Cooking at home can certainly save you a lot of money. Eating at restaurants can be pricey! I love eating out, but only in certain circumstances. Those circumstances include eating cuisine I can’t or don’t make myself (such as many ethnic restaurants, like Ethiopian or Vietnamese food), having dinner out with others.

Still, if you’re not careful cooking at home can actually be more costly than it should. If you make recipes with specialty ingredients, you have to buy the specialty ingredients, and those can add up! Things like sun-dried tomatoes, specialty spices, specialty oils, and specialty sauces do not come cheap.

Some ways to save money on gourmet cooking…
Spices. Check out ethnic grocery stores. We shop quite a bit at our local Indian grocery store. It carries virtually any spice you need. The spices come in bags rather than the tiny little jars at mainstream grocery stores, and they are incredibly cheap. You can save more than 50% (and often more like 75-90%) buying spices bulk from these stores.

Other specialty ethnic items. Same as the spices… things like peanut oil, coconut milk, panko, and rice vinegar are much cheaper at Asian grocery stores. Even if you go for more prepared things, such as already made peanut sauce, it’ll be much cheaper at the Asian grocery store than in your ethnic aisle, at the Whole Foods, or at a fancier store like Williams Sonoma.

sun-dried tomatoes. The cheapest jar of sun-dried tomatoes at our local grocery store is $6. If you don’t want to pay that, you can actually make your own. Good news is, you can do it in the sun or in your oven.

Pesto. You can also make your own pesto, which freezes incredibly well. When basil goes on super sale in the summer, we make several  jars and freeze them. (And by we… I actually mean my husband does this. Yes, he’s that fabulous!!) It’s much more yummy, healthier (we use less oil than commercial), and far cheaper.

Baking powder. My mom makes her own baking powder from baking soda, cream of tartar, and corn starch. I don’t (I think baking powder it’s pretty darn cheap), but if you’re up for it, you can…

Other specialty baking items. Chocolate chips, evaporated and condensed milk, confectioner’s sugar, special nuts, and the like can put a dent in your grocery budget. (We baked a lot in November… and it totally showed in our grocery spending!) There’s no magic wand for this, other than to watch for sales this time of year. Around Thanksgiving and Christmas this stuff is very often on sale, and there tend to be a lot of coupons for it online or in the newspaper. Some of it also keeps if you store it properly, so you can also stock up a bit now to hold you over.

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Many people’s biggest debt is their mortgage. Plenty of people talk about mortgage as “good” debt. In some ways, I agree with that. You get a tax deduction on your mortgage interest, so you actually get a subsidy, and particularly at the beginning of the mortgage you’re paying considerably less because of that subsidy. In addition, you get something very tangible and important with a mortgage: a home! Unlike credit card debt, which can end up paying off all sorts of consumer gluttony, mortgage debt is paying off a very important thing in your life: your house!

On the flip side, I believe that most Americans are too lazy with their mortgages. The mortgage crisis made crystal clear that many Americans extended themselves too far, with a mortgage they couldn’t actually pay off. At the same time, many other Americans took out huge home equity loans, or loans borrowing against the value of their home, and again can’t pay them off because of the economic crisis. Mortgages are fine, but they are still real debt, and are not to be played around with.

Here’s the gem to remember when thinking about a mortgage: When you borrow money for your house, you actually end up paying nearly twice what you borrowed to pay off your mortgage, even at today’s low interest rates. At 5% interest, a $300,000 loan ends up costing you $579,000. You’re paying more than one pretty penny to have a mortgage.

If you can pay down your mortgage, it’s worth it. The way mortgages work, at the beginning of your loan you are paying almost all interest. If you can make an extra payment each year, that payment can go entirely to the principal. Say you make a $1000 extra payment: that $1000 you now do not have to pay interest on, so you’re saving yourself a bunch of interest on that $1000! That’s a great deal! The actual amount you’ll save depends on when you make that extra $1000 payment over the life of your mortgage… but the earlier you pay, the more you save. Extra payments early in your mortgage save you much more than extra payments later, because your essentially nipping some interest in the bud. Again, one reason to put down more– when you mortgage less money, you save a bundle.

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Student loans are fabulous. Really fabulous. I might call them the only real “good” debt. Why? Because for a lot of people they make it possible to get an education that they otherwise couldn’t afford that will reap them some major lifetime benefits. The US Census Bureau did some nice little math that shows college degree holders make an average of $1 million more in their lifetime than those with only a high school diploma. Student loans are often a worthwhile debt to take on.

Still, student loan debt can be burdensome, especially for young people just out of school who are in entry level positions. Recently, Sallie Mae started a new program that lets you start making very small student loan payments while you are still in school. The program has  students to make very low payments of $25/month while in school and for six months after graduation, when usually you are paying nothing on your loans. Even if you use a different lender that doesn’t have a specific program, you can call and talk to them, and likely set something up yourself to pre-pay some of your loans (here is an example of how UCLA helps its students do exactly this). The upshot is that you can save a bundle over the long run by doing this!

First, how does this work? How does it save you so much money in the long term? For most loans, you pay largely interest at the beginning and pay off the principle at the end of the loan. Whenever you can make early payments toward your principle, you reduce your loan not just by the principal, but also by the interest you would have to pay on that principle. This is a little more complicated (depending on if your loans are subsidized or unsubsidized, your payments may to go accrued interest or just principal or some combination of the two), but it still works out that whatever loan you have, by making some early payments, you’re saving a hefty chunk later on.

Second, is it worth it? Many folks on student loans may be able to afford $25/month while in school. If you can skip a dinner or two out, you can probably make the payment. If you are in the situation where you could make those payments, I think this is definitely worth it.

However, there are some people from whom this is probably not a good idea. Some folks on student loans are living meager lives. Particularly if you are supporting a family and things are very tight on your loan money, then this might not be the best option. Still, you are looking at hefty savings, and if you can eek it out, it’ll be worth it.

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Like many personal finance questions, this one is exactly that: personal! There are plenty of websites around that do coupon match-ups; that means, they match up store sales to coupons (either from online or the newspaper), so that many times you can get products for incredibly low prices, or even free.

I personally enjoy using coupons, and I save a lot of money doing it. I primarily coupon shop at CVS, where I usually get a small bag of toiletries/groceries for a few dollars a week or less. I match the coupons to the sales, and only buy what is really cheap that week. Generally that means I’m never shopping when I absolutely need something, so I’m never paying full price. When there’s soap on sale, I buy it, whether we need it yet or not; then when we do need it, I’m not stuck going and paying full price.

This doesn’t work for everyone. Coupons are actually advertisements– companies use coupons to get you to try their product when you otherwise might not have.  If you are prone to buying something “just because there is a coupon”, you won’t save money. Saving serious money through coupon shopping requires organization and some start-up time.

To use coupons wisely…

  • Always start with the sales ad or circular, and look at what is on sale. Match your coupons to the sales.
  • Again… only use a coupon when it matches with a sale!
  • Always check the price after coupons; there’s absolutely no advantage to using a coupon if you are still paying more after coupons than you would pay for a generic, cheaper brand.
  • Stay organized. If your coupons aren’t organized, you’ll lose your coupons and waste time and money.
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Benefits from your employer are non-cash compensation, and often there is much more included. Employers won’t usually hit you over the head to tell you about all your benefits, so do your own investigating! There are many more types of benefits than simple health insurance and retirement plans.

Extra kinds of health insurance. Check if your work offers dental or vision benefits. If you need any kind of dental work (from cavity fillings on up to crowns and dentures), you’re probably better off getting dental insurance. Same thing for vision insurance.

Retail Discounts. This is often an untapped well of savings. Check if your employer makes you eligible for local discounts. For example, we receive a 22% discount off our wireless phone bill through our employer. You may also be eligible for discounts at a variety of places, such as restaurants, mortgages through local lenders, car dealerships, local museums, gyms or fitness centers, insurance discounts (such as auto or homeowners insurance), discount purchases of personal computers or software, amusement parks, local businesses such as car washes or carpet cleaning… the list goes on!

Commuter savings. Some employers (particularly those in cities) offer various kind of commuter discounts, usually aimed at getting you to not drive alone to work. These might include discounts on rail or subway passes, discounts for parking if you carpool, or discounts on shared car services (such as Zipcar).

Disability insurance. Some employers offer short- or long-term disability insurance. If you work at a job where disability would mean you couldn’t work (such as any kind of work where you spend a lot of time on your feet), this may be worth it.

Employee Assistance Programs. Many employers now offer employee assistance programs. The idea is to provide a confidential resource for employees to get help with things that may hurt their work. You can get help for a wide variety of things, including substance abuse, emotional difficulties, life transitions (such as births or deaths in the family), financial concerns, legal concerns, and so on. You usually get some short-term counseling (around 5-10 sessions) free. In addition, the EAP can refer you to others who can help you. Think broadly– for example, if you run into a bad tenant-landlord dispute and need a real estate attorney, your EAP can likely help you sort things out and refer you to a local attorney (often with discounted fees). If your child is having substance abuse problems, you or your child can get short-term counseling from the EAP and then a recommendation to local mental health workers or treatment centers. If you are having problems with debt, your EAP can help you establish a budget, make a plan for paying off your debt, or refer you to free, non-proft credit counseling. This is one of the most valuable and underutilized benefits, in my opinion. If something is stressing you out and you don’t know where to turn, try calling your EAP.

Tuition assistance. Some employers will pay for you to take classes to further your education. Savvy employees can often work on bachelor’s or master’s degrees part-time and end up paying very little for their degree.

Flexible spending and health savings accounts. These accounts let you save pre-tax money that you can use for allowable expenses. For medical, that means prescriptions, co-pays, doctor’s visits, glasses and contact lenses, and so on. There are also dependent care FSAs which you can use for things like daycare. The pre-tax dollars mean that you are essentially getting a discount of your tax rate off of what you would normally pay. For example, if you are taxed at 25%, $100 paid from your FSA is equivalent to you paying $75 post-tax, saving you $25.

Credit unions. You may be eligible for membership at a credit union, either for your specific employer (for large employers) or through an affiliated credit union. Credit unions are owned by the members, unlike banks which are owned by shareholders or other profit-makers. This means credit unions often have lower fees or better interest rates on savings or loans.

Healthy living. Some employers offer an array of health and wellness benefits not linked to health insurance. This may be smoking cessation programs, weight loss programs, free screenings (such as cholesterol or diabetes), free or discounted gym memberships, and free flu shots.

Term life insurance. Employers often offer low cost term life insurance. The plus side of this is that you usually will pay much less through your employer than you would if you bought life insurance individually. This is particularly useful for people with children, families, or parents who rely on you for financial support and would be in big trouble if something happened to you.

Childcare. Some very large employers have their own childcare for employees. Others may have partnerships with local childcare centers offering discounts. You may also be eligible for a dependent care Flex Spending Account that lets you use pre-tax dollars to pay for child care. Finally, some employers offer scholarships or aid for paying for child care.

Adoption and fertility. Some employers offer adoption benefits or reimbursements. Some offer reimbursements or discounts for infertility treatments. Also check with your health insurance about fertility treatments.

Unfortunately, not everyone has benefits: self-employed, unemployed, part-time, and hourly workers usually have no benefits or limited benefits.

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This is the second post in a series on delicious, homemade food that lets me eat well for a good price!

This recipe came from a local farmer at our farmer’s market. We were buying beets, and the farmer asked if we wanted the stems or not. Being the city folks that we were, we had no idea of how to answer that question. “Um… well, what can we do with the stems?”  The farmer went on to share this recipe, which we tried that day and loved. It is now a staple that we’ve been making at least once a week since the beginning of the summer. Beet greens are very similar to Swiss Chard, a vegetable with colorful stems and large green leaves. Chard is very hearty and still growing around here even after several frosts, so we’re still eating the local stuff, which is delicious!

olive oil
1 bunch swiss chard or stems from a bunch of beets
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
salt and pepper
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
dry pasta (we prefer whole wheat linguine)
pasta sauce (optional)
Parmesan cheese (optional)

To make:
1. Start a pot of boiling water for your pasta. Watch it while you’re making the chard sauce here, adding the pasta when the water hits a boil, and draining it when it’s done cooking.

2. Separate the stems from the leaves of the chard or beet tops. Chop the stem into tiny pieces. Roughly chop the leaves.

3. Heat the oil in a large skillet. Add the onion, garlic, and chard stems. Saute until the onion is soft or translucent, about 5 minutes.

4. Add salt and pepper to taste, and then add balsamic vinegar Saute about 1-2 minutes, until it looks like the onion mixture is picking up some of the vinegar.

5. Add the chard or beat leaves and 1-2 tablespoons of water (to help the leaves cook down).. Stir. Cover and cook until the leaves are wilted, stirring occasionally. The cooking will take approximately 5-10 minutes, depending on how tough the leaves are and how big you have chopped them.

6. Serve over pasta. You can mix in some tomato sauce if you want (I do, my husband doesn’t) and serve with Parmesan cheese for extra flavor.

Cost: $3.95 for 4 generous servings, or about $0.99/serving. Lovely!
($2 for a bunch of chard, $.50 garlic, $.50 onion, $.50 pasta, $0.41 balsamic vinegar, few cents for oil/salt/pepper)

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I noticed a few years ago that many of the blogs I read were overlapping, all suggesting similar things to do to improve your life. The thing was, I wasn’t reading just personal finance blogs. There was a big environmentalism blog, a blog on community, a blog on happiness…  As it turns out, a lot of the frugal things we do are also the environmental thing to do and the healthy thing to do and the thing that strengthens community.

Some examples from my life:

Drive less, or lose you car. Obviously frugal, as cars cost money. Also environmental, as cars are a big polluter and use oil. Are you biking or walking? Tick off healthy as well.

Eat at home. Cooking your own food is definitely cheaper than eating out. As it turns out, nutritionists also often recommend eating at home because restaurant food is so unhealthy (think oversized portions and extra fat and sugar to make it taste so good). Family dinner is also a huge benefit to kids, who do better in school and socially when they eat family dinner.

Turn off the TV. Obviously frugal given the going prices of cable. Also an environmental move (check out No Impact Man)  on electricity. There’s a deeper reason for both, though, and that is losing TV also means the constant bombardment of ads and messages that tell us to buy new things and spend our money. As it turns out, staying away from the TV is also conducive to a host of other good social outcomes like lower child obesity rates, better grades for kids, higher levels of volunteering, and more having more friends.

Air dry clothes. We started hanging clothes to dry after a particularly painful electric bill one month. In the city with only a sidewalk for outdoor space, indoor drying racks would have to do. It turned out to also do amazing things for the dry winter air indoors… we suddenly had no need for a humidifier or pounds of lotion in the winter. Wonderful! And again, far less energy and better for the environment. I learned soon after that almost no one in Europe has clothes dryers; this is one of those things that makes the United States a much bigger energy consumer than other countries.

I personally love how frugality, environmentalism, health, and community can dovetail on each other. It gives me more motivation, because when I find multiple reasons to do something, I’m more likely to do it. If I’m not motivated by my wallet, I might be motivated by my waist. If I’m not motivated by the environment, I might be motivated by friends. The intersections also strike me as poetic, that indeed there may be some deep, underlying principles to living a fulfilling life.

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Unfortunately, the United States has rather slim laws for new mothers. Maternity leave in the US is shorter than in most other countries, and it’s unpaid.  Your employer  might offer you some paid leave, and some states have laws that guarantee more maternity leave, but the federal law governing maternity leave (the Family and Medical Leave Act) gives  a woman twelve weeks of unpaid leave during which she can’t be fired. Nice, right?

Turns out that actually only about half of women working in the States qualify for those 12 unpaid weeks of maternity leave. It’s true.

You’re eligible if and only if…

  • You’ve worked at your employer for at least 12 months
  • You’ve worked 1250 hours in the last 12 months (or approximately 26 hours for each of those 52 weeks)
  • You’re organization or company employs more than 50 employees

Let’s get some examples for the ladies.

  • You work at a small law firm that has five lawyers and a few clerks. Sorry, don’t qualify.
  • You are a contractor (not official “employee”) at your company. Sorry, don’t qualify!
  • You give birth 11 months after being hired at your current company. Nope, no FMLA.
  • You worked part-time, 24 hours a week. You don’t qualify, without enough total hours in the past 12 months.

This can really, really suck. I find the 12-month employment rule particular egregious. Given that younger women are probably more likely to be having babies and more likely to be in a new job, this particularly sucks! Plenty of my friends, classmates, and colleagues are in new jobs, or will change jobs after a few years. If you unluckily end up preggo with a due date before day 366, you are basically out of luck unless you have a great employer. I realize companies don’t want people gaming the system to eek out big maternity leave after a short time actually working, but I also can’t  imagine that happening to a great enough extent to actually matter financially. I mean, really: do you know that many women working full-time jobs that will actively get a new job just to pop out a kid and take free leave? Didn’t think so.

So what happens if you don’t qualify? Some states have better laws than the federal law, so you might be entitled to leave. You might have a good employer, which has their own (better) maternity leave policies. At the very least, giving birth is considered a big enough medical event that you can almost always go on short-term disability. Then again, you must have short-term disability coverage to do that.

While there are probably 1500 considerations about when to have a baby, and this is probably reason 1387 (just above “do I look cuter in winter maternity clothes or summer maternity clothes?”), maternity leave is certainly something serious for women’s lives and careers. Unfortunately, here in the United State we don’t have particularly mother-friendly policies, and perhaps the best we can do is be aware and advocate for better when we can.

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There’s a lot of positive talk about working for yourself. Be it freelancing in your field, writing, blogging professionally, consulting, or starting your own business, there are plenty of good reasons you might want to leave your cubicle and start out on your. However, in the positive hype for working for yourself, I think ye old cubicle and day job for a company or organization can get a really bad rep. There are plenty of folks who may be happier at a “regular” job.

Here are some reasons why a 9-5 may be a good place for you…

You feel more comfortable with certainty. The problem with working for yourself is that there can be a good deal of uncertainty and accompanying stress. Business can come and go, income may be sporadic and not a constant stream, and it can be stressful finding and keeping work. This may get easier as time goes on, but it also may not, depending on your field, your skills, the market, and many other factors. Working for an organization generally carries a great deal more certainty: you know when your paychecks are coming and in what amount.

You like (or need) some fringe benefits. Working for someone else, you likely have more benefits that when you first start out on your own. Health insurance, retirement plans, tuition reimbursements, and a slew of other benefits can accompany your paycheck. When you work for yourself, you have to cover all this on your own.

You work well in a more structured environment. Some people work well with more structure. Working for yourself, your structure is up to you. Some people work better with established structure. Other people just like it more.

You work well in teams and around other people. Though of course there are exceptions, a lot of work for yourself can be solitary. For example, writing, blogging, and freelancing all of course can carry some interaction, but fact of the matter is you’ll be spending more time on your own, planning your own work, carrying out your own work, evaluating your own work. Though of course plenty of “regular” jobs are isolating, plenty also carry a lot of teamwork, every day, all the time. If you like constant interaction, water cooler chat, coffee breaks, and team meetings, then working for yourself (by yourself) may not be ideal for you.

You like working at a big organization. Fact is, working for yourself you probably won’t ever be a part of a big organization unless you start a company that really, really succeeds. You might freelance at a big organization from time to time, but it’s not the same as being a part of a big organization.

You want to build specific skills. I recently read that most people who start their own business have worked in the field before. This makes sense, when you think about it. I’m much more likely to run a successful coffee shop if I’ve worked in a coffee shop before, and have some knowledge about how to run things. I’m much more likely to be a successful IT consultant if I’ve worked at an IT company, giving me skills and credibility to use as a consultant. Working for a company or organization will give you experience, feedback, and skill building in that particular field that may be much more difficult to come by working for yourself.

In short, working for yourself is great for many reasons and for many people, but there’s plenty of worthwhile reasons to work for established companies and organizations as well.

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I adore kitchen stores! It all started when I was really learning to cook, the summer after I graduated college. I was reading all of these recipes and trying out tons of new ways to bake and cook. It was a lot of fun! I quickly discovered the world of kitchen ware! Springform pans, garlic presses, slow cookers, and “spoonulas” were all enticing, beautiful devices that promised new, easier, or novel ways of doing things. A friend took me to Williams Sonoma… I was in love! Not to mention the more boutique kitchen stores.

Eventually I understood that great cooking need not involve the most expensive or rare kitchen items. Really, you can do quite a lot with pots, wooden spoons, and casserole dishes. That doesn’t take away the allure!

A few things to consider before investing in a new kitchen gadget:

Can I do the intended task without this product? I suspect most of us can separate eggs without a specific instrument for egg separating, for example. This leads to the second…

Where will I put this new kitchen toy? I have had many a kitchen item end up forgotten at the back of a cabinet, as good as gone. I start doing things the traditional way, and it’s like I never needed my new toy.

Does more money and better quality buy me significantly better food? I would argue that in some cases, it certainly does. I swear by my cast iron pots. They cost an arm and a leg, but I rarely burn or unevenly cook anything. They are one of the few pricey kitchen items I think are worth investing in. (I suspect knives are another, although since I don’t cook meat, I have less of a need for great knives). In contrast, more expensive dish towels or serving platters likely do the same job as the less expensive ones.

Will I use this enough to make it worth it? Some products may in fact do a better job, but if you’re only likely to use it a few times a year, it’s still not worth your extra bucks.

If I decide I want it… can I buy it cheaper somewhere else? Ask about sales. Check the internet. Or use a 20% coupon at Bed, Bath, and Beyond.

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