How Far Would You Go For Frugality?

This week I had two money related things happen that are, in the grand scheme of things, not a big deal. But being that I’m a frugal person, I am not usually satisfied until I know I got the best possible deal. So in the day or so since these transactions, I have been irritated in trying to find a resolution.

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The first was a visit to the dry cleaners. Seems simple enough. Not a place I usually stress about how much money I’m going to drop. I took in two throw pillow cases; in other words, something slightly fancier than the standard cotton thin material that one drools on in her sleep. They are from Pottery Barn, cost $79 for the pair and I waited over six months to buy them after careful consideration and online stalking. My husband and I returned from Alaska recently after hosting another successful round of guests through Airbnb. A few days later, I noticed there was what appeared to be a coffee stain on one of said pillow cases. Okay, fine. It was a family of five, younger girls, one slept on the couch; it happens. I read the cleaning directions and saw I could clean it myself in the washer, but being the freak that I am, I thought it would be better to dry clean them because the edges are a braided straw like material and I didn’t want to unravel it. After all, I said to myself “taking good care of your purchase is frugal in the long run because it will prevent you from having to replace the item too soon”. Made perfect sense in my head. And resale value is always a factor as well.

I go to the dry cleaners to pick up the cases and take them out of the wrapping to examine (see mention of “freak” above). I started doing this every visit because no matter where I go (yes, I’ve tried all four dry cleaners in my neighborhood!), someone messes up eventually. Sure enough, there was the very clear outline of the stain still on the WHITE pillow case and now a light pink dot in the middle that was not previously there. I pointed it out to the employee, who unsympathetically told me they could run it through again, free of charge, but to know that the pink dot means they already tried cleaning it at their maximum ability. Interesting that the indication of your best cleaning effort is to create a new stain…but I didn’t write the steam bath rules. Nor would this line of reasoning translate in conversation. She then tells me the total is $36.00 for the cleaning. Wait, what cleaning? If I were a cartoon my eyes would have popped three feet in front of my head while my limbs extended out to the sides as I floated in midair. “But the job is not done”, I argue. She explains, it is a common misconception when you bring your item to the cleaners, that it will be fully cleaned. Apparently! And get this…we are paying for their attempt to do the job right. No guarantees that they can do it. I would understand this policy better if we were talking about red wine or gum or some other notoriously difficult stain to remove. Every business has a disclaimer. But this? This was a standard, fresh, clearish-brown liquid that I may have been able to wipe out with a washcloth but I let the “quality” pull in me outweigh the frugal side of me. I was pretty peeved. I didn’t know what to do. Here I am in a mom and pop business, knowing full well that I am being way overcharged for something that isn’t even done right–dare I say damaged– and am left trying to argue my point to someone who isn’t directly answering my questions or acting like she cares. To be honest, had they completely removed the stains, I still would have been shocked at how expensive the job was. $36.00? That’s almost half of the price of what I paid for the pillow cases! Are they magical now? Do they fly through the air and grant wishes to little children? Will they cook me dinner? Collect my mail when I’m out of town? I begrudgingly paid the price, despite my hesitation (which in retrospect I wish I’d listened to) and felt defeated. I kept repeating how dissatisfied I was and that this should cost half of what it does; which was scary enough to say. If I had a second shot at that conversation, I would have refused to pay, asked to speak to a manager, tried to get a discount and then waited to pay until their second attempt to clean had been completed successfully.

Instead, I have to go back later this week to retrieve the maybe damaged/maybe cleaned pillow case that is already paid for on good faith (or pressure from the employee, “but it’s pick up day”)–and all I can do is ask if they will refund part of the price. I don’t know why they would. They have my money. But I don’t know what else to do to stand up for myself. I considered leaving an unfavorable Yelp review, but guilt got the better of me. I would have no problem doing that if we were talking about a bigger company, but I feel like it’s a harder choice when they are so small. What do you think, readers? Shouldn’t they be held accountable for poor customer service and an incomplete job that they tried to present to me as a polished package? Why wrap it all up like it’s done when you’re really hiding a stain under there? And what does accountability look like in a small neighborhood business? There’s no “higher up” to complain to in hopes of getting a gift card in the mail. Not to mention it’s family owned and operated, so even asking to speak to a manager is not exactly intimidating to them. I’m annoyed at the waste of money, but that’s not the point. You could hand me the $36.00 right now and that wouldn’t take away my frustration. It’s the principle of their business model and the fact that I messed up in a number of ways, rather than fight for what I believed to be the appropriate course of action. An important lesson here on the frugal side of things is maybe buying semi-expensive pillow cases was a mistake. Also in the shade of white. Or maybe I should have waited for a better deal so I wouldn’t care as much. If they were from somewhere inexpensive, I doubt I would be writing about this–or even had them dry cleaned to begin with. But my blog posts aren’t about great steals from bargain warehouse stores. They’re about buying quality products at an affordable price. Quality and frugality together–it is possible!

The second and less frustrating thing was with my normally great insurance company. Last year, my husband and I drove across the country and accumulated more miles on our car than usual. If you exceed 12,000 a year, you get a slight bump in your premium payments until your next odometer reading. For the last six months, we’ve been paying that increase of roughly $19.00 a month. I reported the odometer a few weeks back and we were well within our mileage limitations, so I expected to see our rate drop back to the old one starting this billing cycle. When the withdraw occurred this past week, I noticed it was still the exact same figure; so I wrote to the office to inquire. Perhapenny-pincher-225x300ps they’ve slipped up, or perhaps it takes a month for the new rate to kick in. Both reasonable answers I would have accepted. Instead, my agent’s assistant tells me there have been statewide increases and “everyone is feeling it”, so that’s why my premium remained the same. Oh? That’s CRAZY that the same month my extra charge for mileage should have fallen off, this generic increase with no explanation apart from it being “statewide” kicks in…and for the EXACT same amount of money! I mean down to the penny. I replied asking for written proof that this was a real thing, which she only provided after I requested it twice–and even then, it was vague as vague could be. To me, it sounds like they simply have found a way to keep my rate higher without having to think. Unfortunately for them, all I do is think about this kind of stuff. I have found the office I deal with to be unhelpful in this situation, so, because it’s a huge organization—I feel comfortable going to the corporate level and trying to see what I can accomplish there. And apparently the answer is nothing! “We are just an extension of your local office”, they say. Wonderful! No help at all! Next step: switch offices. Once that is done I will pursue this further. Someone, somewhere in that company has to be able to explain why my rate is the exact same dollar amount. Don’t challenge a passionate frugal lady and expect to get away with it. We live for this stuff.

So to wrap this all up, what did I learn from this week’s frugal trials that could possibly help you?

  • Poor customer service or lack of information does not mean the conversation is over, despite the fact that the employee wants it to be. Be bold.
  • Think twice, or maybe five times before making nicer home purchases that aren’t important enough to justify (or make them, but then hide them when you have guests stay over).
  • Pay attention to all of your bills. When there is even a slight change, pursue it until you receive the answer you needed.
  • Do not walk away from a transaction until you feel satisfied in the outcome.

Good luck on your money saving adventures this week, friends!

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Practicing Contentment Will Make You Rich

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So will the stock market, discovering gold or oil, creating a pyramid scheme, inheriting a wad of cash or inventing the next big cell phone app. See none of these in your future? Worry not, I have found the answer to all of your financial woes: enjoy the life and possessions you already have. The End. Just kidding, I have more to say. But if that’s all you take away from this post, that’s enough for me. Not only will this practice breed a more grateful attitude, you will spend less money.

As previously mentioned, I have been in a season where this idea has had to be put into practice day in and day out. Learning to be still and trust that the past few months have been rather boring is not an excuse to spend, (though everything in me wants it to be). It would be very easy to fill my days with needless shopping, eating out and pricey adventures. Instead I have tried to practice more giving, organizing the home in ways that make me more comfortable for the time being, spending time with people I care about and plotting out fun future plans. Can you imagine how much money you’d save if you enjoyed all that you have from relationships to the luxuries of your home without paying for new things all the time? After all, it’s only the past few generations that have even considered something like shopping a way to pass the time.

It’s easy to lose the excitement you once felt when you bought something new for yourself. How does one get that back? Or rather, is there a way to simply appreciate it again the way you once did? Waiting to buy is one way to ensure a lasting love for said object. A very popular exercise in the frugal stratosphere is to wait at least thirty days before making a purchase. That way you know that if after a month of waiting, you still want the item, it might be worth getting. I have practiced this effectively and not purchased many a gadget because of the time I took to think about it. Alternatively, I’ve had it backfire and watch things go on sale, then off sale, to then no longer being available. In the end, I wanted it more than I did in the first place! Of course that was more me waiting ninety days, so the problem was really user error. I recommend giving it a shot on the next want that catches your eye. This includes things like clothing or books, which most of us don’t usually give a second thought before swiping our money away.

My husband and I recently took a course at our church where a financial advisor came in and spoke to us for a few hours. One of the things he said that I thought was a very helpful reminder was “it took your parents twenty-five to thirty years to have what they now have”. I think it’s easy for my generation to forget that slow and steady wins the race. Many of us have little memory of the struggles our parents had when they were starting out and we were so young. All we see is them now; financially free, possibly retired and not stressed about money (hopefully). To imagine waiting another thirty years to “arrive” discourages me beyond belief, but I believe the principal at heart is very important. We have to be patient in our financial journey and can’t expect everything to fall into place with the snap of a finger. Everyone has their own mission that is specific to their circumstances. One of mine is not to be homeowners simply because we’re in the right life stage, have a stable a career and a kid on the way. We would be fools to use all we’ve saved that way before we know what lies ahead. Besides, the more time we spend saving, the less time (and interest) we will spend paying down a loan. And being that we live in California, not many people we know are even on this path yet. For others, this is the age you do that, and good for you. I especially admire when people know where they want to live and plant roots so early in their careers. For us, it’s a little muddier and that’s okay for now. At least that’s what I keep telling myself. 😉

This past week I’ve been feeling more happy than I have in a while and I wonder if it’s not because I am starting to get the hang of this contentment thing. It feels good to spend less and know I’m making money by not touching what we already have in the bank. Setting up an automated savings plan has trained my brain that there is a certain amount in our account that is now off limits every week. I’m looking forward to a lot of big and small plans that August has in store. I’ve said this before; it’s very helpful in one’s journey toward contentment to look forward to what lies ahead. I’m on the upswing from months of feeling like a prisoner in my own body due to pregnancy sickness. And the best season of the year begins next month! That’s what I am looking forward to most. What can you put into practice starting today to make a positive change in the way you see your future and present circumstances? It might be as simple as counting down the days until you can take out the fall decorations. What a fun activity for the whole family that doesn’t cost a dime! We frugal types have to get creative during life’s slow seasons and I’m interested to hear the ways you fight the urge to spend and even subsequently save. We can inspire each other!

Guest Post: A Frugal Family’s Favorite Splurges

Written by Beth Castle

As a big fan of the budgeting ideas expressed in Knuckles & Twine, I was honored when Sara asked me to write a guest entry about a new (to me) app that I’ve been enjoying lately called Shopkick. I’ll go into more detail about why I love Shopkick below, but in penning this post my mind also wandered to other frugal “splurges” that my family enjoys, and Sara graciously agreed to let me highlight some additional inexpensive (or even free!) indulgences.

I’m the mother of two sweet boys ages two and under, and I stay home to care for them while my husband’s sole income provides for the family. Needless to say, in a high cost of living area like Los Angeles, we live very frugally to make that happen. Over the years we’ve worked hard at organizing our budget, and we don’t really have a lot of disposable income. Because of that:

Shopkick is a real treat! I first read about the app in a homemaking magazine I have a subscription to, and I eagerly downloaded the app to my iphone about a month ago. The idea is that you collect “kicks” by simply walking into participating stores and/or scanning highlighted products once inside. Once a certain number of kicks is attained, you can cash in your total for gift cards. (I know, right!?)

Now, I’m a skeptic when it comes to free money, but think from the perspective of the stores/products that participate. People don’t really watch commercials anymore, so there are a lot of ad dollars to be tossed at an app like this because it specifically leads to foot traffic as well as eyeballs on select merchandise. Makes total sense to me. Foot traffic and eyeballs are suitable answers when my suspicious brain inevitably asks “what’s in it for them?”

The app uses your location to highlight compatible stores in your area (think Target, Best Buy, Office Depot, Macy’s, etc.) and clearly tells you how many points you could earn by walking in the door (note: be sure to have your app open when you enter or it won’t count). Some stores also host products that you can scan using the camera on your phone for additional kicks while you’re shopping. One can earn extra kicks by linking a card and purchasing certain products through the app, but I haven’t used the app that way.

It’s pretty effortless to use as I run errands with my kids throughout the week, and without really going out of my way it took me about three weeks to earn enough kicks for a $10 Target gift card. Other prizes include gift cards to iTunes (my husband’s preferred incentive), Sephora, Starbucks, and even Princess Cruises. (…though that prize would take a LOT of Target runs. Heh.)

To have approximately 10 bucks a month to spend on whatever I want is a treat indeed!

Though free gift cards may be the ultimate reward for someone on a tight budget, below are several more of our favorite indulgences and activities:

Museum freebies — Nearly all the museums in the city have free days. Our personal favorites are the Gene Autry Center, which is full of cowboy goodness and free the second Tuesday of every month and Kidspace Children’s Museum, which is free the first Tuesday of every month from 4-8pm. LACMA even has a ground breaking program that allows any child 17 or under to visit the museum at any time with an accompanying adult both completely free. Read more about that here

Redbox Tips – You guys, Redbox is an extremely inexpensive way to see movies, but you gotta use it like an adult. Meaning: check it out the night you’re going to watch it and responsibly return it the next day. After talking to several people, I’m convinced Redbox makes a fortune off of our laziness because it sounds like most folks rent a flick and either don’t get around to watching it right away, or forget to return it immediately. To rent a Blu-ray for a night it’s a buck fifty and a standard DVD is $1.20. That ain’t bad, but I can do you one better. Once you have an account, Redbox often sends you promo codes for a “rent one get one free” deal. Here’s an insider tip: you don’t have to rent 2 flicks to use the code! You can rent your choice film completely free simply by applying the code to that thing before checking out. We always upgrade it to Blu-ray for like 37 cents. Total. Niiiiice. (The moral is to ALWAYS try coupon codes. Always.) We haven’t paid more than 50 cents for a movie rental in years.

Keep an eye on Groupon and Living Social – I had to take a break from these sites because for a while it was too tempting to spend money on stuff that I just didn’t need. Sure it was a great deal, but when you’re on a tight budget it can be dangerous to peruse a list of “wants” (as opposed to “needs”) and then rationalize an unnecessary purchase from there. However, if you have a particular purchase in mind, these sites can be a real tool. For example, I like to get my hair cut every few months and I prefer to go to a nice salon rather than a discount barber. There are always haircut deals on these sites. I get $60+ cuts for a significant discount each time simply by perusing the salons offering deals. Also, we don’t eat out often, but when we do decide we want to splurge on a meal out we can see what’s in our area and get around 50% off our meal, give or take.

Babysitting swap – Okay, okay, this last bullet point might not apply to everyone, but I think it’s worth mentioning. The going rate for babysitters in our area is $10-15 per hour. We just can’t afford that. We went to a wedding last year and paid our babysitter over $100 to watch our (mostly) sleeping baby while we attended the festivities. Totally worth it for an occasion, but not something we can do all the time. Once our son was able to sleep through the night a bit better, we arranged swaps with another family. We would put our kiddo to bed, then our friend would come sit at our home while our son slept and we went to dinner. The next weekend, I would return the favor by hanging at her place while her kid slept and she and her husband had a date. I really think that’s the only way we could afford to go out. I can’t wait until my new baby sleeps better and we can comfortably begin these swaps again. Quality alone time with my husband is more than a splurge, it’s an investment. If we don’t have the funds to spend on a traditional date we just go walk around somewhere and talk to each other.

I hope some of those ideas help inspire some of your future splurges. It may take a little bit of patience or planning sometimes, but finding creative ways to treat yourself within your budget feels so much more satisfying than blowing money you don’t have on an impulse buy.

Sowing Or Reaping

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Lately I’ve been reflecting on how little I have to say about the financial world. Blame it on the California drought, but man I’ve been in a dry spell with writing. See? That was a terrible joke. This is partially because I haven’t been on the hunt for any particular deals or working on any new DIY projects. In fact, I’ve been failing in some areas that are usually very important to me! I went about $150 over our grocery budget last month out of sheer laziness. Those smaller trips to the store for one or two items can really add up. But the nice thing is, there is really no consequence other than self-induced guilt. This is a welcome change from a few years back. I take comfort in that maybe for this period of our lives, we’re just steadily moving along and so there’s nothing beyond the regular (savings, retirement, bills) to strive for. I recently automated both tithing and saving transfers for the first time. It’s a great feeling, but leaves me with even less to think about! We finished being swallowed alive by my husband’s union initiation payments in June and had a few months off in our church donations due to a transition. Both things have helped us climb ahead and reach a very comfortable norm. A relief? Sure. Boring? Definitely.

One thing that I’m certain will breed more interesting topics to write on is that we are expecting our first child this winter. Oh the money saving tips and needed advice that will come with adding a new member to the family! I’m looking forward to the challenges.

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It occurred to me that I have felt more like I have been in a season of reaping rather than sowing–but minus the satisfaction of a job well done. Enjoying the comforts of home and marriage has been nice, but it also hasn’t felt like the greatest accomplishment. I have been reminded many times that creating a life and all that comes with it, mainly being sick in multiple ways at once; is work in itself. I think it’s a little harder to see this stage of parenthood as that because we don’t have a physical kid in our arms to feed, put to bed, etc. But I felt contentment when I realized that what I am doing right now (suffering) is important and valuable–just not in the earthly form of a paycheck that I am used to.

And what does this mean for our finances? Well, nothing. Just that there is no second income to contribute extra to savings or splurge on things we don’t need. It’s been hard for me as I assumed these last few months before I really started showing would be where I worked the most and got in those last few big paydays before leaving the workforce all together. After all, I’ve spent the last four and a half years striving to get steady union work, and lately it has felt like the momentum was there and the offers were finally starting to become more consistent. Various non-negotiable family commitments this month prevented me from taking one job in particular that would have been the perfect high-paying send off from a producer who has given me some of my biggest gigs to date. But is that what is really most important? No. And is it even worth it when your health is at risk? The last job I worked was in my first trimester and I was throwing up on set, in questionable working conditions and stressed out of my mind because the director was a cold-hearted snake. Oops, did I write that out loud? There was no question I needed to rest after it came and went, but I am finally at a point where I wish I were working again and can’t due to other obligations. Not to mention the fact that some weeks I have as many as three weekday doctor’s appointments and there is no way I could work 60+ hours Monday through Friday and pull that off.

I guess my point is there are seasons in our lives where we think we’re only reaping the benefits of our labor (or our spouse’s)–but we are actually sowing and may not realize until later. I trust that where I am today is where I am supposed to be and take comfort in the fact that God knows better than me. It may not yet feel as satisfying as adding another accomplishment to your resume or receiving a check on Fridays, but there is no question it will trump those things in the long run. As adults, we hopefully know by now that most of life’s riches do not come in the form of money. Have you ever had a season of your life that felt boring and unaccomplished but actually turned out to be quite profitable (monetarily or otherwise)?