Tag Archive | thrift

Building a Bait Bee Hive: A Case Study in Thrift


Like most of our burbsteading endeavors, it was one of Neil’s engineer friends who talked him into beekeeping. If it weren’t for his ilk, we wouldn’t raise chickens or tap our maple trees, either.

Our garden, chickens, and maple sugaring didn’t start as attempts to save money. Rather, they fit the bill for the types of hobbies we like. That is, activities that aren’t too expensive, produce something, teach useful skills, and are kid-friendly and outdoorsy. Neil (and his engineering buddies) sit in cubicles all day and sometimes don’t get to see tangible results from their labor. I suspect this is one reason they tend to gravitate to productive, hands-on, organic activities.

Neil joined the bee bandwagon first and foremost to have a hobby in common with his friend. They took a class together, read library books, talked to other beekeepers, and went to purchase bees & hives off Craigslist together. This brings me to another hobby criterion: it should fit well into our existing social schedule. Of course it doesn’t have to be a shared hobby, but those are great! Bouncing ideas off fellow burbsteaders and sharing resources has led to some good times and beautiful frugal friend synergy.

Free Bees?

Beekeeping, like many hobbies, can be very expensive or quite economical. Buying one complete bee hive, with bees, costs around $375. Just the bees are around $100. Neil wasn’t willing to shell out that much for a tag-along hobby, especially since the bees can die so easily and we’re not spending a ton of honey as it is. It’s too much of a gamble.

When we say we pretend to be poor, we don’t for one minute think we’re living like those truly in poverty. We do find it very helpful to pretend we don’t have $375 available to get into beekeeping, and see where our research, creativity, and DIY courage take us. If we can find a reasonable cheaper solution, we will.

Through Neil’s research, he learned that you can catch a swarm of bees instead of buying them. Don’t worry, it’s not as dangerous as it sounds. In the spring, the new queen bees, along with lots of drones, will separate from their hive in a swarm. They can build their own hive, but will take up residence if they find a move-in ready bait hive.

A bait hive is pretty simple and cheap to make. Neil made it using scrap wood, and it took a couple hours, with the assistance of our son and his bee buddy. It’s basically a wooden box made to fit the hive frames, and some bee food to attract them. Our bait hive is currently in a tree in a friend’s yard next to woods, wildlife, and a field of clover and thistle.

It remains to be seen whether we’ll catch a swarm. But since we have next to nothing invested in this project, we don’t care too much whether we catch one or not. If we succeed, we’ll need more bee boxes, which can also be made from scrap wood.

Free Honey?

A friend who kept bees while growing up assures us it’s a great hobby for kids—something I wasn’t too sure about since my son acts afraid of ants sometimes. It’s already helping him overcome fear; he went with Neil to buy his friend’s hive and walked through a wall of bees, and even responded calmly when one landed on him.

Bees are also awesome for pollinating the garden, so it’ll be a true burbstead synergy if we could reap that benefit. We don’t use tons of honey, but we often top my homemade yogurt with it, and sometimes use it in homemade granola, granola bars, or just on peanut butter sandwiches. Local honey is said to help with seasonal allergies. It would also make a good gift for certain friends and family. And I’m a Blistex addict, so I’d be willing to attempt some homemade beeswax lip balm.

If all goes well, we’d expand the burbstead and maybe even save some money. Worst case, we’re out a few bucks for the bee frames, and some fun hours with a friend. Either way, beekeeping represents our philosophy of burbsteading, our hobby criterion, and our thrifty approach to potential new costs. Pretend you don’t have the money, and see what creative solutions you can come up with.

Stay tuned to find out if we catch a swarm!

Anyone have experience keeping bees? If not, what is a way you’ve found to do what you want to for less?

Say Good-bye to Meatless Mondays

A typical PTBP dinner (salad not pictured).

Happy meatless Monday! Today I have some good news for the carnivores: meat can be one of the cheapest protein sources, if you do it right. Protein is an expensive grocery category, it’s an important part of our diet that we’re not willing to cut back on, yet we eat like kings on about $75/week for a family of four. We are hungry, skinny people, and hummus simply doesn’t cut it for dinner in the Pretend to Be Poor household. But before you quit rice & beans, you’d better learn how to do meat frugally.

Of course, people choose meatless for dietary, environmental, or animal-rights reasons. Whatever your protein persuasion, I hope this comparison chart gives you something to chew on. It’s by no means all-inclusive, but I’ve included a variety of popular and relatively thrifty stand-bys. But if you’re trying to rein in the grocery bill and have already started shopping at discount stores, meal planning, shopping with a list, cooking from scratch, and trying my 20 Frugal Food Hacks, your proteins are a great next area to tackle.

My calculations reflect the everyday prices at my local ALDI and highlight some of the most cost-effective and popular options. I’ve chosen the least expensive versions of each for comparison. Below I’ll share how we purchase discounted meat & raise our own, plus easy, inexpensive recipes and tips for working with bone-in chicken. And my recipes for homemade beans, and yogurt.

20 g Protein Source Price per 20g Protein Serving in dollars
Salmon, 3 oz $0.80
Pork chops, 3 oz 0.75
Ground beef (85% lean) or ground turkey (93% lean), 2.5 oz 0.47
Chicken, whole, 3.5 oz 0.26
Chicken, bone-in pieces, 3.5 oz 0.35
Chicken, boneless, skinless breast, 3.5 oz 0.51
Beans/lentils, dry, 1.5 cup 0.42
Beans, canned, 1.5 c. 0.59
Peanuts, 3 oz, or Peanut Butter, 6 TB 0.30
Almonds, 3 oz. 1.01
Eggs, 3 whole 0.66
Pasta or rice, 3 oz 0.38
Cheese, 2.5 oz 0.63
Greek yogurt, 1 c. 1.00
Yogurt, 2 c. 1.00
Yogurt, homemade, or milk, 2.5 c 0.39

Qualifiers and assumptions

I’ve assumed a whole cooked chicken will yield about 75% of weight as meat. I haven’t accounted for the fact that we also put the skin & bones to good use, too, as our grandparents most likely did. I make homemade chicken broth and we consider chicken skin cooked to crispness a delicacy. Neil calls it “chicken bacon.” Good thing fat is in.

Dark meat only yield from a whole cooked chicken.

Yes, it costs money to cook and season meat. So the price per serving goes up—but not much if you have go-to thrifty, easy recipes. It costs only about 10 to 15 cents to cook a whole chicken in a slow cooker, and around 40 cents to roast in the oven. Considering a 5-lb chicken will yield about fifteen 20-gram servings of protein, cooking itself only adds 1 to 3 cents per serving. Adding inexpensive or homemade seasonings will raise the cost, but not necessarily enough to even compete with canned beans, for example. If you eat only organic meat, many meatless options are indeed cheaper. Buying organic only makes it all the more economical to work with whole birds instead of pricey pieces.

It also takes more work to cook raw meat, especially whole chickens, compared with easier options like cheese, yogurt, nuts, or eggs. That’s part of the reasons we mix it up and why I almost always eat peanut butter for lunch. I strive to balance an economy of effort with cost. We also eat meatless dinners several nights a week, for variety, health benefits, and ease of preparation.

Why the 20-g protein serving? Obviously protein doesn’t have to be consumed in these portions. We don’t eat peanut butter in 6-TB servings or beans by the whole can. Different items can be paired to form larger servings of protein, such as rice & beans with cheese. Too often we look at the price per item or unit without considering the price per nutrient, such as grams of protein. But isn’t the nutritional value the main reason we need food? Shopping with the lens of price per nutrient can really optimize your grocery budget.

A whole chicken for $1.88.

A whole chicken for $1.88.

How I regularly pay around 50 cents/lb for chicken

I should add that, though I’ve assumed $1/per pound for bone-in chicken, I rarely pay that much for our chicken or even pork chops. While grocery shopping I’ve always got my eyes peeled for meat marked down for quick sale. This happens surprisingly often at our local ALDI, and when it does, I buy it ALL. Over the summer I purchased over 80 pounds of chicken thighs at just 33 cents per pound, making a 20g protein serving less than 10 cents! You simply cannot beat that price per nutrient.

That's a lot of protein for about $10!

That’s a lot of protein for about $10!

Pretending to Love Chicken

So bone-in chicken is actually competitive with ultra-frugal options like pasta and peanut butter, and more efficient (and healthy) as it takes only one small serving versus a triple portion that can run up your fat or carbs too much. We are hungry, naturally on the slim side, and don’t have the time to cook all the wonderful protein-rich dishes that comprise many international vegetarian diets (Indian!). We eat chicken because it’s efficient. Oh yeah, and we raise some of our own which is super thrifty, all-natural, and humane.

Si & chickens

The kids love helping feed the chickens.

We don’t eat chicken because it’s our favorite. Frugality accepts that life is not about our preferences, and everything doesn’t have to be our favorite. We have learned to prefer dark meat, even though when we first got married I’d hardly ever eaten bone-in meat and didn’t like it. Frugality also updates its approaches with seasonal costs or market fluctuations. Before beef prices went up, we purchased a quarter cow that our friend raised. We also eat marked-down pork chops when I get them for $1 or less per pound.


Pork chops for 24 cents a piece.

Pretending to know how to cook whole chickens

Now for my tips & tricks on working with whole or bone-in chicken. You can learn & get good at it! Within a few tries, I could cut up a whole chicken in less than 10 minutes. Give yourself about 2 days for it to thaw in the fridge or 1 day in cold water in the sink and use a good, sharp knife. Our digital meat thermometer also comes in handy when working with bone-in chicken.

My favorite whole chicken recipes: Juicy Roast Chicken or Garam Masala Roast Chicken (get your GM at an Indian grocery).

How to cut up a whole chicken: http://allrecipes.com/video/2/how-to-cut-up-a-whole-chicken/

A good whole chicken soup recipe: http://allrecipes.com/recipe/220416/chef-johns-homemade-chicken-noodle-soup/ (I add 1-2 TB cumin near the end)


How to make chicken broth from the bones: http://allrecipes.com/recipe/13075/chicken-stock/

Good uses for chicken cooked in a crockpot: Lime Chicken Soft Tacos, BBQ chicken sandwiches, White Chicken Chili (we use garden peppers, not canned), or any recipe calling for cooked chicken.

Good chicken pieces recipes: Thai Grilled Chicken Drumsticks, Fall-of-the-bone Roast Chicken Thighs (use whatever fresh or dried herbs you have on hand), or your favorite honey-mustard, BBQ, teriyaki or other sauce.

Homemade dry beans:

  • I cook 2 lbs with 10-12 cups of water for 6-8 hours on high.
  • Cheaper and healthier than canned beans.
  • Make your own hummus, refried beans, or baked beans. Add to soup, chili, salads, etc.

Homemade yogurt:

  • Heat a gallon of milk (anything but skim) to scald it (not quite boiling).
  • Transfer to a large bowl (I use my crockpot stoneware) & cool to 110 degrees, or when you can stand to put both pinkie fingers in for 10 seconds.
  • Stir in 1 Tablespoon of plain yogurt (the starter), from the store or your last batch.
  • Cover & place in the oven with the light on, or in a cooler with hot water bottles for 8-16 hours, until set. Strain if you want it thicker (I don’t). Then refrigerate.

I have lots of good, low-cost meatless main dish recipes but I’ll have to save those for another day. Enjoy your Double Meat Monday!

How do you save on proteins? What is your favorite thrifty recipe?

That Time I Invented the Kindle…and Why I Still Don’t Have One



Imagine a magical store where everything is free. Shelves upon shelves are stocked with valuable products, and you can pick whatever you like and take it home for free. Unlimited books, movies, magazines, and music are there for the taking. Travel to the kid’s department where there are free toys galore: train tables, blocks, puppets, a play kitchen, a doll house, mini-playground equipment, puzzles, Legos, and rows of computers loaded with educational programs. Pick up the programming schedule to choose from concerts, guest speakers, classes, and children’s festivals, parties, and crafts—all available at no cost.

Does this sound too good to be true? It’s not! This place is real. It’s one of my favorite places on the planet. This magical site of unfettered access to a wealth of resources is, of course, the local library.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you the library is full of awesome free stuff. Yet for some reason most people shell out for Netflix or cable, a Chromecast, eReaders and ebooks, itunes downloads, paper books, audio books, movie rentals, magazines, or newspapers, often via monthly subscriptions that wipe money out of their accounts each month without them giving these purchases a second thought. So that’s why I’m bringing up the old “the library is free” card.

In fifth grade, when asked to conceptualize a new invention that we wished existed, I described “a tiny computer that has all the best books in the world on it.” (I’ve just searched my basement for the hard copy of this assignment, complete with a terrible drawing, but couldn’t find it.) So yeah, I basically invented the eReader at the tender age of ten. While I abandoned the idea after the concept phase, fast forward 20 years and I could own my elementary innovation for about $100. Yet I’ve staunchly refused to capitulate the cash. Here’s why the home of tomes is far superior to owning media:

1. You already paid for it. In all truth, there is no such thing as a free library book. You’re already paying for all these services via taxes, so why not take advantage of them, rather than essentially paying for the same thing twice? But you don’t get to decide whether to pay for the library, for the sake of simplicity let’s consider it all “free.”

2. No subscriptions or on-going cost. We hate the idea of mindlessly forking over cash for entertainment that we could find in free, legal ways through the library. We also avoid new purchases that involve an ongoing cost as part of our “Mindless Austerity” efforts to “Develop an Aversion to Spending.” For example, an eReader doesn’t make sense unless you buy eBooks regularly; I’ve noticed there aren’t enough digital library books to go around. There’s always a long wait for the e-library book compared to hard copies.

What about the authors’ income? 1.) The library pays for handsomely for new hardcover books, unlike me who buys used copies off half.com, and 2.) Most of my favorite authors died of tuberculosis in the early 1800s. So they aren’t collecting royalties anymore.

3. I can’t break it. I know many people have replaced their original eReaders. Whether it gets broken, lost, or outdated, more technology means more money over the long run. I’ve never lost a library book, and the small amount I’ve paid in late fines is less than the price of one new book.

4. Less clutter. Frequenting the library allows us to own way less stuff. But first let me profess my deep love of books. I was an English teacher. I spent all of middle and high school with my nose in a novel (and, embarrassingly, often dressed like the main character). I used to buy books without thinking twice about it and blamed it on being a hopeless bibliophile.

I’ll always own books, but I’ve stopped collecting books because why should I have to buy, store, and organize lots of books when the library is so much better at it? We purchase far fewer books than ever before, and then only ones that we can’t get at the library—and only after exhausting all the regional libraries and inter-library loan systems. Same goes for most movies. If I don’t get through a book before the six week renewal limit, I just call, blame my kids for my slow progress, and get another two to six weeks on my loan.

Makeshift children's bookshelf.

Makeshift children’s bookshelf.

The library also means we can have a lot fewer toys. Though I feel like I’m swimming in plastic playthings, I’m a bit of a minimalist at heart. As a child I said that whenever I had kids of my own, I’d give them two possessions: a teddy bear and a library card. There are good, classic, educational toys that I’ve opted not to get my kids because we go to the library about once a week and they play with them there. Why should I purchase, clean up (or nag my kids to clean up), and house every type of block that exists? I don’t need to own a large plastic kitchen; the library has one. We don’t need more than a few puzzles and a modest collection of children’s books.

Less books, less mess.

Less stuff, less mess.

If we had all the same awesome toys as the library, the kids wouldn’t play with them more than once a week. They’d dump the pieces, lose a few, and then move on. But every time we go to the library they are excited to play there. We live within a short drive of four nice libraries, so we can rotate our visits and return to a less-cluttered home.

5. Coffee shop substitute. I regularly teach Bible studies and need a place to prepare while Neil or a friend watches my kids. Coffee shops are popular work stations, and I like coffee shops, but you know what I don’t like? Paying $4 for coffee when I could make it for 4 cents at home. Our local library even serves free coffee, tea, and hot chocolate during weekdays. It’s (supposed to be) quiet, and I don’t have to pack up my rather ragged laptop since the place is full of computers. And their internet is faster than mine! It’s a great free alternative “third place.”

6. Gym membership substitute. Gym memberships are expensive, and running sucks. Amiright? I miss doing Zumba and other group fitness classes. Luckily the library has quite the selection of exercise videos, and I’m not talking about Jazzercise videos featuring Cindy Lauper songs, pastel unitards, and matching scrunchies. Sure, there are plenty of awkward 90s unitards to be seen in the exercise archives, but there are also more up-to-date choices similar to classes you’d pay big bucks for at a gym.

7. Free air conditioning in the summer! If you’re like us, you avoid turning on your a/c at all costs. This summer while sweating it out in an 84 degree house I told Neil our next post should be titled “Pretend to Not Be Sweating Your ***** Off All Summer.” The library is a welcome reprieve on especially hot days for cheap, sweaty people like us.

8. Children’s programming. As Arthur the Aardvark said, “Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card!”All of the libraries in our area schedule amazing children’s programs that far surpass the traditional (but wonderful) story hours. One local librarian plays guitar and sings to the kids on a weekly basis. Many have LEGO clubs that provide children who are past the Lego-eating stage of development with a room full of free LEGOs to build. In case you’ve not been initiated into the Parents of LEGO club: these little pieces of plastic are pricey! And a real pain to step on and clean up.

We’ve also attended events like Life-Size Candyland, Touch-a-Truck, Noon Year’s Eve parties, and summer reading programs replete with free treats and prizes. Other activities include animal shows, dance troupes, the Bubble Lady, and craft times.

9. Meeting other parents. If you’re a new parent, have recently moved, or just want to talk to someone with a vocabulary more expansive than cracker and choo-choo, the library is a great place to meet other moms and dads. In my experience library parents are willing to talk; I’ve been invited to multiple playgroups just by acting friendly in the children’s room. And since the library parents are at the Magical Place of Free Stuff, they’ll inform you of other local free kids’ events if you get to chatting.

Bonus: While shooting the bookish-parent breeze you can silently chuckle at the library mom uniform: skinny jeans, jewel-tone cardigans, flats, and fashion scarves. It’s basically an unspoken dress code. Apparently nothing says “well-read mom” like a mustard-colored cardigan.

10. Vicarious pets. Do I want to keep a fish tank clean? No thanks. I can barely do the dishes, and can’t be trusted to keep anything other than children alive. Killing house plants is almost a hobby for me. My kids adore observing the library fish and turtle, which, by the way, is older than me! One librarian even lets them feed the fish. I’m not sure if this is actually healthy for the fish. Certainly there is a Library Science course covering fish care, right?

11. You get to feel cool. The library is the one public place where I’m not the dorkiest person present. And I secretly enjoy this novel experience.

12. Free textbooks. After my freshman year of college I stopped shelling out obscene sums for textbooks and wised up to the inter-library loan system. I was able to renew the books for the entire semester using the state-wide service linking all university and college libraries. This system is now available at public libraries in our state and Neil has borrowed all his grad school textbooks this way, saving hundreds of dollars in every course. Another system links many public libraries in our state. Check your local library’s web site or ask a librarian if your state has a similar inter-library loan program.

13. Thrifty throwback. Finding free diversion and soul respite in the library is old-fashioned and wholesome in the best of ways. It’s a great add-on to the Live Like Grandma Challenge, which helps put spending in a historical perspective while keeping finance fun. Plus I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the founder of the first American library is the guy on the $100 bill.

14. Did I mention everything is free?

Compared to cable, gym membership, a weekly coffeehouse drink, an eReader & a couple books a month, buying one toy per month, one children’s outing per month, and purchasing textbooks, the library easily saves us over $3000 per year. In a way, my library card is the most valuable piece of plastic in my purse.

Why do you love the library? How much do you think it saves you each year?

Make Your Spouse More Useful by Leaving the Country!

While I was in India for two weeks, I fully expected my family to throw frugality to the wind and dine on fast food at an alarming frequency. I also braced myself to return to a very messy house. (To be fair, this assumption was based on empirical data.) Instead, my hard-working husband saved us mad cash while improving our home through his DIY and negotiating skills.

I didn’t have time to make & freeze meals, so I left him with a couple pounds of thawed chicken, a box of Mac & Cheese, and some microwavable bags of broccoli (which were untouched), and a folder with fast food coupons and gift cards.  Had I returned to a home strewn with Taco Bell cups and dirty diapers, I could not have complained. After all, I enjoyed two weeks without cooking, cleaning, or laundry, while experiencing another culture with friends. But there was nothing to complain about.

Here’s the run-down of what he accomplished in my absence:

  • Re-built our deck, thus finishing a huge DIY home repair. Savings = $6,000.
  • Negotiated a 50% discount on professional treatment to prevent future damage. Savings = $350.
  • Fixed a coolant leak on his 13-year-old Ford. Savings = $100.
  • Replaced all the living room furniture for $300. Savings compared to buying new = $1000.
  • Canned 12 jars of homemade salsa from his garden. Savings = $36.
  • Made our son a birthday cake. Savings = $20.
  • Moved his behemoth (trash find) desk out of the office to make way for a guest or rental bedroom. Savings = TBD.
  • Discovered a more efficient way to hang-dry clothes. (In case you didn’t notice, this means he did laundry! And hung the laundry to dry!) Savings = time.

Grand total = $7,506.

I should leave more often!

The real take-away is that pretending to be poor can make your spouse a more useful person. Oh, and that applies to you, too! Rather than arguing over who spends more money on their hobbies or clothing, we strive to work together as a frugal team. We’re both interested in inflating our usefulness rather than our lifestyle. We haven’t always been on the same page about our frugal lifestyle. But we’ve hashed out our pecuniary values together over time. Last summer we found ourselves on vacation, sipping wine in a hot tub, talking the dirty details of Roth IRAs and early mortgage payoff. If this sounds boring, think of it as dreaming together. If you could do anything you want, without money as a major obstacle, what would it be? Now pray and plan about how to get there. We call this financial flexibility. (Read here why financial independence is not our dream.)

I must mention the invaluable help of our friends and family while I was gone. My mom watched the kids for the whole first work week, and Neil’s professional remodeler brother helped vastly with our home repair. We also had the help of his sister and several of our friends who babysat, cooked, and cleaned during the second week. I can’t thank our gracious helpers enough. It was frugal friends synergy at its finest.

The home repair deserves its own post. Regarding the living room furniture, two free couches, a free TV stand, and a Craigslist HD CRT comprised our living room furniture before I left. The couches did not match AT ALL. They were very comfortable but also very stained (thanks, babies). One of them was literally disintegrating. The kids were picking off the faux-leather finish and dispersing it throughout the house. And you know how some people sort of mindlessly fiddle with things while they’re talking? Sometimes there’d be a pile of pleather crumbs in the built-in (read: hideous) cup holders after certain guests left. The other sofa had issues too dark to mention. I was and am sworn to secrecy.

To say the least, I’d been feeling embarrassed by our furniture but used it as an exercise in the principle that Life is Not About Your Preferences. And our hand-me-down TV stand, though good quality, felt too large for our small living room. Neil scored two couches that not only match each other, but also the rest of our open floor plan decor, on a local Facebook buy-sell-trade page. He replaced the TV stand with a low-profile modern (free) one that’d been collecting dust in our basement. One of our biggest fights over the last five years was over couches–there’s an example of us fighting over frugality–but I’d made up my mind that couches are not worth fighting about. I guess the moral of the story is, if you shut up and leave the country, maybe your SO will replace the furniture. Oh wait, I mean be content, everything doesn’t have to be your favorite, and free & broken furniture is the best. 🙂

How has frugal living made your spouse more useful?


How to Pay Nothing For School Supplies

school supplies

This doesn’t have to cost you anything!

Years ago I unwittingly stopped at Walmart the night before the start of school. It looked like the set of a B-list horror film. Hoards of red-eyed parents slogged through aisles of Hello Kitty notebooks and their cheaper neon graphic counterparts. I questioned whether I should even have children if this scene awaited me, but concluded Walmart was no place to make major life decisions.

This weekend is tax-free back-to-school shopping in our state. Buyers beware: don’t overspend just because you’re getting a 7% discount. If you received a 7% off store coupon would you consider it a great deal?

Thankfully, back-to-school does not have to be a frenzied hundred-dollar endeavor. Since my kids aren’t in school yet, I tracked down tips from a seasoned mother of three, my friend Kathryn from Entitlement Monster. Her children currently span elementary through high school so she’s shopped the gamut of school lists. And she so graciously shared how she pays nothing for school supplies by scoring great deals and then opening a Supply Store where her kids pay for their goods at the price she paid. She also detailed the invaluable financial and life lessons her kids absorbed through this approach. Many thanks, Kathryn, for taking the time to share your awesome ideas with us!

But first, let me share my supply savings strategies, a la my 10-year-old self. Coming from a family of five and having read enough Little House on the Prairie to appreciate the principle “waste not, want not,” I would:

  1. Dig through our communal bucket of crayons in search of the essential colors in decent shape. Repeat this exercise for folders, notebooks, scissors, and paper. Then repeat on behalf of the little sibs.
  2. If this proved fruitless, I’d opt for the 16-count box of crayons instead of 24. Who needs gray and pink? It’s a marketing scam. (Obviously I’m not artistic.)

When these two tips don’t cut it, as I’m sure they mostly won’t, Kathryn’s ideas should do nicely.

1. Build a stash of school supplies. Kathryn keeps them in a chest. After all, anything in a chest is automatically more fun. Get the supply lists and start watching for sales/clearance. But don’t rely solely on back to school sales or limit yourself to what’s on the list. Inevitably the kids will run out of something or you’ll get a letter calling for more supplies mid-year. Take a picture of the list with your smart phone and refer back to it later if needed. Avoid paying full retail prices later in the year by stocking supplies throughout the year as you find good prices through these avenues:

  • Clearance or deep sales. Check large grocery stores, Target, Office Max, discount stores, etc. Scan for these during your normal errands.
  • Garage sales. Great for binders, backpacks, and sometimes brand-new supplies like crayons.
  • Backpack sales. Take the kids to pick one when they’re 75% if you don’t find them at yard sales.
  • In late July/early August, places like Office Max have “penny deals” where if you spend $5, you can get things like pencil packs, erasers, pens, rulers, etc. for just a penny. Don’t go there just for the penny deals, but keep a list of office supplies to replenish (like printer paper), or save errands you need to run in that area for this time of year.
  • Dollar stores are great for some higher-priced items that are hard to find sales on, such as headphones and antibacterial wipes.

2. Open the store. Before school starts, let the kids “shop” your stash with their allowance money earned from chores. In Kathryn’s house, “chores” means much more than cleaning your room. Her kids earn cash by regularly doing jobs like cooking dinner, doing dishes, cleaning the bathroom, or mowing the lawn. But what kind of parent makes kids pay for their own school supplies? Parents that wish to:

  • Teach kids to manage their money and make good buying decisions.
  • Motivate kids to take care of their stuff. If they can reuse last year’s backpack or other items, that’s more money they can spend elsewhere.
  • Show kids they don’t need the nicest, shiniest, or hippest school items. For example, Kathryn’s oldest child rocked the same backpack for 3 years, “and last year it was held together by duct tape. In rags, it finally gave up the ghost in June,” Kathryn recalled.
  • Teach kids that money comes from hard work.
  • Convey that money is not mainly for recreation or saving, but for meeting needs.

Check out this picture of her youngest child’s school list. Normal retail price would have averaged $60 including the backpack. Her total cost was $10.65.

$10.65 for child. $0 for mom.

$10.65 for child.
$0 for mom.

What if you over-stock? Kathryn says they donate surplus supplies that sit unused for too long. Many homeless shelters and after school programs distribute supplies donations to children in need.

If this system sounds daunting, remember that you can stock your supply throughout the year. Just start keeping your eye out for good deals on school supplies during your normal shopping trips and Hyou stash as you go. Kathryn’s children love shopping the store and have learned valuable financial lessons in a fun milieu.

What are you back-to-school savings tips? Do you have a system for teaching your kids about money?

Open the Door to a Lifetime of Vacation Savings


Camping is sometimes called “pretending to be poor,” so it’s no surprise we love to camp. Spending time in nature with family or friends makes for an inexpensive and highly fulfilling vacation. Yet many otherwise frugal people haven’t tapped into the incredible on-going savings of camping. So we hereby issue the Pretend to Be Poor Camping Challenge: give camping a try! Spend at least one day & night camping, in order to open the door to a lifetime of frugal, fun vacations. And if you’re thinking “you couldn’t pay me enough to go camping,” you have to read on about all the proven personal and family benefits that pricier vacations fail to deliver.

A word of encouragement to non-campers: I never camped while growing up. I first ventured into the hobby as an indoorsy college student with no camping skills, came to love the experience, and have camped 3-4 times a year ever since. We even camped for a week with a two-year-old and barely-four-month-old, and had a blast. (Read about this crazy adventure in “Camping with Kids” on my mom blog.) If I can learn to like camping, so can you! And there are so many benefits for you, your relationships, and your children (if you have them).

Inexpensive vacation. Camping is, of course, supremely frugal if done right. For example, we camp in Florida during spring break and spend $107 for the site for the week. We couldn’t get a hotel there for one night at that price! We camp in a tent, have used the same camping gear for over ten years, and only upgraded to a larger tent because of our growing family. With the simple investment in a camp stove (about $50 new), you can shop at a discount grocery store and cook all your meals easily that way. Or cook exclusively on the fire. Read more about our $500 week-long camping vacation here.

Don’t have camping gear? There are many ways to come by it cheaply, and you don’t need a fancy camper, RV, or lots of accessories to have a good trip. Our family camping gear includes a tent, propane stove, air mattress (now that we’re “old”), sleeping bags, cheap camp chairs, and basic cooking implements. If you’re not ready to invest a lot in supplies, ask to borrow gear from a friend or family member. Check garage sales, Craigslist, and thrift stores for used items. You probably already have things like flashlights, bug spray, pots & pans, and old blankets in your home. On long trips we buy wood from Craiglist while there.

A sense of accomplishment. Chillin’ in nature is also rife with intangible benefits like the deep bonding between campers, the soul-rest of time in nature, and the fulfillment of learning skills or mastering challenges. Learning to pitch a tent, build a fire, and keep your children alive while pitching a tent and building a fire, all inflate one’s sense of usefulness. While camping may not be as easy as lounging poolside, it combines leisure and accomplishment in a most delightful way.

Closer families. Nothing has brought us closer as a family than the zany challenge of camping with two little kids. I know we wouldn’t feel the same sense of satisfaction returning from a resort vacation or Disney World. More than anecdotal evidence supports my closer-family camping hypothesis. Camping has been identified as a the number one predictor of family cohesiveness. It correlates with families who like each other, still spend time together even when the children are adults, and have close relationships.[1] Camping has also been linked to better grades for school children.[2] Ready to book a camp site yet?

It’s no surprise that camping is good for kids since every family member has to contribute. (Okay, maybe not the four-month-old.) Kids learn skills like how to build a fire, roast a hot dog, hike, fish, swim, and identify plants and animals. They’re also forced to play without high-tech toys or entertainment and develop adaptability. Many campgrounds offer free activities for kids, like scavenger hunts, nature walks, concerts, or dances.

If you’ve ever stayed in a hotel with young children, you might imagine the advantages of camping. The kids can run around outside during the day instead of being contained to a hotel in between sight-seeing. The germ content of dirt concerns me far less than whatever lurks in hotel carpet and bedspreads. I was worried about our kids being able to sleep in a tent, but all the exercise and fresh air wears them out & they sleep great, as many camp moms will testify. I can’t emphasize how happy our kids are while camping, even as infants. Our son loves talking about past trips and cries when daddy goes backpacking without him!

Let go of your standards. Camping forces us to let go of our often arbitrary rules for “civilized” life. I relish leaving behind the Internet and make-up bag for a weekend or even a week. I may have peed places other than the toilet, showered once all week, cursed in front of my toddler (about needing a shower), let the kids go barefoot all day, and helped my kid poop over a tree root. And Neil may have rinsed a poopy toddler sans swim diaper in the ocean. It’s all part of the fun if you can laugh about it.

Choose your challenge. The continuum of camping options allows campers to “choose their own adventure.” From wilderness backpacking to “glamping,” pick your desired mixture of leisure vs. challenge. Pitch a tent in your backyard if you need to ease in. Our city maintains a campground less than two miles from our home, which is perfect for short trips that don’t require much planning. Check out whether your local parks have camp sites available. Or camp to save on lodging near your next sight-seeing destination. Whatever you decide, just be sure to look up at the stars, enjoy good conversation around the fire, and don’t forget the s’mores.

What do you like about camping? Or what are your hang-ups?


[1] https://www.forestry.umn.edu/sites/forestry.umn.edu/files/MNForestryResearchNotes_201.pdf

[2] http://www.campingandcaravanningclub.co.uk/newsandevents/nccw/get-kids-camping-research-results/

Waste Less, Want Less

Okay, Pretenders: open your refrigerator and—if you have the stomach for it—find all the expired, old, and rotting food it contains. I’m sure your parents pulled the starving kid in other country card enough for a lifetime. But this might hit closer to home: perhaps you can’t buy something you want or give more generously because you’re wasting hundreds of dollars each month on things you throw away or don’t really need.

One of my favorite adages, which I quote frequently to the chagrin of my family, is Ben Franklin’s pithy “waste not, want not.” And it goes way beyond letting some leftovers go bad. Americans have strayed ironically far from this founding father’s wisdom. In the U.S. we are wasters by default; we think nothing of throwing away 251 million tons of trash annually. That’s 4.3 pounds of garbage per person per day, not including recycled or composted material.

This issue of waste is central to our financial problems. Just think about why so many personal finance bloggers and readers are engineers. My (engineer) husband says it’s because engineering is all about reducing waste by figuring out how to do more with less. And that’s very much what being thrifty is about, too. It’s like getting the best deal, all the time, on everything, so you can do what you want with your money (i.e. financial flexibility).

According to a recent TIME article “America’s Clutter Problem” by Josh Sanburn, “Americans have more possessions than any society in history.” For example, the U.S. is home to 3% of the world’s children, but buys 40% of the world’s toys. The equilibrium between population and possessions is similarly off when it comes to food, clothing, electronics, petrol, or just about any consumable you could imagine. We have more buying power than most, but also waste A LOT of everything.

We throw out TVs, not because they are broken, but because they aren’t big enough and flat enough. We throw away clothes not because they are completely worn but because they aren’t stylish enough—according to arbitrary standards we’ll laugh at in a few years. We throw away food not because it’s contaminated but because we forgot to eat it. I’m guilty, too, but it’s outlandish to waste like we do.

I’ve been reading Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder to my son and it’s astonishing how little the family wastes. They save the ashes from their stove all winter, and combine them with animal fat saved for months to make soap. They save rags to braid into rugs, or to trade for new dishes from the tin peddler. When a July frost threatens to kill the corn, every family member spends hours outside in the middle of the night, splashing water on 3 acres of corn plants to save them.

And sometimes I’m too lazy to sew a button back on a shirt.

I doubt any of us can go from producing 4.3 pounds of garbage per day to zero. But certainly we could waste less, and subsequently, want less. Wasting less means spending less by using what you already have. This in turns leaves you with more money to give, save, and invest as you seek financial flexibility. So what can you waste less of? Some of the top resources we waste are:

  1. Food. Make a menu, shop with a list, and keep perishable foods in a visible place. Put leftovers in clear containers. Pack them for lunch instead of going out to eat.
  2. Energy. Turning off the lights, setting back the thermostat, keeping the AC off, hanging clothes to dry…simple steps like these can save you hundreds each month on gas and electric bills.
  3. Gas (petrol). We don’t do anything extreme to limit our driving, but try to bike or carpool when we can to reduce fuel costs. Plus it’s more fun to bike or ride with a friend.
  4. Electronics. We simply don’t need to upgrade computers, TVs, or phones every year (or several years). The global impact of our wasted technology is huge and takes the biggest toll on the most impoverished.
  5. Money. Spending money on products or services you don’t need or get real happiness from is a waste. Maybe you waste on recreational shopping, an outrageous cell phone bill, a bad life insurance policy, frequent restaurant dining, or cable TV that you don’t have time to watch. Decide what is really worth your money and what spending has simply become a habit. Tackle one area at a time; a few minutes’ hassle could save a lot over time.

While any one act of wasting less may not save a ton of money, the habit of reducing waste, along with the attitude of being content with what you have goes a long way toward meeting financial goals. Wasting less turns the tide from always wanting more to actually building wealth.

What could you waste less on? What goal will you put your “waste less” savings toward? 

Live Like Grandma Challenge

Neil's grandparents' wedding photo, circa 1942

Neil’s grandparents’ wedding photo, circa 1942

Pretending to be poor is in some ways akin to living like your grandparents. I don’t mean you should start watching daytime television and microwaving leftover coffee (although this is much cheaper than the Keurig). Pretending to be poor is nothing new; it’s actually quite old-fashioned. From the Proverbs to the Greatest Generation, we can reclaim a wealth of thrifty know-how from those who have gone before us.

Speaking of grandparents, my dad tells the story of how he thought his family was poor when he was growing up. Turns out they were just pretending. (Maybe it’s genetic?). Their investments put their five children through college and allowed them to retire before they were too old to enjoy it.

This type of lifestyle was once relatively normal but now it’s weird enough to be the subject of blogs like ours. It sure feels ironic to blog about how you should live more like your grandma did. But stick with me. What did your grandparents do? Some examples:

  1. Cooked homemade food.
  2. Grew a garden (& canned it).
  3. Hung laundry instead of using the dryer.
  4. Clothed the children in hand-me-downs.
  5. Saved up for purchases.
  6. Walked places.

What didn’t Grandma do?

  1. Buy things on credit (except a house).
  2. Shop as a pastime.
  3. Eat at restaurants often.
  4. Develop an expensive coffee habit.
  5. Waste things.

I realize times have changed. The Grandparents didn’t enter the workforce with $50,000+ in school debt. Grandma stayed at home with the kids so she had “more time” for frugal fixes like sock mending and scratch cooking. (Although she also didn’t have a lot of time-saving products like no-wrinkle work clothes and a microwave oven).

Without rejecting modern technology, why not view the “extra work” of running your home without tons of convenience items and consumer debt as a fun & thrifty throwback? Are any Little House on the Prairie fans tracking with me? I would’ve made a pitiful pioneer but when I start getting crabby about hanging the laundry I try to feel like a domestic money-saving goddess instead. Of course the burden of household savings shouldn’t all be on moms. There’s plenty of work to go around. Kids have to help, too! And this could give them a chance to earn change for their give, save, and spend jars. (We’re about to launch this plan with our 3-year-old. Results coming soon.)

So are you ready to take the Live Like Your Grandma challenge for the next month? Here it is:

  1. Interview your grandparents or other older relatives. What was it like to run a household when they raised your parents? What was it like when they were children? (This might be the ticket if you’re young like me.) Older generations didn’t talk as much about money but see if there’s any financial wisdom they’re willing to share.
  2. Give your dryer a break. Hang-dry your clothes for a month and track how much you save on electricity. String a simple line or invest in an inexpensive drying rack. Try to get your kids to help you. (To decrease wrinkles in nice clothes, give them a good snap, fluff 3-4 minutes in the dryer, snap again, dry on a hanger.)
  3. Cook from scratch. Cut back as much as you can on frozen meals, prepackaged side dishes, lunchbox snacks, cereal, granola bars, and all the stuff your great-grandparents probably didn’t eat. While you’re at it skip the Starbucks & the K-cups & maybe even microwave some coffee.
  4. Don’t shop as a pastime. Recreational retail is a dangerous game until you develop a healthy aversion to spending, and then you won’t find it much fun anymore. Find something free and old-fashioned to do instead. Go to the library, the park, a friend’s house, ride bikes, take a walk, de-clutter & sell something instead of buying.
  5. Put your savings to work. The steps above could save you $100 or more. Track how much you save, brag about it in the comments, and then put the money toward one of your financial goals, like paying off debt or maxing out your 401k. If you want a reward, keep it simple & go out for ice cream. I’m sure Grandma would approve.

Have fun!

How do you make money-saving fun? What are your thrifty throwback ideas?