Friday, February 09, 2007

Valentine's Day - Frugal or Free Gifts

It's often the small - unexpectedly - kind things that we do for one another that are the most memorable. There is no need to spend a bunch of money, or even any money, on a meaningful gift for someone you love.

Here are some of my favorite frugal ideas for Valentine's Day:

  • Buy a Single Red Rose - in full bloom, a single red rose means "I Love You."
  • Make or Buy his favorite Cookies from the grocery bakery.
  • Buy an "I Love You" balloon and put it in the bathroom or in her car before she gets up.
  • Take the time to find a romantic card, and add your own words to the card - Don't just sign it!!
  • Write "Will You be My Valentine" on a piece of paper and slip it into his lunch box or her purse.
  • Cut a heart shape from blank paper. Write "Will You Be Mine" on it and color around the words with crayons. Place it where she will see it when she gets home.
  • Write "Lucky Me - I have You" across the top of the mirror (with bar soap or lipstick) before you go to bed at night. Make sure the words don't cover the whole mirror and it's still usuable.
  • Have "Your Song" playing when she gets home, and sing along.
  • Write out All the things you love about your mate on little slips of paper and place them in a jar. These things don't have to sound romantic. "I love you because you cleaned up after the dog when I was too tired to do it," is a real expression of love and appreciation. Don't underestimate the power of honest appreciation.
  • Rent his or her favorite movie and plan on watching it with him or her. This is especially meaningful if you don't like the movie and usually won't watch it.
  • Tell your partner you want to go for a drive, and take her to the place where you first met, had a great time there, or something special happened. Talk about the memory and how it made you fall in love with her.
  • Show up at your mate's job with a home-cooked (by you) meal for lunch.
  • Write "I (draw a heart) U" on your forehead and pretend you don't know it's there.
Make the person you love feel truly loved on Valentine's day. That doesn't cost a thing.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Who Lives in these Rooms Anyway

I was watching Decorating Cents last night, and as usual they had a segment on interior redesign. In that segment, interior redesigners move the furniture in the room around, then scout throughout the house looking for accessories to bring the room together.

To accessorize they bring in lamps, tables, throws, pillows, plants, candles, art, knic knacs, etc. Once the room is accessorized it looks good. Well, it looks like it's ready for a magazine shoot.

The problem with these rooms is that once they are accessorized, they aren't really comfortable to use. I mean, the room looks great but how are your guests going to sit down when the sofa is covered with pillows and throws?

How do you manage to see the person you are talking to with tall candles or a bunch of flowers on the coffee table? Someone please tell me - what's the point of a coffee table that is so full of accessories (things you don't use) there is no room for your cup of coffee?

Don't people intend to use these rooms? Are the rooms just for looking at? Do the people who live there constantly straighten the throw on the sofa or rearrange the pillows once someone leaves the room?

Are our "living" rooms really supposed to look like magazine ads? Aren't we supposed to live in these rooms? That's what the den is for, you say. Then your intention is to pay for a living room that you can't use, you can only look at, obsess over, and worry about, right?

I don't get it. I mean, I understand that everyone wants their home to look nice. But, who decides what looks nice? Is it up to the designers, or the TV shows, or the mother-in-law...or us?

If you ask me, a room is meant to be used. If you can't use the room without having to worry about everything being straight, centered, fluffed, and unwrinkled, then you have a showcase - not a room for your family to use.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Cranium Board Game - Frugal Fun

We spent part of our Entertainment budget this month on a board game called Cranium. Although this game was one of the higher priced games in the store ($18.22), it was a good investment in our Entertainment needs.

Compared to the little value we would have gotten had we spent that money on a movie, a fast food run, or an hour of bowling - this game will give us months, if not years, of fun.

Cranium offers something for everyone. Depending on where you land on the board, you may have to draw with your eyes closed, shape clay into a recognizable form, act out a charades word, unscramble a group of letters, or answer a trivia question.

This game is fun because there is always something different to do. You aren't locked into just trivia (don't you hate it when you can't answer 3 or 4 0r 5 questions in a row), or just charades, or just word scrambles.

If you are good at some activities, but not so good at others, you will still have fun with Cranium, because it's just a matter of time till the fun activities come 'round again.

Cranium is set up for teams, but you can play it with singles. There are three people in our family so we just act out the hints for each other. For example, If a player had to guess a song title while a teammate hummed the song, one (or both) of the other players would hum the song.

Having a teammate wasn't really necessary, and helping each other kept us all interested in the game. We laughed at each other's attempts to hum or whistle a song that we could only remember the chorus to.

Cranium has a family edition of the game that is made for families with younger children (8 and up). We bought their regular version for adults and teens, and my 14 year old daughter enjoyed the game.

I recommend Cranium. The value you receive from this board game is much greater than just about anything else you could spend $20 on.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Homeowners Insurance - Watch Your Escrow

Our Homeowner's Insurance Company is wacked. They don't seem to know what they are doing. And, my mortgage company (escrow account) can't keep up with their changes.

We contracted with an insurance company in June of 2004 for a homeowner's insurance policy. It was, of course, a requirement of our mortgage company that we make payments into an escrow account to pay the insurance premiums.

OK. That's fine. The mortgage company is making the insurance payments - accurately and on time - right?

Well, not exactly.

In July of 2005, we get a bill from the homeowner's insurance company for $29. Thinking this was a mistake since our mortgage company pays our homeowners insurance, we call the mortgage company.

They say they don't know what the bill is for, and their records show a payment made to the insurance company in May of 2005. It was paid in full (not a quarterly payment), so it shouldn't be due again until May of 2006.

So, we call the insurance company. They say it's an increase.

OK. We call the mortgage company again and tell them the insurance went up. The mortgage company says they will pay it. Just send the bill to them.

They make the additional $29 payment in July.

A few months later the mortgage company does an escrow analysis and raises our mortgage payment to reflect the increase in the insurance policy. That's fine; we were expecting the increase.

Since I'm a meticulous record keeper, I went to the mortgage company website to get a printout of the escrow analysis for my records and noticed that the $29 payment that was made in July 2005 was added back to escrow in August 2005.

What? Why did they do that, I wonder. The extra insurance bill/payment must have been a mistake, I think. Maybe our insurance shouldn't have gone up, so the insurance company issued a credit back to the mortgage company. Why else would we have a credit to our escrow account?

Now I'm watching the escrow account more closely. I see that the mortgage company makes the homeowner's insurance payment in May 2006. It's for the same amount that was contracted for originally. So, I figure (the bill and) the extra payment that was made was a mistake.

At the end of 2006, the mortgage company does its annual escrow analysis and issues a refund. According to the analysis, their projected payments from our escrow account were too high. They didn't actually have to pay as much as they thought (projected) they would, and they are refunding the overage.

So, I figure that extra $29 payment must have been a mistake. I fall back into trusted complacency again.

Oops. It was a mistake to trust that they know what they are doing. This year we get a bill from some insurance company that we have never even heard of. Upon calling our insurance agent we learn that not only has the insurance company changed its name (over a year ago), but our homeowner's insurance has gone up again.

Again? Yes. It seems that bill we received in 2005 was for an accurate increase. It has increased again for 2007.

So, I'm looking forward to another round of phone calls between the insurance company and the mortgage company. They can't get anything right.

My advice to you? Keep a close watch on your escrow account, and notify your mortgage company of any changes in your homeowner's policy. Don't, not for a second, rest assured that those two companies are keeping up to date with one another.

Ultimately, it's Your Responsibility to make sure everything is paid - accurately and on time. Don't trust your mortgage company to handle it correctly.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Veterinarians are Salespeople - Be Aware

We've changed vets. To my disgust, I learned the hard way that veterinarians are salespeople, too.

The first vets we chose were chosen for convenience. A husband and wife veterinarian team's office is less than 2 miles from our house.

In the beginning, we always saw the husband and he was great. Our first appointment was made because we had found a 7 week old kitten, covered in fleas, with obvious eye infections, outside in the rain.

At that time we were still renting and pets were not allowed at that property, but we just couldn't let the little thing suffer out in the rain. We explained to the vet that we were not supposed to have animals, and we had very little money to spare on a kitten that we would probably have to get rid of (if the landlord demanded it).

That vet reduced his office fee and didn't charge us for one of the tests, and we were grateful. So, when we bought our own house and adopted a dog from the Humane Society we took our dog (and that once-ill cat) back to him for their health-care needs.

That was when we started seeing the wife in that team. She was entirely different from her husband. Where he had been happy to discuss the costs of high-end pet foods and their more affordable alternatives, dog shampoos and which worked fine while costing less, and flea treatments and over-the-counter alternatives, she pushed every line of every high-end product they sold.

Now, I'm not saying this woman shouldn't sell products that make them money. After all, every business is in the business of making a profit, but when this woman began pushing puppy shots every two weeks I started getting irritated.

I didn't have a problem with the first three shots. I understood that it was difficult to be sure that the immunization had "taken" and was not neutralized by immunity received from the mother. But on the third visit I asked if this or the next one would be the last and this vet proceeded to tell me that my puppy may need more than five puppy immunizations.

Now, that is rediculous. I knew from doing research on this issue that too many immunizations were worse than too few. And, the timing was equally important in determining whether the shots would "take" (every two weeks is too close together, but she insisted on that interval).

Combining this pushiness about giving shots indefinitely with the fact that this woman didn't even want to discuss cheaper alternatives for basic dog care (brushing dog's teeth rather than paying for a cleaning, etc), led me to believe that she was simply trying to make money and had no interest in the health of my pet.

So, we found another vet. This doc doesn't push his sales products on us and is willing to discuss cheaper alternatives for basic pet care.

If you want to stay in control of your money, do your own research. Don't take your vet's word for everything. Some of them are just as hooked into consumerism and greed as any other salesman you might encounter in a store or on TV.


Sunday, January 28, 2007

Best Exercise Most Frugal

According to a study from the Duke University Medical Center, a brisk walk each day (a total of 2 - 3 hours each week) will significantly cut your risk of cardiovascular disease. Walking is also the best way for middle-aged people to lose weight.

This is good news for those of us who find that we are gaining weight as we get older, even though our eating and exercise habits stay the same. According to the Duke University study we gain about 4 pounds a year as we age. So, if you are exercising but not losing any weight you are still ahead of the game.

It's nice to know that the most frugal exercise - walking - is also the best. Walking doesn't cost anything. I'd call that frugal.

If the weather is too bad to walk outside, just go to your local Walmart supercenter or the mall and walk up and down the aisles for 30 or 45 minutes. That's not hard to do, and if you combine your exercise with your normal shopping trips you won't even have to add the cost of gas to your workout.

So, there is no need to run out and buy all of those exercise machines and gadgets. These gadgets usually end up in the thrift stores anyway. If you shop at thrift stores you know what I mean. I've seen entire rooms at the thrift store filled with nothing but exercise equipment.

Don't waste your money. Just walk. It's good for your heart, your waist, and your wallet.


Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Problem with the Car

I got my car back from the shop. It runs great so far, but I'm skeptical. Since I've had the car in the shop for the same problem 4 times, I want to wait a while before I deem the car truly fixed.

But, I'd say it's probably fixed. It runs better than it has for over a year. I've taken it to two different mechanics and neither of them (nor any of the other mechanics at those businesses) could figure out what was wrong with it.

The problem with the car was that it wouldn't start some times, and when it did start it would run rough in 1st gear and 3rd gear. The battery was been tested 3 times and found good. The alternator was checked twice and found good.

The starter had been checked. The voltage regulator had been checked. The fuel pump had been checked. They were all found to be good.

In my quest to fix this pain-in-the-butt car, I've had the gear shift cable replaced, the ignition cylinder replaced, the fuel filter replaced, the spark plugs and wires replaced, the ignition wires replaced (I think these are the same as spark plug wires but I have a separate charge for them), and the crossover pipe replaced (suspected vacuum leak).

This time I had the coil packs replaced and I think they were the problem all along. Before I took the car to the shop this time, I looked over all the receipts from previous repairs and noticed that on two invoices (from different shops) there was a mention that one of the coil packs was weak.

But, on both invoices, changing the coil pack was "not recommended at this time." I brought this to the mechanic's attention when I took the car to him, and suggested that he check the coil packs again.

Lo and behold, he said the coil pack was the problem. He also said that the battery (which had been tested 3 times and said to be good) had a dead cell and this accounted for the starting problem.

The mechanic gave me the choice with the coil pack. He said we could replace just the bad one or replace them all. Since one had gone bad, he said it was more likely that the other two were not in good shape and may go bad soon. He also had coil packs with either a 1 year warranty or a lifetime warranty.

After all the hassle I've had with this problem, I opted to replace all of the coil packs, and chose the lifetime warranty even though they were significantly more expensive. But, I did go buy a battery myself and bring it to him to put in. I saved $20 by doing that.

The repairs still totalled $420, but if this fixes the problem it's more than worth the price. A new (used) car would have put us in debt again, and I will avoid that if at all possible.

Why am I sharing all this mechanical stuff with you all? In case anyone has the same sort of problem, I would like to save them the hassles I went through. Always be sure to read the invoices. This might just save you the expense and aggravation that I went through.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Most Reliable Used Cars

I've put my car in the shop again. They weren't very happy to see me there since I told them, "If you can't fix it right this time - just tell me that and I will take the car back home."

Anyway, while I am waiting to hear from them I have been dreaming about buying another car. I did some research and thought you all might like to know which used cars are considered the Most Reliable.

Edmunds Best Bets
  • Economy Car: 1999-2004 Honda Civic
  • Midsize Car: 1999-2004 Toyota Camry
  • Large Car: 1999-2004 Ford Crown Victoria / Mercury Grand Marquis
  • Luxury Car: 2003-2004 Infiniti G35
  • Sporty Car: 1999-2004 Mazda Miata
  • Mini-SUV: 1999-2004 Honda CR-V
  • SUV: 2002-2004 Ford Explorer
  • Minivan: 1999-2004 Honda Odyssey
  • Small Pickup: 1999-2004 Toyota Tacoma
  • Large Pickup: 1999-2004 Ford F-150
Warranty Direct's Top 100
  1. Honda Accord
  2. Subaru Forester
  3. Mazda MX-5
  4. Mitsubishi Carisma
  5. Toyota Yaris
  6. Honda Civic
  7. Nissan Almera
  8. Honda CR-V
  9. Toyota RAV4
  10. Nissan Micra

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Buy Another Car or Fix the Old one AGAIN

Since my daughter is turning 14 this weekend, she is eager to put in applications around town. In our area, grocery stores begin hiring at age 14 and she has been counting down the months until she was old enough to apply.

The problem? My car is not running properly. I parked the car while I worked on paying off our credit card debt. Since my kid takes the bus to school and I work from home, the 2nd car wasn't a
necessity.

But, she wants to work and I don't want to do anything that interferes with her desire to start making her own way in the world. Additionally, I want her to have a clear understanding of how much work is required to make the money needed to purchase
wants like cell phones, high-end clothing, and cars and insurance.

But the delimma of whether to sink more money into a car that I've had in the shop
3 times for the same problem is not an easy one to resolve. If it was a simple issue of so-and-so needs replaced, and it costs $xxx to replace it, I would happily put it in the shop and have it fixed.

With this car the issue isn't that simple. It's what I get for buying a Pontiac Grand Prix, I guess. I've had 3 different mechanics try to fix the car, and although they've all replaced something, that something was not the problem. So, I continue to have the same problem after shelling out hundreds of dollars.

After reading several articles online, I'm thinking I'm going to put old Duchess in the shop again. It still works out far cheaper to keep trying to fix this car than to go in debt to buy another one. Here are the best of the articles I read, tell me what you think.

Keep Your Old Clunker or Buy a New One MSN Money
Fix Old Car or Buy New One - Dave Ramsey's Advice

Monday, January 22, 2007

Teen Parties - be Cool and Save Money

My daughter's 14th birthday is this weekend, and we've put our heads together to come up with party ideas that won't break the bank (Mom's wallet).

Not only is this a good opportunity to teach your kid some money management skills, it's also a good way to save some money while still satisfying a teenager's appetite for all things
cool.

I've learned some interesting things about the way teenagers think in this process. Did you know that having a pizza delivered is cooler than picking one up, even if you could get more AND better pizza by getting it yourself?

It's true. It doesn't really matter what kind of pizza it is as long as it delivered. Delivery is
cool.

Deli snack trays are also
cool. But, you can make them yourself and save a chunk of cash. As long as it looks good and offers a variety of bite-sized food with toothpicks stuck into them - it's cool.

Teenagers are slightly concerned with nutrition. So, you can include celery on the snack tray if you fill it with peanut butter. Mostly they want cold cuts - rolled and stuck with a toothpick, cheese (stuck with a toothpick), cucumbers (stuck with a toothpick), carrots (that's going to be hard to stick with a toothpick), and dip or ranch dressing in the center of the tray. I'm thinking toothpicks must be
cool.

If yours is a slumber party, renting movies is a
cool way to have fun, and a must-have. The movies don't even have to be New Releases. Older teenage classics like The Notebook, Titanic, Grease, Bring it On, and I Know What You Did Last Summer are usually a hit.

Teenagers also like the animated Disney movies like
Cars, Ice Age, and Over the Hedge. Check into the 5-for-5 (5 older movies for $5) deals that most movie rental stores have.

Music is another
cool must-have at a teen party. If you don't have enough music or need some more recent, popular singles you can download them from Walmart.com for 88 cents a piece. Just click on Music once you get to the Walmart site.

Walmart also has some music downloads for only 48 cents each. Maybe you will get lucky and your teen will find something they like in that category.

Twister is making a comeback. It's one game that most teenagers will still play with their peers. It's cool and cheap too. It's only $14.99 at Amazon.com.

It's not hard to create a cool party and still save some money. Just set a dollar limit for the party, give your teen a pencil and paper with the budget written at the top, and brainstorm until you fill the party with cool and frugal activities that satisfy you both.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

If Your Teen Can't Save - Do it for Her

I highly recommend requiring that your teen save a percentage of all money he or she gets. Once a kid becomes a teenager, there are going to be savings goals. It's a built-in fact of life.

All teenagers are going to be looking forward to something expensive. Whether it's that big end-of-school-year trip, a car, or prom clothes, you can bet something big is on the horizon.

If your teen gets money, he or she should be responsible for, at least, some part of those expenses. This is a prime opportunity to teach them money management skills.

Saving for a goal is a major part of money management. So, don't let the opportunity pass by.

But, saving money can be tough for a teen. If it's hard for adults to save money, imagine how much more difficult it is for someone who has very little experience curtailing that temptation to spend.

So, if you find that some portion of your teen's money is not being saved, you may have to save it for them.

I take
5% - 10% from all money my daughter receives (gift checks, odd jobs, etc.) and transfer it into her ING account, then give her the rest. I even deduct 5% of what I plan to spend on her for birthdays and Christmas and put it in her savings account.

This way she is not tempted to spend it because she never has the money in her hand.

My teenager gets a tremendous feeling of satisfaction from watching her savings grow, even though I'm making her save.

Your teen may balk at a requirement to save at first, but once he or she sees the money growing I don't think you will have any more problems. You might even be surprised by having your teen bring her last bit of change to you and asking you to put it in her savings account. How sweet is that!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Time to Increase 401(k) for Retirement

It's time. I've been thinking about increasing my 401(k) contributions, but I've been putting it off.

I have other goals - goals that I want to accomplish as quickly as possible - so it's been easy to ignore retirement savings since we are decades from retiring.

Everyone wants to think about the "now" not the "later". It's human nature, and I'm no different than anyone else when it comes to that.

But, when I think of the lost opportunity of NOT taking advantage of saving
Pre-Tax dollars, my frugal heart skips a beat. That's a lot of money we are letting slip through our fingers, folks.

For example, let's say you make $20,000 a year before taxes. *That puts you in the 15% tax bracket. You want to save 10% of your income for retirement. In pre-tax dollars you will save $2000 each year.

But, if you don't put that money in a tax deferred account like a 401(k), you will only save $1700.

You've just lost $300 - plus all the interest it would have generated.

It's gone forever.

It belongs to the government now.

Are you happy with that? Three hundred dollars is a lot of money to just give away, don't you think? Especially when it's going to the government. They already have enough of our money.

So, I am going to just bite the bullet and increase my 401(k) deductions. In take home pay, it will only decrease our income by a few dollars a week.

How about you? Are you ready to stop letting the government take such a big mouthful, and keep more of your own hard-earned money?


*These tax calculations have been simplified. For a more detailed explanation of your tax bracket, I recommend Moneychimp

Monday, January 15, 2007

Bowling Update

We went bowling Saturday evening. It was fairly fun, but I thought it was a bit expensive. Only two of us bowled, so it cost $17 to bowl two games. Well, one dollar was for a can of diet Pepsi, so it really cost $16 for those two games.

Since only two of us bowled, the games went quickly. The first game lasted close to an hour. I think that was because it had been so long since anyone had bowled. We had also forgotten how to keep score and had to go ask the employees of the bowling alley. The second game only lasted about 20 minutes.

The cost broke down like this: $2 per person to rent shoes, $3 per person per game. So, the first game cost $10 for two people. The second game was $6 (since the shoes had already been paid for, the second game was cheaper).

So, for $17 we got approximately an hour and a half of entertainment. I guess if you really like to bowl, that's not too bad. But, if you are a real Tightwad like me you probably think that was too much.

We will probably go bowling again. Kim really liked it, and it was a good place to take the kids. Although they sold beer by the can ($2.25 each), I don't think anyone was drinking much. I certainly wasn't about to pay a markup of 300% just to have a beer.

If you haven't been bowling in a while, be prepared to be a little sore the next day. Those bowling balls are heavy and it works your arms, shoulders, and legs to toss them down the alley.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Cheap Family Fun - Bowling?

When did bowling get so expensive? Granted, the last time I went bowling was in the dark ages (the late 70s) but it seems to me that it was a really cheap way to have some fun.

I decided that my family should go out this weekend and do something fun since we've done such a good job at paying off our debt and saving money. So, I'm sitting there trying to think of something that's cheap but might be fun for the family, and I remember going bowling as a teenager.

My memory is foggy (that happens once you pass 40), but I know we never had much spending money as teenagers, so it couldn't have cost more than a few dollars for an evening of bowling.

So, my partner calls the bowling alley to find out what times they have open bowling, and what the prices are. I couldn't believe it when she told me that it was going to cost us $15 to bowl one game!

How long does it take to bowl one game? An hour? Sheesh, $15 for one hour seems awfully high to me.

Well, we are going to try it, anyway. Hopefully it will be really fun and worth the money. I will let you all know how it turns out. (Maybe we will just bowl really slowly and make that one game last :-)

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Voluntary Simplicity - My Definition

I’ve been reading about Voluntary Simplicity (VS) for a while now. I like the idea of living a simple life – a life with reduced stress, a life without all the “hurry-up-and-go”, a life where making a ton of money is not the goal, a life where the people matter more than the things.

But after reading scores of web sites, I’ve realized that what I am looking for isn’t a typical VS life. My goal is not to live off the grid, or learn to grow all of my own food, or learn to cook on a wood stove.

All of those goals are wonderful, and they can certainly lead to a reduction in needed money, but in my opinion, they do NOT lead to a simpler life. I’m looking to make my life easier, not more complicated. I have no interest in going backward when it comes to technological progress. I like having water, electricity, heat, A/C, and automatic appliances at my fingertips.

I’m not trying to be political or save the planet (although that is certainly a noble goal). I'm trying to make life better – for me and my family – while making as small an impact on the planet as I can.

So, what do I mean by living a simple life? A simple life to me means an unpretentious life – a life in which a fa├žade is unnecessary. I want to go back to the “good old days” when simple living meant frugality and non-consumerism were the norm, not something to be ashamed of because you were poor and couldn't do any better.

I want to have a simple house, and not be looked down upon because of it. I want to buy furniture that is good enough for us, whether new or used, and not feel anxious when I have company. I want to clothe and feed my family as decently as possible, based on what I think is important rather than on what advertisers tell me I must have.

I want to feel good about turning the heat down in the winter, and turning the air conditioning up in the summer. I want my old – but functional – appliances to be a testament to how well I am managing our money, rather than an embarrassment that we hope no one will comment on.

I want to be proud that I don’t have to work outside our home, and not have to feel that I am judged as lazy, nonproductive, and a drain on society’s resources. I want my lifestyle to be considered an acceptable alternative to consumerism, rather than a pitiable way to live.

Voluntary Simplicity has as many definitions as there are web sites about VS. I thought I’d add mine to the mix.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Frugal Gardening - in the Winter?

Ok, I'm not really gardening in the winter. But, I am still enjoying the tomatoes I grew in the summer. I've learned that tomatoes freeze just fine if you plan on cooking them.

Last year was the first year that I seriously grew a vegetable garden. I had planted a few vegetables before and even tried indoor sowing, but it wasn't a planned effort and none of it turned out very well.

But, last year I went at it full force. I planned, plotted, winter sowed (more on that in another article), staked, and watered and ended up with a large crop of Roma tomatoes to show for my efforts.

We ate our fill of tomatoes all summer then froze the rest. The great thing about freezing tomatoes is you don't need to do anything to prepare them for the freezer. Just rinse them in water, pop them into a freezer bag, and leave them till you need tomatoes in a recipe.

Frozen tomatoes are much easier to skin than fresh tomatoes. Just soak them in warm water for a few minutes, cut an opening in the top of the tomatoes, then just push them out of the skin. They usually pop right out.

I made Cabbage and Kielbasa with some of my frozen Roma's last night (instead of the can of tomatoes the recipe called for), and it was great. The tomatoes broke down quickly and tasted good in the soup. The meal was all the more satisfying knowing that I had grown those tomatoes myself.

In case you'd like to try the recipe, I'll add it here.

KIELBASA and CABBAGE
  • 1 large Onion, chopped
  • 1 T butter or Margarine
  • 1 lb Kielbasa sliced into 1/4" rounds
  • 1 head Cabbage, chopped
  • 1 - 28 oz can whole Tomatoes (or 4 cups frozen whole tomatoes, skinned)
  • 4 cups Chicken Broth
In a large stock pot, saute onion and Kielbasa in margarine until onions are transparent (OPTIONAL - you can just toss everything in the pot and simmer). Add cabbage, tomatoes, and chicken broth. Cover and simmer until cabbage is tender (1/2 to 1 hour), stirring occasionally.

This can be made in the crock pot, but the amount of cabbage will have to be reduced. Only half a head of cabbage will fit into my crock pot, so halve the recipe if your crock is a standard size.

Begin your garden dreaming now, so that you will have plenty of home-grown, freshly-frozen veggies for next winter.

Festival of Frugality

I have neglected to post a link to the sites that have hosted the Festival of Frugality carnivals and Carnival of Shopping in which one of my articles was included. I would like to take the time now to link back to those sites. Please forgive my oversight in not posting these links sooner.

  1. Savvy Steward
  2. Mom Advice
  3. Become's Pocket Change
  4. Frugal for Life

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Make a Rug from Old T Shirts

I love being able to re-use material from old clothes. It makes my frugal heart happy. One of my favorite re-dos is using old T shirts to crochet rag rugs.

I think everyone wears T shirts sometimes. So, most of us have old T shirts that either developed a mysterious stain, shrunk, or came out of the wash with a hole (I guess that's a sign that the T shirt has been worn out).

If you don't have any old T shirts, check your local thrift store. They usually sell them really cheap. We have a Habitat for Humanity store nearby and that is where I shop (for all kinds of things). Habitat's prices are much more reasonable than Goodwill, and I can get T shirts there for $1.19 each.

Anyway, this is how I make rag rugs from T shirts:
  1. Make sure the T shirts you are using do Not have side seams.
  2. Cut off the top of the T shirt containing the armholes (sleeves) and neck.
  3. Cut off the hem.
  4. Begin cutting around the T shirt, allowing a width of at least 1/2 inch.
  5. Continue cutting around and around, creating a long "yarn" to crochet.
  6. Roll the T shirt yarn into a ball.
You don't want side seams in the T shirts because once you cut across the seams they will come apart. This means you will have to sew them all together again. Sewn seams can be used in crocheting rag rugs (you will be sewing ends of several T shirts together to make the rug big enough), but it is much less time consuming if you have one continuous piece of "yarn" from each T shirt.

You can use the material from the top of the T shirt, but you will have to cut back and forth once you remove the sleeves and neckline. Cutting back and forth creates an extra flap of material at each end that will have to be rolled around itself as you are crocheting.

This flap may cause a "bump" in your finished rug, and it is not always possible to get the flap rolled tightly so it sticks out. If you don't mind it, then cut out the sleeves and neckline, then cut back and forth to use all of the material in the chest and upper back area of the T shirt, as well.

You will need approximately 10 large T shirts to make a 28" X 20" rug. If you buy the T shirts (from the thrift store) to make your rug, you can plan the design and colors to compliment your decor. If you just use what you have, take a little time to think about which colors look best together, and crochet in that order.

Once you have the T shirt material cut and rolled into balls you can begin crocheting.
  • Chain 20 stitches
  • Single crochet in each chain
  • Single crochet twice in last chain stitch
  • Work down the opposite side of the chain and single crochet in the bottom of each chain stitch
  • Single crochet twice in the end stitch
  • By the second or third round you will inc twice at each end to keep the rug from curling up
  • Continue sc around the rug, increasing twice on each end
  • As you finish a roll of T shirt yarn, sew or tie a new roll to the end and continue crocheting
  • To finish, slip stitch into 2-3 sc then pull the strip to the back of the rug
  • Sew the end under a stitch in the back to hide it



These rugs are great to use in the bathroom because you can throw them in the wash each week without having to worry about a rubber backing like you do with store-bought rugs.


A few Tips about crocheting with T shirt material:

If your T shirts have those rubber designs, pictures, or logos, this will create an added non-slip texture to the rug. If you don't want the rubber to show you can fold the strip as you crochet it so that the rubber is on the inside.

Decagon shaped rug illustrates rubber designs incorporated into rug

The wider you cut the T shirt "yarn" the thicker your rug will be. I wouldn't recommend cutting it wider than 1 inch, though. The wider it is, the more difficult it is to crochet unless you fold it before rolling into balls.

You can cut the ends on a diagonal before sewing them together if you want to make a near-invisible seam. Overlap the end of the last roll with the beginning of the next one and cut diagonally. Line up the diagonal cuts (this will create a 90 degree angle when the ends are held together) and sew them with matching thread. Roll this seam inward when you crochet it.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Budget Styles - Create a Hybrid

Two of the most interesting budgets I've come across are the Balanced Money Formula (BMF) and the 60% Solution. Both of these budgeting styles break your income down into fewer categories than traditional budgets and offer a quicker and easier method of staying on track.

In the BMF, the goal is to separate your bills into into just 3 categories: Must-Haves, Savings, and Wants. Each category gets a percentage of your income. Must-Haves gets 50%, Savings gets 20%, and Wants gets 30%.

Must-Haves are the things that you must pay for in order to ensure your survival. Bills like rent (or mortgage), utilities, insurance, food (just the basics), and auto expenses are Must-Haves. In other words, you must have them in order to survive and continue making money.

Savings is pretty much self-explanatory, except that additional debt payments are also considered savings. This is because making more than the minimum payment on your debts frees up your money in the future.

Wants are those thing that make your life fun, or more pleasant, but you could live without them. Bills like cable TV, additional phone lines or cell phones, long distance calling plans, entertainment, yearly clothing allowances, dining (eating out), and internet service are Wants. You could live without them if you had to (you might not like it but you could).

The 60% Solution is similar except it doesn't separate Must-Haves from Wants. In the 60% budget, you separate your Committed Expenses (both necessary expenses and fun/entertainment expenses) from your other expenses and commit no more than 60% of your income to this category.

The remaining 40% of your income is doled out in 10% chunks each: (1) Retirement, (2) Long-Term Savings, (3) Short-Term Savings, and (4) Fun Money.

I've tried both of these budgeting styles and found that although they both work, neither of them suits my lifestyle completely. So, I just created a hybrid.

I use only 3 categories of spending: Expenses (a hybrid of Must-Haves and Committed Expenses) , Freedom Accounts (a hybrid of Short-Term Savings and Wants), and Savings (a hybrid of BMF Savings and Long-Term Savings).

Check out these budgeting styles and see if they work better for you than traditional budgets. You may find them easier and more effective for your lifestyle.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Free Credit Report - Get Yours!

Has everyone taken advantage of the Free Annual Credit Report? I hope so. Not only does this report give you a good indication of how your credit shapes up, it also gives you the opportunity to have errors removed.

When I checked my credit report last year I found a $79 bad debt that didn't belong to me. I had no idea who this company was nor what they sold, much less had a debt with them.

The cool thing about checking your credit online is that some of the reporting bureaus (I know TransUnion will) allow you to contest a charge right there online while you are looking at your credit report.

It comes in handy. I just clicked the "Request Investigation" or whatever it was called and filled out the form that followed. Within about 2 months the debt had been removed. Evidently the company had no evidence that it was my debt.

I'm sure it's not always this easy to fix errors on your credit report, but TransUnion does at least require the company reporting the debt to have supporting documentation to prove the debt is yours.

How cool is that! Someone who makes an effort to protect you (instead of the big companies) is rare now-a-days.

I recommend that you stagger your requests for your credit report with each agency. First, request a report from TransUnion, wait 3 months and request a report from Experian, then wait 3 more months to request the report from Equifax.

This way you will be checking your credit 3 times a year, which makes it less likely that an error will stay on your report long enough to do much damage. And, you won't be paying a credit monitoring company to keep track for you.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Home Ownership - is it Really Less Expensive

There is so much to do and so little money to do it with. Yes, I'm whining. Yesterday, I saw that my Home Repair savings has risen by $100, so I took out my "To-Do" list to see if there was enough money to make one of the most pressing repairs.

There still isn't enough to do a major overhaul on the porch (the most pressing repair), but that's not why I'm whining. I'm whining because that "To-Do" list is never ending.

After doing some calculations, I realized that by the time I save enough money to make the most pressing repairs, regular maintenance for everything else will be due.

This got me to thinking about how expensive it really is to own your home. Conventional Wisdom says that you will save money and build wealth
by owning a home and building equity, not by renting and giving someone else your money.

But, I'm beginning to doubt so-called conventional wisdom.

Now, certainly, renting is giving your money to someone else in exchange for housing, with no end in sight. And it is logical to assume that owning your home - not having housing payments - during your retirement years puts you in a much better financial situation. But, does it really?

Well, I guess that depends on the maintenance costs of your home, and on how high your property tax might rise during your retirement years.

And - here is the kicker for me - how will you be able pay someone else to do that maintenance once you're old and not making money any longer? Are you assuming that you will still be able to do your own maintenance even into your 60s and 70s?

I'm assuming that you are somewhat like me ( meaning you aren't going to have a million dollars to spend during your retirement). So, how are you going to pay for the roof that needs to be replaced, the new hot water heater, porch repair/replacement, vinyl floor repair, carpet replacement, resurfacing grungy cabinets, leaking/rusting faucets, new elements for the stove?

And, how are you going to keep up with yard maintenance?

Some of us may be able and willing to push that mower around when we are 60-70 years old, but I'd say that it would be a real toll on most of us.

Pat Veretto, at Frugal Living found that she could do much better by selling her home, investing that money, and using it to pay rent. She not only came out ahead financially, she no longer had to worry about making home repairs, keeping up with maintenance, or dealing with the cost and physical toll of lawncare.

It makes you think. Are we really in a better position financially when we take on the cost of ownership of a house and yard? Is the cost of property taxes, appliance maintenance and repair, home maintenance and repair, and landscaping really less expensive than renting?