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: 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!

Frugal Tuesday: Don’t Shave!

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Beards are big right now! And they have been for a few years: Back in 2013, Business Insider reported a 10% drop in Schick razor sales, and my guess is that sales have continued to decline.

A few months ago, Mr. Vega found himself mixed up with a group of guys from the Austin Facial Hair Club, and because we become who we spend time with, it wasn’t long before my husband ditched his razor, too. He joined a competition called the Six Month Sprint, wherein a bunch of guys shaved on the same day last August, took “before” photos, and pledged to meet up again at the Come and Shave It event in February to compare facial hair. Sound strange? Maybe it is a little, but they’re good people who spend a fair amount of time involved in philanthropic activities, as well. And there’s no denying they have a shared interest!

People sometimes ask me whether his beard bothers me, but I confess that every time I look at my husband’s face, I see money! All the money we aren’t spending on razors, or shaving cream, or aftershave… and because he swears that the only way to get a good shave is at the end of a long, hot shower (“to soften the whiskers!”), we’ve seen savings in our water bill, as well. He does use a lovely-smelling beard oil, but that doesn’t cost nearly as much as all the acoutrement of shaving did. And whether my husband is clean-shaven has no bearing on how much I like kissing him!

Beards may keep men (and the women who live with them) healthier, too! Just last week, BBC News reported on a study in which

The beardless group were more than three times as likely to be harbouring a species known as methicillin-resistant staph aureus on their freshly shaven cheeks. MRSA is a particularly common and troublesome source of hospital-acquired infections because it is resistant to so many of our current antibiotics.

Far from living up to the stereotype of being dirty, it appears that mens’ beards may contain a microbe that actively fights viral infections!

Giving up shaving isn’t for everyone, but if you’ve been thinking of giving it a try, you might end up saving some money… and staying healthier, too!

 

Frugal Tuesday: Find the Free Fun!

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Happy Tuesday, and Happy Almost-New Year!

We had family visiting us over the holidays, and so we got to walk the fine line between being generous hosts, and maintaining our budget. We’re fortunate to live in a city that actually has a website called Free Fun in Austin, but most cities have plenty of low- or no-cost activities available.

This week, we toured the Capitol of Texas,  checked out the decorated trees on Highway 360, posed for pictures in front of a few of Austin’s fantastic murals, and took a drive down to San Antonio to  visit the Alamo and have dinner at their beautiful River Walk.

Restaurants, guided tours and theme parks are lots of fun, but so many museums and attractions that don’t cost anything. Do a search for “Free Fun” and your city name, and what you find just might surprise you!

 

Frugal Tuesday: Check Your City’s Webpage

Many cities and utility companies have money-saving programs that residents are unaware of. In Los Angeles, we were able to find free mulch and compost, free large-item pickup tags, discounted worm composting bins (in exchange for attending a 2-hour class). Here in Austin, discounts on composters are also offered, as well as free paint, mixed from people’s hazardous-waste drop-offs! We have taken advantage of numerous opportunities for rebates offered through our local electric company, and just this past weekend, we got a couple of free shade trees for our Little Hippie House through an energy-company partnering with TreeFolks.

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Take a few minutes to browse around and see what your city or utility company might be offering that you can use… you may be surprised by what you find!

Frugal Tuesday: Create Less Trash

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Our new, smaller trash can was delivered today. After the initial mess of moving in calmed down, we noticed that we weren’t filling up the city-provided can that was here when we bought the house.  If we forgot to take it out to the curb for a week– or even two– it was no big deal. We’re fortunate to live in a city that provide curbside recycling and even composting, and we also make an effort to buy used, and buy items with less (or at least recyclable) packaging. While we’re far from perfect, we think our new 24-gallon can will accommodate our landfill trash needs perfectly. The best part? Making the switch to a smaller can will save us about $8/month on our trash pickup bill, as compared with the 64-gallon can we had before. I can think of a lot of things I’d rather do with $96 a year than spend it on garbage. Plus, all the coolest neighbors on our block have the smallest can… peer pressure works, y’all!

If you are living in an apartment, or somewhere you don’t pay for trash pickup, focusing on generating less landfill trash might not seem like a money-saving activity, but it still is. You might be able to save your bottles and cans to recycle for return for cash. You might try starting a worm composting bin on your patio or balcony, which is an easy way to turn your daily food scraps into nutrient-rich compost that your potted plants will love. Your efforts at reducing your trash production may find you buying from the bulk bins and farmers markets, buying used, or going for out-of-the-box floor models at deep discounts. You probably already shop at stores that gives you a nickel or a dime off your grocery bill when you bring your own bags. The more lightly we can live on the planet, the more money we can keep in our pockets!

 

 

How We Became Average Americans (And What We’re Doing to Stop It!)

Last year, Mr. Vega and I were living in a 486-square-foot apartment in a not-so-perfect neighborhood tucked into the vast urban sprawl of Los Angeles. We had a thriving container garden on our balcony, and we supplemented the soil with compost created by a colony of red wriggler worms that also lived in a container on our balcony and fed on our fruit and vegetable scraps and coffee grounds. Our meals were all organic and made-from-scratch, often in a slow-cooker, and supplemented with green vegetable juice fresh-made daily. We kept a batch of kombucha brewing on a kitchen counter, a small bottle of organic vanilla beans and bourbon (otherwise known as “vanilla extract”) in a cupboard, and a bigger bottle of cherries, sugar and bourbon (otherwise known as “cherry bounce…” if you haven’t tried it, you might want to!) under the kitchen sink. Our refrigerator was a smaller apartment-sized unit, and we liked it that way, because it was harder to overlook what we had put in there and let it go to waste. We did our laundry twice a month, two loads at a time in our building’s communal laundry room, and hung about half of that to dry on a rack out on the balcony.

We were weird.

We seemed like perfect candidates to move to Austin, Texas… the city’s motto is “Keep Austin Weird,” after all! Housing prices in Los Angeles were proving pretty unforgiving, and we had our hearts set on homeownership, so we packed up a U-Haul and headed eastward, towing one car and shipping another. We had come out a month earlier and secured jobs and an apartment, but because we didn’t know the area, we chose an apartment in a more expensive part of town than our old place in L.A. This one came with a much smaller balcony, and we moved in mid-summer, too late to start a garden. It also has an in-unit washer and dryer, which came in handy, as we weren’t used to the longer drying times required for hanging laundry in the humid air of central Texas. We also weren’t prepared for how we might have to adjust our home-fermenting efforts: my first batch of kombucha grew a healthy layer of mold, and I haven’t found the motivation to try again. Although our apartment in Austin has 50% more square footage than our last place, the storage options are not well-designed, and so the kitchen is much less functional. And we still haven’t learned how to cook on an electric stovetop without burning things!

After a lifetime spent working freelance and part-time jobs, I took full-time work about six months ago, in addition to keeping a couple of my part-time gigs, so that we could save for the house we came here to buy. While I’m glad I did, I now find myself without the time or energy to shop, prep and cook like I used to. Week after week, we found ourselves letting our fresh food languish in the standard size fridge while we stopped for takeout or reached for convenience foods, and without a compost bin, 100% of our food waste has been headed to the landfill. We decided to fill our freezer with some Trader Joe’s frozen options, just to get us through the transition… not ideal, but healthier and less expensive than takeout, or most of the big-name convenience foods. After Mr. Vega sustained a sports injury that makes it difficult for him to walk without pain, even the trek to our closest Trader Joes was proving difficult to fit into my busy schedule, and I found myself shopping at the chain grocery store nearest my workplace, buying and consuming the very products that we’ve avoided so diligently for the past few years. There’s a bit of a vicious cycle going on here: our busier schedules and poorer nutrition means that we have less energy to shop for and cook the healthy foods that would give us, well, more energy! But at the end of a typical 9-hour workday, all we really want is to eat something that we don’t have to cook, lie on the couch and watch TV. And we’ve gained weight. Like most of America, we are now overworked, overweight, malnourished, and trying to function in a state of near-constant fatigue.

Our expenses have gone up, too. Living in a “safer” neighborhood in Austin costs us more in rent than our dodgy-but-familiar part of Los Angeles. The landlord-tenant laws are different here, so our rent is about to go up $200-$400 (the amount would depend on the length of the lease we sign). And our incomes decreased considerably when we left the West coast. We’re fortunate to still be earning enough to give us some margin, even with our current spendy lifestyle, but we’re keenly aware that adding children to our family, needing to care for aging parents, or experiencing a health crisis of our own would change the balance considerably. From where we sit, it’s very easy to understand how some “low monthly payments” for anything that makes life easier would start to look pretty good to a lot of people right about now.

Now we’re average.

What’s keeping us going is the knowledge that our situation is temporary: We’re currently in escrow on our first home. It’s a two-bedroom house, not much bigger than our current one-bedroom apartment, and we’ve got a healthy down payment so our monthly payments will be about the same as our rent. It’s got a couple of fruit trees in the front, a big backyard for gardening, a good-sized kitchen pantry, and a covered deck where we can hang our laundry but still have it protected from summer showers and the grackles that are ubiquitous here. There’s also a gas stove, more counter space and the opportunity to buy whatever size refrigerator we like. If all goes well, in a few months we’ll be collecting rainwater, composting, eating home-grown vegetables again, and playing host to bees, bats and butterflies. We’ll feel more comfortable inviting friends over for dinner and game nights, because there is ample street parking and zero chance of upstairs neighbors complaining about the noise we make when the conversation gets boisterous at our dining table. It will take some effort to keep our tired bodies moving after we come home from a full day’s work, but I think we’ll be able to do it, because we know from experience the good financial and physical health that any amount of urban homesteading can bring. And loathe as I am to do it, because I’ve come to love the people I work with, once we’re settled and have made a few improvements to the house I’ll be able to leave my part-time job and keep my workweek down to a more manageable five days a week instead of six.

We are not wealthy people, but we have had the luxury of working less-than-full-time, or at least of keeping flexible hours, for most of our working lives. Our year of living like “average” Americans has brought me a lot of compassion for people with fewer options. I now have answers to some of the questions in my head that start with “Why don’t they just…?” This experience has taught me that “they” probably don’t exercise the options I’m thinking of because “they” are exhausted and feeling unwell, and there isn’t always someone else to pick up the slack. I’ve learned that an unexpectedly busy week means that fresh fruits, vegetables, and even meats are likely to go unprepared and uneaten, so it’s easier to just not buy them in the first place. I’ve discovered that something as simple as a poor apartment design can have a big effect on a family’s ability to maintain healthy habits. I can see how a weeklong disruption in a steady income could throw off a working parent’s finances in ways that, if you throw in a few late fees and re-connection charges, could take years to recover from.

Living in this country, in this economic climate, is a real struggle for the average American these days. Working flexible schedules, growing and cooking your own food, staying out of debt, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance can go a long way toward making life easier, but those choices aren’t available for everyone. And they certainly aren’t options that I’ll ever take for granted again.

Have you been able to stay out of the “average” American cycle of work-spend-work? What choices have you made to accomplish that?