Category Archives: Smart Shopping

Why I’d rather spend less than earn more

This post was originally published on May 13, 2009. Now that I’m a stay-at-home mom, this post is truer than ever for me. I needed a reminder of why my priority will always be finding ways to cut our spending instead of increasing our income. I thought I’d share it with you, too.

When you’re working to save money or get out of debt, there are two main ways to do it: spend less and earn more. When you’re struggling to make ends meet, the solution is to cut your spending or find a way to increase your income or some balance of both.

I’ve always favored the spend less approach on my blog and in my life. I’m not a big fan of Dave Ramsey’s advice to go to extreme measures to increase your income. I’d rather work hard to cut spending than pick up a second job or extra hours to increase our income. Here’s why:

My time is worth more than money.

If we took on night jobs or weekend jobs, we could speed up our debt repayment and savings. But at what cost? We’d lose our only real quality time together, our only time to relax and recharge. As I said yesterday, frugality is about improving my quality of life. Working nonstop isn’t what I think about when I think about my best life.

Being short on time can cost money.

When you’re constantly rushing around, you’re more likely to cling to convenience. From picking up take out at the end of a night shift to paying more in childcare to cover your long hours to skipping money-saving habits like menu planning and coupon clipping because you don’t have time, rushing around can get expensive.

Higher income leads to more spending.

Obviously, the point of frugality is to avoid increasing expenses as income increases. But the harder you’re working to bring in that extra income, the harder it can be to tell yourself, “No.”

Even if you can avoid spending money on unnecessary things, there are some natural upgrades that come along with a better income: home ownership, vacations, little luxuries. If you put more of your focus on earning than saving, it’s likely that those little upgrades will add up to a lot of extra spending. By focusing on saving instead of earning, we’re living comfortably without being tempted to splurge to much. As our income naturally increases and we continue to spend less than we make, we’ll find a way to fit these upgrades into our budget.

What about you? Would you rather spend less or earn more?

Final steps for first-time homebuyers

After looking and looking at all the homes on the market, you finally found one that really feels like it could be home. Don’t relax yet, though. The home buying process has just begun! Hopefully you’ll only have to go through this process once, and your dream house will be yours.

I know this is easier said than done, but it’s important not to get too attached to the house until the deal is done. Not only could something interfere on the seller’s side, but you may discover something about the house that makes it less desirable. If that’s the case, you need to be able to walk away, no matter how great the house may seem.

Here are the final steps to closing the deal:

Make an offer.

Once you’ve chosen a house, it’s time to make an offer. Most of the time, you can offer less than the seller’s asking price, but that will depend on the asking price, your market, and how long the house has been available. Generally, if you’re living in a down market (most markets are down right now) and the house has been on the market for longer than a month or two, you can safely assume that you’ll be able to offer less than the asking price. Your buyer’s agent should be familiar enough with the market in your area to give you some insight and guidance on how much to offer. Now is also the time to ask if you want the seller to cover closing costs. Be sure to write in stipulations that allow you to walk away if the inspection uncovers major issues.

From here there are a few things that can happen. Once you make an offer, the seller can either accept your offer or come back with a counter offer. The counter offer may ask for a higher selling price or change the stipulations of your agreement. If you don’t want to pay more than you offered, you can refuse the counter offer.

The other thing that can happen is another buyer could put an offer in. If their offer is higher than yours, then the seller will obviously refuse yours. If you happen to know a house is receiving multiple offers, it’s best to make your offer very competitive or even offer the asking price depending on how much you want the house. Again, your buyer’s agent will be able to give you some insight to make the best possible offer.

Accept the offer.

If your seller accepts your offer as is, or you accept the counter offer, then you’re officially under contract to purchase the house. Once the offer is accepted, another buyer cannot outbid you. Your offer should have included provisions that allow you to break the agreement without penalty if the inspection uncovers problems. Once the offer is accept, you’ll need to put down earnest money. The exact amount will be specified in the offer, and it can range from $500 to $1500. This money goes toward closing costs or your down payment at closing.

Schedule an inspection.

Your buyer’s agent will likely recommend an inspector. It can create a conflict of interest for the agent to recommend an inspector, because the agent doesn’t want the deal to fall through, so he or she may recommend an inspector who isn’t as thorough. Personally, I think in most cases, a buyer’s agent wants to protect your interests. His or her reputation depends on honesty with clients, so in most cases, I think they want you to know if the house is a bad deal. If you want to be safe, though, search for another inspector to make sure you’re getting an honest report on the house.

A good inspection generally costs $300-$400, and you’ll have to pay for it upfront. Do not skimp or skip the inspection! Spending $400 to have an expert thoroughly inspect your home could save you thousands.

Request repairs.

If the house is newer construction, it’s likely that you’ll get a clean inspection report. If that’s the case, then great! You can continue the process without worry. However, if the report uncovers any issues, now is the time to walk away or negotiate. If the issues are minor and can be fixed, you can request the seller to repair them before closing. If they’re extensive (major termite damage, structural issues, etc.), it might be time to walk away. A good inspector can tell you whether the issues are major enough to warrant walking away.

Keep in mind, once an inspection uncovers an issue with the house (such as termites or mold or any number of problems), the seller will have to disclose that issue to potential buyers in the future. That means you have an advantage in negotiations. In most cases, the seller would rather fix the problems and sell to you than put the house back on the market and disclose any problems to other buyers who likely won’t be interested. Most problems can be repaired, so consider asking the seller to repair them before closing or negotiate a lower purchase price to offset the money you’ll have to spend on repairs.

Notify your lender that you’ve found a house.

Once you’re satisfied with the condition of the house, it’s time to notify the lender who preapproved your mortgage. Let your lender know that you’ve found a house, you’re under contract, and you’re ready to move forward.

Schedule an appraisal.

At this point, your lender will want to schedule an appraisal to ensure that the house is worth the purchase price. Depending on your mortgage company, the amount for the appraisal ($300-$400) will either need to be paid upfront or it can be rolled into closing costs and paid at closing. Your lender will be able to let you know.

Choose a provider for your homeowners insurance.

Even though it’s part of your monthly mortgage payment, finding a good deal on homeowners insurance is up to you. Prices for comparable coverage can vary greatly from company to company, so don’t accept the first quote you find. Get several quotes from providers in your area to find the best deal. You can often get a discount for carrying auto insurance through the same provider as your homeowners insurance, so ask what the rate for both would be if you agreed to switch.


Once the appraisal is finished, it will likely take a few weeks to close even under ideal circumstances. Now it’s time to start packing! Your lender will finish processing the loan, and once a closing date is determined, they’ll let you know. If the seller isn’t covering your closing costs, be prepared to pay an additional $2000-$5000 on top of your down payment at closing.

Do you have any tips for first-time homebuyers?

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Next steps for first time homebuyers

Now that you’ve saved up for your down payment and closing costs, cleaned up your credit report, and you’re prequalified (or preapproved) for a mortgage, it’s time to find your home and close the deal. This is the fun part! But it can also be overwhelming. It doesn’t have to be hard, though. Here are some steps to keep it simple.

Narrow down your “must-haves.”

Depending on the size of your market, you may want to start looking at all the houses in your price range. But if you’re living in a large market or open to several different locations, narrowing down your options is essential. How many bedrooms do you need? Is a big kitchen important to you? What kind of neighborhood do you want? You might not be able to find a house with everything you want, but if you prioritize, you should be able to find a house with your “must-haves.”

Search the MLS.

MLS listings are available on many real estate websites. You should be able to search for your criteria in all the homes currently on the market in your area. You or your buyer’s agent can create alert emails that will notify you when houses in your price range with your criteria become available or lower in price.

Weed out the homes that won’t work for you.

Once you have a list of all the homes in your market that loosely fit your needs (3 bedroom, 2 bathroom homes in your price range, for example), start looking at them more closely. View the address on a map. Is it in a desirable area? Is there a highway in the back yard? (That was the case for a surprising number of the homes in my search.) It’s not a bad idea to drive through some neighborhoods if there are multiple homes on the market in a specific area. I found that many of the homes looked really nice in pictures, but not so great in person. Take those homes off your list before you start scheduling viewings to keep things as simple as possible.

Schedule viewings.

Now is the time when a buyer’s agent comes in handy. Your agent will typically need to give 24 hours’ notice to the seller before a viewing. Make a list of 5-10 houses that fit your requirements.

If you’ve found a large number of houses that you’re interested in viewing, start with the homes on the lower end of the price range. If a less expensive home will work for your family, there’s no need to look at fancier houses. You may discover that these homes won’t actually work for you, and if that happens, you can always schedule viewings for more expensive homes later. Try to keep the number of homes you view in a single day under 10 to avoid overwhelming yourself.

Take notes and pictures.

When you start touring houses, it helps to make note of everything that strikes you. Note the pros and the cons of each home, and start with a fresh sheet of paper at every house to stay organized. Chances are the real estate listing page will have plenty of photos to jog your memory, but it can’t hurt to bring a small digital camera for some snapshots. It also helps me to write down pertinent information from the listings on my own notepad (such as price, square footage, and other information) for easy comparison.

Assess and repeat.

Now it’s time to look at your options and decide if any of these homes are right for you. This can be a very difficult balance. On the one hand, you may be absolutely in love with a home, but you’re hesitant to make an offer because you want to know what else is out there. On the other hand, maybe you’re not thrilled about any of the houses, but you feel like this is all that’s available and you feel pressured to settle. Don’t let either of these mindsets sabotage your home search!

If you find a house that you love in your price range, don’t feel like you should wait! Even in a slow market, a great house can be sold right out from under you. If you love it and you can afford it, then it’s time to make an offer. Take a night to sleep on it, but if you’re still feeling strongly about that home in the morning, chances are you won’t regret making an offer.

But remember, you still have options if you don’t love anything that you’ve seen. Even if you don’t have a long list of houses you still want to view, you could always expand your search to nearby cities or wait a little while for something else to come on the market. It’s better to keep renting for a little while longer than purchase a home that you don’t love. If you haven’t found the house, then repeat these steps and keep looking until you do.

Next time we’ll discuss the final steps of the homebuying process.

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First steps for first-time homebuyers

After the dust had settled from our move to southern Indiana in January, I dramatically said I was never moving again. “My grandchildren will visit me in this apartment!” I said.

The truth is, I was just sick of packing up and moving after doing it 3 times in 9 months. Now that we’ve had a chance to settle down and get to know our new area, I’m starting to feel the house hunting itch again.

Obviously, when it comes to homebuying, the more cash you have on hand, the better. Our original plan to stay in this apartment for two years would allow us to amass a larger down payment — possibly even 20%. On the other hand, interest rates are starting to creep up again as the economy rebounds. Buying sooner rather than later would allow us to lock in a sub-5% interest rate for the life of our mortgage, which could net us big money in the long run. There are also many bank-owned houses on the market right now selling for far cheaper than they’re worth.

Even without a full 20% down payment, we could easily find a really nice house and end up paying less per month than rent.

I’ve said before, though, that alone is not a good reason to buy a house. Just because your mortgage could be lower than your rent doesn’t mean you should buy. We’ve been happy renters for the past few years for a number of reasons. Now that we’re ready to settle down in this area for the next 5-10 years (at least), we’re ready to consider buying a home. The question is whether it will be in 2012 or 2013.

We have another 9 months left on our current lease, so I’m preparing now to begin the process. Here are the first steps we’re taking:

Learn about the costs of homebuying, and save save save!

I’ve spent a lot of time learning about the homebuying process to determine the real cost of buying a house. First-time homebuyers often qualify for FHA loans with attractive interest rates and a paltry minimum down payment of 3.5%. Even conventional loans only require a 5% down payment. It can be easy to assume that all you need to buy a home is a good credit score and a few thousand dollars. Not true.

There are a ton of additional costs, including closing costs (which can range from $1,000-$5,000 or more), points if you want to lower your interest rate, inspection fees, and other miscellaneous costs. A good rule of thumb is to assume you’ll need at least $5,000 in addition to your down payment to close the deal. This guide to homebuying taught me a lot about the associated costs and process in really simple language.

Obtain your credit reports and credit scores to clean up errors and fix problems.

We already use Credit Karma to monitor our credit scores throughout the year (it’s free, but not 100% accurate, so we’ll probably end up paying for credit scores from one of the credit reporting agencies). We also check our credit reports every year using You’re entitled to a free copy of your credit report once each calendar year. Our scores are both in the mid-700s, and everything looks as it should on our credit reports, so we shouldn’t have any problems there.

Get prequalified for a loan to determine a realistic price range.

Some people recommend that this step come later, but I think it’s important to do it in the early stages. You need to know what you can afford right now with your current salary and cash on hand. Once you’ve got a range, you can do some preliminary price checking. If it doesn’t look like you can afford the type of house you want, it’s best to wait and save for a higher down payment.

Don’t settle for a cheaper house just because you can afford it now! Buying a house is one of the biggest commitments you will make (especially in this market). It’s better to wait and get what you really want than be unhappy in a house you don’t love just for the sake of owning one.

There’s a big difference between being preapproved for a loan and being prequalified. When you’re prequalified, a bank gives you an estimate of how much they’d be willing to loan you based on your credit history, salary, and cash on hand. They take your word for it, and do not verify any information at this point, so it’s best to be completely honest to get an accurate estimate of your borrowing power. Don’t forget to factor in property tax rates, home owner’s insurance, and PMI (if you aren’t putting a full 20% down) when estimating your monthly payment.

Preapproval is a more official step that you’ll take when you’re ready to start house hunting. The bank will verify your financial information, and make an official offer. A preapproval letter is often necessary when making a bid on a house, because it shows the owners that you’re a serious buyer and you can afford the home. Most preapprovals carry deadlines with them, so it’s best to wait until you’re ready to buy before taking that step.

Over the weekend, I used Lending Tree and Mortgage Match to get prequalifications. This confirmed that we qualify for the price range I’d already estimated based on online calculators. I won’t be finding a lender online when it’s time for preapproval, but now I have an estimate of my price range.

Do preliminary research on houses (and neighborhoods!) in your range.

We’re not 100% sure we’ll be buying in 9 months, and even if we were we wouldn’t start searching for another few months, but we spent some time this weekend driving around looking at houses that are on the market in our price range. It’s unlikely that any of these houses will be available when we’re ready to buy, but window shopping will give you a feel for the market.

It is really surprising how deceptive listing photos can be! Several houses looked really nice in pictures, but weren’t so nice up close. Or they were in sort of a scuzzy neighborhood. Again, if you start looking at houses in your price range, and they don’t look like houses you’d actually want to buy in desirable neighborhoods, it might be best to wait and save some more.

Find a buyer’s agent.

This step can actually come first if you want. A buyer’s agent can help you wade through the details, find listings in your price range, take care of the dirty work, and advise you when it’s time to make an offer. It won’t cost you a penny, because their commission is paid by the seller after the deal is done. So there’s no reason not to use an agent! Just be aware that they are salespeople, and they can be pushy. If you’re not seriously ready to start looking, you might want to wait to contact an agent to avoid the barrage of emails and phone calls pushing you to “BUY NOW!”

We’ve now taken all of these steps, and things are looking pretty good that we might actually be able to buy a home at the end of this year. We have the money to cover the down payment and most of the closing costs now. All that’s left is to ramp up our savings so we can pad our emergency fund so buying a house won’t completely clean us out.

Our plan now is to start seriously looking at houses at the end of this summer. I’ll keep you posted!

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Counting my blessings through bleary eyes

I mentioned last week that we’ve begun working with Judah on his sleep schedule. Now that he’s four months old, I think he’s ready for a routine. Because he’s still so young, I want to be gentle in its implementation. Unfortunately, gentle for the baby is still pretty brutal for his parents.

He’s responding incredibly well to his bedtime ritual. He gets his reflux medicine first, then in his dim room I change his diaper, give him a sponge bath with some nice smelling baby wash, put some nighttime baby lotion on him, dress him in pajamas and a sleep sack, nurse him, turn on his white noise machine, and put him down in his crib. Then I stay by his crib until he’s asleep. For the past few nights, it’s taken fewer than 5 minutes for him to drift off.

He sleeps well after that for about 2 to 3 hours in his crib. When he wakes up hungry at 10:30 or 11, I bring him into my room to sleep in his bassinet, and we go to bed. The problem we’re having is that he continues to wake up every 1-3 hours throughout the night. It’s not because he’s hungry. He does nurse, but it’s generally just for under 5 minutes, which makes me think it’s more a comfort thing than a hunger thing.

Now that I’m trying the methods in “The No Cry Sleep Solution,”* I’m tracking his nighttime waking schedule. I’ve found that he’s waking up completely during the normal “brief awakening” periods that we all experience throughout the night. The problem is that I’ve always nursed him to sleep, so he doesn’t know how to put himself back to sleep. So he wakes up fussing, I nurse him (typically for only 5 minutes), and he goes back to sleep. I’m not sure how to break this cycle, and I’m not willing to let him cry it out, so I don’t know what to do. I haven’t finished the book, but I’m hoping it’ll have some ideas.

The bigger problem is naps. Judah isn’t on a predictable nap schedule. He generally sleeps 15 to 30 minutes at a time here and there throughout the day, only if I’m holding him and only when he’s utterly exhausted. As soon as I try to put him down, he wakes up and starts to cry.

For the first four months, I didn’t mind holding him during his naps. The problem is, he understandably wants to be held and engaged when he’s awake. That means I’m holding him all day. This was fine in the first few months, but now I’d like to get him on a napping schedule so I can get to the laundry and the dishes and the other chores that pile up during the day.

He loves his sling, and I can run errands and shop while he’s in it. Household chores like laundry and dishes? Not so much. The jostling wakes him up, and he’s even more grouchy. Not to mention any bending with him in the sling is brutal on my back, which occasionally suffers post traumatic stress syndrome since the pregnancy. I’m also not very efficient with 13 pounds of baby right in front of me.

My first plan was to put him down every time he fell asleep in the hopes that he’d eventually get used to it. The problem with that is that he wakes up when I put him down, and then he doesn’t go back to sleep. So I end up with an extremely crabby, exhausted baby.

After a restless day yesterday, he fell asleep at 6:30 in the evening. Then he kept me up from 4 a.m. to 5:45 a.m. I nursed him at 4 a.m., and he fell asleep. When he woke up again 15 minutes later, I put my hand on his chest and soothed him from my bed, but I left him in the bassinet. It took 30 minutes, but he finally went to sleep. Usually when I try that, his crying escalates, he wakes up Tony (who I try not to disturb on weeknights, because he has to get up at 6 a.m. to earn the money that pays our bills), and Judah and I both end up upset. That method never works when he wakes up during daytime naps.

On top of all that, ongoing (minor but annoying) health issues for Judah and me have led my doctor to put me on an extremely restrictive diet. No sugar, no dairy, no gluten, no caffeine, and no artificial sweeteners for at least a month. So basically I’m starving and tired, and I can’t even drink a caffeinated beverage to perk me up.

Anyway, between my extremely restrictive diet and our recent sleep struggles, I woke up feeling pretty bleak. I’m frustrated. I’m exhausted. I’m starving all. the. time. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself, as I have a tendency to do.

Then I read this article in the Chicago Tribune about how crib bumpers are more dangerous than we think. It broke my heart and reminded me how lucky I am to have a healthy baby. I decided to take a break from nap training so I can hold my baby today, listen to his quiet little snores, feel the gentle rise and fall of his chest, and remind myself cherish every moment, even the challenging ones, because some parents aren’t so lucky.

I also wanted to share it, because crib bumpers are one of those controversial items that aren’t recommended, but most people believe to be harmless. The truth is, they serve absolutely no purpose, and if there’s even a slight risk, they’re not worth it.

Disclosure: Asterisks denote affiliate links. If you make a purchase through Amazon using my link, I earn a few cents.

5 non-essential baby products I use every day

I remember when I first started shopping for baby things, I was so overwhelmed. There are so many baby products on the market, and sadly, so much of it is totally and completely useless. Almost every expecting mother finds herself asking the question, “What do I really need?”

Aside from the obvious essentials like diapers, clothing, and a car seat, the truth is there isn’t much you really need. But almost four months into motherhood, I’ve discovered a few items that have made my life a whole lot easier. I’d like to share them with you now.

For the record, I’m not being compensated in any way to endorse these products. All of these items I either bought for myself or were gifted to me by generous friends. These reviews are completely unsolicited by the manufacturers, and all opinions are my own.

Baby K’Tan

There are about a million different infant carriers and slings. It may seem like all of them work the same way, but the truth is, they don’t. Some of them aren’t very baby-friendly, and many of them aren’t very mom-friendly. They can be difficult to use, constricting for baby, and a lot of moms abandon them early on.

My friend Kacie loved her Baby K’Tan carrier, and generously gifted me with one of my own before Judah was born. The K’Tan is incredibly simple to use compared to other wraps. It takes me about a minute to get Judah into it, and I can do it while sitting in the backseat of the car. There’s no complicated wrapping involved. It’s made of two loops of fabric, so there aren’t yards and yards of excess fabric to get in your way.

He absolutely loves to be carried in it, and he’s typically fast asleep within 10 minutes. I don’t think either one of us would be a fan of a bulky stroller. The K’Tan keeps him close to me, and it keeps my hands free.

Arms Reach co-sleeper

Before Judah was born, my sister gave me a bedside bassinet that she never used for my nephew. I tried to put Judah in it the first two nights after we came home from the hospital, and it was a nightmare. He hated the thing, and it was too tall for me to comfort him from the bed. I also had to stand up to pick him up every time he woke me to eat. He was using a bili-blanket to treat his jaundice, and keeping him swaddled in it was impossible. I was in and out of bed all night rewrapping the blanket around him.

My mom bought us a Close and Secure Sleeper* that worked great for the first 6 weeks. He was right in bed with us, but I was able to sleep soundly with him in his own space. Even though it was small, fitting it in a queen-sized bed with two adults was a squeeze, so it wasn’t very comfortable for us. He also grew out of it quickly.

I read rave reviews about the Arms Reach Co-Sleeper, a bassinet that attaches to the side of the bed. I ordered the Clear Vue mini bassinet model, and it has worked fabulously. If you’re breastfeeding, I absolutely recommend it. He sleeps right next to me, but he doesn’t take up space in the bed. This particular model has adjustable legs, which allowed us to tilt it a few inches to help with his reflux. Its weight limit is 23 pounds, so it will last longer than the typical bassinet with a 15- or 18-pound limit.

Cloud B Gentle Giraffe sound machine

During our endless struggle for better sleep, we discovered that Judah was soothed into sleep by white noise. My sister recommended the Cloud B Sleep Sheep*, but when I discovered there was an adorable giraffe* that matched his nursery’s jungle theme, I had to have that one. I named him Geoffrey.

There are four different sounds, including some jungle beats, a waterfall, and a sound that’s supposed to mimic mother’s heartbeat from the womb. He doesn’t really like any of the sounds except for the waterfall, but he loves it. A timer turns it off after 23 or 45 minutes, and a velcro strap attaches it to the side of the bassinet or crib. It comes with us where ever we go to help Judah fall asleep.

Snappi diaper fastener

If you’re using prefold cloth diapers, there are all kinds of different ways to fold the diapers to avoid using pins or fasteners. I find that the Snappi fasteners* give me a snugger fit, which is really important in those first months when diapers can be particularly messy. My mom and Tony’s grandmother, who both used cloth diapers with pins, marvel at how easy it is for me to fasten Judah’s diapers without sticking myself or him.

Bumbo seat

I’ve only owned this thing for a day, but Judah already loves it. He’s been insisting on being held in a seated or standing position for the last few weeks, and it’s made it difficult for me to multi-task while holding him. The Bumbo seat* allows him to sit up straight without assistance even though he’s a couple months away from doing that on his own, and I’ve read that it aids in healthy development of the spine and posture.

What baby products have you found helpful?

Disclosure: Asterisks denote affiliate links. If you make a purchase through Amazon using my link, I earn a few cents.

5 simple switches to lower your grocery bill

Ever since I started living frugally, one of the areas of my budget that continually leaves me feeling guilty is groceries. My husband is the cook, and he has extremely expensive tastes when it comes to cooking. I gave up trying to convince him to live on a beans and rice diet to save money a long time ago. To be honest, the idea of eating as cheaply as possible doesn’t appeal to me much, either. I absolutely admire those families who can feed four people for $50 a week, but we’re never going to be one of them. (We average about $60-$70 per week for the two of us. Judah doesn’t count yet.)

That doesn’t mean we’ve given up on saving money at the grocery store, though. We’re always finding little ways to cut costs without sacrificing the quality of our menus. Here are a few of the ways we do it.

Split chicken breasts

We cook with chicken a lot, because it’s versatile, healthy, and relatively inexpensive. We try to buy chicken breasts when they’re on sale, and stock up. A big way to cut costs on chicken breasts is to buy split, bone-in chicken breasts instead of boneless skinless chicken breasts. They require a little extra prep work, but they typically cost half as much as boneless skinless chicken breasts, so it’s worth the effort. Bonus: you can use the bones in homemade chicken stock.

Homemade chicken stock

At $3-$4 a quart, packaged chicken stock is one of the biggest rip-offs in the grocery store. For the cost of a bunch of celery, a bunch of carrots, an onion, some garlic, and discarded chicken bones, you can make gallons of the stuff. Just put aside the bones from split chicken breasts or the carcass of a whole roasted chicken. We keep them in a plastic storage container in the freezer until we’re ready to make stock. We make a few gallons every other month or so, and freeze them in 1-quart storage containers for later use. It is time-consuming, but not labor intensive. Just make sure you start in the morning on a day when you’ll be hanging out at home so you can keep an eye on it and skim it every so often. You can find our recipe for homemade chicken stock here.

Frozen vegetables

In the summertime, fresh vegetables are cheap and plentiful. This isn’t the case in the winter. You’ll pay a fortune for fresh vegetables that have been trucked from across the country. It’s bad for the environment, and they’re typically poor quality anyway. When vegetables aren’t in season, we buy frozen. They’re not mushy like canned vegetables, and freezing generally leaves most nutrients intact. Broccoli, corn, peas, spinach, cauliflower, and carrots are all delicious.


Salads are a great way to sneak green vegetables into your diet, but Romaine is also one of the most expensive things per pound at the grocery store. Instead of paying for Romaine, we typically buy spinach instead. Unlike nutritionally void iceberg lettuce, spinach is full of vitamins and nutrients. It’s cheaper than Romaine, though. To save even more money, you can blend spinach and iceberg for a full salad that’s still nutrient rich. We also use spinach instead of pricey fresh basil for a milder version of pesto.


Water is the cheapest, healthiest beverage you can drink (especially if you filter it yourself instead of purchasing bottled water). If you want a little flavor, though, tea is an excellent frugal alternative to expensive coffee or soda. It costs pennies per gallon. For a little extra flavor, you can add some sugar or (my favorite) fresh lemon juice.

What are your favorite simple switches to cut grocery costs?

Photo by B tal

Buyer beware if it’s too good to be true

So you know those Kindle gadgets? Tony’s been talking about getting one for a while. He’s an English professor, so he’s usually got a stack of about 10 books on his bedside table that he’s actively reading. Many of the books he reads are classics that have now entered public domain, which means they’re available for free as e-books. A Kindle makes them nice and portable. Plus, you know, fun toy!

We never updated our tax withholdings for the baby, so we received a sizable refund this year. Most of it is going right into the bank to replenish our emergency fund. But we decided to splurge on a little something, and $140 seemed like a reasonable splurge, especially since our income increased with Tony’s new job.

We put a lot of research into e-readers in general. We considered the Nook, the Kindle, and the Sony. Ultimately, we were pretty sold on the Kindle for a wide array of reasons that I’m not going to get into.

We’d made up our minds, but Tony was only slightly hesitant because he’s convinced that the Kindle will drop below $100 in the next year or so. He’s been saying all along that once the price is $99, he wants to buy one.

So imagine our excitement when we stopped to look at the Kindle display in Target last night and OMG! There was one marked down to $99! It was labeled as “repackaged.”

We were wary at first, so we asked the associate. Was it damaged? He said nope, it had just been opened and returned, and the only thing wrong with it was the torn packaging. Did the same return policy apply to repackaged items just in case there was something wrong? Yep, 90 days with a receipt.

Still a little wary, we headed to the customer service desk just to be sure. A second associate assured us that the only problem with “repackaged” items was that the packaging had been opened, and that we’d be able to return it no problem.

We were obviously pumped. It seemed like fate! Tony wanted to pay $99 for a Kindle, and we’d found a $99 Kindle! We were sold.

After we bought it, we rushed out to the car to open our new toy and take a look. It looked perfect! No scratches, no defects!

Then I realized there was something conspicuously missing … the power adapter and USB cord. I checked inside the box, under the packaging, everywhere. No power adapter or cord. Crap.

Thankfully, we’d covered our bases. Tony went right back into the store and returned it. The customer service rep’s weak sauce excuse? “We take our customers’ word for it when they return an item, and we assume all parts are included.”

Um, what? So someone returned the item opened, and nobody bothered to crack open the box to be sure that all the parts were there before slapping a discount sticker on it and sticking it back on the shelf? Granted, there was a deep discount, but still! If parts were missing, I think it should be clearly labeled on the box so customers know what they’re purchasing. Furthermore, if the store’s policy is not to check returned items, then customer service reps should warn wary customers that the item is “as is,” and it may be missing integral parts. They should not assure customers that the item is perfectly fine except for some torn packaging. What the heck?

If I had gone back to return it, I would have spoken to a manager to complain. Perhaps I could have gotten a gift card or something for our trouble. Unfortunately, I had to send Tony in because Judah had started to fuss in his car seat, and I didn’t want to leave Tony in the car while he screamed his head off. I can typically keep him calm, so I stayed behind. Tony settled for a full refund.

Eh well. The moral of the story is an old one that you’ve certainly heard before: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. If we hadn’t been told the item was returnable, we most definitely would have asked to open it in the store before purchasing to make sure it was functional and all the parts were there. As it turned out, we didn’t get the deal we were hoping for, but no harm was done.

What a bummer, though, right?

This post is not sponsored by Kindle or Amazon. However, the link to the Kindle is an Amazon affiliate link.

How much is laziness costing you?

I’ve mentioned before that Tony and I use a credit card to purchase all of our gas. We pay the bill off every month before it accrues any interest, and we get 5% cash back on all fuel purchases. Since we’re not paying interest, the 5% cash back is basically free money, and keeping an active credit line is important for building and maintaining a good credit score. It’s win-win.

The credit card is through BP, and we only get 5% cash back on BP purchases, so 99% of the time we buy gas at BP. We only buy at another gas station if the cost per gallon is less than we pay per gallon with the 5% discount. Makes sense, right?

At the beginning of December, we started seeing signs at BP gas stations for a new rewards program. Fill up five times, and you receive a $10 gift card. Since we fill up at BP 99% of the time, it should have been a no brainer for us. Enrolling in their loyalty program would net us up to three $10 gift cards for 15 fill-ups in addition to our 5% cash back.

The only catch? You have to print a receipt and take it inside to the cashier to get credit for filling up.

I’m ashamed to admit that we didn’t start participating in the program until last week. It’s the end of January, and we’ve only gotten credit for two tanks of gas even though we did more driving in the month of December than we’ve ever done in a single month. We probably could have already received the $30 worth of gift cards considering all the gas we used last month with holiday travel throughout the state and the move.

The truth is, I saw the signs every time I filled up, and the only reason I didn’t take advantage of the promotion was laziness. It was cold, I didn’t want to drag the baby into the gas station, I was in a hurry and didn’t want to go inside. It was easier to pay at the pump and get on my way, so that’s what I did. But it cost me. We easily would have filled up 15 times in three months, but we probably won’t fill up enough in the next six weeks to receive all three of the $10 gift cards we could have gotten.

Granted, in the weeks after a newborn arrives, I think it’s easy for even the most frugal person to be lazy about saving money. But it’s unlike me to turn down any offer for free money, and that’s basically what I did by putting off participating in this promotion.

I see this type of thing all the time from less frugal people, too. Sometimes it’s easier to pay twice as much for an item at a gas station when you need it than it is to go to the grocery store where prices are much lower. Millions of people would rather pay higher prices for groceries across the board than clip coupons and hunt for deals. Many people spend hundreds of dollars a month on takeout because it’s easier than cooking every night.

Laziness is a harsh word, and I don’t think it applies in all cases. When time is limited, I think it makes sense to value your time over the money you could save sometimes. But my point is, how often do we choose the easy way when just a little bit of effort could save us a lot of money? If you’re taking the easy way out most of the time, you could be costing yourself a fortune.

It’s a question I’m asking myself a lot lately as we adjust to earning a higher income than we’re used to. I don’t want to be lazy about our finances. When you have a little extra money, it’s tempting to take the easy way out, but I’d rather work a little harder to save even a few dollars if that means building our savings and reaching our goals faster.

So it’s confession time: how often do you let laziness keep you from saving money? Think about it, and consider just how much you could save if you made a little extra effort in those situations the majority of the time. It could mean paying off your debt sooner, building your savings faster, going out to dinner once a month, or even taking a vacation once a year. When you make the extra effort to save most of the time, those dollars and cents add up quickly.