26 October 2012


It happened like this: I decided I needed to quit my job and strike out on my own, in small part because I realized it would actually be cheaper to work from home. No more buying gas once a week at $4 a gallon, no more checks written out to the dog walker, no more eating out for lunch (I've never gotten the hang of that bring-your-own-lunch thing). In fact, my calculations indicated that I could save around $500 per month by working from home. (Of course there's the issue of how I'd make any money, but that's a discussion for another time.)

"Fumar acorta la vida" 
Starting to work from home would mean not only that I'd be going through a huge life transition but also that money would likely be even tighter. These two factors led me to conclude that Oct. 1 was the perfect time to quit smoking. Cold turkey. Quitting smoking would save me at least $60 per month. And there's that whole thing about not wanting to be addicted; as much as I love to smoke, I do not love feeling like I have to smoke.

Photo © 2009 by David Aeschliman
My chances of successfully quitting smoking would be raised, I realized, by keeping myself away from temptation. Namely: the bar. Or any alcohol, for that matter. I have a tendency to chain-smoke when I drink, so if I cut the alcohol out for the entire month of October, it would help me stay true to my goal. Another positive side-effect was that I'd spend less money. Somewhere around $25 a week less.

And that's how I decided on a smoke-free, alcohol-free month of October, which my neighbor and I, after much discussion, renamed Octsoberfest. (I discovered later that other people have also thought of Octsoberfest. I guess there really isn't any such thing as originality. Darn.) If you're interested in reading about how it's been going, click here.

How much money could you save by cutting out one habit or vice for just one month?

16 July 2012

The Penny Pincher's on break

Dear Readers,

You may have noticed that the frequency of posts has died down in the last few months. It turns out that all the authors are going through some significant life changes at this time. It's been a struggle to keep up with our desired publishing schedule. So to take the pressure off, we're going to take a break for a few months. Despair not! We will be back in October with more great tips and tricks for saving money in an environmentally friendly and socially conscientious way.

--With love from The Penny Pincher Team

02 July 2012

Little things for pet owners

Just a couple thoughts today on little things pet owners can do to save some money:

1. Pet insurance.

When my dog, Milton, came into my life a few years ago, he was scared but healthy. Not being a believer in the insurance industry in general, I passed on the offer of pet insurance. About 6 months later Milton was limping and crying, and it turned out he had a congenital defect that was causing hairline fractures in the head of his left femur. His bone was literally disintegrating day by day. Very painful. The surgery alone cost two thousand dollars. Add to that his regular check-ups, flea meds, heartworm meds, and a host of other things I won't go into here, and he's the most expensive little "free" dog ever. But this was my lesson: no pet is ever actually "free," even if you don't have to pay an adoption fee. Oh, how I'd wish I'd bought pet insurance when I had the chance! 20-20 hindsight, and all that.

It's true; there are a variety of opinions about whether or not pet insurance is worth it. So don't just take my word for it. Do some research to find out what's right for you. Here's an article against, one that's on the fence, and one (written by a veterinarian) that's for.

2. Poop bag alternatives. 

For the dog owners among us, poop bags can be incredibly expensive. Where I shop, 120 bags, about a 2-month supply, costs $13. A few months ago my dad offered to start saving his newspaper bags for me. Brilliant! If you don't get the newspaper, see if a relative or neighbor does and is willing to save the bags for you. Bread bags also work. Plastic grocery bags are not recommended, as they tend to have little holes in them. Yuck.

11 June 2012

Keeping a budget: The why

I'd like to back up for a second here and talk about a basic money management tool: the budget spreadsheet. In this post I'll explain why I think this is a useful and important tool. In a subsequent post I'll tackle the how.

A long time ago, in a land far away, I didn't even have a bank account: I got a weekly allowance from my mom and dealt in cash. Overspending was never a problem because I only had the cash in my pocket; once it was gone, there was nothing more to spend.

In high school I got a job and needed a bank account so I could cash my checks without having to pay a fee. Though I didn't have many financial responsibilities, tracking my funds became a little harder. I learned that I couldn't really trust my bank balance because it takes longer for some transactions to go through than others, so on Saturday when the ATM said I still had 50 bucks left and I was like "Woo hoo!" and spent it, and then come Monday something I'd bought on Friday went through, I was suddenly in the red and paying overdraft fees. Yuck.

That's when I started tracking my spending in that handy little transaction register your bank gives you. Very helpful. I'd just keep all my receipts and write down everything I bought in that little book, and it greatly helped in avoiding those overdraft fees. Except when I forgot to write something down. Oops.

But even the transaction register is no longer sufficient for the convoluted mess my finances have become. I have automatic payments set up for things like the mortgage payment and the electric bill. I have credit cards. I have automatic deposit. This means that there's activity in my bank account that doesn't come through me directly. I also have expenses that are important and substantial but don't happen every month, like my car insurance payment.

All this has brought me to the budget spreadsheet, a fantastical invention I became aware of when I temped for a property management company and saw how they kept their properties' budgets. Amazing.

The budget spreadsheet helps me do the following:
  1. Anticipate how much money I'm going to be spending each month and on what (vs. how much money I'll be bringing in) so I don't run into that overdraft problem;
  2. Track trends in spending so that I can make conscious decisions about where my financial priorities are...for example if I'm having trouble paying my bills but I see that I'm spending a ton of money on eating out every month, I can curb the restaurant binge;
  3. Factor in how much money I need to set aside every month for those less frequent expenditures, such as aforementioned car insurance but also vet bills, dog registration, car registration, oil changes, etc.;
  4. Planning for fun stuff, like travel or going to a show once in a while: I know that if I want to do these things I need to save up for them on top of what I'm already putting aside for #3 above. (Does no good to set aside money for car registration only to spend it on a concert because I forgot what that money was in savings for.)
Even when I don't have a steady income or steady expenses I find it helpful to keep a budget spreadsheet because it helps me see how much money I need to make in order to keep my head above water, and if I'm short $100 this month then something has to get cut out and I can use the spreadsheet to fiddle with the numbers--whittle away a few dollars here, a few dollars there, until I'm in the black again.

21 May 2012

Saving the Planet Looks Good on You

Saving the Planet Looks Good on You: 
Tailoring Thrifted Clothing
By Carly Brynelson

Let’s talk about threads, bay-bee.  You know, the ones covering your body right now, that were on you yesterday, and the ones you’ll be wearing tomorrow.  Your clothes, as with everything you use/eat/smear on your skin/face/hair/naughty bits have an impact on you, the earth, and the other billions of people living on it.   
Buying clothing second hand from a thrift store or a consignment store helps prevent new toxins from being dumped into the environment around you and in you. For instance, new cotton clothes are produced from new cotton crop. That means pesticide use, and lots of it. 

Consider this shocking fact from a great article on the subject:  Though cotton uses only 2.4% of the world's agricultural acreage, its cultivation involves 25% of the world's pesticide use, more than any other crop. Most of these are insecticides, but fungicide is another fraction of the total. Also, consider that it takes about one-third of a pound of pesticides and fertilizers to grow enough conventional cotton for just one T-shirt.
According to the same article, there are a host of other standard chemicals used on new fabrics, including flame retardant, which helps prevent the fibers from catching on fire during transport and is  also linked to cancer in humans.  For more, see:  http://www.naturalnews.com/022803.html

Buying used clothes out of the ‘waste stream’ (see: treasure trove of vintage and thrift stores) throws a wrench in this chemical blowout, saving you and the rest of the human species another drop in the yuck-bucket we call the chemical or toxic load.  

Another AWESOME thing about the choice to buy used clothing is that you will look much cooler than the average schmoe that shops the malls.  Your wardrobe will become a unique mosaic, almost like a stylistic thumbprint.  One of a kind.  

Now then, as with any great thing, there is a dark side to scavenged style.  No, I’m not talking cooties--an afternoon skip to the laundromat will take care of those hygiene concerns. The dark side I speak of is that your awesome thrifted Pendleton flannel or outrageous eighties frock is only truly useful if it looks good on you and you want to wear it, which involves making it fit you. Fit is, of course, a subjective term and experience.  Hell, some people like their pants belted at the knees, for instance.  

I, for one, like my clothes to fit my body and show off my curves.  I’m chesty with a smallish waist and muscular biker legs.  And no, you can’t have my number.  I’m saying, fellow Pinchers, that NOTHING fits me right off the rack. Good thing there are magical creatures called TAILORS who can take care of fit problems on the cheap, no matter your size, shape, wiggle, jiggle, boo-tay, monkey arms, whatevs. There are, like, five body types for which the fashion industry makes clothing.  And there are countless phenotypes in the human genome.  Run that through your Singer.

You, friends, can (and should) take a class and learn to tailor your fine finds, bringing the magic home.  Once you learn a few basic techniques, you will sweep through your closet, wanting everything to fit you for real, having learned how righteous a truly fitted garment feels. You will probably still buy some new clothes in spite of my environmental admonishments, and even those puppies will need tinkering. 

I teach a basic tailoring class  at the Craft Center at the University of Oregon in Eugene.  There may be similar classes in your area code, though it would be hard to find one as cool as mine.  If you aren’t into DIY, I would suggest you look for a good tailor. These wondrous creatures are to be found in better dry cleaning businesses around your locale.  

In Eugene, you can get your pants hemmed or darts put into a blouse, button-down, or dress for around $12. I’m not sure how that compares to other locales, but a quick Google search should be revealing. So if the thrifted dress cost you $15 and the darts to help it hug your curves cost $12, total price tag for a unique, tailored-to-fit-your-body look is only $27. 

If you’re a guy who likes a European fit rather than shirts that make you look like you’re sporting a circus tent, you’re looking at ten dollars for a thrifted oxford at Goodwill and maybe $14 for expert tailoring. Total price for a really sharp shirt: $24.  Thrift stores like Goodwill also give money to charitable causes and/or employ community members that might not otherwise find meaningful work.  

All in all, you’ll probably still want to buy some new clothes from time to time.  I’m thinking underwear, for example.  There are lots of nice organic options out there.  But in the mean time, thrifted clothing (tailored to you if needed) represents a conscious decision to make your consumption of clothing more cost-effective, environmentally sound, and community-minded.  And THAT, Penny Pinchers, looks good on you. 

Above:  A babe-tastic summer party dress I made out of a colorful bedsheet.  I paid fifty cents for the sheet, maybe a buck for thread, and another two for a thrifted zipper.  Total cost:  $2.50. Hot dress, custom fitted, that also helped the planet AND the Humane Society?!  Priceless.   Top of article:  A horrid and boxy thrifted linen dress gets a sexy makeover.  I believe I paid seven dollars for this one.