Saturday, 3 October 2015

First Fire of the Year

It was a chilly day, misting and a cold wind. 

I lit a fire in the wood stove tonight, the first of the year. It's faster to warm up the house using the furnace but it never feels as good as toasty warm floors and...well, just being warm by the fire. 

It's supposed to warm up later in the week, but it's time for me to haul in some wood. We won't light a fire every day, but soon we will and it is time to get some wood ready for the winter. As usual, the plan to get the wood all cut in the spring/summer didn't happen. But Husband and my brothers might get a chance to cut some wood this weekend (Canadian Thanksgiving). It's becoming a bit of a family tradition. I am glad to spend time working together outside and then sitting down to a family meal. These occasions are about to become even more special as my younger brother and his wife are expecting their first child in January. I am incredibly moved by the thought of my kids having a little cousin to play with and I can't wait for them to enjoy the kind of holidays we had with our cousins. Like every other year, this year we have so much to be thankful for. 

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Walking the Walk

I consider myself to be a "saver". I talk about frugal living, I don't shop for myself very often and I've saved a LOT of money by using second hand baby paraphernalia and hand-me-down clothing for my kids (and myself). We often wait for things to be on sale or try to find second hand, and we buy useful, needed gifts for Christmas and birthdays. I do not buy toys for my kids unless it is birthday and Christmas, with the exception of a few summer toys for the lake this year. Although I think we are far more frugal than many of the people we know, Husband and I are realizing there is much need for improvement. One issue we have is we use our credit card in order to receive air miles and it has led to rampant use of credit. Although we ALWAYS pay off the balance I think we have become desensitized to spending. So for one month we plan to use cash and see how it goes.

FULL DISCLOSURE: My dad is a cattle farmer and I get most/all of my beef for free. This is wonderful and I'm so grateful. But it doesn't add up to me why we spend so much on food when our main protein is free.

With that in mind, I've sat down and made a list of some areas to improve upon:

For myself:
  • groceries are almost exclusively bought by me, and I cook 99% of our meals. I have extraordinary control over what comes into this house, but at times I feel I have no control at all. All in all, I want to reduce my grocery bill for our family of 4 to a consistent $700/month. I want $50 of that monthly amount to include pet food for the cats and dog, and I want a portion of that $50 to go towards creating a greater stockpile of food here (ie. flour, sugar, oats, rice, coffee etc). 
    • ACTION: next time we go to town for groceries I will withdraw $700 for groceries. I plan to do one shop per week for the fresh things we need (milk, eggs, fruit and veg) and one larger shop per month where I can take advantage of store specials to build points while I buy larger amounts and items that we have run out of (canned goods, freezer items, baking and cooking supplies)
    • MY GOAL: to become accustomed to spending less impulsively in the grocery store. To many people a $700 grocery budget for a family of 4 would be heavenly, and I realize it is an ample amount. The fact is, we are sometimes at the store 5 or 6 times a month and it is just adding up and feels out of control. I feel that if I am using cash I will be more aware of my monthly budget being used up. Once I have a sense of where the money is going I plan to steadily reduce the amount we spend on food well below this initial goal.
  • I consider it a real treat to have an evening off from cooking. When we are all in town for several hours it is so tiring and coming home to cook for everyone when I'm exhausted sometimes leads to me suggesting we grab something and bring it home. This is not the end of the world but I plan to come up with healthier and more affordable options. One of which will be bulk cooking some family favorites and freezing so that I can have things thawing and waiting for us to arrive. NOTE: it has been months since we had take out or drive thru!
  • better use of our garden
  • use the "Good Food Box" program in town to see if there is a savings (I have purchased my first box for $15 and was impressed with the amount of produce. I plan to continue ordering every second week)
  • make better use of menu plans for frugal, healthy meals
  • less kitchen waste
  • be better prepared with Husband's work lunches so that A) I am not buying pre-packaged food to send with him and B) he is not stopping at gas stations for quick lunches (not only gross but expensive!)
  • Let's face it, I spend a lot on my yard and on fabric. I fully admit I can go overboard. Like a true addict, I just really need to avoid situations where I buy more stuff. I'm done with the yard for the year. Anything else I want will be structural (a bench for by the pond) and I will ask for it for Christmas or birthday. I have projects in mind that I will be watching for salvaged materials to use (ie. outdoor oven, flagstone patio area, but will wait for the right opportunity). There won't be a need for too much spending in the spring, either, as I've built up a good base of perennials and things are starting to fill in. Any major projects now will be ones that add value to our yard and can save us money down the road (chicken house, barn etc)
    •  As far as quilting goes, I have splurged on some lovely fabrics (most of which were on sale but it really adds up!) and I am putting it out there for all the world (or the scattered reader here, anyways) that I will not, must not, shan't and can't buy any more fabric unless it is essential for the completion of a project. I love to look and if I came across some great vintage prints I might make an exception but the flagrant collecting of material must really stop. It must. I might need a sponsor.
  • Come up with ways to make some money on the side without needing childcare
  • look into having all our insurances at one office. Perhaps we can reduce some of our spending here. Insurance is by far our largest expense and although we won't go without it, I am hoping to find a way to reduce its cost. We switched home insurance providers this spring for a savings of $700+. I hope to save even more while keeping the same coverage. Edited to add: there was a mysterious monthly charge of $230/month coming out of our bank account. Unsure if it was Husband's company insurance I inquired at one office and could get no information regarding the charge. I have gone through all of our records and still didn't know what the charge was for. I called the local small town office where we used to insure (dropped them for a different small town office to save $700/yr and after much persistence I find that we were still being charged for our old insurance policy. Once I remember to fax a copy of our new policy we will be reimbursed over $1100--woot! woot!!
  • We were paying an $8/month fee on our joint bank account without my realizing we could eliminate that charge. My own personal account has a couple different charges that I need to cancel (life insurance, which I have elsewhere, and overdraft protection). It is costing me $10/ month and I just need to remember to cancel those!
  • Work on selling our camper privately.
For Husband:
  • Once in awhile it may become necessary for Husband to pack his own lunch at night. I am not instigating a battle of the sexes debate; I feel it is easier for me to make his lunch during the day while I prepare other food than have him come home after a 12 hour work day to make his own lunch when he should be seeing the kids. It is not a job that I resent, but there are days that the kids and I are out and about and it would help immensely if he made his own sandwich or packaged up his own leftovers. I used to make him individual meals that he could take and reheat in his little lunch kit warmer that plugs into his truck. I need to prepare a few for the week on Mondays again like I used to. 
  • Eliminate or greatly reduce soft drink consumption.
  • Eliminate or greatly reduce trips into gas stations for snacks and treats.
  • Only buy tools that are needed to complete a task that has been begun. No buying tools that we might need down the road or because they are a good deal. They aren't a good deal if they don't get used.
  •  Sort and put away screwdrivers/wrenches/various tools so they can be found and used readily when needed, thus reducing the need for multiple sets
  • No impulsive purchases for the children, or if something cannot be resisted it must be saved for a Christmas or birthday gift
For the Family:
  • movie theatre tickets and snacks are a real costly expense. The last time Husband went it cost $60 for him and our 2 preschool kids. $60!!! I don't go along because of the cost and the volume. We will put more emphasis on movie nights at home with homemade pizza and popcorn etc. We can probably rent a new release on our satellite dish for under $10. Still a treat but so much more affordable.
  • I reduced our satellite dish package by $30 for the summer months. We watch more Netflix than anything, but we are curling fans and I hate to lose live coverage of events through out the winter when we are in the house more. We do discuss cancelling satellite and if we decide to it would be a savings of $50+/ month.
  • no more plastic junk toys. NO MORE!!
  • better use of the library and free kids programs. We need to brainstorm some free activities that we want to do and not forget them when we have a free day together. 
  • set a Christmas budget and stick to it. We never carry a balance on our credit card but we have seen some frightening bills come in January. Christmas is one area where we could make real progress on our spending.
  • Start a fund for a family vacation.
  • Make an actual budget for kids' activities. My kids aren't in much but I tend to stick them in programs willy-nilly and don't know how much I spend in a year. Perhaps there is a way to be more conscious and get more for my dollar. Skating/hockey is a popular pastime for Canadian kids. I will let my boys choose if they wish to play. To me, the fees are enormous and I'm not sure how much the 3 year old will get out of it. The 5 year old is going to be very tired adjusting to kindergarten, so I have opted to wait for next year. 
  • My eldest son just started kindergarten and already there's been unexpected costs--he had to have headphones--$20 for the cheapest set! He has had a book sale catalogue sent home (recycled it while he wasn't looking) we sponsored $40 for the Terry Fox Run, and I sent him $5 for the hot dog sale. When he came home with no change I asked if he ate 3 hot dogs ($1.50 each). He said no, but he bought a hot dog for a little girl who didn't have any money. I thought it was sweet but I'll be sending the correct change from now on!
  • Use the refunds from recycling our bottles and cans to buy a takeout meal when we go to the bottle depot. Put any extra money into the vacation fund.
  • Pick bottles and cans from nearby ditches in the spring to contribute to our vacation fund. Good for the environment, great way for the kids and I to be outside and work together.
  • Begin using money we save in other areas to invest in GICs and try to put our money to work.
For now, the plan is to withdraw $700 for groceries/pet food/ food stockpile and see how I do this month. I realize this is actually a LOT of money when you consider our mortgage, utilities, etc are above and beyond this cost. I want us to be prepared for a situation of reduced income/unemployment or unforeseen emergencies. This is my jumping off point. I want to reduce our spending far beyond these numbers but first need to see where the money is going. At the same time, there are many areas where we do well: we have an emergency fund and I have made some investments and set up Tax Free Savings accounts for both of us. Our kids both have education plans and we actively discuss what we need to be doing. We know we are leaking money, though, and it is very important to me that we set an example for our kids and teach them about money as they grow up. As my parents told me, it doesn't grow on trees :) If we are going to talk the talk, it is time to walk the walk. 

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Thrifty Thursday: You Might Not Always Be "Cool"

This is my seventh "Thrifty Thursday" post. I want to stay motivated as I work on our family budget--part of that motivation is sharing what I am doing. It can be discouraging to read frugal blogs and see how people feed their families on so little money--I feel like I am trying hard and yet I don't see those results. I am sensitive to the fact that many people are frugal out of necessity and don't have the option to "not succeed" in their attempts. The last thing I want to be is patronizing. Nonetheless, I feel like we are bleeding money around here and there are some expensive things we need to save for. I know there are people who want to reduce their spending but do not know where to I am writing these posts for them and myself :) I hope you are inspired and if you can add any ideas of your own I hope you will comment below :)

Husband and I just returned from a short trip--it was with a group of friends--and I went into the trip wondering how frugality and group travel would mix. There was a time in my life where I would have overspent, you see, so that I didn't stand out as "cheap" or unable to afford. The wonderful thing about growing older is that I am so comfortable in my own skin these days; I had no problem opting out of $500 helicopter rides and outlet mall shopping trips. I explained that we have a few things we are saving for once we get home again and that we had pre-booked the one attraction we really wanted to see. After that, we took part in what we chose and did not apologize or make excuses as to why we weren't spending more money.

We set a limit on what we planned to spend and came in at 10% lower than expected. Here are a few of the things we did that saved us money:

  • we used the coupons we were given by our hotel
  • I kept a booklet of coupons in my purse and checked for coupons before we did anything. Quite often we had 2 for 1 or money off. A friend also got us a deal on an exhibit
  • we pre-booked a shuttle from airport to hotel and back at a round trip cost of $14 each, as opposed to the $25 cab ride that friends took (each way) 
  • we walked almost everywhere, sharing cab rides between the group if it was too far to walk
  • we took advantage of the offer of a free breakfast and lunch and received free tickets to an exhibit in exchange for sitting through a time share presentation
    • we were also able to get 3 friends their tickets at 50% off
  • we bought our beverages at out of the way shops and kept a cooler of ice in our room (no fridges) in order to keep the price of drinks down. A friend spent $7 on a pepsi at a popular attraction! If we were thirsty we brought our own or waited until we found water for $1
  • I avoided shopping altogether. I explained that there is nothing I am looking for and our luggage was full already. Since I am not a shopper it was not hard for me to avoid the malls although a part of me wished for a new purse!
  • I refused to pay to have my picture taken and then pay $15 or $20 to buy the picture after our tour ended. Sorry, we have lots of pictures of our trip!
  • We spent only $20 on souvenirs. 

I found the least socially-acceptable part of my frugality was my determination not to bring back toys for my kids. It can be hard for people to understand that my kids are not given "stuff" unless it is a birthday or Christmas. Even then, I try to give them useful, well made and educational things. And although much of what people bought for their kids was useful (they found great deals on school clothes, shoes and cleats) my kids are given great quality hand-me-downs for free. Shopping with people who plan to spend all day looking for deals just doesn't work for me if I am shopping for things I get for free. We found a meaningful gift for each of our sons (a small bag each of beautiful stones to add to their rock collections). We watched for something special and when we saw it, we spent the money to get them one thing each. And you know what? They were thrilled. They have taken their rocks to show gramma, they have played with them since we got home, and they will remember the significance of that one simple gift.

I realize that some of our travel companions might have considered me "strict" or "cheap" and I accept that. I feel that while there is a grain of truth in those labels I am more than anything determined--determined not to be blown off course by a desire to fit in or impress, and determined to set an example for my boys that fun and travel and experiences need not incur debt and stress and "stuff". We had a nice time. We had a couple wonderful meals that were not that pricey but made me feel truly on vacation. I came home relaxed, refreshed, ready to take on winter and, more than anything, missing my kids and wanting to be with them. We achieved everything we set out to do and did it under budget. It doesn't matter to me that I may not be "trendy" or "cool" while I did it ;) Do you find it hard to stay on budget when you travel, or can you share some tricks for saving money while away from home?

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Getting Ready

Husband and I are going on a little trip. We will only be gone a few days but I didn't want my mom to worry about covering my tomatoes if it freezes, so I picked the big ones with my little helper the other day. I roasted the ripe ones down into a sauce with some garlic, peppers and onions and froze it.

I am so sad to say that my cucumbers didn't produce this year. I have only had a handful of my own cucumbers. The first planting either froze or didn't germinate in the hot dry weather (I thought some came up but they immediately disappeared. Did they get eaten? I suspect a late frost) At any rate, my second planting was too little, too late, and I am paying for it now. Events like this really help me prioritize for next year: one of our favorite things over the holidays is to crack open some pickles from the garden when we have company. Whether it is pickled carrots, beets or, my favorite, bread and butter pickles with sausage and cheese and crackers, it is a treat that we will really miss this year. I did a couple pints of beets already (did anyone know that sheep love beets? We turned our girls out to graze the other day and they ate the beet tops AND the tops off half my beets!). Since I only managed to grow a handful of carrots despite a second planting, I will probably only do up a quart or two of dilled carrots (the carrots given to us by our neighbour and my aunt). SIGH. Once again, I am grateful that my family does not count on my gardening skills for their survival.

When we return from our little getaway I will begin my season of preserving and cleaning up the garden. Every year I vow to plant more onions and, although I did this year, I think we just ate more and thus there will be no extras leftover for winter. Our neighbour sent over a nice assortment of things from his garden and the size of his onions made me giggle--If I ever grow onions that big I will officially call myself a gardener.

At the moment I am making a half-batch of million dollar relish from Jean Pare's Company's Coming Preserves (this book is a Western Canadian favorite and one that you would probably find in most farm kitchens). The cucumbers we got from the neighbour were large for pickling and we won't get them ate before we go--a half batch is actually just right to get us through the winter and next summer's burger/hotdog season.

Excuse the glare on the cover of the book! I am never comfortable sharing someone else's recipe unless it is in such an obscure old book or handed down by family...I recommend anyone interested in preserving watch for this book and purchase it. You will get your money's worth. The recipes are no-nonsense and tested by thousands of farm women year after year. I am skeptical of some recipes found online (Pinterest!) and when it comes to preserves I think it wise to stick to reliable, published and safe recipes for you and your family.

There isn't much garden produce left to deal with before we go. I better enjoy my time to relax because I will be returning to a basement full of ripening tomatoes and the salsa making will begin!

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Thrifty Thursday: Treat it Like A Job

This is my sixth "Thrifty Thursday" post. I want to stay motivated as I work on our family budget--part of that motivation is sharing what I am doing. It can be discouraging to read frugal blogs and see how people feed their families on so little money--I feel like I am trying hard and yet I don't see those results. I am sensitive to the fact that many people are frugal out of necessity and don't have the option to "not succeed" in their attempts. The last thing I want to be is patronizing. Nonetheless, I feel like we are bleeding money around here and there are some expensive things we need to save for. I know there are people who want to reduce their spending but do not know where to I am writing these posts for them and myself :) I hope you are inspired and if you can add any ideas of your own I hope you will comment below :)

As a stay-at-home mom, I've often wondered if going back to (paid) work might benefit our family financially, or if I would simply be spinning my wheels to pay a sitter and end up with someone else raising my kids for little financial gain. In my situation I wouldn't earn a great deal more than I would be paying out, once you include the price of fuel for the 45 km (one way) trip to town. Over the years, many of my mom-friends and I have discussed the topic and I thought that I would share something that I said a few years ago. Before I do, I also want to add that every family is different and some need the extra bucks badly enough that, yes, both parents do work. Some families are single working parents, and some parents work and put their children in daycare because that is how they choose to raise their kids. I am not here to judge anyone or say any one method is better than another. I just want to toss around some frugal ideas.

In a conversation a few years ago I said "While my kids are little like this, I don't think of it as how much I can earn but instead I am working on how much I can save".

And I feel like, especially during the lean years where we bought our first house and money was tight when J was a baby, I tried to treat frugality like it was a part-time job. Because I was at home and had some time, I shopped kijiji for second-hand baby items (only for things that did not come to us for free, which most things did). I had my first garden and became hooked on growing our food. But most importantly, I developed the attitude that if half an hour, an hour, two hours a week of my time could save us $30, $50, $100, then it was like I had earned us that money without leaving home or getting a sitter. I want to be clear though: sitting on the internet online shopping is NOT going to save you money unless you only shop for necessary things. Justifying more purchases because they were second hand or on sale or free shipping is a slippery slope. But finding deals on gifts that you would have to buy anyways, waiting to buy something you need until the deal you want turns up, and taking the time to compare prices is something that can be done whether you are employed or not. Treat it like a little part time job that Saves rather than Earns.

An example of this is years ago I went through all of our statements while the baby was asleep. I realized that we had life insurance on our camper payment while also paying for life insurance through a broker. I took the time to inquire about cancelling the policy on the camper, discovered that if I did so over $2000 could be put towards paying off the camper. In the long run, making a simple phone call and following through on the paper work (all while my baby slept!) saved us thousands of dollars on the camper and interest over the period of the loan. During that same time I found that Husband was paying a $20/month fee for his debit card so that he could use any ATM without additional fees! By then we had switched to using the credit card for all purchases so we could collect the Air Miles and he hadn't used his debit card in months. So he was throwing away $20/month in unnecessary fees. Once I cancelled that I put the extra $20/month onto other payments that we were paying interest on. We hadn't noticed the money missing before and just a bit of work on my part redirected that money to paying off debt rather than paying a bank. When we used to have different payments, as soon as one thing was payed off I increased the payment on another by that amount--saving us interest and never allowing us to get used to having that extra money to spend. Within a couple years our only payment was our mortgage and camper.

It is time for me to go through all of our statements again and see where we are leaking money. Recently I caught a fee on our credit card--Sirius Satellite Radio was charging Husband an extra $40 every 3 months for a radio he doesn't even have activated. Although I don't think they are going to reimburse us at least we have put an end to them charging an extra $160/year for a service we aren't using. I feel like if I can save us dollars and cents by actively being frugal and treating money saved like money earned I am contributing to our household income in a tiny way. Husband never has work done on his truck without calling around for quotes and comparing prices. Even this small action has saved thousands over the years. Instead of blindly spending we are trying to get a good look at where our money goes and when the price isn't right we try to wait until the right deal comes along.

I had good luck selling the bit of baby stuff we bought. Most everything came to us from friends, but I did buy a swing and cloth diapers (found them online, a girl was given so many at a diaper shower that she sold a bunch of unused diapers at used prices. Score!). Once I was done with them, I kept the ads up on kijiji until items like that sold, and I delivered them only when I was already planning a trip to town. Sometimes selling things online is a nuisance (generally I have had poor luck and find it very frustrating) but in the instance where the items are in good condition and worth enough money, I try to keep at it and treat it like it's a job. The items that were given to us have been passed on to others for free or saved for my brother and his wife who are now expecting a baby (whoo hoo!!). We always pass on free baby stuff to friends or donate it, but I do try to get some money back out of the things we spent money on.

Once my kids are both in school full-time I may return to work a few days a week and contribute more to our household income. In the event of a crisis I may have to go to work. For now our situation allows me to be home with our kids and try to monitor where money is going. As long as we can afford it this arrangement is working for us. Can you share any ideas where I might save more/earn a few extra dollars from home? I am open to suggestions :)

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Thrifty Thursday: Make Your Own "Junk" Food

This is my fifth "Thrifty Thursday" post. I want to stay motivated as I work on our family budget--part of that motivation is sharing what I am doing. It can be discouraging to read frugal blogs and see how people feed their families on so little money--I feel like I am trying hard and yet I don't see those results. I am sensitive to the fact that many people are frugal out of necessity and don't have the option to "not succeed" in their attempts. The last thing I want to be is patronizing. Nonetheless, I feel like we are bleeding money around here and there are some expensive things we need to save for. I know there are people who want to reduce their spending but do not know where to I am writing these posts for them and myself :) I hope you are inspired and if you can add any ideas of your own I hope you will comment below :)

If, like me, you are trying to stick to a grocery budget then you know that buying snacks adds up quickly. I don't mean fruits and veggies--although they add up fast, too--I consider fruits and veggies a staple for our snacks and try to grow as much as I can and keep my kids on the daily recommended servings. I am talking the cost of sweet and salty treats.

If you walk down the cracker/cookie aisle at the grocery store you are entering an empty calorie zone. Although some of the products might boast "whole grains" or "low sodium" or "organic" ingredients, it is all processed and packaged far away and trucked to us and beyond all the other reasons to avoid it it also costs. too. much.

So what can we do to satisfy little cravings or my own total weakness for carbs and a hint of salt? Here are some treats that I make at home for my kids and for Husband's lunches (some of these are healthier than others--it's a post about junk food, after all!)

  • popcorn: popcorn is our #1 family favorite treat. J, the 5 year old, chomps it down and hoards the bowl. I buy the jug of popcorn for $5-ish and our occasional treat works out to just cents per serving. A no brainer. And if you limit the salt and butter I don't consider it altogether unhealthy especially compared to chips etc.
  • kale chips: my kids love them. I love them. Husband even loves them. I cut out any larger ribs and rip the leaves into bit sized pieces, coat the inside of a bowl with olive oil then flip the kale around in the bowl until lightly oiled. Spread on parchment lined baking sheet, sprinkle with parmesan and just a hint of sea salt and bake at 375 for approx 10 minutes, checking often. We like the chips to have a good crunch. I try to grow more kale every year for this reason alone (I also steam it and chop it to freeze for throwing into casseroles all winter). Next year I need to dedicate a much bigger space for some succession planting.
  • I made beet chips the other day for our snack. I sliced them very thin, tossed with olive oil then baked on my cooling racks. I think they would get crispier if I bake them next time on cookie sheets. The kids ate them for awhile and said they were "ok". I actually liked them but want to get them "crunchier" without burning them. It is definitely something I will try to improve upon because I can grow the beets and they are so good for us!

  • homemade baking: I know that sweets are not the best thing to give my kids, but baking with my mom is a very happy childhood memory and I want my kids to have that experience. Wherever possible I reduce salt and sugar, use apple sauce instead of oil, substitute whole grains and talk with my kids about eating sweets in moderation. We rarely ever buy baking, particularly packaged cookies and the like. This also helps keep the cost of Husband's lunches under control--when you work a 12 hour day it is necessary to eat a lot of calories! I would rather he eat my baking than fill his diet with store bought sweets full of preservatives. 
A great way to save on groceries is to eliminate snacks altogether. I no longer buy juice and my kids really didn't complain. What is never there does not get asked for! The same goes for snacks...if I or my kids know there is junk food in the house we gravitate towards it. If it's not there we are saving money while also eating better. When fruit or veggies just doesn't satisfy a craving, we have some frugal homemade options to fall back on :) Do you have any favourite homemade snacks you would like to recommend?