Adventures In Frugality …Making a price book, finally

After reading the idea in Amy Dacyzyn’s Tightwad Gazette, I’ve long intended to do a written-down price book –a list of items I regularly buy with the best prices I find at each store along with the date. Finally, I started one tonight. I’m still bumping my way around MS Excel (I can’t remember how to do the formula so I can automatically figure out the unit price, but I’ll find that next time) and I’m doing a spreadsheet I can update and automatically sort …and get the program to do the math for me :D. At any rate, it’s been a real eye-opener already. I’ve found two things out: first, stores often have sales on certain items on a cyclic basis  (–does everyone know this already and I’m just really dense??), second, what is a “sale” at one store is more often than I realized, way less everyday at another store. Now if only I had the computer knowledge to make my millions on a program that would download local sale information, combine it with a coupon database, and a price book …hmmm. The only problem is, of course, is that that would take all the fun out of it, and anyone who would care about that sort of thing would probably figure it wasn’t worth paying for. Oh well.

An Experiment…

I’m doing an experiment… One thing I miss about getting the paper when we were in AZ was the Sunday paper coupons. Of course, I got my paper for free then since I was doing a route, but I’ve been wondering if using the coupons would total enough in a month to pay for the subscription. So, here begins my experiment. My weekend subscription to the Sheb. Press costs just over $9 a month –I figure if I am diligent, I can pretty easily recoup that in a month. If it winds up being more savings than that –I just may spring for a daily subscription :). We’ll see…

Oh –one more thing I realized recently. I used to not use coupons because 90 percent of the time, the store brand wound up being cheaper even compared with the name brand + coupon, so I figured it wasn’t worth the time. Now that we live near an Aldi –I figured it was totally useless. Then I realized that the secret to making coupons work is to team them with sales. Duh. Should be fun! Now, if only we lived near a CVS pharmacy again. If you do, check out their “extra care” program and some tips at MoneySavingMom. I found out about the program by accident, and even without trying wound up with a $25 gift card once or twice in Arizona. Things really add up if you do all your prescriptions there as well –with me being on Synthroid, and three kids, one of whom is prone to ear infections, it added up very quickly. If you know how to play the game, you could do even better than I did and make your out-of-pocket expenses at CVS next to nothing.

WE’RE (gonna be) DEBT FREEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!

There. A slightly premature debt-free scream :). Just did the taxes, and not only will we be DEBT FREEEEE!!!!! but we’ll have enough for 1) an emergency fund (since our old one got drained this summer in the transition to two cars), and 2) a new computer! Did I say I hate today? Never mind. When I do get it all paid off for real (we have to wait a few days for the refund to appear in our account), I’ll let you (and Dave Ramsey) know :D.

I know tithing is kind of a hot button subject in my fam :), but I’ll broaden the concept to “following God’s directions on what He wants done with His money”. I say this not to brag on ourselves, but to brag on God. This year, we’ve been led to start tithing (faithfully -we’ve done it irregularly in the past) –not as an obligation, not because someone told us to, but because it is a good concrete reminder to us that 100 percent of what we have is God’s, and that 10 percent that we give back off the top causes us (especially so with our limited income lately) to live more by faith. I can wholeheartedly claim the following verse to be true, and it would be just as true if we weren’t about to make the final payment of five years of focused struggle against debt. God is good all the time.

“give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” Luke 6:38, ESV

Thoughts on Christmas Trees –a dilemma

After about 15 minutes of philosophical discussion on whether to get a real tree again this year or finally break down and get an artificial one, the latter choice became the one. We now have a genuine Made In China plastic and metal “tree” in our living room.

The irony? We’d also talked a couple years ago about doing a “natural” theme for the tree, and this year, our metal and plastic “tree” will be decked with birds, pinecones, and a really cool pinecone and cinnamon stick garland we found at Target. I know, a few years ago I would have refused to buy it, arguing that it’s something I could easily make myself, but reality has set in (I have no time), and we bought it (see, one compromise begets another…). Besides, have you ever tried to find small pinecones in early December in Wisconsin, with two inches of ice-crusted snow on the ground? Not very possible. Oh, and, needing new lights (we haven’t had a “big” tree in years –we’ve used our tabletop tree), I splurged and bought energy-efficient LED lights, continuing the “green” theme. On our artificial tree. …Well, at least we didn’t go all out and buy pine scented spray to make up for the glorious aroma this “tree” lacks. Now, THAT would be going too far. So, somewhere out in a lonely snow-covered meadow, a tree is still growing that we saved from a certain death by decoration. Now that I think of it, why should some poor tree give its oxygen-providing life to give our family a month of pine-scented gaudiness? Perhaps we made the right decision after all.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry…

This is the August 2007 figures from the USDA on how much food for a family costs, on average. According to this, we should be spending …are you ready for this???? $751.10 (!) a month for our family of five. On an extravagant month (like back last summer when I experimented with buying more organic and meat from a local farm, or on the months when I’ve bought a few convenience items), I figure we spend maybe 3/4 of this. …And that figure is for the LOW COST plan! Now, granted, I may never reach the frugality of some members of my family, but that really has me encouraged for now :). I have no idea how they come up with that figure, but it would be fun to find out. Yeesh. Seven hundred a month!

A paradox…

It recently occurred to me that so much of the current trend of “simplifying” involves an obsession with our relationship to stuff. Does it seem strange to anyone else that people so interested in simplifying so often are, once it comes down to it, really obsessed with stuff? Okay, so maybe this is confusing. I’ll try again, this time with a personal anecdote.

Once I started embracing (partly by the necessity of living on a small income, partly by the thrill of the challenge of living on as little as possible) the idea of “simplifying,” suddenly stuff became more important …but in a different way. I replaced the need for MORE stuff with the desire for LESS but BETTER stuff. Make sense? Instead of “simplifying” reducing the amount of time and energy spent on stuff, it seems to increase it, maybe temporarily, I don’t know. There are a couple blogs and websites I enjoy checking in on from time to time in my quest for the “less and better” that I recently realized incited a desire for …more and better stuff. Suddenly “what I already have” isn’t good enough. My supply of recycled plastic WalMart bags isn’t doing it anymore for my bag-it-yourself trips to Aldi. I need new fabric bags. Because it’ll save the environment, and they’re way more attractive… And my rubbermaid plastic drinking water bottle –not good enough anymore. I really need a stainless steel one that won’t give me cancer.
So, where does this all stop? I guess I’ve been working with going beyond the idea of “simplifying” to contentment. What is it going to take for me to be thankful for what I already have? How about shifting the thinking from “what can I get rid of, and what can I replace it with” to “how can I better use what God’s already gifted me with?” I’m coming to terms with the fact that God seems to be indicating to us that really, we are already making what we need financially. Maybe not what we need in someone else’s terms, but we are right where God wants us. I’m learning in my old age to rely less on my own solutions and more on God’s grace and provision. And sometimes, that just doesn’t make sense. Even to me, which makes it really hard to plead my case to someone who thinks it’s irresponsible to be living in need of public assistance so that I can both feed my family and stay home to raise them myself. I don’t really get it myself, but I do get that that’s where God wants us right now. It’s humiliating. It’s difficult to be in the position to save the day, but know that the cost of doing so just might be the peace of our home, and maybe even the lifelong outcome of my childrens’ lives. That’s big. Yes, I know that going out and getting a part time job wouldn’t necessarily destroy Life As We Know It. It might even make things easier, in some ways. But I feel I have a much better sense of God’s direction in our lives now than I did even two years ago, and I am confident that if I were to do that, I’d be sacrificing time and energy and opportunities to teach my children about God and how much he loves them and wants the best for them. I’m never going to get this time back. Ever. I can always go out and get a job, if that’s what’s right to do. But for now, I’m doing this job, and this is my calling.

Practically speaking, contentment for me means being grateful for what God has given us, and not questioning why he hasn’t given us more. Nor does it mean striving for things He doesn’t intend for us to have right now. Contentment is such a larger concept than material contentment. That’s a new idea for me. I think being content with the stuff and money we have is one thing, but to get to the place where we can be content in the entire place we are in life means the stuff and money issues fall into place by nature. If we are busy seeking where God wants us in His kingdom, and working at being in that place, everything else will work out.

Cool site to share…

File this under the “mommy files.” An online friend mentioned this site in a post and I couldn’t help but share it with y’all because, hey, you never know who you’re going to meet who could use this. It’s a site called miraclediapers.org, and it’s an idea I’ve had in the past, but didn’t have the time or administrative skills to do it myself. Fortunately, someone else has, and from the looks of it, they’re doing a fabulous job. This is an organization that gives cloth diapers and cloth diapering supplies to low income families. Our family alone (and this is factoring in the cost of the diapers themselves) has saved more than 2,000 dollars over three kids by doing cloth diapers, and that’s only figuring doing cloth part-time. Disposables are expensive –I’ve averaged them between 25 cents (name brand on sale) to 12 cents (target brand on clearance in the HUGE box) a PIECE. Figure the average newborn uses 10 to 12 diapers a day (if you’re changing them as often as you should 😉 ), and the average 1 year old uses around 5-8 a day, and it gets pretty expensive, pretty quick. Add in disposable wipes at around $2 a box, and it only adds to the misery. Low income families can get help with the food end of things, but no program I’m currently aware of covers diapers. It’s a real-life serious need for a lot of families in tight spots.

As far as the laundry aspect of cloth, I can speak by experience and say that it’s really not that bad, especially if you’ve already gotten over the “dealing with bodily fluids” thing that makes you a mom anyway. To me, it’s just another couple loads of laundry a week. I do a diaper load about every other or every three days, and since I don’t currently have a clothesline (working on that…), I dry them in the dryer, which accounts for most of the cost of using cloth. If I had a space to line dry, it’d be even cheaper (plus, the UV rays from the sun bleach and help sanitize the diapers. See, you learn something new every day!).

What do I do with them? I use prefolded diapers and velcro covers, so I don’t deal with pins. With wet ones, I either (if I’m lazy) dump them straight in the diaper bin or give them a quick rinse in the toilet (helps with smell, which isn’t that bad anyway if I do a diaper load every 2-3 days). With the “soiled” ones, I shake off the solid stuff, swish the diaper in the toilet a bit to rinse off the extra, wring it out a bit with my diaper duck, and throw it in to the bin. When laundry time comes, I throw the diapers into the machine, run a short cold water prewash with 1/2 the recommended detergent, then follow it with a good long hot wash with another 1/2 dose of detergent. Sometimes I double rinse if they still look a bit soapy, sometimes not. Some moms use bleach, but I haven’t had problems yet with smell, and they get sanitized very well from the hot water and a hot dryer. After that, I toss them into the dryer (or hang them on a line if I have one). Fold ’em up, and they’re all ready for re-use. Cloth wipes (baby washcloths or Wal-Mart cheapie washcloths moistened with plain warm water or a bit of Dr. Bronner’s soap diluted in water) go right in with the diaper laundry. Total time spent not including machine time –about 25-30 minutes a load, or about the time it would take me to drive to Sheboygan and back to BUY diapers, less the time wandering the store and wrangling kids. Not really a big deal at all, but for $2,000 over three kids, I think it’s a pretty good one.