Quantcast Finally Frugal: April 2009

The bumpy road to financial independence. . . .


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Stocking up. . . .

As I increase my usage of coupons and store deals, I've come to the realization that although I feel as if I'm spending more money at one time---because I'm stocking up on good deals---in the long run, I'll save money. Why is this? Because in the past, I used to wait until something ran out before running out to the store and purchasing a replacement---generally paying the highest price for that item. My money slipped through my fingers in dribs and drabs in this way.

Now that I'm collecting coupons and scanning the weekly ads for Walgreens, Rite-Aid and some of the local grocery stores, I'm actually planning ahead! Do I use some items regularly enough that it makes sense to buy two or three while they're on sale AND I have a coupon? Yes!

Part of me rebels against this idea of stocking up, primarily because I have a grandmother who, when we moved her into a nursing home from her apartment, had probably a year's worth of toilet paper and shaving cream in her closets (and my grandfather had been dead for years---not sure how much shaving grandma was doing on her own. . . and I probably don't want to know. . .) I don't want to be the crazy old lady who stockpiles soap at the expense of having fun. Then again, stockpiling can be a great money-saver, as long as it is done in moderation.

Case in point: I went to my Walgreens last weekend to stock up on some items that I use (or will use, when the weather warms up) regularly. Here are some of the deals I got:

Reynolds Wrap Aluminum foil: on sale for .89 cents, minus a .55 cent coupon I had. Final price? .34 cents! I only had one coupon, so only bought one, but .89 cents is still a good deal so maybe I'll go back for more.

Three packs of diet Pepsi, for $11. This is a pretty high price, but I got $3 back in 'Register Rewards', that I can use the next time I go to Walgreens (maybe for my aluminum foil?). At $2.67 per box (and 12 cans per box), that's about .22 cents a can! A good deal, for something I love to drink in the summer while working in the garden . . . .

Colorsilk haircolor, which runs anywhere from $2.50 (on a good day) to $3.89 (waaaaay overpriced) was on sale for $1.99 a box. I happened to have a $1.00 off coupon, so I snagged three boxes (the limit) for $4.97, or $1.66 a box. Not bad!

I bought some other items on sale as well, which I won't detail in this blog post, but suffice it to say that my total savings was $25.40!

Part of my strategy of saving money for next year's drop to part-time status is to stock up on non-perishable food and household items so I won't have to spend as much money on them next year. Of course I am somewhat limited by available money and space (although it occurs to me that the space under the beds are not being used to their full potential) but I'm making more money this year than I will next year, so now is the time to stock my cupboards, especially when the products I use are on sale! By the way, the Dollar Stretcher has a good article with reader suggestions on stocking up when the prices are low. . . . check it out!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Frugal movies. . . .

I don't enjoy the luxury of just chilling at home much these days (and, truth be told, I'm not a couch potato even in the best of times . . .) Between Job #1, Job #2, and being a full-time graduate student, my schedule is tight, but my budget is even tighter, meaning that entertainment gets squeezed in here and there, as time and money permit.

A couple of years ago, I explored the possibility of 'renting' movies at the local library, only to find that the most popular movies (meaning, anything with a title I recognized) had from 10 to 75 'holds' on them, placed by other patrons. I chafed at the prospect of not having my movies when I wanted them---wait times could be months long---and continued to rent some instant gratification from Blockbuster, at almost $4 a pop!

Now that I'm two-thirds through my graduate program, I'm feeling the need for additional 'self-care' while also feeling the pinch in my budget from ramping up my savings to account for my upcoming drop to part-time status at the day job.

So once again, I went back to my beloved Multnomah County Library website and set to work finding some movies that interested me. I dutifully placed my holds, behind scores of other library patrons, and settled in for a long wait.

Imagine my surprise, then, when just weeks later I received an email from the library letting me know that my first DVD hold had come in! I trotted down to the library before getting on the Max (light rail system) for the ride home, and presented myself at the DVD counter. Shockingly, there were FIVE movies waiting for me! In placing my holds, I had tried to be strategic, placing holds up to the limit of ten DVD's, thinking that they would arrive in a staggered fashion, allowing me to watch one or two DVD's every weekend or so. Not so, not so. Although patrons are allowed a whopping TWO WEEKS to keep their DVD's, many often return them in mere days, meaning that the 'hold list' decreases much more quickly than I had assumed.

So far, I've watched six or seven FREE movies over the course of the past month or so. Using coupons, I purchase some packaged popcorn, and voila, I have a fun movie night that cost pennies. I've had friends over to watch a couple of movies with me, and if they bring beverages, we're all set for a frugal evening of entertainment.

Note: I have been downloading free audiobooks for my MP3 player for about a year, which I use when I go to the gym. I can get all sorts of books this way, without paying the $15-$30 they cost on the iTunes and other audiobook sites. . . .

Friday, April 24, 2009

Using the emergency fund. . . .

One of my cats has some kind of itchy-scratchy thing going on, that has resulted in some major discomfort for her. After trying some home remedies (including changing her food, in case that was the cause of it) I finally broke down and took her to the vet. $300 dollars later, I walked out with my cat, some EXTREMELY expensive cat food (care to feast on peas and venison, anyone?), and drugs galore.

Now, this is not the kind of thing I would consider to be an emergency. I did put the charges on my credit card, and want that debt GONE as soon as possible, but I was hesitant to use my emergency fund cash to pay it off (I have almost $1700 in my EF right now).

Then I started thinking, and yes, actually doing the math. I get 1.5% on my ING Direct savings account right now (I can't believe I started at 3.75% before the economic bust. . . I'm salivating at the interest I could be earning---and will earn again at some point in the not-so-distant future). I pay 9.99% on my credit card. Sooooo, an intelligent woman would figure that I'd be 'earning' 8.49% by paying off the credit card (9.99 minus the 1.5% I won't be earning on that money).

Is my math correct on this (more importantly, is my LOGIC correct)? It seems to make sense. Why would I willingly pay 9.99% interest when I'd only LOSE 1.5% interest if I took the money out of my emergency fund?

Of course, the trick is to replace that $300 over the course of the next few months so my EF is nice and healthy again.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Frugal errors. . . .

Note to self: always check the small print on the bills before paying them.

Case in point: I received my Qwest (phone and internet) bill a couple of weeks ago. Because the amount owed is usually in the $65 range, I was shocked to see that my bill for the current month had increased to over $80!!

Panicked, I tore through the many, many pages of internet charges, discounts, phone charges, taxes, more taxes, credits, etc, etc, etc. On the very last page, I saw that an internet voicemail account---to the tune of $14.99 a month---had been added to my bill! I didn't recognize the company and had no recollection of needing or signing up for internet voicemail, so I immediately called the 1-800 number listed on that particular page, ready to do battle.

Turns out, the person who had my phone number previously (about three years ago) had used MY phone number to sign up for this internet voicemail system. Meaning that he received the service and I was to pay the bill! I was LIVID. I wonder how many people simply pay their bills---even if it's a little higher than usual---without looking into the details? The person who had my phone number previously probably hoped that I would simply pay the increased bill and chalk it up to inflation.

There isn't much (that I can find, YET) on the internet about this type of fraud (because that's how I see it) but I did come across a good resource for consumers, related to phone bills. Importantly, there is an address for the FCC that consumers can use to communicate their complaints about phone companies. Personally, I think there should be some sort of protection in place to keep someone from simply using the internet to place charges on my phone bill. At no time was I notified about it, until I was actually charged for the internet voicemail service.

I'll be writing a letter to the FCC to complain about this, and in the meantime, I'll be going over my bills with a fine tooth comb.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Bulking up. . . .

I continue to be amazed by the savings one can find by shopping in the bulk foods aisle. On a recent trip to Winco, I made a note of the items I was purchasing in the bulk section, and then checked their prices in the 'packaged' food aisles.

Here are some of the examples:

Orzo pasta

  • Bulk: .85 cents a pound
  • Packaged: $1.37 a pound
Brown sugar
  • Bulk: .60 cents a pound
  • Packaged: .71 cents a pound
Basmati rice
  • Bulk: $1.79 a pound
  • Packaged: $2.10 a pound
White rice
  • Bulk: .74 cents a pound
  • Packaged: .99 cents a pound (and this price was based on a giant, 20 pound bag of rice!)
Rotini pasta
  • Bulk: .84 cents a pound
  • Packaged: $1.19 a pound
As you can see, doing the legwork and cruising the bulk food aisle is worth the extra time it takes. Knowing these differences allows me to see where my greatest savings lie. So if I have a coupon for $1.00 off a certain type of pasta, I can work out the after-coupon price to see if it's better than the bulk price (it usually isn't!)

Friday, April 17, 2009

Frugal kitchen tips. . . .

By the end of March, I was committed to not making a trip to the grocery store to replenish my refrigerator and cupboards (I will admit to purchasing more coffee---it gets ugly around my house when there's no coffee). I started cruising the recipe sites (like Allrecipes), where I can enter the ingredients I have and want to use, and the site spits out a few recipes that might work for me. In this way, I was able to make it through March, and even made use of some items in the refrigerator that would have gone bad had I not used them up. . .

In any case, this end-of-month desperation not only resulted in my spending a bit more time in the kitchen, it also inspired me to search for other ways I could save money in and around that crucial room; after a search of my beloved internets, here's what I found:

  • Challenge yourself. Last month, Money Saving Mom challenged herself to eat from the pantry for two weeks! With a husband, two little girls, and a little one on the way, going two weeks without a trip to the grocery store is the definition of a challenge, but she made it through! This is similar to what I did, although with just myself to feed, I think my challenge was probably a little easier.
  • Make use of the freezer. I have three sad, BLACK bananas on my counter. I never ate them, yet I can't seem to throw them in the composter yet. A friend suggested making banana bread, but I think they're even past that use (these are some OLD bananas, folks). What I didn't know is that I could have peeled and frozen those bananas before they got really bad. Apparently, freezing fruits and vegetables is a time-honored way of preserving them until you need them, and there are many ways to go about doing this, according to this website.
  • Apropos of that last bullet, growing your own fruits and veggies can be a great way to save money during the summer and fall months. And knowing how and when to freeze them is a wonderful strategy to enjoy your bounty throughout the year! I've started my seeds and am (im)patiently awaiting my first tomato of the season. According to this CNN article, many Americans are growing what's being called 'Recession Gardens' this year. I think this is one of the few positive reactions to our dismal economic environment.
  • Don't forget the leftovers! Since I'm usually so busy during the week, I've been trying to make a large batch of something (lasagne, stir fry, a casserole, etc) on the weekend. That way I have a nice Sunday dinner, but more importantly, I have lunches for the rest of week, making it much less likely that I'll go 'round the corner to Chipotle for a $7 burrito!
  • Mom was right when she told you to eat your vegetables. A diet that is lower in red meat and higher in fruits, grains, and vegetables is not only healthier for you, it's cheaper! You may even live longer, according to research. I recently came across an article that shows that people who eat proportionally more red meat are more likely to die from cancer and other diseases.
  • Eat locally, and eat with the season. I can't tell you how many times I've paid three times more for a piece of fruit in January, that grows in my area (or at least the western United States) in the summer. Where is that winter peach coming from? Probably someplace very far south of Portland, that's for sure. So not only am I paying a premium for the fruit, my craving is adding to carbon emissions to get the darn thing here!
I'm sure there are many more ways to save money in the kitchen, these are just my favorites, and the most realistic for my life. Perhaps you're into drying fruit, or canning, or raising chickens, and if so, I commend and admire you!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Internet coupons. . .

I generally find the best coupons online---those that I can simply print from my computer, without having to purchase the Sunday newspaper or stalk the local library (you would not believe the number of women who stand with their noses pressed to the door so they can be the first to snag the Sunday coupons when the library opens at noon). Internet coupons allow me to pick and choose what I need, and they seem to be rather 'high value' when compared to the Sunday inserts. . . (this could just be my imagination).

Unfortunately, my favorite low-price grocery store (Winco) didn't take internet printed coupons ("IP" coupons)----until a few weeks ago, that is!!!

The excitement that this engendered in my still somewhat virginal coupon brain was almost more than I could bear. I immediately called my favorite local Winco to inquire about the veracity of this rumor. The woman I spoke to said, in no uncertain terms, that they do not take internet coupons "of any kind" (whatever that means).

Undeterred, I called my second-favorite Winco store, located about twenty blocks from the first. The woman at THAT store confirmed that, yes, they do now take IP coupons! So I called the first store back and indicated that I had called store #2 (confused, yet?) and that they do, in fact accept IP coupons. I was then tranferred to the manager, who confirmed yet again that "NO", they do NOT accept IP coupons. Sigh.

In any case, I ended up going to store #2 to purchase my groceries---and even the cashier had to check around to see if she could take my coupons! I promised the store manager of store #1 that I would be calling regularly to find out when their policy would align with that of Winco corporate policy. She was extremely doubtful that I could be correct.

Anyhoo! As one example, I was able to use a CoffeeMate coupon, printed from the website ($1.50 off when you buy two) to snag two 32 ouncers for less than $1.50 each! Fred Meyer sells this stuff--on sale--for $2.50, but it's usually closer to $2.89. The regular, pre-coupon price at Winco is only $2.18. So, I scored. And next time I'll use two $1.00 coupons, and get my CoffeeMate for $1.18 each! Assuming Winco doesn't raise all its prices in response to the IP coupon rush, that is.

Where do I find my favorite coupons? Aside from reading Hip2Save and MoneySavingMom religiously, I also visit:

Hot Coupon World

While I'm still a little green in the world of couponing, the new policy at Winco (well, at ONE of their stores, anyway) will allow me to purchase items that I use regularly not just at the very low Winco prices, but at even less than that, with the use of IP coupons!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A small non-frugal post. . .

This YouTube video has nothing to do with frugality or simple living, as far as I can tell, but it's making me tear up and I just wanted to share it with you.

It's the British version of American Idol, which is called Britain's Got Talent (neither of which I watch), and it's the singing of a woman named Susan Boyle, whom the audience clearly expected to fail, miserably.

And what did she do? She went out there and knocked their socks off!! You have to watch it to appreciate how courageous and talented this woman is. I'm not a fan of these types of shows (they often seem scripted to me) but this episode is a real winner!

Okay, so with that, back to the frugal issues tomorrow!

Monday, April 13, 2009

March expense to income chart. . . .

Now that I'm a few months into 2009, I wanted to share my progress in a graphic way (I do love the charts, folks!) As you can see, my expenses in March climbed significantly, mostly due to a birthday celebration to which I contributed quite a hefty sum (it was worth it, by the way---this is a good friend, whose birthday I missed last year due to work).

And, the chart itself:

One thing that jumps out at me right away is that although I spent more money in March than I intended, I spent LESS than I had in January, while my income was higher in March as well. So, although my perception had been one of failure to control my spending, the reality is that I did just fine.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Goodwill find. . .

Late last month, I went on a quick tour of the Goodwill store located closest to my work, which also happens to be a 'high quality' Goodwill. Meaning that any designer items or even higher priced clothing (such as Banana Republic castoffs) will be funneled to this particular store. Of course, the prices at this store are also quite a bit higher than at other Goodwill locations around town. In spite of the high prices, some good deals can be found.

For example, I've been on the search for a good pair of jeans---I like the designer stuff, but I'm not willing to pay more than $40 dollars for a pair of jeans. Hence, I wear a lot of Gap, Old Navy, and Banana Republic jeans.

However, on this particular day, I came across a pair of 'Joe's' jeans at the local Goodwill. They fit me well, the length was perfect with boots (difficult when you're only 5'4"), and they were in good shape. At $29.99, they were more expensive than I'd expect from a used clothing store, but I thought it was worth it.

Upon arriving home, I checked the Macy's website to see how much this particular brand generally sells for. What I found was astonishing! These fairly run- of-the-mill jeans typically sell in the $155 to $175 range! Unbelievable (I would NEVER spend that much money on a pair of jeans). What this means is that by shopping in a used clothing store (even a more expensive one), I saved approximately $140, or about 80% off retail!

Friday, April 10, 2009

March zero based budget. . .

Whew! I finally put together the remains of my March zero-based budget, and it ain't pretty. I was dreading looking at the numbers in black and white, because I knew I hadn't done well in the 'Fun' and in the 'Miscellaneous' categories.

As you can see, I overdid my 'Fun' budget by $21.48 and spent a whopping $91.26 more than I had allocated in my miscellaneous category. I covered for this by taking away the savings ($60) I usually send to my account that covers my monthly trash pickup and water bill.

Although I did overrun my budget slightly, I was happy to see that I spent only 76% of my total income---the rest went to savings! Also, my spreadsheet shows that I ended up with $70.92, but in reality there was only $5.25 left in my checking account at the end of last month (I sent this to my savings account). Somewhere along the line, I 'lost' about $65, so I'll try to be better about accounting for every penny this month.

All in all, March was an expensive month (I overspent on a friend's birthday celebration) but I'm relieved to see that the damage is not as bad as I anticipated. Now, on to April!!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


Last weekend, we enjoyed the first truly sunny, warm days in Portland! Aside from the fact that I had a chance to replenish my diminishing supply of Vitamin D after a grey, rainy winter, I was also able to air dry my laundry outdoors---in a matter of hours!

I purchased a retractable clothesline at Home Depot, installed it in a half-hour or so, and ran inside to wash the linens that had been piling up---I was dreading the idea of trying to figure out how to dry sheets and blankets indoors. By Sunday afternoon, all of my sheets were clean, and I even took the opportunity to wash my duvet cover---something I generally avoid even when my dryer is working, since it's so large and unwieldy. I confess that after the duvet air-dried, I put it in the dryer to tumble for a few minutes, just to remove the last remaining bits of lint and pet hair. It worked like a charm!

Ahhhh, if only Portland could offer sunny weather on a more regular basis. It's been years since I slept on sheets that had been air-dried---since I was a child, really---and the smell is fabulous!

With that said, I did learn some tips to make line drying more successful:

  • Snap the clothing, sheets or blankets before hanging them on the line. This will help smooth out some of those wrinkles the items gained while clumped up in the washing machine.
  • Hang socks and shirts upside down, to avoid any stretching.
  • Fold towels and jeans over the clothesline, and flip to the other side halfway through. I forgot to do this with a pair of jeans, and the legs look a little weird. . . .
  • Use a bit of vinegar in the wash water, to help avoid the crunchy-crinkly feel of towels, sheets and clothing. You can also throw these items in the dryer for a quick tumble, which may help soften them prior to folding and placing in cupboards or closets.
  • Hang colored items inside out, to avoid their being bleached by the sun.
  • Wash items that may generate tons of lint with other items of the same color/type. Now that my black polar fleece jacket is covered in white lint, I'll pay more attention to these details in future!
Alas, today is our last day of sun before the clouds and rain (and MUCH cooler temperatures) return. I'm all caught up on my laundry, but look forward to the next blissful sunny spell so I can continue saving money on my utilities. . . .

Monday, April 6, 2009

Stimulating student loan debt. . . .

Although generally I attempt to deny the existence of my student loan debt (approaching $60,000), every once in awhile I'll come across an interesting article or opinion piece by or about another Sallie Mae serf. This CNN piece was written by a new college graduate, named Samantha Hillstrom, who now works as a production assistant for CNN.

The title, Student Loan Nightmare: Help Wanted was initially very intriguing. My student loan debt seems to pop up in my nightmares more often than I'd like, and I'd also like some help! The article seemed to be going in the direction of wondering why it is that homeowners are receiving the lions' share of stimulus assistance. This is something I've often wondered myself---if thousands of student loan debtors had some or all of their loan balances forgiven, just think of all that extra money that would go directly into the economy (or in my case, into my savings accounts. . .) Wouldn't that have the effect of stimulating the economy?

Unfortunately, as I continued reading the CNN article, I noticed that the author---rather than focusing on what she could do to encourage lawmakers to throw some stimulus money her way---fell back on moaning about how much money she owes ($115,000) due to her private university degree (in New York City, no less), and how 'uneducated' she was when she signed the paperwork on those loans.

Samantha says:

"Some might say, “Sam, you shouldn’t have gone to a private school in New York City if you wouldn’t be able to pay it off.” Well, I made a lot of mistakes when signing up for my loans, but I was uneducated on the process and on the repayment and now I’m stuck."
(Snarky note: for $115,000, I would expect Samantha to be a better writer, but that's neither here nor there).

I have to say, as someone who owes a seemingly ginormous amount of money to the U.S. government, with only a very small chance of making more than $60,000 a year in my field (I'm not even close to that now), I can relate to Samantha's pain. And I do believe our economy would benefit from a little student loan forgiveness (to err is human, to forgive is divine, right)?

But that might be where the similarities between Samantha and me end. I don't blame anyone other than myself for the mistakes that I made when signing away my life to Sallie Mae. I decided not to consider what my life after graduation would be like, with $50K in debt (the amount as grown over the years rather than decreasing, as you can see). I made that choice.

To sit around and whine about it now makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. Also, while I would love a little student loan stimulus, I really don't think other people should have to pay higher taxes to cover for my mistakes.

Samantha asks:
"I chose to go to a private school and I chose to work in a field where the starting salaries are low. Does that mean that I chose to live a life of struggle, wondering how I am going to pay my rent, afford the basics of living and still stay in my chosen career field…all while putting up with high interest rates and an amount of debt that brings me to tears?"
Well, actually Samantha, the answer to that question is YES. So suck it up and join the club. And maybe consider moving out of pricey Manhattan to someplace like Dubuque, Iowa so you can afford the rent AND your student loan payments.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Kmart deals. . . .

Last week, KMart doubled manufacturer coupons, up to $2.00. What a great deal!! I was able to get a few items for pennies on the dollar, such as:

Formula 409 cleanser: on sale for $2.79

  • minus $1.00 manufacturer coupon, doubled = $2.00 off.
Natural Source bathroom cleanser: on sale for $2.50
  • minus $1.00 manufacturer coupon, doubled = $2.00 off
Dove conditioner: on sale for $3.99
  • minus $1.50 manufacturer coupon, doubled = $3.00 off
I almost picked up some more toothpaste, but I think I'm pretty well stocked for at least six months, so unless I find it somewhere for free, I'm going to pass it up. So far I've not managed to find laundry detergent at a price that makes me happy, so that's my next challenge.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Freecycle frustration. . . .

My clothes dryer is still on the fritz, mostly because I've been unable to find a repairman who will come to my house on a Saturday. I have to admit, I'm not trying very hard, because the longer I can last without my dryer, the more money I'll save on my electric bill (theoretically).

There are literally clothes and linens draped everywhere in the house: in the livingroom, on the dining room chairs, in the bathroom. Although I truly don't mind air-dried clothing, I'm finding that I'm using this damp laundry as justification for turning up the heat. So, the money I save on my electric bill could very well be canceled out by my gas bill!!

In any case, the lack of a dryer has driven me to begin looking for drying racks and clotheslines---I would love to find an umbrella clothesline for the backyard, so I can dry my clothes outdoors when it finally stops raining.

Because I'm on The Compact this year, I've been looking for used items---I only have six 'freebies' (where I get to buy six new items) and I don't want to waste them on laundry paraphernalia! I've been cruising Craigslist and Freecycle for weeks, and actually found a free clothesline listed on Freecycle! I've emailed three or four times, to no avail. The person who listed the clothesline hasn't removed the listing, nor has she responded to my emails!!!

So, needless to say, I'm in a state of total frustration. I love the concept of Freecycle, but knowing that what I need is out there without being able to access it is driving me a little nuts. I am trying to learn a little frugal patience, while continuing to cruise Craigslist and Freecycle for a clothesline (or even a garment rack with wheels). . . .

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