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!

Frugal Urban Dream Home

I’ve been on a dreaming streak lately, thinking about what I would have if I could build my dream home. Here is my wish list for what my Frugal Urban Casa would have, in no particular order:

– a large garden for veggies, wheat and herbs, both culinary and medicinal

– a chicken coop so I can enjoy fresh organic pastured eggs every day

– a bee hive

– an outdoor wood-burning brick oven for bread. In my dream, I have a twice-weekly schedule for baking, and people come from all over the neighbourhood to bake their bread in my oven.

– a sauna attached to the wood-burning brick oven so I can enjoy a steam when I’m not baking bread.

– a root cellar for keeping preserves, desum (a Flemish whole wheat sourdough bread that favours cool temperatures), root veggies, and brewing projects

– berry bushes and fruit trees around the property

My dad once said to me “Everything I’ve ever wanted, I have had a chance to acquire in my life. But then I’ve had to decide whether it was what I really wanted at the time.” And actually I’ve found that to be true in my life. Most of the things I’ve really really wanted to happen have happened. So, maybe in ten years or fifteen, I’ll have a chance to build my urban homestead.

Until then, I’ll just keep dreaming . . .

What about you–what do you want in your dream house?

Waste-Less Wednesday

So many blogs have a “thing” for Wednesdays: Wordless Wednesday being the most popular I’ve seen. After reading a lot about garbage and waste and gleaning lately, I’ve decided to create “Waste-Less Wednesday” where I look at ways of reducing our household waste.

Today I’m thinking about paper waste. I feel like I’ve always got bits of paper going out the door–mostly to the recycling bin, but that doesn’t clear my conscience, because how much of that actually gets recycled? And when I think about the amount of energy required to recycle it, it doesn’t quite seem like the free ride we’ve been told it is.

Some of our sources of paper waste include:

– food packaging like cereal boxes

– art paper from our daughter’s projects

– old bills

– store receipts

– packaging from new things we buy (pretty rare in this house, except at birthday/xmas time)

– flyers and junk mail

Of all of those, the last one might be the easiest to take care of, with a simple note on our mail box. For reasons beyond even myself, I’ve never indicated my displeasure with flyers. They come in with their “amazing deals” and “this weekend only” sales and take up far too much of our time, money and landfill.

Actually, if truth be told, I secretly enjoy a couple of them, particularly the Canadian Tire flyer. There’s something so nostalgic about leafing through the new Canadian Tire catalogue while eating a bowl of cereal.

But no more! Today I will put a little note on my mailbox that reads “No Flyers Please–We’re Saving Trees”. And then, when I see my neighbours’ boxes stuffed with the CT savings of the week, I’ll look mine up online.

Going for Straight As

According to the WWF, only 10% of Canadians give themselves an “A” when it comes to being green. The irony is that with this self-grading, the more you know, the less of an impact you feel like you’re having. I’m pretty damn green: no car, no dryer, cloth diapers, pee wipes, etc. but still I don’t give myself an A.

What could I do better?

– eat more local, less imported stuff

– buy less packaged food

– get Bullfrogpowered

– a miriad other small things,

and . . .

– recycle greywater.

I’ve always just sortof assumed that since I’m in an apartment, there is no realistic way for me to recycle my greywater. I can’t change plumbing, and I don’t have a garden to receive the rescued greywater. Plus, we don’t pay the water bill–the landlord does–so the motivation isn’t quite as high as if it would actually save us money. (I’m into enlightened self-interest here!)

But this weekend, watching the water empty into the sink from our portable washer, I had a brain wave: how easy would it be to catch this water, reserve it in a 5 gallon bucket, and use it to flush the toilet? Turns out, very easy.

Recycling GreywaterIt’s astonishing how much water we use. Watching it go down the drain, you just don’t get the sense of how much water we use and waste every day. Catching it in a bucket, you see: here are 5 gallons of almost clean water flushing down the drain. Using that water to flush the toilet, you realize: I’m using a couple of gallons of greywater to flush, but normally that would be drinking water.

Argh. So I’m a bit obsessed with this water thing at the moment. The only problem, it’s a damn pain in the ass. I mean, we already have a diaper bucket and a diaper bag hanging out in our tiny bathroom. Now I’ve added a 5 gallon plastic bucket of greywater, just waiting for my daughter to accidentally knock it over and cause thousands of dollars in water damage to our downstairs neighbour’s apartment. We just don’t have the room . . . and yet . . . it’s like using hankies and cloth diapers. Once you stop throwing something away, it just feels so wasteful when you use the disposable version.

So, for now the greywater bucket stays. But for how long?????

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 🙂

Back to Frugality

A hand-made doll

As I’ve mentioned on here, I haven’t been feeling very frugal these last several months, mostly since my son was born in October, and also during Christmas and our March/April birthday madness (five family birthdays from March 21st to April 5th!). But those seasons are past, summer simplicity is here, so I feel it’s time to bring back the frugal.

In light of this, I’m making May a No Buying Month, with the following omissions:

– groceries (though I will endeavour to stick to my budget)

– gardening equipment and supplies

– some glass freezer containers so I can start making my partner some microwavable frozen lunches

I’ll try otherwise to hand-make gifts, make do with what we have, and avoid the Great Glebe Garage Sale (though that one will be really hard!). I’ll try to focus on gardening, cooking for the freezer before the hot weather sets in, and sewing some gifts.

What do you think? Is May a good time to do a No Spend month for you?

Staying the Course

Our little guy in the newly cleaned-up play space

All in all, last week’s Waldorf Week experiment was a great success! We got out in Nature and made a Nature Table, we eliminated daytime TV, we did cooking and housework together (my girl can crack an egg!), and I revolutionized her room to make it tidy, safe and completely playable. It was a great week, and this week’s plan is simply to stay the course and keep on Waldorfing it up over here.

I’m also very happy to say that my whole blog-the-meal-plan plan has been working too. Meals have been much more organized and our food costs are much more stable. We’ve cut way down on our meat, and amped up the veggies significantly.

All in all, it’s a very boring “life is good” post that I have for you today. Of course, that doesn’t count our trip to the emergency this afternoon (daughter’s headache turned out NOT to be meningitis), followed closely by almost burning down our apartment (yeah, if you go to the emergency, make sure you don’t leave perogies boiling on the stove. Luckily the smoke alarm worked and the super came and turned everything off and opened our windows. No damage except the pot, and a residual “barbecue” smell about the place).

Apart from that, life is pretty good . . .

This week’s meal plan:

Monday: salmon cakes and tabouli

Tuesday: pizza

Wednesday: Stir Fry with Sesame-Peanut sauce (we didn’t have this last week)

Thursday: Chicken drumsticks with broccoli and mashed potatoes (planning to check out Saslove‘s selection of organic chicken and hopefully soup bones–fingers crossed!)

Friday: leftovers

Saturday: veggie lasagne

Sunday: poached eggs

Waldorf Week

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about Waldorf education and way of life. Unfortunately I didn’t bookmark the specific article that really inspired me, but a few of the sites I was browsing were www.naturalfamilycrafts.com, and www.waldorfinthehome.org. (Update: Found it! The really inspiring article was here.) If I wasn’t such a staunch supporter of public school, I would totally send my kids to Waldorf school. (Ahh, also if I won the lottery.) I still don’t know or understand everything about it, but here are some Waldorf-y things I’m incorporating into our life this week:

The Natural World

Waldorf education stresses a connection with the natural world, as well as emphasizing natural materials, to foster a connection with nature and natural systems. Since we live in Downtown Ottawa and don’t have a car, it’s a bit hard to get out in The Nature. But we’re trying. Actually, the River is within walking distance and it offers a very natural setting in the middle of the city. We took a walk there today for an afternoon play date and had a really nice time. We saw ducks and heard red-wing blackbirds and watched the river flow . . .

Less TV

When our little guy was born in October, Daddy would get up with our older girl, and watch morning cartoons. Mostly this was a coping mechanism because we were all too tired to think in the morning, especially while I was still night nursing both of them (crazy!). However, this quickly became the routine and has been the way the morning goes for the last six months. Today I did things differently. We got up together and instead of turning on the TV, my girl and I played. I had forgotten that she is often at her best in the morning, very focused and calm, and she really enjoyed the time together. Of course, it helped that the little guy was still sleeping, but I’m going to try to keep this going. Of course this isn’t specifically a Waldorf thing, but it certainly fits the theme.

Work as Play

When I read about this, it seemed so simple, I thought it wouldn’t really work, but it did. The idea is, instead of, say, putting the kids in front of the TV so you can cram in a load of laundry and quickly chop some veggies for soup, you involve your kids in the housework and make it a part of your activities for the day. This teaches the kids that they are not nuisances to be silenced while you frantically do the real but unpleasant work, but rather that housework can be fun, and a shared activity that involves satisfaction and learning, but also that the kids can be a part of making their home a nicer, cleaner, more orderly place. My girl is three, and she can now do things that actually help me and save me time. It was really pleasant doing housework with her today. Again, maybe today was special, but I’ll be trying this again for sure.

Reverence

We are not a religious family, so we don’t have many spiritual practices in our household. However, the more I read, the more I see the value of rituals and valuing the spiritual side of life. It’s funny–even though I’m not religious and never have been, I do consider myself to be spiritual, mostly in connection with the natural world (this is probably why Waldorf appeals to me so much). So this idea of reverence really struck me. The article I read (which I cannot find, gosh darnit!) spoke about using gratitude as a path to reverence. That is, thinking about where things came from and thanking the creatures and forces and beings that brought these things to you. Our girl got right into this. For our broccoli soup at lunch, we thanked the Sunshine, and the farmer for the broccoli, and Daddy for buying the broccoli, and Mommy for making it. This idea of stopping to think about where things come from, and then thanking those who brought or created it is common to Buddhism as well.

A simplified play space

Okay, I’m working on this. But our girl’s room has become messy to the point of being dangerous. She just has too many toys, all out and accessible all the time. Quite often, she flits from one thing to another. Other times, she works in “creative destruction” of her toys, painting them, cutting their hair, etc., it makes me wonder if she really values them. So my plan is to take away all but a few of her toys to play with at one time. The other things are going into her closet, so she isn’t worried about missing them. It will only make a visit to the closet extra exciting, but once this is all in order, I will make sure she’s only playing with a few toys at a time.

Today just felt so wonderful and so right. I know not every day can be like today, but I’m going to continue the experiment. I figure it can only bring good things!

And here is our Waldorf Week Meal Plan:

Tuesday: tabouli and hummus

Wednesday: chicken stir fry with peanut sauce

Thursday: leftovers

Friday: black bean soup and cheese quesadillas

Saturday: fish of some sort

Sunday: spaghetti (I’ll try to make it to the Organic Farmer’s Market on Saturday for some local beef–wish me luck!)

This Week’s Meal Plan

So you may have noticed I haven’t been around the blog much lately. I haven’t been very frugal lately, or very organized, leading to more non-frugality. So I’ve decided to start posting my weekly meal plans as a way to 1) get more organized, 2) eat better (less meat, more vegetables, less waste), and 3) save more money on food. Just like my reason for starting this blog in the first place, I believe that by putting something under scrutiny, I will improve my habits pertaining to that thing.

Before Nicky’s birth, things were going really well, frugality-wise, but things have been a bit chaotic since then. It’s interesting: I’ve had a lot less time to blog, and I’ve also had a lot less time to organize and plan shopping, eating and finances. So maybe by making my blogging time a direct organizational activity, I will both get organized and add some content to my blog. Hopefully the content will be interesting to my readers!

So here goes: Meal plan for the week, Monday March 29th to Sunday April 4th

Monday: chicken soup (made with the remains of a store-bought barbecue chicken, plus frozen veggie parings from freezer)

Tuesday: Linguine with Red Clam Sauce plus a salad

Wednesday: cold sandwiches with tuna salad, maybe some, plus some hummus and veggies,

Thursday: Perogies or fish bites and a salad

Friday: we’ll be on the road heading to Sudbury so we’ll probably pack peanut butter, crackers, granola bars, cheese sticks, little yogurts, and the like.

Saturday: my mom is making Easter Dinner–yay!

Sunday: Easter Dinner number two at Aunt Vickie and Uncle Scott’s–extra yum!

There you have it. I’ll post again next week with our next meal plan, and I’ll also list what we actually ate, so I can tweak our plans if need be. Thanks for reading!

Nerdmobile cleaning cart

I blogged about it awhile back, but I finally did it: created my very own cleaning cart! And yes it is as exciting as it sounds (that is, if it sounds like the most exciting thing ever!).

What you see in the photo is my version of this cleaning cart. On the front is a blue bag for laundry, the inside is for items that belong in another room, with a red bag for small things or things that belong in my daughter’s room. On the back I have a garbage bag and a recycling bag.

This is the tidying version; when I’m doing cleaning too I have a tray with my cleaning stuff and rags that goes on top. The only additional things I have to lug are the broom, mop or vacuum if I’m using them.

The idea of the cart is that you set yourself up to sweep through the house once, tidying (and/or cleaning) as you go, with no time-wasting back-tracking to put stuff back where it belongs. Once I heard the idea, I was intrigued. Once I tried it, I was sold! It really works. It’s super fast to just stick things into the appropriate bags in the cart and move along. Otherwise, I tend to pick up a sock and bring it into the bedroom, there noticing a coffee cup and bringing it to the kitchen, where I notice that the stovetop is dirty, which I clean, and before I know it an hour has gone by and nothing substantial has been accomplished. With the cart, even if I can completely clean/tidy one room before a minor emergency distracts me, my life is seriously improved.

One fantastic additional thing I discovered about this cart is that my preschooler was really into helping me tidy up the living room! I guess she enjoyed sorting the stuff into the different bags. We actually tidied up the entire living room together, which really helped my sanity, and occupied at least 15 minutes of our time.

So, if you have a handy shopping cart like the one in the picture, try out the Nerdmobile technique and let me know how it works for you!