Apr 172012

Yesterday, I went through the blog email inbox, and I was a little overwhelmed by the backlog of questions I needed to answer (some were almost 6 months old!). I really love hearing from readers, and make an effort to respond personally to every email I receive – but sometimes that’s a pretty tall order. Even so, I feel that it’s important to make a personal connection with you, so I keep trying, even if it takes me a really long time. My attitude is…better late than never.

This week, I’m going to answer a few questions each day. Questions of a personal nature will be answered individually, but questions that I think may be of interest to the majority of readers will be answered in a series of posts. I hope you find them helpful.

Q: I read your blog post about a typical day and saw the photo of what has to be the most beautiful poached egg have ever seen. Could you tell me how your husband made them? They are a perfect shape and nice yolkiness.

A: I know, aren’t they awesome? I used to poach eggs in water, but it was so difficult to keep the white from floating everywhere, so I bought myself a little birthday present last year – an egg poacher. It gets used nearly every morning, and not only does it make perfect poached eggs, but if you let them cook a few minutes longer, you can make hard-boiled eggs for pasta salad, with no peeling of shells! This is the one I purchased:

Q: I have a question for you. I received a $200 gift card for my birthday and I want to use it in a frugal way. It’s a Visa gift card so I can use it anywhere. I was wondering what you would do if you had received the gift card?

A: That’s a great gift, and if I received a $200 gift card, I would want to use it in a frugal way, also. My mother always got annoyed if she gave me money as a gift, and I chose to save it (we rarely saw eye to eye about anything, though), because she believed that gifted money should be used to “splurge.” However, I’m a very practical person, and I believe in the theory of a “fulfillment curve.” I’ve written about this concept before, but I’ll explain what I mean for new readers. The “fulfillment curve” basically means that when we spend money on the basics of survival, we achieve the greatest fulfillment for our dollar. We’re fulfilled to a slightly lesser degree when we spend money on a few comforts and luxuries, but beyond this, as we continue to spend more and more on unnecessary stuff, our fulfillment peaks and begins to drop, so that no matter how much we spend, we still aren’t happy. In my experience, this is true, so I would probably use the gift card to stockpile sale-purchased groceries and household supplies, to build up my pantry, or I would put it toward a share of a CSA (some of the larger ones do accept Visa and Mastercard), which would provide fresh, organic produce for my family for several months. I might also buy something that I’ve needed for a long time (such as a blender that actually works).

Truth be told, I might also put the money toward Bose® QuietComfort® 15 Acoustic Noise Cancelling® Headphones. I wanted them for Christmas, but I couldn’t justify the expense….except I’ve longed for them every single day since. My children seem to be unusually loud, as children go, and I’m very sensitive to noise. These headphones might make my afternoons a whole lot more peaceful, and I think that if something occupies your thoughts every single day, and would save your sanity, it might be worth the splurge. 🙂

Q: I was wondering if you could give me some more details on how you plan your meals/grocery shopping.  Do you know exactly what each meal requires and keep those specific ingredients on hand at all times?  How did you begin to keep your “frugal pantry”?

The best way to build a pantry is to spend 10% of your weekly grocery budget to stockpile frequently used staples when you find good sale prices. Then, you can compile a complete pantry list by saving your grocery lists for about 2 months. This is what I did, because I reasoned that my buying habits were obviously indicative of the meals I prepared most often, and the ingredients I would need to keep on hand. I plan meals daily, based on my current food inventory, and any leftovers that need to be used up. You can find more information in these posts:

How I Shop and Plan Our Meals
Let’s Go Shopping with Heather
The Frugal Pantry Checklist

Q: I am curious what your average monthly bill is for groceries.  I saw some of your older posts concerning this.  Our monthly cost is about $800…which seems A LOT to me.  This isn’t just food but for everything…..food, cleaning supplies, diapers, paper products, etc. I would love to cut costs where we can and would love your input.

A: I spend between $90 and $115 a week on groceries and household supplies for my family of 5, by following the strategies outlined in the posts above. I used to spend between $60 and $70, but grocery prices have risen sharply in the last year, so this isn’t feasible anymore. To see how your expenditures compare with those of other families like yours, see The Thrifty Food Plan.

Q: How do you calculate your gas mileage and cost? I’m sure it’s really simple… I know you’ve written about calculating the cost of gas to drive to a bigger city to save on groceries. So I was interested in how you calculate it out? How do you figure out that it’s cheaper? Thanks!

A: You just need to figure your vehicle’s average MPG (miles per gallon). My husband knows ours, but you can figure yours easily. The next time your tank is on E, write down the odometer reading, and then fill the tank. Take note of how many gallons the tank holds. The next time your tank is on E, write down the odometer reading again. Subtract the first reading from the second, and you’ll know how many miles you can drive on one tank of gas. Divide that number by the number of gallons it takes to fill the tank, and that is your MPG.

To determine the cost of gas to get to a particular location, you need to know the MPG, the current price of a gallon of gas in your town, and the miles you have to drive. For example, our van gets 19 MPG, I have to drive about 14 miles to the nearest large discount store, and a gallon of gas is currently $3.69 here. So, to figure the cost to the city and back, I need to divide $3.69 by 19 to get my cost per mile – about 19 cents. Then I multiply the cost per mile by 14 to figure the cost of the trip one way – about $2.66. Take that times 2 to determine the cost round trip – $5.32.

This means that I need to save at least $5.32 over local prices for one week’s worth of groceries, in order to justify my trip to the city. I find that I usually save at least 5 times that much, and often more.

Q: I recently purchased an LG washer such as yourself (based on a lot of research on my part and on the recommendations of lots of people).  I do like it although at first I felt like I needed a degree from MIT to work it!  I was wondering what cycles you found to be the best for the cloth diapers.  I have been doing a speed wash without detergent then an normal wash with an extra rinse.  It seems to work ok but was wondering what you found to work the best.

A: I actually do one hot water wash, using the bulky/large cycle, because it has a higher water level, which I’ve found is important to get cloth diapers clean and fresh-smelling. An extra rinse and spin is also a good idea.

Q: I have started making my own laundry detergent. I have currently only used the detergent on our regular clothing, NOT on the cloth diapers or baby’s clothes. Because I have heard that the borax breaks down absorbancy and the soap (Fals naptha) creates a build up on diapers. I have researched like crazy trying to find a recipe that does NOT contain borax but have not found one. I was wondering if you have any tips in regards to this issue.

A: You can make a gallon of homemade, borax-free liquid laundry detergent using 1 cup castile liquid soap (such as Dr. Bronner‘s), 2 cups water, 1/3 cup salt, and 1 cup washing soda. Combine all ingredients except the soap in a large stock pot, over medium heat. Heat and stir until salt and soda are dissolved. Allow to cool, and transfer to a gallon container. Stir in the castile soap, then fill the container to the top with water, and stir to combine. Use ½ cup per load.

Q: What type of financial software do you use? I just got done with my taxes, and decided to look into some software to make this yearly task easier… I have looked at Mint.com , which is free, and is a product of Turbo tax…I don’t pay bills online, so that doesn’t need to be included.

A: I actually tried Mint.com, and didn’t really like it. I prefer to use QuickBooks Pro to record and itemize expenses, but tax prep for us is slightly more complicated and involved, because we’re self-employed, and work from home. I do use TurboTax Home & Business to prepare our tax return, and my experience with it has been excellent. I find it to be quite simple and user-friendly, and the e-file option is so fast and easy – this year we got our federal and state refunds in about a week.

Q: I have always known I’m an introvert, but today, just realized that my 4 year old son is an extrovert with a capital “E”.  What makes our personality differences more difficult is that I am a single mom and he is an only child. Unless we are out at play-dates or he is at preschool, his sole entertainment comes from me, and I. Am. Exhausted.  Like you, I am not a big “joiner” and I am not big into mommy groups, etc. But I do try and will occasionally go to events from a single parent meetup that I belong to. It appears you have a mixture of extrovert (Cakes and maybe DJ) and introvert (Bee) personalities in your children.  Am I right?  I wonder how you handle the different personalities in your parenting style?  Specifically, what works best for you, being an introvert, to parent your extrovert(s), especially when your husband is unavailable?

A: This reader is referring to my post about my introverted personality, but her situation is quite different from mine, because she doesn’t have the advantage of an extroverted spouse! To be honest, I don’t harbor any maternal guilt about not providing enough socialization for my children. Bee is in school all day, so she has plenty of interaction with children her age. DJ is young enough that he doesn’t care yet, and as Cakes has gotten older, she’s actually become very shy around other children. I have trouble convincing her to go places and do things, because she prefers to stay home and play her imaginative games. She’s much like I was at her age, and my husband and I always joke that she’s “in Cakesieland, doing her Cakesie things,” because she seems to spend a lot of time in her own little world. She does go to preschool, so she has an opportunity to play with other children 3 days a week, and our children all attend church and Sunday School every week. The girls also have ballet class, and we take all 3 kids to a book club at the library once a month. I think this is more than enough, because it’s my opinion that in modern society, children are over-scheduled, and what they’re really lacking is not activity, but downtime, and adequate rest. I also think that children need to learn to occupy themselves, instead of expecting the world to entertain them. When I was growing up, “play dates” were not the norm, and we also weren’t parked in front of a TV or computer all day long. We ran around outside, read books, played with neighbor kids…or by ourselves. And that was OK – in fact, I think we were all healthier for it. It’s still OK. I have never believed that it’s my responsibility to entertain my kids all the time, and I don’t. I won’t…and they know it. They do play together a lot, and if they complain of boredom, I give them work to do. I’m “mean” like that.

Q: Do you think people can be too organized… to the degree where it is actually no longer cost or time effective? When I read your Typical Day post it got me curious. I see your home as very effectively organized.  Mine is pretty good, however I find I am constantly moving from one project to the next.  But in a way that steals time and energy.  I’m sure you are familiar with the cycle, organize one area, some junk then gets moved to another area.  Organize that area, more spillover, etc.  I find myself organizing in circles.  Advice on how to get out of the “always organizing something” vortex?  I want to enjoy my kids and home, not always feel like I need to get another thing done.

A: Ah…the organizing vortex. I think we can all relate to this. Life keeps happening, and staying organized is an ongoing process, so it can sometimes feel like you never get anything else done. However, I think that it is possible to be too organized, to the point of diminished return, and this is a form of perfectionism that will keep you from really enjoying your life. I see this quite a lot in the blog world, and while I enjoy looking at pictures of beautifully decorated laundry rooms with supplies housed in matching, labeled glass bottles, a person must determine what value a project like this will really add to their life. For me, laundry is a utilitarian process that must be done, and I do keep my washer and dryer clean, and my laundry supplies organized, but this is really the extent of my concern with this area of life. To me, the time and money spent decorating my basement laundry room, and making it ultra-organized and matchy would be a waste, because there would still be the ever-present heaps of dirty laundry all over the floor, and I only spend as much time there as needed to put a load of laundry in the machine, and transfer another one to the dryer. Also, it’s a basement laundry room – no one but us ever sees it. If you’ve read my kitchen tour posts, you already know that I also don’t give a rat’s tiny little behind about whether the insides of my cabinets or closets are “pretty.” You know what I mean – you could spend a fortune buying matching containers and organizers to create magazine-worthy pantry shelves, but is this really worth your time?  Some people take this kind of thing way too far, because they think that if everything is pretty and labeled, it must be organized, right? Not necessarily.

I tend to live by the “good enough” principle. When organizing anything, I consider whether the effort, time, and money I put into the process will pay off. If the end result will give me more time, money, energy, or happiness in return, then I go ahead. If not, I don’t bother, because I’m not trying to achieve perfection through organization. I’m just trying to create systems that are effective, efficient, and suitable for my family’s needs, so that we can be productive, and have more time to devote to what’s really important to us. And to me, that’s good enough.