Frugal Reading: Before the Hunt

I am a little bit obsessed with books – my house is literally overflowing with them. I have a way of just accruing books without really trying (see #5 below!), and lots of strategies for getting books cheap or free. I love owning, but there are lots of other ways I consume books on the cheap as well.

I thought it would be fun to write on my favorite frugal reading hacks (I’m a blogger now, so that means I get to call my strategies “hacks”). Before getting into the where, I will go over the how. Here are some basic rules to live by that will make you a better bargain book hunter.

  1. Keep a list of your to-reads, and have it with you always. I like to use Goodreads to keep track because all the info is right there from author to ISBN. I can accessit  from my phone anywhere to review my to-reads or add a book. I take advantage of custom shelves and have a “to buy” shelf for books I’m most eager to acquire.  In the past I’ve used Google Keep or a Moleskine that fit nicely in my purse. Whatever works for you, but if you’re writing down your list don’t forget to include the author. That was always my mistake.
  2. Embrace used. Personally, I prefer a used book to a new one. There is just something about giving that book another chance to be read, imagining who read it in it’s past, and taking in that old book smell. Every used book has a story that you could be a part of. When I was choosing a book to read on my trip to Paris last year, I picked up a used copy of Emma I’d purchased years ago and flipped through the pages. You know what I found? A train ticket from the Gare de Lyon in Paris for a bookmark. This book had already been to Paris! A new book could never be that cool.

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    This book has been to Paris twice!
  3. It helps to be into the classics. Great, cheap copies of classics are everywhere, even brand new. Most are in the public domain, meaning there are plentiful free ways to consume these books, some of which are excellent.
  4. Constant vigilance! Once you train yourself to be on the lookout, you’ll find there are used books everywhere.
  5. Don’t hide your bibliophilia. People give me books all the time, both on special occasions and completely spontaneously. When I was pregnant, I had a separate shower from each side of the family and they both came up with the exact same theme–baby books–and sent practically identical invitations. That’s because everyone knows I’m crazy about books. I had a coworker who gave me her books when she was done reading them even though they weren’t books I would like because she thought I could sell them at Half Price Books and get something I would like. When people ask what I want for Christmas, you can bet I have a slew of books on my wish list. And besides gifts, friends always send me tips if they discover a used book sale, or a clearance sale at CPH.org. If your love of books is well-known, they basically fall out of the sky.

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    A bookish birthday gift!
  6. Budget for books. Let’s face it, I’m going to buy books whether I’ve budgeted for them or not. Planning for a bit of book spending means you won’t have to starve just because you found a book you simply couldn’t leave behind. And setting some limits helps you be discerning about what you bring home. I always get very excited in bookstores and pick up a billion books, but I pare it down to keep my spending reasonable. This also helps me bring home only quality books I’d actually read.
  7. That leads nicely into my last point–just because a book is cheap (or even free!) doesn’t mean it’s a good value. I may find a book I’ve been looking for at a garage sale for a quarter but, on inspection, find it has obnoxiously narrow margins, tiny font, dog-eared pages, and the like. I would rather hold out for quality. Do you hate holding large hardcover books? Is that movie cover paperback just not as attractive as the original cover art? Do you hate it when a books has writing and underlines all over? Then you might not want to bring books like that home, because you are unlikely to enjoy reading them–or read them at all. I used to bring books like this home all the time because it was free or cost ten cents, but they just became clutter in my home. I often bought a second copy of the same book because I found it more aesthetically pleasing. Know what you like in a book and don’t settle for just anything with pages.

Because I could tell my post was going to get ridiculously long if I went into detail on all my favorite frugal book sources, I will be splitting it up into a series and periodically highlighting one at a time.

 

Surrendering a Salary, in Perspective

It was easy to make the decision to stay home with Little Guy from an emotional standpoint–it’s what I always wanted, and I knew it would make me happy–but the math had me second guessing. Looking at my salary, it felt like giving up so much–but it wasn’t as big a financial blow as it seemed at first glance. Though we definitely come away with less, the lifestyle changes create savings that soften the blow. Here are just a few of my biggest savings from staying home.

Taxes

I’ll get this obvious one out of the way. Taxes cut significantly into take-home pay. There is a certain sticker shock of giving up your salary, but factoring in taxes keeps things in perspective.

Childcare

Without doubt our biggest savings. One-third of my monthly pay would have gone directly into childcare–and my childcare was particularly cheap! There was a cooperative daycare basically on campus where I worked–monthly service hours required of parents kept costs low. Were this not the case, it might have been up to half.

Commuting

My workplace was about twenty-five minutes from home. That adds up at the pump. We also had to have two cars. Now my husband’s job is walking distance from home, and I work at home. We sold our second car for a little extra cash and thus save monthly on car insurance. Plus, having just one car and driving it mostly around town keeps maintenance costs to a minimum.

Convenience

This is a big one that seems like a small one. We have drastically reduced our convenience spending. I am not a morning person at all, and I am exceedingly forgetful. That means I often didn’t have time in the morning to make lunch, and even when I did think ahead and pack leftovers, I would forget them…a lot. I worked directly above a cafeteria, so I always had convenient, overpriced food to rescue me on these days. Then I would get home hungry and tired, and I didn’t always feel like cooking–so we went out to eat, or picked up Little Caesar’s (so temptingly close to us). These days, my husband watches Little Guy after work while I cook dinner. They get some quality time together, I get some alone time to decompress, and all three of us get delicious, healthy home-cooked meals. (Bonus: We are both home at lunchtime, so we can’t forget lunches anymore!)

Groceries

I could probably write 2000 words on grocery savings alone, but I’ll keep it short for now. When I was working, my husband did all the grocery shopping, but I did all the cooking. I rarely made time to plan meals and write him a list beforehand, meaning a lot of guesswork on his part. Often, we had to change plans because I didn’t have everything I needed, or food would go to waste because I didn’t know we had it or didn’t have a plan for it. Also, as stated in #4, I often came home too tired to cook and we would go out, and the planned-for meal would sometimes go bad before we got to it. Now that I’m doing both the shopping and the cooking, we never get more than we need–I have a plan for everything I buy, and I don’t scrap planned meals to go out to eat. I have time to shop mindfully, and even go to different stores to get the best prices.

Laundry

Our apartment, to my great chagrin, has no washer/dryer. Our favorite laundromat offers half-off washes on weekdays, but we didn’t have time or energy to take advantage of this deal. And we hated using our precious nights and weekends doing something so time-consuming and lame as laundry, so we put it off as long as humanly possible every time. Sometimes we bought new clothes (ahem, underwear) just to put off doing laundry, or at least under the reasoning that having more clothes would make it easier to put off laundry at some future date. We both had too much clothing, and spent too much on clothing. Now I always take the laundry on a half-off day, and get away spending a mere $2.50. My schedule makes it easy to make it out once a week, so no more wardrobe padding. (I have culled my wardrobe down to a small capsule wardrobe, which I’m crazy about–but that is another subject for another day!)

Pumping and formula

I haven’t had the best luck with pumping. I worked for a short time after my maternity leave, and it was a nightmare. I was constantly frustrated at not getting enough. I’m almost certain that I would have had to supplement with formula, which is very expensive. There also would have been pumping costs like replacing valves, getting flanges that are actually the right size, and extra bottles and/or disposable pumping bags.

Pick-me-ups

I was never really happy in the nine-to-five life. At work, I always felt that my time would be better spent with my husband, my baby, my cats, my books, my guitar, my kitchen, my you-get-the-idea. I was fine with the job itself and never felt that finding the “right” career would fix the problem. I never dreamed of being a “this” when I grew up. I dreamed of other things–the friends, family, husband, children, hobbies, travel. I always knew that there was more to life than work and that is what I dreamed of. I needed regular pick-me-ups to deal with my my less-than-fulfilling lifestyle. Hard day at work? Let’s go for drinks. Forgot my book for my precious lunch-time reading? Pick up a new one at the campus bookstore. Late getting home because I had to risk my life driving through a snowstorm to get to and from work, which I didn’t even want to go to in the first place, but didn’t want to waste a vacation day because then I couldn’t take my summer camping trips? Order pizza, the good stuffed-crust kind. Because I deserve it. I bought too much nice clothes, so I could feel good about my looks at work. I bought lots of expensive tea, so I could enjoy a luxury at my desk. I bought lots of expensive gifts for my husband for special occasions because I lacked the energy and time to do things on a daily basis that would mean much more to him than gifts (his primary love language is acts of service). An unfulfilling lifestyle leads to unnecessary expenses and lifestyle inflation. It just does.

It’s not easy to give up a salary, but the loss is never as big as it seems. There is value–monetary value–in having a stay-at-home parent in a household.

PANIC! 

So, for a blog partially about finances, I’m probably about to alienate most people interested in reading on that subject. Here goes! I reject the debt emergency mindset, at least for student loans. (I might think differently about 18% interest credit card debt.)

When I first started to face the cold reality of our student debt, I started to panic. For help figuring things out and calming the heck down, I turned to the debt gurus of the world wide web, your Dave Ramseys and the like. And you know what their sage advice was? PANIC!

So I spent the next few days doing just that. I stared at our debt summary for hours whilst crying and panicking. It is one of the least productive things I’ve ever done. It left me insanely frustrated because no matter how hard I tried, I could not think of a way to move forward (other than me going back to work, which is frankly not on the table for us).

Taking a step back, I realized we are already moving forward. We are on track with our payments, and making strategic extra payments when possible. We have frugalized our lifestyle a lot and are constantly brainstorming more ideas for saving. We are avoiding credit card debt like the plague. And we have plans to sell our car and buy a cheaper one to eliminate our car loan.

Our plan for paying off debt is about nine years. It’s a long-term plan no matter what. Even if I were working, it would probably shave off a couple years at best. I worked in higher education, so it’s not like I’d be flush with cash. Working would certainly help, but with daycare for one kid now and a second in a year or so, the extra would not be much. We cannot panic for six to ten years. It helps nothing.

Dave Ramsey would tell us we are gazelles about to be killed by a lion. But that’s kind of bullshit. There is an end to our debt, we are planning for it, and it is definitely not going to kill us. We acknowledge our debt, we manage it responsibly, we pour our energy into eliminating it. Essentially, the same things we would do in emergency mode, but without the completely unproductive panic. It’s a marathon, not crisis.

We want to get out of debt because we want our life to be about more than money, so why would we make our life all about money for the next several years to make it happen? We can’t get those years back, and we can’t short-cut through them either. What we can do is live our life accepting that debt will have a place in that life for a while (because it will whether we go into crisis mode or not). We plan for our debt, we take it seriously, and we are going to beat it. We don’t panic.

Adventures in Insourcing: Bread and Haircuts

Inspired by my steep financial goals and my new favorite blog, Frugalwoods, I had some adventures in insourcing this past weekend. I saved almost $80 for the month by doing things I would normally pay others to do for me. Not bad! I will start with the simplest and end with my boldest move – a haircut from my husband!

First up, homemade sandwich bread! Carbs are my favorite food. So, we eat a lot of sandwiches, toast, and garlic bread in this household. I recently started attempting to make sourdough bread, and was hoping to (maybe, someday) nail a recipe and then make it every weekend instead of buying sandwich bread. The trouble is the learning curve for sourdough kept pushing this goal further and further into the future. And even my best intentions of experimenting on the weekends didn’t work out because of the time commitment of feeding, hand-kneading, rising, and baking a sourdough loaf. All the while, I was still spending every week on subpar, storebought bread. Then I had an epiphany–instead of waiting until some vague date in the future when I might, maybe, possibly perfect my sourdough, I could just throw together a loaf in my forgotten bread machine. I found a great, simple (CHEAP) recipe from King Arthur Flour, and it made us a great loaf for about four minutes of effort–two throwing ingredients in the machine, and two slicing the bread. I estimate this change will save me about $10/mo.

Minimal effort sandwich bread

Also in the baking category, I made a giant batch of sourdough English muffins. Around here, we are about as obsessed with breakfast as Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson, so English muffins are very near and dear to our hearts. I got the recipe from King Arthur Flour (they really do have superior bread recipes!) and halved it a few weeks ago with great success; the muffins looked and tasted as good–nay, better than–store-bought. This weekend I made the full recipe and turned out 33 homemade English muffins. I put enough in our cupboard for the week, and froze 26. That’s English muffins for a whole month! Estimated savings: $5/mo.

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English muffins rising, next to my “frugal rolling pin” (AKA bottle of sweet vermouth)

I used to cut my husband’s hair regularly, but I got pregnant and didn’t want to do anything at all, and then had a baby and didn’t have the time. But, in our new efforts to save, we decided to revive the practice. Dusted off the old clippers, and did a simple long-ish buzz cut. He looks great, we saved about $15, and Little Guy got some entertainment out of the deal.

Now for the big one–my husband cut my hair. Inspired by this post from Frugalwoods, I decided to take a hitherto unimaginable step (unimaginable not because I thought the prospect horrifying, but because I literally could not have imagined the idea on my own). My options up to this point were 1) tolerate my hair being shaped like a house and being a total nightmare to maintain, or 2) pay for my usual $50+ haircut (I always went to an expensive salon because I have curly hair, and the cheaper salons just don’t cut it right, so it was better to spend $50 on a good haircut than $25 on a bad one). Then I discovered this third option, the home haircut. My husband very bravely agreed to try it out. Worst case-scenario is I end up going to the salon afterwards, right? So, we half-read some tutorials, and I showed him what the stylist normally does to do the length and layering, and then we went for it. If my hubby decides to do anything, he does it right; he didn’t grumble or roll his eyes and he wasn’t timid about snipping. We worked together on a little face framing, and did make a little mistake there, but we just rolled with it–smoothed out the choppy, too-short block on the right and cut the left to match. No problem. At the end, he did a length comparison and touched up the crooked areas, and voila! My split ends are gone, I am layered up to avoid the house shape, and we saved about $50. Oh, and I’m completely satisfied with my haircut!

My haircut – totally not house-shaped anymore!

There you have it, $80 of savings in one weekend thanks to a little not-very-hard work, courage, and Googling. In the course of a year, I will usually get two $50 haircuts, and my husband about ten $15 haircuts; that makes $250/year savings on haircuts, plus about $150 a year on the bread and English muffins. That makes this weekend and its efforts worth about $400/year.

Living My Dream

My dream for quite a long time now has been to be a stay-at-home mom. I am living that dream! I had my first child last December, and officially quit working in May. My husband and I also have massive student debt.

For a lot of reasons I won’t get into here, we decided not to wait until the debt was paid to have children. It was an excellent choice. No amount of money or financial freedom could convince me otherwise. (And, for the record, raising children is way less expensive than we are led to believe. More on that in a future post).

I had planned to work for at least a while longer, but during maternity leave two things happened. First, my husband got a new job, with better pay and potential for increasing that income over time. It was also cut his commute from fifty minutes in the car to about eight minutes on foot. Second, I realized I could not go back to work full time. I had spent two months home with Little Guy, and they were the best two months of my life. I knew this was where I was supposed to be.

We will never regret this choice.  I am happier than I have ever been. I feel I have found my true calling and passion. I am also much healthier! I lost ten pounds beyond my pre-pregnancy weight, without really doing anything other than not working at a desk all day and eating way less fast food. Beyond that, I wasn’t giving up as much as it seems, when you factor in the cost of childcare, convenience spending, commuting, and inevitable lifestyle inflation. And our family has greater flexibility to better my husband’s career and maximize his income.

I am actually oddly grateful for the lower income–I am convinced it has changed our financial life for the better. When I quit my job, we had to seriously evaluate our finances, make a budget, and cut our spending drastically. This sounds miserable, but actually it was very freeing. Had I kept working, our two-income family would have coasted comfortably along, without ever really facing the reality of debt. Though we would have been making enough to pay our debts down faster than our current plan (nine years or fewer, BTW), the truth is we probably would not have. We also would have just made standard payments, rather than choosing a strategic approach, which will save on interest.

Our family’s plans are not exactly traditional, and our path to the debt-free life isn’t going to be traditional either. Making this dream of mine a priority caused us to finally make our debt a priority as well–so, despite the loss of income, we are actually on a better debt payment track than before. We don’t have to choose between following our dreams and crushing our debt. We choose both. This blog is about dreams and debt and how we do life with both.