Category Archives: Your Financial Health

My advice is simple: Spend less money than you earn. My readers are going to be in various stages of financial health. No matter what stage you are at, it is not too late to start…or improve. This section will cover ideas to reduce your costs and encourage you to eliminate debt.

Where (Young) Eagles Fly

In this post I want to talk about a free program that few people know about: Young Eagles.  This is a program promoted by the Experimental Aircraft Association (“EAA”), and its hundreds of chapters across the country.  Did you know that there is a probably an EAA chapter near you that offers free flights in really cool airplanes to kids–okay, okay, they probably also offer free flights for adults, too, but it’s all about the kids, right?

Anyhow, some chapters hold several events a year, some only one or two, but there are there are almost 1,000 active local EAA and divisional Chapters and Squadrons all over the world so, chances are, you live by one.  You may not even realize it.  I mean, why would you be interested in general aviation unless you are a pilot?! However, general aviation is about more than just having an expensive hobby. It is important to keep it alive at the grass roots level and you should expose your kids to a Young Eagles flight and general aviation immediately for many reasons:

1) It’s really cool. Cooler than cars and trains. And it is totally accessible.

2) It can help foster an interest in science and technology. Aviation incorporates many scientific principals like lift and drag and deals routinely with meteorological influences, engineering design, and gravitational force.  Do you want your kids to be engineers? Take them to a Young Eagles Rally and before you know it, they’ll start building rockets and start talking about Newton’s first, second, and third laws.*

3) You can’t be an astronaut unless you are first a pilot. There are also many other careers that an interest in general aviation can lead to: meteorologist, rocket scientist, engineer, A & P mechanic, as well as careers in avionics, government at all levels, and the private sector.

4) Young Eagles flights are FREE!

NOTE: getting a pilot’s license is not free. It can be the opposite of free. However, if you start young, there are many programs available through the EAA that can help defray the cost and get a kid pretty far.

5) It can take up a nice chunk of your day if you have nothing better to do with the little rugrats.  Many Young Eagles events offer other amenities like flight simulators, pancake breakfasts, tours of the airport, and if you’re my local chapter, cows, a pond and a walking trail.  By default, airports are usually large tracts of land.  They can be fascinating to explore.

Are you ready to take them?  Your child can particiapte in a Young Eagles flight if they are between the ages of  8 and 17.  They will go in whatever plane the volunteers for that day are flying, which can be anything from a Cessna to a Stearman. The flights generally last between 15 and 20 minutes.  Kids will receive an official Young Eagles logbook, signed by the pilot. And there is nothing that says that your kid can’t go on multiple Young Eagles flights.

Now, this does require a leap of faith….you are, after all, sticking your child on a small plane with a probable stranger.  And the name, Experimental Aircraft Association, doesn’t help.** There is nothing experimental about it.  The program has a phenomenal safety record, the pilots are trained, and the events are well-coordinated. And, c’mon, it’s free. The pilots and volunteers donate their time and their planes and their gas because they believe that keeping an interest in general aviation alive is important.  Plus, it will be the coolest thing your kid will do all year.

Read more about the program here: http://www.youngeagles.org/flightplan/flight.asp.  Find your local chapters at either of the two links above.  Then call the Young Eagles Coordinator to ask about upcoming progamming.

And if you keep thinking, why should my kid have all the fun, then go here: http://www.eaa.org/eagleflights/

*results not guaranteed

**Emphasis added for Irony

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Don’t leave home without them

Many of us work hard to be conscientious about the environment at home. We take a lot of steps to reduce our consumption and our waste. And to recycle and reuse. But something weird happens when we leave our little biodomes. Maybe it’s because we don’t buy the supplies at the office, or take out the trash at the Starbucks. Or maybe it’s because it’s inconvenient and extra work to care enough. Or, quite simply, we forgot. I am not casting stones. I do this constantly and get really irritated with myself for not having a re-usable cup handy at coffee shops and for using disposable items at the office. This is especially frustrating to me because I really do put a lot of effort into these things at home. I mean, I hand tear the mail and cereal boxes for the composter, for Pete’s sake.

What I have realized, though, is that it is all about small transitions. My habits are much more eco-conscientious today than they were last month. And I am light years from the neanderthal I was a year ago. ( Irony Alert: Neanderthals were actually, probably pretty eco-friendly. Really, I just mean I used to buy a lot of paper plates and stuff). So every once and again I try a new eco-thing and eventually it just becomes habit.It just becomes part of your routine. But let’s not forget what happens when we leave home.

Let’s start with work. Our office spaces don’t always make it convenient to be green. Paper cups –or horror of horrors, styrofoam cups–are usually readily available. Sometimes there is no storage for our ceramic or reusable mugs. Or there is no where to wash the mug from time to time. Also, there is often just no culture for it. But it can start with you. This is when you hear some inspirational song in your head, like from Rocky.

If you are in management, think about getting a set of office mugs with your company logo. Encourage your employees to use them. One sneaky trick: take a while to stock up the paper cups to force people to use the office mugs. Or, think of creative contests where people are rewarded for using mugs. Do the same thing with re-usable plastic drinking glasses to encourage people to use those for water. Yes. Some people will complain about washing their own cups. But we are adults and can probably handle this task. Laziness is not a good excuse for all that waste and cost.

If you are a mere employee, then let the change start with you. Make it a point to bring your own cup/mug. Start a dialogue with your colleagues. No one wants to admit they don’t care about the environment. It’s like admitting that they hate puppies or that they just punched grandma. Maybe once you have converted (or shamed) some people into joining your I-guess-I-don’t-want-dolphins-to-die-and-the-world-to-go-dark-and-cold club, then you can talk to management about implementing a mug culture. You can event back it up with facts–not necessarily about dolphins dying–but about cost savings and stuff.

For example, in my small office space of 20 or so employees, let’s assume 3/4 of the people use at least one disposable cup a day, so that is 15 cups per day, multiplied by 253 ( rough, rough calculation of days in the year, minus weekends, minus holidays). That is 3795 cups per year. My office puchases these 16 oz. “foam” cups from Quill, an office supply company, that cost around $55 per 1000 (if you buy by the case). So even by the most conservative estimates, my small office is spending over $200 a year just in cups. And that’s for the cheap cups. My old office of roughly the same number of people bought those paper cups with the weird bubbly skin on the outside. The cost of providing those for an office for one year is over $400. Throw in the cost of post-it notes and legal pads, the costs of sending mail by post, and the costs of printing memos and other documents. If you are a business person, you know that these things add up. Someone who did a lot more work than I did put together this fabulous and startling article about going paperless. And, here’s another article covering things from coffee filters to water usage at the office.

The office is just one place in which we forget our good habits. Getting a latte or water when you are out and about is another. Did you know that roughly 250,000 plastic bottles are dumped every hour and that plastic bottles constitute close to 50% of recyclable waste in the dumps. Even worse,
it takes an average of 700 years to decompose in a landfill. ( Read about those and other statistics here). Now, I have gotten pretty good about brining a re-fillable water bottle with me, but I am just horrible about remembering a mug for my chais and lattes, and occasionally, my chai lattes. I make lots of excuses for myself: My husband took them all, they were all dirty, it’s not as big as a tall or grande latte so it’s not that good of a deal. These are all excuses. The truth is that I just don’t think of it. But, once again, getting into the habit can mean keeping the habit. So I just have to start. You, too! In the meantime, you can read this cool, slightly snarky article that reveals a lot about this issue. The authors are a lot cooler than I will ever be–they live in Portland, after all–but my message is the same: “‘Switching to a reusable mug carries with it the perception that it’s inconvenient only because it is different than the norm. Change is scary … But once commuter mugs become the norm … it’s no big deal. ‘I mean, sometimes you’re going to be out and not have a mug with you, … but if you have one in your car/bike/office, it becomes part of your normal routine’.”

Take Your Stuff and Shove It

This weekend I had a powerful lesson reinforced: No matter how good a deal something is, if you forget you have it or fail to use it, it’s just a waste of money.

This lesson was not relayed in a subtle manner.  Someone who shall remain nameless is contemplating moving, you see. So some of us helped her clear out the kitchen cabinets. We had to throw away a huge quantity of unopened and expired items. Don’t misunderstand, we’re not squeamish. We all seemed to agree that many items could be consumed past their expiration date. But when things expired almost a decade ago, we drew the line.

This unnamed person grew up dirt poor just after the depression. She didn’t gather and forage in the wild in order to have free fruit to add to her daily protein shakes.  She didn’t gather dandelion greens to try the trendy new superfood.  Rather, her family canned in order to have food in the winter.  I can acknowledge that the projects that I smugly post about “sewing”are style over substance. And that the latest, newest up-cycle I pretend to have invented are likely things that this person did out of necessity. If and when I ever get around to canning, it will probably be so I can try to create a gourmet fruit butter.  I get that I am not coming up with new ideas. I do things because of the luxury I have to choose to do them.  This person and her family did things because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t eat.

It is perhaps with this mentality–the one that feels compelled to gather for future stores–that would lead a person to have accumulated so much stuff, particularly food. When I joked with her that she should open up a convenience store on her block, well… it wasn’t a joke.  She had enough inventory. She had so many cans of beans and tomatoes that she could easily have made chili every day for a month without running out of either. Yet, I bet this poor soul still buys a couple cans of each when she finds them to be on sale. I mean, how else did she end up with over 50 cans of beans and tomatoes. And at least 40% of the cans had expiration dates of more than a year ago– many more than five years ago. And here it was–the height of irony and quite a bit of dismay–rather than being the frugal shopper on a fixed income that she thought she was, she was really just wasting money.

We made an interesting discovery this weekend, too.  Over the years, she kept filling up her kitchen with cabinets and refrigerators…saying she needed more storage.  It got to the point where every surface of every wall had a table, cabinet, refrigerator or shelf on it.  Her kitchen had two full sized single door refrigerators, plus the freezer in the garage.  There were two elderly people living in the house.  Two.  That’s all.  Just two.  What they had started doing when they ran out of room in the pantry and cabinets and shelves was store stuff in the fridges.  There were several boxes of pasta in the refrigerator and several boxes of Jiffy Cake mix and corn bread mix in the freezer.  I’m sure there were other things in there that should have been in the pantry, but I was a bit stunned.  Mostly by the eight packages of american cheese singles that were blocking my line of sight.  Meanwhile, dozens and dozens of cans of vegetables and chicken stock were shoved forgotten in other cabinets.  Along with jars and jars of tomatoes and venison that were canned.  She later admitted that it has been years since she has canned (yet she still held on to four different pressure canners, too!)

What this person had been doing was extreme, but it is something that so many of us are guilty of.  We buy these houses that have an extra bedroom, or a basement or an attic–or even all three– and then we proceed to get so much stuff that we fill up each space until it overflows and we create a new space until it overflows and we finally declare that we don’t have enough room.  The truth is that our houses are not too small.  They are just too full of stuff.

I’ve written about this before.   You are not a store. You should not have inventory.  Whatever your shopping obsession, the first thing you must to is just stop.  Stop buying more stuff.  See what you have and get it organized.  Many people buy double or triple an item–or if you’re the person above, nonuple the item–simply because they don’t realize they already have one, or several. The next step is to start using your stuff.  Once you use your stuff, you will be conscientious about what you have and what you need.  Then, if you realize you have no need of it anymore, sell it.  Your stuff is just money waiting to be made. Once you start to get rid of your stuff, not only will you realize how much money you wasted by buying it in the first place, but you will realize that you don’t want to keep wasting your money in that way.

I have picked on various family members–but, then again, I have the blog.  Perhaps, in way of reparation, I will admit to my guilty addiction–though I have received counseling and am in recovery.  It’s romance novels.  You know the kind, with the half-dressed lady in a gown on the front and a dark-haired stud with tanned, muscled forearms holding/capturing/abducting her (not Fabio, though, that’s, like, my mother’s romance novel).  They always have names like “Tough Rider, Tender Kisses.” Anyhow, I had hundreds of them.  I am a pretty avid reader and I read quickly, so I would simply devour these books.  I hid them all away in a cabinet and shut the door.  I wouldn’t admit to myself how many I had…or how much money I was spending on them.  Sometimes, I even bought the same book twice (even I can admit they all kinda look the same after a while). I even re-read them multiple times, but still didn’t stop buying one or two, or several, a month.

Then my husband and I agreed to purge our stuff and I made serious efforts to sell them.  Well, actually, he gave me a Nook for Christmas and strongly hinted that the books had to go.  In any case, I tried every trick in the book to make some money back on these.  For the thousands of dollars that I spent over the course of several years, I probably only made back around three hundred.  Maybe. I am, perhaps, being a little too kind to my folly. This taught me everything I talked about above. In the end,  I realized how much money I had spent in the past and I decided not to throw away that much money again.  I am now happily checking out eBooks from the library. They are free and don’t take up any space.  Plus, I don’t have to feel sheepish about reading a book with two half-naked people on the cover.

Listen Up

You’ve heard of this thing called YouTube, right? You can watch videos on anything–from open heart surgery to making mittens for your chihuahua. Literally anything. Need to perform emergency surgery on your Gold fish? Yes. YouTube even has a video for that. Multiple videos, actually. Need to hang drywall? YouTube will make you think you’re a pro after a 2 minute tutorial. Luckily, there are videos on how to hire a real contractor for when you screw up the job.

Did you also know that YouTube is a great resource for free Audiobooks? You need to explore this immediately. However, the one book that you need to listen to before you listen to anything else is The Millionare Next Door by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko. Some of the analogies and references are a bit outdated–hey, the book was released in 1998, after all. But the basic message still rings loud and clear. You must listen. The book is eye-opening, even if you already know or think you know what this book is about. You’ll want to listen to it multiple times. And the beautiful thing is that you can. You won’t have to return it, you’re not on a time line to hear it, and you can hear it anywhere you can get YouTube, i.e. your smart phone, smart pad, computer, etc. Soon enough, you’ll be walking around telling people, “I only drink two types of beer, Free and Budweiser.” You’ll get that after you “read” the book.

So, click on this link to The Millionare Next Door Audiobook on YouTube and find the key to wealth…for free. If YouTube is not an option for you, don’t forget to check out your local library for the actual book or audiobook.

Taking Stock

Since reaching the milestone of being debt free last year, my husband and I have been in a state of limbo. Right before paying off the last of our debt, we were one synchronized team, attacking a mutual goal with an unrelenting fervor. After that final payment, sure, we felt good, but we were left asking ourselves, “now what?” And quite truthfully, we had different opinions about where to go from there.

For example, I really wanted to use a financial planner. One that I trusted, that wouldn’t try to sell me products just to make commissions, one that would help with the planning aspect of our journey and would help establish our investment and saving goals, educate us, and would guide us through tax issues. I had someone all lined up.  We even had her come to the house and answer our questions about her services.  While my husband was willing to listen and be polite, he went into the meeting with the preconceived notion that there was really no way that we would end the meeting with him wanting to hire the financial planner.  You see, he had done some reading. Particularly, Bogleheads Guide to InvestingHe also listened to a lot of Dave Ramsey.  A lot of Dave Ramsey.

These advisors pointed out that financial planners cost money. And they emphasized that the amount of money that you will spend on the financial planner, even if it is only a small amount, could ultimately cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars due to not being able to invest that money and letting compound interest do its work.  This is a hard point to argue against.

While going through this process, what I realized was that we kept confusing an investment plan with a financial plan. Our financial plan was already taking form.  We would no longer take on debt, we would live conservatively, we would continue to decreasing our monthly expenses and work on maximizing our savings.  We also had definite retirement goals (dreams, really).

So, as outlined above, my husband and I already agreed on the financial plan.  However, it was the investment plan that confused and frustrated us.  We had no idea what to do with the money we were saving.  In the end I agreed to allow my husband to act as our investment planner. Does he have a degree in business, accounting, economics, finance, or any other business or investment related sector? No.  It’s in English, actually.  But, he’s a smart man (except when it comes to finding something). And, well, I do have a degree in economics, so I figured we could figure this out together.  He was willing to do the research.  I was willing to trust him (and cross check his data).

I am going to admit, though, that one of the biggest reasons that I was willing to have us muddle through our own investment plan was that the plan was not going to be complex. Very basically, our plan is to focus on very low-cost indexed funds with moderate risk, such as one would find with Vanguard or Fidelity. In fact, we ended up buying a fund of funds.  While a traditional indexed fund is already diversified in stocks, a fund of funds is diversified in stocks and bonds.  So we don’t have to worry too much about whether to buy municipal bonds, high yield bonds, junk bonds, or U.S. bonds.  We are not looking for the next get-rich investment.  We are not looking to discover something new that we need to invest in now, before the opportunity passes.  We are just looking for a good, somewhat safe place to grow our money with low costs.

This does not mean that we do not have  a lot of questions and many moments of indecision.  We do.  Fortunately, in this day and age, the internet provides a lot of really good information, as long as we can sort through what is genuine advice and propaganda.  And we have discovered that we are much more intelligent about investing than every day before.  While new questions continue to pop up, we continue to learn the answers.  Obviously investing can get incredibly complex, and, honestly, our investment plan is slightly more complex than outlined above.  As we understand more, the types of investment practices we can conquer expands.

I am glad we took this route.  Had we gotten a financial planner, we would not have been forced to learn all that we have.  We would have relied on someone else to tell us what we should be doing and we would not have understood half of it. Now we are taking control of our own (future) financial independence.

Herbs: Thrice as Nice

I love planting herbs in my flower beds. They are fragrant AND functional AND beautiful (see there, three things herbs do). Many in my zone (zone 5) such as sage, chives, greek oregano, mint and thyme are also perennial, which means they will give you years of joy and use. Herbs such as basil, rosemary, parsley don’t quite make it over the winter here in Illinois, but they thrive in the summer outside. And if I am responsible enough, I remember to bring them inside in the winter.

In the summer, I prefer to use fresh herbs, because, well, I can and all I have to do is walk outside and snip some fragrant sprigs. However, early summer is also the time to start drying for year-round use as this is when many herb leaves are most pungent. Last year, I dried Rosemary, Sage, Greek Oregano, Thyme and Cilantro. I dried a lot of plant material. So much, that I gave a chunk of it away for Christmas. I thought I kept enough for myself. Sadly, I ran out of oregano in March. I was kicking myself when I broke down and bought it at the store (twice) because I could have harvested it for free from my garden.

So this year, I am going to dry a lot more. Starting today. Below is my tutorial for drying garden herbs. To be honest, I haven’t dried basil because I prefer it fresh. Also, I can’t get chives to turn out right (though that’s okay because these suckers grow until the snow covers them). But this method has worked for rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage, tarragon, dill, fennel leaf, and mint.
1) Gather bunches of your herbs. It’s okay if you cut the plant back significantly, up to 75%. It’ll grow back. If the herbs are dirty, wash your bunches and shake off excess water. If the herbs are clean, adding water only encourages mold. Don’t worry about the bugs… you already consume them in all the other food you eat, as allowed by the FDA. (Here’s a fun link to make you never want to eat again!) On the bright side, whatever you pull out from your garden is likely cleaner and less buggy than store bought stuff.

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2) If you did not wash your herbs, skip to step three. Otherwise, lay your herbs on a clean dish towel in more or less a single layer to dry off excess water. If you have a lot of herbs, you may need more than one towel. The idea here is to just dry them off as much as possible. You can use paper towels for this, but you’ll go through a lot of them to get your herbs dry.

3) When your herbs are free of water, strip the leaves from the stem. Many people hang their herbs by the stem. That method works fine…except that your herbs accumulate dust (and in my house, cat dander) in the several days it takes to dry them. Plus, you’re supposed to keep them out of the sun, in an airy location, in small bunches, etc. If you’re drying a large quantity, this is not practical. Really, they’ll just be a challenge my cat has to meet if I start hanging things all willy nilly. And I have found that herbs left on the stem take longer to actually dry (you know, because the stem is a food supply). For those reasons, I immediately strip the leaves from clean and dry herbs. You don’t have to be that precise about removing every stem at this point because you will continue to clean up the leaves at every stage. Lay your leaves in a single layer on the clean and dry towels and cover with a clean dry dish towel.

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4) Up to now, you really have been working on getting your herbs clean and dry. You have stripped the stems to get them ready to dry. Depending on the quantity of herbs I am drying I use 2 different methods. For small quantities, I stick them directly into these tea pouches that I always have on hand for loose leaf tea.

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The herbs stay in there, protected from dust until they are nice and crinkly.

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I then transfer the herbs to a glass container and keep in my spice drawer away from the stove.

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These tea bags are perfect for low-fuss, small quantity drying.   If I wanted to have 30 of these little pouches all over the place, I could dry larger quantities, but for me, that’s not practical. However, for large quantities, you need to lay the herbs in a single layer across a larger surface.

My preferred method is using paper towels.  I know! This is wasteful BUT paper towels work beautifully for herb drying because they are very light, wick moisture and allow air to pass through multiple layers).  You can re-use them when you are done drying the herbs, so it is not all bad.  You can also use coffee filters and cheesecloth. Or, if you are super ambitious, can make a framed screen to use over and over. Dish towels don’t work well for multiple days of drying because they are heavy and tend to enclose the layer of herbs and retain moisture underneath.

Depending on the herbs, they will take anywhere from a couple days to several days to dry.  When they crumble between your fingers, then are done.  Keep them as whole as possible to retain as much flavor as possible.  I don’t really think it matters if you store them in a cool, cabinet or the refrigerator as long as they are in a sealed container.

I also just came across this method from Martha Stewart and think it has excellent potential:

Preserve Herbs in Tulle
1. Make sure herbs are rinsed and dried.
2. Cut tulle in 18-by-24-inch pieces.
3. Arrange herbs on the tulle, and roll into tubes.
4. Tie the ends with raffia or twine.
5. Store in refrigerator for two weeks.
6. Once herbs are dry, crumble into storage tins until you are ready to use them.

 

Free to the Public

In this day and age with the power to purchase at your fingertips or the joy of browsing in physical stores with a latte in hand, it’s easy to want to buy… well, everything. And it’s easy to forget that many of these things are available for free in your own back yard. I would like to highlight the resources available at your public library and how those resources can replace things that you are probably spending a lot of money on.

eBooks— First of all, if you have a smart phone, a pad, AND a Kindle or Nook, you have too many electronics that do the same thing. There are apps available for your smartphone or pad that basically replace your eReader. In any case, if you have jumped on the eBook bandwagon, you definitely want to check out if your library has an eBook app. You can check out eBooks for FREE from your local library. It works the same way as a library book. You check it out, and eventually it gets turned back in. Except you can browse books from home and it is automatically returned for you (no overdue fines!).

Regular ol’ paper books–Not only can you get bestsellers, references books, self-help books, paperbacks, hardbacks, classics, etc., to physically checkout in person just like you always did from the library, but often times libraries also have a spot where they have mass market paperback exchanges that you can come in and “exchange” time and time again without checking out. For books that you can check out the old fashioned way, these days you can renew online, or by phone. Your library may even have an app specifically for your library, making keeping track of your books a breeze. However, if you don’t want to keep track of your books, check to see if they have a paperback exchange. These books are taken on the honor system and don’t have to follow any protocol or incur fines.

Movies–Your library probably has an extensive dvd collection, both classic movies and new releases. Instead of paying money at Redbox, your local movie store, Netflix, etc., see if your library has it first.

Libraries also have CDs, magazines, books on CD, and new media you probably have not come across before. They also often services like scanning and printing, and free internet. Many also have conference rooms, small classrooms, meeting rooms, and private study rooms available for free. You should also check out programming and events for free and low cost entertainment and educational opportunities.

Libraries these days are trying to compete with your nearest big box book store and mall (remember shopping with a latte in hand) so the old days of no talking and no food and drink are gone. Many libraries have very liberal attitudes regarding these former taboos because they want to create a welcoming attitude.

And Here’s the great thing about your library: If they don’t have it, they can get it from their partner libraries. Or, they can order it for their own content. Libraries want to make their patrons happy. They can even order ebooks specifically upon your request. So if you get frustrated by the selection at your public library, it may be because patrons, like you, aren’t telling the library what they want to see.

If you have not been to your public library lately, you really need to check it out. After all, your library is probably almost entirely funded by your tax dollars. So…perhaps not entirely free, but it’s a resource you are already paying for, so take advantage of it.

The Urge to Purge–Shake your Money Tree

In my last article I discussed how enriching it is to get rid of your stuff. I meant that not only in a feel-good-about-yourself kind of way, but also in the literal sense. Now, can you retire by selling your stuff? Maybe only if you’ve been hoarding a lost Rembrandt or French antiques. So…it’s not likely. However, you can make some serious cash–enough to pay for a vacation, that pricey electronic you’ve been eyeing, or new carpet, for example. Or, maybe just provide an extra boost to help you tackle your debt. If you set a goal for yourself, you will get motivated to start getting rid of stuff to meet that goal.

I previously stated that you are surrounded by money. Granted, it is only a fraction of the money you originally spent on the stuff, but if you know where to sell it, you can maximize how much you can get back.

eBay:

Most people these days are familiar with eBay, though many have never sold anything on the site. It can be intimidating, especially with all these articles about ranking, sales techniques, and customer service. However, posting your stuff on eBay is quite simple. Even if you are just getting started, you can have success. After all, everyone at eBay starts at Zero. And with smart phones, selling on eBay is easier than ever.

You can successfully sell a huge range of stuff on eBay, from socks to cds to kitchen appliances. The thing to remember about eBay is that buyers pay for shipping, too. So if something is disproportionately heavy to its value, then you probably shouldn’t bother selling it. Also, if the object is so large or unwieldy as to make finding a box nearly impossible, you may want to reconsider selling it on eBay.

Listing on eBay is not free. However, they offer enough promotions that you can most always list for free. Wait for these promotions. Do not cut into your bottom line by paying to list. EBay also charges a percentage fee of the shipping you charged. So keep in mind that if you price your shipping exactly, you are actually paying something from your own pocket to ship. It is okay to charge for packing materials and handling fees.

When you set up an eBay account, you should connect it to a PayPal account. That makes transactions a lot easier and makes keeping track of your money a piece of cake.

In my opinion the hardest thing about eBay is finding boxes and shipping supplies. You can make this easier on yourself if you have a designated place where you keep supplies and if you find a good resource for free boxes and shipping supplies like bubble wrap and air packs (such as an office or store).

You can do pick-up only on eBay for items such as furniture and large appliances, but this tends to be a frustrating process because a lot of buyers don’t catch that they are purchasing something for pick-up. This happens because eBay buyers are not only nation-wide but world-wide. However, you may get more money for your items since a bidding war might start.

eBay requires relatively little upfront effort. You can start small, too, so it’s not overwhelming. But once you see the the stuff you considered junk start to sell you will get addicted. You will then start to sift through all you appliances and question whether you really need a magic bullet, a blender, and a plunge blender. (The answer is yes to the blender and plunge blender, but no to the magic bullet, so off it goes). Your stuff will sell. You may have to list it a couple of times and adjust some prices, but it will eventually sell.

This method is like having a slow, manageable garage sale all year long. So instead of hoarding a pile that never goes away (sometimes in your garage left over from last year because it never got further than that) you are working through your stuff all the time and making money. If it really doesn’t sell on eBay, then set it aside for your garage sale.

Craigslist:

I recommend using Craigslist when you have an item that is too big or difficult to ship. People shop Craigslist based on their location, so they are local to you. Craigslist is great for furniture, appliances–big and small–, exercise equipment, and home improvement supplies. Craigslist is FREE to list, so it is very low commitment up front. You will likely get contacted pretty quickly and often in the first day of listing because your listing will be one of the first that pops up. You can direct people to contact you by phone or email or both.

There are a few annoying things about Craigslist. First, you might have to re-post several days in a row so that people actually look at your stuff. Unfortunately, Craigslist has a policy against this. You are not supposed to re-list the same thing over and over. But if you are in an area where searching for “dining room table” yields hundreds of results per day, then few people will scroll back a couple of days ago when you listed your dining room table.

The second thing to be cautious of with Craigslist is that people will come to your house. If you are not prepared or preferential to this, then this is not for you. I have never had a problem with Craigslist, but I suppose there is a reason that it is warned about.

Also, you either have to be very clear about having people bring someone to carry heavy items or make sure someone from your end can help. If you are having them move it, they will walk through your house and carry heavy stuff without much care and caution.

To combat those annoying Craigslist issues, have the item brought down on your end before-hand to your garage so that people are not coming into your house. Ask for cash only, or set up payment with PayPal before hand so you know they are legit. And have someone at home with you so that when four large men come by to cart away your old bedroom set, it’s not too terrifying.

Craigslist also has a pretty good smart phone app. It makes listing a piece of cake.

Half-Price Books:

Half-Price Books (“HPB”) is a chain of second-hand stores located in Arizona, California, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. They will give you cash for books, cds, magazines, games, puzzles, some kid’s toys, records, comic books, and stationary (among other things). Cash. In. Your. Hand. Granted, unless you are taking loads of best sellers from the last two years, it won’t be a ton of money, but it beats sitting at a garage sale for three days selling this stuff for 25 cents a pop and still having a ton of it left over. Rather than wasting your time doing that, just take it all to HPB and call it a productive day, then enjoy the rest of your weekend. You don’t need an appointment to bring your stuff by, it usually doesn’t take too long for them to tally up your winnings and you get to walk away with CASH. And if you think it’s way too little, then lug it all back home and save it for the garage sale.

Consignment

I have successfully sold clothes on eBay, though I have only found it to be successful with new or like new name-brand ladies’ clothing or accessories. In fact, if you have Guess Jeans that you finally acknowledge are too tight after your second uncomfortable wear, list them on eBay. They will sell for a surprising amount of money.

Unfortunately, in order to maximize your earnings on eBay, you list one item at a time, and it gets really tedious to list and re-list all that stuff. The point is to get rid of your clothes, not store it for another year until it finally sells on eBay. Plus, the great normal majority of us don’t go through our closets one name-brand item at a time. Rather, you probably have that one day when you are finally fed up with the mess, or that or that one day you feel ambitious enough to re-organize your closet. Either way, what you end up with is a huge mound of clothing. In the olden days, I would put these in a bag or bin and wait for THE Garage sale. But now, I do things differently because I am tired of selling the nice things I buy for 50 cents a piece.

So I finally decide on another route and searched for a consignment shop near my house. I took my pile of clean, mostly name-brand clothes and lugged a large box over to the store. I then found out that they are only taking summer clothes. Okay, that was a bit of an inconvenience but apparently they start taking fall clothing in July so it’s not too much of a delay. Basically, once I figure out this process a bit more, I will be better organized. Granted, I have to see if any of the stuff sells, but if it does, I will get a healthy percentage of their sale price and all I had to do was let someone else do the work. The consignment store I went to also handled home furnishings, home decor, and children’s clothes. So next i go in, i may take some more junk with me. Unfortunately they do not handle men’s clothes.

Garage Sale:

All this Garage Sale bashing aside, they do have their place. After all, you can’t sell random juice glasses and cheap candle holders and free t-shirts on eBay. ( If you can get it at the dollar store, it’s just not worth trying to list on-line.) However, it is worth putting it on all on a table and seeing if anyone else wants it. It is surprising how fast 50 Cent transactions add up to some real spending money. Yes, you’ll need some big ticket items to make the Garage sale really worth your time, but it is a perfect opportunity to get rid of your odds and ends.

What I have found myself doing recently is trying all of the above methods first and then leaving it for a Garage Sale when it doesn’t sell. My Garage sale pile is smaller and what is left is stuff I know I can’t get a good price for in other places.

Donations:

Why not just donate? Well..it’s tricky to figure out how much monetary value you are going to get. It may very well be Zero. So if you are donating to get the tax refund, you better make sure that you are actually going to get a tax refund. In order to make the donation affect your taxes, you must itemize your deductions rather than taking the standard deduction. If you take a standard deduction, all that nice stuff that you are giving to the Salvation Army is simply a donation and not a tax deduction. Even if you are itemizing, your tax benefit is worth only the rate of your tax bracket. So, if you are donating a book and you say its value is $1 and you are in the 15% tax bracket, then the tax savings/benefit is only 15 cents.

So let’s say that you are going to make $500 at a garage sale over a three day weekend. In order for a donation to be more valuable than that to you, you would need to value your items at the following amounts depending on your tax bracket:

Tax Bracket / Estimated Value of Donated Items

10% / $5000

15% / $3333

25% / $2000

28% / $1785

33% / $1515

35% / $1428

Sometimes a donation can put you into a lower tax bracket by reducing your taxable income, and that is something to consider. If you are considering donations, you should keep receipts in case of an audit, especially if the total annual donation amount is more than $500. Donations above $500 need to be reported on form 8283 and need to include information on the organization, as well as the date and articles donated. The tax professionals hat helped me sound like less of a moron in this paragraph also recommended that you seek the advice of a tax professional if you have any questions and that you should not take this article as a replacement for tax advice.

These are some of my methods, though I am sure there are plenty others out there. I have heard that Facebook is a good forum, but I have not explored it. Some people also have success with flea markets or those antique malls (which really aren’t just for antiques), especially with large quantities of one thing like books or tea cups. If you have a good source, let’s hear about it.

The Urge to Purge–Second Act

Previously, in  The Urge to Purge-Shake Your Money Tree, I talked about where to sell your stuff to make money. But there are probably many items in your home that you probably just want to unload. However, I have often questioned what happens to something when I “unload” it. I mean, if I bring a mountain of things to Goodwill or Salvation Army, does it actually help anyone? Does it sell?Do they just end up tossing it if it doesn’t sell? If it does sell, how much actually goes to help people?

So, while my first goal is to get rid of stuff, keeping that stuff out of the landfill is a very close second, and putting it in the hands of someone who will value it, is not far behind. Unfortunately, oftentimes items you want to unload are considered trash, things your may think no one has a use for. I’d like to think, though, that everything in our homes has life beyond our single use of it.

Support your local Businesses…give them their crap back

Items that fall in this category are things like those annoying wire hangers from the dry cleaners. These normally go straight into the garbage. Break the cycle and see if your dry cleaner would take the hangers back. It makes their business more profitable and makes your house less cluttered.

Also consider what you might normally do with vases. You know, the cheap ones your anniversary flowers come in. In offices and homes across America, empty flower vases left over from thoughtful gestures end up jammed and forgotten in cabinets and closets. It takes very little effort to find a local flower shop that would love to have these back. It’s easy enough for them to sanitize them and re-use them. They may even offer you a small discount for your generosity.

Please think twice about tossing your packing materials in the trash. You probably know someone that does an online business that would be very appreciative of your supplies. Or even a small business somewhere that could gladly take them off your hands.

There are probably even items that you would normally toss that vendors in your Farmer’s Market would love to have. For example, my Farmer’s Market has a lovely young lady that sells flowers by the bunch. You can gather your own bunch for $5 or have her make you an arrangement. When she makes them, she uses small vases, jars and glasses for that chic country look. All my old jelly and pickle jars can have a useful second home.

Also at every farmer’s market, not to mention in every farm community across America, are egg farmers. Saving your egg cartons and giving them to the local vendors could mean getting a nice discount every once in a while on fresh eggs, or … it could just make you feel real good about yourself.

Every year at the office, other people’s kids try to sell me stuff.  Every once in a while I give in and get a magazine subscription.  Inevitable, they come along too quickly to keep up with, which makes it difficult to get rid of.  You’ll read it someday, right, or come back to it for that recipe or great idea.  Many offices, however, pay a lot of money to have a variety of magazines available for their patrons.  If you know someone that has a small business with a waiting area for clients, ask them if they would like to have your magazine.  Also, offices within your local government might have an active need for them. For example, my local jury commission has an open request for magazines to help alleviate boredom of potential jurors waiting to do their duty. And trust me, those magazines live on in that room for years.

Consider Purposeful Giving

Donations to non-profits are not limited to money. Let’s not kid ourselves, they would rather have your money. But, in lieu of your money, there may be items that they would like to have, since it probably means increasing services or reducing costs. However, like I mentioned above, I don’t like giving a load of stuff to Goodwill or Salvation Army. This is mostly because I have no idea how much of my contribution ends up helping the needy.  I like the idea of targeted donations to help fill the needs of local non-profits. I will make an admission, mostly because my husband called me out on it.  While I have contributed in all the ways I listed above, I have not done all of the things below.  This is because some of these suggestions came about from reviewing my local Green Guide published by my local paper and simply spoke to me.  These contributions can make a real difference, even if you can’t afford to make a monetary donation.  

  • You can give your old Camping equipment to local homeless shelter
  • Habitat for Humanity will take excess construction materials and appliances.
  • Your local animal shelter or animal control will take blankets and towels.
  • United Cerebral Palsy Association through their assistive technology exchange network (www.ucpnet.org) will accept computers, printers, monitors, disk drives, cell phones, ink jet cartridges, CD-ROM drives, software, server equipment, communication devices, and accessories to refurbish and donate to schools throughout Illinois for children with disabilities.
  • There are probably many organizations that will be thankful for your art supplies (including all those over-priced scrap-booking supplies that you finally admitted you will never use) such as daycares, community programs, non-profits focused on children or the disabled, or even the elderly. And don’t worry, even a box of stubby crayons can have a second home, see these two resources: www.crazycrayons.com. www.scarceecoed.com.

And hey, just throwing it out there, did you know you can recycle cork? It doesn’t really help a local business or non-profit, but it’s pretty cool.  Admit you’re never actually going to build a bulletin board or coaster and see where you can drop them off.  www.corkharvest.org.

If you have any creative ideas about our local businesses and non-profits using stuff we no longer need, share, share, share! Heck, I’ll even take ordinary ideas.  I just want to start a conversation.  Just in the research I did for this article, I found out that I can take that pile of old stained and bleached towels I have in my laundry room to the animal shelter.  That wasn’t even on my radar before now.

Less Binge, More Purge

I’ve recently converted. I am not talking about religion or politics…I am talking about stuff. I am a firm believer in less of it and I recently converted to the gospel of getting rid of it.

Seriously, I talk about this pretty often with my friends and family.  This conversion almost certainly drives my mother nuts. I was not a particularly orderly child. These days when I go to her house and start to organize drawers, she probably laments that I wasn’t like this as a teenager and now it’s just annoying to her.  We’ve reached a compromise, though, she will put up with me going through her stuff and telling her to stop buying so much of it, and I will put up with her cleaning my toilets. Should I tell her that I’m getting the better end of the bargain there?  Nah.

I will stop picking on my mom for a moment, because, truthfully, we all have too much stuff. You do, I do…we all do. A recent article I came across in Money Magazine stated that  “most Americans homes are stuffed with stuff–so much so, in fact, that about one in 10 households pays for extra storage space….” But even before we get to storage facilities, we first fill the inside of our homes–which often have spare rooms filled with unused stuff and basements and attics filled with long since forgotten and broken stuff. We have closets and garages, and cabinets and drawers filled to over-capacity with stuff.

A couple of funny things happen, though, when you finally commit to getting rid of all this excess baggage.  First, you realize how much money you wasted in buying this stuff, some of which is never even used, and some of which you kept buying because you thought you didn’t have any more of the thing. After attempting to begin to organize three bathroom drawers for my mother, we quickly came to the conclusion that she will not need to buy another nail file for at least a good decade.

The second thing that happens with you start to purge is you realize that all the stuff you have laying around is actually money.  So yes, you actually are made of money. You just have to mobilize and sell it.  But that’s a topic for a follow-up article.

Even though my husband and I started downsizing our stuff (not our house… we’re staying around until housing prices rebound a bit) a couple of years back, it’s a constant process.  I have to keep telling myself to REFUSE, REDUCE, REUSE, and RECYCLE.  Your process does not have to be in this order, but this mantra helps you on your journey to financial freedom and eco-responsibility.

Refusing free stuff is hard because, well… it’s free.  But my rule is that I will only take stuff if I already use it regularly (like wrapping paper and tissue and fabric) and I will save  money by not purchasing it.  Another part of REFUSE is being disciplined about shopping.  A good sale, like chocolate mousse, is almost impossible to resist.  But I promise you that once you begin to get rid of your stuff and you see the amount of things that you didn’t use very often or at all, you will be more conscientious about your purchases.

The last thing I am encouraging you to do is embracing REDUCE by throwing everything you own in a the landfill.  Please don’t do that.  Think first about REUSE and RECYCLE.  I will be doing  a follow up article for where all your stuff can go, including some great ways to earn money.

In summary, clearing the clutter from your life has so many advantages.  It will make you feel less stressed.  You will enjoy living in your home more.  You can make money.  You can donate to someone super appreciative.  You can shut your drawers and doors as furniture gods intended.   You will be able to find things again.  And finally, you will value what you have even more! Start purging now!

I really dislike yew

I moved into my home about seven years ago. Like many planned neighborhoods in middle class communities, professional landscaping didn’t come with my house–or rather, the previous owners didn’t spring for the $10,000 upgrade. Instead, I had a mismatched, poorly placed amalgam of shrubs and weekend project landscaping. That meant most of of the shrubs were planted way too close to the house, were half dead and just plain ugly and all of the hardscaping was wonky and random. Most of the bushes were spirea and yew, two of my least favorite plants. So that very first summer I tore out a lot of bushes. The previous owners also had built up this weird pile of dirt in the backyard that they surrounded with rocks. It had some firebushes in it, but mostly just weeds.  It looked bad, but I wanted to use what they had already started, so I had a professional come in and build a retaining wall.  The same professional also built a low wall around the garden area the previous owner had started in front of the bay window.  By the way, unless you are actually a landscaping professional, I highly recommend that you spend your money in the hardscaping by hiring a professional.  Otherwise, your project will look wonky and random in a couple of years.

This hardscaping left me with a couple of big empty spots to fill and not a lot of money to do it with, since I just had a professional come in and build the walls. So knowing a little bit about plants, I raided my mom’s beautiful garden filled with hostas and lilies and several different kinds of sedum. I didn’t do pretty job of taking her plants, either. I dug some up, tore some apart and then just stuck them in plastic bags with some dirt and carried them home. I probably didn’t even plant them for several days. Then, when my sister moved out of state three years ago, I dug up some of the purple columbines she had growing all over her yard.

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Then there was the clump of chives my friend’s mom gave me a few years ago and the clump of mint my mother-in-law gave me last summer. Hint: Alway pot your mint.  It will take over your yard. I’ve got some hollyhock seeds a friend gave me a couple of years ago.  And so on and so on. Slowly, my gardens started to fill in.

Now, I am not saying I don’t go buy an occasional Perennial. I sometimes can’t resist. It’s not always possible to get the right height or color if you do it the mostly free way. But it would be unusual if I spent more than $10 a year on my flower garden. I always buy low maintenance flowers that I can get a lot of use from and that I can usually divide right away when I plant them.  Or I try to buy when flowers are on sale. For example, it’s only the second week of may and stores already have their potted spring bulbs on sale. I could have gotten roughly ten hyacinth or tulip bulbs for $1.50 at Walmart the other day…come to think of it, I don’t know why I didn’t. They wouldn’t have come up again this year, but then next year, when I forgot all about them, they would have been a delightful surprise.

The beautiful thing about perennials is that many are self-propogated or easily propagated. This is the trick to developing a free or low-cost garden. You buy one purple coneflower and within a couple of years you have dozens–if you want them. That means you can fill in your own garden or someone else’s garden with a little patience. Here are some tips to getting free plants:

1) You can take cuttings of many plants such as thyme, lavender, rosemary, sedum, mint, and sages. Or even bushes like willows, forsythia, lilacs and dogwoods. A cutting is literally cutting off several inches of the plant. Most of these plants will root readily without hormones and can be placed directly in water to root. Many can also be thrown directly into dirt and will survive (sedums, for example, grow like mad!) This is one of nature’s methods of survival, so for the most part, you can take cuttings at any time, though you may have more success at certain times of the year over others. And rooting hormone doesn’t hurt. In fact, it might help. It just means you will spend more money.

You’d be surprised how many plants you can grow from cuttings. If you ever really like a plant or a shrub in someone’s garden, ask if you can snip off a small section and then stick it in some water to see what happens. You may have just gotten a cool free plant. The little sedum below was started just last year from about two inches of cut plant materials.  It will have nice yellow flower in the summer.

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2) In many plants with bulbs and fleshy roots, you can often take one plant and divide it so that next year you have several. If you ever dig up a clump of bulbs, you will notice small pieces ready to break off from the larger bulbs, or tiny bulbs that have developed since last season. Asian lilies and grape hyacinth are easy to propagate in this way. Below is just one section of grape hyacinth that I have in my gardens.  I think I originally purchased a dozen bulbs about five years ago.  I have hundreds of these now.  They are an early spring flower and last much longer than daffodils.

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Below these lilies self-propagated from last year.  If you can see the small clumps that have begun at the bottom, I could take those and start a whole new section of lilies.  I will probably do that this weekend.

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I’ll include Bearded Irises in this section because even though it is a rhizome and not a bulb, it kind of looks like and acts like a bulb.  Each leaf spike tends to come from a bulbous roots.  These are currently the bane of my existence.  I have dozens and dozens of these.  They spread very fast and I am out of space for them.  I either have to start a new garden or start giving them away…or maybe both.

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3) With plants like lily of the valley or hostas, you just have to dig up one or two plants with roots intact and before you know it you will have many plants. This group of lily of the valley below started as maybe one or two little plants.  I now have a few dozen.

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With hostas and lily of the valley, it’s easy to separate, because the plant separates itself for you.

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You can see how even though the hosta above  looks like one big plant, it is actually many plants with roots that are interconnected. The hosta I just transplanted in the last photo show this most clearly.  I was able to dig up the plant in parts and put it all back together.  I could also have divided the plant into two or three plants.

In plants that tend to look more like a solid structure, taking a shovel to them can be scary.  But, for the most part, you won’t hurt them. You can divide a lot of plants, such daisies, siberian irises, day lilies, sedum… you literally just take the plant and tear it apart.

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The sedum above is in desperate need of some dirt.  However, the picture shows the top of the root structure and demonstrates how if you took this one plant and divided into the three sections it is naturally giving us, you would have three plants. Also the daisy in the next picture is one big plant, but I could take a shovel to the middle of it and divide it into two individual plants.

Technical, horticulture-y websites say use a sharp knife and to do this at specific times of the year, but, honestly, you don’t have to be that gentle or precise. Plants have many defense mechanisms to make sure that they continue to grow. It is far more important that you treat them well after you plant them then how you go about getting them to the point you can plant them. You can’t let the plants dry out and die after you stick them in the ground. In the siberian iris below, I was tearing some clumps apart to replant and this one came away without any roots.  However, I decided to stick it in the dirt in any case and see if roots would form.  I kind of think they might.

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Along these lines, many bushes and trees tend to send up suckers from the roots. You can remove these and start separate plants. Clearly these will take a lot more patience before you get them big enough to use, but it may be worthwhile, especially if you garden is still a work in progress.

4) Many perennials self propagate through seeds. You can try and control this by dead heading and removing the seedheads. If they drop in the garden, they will spread quickly. This little coneflower below has started in the crevasse between my walk-way and the retaining wall. Seeds tend to gather there and every year I have baby plants that sprout up.

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If you want to collect seeds (which, of course, you do), make sure the flower head has bloomed and is fully dried. In plants such as columbines, day lilies, and siberian irises, the seeds will literally just fall out of little cup like pods. With flower with spikes, you can usually wait until the flower is done and browned and then shake the sees off the spike.  With larger flower with centers, the seeds are usually left in the middle and sometimes all that is left on that flower stalk after the flower has died.  You can collect them to share or you can collect them to prevent crazy propagation or plan where to plant them. Otherwise, you can’t control where seeds land. The next thing youknow you havepurple coneflower and salvia popping up all over the place. I like to dig these up and keep them in a separate pot until I either know what I would like to do with them, or I know where I can give them away.

So find a friend that really enjoys plants or has spent a lot of money on professional landscaping so you can scavenge plants.  If you are friends with me, I love sharing my plants! Come armed with some dirt and trowels and let’s get to work.  If you are not friends with me, you really should be. I am very nice.  But, you can also talk with a neighbor and exchange two or your purple tulips for two of her yellow ones.   Or tell your friends and family that if they ever feel like buying you flowers, to buy you someone potted so you can replants it (so…not a tropical houseplants, please).

There is a TON of information on the web about plant propagation, but I would encourage you to just try it.  If you like a plant, take a few inches of it and come how and stick it in a vase in the sun. Once it develops a few roots, try putting it in some dirt and watering regularly.

I love this time of year in my garden because it changes every year and I get a first peek at what this year is going to look like.  Below is a small columbine and sedum that popped up.

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I get to see what has spread and decide if things need to be moved. Okay, well, that part I don’t exactly love. Gardening can be a lot of work. But I put in the work into my garden because in, like, 20 years, I will havethe perfect garden! A garden is a constant work in progress and is constantly changing.  I live in zone 5, so not all the plants above would work for your zone, but all zones have plants you can propagate.  In fact, your perennials are probably our annuals (which you can also propagate in zone 5, I just don’t bother with annuals).  I would welcome your input and comments.  And seeds.

They don’t call them smart phones for nothing

I am not against spending money or buying things…just ask my husband. I just like to know that I am not leaving money on the table when I shop. A little bit of effort can support your nasty little latte habit…and loads of other bad habits.

If you shop online a lot, you probably already know this. But just on the off-chance that there are some of you out there that do not…I feel that I am honor-bound to share this information. Never, ever finish an on-line purchase without checking for online coupon codes. Ever. Even if it’s a small or local retailer. Popular (with me) sites are retailmenot and couponcabin but there are many, many more. I usually just use the search engine. For example, if I am shopping at, let’s say, Old Navy, I would type in “online code Old Navy” and see what comes up. Retailmenot and Couponcabin also have apps you can download on your smart phone. You can also use the apps Couponsherpa or SnipSnap, which I will discuss more detail below to see if deals are available for your purchase.

Now, are you ready to save some real money…or at least have your iPhone pay for itself? Then keep reading…

If you are at an actual, physical store, use an app called red laser to compare prices for other retailers on the items you are purchasing. Many stores will match the competition’s prices. If not, they may go ahead and offer some sort of discount. Many store managers are empowered to give a discount. Just ask. Most people don’t ask. You’d be shocked at what happens when you ask. One time when the manager could not come down any more on an item already on sale, my husband convinced him to throw in some batteries, just because. A reliable source told me that when he worked at Walmart one of his managers would routinely offer a 15% discount.

There are also many stores where you can upload a coupon instantly to your smart phone even if you forget it at home. For example, at Michaels or Hobby Lobby you can easily find the link to the smartphone coupon on their respective sites. However, not all stores make it as convenient. For those more inconvenient stores where you find the latest must-have, try downloading the app couponsherpa on your smart phone. Couponsherpa takes coupons from the web and allows you to access them on your smart phone. This app is my new favorite.

Several stores like Walgreens and CVS, have their own apps you can download and check for coupons at the store prior to checking out. However, deals at these sites tend to be item specific. For a fantastic blend of everything, try the app SnipSnap. Also my new favorite. On SnipSnap you and I and the rest of the planet upload coupons. Any coupons. Some may be of use to you. These could be on an item you are already buying, like, for example, Tide detergent, or for BOGO offers at restaurants, or to get a free something. If a coupon exists, people are uploading it. What this means for you on top of using everyone else’s great savings is that the moment your favorite Macy’s and Kohl’s coupons come in the mail, you no longer have to shove them in your car or purse and then forget all about them. You can put them in SnipSnap with a couple of quick photos and now you have them. Forever. Throw away the cards so they don’t litter your house, purse, wallet or car. Or, better yet, let someone else get the trash and let them upload it and just use theirs.

SnipSnap is the app I designed in my fantasies when I became frustrated with never taking my coupons with me. BUT, my dream app had one more fantastic feature. You could scan an item to figure out if you had a coupon for it, or could find a coupon for it, or could find a coupon for a similar item or category. SnipSnap stops short of that. That’s okay. These apps have come a loooong way in a short time and my perfect coupon app is sure to come.

When you first upload SnipSnap, try this: type in the word “free” in the search box. I bet you’ll find something tempting. For free. I would just recommend that you go inside and order to make sure the coupon works.

All of these apps are free. And they’ll bank you a lot of lattes.

Pressed Paper Pots 2

After the last post on these pressed paper pots I happened to run across this blog called Little Alexander with a post for the seedlings in egg an carton. It’s a fabulous blog with many good ideas. For the post to which I am referring, they used the carton in a not-so-obvious way that made me want to say, “of course!” I thought this post was very clever and was just waiting to read how easy it all was and how much time I had wasted when two perfectly good egg cartons were staring me in the face as I labored over my little paper pots. However, I was gratified to see that some of my latent concerns about the egg carton were a problem in the actual plan. (Click on the title “Little Alexander” above for a link to the post).

AND I was gratified to see that my little project was working.

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The above was right after I planted. These being so small, they didn’t hold a lot of water and I always watered slowly so the dirt was able to absorb as much as possible. The picture below was after almost six days. It helped that I planted lettuce seeds because these seeds are planted shallow and come up fast!
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In hindsight I would use my second idea of scavenging plastic cups from a meeting or office and using those as my molds. These worked, but were maybe just a bit too small. Check back late next winter to see how the new and improved project turns out, or share your experience with me! This was a great way to turn trash into a functional item.

Pressed Paper Pots

This year I am actually growing some seedlings inside to transplant outside. I bought these Burpee compostable packs for the job.

20130425-195433.jpg20130425-195451.jpg20130425-195459.jpgThey are cheap, about 15 cents each, and go directly in the ground when you are ready to plant. But as I was looking at them, it occurred to me that they are really just pressed paper. If you’ve ever made home made paper on a screen, you’ll understand what I am talking about.

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If not, let me explain. You can make that thick, fancy textured paper by shredding paper, blending it to pulp, and pouring out onto a screen and pressing out liquid, then letting it dry completely. The paper will end up having the imprint from the screen. I thought surely I could figure out a way to make these. I didn’t know if I would use the screen…that imprint was just the clue that keyed me on to the idea of making these. The trick would be to be able to mold them.

As I normally do with projects I have an inkling for but no clear direction with, I hit the internet. Surprisingly, I really couldn’t find a precise replica of these. At best, I found methods using newspaper “cups” (really, just taking newspaper and making a flat bottomed cup), toilet paper rolls (almost tempted to use this), paper egg cartons (clever but too small, I thought) and eggshells (cute but impractical) . I was fully expecting a paper mache option to mold your own cups or pots, at the very least. Being unsatisfied and having a rudimentary understanding about how to make paper, I stumbled through this on my own.

I took a couple of cardboard boxes out of the recycling and started tearing them up. I then soaked the cardboard.

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While soaking the cardboard, I again researched how to add more structure to the cups. I was afraid that the moment I added water, they would fall apart. I saw some suggestions online about added dryer lint to as a way to make paper. I figured that since it was not paper, it might add firmness to my cups. I went to my dryer and grabbed a thick wad of lint and threw it in my soaking paper. Too late I realized what a bad idea that was…especially if I were actually making paper to give away. My dryer lint is full of cat hair since I have two of the furry little beasts. However, since these were ideally just going in the ground, I was still hopeful the lint–hair and all–would add structure. I added more water and then threw in about a quarter cup of flour on a completely untested theory that it would make the paper harden more (a la paper mâché). I then threw it all in the blender.

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Careful if you add lint, the stuff tends to wind around the blades kind of like the underside of a vacuum. When done blending, I then had a bowl of really awful looking stuff.

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It felt really gross. Kids would probably love this project.

As I mentioned above, the biggest challenge I faced was how to make pot shapes that I considered big enough plant in. The best solution I could come up with was using these silicone cupcake molds. They were a lot smaller than I would have wanted, but I figured that seedlings don’t get too big before you stick them in the ground. (Based on this thinking, I don’s know why i insisted the egg carton was too small… maybe I just wanted to make pressed paper pots.) I figured that the silicone would peel easily from the dried paper and I wasn’t bringing other waste into the mix. If I hadn’t gone with those, I would have tried to use plastic cups… as long as I was recycling them (saving them from the trash to reuse and/or continued to use them afterwards.) If you go out and buy the plastic cups for the sole purpose of making these and then toss them out afterwards, you’re defeating the purpose of making recycled projects and should just use the plastic cups as planters directly.

The first couple cups I tried to make free form by pressing small sections onto the mold. But then I figured out that I could just use an empty mold to squeegee out the water and help shape the mold I was working on. I made sure to apply to pulp thickly to avoid thin spots and proved enough support.

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The entire process was a bit labor intensive, but in the end I was hopeful. My husband, on the other hand, was very skeptical. I started to blog right away about these, even as my little cups sat there all soggy and sad looking. I told him that I felt confident that they would dry…but I honestly had no idea what would happen once I added dirt and water.

Sure enough, the cups dried beautifully in about three days. I would have liked to have left them outside in the warm sun to dry faster, but it’s April in Illinois, and warm sun is scarce. I might have tried baking them to dry them out more quickly, but I remembered the hairy lint and knew that would be a smelly, bad idea.

Alas, I have not really provided a precise recipe or method, either. More like an idea and a plan. I would love feedback if anyone out there plays around with the idea. I don’t know if the flour and lint are necessary, but I feel that they helped make a sturdier end-product.

It is important for me to consider how cost effective these projects are. But the costs are not all measured in money. I would attempt this project again because I saved money, and found a good use of waste materials, and produced something using no emissions.

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I am going to plant them and report back how well they hold up! I hope to soon show you pictures of little seedlings!

The Post Post

We have painfully learned that sometimes when you want to save money, you actually have to spend more money. The painful part is not the final quality purchase, but, rather, all the crap we bought up to the point where we finally admitted we had to stop buying crap.

Case in point: cat scratching posts. We have two cats full of personality…and claws. We wouldn’t dream about declawing them, but we do dream of containing the areas their sharp little claws may damage. When we first inherited the cats, we realized that one area we needed to manage was the top of the steps. They would run past you as you were making your way up the stairs, almost taking you down,and then cockily clawed the carpet in a sick victory dance before you could get to the top.

We knew that we would need to have some kind of scratching thing in that spot. So I proceeded to buy a post. It was not the cheapest, but definitely was on the cheap end at around $12. They tore through it within six months (My husband swears it didn’t even last that long.) Bits of carpet from the post littered the entire hallway. So I bought another one- another $12, maybe this one had rope or something that seemed much sturdier at the time. The ones at the pet store (and I’m talking big box store) all seemed about the same in material and construction, they just differed in size. It really didn’t seem that my money would go further just because I bought a bigger version of the same crappy scratching post. Sure enough, the little animals destroyed this one, too, within a few short months. We may have even, embarrassingly enough, have gone through this a couple more times. There had to be a better solution.

There was. A bit of research and reading of reviews convinced us that we needed to finally just pay up and buy a scratching post that was a lot more expensive. We came across the Smart Cat Ultimate Scratching Post.  It was around $50 at the time we bought it (and for whatever reason is a bit cheaper now,which chaps me, but, still, read on) and worth every cent.

It is fantastic.  I told my husband that I couldn’t write about it until enough time had gone by to warrant all the gushing we were doing in private.  Finally, six full months elapsed and my husband officially declared it was time to boast.  The thing looks as good today as the day we bought it.  It is big and sturdy and very soundly built. No carpet in sight for them to tear off the thing in thousands of little pieces.  I am sure I will update this post as time goes by to confirm that it is still going strong, but for any of you out there have similar cat post issues, this is THE post to get.

You may be thinking that at that price, I would need to have this thing for at least two years to make up the cost difference.  While I fully expect this post to last at least that long, any length of time I have it for more than six months means less waste that I am putting in landfills.  That is an important thing.