ended up buying the Diva Cup based on the consumer comments on the product website. I was especially interested by the reports from some women that using the cup instead of tampons reduced cramping. But I bought the Diva Cup from an online retailer that offered a better price than buying directly from the manufacturer. Go figure. I paid about $26 out of pocket for one cup delivered to my door.

About the Diva Cup
The Diva Cup is made of silicone, which is a well-tested material used in many medical implants. It looks a little like a diaphragm, and it comes in two sizes: one for women under 30 who have not had children, and a slightly larger cup for women over 30 and any woman who has had a child. It also comes with a small draw-string bag for storage. It sits snugly in the vaginal canal and collects blood, rather than absorbing it as a tampon does. It might seem like a small cup would fill up quickly and need to be changed regularly. But the average woman only loses a moderate amount of blood over several days of bleeding. According to the manufacturer, the risk of toxic shock syndrome is significantly less when using a silicone cup than when using tampons. Still, the company recommends that anyone with a history of TSS not use the Diva Cup.

Using the Diva Cup
A childless woman in my mid-30's, I found the larger size Diva Cup easy to use. It's definitely a more hands-on way of dealing with menstruation. I came into a lot more contact with my own blood. I'm not a particularly squeamish person, and after all, it is my own blood. But I can imagine that some people would just not feel comfortable dealing with this. There was a learning curve to removing the cup when it was full. I had a few small messes to clean up, but I quickly got the hang of it and had no further problems. In my use of the Diva Cup, I found that even on my heaviest flow days, the cup did not need to be emptied anywhere near as often as I would need to change tampons. This made it seem feasible to use a Diva Cup even in a public restroom. If I was forced to use a public restroom while using the cup, I simply wouldn't empty it until I got back home. I'm confident that even on my heaviest days, I could go at least eight hours without dealing with the cup at all. At home, I empty the Diva Cup into the toilet, rinse it out, wash it well under hot running water, rinse it again, and then re-insert it. When my period is over, I wash it well, let it dry and then store it in the drawstring bag until next month.

The Diva Cup was extremely comfortable when in place. Most of the time I couldn't tell it was there at all. Inserting it comfortably took a little bit of practice, but I never had any pain associated with its use. I don't know if I would recommend this product to younger menstruating teens or those who have never been sexually active. I might be wrong here; it's just something that I would leave up to women in that category to decide for themselves. I think that anyone else would be able to use a menstrual cup without discomfort.

I was curious to see how the Diva Cup would perform overnight during the heaviest days of my period. I have had overnight leaks with tampons in the past. Unfortunately, I did have some leakage during the heaviest part of my period the first time I used the Diva Cup. Since then I have learned to make sure the cup is emptied last thing before I go to bed, and emptied first thing when I wake up. I've had no further problems. Women with especially heavy flows might see different results. I would consider using a water douche along with the cup during my heaviest days if I experienced more overnight leakage. Still, I can say that the Diva Cup performs no worse than tampons for me in this regard.

I have noticed some apparent reduction in cramping when using the Diva Cup, which frankly surprises me. I wasn't expecting to see this benefit. But I can't be 100% certain of this yet because the amount of cramping I experience varies quite a lot from month to month. I haven't been using the Diva Cup long enough to know whether these have just been easy months or whether the cup is making a difference. One other possible benefit is that the Diva Cup also eliminates the increased risk of yeast infections associated with tampons. I have had a few yeast infections now and then, and I had never heard that tampons contributed to this problem. Apparently, tampons dry out the vaginal canal too much, thus making it harder for the body to maintain the population of healthy bacteria in that environment. So two possible points there for the Diva Cup.

To sum up, I'm glad I've started using the Diva Cup. According to my calculations, my financial break-even point for the purchase of the Diva Cup is about nine months. ($26 divided by $3 per month in tampons.) With at least another ten years of menstruation ahead of me, I should see a net savings of $335. And I don't have to worry about running out of tampons in the middle of my period, thus eliminating one possible reason for an emergency run to the store. Additionally, there's the benefit of introducing less waste into the environment. Now I wish that I'd started using the cup ten years ago. I can recommend this product or others like it to any adult menstruating woman who wants to save money and/or be environmentally responsible.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Tips for the frugal car owner

A car is a practical necessity for many of us. It's also among the most expensive items purchased by many households, and it continues to cost money over its lifetime of use. I'm going to present a few tips here for saving money while owning and maintaining a car. It should go without saying that a frugal person would strive to pay cash for a used car in good condition, which was shopped for very carefully. These tips focus on keeping costs down between auto purchases.

  • Drive your car efficiently. Don't take your car out to run a single errand - ever. If you must get to work by car everyday, then make a habit of doing all your grocery shopping and other chores on the way to or from work. If you don't work outside the home, wait until there's a time-critical need to use the car, and then do all your other "whenever" errands on the same day. Always ask yourself if there's anything you need to do along the route you need to travel before you leave the house.
  • Clean the junk out of your car. Every pound of weight you add to your car burns up a little more fuel per mile. Keep only what you really need in the car for each trip. Obviously, you need certain items in case of emergencies. The rest of the stuff that just gets left in the car is costing you money for no reason.
  • Drive 55 (or less). There are so many frugal reasons to keep to a modest speed, even when the legal speed limit is higher. Fuel efficiency plummets dramatically as a car's speed increases beyond 55 mph. Accident mortality increases in a direct relationship to speed. You're more likely to walk away from an accident that happens while you're moving 40 mph than 60 mph. Also, you won't get a speeding ticket, which can cost you in more ways than one. Not only is paying the ticket like burning cash straight out of your wallet, but your insurance premiums will go up. You could end up paying hundreds of dollars per year for that excessive speed, for years to come.
  • Keep the air pressure in your tires at the level recommended by the manufacturer. Low air pressure in the tires results in more drag between the road and your car. That in turn results in lower fuel efficiency. Checking the pressure on your tires is easy and requires only a simple pressure gauge. Make a habit of adjusting the pressure in all four tires once per month at a gas station that has a free air pump.
  • Keep your air filter clean. The air filter is another part of the car which can be easily maintained by the owner for a small but significant increase in fuel efficiency. This maintenance is commonly done every 5000 miles. But I recommend that you make it a part of your monthly car care routine. It takes only a few minutes to clean off an air filter with a vacuum cleaner. Check your owner's manual for guidance on locating and removing the air filter in your car.
  • Ask yourself if you really need to drive a car. If you live in a major city, there are lots of other options aside from driving a car. And the costs for driving a car are likely higher as well, because you must often pay for parking in the city. The favorite frugal option is to walk, as this provides both free transportation and free exercise. A scooter is an excellent solution for many city-dwellers who travel ten miles or less per day. A scooter is much cheaper to buy, maintain, insure, and operate and it removes a lot of the hassles of driving and parking. How many days each year do you really need those extra empty seats, or weather protection offered by a full-sized vehicle? If a scooter isn't for you, then evaluate your public transit options carefully. Also look into carpooling or ride sharing if your work schedule is regular.
  • Don't stint on maintenance. Change your oil on schedule, or get it changed for you. If you live where icy roads are salted in the winter, wash your car so that a simple thing like salt doesn't destroy its value. Sometimes to be frugal you have to know how to spend wisely. Regular maintenance keeps your vehicle running longer and safer to drive. You don't want to end up dead with a lot of money in the bank in the pursuit of false frugality There is such a thing as tightening the belt too far.
  • Raise the deductible on your auto insurance. Your insurance should protect you from financial crisis, not protect you from ever having to spend any money at all. Figure out the highest amount you could pay for auto repair without seriously jeopardizing your budget. Set the deductible as close to that amount as possible.
  • Check the annual mileage that your insurance policy is written for against your actual annual mileage. If your real usage is higher, the ethical thing is to inform your insurer. If it's lower, you may well qualify for a reduction in your premium. This is especially important check if you no longer drive your car to work. Remember this if you suddenly lose a job and find yourself needing to rein in expenses.
  • Use a grease pencil to write a message on the inner face of your hubcaps. Include your name, phone number and a message about a monetary reward for the hubcap's return. Make the reward amount somewhere between 25% and 50% of the replacement part of your hubcap. If you lose the hubcap, you and the finder might both get lucky.
  • If you vehicle doesn't already have them, look into VIN etchings for all your windows. There are kits you can order which put an unobtrusive copy of your vehicle identification number on each window in the car. This seriously erodes the car's value to car thieves. Many auto insurers will give you a discount on your insurance if your car includes these identifiers. Check with your insurance company about this before investing in the etching kit.
Hope you found some of these tips useful. Feel free to add your own in the comment section.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Cheap Bread with a Sourdough Starter

While reading the fabulous Tightwad Gazette, I came across an excellent recommendation for acquiring new skills. Each month, pick one frugal skill that's new to you, and try it out. This seemed like such a sensible idea that I immediately decided to learn about baking, and in particular about yeasted breads. Good bread is something my husband and I came to expect as our birthright while living in the San Francisco bay area. Since relocating to Pennsylvania, the bread pickings have been decidedly fewer, poorer and more expensive. I reasoned that I could probably learn to produce bread at least as good as that being sold for $4 per loaf at the local grocery stores.

Background reading
I've long been proficient at cooking. But baking with yeast seemed so complex and so other to me that I knew I would need the full month or more to feel comfortable with it. Once again, I turned to books and the public library for help. I found the Baker's Companion, by the King Arthur Flour company to be an excellent reference for all around baking, including a section on yeasted breads and sourdough. But I wanted something to help me really get my head around yeasted breads. The book that helped me do this was The Bread Baker's Apprentice, by Peter Reinhart. I highly recommend both of these books to anyone new to baking.

Do-it-yourself sourdough starter
As a thrifty person, I decided that I would begin a sourdough starter and leaven all my breads from it rather than have to buy overpriced packets of yeast in the stores. To get my sourdough starter up and running, I simply saved a small piece of raw dough from a pack of Trader Joe's pizza dough. This was far from a precise exercise, as I had only a general sense of what needed to be done. I put the dough into a clean plastic pitcher, added some warm water and a few teaspoons of sugar, stirred, and put the lid on the pitcher. I let that sit at room temperature for about 3 hours. Then I added a little bit of flour and stirred that around. The contents were still quite liquid. That mixture sat out at room temperature for another three hours. I put it in the fridge when I went to bed. For the next two days, I took the pitcher out of the refrigerator in the morning, added 1/3 cup of water and 1/3 cup of flour, stirred well, covered and let it sit out all day. By the fourth day, it was pretty clear from the bubbles and the yeasty smell that I had a starter going.

There's another option for frugal folk who want their own sourdough starter. Carl's friends will send you a free dried sourdough starter in the mail, no strings attached. Your only cost would be two stamps, one for your self addressed stamped envelope, and the other to get the envelope to Carl's friends. Since starting my own starter, I've sent off for Carl's starter and received it. I'm saving the dried starter in case my own should die off or turn funky. Visit the link above to get the mailing address for your own dried starter sample, as well as detailed instructions on how to get it going when it arrives.

The only caution I would extend to those creating or maintaining their own starter at home is that chlorinated water should not be used, as this will deter the yeast and their companion friendly bacteria. It's fine to use well water, but if you're on a city hook up, it might be advisable to buy mineral or distilled water.

Keeping your sourdough starter happy
You do need to pay some attention to your starter. A starter is not a fussy thing, but it can't be starved. It needs to be fed on a weekly basis, at least. I feed mine just 2/3 cup of flour and 2/3 cup of water each Tuesday and again if I'm making multiple batches of bread in a week. There are certainly advantages to having a sourdough starter. Among these is the tangy taste that all the bread produced from it has. Another is that a sourdough starter will prompt you to keep baking. Otherwise, you end up with an enormous amount of starter.

Sometimes the starter will have a darkish liquid on top of it when I take it out to feed it. There's nothing wrong with this, but it does contain a tiny bit of alcohol along with the other waste products from the yeast. You can simply stir this back into the starter, or you can pour it off. I always pour it off, to spare the little yeasties from stewing in their own waste. Alcohol is yeast piss, after all. When I pour the liquid off, I gauge it roughly and try to add that amount of liquid back into the starter, in addition to the flour and water I'm feeding it.

Baking supplies
There are also times when baking with active dry yeast is preferable or necessary. For one thing, there are far more bread recipes out there that start from dried yeast than those that work with a starter. If you wish to bake bread from dried yeast, I urge you to buy your yeast in bulk at a health food store or dried goods store. You will find the prices for bulk yeast to be vastly cheaper than for the individual packets.

If you get serious about baking bread you should absolutely check out all convenient sources of different flours. Bread baking uses up flour like nobody's business! I've never gone through bags of flour so fast in my life. Shop around and get the best prices, because you'll really start to go through it if you supply your own bread.

There are a few pieces of equipment recommended for bread bakers, but I've been fortunate in that I've successfully avoided paying for any of them. There are online companies which will be happy to sell you expensive bannetons or proofing baskets. And by all means, if you're looking for something to spend money on, have at it. I found that an old rectangular basket for serving bread worked very well when lined with a square of linen cut from a worn out article of clothing. I was also lucky enough to be given a baking stone by a relative who had two. I won't say that either of these articles are necessary for baking good bread. But they did make a difference for the better in the loaves I produce. There's another fancy gadget called a lame for slashing the top of the loaf before baking it. Needless to say, I haven't shelled out for this. I can hold a razor blade carefully enough in my hand for the one or two moments each week that I need to use it. In my opinion, this gadget might make sense in a professional bakery making thousands of loaves each day, but not for the home baker.

The breads!
For the last six weeks or so, I've been cranking out double-sized loaves of bread about once a week. I've been splitting these with my father, as my husband is often away on business travel and I don't want the bread to go to waste. The bread has gotten rave reviews, and I'm happy to see a steady improvement in the texture of the bread. I've also started making English muffins from sourdough starter and these get even better reviews from friends and family. English muffins cost out to about 10-12 cents each, and my monster-sized loaves of bread start at around 85 cents in ingredients costs, depending on what I put into them. Olive oil and fresh herbs can easily double or triple the ingredients costs. And that's why I'll be growing sage and rosemary in pots pretty soon.

So try your own homemade breads! Don't be shy or nervous. It's a very rare loaf of freshly baked homemade bread that doesn't get a lot of appreciation around the house.

Here's a flickr link showing some of the yeasted breads and other items that I've prepared recently.

Friday, February 16, 2007

How to save by costing your meals

Yesterday I posted about baking at home to save money on breakfast items. I wrote about comparing the price of my favorite store-bought cereal to morning glory muffins and other goodies I baked at home. Today I'm going to explain the costing process in detail, in case others want to know exactly what a given meal is costing them per serving. To do these calculations, you'll need a kitchen scale and a calculator.

Let's start with costing a serving of breakfast cereal, because with only two ingredients to measure and price, this is a fairly simple cost analysis. I used to eat Special K red berries cereal with organic milk. To figure out how much each serving cost me, I first calculated the cost per ounce of the cereal, which is sold by weight. (I no longer have a copy of my own calculations, so I'll work with hypothetical figures from here on.) Checking my price comparison book, I saw that the best price I could find for this cereal was at a wholesale shopper's club, at $3.41 per pound. That works out to about $0.2131 per ounce. Then I calculated that my organic milk was costing me about $0.39 per cup. This is just a little complicated here, because we're mixing weight pricing with volumetric pricing. But bear with me.

Next, I used my kitchen scale to find out how much cereal I consumed on an average morning. The portion sizes indicated on the side of the box were irrelevant to me. I needed to know what I actually ate - not what the marketing wonks "recommended." My kitchen scale has a tare function on it. That means that I could set my bowl on the scale, and set the weight to zero, so that the scale ignored the weight of the bowl and only paid attention to the cereal I was about to pour in. Let's say that my serving size was 4.6 ounces. Then I poured a cup of milk into a clear graduated measuring cup. I poured milk into the bowl as I normally would and measured what was left: a little less than 1/4 cup. I called that 0.8 cups and sat down to eat my cereal.

When breakfast was over, I ran a couple of quick calculations. Multiplying my 4.6 ounces of cereal by 0.2131, I found my cereal cost of about 98 cents. Taking 0.8 cups of my 39 cents per cup milk, I found that the milk for my cereal cost me about another 31 cents. Thus, my cost for breakfast that morning was $1.29. This of course excludes miscellaneous costs like washing the breakfast dishes or the gas needed to go buy the groceries. It seemed to me that $1.29 per day was a good starting point, and that I could surely find ways to save money on this meal.

I moved on to costing some of my own baked goods. With a lot more ingredients, these items were much more complicated to price out. Some of the items I wasn't able to get an exact price on at all, so I had to estimate for those costs. Below, I've tried to show how I did it.

Morning Glory Muffins

3 cups organic white flour 0.938 lbs x $0.745/lb. = $0.655

1 cup organic whole wheat flour 0.344 lbs x $0.81/lb. = $0.279

2 cups organic white sugar 0.925 lbs x $0.84/lb. = $0.777

1/2 cup organic steel cut oats 0.188 lbs x $0.74/lb. = $0.139

4 tsp. baking soda (unknown price)

4 tsp. cinnamon (unknown price)

1 tsp. salt (unknown price)

4 cups grated organic carrots 1 lb* x $0.798/lb = $0.798

1 large organic apple, grated 0.77 lbs* x 1.99/lb = $1.53

1 cup organic raisins 0.3125 lbs x $2.59/lb = $0.81

1 cup organic walnut pieces 0.288 lbs x $8.51/lb = $2.447

1 cup organic unsweetened coconut flake 0.1 lb. x $2.71/lb = $0.271

5 large organic eggs 5 x $0.241/each = $1.20

1 1/2 cups organic vegetable oil 12 oz. x $0.244/oz. = $2.933

4 tsp. organic vanilla extract 0.660 oz. x $1.998/oz. = $1.33

Spray oil for muffin tins (unknown price)

*Note that I needed to weigh the carrots and apples before I peeled, trimmed and grated them. I didn't use the scraps to cook, but I still had to pay for them. So I needed the entire weight to calculate my costs.

You can see that I had some gaps in my price chart. I didn't have a good way to calculate the exact cost of the small amounts of baking soda, cinnamon, salt and spray oil. I knew that cinnamon is a fairly expensive product, while all the others are relatively cheap. To come up with a figure, I made a wild guess and put down 50 cents for all these ingredients combined. If I come up with a good way to exactly figure these prices in the future, I'll revise my cost analysis.

So adding up all the known costs plus my estimate, I came up with a total cost for the entire batch of muffins of $13.669. When I baked off this double batch of muffins, I got 35 muffins out of the batter. So I divided $13.669 by 35 to come up with my cost per muffin of about 39 cents each. This seemed fantastic to me. By eating one muffin instead of a bowl of cereal, I could save 90 cents each day.

But doing all this analysis also allowed me to see just how much some of these ingredients were costing me. The vanilla and walnuts were among the most expensive ingredients in the recipe. I didn't want to take out the vanilla, because I suspect it adds a lot to the recipe. But I had to admit that the walnuts really weren't all that noticeable in the muffins. So the next time I made the recipe, I left them out. Neither my husband nor I seemed to miss them. I recalculated and found that my price dropped to about 35 cents per muffin.

Since then I've also costed out the recipes for my apricot-oatmeal buttermilk scones and English muffins. The scones come in even cheaper than the morning glory muffins, at about 30 cents each. English muffins on their own cost me only about 11 cents to make, but I haven't yet figured out what the butter and jam costs. And besides, they aren't the healthiest breakfast, so we don't eat them all that often.

I hope this explanation is helpful to someone out there. You can apply the same procedure to any meal you prepare at home, so long as you have gathered the pricing information on the majority of the ingredients. Please leave me a comment if you have any questions or remarks.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Oh, the things you can bake!

Nutrition experts tell us that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. For the frugal set, breakfast is often the last meal considered when trying to trim grocery expenditures. There are good reasons for this: breakfast is usually eaten at home by most members of the family; we're often in a big hurry in the morning, with little time for anything but a convenient meal. Still, there are good ways to economize on this meal without resorting to junk food. In fact, it's pretty easy to improve on the nutrition offered at breakfast with a homemade baked good.

As I became a more frugal person, changes happened gradually. First I looked for the best unit price on the cereal I liked to eat. Then I looked for cheaper cereals. But at some point, I got my calculator and my kitchen scale out and worked out that even at the best prices I could find for cereal and milk, my modest breakfast portions were costing us about $1.30 per day. That's when I decided to find out what a few home baked alternatives would cost.

I started with morning glory muffins, because I knew that my husband and I liked them. I also knew that they contained good things: shredded carrots and apple, dried fruit, nuts and eggs. If your not familiar with morning glory muffins, think of them as something like a gourmet carrot cake in miniature form. After making a double-sized batch of these delicious treats, I divided my ingredient costs by the number of muffins I got, and found that each muffin had cost me about 36 cents. And I had paid for organic products for almost every ingredient. In other words, each muffin represented a savings of almost $1 per breakfast, per person. Now, I'll grant you that these muffins were not huge. And their sheer deliciousness sometimes makes my husband and I want more than one for breakfast, especially if we're gearing up for a day of physical activity. Yet even if we each had two muffins per day, we still saved about $1.16 between the two of us. Assuming that we each ate two of these muffins every single day instead of a bowl of cereal, that's almost $425 saved in our household per year - with organic ingredients.

I soon cut the nuts out of my recipe, because I didn't feel they added all that much to the muffins, and they're a very costly ingredient. This resulted in further savings. If you choose not to bake with organic ingredients, your own savings using this recipe would be even higher. I also started costing out some other baked goods that would be suitable for breakfasts. It was clear that even 36 cents per serving could be improved upon without causing any apparent hardship. In fact, my husband vastly prefers one of my baked goods to breakfast cereal. He can grab a muffin or a scone on his way out the door and he's good to go.

I have started to keep a steady inventory of morning glory muffins, buttermilk scones and also sourdough English muffins in my chest freezer. I've costed out each of these, and the morning glory muffin is by far the most expensive of them. It's true that it takes some time and effort to make all these items. But because they all freeze so well, they can still be convenient breakfasts if you can devote part of a weekend afternoon to making big batches to store away for later in the week or month. So now, instead of looking at home-baked muffins and scones as special treats, we see them as healthy, thrifty and convenient staples of our diet.

Tomorrow I'll post some of my recipes, along with an explanation of how I cost out a recipe.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Books for Tightwads

I've always been an avid reader. For a while I worked at a bookstore, which has left me with a backlog of reading material that should last for years. When I felt the need to embark on a more frugal lifestyle, my thoughts turned immediately to reading about frugality. That led me, of course, to the library. I thought I would devote a post here to some of the books that have helped me make many, many changes toward a more frugal life.

The Tightwad Gazette, by Amy Dacyczyn. These three books are certainly the best combination of cheering squad, frugal philosophy, meticulous research and nitty-gritty, practical advice. Written by a Mainer mother who raised her six children on a single modest income, this is advice from someone who's been there. If you read only one author on frugality, make sure it's the incomparable Amy D. All three of her books are now available bound into a single volume: The Complete Tightwad Gazette. Very highly recommended as an excellent place to start reading about this lifestyle choice. Also the best source I've found of practical and specific money-saving tips.

One of the most crucial frugal skills is home cooking. Many people with little skill in the kitchen view cooking as some sort of quasi-mystical, arcane art and feel daunted before they even begin to learn. Yet cooking is a common, age-old practice, developed over the centuries by illiterate peasants as much as by three-star Michelin chefs. You don't have to be naturally gifted or professionally trained to prepare healthy, nutritious, thrifty and tasty meals - trust me. I'm going to recommend two books for novice home cooks who feel lost and unsure about how to begin mastering their own kitchens. The tried-and-true Joy of Cooking has been around so long for a very good reason: it works for both beginning and experiences cooks. You can rely on the Joy of Cooking to give you a good recipe for just about any basic dish that would be prepared in an American home.

A slightly updated approach to simple yet tasty home meals is provided in the America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook is a fantastically practical and very thorough guide to preparing more than a thousand home cooked meals. There's a nice blend of shortcuts and from-scratch preparation in this book, and the photographs are a valuable resource for cooks who are working their way across unfamiliar ground. I highly recommend this book as a source of well tested recipes and a general reference for almost any topic that would be of interest to the home cook. The ATK Family Cookbook is published by the same press that produces Cook's Illustrated and Cook's Country magazines.

I've had an old copy of Stocking Up on my bookshelves for almost as long as I've had my own bookshelves. This book is a fantastic guide to preserving and storing food when it is in season, and therefore abundant and cheap. It provides detailed and authoritative instruction on techniques ranging from simple freezing, to canning and even as far as building your own root cellar. Stocking Up can provide you with invaluable information to help you trim your food budget and shift to a healthier diet at the same time.

Baking at home is a complementary skill to home cooking. While there is more money to be saved by cooking lunch and dinner for your family yourself, the savings to be had by baking bread and also breakfast items should not be ignored. But yeasted bread baking can be mystifying to an experienced cook or even professional chef. The best book I can recommend on the topic of yeast breads is The Bread Baker's Apprentice, by Peter Reinhart. This exhaustively authoritative book contains an incredibly detailed breakdown of the yeasted bread process, as well as some wonderful recipes. There is probably far more information in this book than you need or want. But I've come across no other book which so thoroughly explains what happens when we bake yeasted breads. Also, there are a nice number of recipes for bread made from a sourdough starter - the frugal baker's choice.

More thumbnail book reviews to come!

Monday, February 12, 2007

Sometimes it pays to spend a little money

While the point of frugality is usually to avoid spending money, there are some good frugal tool investments that are worth spending on, because they really do save you money in the long run. Of course, I'm going to recommend that you pick up as many of these items second-hand as possible. Many tools are just as good used as brand new.

For any number of kitchen applications, rubber spatulas are a frugalite's friend. Spatulas help you get an extra few tablespoons of sauce, the last of that soup, and an extra muffin's worth of batter. A good rubber spatula will last for years and help you waste not, want not in the kitchen. I like the Kitchen Aid spatula. I have a couple of these in my kitchen.

A food processor is a great frugal kitchen tool, provided that it actually gets used on a regular basis. This tool can mean the difference between tiresome drudgery and quick preparation time for many foods. I most often use my food processor to grate large blocks of cheese so that they can be frozen to use on homemade pizza at a later date. True, I could get out my hand grater and do it all with elbow grease, thereby saving a few pennies in electricity. But if I knew that I'd have to grate it all by hand, I'd be much less likely to stock up on cheese when I found a good deal. The same goes for preparing large batches of morning glory muffins. Grating a couple pounds of carrots and apples takes seconds rather than half an hour with a food processor. So this is a tool that helps and encourages me to make good frugal choices in both shopping and cooking. Some bakers also use a food processor to knead their dough. I sometimes use mine to puree sauces and soups. You don't need a very fancy food processor, nor a new one, to get good results. For those making a real commitment to a frugal lifestyle, I think a food processor is a worthwhile investment.

A Chest freezer is a great thing to have in the basement or in the garage. If you own your home and have the space, think seriously about investing in a freezer. It will allow you to stock up on all sorts of food when there's a good sale, or when produce is in season. This is one item that you should probably buy new. Chest freezers are more efficient than other kinds of freezers for one very simple reason. The cold air won't spill out of them when you open the door. And the efficiency of freezers has improved so much over the years that you will quickly recoup your costs for a new freezer as compared with an old one by virtue of the lower electrical bill. Look for the EnergyStar label as you do your shopping research.

Durable, re-usable food containers - these are essential items for any frugal home. Use them to store leftovers and to pack lunches for work or school. They are sturdier and more cost-effective than disposable plastic bags. They come in a variety of shapes to suit sandwiches, fruits and vegetables, and even soups. Ziploc brand has some good screw-top lid containers that I've used to pack soup in checked luggage on an airplane. I've never had a spill with these, though I continue to double bag them. The brand is much less important than having a plentiful supply of these around. You can even save yogurt containers and the like to use for leftovers. Just don't forget what's in those opaque containers. If you tend to the out-of-sight, out-of-mind school of leftover management, as I do, it may be better to store your food in clear plastic containers or bags - even if you have to pay for those containers.

Other basic kitchen tools are needed to do any serious amount of cooking. And cooking is one of the irreplaceable frugal skills. So make sure that your kitchen contains a working version of a colander, paring knife, chef's knife, wooden spoons, chopping board, mixing bowls, measuring cups and spoons, and a set of good-quality cooking pots. Without these and other staples of the kitchen countertop, you'll be hard pressed to prepare your meals at home. Going without basic kitchen tools is a false economy if you end up ordering takeout because you can't face the task of preparing a thrifty meal in a frustratingly under-equipped kitchen.

No household should be without basic hardware tools. Whether you rent or own your home, you'll eventually need a hammer, screwdriver, wrench, measuring tape and probably a wrench and a pair of pliers. Sears Craftsman tools are guaranteed forever, and can often be found at garage sales. I remember a story about a young woman who was given a basic set of Craftsman tools by her practical father when she went off to college. Before he gave them to her, he painted all of them pink. She objected mildly to this, because she wasn't exactly a girly girl sort. Her father reassured her that the color was not a means of accessorizing, nor feminizing the tools. Instead, it was insurance that she'd always have her tools returned to her when they were borrowed, especially by men. Sure enough, not one of her tools ever disappeared after being borrowed. Many years later, she still had the same set.

I'm going to go ahead and recommend a hot glue gun, even though I'm somewhat on the fence about this tool. I haven't had mine all that long, but I have gotten a good amount of use out of it. I don't do a lot of crafts. I suspect that crafty sorts and parents who like to keep their kids busy with creative projects would find this tool enormously useful. I find mine great for a myriad simple repair jobs and the few crafts projects I've tackled. If this tool makes sense in your frugal life, then by all means pick one up.

A hot water bottle is your friend if you live where the winters are cold. A good frugal housekeeper knows that it's cheaper to keep a small spot warm than to heat a whole house. If you have time during the day when you have to sit still for hours on end (homework, writing, research), you know how hard it can be to stay warm in a house with the thermostat set to 63 degrees. Invest in a hot water bottle for each family member. Make simple cloth covers for each one out of old clothes or an old comforter. The covers keep the bottle hot longer, and also help keep you from getting burned on the hot surface. When your water bottle wears out, it makes a good kneeling pad for garden work. It'll keep your pants cleaner and you can put a little sand in it to cushion your knees.

The Pantry

When you're new to the frugal lifestyle and you're not used to preparing your own meals, the kitchen can be a daunting place. You should start to slowly and naturally build up a pantry for yourself. What you put in your pantry will depend on your family's tastes, your budget, your skills in the kitchen and the sorts of things you tend to cook. You should think of your pantry as a sort of dry goods store and as a foundation for all your meals. This doesn't mean that you must stock enormous quantities of your pantry items, nor that you need to have absolutely everything on hand at all times. The purpose of a pantry is to provide a steady supply of staples that you use to prepare a large variety of dishes. These items are often cheap, frequently on sale and also have a long shelf-life. With a well stocked pantry, you won't have to run out and buy every ingredient in the recipe when you want to prepare a meal.

All of your pantry items should be listed in your price comparison book. Because you know that you will be using them steadily, it's always a good idea to check for sales on these foods when you shop, even if you don't have immediate plans to cook with them. When these items go on sale, stock up!

Here's a list of things I commonly keep on hand in my kitchen. You do not need to replicate this list, but if you're totally new to cooking, it might be a good springboard for ideas. Take what's useful to you and ignore the rest. Add more items that make sense for your family.

canned baby corn
canned bamboo shoots
canned chickpeas
chicken broth
beef broth
vegan bouillon cubes
canola oil
extra virgin olive oil
canned tuna
canned salmon
Thai curry pastes, red & green
tomato paste
canned tomatoes
sweetened condensed milk
canned sliced pineapple
tomato sauce
balsamic vinegar
white vinegar
distilled vinegar
baking powder
baking soda
all purpose flour
bread flour
pasta flour (tipo 00)
whole wheat flour
dried chickpeas
yellow split peas
instant oatmeal
steel cut oats
dried onions
powdered non-fat milk
dried banana chips
dried baby lima beans
whole spelt
dried cranberries
dried chestnuts
sundried tomatoes
kosher salt
corn meal
dried unsweetened coconut flake
homemade granola
several different kinds of dried pasta
brown sugar
turbinado sugar
white sugar
confectioner's sugar
cocoa powder
chocolate bars
flax seed
corn starch
bread crumbs
soy sauce
Worcestershire sauce
Tabasco sauce
rice wine vinegar
mirin (Asian cooking wine)
shelf-stable tofu
crystalized ginger
dried figs
dried dates
roasted peanuts
vanilla extract
almond extract
hazelnut extract

The pantry extends into the refrigerator, where I keep toasted sesame oil, prepared mustard, hoisin sauce, prepared horseradish, chutney, pickled ginger, salad dressings, and a tube of pesto. In the freezer I keep all my spices, raw nuts and seeds such as flax, pumpkin and sesame, which I also consider part of my pantry.

Tiny Tips

Lots of people think of saving money as getting $50 off a big ticket purchase, or buying a two-year-old car instead of a brand new one. Far too often I've heard disparaging remarks about sensible frugal practices. I agree that it's possible to be penny wise and pound foolish, but I bristle just a little bit when people imply that small economies are silly or not worth it.

My gut feeling is that all the little homely economies I practice every single day save me as much each year as the "big ticket" items. Small changes such as these are as much a part of a frugal lifestyle as getting debt under control, and then getting out of debt entirely. Moreover, not everyone can get out of debt overnight. But anyone can make the choice to clean a sheet of aluminum foil or wash ziploc bags. If you don't have the immediate means to clear your debt, at least you can start with the small things.

These are some of the small, practical things you can do every day to save a little money at a time. As Amy Dacyzcyn says, it's okay to sweat the small stuff. Remember, it all adds up!

  • Buy the heavy duty aluminum foil so it will hold up to repeated washings. See how long you can make a single piece of aluminum foil last. The heavy kind is stiff enough to stand up in a drying rack after you've washed it.
  • Spices - If you have the room, keep your spices in the freezer. I use a shoe box to stand all the jars upright so it's easier to find what I want. I even go to the trouble of writing the name of the spice on a piece of masking tape taped on the lid of the can. That way I can see at a glance what's what. Spices are among the most expensive ingredients in the kitchen, and they lose their potency quickly, especially ground spices. Buying whole spices and/or keeping them in the freezer is the best way to prolong shelf-life.
  • Use cloth napkins. Most of us have a few of these lying around. Start using them! If you don't have any, you could cut some out of the better part of worn clothing or bedding. Around your birthday or the holidays, let it be known you'd like some everyday cloth napkins. These will last you for years or even decades. And you'll save money each and every time you choose a cloth napkin over a disposable paper napkin.
  • Keep a plastic bottle of water in your car at all times. Not only will this save you from making a purchase because you're thirsty, it could conceivably save your life in an emergency.
  • Wrap feminine hygiene products in pages from an old phone book (which is free) instead of toilet paper (which you pay for) . If you have a septic system, this will mean fewer solids in the tank, and thus longer intervals between servicing.
  • Sign up for electronic bill payment whenever possible. This will save you the cost of stamps, the price of which is always nudging up, and also on your checks if you must pay for them. Be sure, however, to review your bills for errors just as carefully as you would if you were writing out that check. Sign up for automatic bill pay with caution. Make sure you will always have the funds available in any account that has an automated payment coming from it. Don't save the cost of a stamp only to get dinged with an overdraft fee.
  • Bake multiple items at a time & freeze some for later. In the winter, make the most of the heat by leaving the oven door open after use.
  • Capture the hot water from boiling pasta or making tea and leave it in a pot to moisturize the air and impart a little extra heat to the house.
  • Choose the size of your pans with care. They should be wider than the burner below them, so that the heat goes into the pan and not up around its sides.
  • Cover every pot or pan you cook in, unless you are trying to reduce the amount of liquid in a pot.
  • When baking potatoes or sweet potatoes, pierce them lengthwise with a metal skewer. They'll cook faster by about 10 minutes.
  • Turn off the oven when whatever you're cooking is 90% done. Don't open the door until the food is ready though. This won't work for everything, but it will for many things.
  • Use only as much shampoo and toothpaste as is really necessary. Don't believe the commercials. You don't need a palmful of shampoo or an inch of toothpaste. If you get lots of frothy suds in your hair when you shampoo, you're using too much. Switch to a dollop of shampoo the size of a quarter and a quarter inch of toothpaste. Adjust up or down as necessary until you use just what you really need.

  • Cut down on fridge load by cooling your leftovers well before refrigerating. Place food outside in the winter if you have no animals to worry about. Tiled, brick or natural stone floors will also help cool food in metal pots quickly. Move the pot around the floor every few minutes for a while so the heat is always dispersing into a new cool spot.

Please add your tiny tip in the comment section, and I'll add more of my own as I think of them.

Trimming the grocery budget

Here are some practical tips for saving your pennies in the grocery department.
  • When buying produce that is bunched and sold by unit, weigh the bag. Onions, potatoes and other produce are often sold in net bags or paper containers. Invariably, there is some variation in the actual weight of the items. Don't be ashamed to use the produce scales to select the one that is heaviest! Someone is going to get that free extra half pound of potatoes, so it might as well be you. Get yourself a little extra value for the money you're paying.
  • When buying produce that is sold by weight and is iced or kept moist with sprayers or mist, shake off that ice or water. Water is heavy, whether melted or frozen. There's no sense in you paying the grocer for that water. Give the food a vigorous shake before you put it in the bag. You've saved yourself a few pennies at least.
  • Use it all up. Lots of different kinds of vegetables are trimmed at home. All too often, too much is thrown away. Just about anything that is sold in a grocery department is really edible. Yet we turn up our noses at eating broccoli stalk or discard a corn cob once we've gnawed off the sweet kernels. Learn to eat and enjoy beet greens; they're good for you! Peel that broccoli stalk and add the tender white center to the dish you're cooking. Save parsley stems, corn cobs and celery tops for flavoring broth. Small leaves on broccoli and cauliflower are tender and delicious. Whenever you cook meat with bones, save the bones in the freezer until you have enough for some broth. Think before you throw any food item away. Can you get some value out of it? Even if you don't want to eat it, consider freezing the item to add flavor and nutrition to a broth. Get more mileage out of what you've already paid for.
  • Eat seasonally. Buying asparagus in September or peaches in January is a bad idea on so many different levels. Not only has this food been flown in from half way around the country or the world, using up more calories in transit than you will get from consuming it, but such produce was probably picked early to withstand the rigors of shipment. You'll pay more for an out-of-season item that is less fresh and less nutritive. And the bottom line is: it's just not going to taste very good. So why bother? Timeliness is an essential ingredient in many dishes. Learn to think of tomatoes, peaches, asparagus, sweet corn and strawberries as seasonal treats. When they're in season in your area and thus cheap, buy them, celebrate them and glut yourself on them. Store some away in the freezer or canning jars for later. When the season for that food is over, you'll probably be sick of them anyway. Then it'll be time to move on to the next seasonal food that's at its peak nutritionally and at its cheapest in the grocery aisle.
  • Buy in bulk, when it makes sense to do so. If you have the room to store extra goods and you know the consumption patterns of your family, stock up! Buying in bulk can give you access to much better prices than small-portion retail usually offers. Check your price comparison book and use your calculator to be sure that the bulk price represents a real savings. Only buy in quantities you know you'll be able to use up before it spoils. Canned goods such as tomato sauce and beans have very long shelf lives. So if you know for sure that you will use the item and that the price is good, buy as much can be stored easily at your home. Toilet paper, diapers and soap have no expiration date, so these are also excellent candidates for bulk purchase. Don't buy any product in bulk if you are unfamiliar with it or have any doubts as to whether or not you will use it. Better to pay a few more cents on a single unfamiliar item and discover you don't like it than to save a few dollars on a case of the same item. Once you know a particular product well, you might look into buying it by the case. Some regular retail stores will pass along savings if you special order a case or more through them. It can't hurt to ask.

The Price Comparison Book

When it's time to conserve money in a household, the person responsible for family meals naturally thinks of the grocery bill as an area where pennies can be pinched. The food budget, along with the entertainment budget, is one area where we have enormous latitude in how much we spend. Other large monthly expenses, such as rent or mortgage payments, are much less flexible and farther from our immediate control.

I can't recommend the practice of a price comparison book highly enough to anyone who is trying to trim expenses. It makes sense to price all of the grocery and toiletry products you buy at all of the stores you buy from on a regular basis. The value of this practice is that no one can give you better information on the products you buy in your own area than you can gather for yourself. It's free to gather this information, and it will pay off in spades. A detailed price comparison book allows you to tell the difference between a marketing ploy advertisement and a really good time to stock up on something you'd be buying anyway.

It's okay to start small. Rome wasn't built in a day; it will take a while to gather all the information to transform an ordinary notebook into a powerful storehouse of information. But start today. Get a little notebook and start recording the prices of things that you buy at the store from now on. Record the information in a way that makes sense to you. I keep track of things alphabetically, but you may choose to group things by categories, such as "produce," "baking," "frozen," etc. If you have extra time, walk through the store and write down the prices of things that you buy regularly, even if you don't plan to buy those items on this store visit. This will allow you to buy wisely the next time you need to buy that item. If time is a precious commodity for you, just record the prices of the things you bought based on the store receipt. Keep close tabs on the prices of various items for at least four months. Don't make a special trip to check prices at a faraway store you wouldn't normally shop at. Chances are that any potential savings will be eaten up by the extra gas it takes to get there.

If you are actively gathering information by walking the aisles each time you shop, you should have a very useful collection of information after just a month or so. It will get much better after four months. If you have time just to record the prices from receipts, you should still have good information after a couple of months.

Let me give an example of some price comparisons in my book. Hebrew National reduced fat hot dogs are an easy, reasonably healthy, and cheap meal when I'm ravenous and have no leftovers to heat up. Also, they conveniently store very well in the freezer for months at a time. I started pricing these and was astonished at the range of prices for this standby emergency meal of my home. Here's what my price comparison book showed me:
  • Wegmans regular price: $3.79/12 oz. = $5.05/lb, or 54 cents/serving
  • Giant regular price: $4.79/12 oz. = $6.39/lb, or 68 cents/serving
  • Trader Joe's regular price: $3.49/12 oz. = $4.65/lb, or 50 cents/serving
  • Weis/King's regular price: $3.99/12 oz. = $5.32/lb, or 57 cents/serving
  • Military commissary price: $2.89/12 oz. =$3.85/lb, or 41 cents/serving

As you can see, I like crunching numbers. Gathering this informaiton showed me that the commissary had by far the best price for this item. I can only stock up there via a relative who makes semi-annual trips to the base. The next best price is at a Trader Joe's an hour's drive from my house. This means that I only go when I can carpool with a relative and we end up going there no more than once per month. That's fine for me because I have a large chest freezer and it's easy for me to store a lot of hot dog packages. However, recently Wegmans had a sale on these hot dogs, offering the same pack at just $2.99, for a serving cost of just 43 cents. With four months of data at my fingertips, I knew for sure that this was an excellent price, almost the best available to me from any vendor. So I bought eight packs of hot dogs: the amount I thought we could eat in six months. I also told my mom about this sale. She stocked up on the hot dogs too so she has a cheap meal for my young nephew when he stays at her home.

Your own price comparison book can only be compiled by you. Only you know what foods and toiletries you buy regularly and only you know which stores are convenient for you to shop at.

Life Changes

Three months ago, my husband and I committed ourselves to two mortgages as well as building a new log home on vacant farm land. We've always been financially comfortable and have denied ourselves little while saving a moderate amount for retirement. We took a good deal of money out of our savings to put down sizable downpayments on both the home we now live in, and the land we purchased. In these past few months, I've undergone a sea change in my spending habits and the way I run my home.

Certain changes have been pretty easy to make and not very noticeable. For instance, I've always cooked most of our meals at home. I now cook all of our meals at home. Other frugal practices are new to me, like keeping a price comparison book. This is something that I never bothered to do before, even though I suspected it would be a good money-saving practice. Now I know just how empowering a tool this little notebook is. I've also recently taken up home baking as a way to further reduce my grocery bill.

I am constantly looking for new ways to conserve resources and make our dollars stretch further. I don't work outside the home right now, though that may change. I plan to be the general contractor for our log home building project, which will keep me very busy in the months to come.

My hopes for this blog are to document my own progress in becoming a more frugal person, and to perhaps begin a little dialog with others who wish to make the most out of the money they earn.