‘Tis the Season

Yes, I know Halloween hasn’t even struck yet, but last week, I received my first email from BlackFriday.com, hailing the coming season of savings (and buying, buying, buying). I’ve mentioned before that my sister and I often partake in the day-after-Thanksgiving festivities, yes, for the deals, but as a weird way to celebrate the season and spend some special time together. It’s a thing. (Dude, I even wrote a guide for it last year.)

As with last year, though, I fully plan on taking advantage of the wonder that is the interwebs. Online shopping is as much a tradition for me as Black Friday is. I rely on it to find the obscure books that Dave loves (thanks, Amazon!), to grab handmade and eco-friendly goodies from Etsy, and, just as importantly, stay in my sweats while doing so. Gotta say, it’s a lifesaver for moms (and dads, too…okay, everyone).

Oh, yeah, I’m also expecting to simplify big-time, including focusing on buying (and asking for) items I NEED and would really, really like to have. But that’s a whole other topic for a whole different day.

So, recently I decided to check out ebates.com. Now, I have absolutely no affiliation with this site. Oh, wait, unless you decide to check it out. If you sign up through this link, I can earn some moolah (to put into Christmas shopping — thanks!). But, yeah, otherwise, I’m not being perked to write about these guys. They don’t know who the heck I am. I’ve just looked into their program and can’t seem to find any “sounds too good to be true…what am I missing here?” proof not to tout its awesomeness.

Anyhoo, the idea of the site is this: If you go through their web site first and click on your favorite stores (and they’ve got TONS of stores, guys) instead of just going to, say, kohls.com in your address bar, you can earn back money. Oh, you can also install a little button so that when you visit a site on your usual browser that can earn you money back, it lets you know immediately (but not in an obnoxious way). Genius.

And, of course you don’t have to pay a thing to take part. Think I’d sign up for something like that? No way.

I like that I don’t really have to “think” too much to earn money back while doing my shopping this year. I can just buy the things I usually buy from the places I’d usually buy them (I kid you not, they have a buttload of stores!). Even when I’m saving up to buy a big purchase through Amazon or Overstock, I’ll just buy what I want, when I want it (sometimes they only offer cash back on certain departments, so keep an eye on that). It kind of shaves off a bit of the guilt of spending, too.

If you don’t care where you find something, as long as it’s inexpensive, you can also search to see the best deal (with cash back, dude) according to some sites you may never have heard of. They all seem to be highly reliable, well-known sites, so I’ll be heading here to compare prices on other searches before hitting the “submit” button on some of those purchases.

Do any of you use Ebates.com? Do you have another time-saving (and/or money-saving) holiday gift ideas? Do tell!

Finally Getting My $#@& Together


We all know I’ve talked about finances here. Like, a lot. The last time I brought it up was in a “new school year goals” post here. Been doing okay with most of that stuff, but finances? Nerp. 

For some weird reason beyond my realm of thinking, I can’t figure out why it’s been such a challenge for me. I helped Dave get his finances into at least a reasonable schedule when we were first dating, and he has since grabbed the bull by the horns and whipped his finances into such great shape, I’m so amazed and proud of him. So, the fact that I couldn’t kick-start myself disappoints me. And the more we disappoint ourselves, the more we’re down on ourselves and can’t find the motivation to fix the problem, am I right?

Hmm. Guess I answered my question right there. That’s why I’ve been stuck.

So, anyhoo, I’ve been a complete non-budgeter. If I tried writing down every purchase, it only stuck for, like, a week…tops. Much like dieting, I’m not a great “do it all at once, take all the joy of life away” person. Nope. Don’t work that way. Plus, the whole “write down every single purchase” thing? Not me. At least I know myself, right?

Since we know that doesn’t work, that’s not what we’ve done. Instead, in a strange role reversal that he’s had great joy doing (I felt the same way when I helped him; we like getting each other on track and comfortable rather than overwhelmed! It’s what we do), I printed off my checking transactions for the past couple of months, jotted down what each item was (some were obvious, others not s’much), and handed them over to Dave.

He made note of the main monthly bills that have a set date (mortgage, car, car insurance, washer/dryer payment, etc), the “important” necessities which may have more variable dates/amounts (groceries and gas), then determined what was left and where my moolah was going.

Allowing about $60 a month to be taken out in cash ($30 every paycheck) means that I can buy what I like, no questions asked, makes it feel a little less bare-bones and a little roomier. We also figure we’ll each pay for a meal out once a month. I requested this mostly because cooking, day in and day out, can be a pain, so it’s nice to be treated — even if just to a pizza — now and then. Not weekly. Not daily. But occasionally.

I’m also going to start taking out $200 every two weeks specifically for groceries and see how we do. This is the hardest part, for sure. Budgeting my food spending is the biggest, most stressful area because I know what we eat and we’ve pretty much pared it down to getting just what we need…which comes in nowhere near $100 a week. But, I hope to get creative, use what we have in our freezer/cupboards and hopefully will be able to stretch it. Aldi will also help tremendously with this. 

So, other than that, we’re putting an allotted amount into my savings (which has depleted) and my Christmas club (‘cuz it’d be nice not to have a tough time getting through the holiday seasons this year). While I’m not going to be religiously checking my checking (ha!) everyday like Dave does, I’ll be doing it ever couple of days and looking at the “calendar” to determine what’s coming out and when. Oh, and I’m filling out a form to take to my bank to change the date of my car payment so that my two big payments are spread throughout the month more.

Exciting stuff today, folks. Ex-citing, I tell ya. But, it’s nice to at least get my $%&@ together enough that I know where every cent goes — and where it’s allowed to go.

So, what about you guys? How do you budget? Do you write every expense and check the math? Or are you a bare minimum type like me?

Shave Time, Shave Money

We are nothing if not simple folk. I know some who know us might disagree — we’re not Amish, by any means (and if I’m offending any Amish…what the heck are you doing on the Internet??). But, ultimately we feel that it’s better to live a simple life than a life full of too much stuff, too many complications and too much drama.

So, simple we are.


That said, when the Dollar Shave Club (yes, that Dollar Shave Club, founded by Mike, himself) asked if I’d be up for a “Shave Time, Shave Money” challenge, I was like, “You know who I AM?!” Er. Stay cool, Meg. Stay cool. I was like, “You betcha!” in my best mock Sarah Palin voice. Seriously, I’m a sucker for a challenge, even if it’s failing miserably while attempting it. See also: junior high basketball attempt…and volleyball.

I thought I’d share a handful of ways that we have stumbled upon that have shaved time and/or benjamin-spending from our family’s daily routine. See if you’re doing any of these simple life hacks already or if they’d help you out…

Tea and coffee, coffee and tea. Hot water + plant life that’s been toasted beyond recognition = an item that many can’t make it through the day without.

And know what takes more time than you may realize on a daily basis? Waiting in line for your morning fix. Even if it’s a drive-thru, it takes at least 7 minutes in our neck of the woods (and if you have to go inside? Fuhgettaboutit.). Not to mention the cost. Even a basic $2 coffee (and we all know it’s not $2, especially a soy mochafrappamachiacino) adds up to $10 a week, or $40 by the end of the month. So, yeah. We don’t play that game.


Instead, while we’re running around putting lunches together, we put on the teapot or get the coffee going. By the time lunches are done, our hot beverage is ready for sugar or honey or milk. A big pro here is that we have complete control over the ingredients. Let’s just say that even organic coffee or tea is mere cents a cup made at home vs. $2 at Dunkin’ or Starbucks.

You can be like my awesome stepdad and measure out the coffee and fill the machine with water to make it easy in the morning to just flip the switch when you’re ready.


Speaking of lunches, prep is key. If you make a conscious decision to make, say, one huge salad on Sunday night, it’ll make weekday mornings markedly easier. I kid you not; stay in bed 10 more minutes. Just store items like sliced tomatoes, sliced strawberries (seriously, don’t laugh, they’re soooo good with feta in a salad), or diced cheese separately to avoid slimy grossness, then just assemble quickly in the morning (or, better yet, the night before).

We’re cool with salads (plus some grilled chicken or varied toppings) everyday; just grab a cup of yogurt, an apple, and a bag of pretzels or popcorn. We throw in a wrap (also made in advance, filled with some of the salad ingredients) or leftovers once in awhile so that the salads don’t get boring. Packing a different flavor of dressing or vinaigrette, or using a variety of ingredients helps, too. We find that a handful of almonds can really add another level of flavor.

Not only does this provide a healthy option, but it also makes it easier to “just say ‘no’!” to a takeout or fast food lunch. It’s definitely way cheaper to do the Ford assembly line method, too.

Is “Just Say ‘No’!” too 80s to reference anymore? Too Nancy Reagan? You can be honest, I can take it.


– This one’s for you die-hard money saving fools out there. We’ve talked before about our decision to switch off the cable, but it’s the perfect time to bring it up again.

We were sick of the high cost of cable and the fact that we only watched, say, 20 of the 70 channels. So, we bravely switched to the 11-station plan. Um, I say “bravely” because we were addicted, and we didn’t know anyone taking that step. (Compared to, say, soldiers…we ain’t brave.) Since then, we’ve adjusted fine and even have a few friends and family cutting back, too.

If there are certain shows you need to, like, exist, don’t sweat. Hit up Google to find out what streaming device will hook you up with your faves and put a chunk down to buy it. Seriously, still way cheaper in the long run.

Luckily, Dave and I love PBS (hellooooo, Downton, History Detectives and Sherlock!), Hadman’s also a PBS lover (Sesame Street and Daniel Tiger!), and we’ve had Netflix streaming on the Wii forever. It suits us just fine.

Share and share alike. What’s simpler than purchasing only ONE of everything? This is a tad different with a toddler around, but the Dorky Daddy and I share a lot of the basics, and it cuts back on extra purchases and makes shopping super easy. We use the same toothpaste, soap, shampoo (I’ve even been known to use Hadley’s), deodorant…yeah. A lot. It’s also helpful to keep an eye out for coupons and know that you’re saving even more. 
But don’t share razors. Ew. If you’re looking to streamline your shaving experience and pay less doing it, try the Dollar Shave Club. For one low monthly price, they send you “f$%&ing great” razors and keep you smoother for cheaper. Seriously, for as low as a buck; what’s cheaper than that? $12 a year?! That’s nothing. Have you BEEN through the razor section of a store lately? Insane.
 
Dude, shop at a grocery store. This may sound weird, but my advice is to shop at a grocery store for your groceries.

*crickets*

Yyyyyyeeeeaaaaahhh. By this…what I mean is…okay. If you’re used to shopping for groceries at a store like, say, Schmalmart, think about how many times you’ve come home with something that wasn’t food or food-related. I’ll wait.

*clicks on Canadian TV station*

*clicks off*

*looks around*

*takes a drink*

Figure it out? Back when I used to shop at Schmalmart, in my glamorous bachelorette days, I spent about the same amount of cabbage that I do today at my local grocery store. While buying just food. For THREE people.

What busted my bill so badly back then? Extra crap. “Oh! $5 t-shirts! Seasonal candles! Clearance flats!” See what I mean? I ALWAYS bought something else — something I didn’t need — when I went grocery shopping.”

Side note: I also bought stuff like bottled water, soda, and a million more processed items back then. We’ve since gone “real food” and while organic is more expensive, the fact that I’m not adding on stuff like that helps balance the cost. Just sayin’.

While I know there are pitfalls of shopping at a grocery store (I do get my dish soap, washing detergent, toilet paper, etc. at the grocery store), it’s mostly food, so it’s harder to fall prey to the “buuuuuuyyyy mooooorrrre” monster. Also, I don’t kill an entire afternoon or a couple of precious hours shopping anymore. 

Make more sense now? Sweet.

Think old. It’s no secret: Dave and I are old souls. We probably over-romanticize the past and long for simpler, wholesome times (without all that bigotry and hatred). To be blunt, I wish we could live in a Capra movie. And it looks like Hadley is on the same track, preferring ’40s big band for dinnertime listening to anything else and he still kicks up his heels to Fred Astaire songs. (It’s like he knoooowwwws.)

But, I’m not suggesting that you take it to our extremes or start dressing all vintage or join a swing dance club. What I am suggesting is that you just take a step back and think about life back then and how you’d like to slow down your modern life a bit.

People grew gardens. People knew their neighbors and said ‘hi’ and sat on their stoops and dropped off cookies for no real reason (except maybe to say ‘thanks’ for watching their kids last-minute the week before). People only owned a handful of outfits, enough to fit into a single armoire. People owned the basics, but knew how to be happy. People were thrifty by nature and it wasn’t looked upon negatively.

How can you fit some of these into your daily life? We try to purge every season (and sometimes more than that) and keep only what we love. We question our purchases. We stop to talk to neighbors when we have a minute. We shovel their walkways when we have extra time. We wave when we drive to or from home.

And the occasional day offline helps you feel more connected with the life around you, a well. Our grandparents were the original YOLO generation; it’s good to look to them as models of a good life.

So, there we have a handful of methods that we like to utilize to “cut” (get it? Cut…) back our money a-spending and time a-wasting. Do you already use any of them? What tips would you add to the list? Did I rise to the “challenge”? Am I the only 30-something who joneses to watch “This Old House” and “Antiques Roadshow”? Answers! I need answers, people!

***Disclaimer: I was not monetarily compensated or provided with free products for my feelings. Dollar Shave Club and I partnered for the topic of this post. As always, all thoughts are completely, 100% my own.***

Flashing What We Know

I recently mentioned falling in love with a few homemade birthday presents for our monkey. Thank you, dear friend Pinterest. I call her “Pinny” and she looks remarkably like Kaley Cuoco (whatever her married last name is, I can’t be bothered to Google) in my head. Pinny’s my new enabling BFF.

Anyhoo, one of the super easy projects I just HAD to stay up past midnight working on was the toddler flashcards. See, the kid’s a toddler genius (but what mom doesn’t think that, really?) who is starting to pick words out (for real), LOVES reading, and knows tons of letters, numbers, and animal sounds. Kid’s got it goin’ on, thanks to his Grandma’s diligent work with him daily. So, I don’t want all her hard work to go down the toilet while he’s lazing about spending intellectually stimulating summer days with me.

So, I spent some time on PicMonkey making and saving a few sets of flashcards. Here are a few wicked easy samples (not the whole sets, that’d be cray-cray):

Numbers!

Shapes!
(Boring as all get-out with the gray, but didn’t want to detract.
Side note: I did a rhombus AND separate diamond. We’ll throw the spaghetti on the wall and see which one sticks. Child-led learning. ;-))


Matching Game!
(Printing an extra set of the above shapes, he has to match them to the “real life” objects; moon goes with “crescent”, by the way. I’m tricky. I would accept star there, too, though.)

Colors!


Now, to print, *evenly* cut, and laminate them! Actually…first, to head to my mom’s basement to track down my tiny old laminator. *wink, wink*

By the way, I’m still thinking of making up a few cards for matching with colors as well as a set of friends ‘n family ones with pictures and names (especially to learn the folks who love us who happen to live far away, or whom we just don’t get to see often).

I am wondering, though — the game ones I’m obviously going to keep loose for matching purposes, but the others I’m thinking of putting on a metal ring. Whatchya think? Loose or ready-for-car-use?

Organic For Less

Happy Monday from a very snowy CNY! I’m back from a “mid-winter break” and ready to get back to normalcy. Now, if I could only find the energy to match my enthusiasm. Eh, on with the show…

Every couple of weeks or so, I find myself hitting up our local Aldi (a unique grocery store with mostly generic-ish brands where you rent your grocery cart, bring your own bags, and may only use cash, or debit or EBT cards) before making my usual Hannaford haul. It helps to lower my regular food bill, and I’m ecstatic to see their choices in organic products is generally increasing. Woo hoo!

Now, before I share my budget-trimming selections, I’d like to briefly state our current eating philosophy. I wish I could say that we eat only fruits and vegetables; minimal quantities of organic, grass fed, humanely treated meat and poultry (and eggs); whole grains; and raw, grass fed milk and cheese. Period. But, we don’t. A great majority of what we eat is organic OR grass fed OR GMO free OR 5-ingredients-or-less, but we still consume processed foods – frozen pizzas, part-skim cheese sticks, breads, snack crackers, granola bars, etc.  We try to eat minimal meat, but it’s still a part of most of our meals (most dinners, at least).

It is what it is. Our consciences are relatively at ease on the subject. About 90-95% of the food in our house is organic or at least GMO-free. That’s a heck of a lot further than we were a few short years ago. We don’t stress out over the occasional ordered-in pizza or diner breakfast or meal shared at a friend or family member’s house; they’re quite rare and we know the rest of the time we’re doing our best to put good things in our bodies. {And we’re still profoundly against fast food (I’m going to attempt to pack some appealing meals for our next vacation so we don’t fall victim).}

It’s an evolution that I’m not rushing. To force a thing means that it will be a stress rather than a pleasure to enforce in our own lives. So, for now, I let someone else make my bread. (Either an organic brand or a few-ingredient, locally made one.) And I sleep just fine. 😉

For some tips on grocery shopping for “whole foods”, check out this old post. I’ll have to do a farmers’ market one when things warm up. Yay!

So, anyhoo! I ended up spending a lot for an Aldi trip (less than $60), but couldn’t help myself. For once, I found so many new organic products, I felt like I was robbing the place. “Ohhhh, yessss!!” I shouted each time I spotted another. I’m sure folks thought I was crazy, but I know for a fact that crazier things DO happen…especially at this joint.

I’m showing my haul in categories – fruit ‘n veg (one organic pile – left, one non-organic – right) and processed stuff (bottom).

I still subscribe to a small extent to the “clean 15” list to cut back on cost (although it’s also a matter of supply/demand; if they supply an organic version, I’ll often buy it). So, at Aldi I purchased a pineapple ($2.49), mushrooms ($.99!), a trio of onions ($2.69; I’m a tad wary here; the last time I did this, I cut into them THE NEXT DAY to find they had soft/browning middles…happened recently at Hannaford, too, though), garlic ($.79!), green onions ($.79!), asparagus ($2.99…and already gone…I should’ve bought two), and a bag o’ potatoes ($2.99 for 5 lbs! But…on the dirty list, but it’s tough to find organic here :-P).

As for the organic produce, I FINALLY caught their fresh bananas (I think $.79/lb.), bag o’ apples ($4.49), spinach and spring mix ($1.99 each; if we don’t use the spinach by the time it starts to go, I can boil it quickly and flash freeze) and baby carrots ($.99; this is the price if you’re LUCKY for non-organic at Hannaford). Lots of “booyah!” and heel kicking in the aisles, I tell ya. Oh, and I grabbed two bags of frozen organic strawberries ($2.69 each) and one of blueberries ($2.99). If you want to count apple juice, I hunted down an organic container for $2.49 ($.50 – $1.00 less than usual).

Then we get into the more processed (yet organic) stuff. Diced tomatoes for $1.49, two boxes of $1.99 chicken soup, a box of $1.79 chicken broth, a box of $1.19 linguine, a $1.99 peppercorn ranch dressing, hormone- and antibiotic-free bacon (just like the kind we get at Hannaford, only $3.89…similar price, just want to check it out), $1.99 “toasted oats” (organic Cheerios, folks!), and TWO organic pizzas for $3.99 each (TWO DINNERS for $4.00 each! Yes, we’ll probably have salad, too, but c’mon…can’t buy a pizza from a local pizza place for that little, and they’re made with ORGANIC ingredients!!!).

Whew. So, yeah, minus a $2 bag that I purchased because I ended up finding way more than I had expected, it came to around $57.63. For comparison, I usually spend around $30 there. If only they’d start carrying WHOLE organic milk instead of 2% (don’t get me wrong — I was ECSTATIC to see that they even had milk).

On a final note, this is just an example of a random grocery trip. I’ve had some interest from folks to know what one of these trips looks like, how much we spend on stuff, and what selections we make. This is by no means a bragfest (although I was dancing in the aisles to see what deals I could find); it’s just putting myself out there to see if what I do might help any of you. 🙂

So, how about you? What are some ways that you find to eat healthier (no judgment zone: healthier doesn’t always mean organic; it’s just our personal philosophy) for cheaper?

Freaking Yes

I found a new blog that I’m SO excited about that I couldn’t contain myself in sharing it with y’all! So much so that I’m even posting on a usual “off” blogging day. Can ya believe it?! I know. Crazy town.

I equally love and dislike finding a rad new website or blog. Hear me out.

Love? Finding someone who can entertain you and educate you simultaneously.

Dislike? That they’ve been writing so long that there’s a huge cache of incredible information. *Brain explodes.*

Love? Relating (probably too much) to their humor.

Dislike? Wait…where did the last three hours go? My tea’s cold and the baby’s awake?? What has happened to my life???

Love? Helpful, relatable tips that are immediately applicable to my life. They’re watching me. They must be.

Dislike? What a sleek, modern, yet inviting appearance. My blog looks like it walked into a poopy willow store — or a free background Google search, either way.


I check in with several blogs. Most are DIY/design blogs (as you may well know). Some are family blogs. Some are just plain hysterical. (#neonfresh) When I find a lifestyle or food blog, I tend not to follow it regularly, for whatever reason. Wait, I know. I tend to use them for one purpose, then move on. (Is that catty? I don’t mean to be. Sorry, blogs-I-only-check-out-once! I have a family to feed and bathe and watch Cary Grant movies with!)

Through a favorite blog, I found Our Freaking Budget. I KNOW, RIGHT?! With a name like that, how can it not be a) hilarious, b) informative, c) entertaining, or d) all of the above.

(Here’s a hint, kids. Always pick “all of the above” if it’s an option. The odds are in your favor. *wink*)

Since we’re still on quite the financial trip over here (short story – Dave’s got mad college debt (but is impeccable with his budget and tracking of financials) and I’m the anti-budgeter…and Hadley eats like a 16-year-old boy, I swear.), I’m finding tons of value in every post I’m reading on their site.

Here are just a few articles that have me either chuckling or nodding…or both:

How to Organize Your Financial Paperwork – Wait. I can throw out bank statements?! *Clouds part, angels sing*

All Things Budgeting – This is where I need the most work…so I read. The link includes numerous posts on this topic. I’m totally going to steal borrow their “Everything Else” concept. I love the looseness in that. It’s got “Meg!!! It’s so easy even YOU can do it!” written all over it.

It’s not super financial-related (although, if it costs money, isn’t it ALWAYS financial-related?), but I love the He Says/She Says: Pillows debate. As a lady who loves a good, practically useless decorative throw pillow, my heart goes out. Although, with a toddler, they’ve come in handy for breastfeeding…and he always likes the cushiony squishiness under-head during a diaper change, so there’s that. See? Purpose served!

LOVE this Are You a Dave or a Suze? post about the differences between Dave Ramsey (guru of attacking and mercilessly murdering one’s debt) and Suze Orman (whom I can only picture as an SNL character, no matter how hard I try otherwise). Best part of the post? That they refer the mix of their styles as “Duze.” 

I’m not a “Breaking Bad” follower (heck, if my heart can’t take the ups and downs of Downton Abbey, how can I handle meth heads? Is that what the kids are calling them these days? Meth heads?), but the branding on this Breaking Bad Budgets post cracks me up — and the content is aces.

This one, Budgeting Means You Don’t Like Nice Stuff (clearly not true), hits the nail on the head so well, I shared it on Facebook already. If you know how infrequently I share stuff, you know that’s kind of a big deal for me.

I could go on and on. There’s. Just. Too. Much. GOOD. So, finally, I will give you…

Inbox Zero: How to Whip Your Emails into Shape – I don’t remember how many email ACCOUNTS I have. I still mainly use my Yahoo, although I’d like to make the switch over to Gmail for good. It’s kind of like how I still haven’t found the courage/energy/time to switch to a closer credit union. Anyhoo, my Yahoo account has 6,211. Strangely, the oldest in my inbox is from April 24, 2008. And…OMG…I’m seeing professors emailing me about graduate classes that I’ve long since completed. Oye. Yes, this needs chipping away, for sure.

My financial must-have of the year is a new computer. I’ve hemmed and hawed for years over a replacement. Another Windows OS or refurbished Apple? For awhile I even considered next to no programs and just utilizing Google’s free apps — Google Drive, etc. (My current Dell was purchased over 4 years ago, I believe. There’s something wrong with the video card so there’s a big bar splitting the screen in half vertically, the caps lock key was torn off by a certain baby, — who shall remain nameless — and the “r” sticks like mad (hardly working one minute and snapping too much at others). Rrridiculous.

Since I don’t/won’t put any purchases on a credit card, I’m working on it.

The other financial “whoa” is that we’re hoping to meet with some financial folks to see how viable a possible move would be. (Not too, too far.) There, I said that publicly. Now we won’t qualify for squat. 😉 But, seriously, analyzing what our fix-ups need to be (cough-driveway-cough)

So, happening upon a blog that shows that financial freedom can work for normal folks like me, who are more on the creative side of things than the practical side, gives me some hope and doesn’t stress me out like other sites. I guess this one is a ton more “love” than “dislike.” Now, off to mysteriously lose several more hours of my life. *poof*

SIDE NOTE: WHO SAW DOWNTON SUNDAY?? ARGH! I knew someone was getting (spoiler) this season, but I didn’t expect it to be (spoiler). I hope (spoiler) doesn’t go postal.

Debt Diet

We’re going on a diet at our house. Nope, not THAT kind of diet. (I addressed something like that recently, though!)

Dave recently sent me a link to an article on an awesome blog, And Then We Saved. The writer, Anna, went on a Spending Fast® for a year and swept away her $24k in debt (actually, it was a total of 15 months, but I’m not sure if she was on the “diet” or “fast” that whole time…need to read more). There are some incredible tips on this site, and I appreciate her style of attacking financial issues.

While I’m not buried under massive debt (aside from our mortgage, which I don’t intend to pay off before moving to our next house; otherwise I’ve got a washer/dryer payment, car payment, and a tiny credit card payment that’ll be paid off this month :-)), my husband is still paying off some hefty student loans. Given that, I’d like to find a variation on the fast/diet to meet our needs and help me get better control of my monthly payments and a greater head-start on savings. I suppose we could call it “gaining control.”

The thing that I love here is the fact that I am far from a “Type A” personality, and the structure of this whole shebang is perfect for me. I’ve tried to budget a million times, and my brain simply doesn’t work that way. Go ahead and try to explain it to me; I just can’t do it. But, I’m not admitting defeat! There’s more than one way to make breakfast, y’know.

Which is why I’m doing a variation of what Anna touts. A fast is extreme; extremity tends to push me to the brink of giving up. However, if I can make some “serious” changes rather than extreme ones, it’s more likely to stick. It also means that it can lead to bigger and bigger changes — sticking in my toe, then my foot, then jumping in.

Another reason I can’t see myself doing a full fast *right now* is that it’s October and I’ve got some Christmas shopping to do. 😉 We’re putting limits on everything and everyone, so it should be a basic, all-about-the-memories sort of year (and I’m stickin’ to it!) but this aligns more with the diet than the fast concept. I know this sounds like an excuse, but it’s actually just realistic thinkin’.

Alrighty, so, all that explaining boils down to this:

Following the How to do a Spending Diet guidelines, here’s my list of “NEEDS” (asterisked are the items that I can try to reduce; whether that proves to be possible or not is yet to be seen, but I shall try!):

– Mortgage
– Cable/Internet (WISH I could get this reduced further :-\)
– Food* (Only. Buying. What. We. NEED. I’ve been working on wasting less, and I think it’s sticking, but then I go and buy extra yogurt when Dave has an unopened pack sitting in the fridge. Grrr. Silly mistake, lady!)
– Cell Phone* (Dave and I share this; depending on our usage, we may be able to choose cheaper coverage, woot woot)
– Car (already refinanced…can’t get it any lower…although these payments will be over in about a year)
– Insurance (car and home)
– One small credit card use (Kohl’s be damned)
– New washer/dryer payment* (I was gifted some $ which I need to get deposited in order to make an extra payment here; this will help lessen my payments for the duration of the year)
– Automatic deductions from my paycheck are sticking; I’m at the lowest as far as retirement contributions, blah
– Cat care (food ‘n litter; Dave and I split this here and there, depending on who gets to PetSmart first)
– Gasoline* (Can’t help driving to and from work, but we need to get our trips to the Utica area under control…like, not every weekend and not during the week unless for a doctor’s appointment or something important; Dave works out there, and we often have to take 2 cars, which sucks.) 

Side note: Dave pays utilities and half the cell bill — I do hope to pay more attention to the thermostat (but keeping it regulated as far as the baby’s concerned; not gonna kick it down to 58 when he’s home) and simple electricity use, which we’ve gotten away from. Say, right now, the kitchen light’s on and QVC’s playing in the background. I clearly don’t need Today’s Special Value and no one’s hanging out in the kitchen. Off and off.
So, since these are all “needs”, when the “need” arises, I’ll shell over the ka-ching and try not to stress myself out doing so. When it comes to the non-needs, the time of year that I’m starting this little experiment dictates that I’m not “fasting” (only spending on “needs”), which means that I’ll allow myself a chunk of change.

I’m choosing $150 per month for incidentals (but trying hard NOT to use that amount; post-holidays, I’ll reevaluate and possibly cut it back to $100 or less), be they clothes/makeup (a rare expense)/haircut (even rarer – maybe once a year)/entertainment/eating out/gifts/home decor stuff/cat toys (ahem)/etc. Once I’ve used up this cash, I cannot spend on ANYTHING other than the NEEDS above. This essentially means that we won’t be eating out (maybe once a month, even if it means ordering a pizza), buying clothes for myself, buying a bunch of books just because they’re on clearance (dude, it’s still not free) or sinking tons of money into the house. Looks like I’ll be working on some organizing; that’s free! And maybe an on-sale can of paint here and there. *cough*diningroom*cough*

The tough thing here? I already mentioned it — Christmas. I do have quite a bit saved in Christmas Club, but not everything I need (especially since we need to purchase a real tree), so this should get interesting. But, I feel almost like this is more of a game. My ultimate goal is to gift purposefully, with items that the person will enjoy and want, that I put lots of thought (not necessarily cashola) into. Heck, sometimes it’s a gift card; sometimes it’s a little homemade sumpin’ sumpin’. PINTEREST, HERE I COME!!! I’m hoping this makes it a more memorable holiday, as well. No new ornaments, so it’ll be a hodgepodge sort of tree, but at least we purchased the tree stand and LED lights already. Hoping to spend minimally on more decorations as well as things like wrapping paper, etc.

It’s also a game to see how little I can spend/how much I can save per month, in general. Looking at it this way makes it feel a little less stressed and simply more vigilant about my purchases. I’m forced to question myself instead of being a thoughtless consumer (hate that term!!! Hate even more that I am one!!!) “Yes, it’s a good price, but do I NEED it?” I’ve also read about sleeping on purchases, which is a very valuable tip. It’s easy to say, “But, I won’t be coming back to this area tomorrow” or “But, the sale ends today!” It WILL be on sale again, and when it is, if it’s still something that will serve a purpose and that I NEED to have in my life or will truly benefit me in some way, then I’ll get it.

Time to dig out my tiny notebook for incidental tallying! The heat is on! What method do you use to budget (hate that term) maintain spending? How do you control your holiday expenses? I’d love to hear YOUR thoughts and methods!

Mister Roboto

We recently got a so-sweet birthday card for Hadley from our kind-hearted elderly neighbor, along with a $5 bill and a shakily scrolled note that said “piggy bank.” I teared up, it was so touching!

So, since we’ve received a couple of banks which I consider to be more collectible than everyday use (maybe as he gets older, we can pull one out to use…but if he’s “all boy” as he currently is, that may be when he goes to college!), I tucked into the back of my memory that we should keep an eye out for a cheap-ish bank. We’re all about teaching about money and savings early on (even though I’ve still had a tough time, myself, getting into the budgeting habit, sigh.)

Enter Target, stage left.

About a week later, we were perusing the shelves for some small housely changes and this guy jumped out at us. (Not literally. That would’ve been creepy.)


 


So, so cute!! And so $12.99! (That was just in the store; I found it on clearance for $4.54 online. Dude.) I thought that was a tad better than an heirloom, so if (when?) it takes a spill one day, I won’t cry. Er. As much. I’ll still get upset ‘cuz, c’mon, it’s adorbs.

And, just for fun, here are a couple of other Target lovelies…

A lamp that I bought awhile back (either at TJ Maxx or Target, can’t remember which) that “lives” on Dave’s side of the bed has served its purpose well, but I changed the lampshade from a dark gray/black-ish one (a tad too much detail goin’ on) to this angled shade…


…which didn’t serve us well. Every time a cat jumped up to alert us that “BREAKFAST TIME IS IMPENDING!!! 45 MINUTES AND COUNTING!!!” it would end up cockeyed and even ended up with a slightly warped area from a too-hot bulb. So, I grabbed this one for under $20…

Even Dave says it’s much better and dulls the brightness some. Coming from the guy who doesn’t notice such things, I’d say that’s an accomplishment. Oh, and still figuring out the art and possible headboard, but at least he’s a part of the conversation (as are you!).

Oh, and I’m also considering FINALLY replacing my worn hand-me-down clawed-to-hell slipcovered arm chair with an accent chair. Here were two possible finalists (which I’m waiting to find on sale online soon):

And Dave patiently waiting while I carted the baby around the furniture aisle to see if they were keeping any other chairs from me. What a patient husband I have. Our dorky daddy.

There’s one more Target find that we grabbed to help us tidy up the toddler toys (gasp, did I just say “toddler”?? He’s technically not a toddler until he starts walking for realsies, right? Right??), but we’ll save that for next time. I’m sure you’ll be waiting with baited breath. 😉

Grocery A GoGo

Grocery shopping has become streamlined in the ol’ Deli-cheese household. (And, no. We do not eat deli cheese. A student called me “Mrs. Delicheese” as a mispronunciation and I’ve loved it ever since.) Mind you, this doesn’t always mean cheaper, but compared to our old days, the food we’re stuffing our faces with are, on average, a heck of a lot healthier.

So, I thought I’d put together a few of the tips that I use that have made grocery shopping easier in this world of gluten-free/non-GMO/free range/non-dairy blah-dee-blah.

Tip #1: Look for this awesome little logo on products if you’re looking for a non-GMO certification.

It means that not only does this company not use GMOs, but they funded the project to fight GMO legislation. It’s also neat to see the companies that have pumped thousands and millions of their own funds INTO the legislation. See, even when something says “organic”, it doesn’t always mean that the product is free of GMOs — especially if it contains corn (one of the most highly modified products out there!). So, when I look at the cereal aisle in the “Organic & Natural” area of Hannaford, it reduces the selection by 75%. Makes it a heck of a lot easier. By the way, our favorites are Nature’s Path Organic Heritage Flakes (kinda like Wheaties) and Corn Flakes (non-GMO corn AND under 5 ingredients!), as well as their granola bars. Sure, I could make these, but I just don’t have time these days. (By the way, although Kashi is now working to get GMOs out of some of their products, I’m wary until I see a 100% change.)

Tip #2: Bring a list of the dirty dozen/clean fifteen (or an app on your phone) along with you. It’s handy to know which fruits ‘n veggies you can buy on sale or cheaper as non-organic and which to skip over for the expensive stuff.

See, I’d stock up on nothing but fruits ‘n veggies if my budget allowed, but we also need quick meals (like pasta with sauce…which we have at least once a week…and you can’t have sauce without parmesan). So, I always grab organic apples and bananas (and sometimes pears) to put in our lunches, and organic lettuces, carrots, celery — I know they’re some of the dirtier items, so I buy them organic.

Others that we use ALL THE TIME, like sweet potatoes and onions, aren’t as pesticide-laden, so we buy those in bulk on the cheap (and sometimes at Aldi where most things are cheaper). When asparagus is on sale, we grab that (non-organic) since it’s on the Clean Fifteen and you can do SO MUCH with it.

Otherwise, when farmers’ market season rolls around, we have found that a lot of farmers use organic practices but don’t pay the MAJOR CHUNK OF CHANGE to become certified, so we reap the benefit of asking. Although, it’s hard to avoid sweet corn from a farm stand even if you’re not sure about its GMO or pesticide upbringing.

Tip #3: Marketing is a tricky thing. Take, for instance, the story of an egg…

So, whenever possible, we purchase pastured eggs. How long this term will be unsullied remains to be seen. But, for now, I feel good about our egg choice. And we’ve been using a lot of eggs since becoming part-time vegetarians.

We’ve also been raised to think that because something is lower-fat, it’s better for us. Not always true. So, with our attempts at getting a more “real” diet (one closer to our ancestors who lived a hundred years ago), we’re trying to ease into drinking more whole milk. It’s a transition, and I’m still purchasing 1% from time to time, but we’re gettin’ there. We’ve also made a switch (90% of the time) to Stonyfield’s organic whole milk vanilla yogurt. No more Greek, (okay, I sneak the OCCASIONAL Chobani) since it’s always made to be 0 or 2% fat.

It makes us think a heck of a lot more about what we buy before we buy it. Not everything in our house is organic. For example, our Paul Newman pizzas aren’t, but there’s a trade-off that we agree with their fundraising practices. (I’d like to make more homemade pizzas, though.) Regardless, we’ve had a tough time finding veggie burgers that a) don’t taste like grass and b) don’t have GMOs. Just because something’s labeled “all natural” or touted as a “health food”, use your own judgment and choose what’s right for you and yours.

Tip #4: Budget for the long haul. For us, this works. I plan on spending a certain amount every two weeks rather than going for a handful of items every week (or several times a week). Because if we do the latter, we inevitably end up getting way more than we planned to get. You know, you just have four things…four simple items on your list. Then, you end up leaving with a full cart and wonder, as you stand in line staring at it, how. The. Hell. That. Happened?!

SIDE NOTE: The look on my mom’s face when she saw us buying one of our “hauls” lately…priceless. Yeah, we’re usually pretty closeted about our organic purchases, mostly because of that inescapable argument that it’s SOOO much more expensive. (It really costs us the same exact amount as it did back in the day when I used to go to Walmart; I used to shamelessly grab impulse items. New sweatpants with my Lean Cuisine (I seriously used to eat that crap!)? Don’t mind if I do.)

So, yeah. Buy two breads, put one in freezer. Buy organic milk — it lasts longer. (And, of course, for the obvious reason. Duh.) Double- and triple-check expiration dates. Plan on lots of salads for a week, week and a half…then make the husband deal with cooked veggies and the like. (Since he’s the one who’s more apt to cry over a lack of lettuce than am I. I’m a tough broad, after all.) If you notice produce starting to spoil, freeze it — ie clean and chop your asparagus or broccoli, steam or par-boil it briefly, cool it down and throw it in a baggie for the freezer. Done and done.

What about you guys? Got any awesome grocery tips? Do you prefer a once-a-week trip or do you push it as long as you can? Do tell!

The Hardest Part

I’ve been a little off my goal of getting a tighter grasp on my finances this year, so between the baby wake-up call and hoping for a happy, successful future with the hubs, we’re doing some analyzing. Perhaps that should be “LOTS” of analyzing. You may recall the pie chart I shared with you when doing my initial financial  analysis, and for the most part, things are pretty much the same (except for the occasional baby purchase or what have you). Oh, yes, and for another guilty secret.

Yes, the dreaded “let me confess” post. It’s something that I know lots of folks do, but between our attempts to eat healthier and try to save some cash, this is simply deplorable. Let’s just say that we’ve been eating out. A lot. Upwards of 3 times a week. (Mind you, most of the time it’s been once a week, but still.) And let’s just say that one example of a one-month bill JUST for eating out was over $200. ($236.80, to be exact…and that’s just my bank account, excluding hubby’s.)

Great googily moogily!!

It SO gets away from you if you don’t sit down and take a good, hard look at it, am I right? And this is all while maintaining a relatively well-stocked kitchen. We haven’t gone on any expensive/extensive trips to the farmers’ market this season yet, and I’m not sure we will until we tighten these reigns.

What the heck’s the problem? I’ll admit to laziness. Most of it does come from being pregnant, in all honesty. It’s caused fatigue and at times a general lack of energy for cooking…and, at times, a teeny bit of depression has crept in, which somehow pushes me to say “Pizza would be great tonight.” At the same time, the fact that we’re traveling a lot means that when a mealtime comes around and I get hungry (wait, the hunger monster inside me wants to reword that realistically: “When da Mama gitt hongwyyy”), I kinda need to eat immediately.

So, after a birthing class, what happened? We took to venting and enjoying a meal or ice cream at the nearby Friendly’s. We even made some friends in the process.

And after yoga on a Friday evening, do I really feel like cooking? Not s’much.

Or any other numbers of excuses that any of us might feel ourselves coming up with.

Compared to folks in other situations (or countries), the fact that cutting back on restaurant-eating is the hardest part of our budget process is a wonderful problem to have. I suppose we have other financial issues, too, but this is the most surprising AND the one that we can have the most control over.

So, what’re we going to do? ESPECIALLY with a little one on the way (tell me I’m not going to want to order in practically every night). Well, I’m not planning on cutting it all out cold turkey. Oftentimes the withdrawal that you go through makes you less likely to stick with it, so we’re not going to cut out “eating out” altogether. I AM, however, going to analyze the heck out of our budget to see how often we CAN splurge – and on what types of items.

I’m also not going to fall victim of the “we have a gift certificate” or “we have a coupon for such-and-such a place” – because, while it’s great to have a way to save on a meal, you end up going out and often over-spending, still. We’ve had generous offers to use restaurant.com certificates and the like, but the pressure to use them by a certain date and the knowledge that it simply doesn’t take $20 to feed 2 people these days (unless you’re going to Subway or something like that…but, even then….) is enough for me. If we’re in the mood to go to a particular place and happen to have a coupon, that’s great! But, it’s kind of like the coupon Catch-22 in the grocery store – if it’s not something I need, is it still worth spending on?

One thing that’s already helped (and is kinda fun, when I’m up for it) is creating meals that we could possibly get in a restaurant. Somehow, they almost always turn out healthier. Last night, I made a couple of grilled chicken wraps (buffalo chicken for Dave, honey mustard chicken for me) and although I couldn’t fold them the right way (too much filling – gettin’ our money’s worth!), it was a way healthier version of a pretty yummy meal that would’ve cost us at least $9 each at a restaurant. And, yes, we even had some fries – organic ones. (And a beer at home is always cheaper than out-and-about. Dave drank it, not me. ;-)) Oh, and he says his was delicious – I think the fact that he repeated it several times while eating it proved this to be true – while mine, eh, the homemade dressing I whipped up wasn’t GREAT. It was still quite good.

Another option I’m interesting in (but, admittedly, intimidated by) is creating weekly menus. The problem with these is that our weekly schedules are often dictated on a whim – say, I don’t know that Dave’s meeting with a writing partner next Thursday until possibly a day or two before. That’s not a complaint; it’s just how our household rolls. So, a flexible weekly schedule might be best for us; ie “we were going to have *such and such* for dinner, but since I’m eating alone (or he’ll just have a salad when he gets home), I’ll eat something lighter or easier (or, tee hee, something he wouldn’t normally eat – can we say mushrooms?)”

There are lots of blogs and communities online that discuss menus. I think the hardest part is coming up with things that the family loves, and that don’t take up TOO much time to prepare. There’s, somehow, always an evening that you feel more like cooking, and inevitably an evening that you simply don’t (which helps you fall into the dreaded “let’s just get pizza”).

So, my search for easy, DELICIOUS (who wants to eat crap, even if it is easy and cost-effective?) possibly even prepare-ahead meals is on! I’ll share any sites that I find (I’ll be looking for all-natural/organic/whole foods sites, but will share those that I find valuable, even if not), so if you have any that you love, please feel free to respond in the comment section!! Your sites don’t have to be crunchy granola, either, but if they are, more power to ya! 😉

Oh, and, BTW, if anyone has some freeze-ahead meals that would be appropriate for summertime that they love, please share! I’ve GOTTA get going on some meals to just defrost/prepare quickly for when the baby comes!!