Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Have Yourself a Thrifty Little Christmas

This year more people are opting for a "green" Christmas. In many ways this can also be a more frugal Christmas. My family and friends have a couple of appropriate holiday traditions I thought you might like to adopt for your own.

First, we have a lot of reusable packaging that we like to wrap our Christmas gifts in. We have tins, cloth bags, boxes that we've decorated with old Christmas cards, corrugated cardboard packaging with trees punched out of it that came with some nuts in it, and my absolute favorite, a takeout container that I saved from an Italian restaurant that has the Leaning Tower of Pisa on it. I wrote "Buon Natale" (Merry Christmas in Italian) on the top with glitter glue, and colored in the tower. I package the gift with natural colored excelsior topped with a little red excelsior so it looks like pasta with sauce. CD's I wrap by stapling an old Christmas card shut, slipping the CD inside, and taping it shut. I write the "to" and "from" directly on the front. This not only saves money since we don't need to buy much wrapping paper, but also makes wrapping presents quick and easy. It also keeps a lot of gift wrap out of the landfill. We add an additional fun element to this by dating the bottom of the package with the initials of the giver and recipient, and the date. It's fun to look and see how many years we've been using the packaging, and the history of where it's been. We also make our own gift tags out of old cards, photos and colored plastic packaging. Simply cut with scissors or paper trimmer, punch a hole with a hole punch, and use a Sharpie to address the tag.

Another great use for old Christmas cards is to make ornaments for your tree, or for gifts. Google "Christmas card ornaments" and you will find many different patterns. I save cards that I receive, and also those that my office receives.

My friend's family has a tradition of collecting samples and rebate items all year such as coffee, shampoo, deodorant, toothbrushes, etc., and packaging the items in a reusable grocery store tote (Target bags are a very festive red, and Trader Joe's has a lot of cute patterned ones). This way the bag can be reused over and over after the contents are gone. All of the items are useful, and will be used up instead of cluttering the recipient's house with unwanted doodads.

One of our favorite frugal Christmas activities is to pile the family in the car with to-go mugs of hot cocoa or cider, and head out to our local version of Candy Cane Lane. I'm sure you all live fairly close to one of those neighborhoods where everyone decorates to the max. Enjoy your neighbors' displays! They are going to a lot of trouble and (electric bill!) expense to entertain you this holiday season.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

An Attitude of Gratitude For This Frugalest of Feasts

If you think about it, Thanksgiving is a naturally frugal holiday. The focus is all on food and family, not expensive gifts or decorations.

The food served is cheap: turkey (39 cents to 59 cents a lb. right now), mashed potatoes (about $5 for a huge bag) and stuffing (great stuff considering it's made out of old, stale breadcrumbs). Typically, relatives each bring something, so you don't even have to spring for the whole feast. Want some wine with your meal? Two Buck Chuck makes a couple of great varietals that go well with turkey. A local grocery was advertising pumpkin pies for $2.99. I can't even make them for that price!

Decorations can come from nature. Pick up some beautiful fall leaves, acorns and pine cones, and use them to dress up the house.

Build some family traditions by having family members all sign an inexpensive tablecloth with permanent marker, then use it year after year, and add to it, making note of any special family events or milestones each year. Start a Thankful Jar. Have each family member write something they are thankful for this year on a slip of paper, stick them in a jar, and then read them aloud.

After dinner, turn the football game on, or dig out those dusty board games. Nothing gets people talking like a game of Pictionary or Trivial Pursuit. Converse with your extended family members and really catch up.

Relax, enjoy yourself, and take some time to be thankful for this most frugal of holidays!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

One Man's Bane Is Another Man's Boon

Some of you might not be aware of a great resource called Freecycle. Active in all 50 states, as well as D.C. and Guam, Freecycle is a great way to clean out your closets and garage, and find things you need, for free! No money is exchanged. You simply go to Freecycle.org, find your local group, and join. After you are a member, you can post things you have to give away, or request things you would like to receive. You receive emails, either each time someone posts, or once a day in digest form, listing all the offered or wanted items. Then you make arrangements, usually via email, with the other person to pick up or drop off your item. Be sure to read and follow the rules and guidelines. They have been created to make sure everything runs smoothly.

I have used freecyle several times, both as a giver and a receiver. Without exception, the people I have dealt with have been very generous, helpful and positive. I have not had any negative experiences, but if you have any concerns, you could always arrange to make your exchange in a public place.

Chances are the very thing you need is sitting unused in someone's garage. This service allows you to connect with that person. Maybe you have something that is still in great condition, but you just don't need it anymore, and don't know anyone who does. It's a great feeling to find a good home for your treasures and help someone out at the same time. Not only does Freecycle keep unwanted items out of the landfill, it fosters a sense of community, and reminds us that we are all connected. It's also a great reason to de-clutter! Join your local group and start freecyling today.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Lean, Green Halloween

Right about now, you might be thinking about how you can have some spooky fun this Halloween with empty pockets. A terroriffic Halloween can still be had with a minimum outlay of cash.

The first thing you need is a costume. Growing up, we never splurged on store-bought costumes. You'd be surprised how many costumes we came up with using some basic sweats or a big cardboard box as a base. Add yellow crepe-paper stripes and some antennas to sweats, and you're a bee. Add a red sweatshirt with some construction paper black spots taped on, and you're a ladybug. Pin some odd socks and underwear to yourself, and you're a load of laundry. Boxes can be painted to make a great robot, or washing machine, or television. You see where I'm going with this. All it takes is some creativity. For those of you who are not feeling creative, you can find lots of ideas on the internet or in this month's women's magazines available at your local library. You can also exchange costumes with friends. Your friend was a witch last year and you were a devil? Going to different parties? Trade costumes this year and no one will be the wiser. This works great with kids, who never want to be the same thing year after year. You'll save a lot of money (costumes can run $20-$60 or more) and save old costumes from the landfill. No friends to trade with? Look at your local thrift store. They have lots of discarded All Hallow's garb, and your purchase will support a good cause. Use discarded makeup (maybe the colors were too bright for everyday wear) or make your own (google "make your own halloween makeup") to complete your disguise. The bonus with the homemade makeup is that it is made from nontoxic ingredients such as cornstarch, gelatin and food coloring. The store-bought alternatives are full of lead and toxic chemicals. A pillowcase makes a good bag for trick-or-treating.

If you are planning a party, you can find lots of dishes and decorations at dollar stores and thrift stores. You may have some basic black or orange dishes or tablecloths at home that may work. Do you grow your own vegetables or fruits? Apples, beets, turnips and squash can all make great jack 'o lanterns if you don't grow pumpkins. Bobbing for apples also makes a good old-fashioned party game in a big tub or pan. You can make a neat spider-web decoration by winding string around some strategically placed thumbtacks or nails. Light some candles or nightlights for atmosphere. You can make luminaries by cutting ghost shapes or jack 'o lantern faces out of paper bags, and placing some sand or beans inside to weight them down. I prefer the battery-operated candles for safety. If you use real candles, be careful! A bowl of red colored punch (Hawaiian punch or fruit juice with or without rum or vodka) with a few plastic floating eyeballs thrown in looks great and is inexpensive. You can find free scary music and sounds on the internet, which you can leave running on your computer during the party. Google "homemade halloween treats" and you will find all sorts of cool recipes. No need to buy the expensive storebought stuff. You won't have a lot of excess packaging to recycle, either. You may have to break down and buy storebought candy if you will be visited by trick-or-treaters you don't know. Everyone has so many safety concerns these days, they may only accept pre-packaged treats from strangers. But naturally, you will buy it on sale, and look for a coupon! Check the dollar stores too.

Happy half-priced haunting!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Economize By Shopping Wise

Given the state of our depressed economy, more and more people are starting to look for cheaper ways to shop for the things they need. Retailers are struggling, because people are simply unable to pay their inflated prices anymore. This may be a good thing in the long run for us, because retailers will have to adapt. There will be a lot of consolidating, and lower-priced product lines introduced. Have you noticed lots of stores are starting to have a dollar section? If we can't afford the shopping mall right now, what's left?

My favorite thrift store is suddenly filled with crowds of people who have just discovered that it's smart to buy second hand. Better late than never! Thrift stores are great places to shop for so many reasons. For one thing, the prices are great. Where else can you find practically new shirts and pants for a couple of dollars? For another, the selection is great. They have clothing, housewares, toys, books, furniture, small appliances and more. They are "green" too - think of all the stuff you are keeping out of the landfill by reusing it, and think of all the pollution avoided when the stuff you bought didn't need to be manufactured again. Not only that, but the money you spend is going for a good cause, whether it's to train disadvantaged adults to work, to support a hospital, etc. Last but not least, it's lots of fun. You never know what you're going to find in a thrift store, so it's a little like a scavenger hunt! If you don't know where your local thrift stores are, check your phone book.

For those of you not familiar with dollar stores, they have everything from clothes, to holiday items, batteries and tools, housewares, food, even produce and some frozen goods! At the time I am writing this, everything at these stores costs $1, although I have read in the business section of the newspaper that they may have to start charging more than $1 for some items to stay in business! I suspect they will continue to offer really great deals for those of us with a dollar store in our area.

Another good place to find bargains is the closeout/salvage store. Stores like Big Lots and Re-mart buy the merchandise from stores that are going out of business, or from cartons that were damaged in shipping, or just products that didn't sell well. You have to know your prices when you shop at these stores. Not everything will be a good deal, but you will find some steals. I usually find a lot of bargain food, art supplies, seasonal merchandise and housewares. One tip on the food: try one package first to make sure it is fresh and you like the product, then go back and buy more. Just because something didn't sell well, doesn't mean you won't like it.

One of my favorite places to shop is the church rummage sale. Usually the merchandise has been donated, so the church can sell it very reasonably and still make money. There is usually a wide variety of merchandise and some of it will be brand new in boxes - good for gift giving! These sales are usually particularly good for finding holiday decorations. To find out about rummage sales, look for hand-lettered signs around your town, or look in your local advertising magazine that comes in your mailbox. It's called the Pennysaver in my area.

Don't overlook other fundraisers. In my city the schools have a Clothes Closet twice a year where you can buy clothing for 20 cents an item! People donate their unwanted clothes, and the proceeds go to benefit the schools. I usually end up with a whole garbage bag full for about $5! I get a lot of terrific new clothes for very little money, and I can feel good about helping the schools at the same time. What could be better!?

Perhaps the best place to get good deals is the yard sale. My area is blessed with good weather, so we have them year-round, but most urban and suburban areas have them, at least in the summer. The very best is the block sale, or the sale that an entire apartment complex or mobile home park is participating in. You can find a lot of great stuff for sale at rock-bottom prices, and you don't have to drive all over town! I look for signs on telephone poles, or if I want to hit quite a few, I will look in the local advertiser for sales, and then plan my route with a map book. It is not uncommon to find clothes for 25 cents or 50 cents, and you can find lots of furniture, books, decorations, etc.. The best deals can be made at moving sales, or at any yard sale when they are getting ready to pack up, and don't want to box that item up one more time! Go armed with lots of small change, clothing sizes of your family members and a measuring tape if you are looking for furniture to fit in a specific spot in your house.

Hopefully this article has given you lots of ideas about where to shop when your wallet's feeling a little light. Keep up your newly frugal shopping habits once the economy improves, and you just might find the money for that vacation you've been wanting to take, that home improvement project you've been planning, or just to pad your savings a little! Shop smart, and have fun!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Live Little and Prosper

There is a certain economy of scale that goes along with living in a studio (sometimes aptly called an efficiency) apartment. It's not for everyone, but if you like to live simply, and possessions are not that important to you, it's a great, inexpensive way to live.

Your need for furniture is minimal when you live in a studio. Think furniture that does double duty. A sofa bed can serve as both bed and sofa. A Murphy bed vanishes into the wall by day, or they even have some that convert into a sofa or table when the bed is not in use. A small desk placed behind the sofa bed, facing the TV cabinet, can be both desk and dining table. You only need one television when you have only one room. Some of you will be able to get by with just a laptop. These days you can watch TV and movies on a laptop, even use it as a phone with a VOIP provider (http://www.fcc.gov/voip/#faqs). Coffee tables are available that raise up to dining table height.

You may wonder where you can stash your stuff in a studio. Shelves covering one wall can provide hidden storage for everything. Just use some attractive boxes or baskets. Label neatly, or make yourself a master key of the contents of all the boxes. Some furniture, such as ottomans and chaise lounges have hidden storage inside. I recommend one of those closet organizers to maximize your closet's storage potential. If you have a conventional bed, there is room to store all sorts of stuff underneath.

You can also save a lot of energy living in a studio. Smaller, energy-efficient appliances, including refrigerators, dishwashers and small wall ovens are available. If you are just one person living alone, these are probably sufficient for your needs. Lighting needs are minimal. You probably won't require much heat or AC either. Insulated window coverings can reduce your need for both of these.

If you have access to a patio, balcony or even a sunny window, you can grow some of your own vegetables or herbs. If you don't have any outdoor space, at least grow some houseplants. Everyone likes to see something living and green. Your complex will probably provide amenities such as a pool, hot tub or gym. Let someone else maintain them. You just enjoy them!

Studio living will curb your desire to accumulate stuff. You will be more likely to borrow books from the library than buy them. You will own a few well-chosen outfits rather than shop indiscriminately. You may start to favor presents such as gift-certificates to movies and grocery stores, rather than more things you have to store. All of this will save you money as well as space.

Small-space living also liberates you from all sorts of chores and obligations. Such a small apartment will not require much cleaning. Use the freed-up time and energy to do something fun! You will obviously not be able to entertain on a large scale in such close quarters. Leave hosting the Thanksgiving dinner to another family member. Bring a pie.

You singles or minimalist couples out there, give studio living a try. I think you'll find bigger is by no means better.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Sketch and Kvetch

Craftnight has been a long-standing tradition in my family. In recent years, we have included friends in what was once a family-only event. Every Friday night about six or eight of us get together. We plan some sort of self-serve dinner, either pizza, a baked potato bar, nachos, or pasta with different sauces, a salad, and dessert. All of us pitch in bringing bread, dessert, fruit, etc.. The men watch the kids. We have a couple glasses of wine, relax, and catch up on each other's lives while we craft.

Sometimes we have a group project suggested and planned by one of us. These often have a seasonal theme (eg. ornaments in December or carving artificial pumpkins in October). Other weeks we work on scrapbooks or other personal projects. Frequently our projects will be planned around the use of recycled materials. For instance, I am currently working on a bulletin board made from a wooden frame purchased at a yard sale, and corks one of our group members got from her job at a winery. Past projects have included clocks made from discarded data CD's, decoupaged and fitted with craft store clock movements, paper made from junk mail and advertising flyers, and tote bags made from old t-shirts.

Craft night is a great way to get together and enjoy an inexpensive meal and an activity with friends. At the same time, we are creating something beautiful for our homes or to give as gifts. As a bonus, we are often able to make use of materials which would otherwise be discarded.

You should think about starting up a craft night with some of your friends. The library has many great books available on all types of crafts. You'd be surprised how many people enjoy crafting once they give it a try, even if they don't consider themselves to be creative. Working on projects with other people is great for exposing you to new ideas and ways of doing things you would never have thought of, as well as receiving inspirational and supportive feedback. We have even had people come and demonstrate a certain skill to the group, or teach a short class. Another thing we intend to do one day but have not done yet is to take a field trip and have craft night at a ceramic studio, art exhibit, etc.

I hope some of you will add a craft night to your calendar. If once a week is too often, you can always do it once a month. I would love for some of you to post comments and let me know about your experiences with your own craft night.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Trip Thrifty and Carry a Nice Gift

Undaunted by the high price of gas, we hopped in our 4-cylinder Camry this weekend for a road trip. The next best thing to a staycation is the sofabed vacation. All you need are friends who live no more than a few hours' drive from you, preferably in a historic or touristy town, some conversational skills, and a host/hostess gift.

Pack some lunch, because highway food can be both a pricey and dicey proposition. Brush up on current events or the latest celebrity gossip, because you will most likely be expected to earn your keep by being a witty conversationalist at a cocktail party or other impromptu gathering at some time during your stay.

Back to that hostess gift. A decent bottle of wine or some cheery flowers are always well received, but you may wish to stray from the well-trodden path and select a funny coffee table book or some witty wine charms or coasters. For those of you rural types, some of your home grown veggies or fresh eggs are usually welcomed by your urban chums.

Here are a few ground rules for the sofabed vacation. Don't get embarassingly drunk during your stay. Leave the house at least as neat as you found it. Be sure to reciprocate the next time your friends want to get away from it all. You get extra brownie points for preparing breakfast or dinner at least once during your stay. Oh, and don't forget that thank-you note when you get back home (or at least an e-card, free at evite.com, hallmark.com, yahoogreetings.com).

The benefits of the sofabed vacation are many. You will save at least $100 a night on hotel fees, probably eat one or more meals at home, saving even more money, and your relationships will thrive on the new memories created during your stay. Enjoy your vacation!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Grocery Gambits

Checking out at the grocery store last night, I learned that that store's new policy was to only double coupons up to $1.00. Double coupons used to be one of my best weapons in the battle against high grocery prices. Many times if I had a $1.00 coupon for an item, and the store doubled it, the item would be free, or nearly free. Once in a while, some stores would even advertise a day when they would triple coupons up to $1.00. This new policy will make such freebies pretty much a thing of the past.

If double coupons are no longer available to us as a money-saving tool, what techniques can we use to rein in grocery inflation? Coupons up to $1.00 can still be doubled at some stores, so for products we would buy anyway, this is still a good deal. I also look for products marked down because they are close to the sell-by date. They will be marked with a sticker that says something like "Manager's Special". These products can still be close to free with coupons. As long as you use or freeze them by the expiration date, they are still just as good. Don't forget to check the bargain bin at the back of the store, either. By calling toll-free numbers on packaging, or by emailing the manufacturers of products we use regularly, I have often obtained multiple coupons, or even coupons for a free item. Check your Sunday paper for coupons, join a "coupon train"(google it), or print them out from various online sources.

Another valuable tool in our arsenal is the rebate. Walgreens, Riteaid, and Long's all have good rebate programs where you have to purchase the items, and then submit a rebate form once a month. Then they send you a check for what you spent, so the items are free! CVS has a program too, but I find theirs more complicated to use. You can save a ton of money with these programs. I haven't paid for shampoo, conditioner, soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, razors or lightbulbs, since I found out about rebate programs in 1998! There are also many rebates on food products, such as cereal. Check the packages of the food you buy, and look in your Sunday paper's coupon section for rebate forms. Follow the directions exactly, and keep a copy for your records.

Expensive foods, such as cereal, dried fruit and spices, can all be bought from bulk bins much more cheaply. Check stores such as Henry's, Whole Foods or Sprouts. This is also a much more environmentally friendly option, since we can reuse our old containers, rather than wasting more packaging. Spices, which may cost $3-4 for a couple of ounces in the grocery store tins, can cost much less than $1 per ounce in bulk. Costco and Sam's Club can also be good sources of bulk foods, but compare prices. Not everything is a good deal there. Remember, nothing is a good deal if it spoils before you can use it.

Consider making some high-priced foods yourself to save money. I have made my own yogurt and pizza dough with recipes from the Tightwad Gazette (a book I highly recommend), with good results. In the winter I use a bread machine to bake my own bread. My sister also makes her own jam with fruit donated by neighbors, and pesto sauce for pasta with basil I grow.

Which brings me to my final suggestion for saving money on groceries - grow some of your own food! Not everyone has space for fruit trees, but most everyone has at least a small patio where they can grow a few tomatoes or carrots in a pot. I have seen grapes, tomatoes, squash, peas, beans, pumpkins, carrots, peppers and eggplants all grown in pots with good results. Give it a try. Seeds are relatively cheap, and it's a lot of fun. There is even a new (somewhat overpriced) gadget called an Aerogarden for growing vegetables and herbs indoors. It controls the water, nutrients and light, for better results. Most herbs can be grown in a pot on the window sill. Growing your own produce saves money, reduces environmental impact (since food is not shipped great distances using fossil fuels), and if we grow it ourselves we know it is not full of pesticides or salmonella.

I'd love to hear your ideas, suggestions or strategies and how any of mine have worked for you. Please post your comments below.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Foot-loose and Fruit For Free

Last night, in multi-tasking mode, I thought I would get some exercise and stock my refrigerator at the same time. I set off at dusk, enjoying the first cool breezes of the day. Wearing my workout clothes and comfortable walking shoes, I set off with my gleaning gear. Whenever I walk, I make sure to carry my lightweight backpack, which weighs almost nothing when empty, a few plastic bags, and some seeds for guerilla planting. The trails where I walk border on many backyards. Most of these have fruit trees which overhang the trail. As I stride along, I watch for any ripe fruit which has fallen, or may be hanging within reach on the public side of the fence. If I find a spot where someone's sprinklers overshoot the fence, I go ahead and plant a fruit seed. You never know which of these may sprout and in a few years' time, be fair game for gleaning.

Last night's wasn't a very good haul, only one grapefruit, but I got a nice long walk in, and I spotted some avocado trees which will be ripe for the picking soon. Past strolls have netted bags of apricots, oranges and tangerines, some slightly wizened apples and peaches from trees on an abandoned homesite, mulberries from another abandoned lot, bunches of wild grapes, figs and so many avocados I had to make guacamole and freeze it.

Tonight I'm going to check on some peaches that were almost ripe yesterday. You should keep your eyes open in your neighborhood and see what free fruit awaits you!