Review: Your Playbook for Tough Times, by Donna Freedman

I first came across Donna Freedman’s writing nine years ago, when I stumbled on an article called “Surviving and Thriving on $12,00 a Year.” I was experiencing a personal Upheaval that year, and this brave woman’s proclamation to the world of how she planned to address her own unstable circumstances looked to me like a letter from a supportive friend: “Things may be bad now,” she seemed to say, “but we can make them better if we hang together.” I can’t tell you how many sleepless nights found me re-reading her article, just to know that I wasn’t alone. I’ve read pretty much everything she’s written since then, and played the at-home game of the financial tips and tricks she’s tried in her own life, and do you know what? Things DID get better. Little by little, I managed to pay off all my debt (twice! I’m a slow learner), begin to save, and eventually get to a place of peace regarding my finances. During that time, I met and married my husband and moved halfway across the country where we bought our first house together and figured out a way for him to quit his job and return to school full-time. I even got to meet Donna in person and share a couple of meals and good conversations with her when she came to our new home town of Austin, Texas… Something my scared and overwhelmed Past Self could never have imagined in 2007!

So when her book Your Playbook for Tough Times came out, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it! Fortunately, I didn’t have to: I was lucky enough to receive a copy to review. 

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One of the things that I have always loved about Donna’s outlook is her firm belief  that frugal living– even when things are at their tightest– doesn’t have to be miserable and that in fact, it can be quite lovely. Her book promises to show you what she’s learned about living on less whether you’re presently in dire straits, anticipating financial difficulties soon to come, or simply trying to squeeze the most out of your current lifestyle.

And she delivers on her promises in spades, with literally hundreds of solution-oriented tips, offering ways to find more budgetary breathing room that hit from all angles, such as how to earn more, how to spend less, and perhaps the most radical idea of all: how to live happily with less altogether.

The Great Recession of 2008 marked the beginning of an exciting time for the personal finance genre. Whereas historically, books on finance have been written by economists and titans of business, Post-Recession financial bloggers and authors are people from all walks of life,  sharing the daily unfoldment of their personal setbacks, life experiments, and successes. Donna Freedman is a shining example of this New Breed of personal finance writer: Just about everything she suggests in her book is something she has personally tried and found worthy of suggesting. Because learning the principles of real estate investing or restructuring corporations may be interesting, but sometimes, you just need someone to tell you how to keep your electricity on or make sure that your kids get dinner.

The book is an easy read, almost like an e-mail from a trusted friend. It’s peppered with personal anecdotes and loaded with concrete resources,  from money-saving websites to resources for healthcare and housing, to suggested scripts for negotiating better prices on purchases. If you need to streamline your financial situation today, this book can help you do it, because Donna has done a tremendous amount of thorough research for you so that all you have to do is get online or pick up the phone to start making your life better.

Overall, I think it’s a terrific resource for anyone looking to wrangle their financial situation into something more manageable. It’s the sort of book you’d want to keep around, so you can implement some of the suggestions and then come back for more once those have been mastered. And it would make a wonderful and sensitive gift for anyone facing some kind of financial upheaval.

The book is available as a paperback or an e-book, and over at Amazon, if you buy the paperback, you can get the Kindle version for $1.99, which makes it nice for sharing.

If you read it, I’d love to hear what you think… please come back and share in the comments!

 

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Frugal Tuesday: Happy Hour Date Night

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Date Night isn’t just for married couples: BFF’s, creative partners, parents and children… just about any relationship can benefit from regularly scheduled fun time. I’ve got some friends that work non-traditional schedules that have had a standing coffee date on Fridays at noon for years. Around here, we try and shake off the work-week (and school-week) and reconnect with each other on Friday nights, before plunging into a weekend that may be filled with larger group activities, household chores, and homework.

When we can, we like to make it out early enough to catch a good Happy Hour somewhere… and in Austin, TX that’s not hard to do! Plenty of restaurants around here serve pared-down (but no less delicious) Happy Hour menus, and with careful selection, we can generally make a meal out of the offerings. Happy Hours also give us an opportunity to try new higher-end restaurants without the full commitment of dropping a day’s pay on a meal we might not enjoy!

You don’t have to drink alcohol to enjoy the food specials offered at local bars and restaurants, either. And other places like coffee shops and movie theatres have picked up on the concept with two-for-one afternoon coffees or twilight pricing at late afternoon movie times.

Whatever you’re into, consider going out before the sun goes down to spend time with someone you enjoy… when you can have all the fun for much less money!

Frugal Tuesday: Use the Scraps!

Not long ago, Mr. Vega spent some time screening in our back porch, and it came out beautifully. We used a heavy-duty pet-resistant screening on the bottom, because our cats sometimes get a little excited during their bird- and squirrel-watching time. The upper part of the porch was done with a less-expensive clear-view screening, and there was quite a bit of that left over when the project was completed.

When we bought the school bus that we’re converting into a recreational vehicle, we realized the same thing we already knew about the porch outside our house: the great outdoors is more pleasant without mosquitos in our immediate area!

Fortunately, my husband is pretty creative, and he figured out a way to create some removable window screens that we can mount inside of the open bus windows. Even more fortunately, our leftover screening was just the right amount for what we needed. A trip (okay, three) to the store my Cuban father in law calls “Home People” for framing material, and an afternoon of measuring, sawing, assembling, and splining yielded up  beautiful custom-made screens that will let us enjoy cooling cross-breezes in the bus without any pesky unwanted visitors.

With kitchen, bathroom and flooring projects in store for our little hippie house, we’re looking forward to using more leftover materials for the bus remodel as well.

When have you been able to use supplies left from one project to complete another?

Frugal Tuesday: Shred It!

Paperwork is part of #adulting. Around this time of year, many of us find ourselves reviewing files, statements and receipts in preparation for tax time. Our organizing efforts are often accompanied by the discovery of papers we no longer need. If those papers contain private information such as social security numbers, account balances, medical information or other identifying data, there’s always the possibility of it falling into the wrong hands and being used to steal your identity.

If you’ve got a shredder of your own, the solution is easy enough: sit down and get shredding! Bonus points if you have a child old enough to operate the device safely… Kids love shredding!

But if you don’t have the space or money to get a device of your own, or if you find you have way more papers to dispose of than you have time to do yourself, try doing an Internet search for “Community Shred” in your city for the current year. Many communities and shredding companies offer events allowing you to drive through and drop off your boxes of paperwork which will  be shredded and recycled, boxes and all, for free or for very little money. If you’re in Austin, the next community shred event will be May 14, 2016 at the Austin Community College Highland Campus.

And who knows? Maybe when you’re finished with your shredding project, you can finally park your car in the garage, let go of your rented storage space, or rent out that extra bedroom!

Can Two Live as Cheaply as One? An Update

IMG_0720About five months ago, Mr. Vega left his career in sales to become a full-time student. In addition to giving him an escape from burnout and a way to experience  himself and the world in completely different ways, it’s also given us a chance to see if we could really walk our financial talk. We’ve taken great pains over the years to design our life together so that we could manage on one income, but we never had to before.

A full-time position opened up unexpectedly at one of my part-time jobs, so I tossed my hat in the ring for it. I was a little surprised when I was offered the job, which meant taking a 17% cut in my hourly rate, but as with my previous full-time employment, we felt that the stability and benefits outweighed the slightly smaller paychecks.

Several months and a few sleepless nights later, it seems to be going well (except for the normal challenges I seem to experience with full-time work). We’ve reduced our spending and savings rate, averaging about $1300 a month less than we did in the six months prior to my husband leaving his job. We go out less than we used to, and we haven’t been clothes shopping in months, but that’s all right. Like most Americans, we have much more than we need.

Before starting school, Mr. Vega built a raised-bed garden, and screened in our back porch. There are also rain gutters in the garage, waiting to be installed, but whenever he’s been free to start the project, it’s rained! It turns out that being a full-time student is a full-time job, so he hasn’t had the time he hoped he might for projects around the house, but Spring Break just started, so those gutters might finally go up this week… if he’s not too busy partying with his new college friends!

We had a weeklong visit from my husband’s parents over the holidays, and we let them know ahead of time that we wouldn’t be exchanging gifts…. honestly, I think they were relieved! Our holidays were filled with food, laughter, and inexpensive sightseeing around town, so we didn’t miss spending lots of money.

Although we’ve had to reduce our savings rate, we are still managing to contribute 10% of our take-home pay to our emergency fund, which is more important than ever now that we no longer have the luxury of two incomes. Currently, we have enough to go about five months with no income at all, but I’d like to grow that to a year’s worth. We have never had to use our emergency fund, and if that trend holds, when my husband finishes school and returns to work, we would be able to reduce the emergency fund again and have our bathroom professionally remodeled… and maybe take a long weekend away!

So far, it’s all pretty okay. I guess all the work we had done to live beneath our means is paying off… literally!

Have you ever had to– or chosen to– live on a much smaller income than you were accustomed to? How did you handle it?

 

Frugal Tuesday: Celebrate at Home

Mr. Vega and I celebrated our first official anniversary yesterday, having married on last Leap Year on February 29. We had high hopes for an exotic weekend away to celebrate this special day, but we couldn’t have predicted that our fourth/first anniversary would find him in school full-time, and me at a new job with no time off accrued.

Taking a page (literally!) from Gretchen Rubin‘s book, I arose earlier than usual to try my hand at my husband’s favorite breakfast: Eggs Benedict. Not only did Alton Brown’s recipe turn out beautifully in our little hippie kitchen, but Mr. Vega was sufficiently surprised and delighted that the day felt like a success despite our disappointment at not being able to make a bigger deal out of it.

I snagged some opening-weekend tickets to Batman v Superman at our favorite movie theater, and returned home at the end of the day to discover he had surprised me with a potted mini calla lily (my wedding bouquet was made entirely of those flowers!), and a very frugal but also meaningful-to-me gift.

Maybe for our second– or is it eighth?– anniversary, we’ll be able to pull out all the stops, but for now, learning to be happy with whatever life brings us helps us enjoy our special days no matter what our external circumstances are like. And that, more than having tons of money or time to blow, makes us feel richer than anything.

On Self-Reliance

Daisy Luther over at The Organic Prepper recently posted a piece called Self Reliance Strategies for Small Spaces, Temporary Locations, and Rentals, which got me thinking about how the Little Hippie House is doing on that front, and how we might improve. I know the word “prepper”sometimes conjures some extreme ideas, but there are more similarities among hippies, preppers, homesteaders, and even gentrifying hipsters than one might think. Our politics vary widely, but most of us share a vision of being as self-sufficient as our circumstances allow. We’re tired of relying on a broken, profit-based supply system to meet our basic needs, and would rather do it ourselves wherever we can.

Working toward self-reliance serves a variety of purposes, from tiding a household over till payday, to making sure the food you eat is free of toxins, to surviving the zombie apocalypse that even the CDC has (jokingly) acknowledged could happen. And self-sufficiency is scalable: In our 486 sq. ft. apartment, we had a balcony garden for herbs, tomatoes and peppers, about two weeks of water stored, and plenty of beans and grains stored in pretty containers. We knew how to turn off the gas to our apartment building in the event of an earthquake, and we had some ideas about how to evacuate from our city in the event of a large-scale natural disaster or civil unrest (not unheard-of in Los Angeles).

We’re still settling in and working on our self-reliance at our new home in Austin. We’ve planted a backyard orchard with nine varieties of fruit, and our little winter garden was fairly successful. Spring will find us expanding the garden to include warm-weather crops, and doing some edible landscaping out front, and adding rain gutters and barrels for water harvesting. Like California, Texas experiences frequent and severe droughts, so it’s important to us to have a cost-effective way to keep our little urban farm alive when the next one hits. Having been through several job changes over the past few years, we have learned that keeping a well-stocked pantry is nearly as important as our emergency fund, and it also comes in handy when we’re just too tired (or sick) to make it to the grocery store!

You don’t have to be a “crazy prepper” OR a “crazy hippie” to appreciate the security and satisfaction that self-reliance brings. One of the beautiful things about about it is that it’s not limited to preparing for one particular outcome: Maintaining a vegetable garden is just as wonderful when we are living in financial abundance as when times are tight. Being able to water it with collected rainwater benefits the planet and our wallets. Living close enough to bike or walk to work means that we can take advantage of our mild southern climate and stay employed regardless of gas prices or whether our cars are running. And the list goes on.

Which aspects of self-reliance appeal the most to you? What have you been working on lately to increase yours?