Category Archives: Frugality

Is gardening really frugal? An update

Since I wrote an update on how line drying is going and what I’ve learned from that last week, I thought I’d share how things are going with our little vegetable garden.

You might recall, I’ve had trouble with container gardening in the past. I worried that I was doomed to a black thumb forever. Thankfully, that doesn’t seem to be the case. My little vegetable garden is doing pretty well considering how late in the season it was planted and how little I knew what I was doing when I started.

Here’s how it looked right after I planted it:

And here it is yesterday:

Unbelievable what sunshine, water, and time can do for a garden!

I sort of rushed planting this garden, because it was late in the season, and I wanted to get some experience under my belt before I try my hand at some more ambitious gardening next year. I’d like to plant directly into the ground next season, but that’s going to take some considerable prep time that I just didn’t have this year. Instead, I put this tiny raised bed into the existing flower bed in front of the house. I planted red pepper, tomato, cucumber, sage, peppermint, parsley, oregano, rosemary, and basil.

The cucumber plant is my biggest success. I’ve already picked two cucumbers, and I see about 10 or 15 more tiny ones growing now. The basil and rosemary are thriving, and we’ve gotten the most use out of the basil for pizzas, pesto, and other cooking. I’m not quite sure what to do with the other herbs, but I want to harvest them late in the season and try my hand and drying them out for later use. I was worried about the tomato for a while, because I wasn’t seeing any signs of fruit, but now I’ve got several blossoms. I’m hoping to see at least some tomatoes, but I probably could have grown more if I hadn’t waited until the middle of June to plant.

Because I was so rushed, I made a ton of mistakes. But I learned! And that’s what’s important, right?

Lesson #1: Cages should go on tomatoes, cucumbers, and any other plant you want to grow vertically immediately after planting. This isn’t something you can do later. Doh. Consequently, when the cucumber and tomato plants started taking over my garden, I tried to rig a cage to hold them up. It’s sort of doing the job, but not as effectively as it should. I feel pretty stupid about this one, because it seems so obvious now.

Lesson #2: Plan your garden carefully and avoid giant plants in tiny beds. Seriously, look at that tiny little cucumber plant in the first photo. I had NO IDEA the thing would grow to be so giant and try to take over the entire bed. I had an idea about the size of tomato plants, but I probably shouldn’t have planted the red pepper plant right next to it. Sadly, my red pepper plant is not going to make it because it’s so overshadowed by the tomato. I was able to rig the cucumber plant in a cage to prevent it from taking over everything, but the parsley isn’t doing well because it’s under the cucumber.

Lesson #3: Plant what you eat. I sort of grabbed the plants that looked best to me, and there wasn’t a lot left in the middle of June. I knew we’d have a ton of uses for basil, but I’m sort of at a loss for what to do with the rest of the herbs. And I have no clue what I’m going to do with 20 cucumbers that will likely ripen within a week or two. I see lots of pickles in our future. When I plant my big garden, I’m going to be more careful about selecting what to plant to ensure that we get lots of use out of the food we grow.

Lesson #4: Gardening doesn’t always save money. I had hoped my garden would reduce our grocery bill. It’s taking forever to grow anything, though, and most of the herbs are things we don’t use regularly anyway. Between plants, the prefab raised beds, and soil (who knew soil was so expensive?!), I spent about $100 on my garden. I doubt I’ll yield enough to cover my overhead this season.

Next year I’ll lower my costs my planting directly into the ground (or building raised beds myself from lumber). We plan to start a compost bin soon, which will provide us with fertilizer, and tilling the soil and planting in the ground will mostly eliminate the high cost of soil. I will probably still buy seedlings next year, because I’m not confident enough in my ability to grow from seeds just yet. But in the future, I’d like to grow from seeds to cut down on plant costs. I also plan to learn about canning so we can make the most of our harvest during the winter months.

In other news, I’d like to welcome Merchant Warehouse as a new partner. They offer credit card processing services, and I’m happy to have them onboard. Click through to check them out if you’d like to process credit cards on your website!

Line drying laundry — an update

For the last two months or so, we’ve been line drying our laundry on the clothesline in our backyard. I’ve developed a pretty good system, and I’ve learned a few things about what works and what doesn’t for us, so I thought I’d share some of my discoveries.

For the most part, I don’t have many complaints. It’s a relatively easy way to reduce energy consumption and shave some money off your monthly electricity costs. Unfortunately, I’m still not sure exactly how much we’re saving. We started line drying pretty much right after we moved into the house, and with the heat wave and increased square footage, our electricity bill has definitely gone up from what we paid in apartments. I didn’t establish a base line, so I’m not sure what it would cost if we were using the dryer. I’m sure I’m saving something, though, and decreasing our footprint, so it’s worthwhile to me either way.

I’ve developed a system that works pretty well for me, but it’s certainly a lot more involved than my previous laundry system, which was basically “You’re running low on underwear? I guess I’ll do laundry today.” I don’t do laundry every day. I wish I was disciplined enough to do laundry every week, because it would make things easier on myself, but I’m not. I usually wash everything every other week (aside from diapers, which are washed 2-3 times a week).

I’m much more aware of the weather forecasts now, so I can plan ahead for the best sunny days. My lines hold about half of two weeks of laundry, so I usually split it up over two days. I try to do laundry when we have two sunny days back to back, so I can get it all done relatively quickly.

The night before laundry day, I separate everything by color — whites, colors, and then towels and jeans. I put in a load first thing in the morning. When Judah goes down for his morning nap around 10 a.m., I get the first load onto the line. Sometimes I’m lucky, and he sleeps long enough that I can get the second load out, too, before he wakes up. Sometimes he has to come outside with me and hang out in the Exersaucer while I hang clothes.

My clothesline is half shaded by a large tree, so I try to make sure that bulkier items like jeans are hung on the sunny side. This ensures that they dry completely. Thinner items like t-shirts dry relatively quickly even without a lot of sunshine, so they can hang in the shade.

Sunshine is a remarkable natural stain remover, so I always hang anything with stubborn stains in direct sunlight. Usually after 8 hours in the sun, even the most stubborn stains are completely gone. It’s like magic.

I leave them out there all day — usually until around 8 p.m. after Judah is in bed. It works out nicely, because I can bring the clothes in and fold while I’m watching television, and I don’t have to worry about entertaining Judah because he’s sleeping.

About 90% of our laundry is line dried. There are a few things I don’t line dry, though.

Diapers – It’s a shame that I can’t get line drying diapers to work for me, especially since diaper laundry is the main reason I decided to start line drying. Unfortunately, no matter what I try, line drying makes my cotton prefolds feel like roof shingles. They’re scratchy and stiff, and I just can’t imagine it’s very comfortable on Judah’s skin. I tried vinegar in the rinse cycle. It didn’t make much difference. I tried fluffing them in the dryer. That helped a little, but they weren’t as fluffy as I’d like, and to be honest it felt like the extra step defeated the purpose of line drying.

Stained diapers go onto the line after they’re dry so I can take advantage of the remarkable stain removing ability of the sun. Other than that, diapers go into the dryer.

Towels – I have the same problem with towels as I do diapers — they’re too stiff and scratchy when line dried. We hang towels to dry in the bathroom so we can reuse them for a week, so our towel laundry is minimal anyway.

Socks and underwear – We don’t have a fence in our backyard. Our clothesline is mostly shielded from view by our neighbors’ garage, but if they were out doing yard work on the other side of their garage, they could easily see it. To maintain our privacy and spare our neighbors from seeing our undies, I chose not to line dry them. I suppose I could conceal them on the back line or devise some sort of rack for hanging them inside. I may do that. For now, I don’t mind throwing them into the dryer with the towels. Socks are just tiny, and it’s a pain in the butt to hang a million of them, so I throw those in the dryer, too.

Some items — like my husband’s polos — tend to stretch out and start to look saggy after several line dryings. When that happens, I go ahead and use the dryer to shrink them back up a bit.

I’m happy with our system, but line drying is harder work — especially in this heat wave. I try to get the laundry out in the morning and take it down in the evening to avoid the hottest part of the day. Even so, standing in direct sunlight hanging clothes is usually enough to work up a sweat.

There have been days when I probably should have done laundry, and I skipped it because I wasn’t feeling well or I was too tired. Laundry used to be a lazy day task — it just required switching loads and a little folding. Now it feels like more work, and if I’m not feeling great, I’m likely to put it off.

I feel good about it, though, and there’s a strange sense of accomplishment that goes along with seeing all of our laundry neatly hanging on the line. I’ll probably continue through the early fall until the first freeze.

So tell me, do you line dry? Do you have any tips or questions for me?

Thrift store furniture shopping: Am I doing something wrong?

Several people suggested that I hunt for the furniture I want at thrift stores. The thing is, I have been searching for furniture at thrift stores for years. I just don’t seem to have any luck.

Thrift shopping is one of those frugal activities that fascinates me, and I would love to do it, but for some reason, it’s never worked out for me. Couponing and gardening both used to fall under that category. I finally figured out how to make them work for me, so I’m fully aware that the problem is probably me.

I’ve been to a number of thrift stores in North Carolina and now Indiana. I’m looking for the perfect piece of discount furniture that just needs a little TLC. Here’s what I find instead.

Overpriced, poorly made particle board furniture.

The thing about refinishing and fixing up furniture is that you need a solid base with which to work. That cheap particle board stuff that costs under $100 new in a million pieces and assembles with a few Allen screws? It’s not really possible to refinish it. It’s cheap when it’s brand new, it doesn’t last long, and most thrift stores price it around 75-80% of new retail value. That would be fine if it was sturdy, in new condition, and assembled properly. It’s usually not. What I see most often is particle board that’s rickety, falling apart, and still way overpriced. I’d rather spend an extra $20 to buy it new so I can be sure it’s assembled properly and safely.

Dirty, smelly, uncomfortable couches.

Some people don’t like the idea of used couches. Our couch was purchased used for just $30 from an international college student who needed to get rid of his stuff before hopping a transcontinental plane to get home. I found it on a Craigslist-style forum specifically for college students at my school. It’s not the most stylish couch ever, but it was clean, sturdy, and comfortable. A major bonus is that it is an unoffensive neutral brown. It’s worked fine for us for 5 years, and we’ll probably be able to resell it when we don’t need it anymore.

Based on what I’ve seen at thrift stores over the years, I wouldn’t buy a couch at a thrift store. Most of the couches I’ve seen are stained and dirty. They often smell of cigarette smoke, or they’re covered in cat hair (my husband is extremely allergic).

Ugly patterns can be covered with a slip cover, but I’d rather avoid that if I can. I don’t much care for the look of slip covers, and they usually drive me crazy because I’m continually straightening them if they’re not fitted specifically for the couch (I had a slip cover on a couch in college that almost drove me to the looney bin).

Most importantly, the thrift store couches I’ve seen are uncomfortable. Wooden arms, wonky cushions, flat cushions. No matter how cheap it is, it’s not worth it to buy an uncomfortable piece of furniture you won’t use.

Overpriced and too ugly to fix.

I lived with cheap ugly furniture throughout college. My college furnishings were a mish mash of furniture that was given to my roommate and me for free. It didn’t matter that it didn’t match. We were broke, and we needed something to sit on, so we didn’t care. I’m a grown-up now, and I don’t really want to live in a place with mismatched furniture.

Most of the solid wood furniture I see at thrift stores is hideous in a way that can’t be fixed. Giant and clunky. Too big to move with anything but a U-Haul, and too dated to match anything in my house. The problem isn’t that it’s worn or needs to be repainted. The problem is with its design.

I’m not at all saying it’s not possible to find beautiful used pieces and furnish a home with them. I’ve done it. 75% of our furnishings are used. I didn’t find them at thrift stores or Craigslist, though. Most of it came from that awesome college classified website where students practically gave away great stuff just because they don’t want to move it. I haven’t had that kind of luck with used furniture since.

Oh, and “bargain” or “used” furniture stores? Pfft. I can usually find new stuff cheaper than they sell it there. Go figure.

So tell me your tips for finding great furniture at thrift stores. Do you have any luck at Goodwill? Because I find mostly junk at Goodwill, and other consignment or thrift stores are typically just way overpriced. Teach me! I want to learn.

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Why the Internet makes frugality easier than ever

The Tightwad Gazette (affiliate link) by Amy Dacyczyn is my favorite frugal book. It’s full of simple ideas for how to cut costs without affecting your quality of life, and Dacyczyn’s values and priorities are very similar to mine, so I find it motivating and inspiring.

The first time I read the book, the ideas were brand new to me. It was a few months before I started this blog, and it was the beginning of my frugal journey. It was eye-opening to realize how simple it could be to cut expenses even more, even when you think you’ve cut them as much as humanly possible.

I just read it for the second time, and it wasn’t so revolutionary this time — for obvious reasons. I’ve been living (somewhat) frugally for three years now. I’ve been through these ideas over and over, and they’re no longer new.

Because I wasn’t so focused on the ideas this time, I noticed how dated some of the advice is. Most of it is pretty timeless, and it is absolutely still useful. However, you can’t deny the fact that the Internet has changed pretty much everything about how we live our lives, and because the newsletters and books were written before the Internet age, it serves as a reminder to me of how much harder it was to live frugally before the Internet.

Here are a few of the things that struck me:


Throughout the book, the cost of stamps and postage is a frequent concern. While this may be bad news for the U.S. Postal Service, I use maybe three or four stamps a year. It’s just not a major expense in my daily life. I keep in touch with old friends and family through social networks, email, and cell phones. I pay bills online.

I do remember the days when it was expensive to call someone who lived even a few cities away. Long distance calling fees were a huge part of the monthly phone bill. Most cell phone plans don’t differentiate between local and long distance calls, which has eliminated this expense for me. Since the majority of my closest friends and family are on the same carrier and I make most of my calls in the evening and on weekends, our phone calls don’t even affect my monthly minutes.

Price comparison

Before the Internet, there was a lot more leg work involved in hunting for the best prices. You’d have to physically drive to the store or call. For insurance rates, there were no easy price comparing engines — you’d have to call each company to obtain a quote. I have no idea how people price compared items like plane tickets or hotels. Now you can hunt down prices from the comfort of your home.

Warranties & Parts

One of the ideas in the book is to call the manufacturer of a broken item to obtain cheap or free replacement parts to fix the item rather than buying a new one. Several pages are devoted to phone numbers you can call or addresses you can write to if you want to get in touch with manufacturers. I can’t imagine a world where finding out how to contact a company is any more difficult than looking up their website and clicking on the “Contact Us” link.

Yard sales

Many sections of the book discuss how to shop and sell at yard sales. Internet sites like ebay and Craigslist have become virtual yard sales where it’s possible to sell things to people living across the country, which vastly improves the likelihood of buying or selling things for a good price. I don’t think the Internet has completely replaced the usefulness of local yard sales, but it’s also made finding and advertising them much easier.


Online games, social networks, and streaming sites have made it easier than ever to find cheap entertainment.


My New Year’s resolution was to take at least one photo every day. The truth is, my “one photo a day” is usually 20 or 30 shots of the same thing. Most of them are bad photos that I delete without saving. I can’t even imagine how expensive amateur photography was back in the days of film cameras and developing costs. I only keep a fraction of the photos I shoot, and I keep most of them digitally. I print a tiny fraction of those photos for display in frames. The Internet and digital cameras have made amateur photography incredibly cheap, and I can keep daily memories of our life without paying for expensive film and development costs, or figuring out what to do with hundreds of “bad” photos that aren’t worth keeping.

Do-it-yourself maintenance

When something goes wrong in my home or with my car, I can easily do some research to try to determine the problem and whether it’s something I’m able to fix myself. Before the Internet, this type of research was much harder and more time consuming. I suppose you could check out home and car repair books from the library or call a knowledgeable friend, but the amount of information you could garner was limited. It was much easier to just call in an expert. We’re often able to solve minor problems ourselves with the help of Google and social networking sites, so we can avoid a huge mechanic, plumber, or other expert’s bill.

Menu planning

The Internet has made millions of recipes available at our fingertips, and we can hunt through millions of food and recipe sites to get ideas for cooking at home inexpensively. Before the Internet, you were limited by your own culinary knowledge, cookbook collection, and recommendations from friends. Now it’s much easier to cook delicious meals at home without eating the same things every week.

Exchange of information & ideas

The biggest thing that struck me is that The Tightwad Gazette newsletters were basically the very first frugal blog. Dacyczyn shared her ideas with readers, and readers shared their ideas with each other by writing letters that she published. It’s the same concept as a blog, only it’s much much harder and more complicated. The Internet has made it possible for frugal people to build an entire community around the exchange of ideas and information. We can support each other and learn from each other from opposite sides of the world without paying postage or waiting days between replies.

I pay $40 a month for my Internet connection. I think it’s worth much much more than that. I’m thankful to live during the Internet age.

How does the Internet save you money?

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The surprising electricity drain that’s costing Americans billions per year

What’s the biggest electricity drain in the United States? Refrigerators that run non-stop? HD televisions? Nope. According to a story in the New York Times on Sunday, it’s your cable box.

These set-top boxes are energy hogs mostly because their drives, tuners and other components are generally running full tilt, or nearly so, 24 hours a day, even when not in active use. The recent study, by the Natural Resources Defense Council, concluded that the boxes consumed $3 billion in electricity per year in the United States — and that 66 percent of that power is wasted when no one is watching and shows are not being recorded. That is more power than the state of Maryland uses over 12 months.

Because they’re constantly connected to the network and receiving updates, set-top cable boxes continue to suck energy even when they’re turned “off.” The only way to stop the drain is to unplug the box entirely.

Unplugging the box may create a slight lag when you’re ready to watch television again, but it could save you as much as $10 a month. At the very least, it’s essential that you unplug the box if you’re leaving for vacation. There’s no sense spending money and wasting energy on something you’re not even using.

How much money do I “earn” by living frugally?

Since I’m a stay-at-home mom, I don’t add any steady monetary income to our household (aside from occasional freelance work and sporadic income from this here blog). However, my decision to stay home has afforded me more time for household chores than I would have if I worked. To offset our lower income, I try to devote my extra time to tasks that reduce our expenses, and I consider the money we save as my financial contribution to our household.

I thought it might help motivate me to figure some rough estimates of what I’m “earning.” Hopefully you’ll find it helpful, too.

Cloth diapers

I initially invested about $300 in our cloth diaper stash, which will fit Judah until he’s potty-trained. The time I devote to cloth diapers is an extra 3 loads of laundry per week. I line dry them to fight stains, bacteria, and reduce electricity costs. I probably only spend about an hour washing cloth diapers every week. That four hours of work saves us about $30-$50 per month.


I realize that for working moms who need to pump, breastfeeding can be a considerable time investment. Since I’m with Judah 24/7, breastfeeding doesn’t take anymore time than formula feeding (in fact, it probably takes less time since I don’t have any bottles to wash). It saves us $75-$100 per month. Easy money!

Line drying clothes

I line dry about two loads of laundry per week, in addition to diapers. It takes maybe 30 minutes to hang and take down each load of laundry, so I spend about four hours a month line drying laundry. It’s difficult to estimate how much money we’re saving at this point. My dryer isn’t very efficient, so I often had to run loads through two or three dry cycles to get them totally dry. Estimates for dryer costs vary depending on your dryer, how many loads you dry, and how efficient it is. I estimate that we save about $10 per month by line drying. You could argue that $2.50 per hour isn’t worth the time it takes to line dry, but I find hanging our laundry relaxing, I like the way it smells when it line dries, and I like that we’re reducing our carbon footprint, so I’m sticking with it.

Eating at home

This is where I admit that even though I’m a stay-at-home mom, my husband is the cook in our house. Thankfully, since he’s a college professor, a lot of his work load involves grading papers and preparing lesson plans at home, so he’s home a lot more than the average full-time worker. So he cooks dinner for us every night when he gets home. I spend about 30 minutes a week menu planning, and we spend another hour and a half shopping together. Most meals take 30 minutes to an hour to prepare. All together, that adds up to 5 to 9 hours a week. There are too many factors at play to know exactly how much we’re saving, but we can easily spend the equivalent of our entire week’s grocery budget on two restaurant meals, so it adds up.


I’ve really cut back on my couponing lately, because we’ve built such a huge stockpile at the drugstores. When I was clipping coupons every week, I spent probably an hour clipping coupons and planning shopping trips, and another 20 or 30 minutes in the drugstores. It’s tough to quantify how much I actually earned, but I could buy enough toiletries to last months in a single shopping trip for pennies per item.


We cut our $50-per-month cable bill, and replaced it with Hulu, Netflix, and the library. Our memberships to Hulu and Netflix cost a total of $20 per month. Watching less TV costs us nothing, and forces us to get out and do other things. Win-win!

I eventually hope to add gardening to this list to cut our food expenses. Next year!

How does frugality enhance your income?

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Why I politely declined the invitation to your candle/purse/kitchen/jewelry party

Everyone likes to be invited to a party. I love parties! I don’t even mind if the hostess asks me to bring a dish. If I’m being welcomed to her home to enjoy the festivities, it’s the least I can do. And if it’s a shower, I love to bring baby or bridal gifts for people I love.

Unfortunately, the invitations I usually receive aren’t for parties. They’re for sales ambushes from trusted friends. “Come to my candle party!” is really code for, “Come to my house, eat some appetizers, and buy some overpriced crap out of my catalog so I can get free stuff or money.”

Maybe I’m being a curmudgeon here. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. The thing is, I don’t want to feel pressured to buy stuff I don’t need, especially when it’s typically so overpriced. Not to mention, it sort of makes me feel bad to know that I’m not being invited to a party simply because the hostess enjoys the pleasure of my company, but because I’m another person who may buy stuff from her.

When I choose to buy something, it’s because I need and/or want it, and I can afford it. I don’t want to feel guilted into buying things because my friend has provided appetizers or drinks, or because I feel responsible for supplementing her income. That’s not how business works. Good business is based on the exchange of money for worthwhile goods or services — not guilt because your friend is trying to start her “home business” if only her 20 closest friends would spend $200 each on the junk she’s selling.

I don’t like when sales people ambush me. I don’t like when they call me, I don’t like when they approach me in the mall, and I don’t like when they knock on my door. The last thing I want is to be solicited by a friend at a party.

If you want to build a business selling products, I don’t begrudge you that. By all means, let your friends know that you have those products available, and the ones who are interested in buying can come to you. But please don’t solicit sales from me under the guise of a get together. I’m too cheap to buy any of your overpriced stuff anyway.

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How to avoid money drain

Recreational shopping has always been one of my biggest money drains. I can turn a quick stop at Target for a necessary item into a $40 splurge more easily than I want to admit. It’s a problem that I acknowledge, and I’ve been working to correct it.

We have a lot of things on the “to-do” list for our house – new furniture, a garage door opener, an epic garden, a riding lawnmower, and decorating to name just a few. All of these things are going to cost money. Since our mortgage payment is a bit higher than our rent used to be, our budget is a little tighter these days. Not to mention, I always promised myself that once we bought a house I’d finally buckle down and divert more money toward our student loan debt, so that’s definitely on my mind.

The point is, I certainly can’t afford to walk into Target or sign into Amazon and drop $40-$50 on crap I don’t need. When it comes to money drain, prevention is key. The trick is to avoid your triggers. Here are my main money drains, and how I combat them.

Marketing emails.

Signing up for email updates from your favorite stores and websites can help save money, because it will alert you of sales. It can also be a major money drain. If I receive an email about a big sale, I’m always tempted to buy something because “it’s such a great deal!” – even if I don’t really need anything. If you’re on a tight budget and unnecessary spending is an issue, unsubscribe to all of those emails. If an occasion rises that requires you to buy something, be purposeful about your shopping and seek out sales or coupon codes.

Daily deal alerts.

Daily deal sites like Groupon and Living Social are incredibly popular on frugal blogs right now. It’s true that they can save you a ton of money, but again, you’re not saving if you’re spending money on things you don’t need. If you’re struggling with self control, it may be time to unsubscribe and tune out the “daily deals.”

Recreational shopping.

This is a tough one for me, because browsing is one of my favorite frugal ways to get out of the house in extreme hot weather. I take a walk around a store or mall to enjoy being out and around without sweltering in the heat and humidity. Unfortunately, it usually leads to buying things – or seeing things that I want to buy, which just makes me feel deprived when I have the will power to refuse. I’m still looking for an alternative to this activity when the weather is too hot to get outside. Any suggestions?

The drugstore game.

I’ve amassed quite a stockpile of toiletries and hygiene items thanks to the “drugstore game” – matching coupons with weekly deals at CVS and Walgreens. I’m guilty of buying things I don’t need just to get a deal. Even if it’s a great price, any money you spend to buy things you don’t need is a waste, especially if you’re acquiring more items than you can reasonably use. Remind yourself that there will be deals in the future, and you can stock up again when your supply runs low. Use that money to pad your savings or pay off debt instead.

Plan a menu – and skip boring recipes.

If dining out is a big spending trigger for you, it’s time to get organized and get excited about eating at home. The two biggest reasons people spend unnecessary money on dining out is poor planning and lack of excitement about meals at home. If you frequently head to a restaurant or drive thru because there’s nothing else to eat, try creating a menu plan at the beginning of the week and hanging it on the refrigerator to remind you of what’s for dinner each night. If you plan meals, and still find yourself heading out to eat because tonight’s dinner doesn’t sound appealing, it’s time to shake things up. Try new recipes, recreate your favorite restaurant meals, or add new flavors to old foods. My favorite recipe sites are AllRecipes, Real Simple, and Food Network.

Make your favorite treats at home.

I’ve made no secret about my terrible little Starbucks habit. But when I realized my weekly fancy coffee allowance was turning into a two or three times a week habit, I decided to find another way to indulge. I make iced coffee and smoothies at home now for a fraction of the cost. If there’s an expensive treat you indulge in, find a way to satisfy your cravings at home for less money. Alcoholic drinks are usually way overpriced in restaurants and bars. Mix your own cocktails at home or buy a case of beer or bottle of wine and invite friends to your place instead of going out.

Get organized.

One thing I absolutely cannot stand: losing money due to poor organization. Even if it’s just a 25 cent overdue fine at the library, it is such a waste, because I get no value out of the money. I’m paying for a stupid mistake. Overdraft fees (which do still exist in some situations), late charges for bills, overdue library fines, and expensive repair bills for things that could have been avoided with better care and maintenance all fall into this category. Create a system for reminding yourself of due dates and service appointments for the car and home. Keep a close eye on bank accounts and statements to avoid charges. Keep your emergency fund healthy so you can afford to make repairs before small problems become expensive emergencies. Every penny you avoid losing is a penny in your pocket.

What are your biggest money drains? And how do you avoid them?

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Homemade baby food 101

All-natural, organic whole food is all the rage these days. If you’re introducing your baby to solid foods, you’ve probably wondered how you can avoid feeding him pricey, pre-packaged, preservative-laden baby food. Well, I’m going to tell you.

Here’s what you need:

  • Fresh, organic fruits and vegetables
  • A food processor, food mill, or blender to puree them

That’s seriously it.

The best thing about making your own baby food is that there is no tutorial necessary. There’s nothing to learn. If you can buy produce and puree it, then you can make baby food.

Of course, some foods are just a little more complicated. If you want to feed your baby something that easily oxidizes, like apple or banana, you’ll want to add a little vitamin C to the mix so you can freeze or refrigerate some. If you don’t want to mess with all of that, you can do what I do: cut the banana or apple in half, puree one half for baby, and eat the other half or serve it to an older child immediately. That way you’re not wasting any of it, but you don’t have to store it.

Judah hasn’t tried many foods yet. We’ve given him bananas, apples, carrots, and mangoes. We steamed the carrots before pureeing them, but the apple, banana, and mango were served raw. We tried to freeze half a pureed apple, but without vitamin C, the brown gook that we thawed was pretty inedible. Steamed carrots and fresh mango didn’t look or taste any different after thawing.

In addition to being healthier for baby, homemade baby food will save you a ton of money. At $1 or $1.25 each for two 4-ounce jars of organic baby food, it may not seem like you’re spending a lot. But when you consider the fact that you’re paying a whole dollar for a small amount of processed produce, it’s a lot more expensive than you think. Not to mention the environmental effects of the packaging and shipping.

We can get four 4-ounce jars of baby food out of one organic mango for $1.50. That’s 37 cents per jar. Organic mango is one of the fancier, more expensive foods. Organic bananas usually sell for around 69 cents a pound at my grocery store. A rough estimate is about 25 cents per banana. I feed half the banana to Judah and eat the other half, so 4 ounces of homemade mashed banana costs about 12 cents. Apples and carrots cost about a quarter per serving. Based on these very rough estimates, you can cut your baby food costs by 50 to 80 percent.

You can save even more (and be greener) by growing the food in your garden. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to plant my garden this year, but my next baby will eat organic produce from my own backyard.

If you plan to make large quantities of baby food, buy some small mason jars or Tupperware containers. Freezing or refrigerating excess will make homemade baby food almost as convenient as the store bought stuff. To thaw frozen baby food, put it in the microwave for a minute or so. Be sure to stir the puree well and test the temperature for “hot spots” caused by the microwave before serving to baby.

If you’re like me and you don’t have a microwave, put the jar of frozen baby food into a bowl with hot water and place a coffee mug on top to keep it from floating. Leave it on the counter for 10 minutes. If there’s still a frozen chunk in the middle 10 minutes later, stir the puree, refill the bowl with more hot water, and leave it for another 10 minutes. If you just want to warm up refrigerated food, it will obviously take much less time.

I found a lot of great ideas and instructions on this wholesome baby food site. But honestly, once you get the hang of it, it’s as easy as perusing the organic produce section at your grocery store, buying whatever looks good that week, and buzzing it up in the food processor. No further instructions necessary.

What are your baby’s favorite homemade baby foods?

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