Sunday, December 5, 2010

Holiday gift pizazz on the cheap

I have been scouring the Internet for gift ideas and I thought I would share some links. I won't say if I will be using all, some, or none of these ideas, lest my readership include potential recipients.

First, on the decoration. I think I will make something similar for the front door:
I really like it with music sheets
I found the links in the comments here:
Looks like I can make it myself for a few dollars or buy one for $50 or $60!! Hmm, let me think about that for awhile!

For a computer lover, how about a wallet made from computer keyboard innards:

Or these adorable bugs made from computer parts

Greenhouse in a jar is very cute for the gardener

Ambitious but really cool

If you need to give your reader the gift of storage and have some old encyclopedias (or your thrift shop does for cheap)!-YAY!/

I have to make a plug for my friends awesome blog. On the side panels, you will see lots of links to lovely craft and gift ideas

Dollhouse 1:

Dollhouse 2:

Puppet theaters:

And some puppets to go with it

I will continue to add to this post until Christmas, so keep checking back. And please post your own ideas or links in the comment section.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Calling and Christmas gifts

It pays to call.

We have a couple of different places where we keep money. We keep most of it in ING but use a checking account through a credit union. The dude woke up this morning and checked our account. There was a $159 check that had tried to go through, and we didn't have that much in the account, so it bounced and we were charged $25. The dude called the credit union to find out what the charge was. It was from a carpet cleaning we had done in July! He told the banker that he was transferring money over but it would take until Tuesday to make it. She pulled the check back and will hold on to it until then. She also took off the $25 charge.

Also, the boys have spent the evening playing with a new toy I found at Salvation Army. It is like this: but with 500 pieces. Same brand, same set up. We paid $4.50 for it! It is awesome.

I have also located the 47 cent back room at my local thrift shop. I found pants for the boys, pants for me, a cute shirt that still had its $35 store tag on it. All for 47 cents each! We also found cross country skis for $6 per pair. Still need boots and poles.

One great thing about living in a small town is that there isn't a lot to spend money on!

But the thing right now is the looming holiday of gift giving. I am trying to come up with inexpensive fun gift ideas for the boys. I would love to make them kits. We are buying them things as well, but I want to fill in with low cost things! Not coming up with much. Any ideas would be greatly appreciated! So many of the homemade gift ideas seem geared toward adults, it is hard to find info on middle age kids.

The oldest is almost 14 and into: sci-fi, reading, writing screenplays, sketching, comic books and graphic novels, steam punk, and wants to get into building models (specifically airships)

The middle one is 12: Manga, comic book superheroes, building things, robots, computers(playing and programming), music, cooking, movies, legos

The youngest is 9: Building things, drawing (his passion), legos, baking, sewing, Barbies, animals, nature, math, chemistry, physics.

Any ideas?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Is there a course on how to live well in poverty?

Because we just aren't getting it. (whiny rant ahead)

I have many friends who are low-income. Some have children, some are childfree. Some are married, partnered, or single. And the vast majority seem to have this poverty thing figured out. Their cars remain in working order, they have cozy warm houses filled with trinkets from far off lands, they eat organically and shop fair trade and buy groceries at the co-op. When they go to they go to the farmer's market, they are able to buy their kids lunch, or at least a muffin. And they TRAVEL. That is the one I am most envious of right now. They fly home to see their families, and some of them even go to other countries. How? How do they do this? Is it parental help? An unseen trust fund? What? And it doesn't seem to be sacrificing one thing to save up for the other, because a lot of them seem to be able to tackle a lot of the things listed.

I am feeling a bit grim right now. The frugal plan has not gone as well as intended. We did some smart things like pay off credit cards and prepay insurance. But we have been hit with some things like: the dog's accident. She is still in a cast and has been going for bandage changes every week (or so) since the beginning of August. Plus the cost of the original treatment. So that has been $30-$60 a week, and I think the first bill was about $300. And we have been having some lovely car trouble that has run a few hundred dollars and isn't fixed yet. Luckily the Dude knows his way around cars, otherwise it would have been a lot more and not fixed, since he did exactly what they said to do. I went to the eye doctor, and my glasses cost $100, and that was after the insurance paid a big chunk. I was having severe neck and back pain, and accompanying headaches due to my extremely heavy book load. So we went and purchased a really good backpack. Good news-no more pain. Bad news-$100 lighter. So there have been things like that eating into our funds. And there have been the bad choices we have made: ordering pizza for dinner a couple of times, joining friends for drinks, buying lunch at school a couple of times. None of them feel like bad choices though, it is our attempt to feel "normal" and not poor.

And that is what I would like to talk about. Feeling poor. Right now, I am definitely feeling poor. The things I listed in my first paragraph are things that I would like to do to feel like I am leading a rich, well-rounded life. There are a few others as well. Some I can manage, but others are not happening at this time.
Things we do:
We attend free or cheap concerts or cultural events through my school
We hosted a party on Halloween. The cost: pumpkins, dry ice, candles, and a black light bulb.
Also, I am so busy with my school work that I don't have a ton of time to miss what I am missing out on.

But some things feel like they are lacking:
Hiking. At our old place, there was beautiful in-town hiking within a mile of our front door. And spectacular hiking was within 2 hours. Here, I haven't found any great hiking in town, and two hours means a lot of gas money these days!
Travel. As I said, this is the biggie. I am constantly perplexed by people that travel home every holiday. The Dude hasn't seen his father in almost 10 years, because we can't afford the cross-country travel. We were going to visit our favorite city for a one day, two night getaway next month, but then realized that it would cost a couple hundred dollars just in gas and lodging. And we have never really figured out how to do dinner on the road. The other meals are fine, but dinner we want to be hot. And we are usually out and about at dinner time. But even without the food costs, $200 is extravagant right now. And it will be more than that. And there is the whole sketchy vehicle situation. I am very sad about this because I love to travel. But even if we camp, transportation costs run so high.

UPDATE: I wrote this post a while back but hadn't posted it yet. At this point, we are planning to go. We will spend only one night there and make sandwiches for the road. Hopefully we can get the car issue resolved. However, it still leaves the larger question of how people do this on a regular basis.

Also, the doggie leg is healed and will not need surgery!  

Monday, September 13, 2010

Free and cheap stuff

Sometimes it is just a matter of looking around.

We went for a walk and on the way back noticed a garage sale was being set up. We went back the next morning (when the sale was on) and scored 2 external frame packs (a Kelty and an REI) for $5 and $7. I also got an electric tea kettle for 75 cents.

One thing we left behind was our grill. We brought the propane tank, but a grill is hard to move! We thought it would be easy to turn up a replacement for free, but so far it hasn't happened. But, as I was walking home from school today, I spied a nice big red Weber grill with a free sign. It even had a mostly full bag of briquets and a chimney thrown in! Score!!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Bump in the road

This week was not a frugal week.

We got our security deposit back from our last place. They charged us for things like needing to repaint, replacing the carpet in the front room, clean up in the back yard. The carpet had stains when we moved in, they said there were more stains and so we were charged a small percentage of the replacement. Same with the kitchen floor and painting. I am kind of mad about the back yard. We tended it, but it was a really beautiful yard that two full time students with three kids could keep up with. I think if they expected anything beyond basic keeping the yard mowed, they should have done it themselves. It was free of debris, mowed, and swept when we left. Anyway, it ended up costing us $1000 of our deposit. We still got $1000 back. A little more actually.

On Wednesday I had extreme back and neck pain that turned into a migraine. It became apparent that I needed to get a better backpack if I planned to walk to school and not have to visit the chiropractor. We went out on Thursday and got a new bag. Although it was on sale, it still cost $90. The store has bean bags of varying weights so I was able to simulate the amount of books I carry and this one was the one that was very comfortable.

Our computer monitor died. Although I now have a laptop and so we technically don't need a new monitor, we like to watch movies and that is hard to do with 5 people around a laptop. The dude found out that the school has surplus sales. He went and got a 19 inch flat panel for $35. So it wasn't too bad, but it was still money out the door.

Tonight we went to a little festival downtown which was free and fun. However, we had decided to eat there, which turned out to be decidedly unfrugal. $7 for a really good plate of food (pulled pork sandwich, chips, beans). Magnus stayed home tonight, and the 4 of us were able to split two plates. We got 3 Cokes for $2 each. Only drank two. Then we each had an ice cream cone. So we spent $23 on our "free" night out. Ouch!

OK, onto to the celebratory stuff. We discovered that there is a concert series put on by our music department, mostly by faculty members. It is free for students of my school and $5 for students of any other school. So The Dude and I will be able to have date night for $5! There is also a dance series that is free for students. Since I am the only one into dance, I will be attending alone, or with friends from school.

The Dude is pretty upset that I forgot to mention the best deal of the week last time!! Crazy cheap beer!! We have a chain grocery store that marks milk half price when it is close to the expiration date. With three boys, milk doesn't usually stand a chance, so we try to swing past there often and pick up milk deals. Last weekend we went and were also looking at the discount rack. And we spied beer! It was a weirdly packed box of 13 bottles of Miller Genuine Draft Light, 5 bottles of Guinness, 5 bottles of a popular regional lager, and 1 bottle of microbrew ale. All for $9.99!! 

Another happy find: Plums!! In our alley and on the street by our house, in a commercial building yard, are mad plum trees! We will go out gleaning in the next couple of days.

It was kind of cool. I was in a store and feeling sad and poor. There were all the really beautiful clothes that outdoorsy hipsters wear. Lovely things, on sale for $35 or $50 or $100. None of those are sale prices to us! We went over to the Goodwill and I found two really lovely name brand wool sweaters for $3 each. :)

I found post-its!! A friend told me that Staples had them on sale. I had gone to Staples and didn't see them in the ad. I went online and found the sales flyer that listed them. I took it in and it turned out our store had a different sale going on, but they price match. So I was able to get the flags for 25 cents a pack and a  2400 small yellow post-its for a total of $2. At $2 for that many, I am willing to living with yellow!

Rin has discovered an inexpensive (actually free!) way to decorate his room. Since we attend a major university that is in a major conference, sports are pretty big. So at different events, the athletes come out and sign their posters for free. He is collecting them and hanging them on his wall. Luigi is going for a bit of the same theme.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Getting into the groove

This will be a pretty randomized post. I was asked if I would post pictures and I would love to, but I am not sure I will have time to. :(  Maybe over winter break I will give giant picture-heavy posts!

First a few celebratory things. We did a little thrift shopping the past few days. We had been in Goodwill for a long time. I will be printing and needing to save a lot of articles in the coming years. I bought a ream of paper at the beginning of the school year (I think that was 3 weeks ago) and it is already gone. SOmehow I will need to keep that paper organized. I wanted one of these: handy file box
but GW had none. We had three before we moved and I sent 2 packing. Sigh. I found some nice sized binders for 49 cents each and grabbed those. I also found a couple accordion files for the same price. As we were leaving I went over to check out the dresses and found a beautiful sundress that fits me well for $1.99!!
I ran into Staple to see if they were having any kind of deal on copy paper. They were having their back to school sale. On the clearance shelf, I found these bad boys for 50 cents each! I went ahead and got 10, I believe I will fill them pretty well. Today was a trip to Office Depot for a case of copy paper for $19.99 That should last me the year. One thing I am stumbling on is Post-Its. They seem ridiculously expensive. I don't want to spend $10 for 500 tiny sheets of paper. If anyone has found an inexpensive source for these, please let me know. I was willing to pay $4 for 1200 at Office Depot, but they were all that sad yellow color. I am especially trying to find the little flag sized ones, which are so much more expensive!

Last week, we were walking home and decided to try the weekly special: our ice cream shop offers $1 scoops or floats. Very generous portions, every Thursday. We will be doing that again! We also went to an Italian restaurant downtown. I decided to try a new strategy. Before we left home, we went online and read through the menu to decide on our best meal value. That way we weren't faced with a huge list of choices and the pressure of trying to decide, and having to do it when the smells are surrounding us. We got out order all mapped out and headed out. As we were entering the restaurant I noticed a sign on the door. I inquired, and discovered a crazy deal. Full dinner including drink for $5 each. Luigi got a kids meal for $3, and we all had a nice meal for about what we would spend at Burger King. Even at crazy prices, going out to eat has been moved to the special occasion box.

I really wanted to get some new clothes for starting my new position. A lot of my stuff doesn't fit well right now (which will hopefully be changing. I have lost 7 pounds in this past month thanks to walking everywhere!) Fortunately my boys aren't really into brand new clothes as long as they think their clothes are cool. So we just had to fill in a few pieces for them. I am very tall and often have trouble finding pants and shirts that are long enough. I decided to check out the mall. I went to Macy's and fell upon their 70% clearance racks. I found skirts for $3 and $4. I got leggings for $3.75. I splurged and bought the HUE tights, because they are the only tights that I have found that are actually long enough. I went to the counter with my nice stack of clothes, applied for a Macy's card and received an additional 15% off. We paid the card off today, so no finance charge or interest. I got a nice big bag of clothes for about $70.

And finally, a little tech talk before bedtime. First of all, a big shout out to Netflix. For the school year, we have backed down to one disk out with unlimited streaming. This is just the right size for us when we are this busy. The Dude has been watching Dollhouse while folding clothes. The boys enjoy Futurama or Pink Panther when the Dude and I go for a walk and they want to amuse themselves. The Dude and I had been watching Soap, but now we are setting our sights on Upstairs, Downstairs, which is a great complement to my stratification class! OUr family doesn't have a television, so no cable costs. We have a phone/internet package for about $80 a month and that includes free long distance. Last year we downgraded to prepaid Tracfones. I use about $100 a year on my phone, the Dude's is probably closer to $75 a year. Huge difference from the $80 a month we were paying with T Mobile. Since the boys are walking to school, we got them one as well and will buy 60 minutes every 3 months. I think that is the smallest amount we can get. Their phone is simply for them to call and say they need a ride or are staying late. Most of the time (besides school) they can use one of the parent phones.

On to computers and printers. First the printer. I highly recommend a laser printer if you want to save a ton of money and also do a ton of printing. We bought an HP several years ago because we were sick to death of spending so much money on inkjet cartridges. It is black and white only, which is hardly ever an issue. We pay $60 for a new toner, and it lasts for around 2000 pages!  I think we paid $89 for it, which was not much more than the inkjet cartridge would have cost. When it starts to run out, we take it out, give it a shake, reinsert, and we got another hundred or so pages out of it. I am also going to take advantage of my 50 free sheets per week at the grad school.

Finally, happy dance on the computer. In December, my computer got very sick very suddenly. I found a tower on craigslist for $150. Windows 7, 200 GB hard drive, 1024 MB memory something something something. It has been a very fast and reliable machine. I would also like a laptop to take to school. We have a computer lab and it is pretty close to my office, but I don't work well in that type of environment, and I wouldn't want to be grading and recording papers in the lab. We have an old laptop and the dude has been trying to get it running for me. It just isn't happening. It was going to need more memory. It is also a pretty old machine. I decided to poke around on craigslist. I found a 220 GB hard drive, 2 GB mem really sweet little laptop for $175!  The dude went and picked it up tonight. It is blazing fast. :)  So my computing wants have been fulfilled.

I stay true to my word. This is a very disjointed post. But I am tired and have been reading a whole lot of big words all weekend, so I hope you all can forgive me :)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Culture and recreation

First a bit of housekeeping to answer some questions that were posted to me.
I am on a graduate stipend and working as a TA. The Dude is doing a distance program for his last year of undergrad and he has some grants and loans coming to him. After I finish my PhD (5 or so years down the road), I would like to teach, advise, research, and write. The Dude will (hopefully) have finished his undergrad and gone through grad school by then, and so it won't be a full five (or so) years of poverty, just 2-3.

One huge concern of mine is that everyone's creative soul is fed. I want our lives to be rich with experience if fiscally poor. Fortunately I am pretty resourceful. I found 2 free sleepaway environmental science camps for Rin through our local parks dept. We forgot to register the first day and so I figured all the spots would have been snatched up, but to my great joy, he is enrolled. They are each 3 nights long and involve hiking, stream observation, camping, treetop canopy ecosystem observation, and all sorts of fun stuff like that.

We are trying to take advantage of our university community as much as possible. We are checking out free movies, free museums, and exhibit openings. It is also important to me that the boys get a taste of college life. I don't want it to be something I go and do and return from, and their lives remain untouched and separate. So we have devised a plan. I will be in school Monday through Friday from about 9 to 5 or 6 most days. I will try to get as much work done there. In order to save money and get fit, I am walking to and from school. It is about 3 miles round trip, and uphill both ways. So I want to leave my books at school. On Monday evenings I come home, we have dinner and then walk to our local library. On Tuesday nights we have quiet family evenings at home.

Wed and Thurs I have class until 6. On those nights, the rest of the family will walk or drive to the college and bring me lunch. And then we will hang out on campus. Thursday was our first run through of this. While I ate in the commons, the boys played WII with some college guys. And then we headed over to the library for an hour of quiet study time. Sadly most of our time was spent wandering the library getting lost because it is so freaking huge! But you know what? Now when my boys go off to college and they get lost their first week, they can remember that it is a common occurrence and they are not alone. And we will get better acclimated in the coming weeks. They did finally find some books and we all settled into a nice cozy time. Other opportunities we will have include free concerts, star parties, and events associated with sporting events.

Although I have use of the university rec center, it was not a good buy for the rest of the family. But once again, I followed my nose into a deal. Our park and rec department has an indoor pool and fitness center, as well as an outdoor seasonal pool. It is almost $500 for a full year, which is a good buy but a little much for us. But they have a weekend only pass for half the price. Since we will be busy with school during the week, that will work fine for us. ANd it gives us access to the outdoor pool in the summer as well (again, weekends only). So, I was feeling okay about that. About $20 a month. But then I got a flyer in the mail. They are running a special in Sept, everything is 1/2 price! So we will get our membership for $120! So we will be spending a lot of weekends there.

We have a yearly membership to the science center in our old town. There is a science center here that honors the membership, so we will be able to go there for free as well.

We are working on building our camping supplies back up (this was an excessively stupid move when we were in purge mode before moving, we sold our tents and sleeping bags). We got our tents back today. We found two at Goodwill for a total of $14. We bought two sleeping bags for $4 each this week as well. Once we have all that in order, we will be able to camp again, and that is fun cheap entertainment for us. We are also keeping our eyes open for cheap snowboards and cross country skis for fun in the winter.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Furnishing the house

When we moved, we realized that we didn't love our furniture and so we decided to pare down to the stuff we really liked, sell or donate the rest, rent a small trailer instead of a truck and buy what we needed when we got here. We have always had really good luck with free piles, thrift stores, yard sales and craigslist.
Well, it is a different creature out here! The craigslist community is very small, the thrift stores are dowdy and somewhat overpriced, not many garage sales, and no free piles!
However, we have done okay. We have been here about a month.
From craigslist:
Captain bed with mattress and matching bookshelf for Luigi $40
Queen sized futon (no frame) $20
Nice metal shelves (in Magnus and Rin's room) $10
Very awesome old gold swivel rocker $15
A set of 6 chairs $5 for the set! Not in great condition but they do the trick and luckily most of the people we will have to dinner are graduate students, so they will not be shocked by the condition.

We have been doing a bit of thrifting as well:

Nice desk chair $4
Beautiful drafting table top in new condition $6.50
Microwave for $7
Desk lamp $2.50
A 6' high wooden shelf $10
Big plastic drawers on wheels $4
Camping table $4.50

Another thing we need is art for the walls. We have high ceilings and a lot more space than our old house. I was walking along downtown and noticed a sign that read "Free posters."  I stopped by and it turned out to be a travel agency, so I got a couple of cute posters which are ads for vacations. OUr office/dining room is very kitschy, so they work there. We have also hung a Monopoly game and the Twister spinner as well as old record covers on the wall to add some fun and color.


So, let's start with textbooks. I am a student and have to buy books. If I purchased my books through my college bookstore and got all used, I would have spent $455 including tax. And that assumes I could find used. If I couldn't find thme used in the bookstore, it would have been around $600 with tax. I was in a bit of a bind because I couldn't register for classes until orientation, so I had under a week to get my books. I went to the campus bookstore online store and got a list of my books. One of the books on the list had been given to me as a gift from my mother-in-law for Christmas! One down. One of the recommended books was a how-to guide on Stata, but I decided I would be able to find any question I have either through the computer, my school library, or in the computer lab. So I opted not to purchase that one.

With those decisions made, I was off to my favorite site:  I enter in the ISBNs of all my books, they search through all sorts of booksellers (amazon,, textbooksrus,, marketplaces, etc), add in the shipping charges that each seller lists, and combines them to find the absolute cheapest combination. Then I click each seller and order them. Since I needed them fast, I clicked on "need them by Saturday" and they found me the companies that had the lowest 2 day shipping price. I did buy one book through the bookstore. A new thing companies are doing is textbook rentals, where you rent the book for the semester. You are still allowed to write and highlight in them and then you return them in the prepaid envelope at the end of the semester. I did this with my stats book because I already have a great statistics book at home that I will use for long term reference. I was able to get all my books by the days I needed them and I spent only (!!) $330 including shipping and any taxes. Next semester I will know my classes earlier and will be able to save even more money, since I won't need two day shipping. Some of the companies had the books at greater savings, but they only offered 8-14 day shipping.

Friday, August 27, 2010


Five years ago, on a whim, I decided to give college a try. Turns out I liked it and it liked me. Now here I am in graduate school, pursuing a master's and then doctorate in sociology. In order to do this my husband and I left our relatively comfortable life and moved to a new city. One major decision we have made is that my husband will be a stay-at-home dad for the next year. Our income has been cut in half and since we want to keep our debt level as low as possible, we are going to be living near the poverty level. If it were just my husband and me, it might not be too much of a challenge, but we have three school aged boys along for the ride.

I have decided to keep a blog to help keep us accountable and also show what can be done with little money. I will be posting big and little monetary triumphs and failures as we try to navigate our new income bracket.

We moved to our new town at the beginning of August. Of course, moving is never inexpensive and this time was no exception. But we got here safe and sound and that is the most important thing. Before we moved we did a huge declutter and pare down so the unpacking was done pretty quickly and clean up in the new place is a snap.

One place we could save money is in housing, but we chose not to go that route. We could have moved into an apartment, either part of an older house or in a complex. However, our children are loud and need space to roam. We were also searching for a place online from across the state. Keep in mind this is a college town with very limited housing options. But I think we did good overall. Sure we could have saved about $200 a month in a smaller place. But this house is big enough, is charming and was still $150 a month less than we had been paying. But it is a lot on our meager income, so we are finding other ways to economize.

This blog will focus on those things that we do to economize. One of my major goals is that my family not feel deprived.

Although a lot of real life friends will be reading this, I want to keep it somewhat anonymous to the rest of the world. Therefore, I will be using pseudonyms and keeping my location somewhat vague. So, our cast of characters:

Me: Already introduced
The Dude: The SAHD (Stay-at-home-dude)
Magnus: Oldest son
Rin: Middle son
Luigi: Youngest son
Stumpy: Bad little dachshund #1 (Girl)
Waddles: Bad little dachshund #2 (Boy)