Saturday, June 23, 2012

#1: Getting Paid Creatively

This is the last of my 10 money saving strategies- we'll get back to the home reno stuff very soon!

I find that a lot of people are just so obsessed with how much money they can make. Which is good, to a point. (there's nothing wrong with being rich and don't ever let anyone tell you there is!) But the most important part of your salary isn't how much you make, it's how much you can keep and how far you can stretch what you've got.

I'd highly recommend that you have a good CPA or financial planner, or both in your life. Figure out what you can hang on to and what you're gonna need later. That will put you so far ahead of the game.

Because of the way that the military is paid, only a portion of our income is taxable, which is a pretty sweet deal. If I were to go out and get a "real" job with a "real" salary, I'd push us into the next highest tax bracket and actually cost us money by working and having to put the kids in daycare.

I do work, and I do get paid- here's how: I do several different things...I sometimes write web copy for a company out of Las Vegas...most notably, a very cheesy catalog description of a black bikini ;) I take surveys, I test new products before they're released, and I refinish and sell furniture. I do focus groups- and there's something really satisfying about telling someone their commercial sucks before it airs!!! It isn't mortgage money, but on the worst month, it still pays for diapers. Sometimes I even make enough that it pays all of the bills associated with our munchkins. I once got a Wolfgang Puck multi-cooker in exchange for testing out certain recipes and writing a review. The thing retails for 249.00 and our crock pot was on the fritz, so that was awesome! Most web-based companies (textbroker, surveyhead, valuedopinions, opinionoutpost) offer several different formats of payment. I will take a certain portion of my earnings in cash, some in Macy's gift cards (free/cheap way to clothe everyone) and some in Amazon promo codes. If we're honest, most of us can be a little cavalier with cash, which is why I like having the promo codes and the gift cards. When I get the Macy's cards, I stick them in a drawer until there's a sale, then whomever needs clothes gets to use them. It works well for us. Again, our system isn't going to work for everyone, but finding that sweet spot where you make enough to cover your needs and most of your wants without having to pay taxes on it is a nice place to be.

If you check out any of the websites I've listed, you'll probably think, "wow, the pay sucks!" And that is partially true. It took about a year of doing the crappy paying stuff before I started to get the better jobs, so YMMV. If none of this is practical for your situation, I highly recommend falling back on the barter system- again, it isn't what you make, it's what you keep!

So there you have it- the 10 ways we have all that we have on the salary we have. Hope some of my strategies work to keep just a bit more of your money in your pockets :)

Friday, June 15, 2012

#2:Daily Deal Sites

This is going to be a quick post without many pictures- our little girl is turning 2 tomorrow and I have cupcakes to bake!!!!

My favorite daily deal site is probably Groupon. If you aren't signed up, you should be! They're fantastic for getting super deals on family outings and restaurant discounts. They also periodically email promo codes worth  $5 or $10. Our first ever Groupon was for tickets to the Seattle Aquarium.The kids would have gotten in free, but each adult admission costs $19.95. Groupon had them for just $10 each AND I had a $10 promo code, which effectively made our tickets 5 bucks apiece! We felt pretty bad for the couple in front of us....they wound up forking over more than 100 bucks to get themselves, their kids, and their friends in. It was an awesome outing, though. Ms. Toddler kept saying, "wow!" and at the end, she got to pick a stuffed animal from the gift shop, which made her day.

The deals are time-sensitive: you have to buy it when you can buy it, but the expiration dates are fairly long, so we've never had an issue getting to use them. My most recent score was an all day pass to Vertical World, including shoe rental for 3 bucks, which made for a really cheap and awesome father's day gift. If you're looking for dining discounts, try GrouponNow, but be warned, most have to be used the same day they are purchased.

Other sites to try: LivingSocial and Saveology

 For upper end clothing, I really like MyHabit. It's owned by Amazon, so if you have an Amazon gift card you can use it there. Shipping is always free and new events begin daily at 9 am PST. When the site first launched, I was lucky enough to get a promo code for $25 dollars, which I turned into free shoes for the husband.

For home furnishings, OneKingsLane. I've seen everything from OXO kitchen tools for cheap to Frette linens.

And while this isn't a daily deal site, if you're going to eat out, I'd highly recommend a trip to They offer discount gift certificates in several denominations depending upon the restaurant. Typically, you'll pay $4 for a $10 certificate, $6 for $15, and $10 for $25. Minimum checks do apply, so it's helpful if you know what you typically spend at the restaurant you're purchasing for. Remember to go through Ebates! I paid 3 dollars and change for our last $10 certificate.

Next and Last: My #1 Tip for Cheap Living...Getting Paid Creatively (relax, it's perfectly legal!)

Sunday, June 10, 2012

#4 Trade, Swap, Barter and Mooch

Well, no not mooch.

Actually, I think this post could be easily summed up in one word: cooperation. Cooperating is something that I think our grandparent's generation did really, really well. Ours, not so much. I think the economic constraints of WWII probably had a lot to do with that. Most families wouldn't have had a ton of cash, but most of them would have had a garden or been skilled enough at a trade to barter their services. And if our economy doesn't pick up soon, I feel pretty secure in saying that a lot more people are going to turn to bartering to help provide for their families. Everything comes full circle, I guess.

We swap everything from produce to clothes to coupons. And if we really trust them, we even let them borrow power tools. ;)

The list goes on and on. And you might be shocked how many people are willing to work for beer. There's nothing crazy or earth-shattering about #4, but it works.

#3 Get off your butt Do it Yourself

Despite all of our crazy home improvement project, I would have to say that my nuttiest DIY adventure was mowing our 3 (totally unlevel!) lots while 41 weeks pregnant with our daughter. Not my brightest move ever. But, that actually brings me to a point about doing it yourself. We actually talked about hiring a lawn service during the 3rd trimester. You see, my husband is quite literally allergic too grass. Not all grass, just the kind that grows in the Northwest. Which is where we live. It would have cost us $35 per week to have a lawn service come in and just do the basic mowing. Even in this part of the country, we mow from April to October, roughly 28 weeks per year. That's almost $1,000. And I am way too cheap for that. That's a small(er) DIY saving.

Here's a huge one: our master bath.

Depending upon which contractor we'd gone with, we would have shelled out between 30k-35k more, and that's just for the slate tub. The sink console I wanted was Pottery Barn and in the thousands. But we found a great old sideboard at a thrift store and modified it ourselves. We got the same look I wanted, but for $300 bucks.

 By doing the work ourselves, albeit slowly, we simply paid for the cost of materials and the tools we needed for the project. We mostly worked on it on the weekends and there were times that we took baths in rubbermaid storage tubs. Go ahead, you can laugh. It's funny now. It was so worth it to keep all that cash in our pockets. You can see pics of our sink console here and read about the slate tub here. (I actually need to update our bathroom pictures- we've added a lot more molding)

I really prefer that we buy our tools vs. renting them. If you rent them more than 1-2 times, you've basically shelled out the cost of the tool, but without anything to show for it. Even if it's a tool we aren't likely to need again, I'd still rather buy it then sell on Craigslist. Quick disclaimer: I really don't recommend DIYing electricity unless you really know what you're doing. And while the husband has a construction background, he'd never built a custom tub. What he came up with was the result of a lot of reading, how-to video, and trial&error.

Next Post: Money Saving Strategy #2 Daily Deal Sites

Friday, June 8, 2012

#5: Menu Planning

Ah, menu planning. It was my husband who first suggested we start this. My initial reaction: are you friggin' kidding me?! We hadn't been married that long and we'd just decided that it made more sense for me to stay home, since we were about to start trying for kids. I'm traditional(ish), but I have my limits! Actually, it turned out that meal planning worked pretty well for us. We'd sit down together on Sunday night and figure out what we wanted to eat for the next week. We'd build in maybe one lunch out and one dinner out. Then, I'd make a list of all the ingredients we needed for the dishes we'd selected and go grocery shopping.

This is menu planning at it's simplest. Even if this is all you do, it will still save you money. For us, this eliminated all the quick runs to the grocery store for those few items we didn't have but needed to make whatever we felt like making. Average cost of those quick trips? About 10 bucks a pop. And at one point, we were doing this almost every day after the husband got home from work.

If you want to save even more, figure out your menu plan, then grab those grocery circulars and find the specials. Then, pair them with your coupons.

If you really want to save the big bucks, do the process in reverse. Huh? There are several grocery stores near us, but I pick the 2 with the best deals each week. Unless there are just some killer deals, it simply isn't worth the gas to drive all over town. Plus, I'd rather hang out with our kids :) Anyway, I find the best deals out the circulars, pair up with coupons, and schlep it all home. Then, each evening I spend about 5 minutes loosely planning out the next day's menu. Probably not the most efficient way to do things, but it works well for us. We outlawed those "quick trips" to the grocery store (with the exception of milk, eggs, flour) so if I don't have something a recipe calls for, I'll modify it. Speaking of running to the store for eggs, my in-laws were visiting a while back and I was going to make apricot scones for breakfast. I actually make great scones, but there was one tiny little problem: we were completely out of eggs. Adding insult to injury, the recipe only called for one lousy egg. Oh, and did I mention that my mom-in-law was a professional wedding cake baker for most of her adult life? Fortunately, my sweet father-in-law slipped out and came back with a dozen eggs and my scone batter was saved. Mildly Mortifying.

But, I digress. Here's what today's menu looks like:

Breakfast: Whole Wheat toast made from bread bought at farmer's market. "Protein Shake" made of 1 cup plain almond milk and banana. I throw them in the blender with some ice and the husband and I split it.

Snack: veggie-based juice made with our Champion Juicer

Lunch: Leftover roasted veggies from last night's dinner and bruschetta made from the farmer's market bread, fresh cherry tomatoes, garlic olives, and a sprinkle of feta.

Snack: leftover juice

Dinner: homemade veggie pizza. We buy the ready made dough balls from Safeway, so it's a quick process.

The kids basically eat what we eat- you should see Mr. Baby go after roast zucchini. They drink the fresh juice we make, too. The big exception we make with their diet is that their afternoon snack is more substantial- peanut butter sandwich, yogurt, or applesauce typically. Our toddler also drinks cow's milk, which I feel is important at her age, though I personally feel better when I limit my dairy. Our son eats most of his solid food early in the morning, whereas our toddler likes to have a light breakfast, then load up at lunch.

I also drink a ton of hot tea, both caffeinated and decaf. It's so chilly here that I have a real issue drinking cold water. We actually had to turn our heater on last night...and it's June. Here's one of my absolute favorites. If you haven't tried it , you need to! It tastes great plain or with a bit of milk and honey.

I'd conservatively estimate that we're saving a good 30% on our grocery budget by meal planning the way that we do. We could save more if we ate more processed "coupon" type foods, but I really believe that junk food is only cheap until you get the bill for the heart bypass.

Next up, #4 Trade, Swap, Barter and Mooch

Thursday, June 7, 2012

#6:Getting Your Priorities Straight

EDIT: A funny thing just happened. My husband walked into our room and said, "I just read about those people who downsized to really small houses so that they could get rid of their mortgages. I can actually see us doing something like that." We're still trying to decide how drastically we're willing to change our lives. If we lived like that for even a few short years, we'd be able to stockpile some serious cash. It would open up the potential to pay for our eventual home outright and to use the small one as a rental cottage for residual income.

I think a lot of people do a lot of talking about prioritizing without realizing what it truly means. Here are my priorities:

 I think when you're married to someone in the military, you realize that you could lose them at any time. Not trying to be morbid or anything, but it does put things in perspective. Couple that with being told that we would most likely not be able to have kids of our own without medical intervention (long story, irresponsible doc) and it makes me really appreciate those three faces up there.

 Once you figure out what is really truly precious to you, it will save you so much time and money. Seriously. If you know what you want and you want it bad enough, chances are you'll make it happen. Of course, that means letting go of some material stuff. It also means taking a good hard look at what you really need vs. what you think you need. Here are a few things we "do without" that provide us with the greatest savings. These certainly wouldn't work for everyone, but they make it possible for us to live how we want to live, so it's worth it to us.

 1. We share a car. This is actually a huge money saver for us. You're probably thinking, "wow, I could never share a car with my spouse." I actually used to think the same thing. When we got married, "my" car became our car. We saved up over the next couple of years and last Christmas, my husband got me the SUV I'd had my eye on for a while. I was soooo excited. After 2 years, I finally had my own car again! But, then something funny happened; we stopped driving our first car. It literally started to grow moss. So, we sold it. There's no use paying for insurance and oil changes on a vehicle you aren't using. Granted, I stay at home and the husband telecommutes for the most part these days. (Another long story) We also live withing walking distance of 2 grocery stores and multiple restaurants. (And our marriage is pretty solid. I absolutely don't advocate giving up your wheels if it isn't!) But if you have multiple vehicles simply because it is the norm for American households, maybe it's time to rethink it. With an average cost of ownership at 8k per year, per car, that's a pretty significant chunk of change!

2. Shopping. Well, ok, obviously we shop. (And if you're shopping online, I have a couple of tips for you here.)What I mean is, we don't shop for fun or out of boredom. If I don't need a new cardigan, I don't go into Macy's. It is that simple. Shopping for fun or entertainment gets really expensive, really quick. Have you ever heard that most of us wear 20% of our wardrobe 80% of the time? Well, that was true for us. So we eliminated the other 80%. We buy what we need and wear what we buy. I must admit, this was really a tough one for me. I'm a girl and I love to shop. Was that redundant?! Our clothes do need replacing a bit more frequently since they see more wear, but it's still so much cheaper than keeping a closet stuffed to the brim with crap that isn't getting worn.

 Here it is. And, this is a shared closet. We have a medium size rubbermaid tub that holds our winter coats in the off season and a hanging bag for uniforms, but other than that, what you see is what we wear.

I really don't know how to put an exact dollar amount on how much we save by buying only the clothes we need, since I never really kept track of it before. I estimate, however, that the total annual saving is probably around 2k for the both of us.

 3. Here's the biggie: we have a small home. And by small, I mean that the 4 of us live in precisely 938 sqft. We're fortunate enough to have a really great floor plan that is super space efficient-no hallways in this house! As the kids get older, we'll likely get a bigger house. But it still isn't going to be monstrous. We save gobs of money on our mortgage and heating/cooling bills.  The next-biggest house we considered buying would have tacked an extra 400 bucks onto our mortgage alone. The worst heating bill we've ever had was $150 bucks, and it was super cold that month! We also had a newborn, so we were keeping the place extra toasty. From the people I've talked to, it seems that most of them have heating bills nearly double ours. And I can clean our house top to bottom in about an hour if I have to! Don't get me wrong, I am not knocking big houses. I daydream about them, actually. But, at the end of the day, our small house is more than adequate for right now. Yes, we could afford a larger home, but we'd really rather have the cash than the extra space. Again, I know this isn't practical for every family. But, if you're curious to see how a few families made ultra small space living work for them, click here. Some of these places are gorgeous as well as functional, too. I love this Texas cottage. And while this is a lot extreme for my tastes, this family traded in their home for a mortgage-free 320 sqft living space.Don't the words "mortgage free" sound magical, though?

Next up: meal planning

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

#7: Getting Someone Else to Do The Heavy Lifting For You

There are a couple of website I use when I don't have the time to find my own grocery deals. I prefer to peruse the ads of a few convenient grocery stores and match their specials to my coupons myself, but there are some weeks when it just isn't practical. For that, I like Coupon Connections.

 You just click your store at the top of the page and a list of the best items from the store's weekly circular and coupon matches appear. If you have limited time to look for deals, this is a great blog to follow. Bear in mind, the proprietor does get paid to promote certain sales/items, so you have to use your judgement as to whether a "deal" is a good one for you.

And this lady just plain inspires me; her monthly grocery budget for her family of four is just $100 dollars. It is amazing how far she can stretch a buck. Granted, she grows a lot of their own food and her lifestyle isn't exactly practical for everyone. I have learned a few cool tricks from her site and she almost always has fun, produce-centered recipes that really help when I find myself having a "what the heck am I gonna make for dinner tonight" moment.

Next up, #6: Figuring Out Your Priorities

Monday, June 4, 2012

#8: Online Shopping

Welcome to #8 in my Top Ten series of cheapo living tips- you can read tips #10 and #9 here. I use 2 websites to keep my online spending as low as possible- and Ebates is really cool- before you make a purchase, you just go to their website and select the retailer you want to shop at. Ebates offers a different percent cash back depending upon the store, but I usually get anywhere from 3% to 12% back on my purchases. Signing up is free and you can choose to get your cash back via paypal, which is nice, since you don't have to hand out any sensitive information. Cash back accumulates and is paid every quarter. Side note- you can also use is much the same as ebates, I just prefer to only use one site.

 Once you've gone through a cash back site like ebates or shopathome, head over to retailmenot. Make sure you do this in a new tab so that you don't disrupt ebate's ability to track your purchase. Retailmenot posts current coupon and promotion codes for a ton of online retailers. You simply enter these codes at checkout. This is where I get my biggest savings. I'll typically wait to make a purchase until I can find a code that will give me at least 5 bucks off and/or free shipping. Depending upon your spending habits, you aren't likely to see a ton of cash back from sites like ebates or shopathome, but I usually get enough back to take a free trip to Starbucks. Speaking of Starbucks, if you buy their bagged coffee, save those empty bags! Each one can be redeemed for a free cup. We usually wait until we have 2 bags, then use them if we have to drive somewhere bright and early :)

 And at the risk of pointing out the obvious, craigslist is a really great place to get some good stuff for next to nothing. We actually just bought a really great coffee table off of craigslist this morning. It's an Avington table and retails at Target for $120 bucks. It was in perfect condition. The guy we bought it from was originally asking $70, but the husband talked him down to $60 AND got him to throw in a homemade cedar table he was also trying to offload. I would have been thrilled to get just the coffee table for the price, but in our case, a little bargaining went a long way! That being said, there are plenty of crazies out there and I NEVER buy or sell anything without the husband present AND we do not let people into our house.

The coffee table fits just perfectly in our room.

I'll spare you the before and afters, but I gave the cedar table 2 coats of leftover paint and added 3 milk crates from Michael's for extra storage. I'll probably do something fun on the crates eventually (like "top secret" "secret" "unclassified")but for now, it's functional as a desk/ media center in our living room.

 Also from $10 Pier 1 Shelf:

And a $15 buck chair that I covered in about $6 worth of fabric:

That's 4 pieces of furniture for a total outlay of 91 bucks! Sorry about the picture quality. Life hasn't really lent itself to photo editing these past few weeks. Next up on my top ten list of How To Live on a Military Salary Without Asking Your Parents for Money/Robbing a Bank: #7: Getting Someone Else To Do The Heavy Lifting for You.