Weekly Wrap-Up: 50% Day at Savers and $142 Pokemon cards on eBay

HarvestSavers is having a 50% off Day on Monday, Labor Day (Sept. 3). Canada Value Village/Village des Valeurs gets theirs on Tuesday, Sept. 4, and in Australia it’s Wednesday, Sept. 5. Happy bargain hunting …

eBay is known for bargains and occasionally for its high-flying, clever postings. Some of you may have seen this one, in which a mother of 6 kids sells the Pokemon cards her kids sneaked into the cart for $142 on eBay.


And in the garden, it’s finally harvest time. The photo above includes the produce we picked on Saturday — except for the 8 pounds of cucumbers.

Juliet

… With more to come. I counted the vines and conservatively estimated that this single Juliet tomato plant has more than 110 feet of vines, many of them covered with little green tomatoes. Wish us luck for a pleasant September … although I have my doubts, as the leaves are already beginning to turn.

And our butternut squash plants are going great guns. I may have mentioned that I foolishly left TWO plants to grow instead of one. They have taken over the fence, the watermelon trellis, half the herb garden, the strawberries, the cherry tree, Little Cheap’s play structure and the vacant corner where they were supposed to live in the first place! The abundance is astonishing. We have several squashes the size of the one in this picture, with my foot for scale. (Note that I wear a healthy size 9 shoe. These suckers are 5 pounds or more each.)

butternut

Anyone out there know how to know when a winter squash is done growing? Do I pick it or leave it till fall comes?

And what about watermelons? Is it true that when they sound hollow, they’re done?

Do tell …

Give yourself credit: Real vs. perceived financial status

We’ve all heard the phrase “Keeping up with Joneses.” You might even be familiar with the reinvention of this phrase in “The Millionaire Next Door” or Dave Ramsey’s financial advice, both of which suggest we not keep up with the Joneses, since people flashing their financial status may be deep in debt — and we’ll be in the same fix if we try to compete.

Do you feel like you have enough money? Are you satisfied with what you earn? Can you pay the bills? Can you live within your means?

What’s the pressure?

Advertising and peer pressure in our society constantly tell us to improve our lives through purchasing. We are “supposed” to spend money at the gym (wearing stylish workout attire and new shoes, of course), at the salon, have manicures and pedicures, change our wardrobes every season at least, dine out with friends (pay a babysitter for this “me time”), live in a beautiful home decorated with new furnishings and window treatments, have our children look stylish, obtain all the latest technology from iPod to TiVo, and drive a couple of new vehicles.

Ideally, we also have massages and attend therapy weekly, as well as tithing to our religious denomination of choice, donating to charity, supporting our children’s school with donations, auction purchases and fundraisers, sustaining a healthy college fund for our children (of which we have 2.3), giving lavish gifts, entertaining splendidly and dedicating 10 to 20 percent of our income to retirement savings.

Don’t forget auto, disability and umbrella insurance, a well-funded health savings account and an emergency fund containing six months’ income just in case.

Holy smokes. I feel exhausted (and dead broke) just writing about it.

What’s your perception?

Which of the items above do you do? Which do you feel, vaguely, you “ought to” do?

The fact is, to live that lifestyle, you either need a huge income, an inheritance — or a lot of debt.

There’s a subtle pressure to make everyone think you are wealthy, because in America today, wealth conveys success. And the flip side is that poverty conveys failure. I buy so many items at thrift stores, consignment shops or through Craigslist — or get them free. But I still have a lingering feeling of “don’t tell anyone you do that — that’s how poor people live.”

Of course, I’m fortunate not to be “poor.” But because of our educations and professions, Mr. Cheap and I often feel that we ought to be on par financially with some wealthier parents at our daughter’s school … or with the mythical Joneses.

Where do you stand?

In reality, compared to Census data for our area, our income is about average. This gives me some breathing room when I wonder why we aren’t saving more, why things seem tight sometimes, why exotic vacations never seem to be in the cards. Are we succeeding? Sure, we’re OK. Are we wealthy? No.

You can get a real picture of how people live and save through USA Today’s “Millionaires in the Making” feature.

It also helps to evaluate your position in life. If you have just been out of college for a year or two, your net worth is probably low. If you’re a double-income, no kids household, chances are you can enjoy life a bit while also planning for the future. If you’re in your 50s and your children are long gone, your net worth should be looking sunny. If it’s not, you need to make changes NOW.

In our case, we have a two-year-old mortgage, a three-year-old car with a loan (and an old beater with no debt), a six-year-old child, and one parent in graduate school. We are building our empire now. When Mr. Cheap finishes school, we’ll start down the slope of building our income — and our savings.

Match up your perception with your reality. Chances are, your financial status will be stronger, and you’ll be more content, too.

Deal of the week: Buy used stuff with persistence and the Law of Attraction

Spinning wheelThis weekend I found several new deals that again illustrated my philosophy for finding great deals on used stuff. I suppose it is the Law of Attraction in thrifty action (that has a ring to it, doesn’t it?).

It’s fall, so I’ve inventoried my stash of clothes for Little Cheap. She didn’t need much: A winter coat, snow pants, a soccer uniform and some boots for her riding class. I’ve been hunting the boots on eBay. We bought new shin guards before realizing that our local kids’ consignment store had them, but we did find used cleats.

Then on Saturday, we dropped into a Savers in Boulder. I’ll admit I had the boots in mind because Boulder County is horsier than Denver. But shiver me timbers, there they were – kids’ paddock boots, Little Cheap’s size, $5.99. Sweet! And snow pants, too, for $3. And a nice start on her size 7/8 clothing stash for next year. All because I’d been attracting it. Maybe. Now to attract a lime-green parka in size 6x/7 …

In related news, this summer I developed a new hobby that’s old-fashioned and completely eco-friendly: spinning wool. My mother-in-law bought me a hand spindle at the Renaissance Festival, and I was off.

Call me crazy, but I’ve got two-and-a-half fleeces (that’s the sheared sheep wool to you non-wooliphiliacs) in my laundry room, stinking of lanolin and ready to wash.

The next step was to move up to a spinning wheel. Faster, more exciting, and as easy or easier on my carpal-tunnel prone computer hands. All summer, I’ve been checking eBay, checking Craigslist, looking at retail sites, reading blogs galore.

I decided part of my windfall money would go to this cause. My excuse is that my birthday is next week, and it’s a bit of a landmark. I’ll be 35, the age at which it seems we reach really, truly, no-give-backs adulthood.

On Saturday, I went to a great store in Boulder where I tried several types of spinning wheels – a Lendrum, an Ashford and a Schacht.

Oh, boy. Champagne taste kicks in. The Schacht costs twice as much as the others, and I fell in love. This is how spinners describe their wheels, you see: A love affair. It is like that. I’d been leaning toward a more traditional look, but once I saw this one, it was the equivalent of a real-life love affair. “What do you mean, I said I only liked blonds? Well, I must have been crazy!”

I didn’t buy it on Saturday. The shop owner told me they’re having a birthday sale on Sept. 22 with 15 percent off all in-stock wheels. For a major purchase like this, that’s a lot. So I figured I could wait.

Then something told me on Saturday night to do one more search on Craigslist. I’d already looked a dozen times, with no perfect offers. But there it was: A woman in Boulder was selling her Schacht wheel for 40 percent of a new wheel’s retail price (less than the others I tried!) and throwing in more than $100 of extras for free.

It was meant to be. The timing worked out on Sunday. I had just enough cash in the house (by raiding all my various budget-categorized envelopes and including funds from selling a piece of furniture last week) to make the purchase. I raced up to Boulder and brought home my wheel.

Best of all, for this blog’s purposes? I’ll never need another wheel — this is known as the Cadillac of spinning wheels. It was made in Boulder and has traveled only 40 miles from its birthplace. And I even got to recycle an old wheel rather than buying a new one.

The moral of this story is that with persistence, you can find great deals on even difficult items. When it’s meant to be. Or by attracting them.

Econ-quandary: School lunch

It’s back to school time here, and my daughter has returned to her (private) school for the year.

At her urging, we signed up for her to buy hot lunch every day. The cost? A painful $60 a month.

I had an e-mail conversation with a friend about this topic, and she jokingly threatened to “out” my lack of cheapness on this blog, so I figured I’d better do it first.

Of course, part of the focus of this blog is not to find the absolute cheapest way to do everything, every time, but to save as much money as possible where we can, so that we can spend where we feel it’s important.

So why am I paying $3 a day for my daughter’s lunch?

  • Laziness. Packing food for school is a hassle. At her age (first grade) they have a snack every day, so we have to pack that and her lunch. Meanwhile, Mr. Cheap is gone five days and two nights (working and grad school) and I work full-time — including early mornings and late nights — and time is of the essence.
  • Pickiness. Little Cheap is a picky eater. Make no mistake, she’ll eat a huge variety of food, and often most vegetables if we’re there to cheer her on. She has added a whole lot of new foods to her life in the last couple months, such as pickles, pepperoni, black pepper, and macaroni and cheese (just reintroduced after she way overdid it when she was 2 and ate it at least once a day).

    But she doesn’t eat a lot of kid staples. Like peanut butter. Ergo, no PB&J, although she notices that other children eat those sandwiches. This fact alone gives me a brain freeze that makes it highly painful to think of what to feed her for lunch.

  • Perplexity. Add to this that I am trying to wean us off most packaged foods, eliminating staples like individual pudding, individual yogurt, granola bars … yikes. I just got some pudding to mix up and send in a reusable container. I’ve tried sending my homemade yogurt in a reusable container, but it gets runny by lunchtime. Granola bars … I’ll whip some up when I have time, indeed I will.

However, her school offers a wonderful lunch buffet prepared by Chef Alain of a local restaurant, Crepes & Crepes. As I recall, it’s even organic.

When she eats at school, she comes home telling us she ate a whole roster of fruits and vegetables at lunch, selections from the salad bar — and maybe some noodles, some rice, some cornbread or a little chicken.

And, because the chef is French, sometimes they have bread with Nutella. Side note: When we were in Paris, we were delighted to see that the back label of a chocolate bar showed how to make a healthy afternoon snack — a slice of bread, a piece of chocolate, a glass of milk. Not exactly food pyramid, but I bet the children are happy.

And on that note, I suppose I am paying that much to keep my child happy — and to simplify life for myself. She is getting enough nutrition at lunch so that we don’t have to worry at home, although we will continue feeding her vegetables.

I’ll also confess that this is a luxury I’ve succumbed to because we have a single child. I wouldn’t want to fork over $120 for two children.

Or would I?

Dealbusters: Homemade dog biscuits

dog biscuitsThis 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.

Shortly after the dog food recall this spring, our local newspaper published a recipe for homemade dog biscuits.
We gave the biscuits a try. First we used a cookie cutter shaped like a little pig, about the size of a small bone-shaped commercial dog biscuit. But our dog tends to the overweight side, so we usually broke those in half. Now I make the biscuits using a 1″ round cutter.

If you don’t have a cutter the right size, be creative. You could use a well-floured lid from a gallon of milk or whatever else you find that’s right.

The cost breakdown:
I haven’t bought dog biscuits for quite a while, so I looked at prices on Amazon.com. Milk-Bone biscuits cost $3.99 for about 120 biscuits ($0.03 each); Meaty Bones biscuits cost $5.99 for about 78 biscuits ($0.08 each).

Cost breakdown of homemade dog biscuits:

  • 2.75 cups whole wheat flour – $0.40
  • 2 small jars baby food – $1.38
  • 1/4 tsp garlic powder – $0.25
  • 1 tsp salt – $0.00
  • 1/2 cup powdered milk – $0.32
  • 1 egg – $0.28
  • 6 Tbsp vegetable oil – $0.24
  • 8-10 Tbsp water – $0.00
  • Natural gas oven (1 hour) – $0.23

TOTAL = $3.10 to make about 48 half-size biscuits, or $0.06 per small biscuit

Savings = There are none. Sadly, these biscuits cost 133 percent more than cheap store bought dog biscuits.

The winner: Homemade.

The priceless factors:
Knowing what is in the biscuits. Check out the ingredients of Meaty Bones or Milk-Bone and you’ll see what I mean — although I think I speak for everyone when I say that just reading the phrase “beef fat preserved with tocopherols” makes my stomach growl.

The biggest boon is that my dog LOVES these biscuits. He most often gets a biscuit when he goes into his kennel when we leave the house. With store-bought treats, he goes willingly enough. With homemade treats, when we lock the back door, he gets a gleam in his eye. When we reach a hand toward the fridge, he starts backing toward the bedroom. When we actually have the biscuit in hand, he runs into his kennel and waits for his treat. Easy-peasy.

The drawbacks:

  • Well, uh, it turns out they’re not cheap in the least. But since we dole out just one to two a day, $3.10 is a price I’m willing to pay for about two months’ worth of biscuits.
  • They are not super-crunchy, so they aren’t brushing the dog’s teeth while he chews.
  • They have no preservatives, so I store them in a container in the fridge to stay on the safe side.

The verdict:
Call me a spendthrift. I’ll keep making these for sure.

Grade: A

Photo by Dana Coffield, from The Denver Post

Weekly Wrap-Up: Buying happiness, cheapest produce and making it yourself

Can money buy happiness? Of course not, but here are some ways it can help. http://www.fivecentnickel.com/2007/08/17/money-and-happiness/

Where is produce cheapest? An Oregon blogger took a look: http://www.getrichslowly.org/blog/2007/08/21/grocery-store-vs-farmers-market-which-has-the-cheapest-produce/#comment-95800

Make it yourself – a list of 100 items you can make yourself: I’ve made 33 of these items before. How about you? http://www.simplythrifty.com/100-things-you-can-make-yourself/

And 100 more. I’ve only made 15 of these. But I don’t need a lei.
http://www.simplythrifty.com/100-more-things-you-can-make-yourself/

Give yourself credit: The financial and life trade-offs of trying to conserve

I often suffer from the “shoulds,” which means that when I embark on a project like saving money or living green, I think I must do everything perfectly or else. Then, this weekend, we went to a party at a friend’s house. They offered good company, a spread of delicious foods, and balloons and bags of thoughtful party favors for the children. The spirit was one of loving generosity. We left feeling restored, touched and loved.

I was depressed the whole next day.

Why? If I do eco perfectly, I can’t go to or host a party like that. (Ban the balloons. How dreary.) If I am cheap, I can’t do the hosting either. I love being generous. But the fact is, I don’t think most of my friends and relatives consider a jar of jam a sufficient gift. Not that they are ungrateful — more like they get a quizzical expression, like “Why are you giving me a jar of jam when I can buy jam at the grocery store any old time?”

My response is to often give a card, give nothing, or give an experience. Last year for Christmas I knit my mother a pair of socks that she seemed to toss aside. This year I’m planning to take her to see a musical instead.

More than that, people enjoy something special. A gift means you’ve been thought of, and the recipient’s most-wanted item might not be used, biodegradable or waste-free. For the ultra-green, even giving a card is deemed too much. That wasted paper! The carbon exuded by the postal truck that delivers it!

What about that party? According to the “shoulds” of green life, we should have biked, perhaps used public transport or not gone at all.

  • Bike: I keep hoping to find a used tagalong for the bike, but I’m not looking too enthusiastically. (I hate biking on city streets. I hate wearing a helmet, and I hate not wearing a helmet, because it sets a bad example for Little Cheap.) My friend’s house is six miles from ours, so if we biked at 15 miles per hour, the bike ride would have taken us about 25 minutes each way. Travel time = 50 minutes. Cost = $0
  • Bus: We would have had to walk about 4 blocks, take one bus, transfer to another, get off and walk about 6 blocks. Attend party, turn around, repeat. The bus time would have been 36 minutes each way (assuming buses arrived on time for our transfers to work – not always a given, especially on a Sunday) with an additional walking time of about 15 minutes each way. Total = 1 hour, 42 minutes travel time. Cost = $9 roundtrip for the family. According to the rules for the 90% reduce project, public transport counts as 100 miles per gallon (per person, I think?). So, carbon emissions = 6.8 lbs. for the family.
  • Car: In real life, we drove. Travel time = 30 minutes round trip. Gas used = 0.6 gallon. Cost = $1.73 roundtrip for the family. Carbon emissions = 11.4 lbs.

At the party, I spent a long time discussing green living with another family. They are major solar boosters — and I agree, but solar isn’t in our budget right now. (They did mention that solar hot water heaters are more affordable than a complete solar system.) They also suggested a local source of raw milk products. I don’t particularly care whether my milk is raw, but I would love to find a local source for fresh milk. Unfortunately, with the raw milk shares offered, we’d have to buy a gallon a week at a higher rate than I currently pay for organic Colorado milk ($7 per gallon vs. $5.29 per gallon), and so far, we don’t consume that much. (We might be able to if we up our yogurt consumption, if Little Cheap does switch to cow’s milk, or if I start making my own cheese.) And the fresh butter that sounded oh so good costs $10 a pound. I just can’t go there right now. Can’t I get a goat for my own backyard?

One thing this family and I were able to agree on immediately was that even when it feels like you are doing a lot to change your life, to live more consciously, to adapt like crazy and downscale, it’s never enough. That alone opens our eyes to how intense the American way of life is and how much we normally use.

Finally, on Monday, after some internal debate, I wound up buying a big stack of cards for upcoming birthdays, for Grandparents Day, to welcome a baby. I know my family values things like cards, and I want to honor them with something they like. Hopefully they’ll recycle them afterward.

And the world won’t end. Not this year, anyway.

When I’m Busy, I’m Busy, and being eco-conscious just adds more

Mutant cucumber

Tuesday was one of those days. A million things on my plate and more coming every minute. Here’s how my day went:

  1. * Got up, got dressed, made breakfast for Little Cheap and me. Put a load of laundry in the washer, watered the garden, made a grocery list including what I’d need for canning projects, gave the dog his three medications to try to get his allergies under control, counted my canning supplies.
  2. * Ate and walked with Little Cheap to the grocery store. Stocked up on fish oil supplements, bought a gallon of milk (local Organic Valley 2%, because Little Cheap says she might drink cow’s milk instead of soy milk — a move that would eliminate a lot of packaging from our lives, and I know that Organic Valley milk in Colorado comes from a co-operative of farmers in northeastern Colorado). Bought recycled tissues for Little Cheap to take to school (we looked at Target yesterday, but Target had no recycled tissues). Walked home sagging under the 50-pound load (we bought honeydew melon, 15 ears of corn, canning salt and some other heavy items).
  3. * Went home, put away groceries, hung laundry out on line, turned off sprinkler accidentally left on (oops).
  4. Rushed into my office while Little Cheap watched the DVD we rented at the store. One conference call was canceled, another was very short. Finished some other projects. Little Cheap got bored, went outside, broke the rule about climbing trees with no grownups present, and was stuck in the tree crying when I found her.
  5. * Calmed down Little Cheap, washed her face, made us grilled cheese sandwiches and watermelon for lunch, cut up 4 lbs. of cucumbers for bread-and-butter pickles (yes, the mutant cucumber from above is in there, somewhere) and mixed them with peppers, onions and salt to macerate for three hours. Boiled (homegrown) beets for dinner; boiled beet greens and leaves pruned from the Brussels sprouts and put them in the freezer.
  6. Checked voice mail.
  7. Refilled the dog’s dish about 4 times (he is extra thirsty from the steroids he’s on this week).
  8. * Shucked 19 ears of corn with Little Cheap. Ate (homemade) popsicles.
  9. * Took down and folded laundry.
  10. Ran the dishwasher.
  11. Went to the post office to send a gift to a friend, the library to stock up on books and movies for Little Cheap, and the consignment shop to drop off a bag of kids’ clothing and buy soccer cleats for Little Cheap. A meeting is canceled tomorrow, so I’ll save my Department of Motor Vehicles errand for tomorrow.
  12. Checked e-mail and voice mail.
  13. * Started canning — spent 2.5 hours in the 95-degree heat (and our evaporative cooler isn’t working due to a burst hose) canning one quart of dill pickles, 7 pints of corn relish and 7 pints of bread-and-butter pickles. Dragged a fan upstairs to help circulate some of the steamy air.
  14. * While the jars processed, I got together a spare change of clothes for Little Cheap to leave at school (today is her first day), put together her snack, remembered hot lunch doesn’t start until Sept. 1, put together her lunch and started pulling out food for dinner. Used the leftover water in the sink from “shocking” the boiled corn to water potted plants in front and back yards.
  15. Got Little Cheap to turn off her DVD and come take a shower. Helped her lay out her clothes for tomorrow’s school and her first soccer practice tomorrow afternoon.
  16. Mr. Cheap arrived home just in time to help pull dinner together. Ate beet salad (with organic blue cheese from Organic Valley), Colorado corn on the cob and clearance-priced bread with the family.
  17. Helped get Little Cheap ready for bed. Emptied and reloaded the dishwasher. Paid bills. Checked e-mail and completed two quick work projects. Turned off the computer and went to sleep.

What did I save? What did I spend?

Time:

The items with an * above indicate times when I spent more time doing the green thing than I would have spent otherwise. All told, I estimate that yesterday — admittedly, an extra-busy day, but not beyond the pale for me — “cost” me at least 4 hours in work. No wonder I don’t have time to watch television.

Money:

  • By shopping carefully, I saved $30 at the store and spent $60. I spent some extra on organic products.
  • I saved money and resources by washing my laundry in cold and hanging it out.
  • I saved resources by canning my own food in re-used jars with re-used bands. We’ll also benefit later from local food saved at its peak.
  • I saved resources by walking to the store and combining later errands in one trip. (I wanted to save more by buying postage for my gift online, but the site wasn’t working.)
  • I re-used some water and saved water with Little Cheap’s shower instead of bath, but I wasted some in the garden by forgetting to turn off the hose!
  • I saved energy by turning the dishwasher off on its dry cycle.
  • I saved paper by taking an extra step to buy recycled tissues. (I asked Little Cheap if she would take handkerchiefs in her backpack instead, but she said no thank you.)
  • We saved resources by getting our entertainment from the library.
  • I save resources every day by working from home.

I don’t know how much the canned goods cost to make. It’s not free and it may or may not be cheaper than purchased goods – but they are organic and local (mostly).

Energy:

  • I didn’t need to go to the gym, because I was on my feet a good part of the day.
  • Some of my neck pain went away from the continuous movement.
  • Part of the time, I was spending quality time with Little Cheap on her last day of summer vacation. I’m very fortunate to be able to do that.

What does living consciously save you? What does it cost? Is it worth it?