Tag Archives: Frugality

How to throw a toddler birthday party for cheap

I grew up with three sisters, and I was third born, so birthday parties weren’t a yearly deal for us. We each had a party or two to celebrate big milestones, but my mom didn’t throw a huge party for each of us every year — and I don’t blame her. I probably won’t either.

For Judah’s first birthday, we had a small party with cake and food for family only. This year, I’ve made friends with some families near us who have children around Judah’s age, so I wanted to have a fun kid party to celebrate what we’re hoping will be Judah’s last birthday as an only child. When I started researching party ideas, I was shocked at how expensive most party venues are. I would love to have a backyard barbecue, but that’s not really an option for November in Indiana, and I was afraid to let loose 10+ kids under 4 in my living room. By making a few compromises, we were able to celebrate Judah’s second birthday with all his friends without spending a fortune.

Throw a joint party.

I’m lucky to have a friend whose son is just 5 days older than Judah. It was her idea to combine their parties this year, and I’m so glad we did it that way. We share a lot of friends, so our guest lists would have had a lot of overlap anyway, and we were able to split the cost of the venue, food, and decorations between two families. At 2 years old, the boys didn’t mind sharing their parties a bit, and since we were both pretty laid back about the party, my friend and I didn’t have any trouble planning it together.

Plan ahead.

I was particularly proud of the goody bags, which included a 24-pack of crayons, a full-sized Play Doh, some Play Doh molds, fruit snacks, and a print out coloring sheet. The Sesame Street “Thank You” sign is an Internet printable that my friend found on Pinterest, and we used Zip lock bags to hold everything. I bought the crayons in bulk during the back-to-school sales for 50 cents a box, and my friend got the Play Doh in a Black Friday sale for under 50 cents each, so each bag cost us under $2. And of course splitting the costs between the two of us made them even less expensive. I was happy to hand out fun toys that the kids would actually use instead of cheap things that would be thrown away or lost before they even made it home.

For toddlers, all you really need is a lot of space.

We called the zoo, inflatable play places, museums — all of them wanted $300+ for a 2-3 hour party, not including food. Even though we were splitting the cost, that was just too much for a toddler party. Finally we found a fun play place that’s really just a giant open space with lots of toys where the kids can run around. It cost $100 for 15 kids and 2 hours of play.

Other cheap (or free) options we considered:

  • Many local libraries have conference rooms that can be rented out for cheap or even free.
  • Your home if you have the space for it and the energy/desire to clean before and after the party.
  • A park or your own backyard if weather permits.

As long as the kids have room to run around, you won’t need to plan activities or games. It’s hard to wrangle kids and keep their attention anyway, and you’ll kill yourself trying to plan things. Since we only had two hours, and our boys are too young to have any expectations for gifts, we also asked our guests not to worry about presents. This gave the kids more time to play and saved us the trouble of coordinating gift opening for two active toddlers.

Always buy less food than you think you’ll need.

RSVPs are notoriously inaccurate for kid parties. Kids get sick, they miss their naptimes, things happen. We ended up with about half as many kids and parents as we expected. Add to that the fact that the kids were too busy playing to eat much (Judah ate a single bite of pizza and threw a mega tantrum when we got home because we was starving, pfft). We ended up with about 8 whole pizzas to get rid of at the end of the party (we ordered 15). Keep all of this in mind when ordering, and try not to overdo it. In fact, for very young children, you’re probably better off serving just finger foods and cake and having the party between meal times (2-4 pm, for instance). Trying to get the kids to sit still and eat is almost impossible, and without a big meal there will be more time for play.

Make a cake.

Since the boys were sharing the party, I wanted them each to have a cake. I am hopeless when it comes to decorating, and anything I made would likely end up looking like those failed Cookie Monster cupcakes we’ve all seen on Pinterest. So I ordered a small cake from the grocery store for $15. My friend’s mom is a talented cake decorator who made this adorable Elmo cake for the price of the cake pan and ingredients. Surprisingly, most of the cake did get eaten, so I don’t regret our decision to serve two small cakes. I probably could have saved a ton by baking a simple cake and decorating it with toys he already has (the baker at the grocery store suggested cars or dinosaur figures).

What are your tips for frugal kid parties? I’d love to hear them in the comments.

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?

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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!

Line drying laundry — an update

For the last two months or so, we’ve been line drying our laundry on the clothesline in our backyard. I’ve developed a pretty good system, and I’ve learned a few things about what works and what doesn’t for us, so I thought I’d share some of my discoveries.

For the most part, I don’t have many complaints. It’s a relatively easy way to reduce energy consumption and shave some money off your monthly electricity costs. Unfortunately, I’m still not sure exactly how much we’re saving. We started line drying pretty much right after we moved into the house, and with the heat wave and increased square footage, our electricity bill has definitely gone up from what we paid in apartments. I didn’t establish a base line, so I’m not sure what it would cost if we were using the dryer. I’m sure I’m saving something, though, and decreasing our footprint, so it’s worthwhile to me either way.

I’ve developed a system that works pretty well for me, but it’s certainly a lot more involved than my previous laundry system, which was basically “You’re running low on underwear? I guess I’ll do laundry today.” I don’t do laundry every day. I wish I was disciplined enough to do laundry every week, because it would make things easier on myself, but I’m not. I usually wash everything every other week (aside from diapers, which are washed 2-3 times a week).

I’m much more aware of the weather forecasts now, so I can plan ahead for the best sunny days. My lines hold about half of two weeks of laundry, so I usually split it up over two days. I try to do laundry when we have two sunny days back to back, so I can get it all done relatively quickly.

The night before laundry day, I separate everything by color — whites, colors, and then towels and jeans. I put in a load first thing in the morning. When Judah goes down for his morning nap around 10 a.m., I get the first load onto the line. Sometimes I’m lucky, and he sleeps long enough that I can get the second load out, too, before he wakes up. Sometimes he has to come outside with me and hang out in the Exersaucer while I hang clothes.

My clothesline is half shaded by a large tree, so I try to make sure that bulkier items like jeans are hung on the sunny side. This ensures that they dry completely. Thinner items like t-shirts dry relatively quickly even without a lot of sunshine, so they can hang in the shade.

Sunshine is a remarkable natural stain remover, so I always hang anything with stubborn stains in direct sunlight. Usually after 8 hours in the sun, even the most stubborn stains are completely gone. It’s like magic.

I leave them out there all day — usually until around 8 p.m. after Judah is in bed. It works out nicely, because I can bring the clothes in and fold while I’m watching television, and I don’t have to worry about entertaining Judah because he’s sleeping.

About 90% of our laundry is line dried. There are a few things I don’t line dry, though.

Diapers – It’s a shame that I can’t get line drying diapers to work for me, especially since diaper laundry is the main reason I decided to start line drying. Unfortunately, no matter what I try, line drying makes my cotton prefolds feel like roof shingles. They’re scratchy and stiff, and I just can’t imagine it’s very comfortable on Judah’s skin. I tried vinegar in the rinse cycle. It didn’t make much difference. I tried fluffing them in the dryer. That helped a little, but they weren’t as fluffy as I’d like, and to be honest it felt like the extra step defeated the purpose of line drying.

Stained diapers go onto the line after they’re dry so I can take advantage of the remarkable stain removing ability of the sun. Other than that, diapers go into the dryer.

Towels – I have the same problem with towels as I do diapers — they’re too stiff and scratchy when line dried. We hang towels to dry in the bathroom so we can reuse them for a week, so our towel laundry is minimal anyway.

Socks and underwear – We don’t have a fence in our backyard. Our clothesline is mostly shielded from view by our neighbors’ garage, but if they were out doing yard work on the other side of their garage, they could easily see it. To maintain our privacy and spare our neighbors from seeing our undies, I chose not to line dry them. I suppose I could conceal them on the back line or devise some sort of rack for hanging them inside. I may do that. For now, I don’t mind throwing them into the dryer with the towels. Socks are just tiny, and it’s a pain in the butt to hang a million of them, so I throw those in the dryer, too.

Some items — like my husband’s polos — tend to stretch out and start to look saggy after several line dryings. When that happens, I go ahead and use the dryer to shrink them back up a bit.

I’m happy with our system, but line drying is harder work — especially in this heat wave. I try to get the laundry out in the morning and take it down in the evening to avoid the hottest part of the day. Even so, standing in direct sunlight hanging clothes is usually enough to work up a sweat.

There have been days when I probably should have done laundry, and I skipped it because I wasn’t feeling well or I was too tired. Laundry used to be a lazy day task — it just required switching loads and a little folding. Now it feels like more work, and if I’m not feeling great, I’m likely to put it off.

I feel good about it, though, and there’s a strange sense of accomplishment that goes along with seeing all of our laundry neatly hanging on the line. I’ll probably continue through the early fall until the first freeze.

So tell me, do you line dry? Do you have any tips or questions for me?

Why the Internet makes frugality easier than ever

The Tightwad Gazette (affiliate link) by Amy Dacyczyn is my favorite frugal book. It’s full of simple ideas for how to cut costs without affecting your quality of life, and Dacyczyn’s values and priorities are very similar to mine, so I find it motivating and inspiring.

The first time I read the book, the ideas were brand new to me. It was a few months before I started this blog, and it was the beginning of my frugal journey. It was eye-opening to realize how simple it could be to cut expenses even more, even when you think you’ve cut them as much as humanly possible.

I just read it for the second time, and it wasn’t so revolutionary this time — for obvious reasons. I’ve been living (somewhat) frugally for three years now. I’ve been through these ideas over and over, and they’re no longer new.

Because I wasn’t so focused on the ideas this time, I noticed how dated some of the advice is. Most of it is pretty timeless, and it is absolutely still useful. However, you can’t deny the fact that the Internet has changed pretty much everything about how we live our lives, and because the newsletters and books were written before the Internet age, it serves as a reminder to me of how much harder it was to live frugally before the Internet.

Here are a few of the things that struck me:


Throughout the book, the cost of stamps and postage is a frequent concern. While this may be bad news for the U.S. Postal Service, I use maybe three or four stamps a year. It’s just not a major expense in my daily life. I keep in touch with old friends and family through social networks, email, and cell phones. I pay bills online.

I do remember the days when it was expensive to call someone who lived even a few cities away. Long distance calling fees were a huge part of the monthly phone bill. Most cell phone plans don’t differentiate between local and long distance calls, which has eliminated this expense for me. Since the majority of my closest friends and family are on the same carrier and I make most of my calls in the evening and on weekends, our phone calls don’t even affect my monthly minutes.

Price comparison

Before the Internet, there was a lot more leg work involved in hunting for the best prices. You’d have to physically drive to the store or call. For insurance rates, there were no easy price comparing engines — you’d have to call each company to obtain a quote. I have no idea how people price compared items like plane tickets or hotels. Now you can hunt down prices from the comfort of your home.

Warranties & Parts

One of the ideas in the book is to call the manufacturer of a broken item to obtain cheap or free replacement parts to fix the item rather than buying a new one. Several pages are devoted to phone numbers you can call or addresses you can write to if you want to get in touch with manufacturers. I can’t imagine a world where finding out how to contact a company is any more difficult than looking up their website and clicking on the “Contact Us” link.

Yard sales

Many sections of the book discuss how to shop and sell at yard sales. Internet sites like ebay and Craigslist have become virtual yard sales where it’s possible to sell things to people living across the country, which vastly improves the likelihood of buying or selling things for a good price. I don’t think the Internet has completely replaced the usefulness of local yard sales, but it’s also made finding and advertising them much easier.


Online games, social networks, and streaming sites have made it easier than ever to find cheap entertainment.


My New Year’s resolution was to take at least one photo every day. The truth is, my “one photo a day” is usually 20 or 30 shots of the same thing. Most of them are bad photos that I delete without saving. I can’t even imagine how expensive amateur photography was back in the days of film cameras and developing costs. I only keep a fraction of the photos I shoot, and I keep most of them digitally. I print a tiny fraction of those photos for display in frames. The Internet and digital cameras have made amateur photography incredibly cheap, and I can keep daily memories of our life without paying for expensive film and development costs, or figuring out what to do with hundreds of “bad” photos that aren’t worth keeping.

Do-it-yourself maintenance

When something goes wrong in my home or with my car, I can easily do some research to try to determine the problem and whether it’s something I’m able to fix myself. Before the Internet, this type of research was much harder and more time consuming. I suppose you could check out home and car repair books from the library or call a knowledgeable friend, but the amount of information you could garner was limited. It was much easier to just call in an expert. We’re often able to solve minor problems ourselves with the help of Google and social networking sites, so we can avoid a huge mechanic, plumber, or other expert’s bill.

Menu planning

The Internet has made millions of recipes available at our fingertips, and we can hunt through millions of food and recipe sites to get ideas for cooking at home inexpensively. Before the Internet, you were limited by your own culinary knowledge, cookbook collection, and recommendations from friends. Now it’s much easier to cook delicious meals at home without eating the same things every week.

Exchange of information & ideas

The biggest thing that struck me is that The Tightwad Gazette newsletters were basically the very first frugal blog. Dacyczyn shared her ideas with readers, and readers shared their ideas with each other by writing letters that she published. It’s the same concept as a blog, only it’s much much harder and more complicated. The Internet has made it possible for frugal people to build an entire community around the exchange of ideas and information. We can support each other and learn from each other from opposite sides of the world without paying postage or waiting days between replies.

I pay $40 a month for my Internet connection. I think it’s worth much much more than that. I’m thankful to live during the Internet age.

How does the Internet save you money?

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The surprising electricity drain that’s costing Americans billions per year

What’s the biggest electricity drain in the United States? Refrigerators that run non-stop? HD televisions? Nope. According to a story in the New York Times on Sunday, it’s your cable box.

These set-top boxes are energy hogs mostly because their drives, tuners and other components are generally running full tilt, or nearly so, 24 hours a day, even when not in active use. The recent study, by the Natural Resources Defense Council, concluded that the boxes consumed $3 billion in electricity per year in the United States — and that 66 percent of that power is wasted when no one is watching and shows are not being recorded. That is more power than the state of Maryland uses over 12 months.

Because they’re constantly connected to the network and receiving updates, set-top cable boxes continue to suck energy even when they’re turned “off.” The only way to stop the drain is to unplug the box entirely.

Unplugging the box may create a slight lag when you’re ready to watch television again, but it could save you as much as $10 a month. At the very least, it’s essential that you unplug the box if you’re leaving for vacation. There’s no sense spending money and wasting energy on something you’re not even using.

How much money do I “earn” by living frugally?

Since I’m a stay-at-home mom, I don’t add any steady monetary income to our household (aside from occasional freelance work and sporadic income from this here blog). However, my decision to stay home has afforded me more time for household chores than I would have if I worked. To offset our lower income, I try to devote my extra time to tasks that reduce our expenses, and I consider the money we save as my financial contribution to our household.

I thought it might help motivate me to figure some rough estimates of what I’m “earning.” Hopefully you’ll find it helpful, too.

Cloth diapers

I initially invested about $300 in our cloth diaper stash, which will fit Judah until he’s potty-trained. The time I devote to cloth diapers is an extra 3 loads of laundry per week. I line dry them to fight stains, bacteria, and reduce electricity costs. I probably only spend about an hour washing cloth diapers every week. That four hours of work saves us about $30-$50 per month.


I realize that for working moms who need to pump, breastfeeding can be a considerable time investment. Since I’m with Judah 24/7, breastfeeding doesn’t take anymore time than formula feeding (in fact, it probably takes less time since I don’t have any bottles to wash). It saves us $75-$100 per month. Easy money!

Line drying clothes

I line dry about two loads of laundry per week, in addition to diapers. It takes maybe 30 minutes to hang and take down each load of laundry, so I spend about four hours a month line drying laundry. It’s difficult to estimate how much money we’re saving at this point. My dryer isn’t very efficient, so I often had to run loads through two or three dry cycles to get them totally dry. Estimates for dryer costs vary depending on your dryer, how many loads you dry, and how efficient it is. I estimate that we save about $10 per month by line drying. You could argue that $2.50 per hour isn’t worth the time it takes to line dry, but I find hanging our laundry relaxing, I like the way it smells when it line dries, and I like that we’re reducing our carbon footprint, so I’m sticking with it.

Eating at home

This is where I admit that even though I’m a stay-at-home mom, my husband is the cook in our house. Thankfully, since he’s a college professor, a lot of his work load involves grading papers and preparing lesson plans at home, so he’s home a lot more than the average full-time worker. So he cooks dinner for us every night when he gets home. I spend about 30 minutes a week menu planning, and we spend another hour and a half shopping together. Most meals take 30 minutes to an hour to prepare. All together, that adds up to 5 to 9 hours a week. There are too many factors at play to know exactly how much we’re saving, but we can easily spend the equivalent of our entire week’s grocery budget on two restaurant meals, so it adds up.


I’ve really cut back on my couponing lately, because we’ve built such a huge stockpile at the drugstores. When I was clipping coupons every week, I spent probably an hour clipping coupons and planning shopping trips, and another 20 or 30 minutes in the drugstores. It’s tough to quantify how much I actually earned, but I could buy enough toiletries to last months in a single shopping trip for pennies per item.


We cut our $50-per-month cable bill, and replaced it with Hulu, Netflix, and the library. Our memberships to Hulu and Netflix cost a total of $20 per month. Watching less TV costs us nothing, and forces us to get out and do other things. Win-win!

I eventually hope to add gardening to this list to cut our food expenses. Next year!

How does frugality enhance your income?

Photo credit: me!