Whole Foods On A Budget

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The key to shopping at an expensive grocery store is knowing what to buy and when to buy it. Unless you are fairly wealthy, you probably don’t do all of your grocery shopping at Whole Foods. But who wouldn’t want to? Fresh meats, gorgeous vegetables, unique brand names that look tasty… when I lived in LA I went there every few months. But since moving to Tennessee, I find myself returning week after week. Maybe it’s the familiarity– it’s the only grocery store in my town that we also have in California, so I like that. Maybe it’s cheaper here than there, but it doesn’t appear that way to me. My main draw are the produce and meats, which are higher quality than the other major grocery store chains I’ve toured so far. Most vegetables here are gross. They wilt within a day of taking them home or already look like a wreck on display. It’s sad.

Awhile back I found this thread on Reddit, posted by a former Whole Foods employee who kindly listed out what products were worth buying there and what to skip. I don’t exactly follow this, because like I said, desperate times. Plus he keeps referring to Aldi, which is a chain we have here–but it’s not everywhere. I recently read SoCal is getting thirty five stores soon, so congratulations to you if you live there! They are Trader Joe’s owned, so get excited, frugalites.

If you shop around a variety of places enough, you should be able to tell who has the better deal on what. Know your stores and know them well. For example, I wanted to make chocolate chip cookies tonight, but when I went to Whole Foods today, I noticed chocolate chips were way over priced compared to other places (between $4-5). I could sacrifice this non-necessity to get a better deal and make them another time. The same thing happened a few weeks ago when I was about to grab my go-to caesar dressing and noticed the price ($5+!) and put it back. If you know you’re making a run somewhere else soon, there’s no point in shelling out an extra dollar or three. Save it. Be flexible.

Know when things go on sale and try to plan your outing for that day. At this Whole Foods, sales tend to be on Friday and weekends. I pick what I’m going to make based on what meats have a deal. So that means I have to relax my dinner plans a bit and be willing to change it up on the spot. There are plenty of frugal people who will tell you to do the opposite–plan your grocery list down to the penny and don’t stray–that is a good mindset for budgeting in general. It just depends on what you’re looking for in your food experience and if you are going for quality or quantity. You know where I stand. Happy shopping!

End Of Year Goals

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How did you do, loyal readers? It’s the last day of the year– you still have time to add a little more to your savings account or make that dreaded credit card payment and almost four more months to contribute to retirement! Did you make a list of your financial goals? And if so, how many of them did you accomplish?

My main ones were to reach a certain number in our savings account and to max out my Roth IRA; both of which I’m proud to say have occurred as of today (New Year’s Eve). Even though I have until April 15th to contribute to my 2014 retirement account, I really wanted to start out the new year only having to focus on the 2015 contributions. This required hefty weekly transfers for the last month and a half to make up for starting this year’s goal in April, but it was worth it! We also gave more than last year to various organizations we believe in–as well as our church, bible study and monthly support (a three year commitment at that) to a couple we know who are Christian missionaries in Chad. I hope to be able to give even more next year!

Our savings is steadily growing toward our home buying goal–it’s like I can see the light ahead of us and it’s within reach. That is a great feeling to finally feel, given the large expense associated with home buying California. Beyond saving for that goal, timing is very important too–I am more than aware that pretty much every decade there is some sort of recession or housing bubble/crisis–and you want to make sure to be buying on the right side of those events so as not to be paying more than your home will be worth in a few short years. This, of course, is unpredictable, but one’s patience will be rewarded.

Now it’s on to financial goals for 2015. Do you have any yet? I have upped our savings goal by a half the 2014 amount and now plan on setting up a weekly automatic transfer to my Roth IRA which will be much less painful than the larger chunks of money I have been stowing away since the Spring. I also want to be better about meeting our grocery budget–which I purposely keep rather low (maybe this needs to be reevaluated) and seem to struggle to accomplish every month. I will likely not be working much, if at all in 2015, so dropping to one income takes some planning and lowered expectations. To be fair, I didn’t work a ton this year–maybe something like six jobs in total that contributed about 15% to our gross income– and most of that simply boosted our savings or retirement as opposed to being the means off which we lived. So in the day to day sense, it won’t be much of a change. I look forward to the adjustment and challenges–as well as figuring in the cost of an additional family member, who should remain a reasonably affordable expense in his first year of life, anyway.

If you haven’t accomplished all you hoped to by this time, what could you do differently for next year? Please share your strategies below to motivate your fellow readers! Happy New Year and congratulations if you did meet your goals!

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!

When Moving Isn’t An Option: Reinvent

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Making my home feel like a place of rest and comfort is a huge priority. I can’t wake up in the morning and feel stressed when I walk into the main area. It has to be neat and look a certain way. I don’t mean the pillows have to be straight, but rather I’m speaking of the feel of the room. Lately that hasn’t been the case in our home and I’ve set out to slowly change that in thoughtful and frugal ways.

For the last few months, my husband and I thought we may be relocating to another part of LA about twenty minutes from where we currently live. It’s quieter, cleaner, safer and has beautiful suburbs. We wanted to upgrade to renting a house and give my husband the kind of office space he desires. I had been on the fence about it, though it did seem like the right choice in a lot of ways. However, I didn’t want to increase our rent, which seemed next to impossible if we wanted a third bedroom. Then we got the news that my husband’s job was switching from working at home to commuting to an office. That is was completely unexpected, but somewhat of a relief in many ways! Working from home has its advantages, but it lacks a collaborative environment and it’s easy to go stir crazy when locked up in your apartment five days a week. The kicker is: the job would be three miles from our current place. It would make no sense to then move further away and lengthen his new commute. Not to mention we have one vehicle and so he’d undoubtedly have to take public transportation some days. We know the route from his previous job and it’s very easy on the bus.

So, we decided to stay put for now. This is obviously the most cost-effective decision not only in the long-run (skipping the increase in rent), but also avoiding any costs associated with moving and redecorating for a new space. In light of that, I decided to start making a few changes around our apartment. I am working on one room at a time and started with the living area. We sold our couch and end tables (yay! for those who were following the struggle) and bought a new one that matches our Restoration Hardware chair in the back room. Craigslist came through after all! I knew he was my loyal friend. The new one was also a CL find too good to pass up, which is why we bought it before selling the first one. Heavily marked down because it came with dog scratches galore, we bought it anyway and then used this amazing substance to restore it. I can’t tell there were ever any blemishes. And the ones you can see simply add to the rustic look of the leather. We also knocked a couple hundred more off the price just by asking. I had been tracking this person’s postings and noticed he had reduced the price by three hundred dollars from one day to the next. This told me he was getting desperate to sell. A little healthy consumer stalking never hurt anyone!

Pro Tip for apartment dwellers: whenever purchasing an expensive piece of furniture, I think about it going with other pieces we own. Even if they are not currently in the same room; when you move, they may need to be. It will save you redecorating money in the long run!

With both pieces we’ve sold so far we received less money than we were hoping. It helps that it partially pays us back for what we spent on the new stuff, which is better than nothing. Ideally, one could redecorate an entire room this way, which was my goal when we started out. The only debt you want when doing this sort of thing is debt to yourself– in other words, I still hope to pay ourselves back for these cash purchases by selling stuff we own. If I don’t meet that goal, I still have the comfort of knowing I got the best possible deal, saving literally thousands of dollars on a quality used piece of furniture.

There are also a lot of small and inexpensive ways to make your home more inviting and relaxing without a complete overhaul. For example, any time I buy flowers and put them in a vase, I am instantly happier when I walk in the room and see them. Or I recently bought a tablecloth for the first time and it’s amazing what a lovely touch that can make to the patio! I’ve found the same to be true with smaller decorative pieces and appliances. What kind of frugal and creative upgrades do you have in your home to make it a more comfortable living space?

Things I love

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I live in a noisy neighborhood. It’s fun, it’s bright, it’s busy…but with these things comes some difficulty sleeping in the early morning hours. Last month, we looked at swapping our spare and master bedrooms, just to avoid the light and sound that penetrates the windows of our space. It turns out our bedroom set wouldn’t fit comfortably in the smaller (darker, quieter) spare room, so we were stuck trying to find a different solution for ourselves. I knew it had to be cost-effective, so I started my favorite kind of task: finding a quality frugal solution.

When we moved into this place, it came with blinds on all the windows, which worked fine for a time. Over the years, they have started to break and become increasingly difficult to pull up and down. That’s Ikea for you. In addition to the blinds, we had curtains in our bedroom that were mainly for show. Inexplicably, a hole was burnt into one of them from what we’re guessing was the work of the sun and a hand mirror. Hole and all, I managed to sell the curtains on Craigslist. I threw the broken blinds out. We bought a cute pair of curtains from West Elm that were heavily marked down to $30 for two panels. We used them a few months until deciding it wasn’t helping make the room any darker or decreasing the noise around us.

I started a new hunt…for roman shades. I’m not sure I could tell you the exact distinction between roman shades and normal ones, but I think it’s in their sleek look and ability to collapse up and extend down with ease without a cord. Of course I looked at Pottery Barn first, where they sell ONE for $209. Moving on… I started my normal internet hunt in all my favorite stores, only to find most everywhere charged an outrageous amount for this style window covering.

Then I checked out Bed, Bath and Beyond. Man I love this store. Their return policy is unbelievably lenient, their prices are reasonable and somehow they let you take 20% off everything in the store every time you visit. Who does that? They were selling the size and color I wanted for $59 each. Which became $104 including tax after the mark down. They didn’t have them in my store, but shipping is free if you buy over $49 worth of merchandise. Of course I went into the store to order them because there’s no way to use the 20% off each item online. Then I sold the West Elm curtains at the price we bought them for. It is amazing how much more attractive our windows are when they are not blocked by our curtains and rod. Subtracting the amount I earned for selling our curtains, I spent $74 on the shades instead of $130 at full price. Even better, our Discover card is currently giving cash back for shopping at BBB, so we actually earned a little over $5 on the purchase. That puts the shades at $69. You feel me? There’s always a way to find a deal and often it’s as simple as selling the thing you wish to replace (broken or not!).

Now our room is so much darker throughout the night and in the morning hours. They have made our window frames much more attractive. The church next door to us is doing some construction at the entrance where the AA meetings used to congregate, so the attendees no longer gather right outside our window to chat. That’s helped us sleep better. We managed to get our landlord to move the recycling bins from our driveway to the backside of our building and put locks on them and now we no longer wake up in the night to the sound of homeless people stealing glass bottles. A combination of a little muscle work and some convenient coincidences has helped us solve the problems we were having with the location of our bedroom. Don’t give up if you are unhappy in your home. You can find free solutions to compliment them.

The Value Of A Walkable Neighborhood

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As I’ve mentioned before, I live in Los Feliz, which is technically a village in Los Angeles. There are a lot of great things about this neighborhood that I love and will miss when I’m no longer here. Recently we have been considering relocating to a different part of town and that has got me thinking about the things I will be giving up if we do. The downside to a pocket of the city like this one are things like noise, dirt, minimal parking and a constant transient presence on or near your property. We also just finished months of enduring a construction project across the street with screeching mechanical sounds only to find out the church next door is undergoing an equally loud SIX MONTH PROJECT in their basement. And they start before business hours, so the sound of wood being thrown into a dumpster woke us up every day last week. All that to say, there are a lot of attractive qualities a suburb could provide–namely, we wouldn’t have to deal with any of the above.

But what I’d miss… well, where to begin. It’s hard to calculate the money saved by being able to walk to almost anything we need. But if I had to guess, I’d say somewhere between 1-2 billion dollars. Here’s how:

  • When I want to take the subway somewhere, I walk and in under ten minutes I’m on the red line, which takes me to both Hollywood and Downtown without having to transfer trains.
  • I have FOUR grocery stores within walking distance of my place. The one I frequent most is the quickest and flattest walk, which is really nice when I feel like getting out a bit. Trader Joe’s is the farthest and while I could walk, I never do.
  • My bank is in the village not once, but twice. If I walk North or South, I will hit an ATM or banker. This is insanely convenient because I never go out of my way to deposit a check or get cash.
  • I walk to the post office when I need to ship something. (There’s also a UPS within walking distance!)
  • There are both brunch and night life activities that I can walk to. People drive to this part of town just to go to one particular eatery that is always packed. We have multiple venues with live music, celebrity guests and stand up.
  • Griffith Park is a ten or fifteen minute walk up the street depending which part you want to go to. It is a gorgeous trek and there is so much to do once you’re there, including the LA Zoo and the Greek Theater, a major concert venue.
  • There’s just about every type of food to choose from.
  • I can walk to Kaiser. One of their largest LA branches is a few blocks from my place. When I went to the optometrist recently, they put drops in my eyes that made everything blurry for hours after. Thank God I was able to walk home and wasn’t relying on my car!
  • I’m one block from a Starbucks in case of serious emergency. I’m more partial to Coffee Bean, which is also walking distance, it’s just a bit further.
  • I’m one block from the absolute best shop we’ve found in town to buy bottled beer. They have so much variety and are constantly rotating new things in.
  • There are two movie theaters within walking distance, one three screen and a one screen. They show first runs movies and charge way more reasonable prices than most in town. ($6 for a matinée in this town is unheard of, people!) We also know the owner of both and his staff often lets us in free of charge. Who would want to give that up?
  • We have a very special local bookstore that we walk to all the time to browse.
  • All the major bus routes pass through an intersection one block from here. There is also a taxi stand if we ever need it.

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Almost everything I’ve listed would require me to drive if we moved to quiet neighborhood in the suburbs. You trade noise for gas money. I value walking places and even though they would be a short distance in the car, I know we are saving a lot in the long run. I love how busy Los Feliz is and that I can always count on seeing dozens of other people out and about when I walk somewhere.

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The rent is higher in this neighborhood than some other parts of town, but it is in exchange for the accessibility you get. How does one decide that the bad outweigh the good in these sorts of situations? Am I willing to give up all of these wonderful things for some peace and quiet and a little more space? Possibly. If we can find all we are looking for at the price point we want, then it just might be. There are pros and cons to every town and my next step is to try to determine if the money saved in this part, is worth the price in rent. What do you think? I’ll let you know what we decide.