Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Make Your Major Purchases Count

Make Your Major Purchases Count

A major part of the frugal lifestyle is consuming less.  Sometimes though, you really have to buy something – like a dryer or a rug shampooer.  People who are naturally frugal recognize the importance of delaying a major purchase until they can thoroughly research the marketplace.

Surprisingly, the Web is a bit of a wasteland when it comes to free, authoritative consumer information.   I know it doesn’t seem that way because of all the consumer opinion based posts that exist.  And some of those consumer opinions are good and valuable – like at Amazon or Epinions.

But let’s face it, for major purchases, you need something more authoritative.  Now, the tech and electronics end has always been well covered by sites like CNet and Crutchfield, but what about appliances?  Because Consumer Reports is a paid subscription based service, the only real viable option is ConsumerSearch.

ConsumerSearch is a broad, sweeping meta-site that draws consumer reviews from a variety of sources – including Consumer Reports.  From chest freezers to snow tires, furnace filters to washing machines, this is easily the best consumer site on the Web.  I’m not even sure there’s a close second.


Monday, February 27, 2012

You and Your Freezer Should Spend Some More Time Together

You and Your Freezer Should Spend Some More Time Together

In an earlier post I talked about the importance of having a chest freezer around and how you should cook things in advance and save them in meal sized containers.  Well as it turns out there are people out there on the Web who’ve written quite extensively about how this should best be accomplished.  So, I thought I’d provide a few helpful links to people who might be interested in getting the most out of their freezer.

  •   Freezer Meal Recipes Master List - This is absolutely incredible!  The recipes are broken down by category (chicken, pork, fish etc).  There is information on techniques, and as a bonus, there is even a section on which foods don’t freeze well.
  •   Freezer Tips from the Hillbilly Housewife – Some nice ideas for a whole range of frugal make-ahead meals.
  •   The Frugal Freezer Mom – Yep, an entire blog devoted to make-ahead meals and using your freezer to improve your lifestyle.
  •   Frugal Families has a very nice collection of tips and recipes for make-ahead deep freeze meals.
  •   Low Cost Living – is a site from the UK with some great recipes that go a bit beyond the usual lasagna and chili dishes.  Here you’ll find recipes for onion bhajis and butternut squash soup.  It’s great to see a little culinary adventure out there!

So, it’s not just me.  The deep freeze is a fabulous tool for saving your household time and money.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

I’m All for Exploiting the Developing World – As Long as I get a Cut!

I’m All for Exploiting the Developing World – As Long as I get a Cut!

So, I’ve read a lot about Wal-Mart, and seen the documentaries.  I have to say that they are easily my favorite company.  Look at their mission statement:   We save people money so they can live better.  That’s a pretty admirable mission statement.  In the PBS documentary Is Wal-Mart Good for America, we learned how Wal-Mart squeezes manufacturers to the brink of bankruptcy in order to keep their prices low.  Good.  That’s how capitalism is supposed to work.  I want all retailers to squeeze manufacturers to the brink of bankruptcy.

The other main criticism is that so much manufacturing happens off shore.  Well it happened before and it’s going to continue to happen in the future.  The difference is, with Wal-Mart the savings incurred from that off-shore exploitation are passed on to me.

Now, for those of you who think this is short-sighted and heartless, here’s a sad economic fact:  our western lifestyle is achieved at the expense of the rest of the world.  Raising the living standard of other nations can only come at the expense of our own.

I think it’s OK to buy an inexpensive loaf of bread from Wal-Mart.  Those who don’t can buy it somewhere else.  But please provide people with the option, and allow the markets to deliver inexpensive food to those who can’t afford anything else.


The Frugal Lifestyle and Swapping

The Frugal Lifestyle and Swapping

I have to confess, I don’t understand swapping.   Maybe it’s because all of the swappers I’ve ever met are really just hoarders.  Living frugally isn’t necessarily a sparse existence, but it’s pretty free of extraneous clutter.  So, I don’t have anything to swap, and I’m certainly not going to have things on hand so that I can swap them for something I want.

That’s what thrift stores are for. They have small appliances and clock radios that usually work, for pretty low prices.  That arrangement doesn’t seem to sit well with some swappers – a lot of them want to have the entire thrift store in their home – just in case.  To me, frugal living should mean that there are limits that you place on how much stuff you accumulate – regardless of how much it cost you.

I am continually faced with swapping advocates who suggest that swapping is an antidote to consumerism.  In my eyes it’s the same thing.  I am also faced with swappers who say that they are saving he environment by diverting consumer goods from landfills.  It seems though that they are just turning their residences into very expensive landfills.

So, perhaps I’m being too hard on swappers.  Hopefully I’ll hear some constructive arguments in the comments section.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Making Your Favorite Take-out Food At Home: Eggplant in Hot Garlic Sauce

Making Your Favorite Take-out Food At Home:  Eggplant in Hot Garlic Sauce

This is a Chinese take-out dish that I have loved for years, and I was very surprised to find that it’s a pretty easy meal to make at home.  The secret is in the little jar of Lee Kum Kee Spicy Garlic Sauce. Lee Kum Kee is sort of the Chef Boyardee of Chinese food – in the same way that Patak’s is the Chef Boyardee of Indian food.  In actual fact both brands are far better than the Chef.

Anyway the recipe is pretty easy. 


8 ounce jar of Kum Kee Spicy Garlic Sauce
½ pound of ground chicken/pork/beef/turkey/soyburger
5 Chinese eggplants (the long purple ones)
1 small onion
1 cup chopped white mushrooms

In a large saucepan fry up half a pound of ground pork/beef/turkey/chicken.  The original recipe calls for pork, but any ground meat will do.  Vegans may want to substitute soyburger. 

Throw in one small chopped onion and a cup of chopped mushrooms

Chop up five Chinese eggplants and put them in a large covered Corningware container.  Nuke for 5 minutes on high or until soft.  Transfer to the large saucepan with the ground meat, mushrooms and onions.

Mix in half the jar (4 ozs) of Lee Kum Kim Spicy Garlic Sauce and let simmer for a couple of minutes.

Then serve with rice.  This is 2-4 servings depending on whether it’s the main course or a side dish.

Net Worth Nonsense: What to Include in your Net Worth Calculations

Net Worth Nonsense:  What to Include in your Net Worth Calculations

I used to sell life insurance.  That meant that I sat at a lot of people’s dining room table helping them figure out their net worth.  I used some tools that were provided to me by the insurance company.  Today, there are plenty of net worth calculators on the web for you to use in your own home.

They all include boxes for your assets that include: real estate; retirement accounts; mutual funds; stocks; bonds; savings accounts and a few other asset classes.  Those are all fine and you should certainly include them.

It’s the categories for clothes, collectibles, appliances and automobiles that I have a concern with.  It’s entirely possible that if you add up all of the items on this list, they could easily come to $50-100K.  That’s a fair size chunk of a lot of people’s net work.  I’m not sure that including them creates an accurate picture of your net worth.

Let’s start with appliances.  If you’re including the fridge, stove and washer/dryer, you’re most likely going to sell them with your home, so they’re already included in the valuation of your house/condo.  Many people choose not to include their cars in calculating their net worth because they are a depreciating asset.  I choose not to because none of my cars have ever been worth very much.

Clothes should never be included.  After you buy them and take them home they are pretty much worthless to anyone except you.  You won’t get very much if you try and sell them – which is why they wind up at the thrift store. Collectibles and jewellery never get the prices we paid for them, and what’s worse they make us think that we have more money than we really do.

I tend to think of the asset side of the net worth statement as being full of assets that either appreciate or generate income.  Right now I’m living off of my investments, the calculations of my net worth are only useful to me if they either make money now or make money in the future.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Lessons From the Previous Generation

Lessons From the Previous Generation

My parents grew up in Britain during the Second World War.  North Americans may not realize it but wartime rationing continued for several years after that.  So, when they arrived over here, they had lived with deprivation for most of their lives.

They continued with this lifestyle for all of their working lives - and into retirement.  They found that it was a great way to save money – a lot of money.   There were not a lot of new clothes or eating out. Vacations were taken around my father’s business trips.  The thermostat hovered around 53 degrees during the winter months.  The cars were always bought used and driven into the ground.

There were times though that frugality crossed over into just plain cheap.  The Christmas turkey was cooked at Dad’s workplace so that it wouldn’t use our electricity.  As soon as the kids got part-time jobs we had to pay rent.  We didn’t buy sugar or jam or anything else that was available in small containers at  restaurants.  Every time my father went out for coffee he would fill his pockets with jam and sugar packets, and bring them home.

So, the frugal living tips I offer come from a lifetime of experience.  Some of them are ones that I learned from my parents and some that I’ve come up with on my own.  A lot of what my parents did to save money, I chose not to practice.  I know it worked for them, but it just seemed impractical in my life.  However, if any of us had grown up in their circumstances, we would probably behave the same way. 

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Making Your Favorite Takeout Food at Home: Mango Salad

Making Your Favorite Takeout Food at Home: Mango Salad

There are plenty of recipes out there already, but I thought it might be nice to contribute a few for those dishes that we normally either go out for, or order in. 

When I really started to make an effort to economize it was cutting out the take-out Thai and Chinese food that really hurt the most.  So I decided to learn how to make some of my favorite take-out food, and it really wasn’t that hard.

So, I just finished making a batch of mango salad. Whenever I ordered in Thai food it would always include mango salad.  If the response is good, I might be persuaded to provide you with my recipe for coconut tom yum.

Mango salad:

take two red mangoes, peel and cut them into spears
add one small thinly sliced red onion 
add a cup of cilantro leaves
and half a cup of chopped peanuts (or a cup if you like)

Mix together in a good sized bowl, I usually use a corningware container with a lid.

The dressing for the salad is made from:
2 tablespoons of lime juice
2 teaspoons of brown sugar
1 teaspoon of vegetable oil
a dash of fish sauce (or soy sauce or worcestershire sauce, depending on what you've got hanging around).

Pour on the dressing and give it a stir. 

This will make 4-6 servings and it will keep for a day or 2 in the fridge

Alternatives to Thrift Store Furniture

Alternatives to Thrift Store Furniture

Frugal furniture can be a real challenge.  Even if you decide to build it yourself, that can take time, expertise and frequently the cost of materials can make it less than viable.  Thrift store furniture is an obvious option, but you have to watch those stores like a hawk because the good stuff gets snapped up immediately.  When you arrive there’s typically only a couple of couches and chairs left – and they’re not worth writing home about.

The selection at the for-profit used stores is always better and so is the quality, but the prices are going to be considerably more than you’ll find at a thrift store.

Two wonderful alternatives to these choices address all of the above issues: selection; quality and price.  The first is the used office furniture market.  These are typically huge stores, frequently in industrial parks.  There isn’t much of a showroom, instead it’s like hunting through a hoarder’s garage.   But the quality of the tables, wall-units, waiting room chairs and couches make this a marvelous alternative to thrift stores.  You’ll find the prices only slightly higher and the selection is dizzying.

The second alternative is the used hotel furniture market.  It’s wing chair heaven.  There aren’t a lot of dining tables, but there’s no shortage of dining chairs, floor lamps, table lamps, armoires, coffee tables and off course – beds and bedframes.  Just like the with office furniture market, the selection is vast, the quality is great and the prices are only slightly higher than what you’d find at the thrift store.

So, if you’re needing to freshen up the look of your place, but you want to do it the frugal way – consider these two alternatives.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Myth of the Household Budget

The Myth of the Household Budget

Household financial advice starts with the budget.  Given the stunning amount of household debt that’s around today, we may want to rethink that one.  It’s like using a diet to address the obesity issue.  Not only does it not work, but it suggests that the inability to follow either the budget or the diet is the fault of the client and not the counselor.

There are a few reasons that budgets don’t work:

They give the householder permission to spend up to the budget limit each month, even if they don’t need to

They can’t prepare you for the catastrophes that sink most budgets – like the $3,000 transmission repair

In a lot of cases you simply can’t live within the limits the budget sets out

The savings portion may be too small

In summary, concept of a household budget is just too rigid to accommodate the average family’s complicated life.  Instead you should worry about being further ahead at the end of every month (to adequately prepare for that impending $3000 transmission repair).  And that means every purchasing decision should be reviewed with the monthly goal in mind.

Frugal people think about every purchase, and because they do, they wind up purchasing less.  So at the store, they think about: 1) if they really need something and; 2) how little they can get away with paying for it.

Frugal people save, and they like to watch their savings grow.  They sleep better at night knowing that when the transmission fails that they can pay for it.  More importantly, they know that each moth their net worth increases.  And that increase in net worth is the goal, not staying within the budget.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Checking Out the Savings @ Your Library

Checking Out the Savings @ Your Library

Let’s say that there’s a branch of government that keeps retail hours and gives away lots of cool stuff for free.  Is that something that you’d be interested in?  Your public library has been helping frugal households achieve their financial goals for decades.  Walk in and look around.  In addition to the gangs of teenage thugs monopolizing the Internet terminals and the rummies sleeping it off in the magazine area, you’ll see lots and lots of young families.

Especially early on a Friday evening.  That’s when you’ll see the line-up at the circulation desk packed with young, struggling families picking up some entertainment for the weekend.  Libraries have always been there for this group, and they always will be.  Those people in line will have armloads of bluerays and DVDs, some picturebooks for the kids, maybe some videogames and a few a novels for the parents.  A whole week’s worth of entertainment – all for free.

Well, it’s free if you can get them back on time.  That’s always been a challenge when using the public library.  Those fines can add up in no time at all.  There really is only one way to address this, and that’s to have one night a week as library night.  That way everything gets brought back.  Keep a bookbag at the door and make sure that everything that’s due gets put in it.

If you can manage to keep this up, you’ll save money on movie rentals, console games, books and magazines.  What’s more, you’ll be able to say to your friends, “Oh, no sorry I can’t that night.  Thursday is the night my family and I go to the Library.” 

And deep down, haven’t you always wanted to be the kind of person who could say that? 

Your Money or your Life....Insurance

Your Money or your Life....Insurance

You either need to have life insurance or money and you should never have both.  Life insurance should always be a short-term measure that protects the people that you care about in the event that something happens to you.  While you’re protected by a non-participating, term life policy you need to be saving, so that eventually you will no longer need that insurance.

Term life is dirt cheap when you’re young, and gets more expensive as you get older.  With that in mind, as your net worth grows, you should gradually begin to scale back on the face amount of your term life policies.  

The real savings here are from where you get your term insurance.  The answer is, From anyone except your insurance agent.  Now don’t get me wrong, I love insurance agents.  I was an insurance agent for a while.  A life insurance agent has access to a dizzying array of financial instruments that might be useful to you at different times in your life.  Unfortunately, the life insurance that comes from an agent – even term insurance - is always the most expensive.

So, where should get your term life insurance?  You can get it from any groups that you belong to.  That includes extra coverage from your employer; any professional or trade association that you belong to; any educational alumni association; a service club or fraternal order; automobile associations – the list is endless. 

Yes, everyone should have life insurance, just don’t buy it from an insurance agent.

In Praise of the Lowly Chest Freezer

In Praise of the Lowly Chest Freezer

It’s hard to imagine an appliance that has the same economic benefits of a chest freezer.  I like chest freezers because they can come in some very small sizes – sometimes under 2 cubic feet.  At that size they can fit on the counter of your kitchen.  That means that you don’t have to own a traditional house with a basement or laundry room to enjoy the savings that this unassuming white box can provide you.

And we’re not going to fill it up with frozen pizzas or any kind of microwaveable meals, no sir.  We’re going to fill it with meat, bread, bagels and frozen vegetables that we purchased on sale.  We’re going to buy several yards of sausage at sale prices, take them home, cook them all, then put 3 or 4 each in baggies to freeze.  And we’ll do the same with those chicken thighs that we found on sale.  We’re going to make a football field sized lasagne then cut it into individual servings and put them in generic plastic food storage containers.  Then we’ll make a rain barrel full of chilli and do the same thing.  So, there’s no need to call for delivery or pick-up drive-through, you already have a chest full of fast-food.

If you live alone, a chest freezer can help you save money and eat healthier.  When I lived alone I found that eating vegetables was difficult because they were always going bad in my fridge.  Access to a good sized deep freeze means that you‘ll never have to worry about your vegetables going bad ever again.

You can get a medium sized chest freezer for around $150.   At that price you’ll probably find that it’ll pay for itself in grocery savings in 3-6 months.   You’ll also enjoy the benefits of lower grocery bills and fewer grocery excursions. 

So, while you might not be cool, at least you can always be chillin’.

The Wonders of Cable TV

The Wonders of Cable TV

So, this is going to be more than a little contrarian, but that’s the whole point of this blog.  Cable TV shouldn’t be something high on your list to cut, when you’re trying to economize. 

Now, when I say cable, I’m including satellite services and anybody else that provides content to your TV.  The reason is quite simple, cable TV can provide a quite luxurious level of entertainment at a very low cost.  That is, provided that you follow 2 basic rules:

Continually review your channel line-up and get rid of anything you don’t watch on a regular basis;

No  pay-per-view – ever.

The pay-per-view thing is pretty obvious.  By all means get a movie channel or two and then just wait a few weeks until the new movies arrive.

That luxurious level of entertainment I was talking about – let’s dig into that one a bit further.  Say your cable bill is pretty high -$150 per month.  That means that for $3 per day, your entire family can enjoy an at home an entertainment experience that could cost $50.00 if you were to go out.

And it’s the going out that gets us in the end.  Visit friends and have friends visit you (and your first rate cable package), but as soon as you step into the multiplex or the sports bar the costs come in multiples of that $3 per day.

So, enjoy the flat screen and your cable package, just like you did before.  Except now you can be a little smug about how incredibly thrifty you are.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Your Own Personal Economic Infrastructure

Your Own Personal Economic Infrastructure

Instead of the mountain of books out there that attempt to assist people in improving their net worth and getting out of debt, I think we should concentrate on books that have a slightly different focus.  Improving your personal finances is a complex process that deserves a whole lot more thought than simplistic maxims like Pay yourself first.

One book that captures the challenges faced by people living with greatly reduced incomes is Pat Capponi’s Dispatches From the Poverty Line.  Capponi gives us some insight into a life that has been robbed of any infrastructure that can help lift a person out of poverty.  It’s full of rented rooms with no access to refrigeration, so meals have to be purchased ready to eat.  There’s no TV or cable, so entertainment becomes something you go out for.

It’s that infrastructure that’s so very important when someone is trying to economize:

The vegetable garden where the sun and some water can provide you with the                                                                means to supplement your groceries with healthy produce

The workshop where you can repair broken appliances, furniture and fixtures

The chest freezer that allows you to buy large quantities of items on sale and have them available whenever you need them

The car that takes you to the big box store to take advantage of bulk discount

The ensuite washer and dryer that saves you countless time consuming trips to the laundromat

The big screen TV that provides a wealth of inexpensive entertainment at home

And sadly, these are things that so many people take for granted, but when they’re gone we notice the impact on our pocketbook immediately.  Many of the items in the above list are associated with home ownership, and yet we don’t often hear about them as concrete economic benefits. 

I know that people generally associate frugality with fewer possessions, and I tend to agree with that – except when those possessions allow you to save money.  Then they become part of your own personal economic infrastructure.