Deal of the week: A fancy vacation for super-cheap

BeachLast summer, we escaped the dry heat of Colorado for southern California sunshine.

Lots of people hit the beach for vacation. But my goal was to find a way to make the trip for a whole week for around $1,000.

We did it. The three of us stayed in schmancy Laguna Beach, visited Disneyland and cruised Vegas (albeit briefly) on a weeklong vacation last summer. Here’s how:

  • Home swap. Two words: Free lodging. We traded houses with a family from Laguna Beach. Each left the other a list of local activities and home maintenance tips and requests. The only downside was one chipped item at our place — a result of insufficient child-proofing. Before the swap, we exchanged several e-mails and talked once by phone to clarify plans and assuage anxiety.
  • Priceline hotel reservations. Our trip would have been $150 cheaper if we could have driven straight through, but none of us was up for 21 hours straight. We drove from Denver to Las Vegas the first day and stayed at the South Coast, a four-star hotel, for $69 thanks to Priceline. With our room we got a buy one, get one free coupon for the breakfast buffet, and Little Cheap was free, so we all ate breakfast for $13. Our dinner (also in the hotel) was $39, but it included free margaritas — more than welcome after an 11-hour drive.
  • Cheap pet-sitting. My sister and her husband kindly volunteered to take in our dog while we were away, saving $200 or more in kennel fees. (Yes, we brought them a nice souvenir. Thanks, guys!)
  • Books on tape. We borrowed books on tape and CD from the library to listen to in the car. The CDs fit in our car’s player so we all could listen together. Little Cheap listened to the tapes on an old Walkman, so Mr. Cheap and I could talk or listen to our own music while we drove.
  • Snacks on sale. Before we go on a road trip, I stock up on snacks on sale at our local grocery stores. We save at least a few dollars and avoid the temptation of $1.29 candy bars at gas stations along the way.
  • Home cooking. Part of the beauty of staying in a home is that it comes with a kitchen so you can cook your own food. We save a bundle on breakfast, and plenty on other meals as well. (This worked beautifully when we rented an apartment in Paris in 2001. In Laguna Beach, groceries were so expensive that a cheap dinner wouldn’t have cost much more than the raw ingredients!) My stepmother does this one better and takes frozen food from home to her timeshare vacation.
  • Public transport. Our home swap hosts clued us in to a bus that ran down to the beach for 50 cents — a much better deal than the pay parking lots.
  • Hang with nature. Nature areas provide great entertainment and a glimpse into the area for little or no cost. One of our most memorable visits was to the Doheny State Beach Visitor Center, which has a little tide pool and volunteers happy to talk. We also looked up tide charts online and made an early-morning visit to catch low tide at our favorite beach, where we could scramble over the rocks looking for crabs and anemones.
  • Splurge where it counts. We spent one day and a lot of money going to Disneyland, but it was worth it. We spent 10 hours seeing the sights, Little Cheap pulled the sword out of the stone, and we drove home under a full moon, in peace and contentment.
  • Be flexible. I wanted to see the San Diego Zoo, but a bad brake replacement job on our car before we left home meant we spent our money — and our day — fixing the car instead of seeing the Zoo. Next time …
  • Motivate yourself. On the way home, we stopped in Palisade, Colo., where we visited the farmer’s market. We became the proud owners of a bushel of luscious, pink-fleshed “June Pride” peaches. Their sweet scent accompanied us home to become peach pie and peach jam.

This year, we’re going ultra-cheap (camping, anyone?), but next year we might be up for a journey once more — if it’s affordable enough.

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Eco-quandary: To use toilet paper or to use toilet cloth … that is the oh-so-personal question

cloth tpWell, I did it. I switched to cloth toilet paper.

I am the lone voyager on this journey in my household. Little Cheap is interested, but frightened that she will flush the cloth down the toilet accidentally and get in trouble (she’s gleefully on the “let it mellow” bandwagon, however). Mr. Cheap is quietly aghast.

I’ve been thinking about the process for a while, and was further inspired by a discussion at Simple Living: Simplify + Reduce.

Then I had to accumulate my materials: a yard of flannel bought on sale for $1, a squirt bottle of water, the pinking shears to (hopefully) prevent my having to sew a zillion little cloths, and — the coup de grace — a fabulous asparagus pot bought at a yard sale for $1.

Potential “too much information” alert!

This week I dove into the process. (I’m going to share, because on most sites, nobody will talk nitty-gritty and I found it frustrating.) First, I cut wipes in rectangles about 4″ by 8″ — but this was really more than necessary, and I’m paranoid about Little Cheap’s fear, so I cut those in half to 4″ by 4″ squares. (If need be, we can use two!) As an added benefit, the small size fits nicely into a basket in the bathroom.

Following numerous suggestions online, I go, I squirt, I wipe, and I throw the wipe in the asparagus steamer. The asparagus steamer is a tall metal pot with two handles at the top and a ventilating lid, and inside a basket with a handle and drain holes in the bottom. I’ve loaded it with a solution of a tablespoon of washing soda and a few drops of tea tree oil (a natural antibacterial).

When laundry day comes, I’ll drain and rinse the pot and throw the wipes in with the towels or whatever. I’ll wash that load on hot, add vinegar to the rinse, and hang outside to dry, as we do with everything. This process worked well through two and a half years of cloth diapers, so I anticipate it will be fine here, too.

If you’re not ready for that step …

… at least consider the type of toilet paper you use. I’ll confess that I only recently, reluctantly renounced (again) my preference for cheap over green in this department, but it really is sick to think about using virgin wood to wipe your bum. This link at the Natural Resources Defense Council addresses the impact of non-recycled paper products on the environment: http://www.nrdc.org/land/forests/gtissue.asp.

I also am putting together a cost chart on types of toilet paper in my area (we’ll at least be keeping a courtesy roll on hand for guests). Watch for that next week. And meanwhile, “if it’s yellow, let it mellow.”

Dealbusters: The most refreshing drink in the world

This Monday series checks out whether something that sounds like a good deal — or takes a bit of extra work — is a good deal. We’ll look at cost and benefit — with everything filtered through my individual experience. Please chime in with your take.

Mr. Cheap and I have a joke, especially in these hot summer months, where we ask each other, “Excuse me – do you have the most refreshing drink in the world?”

Sadly, the answer is often no. Still, we keep seeking, and we have our personal favorites now.

  • Mr. Cheap prefers peppermint tea, brewed and iced. It is indeed refreshing.
  • I am a fan of SPORTea. (I’m an even bigger fan now that I’ve confirmed their weird spelling and seen their very refreshing photos on the Web site (which, dear readers, Mr. Cheap just saw, causing him to dub my beverage “Dork Tea.”))
  • Once in a while, we make a delicious hot or iced tea that consists of Earl Grey tea with some fresh mint leaves steeped in the tea, then sweetened with honey.

But I must confess that for me, sometimes, nothing beats the crisp satisfaction of a cold soda. The sweetness (usually diet), the bubbles, the cold can — ahhh.

Which beverage wins in wallet refreshment?

The cost breakdown:
A can of soda from a 12-pack bought on sale at the grocery store costs about $0.25.

For the teas, I’ve included the cost of water and gas to heat the water:

  • One glass of peppermint tea = $0.06 (a 77% savings over the soda)
  • One glass of SPORTea = $0.22 (10% savings)
  • One cup or glass of Earl Grey/mint tea = $0.23 (10% savings)

The winner: Homemade. Soda doesn’t have a bubble to stand on..

The priceless factors:

  • No caffeine.
  • No scary sweeteners.
  • Earl Grey is full of antioxidants.
  • SPORTea is full of vitamins and herbs (it really does give me a boost when I’m down — I’m not sure how good that is, but it can’t be worse than Diet Dr Pepper)
  • No cans to recycle.
  • No box to recycle.

A couple of caveats:
Keeping a pitcher of tea takes up fridge space – but lukewarm tea is far more pleasant than lukewarm soda.

The verdict:
I will try to change my ways, even though I think it’s harder to give up an occasional treat than a daily habit. Tea just isn’t the same as soda – but if it does the job and is better for you, it’s hard to argue.

Grade: A-

Weekly Wrap-Up: Guilt, sharing and energy leaks

Are you guilty about spending?

This post features an interesting survey about where readers’ guilt threshold kicks in: http://www.thesimpledollar.com/2007/06/27/guilty-money-how-much-do-you-have-to-spend-frivolously-before-you-feel-guilty-about-it/

Can you share instead? I’m intrigued by this idea — every house on our block probably has a weed whacker, although we could get by with one — we all spend perhaps 30 minutes per week weed-whacking. How can sharing work in our individual-packaging world? http://mustardseedpea.blogspot.com/2007/07/sharing-and-waste-stream.html

weed eater

And what about unplugging? This article looks at the “energy drips” in our lives. http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/05128/500530.stm

Give yourself credit: Net worth update with inheritance

VolvoFor this month, our net worth is down 6 percent over last month. The culprits: A big payment toward the credit card I’m paying off, and the addition of a new student loan for Mr. Cheap’s graduate school. On the bright side: We still are up 6 percent over our position in March, when I started tracking.

Next month, our net worth will have an artificial increase when I cash in two matured savings bonds I inherited from my grandmother. Another bond matures in October. They won’t make me rich, but they’ll be a nice addition.

My grandmother passed away in July 2003. She left my sister and me several savings bonds purchased over our lifetimes. With the first bond, I re-invested a portion for Little Cheap. I used the rest to take a writing conference and enroll in a financial education course — plans in line with my grandmother’s values, as she also helped me fund a trip abroad when I was 16, some books for college and the purchase of my first car (a 1972 Volvo like that pictured above, only baby blue).

I plan to do two things with these bonds, using a “split the pot” philosophy. This is a scheme that allows us to taste the sweet gratification of a windfall, while also making some practical progress: You use a bit of a bonus to treat yourself, and then save or invest the rest. It seems like a wise strategy for those of us who want to become financially smarter — while still remaining a little hedonistic.

  1. On the splurge front, I hope to use part of the funds to buy bedroom furniture. Our current setup consists of two nightstands I like, purchased at Cost Plus about five years ago; a creaky, too-high bed whose headboard wiggles and squeaks and bangs the wall (even during such G-rated activities as sleeping and reading), given to us seven years ago by friends; a chest that was my father’s when he was a child; and a completely non-matching mahogany dresser bought for $75 with a matching nightstand from Mr. Cheap’s erstwhile co-worker. With our 12th anniversary coming up this fall, I believe some “real” furniture is in order — if I can find a satisfactory deal.
  2. I plan to use the rest of to jump start my emergency fund, since we are making good progress on the credit cards.

This second aspect goes against most financial planning advice, which would be to pay off higher interest debt (in this case 12.24 percent) before putting a windfall into a savings vehicle that earns less (in this case an ING Direct account that earns 4.50 percent).

My logic?

We’re making headway in paying off debt on our own, and I think it will mean more when I feel the pain. If I write a check to AmEx with Grandma’s legacy, I know I’ll feel a little sigh of disappointment in myself, because I didn’t earn it. In a couple months, I’ll pay that bill off anyway — with some sacrificing to make it happen. Then I can feel justifiably proud of myself.

Also, one of my stressors is my small emergency fund. The windfall will boost that fund and earn some interest. It will also give me peace of mind to steel me for my ongoing debt payoff.

To me, it’s a good plan. Now I just have to figure out how to cash in those bonds.

Deal of the Week: 9 tips for budget grocery shopping (on the thrifty food plan)

All over the Web and its print relatives, columnists have been jumping on the food stamp challenge bandwagon.

They wail, “I tried to eat on just $25 a week, and it’s impossible!”

But it isn’t — especially if you bend the rules to follow the rules. (This means that for most men, the weekly allotment on the thrifty plan is more like $39, not $25.) For a great overview of the whole situation, check out Get Rich Slowly’s post on the matter.

Recently, here in Denver, a Rocky Mountain News columnist wrote that he couldn’t have fresh fruit because oranges cost $2 each at his grocery store. Well, you know when oranges are in season in North America? January. And so in June, when he wrote that, sure, oranges weren’t cheap. But this week we can buy a pound of strawberries for under $1. That’s got to be equal in volume to at least four oranges.

Many other writers say they can’t possibly feed themselves on $25 per week, especially not if they buy any fresh fruits or vegetables.

There are two keys here. One, know the real budget. The U.S.D.A. food budget guidelines are at this link. Add up the “thrifty budget” numbers for each member of your family for a good challenge.

For my family, our monthly total is $410. In June, we spent $416, including many organic items and some expensive, organic local berries, plus a couple of stocking-up trips. But a Father’s Day breakfast out and a schmancy date-night dinner added $100 in dining-out bills.

The second key is in the mindset. You can’t save money if you go looking for an orange, or whatever you crave in particular. To save, you must (to quote my daughter’s old preschool teacher) get what you get, and don’t have a fit.

To help you knock out your grocery fits, here are my top 9 ways to save on food bills:

  1. Don’t eat out. Usually, I can avoid big food splurges — it’s the little cravings that kill me. When you can’t resist, in spite of my advice above, fix your craving at the store instead of going out. I love ice cream. If I go out, a cone of hard-serve will cost me nearly $3. On the other hand, I can often buy a half-gallon at the store for a couple of dollars (and then I don’t have to wipe the dab of ice cream off my nose to hide from my family — I can share instead). If I’m ambitious, I can make my own, most likely for even less. If I go out for nachos, I’ll pay $9, but if I make them at home, it’s probably closer to $5 — and that will feed the whole family.
  2. Buy what’s on sale and then decide how you’ll eat it. This seemingly goes against all the advice to plan your meals and shop with a list. Well, not totally. Here’s where sources like The Grocery Game come in — for a fee, this Web site will tell you what’s on sale at your local market and how to save the most. Once you start your list with the cheapies, you can fill in what you’ll need to feed your family for the week. After you do it for a while, you won’t need the site anymore. (I’m about ready to unsubscribe — after more than two years.)
  3. Make a price book. This site gives you a step by step how-to. The gist of it is to write down the cost of each grocery item (at least the ones you buy all the time) so you can compare. This trick can give some great insights.
  4. Know what’s really a sale. For instance, cream cheese goes on sale all the time at my grocery store for $1.25 a brick. But thanks to the price book, I know it often goes on sale for $1 — and more than once, in sync with a 20-cent coupon. After the store doubles the coupon, I pay 60 cents — less than half the “sale” price of $1.25. And I’d only pay full price in a cream-cheese emergency (you know, when someone breaks into your house and threatens to kill the dog unless you give him bagels … with cream cheese).
  5. Clip coupons. It’s worth a few minutes on a Sunday. It’s even worth looking dorky carrying a coupon sorter around (mine is a red nylon Swanson’s-branded number that I got at Goodwill for 99 cents). If you’re really cool, maybe you’ll make your own coupon carrier. Then use the coupons on top of a sale price for a super sale. If you have more than one coupon, buy more than one item. A few months ago I got boxes of granola bars for 40 cents each after sales, coupons and store buy one-get one promotions. The regular price of granola bars is something like $3.69 — not gonna happen in my book.
  6. Buy for value and what you need. Compare prices at different stores. I find Costco is usually not more expensive than King Soopers, but sometimes it’s much cheaper. If the price is the same, I’ll buy bulk to save packaging. But if you don’t have room to store 8,000 light bulbs, and the price is the same, why worry about it?
  7. Grow your own. Food you grow is the cheapest, unless you go crazy with fertilizers and gadgets. Last Friday, we had pasta with pesto and a nice salad — with basil and lettuce from our garden, making it truly a bargain meal, whereas purchased pesto is particularly pricey.
  8. Limit meat. Meat is very expensive. My bargain guideline is $1 a pound. I avoid buying fruits and veggies unless they are $1 a pound or less. (Watch the sales – this week, that price level gave us tomatoes on the vine and organic grapes.) Usually, you can buy tofu for around $1 a pound. But most meet doesn’t go under that threshold — although once I found organic chicken legs at Vitamin Cottage for about $1 a pound (I stocked up for the freezer). But meat won’t be an everyday thing if you’re sticking with a tight budget. Besides, a variety of grains and veggies is better for you!
  9. Buy items where they’re normal. Many Asian cuisines use a lot of fresh vegetables, and Asian markets are renowned for their beautiful produce. Recently, we were at H-Mart, an Asian supermarket in a suburb of Denver. I counted 80 — that’s right, 80 — varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables priced at 99 cents a pound or less. Some items — like cabbage and Asian greens — were 59 cents a pound, and those are very nutritious. Some items were organic — I bought two three-pound bags of organic onions for $1.29 each. That’s $0.43 a pound, when organic onions are often nearly $2 a pound at my grocery store. With 80 items, everyone’s sure to find something they’ll like.

Even a cranky columnist or two.