Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Traveling on a Budget

So, this week I'll be posting from San Diego! I'm attending and presenting at a conference (Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education), and Benny is along for the ride and food. :) In typical McFalls family fashion, each day will be planned according to meals, not times, and we'll take in the sights as close to the local way as possible. But first, how we got here and are making it happen on a budget...

Continuing your education is a fantastic way to see more of the world, if you take advantage of opportunities as they come along. I've been able to see two countries and several parts of the US this way, mostly on someone else's dime. I am a huge advocate of applying for grants, especially for professional development. Since the state and local travel budgets are pretty non-existent this year, I've been fortunate to be awarded some grants that paid my way for this trip. Through ASU, I've been a part of a National Science Foundation grant that has allowed me to work with technology and middle schoolers, two things I love to do. This grant, along with the Leadership and Educational Services Department, paid for $1000 of my trip, since I'm presenting for both the NSF grand and the LES Department here at the conference. This money paid for most of my plane ticket and hotel room. I also applied for a Graduate Studies Grant, which was funded to the tune of $275, which will help to pay for the rest of my room. The county was willing to fund my registration to the conference, and PTO paid for my sub for the week. So, the only out of pocket expenses we have are Benny's plane ticket and food for the week. If you're considering professional travel, it often doesn't cost much more to take your family, if you plan well.

After doing a bit of research, we found a AAA deal on the conference hotel that would save us on food. Through this deal, we paid a bit more for the room (about $10 a night--but remember, this is being reimbursed), but it gave us a $50/day hotel credit that we can use toward any amenities at the hotel, including restaurants and room service. So, we've planned to get breakfast each day (a big breakfast), which will give us the energy to get through the day so that we have to spend less for lunch and dinner. The AAA deal also scored us an upgraded room with a king sized bed and a view of the bay. (Check out the photos below! Beautiful!) So, when you're planning your trip, ask about discounts and member deals, you may find that being an educator or auto club member will get you much more than just a few bucks off or roadside assistance.

When we arrived after a long day of traveling (no, air travel is not very green, but there are things you can do to offset this during your trip), we took the hotel shuttle from the airport to the hotel (free, although we did offer a tip for luggage assistance), and checked into the hotel. We found our room nicely furnished and several amenities, such as coffee, tea, and toiletries. We also read all of the hotel literature, as this contained the restaurant menus and information about housekeeping. (We also realized that this was the first time we'd ever stayed in a hotel together (and we've been married for almost four years)! Our vacations in the past have always been house swaps or camping trips, in keeping with our budget.) In an effort to save water and electricity, many hotels are providing guests the option of denying housekeeping for part or all of their stay. We read this information carefully and found that our hotel rewards this with a $5 coupon good at hotel restaurants for each day you do this. Woohoo.. more free food! So, if we stockpile these for a few days, we'll have the funds to have dessert and coffee/drinks one evening after a day of sightseeing. Lesson number three, read the hotel literature, as there are often deals to be found.

We started planning out our sight seeing adventures last night and this morning. We picked up some local travel literature in the lobby, which contained local maps, as well as coupons. So, we found a few restaurants that offer discounts when you mention an add or had a coupon. We also found the concierge desk folks to be extremely helpful, especially in figuring out the local transportation. One way to offset the carbon-based fuels we burned in our flight is to make use of local transportation and walking. By using public transit, we're using less fuel per person than taking a cab (although there may be times when this is necessary). So, while I was in my sessions this morning, Benny mapped out our route for the evening for walking and finding dinner and entertainment.

Traveling can be expensive, but if you plan well, you'll be able to stick to your budget and enjoy your vacation even more by experiencing the city as locals do! So, remember to:

1) Apply for grants if your travel is professional. Why pay yourself if someone else will pick up the tab?! :)
2) Take advantage of member discounts or deals that apply. You may get an upgrade, hotel credit, or other bonus option!
3) Look for green opportunities within your hotel (declining housekeeping, opting for compostable to-go containers, etc.), which may also benefit your budget.
4) Take advantage of tourist publications, such as sightseeing brochures, etc. which may contain coupons or discount offers.
5) Do a little research and don't be afraid to ask the folks at the front desk for assistance. They are in the business of hospitality and are there to help you!
6) Check out the public transit system; it's often more affordable than a cab and offers you a view of the city that many tourists don't get.
7) Always order water (when it's from the tap), unless you get a deal on a drink. It's usually free, and keeps you more hydrated than other options.
8) Plan for a big breakfast that's packed with protein and carbs (of the good, whole-grain variety) to keep you going throughout the day.

I'll post more tips and travel tricks tomorrow to make your vacationing budget-friendly and fun! How do you keep your travel under budget and fun-filled? I'd love to hear from you!

Sharin' the green love and savings!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Best Things in Life are Free

This week our church family and many in the High Country were hit with this reality with the sudden death of two local firefighters in a car accident. It's a shame that it takes this kind of tragedy to make us remember to leave the urgent things behind and focus on the important.

As I made this bundt cake for the meal for the family yesterday (a cake I know this food lovin' boy would have enjoyed--he would have loved the cream cheese filling), I thought a lot about this friend and faith family member and what he would have wanted. The celebration of life service couldn't have been more appropriate... music, tons of friends, and lots of food. Tommy would have loved it! We took the time last night to catch up with old friends and colleagues, support one another in our grief, and savor the simple things, like the kids playing around the tables.

I cannot imagine my life without my faith family. We are truly blessed to have found a home where we have friends who have become family; whom we can call upon, and who take the opportunity to call upon us. They've helped us clean out ditches, hang sheetrock, paint our home, install flooring, given us flowers for the garden, and shared countless meals with us, among so many other things. We've had the joy of sharing their pregnancies, watching babies grow up into such smart children, babysitting countless times to allow them a date night, and helping them out in a pinch with car trouble or offering them a ride somewhere.

But it's not about what we do for each other, it's about the relationships formed along the way... Tom and Dayna, at church, who remind me so much of Aunt Debbie and Uncle David (they help me to not miss that family as much); Sandi, a spirit-filled writer who has become like a mother to us; the countless friends who share our love of cooking and all things frugal--they help keep us accountable and offer great conversation; and the girls who help me to remember that girl time is just as important as couple time. And what carries these relationships further is that at the center of them, there's a bond that's greater than all others.

It's that bond that offers us all comfort and peace during this time of grief and heartache. It's that bond that lets us know that we're not alone in this. And it's that bond that allows us to know that there are truly better things to come, even if we don't see it yet.

So, take the time today to re-prioritize a bit... move the important above the urgent on the to-do list, and savor time with family and friends. This time is a free gift, and truly one to be cherished.

This post is dedicated to Charles Thomas "Tommy" Wright (April 4, 1989-March 21, 2010) Tommy, may your memory always be a reminder to us to live life to the fullest and always pursue our dreams. Easter Sunday will never be the same for us!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Saving Green on Haircuts

So, almost a year ago we bought a Wahl haircut kit at Big Lots for about $15 with grand visions of my cutting Benny's hair to save us some cash and give a little more wiggle room (and savings) in our budget.

Well, the kit sat under the bathroom sink for about six months before I took the plunge and tried to cut Benny's hair over Christmas. The first time, his sister had to clean things up a bit. (He had more specific ideas about what he wanted than I could provide with the kit and guards.)

Last night, things were much more successful! I set up shop in the bathroom with a kitchen chair, a bath towel as a drape, and plugged in the razor with the 1 inch guard attached. I took off much of the length, and then went to the 3/4 inch guard (he wanted it short for spring). I used the razor with no guard to clean up the neckline and around his ears. He trimmed things a bit more after his shower this morning. Overall, he was very pleased and told me numerous times how much he liked the cut! Not too bad for a haircut at home... with one cut, we had the razor paid for! (Funny little story...when I switched guards, the 1 inch fell on the floor. I thought Benny had picked it up, he thought I had it... we later found it on the bed, having been chewed to bits by none other than Lavender! So, I guess we'll have to buy another 1" guard.) Knowing that I can successfully cut Benny's hair makes me even more confident that I will be able to cut our kid's one day, assuming we have a boy (and that he's cooperative about the haircut).

I have been working toward growing my hair out a bit more, though I haven't decided how much. I like it short, but I miss being able to pull it up too. So, at this point, I'm in that weird stage where I want to get it cut, but if I wait a few more weeks, it will be long enough to manage again. So, I think I'll just hold out. When I had long hair, I'd get it trimmed about twice a year. I'm thinking that having it longer will definitely save us on my quarterly haircuts, and I'll enjoy it being that long again.

With our savings on haircuts, we've been able to add to our emergency fund more and pay to have Lavender's nails trimmed at the vet (we tried doing it ourselves, and it was just too hard on all of us and we didn't keep up with it like we should). The cost of a haircut for us equals what a nail trim for her is, so it all evens out and we're not spending more than we were before we had her for those grooming things.

So, how are you creating more wiggle room in your budget? Have you had success with at-home haircuts? I'd love to hear from you!

Sharin' the green love and savings!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Closet Revitalization on a Budget

A few posts back, I mentioned that Benny and I scored part of a closet system at Lowe's on the clearance table. Well, after that, Benny went to another Lowe's location to see what pieces they had, only to find that all of their pieces had been shipped to the Boone store already. What he managed to score was even better... after a little haggling, he was able to get the whole display unit from that store for $50! (We found out later that this was almost $600 worth of stuff... geez, I love a deal!)

So, the day he brought home the store display (in a friend's truck, since the Jetta definitely wouldn't hold it), this is what I came home to. That's right... a bedroom and living room full of pieces parts of closet system. Mind you, this was a weeknight and I had class that night, so I was beat! And our bed was covered in closet stuff... so, I made Benny a deal. I'd live, for up to two weeks with stuff scattered all over, if he'd get it all put up. He said it would take the weekend. Here was our closet before (after we zealously took down the wire coated stuff that previously hung in the space--to be repurposed in the laundry closet as a second shelf and in the one-day refinished basement as additional storage).

Well, after a little more than a week, I'm eating my words... (it didn't happen in a weekend or two weeks, so I guess we're both compromising) and we have a newly revamped closet for about $50! Benny had to pick up a few hardware pieces along the way, but we were able to put almost all of the purchase of the closet system onto our Lowe's gift card, which meant that the purchase was a nice extra (that we'd been drooling over for about a year), without eating into our thrifty budget. (We discovered quickly that there were more pieces than would fit into our closet, so we moved them downstairs to be used in the basement when we finish that space out in the future... hopefully near future.)

So, let me go on record saying that I'm so stinkin' proud of my husband! He did a fantastic job piecing this all together (since it was the display and was already disassembled when he bought it, there were no instructions for how to put the units back together) and it totally increases our storage space. The shelves go most of the way up the 9-foot walls, which makes use of more of the vertical space we weren't using before, and the shelves across the top will allow us to store out of season clothes in easy-to-see (and reach) baskets and bins. With the space the wrap-around corner shelf provides, we now have some storage for linens, which we were sorely lacking before. Now, there's room for all of his t-shirts, which were crowding the dresser, and we've even got space to hang my wedding dress behind the door with a hook mounted on the wall. This all means that we might be able to get rid of the dresser he doesn't like and replace it with a recovered Goodwill chair, which he's been wanting as a space to sit and tie shoes and generally make the bedroom more of a retreat by adding a reading light.

How're your budget DIY projects coming? How are you repurposing things around the house? Got a great deal to share? Please share... I'd love to hear from you!

Sharin' the green love and savings!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Weekend Culinary Adventures

Although the snow has stopped, it's not quite warm enough for me to be doing much in the garden. So, I spent much of this weekend doing some batch cooking for the freezer and meals this week.

Friday night was date night, so instead of pizza, we made a quiche. If you have a lot of eggs, this is a great way to use them, as well as odds and ends of veggies. We added mushrooms, some ends of cheeses, onion, and bacon to ours. Instead of the traditional pastry crust, we opted for the hashbrown crust described in this recipe from Rachel Ray. It was more prep time, but we enjoyed it and it was a little healthier than the traditional buttery crust. With a glass of wine and some Ben and Jerry's for dessert, it was a great date night meal! (And, it made plenty of leftovers for lunches this week.) We made extra hashbrowns and cooked them while the quiche was baking so that we could reheat them for breakfast in the morning. (Doing it this way meant that we cooked once and only had to wash the pan once, rather than putting the leftover shredded potatoes in the fridge to be cooked the next morning. Did ya catch that water and time conservation? :))

Yesterday, I made meatballs to put into the freezer, as well as for meatball subs. The meatball recipe I use is from Cheap. Fast. Good., a cookbook I've mentioned several times before. (Can you tell it's one of my "go-to's"?!) This time, instead of using two pounds of ground beef, I used a pound of beef and a pound of ground chicken. The beef and chicken were on sale at Harris Teeter last week, and the chicken had the bonus of being natural, free-range, vs. the hormone laden stuff. One of the reasons I like this meatball recipe is that you bake them on the broiler pan, rather than frying them, so they're healthier. (Usually, I hate bringing out the broiler pan because it's a pain to clean up... umm, rather, it's a pain for Benny to clean up (that's the deal, he does dishes... I do laundry... it works for us). But, I found out that you can use dryer sheets to release gunk from a pan. So I tried it, and low and behold, it worked like magic! There was virtually no scrubbing, aside from the light wiping to get stuff out of the grooves. So, I"m sold on this method!)

When I was already in the middle of the recipe, I realized that I didn't have any bread crumbs, so I made my own using some week old bread we had in the fridge. I simply buzzed it in the food processor and baked the crumbs for about 20 min. on a baking sheet to dry them out. (I stored the leftovers in an airtight container for later use.) I also found this method in the same cookbook as the meatball recipe.

I also made a large bowl of chicken salad yesterday, using some leftover grapes, an apple, some celery Benny had picked up at Costco, and the chicken I cooked in the crockpot last week. (Don't worry, the chicken had been in the freezer up until yesterday. It hadn't been hanging around in the fridge too long!) I added some salt, pepper, Miracle Whip (Benny's spread of choice), and poppy seeds I had in the fridge (store these and sesame seeds in the fridge and they'll last longer because the oils won't go bad as quickly). We had that on some homemade bread for lunch... yummy!

Today, I tried my hand at making some homemade hamburger and hotdog buns. I don't like paying full price for these at the store, but can hardly ever find the whole wheat ones on sale. I know that baking from scratch is generally cheaper, and definitely better for you, but I've always been a bit intimidated by yeast dough recipes until I met my friend the bread machine. (Actually, ours was gifted to us as a hand-me-down; thanks Maggie!) I found a recipe for the burger and dog buns in the Bread Machine Magic cookbook Benny got for me for Valentine's Day (I'd only checked the book out at the library about 10 times... it's about time I had my own used copy from Amazon!). The beauty of this recipe is that the machine makes the dough, meaning that my "human error" of always killing the yeast in yeast bread recipes was not a factor. (I always manage to get the water too hot, even with a thermometer.) It also meant that I could work on finishing organizing the office while the dough was kneaded and rose the first time. When the machine beeped, I simply turned the wheat dough out onto my floured countertop, rolled it into a log, and separated it into 12 portions. These I rolled into 6-inch long rolls, or formed into balls, which I flattened to get the hamburger or hotdog buns. Then, I let them rise in the warm oven for 40 minutes, and baked for 12 min. at 400 degrees. (I know it sounds like a lot of steps, but it was really a nice, relaxing way to spend the afternoon. And I could get my other stuff done, like laundry, helping Benny with the closet organizer install (more on that soon) and cleaning.) This was the end result... wheat hotdog and hamburger buns, bakery quality, with no preservatives. They were fantastic with our meatball sandwiches tonight! We're both swearing that we'll never pay for storebought burger or dog buns again... the taste and texture were worth all the "work"!

How about you? Did you have any fantastic culinary adventures this weekend? How do you work meals in around the edges, so that yous till have time to do what you want and need to do? Please share... I'd love to hear from you!

Sharin' the green love and savings!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Online Deal Stalking

So, we operate on the motto of never paying full price for anything, if we can help it, so that means hunting down online deals, using coupons and rainchecks for grocery purchases, buying used, and finding sales on items we need/want. Basically, it's "Use it up, wear it out, fix it up, make it do or do without" (modified from My Frugal Life).

For those of you who have not yet discovered Frugal Coupon Living and are online deal stalkers like we are, this might be your new best friend! (I've added a button to the blog if you want to link up from here any other day.) Today, they're featuring Crocs that are on sale (including women's Primas for $9.99... I know the Purser family is loving this!) and Vera Bradley bags for $12.00! How amazing... Anyway, they post online deals daily.

I've mentioned 6pm.com before, which posts daily updates at 6pm of a range of clothing and accessory items. We've also had success with Woot.com for a variety of electronic and small appliance items. New Egg is great for tech deals, including computers and data storage devices.Steep and Cheap is another favorite for outdoors stuff and rugged clothing, and is especially popular in our area with all the outdoors activities in which people participate. Of course, you can always check clearance sections of websites for items. Sometimes, this is a great score for Pottery Barn items, Land's End, L.L. Bean, and others when you've been eyeing a pricey item for a while.

Benny has become a master at finding coupon codes to pair with already reduced prices. Often you can find these for free shipping, a percentage off, or other deals ($25 off $100 purchase, etc.). Sometimes, this is how we purchase gifts, so that we get a quality item at a price that our budget will handle, but we don't look "cheap". RetailMeNot.com is one coupon code forum that is essentially an online database for all things coupon. There are several others out there if you do a basic internet search for them. If there's a product you're wanting, before purchasing it online, do a search for a coupon code (i.e. "crocs coupon code") and you're sure to come up with several hits.

We also make sure that we're safe in our online purchases by using a "fake" card number, that we generate using a function that came with our credit card. This way, the transaction is only for that specific amount tied to that "fake" number, and the fake number links to our real card. However, the retailer does not have our card number and it's not floating out there online, so it's safer than just putting in our card number. (As an aside, we put everything we can on the credit card and pay it off each month. This way, we earn cash back that goes into an account set up as a high interest account. We've tried other rewards cards, but this seems to be the best fit for us, since it earns rewards on any purchase and not just select ones. We are sure to pay it off each month, though, so that we don't accrue interest.)

One of the things we have to be careful about is setting a limit on such purchases and discussing purchases with each other. Almost any purchase we make is discussed, large or small, and we weigh the pros and cons before purchasing. For example, I love the Primas that are on sale right now, but will need to decide whether or not I want to give up a pair of shoes I have to have the Primas... or if they're even worth the $10 right now, or if that money will be better spent somewhere else, or saved in our emergency fund.

So how do you find deals online? How do you decide if it's a deal worth buying, or if you're going to make do with something else? What do you to "Use it up, wear it out, fix it up, make it do or do without" and stretch your budget?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Frugal Thoughts

Thanks to everyone for putting my blog over the 100 visitors mark! :) What an accomplishment for about a month of being online!

A few random frugal thoughts for the day, including some conservation tips:

1. Use less water by using foaming hand soap (remember to make your own). Since it's about 75% water, you can get some soap, lather, and then rinse, saving the water you'd need to get the initial lather with traditional soaps.

2. Set a kitchen timer or alarm clock to keep your showers short. If you're in the habit of taking long showers, start with baby steps by decreasing your time by a minute each week. If you use a 2-in-1 shampoo/conditioner, you'll save time also. (They also make timers that you can install in your shower, but I just can't see going there if I have a kitchen timer that will do the job.) You might also try cutting the water off while you lather up (I can only stand to do this in the summer... it's a little too chilly in the winter.)

3. Use rechargable batteries as much as possible to keep the standard ones out of the landfill. Many cities are now implementing recycling efforts for household batteries, so check our your local waste management center to see if they're doing so. (Sometimes you have to take them to the central collection site, not a convenience center, so we just stockpile ours and take them once or twice a year. I've started collecting spent ones at school to save them from going into the landfill.)

4. Switch to LED outdoor string lights or solar path lights, so that you're using less energy. Many places will exchange standard incandescent Christmas lights around the holidays for a discount on LED sets. (Home Depot did this last year.)

5. If you're planting a garden this spring or summer, tap into friends who are splitting perennials for flowers. For veggies, check out the local 4-H club or FFA clubs at the high schools. Usually they offer plants at a decent cost, and it's nice to know that what you're paying for them will go to support the efforts of these youth in future years. I got an email today (thanks Jamie!) with dates that our FFA will be selling plants and what they've started from seed this year so I know what to expect when I get there. If you find you check it out this year and find you like working with these groups, ask if they have an email contact list so that you can receive updates about their future events.

6. When looking for coupons, don't be afraid to send an email or letter requesting some from a favorite company and thanking them for providing a product you like. This post at Frugal Coupon Living has a great list of various companies who will respond to email or written requests (scroll about halfway down the page). There's a nice list of organic and natural companies there, too.

That's all for today... what about you? Do you have any fabulous frugal thoughts? I'd love to hear from you!

Sharin' the green love and savings!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Entertainment on a Budget

Lately, we've had little time for entertainment with all of our various house projects. Somehow, I think becoming a "grown up" means you have less time for "entertainment" and more time to cross items off your to-do list. At any rate, we do our best to find time to take a breather and keep our entertainment budget to a minimum and here's how:

1. We don't have cable or satellite. I know to some people, this is almost inconceivable, but we've done it for over two years and have found that we end up spending more time talking, doing things as a family, and being productive, rather than wondering where the time's gone by watching TV. We still certainly have a TV, but find other ways to use it. We get our media fix through Hulu (as long as it's still free), Pandora, streaming radio (we're NPR junkies), and podcasts. Benny's found some good programs for streaming radio and organizing podcasts so that they're easy enough for me to use and still fill his need for electronic organization.

2. We make use of our public library... a lot! The public library here is fantastic and has a wealth of resources, from DVDs to magazines. We can check out up to five DVDs per week, with a one week renewal period, meaning that we can keep them for up to two weeks. This is often our Friday night date night (along with something yummy for dinner) at home. I love the magazines at the public library, but have learned that I need to keep all my library materials in one basket or bag, otherwise, I end up having something stacked away with our things and accrue late fees, which isn't budget friendly. The magazines are back issues which we can check out and our library has several home and garden type magazines, as well as some great cooking ones. We also enjoy making use of the books and books on CD (great for road trips). I find that checking out the cookbooks is a great way to assess whether or not I want to purchase a cookbook. If I find that I'm checking it out again and again, it's worth my paying for a used copy on Amazon to add it to my collection. (It hardly makes sense to pay for a new copy if I'm just going to mess it up in the kitchen. However, if I'm giving it as a gift, I'll spring for the new copy.)

3. We love to cook and cooking together has become entertainment for us. We enjoy trying new recipes and playing with new ingredients. It's also a great way for us to reconnect after our days at work and how I wind down, which is nice. (The dishwasher definitely takes a great deal of the work out of the cleanup.) We love to invite friends over for a potluck dinner on the weekends. It's far cheaper than eating out and it's a fun way to spend time with friends. By making it potluck, it's easier on everyone's budgets and no one feels like they need to "return the favor" (although we certainly enjoy that too!).

4. Crafts are a great way for me to entertain myself, although Benny prefers surfing the web. Many of my crafting items are cast-offs from friends (goodie tins to redecorate, yarn to crochet, old picture frames to refinish, etc.) Since we have laptops, I can do my stamping or painting at one end of the table while Benny plays on the web, which means that we can still spend time together while doing different things. I also enjoy browsing blogs and window shopping on websites during my spare time, which provides me with fodder for my creative endeavors.

5. When the weather is pretty, we enjoy taking walks with the dog through the neighborhood. In late July and August, we'll spend hours strolling with our blackberry bowls and pails gathering berries (Lavender will eat the ones close to the ground), which we'll then eat or freeze for later use. The warm spring and summer breezes really make these walks enjoyable, and we're getting our exercise when we walk back up the hill.

6. I love to window shop in our local arts and antiques stores. Sometimes, I'll find a deal on some pottery that I can't pass up, but most of the time, I just enjoy seeing what's out there. It's easy to window shop if you leave your cash at home or set a limit for yourself (I often set a $5-10 limit for myself before I go, just in case I see something I can't live without.)

7. Enjoy the local scenery! Grandfather Mountain offers April Dollar Days to local residents, which means we can get into the park, see the visitor's center and museum, and hike many trails for $1 that would cost us $15 a person most days. We're also fortunate to live close to the Blue Ridge Parkway, which means that we have wonderful parks and overlooks to check out on beautiful weekends. There are times that we'll plan a group outing with friends for a cookout or pack a picnic lunch to go after church on Sundays. Price Park and the Moses Cone Manor and hiking trails are some of our favorite spots.

If you enjoy eating out or going to the movies, there are almost always coupons and deals out there. On ASU's campus, there's a $1 movie theater which shows documentaries and other movies that would be popular on a college campus. You might check out your local university to see if they offer something similar. Remember to check out Restaurant.com for deals on eating out, or check into the fundraiser coupon books students often sell at high schools to raise money for band or sports. If you're a student, many restaurants in your area will offer a 10% or greater discount, which is really nice.

So, what about you? How do you entertain yourself and your family on a budget? What do you do for fun that doesn't cost a dime? I'd love to hear from you!

Sharin' the green love and savings!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Organization on the Cheap

All those store bought organizers are really cool, but you can easily create your own system much more inexpensively (or find a deal on the store bought ones, like we did today... more on that later).

For coupons, I use a system of bill organizers. I have one for grocery items and one for toiletries. These are great, because they fit nicely into our reusable grocery totes, so we never forget them. I like having the two organizer system because it allows me to have more specific categories. The categories I have for groceries are: cereal/breakfast, canned goods, cleaning supplies, dairy/meat, condiments, snacks, pasta/rice, frozen, baking, and misc. There generally aren't many coupons for produce, but when I have those, I put them in with dairy and meat, since I associate these with perishability (not a word, but go with it). For the toiletries one, my categories are: toothpaste, oral care (floss, toothbrushes, mouthwash, etc.), medicine, soap, shampoo, shaving, lotion, deodorant, feminine care, makeup, and misc. Since I sell Mary Kay, the only makeup things that go here are chap sticks or items that I think people would like as gifts or stocking stuffers.

For favorite recipes, I've created a binder system for most of my recipes. I started out with one, but have had to expand to two. The first is for main dishes (soups, casseroles, meats, pastas, etc.) and sides. The other binder is for appetizers, breads, and desserts. I use a divider system within the binders to keep things more organized, so that chicken is separate from beef and seafoood, etc. Any recipe I find in a magazine or online gets torn out or printed and then put into a plastic sheet protector. When I make the recipe for the first time, I make a note of the occasion, date, and what was good about it. If there were things I'd change (i.e. cut down on liquid, add more pepper, etc.), then I also note that. (And of course, if it was a total flop, the recipe gets recycled.) One of the binders I use came from my mom as a Christmas gift, which is where the idea came from. The other is one that a student left in my classroom a few years ago, which I claimed as my own when it was never claimed. (This meant that I was giving this binder a new life and saving it from Janitor John and the giant, rolling trash can.) The sheet protectors are nice because they make things easy to keep clean when I make a mess on the counter (which happens often).

Today, we began organizing the office (again) since Benny brought a nice lateral filing cabinet home from Raleigh a week or so ago, that originally came from Goodwill. We're organizing all of the paper junk that accumulates there and will have a friend help us move it upstairs, hopefully this weekend. It will be a nice, solid piece of furniture and will allow me to use the shelves and drawers in the closet for organizing other things, like luggage, crafting items, and my Mary Kay supplies.

During my snow day today and Benny's day off, we ventured out to Lowe's to do some research on patio pavers for the spring project and to check out programmable thermostats. We didn't plan on making a purchase, but took our Lowe's gift card just in case. And we hit the jackpot! Benny and I have been eyeing the closet organization systems in Lowe's and elsewhere for over a year, but couldn't rationalize paying what they were charging for the pieces (over $100 for the whole wall system). Well, they're discontinuing one brand of closet system, so we found several pieces on clearance for anywhere from 50-75% off. So, we came home with the framework and two drawers, as well as the middle shelf and three rods for $28. Not too shabby, huh? Benny's going to check out the Lowe's where he works to see if they have the matching pieces that will allow us to finish out the closet. We'll repurpose some Goodwill baskets on the top shelf to hold the linens for the bed and other things we don't need as often. So, if you're looking for something like that, check out Lowe's, because it looks like the whole chain is discontinuing that brand in favor of another.

Hoping these tips help you get organized, and let me know if you've got any tips of your own to share! I'd love to hear from you. Sharin' the green love and savings!

Budget Friendly Eating--In and Out

Face it, food can get expensive, especially when you try to go organic as much as possible. Then add the now and then treats of eating out, and you might have totally blown your budget. So, today's post is all about stretching a buck and making the most of your freezer and pantry ingredients.

When I got the phone call that today was going to be yet another snow day, I decided to pull out the crock pot and make some chicken stock to freeze, as well as having the chicken already shredded for a casserole later on. So, I loaded the crock pot with three frozen chicken thighs I had on hand, two stalks of celery, some onion, and salt and pepper... oh, and a bay leaf. (Check out the picture.) Then I cranked that little workaholic (the crockpot) to low and let it cook all day (it makes the house smell great). This afternoon, I turned it off to allow the stock to cool a bit and pulled the chicken out, along with the celery stalks and onion pieces. I shredded the chicken using a fork and tongs and put it into freezer containers. The chicken stock will refrigerate overnight and I'll skim the fat off tomorrow afternoon. Now, I'm all set to go for a number of soup recipes (I got about 8 cups of stock) and a casserole or two, all for about $3, which is how much the chicken was when I bought it on sale. When you consider how much just the canned stock costs at the store, this is way cheaper, and I like knowing that my stock and casseroles aren't loaded with the preservatives and sodium that are in the canned stuff.

A few days ago, I made some veggie stock in a similar fashion, using the veggie scraps I had accumulated in a freezer bag. Then, I just strained the stock, allowed it to cool, and froze it for soups and sauces to be made later. I've included pictures of this also. You can use pretty much any veggie scraps, although cabbage, broccoli stems, and cauliflower pieces can make it bitter, so I wouldn't use those. It turns out a little different each time, based on the veggies I've used, but it's always a welcome addition to soups, and I can also use it to cook rice (when I remember) to add extra nutrients.

Soups and casseroles are a great way to stretch your grocery budget, as are pastas and sauces. We often add additional veggies to pasta sauce to create a one dish meal, which is great because it makes for easy clean up. You can also stretch meats by scattering them (cooked, of course) over salads or on a sandwich with some homemade bread and a slice of cheese. A while back, we discovered the heaven that is homemade mac and cheese, and will never go back. It's fantastic with smoked cheeses (we had a bunch of cheese cubes leftover from our wedding a few years ago and had some of the best mac and cheese with those cheeses that we had in the freezer!), and we love to throw veggies or sliced kielbasa into it at the end. We also use dried beans and legumes quite a bit, and with a little planning, they're great in the crock pot, as long as you soak them enough the night before. If I make a big batch, I'll freeze the beans in one or two cup portions with their liquid, and then pull them out when I want to add them to soup or make refried beans. (I generally just put them in the crock pot the night before after dinner with water to cover about an inch, no heat, and drain and recover them in the morning to cook on low all day.) If you're looking for good soup and casserole recipes, check out Cheap, Fast, Good or More with Less, two of my favorite cook books.

As for eating out, we rarely eat out, unless we have a coupon and/or gift certificate. When we can, we try to "stack" these so that we get more mileage out of our gift card by using the coupon. We order water, since drinks are outrageously priced, and we generally try to keep what we order to $7 or less. This is really easy in our favorite Mexican restaurant, but a little more difficult at chain restaurants, which is where the coupons come in. Ruby Tuesday's is currently sending out mailers with coupons, provided the first meal is a certain dollar amount. (One rule with coupons, always weigh your options... sometimes, we find that there's a cheaper way to eat without the coupon than to buy a meal that is more expensive to get the deal by using the coupon.) You can always check out Restaurants.com for inexpensive gift cards to restaurants. (We've found that this generally works for larger cities, but not as well for our small town.) For more tips on eating out, My Frugal Lifestyle has great ideas at this post.

One of the most important things for us is to treat ourselves every once in a while, so we don't become resentful of the budget we've imposed on ourselves. (Have I mentioned how much we LOVE to eat... and cook?!) This sometimes means buying specialty ingredients at the grocery store to try a new recipe, or deciding to have a date night at our favorite restaurant, even if we don't have a coupon or gift card (we do try to go in with a set amount in mind of what we'll spend). Ultimately, it's these special meals and treats that help us make memories and enjoy life, which is what it's all about, right?

So, how do you save a buck on food? What are the treats you allow yourself once in a while to make sticking to the budget manageable? I'd love to hear from you!

Sharin' the green love and savings!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Four families, one garden, a huge difference

So, in a post a while back, I mentioned our small group community garden. Well, we're on our way in the planning stages and truly looking forward to the journey together. We've decided to create an organic veggie garden in our side yard (which has no grass, so we won't be tearing up any pre-existing landscaping) that will hopefully produce enough to feed our families, and any bonus will go to local food pantries. We're hoping that this move will not only provide us with super fresh veggies, but will also cut our produce budgets dramatically. In the spirit of the local food movement, all things green, and Earth Day (April 22), we'll create the yummiest veggie garden this side of the High Country. Here's the plan:

Each family will help in the preparation, planting, and maintenance of the garden throughout the growing season. With all the tools that each family has, we shouldn't need to purchase any tools. One family has a truck, so Ben will likely be the one hauling any compost (available from the Watauga County Waste Management folks for free) or amendments that we need to bring in to nurture our garden. Since we have lots of critters around, we'll plant marigolds and lavender amongst the veggies to keep them out and keep the bees and butterflies pollinating things as they grow. We'll also repurpose some wire mesh we have in our basement as fencing around the garden, if we see the need for that, by adding some metal fence stakes.

Benny and I ordered some hazelnut trees from the Arbor Day Foundation and some blueberry bushes (multiple varieties for maximum cross pollination) from the 4-H club to plant along the hill in front of our house. Since these are perennial growers and will take a little while to get established and bear fruit, we will care for these ourselves, but will gladly share the bounty with our small group once they start producing.

After taking a look at the online survey I put together, the results are in and we'll be planting the following things in our garden and hoping they will all be successful: cherry tomatoes, green and jalapeno peppers, lettuce, cabbage, beans, carrots, yellow squash, zucchini, basil, and parsley. I might even plant some zinnia seeds just to have some color around the veggies and give people some cheery flowers to decorate their homes with for the summer.

In my online research for gardening resources and supplies, I ran across http://thanksfor2day.blogspot.com/p/garden-bloggers-sustainable-living.html at Thanks for Today where they're offering several gardening tools to be given away to random blog postings linked up to their site. So, thanks to Thanks for Today and their generosity, we might be acquiring a new rain barrel or other cool gardening tools.

So, what do you think? Are we on the road to more sustainable and community living with our small group garden? Do you have any tips to share? I'd love to hear from you!

Sharin' the green love and savings!

Green and Budget-Friendly Transportation

In an effort to save on transportation costs and be a little more friendly to the earth, we were careful about the vehicles we chose to purchase and are thoughtful about our daily comings and goings.

When Benny was still in college, he purchased a 2001 diesel VW Jetta, which we love due to it's fuel economy. (Now, we certainly know that standard diesel is not as earth friendly as other fuels, but until biodiesel becomes affordable in the High Country, we can't make the switch. Currently, you have to be a part of the co-op, which has a hefty annual membership fee plus the fee for fuel each time.) The Jetta is our road trip car, and when the weather is good, the vehicle we use for most of our errands. Since it gets around 40 mpg on the highway, it makes our frequent trips to see family across the state affordable. The back seats fold down, so it's even good for holiday travels where we have a bunch of stuff to take, or moving smaller items from what we loving refer to as the McFalls swap shop (Benny's parent's attic). Since it is a 4-door, it will be a decent family car one day, although with more than two kids, it would be tight (but we're not anticipating that :)). Benny has learned to do most of the maintenance on his car, so that keeps our costs down on that car, and we are good about the regular maintenance with the help of a friend who works on VWs as a side business, so that we don't end up with any problems we could have avoided (and Jason cuts us a deal on the labor since Benny is helping). (After all, it's cheaper to do the preventative maintenance than to get stuck with a huge bill you could have avoided by giving the car a little TLC.)

When my 1985 Honda Accord was finally ready for a new owner (it was a fantastic car and served me very well), I bought a 2005 Subaru Impreza, since I knew I'd be moving back to Boone and we would need at least one AWD car. I liked the Subaru (affectionately dubbed Sylvia the Silver Subaru) because of it's reasonable mileage (about 25-27 mpg hwy) and it's ability to go in the snow. (Just after purchasing it, someone rear-ended me (the week I was to move to Boone), so I was without it during the move and while it was repaired (thankfully her insurance covered all of that). Now the only issue we have from that accident is a leaky trunk, which Benny has vowed to find the source of and get it repaired.) It works out well that I generally have the day off when the weather is bad, so that Benny can take the Subaru to work and I stay home. We try to be very good about preventative maintenance with this car also, although Benny doesn't do as much of the work himself on my car (I think it's a little trickier).

In terms of the "green" factors of our vehicles, it really comes down to the mpg and how we use them. For the most part, the hybrid vehicles just aren't practical in the mountains, because they don't have the same pull to get up the mountains, so we haven't gone there yet. (Although if the technology improves, we might for our next vehicle, which we anticipate being in about five years.) So, here's what we do to cut down on our transportation and maintenance costs:

1. I carpool with my teammate, meaning that I drive every other week. This helps both of us out because we're both saving on fuel (and ultimately money). We're also open to running errands together after school, so if we need to stop at the PO or bank, we can do that on the way home and save a trip. If I know we're going out of town for the weekend, Benny will usually drop me off that morning and pick me up at our meeting spot that afternoon, so we save time and fuel by my not having to go all the way home.

2. We combine trips as often as possible. For example, on Sundays, we go to church (and usually pick up a friend on the way) and on the way home, stop by the grocery store. This means we miss the weekend grocery rush (because everyone is doing the Sunday lunch thing) and we don't have to make an extra trip out during the week. If we discover we need something from the grocery store during the week, Benny works across the parking lot from a grocery store, so he just walks over before coming home to pick up whatever we need.

3. If we're going to campus on the weekends (especially game days), we'll take the public transportation. If the public transit made a stop our our way, we'd do this more often for errands, but for right now, we have to drive to meet it. We're hoping that they'll expand their routes soon.

4. When the weather is warm enough, we'll clean the cars ourselves. (This is one more way you can use Charlie's Soap.) In the winter, it's key to at least rinse the car off about once a week to get all the salt off the undercarriage. (If you don't, you run into rust issues, which is not good.) We generally pull into a car wash where you DIY and pay the $1.25 to have it done there. (We try to choose car washes that recycle their water, when possible.)

So, what do you do to cut down on your transportation costs? Do you have any ideas I haven't thought of? Please share them; I'd love to hear from you!

Sharin' the green love and savings!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Afternoon DIY Project

So, we left school early today due to another incoming snowstorm. Benny picked me up, since I carpooled with my teammate today and she drove, and we headed home.

After checking email and changing clothes, I began getting things lined up to tackle my first DIY project of the week: this basket we acquired from my grandmother's basement. It had lived a sad, neglected life in a shadowy, dusty corner of the basement and desperately needed some love. I saw some promise in it as a prettier trash/recycling center than our recent plastic collection containers (yes, you can see our collection in the background there), thinking that the lid would be a nice way to hide everything inside. Here's the basket/hamper before I began working my magic (and yes, of course Lavender had to inspect it):

So, after cleaning it up with the Dustbuster, a dust rag, and some cleaner, I set to work with the stain we'd used on the counter top edging (gotta love using stuff you already have around). (I turned on the fans in the house and lined my work area with newspaper before beginning.) I began with a rag, but didn't like the dry brushed effect it was having, so Benny found an old paintbrush that I could scrub into all the crevices.

After about an hour or so of staining (it took a while to get it into all those grooves), we used some old t-shirt scraps to wipe off the excess stain. This allowed it to become more the color of our kitchen cabinets and highlights the texture of the basket more. We'll let it dry for a few days and then use some spray poly on it over the weekend to seal things in and protect the surface. (Benny has promised to do this for me on Saturday once the weather warms up over the weekend enough that he can be outside to spray paint. Such a good husband! :)) So, here's the after:

So, what do you think? Doesn't it look like a whole new lovely thing? Amazing what a little time, love, and elbow grease will do for an old, neglected piece! And it was all free, thanks to my grandmother's generous basement and some stain we already had. So, how are your low cost, redesign projects coming? I'd love to hear from you, so leave a comment!

Sharin' the green love and savings!

I linked this up to The Thrifty Home's Penny Pinching Party.