Tag Archives: money saving tips

An unconventional engagement ring

Engagement ringThe diamond engagement ring is one of those traditions that many frugal people shun. After all, diamonds are expensive, mining practices are often unethical, and who says you even need one?

In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that I have a traditional diamond engagement ring. I love my engagement ring. It is the fanciest piece of jewelry I’ve ever owned (and probably will ever own), and I wouldn’t give it up for the world. But honestly, it’s important to me because he gave it to me. It could have been anything, and I would cherish it the same way.

My best friend and her soon-to-be official fiance are trying to plan a wedding and start their lives together in this awful economy. Like a lot of people, they’re making decisions to help them save instead of spending more. So when they decided to make their engagement official, they chose an unconventional route for the engagement ring.

My best friend’s fiance’s parents are divorced, but his mom kept her diamond engagement ring. She offered to give it to him so he could propose. They’re having the stone reset in a white gold band that my best friend picked out to make it her own. The cost for this beautiful half-carat diamond ring? Just $350 instead of the usual $1,000+ most people pay.

Because the ring came from his parents, it has sentimental value, and now it will be worn proudly instead of hidden away in a jewelry box. I absolutely love this idea.

Another option for frugal fiances is the non-diamond engagement ring. My sister’s husband gave her a beautiful sapphire ring that cost a fraction of the price of a diamond.

Whatever you choose to symbolize your commitment to your fiance, remember that the important thing is the commitment — not the jewelry.

Photo by wumpiewoo

For inexpensive organic meat, the freezer is your friend

meatEver since Tony and I vowed to stick with organic meat, we’ve had to be creative to keep expensive organics from driving up our grocery costs. Not only did we swear off cheap chicken, we recently nixed ground beef from our diets thanks to this terrifying New York Times story about flaws in the inspection process.

We get around using ground beef by substituting it for organic ground chicken when we can. Occasionally we still use beef in recipes, but we buy cuts of sirloin or chuck and ground them ourselves in the food processor. Using single cuts of beef reduces the risk of contamination by e. coli and other dangerous bacteria. But I digress.

Shopping for organic meats can get pretty expensive, but one of the ways we keep costs down is by watching out for expiration date specials. Even on sale, the organic chicken we prefer never goes below $3 a pound. We check the grocery store every week for packages with sell-by dates coming soon. Usually these packages are marked off by a dollar or two. When we get them home, we either cook them right away or put them in the freezer. Freezing the meat increases its shelf life by months, and buying on the sell-by date reduces the cost considerably.

For example, on Sunday we found four packages of organic ground chicken with a sell-by date that day. They were marked off $2 each. They were also on sale for buy one, get one free. All together, we bought four packages for $1 a pound. That’s much less than we typically paid for regular ground chicken.

By stock piling, we ensure that we can stay ahead of the curve and only buy when the price goes down low enough. This has allowed us to buy exclusively organic meat without increasing our grocery budget.

Photo by judybaxter

Our trip to Europe is booked!

tour eiffelThe plan was to book our trip to Europe in January. But I started shopping around, and I found an amazing deal this month. I talked with a friend of mine (an expert in London travel who runs the Anglotopia blog). He said in his experience tickets aren’t likely to get much lower than this. So I decided to go ahead and book now!

Here are some things I discovered during the booking process that helped us save some money:

Fly on the weekdays.

Originally, we were planning to fly out on a Friday. But after comparing fares, we decided to push our departure back to a Wednesday. We’ll also be flying home on a Wednesday. This reduced our total flight cost by about $300.

Book international flights at major airports.

When we first started planning our trip, we thought we would be flying out of Raleigh. Now that we’re moving back to Indiana in the beginning of May, we were able to book our trip out of Chicago. This change saved us another $300-$500.

Book your flight and hotel together.

I’ve always been skeptical about “vacation package” offers on Expedia. However, as I planned to book this trip, I did a lot of comparing and put together a lot of different combinations. It turns out, they’re not kidding about those vacation packages. We were able to book nicer hotels than we could have afforded without the vacation package discounts. All together we saved about $400 on hotels.

Look at traveler opinions, not hotel class.

I typically don’t pay attention to hotel class when I’m booking. I just want a clean hotel in a convenient location. The negative reviews by other travelers on Expedia and TripAdvisor can tell you a lot about the hotel. Are other travelers complaining that the pillows weren’t fluffy enough or the receptionist was a little rude? If that’s the worst complaint next to a ton of positive reviews, you’re golden. But if a lot of review say the hotel is dirty or located in a bad part of town, I’ll move on. I’ve had really good luck in the past booking hotels with 4-stars+ in traveler opinions.

Weigh convenience with price when choosing hotels.

We could have reduced our hotel cost by staying in extreme budget hotels or staying far outside the cities, but I was really really nervous about that. We’re already going to be in a new country. In Paris, we won’t even speak the language. The last thing I want is to end up stuck in a filthy hotel for 5 nights or lost in the middle of nowhere with an hour bus ride into the city. We may have paid a little more than necessary, but we weighed our options, and it was important to us that we be in a safe neighborhood with easy access to public transportation.

For peace of mind, spring for the travel insurance.

We were on the fence about travel insurance. I did some research, and I thought it would cost us about $200 to insure the trip. Expedia offers trip protection for about $90 a ticket. We’ll be able to change our dates or cancel our trip for any reason without paying $150 a ticket, and the insurance will reimburse us for any nonrefundable costs. It also includes coverage for medical emergencies and lost baggage on the trip. For such a small amount of money, it was worth the peace of mind.

We spent $3500 on flight and hotels. This is exactly what we budgeted. It breaks down to about $1700 for flights and an average of $150 a night for 3-star hotels in excellent locations in London, Paris, and Amsterdam (cities that are notoriously expensive). We’ll spend 5 days in London, 2 days in Amsterdam, and 5 days in Paris. Then we’ll fly home directly from Paris.

And now it’s actually official. We’re going to Europe in 177 days!!! I can’t believe it’s actually happening! :)

Photo by ainet

Benefits of keeping the thermostat low

thermostatIn the winter, we keep our apartment pretty chilly. The thermostat rarely goes above 65 degrees. It’s just the two of us and our dog, who has a built-in fur coat and spends most of the winter cuddled between us anyway, so we’re able to keep it that cold pretty easily.

Even if you can’t keep it quite that chilly, it’s likely that you could survive comfortably with the heat set lower than it is. Running the furnace less in the winter has obvious financial and environmental benefits, but we’ve discovered some unexpected additional benefits of a chilly house.

We save money.

Lowering the temperature on your thermostat even just a few degrees can translate to huge savings on your electric bill. If you can’t get away with keep it low all day, consider adjusting it just at night when you’re covered up in bed.

We cuddle up more.

When it’s hot outside, cuddling can get pretty uncomfortable. But in the winter when it’s chilly, you can cuddle up with your spouse, kids, or pets all you want and be more comfortable because of it.

We sleep better.

Studies have shown that the optimal temperature for sleep is a chilly 60-68 degrees. Keeping your thermostat lower might actually mean a better night’s sleep.

We enjoy hearty winter meals more.

With the thermostat set lower, our apartment is less likely to overheat after hours with the oven on. And a little chill in the air makes a good soup or stew that much more enjoyable.

We get moving a lot faster in the morning.

It can be pretty tough to leave the warm comfort of bed for a chilly apartment, but once I’m out of bed, there’s no time to dawdle. If we don’t get up and get dressed right away, we freeze! It’s a great motivator to get up and get moving.

Photo by mulmatsherm

Could you survive as a one car household?

DrivewayWhen Tony and I were planning our move to North Carolina over two years ago, we had to make a very difficult decision about transportation. At the time, we each drove an older, used car. Both of our cars were doing okay at the time, but they had over 100,000 miles on them. We knew it was only a matter of time before we started having car problems, and we didn’t want it to happen after we moved.

We made the decision to share one reliable car instead of having two older, used cars. Our decision dictated a lot of the lifestyle decisions we made as we planned our move. We found an apartment close to campus so Tony could take a shuttle to class, invested in a AAA membership to ensure that we’d have access to towing and roadside assistance, and chose a new car with a 10 year, 100,000 mile warranty to ensure that our car would be reliable for as long as possible.

It’s worked out extremely well for us. Here’s a rough estimate of the money we save by sharing a car:

  • Car payment: $250 a month
  • Car insurance: $50-$85 a month
  • Gas: $50-$75 a month
  • Registration/taxes: $150 a year
  • Oil changes: $60 a year
  • Tires: $400 every two years or $200 a year

It’s really amazing how much you can spend on owning a car, and most people never even consider if they could live with just one. Depending on your situation, it may be easier than you think. Here are some things to think about if you’re considering life with one vehicle:

How “walkable” is your neighborhood?

Do you live hear a grocery store, library, and other places you need to go regularly? You can get your neighborhood’s “walk score” to determine how close you are to these places. If you’re living somewhere with a low walk score, making a move to a more walkable neighborhood and downsizing to one vehicle could save you quite a bit of money.

Is public transportation a possibility for you or your spouse?

Take a look at your city’s bus schedule and map to see if either of you could commute to and from work using public transportation.

What about carpooling?

Ask around at your job to see if anyone lives in your neighborhood or drives through it on their way into the office. You might be able to throw in some money for gas and ride with them. If carpooling with co-workers isn’t possible, consider a service like erideshare.com or carpoolconnect.com to find other carpoolers around you.

What’s your schedule?

Do you and your spouse have work schedules that would allow one of you to drop the other one off on the way to work? This is sometimes what Tony and I do if he needs the car for some reason during the day. I’m working all day, so the car would just be sitting in the parking lot at my office anyway. It’s no problem for him to drop me off, run his errands, and pick me up in the evening.

Be careful, though.

If you decide to downsize to one car, proper maintenance becomes even more important. Consider lowering your insurance deductible if you don’t have a healthy emergency fund, keep up with regular maintenance like oil changes and tire rotations, and look into adding car rental to your insurance plan to make sure you won’t be stranded in the event of an accident.

Whatever you do, don’t write it off as impossible without considering your options. There are a ton of financial, environmental, and health benefits to becoming a one-car household. With a little planning, organization, and lifestyle shifting, it might be easier for you than you think.

Photo by acrider

Another frugal road trip

road tripAfter our harrowing experience in Washington D.C. last week, we’re both a little nervous to get back on the road. But we’re heading up north to see our families for the next week!

Tony starts school again week after next, so this is our last chance to make a trip to see family until Christmas. We’ve already decided to stay home for the holidays this year since we’ll be saving money and vacation time for Europe, so we want to spend some time with family now.

Here’s how we’re planning ahead to make it healthy, frugal, and stress-free:

Frugal

We made these plans (and saved the money) months ago. We budgeted and set aside $150 for gas, and it shouldn’t cost much more than that. We’re bringing the dog, staying with family, packing food for the road, and making the trip in one day instead of stopping overnight and spending money on a hotel room. Snacks and meals for the trip are covered by this week’s grocery budget. This should truly be a frugal vacation.

Healthy

I’m putting some extra time in at the gym this week to make up for extra calories I’ll most likely ingest at home. We’ve made a vow to avoid fast food at all costs on the road. It’s a particularly bad idea when we’re traveling with the dog, because we have to eat in the car. Fast food makes it stink for weeks. Yuck. It also makes us feel horrible to eat fattening food, and then sit still in a long car ride.

Our grocery store deli makes delicious footlong subs out of premium deli meat and bread for only $4. We’ll pick one up on our way out of town on Friday, put it in a cooler, and eat it for lunch. For the drive back to North Carolina next week, we’ll probably stop at Subway for a $5 footlong.

We’ll be taking Howie out running every morning before it gets too hot to let him burn off some energy and burn some calories ourselves. Hopefully that will keep me from getting too out of shape before I return to the gym next Monday.

With cookouts and restaurant meals with family, I can’t guarantee I’ll make the best choices, but I’m determined not to let one vacation throw off all of my success so far.

Simple

Last month we took money out of our car savings to replace our tires and change the oil, so our car is all set for another road trip. We just renewed our AAA membership for the year in May, so we have access to roadside assistance and towing on the off chance that something goes wrong.

As always when we travel with Howie, we’ll be stopping every 2-3 hours to let him stretch his legs and pee. We’ll also bring a gallon jug of water and his water dish so he can stay hydrated. He’ll most likely sleep through the trip, but since it’s a 12-hour drive, we usually offer him water every time we stop to make sure he doesn’t get dehydrated.

We’ve put a lot of planning into this trip, so hopefully it will be more fun and less fiasco than last weekend!

Did you go on a frugal vacation this summer? Where did you go, and how did you save money?

Photo credit: pleeker

Beauty doesn’t have to be expensive

frugal beauty

One of the most frustrating things about the frugal world is while most people acknowledge that everyone is different when it comes to budgeting and spending, the approach to beauty is relatively one size fits all. The consensus seems to be that you don’t need to spend money on beauty products.

But personal appearance is an important part of living your best life. In order to be confident, it’s essential that you feel comfortable in your skin, whatever that means to you. Everyone is different, and you shouldn’t feel guilty for wanting to invest in your personal appearance to ensure your confidence.

That doesn’t mean beauty budgets don’t need limits, though. As I’ve said many times, the trick to living a full frugal life is balance. Here are some tips to ensure you look and feel your best without blowing your budget:

Prioritize.

What is most important to you when it comes to appearance? Do you have sensitive skin that requires specialty makeup or lotion? Are you self conscious about your body and need certain clothes to feel comfortable? Figure out what it is that makes you feel your best, and focus your budget there.

My naturally curly hair is dry, frizzy, and requires a lot of effort to look nice. I spend a little more on shampoo and hair products, but I wash and style it less frequently to cut back on the products I’m using. Look for compromises to reduce the impact of your beauty¬† needs on your budget.

Try alternatives.

Don’t assume that the most expensive product is your only option. I spent years trying different hair care products to find a balance between quality and price. I’ve settled on some moderately priced hair care products bought in bulk to give me the results I want while spending the least amount possible. Don’t be afraid to experiment with other brands, generics, and even natural alternatives like baking soda and vinegar. If you can get the desired effect without spending as much, it’s win-win.

Go for quality, not quantity.

Find makeup products that work for you, and stick with them. If you have a drawer full of cosmetics, really consider how often you’re using those products. Wouldn’t your money be better spent on a few high quality products that work well for you? Really consider how much you need to look your best. Try to limit yourself to cosmetics that you’ll use every day.

If stylish clothing is important to you, it’s okay to spend a little more on the latest styles, but if you’re buying expensive fashions you’ll have to get by with fewer clothing items. Try to stick with classic styles that are likely to be fashionable for longer than passing trends. You’ll look stylish without having to buy a new wardrobe every season.

Focus on you.

So much of fashion and beauty is based on other people deciding what’s trendy, fashionable, and acceptable for everyone. The problem is that the beauty and fashion industry is focused on convincing you that you have to spend a lot to be beautiful. Do your best to focus on what makes you feel comfortable. The point isn’t to impress the world with a large collection of clothing and shoes; the point is to make sure you feel comfortable and look your best.

Ignoring the world’s perception of beauty is a difficult habit to break, but it’s an important step in looking and feeling confident without putting yourself into debt.

New to frugality? What to do first

Frugality is overwhelming in the beginning. I remember reading blogs from frugal veterans who made it sound easy, but I was terrified. Cutting groceries down to $35 a week, zero-based budgeting, coupon clipping, drug storing? It may have been easy for them, but I didn’t know where to begin.

Take a deep breath. Remind yourself that frugality is a major life change. It’s not going to happen overnight. The best way to get started is to jump in, and don’t try to change your life too drastically in the beginning. Frugality is a gradual change, one that you’ll hopefully be able to maintain long term. It’s okay to start with baby steps.

Here’s how to get started:

Figure out where your money is going.

Before you can cut expenses or create a budget, you need to know what you’re spending and where. Link your bank accounts to Mint.com, and spend normally for a couple weeks. This step was incredibly eye-opening for us in the beginning, and we immediately saw some areas where we could easily cut back.

Create a budget.

Next it’s time to face the dreaded b-word. Don’t be scared, though. Budgeting is actually empowering, especially in the beginning. Don’t try to deprive yourself or make drastic changes at first. Just create a zero-based budget to ensure that you’re not spending more than your income. I use Mint.com to set limits on our spending, and then I track it in real time. Every dollar has a purpose, and anything left over goes to savings or debt. You can always reduce your expenses later. The most important thing in the beginning is getting used to tracking and following your budget.

Open a savings account.

Even if you’re deep in debt and struggling to make ends meet, find a way to start saving something. You can always increase the amount later. What’s important now is establishing the habit. Even if all you can spare is $25 or $50 a month, open an ING savings account separate from your checking and start putting a little money away.

Learn to entertain yourself without spending money.

The first step to having fun without spending money is learning to love your library. If you don’t have a library card yet, go get one right now and start borrowing books and movies for free. Check out a cookbook first. If you’re like my husband and me, eating out is probably one of your favorite date night activities. Learn to have fun cooking for yourselves, and you’ll drastically cut your food budget.

Create menu plans & grocery lists.

When you first start cooking at home, it’s tempting to go overboard at the grocery store. You don’t have to cut your grocery spending to $35 a week to make the most of your shopping trips, though. Find a menu planning strategy that works for you, plan your meals with the grocery ads in front of you, and start buying meats and staples in bulk. You’ll cut your grocery expenses without affecting the quality of food you eat.

It’s okay if you makes some frugal mistakes in the beginning. Learn at your own pace. As you master these basic frugal habits, you’ll gradually find yourself learning new ways to save even more money. It’s an ongoing process for everyone, even the frugal masters.

As long as you’re committed to saving money and reducing debt little by little, your life will continue to improve. Remember, frugality is about improving your quality of life, not just cutting your expenses.

No spend alternatives to our favorite summer activities

summer
Photo by lonebluelady

We’re only in the second week of our no spend summer, and we’ve already hit some challenges and setbacks. Even though we know it’s worth it, limiting our spending has been really tough. It’s a challenge to keep ourselves from feeling deprived and losing motivation.

There are some things that I associate with summer that we’ve had to give up. Because we miss them, we’re thinking of no spend alternatives to the summer activities we love.

Movies and popcorn

What’s summer without blockbusters? Though we sometimes catch a matinee at the cheap theater for $5.50 a ticket, we still miss the fun of the big screen with a bucket of popcorn. Check your city’s events calendar and see if they’re offering free screenings of classic movies. Our city screens family movies in a park every Sunday night for free. If your city doesn’t offer anything like that, add a little extra fun to family movie night by popping homemade popcorn on the stovetop.

Going out for ice cream

Nothing says summer like a trip to the ice cream parlor. But gourmet ice cream parlors are way too pricey, and even Dairy Queen can add up. Instead, drive through any fast food restaurant with a $1 menu and pick up an ice cream cone or a sundae. I don’t usually recommend McDonald’s, but their hot fudge sundaes taste just like Dairy Queen, and they only cost $1.

Lunch on a restaurant patio

One of our favorite weekend activities when the weather is nice is dining outside on a restaurant patio. But part of our no spend summer plan is no restaurant meals, period. If you really want to sit outside and enjoy the weather, pack a lunch and a blanket and head to the park or the beach.

Summer concerts

Ever since I was a teenager, summer meant live concerts. But concert tickets can cost a lot of money. Again, check your city’s events calendar for free live music. Our city presents a band downtown every Friday night of the summer for free. The next best thing for us is listening to an album we haven’t heard in a long time all the way through, start to finish. With today’s iPod culture, a lot of people are missing out on the fun of listening to an entire album. We make it a point to put on music and really listen instead of putting it in the background. If there’s money in the entertainment budget, you can even download something you’ve never heard on iTunes for about $10.

Summer vacation

It really is true that you can get out of town, or at least out of the house, without spending a lot of money. Camping at a state park is a great, inexpensive way to get out of the house. If even camping is a stretch for your budget, look at your city through the eyes of a tourist with a stay-cation. Check out the art and history museums near you. See if there are any national historic sites within driving distance. Even if you have to take a day trip to the nearest metropolitan area, a tank of gas is well worth that vacation feeling without shelling out for hotels and restaurants.