Christmas for the Destitute

First, my disclaimer:  I’m not destitute.

However, I’m trying to spend Christmas acting like I am a pauper.

Why, with small children and beautiful-and-more-than-deserving wife, would I want to deprive my family of a bountiful holiday?

Before we get into the reasons for being a horrible grinch bent on depriving my children of their god-given right to rampant consumerism, let’s look at the Philosophy of Destitution.

The primary reason to pull back and tone it down is basic frugality.  Excessive anything is not frugal. I am training my children–and for that matter, my wife and my self–in the finer arts of personal responsibility and frugality.   Accumulating debt for a fleeting holiday is insane.  If we can’t afford to buy it, we certainly can’t afford to give it.   Anything else would be setting a bad example and children learn best by example.

Another piece of the Philosophy of Destitution(when I read this word, I hear a deep, booming voice in my head, like a 30s radio superhero voiceover)  is “green”.    I consider myself a conservationalist rather than an environmentalist, so don’t read too much into that color.  I try to be responsible, instead of destructive and I try to avoid being wasteful.  Toys that won’t be played with are wasteful. A garbage can full of packaging for those same toys costs money.  It is much cheaper to avoid the landfill here.

Back to “Why”. Why would I be willing to deprive my family?

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10 Things to do on a Cheap Vacation.

This summer, my family  took a six-day cheap vacation.  Technically, it was a “stay-cation”, but I hate that word.  Our goal was a fun time, on a budget, for 3 kids–one, two, and nine–without driving the adults nuts.   Obviously, if you’re not herding small children, some of these choices may not be for you.

  1. Zoo.  In St. Paul, there is a free zoo that is more fun than the paid zoo in the area.  There’s a small amusement park, a playground,  lots of picnic benches, and even animals.  We packed a cooler full of food and drinks and hauled the kids to Como Zoo for a day.  If there isn’t a free zoo near you, find a local petting zoo.  They are good for a few hours.
  2. Go Antiquing. Make sure you stay on a budget.  It can be more fun to feel the history in antique stores than to feel the fleeting thrill of an off-budget purchase.  This isn’t much fun for small children.
  3. Children’s Museums. We have access to a “Museum Adventure Pass“.   We used one to go to The Works Museum, which is a hands-on science exhibit not far from our home.  It wasn’t busy and the kids had a blast.  Most metropolitan areas have a wide variety of childre-friendly museums.
  4. Municipal Pool. We spent an afternoon at the city pool.  Aside from gas, this was one of the most expensive events for our vacation.   Residents get a discount, but it was still $30.   I discovered that my two-year-old loves big waterslides.  She comes out of them with a death-grip on the inner tube and a huge smile on her face.  It was a double tube and she sat in my lap.
  5. Game Day. Spend a day with the TV off and games on the table.  Make some snacks and prepare for some of the best quality time you can have as a family.
  6. Picnic. Pack a lunch and go somewhere quiet.   Go to the park.  Go to the country.  Grab a bench on a sidewalk somewhere.  Just have a leisurely lunch and take the opportunity to connect with your family.
  7. Hike. Find a trail somewhere and just walk.  I’ve found that it easy to have deep or sometimes even awkward conversations while walking.  You may find out things you never would have guessed.
  8. Visit Family. Hotel on the go?  My parents live more than 2 hours away, so they are always thrilled to have us visit with the grandchildren.   Be nice, bring some food to help out.
  9. Bike. The final day of our vacation, my wife and I left the kids in daycare and kept the day to ourselves.  We had breakfast in a nice little cafe.  We went antiquing.  Then we went out to the park where we were married, had a picnic lunch and went for a bike ride together.  It was our anniversary.
  10. Apple Orchard.  Around here, they are everywhere.  Pick-you-own apples, a petting zoo, pony rides.  If you go in the fall, there is usually a corn maze.  You can by real apple cider and any number of baked goods.
  11. University Exhibits.  Check your local colleges, especially the public universities.  Most of them have a PR program to maintain public interest and funding.  Even the private schools will usually have fund-raisers for some programs.  We recently attended the raptor show at the University of Minnesota for free with our Adventure Pass.

Vacations don’t have to be expensive to be fun.  Counting gas, food, and the occasional souvenir, we took a 6 day cheap vacation packed with activities for well under $400, possibly even under $300.

How do you save money on a vacation?

Update: This post has been included in the Money Hacks Carnivals XCV.


Birthdays on the Cheap

Birthdays are expensive. Shoot, I’ve said that before. It’s usually true, but it doesn’t have to be. Here are five ways to cut birthday party costs.   Note:  If you’re trying to cut costs on an adult party, just replace the word “kid” with “guest of honor”.

1. Location, location, location. The amusement park/pizza place is nice if you like bad pizza, but it’s certainly not cheap. The inflatable playground may be the talk of the school for a day or two, but it’ll flex your debit card in ways it’s just not used to. Why? Kids, being kids, are capable of entertaining themselves. They’ve got imaginations that should make most adults weep with envy. If that fails, make them play a board game or in the worst case, some video games. Lock the wild young’ns in the basement and let ’em go nuts for a couple of hours. It’ll be a blast, I promise.

2. Why invite the world? How many friends does your kid actually have? I’m not talking about all of the kids in school he’s not fighting with or every kid on the block that hasn’t TP’d your house. I mean actual friendship. If they don’t play together regularly, nobody will be offended about missing an invitation. Invite the entire class? That’s just nuts. Thirty ankle-biters smearing cupcakes on the wall? No thank you. You kid will have more fun with 2-3 close friends than 20-30 acquaintances.

3. Toy flood. What was the last toy your kid played with? The last 10? How many toys have been completely neglected for months or years? How many stuffed animals are buried so deep in the pile in the corner that they are wishing for a fluffy Grim Reaper to come put them out of their misery? Don’t buy your kid clutter. It’s a hassle to clean up–and you will–and it trains them into bad habits for a lifetime. One or two things that they will treasure(or, better yet, wear!) will work our much better for everyone than a dozen things to forget in a toy box. Too many toys guarantees that the kid won’t get attached to any of them.  Down with kid-clutter!

4. Designer Cake. Who needs a fancy cake? Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t you going to start a fire on the thing, then cut it up and give it to a dozen little runts to rub in their hair? If you can’t bake it yourself, a quarter sheet is cheap at the big box grocery stores and will guarantee leftovers. Nothing starts the week better than chocolate marble cake for breakfast on Monday.

5. Food. Don’t. That was easy. Scheduling is an important way to keep costs down. Don’t have the party at lunch time. For small children, 1:30 PM is about perfect. The parents won’t stick around once the kids are ready for a nap. For older kids, 4PM means they will need to be home for dinner. That cuts the menu down to kool-aid, light snack food, and cake. It also ensures that the party won’t drag on forever.

It’s possible to have a budget birthday party without being totally lame.  Give it a shot.  Your kids won’t mind.

This post is a blast from the past.

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Cooking Poor

Frugal cooking can be an intimidating concept.   It’s easy to turn a meal into a huge expense, but it’s not that hard to trim your grocery budget without sacrificing variety and flavor.   It just takes some planning and a few money-saving techniques.  We usually feed our family of five, often with guests, for about $100 per week.

Schedule your meals. Find or make a weekly meal planner.  I recommend this or this.  Cross out the meals you don’t need to worry about due to your schedule that week.  If you won’t be home, you don’t have to cook that meal.  Fill in the meals in the remaining slots.  Keep your schedule in mind. If you get home from work at 5:30 and have to be somewhere by 6:30, dinner needs to be something quick. Also, make sure you include every side dish you will be serving.  Now, look at the recipe for each dish in every meal.  Write down everything you need to make all of the food you plan to eat that week.   While planning your meals, think about how to use your leftovers.   If you cook chicken breasts one day, the leftovers can be chicken nuggets the next.

Take inventory.  Take your meal plan and a pen while you look through all of your cabinets and your refrigerator.  Why buy what you already have? If you already have steaks in the freezer, don’t waste your money buying more.  If you have it, cross it off of your meal plan shopping list.  Whatever is left is your shopping list.   Review it.  Is there anything that can be combined or eliminated?  Is there a key ingredient for a sauce that’s missing?

Don’t forget the staples.  If flour or sugar is on sale, stock up.  Anything you use on a regular basis is a staple, buy it when it’s cheap.

Build a shopping list from your meal plan.  When you are in the store, stick to your list.   It’s hard, but avoid impulse purchases at all costs. Don’t shop hungry, don’t buy things just because they are on sale, and don’t dawdle.  Get what you need and get out.

Avoid pre-processed food.  We slice and shred our own cheese.    Buying the pre-shredded cheese costs an extra $5 and saves just 5 minutes.  Don’t buy pre-sliced apples or anything that will only save a few minutes for several dollars of cost.

Every couple of weeks, I cook a large pot of either beans or rice and keep it in the refrigerator.  Almost every meal that we cook gets a cup or two of beans or rice added to it.  It doesn’t alter the flavor much, but it adds a few extra servings for pennies.  It’s a healthy way to stretch any meal on the cheap.

We have a large bowl in the refrigerator filled with mixed greens.   We buy whatever salad-like greens are on sale and prepare the large salad all at once.   Most meals start with a salad, which makes it easier to fill up without relying on the protein dish, which is generally the most expensive part of a meal.  As a dedicated meat-eater, it took some getting used to, but it’s a good meal–cheap and healthy.

Cook enough for at least 3 meals.  That will eliminate 2/3 of the work involved in cooking.   Plan ahead to make your meals simple and easy.

Freeze the leftovers in usable sizes.   Stock up on semi-disposable meal-sized containers.   Freeze some in single-serving sizes for work, and others in family-size servings for last minute meals at home.  Preparing for last minute meals keeps you from serving garbage or takeout when life gets in the way of your plans.

Avoid wasting leftovers.   Wasted food is wasted money.

When you are done cooking meat, take any drippings or scraps and throw them into the slow-cooker along with any vegetable scraps laying around.  Cook it overnight, then strain it into an ice cube tray.  You now have stock/broth ready to be added to any recipe.

Plan for serial meals. Chicken breast leftover from today’s meal can become chicken nuggets tomorrow, to be shredded into chicken salad the next day.

When there isn’t enough left for a full serving, we put the remains in a resealable bag in the freezer.   When we accumulate enough to fill our slow-cooker, we dump in all of the bags with a couple cups of water.    I look through the refrigerator for any leftovers that have been overlooked that week or any vegetables  getting close to being too old.  It all gets cut up and added to the cooker to cook on low all day.  I rarely add seasoning because everything going in the pot tastes good.  We never get the same meal twice and our “free soup” is never bland.

That’s how we cook cheap, without sacrificing too much time.  How do you save money cooking?

This post is a blast from the past.  Originally posted here in January 2010.