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: 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: Go Camping!

The weekend following Independence Day, we drove down to The gulf coast to help Burners Without Borders Corpus Christi do their annual beach cleanup and campout. In addition to about 150 Burning Man community members, who create a weekend “village”on the beach, complete with food, art, and entertainment, another 150 or so local residents pitched in with the Saturday cleanup to help remove about 4000 pounds of trash from the beach, most of it debris left by 4th of  July revelers.

It was our first outing in our bus, and there were a few other buses, RVs, and trailers present, but most people camped in tents. Overall it was a wonderful weekend, spent visiting with friends and making new ones, and other than the fuel to get there and the optional donation to help defray the event’s overhead costs, it hardly cost us anything.

It doesn’t have to be an organized event, but spending a couple nights under the stars makes for an inexpensive getaway. And sleeping in a screen-free environment  surrounded by fresh air is a sure way to smash some stress.

What are some of your favorite camping trips and tips? 

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?

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: Learn a New Skill!

The Little Hippie House had a couple of mature loquat trees on it when we moved in, and we have since planted nine other fruit trees on the property. The rest of our trees won’t bear fruit for another couple of years, but the loquats have given me an opportunity to learn how to can my own food. A lifetime of apartment-dwelling had left me without this particular skill, and figuring there’s no time like the present, I jumped right in.

As it happens, loquat jam turns out to be one of the easiest things I could have chosen to start with: loquats are in the same family with apples and pears, and are naturally high in pectin. To make the jam, I literally only needed to add water and sugar and leave it all on the stove for a few hours before running the stick blender through it and pouring into sterilized jars to self-seal as it cooled down! As a bonus, the fruit turns a gorgeous crimson color when cooked, and it tastes like plums. Super-yum.

Not everyone needs to know how to can their own food, but like me, you might be curious about how to preserve food and to control what goes into the things you eat. Or you might have always wanted to learn to do your own oil changes, mend your own clothes, or cook a favorite meal that you usually eat out. Find something this week that you’ve been wanting to learn to do, for yourself and decide to learn it. Like my canning experiment, you might end up having a lot of fun and saving some money in the process!

What money-saving thing have you learned to do recently, or what do you want to learn? 

 

Frugal Tuesday: Check Unit Pricing!

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Bigger packages are often labeled as “Economy Size,” and while that’s usually true, it isn’t always the case. Around here, we’ve gotten very comfortable standing in the aisle at the grocery store, calculating prices per unit on our mobile phone calculators, to see that our hard-earned money is going as far as it possibly can. Sometimes, as in the photo above, the store is kind enough to do the math for us, but if they hadn’t, I would have been happy to take an extra moment to do it myself. By choosing the larger bottle of raw agave, I would have saved 41 cents over the same amount of product in two smaller bottles. And I could have kept another nickel in my pocket by choosing the lighter syrup. That might not seem like much, but we go through one large bottle a month at our house (What can I say? We like our coffee sweet!), so over the course of a year, that single choice would save us around five bucks. Multiply that sort of tiny savings by the number of items in your grocery cart each week (10? 25? 50?), and you might start to understand why small economies can matter so much. Simply paying attention to the unit price could save you hundreds of dollars a year!

I’ve recently started a grocery price book — actually a Google Drive spreadsheet– which helped me to recognize that the prices above, while better than our regular grocery store, are still much higher than what Costco charges for the same product under a different brand (Truthfully, I wasn’t even grocery shopping when I took the picture… I was picking up something else at a store we don’t frequent, so I snapped a couple pics of items we commonly purchase to compare prices later).

Finally, be careful to not be lulled into a false sense of security because you’re shopping at a “discount”or “dollar” store: Many years ago, my roommate at the time came home with a box of plain white envelopes from the dollar store, and I had coincidentally picked up the same exact box at the office supply for fifty cents. She was a much more careful shopper than I was back then, so we were both surprised at my accidental savings!

Does price per unit factor into your shopping practices? What surprises have you found?