Frugal Tuesday: Get Bumped!

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Life happens, and people sometimes miss their flights. The airlines know this, and so to ensure they keep their airplanes full, they sometimes oversell their flights. But if everyone happens to have a good day and arrive at the airport on time, the airline faces the problem of having more people holding paid-for tickets than they have seats to put them in.  Being willing to take a later flight saves the airline the trouble of having to deny passage to travelers who might not be as happy to wait as I usually am.

When I lived in Los Angeles, I visited family in Portland three times a year.  And every single time, my first order of business at the airport was to check with the gate agent to see whether the flight was overbooked and if it was, to volunteer to give up my seat in exchange for compensation. My preferred airline, Southwest, has a compensation policy of  giving you credit for your ticket price + $100 if you are delayed by less than 2 hours, or and additional $300 if you are delayed by 2 hours or more. The credit is good for travel within one year.

Within the last year, we’ve had some unexpected flights: Mr. Vega flew to another state for the funeral of a good friend’s loved one, and when we bought our bus, we traveled by plane to pick it up in Indianapolis. So even though we don’t have travel plans for the immediate future, I still volunteered to give up my seat when I had to travel for business last week, and my offer was accepted. I was put on a direct flight five hours later (we live 15 minutes from the airport, so I was able to go back home), and still reached my destination on time. Now we have a few hundred dollars in airline credit in case any emergencies come up, and if they don’t, we might finally take that weekend getaway to NOLA we’ve been talking about ever since we moved to Texas!

EDIT 6/21/16: AND I just got four drink tickets in the mail from Southwest, with a nice letter thanking me for being so accommodating! That never happened before! Our weekend getaway is looking better and better…

Have you ever volunteered to give up your seat on a flight? How was the experience for you? Would you do it again?

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Frugal Tuesday: Use Dried Beans!

Beans are cheap. Dried beans are cheaper. Like 70% cheaper than canned. And with none of the pesky BPA that lines many cans. Cooked beans can  also be frozen, to make them nearly as convenient as canned beans. If you’ve been putting off using dried beans because you always forget to soak them overnight, you’ll be glad to learn that that requirement has been debunked: you can start with dried beans right from the pantry and have a delicious finished product in 1-3 hours on the stove, depending on the variety. Which happens to be just about the amount of time needed to do a load or three of laundry, so it’s win-win. Or you can use your slow-cooker and come home from a long day’s work to a delicious dinner that’s crazy inexpensive

The Internet abounds with recipes for cooking dried beans, but this past weekend, I used this Tejano Pinto Bean recipe from The Food Charlatan. Actually, I adapted the recipe to use some of the stock I made from our Thanksgiving smoked turkey carcass, which made the beans smoky and awesome, and amazing on nachos!

Do you have a favorite dried bean recipe? Please share in the comments!

 

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?

 

It’s Time: The Grocery Price Book

I first read about grocery price books over at The Simple Dollar, years ago. Not being into spreadsheets… or math… or shopping, it didn’t seem to me to be a terribly sexy project. The other ways in which I managed to trim my expenses were successful enough that I usually had enough room in my food budget to buy whatever I wanted whenever I wanted without much thought. When Mr. Vega and I began to focus more on whole, real, organic foods, our grocery bills went up, and I just felt happy that we could afford to eat the way we wanted to. After all, we were debt-free, saving for a house, and even had money left over for travel and fun.

Since my husband traded his full-time sales job for life as a full-time student, however, we’ve had to tighten our belts a bit. In January, we managed to wrestle our food expenses down to just over half of what we’re accustomed to spending… mostly by eating out much less than we had been. Also, one of my favorite bloggers, Brandy over at The Prudent Homemaker, is diligent with her food expenses: She keeps a detailed price list of food she buys to feed her family of nine, and her monthly shopping lists are terrific guides to seasonal low grocery prices. Simply following along and stocking up on some things when she does has been tremendously helpful!

But each home is different, and no one solution works for everyone. Our household in Austin, Texas, comprised of two adults with full-time outside commitments, two cats, and a nascent garden, is quite different from hers in Las Vegas with seven children, a work-at-home spouse in addition to a full-time work-outside one, and an abundant home garden that is the result of several years’ worth of effort. And both her home and mine will be different from yours, with your brand-new baby, or giant dogs, or busy travel schedule.

And so the time has come for me to buckle down and invest a bit of time and energy into learning exactly what our most-purchased items usually cost, what a good deal really looks like (because fifty cents off sounds great, but what if it’s normally sixty cents cheaper at the store down the street?), and seeing how much more space we can get in this recently-contracted budget of ours.

I’ve sorted through our shopping lists, and created a spreadsheet on Google Drive listing sixty items we purchase regularly (conventional wisdom suggests starting with a list of 15-20 things, but once I started, I kept thinking of more!), and I’m actually looking forward to learning where the best prices are and seeing how much money we can save. Grocery store sales generally run in 8-12 week cycles, so I reckon it will be Spring by the time I have a good handle on this, but check back and I’ll share how it’s going!

How do you keep track of grocery prices in your area? What patterns have you noticed?

 

FrankenSink

This is a post for the true DIY folks… nothing Pinterest-worthy here today! But life in a fixer-upper demands an embrace of the process, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.

This was an unexpected project, so I don’t have a photo of the hideous bathroom cabinet sink that came with our little hippie house, but it was an ancient wood laminate beast with a yellowed fake marble sink (and a burn mark where someone had once laid a cigarette on the edge of its basin).When it developed a drip, Mr. Vega decided that he would rather replace the whole thing than repair the faucet. We had gotten a white pedestal sink that had a crack in it from a neighbor who remodeled, and the $40 porcelain repair kit that we ordered was a total failure. With our House Fund running on fumes, we were starting to get discouraged.

Mr. Vega, being the never-say-die type that he is, stopped in to our local Habitat Re-Store to have a look, where he found a very passable basin for $20. He brought it home, and using the pedestal and faucet handles from the giveaway sink, and the stopper-pull from our previous ugly one, created the one you see above. He kept the actual faucet from the Re-Store basin, as it was the tallest of the three: Hand washing is much more convenient when you can actually fit your hands under the faucet! In the outline left on the wall by paint around the cabinet, you can see we’ve gained a good three inches of the room back, and the pedestal makes the small room feel much less confined than the cabinet did.

Unfortunately, the previous owners had not removed the cabinet sink to install the too-porous-for-a-bathrooom Saltillo tile they had chosen, but rather had gone to the trouble of cutting the tile to lay around the cabinet. Fortunately, they also had not bothered to remove the linoleum that graced the bathroom before the tile, making it much easier to remove than if the job had been done correctly!

So what you see on the floor in the space left by the removal of the cabinet is $9 worth of tile meant to look like rustic hardwood. It’s really kind of cool up close, but it was chosen strictly for its price, as this is a temporary stopover on our way to a full bathroom remodel (some day it will be glorious, with a walk-in steam shower and a skylight). One of the tiles needed to be cut down to fit right, and a kind employee at the Big Box store tool rental department looked the other way for twenty seconds while my resourceful husband made the single cut he needed. He also managed to find, in a scrap pile, just the right amount of baseboard to fill in the gap that was left when the cabinet came out.

Our next project will be to sand down some of the half-century’s worth of paint layers (nearly 1/8″!) made evident by the cabinet’s removal and to paint the whole room with white semi-gloss. I also have a feeling I’m not going to be able to prevent him from replacing the current flooring with ceramic tile, which would be fine by me!

Because of our futile attempt to repair the secondhand sink we had been given, the total cost of our new-to-us sink, including a few bits of hardware, caulk, and the three tile plates, came out to about $80, about half the cost of a brand-new pedestal sink. Mr. Vega got to pick up some new repair skills that will come in handy during the rest of our remodel, and we feel good about salvaging some things that were destined for the landfill (all the usable remaining sink parts will be donated back to the Habitat Re-Store). We’re really happy with the look of the new sink, as it’s much more retro-fabulous than what was in there before, and we think it fits nicely with the updated Atomic Ranch style we’re ultimately going for.

What projects have you undertaken lately in your home? Are you glad you did it, or do you wish you had called in a professional?

 

 

Frugal Tuesday: Freeze it!

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Years ago, Nigella Lawson blew my mind when she suggested freezing the rest of any wine still left in the bottle, to use for cooking later. Poured into a freezer bag and tossed in the freezer, it makes a sort of slush that is easily measured for use in recipes. I tried it, and I haven’t looked back! You can freeze all sorts of things: bread, milk, grated cheese, casseroles, Chinese take-out… even fresh herbs in olive oil or broth, poured into ice cube trays. Do you like iced coffee? Coffee ice cubes are a game-changer!

Frugalista extraordinaire Donna Freedman has mastered the art of freezing food scraps in a “boiling bag “to be reincarnated as broth later. If you like soup even a little bit, this practice will ruin you for canned soup forever. Luckily, soup freezes well, too.

If you’re not freezing your leftovers, or your little bits of ingredients that are left after using what you need for a recipe, not only are you wasting food and money, but you are depriving yourself of the enormous convenience of having just-enough tomato paste, pesto, or other fantastic things to take your weeknight cooking from adequate to awesome.

What’s in your freezer?

 

 

Our January 2016 Budget

I created my first budget about ten years ago from a template I found in Dave Ramsey‘s book The Total Money Makeover, and after years of practice, it’s become habit for me to make a new budget every month.  I get asked on a regular basis to help people set up their budgets. I’ve been able to sit with a few friends, but time and distance prohibit me from helping individually every person who asks. Every household is different, so every budget needs to be different, too. Also, it’s important for me to say here that I am not a financial planner or adviser, and that everyone needs to be accountable for making informed choices about their own money. That said, since it can sometimes be helpful to get an idea of what other people are spending on and saving for, we have decided to share our budget. I’m showing where our money goes as a percentage of our take-home pay, both to maintain some privacy and also because it’s more practical: Regardless of the dollar amounts, it’s a good idea to try and save some money each month, meet your basic needs, have a little fun if you can afford to, and return something, however small, to the communities and organizations you care about.

Here’s how it breaks down this month for us:

  • Giving 3%. This category is on the small side this month. Not being religious, we don’t tithe, and we only have one gift-giving occasion in January. The balance of this category will go into donation boxes of non-profit institutions we visit this month. We also make an effort to contribute to charitable organizations and relief efforts throughout the year, and volunteer some time to causes we support. 
  • Emergency Fund 10%. Our Emergency Fund is currently big enough for us to survive for about four months with no other income. While that felt comfortable for us when we had one spouse with a full-time job, and one with several part-time and freelance income streams, now that we are down (for the time being) to one partner with one full-time job and a very little bit of part-time work, we are working toward having a year’s worth of expenses set aside for emergencies. By my calculations, at the rate we are able to save, it would take us about six years to reach that number! Because we anticipate returning to our 2+ income status in a couple of years (thereby returning to a smaller Emergency Fund), we’ll probably never hit our temporary goal, but we’re aiming to set aside 10% of everything we bring home in the meantime. 
  • Tax & Insurance Fund 10%. We maintain a separate account where we amortize our annual term life and auto insurance premiums, and set aside money to pay taxes on any 1099 income. 
  • Mortgage 25%. Our only debt is this 30-year fixed-rate loan, and we made a 20% down payment to avoid PMI. If we don’t pay anything extra, the payment (including principle and interest as well as escrow for property tax and insurance) is a quarter of our current take-home pay. We REALLY wanted a 15-year mortgage, but if we had done that, our currently reduced income would be more of a crisis than an inconvenience, so I guess we made the choice that was better for us. Still, we’re planning to get it paid off just as soon as we can.
  • Utilities 3%. This includes electric, water, natural gas, sewer and trash pickup. We are constantly looking for ways to reduce our usage, and hope to continue to see this number go down.
  • Mobile phones 3%. Our mobile phones are recent-release smart phones with high-usage packages. Admittedly an indulgence, we switched providers last year to save about $250/year over what we used to pay, and this expense would be the second cut we made in a financial crisis (the first is coming up below).
  • Home Improvement 2%. The Home Improvement Fund is one of the last budget categories we pay into right now. We are making continuous minor improvements at the Little Hippie House, and hoping to save enough to replace the aging roof, remodel the bathroom & kitchen, tear down a load-bearing wall, and install new floors. That all could take quite a while, but we’ll keep chipping away at it, as our finances allow.
  • Cable/Internet 2%. Cable would be the first thing to go in the event of a financial crisis, and I suppose our internet would have to slow down a lot if things got tight (or maybe not: Google Fiber is slowly making its way into our neighborhood). But it’s another indulgence we’re comfortable with for now.
  • Transportation 1%. Our transportation expenses will be ridiculously low this month, in part to one of us being a stay-at-home spouse, and the other one working just a few miles from home. Having paid-for cars that won’t need servicing, inspections, or registration in January helps a lot, too! (Remember, though, that our car insurance falls into another category… this number would double if we included it here)
  • Food 11%. Food is the big budgetary challenge for us this month, but we’re determined to make it work. When our income is bigger, we normally spend about double what we’ve allotted for January! This month, we’re planning to minimize meals out, work our way through the frozen holiday leftovers, and take advantage of our upcoming small winter garden harvest. In addition to feeding ourselves this month, it’s my hope to use 5-10% of our weekly food budget to build our home food store… I really love going to our little chest freezer for a gallon of milk or to our garage for a jar of peanut butter instead of having to run to the market when things run out!
  • Pet Care 1%. This category this month consists entirely of canned food for our two cats. We have more than enough kitty litter and dry food to get through the month, and their annual veterinary visits aren’t until March. 
  • Clothing 2%. We aren’t planning any clothing purchases this month, but we’re setting a little aside so we can do a Big Shop in the Spring. 
  • Entertainment 3%. Entertainment is the one area where we consistently  underspend! Every month, it’s a challenge to get ourselves out to the movies, a play, or to hear some live music. We’re still working on that, for the sake of balance.
  • Personal Care 9%. Our Personal Care budget should really be called “MY Personal Care budget,” as Mr.Vega gets an inexpensive haircut every other month or so, and is in the process of growing an Epic Beard, so we no longer buy him razors or shaving cream. Because I’m in the process of Changing Looks, hairwise, this month, this category is more than double what it usually is.
  • Education 6%. Even community college costs something, at least for now: there are a lot of political promises being made on the campaign trail to change that. That will be lovely if it happens, but in the meantime about 6% of January’s pay will go for tuition. 
  • Vacation 7%. Last summer, we went to a five-day music & arts festival that we just loved. It’s time to buy tickets for the next one, and because it’s an out-of-town camping trip, we count the tickets as a travel expense, rather than “entertainment” (and this part is a little weird, but because the event is limited-capacity, tickets are sold lottery-style, with each person allowed to request a maximum of two tickets. We each put in for two, and if we get all four, we’ll sell the extra pair at face value and recoup half of our expense. But we’re sending payment for four tickets in January, so that is what we have to budget for).
  • Professional Development 2%. My new job will reimburse me for this training after I complete it this Spring, but registration is first-come-first serve, which is why I’ll be paying for it this month.

So there you have it: our January budget, with every dollar accounted for. There’s plenty of room for improvement, but we’re not unhappy with it. Feel free to share in the comments how different it is from (or similar to) yours… I’m always curious to learn how other people are doing it.