Category Archives: Frugality

Saying goodbye to our awesome gas rewards program *sniff*

With gas prices pushing $4, I knew it was only a matter of time. And now it has finally happened. Our amazing gas rewards program will soon be no more.

For the past 4 years, we’ve put all fuel purchases on a branded credit card. We always had to fill up at the same station, but in return, we received 5% cash back rebates for fuel purchases. I loved the cash back, and paying for gas in one bill every month simplified our budget, so it was win-win.

The letter we received outlined a new “rewards” program. It’s incredibly confusing, but from what I can gather, it seems like for every $100 we spend, we’re given the opportunity to fill up a single tank at a 15-cent-per-gallon discount. The discount accumulates with each $100 we spend. If we accumulate a $1-per-gallon discount (after spending $700 on gas), we can request a $15 statement credit. It shakes out to roughly 2% cash back if we continue to buy gas from this brand and choose the statement credit option.

The thing is, it’s not convenient for us to use this particular gas station anymore. When we first bought our house, the closest gas station happened to be this brand — it was literally right around the corner. Right around Christmas, though, the location suddenly closed. To keep getting our 5% rebate, I was driving clear across town every time I filled up. Without those rebates, it’s not worth the hassle.

We may eventually close the credit card. Since it’s not the first credit card for either one of us, it won’t shorten our credit history. As long as we increase our limits on other credit card accounts to account for the lost lending power, it should have minimal impact on our credit score. For now, though, I think we’ll just stop using it.

I still like the system of paying for gas in one lump sum every month, since that’s what we’re used to. I don’t want to open another credit card, though. So I started exploring my options.

There is another gas station around the corner from our house that offers a reward program. It’s a punch card, and we’ll receive a discount of 5 cents off per gallon for every 100 gallons we pump. I’ll take it!

Next I had to figure out which credit card to use. I looked at the rewards for the credit cards we currently have, and I wasn’t impressed. Each of them offered some kind of rewards program, but it’s one of those deals where you get a point per dollar, and then redeem 5,000 points for a $5 gift card or something. In other words, not a great deal.

There are other cards out there with better rewards, but that would require opening another credit card. So I did some more hunting, and found that American Express has a pretty decent cash rewards card with no annual fee that offers 2% cash back on gas. Since we already had an American Express card, I wondered if I could just switch my account to the cash rewards card without opening a new card. A quick phone call was all it took to make the switch. It’s obviously not as great as our flat 5%, but it’s the best deal I could find without opening a new account.

It’s about the same amount of money that we’d receive if we continued using our current card and bought gas from that brand. The benefit of switching is that we’ll get the reward for buying gas at any gas station, so we’ll have more freedom.

Our plan now is to put all gas purchases on the cash back card, and pay it off every month to avoid interest just like we’ve been doing all along, of course. (Remember: the rewards program isn’t worth it if you’re paying high interest rates or an annual fee.) We’ll also use the reward program at the gas station near our house for fill-ups at home. The bonus to this new system is that we’re no longer required to use the same gas station to get our rebate. This will make things much easier when we’re traveling since we won’t have to hunt for a certain gas station brand, and it will also allow us to price compare and fill up at cheaper stations.

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Strategies for kicking the paper towel habit

I’ve written about kicking my paper towel addiction before, but it’s one of those things that I never got around to doing. I convinced myself that I still needed paper towels for cleaning up things like raw chicken in the kitchen or wiping down toilet seats when cleaning, and so I continued buying them in bulk. Bad for the environment and bad for my wallet.

Inspired by Tsh Oxenreider’s book, “One Bite at a Time: 52 Projects for Making Life Simpler,*” I decided this was the year I was going to kick the habit for good. Here’s how I did it:

Stock up on cloth alternatives.

In Tsh’s book, Maya Bisineer, contributor for Simple Mom Green, recommends keeping enough dish towels, washcloths, and cloth napkins on hand to avoid the need for paper towels, and making them easy to access in the kitchen. For about the price of a 2-month supply of paper towels, I bought 8 large dish towels, 12 smaller washcloths, and 12 cloth napkins. I cleared a drawer, and stocked it up with our new cloth towels and napkins.

Don’t be afraid to use cloth.

The transition will feel weird at first. It might feel too formal to wipe your mouth with a cloth napkin on taco night. Or it might feel gross to wipe up surfaces that have come into contact with raw meat with a washcloth. Remind yourself that these napkins and towels are meant for daily use, and keep in mind that cloth can be sanitized in hot water and a little bleach, if necessary. When you use cloth to clean particularly nasty messes, just be sure to rinse in very hot water, ring out the rag completely, and hang it up in the laundry room until you can throw it in the washer. Never throw wet rags directly into your laundry basket or they’ll start to stink and mildew. If you can’t bring yourself to use the cloth, keep sponges on hand for wiping up messes, and disinfect them in the microwave or dishwasher after using.

Use sponges for cleaning.

I used to use paper towels for cleaning everything in the bathroom. For the past few months, I’ve gotten used to using a sponge to clean the sink and tub, but I was still using paper towels on the toilet seats. To keep things sanitary, I now have two sponges that I use for cleaning the bathrooms — one is brown, the other is blue. I use the brown sponge for wiping down sinks and tubs. The blue sponge is used on toilets only. When I’m finished cleaning, I let the sponges sit out to dry for a few hours, and then I store them under the sinks. Because I’m only using them to clean the bathrooms once a week or so, they last forever.

Have you kicked the paper towel habit yet? How did you do it?

(*Affiliate links are denoted with an asterisk.)

Building a professional wardrobe on a budget

My exciting new teaching job starts in January (yay!). There’s a business-casual dress code, and unfortunately, all of the clothing I wore in my previous life as a professional was also worn in my previous life as a thinner woman who never had a baby (not yay). That means I’m in the market for an entire wardrobe of business-casual clothing.

I’ve never been that into clothing. I wear it to keep decent and warm, and I prefer to buy clothing that looks and feels good, but I don’t have a huge wardrobe. I like to keep a limited wardrobe with basic pieces that can be mixed, matched, and worn for years. I still wear clothes that I bought in college over 5 years ago.

Because I can think of a lot of things I’d rather spend money on than clothes, I’m trying to get creative about building this wardrobe. If you’re looking to build or refresh your wardrobe, here are some tips.

Lose the weight.

This was my first plan a year ago after Judah was born. I have several nice pairs of pants that are about a size too small. I even have a few pieces that are TWO sizes too small from my really skinny newlywed phase (it was short but fabulous). If I could shed the final 20 pounds I gained during pregnancy, I would double my professional attire wardrobe. Sadly, the chances of me losing that much weight in the next three weeks in the middle of the holiday season are slim (no pun intended). So it’s on to plan B.

Assess what you already have.

Many of the sweaters, blouses, and tops I have from before pregnancy still fit reasonably well. I also have a lot of pieces that I wear in casual settings, but they can easily be dressed up with nice slacks or a cardigan. Thanks to those pieces, I’m really only in the market for pants and maybe a few new pieces for layering.

Check the thrift stores.

Because of the nature of dressy clothing (many people own slacks or blouses that they only wear a couple times a year), it’s possible to find really nice dress clothes in excellent condition for unbelievably low prices at thrift stores. I’ve never had much luck with clothing at thrift stores, but I’ll definitely give it a shot.

Never pay retail.

When you see a really flattering top or pair of pants at full price, it can be tempting to buy it if really like it. Don’t do it! I worked in retail, and I can tell you, the turnover for stock at clothing stores is incredibly fast. What’s new and full price today will be marked down to clearance in a matter of weeks. Wait it out and keep a close eye on certain styles. Come the end of the season, that full-price item will be marked down at a fraction of the price. Even if your size is sold out in store, you can usually shop online for more sizes and colors.

Buy basic pieces that can be mixed and matched.

It’s not the most exciting way to build a wardrobe, but it keeps costs down and simplifies things tremendously. Most of my clothing is in dark colors that coordinate (black, grey, dark blue, brown). Every top I own can be worn with either black or khaki pants, which makes it easy to shop for new pieces that coordinate well with pieces I already have. Choose a color palette that suits you, and then look for clothing that will easily coordinate in several different configurations.

What tips do you have for building a professional wardrobe without spending a fortune?

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Homegrown dried herbs

My first garden was sort of hit or miss. The herbs grew beautifully, and I harvested quite a few cucumbers before the plant succumbed to wilt. The red peppers were too shaded by the gigantic tomato plant to ever do much of anything. And that tomato plant? Pfft. It grew probably about 20 GIANT tomatoes that never turned red. I think it was a combination of planting too late and putting too much into one tiny bed.

I was feeling guilty about my beautiful herbs, though, because I didn’t think I’d used enough. As the first frost neared, I wanted to try to salvage some of them for drying so I could get a little more use out of them. I was really intimidated by the idea of drying herbs myself. My favorite Food Network chef, Alton Brown, did an entire show on the practice of drying herbs, but his method was so complicated and required buying lots of equipment. I didn’t have time for that. So I decided to do it the old-fashioned way and hope for the best.

I clipped as many stems as I could from each plant. Then I bundled them up and tied them with something I had laying around — embroidery floss. It took some thinking to find a way to hang them, but I eventually tied the bundles to a couple of ordinary hangers. I hung them in a dry, dark place in my house, and I left them alone.

About two weeks later, I cut them off the strings, removed the stems, crushed them into tiny flakes, and put them into clean, dry baby food jars that I reserved specifically for this purpose. I used office labels to mark each jar. Unfortunately, my gorgeous basil plant didn’t survive long enough for me to clip any for drying, but I have rosemary, oregano, peppermint, sage, and a little bit of parsley.

It was so simple! My only regret is that I didn’t clip more stems. I thought I’d end up with too many, but once they’re dried, removed from the stems, and crushed, they take up much less space than when they’re fresh. There’s not really enough parsley to do anything but garnish a few dishes, but I have a ton of rosemary and oregano and a little sage for our holiday cooking this year.

I will most definitely be doing this again next year with my late herb harvest. These dried herbs are much cheaper and fresher than the freeze-dried jars at the grocery store, and looking at these tiny jars of fresh dried herbs makes me feel so proud of my tiny little garden.

Borrow Kindle e-books from the public library for free

First things first, thank you so much for all the kind wishes for my birthday! I meant to post a thank you yesterday, but our power was out most of the day. I wasn’t about to type a blog post letter by letter on my phone’s screen. Anyway, those of you who left well wishes and kind words really helped make a wonderful day even better. Life as a stay-at-home mom can get a little lonely during the day, and I can’t tell you how much it means to me to have a support network in you, so I won’t even try. Just know I appreciate it so much.

Now before I write this post, I have to get something out of the way. I received no compensation whatsoever for this post. I’m just a Kindle enthusiast, and I want to share with you how much I’ve enjoyed it.

When we purchased our Kindle earlier this year, it was for my husband. He had a fancy new job, and we had some room in our budget for something like that for the first time in a while, so we splurged a little. He wasn’t planning to spend money on e-books. He’s an English professor, and he teaches and reads a lot of classics, which are often available for free once the copyright expires on them. He uses the Kindle mostly to read free books, and he occasionally buys a book if it goes on super sale.

I wasn’t really sold on the e-book thing at first. I really enjoy the feel of a book in my hands and the smell of the paper and blah blah blah I’m a nerd. Besides, I couldn’t stand the thought of paying $5-$10 for an e-book if I could easily borrow it from the library for free.

But about a month ago, there was a series of books that I really wanted to read, and the waiting list at the library was a mile long. All three e-books were available on Amazon for under $5, and I had some SwagBucks gift cards, so I figured I’d give the Kindle a try. I loved it. It was easier to read in bed without contorting myself into strange configurations or flipping back and forth from side to side so I could see the book without holding it up too high (bed readers, you know what I’m talking about).

I was officially converted,  but I still couldn’t bear to pay the high prices for Kindle books when my public library will let me borrow them for free. Less than a week after I finished that series of books, though, I found out that Kindle books are now available through public libraries throughout the country. We have an awesome library system in our area that gives us access to libraries in three different counties through a reciprocal borrowing agreement. They all have different collections of e-books, and while the selection is nowhere near as good as the paper book collection, I’ve already found quite a few books I’m interested in reading, and they’re adding new titles all the time.

With the drop in prices for the new Kindles (which my husband predicted, and now he’s mad that we bought ours months ago for $40 more. Pfft.), now really is a great time to invest in the device if your library offers e-book borrowing. The introductory-level model is only $79*.

So why Kindle? You can read Kindle books on your computer or smartphone without paying for the device. There are also several other e-readers on the market that have been participating in this library-loan program for a while now (the Nook and the Sony e-reader are two popular alternatives). For me, the e-ink screen really makes all the difference. I struggle with insomnia, and research shows that looking at a backlit screen before bed can interfere with sleeping patterns. I definitely notice a difference in the quality of my sleep when I put away my computer and phone and read a book at bedtime instead. The Kindle mimics a real book and has no backlighting on the screen, which means it won’t interfere with sleep.

Aside from the public library, there are a few places I go to look for cheap or free e-books.

Project Gutenberg offers free downloads of classic books for a variety of e-reader formats.

Open Library offers free classic books, too.

The Amazon store has a separate section for free books. They also offer a daily deal on one title every day at a significant discount.

Pixel of Ink publishes a daily newsletter with free or discount e-books.

You can loan Kindle books to friends simply by sending a book to their email address, and it’s automatically returned to you after 14 days — which is nice if you have deadbeat friends who don’t return borrowed books in a timely manner. (Let me know if you wanna swap! I don’t have many e-books to share, but I have a few I’ve bought with SwagBucks gift cards.)

You can also sign up for ebookfling to share books with strangers, but I’ll be honest and tell you I’m not really sure how that works. I don’t think it’s free, but it’s certainly cheaper than buying new books.

As I’ve mentioned, it’s relatively easy to rack up $5 Amazon gift cards with SwagBucks, and that can be a great way to keep yourself stocked with e-books without affecting your budget.

And, of course, don’t forget to check your public library to see if you can borrow Kindle or other e-books from them.

Do you have an e-reader? Where do you find cheap or free e-books?

Asterisks (*) denote referral links. While no one asked me to write this post or compensated me in any way, I earn a small amount of money for Amazon purchases made through my referral link, and I earn extra SwagBucks when people sign up using my referral link. The more you know!

Kicking the habit of using unnecessary household products

Habit has always been one of my biggest money drains. There are a lot of expensive things that I buy just because I always have, but when I really think about it, I could probably survive without them. I’ve already broken my habit for a few of them, but I’m still working on others. Here are a few of the things I came up with:

Paper towels

I’ve been trying to break my paper towel habit for years. They’re so expensive, and they’re bad for the environment, and yet I can’t seem to kick them. Over the past few months, I’ve tried really hard to decrease my dependence on them. I now use a dish towel to dry my hands, and I use a sponge for most household cleaning. For some messes (like sanitizing the counter after working with raw meat), I still prefer a paper towel that can be thrown away. But I’m saving money by reducing our consumption of this expensive convenience item.

Fabric softener

For years, I spent money on fabric softener sheets without really thinking about it. When we started using cloth diapers, we read that fabric softener residue can coat the washer or dryer and damage diapers, so we kicked the habit cold turkey. I was shocked to discover that I didn’t miss fabric softeners. At all. My towels are just as fluffy without them. My laundry may not have an artificial fragrance now, but I don’t miss that enough to warrant spending the money on them.

Individual cleaning products

There was a time when the cabinet beneath my sink was stocked with 20 different cleaning solutions. Kitchen cleaner, toilet bowl cleaner, shower cleaner, mopping solution for the floors, and so on. Then I realized it’s all basically the same thing. I consolidated my cleaning supplies to a bottle of Lysol and a bottle of bleach. I’d like to kick the chemical habit all together and switch to vinegar, baking soda, and good old fashioned soapy water instead, but I’m working through the rest of these two bottles. I may still keep a bottle of bleach in the garage for really messy jobs, though.

Convenience foods

I used to spend a lot of money on snacks and frozen meals and other convenience foods. These items were one of the first things I dropped from our grocery list when we started living frugally, and I never looked back. They’re expensive, unhealthy, and I didn’t miss them one bit. We have fun crafting similar foods from scratch, and our grocery budget is much lower without them.

What household items have you learned to live without to save money?

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Giving prefolds another chance

You may recall last month when I wrote about the problems I was having with prefolds, and the fact that I was considering switching to expensive pocket diapers. Several of you gave me some helpful hints in the comments, so I decided to give it a few more weeks.

First I stripped my diapers to get rid of any stink. I realized part of my problem is that I’m still using detergent made for extremely hard water from back when we lived in a rural area with hard water. So I think I was using too much detergent. I cut the amount in half to avoid future issues.

Since too much detergent was the problem, I used a gentle stripping method with no additives or bleach. I basically just ran my diapers through several cycles of extremely hot washes until they stopped sudsing. Easy!

Then I started experimenting with the fold. Since Judah was born, I’ve wrapped the diapers around him and secured them with a Snappi. This was causing issues with disposing of solid waste, because the diapers were all folded up and creased. Yuck. I tried the newspaper fold, which is just a flat fold that fans out in the back with no Snappi. That helps!

I’m still having issues with keeping my mobile baby still while I get the diapers on him. Sigh. I suspect that will just continue to be a problem. I know it’s easier to get him into one piece and snap it than it is to wrestle him into the diaper and then the cover, but I suppose in the end that one extra step isn’t making all that much difference. I just try to keep him distracted with a toy or a song, and I go as quickly as I can.

Finally, it seems like giving it some time helped. I believe Judah was going through a particularly yucky diaper phase, and it seems to be much better now.

The moral of the story? Spending money to solve a problem should always be the last resort. Experiment with some free solutions before you shell out more cash!

Cloth diapers: reconsidering expensive pocket diapers

I’ve raved about inexpensive prefold diapers in the past, and I still think they’re a great entry into cloth diapering. They don’t require a huge financial investment, they’re easy to use, durable, and a snap to keep clean.

However. As many of you seasoned cloth diapering moms warned me, prefolds have become cumbersome as Judah is getting more mobile. I don’t think they’re interfering with his ability to move around (obviously), but I do wonder if they’re as comfortable for him now that he’s moving. And let’s be honest, wrestling a mobile baby into a prefold, Snappi, and cover while he twists and turns and moves is a lot harder than snapping him into a single diaper.

One other slightly TMI confession: I am not as wild about cloth diapers since we introduced solids. Prefolds were simple for an exclusively breastfed baby. Now not so much. I’ve tested some of the pockets I already have on hand, and I was amazed at how much easier it was to deal with solid waste with the fancy microfleece lining compared to the cotton prefolds that are folded to fit him. Let’s just say all those folds and creases make it a lot harder to dispose of the waste before washing. Moving on.

I don’t want to discourage anyone from prefold diapers. They have worked fabulously for me, and I will continue to keep them on hand and probably continue to use them under certain circumstances. I don’t regret buying them. I didn’t want to invest hundreds of dollars into a cloth diaper stash before I knew if it would work for us, and the initial investment to use pocket diapers full-time for a newborn who needs 10-12 diapers changes a day was just too much for me.

I’m just starting to wonder if I should add a few more pocket diapers to my stash to make things a little easier on all of us (and future babysitters). Now that we’re past the newborn phase of 12 diapers a day, I could probably make a dozen diapers last two days, especially if I had some prefolds on hand to fill in the gaps if he needs a few extra diaper changes on some days.

I have a BumGenius 4.0, a FuzziBunz Hemp Organic, a BumGenius all-in-one, and a SmartiPants pocket diaper. I like all of the pocket diapers a lot, but I haven’t used them enough to develop a preference.

I wanted to get opinions from my cloth diapering readers: do you have a preference for a certain pocket diaper? Which works best for toddlers? Judah is slim and small for his age (10th percentile for weight, 50th for height at his last appointment three months ago), so I suspect he will stay that way for the foreseeable future. He’s probably around 18 pounds now, so I don’t think fit will be a problem for a while. We hope to use cloth until he potty trains, so I want to make sure they diapers I buy now will fit a 3-year-old if necessary.

I like the idea of FuzziBunz hemp diapers, because they’re made from organic, natural materials. But they’re more expensive. I’ve also developed some brand loyalty toward Cotton Babies products. My favorite covers are Flips and Econobums, so I’m thinking I’ll be just as happy with the BumGenius. So I’m torn. Tell me what you think!