Category Archives: parenting

How to get creative when shopping for school supplies

Here’s what I’ve learned about buying school supplies without breaking the bank:

  1. Look around your house for supplies before going shopping. I found most of what was needed in the house. Look in the junk drawer, the desks, and anywhere else there might be school, art, or office stuff.
  2. For the things you can’t find around the house, wait until after school starts. School supplies go on sale then. If you feel bad not sending supplies with your child on the first day, send them with the stuff you’ve collected from around the house. If they have a pencil, paper, and some markers or crayons, they’ll be fine. Oh and don’t forget their lunch, it’s sitting on the counter!
  3. Go to the thrift store before the office supply or drug stores. Most of the stuff you need (folders, binders, rulers) can be found in the “home” or “office” departments of a thrift store.

Using the above tips, I was able to keep costs down to under $20 per child, and that included some optional items for the classroom (hand sanitizer, tissues, etc). The one thing that pulled up the average cost was that Isaac’s teacher required students to have a 1½” binder. The 1″ and 2″ binders were cheap and plentiful at Goodwill, but I had to buy a new 1½” binder at the drugstore for $6!

My apologies if this article arrives too late in the school year for the parents out there.

The cost of a Free Concert

My uncle gave our family free tickets to a concert last week. It was Pink Martini, one of my wife’s favorite bands, so we couldn’t pass it up. The concert was a blast (especially for the kids who got to dance around) and I don’t regret going, but the evening came with an important lesson about the hidden costs of “free” activities.

Transportation: it was too far for the little ones to bike, and the bus ride would have been inconvenient with our picnic supplies, so we took the car. This put me over my limit in the gallon challenge, so although it wasn’t a huge deal to drive for the rest of the family, it was a personal defeat for me.*

Food: we were in too big of a rush to prepare dinner, so we ordered a pizza to go (and they forgot to put tomato sauce on it, WTF!?)

Other temptations: the concert was in a park that had a carousel, so the children wanted to ride on that. Only a couple bucks, and well worth the price for the nostalgic fun. Grandma bought the children some treats too. That’s what grandmas are for, right?

The point here isn’t “don’t leave your house” or “never take anyone up on an offer” since that would make life boring. The point is that it’s rare when things are truly free, and it’s important to think ahead about the actual cost of your choices.

* For those keeping score at home, this trip brought me up to 1.85 gallons.

We’re always waiting, but what are we waiting for? [video]

My sons are way into an album by the Portland group Yacht. I’m always happy to introduce them to non-mainstream music, but I’m especially glad they’ve taken a liking to this album, because the messages of the lyrics are very positive. There’s one song in particular called “We’re always waiting.” I never realized how well the lyrics summarize the Your Money or Your Life, voluntary-simplicity movement.

Give it a listen:

We’re always waiting. What are we waiting for?
We’ve got all we need right here, but something’s telling us we need more.
We want all that stuff. All that stuff that costs too much.
Why are we working? And what are we working for?
We feel sad and such. Are we owned by our own stuff?
We don’t want our boring jobs, to keep us paying bills for ever.
So what are we waiting for?

Step Up To The August Challenge: Gallon Challenge

It’s August, and that means it’s time for another monthly challenge. This one is really going to stir the pot: the Gallon Challenge. I’m not talking about the fraternity hazing ritual, where you have to drink a gallon of milk in an hour (don’t ask). This challenge is about limiting yourself to a gallon of gas for the month!

You’ll quickly realize that this challenge seriously penalizes those with less fuel-efficient cars. Good! It’s time to feel the pain for making an inefficient car choice. Don’t feel too bad, I’m in this group (our car only gets 20 MPG), so I’m making some pretty major lifestyle changes to make sure I only drive 20 miles this month.

The biggest change is getting the boys to summer camp. The round trip is 7 miles, and there’s 10 days of camp. That obviously won’t work. My first thought was to take the bus, but that would take 40 minutes, with a transfer. So I decided to take matters into my own hands, or shall I say “feet.” I contacted Bike Works, a local non-profit dedicated to getting more people biking. They have a loaner program where they’ll loan out all sorts of bikes. For a small donation, I got this Sun Atlas cargo bike for the two weeks that the boys are in camp.

Riding it is a blast, for me and for the boys. I find that our commute is much more social, not to mention the amazing workout that I’m getting! Isaac looked pretty proud rolling into camp the first day on the back of a cargo bike.

So that’s the challenge. Who’s up for it?

Fine print: Use your car’s average MPG to figure out how many miles you’re allowed to drive (e.g. 20 MPG = 20 miles). Family vacations don’t count (you can consider that fuel consumption to be in the “vacation” category). Decide for yourself if you count being a passenger towards your miles. Maybe you can count that for half miles? Let me know what you decide.

Frugal School: Sophomore Year

[Frugal School is my fun way of maintaining a book list. It has 12 books total, meant to be read one book per month. You can check out the introductory post about Frugal School, and see the entire syllabus.]

Sophomore Year – Getting Started

Welcome back to Frugal School. Hope you enjoyed your Freshman year and didn’t get hazed too much. These Sophomore Year books form the foundation of understanding your relationship with money, perfect for getting started on your own frugal journey. This year only has 3 books because the first book takes some time to digest.

ymoyl Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez
This book is the big one. Remember when you finally picked a major in college, and you took that intro class for the major and it totally opened your mind to a new way of thinking? That’s this book. I wrote a longer review of it that goes through each of the 9 Steps. You should read that post.
i will teach you I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit Sethi
Ramit has a unique writing style that might turn off people older than 30. But once you get past that, his method for automating your finances can’t be beat. Learn step-by-step how to get your financial life in order, how to negotiate on the price of major purchases, and how to invest for retirement.
bank of dad The First National Bank of Dad by David Owen
This book isn’t just for dads and it isn’t even just for people with (or planning to have) kids. It’s a primer on the meaning and value of money, investing, and the stock market. If you don’t have kids you can skip the second half of the book, which details the author’s method of helping his children learn to invest without forcing any particular value system down their throats.

Once you’re through reading these books, you can continue on to Junior Year of Frugal School.

Turn onesies into t-shirts

Lillia is potty training now, so she can’t wear onesies any longer. It would be a shame to get rid of them, so we just cut off the bottoms and turned them into regular t-shirts. Bam! New wardrobe!

That zig-zag pattern is accomplished by cutting with pinking shears, and it helps prevent the fabric from fraying. If you don’t have a pair of pinking shears, get a solid used pair and they’ll last forever. They probably feature in a craft project at least once a week around here.

(Dudes, I know it has the word “pink” in it, but they’re just scissors with sawtooth blades and that’s pretty manly when you think about it.)

New Kicks

On the way to work today, I walked pass this line of people waiting for a shoe store to open so they could buy the new Air Jordan shoes. The folks at the head of the line had been there overnight.

I remember when I was about 12, a new version of Air Jordans came out. I begged and pleaded with my mom to buy me a pair. She finally gave in and bought them while I was at school one day. I came home and tried them on. I looked at myself in the mirror and realized I looked ridiculous, and had her return them the next day. I bet I never even apologized for making her go out of her way to the shoe store twice.

I’m sure there’s a moral somewhere in this blog post. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader.

It never hurts to ask

I love asking for things because it never hurts to ask. As long as you’re polite, reasonable, and ethical, there’s no reason not to ask for what you want.

Lowering prices: I recently called my auto insurance company (Pemco) and asked them to lower my premium. They said no but it didn’t hurt. On the other hand, I asked my credit card company to remove my yearly fee and they said yes. The 5 minute call saved me $70.

Improving your credit score: Since having higher credit limits helps your credit score, it never hurts to call your credit card companies every year and ask them to raise your credit limits.¹ Say “I’ve been a loyal customer for X years and always paid off my balance in full. I’m planning on making some purchases in the near future. Can I have my credit limit raised to…?” Also ask if they’ll bypass the credit check, since that temporarily hurts your score.

Other requests: I emailed my Congressman to see if he’d fly a flag over the Capitol in honor of my Grandpa (a World War II veteran) and Venessa’s Grandma. It took a while to get a reply, but his staffer obliged and also offered to send me the flag for a reasonable price. Whenever I buy something on craigslist I ask if the seller is willing to deliver it to me, or at least meet me somewhere convenient. Failing that, I ask for a small reduction on the price.

On being asked: When it comes to the kids, I try to start answers with “No” as infrequently as possible. But when they make an especially outrageous demand, I’ll say, “No, but it didn’t hurt to ask.” I wonder if my folks said the same thing to me?²

I have a feeling that most children are reprimanded when they ask unreasonable questions, so by the time they’re adults they’re literally afraid to ask. It’s a shame, because that same part of the brain is also what drives curiosity. We should praise our children for asking all sorts of questions, everything from “Why is this the way it is?” to “Can I have …?”  It’s the latter type of question, when combined with a good work ethic, that leads to new inventions and discoveries:

Q: Can I have an iPod?

A: Yes. How do you plan to save up for it?

or

Q: Can I have an iPod that also plays 3D movies?

A: Yes but you’ll have to invent it first!

¹ Do not do this if you abuse credit cards. This is for people who pay in full each month and generally have their financial house in order.
² I definitely remember my parents doing this: if they bought something at the store and then saw it went on sale soon after, they’d bring the item back, along with their receipt and ask for the difference in cash. It must have worked or they wouldn’t have done it all the time.

The “Switch Witch” visits on Halloween Night

Halloween should be fun, so even though collecting 5 pounds of mass-market, chemical-laden, tooth-decay materials isn’t the greatest idea for a child, it would take a certain kind of mean parent to say NO to all that.

Luckily, there’s a way to let your child go trick-or-treating, and let them enjoy the fruit of their labor* without the feeling that you’re betraying your values just to not rock the boat:

The Switch Witch!

The Switch Witch is the Tooth Faerie’s mischievous sister. She goes to random houses on Halloween night, after children are asleep. She steals all their candy (except what they already ate that night) and switches it for cash! How much? Enough that your kids won’t be upset that their candy is gone. It’s going to depend on their age and how much experience they have with estimating the value of goods.

What you—I mean The Switch Witch—does with the candy after that is up to you…

* Knocking on a stranger’s door can be very difficult for a child, so to them, they’re working hard.