My Frugal Valentine

Although I normally ignore fake holidays I thought I’d throw out some suggestions for those folks who are, for lack of a better word, twitterpated. And please note these suggestions are not gender exclusive. Women who complain their boyfriend or husband never give enough but do nothing in return themselves make me throw up a little in my mouth. On that pleasant note:

Say it with flowers
But ones that are not overpriced and then dead within a week. Pick out a bright pot, some soil and bulbs or seeds for a fraction of the cost of the typical red rose bouquet. Why it works: subtly conveys you’ll be around as they bloom and bloom and bloom.

Skip Hallmark
In 50 years no one is going to read your generic “I wuv you beary much” card, Facebook wall post, e-card or text messages with any amount of sentimentality.  Grab a piece of printer paper and write a good old fashioned note with ink pen in hand. There’s no need to cut out hearts from red construction paper, just say and mean what you put to paper.

Candy that doesn’t taste like chalk
If you managed to score some Christmas M&Ms after the holidays pour the red ones in a small jar. For the ultra frugal save the jar and green M&Ms for St. Patrick’s Day. Personalized M&Ms are a little to pricey for my tastes but an easy alternative is spelling out your message on a bigger platform. Like cake. Or just fill a jar with a favorite candy.

Cook it yourself
What says I care more than making a phone call and using a credit card? Well, almost anything. How about recreating a memorable meal in your own damn kitchen? Recreate a meal you bothed loved or have always wanted to try. Take the time to call his or her mom, sister, or best friends and find out those favorite meals. Don’t forget about dessert.

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got the bling
In a world where retailers are already pushing summer clothes and the back-to-school items are probably a week away from hitting the shelves I shouldn’t be surprised that jewelry retailers are amping up their commercials. But personally buying expensive jewelry should require a bit more planning. Instead of new and flashy how about retro? Ask to pass down an older family piece. Or take something from the jewelry box that’s gone unworn and have it cleaned, reset or refurbished.

You’re taking me where?!?
Find the most romantic spot in your own city and have a picnic. For my friend getting married in a library that spot is probably the bookstore. For the couple saving to buy a home it might be a park in a new neighborhood. Find your favorite stream, trail, city center or movie theater and enjoy the scenery.

Service
To complicate matters this year Valentines falls on a Sunday and is followed by a holiday. Three days? Oy vey. That doesn’t mean a romantic getaway weekend is necessary. How about serving from the heart at home? Build that shelving unit the family cook has been asking about for years, frame the family pictures from years past and finally get around to those endless maintenance projects. Take it from me, nothing says “I love you” like cleaning my gutters.

January Goal Recap

Oh yeah, epic fail! Here are my original goals (in bold) and the result on January 31st

finish sorting through old magazines and organizing articles – still have a stack 2 feet high to finish

scan and archive 2009 utility bills and box the originals – I finished my phone bills… still need to do gas & electric, trash, water & sewer, mortgage and insurance.

print Christmas photos and fill frames – Didn’t even think about it once!

give both dogs baths – I might still do this tonight because the dogs are so muddy after playing all weekend.

touch up paint on hallway doors – I think this requires at least one full day of painting, something I rarely have

clean dust from all ceiling fans – I did the kitchen which was the worst, the other three fans are not in use just collecting more dust

scrape ceiling in the hallway – I think I wrote these goals whilst hungover from New Year’s…

install bike hoist in the garage – didn’t happen but my Dad has only been to town once and then to replace my garbage disposal

check out 6 personal finance books from the library – YES ONE SUCCESS! I didn’t find the books all that helpful but oh well.

Finishing up the Guest Room

I tend to get caught up in everything else I have going on and slowly get around to finishing old projects.  Last weekend I spotted some fabric at Ikea on clearance and bought a yard. It matched up perfectly so I went back for 4 more yards.  At the same time I picked up a new curtain rod for $20.

Saturday I purchased new brackets for my blinds at Home Depot for $2 and re-hung the blinds. Then I hung the curtain rod and we started measuring and pining the fabric. And when I say “we” I mean my mom who is an amazing seamstress did most of the work.  She pressed and stitched the sides of the panel and the top pocket and we hung them overnight. Then she hemmed the bottom and finished them up.  15 minutes in the dryer to get out the wrinkles and we were done!

Before:

After:

The bed frame and mattress came from my parent’s house, I picked up the nightstand for $8 last year and wrote about it here.  While I’ve had the bookshelves for awhile now I just moved them into the room a short time ago and hung the blue pendant lamp above.  This beautiful quilt was a gift from the lovely Barb:

The room is just about done, I have two more yards of fabric to make pillows and I’d like a rug because the carpet is so stained. Eventually I’ll empty and paint the closet and improve the storage there.

Total for the two curtain panels was just $12, a smidge more than my $9 living room curtains I wrote about here. Next I hope to get my office curtains done just as frugally!

Attention Deficit… something

I was trying to explain to my friend Jana the other day that it’s becoming increasingly harder to define what I do, what I write about here. And that is the kiss of death for most blogs, a wide focus.

I mean, I write about coupons and traveling, saving money and spending it, my personal life and people who annoy me. Why is that? Probably the same reason I could never keep a journal – I always had 12. This one was for recipes, that one for poetry (the only empty one incidentally), this one for goals, that one for weird dreams that woke me up at 3am. I naturally want to separate my thoughts, my interests. But we can’t segment our lives into happy little boxes.

When people ask what I do, I usually laugh. I write features, attend events, manage accounts, help customers, stock a store, contribute to blogs, proctor tests, take pictures, review resumes, negotiate services, market and fundraise, balance accounts and post about my finances. Usually within the span of a week.  How can that become a single-focused blog?

If there’s something we learned from Glee and god help me High School Musical, it’s that there are no longer one box to shove ourselves into. There’s no longer the jock and the punk, the musician and the actress.  And it doesn’t end in high school.  Getting out in the workplace there’s often no “work time” and “personal time” the two overlap constantly. And that’s natural. You can play football and guitar. You can be a mother and an athlete. You can even be a spender and a saver simultaneously.

The funny thing is, this translates to our lives in more ways then one. You might research index funds and ignore CD rates, use coupons at the grocery store but not at a restaurant, conserve water but not turn down your thermostat, preserve fruits and vegetables but never buy half a cow.

We all can choose how and where we save and splurge.

One subject that has been bothering me for some time and has been the start of many an unposted topics here is the false dicotomy between frugal behavior and big wins. I’ll go into more detail tomorrow with excerpts from proponents on either side of the spectrum but for now I’ll just say this:

We all can choose how and where we save and splurge.

Ironically, I’m starting a new blog and still in the process of adding content – it’s a travel blog for my upcoming adventures. It’ll keep me from posting 1,000 pictures here while I’m gone!

Stocking Up

I mentioned yesterday that I have a good 6 to 18 months stock of many non-food items. Here are a few of the strategies I used – and mistakes I made – hopefully they’ll help you if couponing is your thing. It can be easy to get overwhelmed with coupon organizers and stacking and even just the math of it. I had all the same worries and here’s the result of overcoming those fears:

And a whole lot of office supplies

These cabinets and drawers were not filled overnight, it took me 3-5 months of intense shopping and saving to buy this much stock without going into debt. Or being featured on hoarders.

The first step was buying the newspaper to get my hands on coupons. Our city paper has NO coupons and the major one was going to be over $2/week to subscribe just on Sundays. So I started going to the Dollar Store every Sunday morning and buying 2 papers: $2.18 total. I probably bought the paper for 2 weeks before I did any shopping, just to get an idea what kind of coupons I could find.

The biggest challenge here was not spending a lot of money in the dollar store! But the bright yellow plastic containers were a dollar store find. They are perfect for high shelves in my closet.

When I got home with the paper, I’d pull out the ads and coupons and starting cutting, usually while watching a movie or listening to music. Food coupons in one pile, household in another. I threw away a lot of the coupons immediately. Ones for nicotine patches, products I never buy or want to try and all the advertisements for checks, snuggies, bird feeders and figurines. I made this part of my Sunday routine, it was almost like being in first grade and cutting up magazines for an art project only instead of a stick figure pictures on the fridge I was getting yummy smelling shampoo and saving money!

Here’s the important part:  Knowing what I already had on hand I chose ONE group of items at a time that I wanted to stock up on.

First it was oral hygiene products. Oral-B was coming out with new toothbrushes and Walgreens had a sale – free after register rewards.  So for one week I’d sort through my household coupons ONLY looking for that ONE product. I’d buy however many I had coupons for (usually 2 or 4) and get the rebate back. Let’s say the toothbrush was $5.99 minus $1 coupon and $5.99 reward back.

Cost: $5.99 x 8.25% sales tax = $6.48
Less: $1 off coupons = $5.48
Less: $5.99 RR = -$0.51

Now technically I was out $21.92 because I bought 4 toothbrushes but I also had $24 in Register Rewards (RR) to use. So I’d go back to the flyer and see if mouthwash was on sale.

Sort through household coupons and find 2 for mouthwash. Common sale situation was $6 for a BIG bottle of mouthwash, coupon for $1.50 when you buy two. Eh, not great but since I’m out of mouthwash not terrible.

Cost: $6.00 x 8.25% sales tax = $6.49
Less: $0.75 coupon/ea = $5.74
Less: $5.99 RR = -$0.25

I’d still have $12 in RR to use and the next week I see a sale on toothpaste (RR are generally good for 2 weeks).

Cost: $1.50 x 8.25% sales tax = $1.62
Less: $0.50 store coupon = $1.12
Less: $0.75 manuf coupon = $0.37

If I have 4 manufacturer coupons and the store limit on coupons is 4 I can get everything for $1.48.

Register Rewards at Walgreens have a few, let’s call ’em quirks. They will always have an expiration date, can be used for most any purchase and you can only use one RR per item. I learned this trying to use 4 RR worth $20 to buy a $22 knee brace. Nope.

In order to use the $12 rebate I need to get 2 items worth over $12 so at this point I might pick up something for $11 like medication on sale or even some food items I need. Either way I’d get up to $12 and use the rewards.

So in this situation I’d spend $21.92 out of pocket, get 4 toothbrushes, 4 tubes of toothpaste, 2 big bottles of mouthwash and $11 worth of food or other necessities. Would it be worth your time and effort to buy 4 toothbrushes, 4 tubes of toothpaste, 2 big bottles of mouthwash for $11?

It’s really a value judgement and I leave that to you.

And now that I have that stock I won’t need to buy these items for a year or more. And all it really took was a weekly trip to pick up the paper, a little tip clipping and sorting and closely looking at the deals on 2-3 items at a time.

I did one other trick to help my addled brain remember how much I spent. Using these stickers I would jot down the price and stick it to the item. Lining up purchases I could see when I got items free or nearly free. I don’t keep a price book but a quick glance in the cabinet can tell me if $2 toothpaste is a good deal or not.

Mistakes

I made a bunch. First was letting RR expire, the second was never sending in rebates. Finally I faced the fact that I don’t care enough to send in a rebate with  a 45 cent stamp to get $1 back. And if I got the $1 back I was equally unlikely to drive it to the bank to deposit.

Second big mistake was the months when I went overbudget (it’s been too long to remember specifics) but it doesn’t really help to overspend when you’re stocking up. Set yourself a budget and focus on just 1 to 3 items at a time. If you come up a deal that’s too good to pass up decide ahead of time how much you’re willing to spend. Again, a feature story on Hoarders is not the goal here.

Instead of throwing out coupons I probably should have set them aside. Even if I didn’t buy coffee frequently it might be free after coupons and sale and something I could give away. Also baby supplies, I don’t need them but it wouldn’t hurt me to offer them to the moms I know who might benefit.

Hope this helps y’all and if you have any questions or clarifications let me know!

Why I stopped using coupons

Better than coupons

For nearly six months now I haven’t laid eyes on a newspaper coupon. It’s not that they’re not a useful tool but I have a method that’s working better for me at this point.

I have built up to a six month stock on most household items and now I’m using it up – slowly. Which means the six month stock is probably going to last me 18 if I’m lucky.

Some things I will not replace outright when they’re used up. Once I’m out of shower gel I’ll switch to bar soap. I’m going to experiment with homemade cleaners once I get through my stock of general cleaners and Windex.

Other things don’t really get used up. I have kitchen hand towels and drying towels, bath towels, rags and a stack of dog bath towels. Those take a LONG time to wear out. I can wear good quality clothes again and again without the fabric staining, fading or tearing. When I open a new toothbrush the old one gets thrown in the cleaning cabinet so I can use it to scrub small spaces. Considering how often I scrub those will last me a few years.

This strategy is not really about saving 2 cents by using less toothpaste or stretching shampoo for one more shower. First and foremost it’s about wasting less. Whether you’re an environmentalist or a frugalist, avoiding waste is good sense. Wastefulness is something we have come to expect and enjoy as a right in this country. I want to produce less waste not because of Al Gore and not because of stewardship but because I believe it’s the proper thing to do.

I’m also saving time. If I buy something I’m naturally putting a lot of thought into it. I notice my toilet paper stock is low, I consider the impact of not buying more toilet paper, I do a quick search for coupons online, I may even print one off, I go to the store buy it, pay for it, haul it home and store it. The fewer times I have to do that the better.

I’ve narrowed down my choices for a lot of items so I don’t stand there debating to myself vanilla vs mint mouthwash. Somethings I have a definite preference – like nicer razors that don’t nick my skin – and others I have no preference – most shampoos work fine for my hair. By identifying those preferences ahead of time I save a lot of back and forth.

This doesn’t mean I never buy something I don’t want to use. I might pick it up free in order to include it in a gift pack. And when it comes to some items I like to think long term. I have a gift box and many ways to give to others from my stock without missing a thing.

Yesterday I sent my brother a belated Christmas present consisting of refills for his overnight bag (he travels for work training). New razor, toothbrush, toothpaste, shaving gel and body wash. Total cost: $5.21

Tomorrow: how to stock up a little at a time without breaking your budget.

But, I don’t like that brand…

There are a lot of reasons not to buy something and far be it for me to recommend shopping for shopping sake. But when something is free – no strings attached, no rebate to mail, honest to god free – one of the worst arguments I hear is against branding.

I get it.

Spicy cinnamon flavor does not entice me to use mouthwash and you will not see a Dora the Explorer toothpaste tube in my bathroom.  But when an item is free there are four good reasons to get over it. Unless you have some serious commitment to boycotting a company and their products I suggest you pick up freebies whenever you can.  Even if you pay a few cents worth of sales tax, there are four groups would can really benefit from your thoughtfulness.

Students

Most of us were there, dirt poor, stuck on campus, idiots when it came to money matters and living with dozens of other students who think nothing of swiping roomie’s shampoo.  Students don’t cut a lot of coupons and theft in the dorms is a problem.  Throw in the rising cost of tuition, books, and eating and there’s an opportunity waiting.  Enter the care package.

Care packages combine two things college students love: mail and freebies.  Sure, a little cash is always appreciated but in six months (when your nephew is home for the summer and you want your gutters cleaned) is Joe College Student going to remember the $20 that he used for pizza and beer during finals week or the personal hygiene products that made him smell better and helped him get a date?

Fill the box with a new toothbrush, toothpaste, mouthwash, floss, shampoo, conditioner, deodrant, soap, disposable razors and shaving cream, hair products, feminine products, over the counter drugs, and a small first aid kit.

Soldiers

Who better to benefit from the free products we enjoy at home than the soldier defending our homes?  No matter where your politics lie, the American soldier has an amazing responsibility and deserves support and thanks.

Check the current lists on websites like this one for a list of things that are allowed. There are very specific restrictions and you’ll want to avoid sending something that is illegal or inappropriate.

Seniors

For the elderly living on a fixed income, basic living items can make a dent in the tightest of budgets. Instead of blindly dumping products at a care home, call before you go and ask for a list of acceptable items. Better yet, have your family adopt a grandparent.

While insurance and a care facility may provide the basic living needs of residents, other items may be welcomed. If you’re looking for a one time donation consider group items. Magazines are a favorite as well as craft supplies.  Ask if the recreation director needs movies, puzzles or music.  Depending on the equipment available this might be a great place to drop off VHS movies.

Suffering

Look outside of yourself to those in your community who are suffering. There are everyday needs not met in our own backyards and it takes courage to step up and offer help. Even just the help of some off brand shampoo.  Do a search for homeless shelters, abused women groups, foster homes, and families living with especially difficult conditions.

When you read about a family losing everything in a fire: take action.

If foster children in a group home never get new toys: take action.

If a teacher is spending thousands to provide supplies for a classroom: take action.

It’ll help clean out your closets and bless others.

The amount to which you stock up on products for others is up to you – I would suggest setting aside so much in an envelope and see how much you can get for that fixed amount.