Category Archives: Tips and Tricks

Wine for Dinner: Frugal and Fun!

Last night, I enjoyed an experience I haven’t had in quite awhile:  Wine for dinner. 

There are several advantages to having wine for dinner that are both frugal and fun:

  1. Wine is delicious and filling.  Who needs well balanced meals with protein and other nutrients when you can feel oh-so-good after a couple five glasses of wine?
  2. Inevitably, if I have wine for dinner, I’ll be having a dance party for dessert.  By “dance party” I mean enthusiastic, exuberant, highly physical interpretive expressions of the works of Ke$ha and other great musical artists of our day.  I acknowledge that I might look like I’m having a grand maul seizure when I’m in the midst of a wine-induced dance party, but I really don’t care.  And I’m pretty sure that a highly physical dance party is more effective than any $50/month gym membership.
  3. You really need only five to ten songs for a fabulous dance party that never gets old when you’ve had a few glasses of wine.  Even if you buy your songs in the most expensive way possible (iTunes), this is a cost of only $13 tops.  Not bad for hours of entertainment.
  4. Some snooty people might be thinking, “How could you possibly have an inexpensive meal consisting of wine when a bottle of wine costs at least $15?”  To these people, I say “Ptthph!”  It is not difficult or unusual to find a tasty bottle of wine on sale for as little as $5 a bottle.  Yup, five bucks.  Spending $5 on a bottle of wine is not a huge gamble.  Worst case, it’s not good enough to be a starter drink.  Even a crappy bottle of wine can be consumed after everyone has already had a couple of drinks.  Put these failed experiments out for your guests later in the evening; they’ll never know the difference.  Check out liquor discount stores and ask about their discounts for buying wine by the case.
  5. Wine makes you feel all warm inside.  Dancing around your house in a highly animated fashion makes you feel even warmer.  Go ahead and turn your thermostat down to 60 degrees.  You won’t even miss all that expensive heat. 

 I feel like I should include some sort of disclaimer lest any silly people think that I’m advocating a regular diet of booze in lieu of proper food.  I’m not.  Please do eat your green vegetables.

Viva la frugal!

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Gettin’ My Tan On

Those of you who know me are aware that I’m super white.  I don’t mean that I’m super white in a cultural or behavioral sense, although I guess I actually am based on the list of Stuff White People Like.  What I really mean is that I am literally very white, as in pale.  Like glow-in-the-dark pale.  Like might-be-a-vampire pale.  This doesn’t usually bother me, but it’s summer so my paleness is extra noticeable right now.  Also, I’m a bridesmaid in a wedding next weekend, which means I’ll be in lots of photos next to tan, normal-hued people. 

In an effort to overcome my paleness, I started going to a tanning bed two months ago.  I bought an unlimited monthly package at $55 per month and tanned every other day like clockwork.  Two months and $110 later, I was only slightly less white than when I started.  Not once did anyone tell me that I was looking tan.  Okay, some people did tell me that I was starting to look tan, but only after I shoved an arm in their faces and yelled, “Don’t I look like I’m getting tan?  DON’T I???  Tell me I look tan, dammit!!”  Harumph.

In an act of desperation, I bought a bottle of Jurgens self tanner last weekend.  I’ve always been wary of self tanners.  The bottles say that they are designed for “fair skin,” but I worry that the chemists and marketers behind the self-tanning brands don’t really understand the level of paleness I’m dealing with.  My fear of looking like an Oompa-Loompa, or worse, a streaky, blotchy Oompa-Loompa has always prevented me from giving self tanners a real try.  Does anyone remember when Charlize Theron showed up at the Oscars a few years ago looking stunningly beautiful except for the fact that she had mysteriously turned orange?  That was the first and only time women have ever said to themselves, “My goodness.  I would not want to look like Charlize Theron.”  Poor Charlize was the very picture of faux tanning gone horribly awry. 

Anyway, I bought my self tanning lotion last Sunday and I have applied it once a day, every day since then.  And guess what?  I’m not orange!  And someone told me yesterday that I’m looking nice and tan!  I didn’t even have to force them in to telling me that!  In five days, my $8 bottle of Jurgens has accomplished more than two months of laying in a tanning bed did.  And I get to have a nice tan without pesky side effects like skin cancer and wrinkles.

So ladies (and metrosexual men), I encourage you to give self tanners a shot in lieu of tanning beds.  It is a far more frugal choice and at least in my case, it produces great results.  Viva la frugal!

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Frugal Fun, or How to Avoid Boredom on a Budget

In my very first HotFrugal post, I calculated that I earn only $6.45 per hour in true discretionary income.  That’s not a lot, so I want to be sure I stretch my entertainment dollar as far as possible.  There are quite a few frugal activities I enjoy that keep me entertained and on budget. 

Frugal doesn’t necessarily mean cheap; an activity may be expensive, but if it provides a high level of enjoyment over a long period of time relative to its cost, it gets the HotFrugal seal of approval.  Naturally, everyone’s lists of high value experiences will be different.  For example, someone else might gain a lot of satisfaction and value from $200 tickets to a World Cup soccer game.  I, on the other hand, would probably fall asleep immediately due to the sheer boredom that is soccer, and $200 seems like a high price to pay for a nap.  You know a sport is boring when a field full of hot guys can’t hold my interest. 

 Anyway, here is a list of my favorite frugal activities.  Are there any others that I should add to my list?  What are some things you enjoy doing that provide a good bang for your buck?

Playing tennis:  I absolutely love playing tennis.  Getting started in the sport wasn’t cheap.  New shoes, two good rackets (on sale), and new clothes ran about $500.  I also spent about $300 on lessons.  But after this initial expense, the sport has been very affordable.  There are free public courts in the towns where I live and work.  I’m planning to join a league and to take more lessons, but these costs will be worth it.  I mean, I’m not quite ready for my Wimbledon debut, but another lesson or two should do it. 

Unsolicited interior design:  If I had it to do all over again, I would have studied interior design in college.  Instead, I have to settle for being an HGTV addict who gives people unsolicited interior design advice.  For example, my mom recently made the mistake of telling me that she would like to update the look of her guest bedroom.  I don’t think that this is something she plans to tackle anytime soon as she and my dad already have a number of home improvement projects in the works.  But I wasted no time in creating a totally new design for the bedroom, complete with a shopping list of all the items I had picked out.  I scoured the internet for new furniture, bed linens, artwork, etc.  I put pictures of all of the items I selected into a spreadsheet and printed it out for my mom. 

This little project took about five hours to complete and it was totally free for me, although it will not be so free for my mom if she decides to move forward with the design.  I enjoyed working on this so much that I may start designing rooms for other hapless friends and family members.  So don’t tell me if you have any impending redecorating plans, or I might just show up at your door with a shopping list.  Shopping by proxy is frugal fun for me, but it could be hazardous to your wallet!

Watching movies & TV shows from Netflix:  As an avid reader of other personal finance blogs, I have seen many writers advise people to cancel their Netflix memberships as a way to save money.  I totally disagree!  At $14.95 per month, I definitely feel that I get my money’s worth.  In my current living situation, I don’t have to pay for cable.  But if I did, I wouldn’t.  Netflix gives me access to all the TV and movies I need at a fraction of the cost of cable.  Sure, I’m always a season behind on my favorite shows, which does have some disadvantages.  A friend who watches Showtime in real time accidentally blurted out a major spoiler for my very, very, very, most favorite show, Dexter.  That sucks, but the savings I get from watching through Netflix and not having to pay for cable makes it well worth it.  The only real downside of Netflix in lieu of cable: Netflix can’t feed my HGTV addiction.  But maybe that’s a good thing.

Reading blogs and online articles:  Another free activity!  I recently discovered Google Reader, which allows you to subscribe to blogs and online editions of newspapers and magazines in one place (including HotFrugal).  Anytime there is a new post on one of the sites you subscribe to, it will show up on your Reader homepage.  This is a great way to stay current on topics you care about.  It’s also a great way to stay current on delightfully snarky and shallow topics like celebrity fashion disasters

Managing my money:  Yes, I do consider this a hobby.  And yes, I really do enjoy it.  Tracking expenses and paying bills are not particularly fun activities, but tracking the progress I’m making toward a major financial goal is fun.  Imagining a financially secure future in which I’m free to pursue my interests is fun.  Heck, even budgeting is fun.  There’s something very satisfying about taking control of your financial life and seeing how it contributes to a better all-around life. 

Weekend getaways:  I love a mini-vaca!  Going away for the weekend provides a much needed break from reality.  If you have a great time, being away for two days can have the restorative effects of a much longer vacation at a fraction of the cost.  I haven’t done this yet, but I’ve always wanted to pick a weekend and leave the destination open so that I can take advantage of last minute deals.  Maybe this will be the topic of a future post…  Yes!  I will do this for my dear readers!  I will take a mini vacation because I care so much about all of you!  I shall do it for research!  (Rationalizing is really not supposed to be part of the HotFrugal philosophy, but we all slip occasionally…)

Dancing:  Going out dancing is a great time, although it can be expensive.  But turning up the speakers and dancing around the house in your pajamas is free.  It’s also private, which means you can dance like a COMPLETE fool.  It’s even more fun when you sing along into your microphone/hairbrush (and how frugal to have a hairbrush that doubles as a microphone!).

Viva la frugal!

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Home Ec for Grownups

I clearly remember rolling my eyes when a friend told me she was taking Home Economics as an elective during our freshman year of high school.  Home Ec was lame.  Home Ec was for girls with no ambition.  Home Ec was, like, sooo old school.  I was way too cool for Home Ec.

Oh, how I wish I could take a Home Economics course now, especially one that emphasized the economics part.  At 30 years old, I’m still woefully inefficient and unskilled when it comes to many household tasks.  I can cook up some pretty tasty dishes, but I’m lousy at planning my meals to take advantage of low cost ingredients that can be used in several recipes throughout the week.  I don’t know how to fix a simple rip in the seam of a garment.  I don’t know how to get stains out of fabric.  I don’t know how to make basic repairs to, well, anything. 

I’ve often read that we now live in an era in which it is cheaper to replace something than to repair it, but I’m not convinced.  I think that’s just what we tell ourselves to feel better about our complete lack of skills.  I’ve also heard some people claim that it is cheaper to eat out (at least for an individual or a couple) than it is to cook at home.  I know that can’t be true.  But I can understand wanting to believe it.  If you’ve never been taught how to plan a weekly menu and deal with leftovers, eating out will seem much easier and maybe even less wasteful.

The notion of Home Ec seems outdated to many of us, but in actuality, it is just as important as ever.  This is true for both girls and boys, women and men.  Many of us will live on our own for many years before we “settle down” and start a family.  During this time of independence, we must feed ourselves and manage our own households, even if our households are small apartments for one.  In this sense, we are all homemakers. 

Unfortunately, we are poorly equipped to run our homes with economy.  The first problem we have is our mindset.  When was the last time you thought of your home as an organization that must be managed to run as efficiently and cost effectively as possible?  I know I had never really thought of it that way, at least not until I stumbled upon a fabulous little book called “The American Frugal Housewife.”  This book was written by Lydia Maria Child and it was first published in 1832.  It is now in the public domain and can be downloaded for free at Project Gutenberg

There is something endearing about a book that is nearly 200 years old that instructs you to “keep a coarse broom for cellar stairs, wood-shed, yard, &c.  No good housekeeper allows her carpet broom to be used for such things.”  (The horror!)  Much of the advice offered throughout the book is not applicable to today’s lifestyles (“Examine preserves, to see that they are not contracting mould; and your pickles, to see that they are not growing soft and tasteless”), but the brief introduction at the beginning of the book is highly relevant to thinking of a household as an entity that requires thoughtful management practices. 

There is classic advice in the introduction about living below your means and never counting on money that you haven’t yet earned.  The importance of saving is emphasized, along with the importance of not being wasteful.  The introduction sets the theme of the book that practicing economy in your household will lead to a happy and peaceful life.  Surely that is just as true today as it was in 1832.

So how does one set about creating a peaceful life of economy in his or her own home?  One turns to the internet!  If Mrs. Child was alive today, I’m sure she’d have one heck of a blog about all things domestic.  Fortunately, there are many other bloggers and resources available to help non-domestic goddesses like me:

  • Home Ec 101:  The fitting tagline for this site is “real skills for real people with real lives.”  The site provides instructions and tips for basic household repairs, stain removal, cooking, and cleaning.  The information is presented in a fun and simple way. 
  • Better Homes & Gardens:  The online version of the magazine favorite has plenty of information on everything from remodeling to gardening to crafts.  Most articles are written with cost consciousness in mind. 
  • Consumer Reports:  Access to the site’s content requires a paid subscription, but it is well worth it if you are planning on making any major purchases.  An annual subscription is $26, or you can subscribe for one month for just $5.95.  You pay to join because you won’t see any advertising on CR’s website.  All of their ratings and buying recommendations are completely independent and are based on their first-hand research and testing.
  • FlyLady.net:  This site can be quite overwhelming, and it seems to be geared toward the die-hard domestic types.  But if you’re willing to do a little digging, you can find some useful information about cleaning and controlling chaos in your home. 
  • Real Simple:  The online version of the popular magazine has succinct, useful articles on a range of topics.  My favorite section is “New Uses for Old Things” under the Home & Organizing tab.

Does anyone else know of handy Home Ec websites they like?  Has anyone ever heard of actual Home Ec classes for grownups?  Or am I the only one who wants to party like it’s 1832?

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It is worth mentioning that the author of “The American Frugal Housewife,” Lydia Maria Child, was a remarkable woman.  She was a passionate abolitionist, Indian’s rights activist, and women’s rights activist.  Many of her other writings supported these causes.  She was a strong-willed and opinionated lady, which is what makes “The American Frugal Housewife” so entertaining to read all these years later.  Child also wrote the poem “A Boy’s Thanksgiving Day”, better known today as “Over the River and Through the Wood.” 

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Who Are You Calling Cheap?

There’s a big difference between being cheap and being frugal.  Being cheap means always choosing the least expensive option, no matter what.  Being frugal means carefully considering how to spend money and making buying decisions based on value.  Some people are fine with being labeled “cheap”, but I’d prefer to think of myself as frugal.  There are certain things for which I’ll always be willing to spend a bit more money.  The following is a random list of some of those items.

Luggage:  Cheap luggage is basically disposable.  Have you seen the way baggage handlers treat luggage at the airport?  It’s like luggage picked on them when they were in high school, and they’re still holding a grudge.  A cheap suitcase can be purchased for as little as $50, but you would be lucky to get more than three or four uses out of it.  After that, you should expect it to arrive at your destination without wheels and with your unmentionables peaking out through busted zippers.  Good quality luggage will cost quite a bit more, but you can trust that it will arrive intact. 

Plastic wrap:  Cheap plastic wrap makes me irrationally angry.  I don’t know why anyone would buy it.  How can the buyers of cheap plastic wrap stand the warped, ragged scraps of plastic they finally manage to pull off over the flimsy, tiny-toothed aluminum cutter that is barely even attached to the stupid box?!  And then how do they get it to actually cling to the dish they’re trying to cover?  I’ll spend an extra buck for the real deal any day.

Organic milk:  No kidding, organic milk truly tastes better than the non-organic variety.  It tastes creamier and less sour.  Organic milk is also free of all the extra antibiotics and hormones that are present in regular milk.  This is especially important if you have kids (which I don’t).  Some girls are now getting their periods as early as age nine (nine!) and many doctors and scientists believe this is related to the high levels of hormones in milk. 

Photography for special events:  Once in a lifetime events will remain vivid in your memory if you have fabulous pictures that capture the best moments.  I’ve been to weddings where the couples hired top notch photographers, and it was so worth it.  Great photographers will take a journalistic approach to an event.  They will snap amazing candid shots that capture the event better than a posed picture ever could.  The picture at the left is me and my friend Ben dancing at a wedding last October (I’m glad Ben’s lovely wife, Meredith, let me steal him for so many dances!).  This picture perfectly reflects the fun, festive wedding of the fabulous Meghan and Chris Passo.

Vacations (Sometimes):  Don’t get me wrong, vacations do not need to be pricey to be great.  An inexpensive weekend getaway is a fabulous thing.  But sometimes, it’s worth spending real money on a really amazing vacation.  The pyramids of Egypt, the canals of Venice, and the beaches of Thailand don’t come cheap.  I’ve never experienced any of these places, but I plan to.  I’ll save and budget accordingly, but I would never let the price tag of a trip to one of these destinations prevent me from going.  One should never be too cheap to see the world. 

Ice cream:  Ah, my favorite food!  I’m a bit of an ice cream connoisseur.  I’ve tried them all and I can tell you that the brands made with fewer ingredients are always so much yummier, although they’re also more expensive.  But it is so worth it!  Ice cream made out of real ingredients like cream, milk, and sugar is so decadent and indulgent.  The cheap, gummy varieties just don’t compare. 

Shoes:  Ah, my favorite accessory!  I’m a bit of a shoe connoisseur.  (Wait, this sounds familiar…)  Quality materials and good engineering make a world of difference when it comes to shoes.  I’m pretty sure this is true for both men’s and women’s shoes, but I only have experience with the latter so I’ll talk about that.  Good quality high heeled shoes are made so that the heel is placed further in from the end of the shoe.  This makes the shoes much more stable.  They also have more padding in the soles.  Never mind the fact that good quality shoes just plain look better.  I can’t quite put my finger on what it is that makes cheap shoes stand out like a hooker in church, but you can always spot them from a mile away.  I can’t get on board with spending $700 on a pair of Monolos, but I can definitely understand paying a couple hundred bucks for a pair of shoes that will get a lot of use. 

Direct flights:  Have you ever tried to change planes in Chicago?  It’s a great city, but it is the armpit of the world when it comes to weather.  Chicago experiences blizzard conditions and/or thunderstorms approximately 360 days per year.  An hour layover can easily turn into half a day spent staring at the “delayed” status on the departure board while steam comes out of your ears.  If I’m stuck in the terminal like a penned animal for hours, I’m probably going to spend at least $50 on booze and lousy airport food.  These would not be frugal purchases, but desperate times call for margaritas.  It makes a lot more sense to spend a little more money on a direct flight and to get where you need to be in less time and with less alcohol in your system.

Viva la frugal!

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An Ode to Quiche

I’m not exactly known for my culinary skills.  At Thanksgiving and Christmas, the only dish my family trusts me to prepare is the cranberries.  I do make them from actual cranberries (not from a can), but still, this basically requires no culinary talent since all you have to do is heat the cranberries, add sugar, and stir. 

As it turns out, making quiche is nearly as easy.  Not only is it so simple that even I can get it right every time, it is a very low cost dish that yields 6 – 8 meals.  Best of all, it seems that practically anything can go in a quiche.  I’ve been making quiche regularly for the past several weeks, and I’ve never actually planned what to put in it.  At the end of the week, I just take stock of all the left over vegetables and cheese I have remaining from other dishes I’ve prepared and I throw it all in a quiche.  Quiche has become my favorite way to clean out the fridge. 

Making quiche has dramatically reduced the number of veggies I throw away because they’ve gone bad before I have a chance to use them.  And because quiche is still delicious after being zapped in the microwave, it has become one of my favorite meals to take to work for lunch.  It’s much more economical than bringing a frozen prepared meal.  I’ve tracked my spending in detail for the past eight months, and it shows that I spend way too much on food and dining out; quiche fits in nicely with my goal of reducing the amount of money I eat each month. 

I made a rough calculation of the cost of a quiche I recently made.  It had baby spinach, mushrooms, yellow onion, feta cheese, and cheddar cheese.  The whole quiche cost approximately $7.67.  I got six meals out of the quiche, so that’s only $1.28 per meal.  Not bad!

The only thing that is bad about quiche is that the crust is quite fattening.  I’d like to find a way to make quiche without the crust or with some sort of low-fat alternative (as long as the alternative is still easy!).  If anyone has suggestions about this, please leave them in the comments section.  I was thinking that maybe I could just Pam the holy heck out of the pie dish and make the quiche as usual but without the crust.  Hopefully that would keep the eggs and other ingredients from sticking to the bottom and the sides of the dish.  Thoughts?

For those of you who don’t already know how to make quiche (the regular way with a crust), here is the super simple recipe:

  • 6 or 7 eggs
  • A dash of milk (I don’t measure, but I probably use about 2 tablespoons)
  • 1 ready made pie crust
  • Lots of veggies
  • Shredded cheese (About half a bag or 1 cup at least; more if you’re a cheese lover like me)
  • Salt to taste
  • Pepper to taste
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Place the crust in an ungreased 9” pie dish.
  3. Fill the pie dish with veggies and cover with the cheese.
  4. Beat together the eggs and milk, then pour evenly over the veggies and cheese.
  5. Bake for 30 – 40 minutes.  Let cool slightly before cutting and serving.

You can get really creative with quiche by adding blends of cheeses or fresh herbs and seasonings.  I sometimes mix pesto in with the eggs if I have some on hand that needs to be used up.  Seriously, let quiche be your garbage disposal for whatever is left in your fridge.  Your yummy, yummy garbage disposal.

Enjoy!

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Long Time No See

Hello friends and faithful readers.  I have realized over the past couple of weeks that my readers are much more faithful to this blog than I am!  Many of you have let me know that you are growing impatient waiting for new posts.  I’m sorry I haven’t written in such a long time.  I actually have three great topics in the works, but I can’t quite seem to pull them together for publishing.  You deserve well thought out, well written articles.  Unfortunately, it seems to take me a long time to produce something actually worth reading, so please bear with me.

(By the way, that previous sentence is a good example of why it takes me so long to write…  I first wrote “please bare with me,” but I kept staring at it for several minutes  thinking that it didn’t seem quite right.  I then realized that “please bare with me” is basically asking you to “please get naked with me.”  I like you, dear readers, but not that much.)

Anyway, as an apology for the long delay between posts, I’d like to share with you some very fun websites that offer great one-day only deals.  These websites were brought to my attention by my good friend, Lauren (the same Lauren who helped curb my ribbon-buying frenzy – see “I Get By with a Little Help from My Friends”).  The websites are:

  • Groupon.com
  • Woot.com
  • Thingfling.com

Both woot.com and Thingfling.com offer “deal of the day” items that are completely random.  One day you might find a power drill and another day you might find Christmas cards.

Groupon.com is my personal favorite of the three because it usually offers great deals on experiences or activities.  For example, today’s Groupon deal for the Baltimore area is a $25 family fun pack at the Arundel Golf Park.  The vouchers (worth $63) can be used for mini golf, the driving range, or the batting cages.  Groupon.com offers deals for many different cities, so it’s great to use the site when planning a trip.  You might be able to pick up an inexpensive spa voucher or tickets to an event that you can use while on vacation.

Of course, it is important to remember that all marketing gimmicks like coupons or deal-of-the-day specials are designed to part you with your hard earned cash.  Resist the urge to buy stuff you don’t actually need just because it’s available at 75% off.  In other words, don’t be a sale whore.  You’re much too good for that.

Thanks for sticking with me on my HotFrugal journey…  I’ll try to keep the posts coming on a more frequent basis.

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