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My Baby Registry Recommendations

Once most of your friends are married, you can breathe a sigh of relief. That expensive season of weddings, bridal showers, and bachelorette parties has passed.

But wait—baby showers are may be just around the corner.

Luckily, celebrating your friends’ new baby is often less pricey than their nuptials. And of course, who doesn’t love buying tiny, adorable clothing? It’s a fun event to shop for, but what are the items new parents need most? (Hint: it isn’t onesies!) And when it’s your turn to pop out a little, where are the best places to register?

What New Parents Need

There are hundreds of lists already out there on what to register for, from minimalists/natural parenting lists that even eliminate the crib, to the Babies ‘R’ Us recommendations which would have you register for nearly everything in the entire store. Sure, all baby really needs is you, but some baby gear will make your life a whole lot easier.

I’m not going to rehash the list, except to say I do recommend a crib! I will share some of my favorite less-obvious baby products, as well as listing a few that I didn’t find all that helpful, at least for us.

Thermometer—this is one of the best gifts I received. Our first night at home was grueling. Baby was fussy, we finally realized he had a heat rash, and couldn’t get an accurate read with the cheapo thermometer that came with the mostly useless baby grooming kit we registered for. (I’m still using the nail clippers, though.) My friend overnighted me this thermometer and it’s been such a trusty parenting tool. Plus my kids actually enjoy getting their temperature taken with it!

Rechargeable batteries—an endless number of other gadgets operate on batteries, and while it’s wise to pick out items with electric options, sometimes you just can’t. Enter rechargeable batteries, the least expected but invaluable baby shower gift.

Travel white noise machine—we are not homebodies and definitely took our kids out and about a lot. White noise helped them sleep on the road and while we host at home.

Light-blocking curtains—I really believe these made such a difference in our babies abilities to sleep, and I’m not the only young mom to say so. Sure, taping cardboard over the window works too, but I like to be able to let in sunlight when it’s not sleepy time.

Stroller frame—if you have a smaller car or just don’t want your stoller dominating your entire trunk, consider getting a stroller frame that fits the car seat. It doesn’t have an actual seat, and you’ll need a different stroller when the baby outgrows the car seat, but by then they’re ready for a jogging stroller or umbrella stroller anyway.

Jogging stroller—if you want to do any off-sidewalking, I highly recommend a jogging stroller. Most regular strollers have smaller wheels that don’t do well on grass. I’m not acquainted with the fancier, more expensive strollers, but the standard brands don’t do well off pavement. Even bumps in the sidewalk can be a lot for many strollers to take. We’ve used our jogging stroller for hiking, camping, walking, and, of course, jogging.

Ergo carrier—the nice thing about the Ergo carrier is that it allows you to wear the baby from a very young age up through toddlerhood. It transitions from front to back (and can be worn on the side as well, though I’ve never tried it).

Bath tub with sling—this is far from a necessity but we loved ours so much and the babies seemed to love it, too. It’s a small plastic tub with a mesh sling that clips on for infants. It made bathing their slippery little selves so much easier. And when they’re able to sit up, it was a nice shape for them to keep bathing in without the sling, until they were steady enough for the big tub.

Pack n play—we used ours a ton. Didn’t get the fancy model with the changer attachment, though. It still seems too low.

Swaddle Me blankets—we loved these. I thought my daughter was going to go off to college still sleeping in these. I also liked the Miracle Swaddle.

Baby book—you’ll definitely want to document the first year.

The new product I’m going to get for baby #3: a rock ‘n’ play. I’m planning to borrow one of these because they look absolutely awesome! Babies seem to find them cozy, they fold down small, and are super easy to transport from room to room or for travel. I didn’t know they existed when I had my first.

I’ve included affiliate links to the products we liked, or similar, but of course, if you can find some of these used you’ll save a ton. I’d recommend getting a new car seat, pack n play, and stroller if you plan to have multiple kids, as it seems like the normal-priced baby items are only designed to go last for 2-3 kids.

Don’t Register For:

Clothing—you’ll get it anyway. Especially onesies.

Blankets—ditto.

Toys—ditto.

Bowls that claim they won’t spill—they will spill. Toddlers are geniuses at spilling things.

What to Expect the First Year—there are one million copies of this in the universe already. Get a used one. Or just talk to another mom. You won’t have time to read, anyway.

Personal preference

I found I did not get a ton of use out of my swing, Bumpo seat, or doorway jumper. Didn’t need a video monitor. Didn’t need a Scandinavian snot sucker. Sophie the Giraffe is not magical. Wouldn’t get a diaper pail that doesn’t use regular trash bags. Or anything really gimmicky or trendy unless you are trying solutions for a specific problem.

I loved registering on Amazon. There are so many options, which can be overwhelming, but also means you can get what you really want. The reviews and ratings are also very helpful. I liked that I could register for non-baby items like curtains, a lamp, a hamper, a nightstand, and books. If I wanted to see something in-person, I’d check it out at a retail store first.

What was the most useful baby item in your opinion? What was not that worthwhile? 

Do Grown-ups Need an Allowance?

Remember the magic of childhood allowance? You could buy toys or candy, or watch it amass if your piggie bank with Scrooge-like glee. And no bills to pay with it!

What if grown-ups could have the same guilt-free, responsibility-free spending experience? If you’re married with joint finances, that might be just what you need to relieve marital money tension.

Call it what you like: blow money, fun money, spending money, allowance, discretionary funds, or the old-fashioned pin money. It’s the idea that you have some that’s designated as yours, that you can do with as you like. You can spend on Starbucks or shoes or Taco Bell or tools, or whatever else you want, without having to ask or answer for it.

If you’re single, it always makes sense to budget for the types of things this “fun money” might cover in marriage: treating yourself, going out, and other “fun” purchases. But you probably have way more autonomy is choosing how much and how to spend then someone who has joined finances for life. (Skip to tips below about determining the amount.)

While Dave Ramsey and other PF gurus make blanket prescriptions about spouse allowances, I think it depends on you, your spouse, and your marriage. If you’re married, you might need an allowance if:

  1. You have different financial personalities. We all have a natural bent toward saver or spender. This may be influenced by your upbringing or life experiences as well as temperament. Were you the kid who spent every dime that came your way, or did you (like me) hoard it in your piggie bank, and are still rolling the coins? (True story).

Opposites tend to attract, so it’s pretty likely you married someone with a different financial personality from you. And you’ll see it, among other ways, when one of you makes a purchase the other doesn’t understand or agree with. “Why do you need another _____?” You fill in the blank. Or maybe someone’s coffee habit or smoking habit or gym membership or hobby adds up more than the other feels is reasonable. Even with like financial personalities, our individual tastes are often incomprehensible to our spouse and therefore feel like unjustified spending.

I don’t know how the stars aligned for me to marry a fellow saver, but a huge part of the reason we actually don’t practice the spouse allowance is that we’re just both pretty tight with money. We generally trust each other to make good choices and respect the other’s decisions even if we wouldn’t have made them ourselves.

If you’re both spenders, you might not feel the need to institute an allowance, but it could be a wise idea for your finances. If neither of you minds the other’s spending, great! But if you’re both frittering away money needlessly without accountability, you might want to reign it in by setting a limit ahead of time.

  1. You fight about spending regularly. I don’t suppose there are many couples out there who have never argued about money. In fact, the first argument of our dating relationship centered on who should pay for gas (we were both trying to pay). But for many, it’s more than the occasional tiff; it’s an ongoing tension that can affect the overall health of the marriage. If this is the case for you, please try giving each other an allowance! It won’t solve everything, but if you feel like your purchase of new sheets turned into World War III, budgeting for spending money could really help.
  2. You think marriage should be fair. Though we might not realize it, a lot of us come to marriage under the illusion that everything should be equal, 50/50, fair. Here’s a sample conversation:

“The bank statement says you spent $50 on Starbucks last month. I think you should try to cut back.”

“Oh yeah? Well, you must’ve spent at least that much going out with your friends. Do you have to cut back, too?”

If you keep accounts like this and use it to justify your spending, whether to yourself or your spouse, it might be time to try an allowance.

Trying an allowance will not solve disagreements between how much to spend on major purchases, or setting your overall financial goals. It won’t turn a spender into a thrifty person, though they could learn some things about their spending habits and triggers from it. And it certainly won’t solve the underlying causes of marital tension. But it can be very effective in giving each spouse the freedom to do some autonomous spending while working together toward bigger goals.

How much is enough?

That is a question only you and your spouse can answer. First, decide what types of purchases should be covered by allowance versus the regular budget. For example, you should have a certain amount budgeted for clothes that covers everyone’s needs. But if you want something above and beyond that, you can use your allowance, perhaps saving up several weeks’ worth.

Next, consider looking at your last couple months of spending via bank statements or your tracking software. How much of those purchases fall under the categories you decided should be covered by allowance? (Or how much went above and beyond what was budgeted for those categories?) Are you comfortable with spending that much, or would you like to cut back a little?

Look at your first month or two of allowance as a trial. You can always tweak the amount—and what allowance needs to cover—as you go. Regroup after the first month or two and have a conversation about how it’s going, whether it’s helping, and if you both feel satisfied with the amount you first set.

What if your spouse won’t agree to it? If it’s a matter of the other person not wanting to restrict spending, you can always institute an allowance for yourself that you promise not to go over. One person budgeting and saving is better than no one doing it. If your spouse doesn’t want anyone to have an allowance, see if you can have an honest conversation about why. Is there fear or other feelings surrounding money? Have you overspent or broken trust in this area? This can be tough—feel it out, and remember, the health of your relationship is more important than you getting what you want.

Just remember, a grown-up allowance is something you should both agree to and should serve your marriage and overarching financial goals.

Do you have an allowance? How has it helped your marriage and/or finances?

Tips and Tricks for Thrifty Road Trips

Road trips can be a great way to save money as compared with flying, especially if you don’t earn a lot of travel rewards or have a large family. And a perk of car over planes is that they make it easier to take along camping gear. This saves big time on lodging once we reach our destination.

Nothing Parties Like a Rental

One of the less-obvious tips I’d offer is to consider renting a vehicle in certain circumstances. We drive older vehicles, which allows us to keep our transportation costs quite low compared to the average. (Neil has spent $8000 on vehicle purchases in his 18 years of driving. My total isn’t much higher.)

We really don’t want to wear out our older cars by putting 1000+ miles on them in one week. Nor do we find it rational to purchase newer vehicles primarily for the purpose of having a reliable car for our occasional road trips. Rather than  pay $250-450 per month on a car payment, it makes so much more sense to spend $200-300 for a rental once or twice a year, while preserving our older, paid-for cars. Even counting fuel costs, this comes in way below the cost of flying our family.

For shorter trips we’re happy to take our own car. For long hauls, we opt for rentals. We check prices and make reservations ahead of time. We’ve also found ways to save by using rental car coupons or rewards accumulated from work travel.

As an added perk, rental cars add a feeling of luxury to our trips because we are accustomed to cars that have far fewer features. Plus it feels pretty luxurious not to have to vacuum the car and do an oil change as soon as we get back from a long trip.

We always rent an SUV because mini-vans are often twice the price without offering substantially more space.

Of course, if you have a reliable, newer vehicle that you don’t mind putting miles on, it may be more economical to drive what you already have. Driving your own vehicle comes at some cost of wear, tear, and maintenance, so weight the options carefully.

Pass the Snacks!

Packing food and limiting restaurant stops is perhaps the most obvious road trip tip. I’ll just add that I used to spend way too much precious, last-minute time before vacation assembling all manner of breakfasts and lunches, in additional to a plethora of other snacks. Only to have soggy sandwiches the next day that sometimes no one would even eat. I’ve streamlined my food-packing task by simply packing the raw ingredients for a variety of sandwiches—ham, cheese, peanut butter, honey, and bread—and making them “to order” on the road. I pack extra paper plates, napkins, and plastic cutlery as well.

For breakfast, hard-boiled eggs, bagels with cream cheese, yogurt cups, or dry cereal seem to please everyone without requiring me to cook much.

For snacks I usually pack some combination of nuts, fruit, carrots, granola bars, crackers or chips, and candy. Because some junk food is requisite on road trips, right?

We bring coffee and tea for the morning. In the afternoon I’ve done everything from drinking old, lukewarm coffee from home, to skipping coffee altogether. Please, do not do this. I’ve repented and now require fresh, hot coffee in the afternoon, especially if I’m driving. It can be from anywhere, it just has to happen. I bring Neil a tea bag and just get him hot water, because who wants to pay $2 for bad tea?

It may be worth stopping at a grocery store for food before you head home. We’ve also been known to take PBJ supplies with us from our hotel breakfast.

Are We There Yet?

We’ve never gone for the travel DVD players they sell for kids, although last year we got an iPad for the Lego Boost. But for the majority of the trip we try to occupy our kids the good old-fashioned way: Benadryl. Just kidding! We bring along plenty of music, coloring, magazines, and small toys, and also pray they will fall asleep.

We also use a lot of audio books, which we download ahead of time using library apps like Hoopla and Libby. Hoopla also offers tons of music. Neil and I each have an account with each app, meaning we can download a total of 17 titles per month each between those two apps.

For children’s audio books, I find either age-appropriate chapter books or audio collections of picture book series. Boxcar Children, the Little House series, Olivia, Fancy Nancy, Pinkalicious, Dr. Suess, the Hobbit, Magic Treehouse, Henry Huggins and the Mouse on the Motorcycle series have all been favorites. Depending on your kid, they may also enjoy some adult non-fiction.

Having something new for the kids—a magazine, library book, graphic novel, or dollar-store toy—can be a lifesaver during long trips. And of course, we’re not above using Benadryl modern technology. We now download the allowed number of TV shows from apps like PBS kids and Amazon Prime before a trip. It’s reassuring to have this in your back pocket for that last, melt-down leg of the journey.

Odds and Ends

How long you’re on the road will impact your road trip costs. When we had babies, we stopped halfway at a hotel. We used hotel points and opted for places with free breakfast, but still needed to spend more on food the longer we were on the road. While I would NOT recommend driving too far with little people just to save money, I will say that leaving at 3 am has allowed us to get there in one day and we do spend a bit less money this way. Again, this has only been viable since our kids are a bit older and I’m not stopping to nurse and change diapers.

If you do need to stop, look into credit card rewards ahead of time. Or Priceline it. If you need to stop on short notice, I recommend the hotel coupon books available at travel centers and many gas stations. They’re with the tourist info and usually offer better deals than available for walk-ins.

Sometimes tolls can really add up. That may be unavoidable, but it’s worth checking whether there are alternative routes that will get you there in a similar time frame.

Gas prices can also vary greatly. Consider getting an app like GasBuddy or Gas Guru to point your toward good prices along the way.

That’s my two cents on saving on road trips. What are your best tips and tricks?

If You Give a Wife a Lampshade…

Well, friends, I moved out of the dorm. In December we traded in our metal bed frame, childhood dressers, shadeless lamps, and the plastic drawers I was using as a nightstand for real, matching furniture. Pretty fancy!

How did it happen? I suggested to Neil that bedroom lamps would make a good Christmas present. All of ours were broken and had been for at least two years. We didn’t mind and really didn’t even notice, until we did. “How about $20 lamps instead of $9 ones?” I suggested after explaining why they do not sell replacement lamp shades for the $9 lamps. For the record, I bought the $9 lamps and they lasted many years but they tip over too easily for my clumsy self.

The next day, we were looking at bedroom sets. Neil had taken my suggestion to its logical (?) conclusion and decided it was time to think about buying “real” bedroom furniture. Now, it’s still all PTBP around here, so he was interested in a Craigslist find at a thrift store. After a little comparison shopping at a local discount furniture warehouse, we went to see the Craigslist set and it was without a doubt a great value. Real wood, manufactured one year ago, and came with a nice quality, one-year-old, professionally sanitized mattress. Delivery? $15. We’ll take it?

The day after we got bunkbeds for the kids. Neil had been looking on Craigslist for a real wood set, and even though I was still in my first trimester, we figured we’d better pull the trigger when a good one became available. Plus it’s given the kids plenty of time to adjust to sharing a room.

A couple weeks later we replaced all the broken lamps.

Next up is the dining room table. We’re not in a rush or even actively looking, but ours has seen better days.

As much as possible, we try to purchase real wood furniture. And of course, we buy used. Between Craigslist, garage sales, thrift stores, and Facebook buy-sell-trade pages, there are plenty of avenues for getting decent used furniture.

The older we get the less we enjoy the “college dorm” vibe we readily accepted as part of our early marriage vow to keep living like college students as long as possible. Of course, that ship sailed when we bought a house in the suburbs. But our approach to furnishing it has remained very college-like until recently. Neil surprised me with matching (Craigslist) couches while I was out of the country a couple years ago. And now everyone is sleeping in a real wood bed instead of a bare metal frame (not that there’s anything wrong with that). We really are getting fancy.

Is buying real furniture lifestyle inflation? On the one hand, it was a big purchase and a serious step up in our bedroom milieu. On the other hand, it doesn’t change our monthly expenses as I’d sleep on a mattress on the floor before financing furniture (of course, I’m still young enough to do this).

The bottom line is that our definition of what’s a reasonable way to live is changing as our finances mature. Ten years ago when we still had student debt, it would have been ridiculous to spend much on furniture when we could get hand-me-downs. Now, it feels appropriate to designate some spending to our daily environment, and almost stingy not to. We also want our house to feel like a home to our kids. That in no way requires fancy matching bedroom sets for everyone, or Pinterest-worthy décor, but lamp shades seemed like a good idea.

And if you give a wife a lampshade….

How has your lifestyle changed as your finances have improved? Do you think there is some appropriate “lifestyle inflation”?

 

 

 

Maple Sugaring

It’s time to tap the trees in our neck of the woods. Not that we have woods (much to our chagrin). All it takes is a maple tree or two, a few pieces of simple equipment, and a love of pancakes dripping with real maple syrup.

Actually, scratch that last prerequisite. We rarely ate pancakes before we converted our suburban yard into a sugar bush. I couldn’t convince Neil to eat pancakes when we first married, which was rather disappointing as I find them delicious. I had resigned myself to a life without pancakes, when lo and behold! Neil started making syrup.

Sugaring, like most of our other pretend to be farmer hobbies, snuck up on us. Neil’s friend encouraged him to try it and gave him a couple taps & buckets. That was six years ago, and we now look forward to syrup season and yield enough to last the year.

How It Works

  1. Sap flows when temperatures are above freezing during the day & below freezing and night. For us, this usually happens sometime in February or March.
  2. Drill a hole in an adult maple tree. “Sugar maples” yield a sweeter sap, but all have sap that can be boiled down into syrup. The hole should be about 1.5 inches into the tree slightly angled toward the ground. Use the recommended drill bit for your spile (5/16 for plastic or 7/16 for the old style metal). Then gently tap in the spile in with a hammer.  The bucket hooks onto the spile or tube is connected and is covered to prevent rain or snow from getting in.collecting sap
  3. Collect the sap. Check your buckets about once a day and collect the sap. We store it in pitchers or clean milk jugs. Store it as you would milk, below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Or you can freeze it. When you’ve collected a few gallons, get a fire going outside. You can use a “turkey burner” with propane or a wood fire with the pan set above on something like cinder blocks. Of course, the wood fire using free firewood is much cheaper, though less convenient. The wood fire also harkens back to sugaring parties of pioneer days.

    Splitting wood for the fire.

    Splitting wood for the fire.

  4. Boil it to  7.1 degrees Fahrenheit above the boiling point of water in your elevation. This will take a while—the sap to syrup ratio is about 40:1. We switch to a small pan at the end to finish it. You can take the temperature with a candy or meat thermometer. The legit method is to use a hydrometer. There are also a host of non-technological “how it looks when falling off the spoon traditions,” but I’m not so good with that type of subtlety. Watch out! It burns fast. We know from experience.

    Liquid gold.

    Liquid gold.

  5. We filter through a cheesecloth into glass jars while it is still hot, which sufficiently sterilizes it for storage. Let it cool completely, then freeze whatever you won’t use within the month.
  6. Make pancakes! Or whatever you love to eat syrup on. My favorite recipe is Fluffy Pancakes. We also like Maple Almond Granola and it can replace the honey in Playgroup Granola Bars.

Why We Make Maple Syrup

Considering our very infrequent pancake consumption before sugaring, I have no illusions that making syrup has saved us fat stacks of cash. Confession: we actually used to buy the deplorable imitation syrup since we didn’t use it often. After purchasing equipment, it’s probably just starting to save money compared to buying the real deal. However, it’s also a pastime that fits the bill for us–it’s productive, kid-friendly, happens outside, and isn’t expensive.

We love that it’s a thrifty throwback hobby. Anything described in the Little House books is guaranteed to get me excited. Except the grasshopper plagues and scarlet fever, of course. And what’s not to love about the sheer efficiency of using what you already own?

Another reason I love making syrup is that it’s a sign that spring is just around the corner. It’s a great excuse to get outside at the end of winter, enjoy the slightly warmer days, and make use of your yard before it’s time to plant the garden and raise chickens. It’s become a talking point with the neighbors, and they’ve even graciously allowed us to tap their trees.

It’s also a great hobby for families. Our son loves checking the buckets, helping collect the sap, and hanging out around the fire while it boils down. And of course, the kids love eating pancakes.

Pancake breakfasts have become a hospitality staple in our home. Inviting people over for breakfast can be less expensive, easier to schedule, and more casual than a dinner invite. And who doesn’t love carbs drenched in sugar?

What You Need

Sugaring requires no special skills! Anyone with a maple tree, a big pan, and fire can make the magic happen. Here’s the full equipment list if you’re interested:

Happy maple syrup season! I hope you consider putting your untapped potential to delicious use if you have a maple tree.

What are your burning questions about boiling sap? Do you have a similar hobby?

How to Save on Maternity Medical Expenses

Having a baby costs a lot of money. I know plenty of parents who joked about how they were still “paying off” their kid, i.e. maternity hospital bills, well into the child’s toddlerhood.

For my first pregnancy, we had a hospital co-pay which made the whole endeavor less expensive. But when our second child arrived, we had a completely different plan: a high-deductible HSA. We chose the plan hoping to have another child that year and had crunched the numbers to determine it was a prudent choice. It was, in part because the company was offering a $2000 HSA stipend. But we still became much more cost-conscious since we were essentially paying for more of our medical expenses directly from our own pockets. The great side-effect was that I become more proactive and informed about my care.

The first thing I did was start questioning some of the procedures at my first prenatal visit. Were the many blood tests (that I’d just had two years ago) covered fully by insurance? They were, so test away.

But my practice had also added an early ultrasound “for dating” as a routine procedure. This was not the case when I had my first, and since I knew when I got pregnant, I didn’t feel I needed it. With the second baby I also felt comfortable waiting to schedule my first appointment until I was far enough along to hear the heartbeat. This made the ultrasound less necessary, as well. In the end it saved me at least $250.

I know others who received the ultrasound (some practices require it), but were strategic about timing it in the same calendar year as their due date so it would count towards the deductible.

Of course, if your pregnancy is high risk, you might need to see your practitioner sooner. There are some problems, such as low progesterone, for which early interventions exist. But in a textbook pregnancy they don’t even test hormone level changes (at least at my practice).

Near the end of both my pregnancies, I was told I needed an ultrasound because I was “measuring small.” In both cases it was user error, because in fact I measured perfectly. The first time, it was a simple matter of the intern writing down the wrong number. In the second, I saw a different practitioner and he just didn’t seem to take the same careful measurements as the person who had been measuring me for months.

In both cases, an ultrasound was ordered. Intrauterine growth restriction is a real, serious problem that can be minimized with early delivery, so I didn’t want to write it off, but I also felt that careful re-measurement by a nurse-midwife was probably all I needed. In both instances, I checked out perfectly and saved another $250 on ultrasounds. Why make use of expensive equipment and procedures when a simple tape measure will do the trick?

I also turned down early screenings for genetic disorders. While these decisions are very personal, I think helps to understand that screenings do not provide a yes or no answer to whether your child has the disorder (though some tests do); there is nothing that can be done medically to fix the problem; and if you’re not willing to terminate the pregnancy, it might make sense to save yourself the worry and expense.

It’s often confusing to figure out whether a procedure is covered by your insurance. If you’re not sure, ask for the diagnosis and procedure codes and call your insurance before accepting it. Since some tests in pregnancy are time-sensitive, you may want to ask at your first appointment which procedures will be offered throughout the pregnancy, or at your next visit. I’ve found that using these codes has helped me get much more concrete answers from the insurance company than even inquiring with the procedure’s name.

I also researched hospital charges and discounts, since my practice and insurance were compatible with two area hospitals. I’d heard from a friend that one hospital offered a 30% discount if you requested to pay your bill upon leaving the hospital. In my case, the maternity bill was prepared, but the newborn’s bill wasn’t ready yet. So they said to call and inquire about the prepay discount which had been noted on my account. In the end I saved around $1000 by asking for this discount (and having the money in the HSA ready to go).

So having a baby is going to be expensive, no doubt, but you can minimize the cost by becoming informed about what your insurance covers, why a procedure is being offered, and what discounts are available through your local hospitals. This, paired with saving in advance, can make bringing home that bundle of joy a little more joyful.

Have you found ways to reduced maternity costs? What are some ways to save up ahead of time?

Beyond Rice & Beans: Budget Dinners that Aren’t Boring

Masala Spiced Roast Chicken (recipe below)

Has someone ever told you about an easy, delicious recipe that you have to make? As they describe it, you realize the ingredient list will easily run you $40 for a single meal. Of course you can make easy, delicious food if it involves lots of fancy, expensive ingredients. Almost anyone can do that.

At the other end of the food conversation spectrum are the ubiquitous thrifty suggestions of rice-and-beans or pasta. Both tasty in my opinion, but it gets rather boring. Certainly there has to be something in between.

If you’re looking for good ways to stick to your budget in 2018, your grocery bill is a great place to start. Food is one of most people’s top three expenses, up there with housing and transportation. And of the three, it’s probably the most flexible, the easiest to change without major effort. (Like moving!) I believe with a little planning, effort, and willingness to try new things, most people can reduce their food costs substantially.

If you’re keeping things simple for breakfast and brown-bagging it for lunch, dinner is probably your budget-killer. It’s easy to get sucked into spending a lot on fresh, healthy food. And I’m all for fresh, healthy food. But it doesn’t have to be outrageous. I’ve shared my foundational food principles already in:

20 Frugal Food Hacks

Hospitality Hacks

Say Good-bye to Meatless Mondays (protein price per serving comparison chart)

Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half Parts 1 and 2

Not Your Mom’s Meal Planning—approaches for speed-meal planning and keeping things simple.

Naturally, food preferences and dietary needs/priorities are as varied as is food itself. The ideas below are not the absolute most healthy, least expensive, or quickest options available—but they all strike a great balance with each of these factors. I vary our less expensive meals with more interesting, exotic, sometimes easier, and sometimes more involved dishes. Creating your own list of thrifty, easy, tasty stand-bys can go a long way toward lowering your grocery budget and dinner-time stress. Here re some of my go-to meals:

Juicy Roasted Chicken

Masala Spiced Roast Chicken

Any on-sale bone-in chicken that you cook with a simple, inexpensive sauce or seasoning is a good thrifty dinner option. Grill, bake, or sauté with BBQ, honey mustard, teriyaki, jerk seasoning, lemon butter, balsamic, etc.

A word on side dishes: While proteins are important, sides are also an area to watch spending. Fancy accouterments like cheese, nuts, herbs, and exotic grains, spices, or out-of-season produce add up quickly. We tend to stick with thrifty stand-bys like baked or roasted potatoes (white or sweet) rice, or noodles; steamed vegetables; and simple garden salads.

Chicken Noodle Soup

Lime chicken tacos

Fall-off-the-bone chicken thighs I use any fresh or dried herbs I have on hand.

Mujaddarah Incredibly simple, delicious Middle Eastern dish.

Sweet potato burritos A seemingly strange combination that is so tasty!

Peanut Butter Noodles Knock-off Thai vegetarian dish. I add stir-fry veggies to it and double the sauce. Can be vegan if you sub for water for chicken broth.

Potato soup I use real cheese instead of processed.

Cincinnati style chili I make this with ground turkey instead of beef.

Chicken Taco Soup

White Chicken Chili Use a fresh jalapeno instead of canned.

Masala hard-boiled eggs (egg curry) Way more exotic than breakfast for dinner. Don’t knock it till you try it. Everyone I’ve served this to loves it!

Butter chickpea curry (not authentic; for better recipes see Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking or Vegetarian cookbook)

I have found it worthwhile to “invest” in the pantry items for Indian cooking and a few favorite authentic Chinese and Thai dishes. Buying these items at the Asian grocery (or directly in India!) is by far the least expensive route. Shopping with an international friend knowledge about the cuisine is extremely helpful as they know which brands to buy! The upfront cost of a few spices and sauces pales in comparison with restaurant spending on similar dishes.

I also have go-to recipes for hosting that are a little more impressive than what’s listed above, but still fairly inexpensive. We just hosted two large (13-15) person family dinners over the holidays, and the meat for each cost only $7, respectively! Clearly I didn’t serve prime rib, but people praised the food and ate seconds. Maybe they were just being polite. I’ll let you judge these recipes for themselves:

Turkey

Butter Chicken

Thai curry (Maesri brand curry paste mixed with 1 can full fat coconut milk + water as needed. Add vegetables and protein of your choice; serve with jasmine rice. Many Asian groceries carry it.)

Grilled pork chops with sweet & spicy dry rub. I can’t find the recipe I used but it contains Montreal Steak, brown sugar, and we substitute habanero powder for cayenne!

Grilled chicken tacos with chipotle marinade This is NOT a chipotle copycat recipe but it’s equally delicious in its own right—maybe better. I make the marinade in large batches (3-4x) and freeze it.

And my go-to bread recipes are always a hit:

Crusty White Bread—super easy, can be made ahead, large batch, good for every day or holidays.

Amish Dinner Rolls—a little more involved, good for holidays.

Do you have trouble sticking to your grocery budget, or meal planning? What are you favorite frugal dinners?

Christmas Gifts That Keep on Saving

Still shopping? Me, too. And who wants to gift junk people don’t need? Forget about jelly of the month club. Give gifts that will keep your frugal friends and family members saving all year long.

  1. Rechargeable batteries. Keep powering toys, flashlights, and other gadgets with less cost to you and the environment.
  2. Glass storage containers. Packing lunch and storing home-cooked leftovers is so much easier with the proper containers, and glass ones are healthier and easier for re-heating food.
  3. Cloth napkins. I love cloth napkins, not only for their cost effectiveness, but because they work so much better than cheap paper napkins.
  4. College fund contributions. This is the gift that keeps growing with the child, and adds value throughout his or her life. While toys and clothes begin depreciates as soon as a kid touches them, compounding interest will grow your gift over the next decade or more. And it’s tax deductible if you contribute directly to the fund.
  5. Wool. Barring wool allergies, wool sweaters, socks, or scarves are a great way to help a frugal gift recipient stay warm throughout the winter, ‘cause you know they’re too cheap to turn up the heat. Wearing wool saves us hundreds of dollars a year in heating costs, and of course we buy it at thrift or outlet stores. (But you might not want to give thrift store socks for Christmas. Just sayin’.)
  6. Camping gear. Open the Door to a Lifetime of Vacation Savings by lowering the entry cost of camping. We save over $1000 a year on vacations by camping, but wouldn’t want to without our tent, camp stove, air mattress, and sleeping bags.
  7. DIY reference materials, such as books on gardening, DIY home repair, cookbooks, backyard chickens, honey bees (our next venture) or any other book supporting a money-saving hobby or endeavor. Here’s my favorite Indian cookbook.  And my favorite bread-baking book: Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day book. These are the types of books that I’d rather own than get from the library since we consult them so often.
  8. A bike. Biking for frugal transportation seems to have made a comeback via the illustrious Mr. Money Mustache. At least, this is what sold Neil, and since then he saw fit to gift me a bike (purchased on Craigslist). You can read about my embarrassingly ungrateful initial response on my personal blog. I’ve repented, and this year my other wish (besides cloth napkins) is a bike hitch so I can haul the kids around in our (also from Craigslist) bike trailer. Helmets are also a good gift for anyone whose brains or beauty you wish to preserve.
  9. For the new parenttemporal lobe thermometer: This thermometer is so quick & to use, my kids like getting their temperature taken. It also seems more sensitive than traditional ones.

    miracle swaddler: This blanket gently helps keep those arms swaddled much longer than other styles.

    white noise: A small, portable white noise machine is ideal for travel, even if it’s just to put your baby down to sleep at a friend or grandparent’s house. It’s also great for hotels and camping.

    rechargeable batteries: Battery-operated toys are bound to enter your house. This set will save you loads in the long run.

    12. For the handy man: (suggestions from Neil)

    drive socket set: I’ve been preaching this to anyone who will listen lately, once you go 1/2″ for automotive work, you won’t go back. If you or a loved one will be doing any work on their car in the near future, I cannot recommend highly enough to get 1/2″ drive sockets. Most people use 3/8″ drive, and it’s nothing but frustration and busted knuckles.

    wire strippers: These auto-stippers are a tool you didn’t know you needed until you use one. They perfectly strip wire of any common size without breaking the conductor. Much better and faster than using scissors or traditional strippers.

    loupe – LED illuminated: These loupes are really fun. Easy to use and show the kids stuff close up. Bugs, carpet, newspaper, wood, all fun when viewed through a loupe.

    wood-splitting ax: This Fiskars Axe is the only way I am able to split my own firewood. I am not a giant lumberjack; I cannot wield a 8-10# maul for a few hours at a time. This thing is light, swift, and well designed. It makes splitting wood fun.

    drill bit set: Get these if you own a 1/4″ drive impact driver. Makes it into a small electric impact gun. Very useful and fast for backing out bolts/ nuts.

    13. For the home chef:

    pressure cooker: I never knew how amazing pressure cookers are until I received an electric one as a gift. It has saved dinner on more than one occasion when I forgot to thaw meat, or got home later than expected. It can cook bone-in frozen chicken pieces in less than half an hour. It also makes meat way more tender than other cooking methods.

    instant pot: I don’t have one of these, but I’ve heard it’s the pot to end all pots. It’s a programmable pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice cooker, yogurt maker…you name it, it can do it. It’s priced very reasonably compared to purchasing one or two of these other devices. If I didn’t already own a pressure cooker and slow cooker, this would be on my wish list.

    good knife: A good knife makes cooking sooo much more enjoyable–and safer.

    14. For the kids:

    K’nex, Legos, or Duplos: My son spends countless hours playing with these building toys.

    Narnia book seriesLittle House book series: Classic children’s books make a great gift kids and parents will like.

    Craft supplies or Play-dohReplenish crafty consumables.

    Zoo or children’s museum membership, sports class, Highlights magazine subscription: keep them entertained throughout the year with fun activities or subscriptions.

    15. For the fit (or those aspiring to be): For those skipping the gym membership, my favorite workout videos are Zumba,  Ballet Beautiful, & P90x.

    16. For the whole family:

    Whirlypop: We make all our popcorn in this stovepop popper. It makes excellent kettle corn as well.

    Board games such as the Busytown Game (for younger kids): This game has the whole family work together to win.

    Book sets such as Narnia book seriesLittle House book series

    DVD sets such as Narnia, Harry Potter, or Star Wars

    Museum or zoo memberships.

    17. For the tea drinker: hot pot, Yorkshire English breakfast tea.

    Happy shopping! I hope you find something for everyone on your list.

What other gifts keep on saving? What is the most useful gift you’ve ever received?

 

This post contains affiliate links. 

Shopping Hack: Minimize Impulse Purchases with Subscriptions

Target: we all know it’s a total mom trap. You go in for diapers and milk and are forced to walk by Starbucks, jewelry, purses, women’s clothing, and baby clothing just to get to the diapers. Then you must either pass by the toys or home goods to get to the milk. Your senses are bombarded with trendy, minimalist-chic décor in the season’s latest hues before you emerge with your items, now only to pass the beauty and cosmetics aisles. And somehow when you go back next week for more diapers, they will have new merch to allure you.

The average woman goes in to Target with 4 items on her list and leaves with 17. I just made that up, but I think it’s about right.

What if you didn’t have to go to Target (or Walmart, or wherever you go) nearly as often? Did you know Target will send you that stuff for free? Actually, they’ll take 5% off the price and deliver for free to your doorstep. Okay, not milk. But I get most of my household items through subscriptions to Target and Amazon.

I don’t like subscription services that mindlessly suck money out of my account each months, such as gym memberships, Netflix, Blue Apron, magazines, mystery boxes, and the like. But I do love subscription goods since I have to buy them anyway. And I mind as well avoid the mom trap.

Amazon

Amazon is my favorite when it comes to subscriptions because they offer 5-20% off. 20% of diapers and wipes if you sign up for Amazon Family. 5% off all items in the subscribe and save store. 15% off all items if you subscribe to 5 or more items in a month.

Here is a list of items I am or have subscribed to from Amazon: batteries, tea, coconut oil, toilet paper, paper towels, dish soap, dishwasher soap pods, shampoo, conditioner, sunscreen, freezer bags, diapers, artificial tears, Aquaphor, and even baker’s yeast.

Some items in the Subscribe and Save store are packaged in bulk, requiring you to buy multiples of the same items. Others can be purchased as a single item. They sell name brands, so some items aren’t cheaper than similar off brands. Just price check next time you’re at the store (or online for big box retailers).

You choose the frequency, and you can cancel at any time. You can even do it for a one-time purchase that you want to save 15% on. I just guess the frequency at the beginning, because it’s easily adjusted on a monthly basis before the items ship. Amazon sends a reminder email a few days before shipping, allowing you to skip delivery on items you don’t need anymore. I spend 5 minutes or less per month checking whether I need the scheduled items or not.

Target

Target offers 5% off many household and toiletry items. I’ve subscribed for toothpaste, hairspray, laundry detergent, shampoo, tampons, tissues, tea, and hand soap. Fewer items are packaged in bulk so it’s easier to subscribe to items you won’t go through quickly. And they even offer subscriptions on some of their store brands.

The items do not have to ship together, and there are lots of frequency options. Target also sends an email before an item ships, in time for you to cancel if you don’t need it. You can skip deliveries or modify the frequency at any time before shipping. And the item doesn’t have to meet a minimum spend to receive free shipping.

The Perks

So how do subscriptions minimize my consumption? I’m much less tempted to buy trendy, cute junk if I just don’t go to stores. Just imagine how many fewer impulses you’d make or even think about if you cut the weekly Target run out of your routine. There’s a great benefit to reaching a point where you can just go into a store and buy only what you need. If you’re not there yet, subscriptions are a great way to fast from in-store browsing. And after a while without making an impulse buy, it’s easier to accept that you really don’t need those extras.

Once subscriptions are set up I’m also saving time—as much as a couple hours a week that would be spent running errands, not to mention needlessly perusing clearance racks. Of course, I also love saving 5-20% off normal prices.

What about the environment? Is all that packaging and delivery ruining the earth? Surprisingly, it’s actually more efficient and better for the environment than the traditional retail model.

Although I’ve banned myself from shopping bans,  subscriptions would be a great way to complete a successful ban as they could help limit spending to essentials.

And speaking of packaging, few things excite my kids more than getting a new cardboard box to play with. No joke.

The Drawbacks

The main downside is that you have to plan ahead. Subscription items do not enjoy two-day shipping. Amazon keeps the same date each month when you’ll receive your items. Target’s is a little less organized, but you’re going to wait a few days vs. just going right to the store.

Could this lead to unnecessary online shopping? It could, but let’s face it: if you can’t see it, feel it, try it on, and it’s going to entail some hassle to return unwanted items, I’m a lot less likely to buy it. Also, if you stay in the Subscribe and Save store on Amazon, there’s pretty much only boring household stuff. If online shopping is a greater temptation for you than being in a store, by all means, keep running your errands.

For items that are not available for subscriptions, I love Target’s “pick up in store” feature. Whether it’s an item you want from another store but don’t want to pay shipping costs, or you don’t want to walk through all of Target, it’s great to show up at customer service and pick up an order. It’s the very definition of avoiding impulse buys.

I realize buying one or two items this way might just be inconsiderate. But if you only need two items, what are you doing in a big box store? Go to the drug store or grocery store, where you might pay a dollar or two more, but if you come out without $40 worth of excess junk, you’ll still be way ahead.

Do you use subscriptions for shopping? What other perks or drawbacks do you see?

The Most Valuable Card in Your Wallet

Yum.

If you don’t know me, you might think is going to be a shameless plug for associate credit card links. But if you know me, you probably know what I consider the most valuable piece of plastic in my purse: my library card.

First off, I pay $81 per year for the privilege of using the library and I intend to get my money’s worth. Secondly, the library exemplifies an original sharing economy. It’s environmentalism, frugality, and minimalism circa the 17th century. These concepts aren’t new, they’re just recirculating with things other than books, movies, music, audiobooks, video games, puzzles, puppets, games, robots, and electronics. That’s right–all that and more may be available at your local library.

Confession: I used to do something insane. I used to buy every book I wanted. Sure, I bought them used on half.com or other discount sites. I loved books, I was an English teacher, and I valued books, so I bought them all.

Then I ran out of shelves.

Which drove me back to my favorite place since childhood. The library. And I learned how to get nearly every book I want from this wonderful institution.

Before I go any further, let me address the common objection: Of course there are books you should buy and own. I still buy books. I buy them if no libraries in my state have them (which is pretty rare). I buy them if I just really want to own that particular book, or maybe it’s a workbook or devotional or reference. I buy books that I got from the library and wanted to read again, and deem worth of shelf space.

You want to highlight? Underline? Make notes? Get a notebook. Write down the most important parts. Write down page numbers. You’ll remember it better if you write it down than just underlining.  Make a copy of the most helpful page or two. You’ll find these faster than if you had to search through a whole book. If you’re tempted to copy every other page, you’ll know you need to buy it.

I can’t tell you exactly how to get almost every book from your library, because it varies by state. But I can tell you some avenues to explore and questions to ask your librarian.

The Hard Stuff

If you want a hard copy of something, inter-library loan is the way to go when your library doesn’t have it.  Ask your librarian about the inter-library loan system. Ask if you can search college and university libraries as well as other public libraries. On my local library’s web site you can go right from your catalog search results to view the holdings at nearly every library in the state by clicking on the inter-library loan system. Then you request it by submitting your library name and personal card number.

The best value in inter-library loans is textbooks. After my freshman year of college I bought very few textbooks because I found them through inter-library loan from other college libraries. I was able to renew the books for a whole semester. I’m sure availability of up-to-date textbooks will vary with different courses of study, but for education and language arts topics, I found lots.

I also got the hard-to-find Muppets Family Christmas on VHS through inter-library loan last year, and watched it with all my sibs. The librarian was like, “It’s a VHS. Are you sure you want it?” And I was all like, “Heck yes, I want it. This tape goes for $95 on ebay!” Actually, I just said “Yes, thanks.”

Next Step Digital S#!^

Libraries know digital is the way to go now. Ebooks, audiobooks, movies, and music are all available digitally. Apps like Hoopla, Libby (formerly Overdrive) and Freegal make borrowing digital media easy. And automatic returns means you couldn’t get fined if you tried.

Libby has a limited number of copies, so you might have to sign up on a waiting list. Hoopla has no holds. Both allow a certain number of borrows per month per library card. Freegal allows you to stream albums or songs and temporarily download 3 free songs a week.

There are many good children’s materials available this way, as well. Digital audiobooks frequently saved my sanity last year. I’d stream a Boxcar Children audiobook for my son’s afternoon quiet time and he’d be happy as clam in his room for up to 2 hours!

I’ll leave you with the words of Arthur (the Aardvark): Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card!

How much do you love the library? What other awesome library apps are out there?