Blogging from A to Z

Back in 2011, on a different blog, I took the A to Z Challenge. I blogged every day in April, except Sundays. Each day was based on a letter, but the theme or subject matter is up to the participant. It helped me get out of my comfort zone, it pushed me to write, and it helped me gain so many followers. Which meant I also found tons of new blogs to follow. Bottom line, it was a great thing.

I think I signed up the next year, or the year after, or the year after that. One of those years. But I didn’t complete the challenge. I might have ONLY signed up, and never even gotten started.

It might be crazy, but I’m taking the challenge again this year. Threefold. I am blogging here, on my book blog How I Feel About Books, and on my photography blog, Allison and Her Camera. I am really nervous about this, because I am so out of the blogging loop. I used to write all the time, scheduling posts in advance, writing every day… but that trickled off and I have no clue why, but honestly? I miss it. I miss writing and sharing and creating an online community.

I’ve started outlining a few posts to make sure I have enough to say about each letter of the alphabet. It’s going to be a lot of work, but here I am, Blogging from A to Z to see what I can create. Follow along, and join up if you’re interested!

home life, hygiene, money, natural living

Changing Your Focus

I previously wrote about Finding Your Focus, mentioning that right now my family was focused on money. It’s tax season, we’re taking a good hard look at our financials, so it just makes sense.

I feel all over the place right now as I find my footing with my new work-from-home life, and that is definitely reflected in this blog. Because right now, I feel like our focus should be finding the products that are best for our family.

We recently switched from Crest or Colgate toothpastes (whatever was cheapest in a 2 pack) to Tom’s of Maine. Now we love our Tom’s toothpaste, so I’m keeping track of how long one tube lasts us – me, my husband, and the 8 year old use the adult mint toothpaste. My 3 year old uses the kids’ fruit-flavored toothpaste and loves it, but of course it will last longer with just him using it.

The point is, we all love this toothpaste now, so it will be worth the expense, even if it’s not as cheap as another brand’s 2 pack. So we’re not saving green by buying this, but we’re using a natural product which is healthier for our family, and Tom’s offers recycling options for something that isn’t usually recyclable. That’s worth it to me, because I’d rather use a sensible product and dispose of it properly instead of buy something cheap, use it, and throw it in the landfill.

We are taking our time while we look at other products we use, trying to make good choices for what we use often. I’ll have to get into our kitchen and food situation another time, since it is always a work in progress. But switching toothpaste is a good start, and I have already switched to Tom’s of Maine deodorant. We drink Equal Exchange coffee because it is fair trade. My friend Victoria has some great information and resources about fair trade products, which we’ll also explore later. For us, it’s definitely worth finding quality, environmentally-friendly products and maybe spending a little more money, but getting more out of your investment in the long run.

How do you feel about spending more for something natural, fair trade, or made locally?

holidays, money, school

Standing Your Ground

It’s hard to be zero waste sometimes. In my house, I have complete control. I can package things in glass containers and reuse them. I can recycle. I can pick what I purchase and make sure it’s economical financially and environmentally. But out in the world, it gets a little harder.

I mentioned Valentines before, those little paper slips every kid hands out to every other kid in their class. Every Valentine’s Day, from preschool to middle school. That’s a lot of waste. My son’s preschool has different kids come on different days, so he had two Valentines parties. We sent one batch of Valentines, thinking the kids who were there on the first day would get theirs, and the kids who only attend on the other day would get theirs at that party. My son came home Tuesday with Valentines from his classmates, and on Wednesday he came home with more – some from the same classmates.

I felt embarrassed and cheap. “Was I supposed to send another set of Valentines for the second party?” I asked the teacher. She assured me it was fine, but another teacher was looking on with an expression that made me feel like I should have sent more.

But I hate them! (To be fair, some are cool. Some are just gummies with a note on the wrapper. Some had sticky hands attached, and those are always fun. But most were just slips of paper.) Why was I so worried that I had done something wrong, when I didn’t really want to do it in the first place?

I don’t want to be seen as cheap. But honestly, I guess I am cheap. I’m not stingy – I will buy things for fun for my kids; I will splurge on a nice dinner or treat a friend to coffee. But I felt cheap for not sending a second batch of paper Valentines. Why?!

How do you deal with standing strong in public? I have yet to take glass containers to the store to buy granola in bulk. I usually forget to take in my canvas bags, but when I do, the baggers always seem a little taken aback. I have no problem explaining why I think and do what I do, but sometimes it’s hard, and I feel the pressure from society to just conform to consumerism and waste. Does anyone else feel this way? How do you react?


21 Ways You’re Throwing Away Money and What To Do About It

You’re looking at your expenses and can’t find a single way to save money. You’ve already cut out everything that’s not a necessity, but your bills still eat up your paycheck every month. This list will show you way you’ve been throwing away money without even realizing it, and offer simple solutions to help you save more.

1. Not Planning Your Meals

It’s too easy to go out to eat on your lunch break, or to pick up fast food on your way home from work. These are unhealthy and expensive options.

How You Can Fix It

Make weekly meal plans and write them down. Look around your kitchen and see what meals you can make from what you already have. Use the meal plan when you make your grocery list so you only buy what you need. Pack your lunch the night before work, or make a big batch of something you can take for lunch all week. Keep your meal plan posted to the fridge so you’ll be more likely to stick to it.

2. Impulse Buying

How many times have you seen something in the store and realized you needed that item, it would change your life, and it would pay for itself in no time? How many times have you been right?

How You Can Fix It

Impulse buying can range from buying something big just because you see it on sale, to buying candy or a magazine that catches your eye at the register. Stop impulse shopping by making a list and sticking to it. Don’t let yourself buy anything else. Then try the 72 hour test: if you keep thinking about something 72 hours after you see it, and you can’t live without it or find a better deal somewhere else, then you can go back and buy it.

3. Buying New

Buying new isn’t always better. Especially in the case of cars, you’re mostly paying for bragging rights. But buying new electronics isn’t necessary either. And why would you buy new clothes that are just going to be out of style next season?

How You Can Fix It

Research options for buying used cars in your area to keep from buying an overpriced new car at the dealership. Shop around for refurbished electronics — these have been professionally cleaned and repaired, but cost a small portion of what the same electronic would be new. Shopping at thrift stores is trendy anyway, so why buy expensive new clothes when you can find gently used clothes when you’re thrifting? Plus, nothing can beat the thrill you feel when you find an item with new tags still on it, for a percentage of the original price!

4. Paying Full Price

These days it’s easy to find a deal anywhere you go, so why would you pay full price for anything? This can range from shopping around, both in stores and online, to finding what benefits certain stores will offer you.

How You Can Fix It

Some gas stations give you a discount if you sign up for a free membership at their store, and some offer a discount if you pay in cash. You can find something you like in stores, and then find it online for a discounted price. You can shop at a store that honors coupons from its competitors.

5. Paying for Cable

You used to have to be a cable subscriber to get access to the best shows on the best channels, even if that meant paying a hefty monthly bill for a lot of channels you never even flipped past.

How You Can Fix It

Cable TV is going the way of the landline, because you can only watch it on your TV instead of watching online from any device via providers like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and more. These sites not only stream classic shows and movies, but they are creating their own high-quality content with increasing frequency. See which provider fits your budget and offers the shows you love, so you’ll be paying a lower price for content you really want to watch.

6. Being Loyal To Your Brand

Sometimes being loyal to a provider or brand means you’re rewarded with coupons or discounts, but sometimes there’s no reason to keep using a company or brand unless you really love it. If your priority is saving money, start looking around.

How You Can Fix It

A lot of businesses and products offer a discount to new customers. You can try a class for free at your gym, or find a new local business that is giving heavily discounted hair cuts in exchange for word of mouth marketing. You can start a free trial with a new TV streaming provider — just remember to cancel your account before the trial period ends and your card is charged for the next month’s service. Some banks invite you to open an account by guaranteeing they will make the first deposit of $10-50 for you.

7. Not Redeeming Gift Cards

Gift cards are so easy to give as gifts, because you know the person will get something they like. You probably have a few burning a hole in your wallet right now, because you forget about them or are waiting to spend them for some random reason.

How You Can Fix It

Keep your gift cards where you keep your credit card, so when you’re reaching to pay, you’ll grab the gift card instead of your own card. When you use a portion of your card, see if you can get what’s left back in cash — the limit on cash back depends on the store, but it never hurts to ask. If you have just a small amount left on a card, give it to someone who will use it, or sell it online.

8. Paying for Shipping

Have you ever found a great deal online, then clicked through checkout just to find the shipping is more than the item? So many companies offer free shipping that it doesn’t make sense to pay for it.

How You Can Fix It

Find sites that ship for free and bookmark them. If your favorite site offers free shipping for orders over a certain amount, add things to your cart as you need them, and wait to check out all at once so you get free shipping while only buying what you need.

9. Being a Member

You can get a membership for pretty much everything these days: gyms, playplaces for your kids, big box stores, even some local stores. But have you ever figured out if the membership is really worth it?

How You Can Fix It

Be honest — do you go to the gym? If so, do you go often enough to justify the membership? If not, consider finding a community gym that allows you to pay when you visit, or better yet, gives out a few free visit passes. Do you shop at the big box store enough to justify paying for the privilege? Some local store memberships make you feel good because you’re supporting your community, but if the only perks are getting 20% each purchase, it might not make sense financially.

10. Buying Unnecessary Insurance and Warranties

When you buy new electronics or high price items, you will be asked if you want to add on insurance or purchase a warranty. Sometimes this is important, when you consider that your last three phone screens have cracked beyond recognition and insurance saved you from paying to fix the glass. But it’s not always mandatory.

How You Can Fix It

Think about what you’re buying and what the manufacturer already offers. A $20 coffee pot doesn’t need a $15 warranty when you know that the manufacturer offers a one year warranty. And if the coffee pot stops working after a year, will the additional protection even cover that? Most major purchases include a one to three year warranty, and some warranties cover only limited problems; research this before you buy to make sure you pick the right product for you.

11. Spending Too Much Eating Out

The advice on saving money on eating out is usually to just not do it. And sure, it’s cheaper to buy groceries and cook at home. But it’s fun to eat out, and you can save a bundle if you do it right.

How You Can Fix It

Save a few bucks by drinking water instead of a soda. Split big platters of food with your dining companions. Going out for lunch is always cheaper than going out for dinner, especially if you eat from the specials or set menu. Go out during happy hour — you can buy a drink, and get one free, but restaurants often have great food specials during this time, too, so you can treat yourself to an early dinner.

12. Not Using Cashback Options

Do you know how much money your credit card gives you back on each purchase? Do you know how much you can get if you send in that rebate card that came with your latest purchase? Do you have some free space on your phone to download apps that will save you money?

How You Can Fix It

Find out what benefit your credit card offers and take advantage of them by buying everything with your credit card so you can redeem points. If your credit card company doesn’t offer good benefits, find one that does and switch. When your purchase comes with a rebate card, take a few minutes to fill it in and mail it back, or fill it out online. You’ll have a bit of money coming your way very soon! Download apps like Ibotta so you can scan your receipts and get money back on things you’ve already purchased.

13. Not Using Coupons

Some days your mailbox is stuffed full of junk mail, and that’s your real and online inboxes! Those coupon bundles always catch your eye, but cutting out coupons seems like such a hassle.

How You Can Fix It

Honestly, it’s worth the time to cut out a few coupons you’ll actually use. Keep them in your wallet with your cash or credit card so you remember to use them at checkout, or clip them to your grocery list. If you don’t get paper coupons, check online. Many large stores have apps that include digital coupons. If you’re buying online, search the web for coupon codes related to the store you’re buying from, or the product you’re buying. It’s worth the extra time, online or with scissors in hand, to save a big chunk off your purchase.

14. Not Paying Your Credit Card Balance

The last tip said you should pay for everything with your credit card so you earn more points. That being said, many credit cards have high interest rates, and may penalize you for not paying off your balance.

How You Can Fix It

Treat your credit card as cash, and only buy what you can afford. This means you will be able to pay off the whole balance every month, which saves you from astronomical interest fees and other penalties the company may tack on. Paying off your credit card every month also helps your credit score, so it’s win-win.

15. Paying Bank Fees

While you’re looking into your credit card benefits, look at your bank. Are you charged a fee for getting money from an ATM? Are you penalized for overdrafts on connected accounts? Do they fine you if your balance goes below a certain amount?

How You Can Fix It

You shouldn’t have to pay a bank to hang onto your money for you. In fact, they should be paying you with decent interest rates. Find a bank that not only doesn’t have unnecessary fees, but they might reimburse you for ATM charges, or don’t require a minimum amount in your account.

16. Missing a Bill Payment

Some months, you might just scrape by after you pay everything off. Some months, you might not be able to pay a bill if you want to be able to go out with your friends next weekend. It’s okay to treat yourself, right?

How You Can Fix It

Always choose to pay your bills. Skipping out on this month’s bill might save you a hundred or more dollars now, but next month, your bill will be even higher. You’ll have two months to pay off, plus any late fees and penalties the company charges. Once you skip a bill, it’s hard to catch up without breaking the bank.

17. Not Taking Advantage of Employee Benefits

Are you signed up for your company’s insurance plan? What about life insurance? Are they adding money to your 401k? Are you?

How You Can Fix It

Look at your company’s manual, or contact HR to see what benefits are offered to you. You probably already have health insurance through them, but what about dental and vision? These are usually a small fee every month, but pay off when you actual visit the providers. Make sure you go to doctor and dentist appointments regularly — you may think it’s cheaper to skip them and not pay a copay, but it’s better than paying a lot for a procedure that could have been prevented. Most employers also match employee’s 401k input. You can put a percentage of your check into retirement, and your company will match it. That’s free money!

18. Buying Name Brands

Most people think generic products are just watered down versions of the real thing, but when you buy, you’re paying for the brand’s name, label, and reputation.

How You Can Fix It

Always ask for generic medication when you’re getting your prescription filled; they are much cheaper, and just as effective. Instead of going to your favorite big box store, go to the nearby dollar store. They have quality glassware and ceramic plates for just a dollar. They have kitchen utensils for just a dollar. They have school supplies, party supplies, and cleaning supplies for just a dollar. Pick some up and give them a try. If you don’t like what you get, you just spent a dollar, but most likely you will be impressed with what you found.

19. Driving Up Your Utility Bill

Leaving your phone charger plugged in next to your bed all day is convenient, but it’s draining electricity when when not in use. Taking a long, hot shower may be relaxing, but it’s expensive. Old appliances are fine because they still work, so it’s cheaper than buying new, but they’re not as efficient as newer models.

How You Can Fix It

Be conscious of what you use and when. Does your laptop need to be on the charger all of the time? Can you unplug the coffee machine after you drink the last cup? Check out how much energy you’re wasting with the Energy Vampire Calculator, and then challenge yourself to make your next utility bill less than it’s ever been before.

20. Buying As You Need It

Isn’t the whole point of saving money buying only what you need, as you need it? Yes and no. You’d rather have money in your wallet than unnecessary products cluttering your house, right? But sometimes buying something right when you need it means you’re paying an astronomical mark-up. Think: holiday goods.

How You Can Fix It

Everyone is excited the day after Valentine’s Day and Halloween because candy is so cheap. Wait and satisfy your sweet tooth when you can save 50%! Christmas decorations are heavily discounted after the special day, so buy your ornaments, lights, and gift wrap when they’re dirt cheap. Store them until you need them next year, and save yourself the stress and expenses of buying right before the holiday.

21. Paying For Things That Are Free

Having a Netflix subscription is great because you can watch movies whenever you want. Buying coffee from Starbucks is a pretty tasty treat, and getting tickets to the hottest concert of the year might hurt your bank account, but it will be fun.

How You Can Fix It

Take advantage of things that are free. Fill up your own water bottle instead of buying bottled water. (Buying a filter for your sink will be worth it in the long run, considering all the plastic bottle waste you’ll be saving.) Make cheaper coffee at home and pour it into a travel mug, or get your fix at work if your office brews a pot every morning. Look for free papers specific to your city, and look at the list of events going on in the area. Free events can be farmers markets, parades, special public events, and more, and they can be plenty of fun without breaking you.

home life, money

What Do You Spend Money On?

I mentioned yesterday that money has been on my mind lately, with all the changes we’re making in our house. I’ve been looking up a lot of financial information, including how to save. I’ve always saved money: I started babysitting at 14, got my first job at 16, and always had at least one job until I was almost 30. Most of my money went into savings, to the extent that I traveled for six months without working and barely put a dent in my savings account. Marrying someone with debt and having children makes it harder to save, of course, but not impossible. My problem was that I wasn’t changing my own habits, I was just factoring in more people and expenses. So I looked into saving.

There is no “right” way to save money. Some articles say to put half of your income into savings every month, some say 25%. Some financial institutions say you should have one year of your salary in savings, some say you need 3 months of living expenses, but the big question is, as always – How?

I don’t have an answer. I have something that works for my family, and it is different than much of what I’ve been reading about lately. The Frugalwoods pulled me in because much of their lifestyle is appealing to me, but the more I read, the more jealousy I felt. This couple was on the same page, while I’ve been working for four years to get my husband to a point that is far from my own state of mind. They seem to have more savings than me. They have more property. They just seem happier and better! It’s the Internet-persona curse, right? I have no doubt that all of those things are true, but when I stepped away from their blog, I forced myself to think about their lifestyle.

They mentioned that they went out to dinner maybe twice a year, and always brewed coffee at home. Those two things are somewhat important to me. My husband and I try to go out on a coffee date once a month, and sometimes I will go out with friends for coffee. I still brew a lot at home, and I don’t hit up Starbucks every day, or even every week, but I like the option. Same with going out to dinner. My husband and I probably go out to dinner 4-6 times a year, but we also love to order Chinese, and sometimes we get pizza or burgers as a family treat (maybe once a month). Though it’s a bit cheaper than going out to eat, it’s still an unnecessary expense. But we enjoy it, and sometimes it’s a family thing, or just a sanity-saving thing. So it’s worth the expense to us.

These two factors alone made me turn a critical eye to what we spend money on. I like to buy little treats for the boys when I’m out and see something perfect for them, but now I don’t have to do that. If I see something great, and it’s a good deal, I can buy it, but I now put it away for later. They already have so many toys, they don’t need something else cheap and fun “just because”. By focusing on going green, saving green, and minimalizing, we are changing many aspects about our lives, and everything needs to be evaluated as we change.

Basically, the best answer to “How do you save money?” doesn’t focus on money, it focuses on you. What is important to you? What do you want to spend money on, and what would you rather skimp on?

home life, money

Finding Your Focus

The tagline of the blog states my family’s mission, if you will: to go green, save green, and minimalize. I’m going to be breaking this down a lot because I feel like it’s a pretty loaded statement; there are a lot of goals there, and a lot of ways to meet those goals. Going green can be pretty easy if you can shell out money for the best organic, recyclable products. Saving green could be easiest if you buy cheap products that are full of chemicals and shrouded in plastic. Minimalizing could be easier if you just trash all the things you don’t need anymore.

But part of our goal is to accomplish these three things without sacrificing the others. Due to tax season, money has been on my mind, so that’s what I want to focus on first.

Studies have shown that most Americans don’t have $1,000 in savings, and we are lucky to have more than that. We have enough to cover a major unexpected expense, or if everything goes along smoothly (knock on wood), enough to cover over a year of our typical bills and expenses. We should have more saved, according to some reports, but I feel comfortable with where we are right now.

Even so, with money on my mind, it’s not the most important thing in our lives. We have been making changes lately, some which benefit our bank accounts, and some not so much:

  1. I am working from home. This meant a huge slash in our monthly income, but also greatly improves our family dynamics. Quitting my job was a tough choice for me, because I accepted it thinking it was my “career”, the one thing I could do until retirement. The truth was, it wasn’t all I thought it would be, but I was determined to stick it out. The paycheck, benefits, and time off made it worth it on paper. In reality, it affected my mood, and gave me near-constant anxiety attacks. I didn’t have the time, energy, or desire to do anything at home – chores or fun. We finally realized that if I quit and worked from home, a lot of other things could change for the better.
  2. My son goes to a closer, cheaper daycare, part-time. Since I am working from home in a field I’m experienced in, I knew I could set my own hours and get enough work during that time to help offset our lost income. There was a certain preschool I wanted my son to attend since before he was old enough, but the hours weren’t long enough once I got a full-time job. Now that my time is flexible, I knew I wanted him to go to this school. After the initial enrollment fee, the monthly cost saves us over $200 a month compared to where he went before. Also, I get to spend two additional days a week with him, so it’s win-win!
  3. We use less gas. This is another win-win: spend less money, make less pollution. My son’s school is less than 3 miles from our house, while his old school was 12 miles away. It used to take us 20 minutes to get to his school – and that’s with good traffic on the highway! Now it takes me less than 20 minutes round-trip on surface roads. Less time in the car, less gas used, fewer fill-ups at the pump, less money spent on gas, and more time I can work from home, because I don’t have to cut half an hour out of my work time to go pick him up.
  4. I do more at home. I don’t mind household tasks, with the exception of vacuuming/sweeping and putting away leftovers (both of those are my husband’s jobs). I like washing dishes. I like cleaning the bathroom and kitchen, and tidying the rest of the house. I have the time and energy and desire to do all of this, so it’s not on my husband and me to try and find time to do these jobs after work or on the weekend. Having a clean, attractive house is important to me, and makes me feel so much better. While I place a lot of my anxiety issues on my old job, I admit that some of that unhappiness came from living in a pigpen.
  5. I cook dinners. I love cooking, and even when I lived alone I enjoyed cooking really nice dinners for myself. Working a stressful job more than full-time meant I would get home late, have no energy to cook, and would prepare just about anything. My husband cooks too, so it wasn’t like we went hungry, but the kids ate a lot of frozen food, and we ate out a lot more because that’s such an easy choice to make, and so easy to pick up on your way home. Now I enjoy cooking dinner several nights a week, and we sit down to dinner together before 8pm, and the whole mood in the house just seems better.
  6. I plan dinners. My husband used to do the grocery shopping because I hate grocery shopping, and didn’t want to give up my meager spare time to go to the store. My husband would stop by the store every other day, picking up something for that night’s dinner, or spending our entire grocery budget on stuff that wouldn’t make many complete meals. Now that I have more time at home, I go to the store with a two week meal plan in mind. I buy pretty much everything we need in one trip, and know that we will use it within the two week period. Our grocery bill is under control, and we’re eating good stuff for dinners.

More changes will come as the seasons change, since we have a clothesline in the backyard and are planning our first garden. I’ll update about that as it happens. I also realize that what I’ve laid out here doesn’t work for everyone, and I’m not presenting it as a solution. Not everyone can work from home, or send their kid to a part-time preschool. I’ll delve more into that in later posts, while explaining why it worked so well for us.

That being said, with all the worrying we do about money, it’s not always the most important thing. So we might be “saving green” as our mission states, but we have also lost a lot of green in terms of my previous job’s salary. The question is, is it worth it? For us, yes. We are focused on saving money, but in a way that best benefits our family. Having a huge nest egg isn’t worth anything to us if we don’t have a rich home life.

What is your family’s current focus?

holidays, home life

Valentines for Everyone?

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, so holidays are on my mind. I used to love holidays as a kid – any special day was worth celebrating! Even as a young adult, I would celebrate different anniversaries with friends, boyfriends, referencing concerts I’d seen, and more. I loved marking time and highlighting special days. But the older I got, the less I cared. It’s just a day, right? And honestly, who has the energy to decorate and celebrate so many little days?

Valentine’s Day seems like the most wasteful holiday to me. I know people say it’s a Hallmark holiday, made up to sell cards, and we should celebrate love every day. And I agree with all of that. I don’t like Valentine’s Day, and I don’t want a gift or flowers tomorrow. But I’m sure I’ll get them, with my husband being all about the holidays. I do have a gift for each boy – a book and some candy. (February 14th is, after all, International Book Giving Day. I’m much more excited about that holiday than Valentine’s Day.)

My son is giving out Valentines in class. This is what is the most wasteful to me – giving a card to everyone in your class. He’s in preschool, so he is only handing out about 20 cards for classmates and teachers. My stepson will have to hand out close to 30. That’s 50 little sheets of paper total, some with envelopes. And why? It’s not even to show someone you like them, since you have to give everyone a card. I get the concept – let’s not leave anyone out. But why do it at all? Can’t we just say “Happy Valentine’s Day” instead?

My son’s cards are just a slip of paper with a little shaped eraser attached. I was hoping this was more practical, since it’s something useful, and it’s not candy (considering allergies, anti-sugar folk, etc). It will probably still get thrown away (or hopefully recycled), but it seems a little more thoughtful. We don’t have cards for my stepson’s class yet because he just told us about it yesterday, but hopefully he will also choose cards without envelopes. At least that will save a bit of waste.

Enough from my crotchety self – how do you feel about Valentine’s Day?