Archive for the ‘Money’ Category

Choose Your Joneses Carefully

Second Hand Clothes

Second Hand Clothes: Our preferred method for dressing our children.

I read somewhere yesterday that you should choose your Joneses carefully and it resonated with me. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find the line anywhere. I thought it was in A Good Enough House for a Great Life at Frugal Babe, but it might have been in this article by Joshua Becker over at Becoming Minimalist.

Regardless, it has stuck with me. I like the idea that, instead of looking around and blindly coveting the more stylish clothes, fancy electronic devices, and nicer car of a coworker, parent, or even friend, you can choose whose life you’d like yours to emulate. I thought about this for a while last night and realized that my Joneses are bits of my real-life friends, and large chunks of my online friends.

For several years I’ve wanted the one-car lifestyle of several of my friends (all it takes is an opportunistic car thief and a dropped set of keys!).

I’ve wanted the discipline of one of my friends who exercises consistently, and probably isn’t even letting her first trimester pregnancy get in the way of her workout schedule.

I’ve wanted that same friend’s wide open indoor spaces and clear counters–as far as I can tell, she’s a minimalist without even really trying.

I’ve wanted another friend’s commitment to healthy eating.

I’ve also wanted the fancy, internet-enabled electronics, but I could temper that by reminding myself that I didn’t want the bill, and nor did I want to become one of those parents who is glued to their phone.

Online, Frugal Babe is one of my favorite Joneses. She tries to make all of her family’s food from scratch, eats 95% vegan, buys everything used whenever possible, and works to repurpose what she has rather than buying something new. I love how she counters the Never Stop Improving mentality of a new generation of homeowners. I can’t wait to stop improving!

Some others in the online realm are J.Money at Budgets Are Sexy (I want his career!), Mr. Money Mustache, whose Muscle Over Motor principle Jason and I embrace heartily AND whose early retirement we both are jealous of, and Rachel at Minimalist Mom, whose minimalist lifestyle I’d enjoy.


Those are my Joneses. Who are yours?


Megabus Adventures

Megabus photo

I recently had the opportunity to take a Megabus to Cleveland. And when I say opportunity, I mean that our newer, more comfortable car was stolen and Megabus became the best option. I honestly wouldn’t have considered it an option if my friend I was traveling with hadn’t mentioned it.

Pittsburgh is  a Megabus hub, so there are many destination options from here. All are relatively close by, and ideal for a trip into a city where you won’t be needing a car (New York City, anyone?).

Megabus is:

Cheap: It cost exactly $24.50 for a round-trip ticket. $13 to Cleveland, $11 back to Pittsburgh, and a $.50 processing fee. My friend estimated that we’d be paying about $50 in gas for the weekend, not to mention putting miles on the car Jason and I wanted to sell at some point in the near future.

Comfortable: The seats were soft and cushy, and I sat on the second level.

Convenient: They depart exactly on time, so you arrive when they say you will. The bus stops in Pittsburgh right downtown, about two miles from our house.

There’s also wireless internet! I didn’t try to use it on my trip to Cleveland because I was traveling with a new friend  whom I wanted to chat with instead. On my trip home, I couldn’t convince the wifi to work on my computer, but I had a new magazine, so I’ll admit that I didn’t try very hard. But many people around me took advantage of it and were happily facebooking away on their computers.

Honestly, I spent 2 hours and twenty minutes talking to a friend one way, and relaxing and reading trashy magazines the other way.  This, instead of dealing with Friday rush hour traffic, aggressive drivers, and trying to navigate a new place. We were of course extremely fortunate to have my friend’s friend to both pick up and drop off at the bus stop!

I can see taking the Megabus with my family, particularly when J & P are of an age when they no longer need such large amounts of gear and can walk more. What a great way to explore a city for a weekend!


Have you ever taken a Megabus? 

Still Stolen: The First Week of a One-Car Household

Subaru Forester in snow

If we had to have a car stolen, it’s slightly reassuring to know that we still have the one with four-wheel drive, just in case we have a winter like this again.

It’s Monday afternoon as I write this, meaning that we’ve been without a second car for seven days and a few hours. 

My only update about our car is that there is no update. It hasn’t turned up. The insurance will reimburse us the cost of new car seats, which is excellent, especially considering Paige was about to outgrow hers. We don’t know if the insurance will ask for us to reimburse them if the car turns up with the car seats intact. Honestly, even if it does show up with the car seats, I don’t plan to use them. You never know what someone who’s stolen your car has done all over the kid’s seats.

Also, we don’t know at what point there will be a payout for the cost of replacing the car. 30 days? 60 days? And then what happens if it turns up after whatever time frame? Things I’m curious to know but that honestly won’t change our circumstance one iota, so not really that important, really.

Following are my observations after having only one car for a week.

1. I’m walking more. Last Wednesday I walked J to school, walked P to the dry cleaners and then her morning program, to the library, then back to pick P up and then J up. J rode his new (to him) big two-wheeler and we locked it up at school on a fence. Can you believe they don’t have a bike rack? I’m thinking of calling BikePittsburgh to see if they match fundraising or something for a new rack. Anyway, another day we walked to the post office to mail a large package after picking J up at school.

2. Jason’s biking more. He biked three days last week, and biked today, when he would normally never bike on a Monday morning. That’s not to say he was excited about it, but he’s doing it and getting some intense cardio on the small mountains he has to climb to get to work.

3. This kids are exercising more. We’ve taken little walks around our neighborhood just to get some fresh air on mornings that we didn’t have a car, and Jack has ridden his bike alongside me pushing the stroller. In fact, he goes so fast on the new (to him), bigger bike that I almost always have to run to keep up. Commuters driving to work probably wonder who the crazy lady is that always wears jeans when she runs 🙂

4. We don’t melt. On a walk home from school, it started to rain, really rain. J wasn’t a huge fan, but he kept on going and even picked up the pace a little. P was snug and dry in the covered stroller. I knew rain was a possibility that morning, so everyone was dressed in a raincoat, the kids’ rain pants were in my bag, and I had an umbrella with us. And I took the Burley trailer/stroller that morning since it has a rain-tight cover and lots of storage for whatever we need to haul around.

5. Walking to “run” errands involves planning. I’ve always run a few errands here and there with the kids while walking, but never on this level. I have to plan to have everything I need to mail, deposit, drop off, etc. If I forget something, that errand has to wait another day at least.

6. Less gas = more money. We could probably lower the $404/month budget for transportation soon, because usually halfway through the month we’ve filled the cars up at least once each. I would have filled the blue car last Monday, in fact. But that money is barely being touched this month. Fyi, that amount covers all expenses, maintenance, insurance, gas, everything for two cars and Jason’s commute bike (as well as some biking clothing and accessories for him).

7. A trip to the suburbs is again a family fun night. I had some suburban errands to run to get ready for our trip–Costco, Target, Michael’s, and Lowe’s, so we took the kids one night and had a fun dinner out.

8. I need to replace my car key. I have a handful of errands to take care of before we leave for San Francisco, and need the car. Jason biked today so that I could take care of them today. But I realized, after readying myself and both kids and all assorted stuff we needed to take care of, that Jason forgot to leave me the Subaru key. Not his fault at all–I should have had a new key made last week. You can guess what I just added to the errand list for tomorrow!

9. Parking is a breeze! We have a one-car garage that few modern cars can fit into and still open even one door. And we have a parking pad that fits one car. So we park one car in the parking pad and one blocks in that car and the door of the garage. Changing cars was a pain, probably more for Jason than for me, since the Subaru didn’t usually have car seats in it (from the weekend trips to haul drywall, tools, etc.). Parking on the street in front of our house was usually a bigger pain since our neighborhood is half student rentals and each student brings a car that they park on the street.

10. I need to buy bus tickets. Saturday night after my return from Cleveland (on the Megabus!), I realized that I had not a penny with which to catch a bus home. Fortunately a lovely Marriott had a mac machine and gave me change. I plan on taking the bus with the kids soon, and don’t want to have to deal with the money while dealing with them and their assorted gear.

11. Our pace has slowed. We’ve now stayed home two full days in the last week, which is unusual and refreshing. The kids seem to enjoy it and I’m certainly happy accomplishing more at home. We’re not seeing as many people for playdates, that’s certain. But I’ve been a tad overwhelmed lately by all the things on our schedule and staying home more is a very good way to feel less busy and more calm.

My verdict: We’re not suffering. 

We’re ALL exercising more, getting more fresh air, I feel like I’m catching up with some of the things I’d let slide recently, and we’re spending less money. Some things are inconvenient, but they’re mostly solvable things.


How do you manage errands/kids/appointments/jobs with only one car?

Mother Earth News Fair Recap

Filling our water bottles at a natural spring

Filling our water bottles at a natural spring near our condo. Jason’s sorry the pictures are either too dark or blurry!

Last weekend Jason and I spent Saturday and Sunday at the Mother Earth News Fair, held in Seven Springs, PA. It’s only about an our southeast of Pittsburgh, and we were lucky enough to have family offer us a free place to stay and free childcare FOR THE ENTIRE WEEKEND. We were a little excited.

We arrived late Friday night to a sweet condo with a fireplace. We stayed up too late enjoying the quiet, the wine, and each other’s company, which meant that Saturday morning was a late one. Unfortunately, we missed the first set of sessions on Saturday, but we quickly found out that we couldn’t get anywhere near most of the rooms anyway. Several of the sessions were so full of people that just the long, wide hallways to get to the session rooms were packed enough to make my agoraphobia kick in. Jason attended sessions mostly held outside, so he was able to see and hear fine. His interest in alternative energy drove his session choices for the day, but he found many of the sessions to be less practically applied than he’d hoped for.

Although we missed out on the morning and early afternoon sessions, we had better luck with the afternoon & early evening sessions. We attended a bread making session together, which was fun because Jason is in charge of the pizza-making in this house.

A session about promoting and earning income for your farm through social media caught my eye. Jason was interested, so we went together and found it to be the most interesting session we attended all weekend (the funniest, too). Jenna Woginrich from Cold Antler Farm gave extremely practical advice that anyone looking to promote any homegrown business could benefit from.

Sunday morning we headed back over to the Fair a bit earlier where I sat in on a session about making easy soft cheeses and Jason learned how to build his own solar panel. Note: Jason is NO LONGER interested in building his own solar panels!

On Sunday the crowds were much, much thinner and we explored all the exhibitors, vendors, and the book shop. There were so many vendors both outside and in that it took a couple of hours to see everything we wanted. After some delicious vegan vendor food, we headed back to the condo to pack up, and then ran into the woods for a quick hike. The condo we stayed in was actually in Hidden Valley, very close to Seven Springs, but even closer to lots of beautiful hiking trails in Forbes State Forest. The next time we get to that area, I’d like to spend more time hiking–there were  tons of trails and back country hiking and camping, too!

We had a few takeaways from the weekend (aside from new bread and cheese ideas)…

If we go to the Mother Earth News Fair again, we would like to go on Friday instead of or in addition to Sunday. There was apparently a full day of sessions without the crowds.

If we go to that area again–and we will!–I want to spend more time hiking. 

I’m thinking that it would be a great area to take the kids camping next year, hopefully with some friends–close, but feels completely removed from our normal urban lifestyle.


Go anywhere fun or learn anything new over the last couple of weeks?


Spending Triage

J asleep in his snowsuit, which we affectionately nicknamed “The Coma Suit” for its ability  to get him to fall asleep. Probably about 19 months old.

There’s a lot to balance right now, and I let the money slide.

In February, Jason and I overhauled our budget to maximize the amount of money going toward our renovation each month. Suddenly, there are many unexpected expenses cropping up that are needs. These expenses will be ongoing for a couple of months at least. We can’t put the entire renovation on hold, nor can we put on hold the doctors appointments, birthdays, or weddings. And although not financially smart, I downright refuse to put our first weekend away from our kids on hold. That’s a need, right there.

With more sudden ongoing expenses, and me not taking the time to find room in our budget (i.e. spend less in other categories or save less) for the last month or two, we have a small problem.

It’s time to perform Spending Triage.

Spending Triage happens when I realize that we are on the threshold of spending a large amount of money that needs to be spent, but that we weren’t able (or didn’t think) to predict.

Spending Triage is the process of separating wants from needs. Jason and I sit down together and look for places we can cut back. The “gifts” category is one that immediately jumps to mind. If this year needs to be all homemade cards, ornaments, and baked goods instead of our usual calendars, prints, and other gifts, our families and friends aren’t going to love us even slightly less.

Personally, I’m grateful that we need to do this. Sure, having lots of extra money pour into our laps would be super easy and some stress would melt away. But life isn’t always going to be like this, and it’s good to know how to cut back and even save in tight times.

Spending Triage is the process of holding one expense up to another and deciding which is more important.

I’m grateful that we had the forethought to take out a Home Equity Line of Credit, so that we don’t need to put the renovation on hold. I’m grateful for awesome friends who don’t mind hanging out at our home for a potluck. And I’m grateful for all the times before now when we had to hitch up our suspenders and really pinch every penny, because those times make this feel like a walk in park.

It just so happens that this is about the time when we do a big yearly review, so hopefully we’ll be able to do that and a little triage in one fell swoop very soon.

I’m actually looking forward to it: Jason and I always have such great conversations when we are working together to fix a problem. Even though he hates money.

Hmmm…why DOES he hate money?


How do you know if your spending is going crazy? And do you consciously reign it back in?

Buying Term Life Insurance, or, How We Quit Smoking

Photo by vwallac

What do smoking and term life insurance have to do with each other, aside from the obvious one-makes-the-other-more-expensive correlation? In my life, plenty.

In February of 2006, still newlyweds, we made our first appointment with our commission-based financial planner to go over our finances and areas of risk. The outcome of that meeting was that we signed up for term life insurance policies. Because we were in our mid-twenties and healthy, the policy had a very low cost to us, and I’m still glad we did it.

Our advisor looked at us when filling out the paperwork and asked, “Are you smokers?”

I didn’t miss a beat, answering, “Nope.”

Jason didn’t say a word. Of course, we were given a lower rate because we were non-smokers.

Here’s the part I’m ashamed of: I LIED. Definitely not one of my finer moments.

We were both smokers. I’m not sure when Jason started, but I’d been smoking regularly since my sophomore year of college.

What I didn’t realize was that, at the end of our appointment, our advisor explained that someone would make an appointment and come to our house to do blood and urine tests to confirm how darn healthy we were. He advised us to eat pretty healthily and to avoid alcohol the day before the tests. I started to panic.

Needless to say, we went home, fired up the internet, and spent a stressful evening trying to figure out how long nicotine and other chemicals from cigarettes remained in us.

The answer: 72 hours.

But it’s the internet, and we had lied, and there was money at stake. And we didn’t know when our testing appointment would be (turned out it was almost two weeks from that day). So that very night we smoked our last cigarettes.

I’d tried to quit many, many times before. Smoking is expensive, and I’d always had low-paying jobs with nothing left over at the end of a pay period. Not smoking would have freed up a lot of money (to me).

None of those times had stuck. My previous long-term boyfriend had smoked, and most of my friends smoked, as well as my mom and much of my family. This meant that most of my social and home situations involved cigarettes, and had for a very long time. My husband and I had developed rituals around smoking, both together and apart. The first cigarette of the morning with coffee, taking breaks from work or schoolwork to have a smoke, smoking in the car, while waiting for the bus, at a bar with friends. You get the idea.

This time, Jason quit with me.

Those first days were awful, with headaches, stomachaches, and so grumpy that we were really angry all day. We bickered, avoided as many social situations as we could, ate granola bars, nuts and carrots non-stop, and just tried to get through it.

I was definitely the weaker of the two of us, and almost gave in once that I can recall in that time before our testing appointment. Jason said something so powerful that it became our mantra:

“The nicotine is long gone–we’re only battling ourselves now. Do you really want to go through this hell ever again?”

We’d read online that after 72 hours you’re no longer battling the chemical withdrawal, you’re battling your own body’s addiction.

After our testing appointment was over, there are at least two or three times that I was ready to buy a pack of cigarettes, and I think I even had one that I begged from a friend. Each time, I reminded myself how hard it had been, how awful I had felt and how terrible EVERYTHING was for over a week. And I reminded myself that I didn’t want to go through it again, in a million years.

I also sat down and ran the numbers: Assuming $3.75/pack in 2006 and one pack/day, even though I smoked more than that very often, I was spending:

$26.25 each week

$105 each month

$1260 each year!

That’s still a lot of money to me. Remember that I often smoked up to two packs each day, so this could probably have half added again, for a total of $1890/year! And I can remember times I was eating beans for the 30th night in a row because I was broke, but could still buy cigarettes. This makes no sense to me now.

I should add in here that both of our term policies cost us a total of $48.24 each month. So the smoking I’m not doing smoking pays for both our policies AND we’re still saving money!

The moral of the story: I’m ashamed and sorry that I lied on that term life insurance application, but it helped us do something that I’m not sure we would have done on our own at that stage in our lives. Oh, and another upside? We’d never celebrated Valentine’s Day, but for the last six years we’ve celebrated our own special holiday on February 23, our Quit Smoking Anniversary.


Have you ever calculated the cost of your addiction? Maybe I should figure out what coffee was costing me when I was addicted to it!

Family Photo Swap

Frugal Family photo swap

2011’s Family Photo Swap (one of many)

We just came from our now-annual Family Photo Swap. Some friends take our family photos, then we take theirs. We switch back and forth every time we move to a new location.

Photographers are expensive (and worth it most of the time), but in these years of temper tantrums, high energy, and J’s extreme fear of new people, having friends who we can swap family photos with has been a huge help.

Last year around August, my friend Jenee approached me about heading to a park with our families one morning and taking family photos. She and her husband, GI, have a nice camera and both know their way around it (she’s even taken classes). Jason took photography classes in Germany and traveled through Europe practicing with his photography classmates. So each family has at least one person who is a good photographer.

Family photographs, and those of our kids, make awesome Christmas gifts. We who have four sets of grandparents like to keep those kid-sitting grandparents happy, and smiling photos make them happy. Also, in year’s past, we make our Christmas card with photos and create a calendar for grandparents, aunts, and uncles.

I was thrilled when Jenee suggested a photo swap again this year!

Frugal Family Photo Swap

Last year we took them on Sunday, September 11; this year, it was Saturday, September 15. Apparently we stick to the same time each year. It’s so nice to have them taken early because, as Jenee mentioned today, when the deals on photo cards (and prints and calendars!) crop up before the holidays, we’re ready and able to take advantage of them.

Here’s how it works for us:

  • Choose an outdoor place with an indoor back-up, day and time.
  • Get everybody dressed, relatively clean, and make sure the kids are well-fed.
  • Take lots of non-messy snacks, water, and toys. Stuffed animals, cars, balls–all good.
  • Even though our kids prefer not to use a stroller for short distances, we took one anyway. We liked having a stroller with us to move the bags of toys, snacks, purses, etc.
  • Move around a lot; kids get bored easily. We took photos in four different locations in and around a place called Schenley Commons. It has a large fountain, lots of flowers, Dippy the Dinosaur, a carousel that was sadly closed today, and across the street is the University of Pittsburgh’s main campus area. We spied some beautiful red doors near the Cathedral of Learning and took the last of the photos there, hoping they would look great for holiday cards.
  • Don’t be afraid to use the other family’s snacks and toys as bribery. I was pretty grateful for for Jenee’s Curious George gummi snacks today.
  • Press that camera button as fast as possible!
  • Know when to say when. At about an hour and a half, everybody had had enough.


Have you ever tried a photo swap with someone else or another family?