My Frugal Habits that have Stood the Test of Time

Our ever-blooming orchid

I’m going to start this post with a confession: I’m not actually very frugal.

Not really, not at heart.

For instance, we just bought a new (to us) vehicle, on credit, and it’s a gas-guzzling mini-van.

Percentage of trips with more than one human inside: approximately 1%.

It seemed to make sense at the time, and yes, it does make shopping at Costco easier, but the number of times we’ve actually needed a mini-van to do what we were doing is a bare fraction. Live & learn, I guess, plus we’ve been driving a lot less!

Essentially, I’ve learned that I’m frugal when I have to be, cheap about things that make me anxious, and a 100% middle-class suburban mom when it comes to a few things. Like the mini-van.

I’m in no way “all-frugal-all-the-time” — I’m not even going to tell you about all the ice cream we eat or just how many Amazon boxes landed on our porch in December — but there ARE a handful of habits I’ve held on to since the earliest days of this blog when we were living on a single income and I was a stay-at-home mom. These are my stand-bys, saving us a few dollars here and there, making it possible for us to have adventures — whenever we can go back out into the world again.


#1. Making my own yogurt

As I type this, I’ve got a pot with 3 litres of milk on the stove, slowly heating up to 180 degrees. Once it gets there, I’ll turn it off and let it cool to 120 with the lid on, stir in a quarter cup of last week’s yogurt from the fridge, pour it into glass jars which I’ll put in my instant pot, fill with hot tap water, and let sit for 6 hours. It’s that easy! It saves a ton of money and a load of plastic containers, and it guarantees that my kids have a healthy, probiotic snack all week. We use it in smoothies, with granola, stirred into oatmeal, and in mini mason jars every day in their school lunches, flavoured with some local maple syrup. As I’ve observed before, having frugal healthy snacks and ingredients available means the kids will choose those options more often.

I’ll teach you how if you ever want to learn!

#2. YNAB

I can honestly say, the budget app YNAB saves me thousands of dollars every year.

I don’t get anything out of promoting it here–no kick-backs, fees, pats on the back, nothing. I just truly believe this budgeting software is awesome! I’ve never tried any other one, so I can’t compare. It’s possible that using ANY budgeting app might be just as good, but since I’ve only tried this one, I will recommend it 🙂

I’ve been subscribing for a few years and in that time, I’ve gone through periods of using it and periods of letting it slide. The times of letting it slide, that’s when I’ve gotten into trouble financially, even when our income went up.

The trick I’ve found is spending just a few minutes with my budget every day. This January 1, I started tending my budget first thing every morning, and it has been hugely rewarding. It just gives me much more control over where we are spending our money, by encouraging me to set aside the amounts for all the upcoming bills I know we’re going to have. So every paycheque, I slot a certain amount into the mortgage line, a certain amount for groceries, electricity, water bill, internet, cell phones, etc., etc.

This way, I know when I have extra money. I know that if I overspend in one category or have an unexpected expense, that it has to come out of another category. It allows me to react sensibly to the curve-balls, and really enjoy when we have any extra.

I can also use it to track things like back-to-school expenses, or how much that little weekend visit to Ottawa costs, so I can budget for those things in advance instead of being surprised by them.

The other benefit it has is providing a neutral place for my partner and I to talk about money. I can show him where we’re at, and we can figure out together where we want to be, then work out goals together, and track our progress. It’s taken a lot of the emotion and guess-work out of our money talks, and helped us get into alignment with one another.

#3. Drinking tap water

This one is very un-exciting, but it is healthy, frugal and environmentally sustainable. A great triple-hitter.

We are lucky to have a great-tasting, safe water supply, so it is an easy choice to make for us. My daughter and I are constantly refilling our water bottles, while my partner and son prefer Bubly . . . Not the most frugal choice, but it could be worse!

#4. Hanging most of our clothes up to dry

While I do use the dryer for our linens, I still hang up our clothes to dry. It takes a few minutes in the evening to hang it up on our folding drying racks, but usually my partner and I do it together, so it’s a pleasant little part of our evening routine. I’ve read that it reduces wear and tear on our clothes, and it uses much less energy than the dryer, even though we use the ceiling fan to help things along.

It’s even nicer once the sun gets warm enough because then our clothes come in smelling wonderful and outsidey: better than any perfumed laundry additive! While I would love a laundry line, our yard doesn’t offer a great solution for that, so I just bring our drying racks outside and place them in the sunniest spot on the lawn. It gets me outside for a few minutes of peaceful, quiet alone time. It’s really serene — now I really can’t wait for spring!

#5. Staying put in our “starter home”

We’ve contemplated moving so many times since landing here. Wanting something closer to my sister, or closer to the lake, or in a fancier neighbourhood or a cooler house. But something has kept us here every time.

Our house is nowhere near perfect, but the truth is, there’s nowhere that’s perfect! There will always be pros and cons, but the sticking point for us is that this house is pretty cheap. We’re getting to the half-way point of paying down our mortgage by now, and it is really hard to contemplate making that number bigger instead of smaller. Plus, from here we can both walk to work, which saves us thousands per year on parking, gas, wear and tear, and only needing one vehicle.

Moreover, our expenses here are pretty predictable. We know what our bills will be month to month. And, we can see most of the problems coming down the road, so we can make a plan to deal with them.

I have another, very selfish reason: in this house I have my own little room where I do school work, yoga and writing. A precious space all my own where I can close the door and be myself. It’s hard to find four-bedroom houses in our price range, and I am very reluctant to give up this luxury!

I’m not saying we’ll never move, but for now we’re deciding that this mess is our mess, and in this mess we’ll stay.

#6. Cooking meals at home

A lot of this blog has been dedicated to cooking, recipes and shopping smart. Even in this busy season, we cook most of our own meals, though when we’ve had more money we’ve eaten out a bit more and tried to support small, local restaurants that we value for bringing delicious variety to our city’s culinary landscape.

We have a few simple staples that we rotate, like spaghetti sauce and chili, that we get a few meals out of, plus other favourites that we repeat often. My partner and I do a very loose meal plan on Sunday before grocery shopping so we have an idea of what we will eat that week, plus we keep certain staples on hand so we can throw together a healthy-ish “emergency” meal at a moment’s notice if need be.

#7. Eating more veggie meals

We’ve been eating less and less meat, and choosing mostly local, grass-fed when we do eat meat. Not that we never have a burger or a sausage, but for us, adding more veggie meals to our repertoire works a lot better than cutting out meat entirely.

For instance, we’ve learned that the kids like Red Thai Veggie Curry (with butter instead of coconut oil), and they like Butternut Squash Soup and even Beet Soup. A couple of their favourites — mac & cheese, and perogies — are simple and meat-free, and we’ll occasionally make a vegetarian burrito bar with scrambled egg, refried beans, tomatoes, cilantro, salsa and cheese. We’ve recently fallen in love with breaded baked cauliflower bites which are made even better dipped in the best thing in the world: Sriracha mayo!

One thing I’ve done to make it easier for us to choose veggie more often is to make a list of all the vegetarian dishes we all like, and put it into a shared note with my partner. Every Sunday before grocery shopping, we take a look at the list and choose a few of those options that sound good and we haven’t had for awhile. This helps us remember all the vegetarian things we love, and it’s really working to keep our meat consumption low, without missing it at all.

#8. Walking

It’s my frugal workout. It’s my transportation to work and back. It’s my personal and couples therapy. It’s my favourite date and best hang-out activity. Yes, sometimes I’ll even drive to my hike, but I do a lot of walking around my neighbourhood too.

Last fall, the kids, their cousins, my sister and I hiked the 10K at the Conservation Area. I can’t even tell you how much fun it was! We saw all these gorgeous, hidden vistas, and the feeling of triumph when we got to the 10 of 10 kilometres was absolutely incredible. We made some amazing memories that day, and the kids learned that they can do hard things.

Maybe some day I’ll take my walking into the back country with a tent, sleeping pad and ziplock baggies of dehydrated food on my back, but for now I am content to stick to exploring our local vistas with a day pack, water bottle and some home-made cookies.


There you have it! 8 frugal habits that are still saving us money, keeping us healthy, and reducing our environmental footprint just a little. Helps me feel less guilty for the mini-van!

None of these things are going to make us millionaires — and that’s not really my goal here — but like a rudder in a boat, they help to keep us stable and on course.

These are the ones that are here to stay.

I would love to hear what frugal habits have stayed with you through the years. Let me know in the comments!

Hello again!

Hi everyone, I’ve been away for awhile, but I figured I would check in. How are you all doing?

Me, I’m doing pretty good. Planning a move in a couple of weeks, working on my curriculum and my rhythm for the Fall, and I’m quite excited about some of the stories I’ve found on http://www.mainlesson.com.  It’s a site with hundreds of free stories, many from the early 1900s, very sweet and in keeping with my own values and aesthetics.

Since I last wrote, my girl turned 5, we completed our 1st homeschooling year, and we went away for another month at the cottage. We also found out that we got the apartment we were hoping for–a 3-bedroom stacked townhouse in our same neighbourhood, with 2 little balconies (container gardening–yay!), and a laundry room! No more doing laundry in my kitchen and hanging clothes in the dining room!

Our homeschooling year went well. Of course there were tough times–like most of February! But I think we all get the winter blahs if we’re prone to them, whether we homeschool or not. I’ve gotten to know Waldorf a lot better, and have met many homeschooling parents in the area and made some very nice friends. And to top it all off, I’ve had the ultimate compliment from my daughter who told me, “I have the BEST teacher!”

So I’m trying to do even better this year, with a rhythm that will be doable, and also with some story content 🙂 For those of you unfamiliar with Waldorf, the kindergarten years are meant to be filled with the rhythms and work of the home, with rhymes and stories and songs and art. So the parent-teacher gets the chance to work on their consistency during the days and the weeks, planning this day for mending and this day for baking and so on, and the children get to know the days of the week not as “Monday, Tuesday” but as “Mending Day, Baking Day”.  You know you’ve succeeded when your kid asks you, “Mom, is it Washing Day today?” Extra gold stars if it’s because they want to help you wash the floor!

It ain’t easy, but it sure is fun.

On top of all that, moving to a bigger apartment means higher rent, which means our frugality skills need to ramp up a wee bit, which will be fodder for some new blog posts I’m sure. Over the time since I started this blog 3 1/2 years ago, our bank balance has wavered between the black and the red, but you know what? Each year we are moving forward. So I have faith we can meet these new challenges ahead.

And if not, I can always move back to drying laundry in my dining room.

Five Dollar Dinners?

I recently found a website that specializes in $5 dinners. Unfortunately, I can’t fix any of those dinners for the prices listed–mostly due to the price differences with meat, eggs and dairy items in the US. And vegetables. Sigh.

Not that I think all our food should be that cheap. In fact, most of the problems with our food system are due to the super-cheap prices we demand. North America spends less on food than anywhere else in the world, which leads to all sorts of problems like concentration of power, over-use of chemicals, mono-cropping, super-sizing animals with hormones, etc. etc. etc.

But. It is a challenge to feed a family of four healthy foods on a budget in downtown Ottawa. Yep, that’s 50% of my blog content summed up right there.

So I’m going to try producing some of my own $5 dinners. Not $5 per serving. Not $5 per night. $5 for the whole dang healthy pot of dinner. Now, I guarantee these won’t be anything fancy. You won’t find any arugula or pancetta or anything else in French or Italian. You might not even want to admit to eating this for “dinner”. But I will guarantee they will be healthy, balanced, and contain at least some fresh vegetables.

I’m going to try making this black bean casserole I saw online some place, and if it comes in under $5, I’ll blog the recipe. Until then, let me know your favourite cheap meals! If they’re under $5, I’ll add them to my list.

Work Lunches: a new strategy

Some times you have to spend money to save money. It’s a hard, cruel fact. One that I’ve ignored for far too long. Today I broke the bank with pyrex, but it should save us a bunch of money in the long run!

Now that we’re doing Your Money or Your Life step 2 (part 2)–which involves tracking every cent that comes into and goes out of our lives–I’ve realized just how much money is being spent on food outside the home. Lots! One area where we have fallen down is in organizing my partner’s lunches at work. When he doesn’t bring something from home, his lunches out can easily cost around $10 per day. And that doesn’t count the $5 afternoon Starbucks run. Fifteen bucks a day adds up quick, and my partner is the first to admit that the food is crappy and not worth it.

Now that the baby is eight and a half months, things are beginning to stabilize a bit in our household, and we can start building some systems again, start re-organizing. So we had a chat about the lunches, and came up with a strategy for reducing his food costs at work.

Basically, the plan is to have five lunches ready and waiting in the fridge or freezer at the beginning of each week so that there will always be something to grab each day and he won’t end up needing to buy lunches any more. The specific strategy points are as follows:

1. Try to do better with leftovers. I always “intend” to make sure there are leftovers to take, but too often I forget to actually allow for them in my cooking. Leftovers will be priority #1.

Spaghetti lunches, ready for the freezer

2. Make big-batch home-made “frozen” lunches. This is where the pyrex comes in. I finally broke down and bought five glass freezer containers suitable for a decent portion of food for my partner’s lunch. My idea is to do just like the frozen dinners do and have a bed of noodles or rice dumped over with a good helping of sauce. Only this version will be home made, and it will be super duper cheap!

So, today I did a big batch of spaghetti. We ate a good helping for dinner, and then I made more noodles and packed up five yummy portions for frozen lunches. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. I’m planning to make big meaty saucy stewy meals every Sunday from now on to stock up the frozen lunches for the week. These home-made frozen dinners will be priority #2.

3. Buy enough frozen meals to last a week. My partner doesn’t mind the President’s Choice frozen Indian dishes, so I will try to make sure there are at least five in our freezer at the start of the week. That way, if we fall down on #1 and #2, at least he has those.

4. Make cookies. What can I say? My man likes my cookies. I figure for the cost of maybe two cookies at Starbucks, I could make a full batch of cookies at home. If I make them, he’ll eat them. And we all save money.

So there you have it: the new plan. It involves a lot of Sunday cooking and shopping, but I think we’re ready for it. There is a lot to be said for getting ready for the week on the weekend, instead of playing catch-up the rest of the days.

I also wanted to add that today I shopped at the Isabella Loblaws and found some great sales. First off, the PC frozen meals were on sale for $3 each, so I bought enough for two weeks. There were also all these bread products, reduced to 50% off. Due date: June 15! I don’t know who is getting fired over this, but I got a loaf of bread, a bag of english  muffins, and two bags of bagels, each for between $1 and $1.50.

So we are really really really well stocked at the moment. It feels good. But MAN my freezer is full!

Year in review and a new project

Your Money or Your Life
Your Money or Your Life

I missed my “blog-a-versary”, but I thought I’d chat a bit about what I’ve seen happen over this past year. Lots of changes, especially with the birth of my little guy, but we’ve also made some progress financially.

For one, we made a decision to pay off our line of credit from our daughter’s education fund. When we looked at our bank summary and saw that we were actually “in the black” by a few thousand dollars, it suddenly seemed foolish to be paying interest on the line of credit portion of that tally. We’ve been able to continue, and even increase, our deposits in the RESP, which now includes our boy as a recipient as well.

We have also become more aware of the cost of traveling, and have reduced our pleasure traveling significantly. This has also been due to having two little ones making traveling harder, but also because we noticed that our “little” trips to Toronto or Montreal would leave us reeling financially. We would check our balance a few days later and end up shaking our heads and asking “How did that happen??”

We still travel to Sudbury to visit our family a fair bit, but we are lucky that we almost always get those travel expenses covered. Our families like to see us I guess 🙂

I’ve been trying very hard to keep our food expenses down, and it’s getting easier now that the little guy is a bit older. Now that his naps are more regular, and I can leave him to roam around the living room a bit longer, and everything is just a bit less intense, I’ve had more of the requisite time to cook and plan meals. Actually I’ve noticed that the planning is almost everything in terms of staying on top of meal frugality.

There are other things–I’ve reduced my spending in many other random ways, and so has my husband, we’ve made some loose financial goals and have started moving towards them, and I’ve been using my freezer to stock up when things are on sale. All good changes.

So it only makes sense to bring things to a new level with the coming year. I recently got Your Money or Your Life out from the library. It is a nine-step plan to achieve Financial Independence, defined as having enough money to live on from a source other than paid employment.

Wow! Who doesn’t want that! Right now that seems a bit impossible, but even without fully achieving that goal, I do feel confident that we can reduce our spending, and refine our financial goals. Our next big ones would be paying off my partner’s 2 remaining student loans, and saving up a down payment for a house.

I’m giving the book a primary read-through, but we’re going to start tracking all of our spending right away. The beginning of the month seems like a good time to do it. I will give updates along the way, and who knows–maybe some day I’ll be writing “frugal + rural” posts from my organic farm in Northern Ontario, having achieved Financial Intelligence, Financial Integrity and ultimately, Financial Independence!

Week in Review–no-spend week #3

It’s now three weeks down in my no-spend month, and this week was the best so far. I don’t think I cheated once this week, except for a bus ride back from the Experimental Farm where we went for the sheep shearing festival yesterday. I have a membership so we didn’t have to pay admission.

I’m really enjoying this no-spend month, and I’m almost tempted to keep it up for the summer. I might have to get a haircut at some point, and we will be doing some travelling at some point, but other than those little things, I’m feeling good about the no spending.

One great thing is that weekends haven’t been about shopping. Too often I’ll make some grand plans for a bus expedition out to Canadian Tire on a Saturday afternoon because I can’t make it there during the week. That takes up my whole day, and nothing gets done. This weekend we spent two whole days together as a family, going to the Nature Museum on Saturday (and beating the crowds with our membership card!) and the farm on Sunday. Then today I organized a corner of our dining room that’s been needing attention–a major accomplishment!

Of course tomorrow I’ll have to do a big-ish grocery shop, but I’m happy to confirm that one of the fringe benefits of not buying anything apart from groceries is that I’ve been able to spend a lot more weekend time with the fam. And that, my friends, is priceless!

The miracle of life–a sourdough starter

I started my new starter three days ago, according to Peter Reinhart’s new “Artisan Breads Every Day”:

Day 1: combine 1 oz flour with 2 oz pineapple juice. Stir together and leave at room temperature for 2 days, stirring three times per day.

Day 3: add 1 oz flour and 1 oz pineapple juice to the Day 1 mixture. Stir together, and leave at room temperature until it becomes frothy and bubbly, stirring three times per day.

The idea is that the pineapple juice prevents the bacteria leuconostoc from taking over, and the stirring  prevents the mixture from getting moldy. The next step is adding 2 oz flour and 1 oz water, leaving for 1-2 days and stirring intermittently. Then adding 3 oz flour and 1 oz water to 4 oz of the previous culture, at which point you let it ferment and then it is ready to become your Mother Starter.

So today is day 4 and I am delighted to report that my goop is starting to bubble! It is delightful to be bringing a new starter to life. It holds the promise of amazing tasting bread to feed my family. The promise of not having to go out and buy bread because I’ve just baked up a couple loaves. Just the smell of sour yeasty goodness makes me verklempt. (Really. I get choked up very easily).

Now, if only I had thought of doing this at the beginning of winter instead of the beginning of summer!

A Cheaper Way with Beans

Cans of beans were on for 99 cents for the last few weeks, and I stocked up on some of our favourites: black beans for soup, mixed beans for tabouli, kidney beans and white kidney beans for chili and other stuff, and our favourite: chick peas, for hummus, tabouli, and many other things. But darn, they take up a lot of room! And is 99 cents really a bargain?

Well, we ran out of chick peas, and I really want to make both hummus and tabouli this week, but the sale is over. So I finally pulled out the giant 2 kilo bag of dried chick peas from the back of the cupboard. I measured a cup of dried peas and almost 2 litres of water into a large bowl, and left them out to soak last night. This afternoon I’ll give them a good boil for about an hour, and I’ll be good to go with the equivalent of 2 cans of chick peas.

And is it cheaper? Well, if memory serves, my 2 kilo bag of chick peas cost about $3.99, or $2 per kilo. 1/2 cup dried peas (equivalent to one can) weighs about 110 grams–about 22 cents. Yes, it takes some energy to boil them afterwards, but it’s still about 1/4 the price.

The other benefit is how little space dried beans take up to store compared to cans. A great benefit in our teeny tiny kitchen.

Once I’m done this 2 kilo bag, I’ll head to the Sandy Hill People Food Co-op and pick up some organic beans for $3.85 per kilo–still around half the price of conventional canned! I’m all about bringing down the price of organics.

So, for beans, as with many other things, I can either spend money or time, and in the words of Erik Knutzen, “my time is cheap”! (And BPA free.)

No-Spend Update

So, with two weeks into my no-spend month, I figure it’s time for an update. So far, I’ve only splurged on food items: a lemonade with a friend, some chocolate almonds, pizza lunch at playgroup, a box of Pocky and some Smarties. While technically food is allowed, I’ve been avoiding buying non-essentials, or trying to!

The thing I love about a no-spend month is that it makes me pause and think each time I feel the urge to buy something. I think, “Can I live without it? Can I use something else in its place? Do I really need it right now? Can I get it for free somewhere else?” These are the questions I suppose “should” be automatic when I think of buying something, but I often forget and whip out the debit card.

The benefits of my no-spend month have been:

– a healthier bank balance. For some reason we started creeping into the red last month. Not sure why that was, but in any case this no-spend month comes at a good time.

– feeling good about myself when I come up with creative alternatives.

– teaching my daughter about restraint and waiting. I’ve told her, “We’ll have to wait till June to buy that,” and she understands, because she knows we’re not buying anything in May.

TricycleOne thing I might allow myself to buy this month is a two-wheeler for my girl. She has been dedicatedly “practicing” on her tricycle to get ready for a two-wheeler. She is very determined, and I admire her so much for it. So, I will go to the Great Glebe Garage Sale after all, and I will go early, and I will look for a bike for my girl because I think she’s ready for one.

Guerrilla gardening in my own back yard

Our apartment building has a side yard, breezy and shaded by several large trees and a row of small cedars. It faces south onto a parking lot, and no one goes back there. Last year a young guy who lived in our building used to smoke back there and play his guitar, but he moved out in the winter, and now we’re the only users of the leafy green space.

It’s falling into disrepair. The old super’s wife used to tend the garden, but since he died, no one has weeded or pruned or planted. The leaves are still on the ground from the fall. So I started poking around, doing a bit of weeding in the front, and one day a company rep said I could “probably put in a little garden in the back” if I wanted. He couldn’t see why not. And do I want? Oh yes!

I’m not sure why I never tried this before. I guess this year things are looking so particularly dire back there that I know I wouldn’t be stepping on anyone’s toes. And since the general yard work isn’t being done, I figure I can earn my keep by raking, pruning and weeding.

The other thing that always kept me from leaping into the dirt back there is that it is quite shady. It’s glorious on summer days, but I’m just not sure what kind of food I could grow back there. There are rose bushes that flower, and peonies, and even a grape vine. Is there any way I can predict what might grow other than by trial and error? Any food recommended to grow in shaded south-facing lots?

I’m completely new to gardening, but now this summer I find myself gardener times two! Any help or advice is appreciated!

My plans thus far include:

– a rhubarb plant. I figure they will need more light at the beginning of the season, before the trees come into leaf. If anyone has a cutting for me, let me know!

– strawberries

– leafy green things like lettuce and chard

– some cooking herbs

– carrots

– green onions

– potatoes?

So, I’ve got lots of plans. I probably won’t grow all of these things this year, but gradually add more each year until I’m producing all our food from this little lot. Let me know what shady food plants you’ve successfully grown! And then in August, come over and share my harvest 🙂