June 2009 Archives

Picking up spares

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This is one of those tips that saves chiefly on aggravation and time, but can also save money.

Have spares on hand.

What are the things you run out of and routinely need to replace? Pens, batteries, razor blades, tissues, paper towels, garbage bags, kitty litter, batteries, hand lotion, toothpaste, toothbrushes, dental floss, sunblock, tape, envelopes, paper, labels, stationery, recordable CDs, light bulbs, printer toner or ink?

These sorts of things are often loss leaders and many of them can be bought in bulk. In some cases, you'll find that ten times the quantity only costs three times as much. And even when there aren't crazy bulk discounts to be had, by planning ahead you'll have the opportunity to look for a good price. If you wait till it's an emergency, you'll end up stuck with whatever price you see first.

And, best, when you need something, it's not a crisis. You'll have planned ahead. Preventable crises? They should be prevented.

If you have a tiny home, it may be unfeasible to stock up on many of these things, but if you have the space, it's a great way to save money and peace of mind. Jen and I are still working our way through a case (ten reams) of paper I bought years before we met. We're still using the dental floss of which we bought every pack we could when it was on sale as a loss leader. On lots of occasions when my bike's needed maintenance, I've been back riding faster than I would have because I had the parts on hand.

Can you set aside a day to note what spares you need, and either get them or make a note to look for them when the price is right?

Big Ticket Items

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We've discussed a lot of frugal tips here in the past five months, some with big payoff, and others...not so much, which is the intent of this blog. We offer a spectrum of money-saving ideas, but it's up to you what's (literally) worth it to pursue.

I want to highlight the importance of big ticket items: rent/mortgage and car. These two alone usually comprise about 30-40% of a typical household budget. Obviously, it's important to consider the long-term implications (opportunity cost) before you take the plunge.

So let me state in boldface --- if there is nothing else that you think/plan/do in the interest of saving money, let it be towards the two largest expenditures that most people have --- home and car.

Paying for shelter is expensive. The general rule of thumb is not to exceed 30% of your monthly take-home pay to it. Before the Great Real Estate Collapse of 2008, the prices of houses were stratospheric, particularly right before the Collpase. Many people, devoted to the idea of buying a home, pushed the 30% rule to 50% and beyond. It was not a good idea.

Now that the real estate market has corrected itself, to put it mildly, it's extremely difficult to prove yourself financially sound enough to be considered worthy of a mortgage. So it's an ideal time to negotiate a bit more aggressively when looking at a new place to rent. Landlords are competing for a declining market, as people are hunkering down and staying put until the economy improves.

Leverage this falling market to your benefit: if you're on a month-to-month lease (and now is a good time to enter into such a thing) renegotiate better terms, then maybe think about locking that in for a time.

Also, don't forget the old bromide about the three most important criteria for real estate: location, location, location. Many people in the Bay Area felt that the only way they were able to afford the house of their dreams was to buy such a dream house two hours driving distance (one-way) and only car-commutable from their work location. Again, this is entirely a personal choice, but to my calculations, once you factor in the cost of gasoline, wear & tear on the vehicle, car insurance, and psychological wear & tear, that affordable dream home costs a lot more than the dollars paid at closing.

We are fortunate that we live in an area that not only has very good public transportation (bus and subway), but that is easily accessible from our home on foot or bicycle, and our work commutes are fewer than three miles away. So our lifestyle easily enables us to own a single car only (we could further downgrade to a car-free life by signing up with Zipcar, but this works for us now). That's a tremendous savings, which we factored into the premium price we paid for our house due to its favorable location (as opposed to living in the 'burbs and forcing us to buy another car, which my mother proposed we do).

Cars can be had for as little as a few hundred dollars up to several hundred thousand. As far as I can see, that price range all boils down to marketing. What, exactly, do you need? Some people identify with their car as an external mirror of themselves, others spend a lot of time in their cars due to long commutes, which may require certain amenities I consider superfluous, desire their car to be "cute," or want a zippy roadster or need to haul mountain bikes. All cars will get you to your desired destination.

Just remember that buying a second-hand car will save thousands of dollars...just look up the price of a 2009 car in the Kelley blue book. My accountant friend refuses to buy anything other than a used car because of the instant hit of depreciation the moment she drives a new car off the lot.

Of course, auto manufacturers have worked around that, by recognizing warranties only from the original purchaser of a car. So, maybe it's worth it to you to buy a new vehicle.

Keep in mind that thousands of dollars can be saved through thorough research, planning, and comparison-shopping on only two items that you will purchase in your life. The money you saved can realize itself again and again, if done correctly.

I freely admit that sometimes I get lost in the frugalista woods worrying over whether or not I got the best value for bulk garbanzo beans, considering the sale price this week when the entire price discrepancy may be thirty cents. So then I take a breath and realize I need to step back and see the big picture. I hope you do, too.

Gas prices are back on their way up, making the savings from biking even bigger. So it's time for another episode of Biking as an Effective Means of Transportation, a series that will end someday when I run out of things to say.

Part V covered rain gear, but I haven't talked about what to wear when it's not raining.

First, you absolutely don't have to wear brightly colored skintight lycra. That's for racers or people who (for whatever crazy reason) want to look like racers.

But beyond saying what you shouldn't feel obligated to wear, it's hard to say much, as what you should wear depends so much on your particular circumstances. How long is your ride? What's the weather (and what's it going to be like on your ride home)? Do you need more formal clothes at your destination? Can you and will you need to shower there?

So here are some guidelines: for the ride, dress in easily removable layers. In cold weather, layers keep you warmer; in most weather, you'll want to remove some layers as you warm up. Plan ahead to have a pannier or trunk bag to put the layers you take off. Jackets with zippered vents offer a nice way to control your temperature.

For longer or hotter rides, the sort of high-tech moisture-wicking clothes available at sports or camping stores may be useful (but, again, it doesn't have to look like bike racing gear.) Wear something you're comfortable moving in. For short rides, comfortable jeans are fine; for longer rides, they may become a problem.

Don't skimp on warm gloves for cold weather; in any weather, cycling gloves can save your hands from being badly scraped if you ever take a spill, and the padding may make your hands more comfortable.

A thin nylon helmet liner does a lot to keep your ears warm in the cold.

Don't wear your finest clothes. Every so often, they'll get dirty as a result of biking (especially if you end up needing to do road maintenance.) A velcro cuff for your ankle can keep your pants legs from a bike grease stain (that'll never come off.) I don't recommend narrow ones -- their velcro patch is so small that they fall off easily.

Don't wear flip-flops -- wear shoes that cover your feet and can't slip off. This is an important safety issue. Your shoe slipping off when you're trying to pedal could cause an accident; in an accident, your feet could be scraped badly if they're not covered.

All of this makes it sound harder than it is. When I buy a jacket, I have its suitability for biking in mind, and I get one with vents, but it's not a biking jacket. I use the same one on or off my bike, just like I use the same gloves. Other than the helmet liner and velcro cuff mentioned above, I don't have a wardrobe particular to biking. If you already have casual clothes, odds are good you won't need one either.

Going Veggie

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The recipes I post here are my favorites: not my favorite veggie recipes, but favorites period. I won't post recipes that I think are "good enough" considering the constraint of not cooking with meat. Oh no. These are dishes I cook because they are delicious and nutritious, with the added benefits (see below) of being vegetarian. The icing on the cake is that it's also frugalicious.

For household budget reasons alone, going veggie saves enormous amounts of money. There simply is no comparison between buying meat or having beans & rice (the two together make a complete protein equivalent to meat) for dinner.

We consider our kitchen at home a vegetarian one, where meat (beef, pork, chicken, fish) is not prepared in it at all. We do consume eggs and dairy products.

I don't eschew meat entirely (if I'm eating out at a restaurant and the beef bourginon sounds good, I order it) but my grocery bill is very low because of our vegetarian kitchen rule. Maybe you're already cooking most of your meals at home to save money; you can literally trim more fat from the budget by swapping a few vegetarian entrees into the mix.

I struggled for years to be vegetarian: for health reasons, not wanting to support the meat industry, not wanting to eat by taking animal life. When Zed and I decided to share a living space though, and he was fully vegetarian, it was just the impetus I needed to go veggie all the way with my cooking.

People new to vegetarianism complain about being hungry all the time --- when I hear that, I know it's because there's not enough protein and fiber in the meals they're consuming --- the two together provide a long-lasting feeling of satiety. Let me assure you that I do not consider a green salad and a slice of melon a meal.

So I hope you audition the recipes I post here because of the frugalista aspect, but I hope they become part of your cooking canon because they're delicious (but they're also high in fiber, low in saturated fat, and have a low glycemic index to boot).

Do you need it?

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Do you need it?

Why? What problem are you really trying to solve? What value will it contribute to your life? How does the expense correspend with your values and goals, and how you want to invest your precious, limited time and energy?

Do you need to own it? Can you borrow it? Can you rent it?

Do you have somewhere to put it? Will it add clutter to your home, and make it harder to effectively use the things you already have?

Do you need it new? Can you buy it used? Is it something that routinely turns up at yard sales?

Can you re-use or re-purpose something you already have (or something that's available for free)? Can creativity, instead of consumption, get you what you want?

Is it for a new project? Did you finish the last project? Do you still have all of the stuff from the last project?

Are you making the most of what you've already got?

Do you need it?

Skillet Cornbread

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This is always the cornbread recipe I use. One year for Thanksgiving I made cornbread stuffing from scratch, and I used a recipe called "Buttery Cornbread," and, well, it was too buttery.

From reading various food blogs, I know there are many regional variations on cornbread, and I've eaten a few different ones. I'm not a fan of the fluffy & sweet cornbreads that approximate cake and could double as a dessert. Apparently my version is often referred to as Texas cornbread, because it's dense, hardly sweet, and is baked in a skillet.

  • 1¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • ¾ cup corn meal
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup milk (whatever kind you use: whole, skim, soy)
  • ¼ cup vegetable oil
  • 1 egg, beaten

1. Preheat oven to 400F & oil a cast iron skillet.
2. Combine dry ingredients in a medium bowl.
3. Combine wet ingredients in another bowl.
4. Pour wet mix into the dry ingredients & stir until just combined. (It is important not to overmix this, or the cornbread will be tough).
5. Pour into cast iron skillet to bake for 20-25 minutes until golden brown.
6. Serve warm!

Chili sin carne

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I love this extremely easy chili recipe. It's loaded with protein and fiber, but I make it because it's delicious. There are many ways to serve it: over rice, alongside corn bread (I will post that recipe next!), on top of tortilla chips. Toppings can include diced red onion, a dollop of sour cream, or a sprinkling of shredded cheddar cheese.

Like the lentil soup recipe, it tastes even better the day after you make it, once the spices have marinated together overnight.

  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 can pinto beans, rinsed & drained
  • 1 can black beans, rinsed & drained
  • 1 can (28 oz) crushed tomatoes
  • ½ package Yves meatless ground round (the package is 12 oz., so 6 oz.)
  • ground cumin
  • chili powder
  • dijon mustard
  • salt, pepper
  1. Saute onion until soft and opaque. Add garlic and saute for another 2 minutes.
  2. Transfer onion & garlic saute into a large stockpot, then add beans, tomatoes, and soy meat over medium heat.
  3. The remaining spices are all to taste, but start with approximately 1 tablespoon cumin, 1 teaspoon each of chili powder and mustard.
  4. Cover with stockpot lid and continue heating on medium heat until boil, then turn off.
  5. Then get your chili on!

The lunches they carried

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I've referred in passing to brown-bagging lunches.

In downtown Berkeley, the cheaper weekday lunch choices average about $7. The ingredients of our brown-bagged lunches are probably somewhere between $1 and $2; I'll say $2 to keep the math easy. I have about 240 work days in a year. If I were to brown-bag every day, I'd save $1200.

As I've discussed before, savings are pre-tax -- a penny saved is more than a penny earned. At a 30% tax rate, I'd need a $1700 raise to be able to spend that $1200 with the same net result.

I don't know about you, but in my current job situation, I'm not expecting a $1700 raise anytime soon.

Naturally, preparing the lunches takes time. It takes planning to have the ingredients. Luckily for us, Jen loves cooking. And it's only a little more time-consuming to plan to have leftovers.

Occasionally, "preparing lunch" is a matter of scooping some rice into a container, and dumping a can of Trader Joe's vegetarian chili on top. That's more expensive than most of our lunches, of course, but even this easy approach costs under $2. It's still a substantial savings.

Eating out may seem like a convenience, but, as ever, I suggest examining if it's really convenient. You have to get to a lunch place, order, wait for the food, get back. If you have some place at or near work where you can sit and eat, all of that is time reclaimed.

A meal is more than just food, of course. If eating lunch out is an important social activity, or you take pleasure in the experience that's worth the surcharge, that's great. Like I said in my very first entry here, whether something is worth it is all about your values. I would just remind you to pay attention to the real value and cost, and that there are alternatives.

Take your appliances off standby

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Many appliances are drawing power even when they're not in use. If you touch a plugged in wall wart, you'll feel that it's warm, even whan it's not powering anything. That heat energy represents electricity being consumed. Anything with a lit LED, anything that can be turned on by remote control, anything with a clock -- all of it is using electricity. The amount, in each case, is apt to be small. But, incredibly, it's estimated that 10% of residential energy usage is standby power.

Avoiding it is straightforward -- an inexpensive power strip with a switch will do it. We keep one on our designated gadget shelf, where our rechargeable devices' chargers live -- we only plug in the ones we need at the moment, and the switch makes it easy to kill the power when they're done. Our TV and stereo are plugged into another, so we have to flip a switch manually before we can start using the remote. It's not a hardship.

If you're curious about how much energy a device is using, there are affordable electricity meters that'll let you measure it.

Saving on Prescriptions

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I've already talked about opting for generic versus brand-name prescriptions to save money. If you're taking a maintenance prescription, for a chronic condition like asthma or high blood pressure, an excellent value is using the mail-order prescription option.

The model for mail-order prescriptions seems to be the same: to entice people to use the service, you can get a three month supply of your prescription for the price of a two month co-pay if you were to get it at your local pharmacy in person. Essentially, you get a month free. That's quite a savings, especially because the prescription co-pay world never has sales!

Furthermore, it saves you a trip (or three) to the pharmacy, because it comes to your mailbox.

You do have to plan a little, by asking your doctor write your prescription for at minimum a 90-day supply, but that's about it. You mail in the prescription (they pay the postage), and voila you're saving money. Refills are handled over the phone, just like at an in-person pharmacy.

If you have health insurance, chances are you are required to fork over a co-pay every time you visit the doctor. If you plan ahead a little, you can maximize the efficiency of your visit, thus saving time, money, and energy.

An added bonus is if your health insurance doesn't charge for "well" visits, that is, a yearly physical. I am lucky that I have such a benefit, so my yearly head-to-toe exam to make sure all my parts are working is free.

I make a list of things I want checked out, moles that may have changed over the year, questions, and the refills I need on my prescriptions. Essentially, if I don't have any other health problems during the year, I will only see my doctor once a year.

Zed goes one step further, by scheduling his yearly physical in October, timed so he can get his flu shot at the beginning of the flu season. (I get my shot free at work).

I love it, and so does my doctor. If you'll forgive me the cliche, it's win-win.

Make your veggies go further

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A lot of people discard broccoli stalks or the bottom portion of asparagus, due to their tough and woody texture.

There's good eating to be had underneath the tough layer, though, and all you need to liberate it is a vegetable peeler. With broccoli, peel off the outermost layer, and chop up the stalk into pieces of similar size to the florets, and cook them the same way. With asparagus, just peel the last couple of inches.

The taste and nutrition are comparable, so eat your stalks.

There are hardcore cyclists who bike in the snow. That doesn't come up (or, rather, down) here, but we do get rain. A lot of it in the winter, usually. And you don't need to be particularly hardcore to handle it.

The first thing to know is that the usual margins of tolerance are smaller. If it's the first rain in a while, oil on the road will be floating on the surface, and both you (and all other vehicles) will be more prone to slipping, and less able to stop short. First rain or not, it'll take you longer to stop (with most kinds of brakes), because your tire is wet. Your visibility is decreased, especially at night. Keep all this in mind.

The next concern is keeping dry. Having wet pants and wet shoes for hours isn't fun. But you can get water-resistant, breathing rain jackets and pants, as well as helmet covers, and zip-on covers for your shoes (don't walk in them, though, or you'll wear them out quickly.) All of these work will last longer if you treat them with spray-on waterproofing. Don't store them wet -- you'll want to plan ahead that you have someplace to hang them to dry at your destination. All winter long, I keep all of these in my bike bag.

Finally, you want to keep your bike as dry as possible as often as possible. Park out of the rain, if you can. Towel it off when you get it back someplace dry. And lube your chain often.