Posts Tagged ‘budget’

Wandering Thoughts

Monday, January 28th, 2013

It’s that time of year again, when we’re waiting to find out if E’s going to be promoted switching jobs it’s sort of complicated and everything is up in the air. We’ve done this for several years now, including the time we got surprise orders to San Diego while I was pregnant, so it might feel like you’ve read this post before. (I assure you this is new, I’ve just whining about the same things AGAIN.) So far, things have always worked out and we’ve managed to stay put in Connecticut, much to my delight and E’s…less than delight. He likes the place, just not being passed over.

I’ll admit that in past years I was sort of relieved E wasn’t promoted. That’s a shitty thing to be happy about, but the logistics of moving are so overwhelming in our current house-owning state. We bought when the market was still high (not at the peak, thank God, or we’d be so far underwater on this house we’d never get out) so selling it without shelling out a huge chunk of cash is going to be hard. It’s even harder to realize that all the work we’ve put into it won’t bring us any return on investment and we’ll have to start over at zero dollars.  Not being a home owner has its advantages…but I love my home.

Beyond the financial aspect of moving, there’s the emotional aspect of leaving somewhere I’ve lived longer than anywhere else in my life. Actually, I’ve living in this HOUSE longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my life – before this, my record was all 4 years of high school in my parent’s house in Virginia. I moved every single year of college, then twice three times in the first year of marriage. The funny thing is, I used to like moving. I grew up in a military household and thought I could keep doing it indefinitely. But the truth is, being settled is comforting. A support system is important to me, especially as a mom. I have mom friends. My kids have kid friends. I have a mechanic, a pharmacy, a preschool, a library card, a favorite playground, and a zillion other things I don’t want to leave.

But. Even after I’ve said all that out loud (and to myself many, many times) I am not going to freak out if we have to leave. We are still in the easily-movable years with the kids where they adjust and make friends quickly. The Navy comes with a built in support system for families so I wouldn’t be starting for the bottom of a sad, dark pit – more like half way up a ladder that reaches the top. Starting over without the enormous costs of a house could give us the freedom to build our savings faster and splurge on things like family vacations more often. If E got promoted we might actually see him on a regular basis, instead of just waving at him as he runs out the door for another 36 hour shift.

To be totally honest, a lot of our moving options sound kind of…exciting. San Diego. Hawaii. Japan. Guam. Yes, it would be insanely far from our families, but they’re all limited-time-offers (and I am SURE my friends and relatives would find a way to visit me in Hawaii). We have friends in a lot of those places already. Even if we get transferred to somewhere on the East Coast a change might be good for us – what better excuse to purge all our unnecessary stuff, get organized and start fresh? I’m almost ready for that kind of challenge. Almost.

There is just so much uncertainty in our lives for the moment, thinking about it and NOT thinking about it both take a huge amount of effort. I don’t have the energy for much worrying on top of the thinking too, but please excuse me if more of this leaks out of my head between now and the end of April.

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I Promise I’ll Never End Up On Extreme Couponers

Monday, January 14th, 2013

Do you ever start doing something and then think “Whoa, this is SO EASY and yet makes SUCH A DIFFERENCE I cannot believe I wasn’t doing it already!”? I suspect you have, since I do it at least once a week – chances are people smarter than myself do it occasionally.

Specifically, I have started putting some effort into reducing our grocery bill. We really need to get our finances in better shape (too much holiday spending, a car that needs replaced, other stuff that makes being an adult kind of suck, etc etc etc) but my previous all-or-nothing attempts have always ended with…nothing. I’m terrible at that approach.

This time I have been much more successful because I limited myself to two(ish)  particular changes. Let me tell you about them in great detail!

First, I stopped throwing away the grocery store circular they mail me each week in the free town paper. I don’t subscribe to the real newspaper paper and I don’t have to remember to go buy one on Sundays – this just shows up, with no cost or effort besides remembering not to toss it in the recycling bin. In the past I would save ALL the circulars and stare at them thinking “I should compare prices on stuff and make a chart and go to each store to buy specific things where they are the cheapest”. That never happened. I would end up at my regular grocery store with no idea what was on sale, buying things on impulse along with the things on my list.

Now instead of setting my bar at “find the very lowest prices and drive to three different grocery stores to save money” I settle for “Look at the circular of the one store where I shop”. I specifically look at stuff I know we are running out of, proteins, and convenient foods for the kids like Goldfish and fruit snacks. I discovered that even organic fruit goes on sale sometimes, so I can get the fancy apples for less than the regular ones if I’m paying attention. (I also discovered fruit in general is a really cheap snack – plus the kids can help themselves. WIN-WIN!)

On top of the regular sales, my grocery store (Stop & Shop – it’s the same as Giant in other parts of the country) has a few coupons attached to their ad that can bring the sale prices of an item even lower. For example, cherry tomatoes are usually $3.99. They were on sale for $2.99. With the coupon on the circular they were $1.99. That’s totally worth the ten seconds it took me to cut it out. The idea of “couponing” as depicted on TV and the more intimidating parts of the internet is still so overwhelming my brain completely shuts down at the very thought. I do not scour the internet for coupons. I do not steal my neighbor’s papers to get coupons. I don’t buy stuff I never would have bought without a coupon and hoard it in my basement. But if I can buy something with the coupon that I KNOW I will need (last week it was butter, down from $3.49 to $1.99) I will buy it and freeze it. There are also sometimes coupons to get bonus gas points, which is literally free money. Saving 30+ cents a gallon adds up over the course of a few months.

The second thing I do is meal plan with specific foods in mind. I enjoy meal planning. It reduces the “What’s for dinner?” stress by 10000% and results in a lot fewer pizzas and fast-food runs. But until recently, all I did was pull out my cookbooks, binders, magazines and Pinterest board to see what sounded good. Then I’d make a list, buy ALL THE THINGS and make dinner for 4-5 nights in a row. Now I am looking at my store circular and making note of what main ingredients are on sale BEFORE I plan. Two weeks ago I had a coupon for chuck roast. Since I know I can make easy, delicious, left-over producing drip beef sandwiches with a chuck roast, drip beef went on the menu. Recently my friend Mae suggested I check out Budget Bytes for inexpensive recipes and I am really enjoying it. (Special shout out to the dragon noodles which I’ve already made twice!) The site has lots of interesting, quick, easy recipes without tons of fancy, one-off ingredients. Buying a whole bottle of safflower oil because a recipe calls for 1 teaspoon will blow your budget quickly. With this kind of focus at the grocery store, I get MUCH less distracted by the bright shiny sales on stuff I don’t need. My mind gets in a zone – Must! Find! Exact! Pork Loin! On! Sale! – and shopping takes LESS time than it used to.

The other part of my new meal plan (which is the “ish” part of saying I’ve only done two(ish) things to save money) is making things from scratch. So far I have made focaccia rolls, pita bread, pasta sauce and hummus – none of them were very difficult and all were cheaper than their store-bought versions. I realize not everyone wants to do that much cooking/baking – in fact MOST people don’t, which is why there are 400 different kinds of tomato sauce in jars – but I have the time and interest so I’m happy to be doing it.

The result is our grocery budget has been reduced by almost 50% ALREADY. On my first big shopping trip after I started being more mindful I saved 30% – around $40. My second smaller trip I saved 40%. My grocery store prints a running total of how much I’ve saved over the year at the bottom of my receipt and my goal is to get over $1200 by the end of 2013. That works out saving $100 a month with a food budget of around $350 a month, which includes breakfasts for me and the kids, lunch for me and the kids, lunch for E to take to work, dinner for all of us plus snacks, fruit and special treats. I’ve never tried to stick to a budget so closely before, so I’m not completely confident in my ability to do it but I am TRYING…which costs nothing.

As you can probably see from the list of stuff I’ve been making, I haven’t been keeping up with Paleo eating while I’ve been trying to reduce our costs. It’s hard to do both – grass-fed beef, coconut oil, nuts and organic produce add up quickly while flour and potatoes are cheap – but I’m hoping as I get better at it (and once our CSA starts up again) I can get back to my bacon diet. 

Since I’ve made these changes with so little effort I’m totally open to more ideas. What do you do to save money at the grocery store?

p.s.

regrowing green onions

Want to feel like MacGyver mixed with Laura Ingalls? Put the white part of your green onions in a glass of water and regrow them. BOOM! Money saving AND cool to watch. (Tip from The Kitchn via Homemade Serenity)

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The 5 Best Memberships For Families In Southeastern Connecticut

Thursday, October 11th, 2012

I know that’s a super long title, but I actually wanted to call it The 5 Best Memberships For Families In Southeastern Connecticut And How To Get The Most For Your Money (Also One Is Technically In Rhode Island But Just Ignore That). Brevity has never been my strong point.

Visiting these places is definitely worth it – they’re all fun, educational, and make a great day trip. Having a membership carries the added benefit of your day not getting ruined if it’s crowded, raining or your kid’s just not into it – you can just come back later. These spots are all approved for many repeat days of fun by me and my gingers:

the 5 best memberships for families in southeastern connecticut mystic aquarium

Mystic Aquarium

the 5 best memberships for families in southeastern connecticut mystic aquarium

Mystic Aquarium

1. Mystic Aquarium – I’m not sure how the aquarium got a reputation for being a must-see tourist attraction, but it’s a relatively small place and is totally packed in the summer. Luckily, once school starts (literally, the day after Labor Day) it’s deserted in the mornings and kids can have a private audience with belugas, penguins and a whole rainbow of fish. The inside building is carpeted (good for crawlers or early walkers) and very open (good for strollers). My 3-year-old and 1-year-old love the Titanic exhibit and the sea lion show too, although they’re a little young for the Sponge Bob 4-D movie. Since tickets cost $29+ a membership is definitely worth the price. Tip: If you have little kids, get a single membership with the add-a-guest option. Kids under 3 are free so you can bring your spouse OR a friend who also has small kids. I did that when Caroline was a infant and it made a great winter playdate. Another tip: They open at 9 am, which is GREAT for moms with kids who get up early.

the 5 best memberships for families in southeastern connecticut mystic seaport

Mystic Seaport

the 5 best memberships for families in southeastern connecticut mystic seaport

Mystic Seaport

2. Mystic Seaport – The mini boat playscape and children’s building make visiting worth it even if you never board a single vessel (although you should, since they’re really fun!). My kids love the horse carriage despite never having ridden on it. There’s also a fantastic play room hidden on the 3rd floor of the Stillman Building, so we visit even in less-than-ideal weather. It’s a big place, so unless they’re holding one of the extra-popular events (avoid antique boat weekend!!) it’s never too crowded. And the normal events – Dog Days, Chowderfest, etc – are really fun. Children under 5 are free, so a dual membership can get you in if you have pre-k or younger kids. Membership also includes coffee, hot cocoa and lemonade in the Member’s Building, discounts in the store and the chance to visit Santa in December.

the 5 best memberships for families in southeastern connecticut children's museum

Children’s Museum

the 5 best memberships for families in southeastern connecticut children's museum

Children’s Museum

3. Children’s Museum of Southeastern Connecticut – Full disclosure: we don’t actually have a membershipto the museum yet. We’ve been twice – once for an awesome birthday party – and it is full of creative play spaces and experiences for the kids. There’s an outdoor space for good weather and plenty of space inside for bad/hot/snowy/New Englandy weather. Their little gift shop is pretty amazing too, with lots of cool educational toys perfect for birthday gifts. We’ll be joining this winter, to add another indoor play space to our rotation.

the 5 best memberships for families in southeastern connecticut roger williams park zoo

Roger Williams Park Zoo

 

the 5 best memberships for families in southeastern connecticut roger williams park zoo

Roger Williams Park Zoo

4. Roger Williams Park Zoo – OK, so Providence isn’t in Connecticut but it’s only 40 minutes from the border and the drive is totally worth it. During the hot summer months the water features in Hasbro’s Big Back Yard were a huge hit with the kids and the tree house is really fun. The zoo is a great size for kids to walk, the animals are all close enough to enjoy and the staff has always been super nice and helpful. Did I mention there’s a Dunkin’ Donuts IN the zoo? Membership is pretty affordable and the add-a-guest is only $10 more, so it’s a great place to bring friends. In the summer we aimed to be there at 9 when they opened and left around noon for naps and it was never crowded.

5. Your local library! – I know all these memberships can add up really fast in a tight budget. The good news is many of the local libraries offer free or discounted passes to these locations. That’s the link to my town library but the ones in other towns have similar or better options. It would be worth checking these places out for yourself to see if you like them before springing for the full cost – and if you see us while you’re there, say hi!

Am I missing anything, friends? Where should we go next?!

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How To Cancel Cable and Not Die of Boredom

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

It’s been a month since we stopped paying $100+ a month for our TV habit (two months since we first talked about it) and no one has died. It’s a miracle. There haven’t even been any hissy fits or screaming arguments over who gets to watch Their Show and who has to Wait. Look at us! Compromising! Give and take! General awesomeness! Exclamation point!

I’ve had more conversations about that decision than almost anything else I’ve ever written about, so clearly we’re not the only ones who think cable companies are owned and run by the devil himself sort of a rip-off. Since we take our TV very seriously, E put a LOT of ridiculously dorky time into planning how we would watch various shows even without the Super Awesome Cable Plan of Amazing Awesomeness and Thousands of Dollars A Year.

First, let me clarify that we ended up NOT canceling all of our cable. We currently pay $16.80 for basic cable service and $49.95 for the second fastest internet package Comcast offers. We USED to pay $149.99 for TV, $15 for HBO, $7 for the HD DVR plus the $49.95 for internet and a totally unidentifiable amount for a home phone only used to talk to telemarketers. Although the bill claimed our “package” cost only $119, our monthly amount due ranged from $180 to $210 based on…I have no idea. How many nice things I said about Comcast on Twitter that week? How many times we rewound So You Think You Can Dance while saying “Did you SEE THAT?!?!?!”  So losing the “package”, the DVR and the home phone equals a savings of approximately $120 a month.

Second, we have the advantage of already owning a desktop computer with a TV tuner card. Actually, two TV tuner cards. Basically, that means we can watch all our TV through the computer with the added benefit of being able to *GASP* pause, rewind, and record live TV. Finding out I could do that without a fancy cable box or Tivo subscription was like finding out I was secretly adopted. The cards cost anywhere from about $40 to $150 depending on where you shop/what you want/how tech savvy you are when it comes to installing that kind of stuff yourself, but since that’s less than 1 month’s cable cost they are DEFINITELY worth it.

So with basic cable (which in our area includes all the major networks plus USA, Discovery, Spike, TCM, and about a dozen shopping and Spanish language channels) plus the computer card we can watch/record two broadcast shows at once or record one and watch another. I also still get my morning news and lunchtime Price is Right. We have it hooked up actually through the computer so turning on the TV takes an extra step but it’s worth it for the DVR and channel guide the tuner card provides.

“But I don’t have a fancy computer!” you say, “I want to watch broadcast shows! And also, I will DIE if I can’t watch Teen Mom!”

To you I present: Hulu.com. Not only did they have really funny commercials about Alec Baldwin eating your brain, they’re actually a REALLY good way to watch TV. E made a spreadsheet showing when shows air vs. when shows are available online and the answer is almost always the next day. Here’s just part of it (click on it if you can’t read the tiny writing):

If for some insane reason you want the whole thing, I can email it to you. I just couldn't get the whole 50 show spreadsheet into one screenshot. Oh and it was for the summer lineup so some shows are listed as airing on "0" because they weren't on.

There are a few shows I have to track down online (Project Runway and Army Wives on Lifetime, anything on TNT, CW shows, which are especially hard to find – I STILL haven’t seen the premiere of ANTM) and I don’t get to see non-network award shows (like the VMA’s Sunday night) but EVERYTHING ELSE – including Teen Mom – is on Hulu. The best part is you can go through and add all the shows to your queue so when you log in it shows you the new episodes you have to watch. There isn’t a limit on how many shows from each time slot you can watch either, so even though I’ve missed several seasons of Dancing With the Stars because too many things I watched were on at that time I will definitely get to watch it this season (for the record, Jennifer Gray is going to win. NOBODY PUTS BABY IN THE CORNER WITHOUT A SPARKLY DISCO BALL TROPHY).

Which means I may actually be watching MORE TV than I was with the fancy cable package. I’m humming “Ironic” in my head. Not because this is the perfect definition of irony, but neither is rain on your wedding day so I feel justified.

Throw in a Netflix – now streaming movies straight to your tv! and computer! and XBox! and Wii! all of which we have! – subscription for $18 a month and we’ve got seasons and seasons of shows we might not have watched the first time around (Dear Joss Whedon, please please please forgive me) plus enough HBO and Showtime series to tie up entire weekends of time. Even if the very newest seasons aren’t available instantly you can get them in the mail as soon as they’re released on DVD. (Sort of. Some movies seem to be released on Netflix later than they’re actually released on regular DVD at the store.)

So, there you go: the least concise and most confusing explanation of how to watch TV on a budget ever.

(It helps that I am not the sort of person who gets upset at spoilers. If who wins Top Chef is REALLY important to you you’re going to have to make sure you watch the finale live at a friend’s house. Or if you don’t want to know that at the end of season 4 of Dexter *blank* is *blank* in the *blank* OMG!!!!! you’ll have to avoid not only the whole internet, but clip shows, talk shows, and most of your friends. Or you can just forget that someone already told you the ending. Like I did.)

(Disclaimer: Hulu, Netflix, Comcast and anyone else mentioned in this post have no idea who I am and would probably rather I NOT mention them on this blog. I wasn’t smart enough to ask them for compensation before writing about any of the companies so I’m plugging them all for free. Except for Comcast, who I’m sort of UNplugging, although now that I don’t curse their name every time I pay the bill I have to say we actually love their internet service.)

(This next part is written by E.  You’ve been warned.)

The computer we use is an Acer that we got from TigerDirect. com.  The dual band TV tuner card we also got from TigerDirect.com.   Another source of programming for us Comcast users is their Fancast site.  Really it is just a portal to all of the streaming services already available for free (like hulu), but it does allow you to watch shows online if you currently have a subscription to that channel.  I won’t bore you anymore, unless of course you want some more information, then tell Suzanne and I’ll write something much more lengthy.

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