Quantcast Finally Frugal: December 2008

The bumpy road to financial independence. . . .


Monday, December 29, 2008

A frugal homecoming. . . .

I've just spent the last week at my brother's house, having returned to Portland to melting snow and intermittent rain on Saturday. I was struck, while staying in California, by how WARM my brother's house is kept. I wore short sleeves, and walked around in bare feet most of the time. The heater was on the entire time, at 72 degrees. One night, I was too warm and discovered that the heater was still at 72 even at 1 a.m.!

It was so strange to never feel chilled, ever, and to actually be too warm, even during the day sometimes!! Such a difference from my 58 degree world in Portland, where I'm always bundled in several layers inside, including wool socks and furry 'Ugg-like' boots. I must have mentioned to my family at some point that I've slept in a hat and gloves a few times (I turn the heat off completely at night), because I received an electric heated mattress pad for Christmas!

I tried it out last night and the night before, and I have to say---I don't really like it! It's not just the fact that I'm drawing electricity to keep the bed warm, it's also that I've grown accustomed to being a little bit chilly, even at night. I actually sleep better that way---I find that I've kept the heated mattress pad on the lowest setting, and turn it off after about an hour (it has an automatic shut-off after TEN hours!). I think in the future, I'll just use it to 'pre-heat' the bed and then turn it off, if I use it at all.

It's interesting that my flannel sheets, my two down comforters, my cotton blanket and a heavy wool throw (along with three heat-seeking cats) are better at keeping me warm and comfortable than an electric device. As we head into a new year, I'm hopeful that I'll discover many more simple, sustainable habits that work just as well as budget-busting devices like my heated mattress cover.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Mother Nature trumps frugality. . . .

This is the third day straight that I've been basically trapped at home---my car is stuck in the snow and ice down the street, and it appears that it will be there for at least a few more days. We've just been through a giant (for Portland) snow storm which began last week and probably won't end until next Saturday! Meanwhile, my budget has flown out the window.

On the nights before predicted snowfall, I rushed to the nearest (not the cheapest, mind you) grocery store to stock up on essentials (hot chocolate and whipped cream being among the items purchased). I did this at least three times, and while I did bring a shopping list, my main goal was not frugality but finding what I wanted in the least time and getting home before the storms began. Added to this is the fact that everyone and his brother had the same idea, and the grocery store was packed!

Meanwhile, my heater has been on pretty much constantly for an entire week (except during the night), and while I still keep it at a low 58 degrees, I'm sure my gas bill will reflect the chilly weather and the many days last week (and this week) that I didn't go in to work. Today, I trekked out to Target for a chai latte and some books (the libraries have been closed!!!) as well as to get some cash for my trip to California in a couple of days (provided I can get to the airport and my flight isn't canceled). $107, a sweater, a belt, and four books later, I made the long slushy walk home wondering how the last week will look when I put my recent purchases into my zero-based budget for December!

Ah well! I'm safe, warm, dry and well fed. Which many people in Portland can't say right now, from the 40,000 without power to the homeless and very low-income residents. I may be somewhat silent until next weekend, as I attempt to make my way out of Portland to spend Christmas with my family!

Happy holidays, everyone!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Frugal holiday gift. . . .

Several people in my office regularly exchange small gifts around the holidays---I work in a fairly large office, and the idea of giving each person even a small, store-bought gift makes me wince. This year, I simply baked some cookies and wrapped them up for gifts. A couple of years ago however, I gave pre-made 'cookie in a bag' gifts. Not only was it much less expensive than purchasing something for everyone, it was nice to give a gift that would enable families to spend an afternoon baking cookies.

The recipe for Cranberry Hootycreeks (which I'd never heard of before), came from the Allrecipes site. Rather than purchasing jars to put the ingredients in (see photo from the Allrecipes site above), I bought low-cost clear plastic bags from Michael's Crafts, and tied them up with a big red bow. I created pretty labels with additional ingredient requirements (such as butter and eggs) as well as baking instructions.


  • 5/8 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup white sugar
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/2 cup white chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans


  1. Layer the ingredients in a 1 quart or 1 liter jar, in the order listed.
  2. Attach a tag with the following instructions: Cranberry Hootycreeks 1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease a cookie sheet or line with parchment paper. 2. In a medium bowl, beat together 1/2 cup softened butter, 1 egg and 1 teaspoon of vanilla until fluffy. Add the entire jar of ingredients, and mix together by hand until well blended. Drop by heaping spoonfuls onto the prepared baking sheets. 3. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until edges start to brown. Cool on baking sheets, or remove to cool on wire racks.
Allrecipes has an entire section devoted to cookie-in-a-jar recipes. This is a fun, less-expensive way to remember the important people in your life during the holidays, without breaking the bank! Plus, sometimes people will bring the cookies into the office afterwards. . . .

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A frugal replacement. . . .

I am a regular coffee drinker (although I recently switched to caffeine-free beans), and a day doesn't really begin until I've started sipping a cup of warm, milky coffee. Which is why I was frantic when I broke my 12-cup coffee carafe earlier this week!

I immediately started looking online for a replacement, which would (new) run me about $25, not including shipping! As I was stewing about this added cost during a month when I'm trying to buy holiday gifts while staying within a budget, I suddenly realized that I could probably find a suitable replacement at the Salvation Army or Goodwill.

Unfortunately, it's been snowing off and on for a few days, and the streets are incredibly icy, making it dangerous for me to get out to the grocery store, let alone a thrift store. That's when I remembered that I have a french press, which I purchased years ago for camping. Luckily, it is one of the few rarely-used kitchen items that I decided not to sell at my garage sale a few months ago.

I pulled it out of the cupboard, dusted it off, and with some experimentation, figured out how to make a cup of joe that is at least as good as the coffee my expensive, programmable Cuisinart makes! Added benefits? I can control how hot my coffee is (I boil the water in my teapot before adding it to the press), meaning that it stays warmer in my thermos. Also, I don't have to use a paper filter---it's built in! This is a truly 'green' coffee maker!

Once I'm mobile again (hopefully this weekend there'll be a break in the weather) I'm still going to head out and try to find a used replacement carafe. The beauty of my french press is that I can continue to drink coffee without rushing around desperately trying to find the carafe model that will fit my coffeemaker. I know if the press hadn't worked out, I would probably already have ordered an over-priced, new replacement carafe. This way I can take my time in finding a new one. And who knows? Maybe I'll like my french press so much I won't go back to the fancy programmable Cuisinart!

Monday, December 15, 2008

A frugal new year. . . . .

As I've struggled to keep a handle on my expenses while increasing the money sent to savings (and, hopefully at some point to student loan debt), I've felt the need for a new motivator. Some new goal or strategy to help me stay on track and learn new frugal skills.

I recently came across an article about a Colorado couple who, for the past year, have been living The Compact. This is an informal agreement that people make with one another to spend an entire year not buying anything new, except for food, personal grooming items, and perhaps some underwear (this particular couple also made an exception for items that they were simply unable to find in a thrift store, on Craigslist, or using Freecycle). The idea grew out of a anti-consumerism compact ten people in California's Bay Area made with each other in 1996. The idea grew wings, and there are currently over 10,000 members of the Yahoo Group associated with The Compact.

While something this radical will take some additional thought (and imagination), it's definitely an idea that appeals to me. What better way to 'force' myself to become more familiar with the thrift stores in the Portland area, while quelling my desire for new clothes and shoes (one of my vices)? Making frugal living a challenge may bring inspiration (and a fair amount of frustration, I'm guessing); more importantly, it will allow me to really 'feel' what it's like to live with what I have, rather than always striving for something new and better.

If I choose to take up The Compact for the 2009 year, I predict that I would not only find new motivation to reduce, reuse and recycle, but would also create a newfound appreciation for how good I really have it.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Credit use decreasing. . . .

So is household worth, unfortunately! According to this CNN article, Americans owe less to banks than they ever have! Here's some text:
The government reported Thursday that household debt in the third quarter fell for the first time ever. Meanwhile, net worth dropped by the largest amount on record based on data going back to 1951.
While the fact that household worth has dropped isn't surprising, given the way homes have continued to drop in value, I am a bit curious about the decrease in credit use. I would have assumed that as people lost jobs or had their employment drop to part time, they would be more likely to pay for necessities like food and gas with credit. It appears that this is not the case, primarily because lenders are beginning to take a closer look at how much they're lending, and to whom.

As in previous articles discussing the use of credit by Americans, this one also communicates a barely disguised dismay at the fact that Americans are "spending less". This is because the economy as we know it is highly reliant on our purchase of assorted doo-dads of greater or lesser value, which are designed to wear out quickly so that we are forced to purchase replacement doo-dads.

As I've said before, this notion that Americans need to spend more to keep the economy moving is highly suspect! Why would our government and/or knowledgeable economists want Americans to use money that they don't have? It seems as if (as we're currently experiencing), building an economy on 'credit' creates a house of cards---if just a few cards at the bottom of the house are knocked out, we all come tumbling down. It's as if the people who make decisions at the very top of our economic structure want us to be a nation of serfs, ever more dependent on our 'feudal lords', the credit companies.

That is no life for me. I will continue to save money, spend it on needs (and some wants, within reason), and eventually gain financial independence from lifelong serfdom in the Land of Easy Credit.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Super Frugal couple. . . .

I blogged earlier this week about needing to decrease my grocery bill again; as I've fallen out of the habit of tracking every single penny, my expenses have slowly inched skyward. I hope to begin anew after the first of the year. In the meantime, I find myself buying fast food (well, Burgerville---which I argue isn't really all that bad because they use, for the most part, local suppliers) as well as 'convenience food', which is much more expensive than just buying the ingredients myself and cooking up, say, a lasagna.

Recently, I learned to my horror that my favorite 'bad' treat, frosted circus animal cookies by Mother's Cookies, have gone the way of the dodo bird. Yes. Extinct! I was devastated by this, until I learned, through a blog called The Naked Loon, that there are a couple of alternatives. So, I've been happily purchasing $3 bags of Franz frosted circus animals---not great for my budget or my waistline!

As I contemplate getting back to a more healthy, raw (and hopefully cheaper) diet, heavy on the fruits, vegetables and grains, I've learned of a couple who had as their goal to live---EAT---for just $1 a day! The two high school teachers decided to voluntarily challenge themselves---as many in the world are forced to do---to survive on less than most of us pay for a cup of coffee each day. While the experiment was 'non-political', it does force one to think of the way we live in the United States, our perceived "needs" versus "wants", and how most of the rest of the world lives.

The results were interesting; the couple blogged about losing weight (and energy), describing their daily meals, and the story was picked up by news outlets across the country. There are links to articles in the New York Times as well as links to Fox News snippets about the challenge. I've not had time to go through each article or video, the but stories and the blog are interesting, especially if you have any interest in consumerism, waste, living closer to the earth, or other issues that affect us on a local and global level.

I will certainly consider the challenge as I'm trying to get below $100 for my food budget again, beginning on January 1. Even a low $100 food budget is three times more than this couple---and many all over the world---have to spend on food.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Frugally festive. . . .

As I walk or drive down my street, I'm noticing lots of holiday light displays, as well as people who already have their Christmas tree decorated and lit in the front window. I'm planning on being out of town this holiday season, at least for a few days, so I'm foregoing a big holiday light display, both inside and outside of my house. Of course, even as I admire some of the more restrained and classy light shows, I wonder how much extra the display is adding to my neighbors' energy bills.

I'm currently waiting for my own energy bill, hoping that it will be manageable. My gas bill was a bit higher than I expected (I raised the thermostat to 62 from 58; I also had a housesitter who I'm sure used the heater generously while I was away last month). Now I'm hoping that I can make up the difference with a lower electricity bill. Here are some ways to make that happen, in spite of the temptation to follow my neighbors' example and join in the decorating cheer.

  • Unplug anything that can be unplugged (with the exception of the refrigerator, of course) when away on vacation. This includes, the TV, the DVD player, computers, and the microwave, among other appliances.
  • Use the oven strategically. I baked rolls for a Thanksgiving dinner I attended, while at the same time baking a last batch of cookies. Doubling up on items that cook at the same temperature will save energy, regardless of whether your oven is gas or electric.
  • Along the same lines, use lids on your saucepans, to conserve heat where you want it: inside the saucepan. Saving time on heating water or soup also saves energy.
  • Have a holiday gathering at your own home: the more bodies in your living room, the lower the thermostat needs to be. Bonus is that you'll save on the gas that it would have taken to drive to someone else's house!
  • Utilize candles as part of your holiday decorations, rather than electric lights. When used safely, candles can add a beautiful glow to the mantle or table that an electric light simply can't.
  • Speaking of lights, purchase the new LED Christmas lights, which supposedly use 90% less energy!
  • Finally, wait until night has fallen to turn on your decorative lights, and turn them off at a reasonable hour. I have a coworker who says her neighbors keep their 'mobile', electric snowman on all night long. Why waste the energy?
Personally, I think I like the idea of using candles the best of all of these frugal ideas. I'm going to pull out my beautiful red and cream candles, maybe cut some boughs from the cedar trees in my backyard, and create a natural, budget decoration that will make my house smell and look good!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Frugal exercise, part deux. . . .

I've been largely silent over the past several days, primarily because the thought of logging in and viewing that gigantic number that represents my student loan debt makes me kind of sick. However, I guess the first step to conquering any obstacle is actually facing it, making peace with it, and studying it to determine how best to get past it. That will be a long process, I know, and my student loan debt won't be something that will go away in a month, or a year, or even probably five years.

In the meantime, I need to keep adding to my savings (which will carry me through next year when I won't be able to work full time, due to school commitments) and keeping my expenditures low.

A few months ago, I wrote about my need for more exercise---as the days have gotten shorter (and darker and less sunny), that need has just become much greater! I often hibernate in the winter, and this year is no exception. I've not motivated myself to get exercise DVD's out of the library, and running outside has been spotty at best. For that reason, I decided to renew my membership to the gym---although I did it frugally: I waited until the gym had a 'no initiation fee' special, saving me $50! So, after a year of frugality, I'm adding a regular, $30 expense back into my budget. I feel like my health (and my mood) requires this.

To offset this, I'm going to try to decrease the amount I'm spending on groceries, as this number as inched past $125 over the last few months, as I've waited to tally my expenditures until the end of the month, rather than keeping track as I go along. Maybe I'll start publishing my budget again, to keep myself a bit more accountable. Did any of you find that interesting, at all? If so, perhaps I'll start that again as of January 1.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


Well, I did it. I logged into my SallieMae account (I had to create a new password, it had been so long). The amount I owe on my student loan is just a bit more than I had anticipated. My indebtedness to the U.S. government is:


I'm not really sure how to go about tackling this, because it's just so overwhelming to me. Of course, while I'm dithering about, getting another degree (paying for it myself, this time), and generally trying to ignore the elephant in the room, interest is accruing on this bad boy.

In fact, if I were to make the 'required' $437.33 payment for the next 21 years, I would end up paying a total of $112,453.65.
Which is simply unacceptable. By my rough calculations, I would have to pay almost $400 a month just to cover the interest payments alone (my consolidated interest rate is at 8.25%, which cannot be changed).

So, I'm trying not to cry at this point. I know, deep down, that this is just going to take a degree of creativity (and lots and lots of time), as well as some major changes in terms of my income and my expenditures.

Right after I go out and buy and devour a bar of organic chocolate, I think I need to spend some time searching the blogosphere for those motivating success stories, from 'real people' like me who overcame the odds and paid off similar (and even larger) debts than mine.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Frugality continued. . . .

Whew! Well, I've reveled in my lack of credit card debt over the past three days, since Thanksgiving. Now, it's time to plan for the future, which is going to require continuing my frugal ways. I do still have that student loan debt, after all. I'm just not sure I'm going to start paying it off yet, for reasons I'll explain below:

In the Fall of 2009---almost a year from now---I'll most likely have to drop to 75% of full time at my day job, to account for an unpaid practicum experience that is required in my graduate program. I'll probably need two full days during the week for the entire academic year (2009-2010) to take care of this requirement. Which means, of course, that my income will plummet during that year. I've been avoiding thinking about this complication, because I really wasn't sure how I was going to be able to pay my mortgage and eat with a decreased income. However, now that I'm credit card debt-free, I feel like anything is possible!

Here's what I'm currently thinking I'll do to prepare for this. I'm going to try, starting on January 1, to live on just my salary from the day job. Then I can 'bank' the earnings from my night job, which will allow me to dip into that savings during the year that I can't work a full time paid job during the day. This is going to require some very creative budgeting, especially since I would like to now send 15% of my earnings into my 403(b) plan, since I dropped it to 1% while I was in debt-repayment mode.

Anyway, all of this means that my student loan debt repayment will most likely need to be put on hold, which bums me out. A commenter a few weeks ago mentioned her own student loan debt struggle, and it motivated me to start thinking about getting rid of this debt. At this point, I can't even bring myself to look at my account, to see how much I owe (last time I checked I think it was about $55K). I'm scared to know. That's how bad it is.

Who knows? Maybe the economy will miraculously recover in time for me to sell my house next summer, and this will all be moot. Then I could send that savings straight to my student loan, and really get started on becoming truly debt free! I'm not holding my breath on the economy, though. . . .

As you can see, this 'plan' is a bit of a work in progress; I admit that I haven't even really worked the numbers out yet with my zero based budget spreadsheet, nor have I made the change to my retirement savings. My objective this week is to get all of this worked out, so I can start the New Year with a new financial goal.

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