Should I ditch the ‘cheap’?

I read several personal finance blogs, and on several of them, the word “cheap” has come up, usually in the comments. Commenter after commenter will carefully define the meaning of “cheap” vs. the meaning of “frugal,” in every case disparaging the former and praising the latter.

The latest case I came across was this post, where a commenter explained it as:

Cheap and frugal are two different things. Cheap intrudes other people on your decisions. Cheap is when you split a Popsicle to give to your children’s friends only to give your children a whole piece. Frugal is splitting a Popsicle for your children and their friends. Cheap is having the inexpensive beer at your party for your friends and keeping the good stuff in the fridge for yourself.

Now, from my point of view, those two behaviors are stingy or even downright mean. They go beyond cheap or even miserly.

I find the debate over “cheap” and “frugal” kind of amusing. I think people are defensive, basing a distinction between the terms on the idea that frugal is good; cheap, bad.  But after all, if you tell someone you got a pair of designer shoes for $10, or you signed a lease on an apartment at half the market rate, they’re likely to say, “Wow, that is sooo cheap!” rather than “Wow, you are frugal!”

To me, “frugal” has a ring of old-fashioned, perhaps country, values. It is about judicious planning for the future, and not spending money, or spending it only wisely. “Cheap” sounds, granted, a bit more fly by night. Cheap is more like “thrifty” than “parsimonious.” In my case, it’s about figuring out how to get the greatest value for the lowest price; acknowledging that you will spend money and then choosing how you’ll spend it.

To me, “cheap” and “frugal” are essentially the same; both are different from miserly or skinflint or mean. By claiming “cheap” on this blog, I’m being a little tongue in cheek, as well as bowing to the spirit of esteemed predecessors like The Tightwad Gazette.

But comments like the one referenced above make me worried about the title of my blog. Obviously, some of you “get it,” but is everyone else thinking I’m all about giving my child the most Popsicles? What do you think?


E for Excellent


This week, Loving Green rated my blog E for Excellent! Thanks, LG.

She also posted this:

“Now according to the information I was given – the person who started it all said: ‘I love being a part of the blogging community and part of all the friendships that I’ve formed, so I wanted to give a blog award for all of you out there that have Excellent Blogs.’ Of course, there is a catch…By accepting this Excellent blog award, I have to award it to at least ten more people whose blogs I find Excellent.So, if you’re listed blow, please, consider yourself ‘Excellent’ and thus worthy of this honor which I bestow upon you. And, if you have not yet visited these sites, I invite you to do so and experience some Excellent Blogging!”

I love to read blogs and I could spend the whole day doing so … except then I would miss out on other important things in life, like making a living or having living, breathing 3-D relationships. Therefore, 10 blogs … well, I covered some of them last week, and beyond that I drop in on many blogs, but I can’t commit to reading bazillions of them.

Nevertheless, here are a few blogs I consider excellent, and which some of you might enjoy in their randomness. Some are, and some aren’t, about ecology or economy:

  1. Get Rich Slowly –
  2. Litpark –
  3. Overheard in New York –
  4. Anti-Racist Parent –
  5. Mud on the Tracks –

Read and enjoy – and thanks again, Loving Green!

Eco-quandary: When is enough, enough?

I’ve been working hard on our eco baby steps around here. I got several gasps of alarm at the no-TP move, but that’s really a drop in the bucket (or toilet) in terms of waste. I realized this especially on Sunday afternoon, when I was madly re-organizing the basement.

I wound up throwing out two 13-gallon bags full of things like Styrofoam — and to boot had two bags of trash this week instead of one, totaling 7.4 lbs.

I’ve been weighing our garbage a la the 90% Reduce program, and the last couple weeks we had about 4.5 lbs. of garbage for the week. But we also hand over a three-quarters full recycle bin every other week. Last week we had a big bundle of branches left over from trimming our tree in the spring (although many of the branches have been re-purposed into garden fences, trellises, tools and playthings for Little Cheap).

It’s all discouraging. Yes, I could possibly recycle Styrofoam by driving 35 miles away to a recycling center that will accept it. But I have only so much time in my life. I just can’t do it right now. I’ve been trying to save water, but in doing one project I turned on the hot water flow to my laundry sink — and now it’s dripping constantly, so I’m collecting that water for flushing while I look for the time to call the plumber to come fix the leak because I don’t have the time to figure out how to do it myself.

Therefore, in an effort to cheer myself (and those of you who might find yourselves in the paragraphs above or the list below), here are the activities my family does to save the environment — and many of them save money, too. Perhaps one will give you a new idea — or if you want to hear more about any in particular, just ask.

Saves Money?
Hang laundry to dry Yes – $6/month
Do not accept plastic bags Yes – bag credits – $1/month
Mr. Cheap takes the bus to school Yes – bus pass free with tuition; saves parking
and gas
Compost waste Yes – no buying purchased garden fertilizer
Recycle waste No
Turn off lights we’re not using Yes – $2/month if we save an hour a day with a
60-watt bulb
Turn off water while rinsing/brushing Yes – minute
Use high-efficiency washing machine Yes
Dishwasher – full loads, water saver, turn off
dry cycle
Yes – over regular dishwasher load
Use cloth handkerchiefs Yes – $1/month on tissues
Use cloth napkins Yes – $1/month on napkins/towels
Bring own water bottle Yes – $5/month on purchased drinks
Make own foods (less packaging) Yes – $5.81 in June
Buy bulk products & refill Sometimes
Wash and re-use plastic bags Yes
Grow our own vegetables Yes
Drive gently to get better mileage Yes – $10.93 in June
Use re-usable lunch bags Maybe
Use re-usable juice box container Yes
Bring re-usable coffee cup No
Use low-flow toilets and flush less Yes – $0.22 in June
Choose EnergyStar appliances Yes
Add low-flow showerhead and faucet aerators Yes – minute
Get books/movies at library instead of buying/renting Yes, lots
Use evaporative cooler, not A/C Yes
Use programmable thermostat to turn heat down
at night/when gone
Use bio-friendly soap No
Clean with baking soda & vinegar Probably
Bought recycled rubber rug pad instead of new No
Eliminated subscriptions (1 newspaper, 10 catalogs,
3 companies)
Yes – $3/month on the paper
Buy many items used Yes – $122 in June
Recycle, Freecycle, consign, donate instead of
trashing items
Yes – tax deduction for donations
Choose “cleaner” energy-using appliances Yes
Switch to compact fluorescent bulbs Yes – $1/month in our case
Use natural light instead of electric Yes – minute
Invest in “social” funds No
Use cloth toilet “paper” No
Use cloth pads Yes – $1.25/month
Buy organic and/or local foods No
Turn refrigerator temp from factory-set 38 degrees to 43 degrees Yes – minute
Unplug my officer copy machine Yes – minute
Attach TV/DVD to a power strip and turn them off Yes – minute
And the grand total saved per month: $160 in June

It’s a drop in the bucket, but at least it’s something. Onward and upward! Or maybe, in terms of consumption, that should be onward and downward.

What’s in the garden?

Garden 1Our garden is going strong this year. We dug some new beds, went to Longmont for four big bins full of composted horse manure, added our own compost pile from last year in an effort to thin out our heavy clay soil, dug up reams of landscape cloth that was used to keep the weeds out of the decorative bark-covered bed we’re destroying, and planted like crazy. We enjoyed the mild spring and suffered through a cold week in early June that took out some of our babies — as well as a hailstorm that left us relatively unscathed, thank goodness.

Here, the rundown of what we’re growing:

Apricot tree (its 2nd year – frost hit the flowers, so no fruit)
Beets – Detroit Red
Brussels sprouts
Butternut squash
Garden 2 Cherry tree (same situation as the apricot)
Green beans (well, at least I hope they’re there — I planted ’em but they haven’t yet shown their heads)
Herbs & flowers
Meyer lemon
Red onions
Sugar snap peas
Thai hot pepper
Tomato – Better Boy
Tomato – Juliet
Tomato – San Marzano
Tomato – yellow pear
Watermelon – icebox
White onions

It’s been in the 90s here (and set a record high at 96 degrees on Sunday and Monday), but our eggplant and watermelon are still on “Wall O’ Water” insulators and they love it. In fact, the insulated plants are now a good four times bigger than the un-insulated versions of the exact same plants.

topsy turvy

I’ll leave you with my crazy tomato plant in its “topsy turvy” planter. Note that it is by far our biggest tomato plant, so maybe there’s something to growing upside down.

Spreadsheet frenzy, or moderation in obsession

Starting this blog has been an incredible motivator for me.

I have a tendency to obsess, to calculate, to love spreadsheets and data, although I’ve been told I’m more a creative type. A couple years ago, when I became intent on lowering our grocery bills, I dove in full-bore, subscribed to The Grocery Game for coupon notifications, and read the entire back catalog of the now-defunct Tightwad Gazette (the link is to Amazon, but I checked it out from the library).

Now that I’m blogging on frugality and greenness, my mind — and my copy of Excel — are awhirl.

All the information hasn’t yet made it to this site. But I’m keeping track of:

  • The cost of homemade products vs. the store-bought versions, their merits and bad points.
  • How much I spend and save on groceries (look for a rundown after the end of the month).
  • My total savings per month in dollars, water, and plastic bags avoided (I’ll unveil this one, too, at the beginning of July) — and how I do it.
  • Changes in my net worth (updated around the 10th of the month).
  • What we use. This one has my head spinning. We sometimes talk about moving to a more self-sufficient life. That raised the question for me: What exactly do we use? How much utilities do we consume?

The challenge for me — with money and ecology — is not to be too hard on myself. This afternoon, rain was looming. I had a load of sheets in the washer. Should I hang the sheets out, risking one of those spattering rainshowers that just sprays dirt all over the laundry? Or should I break down and throw them in the dryer? I chose the latter, but not without some guilt. The guilt was compounded by the fact that I’d washed the laundry in hot water, with a little dab of bleach (I don’t have washing soda on hand yet, or I’d have tried that) — this load of sheets and cloth pads needed to be sanitized.

I decided to go with the guilt this time, and call it my “normal American load of laundry.” That’s OK. Thanks to my spreadsheet, I can tell that my other 12 loads of laundry this month have been washed in cold water, in my high-efficiency washing machine, and hung to dry.

Moderation in all things is the key. No need to go crazy with consumption. No need to kill ourselves over an imperfectly ecological decision.

Sometimes I see other bloggers remark that even with small groups of people giving up their refrigerators or their cars, many more Americans would need to join them to reverse the trend toward global warming or bring our nation to a level of consumption on par with that of other nations. This implies that everyone should dramatically slash their consumption — or why bother?

The same could apply to money. If we’re trying to be ultra-frugal, it’s easy to get angry over one Starbucks stop. If we’re deep in debt, it’s easy to fly off the handle and argue, “I’m so far gone, what does it matter what I do?”

On the other hand, why not do a little? If everyone did one little thing, it might not make up for all the harm that’s ever been done — but surely it would help. Again, this applies to money as to saving the earth.

Mostly cold. Once in a while hot. And never too obsessive.

What’s your prescription for success? What do you want to see here? Let me know, and if I can, I’ll add it to my spreadsheets. Within moderation, of course.

What is Cheap Like Me?

There are a lot of personal finance blogs out there. I know. I read a bunch of them. 

This blog is about my journey to cheap. It’s about saving money, being frugal, without giving up the things that bring joy to my life: Friends. Good food. Travel. A glass of wine or a cocktail.

It’s about searching for a way of life that combines frugality in several regards:

  • Saving money on the day-to-day expenses that add up.
  • Getting the best deal on the things I do buy.
  • Trying to make the choice that most benefits the environment.
  • Changing my way of life, little by little, to save money, enhance my lifestyle and teach my daughter great financial habits. 

But it’s also about being able to be a part of our culture.

I admire people who buy every garment at a thrift store or wear the same off-brand sneakers for a decade — but that isn’t me. 

Those who drive a beat-up car they repair themselves or ride their bike everywhere are doing the planet a service and saving money — but that doesn’t work with my lifestyle.

On the other hand, I’d usually rather slam my hand in my car door than pay full retail for my clothes, and I take plenty of actions that give other people hives to think about, from hardly ever using my clothes dryer to my current experiment with making yogurt. 

Last fall, I bought a brand-new, high-efficiency washer and dryer for a total net cost of less than $300. And every month, I feed my family of three nearly all of our meals on mostly organic and brand-name foods for under $400.

Some of the things I choose to do won’t be desirable for anyone else. Others will spark an idea that brings new life to your budget. That’s the idea of being Cheap Like Me.