Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Save Early

Tip #20 – The younger you are when you start saving, the better. Or, take advantage of the magic of compounding. Whatever age you are, the best time to start saving money is now. This gives you time to have the money grow. If you wait to save, then your money won’t have time to earn interest and it will be harder to accumulate a large sum. If you are in your 20’s, it is the perfect time to save. Don’t say that you will save when you are older and making more. If you save now, then you won’t have to save much when you are older. And if you are in your 30’s and 40’s then you definitely want to start your savings. If you are in your 50’s or 60’s or older, it’s never too late. Let’s look at some numbers.

Say you are 20 years old and you want to save $1000 each year (less than $100 per month!). If you put $1000 away at the beginning of each year for only 10 years in a bank account (after 10 years you stop putting away anything) earning 3% interest, then you will have :**

End of Year 1 - $1030 ($1000+ $30 interest)
End of Year 2 - $2090.90 ($1030 from year 1 + 30.90 interest + $1000 from year 2 + 30 interest)
End of Year 3 - $3183.90 (2090.90 from the end of year 2 + $63 interest + $1000 from year 3 + $30 interest)
End of Year 10 - $11,808
End of Year 20 - $15,869
End of Year 30 - $21,327
End of Year 40 - $28,661

That means when you are 60 years old you will have $28,661 for only saving $1000 a year for 10 years! Without interest or compounding interest (interest on the interest), you would only have $10,000 after 40 years. This is why the earlier you start to save the better, you have time on your side to earn interest.

However, if you are 20 years old and wait to start saving until you are 50 years old then you would need to save $2,400 per year for 10 years to accumulate about the same amount ($28,339) by the time you are 60.

The differences are even more dramatic at higher interest rates. If you put that money in a CD earning 5% interest, you would build more savings even faster.

The key here is to save early. Now of course you cannot go back to your 20’s. (Don’t we wish?) But you can start saving NOW! The earlier you do it, the more it will accumulate.

In Real Life (IRL) – When I was 21 I got my first job. I think I saved $250 per month – although it could have been $200 or maybe even $300, I really don’t remember exactly. After 1 year I became eligible for a 401K at my work. And I started putting money away in that as well (10% of my salary I believe). The 401K money came out before I even saw it, so I didn’t miss it. The other money I mailed off to a mutual fund each month. (I already had money in a safe savings account so I wouldn’t recommend a mutual fund for first-time savers). Over time, that money just grew and grew. I am now 41 years old. It has been 20 years since I started that savings. I haven’t been working for 5 years or mailing off money to a mutual fund for at least 10 years, but I know I have over $100,000 in those accounts that I stopped contributing to years ago. Now that I have 3 kids and no income, I'm glad that I scrimped and saved when I was young and had fewer expenses. The earlier you start, the better. Take advantage of the compounding.

**I used this website to help me make the calculations:

Sunday, October 26, 2008

How to save $10,000

Tip #19 – How to save $10,000 without really trying. It’s really not that hard to save $10,000. It just takes time, patience, and some smarts. For some it will obviously be easier than others if you make more or have less debt than others. It will take some longer than others to save $10,000 if you have a lower salary, but there’s no reason that most of us cannot do this.

Here’s how. Save some of your money each month. Your hundred-dollar savings will turn into $1,000 then $10,000. Really, it will. Here’s how to do it. Remember that budget we talked about – the one where you have a set dollar amount for savings each month? Do it faithfully each month and your money will grow. Let’s see how long it will take. If you can save $200 each month from your paycheck then after one year you will have $2,400! Woohoo! $2400 is a good chunk of change to have. For simplicity's sake, we’ll assume that you are not going to make any interest on this money. We’ll talk about interest rates in another post. After two years of saving $200 per month you will have almost $5,000 ($4,800 to be exact). Not bad at all. After 4 years you will have $9,600. By the middle of your 5th year of saving, you will have over $10,000. And it really doesn’t take that much effort.

Now some of you may be saying you don’t have $200 to spare each month for savings. Well, you can either save less each month (save $50 or $100) or you can do something about your cost of living. Remember to write out your budget to see where your money is going. Figure out ways to spend less in each of those categories. Spend less on your groceries; eat out less; buy used; and evaluate what you buy. If you cut back on some of your spending, you should be able to put away $200 a month or at least more than you initially thought. And in less than 5 years you can have $10,000.

In Real Life (IRL) – I told you that I’m a saver by birth. Therefore, it’s not hard for me to save money. I always evaluate purchases and I hate spending too much for anything. My first job out of college, I made $19,500. Not a whole lot of money. And I worked in Washington, DC which is one of the most expensive places in the US to live. But I put money away diligently each month. I had the money to do so because I made my lunches, I shared an apartment with friends, and I shopped for bargains (this was before I bought used things). Each year, I managed to save at least $5,000 of that small salary. I’m glad I did it then because with three kids and a house, I have a lot more expenses now. Plus, it's better to save when you are younger so your savings can grow with interest. We'll talk about that in another post. But for now, evaluate your expenses and budget again and see if you can start putting away a set amount each month no matter your salary. Then be patient. We all know how fast time flies. In a few short years you will see your savings grow.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Pay Yourself First

#18 Money Saving Tip - Pay Yourself First. We all have a list of bills to pay each month - the electric bill, the rent or mortgage, our grocery bill, etc. Before we pay all of these people, pay yourself first. Suppose you get paid once a month. Based on the budget that you worked up for yourself, use the projected amount in your savings column. Then take that money from your monthly paycheck and put it in a savings account. If you pay yourself first, you will not have a chance to spend it. After a few months you will see how quickly your savings will grow. Even if you only have $50 to put away each month; at the end of the year you will have $600 in savings. At the end of two years you will have over $1000! It's very easy to spend that $50 each month. Even a cup of coffee a few times a week at a fancy coffee shop will eat up $50. So put the money in savings first to ward off temptation to spend it.

In Real Life (IRL). When I worked for money, I had direct deposit at work and automatically had a set dollar amount go into a 401K for me each pay period. It was great because I didn't miss the money at all because for all intents and purposes it wasn't part of my paycheck. I never saw it. Therefore, I wasn't tempted to spend it. In addition, I had a set amount that I would put away each month for savings for a house. I think it was actually about $200. At the time I didn't have a family or husband so it was just me and my expenses were fairly low. Each month I wrote a check for $200 to a mutual fund company and after a few years I had a tidy sum in there. Money doesn't have to go to a mutual fund or any kind of sophisticated investment. A regular savings account is fine. The main point is to put the money away each month

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Make A Budget

#17 Saving Money Tip - Make a Budget. The last tip talked about putting money away for savings. While I said that you should come up with an amount that you put away each month, I didn’t tell you how to figure out what that amount will be. You might want to put $1000 into savings each month, but if you only make $2000 each month that might not be possible. After all, you need to pay for a place to live and eat, too. The best way to figure out how much you can afford to save each month is to make a budget. I know that word scares a lot of people. But it shouldn’t. All it is is a plan on how the money you make will be spent. There are some categories that almost everyone spends money in. Others will be personalized to just you if you spend money on a specific hobby or something similar. Let’s try to set up a budget. In general it seems to make the most sense to have a monthly budget since that’s how many of the bills we receive are set up. The categories I generally use are:

Utilities (such as gas, electric, and water)
Cable TV/Satellite
Repairs (home)
Repairs (auto)

Your categories will be different. You may not have a school category. You may not have a gasoline category if you don’t own a car. Perhaps you have a Transportation category because you take the bus or train everywhere. You may buy stamps every month for your stamp collection, so you would have a stamp category. You get the idea. Notice that I have a category in there for savings. If there is no category, then you will not have any money allocated to save.

Once you have your categories, figure out how much you can spend in each category. I like to start with income. Let’s say we make $4000 per month (after taxes). We need to figure out how to break down that $4000 into categories including savings. Let’s come up with some figures for our budget

Rent/Mortgage $1500
Utilities (such as gas, electric, and water) $500
Phone $50
Internet $25
Cable TV/Satellite $50
Food $500
Gasoline $100
Insurance $100
Travel $100
School/Classes $50
Clothes $50
Entertainment $50
Gifts/Holidays $100
Repairs (home) $50
Repairs (auto) $50
Miscellaneous $100
Savings $625

When you first make a budget, many of the items are estimates. Of course your rent/mortgage is usually known and that’s generally the biggest chunk of your budget. Unless you keep very good records, the other categories are your best guess on what you spend.

After you make your initial budget like we did above, it’s best to keep records for a few months on your actual spending. Remember that things like insurance that are usually billed twice a year need to be taken into account on a monthly basis. And things like gas and electric change depending on the season. I like to look at past gas bills and add up the previous years’ worth of bills and then divide by 12 (adding a bit more in for cost increase). Once you keep track of your spending for a few months, you can tweak your budget to more accurately reflect your actual spending.

In Real Life (IRL) – I have a budget. I started making them when I was single and earned an income. Now I do it for our family. Mine are always written down in an Excel spreadsheet with formulas so I can easily make changes to one category and have it calculate how that changes the bottom line or my savings. I set it up so my income minus all of the budget categories equals the savings category.

Since this is my IRL section, I will admit that I have never truly tracked my expenses for a month. I do know what it is for the big categories of mortgage, utilities, insurance, and classes. But my food spending is still an estimate as are my clothes and entertainment spending. Even so, I know how much in general I can spend in each category and I make sure that I write a check each month to go into a savings account. Therefore I do save the same amount each month and the rest generally gets spent.
Remember that the budget is a guide. There is no way to follow it exactly. Gas prices change on a daily basis. Utility costs fluctuate, as do expenses for gifts and auto and home repair, as well as other categories. Even so, the exercise of making a budget will go a long way into making you realize how much you can spend in each category. It will also give you the ability to tweak each category. Want to eat out once a month? Well, then get rid of your cable tv. Want to join a gym? Well, then, spend less on going out (entertainment category).

I like to set a goal on how much savings I want to do each month. My savings goal is $500 per month or $6000 per year for our children’s college funds. So I never take money from that category and put it in a spending category. That’s why I suggest trying to figure out how much you’d like to save each month and then adjust your spending by using some of the other tips I’ve given you to save money.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Put Money Away

#16 Saving Money Tip - Put Money Away. You can save money in every aspect of spending that you do and still not have any money to show for it. Even if you get the best deal on food, you might spend that savings on clothes. If you go on the the cheapest vacation possible, you might still spend the "leftovers" on eating out. The only way to actually save money is to, well, actually save it. If you have extra money that burns a hole in your pocket, then you will never save any money no matter how good of deals you get on what you buy. Therefore, you need to have a place for all of these savings - a piggy bank is a good place to start. A bank account that pays interest (with no minimum amount or other restrictions) is even better.

Watching your savings grow can be exciting - even more exciting than buying things with your money. Some people like to put all of their change at the end of the day into a jar and take it out and put in the bank once every 6 months or so. That's one thing you can do to start saving some money. Or you can take 10 dollars each week or whatever you can spare and put it away. Or if you usually spend $100 per week on groceries and you find yourself spending only $80 because you are buying less convenience food, then you can put that extra money in the bank. It's the only way to start accumulating money. If you always spend everything you make, then you will not have any money to show for your work - only things. And most things go down in value after you buy them. So if you want to save money, you need to spend less on things, but you also need to "save" what you save.

In Real Life (IRL) - I am a saver - always have been, and probably always will be. When I was as young as five years old, I was saving the allowances my dad gave me. I kept the money in a little section of my drawer. I had a friend whose mom worked in a bank and had opened a bank account for her daughter. I begged my dad to open a bank account for me. I still remember my passbook (Anyone else remember those?) My first deposit was $70. That was a lot of allowances and birthday gifts, I'm sure! Every few months I would ask my dad to take me to the bank and I'd put in more money. I remember watching it grow to over one hundred dollars and much later to over $500. The best part was the interest, which I'm pretty sure was about 5% back then. Wow, I thought, they give me money just by letting me have my money sit in their bank instead of in my drawer. It was fun watching my money grow.

Since then I have always saved money. When I got my first low-paying job, I still put money away every month in a bank account - and later into CDs, bonds, and mutual funds. I remember just thinking about what amount that I wanted to save each month from my paycheck - it may have been $200 if I remember correctly - and that's what I put away. Over time, the savings accumulated and grew (from interest) and I had a lot of money to show for it. With the money I saved, I was then able to buy things later on such as a house. Because I saved, I was able to take off work when I had my children. And because I saved, I was able to have an emergency fund for things that cropped up that I wasn't expecting, like a new transmission on a car or a crown at the dentist. So, no matter where you are in your life, if you want to save money, you need to put money away. There's no other way to save

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Plan Meals

#15 Saving Money Tip - The Key to Saving Money on Meals is Planning. Very simple. The more you plan what you will eat, the less you spend. When you don't plan what you will eat, it is easy to find the most convenient food purchase and therefore spend more than necessary. Let's look at what I'm talking about.

We've talked about the cost of eating at home versus eating out and the cost of convenience foods versus making things yourself. Well, the key to eating at home and eating fewer convenience foods is meal planning. Let's assume you go to the supermarket once a week. When you go to the food store to buy your groceries, plan what you will be having for the week. Plan your breakfasts - cereal, toast, waffles, eggs, etc. Have those foods on hand for the week. If everyone helps themselves to breakfast, then all of the food is there for them. If you generally make sandwiches for lunch, then buy the bread and the lunchmeat or peanut butter and jelly. Then when it's lunchtime, you will have all of your ingredients on hand.

Plan out the 6 or 7 dinners you will be eating at home (you're not eating out dinners more than once a week if you're trying to save money, are ya? :)) So come up with a dinner plan - hamburgers, spaghetti, quesadillas, homemade pizza, chicken, stir fry, and lasagne, for example. There your overall meal plan is done. Very simple. Think of what sides you might serve with them - potatoes, vegetables, bread and then buy your ingredients. You don't have to know which day you are eating what, just the 6 or 7 meals you will be eating. On a particular day, think about it early what you and your family would like to eat that night. Unless you are a gourmet chef making 4-course meals, most meals really don't take that long to make. When you come up with what you will be eating that night, make the necessary preparations - take out the spaghetti, pull the sauce out of the freezer early in the day to defrost. Prepare the garlic bread and salad when you have some free time so you're not doing it at 5 PM. If you work outside the home, try to think about meals the night before. Garlic bread can be made in advance and put in the freezer to be taken out right before it's needed. Sauce can too. You can also rinse and dry the lettuce and have it in a container in your fridge. The more you do in advance, the more likely you will be to eat dinners at home. As you start doing meal planning, you will find yourself eating out less and buying convenience foods less.

As you get comfortable with meal planning, you can also start doing more preparations by freezing foods in advance that you have made. Make a double batch of your dinner - one for your dinner that evening and one for the freezer for another night. This works well with macaroni and cheese, waffles, lasagne, and many other foods. Some people make a whole month's worth of meals and put them in the freezer. You don't have to do that, but with a little bit of planning and doubling some recipes you can have prepared foods in your freezer for nights you don't feel like starting at the beginning.

Even with preparing meals in advance and putting them in the freezer, there are even days that we aren't feeling well or haven't defrosted our prepared foods. On those days it is tempting to order in food or go out to eat. I think it's wise to have some easy meals in the freezer that you have bought for these types of days. Heating up a tray of lasagne that is frozen will take quite awhile if you haven't defrosted it in the freezer first. So why not look in the frozen food section of your supermarket or a warehouse store for food items that you can store in your freezer for those days when you just can't cook.

In Real Life (IRL) - In real life I do pseudo meal planning. I don't write down what we are having for the week. But I do think about what we will be eating for the week when I go to the supermarket and buy food for that week. Since I am a stay-at-home mom I have time throughout the day to defrost food or prepare side dishes. Usually, however, I just think about what we are going to eat and then about an hour before my husband gets home, I start preparing it. The key to having dinner on the table is truly just having the meal planned in my head. As long as I know what I am preparing for dinner, it gets done. It's when I wait until my husband gets home and then we ask each other what we're in the mood for that we end up ordering out.

I don't do once-a-month cooking. The idea behind that is to cook one weekend a month all of the meals that you will be eating for the month. But I do take the concept of that and try to prepare meals and put them in the freezer for when we're out all day or I'm sick or too tired to cook. What I usually do is make a double batch of certain foods. I love making homemade macaroni and cheese. My kids like it, too. I usually make a large batch once a month. We eat it one night and the rest gets frozen for another night later in the month. I often make double batches of waffles, too. Most of them get put in the freezer to be taken out as needed. They become easy breakfasts for my oldest daughter to heat up in the toaster oven or even a quick dinner when we have things to do. Lastly, we put pre-formed hamburger patties in the freezer. I just take them out as needed throughout the month and heat them up on our George Foreman Grill. All of these become like convenience foods for us even though they were made by me at an earlier time.

Lastly, there are frozen foods bought at the supermarket or warehouse chain like Costco or Sams Club. We belong to Costco through my husband's work. While not all items are great deals there, we find several items that are. One such item is their Kirkland brand four-cheese ravioli. It is delicious and rivals homemade ravioli I have bought at gourmet Italian supermarkets. A large bag (about 4 pounds) is $8 or $9. It serves my family of 5 for two meals. Put them in a pot of boiling water and voila, there is a delicious meal in five minutes that it takes for the ravioli to get soft. Add a little bit of sauce or parmesian cheese and some frozen green peas in the microwave and there's a delicious meal in 10 or 15 minutes. I try to buy only frozen food that I don't make anyway. I would never attempt to make ravioli so I don't feel bad buying the frozen. Another frozen item we buy is Chinese dumplings. Costco sells a big bag of those as well. Again, this is not something I would ever attempt to make.

Overall, with just a bit of planning once a week, you should be able to have meals for your family nearly every day of the week. Try it. You will notice the money you will save from not eating out.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Do Things Yourself

#14 Saving Money Tip - Do Things Yourself. In this day and age you can hire someone to do pretty much anything for you from shopping for groceries to polishing your nails to putting your photo albums together. Having someone perform services for you saves time and costs big bucks. If you are trying to save money, then perform these services yourself. Unless you are working 20-hour days, you should be able to find time to do the things that need to get done.

One service many people use is a lawn service. It's almost become expected that if you buy a house with at least 1/4 of an acre that you will hire someone to mow your lawn. Many lawn services cost about $35 to mow a 1/4 acre lot. They usually peform it once a week all spring, summer, and fall - about 6 months in Virginia. $140 per month for 6 months is $840. Actually to be able to pay a lawn service $840, you have to make over $1000 because the government takes out taxes. I don't know about you, but I can think of a lot of things I can do with $1000. So why not mow the lawn yourself? If you own a mower, then you just have to buy gas each week. If you don't own one, then invest about $200 and you still come out ahead just after a couple of months. Or use my earlier advice and buy used and have less of an initial outlay.

Another area where you can save money is to paint yourself. At some point or another there is always something that needs to get painted - a door, a room, a wall. Have you priced professional painters lately? Me either, but I've heard that a typcial room can cost about $600! $600! A gallon of paint costs $25. A few hours of labor and your room will be painted - savaing over $500.

Obviously, everyone's needs and talents are different. Not everyone can change their own oil or fix an appliance. But many people can make a little effort to do more things for themselves and save a lot of money.

In Real Life (IRL) - I like to do things myself or have my husband do things since he's quite handy. I really don't like to pay people to do things for us if we are capable of doing them ourselves. My husband used to mow our lawn once a week. However, he was getting quite tired of it and said he wanted to hire our neighbor's child to do it for us. I balked at the $35 per week that it was going to cost us and volunteered to do it instead. I used our gas mower the first couple of weeks and then decided that a reel mower would work just as well on our lawn and be better for the environment and cheaper because it doesn't use gas. I found a reel mower on Craigslist for $40 and haven't looked back. I've used it all summer. And each time I mow, I think about that $35 going into my daughter's education fund.

I'm lucky because my husband is quite handy. Over the years he has saved us quite a bit of money doing things himself. I know not everyone is blessed this way (Trust me, I know. My dad was the most unhandy person around so we called a repairman for everything!) But many jobs are easy enough for any layperson to do even though there are professionals who can be hired to do the same things. I cut my children's hair, sew buttons on clothing, clean my house, shovel our driveway, rake our leaves, cook my own food, dye my own hair in addition to all of the handyman things my husband does around the house.

So next time something needs to get done and you're ready to call a professional, ask yourself if you think you can do it yourself. Chances are you will say yes and save money while you're doing it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Evaluate Before You Buy

#13 Saving Money Tip - Evaluate Your Potential Purchase Before You Buy. How many times do you walk into a store and see something you like and buy it without really giving thought to whether you need it or not? This is an easy way to spend money unnecesarily.

Instead, take careful consideration before you purchase a product. Ask yourself these 4 questions:

--Do I need this?
--How badly do I need it?
--Can I do without it for a little while?
--Can I use something else instead?

It's very easy to see beautiful new shoes in the store and throw them in the cart or to do the same with a pretty handbag, a -t-shirt, a picture, or even cup of coffee. But if you are trying to save money then ask yourself if these items are really necessary or would the x number of dollars you are spending on it be better off in your bank or paying off a debt? I'm betting that 9 times out of 10 the things you are buying are wants and not needs. And if you are trying to save money then you should only be purchasing needs.

Let's go through one example and see how we can save some money. In the original scenario, you see a pair of black shoes in the store that would look great for you to wear to your cousin's wedding. They cost $50. You "need" these shoes for a special occasion so you throw them in your cart and pay for them. Now suppose you take my advice and question yourself before you throw them in the cart. Do you need these shoes? Yes, you need them to wear to a wedding. Do you really need these shoes? Not really, but you want them. Can I do without them for a little while? Well, yes, the wedding isn't for another month and I might find cheaper shoes before then. Is there something else you can use instead? Well, yes, I have black shoes at home that I can wear but they're boring. (But by wearing them, you will be $50 richer.)

In this scenario, you realize that you really didn't need these $50 shoes. You can wait and find shoes for a cheaper price or even better wear shoes you have at home. (They're all going to be looking at the bride anyay).

If you do this with all items you purchase, you will find yourself with more money in your pocket and fewer unnecessary things in your home.

In Real Life (IRL) - Ever since I was young, I was careful with money. I don't know if I inherited this trait from my dad or learned it from him. But it's always been there. When our parents would give us some money to spend such as at a fair, my sister would spend hers right away. I wouldn't. I'd always want to save all of it or at least most of it.

When I got older and had limited funds from my job, I tried to put as much away in savings as possible. That's when I started evaluating each item I bought. Did I really need to buy a picture for my room? Could I use something else I already have at home instead of this new item? Do I really need another CD, DVD, book? Can I get them cheaper elsewhere (borrow from a friend, library, etc.)?

Here is an example of some spending I didn't do. One weekend some friends of mine and I wanted to go on a camping trip. Unfortunately, none of us owned a tent. We didn't know if this would be a long-term interest of ours or just a one-time event. So instead of buying a tent, I looked into renting one. We were able to rent two tents for $30. Since there were 4 of us it only cost us $7.50 each and gave us a place to stay for a weekend away. If one of us bought one, we would have had to shell out $60 or so. Now of course if this became an annual trip or an interest of ours, then buying would have made sense in the long-term, but for a one-time trip, we were able to find a cheaper alternative.
I remember deciding whether I should really buy a comforter for my bedroom. It was very pretty and I was sick of my old one. But after thinking it over, I realized I really didn't need
the comforter and I could do without it. So I didn't buy one at all.
Now I do think that some people can take this overboard and never buy anything again, which probably isn't healthy, although it will put a lot of money in your pockets. But if you are trying to save some money, then do as I do and make sure it's something you really need before you buy. You'll be glad you did. Ask yourself the four questions before you buy and you will cut back on a lot of unnecessary purchases.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Buy Fewer Disposables

#12 Saving Money Tip – Buy Fewer Disposables. This country has gotten disposable crazy. Everything is disposable – diapers, plates, cups, bathroom cleaners, mops, rags. and food wrap. Not only is it bad (VERY BAD) for the environment, it is expensive (VERY EXPENSIVE). It is a bad habit to buy disposable products. Yes, it’s quick and yes it’s easy, but it’s expensive. Did I mention disposables are expensive? I am not going to do a cost analysis of each product because it’s been done hundreds of times other places. Suffice it to say when you use products one time and throw them away, the cost is high. Products that can be used over and over again save money in the long run.

It pays to invest in some cloth rags or even better to use washcloths or old clothing that has torn. They can be used to wipe down the kitchen table, to clean the floor, wipe down the bathrooms, for dusting, etc. These can be thrown in with your regular towel load in the washing machine.

Paper products for meals are another area where costs add up. Using paper cups, plates and napkins can take a nice chunk of change from your pocket. Most people already own glasses and plates. Use those instead and throw them in the dishwasher when you’re done. You’ll still come out ahead in cost. Many people do not own cloth napkins. But this is another area where people can save money. The initial cost of buying cloth napkins or making them yourself will more than make up for the cost of paper ones over the long run. Again, you can throw them in with your towels that you are washing.

If you have a baby, try cloth diapers. They take a change in attitude, but the savings are significant especially if you have more than one child. The initial outlay costs vary depending on how expensive of a diaper you buy. But once they are bought the cost of washing them in your washing machine is small compared to the cost of buying disposables each week at the store.

Lastly, let’s talk about cleaners. I’m thinking of those mops, dusters, and toilet cleaners that are one-time-use products. These are expensive! I don’t know the cost because I don’t buy them. But any plastic gadget that needs to be thrown away after one use is going to cost big time. Use rags and mops or brooms instead. You can get your toilet bowls and bathroom floors just as clean.

Disposable products have become so commonplace that people don’t think twice about buying things for one-time use and throwing them away. Change your attitude toward disposables! The purpose of disposable products is not for use in everyday life. Disposables have a place in our society and that is for when you are on the go, on vacation, and on the run. Marketers of these products have convinced us it will make our lives easier to use them on an everyday basis. What it actually does is give the makers of these products more money and put much more trash in the landfill.

When you buy things for any use, think long-term. The longer something will last, the less cost per use it is. And save disposables for the times you really need them.

In Real Life (IRL) – I dislike disposable products in general. Mostly because I cannot stand to picture where all of these products are going when we dispose of them. Also, since I’m frugal, I like to get the best use for my money. So I mostly use items that can be reused. Mostly. I’m not perfect. For example, when our first child was born 7 years ago, I invested in high quality cloth diapers. I spent about $400. Gulp. By the second year of her life, I had spent less than my friends had on their disposable diapers. She was trained early, so they were put away for baby #2. Baby #2 wore the same diapers for her diaper wearing days. There was no cost involved other than washing them. When we were blessed with baby #3, I was excited about using them again. Some had worn out and I did buy some replacements. After 1 year, he is still wearing them. When we are done, these diapers will get sold and I will recoup some of my initial cost. We have used some disposables along the way – when we go on vacation or away for a long day. And my second child took a bit longer to get potty trained then my first and she outgrew the diapers. I knew she was close to being potty-trained so I didn’t invest in the bigger sized diapers, using disposables for a few short months instead.

One area I haven’t been great in is using cloth wipes. I don’t know why. I try to keep a spray bottle of water and cloths near where we change diapers and I do use it when it’s there. But I also use disposable wipes. I’m bad, I know. I’m trying to get better at it.

In real life, we don’t use paper cups or plates unless we’re having a birthday party. Even for barbeques with friends, I try to use my regular dishes or outdoor ones. I don’t use cloth napkins, though although I am thinking of changing that. In reality, I don’t usually even give my kids napkins with their meals and I wash them off with a washcloth when we’re done. I’m going to try to start using cloth napkins for me and my husband, though.

I don’t use paper towels very often. I own them and use them sometimes, but I keep washcloths in the kitchen and use them for spills and to wipe down counters and floors. I usually just put these with our other towels to be washed. Very easy. I do the same with cleaning other parts of the house. I mostly use washcloths.

I do own a Swiffer. I admit it. And I like it. My mother-in-law gave it to me when we moved in and I didn’t give much thought about it. I don’t use it too often but when I do, I use the rags a few times and then turn them over and use the other side. They’re not the best thing for the environment, but not the worst either.

When wrapping up leftovers or giving my daughter lunch for school, I always use containers that can be used again. I very rarely use plastic bags or aluminum foil. I don’t think I’ve bought aluminum foil, plastic wrap or bags in over a year. Yes, it’s a bit more work to wash through them each day, but the cost savings are great.

Overall, when I’m buying a product or looking to buy one, I do think of the consequences of what I am using. Can it be used more than once? What will happen to it when it’s done? Even though I am a big believer in cutting down on waste because of environmental impact, the cost savings is greater too. So even if you don’t give a hoot about how the earth will look in a hundred years, it will save you money to cut down on the number of disposables you buy.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Have Parties at Home

#11 Saving Money Tip - Have Parties at Home. It is so tempting to hold a party at a restaurant, community center, or other outdoor venue. You pay the nice man his money and he runs the party for you - either providing food, entertainment, or both. They do the cleanup, too. It's great. It is, however, expensive. If you have tons of extra money lying around and it's a once in a lifetime event, holding a party outside of your house is a great idea. But, if you are holding a 6th birthday party for your daughter with her 8 friends, you will save much more money doing it at home. And it can be just as fun as one held outside the home. Birthdays come around once a year and if you have more than one child, you will be holding a lot of birthday parties in their young lifetimes.

Let's compare the costs. There are several gym chains that hold birthday parties for children. A price of their party for 15 kids starts at about $225. It includes a person to run the gym part of the party, the invitations, paper goods and maybe the drinks and goody bags. It does not include the birthday cake and any other food you may want to serve. Assuming you only serve cake at the party, it will add an extra $15 to the cost if you buy a cake from Costco. So now the cost of the party is $240 for 15 children. That is $16 per person. Other gym places cost more. Another popular place to do kids birthday parties is at a craft store or build a stuffed animal store. Your starting out with cost of about $10 per kid and that only includes the activity, not the food you will be serving. There is no end to what you can do to entertain your children's friends - bowling parties, swim parties, miniature golf parties, beauty salon parties, etc. But for a group of at least 10 children, you will not get away for cheaper than about $200. If you have two children, that means you are spending $400 or more per year on birthday parties. Personally, I would rather spend less money having the party at home and put the savings in my children's college account.

I could go on and on with examples of parties we have done at home. I am not the most creative or artistic person but a little creativity goes a long way with children. Some general party ideas: for most parties, a game or two, a craft, and cake or pizza and cake are plenty. Have some backup ideas in case the party isn't over. A story is a great way to end a party. Keep everything with the theme. To save money you don't have to buy everything in the theme. Buy the main item in the theme and have coordinating colors for the napkins, cups, and forks.

Lastly, another positive (not financial) about having parties at home is that you can cancel if someone gets sick. We've had to cancel 2 or 3 parties over the years. If you have booked a place, you may not get your money back. For our home party, we were able to freeze the cake and do it the following week. No big deal.

In Real Life (IRL) - I have 3 children. I have held 10 birthday parties for them over the years. Two have been outside the home, one of which was the biggest failure to date (more on that later). My oldest daughter has a lot of school friends and doesn't want to leave anyone out for her birthday party. While she gets invited to many parties at outside venues, Bear, I usually keep her parties at home. I ask her what theme she wants to do and we plan activities around that theme. The best place I have found to look online for ideas for birthday parties at home is You can look up virtually any theme and find parties done in that theme by dozens of other people. Last year my older daughter wanted a Strawberry Shortcake theme. We bought Strawberry Shortcake invitations, made a pink cake, did a "Pin the Strawberry on Strawberry Shortcake's Hat" game, made a bead craft, made all-you-can-eat sundaes, and read a Strawberry Shortcake book to finish off the party. It was a lot of fun. We had 12 girls and spent right at $100. That included everything - cake, snacks for kids (and parents who stayed), the craft, the sundae fixings, the game, goody bags, and paper goods and invitations. My daughter's friend told her mom after the party that she wants a party at home next year.

For my younger daughter we did a Dora-themed party. We had pizza, did a Dora craft and a game that was just like the game Dora does on her show. We tried to get to the pinata but on the way we had to go through the jungle (some trees in our backyard) and become animals (with animal masks). Then they had to pull bananas off the tree (fake bananas hung on the tree by string) to get to the pinata. They all had their own maps that looked just like Dora's map on tv. They were homemade out of paper and very cute. After the pinata, they had cake. It was the perfect 3-year old's party and it cost under $100 for parents and adults (including lunch).

My last example is a carnival that we held. We made cardboard signs for each station. We bought a ring-toss game at the dollar store, used a plastic pool for a fishing pond, did tattoos, face painting, and made a bean-bag toss game. We had Cracker Jack and store bought cotton candy and bought cheap toys for the prizes. It was such a hit that we've saved everything to do it again for someone else's birthday party.

I could go on and on with examples of parties we have done at home. I truly am not the most creative or artistic person but a little creativity goes a long way with children. For Strawberry Shortcake, we bought Strawberry Shortcake plates and everything else was pink and red. We found Strawberry Shortcake Poster at the dollar store and cut out strawberries from red construction paper for the game. My husband was the magician for one of our birthday parties. It took him a few days to learn some magic tricks and kids (and even some of the adults) loved it! Make your own sundaes, decorate your own cupcakes, and make your own pizzas are great fun at parties. It takes care of an activity and some food.

Now for my outside birthday party flop. We did a swim party at a local indoor swim park for my daughter's birthday. It was about $100 to use their facility - a room and then the swimming for up to 12 children. We bought the food and a craft to do beforehand. So it was a little more than my usual limit for birthday parties. While we were in the room doing the craft, someone threw up in the pool and they closed it for 2 hours. No swimming for anyone. We did get everyone a ticket to go back another day. But still, what a waste!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Use Travel Resources

#10 Money Saving Tip – Use Your Resources When Planning a Trip. Since we started talking about traveling, I thought I’d go into some detail about resources available to most people. First is the American Automobile Association or AAA. If you are a member of AAA or CAA (Canadian Automobile Association) then you have a built-in discount at many hotels and attractions. Whether it’s worth it to you to join one of these auto clubs for the discounts depends on how often you travel and whether you can garner the discounts elsewhere.

Use the Internet to shop around. I like to check different airlines for their rates and then check different dates (a day or two earlier or later). Or I try different times of the year to see how much different the rates are. You can use Expedia, Priceline, or Travelocity or Orbitz to do your research. I don’t know if one is better than the other. I always book directly with the hotel or airline.

Once you find an area you want to stay in, look at the hotels you want. I choose my hotel like I purchase a house. Location, location, location. I like a hotel that is within walking distance to area attractions. It’s great not to have to navigate the streets of an unfamiliar city. Once I find an area, I see which different hotels are there and I compare prices. I’m partial to the Marriott hotel chain but will go elsewhere if there is a much better price. See if any of them have specials going on at their website. Compare which gives breakfast or other amenities such as swimming pools or workout rooms.

I generally plan my own trips rather than use a travel agent. However, sometimes travel agents can be very useful. When looking at trips to foreign countries such as Mexico or South America, they often have package deals that cannot be beat.

Think of other discounts you can use for hotels, restaurants, or attractions. Senior citizens, members of AARP, children under a certain age, members of a warehouse club such as Costco, the Entertainment Book and even your grocery card can save you money at many places.

Before you go, do your research and you will make up for the time by the money you save.

In Real Life (IRL) - We belong to AAA for the services it provides if our car breaks down. The discounts are just a bonus. I always look there first to see what discounts they offer. They offer discounts to local amusement parks, many hotels, and other attractions. When we went to Gatlinburg last summer I got the AAA rate. Our friends who were not members did not get it. We paid about $80 per night. They paid $100. For a four-night stay, we saved $80 – about the cost of our yearly membership.

Sometimes you have to be creative. I fell upon this tip quite by accident. As I said, I like the Marriott chains. I wanted to go to a certain hotel and put in the dates I wanted, but it wouldn’t give me the AAA rate. So I changed the dates by a day or two and voila, there was a AAA rate. So what I did was book the room for two nights with a AAA rate and two nights without on two separate reservations. If I had tried a 4-night reservation with AAA, it would not have been available.

We went to Boston once with our oldest daughter. I was looking on one of the many Boston tourist websites when I saw they had a children’s museum. I went to the Children’s museum website and saw that admission was only $1 on Fridays. Perfect! One of the days we were going to be there was on a Friday. That’s the day we went to the Children’s museum, saving us a few dollars each in the process.

Before I go somewhere, I will look at an Entertainment Book for that city and see if they have any buy one get one free coupons that would make it worth it to purchase the book. So far I haven’t used it, but it’s worth trying.

Recently we went to Luray Caverns – about an hour from our home. Tickets are a high price of $19 per adult. However, if you use a Giant Supermarket food card, the tickets were buy one get one half off. Still expensive, but more palatable. The kids were free or cheaper so our family of 5 got in for less than full-price.

Lastly, we sometimes plan trips around when the kids will still be free. For example children under 3 are free at Disney World. As in Free! We knew we wanted to take our daughter there while we still had one child and could go pretty easily. So we went a few months before her 3rd birthday while she could appreciate it and it didn’t cost much. We were in Florida anyway, so we didn’t plan our trip around this. As I do think older children appreciate Disney more. But it was a cheaper trip to Disney than it would be had she just turned 3.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Take a Cheap Vacation

#9 Saving Money Tip - Take a Cheap Vacation. There are extravagant vacations - a week at Disney, a Hawaiian Cruise, two weeks in the Caribbean, a trip to Europe. Those are easy to plan. And there are cheap vacations. I'm not talking about spending a week at grandma's sleeping in her basement. I'm talking about nice inexpensive family vacations.

One of the best ways to take a cheap vacation is to travel during the off-season. I know, I know. It's hard to get out of school, blah blah, blah. But vacations don't have to be long and off-season can be in the summer. Or missing a few days of first grade won't kill ya. Seriously, if you have kids in school, most teachers are quite unhappy if you take them out for a vacation. But you don't have to. Look at the school schedule. Work around it. Many schools have a few days off that other schools don't have. Take vacation then. Or do it during the summer - in the beginning if your schools get out early or in the end if your schools go back late. If your school ends in the middle of May, then take a vacation the week before Memorial Day. The weather is beautiful, hotels are usually half to 3/4 of the in-season rate, and the crowds are minimal. If your schools don't go in session until after Labor Day, take a vacation during the last week of August. Try to go somewhere where the schools have started. You'll find the crowds smaller and the prices better.

Find a place you can drive to. I know you can't drive to the Caribbean, but there are plenty of beautiful beaches most of America can drive to. Even with the price of gas, driving is often cheaper than flying, especially if there are many of you in your family. The greater the number of people, the cheaper it is to drive there.

Go somewhere where prices are cheap. The South and Midwest are usually cheaper than the Northeast and West Coast. You can save a lot of money going to a town in the South versus in the North. Hotels and restaurants are often cheaper as well as entertainment options.

Try going to a city during a holiday weekend and a beach during the week. Citiy hotels are expensive during the week because of business travel. But on the weekends, they often have very good discounted rates. And while the beach is almost never cheap in season, the weekends are always the priciest. Even off season, rates may be cheaper during the week.

Bring snacks with you. If you are already driving to your destination, it's easy to throw extras in your car. How about a cooler or portable refrigerator? Bring some drinks and snacks so a stop for the bathroom doesn't turn into a $20 food fest.

Do your research. Look up coupons before you go. Oftentimes you can find discounts online for restaurants or attractions. It pays to be prepared. Even if you can't find coupons online, you should research the town or city you want to visit. If you know you want to go to a particular museum, you may find that on certain days admission is cheaper or free. Plan your vacation days around the discounts.

Follow the frugal rules you follow at home. I know vacations are meant for splurging, but you shouldn't go into debt to take a vacation. So if you eat frugally at home, then you can eat frugally when you are away. A local pizza place is a great place for dinner and relatively cheap, too. How about Mexican restaurants or other ethnic dining options? Oftentimes, local joints are inexpensive and good. Find a hotel that includes breakfast. Many hotel chains offer breakfast. I find this to be a quick and easy option. You don't waste as much time in the morning eating out and oftentimes you can find a hotel that includes breakfast for the same price as one that doesn't. Again, you can do research online before you go.

By following these rules, you should be able to cut your vacation cost in half of what it would be by going in high season, eating in expensive restaurants and going to high-priced destinations. And your enjoyment factor will be just as great. I promise.

In Real Life (IRL) - I love vacations. I really love traveling and getting away. And I've done quite a bit of it - when I was single, when I was married without children, and now with three children in tow. And I've always managed to do it on a fairly frugal budget. When I was single, a friend and I wanted to travel out West from the East Coast. We (read "I") would research an itinerary before we went and map out the trip. We would rent a car and start and end at the same spot, making a big loop and seeing lots of sights along the way. For example, one time we flew into Salt Lake City. We rented a car and started our trip there seeing the city. From there we headed south and explored some of the great National Parks in Utah. Then on to Arizona where we visited the Grand Canyon. Then into Las Vegas for a quick stop. Next was California - San Diego and LA up the coast to San Francisco and wine country then back into Nevada to see Lake Tahoe and then back to Salt Lake City. We covered a lot of ground. It was a 15-day trip. But we did our research. We could have flown into a number of cities on that loop, but at the time, Salt Lake City was the cheapest. We rented the car and returned it to the same city so we saved money that way. We traveled in mid-May. The hotels in the National Parks were in value season rather than "in" season. The crowds were minimal thanks to schools being in session most places. And the weather was beautiful as it often is in May. I don't have a tally of the cost of that vacation. But I can tell you if we traveled in July and flew into one city and out of another or didn't investigate which city offered the best deal to fly into, we would have spent twice as much and had to battle heat and crowds.

When I got married, my husband suggested Hawaii for our honeymoon. I've always wanted to go there, but frankly I'm not a big fan of flying and coming from the East Coast, Hawaii is a looong plane ride away. Not to mention, it's expensive. So I researched other island destinations such as the Caribbean which is a lot closer. But we vetoed some of them because my husband had been to several of them, and even though it's cheap to fly there, everything on the island is expensive. Oh and it was going to be hurricane season, too. Instead, we heard about Costa Rica becoming a poplular vacation spot. So I researched it and it sounded like the perfect place. A short plane ride, inexpensive once you are there and beautiful beaches, waterfalls, and volcanos - maybe not Hawaii, but much, much cheaper. We went for 10 days and I think we spend under $2,000 for our honeymoon. And we didn't skimp. There were great package deals through a travel agent for hotels and airfare. Once we were there we rented a car and did a loop throughout the country similar to my trip out West when I was single. The food was not only delicious, but cheap! We took advantage of local cuisine such as beans, rice, plantains, and local fish. We ate some fabulous meals without spending much. Sometimes dinner for the two of us was just $8 or $10. We couldn't have done that in the Caribbean, let alone Hawaii. October was also the "green" (read "rainy") season in Costa Rica, so prices were cheaper than high season. Even though it was their green season, we had beautiful weather and I don't even recall much rain.

Traveling with kids always presents challenges. ("Are we there yet?") But family vacations can be fun and makes for some great memories for your children. I know some of my fondest memories from my childhood are some of the vacations we took. Two summers ago when we were a family of 4, we took a trip to Gatlinburg and the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. We had been wanting to do a family vacation and we have friend in Mississippi who we wanted to meet up with. Gatlinburg was a great family option. We traveled at the end of August before our schools were in session but after many schools in the south had already started back. Therefore, crowds were minimal. The hotel offered good prices and the weather was cool (we were in the mountains). August in the South usually cannot be described as cool. Anyway, we could have met our friends in DisneyWorld and we would have easily spent $2000 for our 5-day trip. Instead, we spent about $600. Our hotel was only about $80 per night (using a AAA discount researched in advance). We had pizza one night for dinner, barbeque one night, and Chinese food one night. Gas prices were cheaper two years ago than they are now, so I think we spent less than $150. For attractions, we went hiking in the Great Smokies one day (free) and saw bears and a waterfall. One day we did a drive through the mountains following one of their loops and saw some old homesteads, beautiful mountain vistas and a working grain mill. We did do an amusement park one day, but it was the cheap one where you pay for the number of rides. And because our kids were young, we only did a few. Each afternoon our kids swam in the hotel swimming pool. And at night we walked through Gatlinburg's somewhat honky tonk touristy town. It was a great vacation done planned well for relatively little money.

The key is to look at your options, find an inexpensive destination, in an off season that you can drive to and you will save lots of money on your vacations. Travel safely!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Choose Cheap Activities for Entertainment

#8 Saving Money Activity - Choose Cheap Activities for Entertainment. Whether you are married, single, have kids or not, you will want to do some activities for entertainment. That entertainment can involve staying home or going out in your town or traveling to nearby areas. And of course entertainment can range from being free to costing a lot of money. In order to find things that you like to do that don’t cost a lot, then you will need to read the paper, the Internet, talk to friends and use your imagination. I’m going to suggest a lot of free or cheap activities that you can do as a single or married person with or without kids.

Indoor Activities:

--If you like to read books, then head over to your library and check out their selection. Most any book you want can be checked out of the public library. Rather than buy a book at the bookstore, check the library first.

---If you like movies, most libraries carry a fair selection of movies – either DVDs or VHS. All of this is FREE. Before you rent a movie at the local movie rental place, check the library out.

Another great indoor activity is board games, dominoes, or card games. Games are a lot of fun and are cheap entertainment. Near Christmas, the stores often have games on sale for good, cheap prices. Even better, go to your local thrift store. Games often cost just a dollar or two – make sure all of the pieces are inside! Yard sales are a great place to acquire games, as well – often for 25 cents to a dollar. Keep a small stash in your house and you will have cheap fun when friends come over or for a family game night.

Outdoor Activities:

--There is usually no shortage of outdoor activities in the nice weather. Cheapest of all is to find a neighborhood playground or park. All children love playgrounds and it is free entertainment. If you don’t have children, then parks are also great for picnics or hikes or nature walks. Choosing ones nearby cuts down on gas prices, too.

--If you have a bike, take a bike ride. If not, take a walk. Walks around town or neighborhoods are great ways to get exercise, meet neighbors, discover your surroundings and get a dose of fresh air.

--Slightly more expensive would be to find an outdoor recreation area or state park. Sometimes there are small fees for admittance or to use some of their facilities. But overall, prices tend to be cheap, especially for children. Rather than go to a commercial water park, for example, check out your county parks. Many of them have pools with small water parks. The cost is often ¼ of the price of private waterparks. Some of your local recreation centers might even have indoor pools and water playgrounds for when the weather is too cold for swimming outside. This is a great, cheap alternative to hotels with fancy water slides.

--Listen to music. If you like concerts, see what your community offers. Oftentimes there are local outdoor concerts for free.

--In fall, there are often pumpkin patches at many of the nurseries and farms around town. Even without doing a big day at the farm deal, a lot of fun can be had at a small farm that allows you to buy pumpkins or pick apples. Costs for them are comparable or cheaper than buying at the supermarket. And not only is it fun to see how these fruits and vegetables grow, it’s educational, too.

--In winter, it’s fun to go sledding outside or ice skating at a local rink. Most ice skating rinks have a fee, but there might be times of the day that are cheaper than others.

--During any weather, check what your local community offers – are there mills, working farms, or historic homes that are run by the county. Often the prices on these are cheap or even free for children. Again, a day at one of these places is not only fun, but educational, as well.

Other Entertainment:

--Sometimes you want to go out of the house but not commune with nature. Perhaps you want to see a play. Live theatre can be an expensive hobby. Shows on Broadway are about $100 a seat. But you don’t have to spend that to see a live show. Check out not only your local community theatre, but high schools, middle schools, and even elementary schools. In the springtime, many of them have shows that range in price from free to $15 or $20 a seat.

--Movies have gotten expensive, but there are still cheap deals to be had. Go to a matinee. Or if you have an Entertainment Book, then there are often coupons in there for different nationally-run theatres.

--Dining out has gotten expensive. But it doesn’t have to be. There are many good restaurants that don’t cost a fortune. Often cities have magazines with ratings for cheap but good restaurants. Try one of those out. Or go for lunch when it’s cheaper. Or, do takeout if the establishment offers it. You save on tip and drinks that way.

--Sporting Events are fun and expensive. Go to a local high school football game. It’s cheaper and you can see it up close. Watch a baseball team practice or go to a minor league game. Children probably prefer these to the major league teams anyway. Not to mention the cost savings and the traffic savings for parents.

In Real Life (IRL)I have three kids and being frugal by nature (and perhaps a little bit of nurture), I am always looking for cheap things for us to do. Playgrounds and libraries top our list. We go about once a week to each of them. At the library, not only do we read books there and check them out, but our local branch often has storytimes, puppet shows, and music shows for entertainment. And they cost nothing. We’ve seen shows for free at the library that are offered at other venues for $5 per person. That’s a big savings.

The playground near our house is on the way home from my daughter’s preschool. In the nice weather, we walk to her school carrying a blanket and a cooler in our stroller. On the way home, we have a picnic lunch and the kids play. It is a great activity for all of us!

My oldest daughter had never seen a play so when she was about 4 years old I noticed that the local high school was putting on the Wizard of Oz. That is a favorite movie of hers. Tickets were $10 for adults and free for children under 5. The two of us spent an afternoon there for $10 and she got to meet the cast afterwards. She’s 7 years old now and still talks about that show! In the last two years, we have gone to shows at the local elementary schools. Last year, one of the schools put on Annie. Tickets were only $1 each so I didn’t know what to expect. Boy was I blown away. The kids did a great job and we even knew one of the actors. For $2 we had a lovely night out! This year we saw Willy Wonka at another elementary school. Tickets were $3 for adults and $1 for children. Again, I was very impressed by the talent the children displayed. And for $4 my oldest daughter and I had a very nice evening. And she now has an appreciation for live theatre.

I can go on and on about our local waterparks. We contemplated joining a local pool this past summer. The cost was $600 from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Which overall, if we were to use it nearly everyday, would not be too costly when averaged out for a daily rate. But in reality, I didn’t think we’d use it much. Our schools don’t even close until at least mid-June and we go to the beach every June with our extended family for a week so I wasn’t looking for much to do for that month. In July, two of my children were attending camp for two weeks and in August, they were going to visit grandparents for a week. So, it came down to about 5 or 6 weeks that we would possibly use it. Since I’m not a huge fan of swimming, I knew we wouldn’t go every day – maybe every other day if we were lucky and didn’t have much rain. So to spend $600 for about 20 days of use, it just didn’t make sense for me. That’s $30 per day!

Instead, we chose to take advantage of a local waterpark about 25 minutes from our house. I love this park because it fits the needs of my family. All three of my kids can play in the same 1 foot-deep pool while I watch. Even better, the cost is only $7.50 per adult and $6.50 per child. Under 3 is free. So for about $20, our family can spend the day at the pool when we want to. Oftentimes, we have coupons for buy one ticket, get one free, so it’s even cheaper. Or once in a while we go late in the afternoon, when tickets are only about $4 per person. All in all, we made it there about 3 times this summer and spent about $50 total. A lot better than $600!

These are activities that worked for us. We are always on the lookout for other fun, free or cheap activities. We’ve gone peach picking, apple picking, and strawberry picking on the weekends this summer. We walked to a local pumpkin farm this fall and played and took pictures among the pumpkins and bought some fruit. We spent about an hour there one afternoon after school and spent less than $2 and brought fruit home!

Friday, October 3, 2008

Eat At Home

#7 Money Saving Tip - Eat at Home! This goes along with the cost of convenience foods. The convenience cost of eating out is generally at least twice as much as eating home and more commonly four times the price or more. Granted, there are some foods you cannot replicate from your favorite restaurant in your kitchen. But oftentimes, people eat out because they are in too much of a rush to make dinner and they pay for it. These are simple dinners they are eating out - burgers, pizza, spaghetti, etc. A pound of burger meat costs about $2.99. Oftentimes you can get it even cheaper than that when it's on sale. A pound of ground meat should feed a typical family of four. Or perhaps there are big eaters in your family and you need two pounds to feed your family. The cost of the meat is only $3-$6. Add in a salad (cost is probably $1) and some french fries that also shouldn't cost more than $1. That is a meal for 4 people for between $5 and $8. Pizza and spaghetti are even cheaper to make at home. Even if you are not cooking from scratch but instead are using prepared or frozen foods from the supermarket, the cost should be dramatically less than eating out.

The key to this is planning in advance. For the most part this isn't difficult. When you shop at the supermarket, buy some ground beef, a bag of frozen french fries, and a bag of prewashed salad and a tomato. When you get home, immediately, separate the meat and form patties and then throw them in the freezer. Then any night that week, your meal is only 30 minutes or so from being ready - even quicker than takeout. The burgers can be made easily on a grill. The fries can go in the toaster oven, and the salad can be prepared while the other things are cooking. You can make your meal even cheaper by buying the meat in bulk when it's on sale and having it last you for more than one meal. You can make the fries from scratch by buying potatoes and slicing them and frying them (or baking them) yourself. And lettuce, of course, can be bought outside of a bag and washed yourself. But even by taking the shortcuts mentioned above, you will still save a lot of money by staying home to eat.

For other easy meals such as spaghetti or pizza, it can be done from scratch or the shortcut way and still have dramatic savings over eating out. Pizza dough can be bought in the refrigerated section. Add some jar sauce and shredded cheese and bake. Cost is proabably about $3. A bag of spaghetti and jar sauce is probably only $2. One person cannot eat that cheaply in a restaurant let alone a whole family.

If you plan most of your meals ahead of time (even just in your head), you can avoid rushing out to eat or ordering take-out. Instead you can eat out when you truly want a meal you cannot duplicate at home or you want to treat yourself to a night out without cleaning up dishes.

In Real Life (IRL) - I am not a great cook. I'm not sure I'm even a good cook. But I do make at least 6 of our dinners at home per week. Sometimes I make all of them. Sometimes I do it from scratch as much as possible and sometimes I buy foods that are more convenient (and more costly than basic ingredients but still less than eating out). For example, I often make pizza dough from scratch. Flour, yeast, sugar, oil, and water do not cost much. Maybe I spend 50 cents on those ingredients for one pizza dough. I don't use homemade pizza sauce though and I buy shredded cheese. So it takes me very little time to make a pizza for dinner. As long as I know in my mind early in the day that pizza is what I'm making, then it gets done. It's when I don't think about what dinner will be until the last minute that I am tempted to order out.

I don't think everyone needs to cook from scratch to save money from eating out. If you are eating out 3 -4 times a week and want to cut it down, then start by buying convenience foods - premade doughs, frozen french fries, jarred sauce, etc. Once you have that routine covered and are comfortable with it, then attemp to make the same foods from scratch. It not only saves you money but is also healthier. Bulk potatoes are very cheap. Cutting them and frying them is not too time consuming. Cutting your own lettuce and washing it takes a few minutes more than pouring it out of a bag but really doesn't take that long. When we stared cutting back on eating out to save money, this is how we did it. We bought easy things and then I started cooking more from scratch. I don't do it all the time, but we do avoid eating out most days. And it has saved us a lot on our grocery bill.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Don't Buy Convenience Items

#6 Money Saving Tip - Don't Buy Convenience Items Unless You Really, Really Don't Have Extra Time. There are tons of convenience foods out there. There are cut-up carrots, cut-up fruit, individually packaged cookies, and personal-sized drinks for sale. There are also whole lunches pre-packaged for the busy parent. There are frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cereal in a bar, and salads in a bag. The mark-up on convenience foods is astronomical, not to mention the amount of extra waste they generate. I think there is a time and place for convenience foods. When you're on vacation, it's very nice to have boxed drinks in the car. And when you throw big parties and are short on time, it's nice to buy a giant sized bowl of pre-cut fruit.

But it's when these convenience foods become a part of your daily life, they will eat you out of house and home before you get a chance to eat them. It's much more economical to buy a bag or box of food such as cookies and portion them out yourself. Or to buy a whole fruit and cut it up. Drinks can easily be poured into sippy cups for a fraction of juice boxes. It would not take too much extra time to make these foods into individual portions.

Here are some examples. A 64 ounce carton of orange juice is typically on sale for $3.00 where I live. That equates to 8 8-ounce portions. A 48-ounce package of 6 individual 8 ounce juices are over $4.00. If you are packaging a lunch for your child, you could easily take 5 sippy cups and fill them with juice in the beginning of the week and still have 3 portions worth for the following week and save yourself a dollar (not to mention helping save the environment). Another example is carrots. Organic baby cut carrots cost $2.99 for a 16-ounce bag where I live. And an 8-ounce jar of organic dressing is $2.99. For $6.00, you could probably divide these up into 8 servings (2 ounces of carrots and 1 ounce of dressing) for 75 cents per serving. Compare this to a 6.75 ounce package of organic baby cut carrots pre-packaged into 3 servings including the dip costs $3.99. This is $1.33 per serving and the servings are smaller! How long does it take to pour some dressing into a cup? The carrots are already baby carrots.

All it takes is a little bit of planning to take advantage of regular sized packages to save you money. And then when you absolutely need a convenience food, you won't feel too bad about buying it and paying more money.

In Real Life (IRL) - I gave some examples of prices at our local grocery store above. But I will share with you what I do for my family. During the summer I went to a natural food store. Generally, their produce is more expensive than in a regular grocery store but I like some of their products, so I shop there on a regular basis in addition to typical grocery stores. Anyway, they had whole watermelons for sale for $5.99. These were grown locally and they were HUGE! I took one home and cut it up. I had to use two containers to store it all because it was so big. As an experiment, I said to myself, let's see what this cut-up watermelon weighs without the rind. I put it on my baby's nursery scale and it weighed over 11 pounds! Wow, that means, I spent just 55 cents per pound for watermelon. If you were to walk into any grocery store -natureal or not, it costs at least $3.99 for cut-up watermelon - sometimes $4.99 or $5.99. For 11 pounds of cut-up watermelon, that's at least $44! I spent just $6! Seriously, it took me about 30 minutes to cut up the thing and I saved nearly $40.

For lunches for school, I make a few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the beginning of the week and freeze them. Each night as I'm packing lunch, I pull out a pre-frozen sandwich. Easy as pie. I buy my bread in the natural food store mentioned above as well as my only fruit (no sugar or artifical ingredients) jelly. I generally buy regular peanut butter. I figured out that the cost of my peanut butter and jelly sandwich is about 54 cents if I use two slices of bread and a whole ounce each of peanut butter and jelly and I buy nothing on sale. The pre-frozen pre-made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are 75 cents per 2 ounce sandwich at my local market. I save 20 cents per day and I use natural bread and jelly. Over the course of a school year, that 20 cents turns into many dollars.

I could add lots more examples, but that's just boring. Figure out the cost per serving of some of those convenience foods, and you'll find you can make them or put the "package" together yourself without much effort and for a lot less money.