Category Archives: saving money

Ode to Bicycling

Just your average Seattle springtime bike ride

I mentioned riding my bike to the library in a previous post, so let’s talk a bit more about how awesome cycling is.

Second to meeting my wife Venessa, choosing to commute by bike is the one factor that contributes most to my quality of life, on a physical, emotional, and financial level. My bike is my preferred mode of transportation, a source of recreation, and a cheaper, more enjoyable alternative to a gym membership. I preach the awesomeness of bike commuting to anyone who will listen, and have helped a few people get started. Here are the tips I gave them:

Step 1: Decide if bike commuting is for you

The rewards of bike commuting are plentiful:

  • I’m in better shape than I’ve ever been
  • I get to the office feeling invigorated, my brain is alert and ready to work
  • I get the feeling of accomplishment from conquering hills and routes that were previously too challenging
  • It’s good for the environment
  • Depending on your commute, it’s quicker (15 minutes on bike vs 40 minutes on bus, for me)
  • It’s arguably cheaper than a bus pass and definitely cheaper than a car ride
  • Chatting with other cyclists along the way

There are also some not-so-great things:

  • Safety concerns
  • Riding in the rain 9 months out of the year
  • Worrying about your bike getting stolen, where to put it when you’re at work, what the policies in your office are
  • Getting to work sweaty. Does your office have a shower? If not, how will your coworkers feel about your odor?
  • Your pants won’t fit because your waistline will shrink and your leg muscles will grow
  • No time to read/listen to music (or whatever you enjoy doing on the bus)

Step 2: Pick a bike

Until you’ve been on a few different bikes, you won’t know what type of bike suits you best. If you have cyclist friends about your size, ask them if you can try out their bikes. Otherwise look at craigslist listings for bikes, and give some a spin. For a more humorous look at choosing a ride, see the “Equipment” section on this helpful Bike Snob NYC post

I was very happy with my touring-style bike as a commuting bike. It didn’t have as aggressive a position as a road bike, so it’ll never be the fastest. But it was designed to carry cargo, and it had small gears for getting up hills. I ended up swapping it for a cyclocross bike since it’s easier to commute on a ‘cross bike than it is to race ‘cross on a commuter bike.

My recommendation is to buy a bike with drop handlebars and STI shifters, that can one day accommodate fenders and/or a rack. Other than that, just get the nicest used bike in your price range.

A note on bike sizing: there’s no standard for bike size numbers. Each company measures a different part of the bike to determine the size. You can google for sizing guides with charts but there’s no substitute for getting on a bike and seeing how it fits your body.

Step 3: Bike gear

Some people go crazy with this stuff, but you don’t need that much. What you do need depends on what type of riding you do.

Here’s a list of the essentials, that can all be had for under $50 total:

  • Helmet
  • Floor pump (the #1 way to reduce flats is checking tire pressure every few rides)
  • Little bag (e.g. that goes under the saddle, between two bars of the frame, or in your big bag)
  • Repair kit that fits in little bag: spare tube, patches, a small pump, 2 little tire levers, a small multi-tool
  • Yep, that’s it.¹

You should get a lock if your workplace doesn’t offer bike storage in the building. But before caving in and locking up outside, I’d put up a fight on this point. Mention how much more productive an employee you’ll be knowing that your bike is safe through the day. Some cities have a program, like Bikestation, where you can lock your bike indoors for a yearly fee. An oft-overlooked defense against having your bike stolen is to not have a valuable-looking bike!

Step 4: Route selection

This one’s more of an art than a science. Get a bike map for the area you live in, and plot a route. Remember that the shortest path isn’t always the easiest. It took me a while to stop thinking like a driver. Go around hills. Follow other cyclists to see what they’re doing (when they merge, roads they avoid, etc) or ask them when stopped at red lights. I’ve found that cyclists are very friendly to each other and love to help out. Sometimes a busy road with a bike lane is actually less safe than a side road without bike facilities.

Steps Five through infinity: Ride safe

This is the most difficult one to write about because it literally is a matter of life and death. The first few times I rode through downtown, I got that panic warning from deep in my reptile brain. Same thing I used to get as a child when we had to swim at summer camp (I had a terrible fear of water).

I’m going to keep this simple and only offer one tip because it’s the most important safety thing I’ve learned, but it’s somewhat counterintuitive to a beginning rider: be a predictable part of the flow of traffic

The tendency for a new rider is to timidly hug the right edge of the road, always yield to cars even if you have the right of way, or ride on the sidewalk. Counterintuitively, none of these practices make you or the people around you safer!

You have the same rights and responsibilities as a car so the more you ride like a car, the safer you’ll be. The only legal difference between you and a car is that a cyclist is obligated to ride “as far to the right as safe”. Other than that, you’re just a very slow and slender car.²

For example, when you’re riding on a street with parallel parking, “as far to the right as safe” means “far enough away from parked cars that when a car door opens, it won’t hit you,” even if that means riding in the middle of the lane. Cyclists call this “claiming the lane” and it’s the most counterintuitive of all the safety rules.

“Share the road” goes both ways. So when cars are around don’t be a jerk and run lights, ride excessively in the passing lane, etc.

If you have any questions, feel free to ask. I’d love to convert one of you into a bike commuter!

¹ You can add more gear later after you figure out what type of riding you do most. If you plan on riding…

  • in the dark, add: bright/reflective clothing, front and rear lights
  • in the rain, add: front and rear fenders, and optionally pack a poncho
  • longer distances, add: water bottle and water bottle cage, bike shorts or bike underwear (padded undies that turn any shorts into bike shorts)
  • while hauling lots of stuff, add: rear rack, paniers (bike bags)

² Your local laws may vary.

Food Stamp Challenge

My Rabbi challenged everyone in our congregation to do a week-long Food Stamp Challenge, starting on Sunday. This means you go a week spending the same amount on groceries that the average person on food-stamps receives in benefits, which is $31.50. It won’t be a huge stretch for our family, since our grocery spending is already at a pretty low level.

In the interest of full disclosure, we’re cheating and allowing ourselves to eat from the food in our pantry (which is modest though well-stocked). I’m talking about stuff like wheat flour to make bread, not caviar.

We’re planning a shopping trip for Sunday to get the food for the week. To make it more realistic, we also won’t be eating lunch in restaurants at work, which is something we normally do a couple times a week.

I’ll let you know how it goes, maybe with a detailed breakdown of how we fed our family for a week, spending only $31.50 per person.

Is anyone else interested in participating?

Should I stay or should I go?

One of the next recurring expenses I’ll be tackling is our crazy $150/month mobile phone bill. We use CREDO Mobile, so I get that warm-fuzzy liberal feeling of supporting a good cause, but it’s not that warm of a feeling. My blog idol, Mr Money Mustache, recently posted a how-to article on getting mobile service for $10 / month, using a prepaid plan.

So I’ve been shopping around for different types of plans, pre-paid and flat-rate. I haven’t made any decisions yet, but I did whip up this little spreadsheet that shows you how many months until you’d “break even” after switching to a cheaper plan. It takes into account the cost of a new phone and any early termination fees. Then it tells you the number of months before you’ll break even on a new plan:

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0Am8qaK8Qf80edGh1RzJrZFVwSUZZYVcyaUJVQkpfdnc

Hope this is useful to other people as well!

Update: Technical Meshugana created a web-based/javascript version of the calculator! No need to load the big Google Spreadsheet page. Check it out:

http://www.techmeshugana.com/tools/wirelessroi.html

Frugal School: Junior 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.]

Junior Year – Getting Frugal

Welcome back to Frugal School. Hope you enjoyed your summer break. Did you get a job for the summer, or take it easy? Unfortunately, there’s no time for you to spend a year studying abroad in Frugal School! These Junior Year books consist of an overwhelming number of tips and tricks that will help many people make frugal choices. Do not read these without a solid foundation from completing the previous years.

tightwad Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn
This book is the bible of frugal tips. Atheists can think of it as the yellow pages of frugal tips. Amy, the author, started a newsletter (via postal mail) in the 1990’s, filled with frugal tips from her family and other readers. Her family cut costs down so drastically that her and her husband were able to quit their jobs and live off the income from the newsletter. Just a few years later, they reached Financial Independence, and no longer even needed the income from the newsletter.
live cheap 365 Ways To Live Cheap by Trent Hamm
Trent is the writer of the very popular blog The Simple Dollar. His book contains a tip a day for transforming your lifestyle over the span of a year. Not only are the tips unique and helpful, but the tip-a-day format makes them easier to digest and implement. I think the title sells the book short, and it should really be called “365 Ways To Live Well” since many of his money-saving tips also promote wellbeing and happiness.
urban homestead Urban Homestead by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen
What would a degree in Urban Frugalism be without a book on living self-sufficiently in the city? This book gives step-by-step directions for many of the things you’ll be doing in your own Foundry in the Forest: gardening, keeping chickens, canning/preserving foods, and (my favorite) bicycling.

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.

Hang Dry Your Laundry: Just Do It!

Speaking of laundry… Hang-drying your laundry is so easy, it’s something everyone should do! The sun is just sitting out there waiting for some laundry to dry for free. Even in Seattle, we keep the clothesline up year-round (though it doesn’t get much use from October – May).

We hung some rope from the house to a spare bamboo pole, and then back again, to provide two lengths of clothesline from which to hang clothes. And we added a drying rack for increased capacity. You can also see stuff hanging from chairs and even toys.

We’re blessed with a large deck that has Southern exposure, but there’s no reason you couldn’t do this inside, or on a small scale if you have a smaller yard.

There are plenty of other tips to increase the space on the clothesline: hang clothes from hangers or even an old umbrella frame.

And the proof is in the financial pudding. Dryers are one of the biggest energy consumers in the house. We just got our electricity bill for June/July (when we’ve been able to hang-dry almost exclusively). We used 387kWh per month.

According to the Government, “In 2010, the average annual electricity consumption for a U.S. residential utility customer was 11,496 kWh, an average of 958 kilowatthours (kWh) per month. Tennessee had the highest annual consumption at 16,716 kWh and Maine the lowest at 6,252 kWh.”

So we’re at about 1/3rd the national average. Granted, energy costs are lower for us in the summer, so let’s look at our family’s yearly average (the Seattle City Light bill gives you a nice graph of your yearly consumption), 811kWh per month. Lower than average, but we still have some ways to go before we can beat Maine! In February, our most electricity-consuming month, we use over 4x the amount of electricity we use over the summer!

Not only are you saving money, by hanging your clothes to dry you’re also helping save the earth. I love when those two things go together!

PS: Washington state enjoys the 2nd lowest energy costs in the nation (probably due to all our hydroelectric). But that doesn’t mean you can waste it!

A Supposedly-Frugal Thing I Actually Did Try Again

I previously tried a powdered laundry soap recipe, and concluded that it was too much effort and not worth the trouble for the minor cost-savings. As a footnote to that post, I mentioned a different, liquid recipe that looked promising.

When the homemade powder ran out, I decided to try that liquid recipe. Now that we’ve been using it at home for a few weeks, I’ve concluded that it’s great!

The recipe is from The Duggar Family, and is as follows:

  • 4 c water (heated in saucepan)
  • 1 bar of soap (I recommend Trader Joe’s oatmeal soap, it’s $1 and mostly free of weird ingredients)
  • 1 c washing soda*
  • ½ c Borax
  • 5 gallon bucket
  • Empty liquid detergent container (or any large-ish container with top)
  1. Grate bar of soap and add to saucepan with water. Stir continually over medium-low heat until soap dissolves.
  2. Fill 5 gallon bucket half full of hot tap water. Add melted soap, washing soda and Borax. Stir well until all powder is dissolved.
  3. Fill bucket to top with more hot water. Stir, cover and let sit overnight to thicken. (You’ll either need a very-long-handled ladle or a brave, clean arm)
  4. Next morning, stir well.  Fill a laundry soap dispenser half full with soap and then fill rest of way with water.

Shake before each use, as the mixture will gel. Use ¼ c per load in a front-load/HE washer or ½ c in a top-load/conventional washer.

Cost Savings:

The recipe yields 320 washes for top-load and 640 washes for front-load, so you might want to half (or even quarter) it as a trial run the first time. The ingredients cost about $6 total, so that’s less than $0.02 per load.

We used to use Trader Joe’s powder detergent which is $0.16 per load. We do about 200 loads of laundry a year and I estimate the recipe took about 30 minutes of my time, so I’m saving about $28 for a half-hour’s worth of work, or $56 an hour (more than I make at work). Plus, I know exactly what’s in the detergent and that all ingredients are safe, which is a plus.

In conclusion: totally worth it!

* To make washing soda out of baking soda, bake it for an hour at 400 degrees.

Update: This batch of laundry detergent lasted exactly one year for our family of 5.