Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A foodie has hijacked this personal finance blog

Nothing major to report, at least not financially speaking. For us, February is a month of working, budgeting, planning, and finding ways to snag a little treat every now and then! I have some big news to share, news that affects our finances, but I need to wait a few more weeks before I spill the beans.

No, I'm not pregnant!

I'm still trying to figure out how to get good food for less money. Last week, we spent ~$125 on groceries; this week we tried shopping at Trader Joe's instead of Whole Foods and spent roughly the same (although I think we ended up with more food, since TJs sells pre-packaged fruits and veggies - so instead of getting to select how much produce you want, you end up with a pack of two peppers, or a pack of three bok choy, or a pack of three zucchini, and so on and so forth). TJs seems to offer fewer gluten free/soy free/corn free options than WF, but it does sell a good selection of organic ingredients. The meat and cheese prices were definitely lower at TJs than at WF.

I don't think I should stress out too much about the total, though, especially because we've been really good about cooking at home and not going out to eat. We used to go out several times a week, and now it's more like two or three times a month at most. So that's money saved.

Trent and I have planned a date for Valentine's Day. We haven't decided on a specific place yet, mainly because it's tough to find an affordable restaurant that's transparent about its ingredients. We might go to the sushi place down the street or perhaps try Bonefish Grill, which apparently has a gluten free menu.

Meanwhile, Trent took me to a local sweet shop to pick out some Valentine's Day goodies, and here is what I ended up with:

(I had way more lollipops than this, but a certain young individual thought it was appropriate to "borrow" them. That's right - I'm in a lollipop tug-of-war with a preschooler.)

The lollipops are made by Yummy Earth, which specializes in organic, all-natural, gluten-free and corn-free sweets. These lollipops are the best I've ever tasted.

And since we're on the subject of food, what the heck - here's tonight's dinner: white bean chicken chili a la The Pioneer Woman:

What I love about this chili is that it's spicy, but not overwhelmingly so. It's just enough to clear the sinuses!

Looking for Freedom isn't meant to be a food blog, but it's starting to reflect the fact that our frugal(ish) living means we spend an awful lot of time in the kitchen. :-) My life right now is all about working, playing, cooking, and looking forward to some exciting future opportunities.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Don't forget to floss!

A few days ago, Trent came down with a toothache. At first it was a mere twinge. "I'll wait," he thought, "and maybe it will go away." He popped a few Tylenol and kept it to himself. But the pain worsened, and when I noticed him wincing, he finally had to admit what was going on.

The dentist took an x-ray and announced that he would need a root canal plus a cap on one of his back teeth. Total estimated cost: $1800. "But I could buy a brand-new Apple laptop with that kind of money," Trent told her. "Isn't there another option?"

The other option was to simply pull the tooth, keep the wound clean, and live on liquids for two days while his gums heal up. Total cost: $108.

You can guess which option he chose. We don't even have $1800 in our emergency fund right now. Currently, he's downing nutrient shakes and water and dousing his mouth with saltwater at regular intervals.

I gripe whenever I have to pay $150 for a visit to the doctor, but in truth, the dentist is always more expensive. Always. They're forever finding another problem, another issue: a cavity, worn-down enamel, a chip, a little bleeding along the gumline. Every problem seems to warrant immediate attention, and every procedure comes complete with paralyzing sticker shock. Who can afford it? Whose emergency account can keep up with it? I don't understand why it has to cost so much when it's clear that the majority of the population can't afford such expensive treatments.

What's most frustrating is that we're pretty careful about our teeth. I brush twice daily, floss twice daily (yes, using the proper method), and rinse twice daily with enamel-restoring mouthwash. I don't drink soda or eat much candy. And yet the dental drama never ends!

Monday, February 1, 2010

In a battle between my hair and dinner...

...dinner wins.

I've just realized that my scheduled appointment for partial highlights and a trim is not in the budget and will need to be canceled. I'm sure my stylist would try to persuade me otherwise, but that's the way it is. (If you don't have highlights, don't get them... The constant upkeep is a pain in the neck and a blow to the wallet.) We're tightening our belts and putting aside the debit card.

The thing is, I'd rather spend my money on good food. This week's food budget was $125; at the register, we came in at $123.15 - still quite steep, but at least we stuck to the plan and to our list. We got excellent deals on apples, bananas, and most of the veggies. The price of the broccoli and the organic, free-range chicken seemed a bit steep. We'll see if we can lower our total during next Sunday's grocery run. My goal right now is to make it through the week without going to the store again.

Tonight, I'm making dinner: baked rosemary chicken with potatoes, celery, and carrots, plus cornbread for the boys.

The cornbread is from a Bob's Red Mill mix. Just add butter or oil and eggs or flaxseed (I like the nuttiness of the flaxseed) to the mix and bake it for about half an hour. Here's what's left a day later when you share your home with an adult male and a bread-loving preschooler:

The potatoes are steaming up. I leave them in the pan on low heat for about 45 minutes until they're soft, then crank up the heat so they get crispy on the outside:

And then here are the carrots and broccoli, for extra flavor, texture, fiber, and nutrition:

I add them to the potatoes right at the very end. I like my veggies crunchy.

Last but not least, here's the chicken, sprinkled with salt, pepper, and rosemary. I made enough so that we can eat another helping for tomorrow's lunch:

Mmmm. (It was really good!)

Friday, January 29, 2010

A letter to my son

My dear, darling, Pampers-bottomed son,

I am writing to inform you that whenever you are ready to use the potty, I am ready to help you learn. You are nearly three years old. I can see how much you love and value your independence as you choose your own snacks, select the toys you want to play with, "rearrange" your bedroom, and remove your clothes at will. So imagine how independent and dignified you will feel when you're completely free of those pesky old diapers! No more dampness, no more puffiness, no more stinking up the entire cabin of a 757 passenger jet.

And even though I know you don't care - I'll just mention it in case you have any sympathy for us - I want to point out that a 100-count pack of diapers costs approximately $30. Insane, right? Thirty bucks could buy a whole bucketful of Hot Wheels. Or a big bin of dinosaurs. It would even cover the expense of two Dora the Explorer videos. (Ha - THAT got your attention, didn't it!) Better yet, we could just funnel that money into your college fund.

I won't push you into potty training. I'll wait for you to take the lead. But give it some thought and get back to me.

Note that I am not above offering bribes for your cooperation.

Much love,

Monday, January 25, 2010

Dumb Financial Choices Part 1: Teeny Tiny Down Payment

Don't let the fact that this is a personal finance blog fool you. Unlike many of the other personal finance bloggers I follow, I still make plenty of monetary mistakes. Plenty. At any given time, Suze Orman or Dave Ramsey could sift through our finances and have a field day. They could invite us onto their shows and yell at us. Then we could parlay the trauma into a book entitled How to Make Dumb Financial Choices (Based on a True Story).

Dumb Financial Choice #1: Purchasing a house without a 20 percent down payment.

Or even a 10 percent down payment.

Or... um... even a five percent down payment.

Actually, it was way less than even five percent. But the bank didn't seem to care, so we figured it was okay.

We purchased our home in April of 2008. Had we waited a few months - until the global financial crisis was hogging the headlines - we probably wouldn't have gotten away with this particular loan. But we managed to make it under the wire. Yay.

Unfortunately, we've come to realize that we don't actually like owning a home (I know, I know... That's so very un-American of us). For our entire married lives (10 years), we've been vagabonds, changing location every one or two or three years. Whereas other people might find such upheaval disconcerting, we enjoy it. New places, new faces, new experiences, new atmospheres, new challenges... We thrive on change. It makes our toes tingle. We've been aware of that fact for a long time. Looking back, I'm not sure why we decided to make such a permanent choice. We'd have been better off buying an RV.

The bottom line is that right now, we are stuck. Stuck with our 6.875% interest rate. Stuck with $150 in PMI every month. We can't sell this place. Housing prices in our area are in decent shape, but at this point, even if we received our theoretical asking price, we couldn't make enough of a profit to cover the Realtor commission, let alone the remaining balance on our home loan. Plus, any savvy buyer would demand less than the advertised price. Any savvy buyer would probably also demand that we cover closing costs and foot the bill for replacing the scruffy carpet and the on-the-fritz refrigerator.

But had we put 20 percent down, we would have been able to afford listing our home if we wanted to. Sure, maybe we would have taken a hit, but that would have been our choice to make. At the very least, we could have refinanced and obtained a lower monthly mortgage payment.

Now we're at the mercy of the housing market. Hopefully, if we wait five years, the market will bounce back. Maybe we'll even make a small profit. It just seems like a long time to wait, especially when I'm stricken with such a chronic case of Wanderlust.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Five frugal and environmentally-friendly product swaps

When I was a little girl visiting my grandmother in Germany, I noticed that Oma, like many of her friends, always took her own well-worn cloth bags with her to the grocery store, drugstore, bakery, and meat market. She never set off to make a purchase without them, and she never bought more than what she could fit into those bags. Thus, she never had to bother with paper or plastic.

Then we’d go back home to America and shop - cloth bag-less - at our own grocery store, where the ratio of plastic to product was approximately 1:1: a plastic bag for the jar of pickles. A plastic bag for the carton of milk. Two plastic bags, doubled up, for a couple liters of soda. We never knew quite what to do with all of those bags after unloading the groceries (this was before most big towns had recycling centers). Throwing them away seemed wasteful, but keeping them was inconvenient. You’d open the pantry door and a tsumani of plastic would tumble onto your head.

For the last year or so, Trent and I have followed Oma’s suit. When we shop, we bring our own cloth bags with us. (Sometimes we even get praised for it. “Thanks for making an effort to be kind to the environment,” said the Whole Foods bagger the other day, and smiled as if we’d saved half the planet from certain destruction.)

Hopefully, cloth bags are just the start of it for us. Over the past year or so, we’ve been re-examining our choices in an effort to save money and live in a more environmentally friendly manner. We started cooking most of our meals from scratch, meaning we eat fewer processed foods and takeout and therefore generate less plastic and cardboard waste. We traded in regular light bulbs for compact fluorescents. And we’ve made a number of other easy product swaps that have eased our spending and lightened the load on the environment, however incrementally:

(Excuse the cell phone-quality picture. A new camera isn't in the budget quite yet.)

1. We ditched the plastic and bought a water filter. I hate to say it, but the tap water in our town tastes like it’s been stewing in a big vat of chlorine. I refuse to drink it straight up, regardless of how safe it’s supposed to be. In the past, I’d buy at least one gallon of water in a plastic container every week. It wasn’t that expensive – about a dollar a gallon at Target – but it generated a lot of waste. A few months ago, we wised up and purchased a pitcher with accompanying water filter for about $22, including the filter. Now I have clean, tasty water on hand all the time, and our recycling bin isn’t cluttered with giant containers.

2. Goodbye, paper towels. Hello…diapers? Last year, I wrote about how we decided to substitute pre-fold diapers for paper towels. Given that we have a three year old, and given that we do cook nearly every night, we deal with grime and goop and spills on a near-constant basis. We were easily going through an entire roll of paper towels every week. So we spent about $20 on a couple packs of basic cloth diapers. They’re much more absorbent than paper towels or regular kitchen rags, and we wash them with whatever else happens to be in the hamper. We use them to mop up the counter, wipe off sticky mac n’ cheese-covered fingers, clean the windows, etc.

3. Take a load off, oven. The toaster’s filling in tonight. We’re a small family and our meals aren’t that large. Sometimes it seems silly to rev up the big oven just to bake a plate of fries or roast some veggies. It's a waste of energy. So when we can, we use our little toaster oven instead. Because it’s small, it heats up quickly and slices a few minutes off of most baking times. We’ve used our toaster oven to cook a variety of foods: chicken, potatoes, pizza, and fish, to name a few.

4. It doesn’t smell as good as other cleaning products, but it works just as well. We’ve replaced most of our household cleaners with two cheap and basic substitutes: vinegar and baking soda. They’re effective, and I don’t worry about using them around my son. These products sell for about a dollar each at the grocery store, and a little of either goes a long way. I cleaned the entire bathroom with them the other day, and although it didn’t exactly smell pretty afterwards, the porcelain and chrome were definitely gleaming.

5. We started purchasing biodegradable laundry powder. The $12 4-pound bags we purchase from a local soap company last about three months. You need only about a quarter of a cup of powder per load of laundry. The powder doesn’t suds up the way many other detergents do, but we’ve used it for more than half a year, and I can say that our clothes always look clean and smell fresh (...at least, no-one's told us otherwise...).

I'm not sure why we didn't make some of these changes sooner, especially when Oma - one of my lifelong role models - served as such a commendable example of a conscientious consumer. Better late than never, I guess. We’ve started to realize that frugality and green living can mesh very well with one another: a wallet-conscious choice is often an Earth-conscious choice, too.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Trying to budget at Whole Foods

Sunday marked the beginning of our second week of selecting groceries according to our new eating guidelines, and our second week of shopping exclusively at Whole Foods. There's no getting around the fact that WF is more expensive than our usual Kroger market and that fewer items are on sale. However, the food is also healthier on the whole. WF carries a plethora of natural, organic, and locally-grown products. That's not to say that it's the picture of healthful perfection: you can find plenty of tempting snacks, sweets, and processed junk at WF, just as you would at most other grocery stores. It's just that WF's junk food is free of artificial dyes, artificial sweeteners, and partially hydrogenated fat. (Related side note: the New Yorker recently published an article about contradictions associated with Whole Foods' history and management. It's an interesting read, especially if you're really into natural foods or skeptical about this company's ability to make a profit while maintaining its integrity. But I digress.)

We planned carefully for our shopping excursion. First, we constructed a menu for the week:

Breakfast: Rice cereal and fruit for Susanne; cereal for Trent; waffles and fruit (or whatever else we can get him to eat) for the kiddo

Lunch: Dinner leftovers for Susanne and Trent; mac and cheese, cheesy toast, or pasta plus fruit for our son


~Sweet potato falafel (we had this on Sunday - it's delicious!)
~Broccoli and quinoa (that was last night's dinner, and it was exceptionally tasty, too)
~Chicken, potatoes, and veggies (Trent's making it right now!)
~Gluten free pizza
~Rice pasta with sauce and veggies
~Soup and salad
~Make-your-own-dinner night (basically, we just eat whatever we can scrounge up from the refrigerator and pantry)

The total bill rang in at $108. That's less than last week (because we didn't purchase as much meat this time), but still more than we would ever spend at Kroger. The organic, free-range chicken cost nearly $8 on its own. I selected a bunch of Bob's Red Mill products (like gluten-free chickpea flour and ground flaxseed) that were each about $5 (but they'll last for at least a couple of months). We also purchased a variety of organic fruits and veggies: apples, bananas, spinach, onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes, celery. We threw in some cheese, butter, and milk that we can use in this week's and following weeks' recipes. Treats included a pack of gluten-free cookies for me and my son and some beer for my husband.

It was an expensive trip, but the bill might be lower next week simply because we're now armed with more basic ingredients. Plus, I don't anticipate that we'll be going out to eat anytime soon. We're finding that it's cheaper, easier, and more satisfying to just cook at home.