Posts Tagged ‘Month of Savings’

Reader Transformation: Shanna’s No Spend Challenge

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

Note from Amy- I am SO thrilled to be featuring one of my amazing friends today as we continue our m challenge towards saving money. Our family tries to take on a yearly challenge to dedicate one month towards not spending any money.  No spend challenges are something that I find help me to regain focus and discipline towards saving. They also highlight some of my terrible habits that I have towards spending money unnecessarily. I had the incredible honor of following Shanna through social media as she challenged herself to not spend money for one month. I asked if she would let me share her journey because I found her story so incredibly inspiring. Are you giving up anything for Lent? Perhaps this story of transformation will help inspire you and consider the savings a gift to those in need or to help your family save more this year. I hope you enjoy Shanna’s transformation as much as I have! 


It’s always been important to me to do what I love. The problem is that goods and services cannot be bought with emotional contentment – you have to use money.

I’ve never been good with money, but I’m not irresponsible either. In fact, I’m quite frugal by most standards, but I don’t earn much money. With my master’s degree in contemporary dance, I’ve danced and taught classes for a small company and taught dance at a community college. I’ve held many other jobs as well; all low paying. For years I’ve pieced together a living by holding more than one job at a time. I currently work full-time for a non-profit, teach yoga twice a week and I have several regular massage clients.

But life is expensive, especially if you don’t live near your loved ones. Clothing and food also cost money. Despite being generally frugal, my deficits accumulated. After ten years of working hard and not earning much, I had gotten into some bad habits and some bad debt. My journey to dig myself out was an eye-opening experience.

In January 2014, I made some pretty lofty personal finance goals for the New Year. First, I wanted a new job that paid at least $10,000 more per year. Second, I wanted pay off my $10,000 in credit card debt (although at the time I didn’t know how I would do it). Third, I would sign up for a fitness challenge at my gym, take first place, and win the fancy $75-a-month executive membership I could not afford.

I would win 2014! I would be confident, fit, and debt free by 2015!

So it began. My husband Matt got me a new interview suit at an after Christmas sale, and then I signed up for the two-month fitness challenge at my gym, planned a strict diet, and revised my resume. I had a determined mind and a hopeful heart.

By mid-February, that vigor and determination became… well… less vigorous. I was becoming increasingly frustrated because I wasn’t finding anything but parallel moves in my job search. The lack of job prospects was crushing my spirit as well as my motivation. I felt like I wasn’t making any progress towards my prosperous new year.

I began looking for some positive reinforcement, so I decided to commit to a 30-day meditation program being offered by my friend and fellow yoga teacher Erin Menut. Every day during those 30 days I would receive an email and an audio recording from Erin. I would read along and listen to the affirmations and reflections.

On day six the affirmation was: “I am here. I have arrived.” Erin talked about being present by acknowledging the present situation rather than ignoring how things are and looking toward brighter times. She told a story about her friend with credit card debt and called it “an extreme example of this.” Her friend was struggling with credit card debt and when Erin asked if she had a good repayment plan in place, she said “I don’t even know how much I owe. I don’t like to look at all of that stuff because I am afraid to find out how bad it is.”

Yikes! Erin and I never talked about my financial issues, but she might as well have been quoting ME! I too had never sat down with all my credit card bills to really look at the interest rates and fees and come up with a consistent plan to pay them down. I had been simply ignoring all that stuff and hoping for a brighter future. Not only did her friend say exactly what I would have, Erin also called her friend, and by proxy called me, an extreme example! In her reflections on her indebted friend, Erin went on to talk about what it means to be brave—the ability to face and conquer our fears so that they no longer control us. I needed to be brave – I had to figure out how I would tackle my financial mess.

On one of the days that followed day six, I was standing in Mountain pose repeating the affirmation “I am here. I have arrived.”, when I suddenly realized that part of the reason I was feeling so helpless was because I never actually asked for help. After that realization, it didn’t take me long to contact a credit counselor. I made an appointment and, to my absolute terror, would face my fears by sitting down and looking at my financial mess. I would go over a budget with my counselor. I would put a repayment plan in place. I would force myself to take control.

The appointment came, and my terror was realized. I remember the gulp of emotion that swelled up in my throat when we added everything up. My credit card debt wasn’t $10,000, it was $13,860.84! Through heaving sobs, I asked the counselor if I could call her back, and hung up with her. How could I let this happen? How did I continue to allow myself to spend? After I wiped the hot angry tears from my face, I felt my mind beginning to clear. Sure, I was angry and embarrassed, but knowing the number actually relieved my fears. It wasn’t a million dollars. It certainly wasn’t zero dollars, but it wasn’t insurmountable. In being known, the number lost its terror.

$13,860.84 was surmountable, if I could only figure out a way to surmount it.

Then I remembered Amy Clark. I read Amy Clark’s blog post about her no-spend challenge a few years prior. I decided to go back and read her post again. She and her husband and two children (one in diapers) budgeted $250 for groceries (including diapers), and declared that there would be no other spending outside of gas and utility bills for an entire month. I did a quick calculation of my prior month of spending. HOLY CRAP! I spent $300 alone at the grocery store! Yep, alone… that doesn’t include what my husband spent—AND we don’t have little mouths to feed or butts to diaper! It took me until April to get my mind set, but on May 1, inspired by Amy, I committed to a no-spend challenge of my own. I would pay my bills as usual and give myself $150.00 to spend on gas and groceries through May 31.


Coincidentally, I actually got to see Amy in April when she was in Salt Lake City attending a crafting conference. We were able to steal a little time together. I told her that I was planning on doing the challenge and she was more than encouraging.

On May 1, the no-spend challenge began. I found myself posting on social media about my progress and experience, which forced me to be accountable.


This photo is from day one. I’m very happy that I live only two miles from work. During my no-spend challenge, I rode my bike to work every day. I spent no money on parking and no money on gas.


Day two, and the no-spend challenge was already inspiring me to learn new skills! Before the challenge, I would have just walked my bike two blocks over to the bike shop and had someone else change my tire for $10. There was no way I was going to cheat on day two! So, with a little help from Matt over the phone, I was able to change my own tire. He was beaming with pride.


During the no-spend challenge I was constantly reminded that there were plenty of ways to entertain myself for free. On day eight, I remembered how to use the public library.


The challenge also inspired me to get creative with spend-free gifting. This is Anna. I like to call her my gluten-free girlfriend. Day sixteen of no spending was also her last day as my co-worker. Just because I couldn’t spend, didn’t mean I couldn’t give her a great parting gift. I made her Super Power flaxseed bread entirely out of ingredients I already had in my pantry. A plain lunch sack and reused ribbon made for quite a lovely gift wrap. (If I do say so myself.)




In case anyone was wondering, I didn’t win first place in that fitness challenge… I came in second, and won a six-month executive membership! I had FREE access to this gym including laundry service during the entire no-spend challenge. What a luxury!


Committing to the no-spend challenge not only opened my eyes to all free resources I had access to, now my perspective was beginning to change. I noticed my thoughts moving away from scarcity towards gratitude.

This photo was taken in City Creek Canyon on day twenty during a seven-mile run. I remember feeling overwhelmed with joy and gratitude for all this beauty and fresh mountain air that I get to enjoy near my own back yard.


“Cleanliness is next to godliness.” My thoughts were also moving away from I can’t afford…, to I can afford…

I can always afford a clean home. This photo was taken on day 21. I spent hours cleaning the apartment and I was pretty proud of the results. Just look at those shiny wood floors!


Remember all that money I was spending at the grocery store before? During the no-spend challenge that wasn’t much of an issue. I stuck to the budget of $37.50 a week on groceries (including wine). I rationed. I clipped coupons. I dug deep in to the pantry to use what I already had. Instead of spending so much money at the grocery store, I was spending quality time with good friends. This photo was taken on day 23 when my sweet friend Amelia made me this beautiful and delicious vegetarian dinner. We ate it on her porch where we spent the rest of the evening sipping wine and dreaming out loud.


Throughout the month, in addition to dinner invites, I was also receiving gifts from many of my friends who found out I was doing the no-spend challenge. Chocolate bars, flowers, garden veggies, and more! Jenita, my best lady from Cleveland wanted to send me a bottle of wine. She knows me well and probably figured that I would run out of that first. However, she found out that sending alcohol to Utah is a felony. (Ridiculous) So instead of wine, she paid for a Gallup strengths finder test and emailed a link. The test was intended to help me understand how to use my strengths at work and find out what kind of environment and team I need to succeed. Jenita is a good listener.


I had a special moment on day 28. Here the photo caption reads “Studio time! In the home stretch and finding more and more gratitude for what I already have. I get to spend time alone in this beautiful space before class on Mondays & Wednesdays. This morning at Avenues Yoga was particularly uplifting – doors open, birds singing, clear mind, not a want in the world.”

This was day 28 and I wasn’t even thinking about what I would be spending my money on after the next three days. On that morning, in that solitude, I was complete. I felt like I could go on forever without a spending fix.


Here it is, the moment of truth. On June 1, I sat down and added it all up. I saved $702.90 during the 31 day no-spend challenge! My husband and I used $400 of that to buy plane tickets to Chicago for our one-year anniversary trip, and I threw the remaining $302.00 at my credit card debt. In September, we stayed on the lake where we got married a year prior and spent quality time with my side of the family. While $400 only covered the cost of one ticket, we didn’t have to use a credit card to cover the rest.

I haven’t used a credit card since before the challenge. I believe the no-spend challenge actually cured me of my debting and credit card use. Now, if I have a big expense coming up, I save my money and plan for the expense instead of automatically pulling out my credit card. That’s huge for me, because I feel more in control of my own finances. In October, I took another 31-day no-spend challenge and used the money I saved to buy plane tickets back to Indiana for Christmas.

It’s been a year now and I only used that interview suit twice. I didn’t get a new job, and I’m certainly not debt-free. I didn’t succeed in meeting those lofty goals, but I think I still won in 2014. Some financial success did come my way. I received a nice bonus a work back in July, and got some new Thai Yoga Massage clients and gigs throughout the year. Most importantly, I learned a few things. I learned that I can’t run from my fears and expect anything to change. I learned that in order to be able to take control, I have to be brave enough to bring my full attention to the present situation. Presently, I am healthy and I am loved. I know that I still have a lot of work to do, but I’m here in the present, and I’m resolving my financial problems.


Day 30: Life’s Great Lessons

Friday, September 28th, 2007

This is the last day in our series and I admit it took much longer than I had ever anticipated. I share daily ways to save money, but to sit down and really contemplate thirty really good ways to save money…well, that proved to be a bit more difficult than I thought. I think I will stick with my quick tips and quips that I normally share. I hope that someone can walk away with one thing that will help their family in the future. That was my goal and intention with doing the series.

Today I just wanted to end the series by saying how important it is to me that I live within my means. There are many simple things that we have chosen to do to reach our financial goals in life…

  • We make a conscious choice to be smart consumers and chose to buy used items rather than new, to help minimize our costs. There are times where a new item might be appropriate (underwear does come to mind!), but in most cases buying a used item is a better financial choice for us. You can do this through thrift & yard sales, consignment shops, auction sites, or through the classified advertisements. Used is better for the environment and I find it a great thrill and privilege to hunt through the junk to find those precious items.
  • We chose to be wise consumers and research big ticket items before purchasing them. I would never run out and buy a television without good research and I would never just take a salesperson’s word for what is the best value for my money. I can justify the purchase of my Consumer Reports annual membership because I use this often to base my decisions on making a good purchase. I also frequently check sites like Amazon or Epinions to get the scoop from customers on how they like items. We cannot afford trial and error in our house so we try and pick things that we know will do well and last a long time.
  • We chose to surround ourselves with like-minded people. Maybe this shows signs of weakness or that I am just a newbie in the world of saving money, but I find myself feeling more confident in myself and my choices when I am around people who feel the same way. When I am around people who put more value into their possessions and the material things, I find myself redirecting my focus in that direction. I hope someday to be the type of person that is unfazed by these people, but for now I enjoy being with people who have similar financial goals and think of material things as secondary to everything else.
  • We are choosing to work towards a goal of a debt-free life. I have very specific goals in mind for our family. I have written these goals down on paper and I reread these goals often. I want to own both of my cars. I want to own my house. I want to pay off my credit card. I want to be free of student loan debt. I say these things to myself often and focus my energy towards making these goals a reality. Our goal is to have this done in six years. Six years of careful discipline and determination- what is your goal?
  • We chose creative ways that we can achieve the things we want in life. For example, bartering for goods & services instead of paying for them. I might make someone a fabulous dinner or babysit for them if they help me with A, B, or C. These exchanges are more creative than opening up my wallet and save us a lot of money. I also try to be creative by learning to make things myself, thrifting for gift items, and constantly researching ways I can be more creative with our money.
  • We chose to enjoy the good things in life, not to live a life of sacrifice and grumbling. I love good things- good coffee, an amazing dinner, a well-decorated room. I love all of these things, but I love to enjoy these things without the debt. I do what any smart frugal gal should do- I search on the internet for that perfect coffee recipe, I teach myself to cook, I look for inspiration in the magazines and find these decorative items in the thrift store. Enjoy that fine living, but do it in a way that can make you & your family proud.

We recognize that we have made bad financial choices, but we also know that some of those choices have lead to other great and wise choices later in life. I admit that there have been times where I have made stupid choices and I suffered from them. I also admit that if I had never made a bad choice in my life that I wouldn’t be human and I wouldn’t be able to have those experiences to draw from. I can nod my head and say, “Yes, yes, I know!” because I really do. I didn’t just read about it in a book- I am living it!

Here are all of the days that we discussed- just in case you happened to miss one!

Ask for Your Discounts

Take Your Own Pictures

Pay Your Bills Online

Use Your Phone as a Money-Saving Tool

Use eBay & Save

Take Advantage of Rebates

Brown Bag Your Way To Savings

Open Your Own Beauty Shop

Lower Your House Payment

Car Repair on a Budget

Creative Gym Membership Alternatives

Social Obligations on a Budget

Get Your Java Fix

Creative Toy Replacements

Keep Your Bills in Check

Bulk It Up

Find an Inexpensive Hobby

Get Yourself Organized

Curb Your Weekend Spending

Create Your Own Secret Emergency Account

Don’t Buy Stuff You Can’t Afford

Just Ask

Become a Coupon Queen (or Not)!

Schedule a Day in the Kitchen

Extending it Further

Save on Clothing

Get to Know Your Freezer

Get Rewarded for Your Shopping

Sound Off: What was your f
avorite day in our Month of Savings?

Day 29: Get Rewarded For Your Shopping

Tuesday, September 18th, 2007

I love shopper rewards, but not the kind that require me to take out a credit card. Yes, I know there are tons of personal finance gurus that would disagree with me on this, but I do not feel comfortable using a credit card. Call it lack of discipline, call it sheer fear…heck, you could call it pure laziness, but I am trying to avoid using credit cards for any reason.

No, the rewards that I like come from shopping that I am already doing. You can find great shopper rewards from places you are probably already visiting- your grocery store, the gas station, or doing your online shopping for the holiday season.

As someone who is frugal, I tend to overlook signs that advertise reward cards because I automatically associate them with credit cards. For example, our local Speedway had advertisements that were hanging over their pumps, advertising gas savings and I immediately got that glazed over look and would ignore them. There was no way I would sign up for a gas card, nope, not me!

Fast forward to a day trip with my sister and she whips out her Speedy Rewards Card, which credits her three cents per gallon and then gives her an additional savings on other items in their store. She explained that you could get points for buying your gas there and then you could credit those towards gift cards. This was an opportunity that I would have lost out on if she had not explained that this was not a credit card, but just a reward card. Now I happily swipe my free card and get my three cents back on each gallon. Yes, it is a drop in the bucket, but why not take advantage of it? Many of my frugal endeavors might only save me pennies, but pennies do eventually add up to dollars, and I am looking forward to putting some of that money in my secret account.

There are also rewards at grocery stores. Many grocery stores offer gas savings or savings on your groceries, just for using their free card. There could also be rewards available for your child’s school, as many grocery stores offer a percentage back on your spending for non-profit organizations and schools.

Finally, there are great rewards programs for doing your online shopping. I have always been a fan of MyPoints because I could do my shopping and use my points on gift cards for myself. I also love Ebates and enjoy getting my big fat check every now and then. I won’t go into detail, but these are two shopper programs that have some great benefits IF you are already planning to shop online, not shopping just to get points & rewards.

Since I often have that glazed over look when it comes to reward cards, what are some of the cards in your wallet that you find have been beneficial to your family? What rewards do you cash in on?

Day 28: Get To Know Your Freezer

Wednesday, September 12th, 2007

Today I was working on some items to put in my freezer when I realized just what kind of savings a person could cash in on just by learning what they can freeze and how to store the items in their freezer.

Here is the view into our freezer in our refrigerator. We also have a small chest freezer in our basement, but it isn’t as easy to view as the one upstairs.

What might one find in our freezer?

- Ice cube trays filled with ice to make our favorite Slushies and Magic Milkshake from Miss Maggie at Hillbilly Housewife. These make great frugal treats for the kids and save us a lot of money by not going to places like Dairy Queen in the summer.

- Coffee ice cubes to make my frozen coffee treats.

- Mashed bananas in measured containers for all of my baked goodies that might need this ingredient.

- Pizza sauce in measured containers for our Friday night pizza nights.

- Banana pops made to help the kids beat the summer heat.

- Lunch meat packets that I made for my husband’s lunch and quick dinners using our panini maker.

- Self-Rising & Cake Flour- which I use less regularly, but wanted to keep the ingredients fresh and on hand when I needed them.

- Homemade soup

- Homemade waffles

- Items that I got on sale- hot dogs, shredded cheeses, butter, margarine

- Cupcakes

In our downstairs freezer you would find loaves of bread, meats purchased on sale, gallons of milk, and homemade spaghetti sauce. I also stockpile anything that I can when it is on sale

Your freezer can be your wallet’s best friend if you use it. For example, when an item goes on sale and you want to stockpile that item, make some space in your freezer for the extras instead of letting them go bad in your fridge. You will have the item when you need it and you will pay a lot less money for those items.

Freezers can also be handy for bulk cooking and preparing meals in advance for your family. Prepare a meal that can be eaten by your entire family or prepare single serving dishes that can be eaten for just one. Veto the middle man and do your own freezer sessions in your kitchen and make dishes that can be eaten later. Dream Dinners even has a cookbook out that you can use to do your own freezer cooking. Check this book out from the library and see if you can come up with your own menu plans. You could start a group with girlfriends or trade meals with a buddy. (Note-This did not work for my picky family, but is great for families that are open to more types of foods).

Need help navigating the freezer? Here are some helpful resources for getting started:

Feed the Freezer Cooking Guide
Sneak Up on Freezer Cooking
Freezer FAQ
30 Day Gourmet
Recipezaar’s Freezer Recipes

Books to Check Out:

Dream Dinners Cookbook
Frozen Assets
Super Suppers
Don’t Panic- Dinners in the Freezer

Potential Monthly Savings- $30 or more

Sound Off: What could I find lurking your freezer? Is there anything that people might find unusual in your freezer?

Day 27: Save on Clothing

Wednesday, September 5th, 2007

There are so many great ways that you can save on your clothing and there is no reason in the world that you should ever have to pay full price for anything. I have gotten some of the best clothing for my children and most of it has been purchased secondhand. I would also say that ninety percent of my own clothing is bought from our local Goodwill store. Rarely would I ever pay more than five dollars for an item and I still maintain my snobbery towards the name brands that I love. Here are some easy ways that you can save on your clothes:

1. If you shop used, ask if they offer half off days or any special discounts. Most stores offer a deal, at least one day of the week, and those are the best times to shop. I always try and come as soon as the store opens for special discount days because you will have the most to choose from when making your selections.

2. You can be a brand name snob, but just because it is a certain brand doesn’t mean you should necessarily buy it. This is something that I had really struggled with in the beginning because I was focusing too much on the label name, rather than if I truly liked the item itself. A beautiful Ann Taylor dress that is not your color or style is better left at the store instead of taking up space in your closet.

3. Know your brands when you go to a store and know them well. I loved Meredith’s post on recognizing name brands because many of the brands that she has referred to were not ones that I was familiar with. Read the fashion magazines (from the library, of course!) and familiarize yourself with the quality labels. It is not only good for you to do this for your own wardrobe, but if something is not your size/style, but you know it is worth a lot, you could sell it to the highest bidder on an auction site.

4. Try and hold the items up in good lighting and really look at them. I do an armpit check, hem checks, underarm stain checks, seam checks and take an overall look at the item to make sure there are no rips or tears. Make sure you really look at the item closely before buying it. It has always been such a disappointment to me to bring home something that I am really crazy about and find out exactly why it had been donated in the first place.

5. Try on sizes that aren’t necessarily your size because many times they have been donated because the item was shrunk in the wash. I might try on sizes that are two up from my normal size and find something that fits me absolutely perfectly.

6. If you are petite, you can check in the girl’s sizes (sizes 14 & 16). I am really short and I have found a 16 in girls fits me perfectly lengthwise. Items with elastic waists, like jog pants, can be bought in these smaller sizes for petite adult women. The bonus, of course, is that the children’s clothing is cheaper than the adult clothing so I can get the item for even less money than I would have paid in the adult sizes.

7. Finding clothing can be time consuming so make sure that you have a good block of time to work with, especially if you are hunting for something in particular. I think thrifting gets easier as you get in the groove of doing this. Well-trained eyes seem to gravitate towards the good items and I have found items start to jump out at me a little easier because I know where to look and how to navigate the stores quickly.

8. Know that it is fine to leave with nothing in your hands. I think this is one of the hardest things for me because I want a good deal so bad. There are days that I spend a half hour in the store and come up with nothing. I know there are other days though where ten items jump out at me at once so I look forward to those days and understand that there are dry times too. Patience and waiting are difficult, but you will be glad you waited when that item finally appears!

Potential Monthly Savings: $30 or more

Sound: Off: What are your tips for saving on clothing?

Day 26: Extending It Further

Tuesday, September 4th, 2007

We are closing in on the end of our Month of Savings series and I hope that (at least) one of the ideas is something that you can incorporate in your house. While the truly zealous frugal person might not find my ideas all that inspiring, those who are beginning a journey into this world might be able to gain some insight on how to make small adjustments to their lifestyle, to create big savings.

Today I wanted to talk about extending the items in your home. There are two tools that I have found that have really helped me in extending the products we use. The first tool is the beloved spatula, which tends to get a royal workout in our house. The second tool is water and the art of watering down products to extend them further.

I am a big fan of using my spatula because nothing else works better when trying to clean out every last little drip in a jar. I shudder to think how much I had thrown away before, not caring if there was enough for two more peanut butter sandwiches, because I didn’t feel it was worth the effort. Now that I am on a tight grocery budget, the spatula is my best friend and we share a lot of time together in the kitchen. Using a spatula in your containers is a great way to make sure you get everything you can out of the food products in your house.

I also am a big fan of water for extending the products in our home. Shampoo, for example, lasts twice as long if I water it down. Just add it about halfway with water and give it a shake. The difference won’t be noticeable in the product, but it will be noticeable in your wallet. Other things that can be watered down: soap (to create foamy soaps), dish soap, and juice (for little mouths who don’t need all the sugar anyway). My theory is to try things watered down and see if they still perform well. If they are still doing what they need to do, why not water it down a bit? You might have to tweak how much is too much/too little, but find that magical equation and use it each time you replace those products.

I extend other things in our home. My coffee in the morning is a great example of a simple way that I can make my coffee last. The first time I make my coffee, I use the directed amount of grounds and prepare it as it is explained. The next day, I reuse the old grounds and only add half the amount of grounds required to make a batch. The second batch still tastes great to me and I have made my coffee last a little longer than it would have if I had just dumped the old grounds out. I can also extend it further by not allowing the coffee to go to waste and keeping it in the fridge or making ice cubes out of the rest of it. The coffee just keeps giving in our house.

Another scenario of extension is when I do my laundry. I never add the suggested amount of laundry detergent because I know that my clothing doesn’t require that much soap. If you use fabric softener, you can do the same thing by cutting the softener sheets in half or adding half the amount to your loads. Extend it further by repeatedly using the softener sheet until it has lost its effectiveness.

Extending these items may seem like a waste of time, but I am trying to prove how the little things really can add up towards a savings account for your family. In my opinion, it is all about the little things and this is just one way that I can work towards pulling our family out of debt and wastefulness.

Potential Monthly Savings: $10 or more

Sound Off: Are there products in your home that you extend? What are some of your favorite frugal tips for making things last in your home?

Day 25: Schedule a Day in Your Kitchen

Sunday, September 2nd, 2007

This is something that I was thinking about today as I was getting everything ready for the week ahead. One of the best things that I have done for my budget is to schedule time in the kitchen for myself, just like I would schedule anything else going in our home. One day out of the week I am able to cook and save our family tons of money.

It isn’t necessarily the meals that I am preparing, but it is all of the other things that seem to cost so much. I usually bake a special treat (muffins, granola bars, or a loaf of quick bread) that we can put in the lunch boxes or be eaten as an evening treat.

I then try to mix up all of my ingredients for the things that I will need for the week. If you plan your menus, you can determine what you will be eating and what you can make ahead for your meals. You can chop the ingredients for certain dishes and mix any of the dry ingredients that you can for your dinners. Think of this as making your own convenience food. I promise it is much more convenient for you to dirty your kitchen once then it is to do this multiple times throughout the the week. I love to mix up waffle mix pancake mix, bread machine mix, pizza dough mix, cornbread mix, rice mixes, and anything else that I can think of!

I also make a big batch of coffee and keep some in the fridge for iced coffees and freeze the rest in ice cube trays for my mochas.

I throw on some really good music, light candles, dance in the kitchen…whatever I am in the mood for! I also have a good “fluffy” book to read while I am taking breaks between things baking. I can usually squeeze in a chapter here and there, which makes it more fun for me!

When everything is done, I individually wrap everything so it is ready to go for a quick breakfast or to be added to lunch boxes. Putting it in a pretty basket makes it more visually appealing (as if a homemade treat wasn’t visually appealing enough!)

Here are some of a few of my favorite recipes in our house:’

Fun Treats:

Chewy Granola Bars

4.50 cups oats
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
2 cups chocolate chips
1/2 cup butter, melted
2/3 cup honey
¼ cup peanut butter (creamy)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly grease on 9x13” pan. In a large mixing bowl, mix together all of the ingredients (minus the chocolate chips). Stir in chocolate chips. Press into pan & bake for 18-22 minutes. Let cool for ten minutes, and then cut into bars.

Banana Crumb Muffins

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 t baking soda
1 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
3 bananas, mashed
3/4 cups white sugar
1 eggs, lightly beaten
1/3 cup butter, melted
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/8 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 t ground cinnamon
1 T butter

Preheat oven to 375. Lightly grease ten muffin cups or line with muffin papers. In a large bowl, mix together flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. In another bowl, beat together bananas, sugar, egg and melted butter. Stir the banana mixture into the flour mixture just until moistened. Spoon batter into prepared muffin cups. In a small bowl, mix together brown sugar, flour, and cinnamon. Cut the butter until mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. Sprinkle topping over muffins. Bake in preheated oven for eighteen to twenty minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into center of muffins comes out clean.

Heavenly Banana Bread

2 cups all purpose flour

1 t. baking soda
¼ t. salt
½ cup butter
¾ cup brown sugar
2 eggs beaten
1 t. vanilla
½ t. cinnamon
2 1/3 cups mashed overripe bananas (usually is about four bananas)

Preheat oven to 350. In a large bowl combine flour, baking soda, and salt. In a separate bowl cream together butter and brown sugar. Stir in eggs and mashed bananas until well blended. Stir banana mixture into flour mixture; stir just to moisten. Pour batter into prepared loaf pan. Bake 60-65 minutes. Allow bread to cool ten minutes in pan and then turn onto wire rack.

Spiced Pumpkin Bread

3 cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
3 large eggs
1 16-ounce can solid pack pumpkin
3 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter and flour two 9x5x3-inch loaf pans. Beat sugar and oil in large bowl to blend. Mix in eggs and pumpkin. Sift flour, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, salt and baking powder into another large bowl. Stir into pumpkin mixture in 2 additions. Mix in walnuts, if desired.

Divide batter equally between prepared pans. Bake until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 1 hour 10 minutes. Transfer to racks and cool 10 minutes. Using sharp knife, cut around edge of loaves. Turn loaves out onto racks and cool completely.

Best Big Fat Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies

2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup melted unsalted butter
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1 cup chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 325 F. Grease cookie sheets or line them with parchment paper. Sift together flour, baking soda, and salt; set aside. In a medium bowl, cream together the melted butter, brown sugar, and white sugar until well blended. Beat in the vanilla, egg, and egg yolk until light and creamy. Mix in the sifted ingredients until blended. Stir in chips with a wooden spoon. Drop cookie dough by 1/4 cups at a time onto the prepared sheets. Cookies should be at least 3 inches apart. Bake for 15-17 minutes or until edges are lightly toasted then cool on sheets a few minutes before transferring to cooling racks.

Cinnamon Bread Delight

3 cups flour 2 cups

1 (5.1oz) package instant vanilla pudding mix
1/2tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2tsp salt
2 tsp cinnamon
1 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup oil

1/2 cup applesauce
2 eggs, beaten

1 tsp vanilla

2 tablespoons cinnamon sugar

Preheat oven to 325. Grease 2 5×9 loaf pans. In a large bowl, mix flour, sugar, pudding mix, baking soda, baking powder, salt and cinnamon. In a separate bowl, mix the milk, oil, applesauce, eggs and vanilla. Stir the milk mixture into the flour mixture until smooth. Sprinkle the bottoms of the pans with cinnamon sugar and divide the batter between the 2 pans. Bake 1hr or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Potential Monthly Savings:
$30 or more

Sound Off: Do you have a favorite recipe to share that I could try in my kitchen? Something that has been a total hit in your house?

Day 24: Become a Coupon Queen (or Not)

Saturday, September 1st, 2007

Should a frugal gal use coupons or should she not? Do coupons really save money or do you just end up spending money that you would have not spent?

I go back and forth on this topic and it really depends on where I am doing my shopping. When I shop exclusively at Aldi, I can’t use my coupons. When I shop at other stores, it is usually a toss up on whether the generic is the better deal versus the brand-name with a coupon.

You will talk to some people and they are nuts for coupons and their receipts really prove it. Others of us, don’t believe all of the hype and say it is a waste of time and effort.

Since I started doing more of the drugstore rewards, in conjunction with my Aldi trip, I have found that it is possible to get items for free or really inexpensively. You could say that I am becoming a believer again in all of the coupon hype.

Here are some of the tips that I have used to help me follow the path towards coupon savings:

- Organize your coupons in a way that works for you. I have heard everything from shoe boxes to baseball card collection holders can be great ways to organize your coupons. Each person has a different system of organizing, just do what works for you. For me, I like to categorize them and then arrange by dates. I have also been known to lump everything together and then arrange by dates, to insure that I use the coupons before they expire. Right now I am finding categories works a little better for me so that is what I am doing at this point. My arrangements do change, depending on my mood.

- Make sure you put your coupons in a place that you will always have them when you need them. There is nothing worse than having all of your coupons cut and organized, only to discover that they are not with you when you need to do your shopping. Try storing them in your purse or in your car so that you will have them when you decide to make a quick stop at the store.

- There are only savings to be had if you are buying something because you normally use it and would have put it on your grocery list anyway. If you are using a coupon to just get a quarter off and this still leaves you footing a $4 tab, then using the coupon is actually doing a disservice to your budget instead of benefiting it.

- When I first started learning about coupons, I actually was pretty confused. What is the difference between the manufacturer coupons versus the store coupons? Well, the manufacturer coupons are the kind that you find in your newspaper, that come from the companies themselves. The store coupons, however, are the ones that you find in your store specific flier. The great thing about store and manufacturer coupons is that they can be used in conjunction with one another. If Dole, for example, has a coupon for $.50 off of a can of pineapple and Walgreens has a coupon for $.25 off of a can of Dole pineapple, you can use the two coupons together. Your total savings would be $.75 off of the can, and that equals a really great deal for your family. You might hear coupon queens refer to this as the “double whammy.” You can also achieve a “triple whammy” if you use the store coupon, manufacturer coupon, and you pick an item that is on sale.

- If you love certain products, call the 1-800 number and rave about the product. Share your experience with them and ask if they have any coupons or if they can add you to a mailing list. Customer service representatives get a lot of disgruntled customer calls, so not only will you brighten their day, you might also be able to pocket some savings on your next trip to the store.

- Look for coupons in unexpected places. Always check your receipt, at the end of your shopping trip, to see if any printable coupons were printed. Other unusual places for coupons are inside of your magazines, hidden inside of your piles of junk mail, and inside/outside of the packaging on what you are using. I am often surprised how many coupons I can find in these unusual places.

- Visit the websites for companies and sign up for their mailing lists. They will usually have printable coupons you can use on your groceries, or will add you to future mailings on special sales they are running.

- Shop at stores that double or triple your coupons. You will maximize your savings much more if you can go to one of these stores.

- Try using the Coupon Mom website, to figure out how to maximize your savings with your coupons. This website is free and can tell you exactly what you need to buy and when. There are also services that you can pay for, such as The Grocery Game. I have never paid for the service so I have no personal experience with it, but there are many people who swear by it.

- If your friends or family do not cut coupons, ask if they will save the coupon fliers for you.

Potential Monthly Savings: $10 or more

Sound Off: Do you have any coupon tips to share? Are you a believer in the coupon hype?

Day 23: Just Ask

Thursday, August 30th, 2007

One of the best ways that I have found to save money is to simply ask people questions. It sounds easy enough, but I have had a hard time doing this. I might be alone, but I just hate confrontation so this has been a tough one for me. After my first victory in asking though, I began to feel more comfortable doing this.

The first time I attempted asking for what I wanted was at a car dealership. We were completely broke, but needed to get out from under an enormous car payment that we could not afford. We asked my father-in-law to come along with us, to make sure we weren’t getting a lemon, and decided upon a car that we thought would work for us.

We sat down across from the salesman and he began his pitch. He wrote down the car payment amount and turned it towards me. I crossed out his number and wrote down my goal number. He would head to the back to “discuss with managers” and then would come back with another outrageous number. We then began what I like to call the “car payment tango”, him handing me his number and then me handing him back other numbers. When it was all said and done, I ended up being within just five dollars of my number. Only an hour of sitting there waiting for us to get to this point, but had I not asked for what I wanted, we would have been stuck with a car payment we could not afford. My husband watched me in disbelief, but then felt inspired by my tactics and applied the same tactics towards scoring his commuter car. We ended up with two cars for less than the car payment we were making on our one car. That was a big victory in the Clark house.

More recently, I needed to get a new stove for our house and I began pricing the stoves out. Everything just seemed too far out of our budget and nothing was coming up for me on Craigslist or at our local thrift stores.

We ended up finding one online that was a store model at a local warehouse store. The price tag was around $1,000…a far cry from what I was willing to spend. I told my husband that I would walk into the store and offer them $500. He looked at me like I was nuts, but I figured that the worst that they could say would be no. After a few minutes of chatting politely, I was able to get my stove for $500…just like I had planned.

Sometimes this works, like in the case of my stove, and sometimes it doesn’t work. I went back to the same store and offered $200 for a $400 dishwasher and brought cash as leverage. I was turned down and left feeling disappointed, but if I had not asked, I would have never known.

The same case in asking is great when talking to your friends and family. Without being too invasive, you can ask questions about services that they have and how much they are paying for them. For example, I talked to a girlfriend about how I would love to get the newspaper daily, but just could not justify the price for a subscription. She told me that she was able to take advantage of a promotion that they were offering for $1 a week for seven days of the local paper. I emailed the customer service department and told them that I had heard about their past deal and was hoping that I could get the paper for $1 a week. An hour later, I was on the phone with the customer service department giving them our billing address, as they honored the deal that I had requested. You could do the same thing with cell phone plans, internet service, babysitters, phone service, interest rates on credit cards, plane tickets- anything!

You can also ask for discounts on pricing if you can find a flaw in the item that you are buying. I remember when my sister did this at a superstore. She found a stroller that she wanted and the box was torn. She told me she was going to ask for a discount on it, even though there was nothing wrong with the stroller inside. She was able to get them to knock twenty percent off, simply because she asked. I now tend to look for the items that have a flaw in them, that can easily be repaired, to see if they will come down on their prices. Nine times out of ten, I am walking away with what I want for a lot less than what I would have paid if I had not have asked.

Here are some additional tips for asking:

1. In my opinion, no matter what I am asking for I try to be very ladylike and polite. I ask in the nicest way that I can and the delivery that I use usually makes people more responsive. I have seen people negotiating that come in with both barrels, using rude tones towards the salesperson. They usually leave with nothing and might have gotten what they wanted if they had asked in a kind way. As someone who has worked in retail, I know that I responded well and tried to work with a customer a lot more if they were kind to me.

2. Try and go to the stores that you know are more willing to negotiate on their pricing. Warehouse stores, discount stores, and department stores can all be great places to try negotiating.

3. Ask the salesperson if they have a floor model of an item, and if they will give you a discount on this. I love to go to Linens & Things because they offer great deals on their floor items and returns. I have gotten top of the line appliances for half price or less. If you do buy the floor models, ask if they will let you still use your coupons or discounts. I have found that they will usually do this, increasing your savings even more!

4. Always know when to walk away from a deal, particularly if you know that you can’t afford what they are offering. Try to be detached from the item so that you don’t become too emotionally involved and end up compromising your budget. If you do find yourself attached to the item, still act as though you don’t care. In the case of my car, I wanted it so bad that I could taste it. I had already pictured myself in it, but acting like I didn’t want it seemed to make the salesperson want to push harder…he was afraid I might walk away from the deal. Exercise this same tactic when doing shopping on auction sites and be firm about what you are willing to offer. Try to never budge on this!

5. For a more disciplined shopper, when asked if you would like to open a store account to receive a discount on your purchase, ask if you can make the payment to them at the register after opening the account. At The Children’s Place, for example, I opened a store account when we did our back-to-school shopping. After I opened the account, I could pay the “balance” with a check or debit card. I receive the coupons and sales fliers, but if I want to use the card for discounts, I immediately pay the balance. Ask if this is possible and utilize the discount, but only do this if you can be sure that you won’t use the card otherwise. I would never encourage anyone to get themselves into debt!

6. Ask if the store will take competitor coupons or if they will price match flier prices. Bed, Bath, & Beyond coupons can be used at Linens & Things, for example, so look for competitor coupons when going through your mail and papers. Wal-Mart will price match flier prices on groceries, so come armed with the prices when you come to the register. If you are appliance shopping, look for prices and comparable items in competitor fliers and bring those along with you. Ask if they will match or beat prices.

7. Ask what the price adjustment policy and return policy are at a store. Keep your eyes peeled for the item to go on sale and ask for the adjustment on your receipt.

8. Ask if the store has any discounts or coupons that they run. If you aren’t on the mailing list, ask to be added. This goes back to Day #1 in our series, where I had suggested asking for those discounts.

9. Know when to be quiet. This is a great thing to do because someone has to fill that silence. Silence leaves salespeople wondering if they are going to get the deal, and then they began trying to convince you to buy the item. S
ometimes salespeople will begin throwing in extras to try and get you to buy the item. Wait and be silent…see what happens!

10. On big ticket items, try to bring cash with you. I think cash, in an almost cashless society, speaks volumes and lets the salesperson know that you are serious and that you will offer exactly what is in your hand to them. I like to say things like, “I would love to give you the sale and I have brought cash so you won’t even have to run a credit card through!”

11. When you make a contract with a company and they don’t deliver on their end of the deal, ask what they can do to make this right. When our dining table, for example, ended up not being delivered when the furniture company said it would I requested that they give us some money back on the purchase. They knocked ten percent off for the hassle of having to wait for this item. Know what you are asking for and ask them to throw in extras for not honoring their end of the deal.

Sound Off: What are your suggestions on asking for what you want? What have you gotten just by asking?

Day 21: Create Your Own Secret Emergency Account

Monday, August 27th, 2007

I use the “secret accounts” phrase completely tongue-in-cheek. I decided one day to set up an emergency account and told my husband about it, but he apparently wasn’t listening to me. One day I showed him how much we had saved and he asked when I went off and got a secret account. Ever since then it has become a big joke between the two of us and when we get extra money, he always asks if I plan to store this in my secret account.

In all seriousness, creating an extra account for the extras in life can be an important way to save yourself some money. The money gurus encourage you to set up funds in other accounts that you can easily have access to and to prepare for those big things in life. Check out books from Dave Ramsey, Mary Hunt, or Suze Orman for great ideas on establishing your own emergency funds.

For example, start keeping track of all of the receipts on home improvements you have made during the year. At the end of the year, tally up how much you spent and divide the number by 12. That would be your goal to set aside for the next year for home repairs. This will save you interest and fees that you would incur from putting these expenses on a credit card. This same scenario can be applied to auto repair, Christmas gifts, medical expenses, taxes, etc… These “emergency” situations come up when we least expect them and it is nice to have that money socked away for those rainy days. Sometimes we know these situations will arise (a family vacation or Christmas) and we end up putting them on our credit card even though their arrival was looming all year long.

This month alone we had the car in the shop twice and, of course, both times these visits were unexpected. Thank goodness for that super “secret” account that we set up.

If you aren’t a good saver, have the bank set it up to be automatically taken out. Even if you can only afford to take $25 out of your account each month, that is $25 that you can use when an emergency arises.

If you are more disciplined, you can use the snowball technique towards your savings, provided your debts are all paid down. If you pay your credit card or car loan off, for example, start paying yourself that same amount and moving those funds into your emergency account. You won’t feel the ouch factor if you were already taking that money out anyway.

These accounts can be great for the bad things in life, but they can also be wonderful for the good things in life. We have a vacation account set up and I am hoping that we can go somewhere really special for our ten year anniversary. We have the money automatically taken out and moved into our vacation fund each month.

Here are some more great articles on creating emergency funds:

Bankrate’s Simple Formula for an Emergency Fund
How to Create an Emergency Fund Now Emergency Fund Guide
6 Ways an Emergency Fund Can Help Your Budget
The Emergency Fund

Potential Monthly Savings:
$30 or more

Sound Off: Do you have an emergency fund? How did you determine your budget for this account?