Monthly Archives: January 2015

Bill Reduction: Part 2

On Tuesday, I discussed a few ways that we have reduced our bills.  Bill reduction can be an easy way to make your paycheck go farther, enabling your money to go towards things that can have a more lasting impact.

While those ideas are great and easy to implement, the one that has by far given us the most bang for our buck is negotiation.  It is also the one that has been the most challenging for me.

I have mentioned on here before that confrontation is not my cup of tea.  But I also don’t like to see our hard-earned money go out the door either.  Thankfully, my husband has tutored me in the fine art of negotiation; I’ve learned that reducing our bills doesn’t have to (and shouldn’t) result in a knock-down, drag-out battle.

The first time I became acquainted with this bill-reducing strategy was when we purchased my piano.  It’s a beaut, isn’t it?

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Now, this instrument was used.  It was older.  It was already pretty reasonably priced.  But there was another piano that was a couple hundred dollars less than this one, but that I didn’t like nearly as much.  When the salesperson asked what our thoughts were, I remember looking at the keys and waiting for Riley to say we were going to take the cheaper one.

What I heard instead:  “Well, we like this one (the one in the picture) best, but we like the price of this one (the cheaper one) better.”

Cue Amanda cringing inside.  Imagine my surprise when the saleslady said, “I think we could drop the price on this one a little more for you.”

And they did.  That’s all it took.  No yelling, no conflict.  We got a piano at the price we wanted.

To be fair, Riley does most of the bill negotiation in this house, by virtue of the fact that he is the one who winds up paying most of the bills.  He’s done this several times, and each time I learn a little more, to the point where I now feel comfortable doing it myself if need be.  But negotiating bills isn’t just for men–it’s for women, marrieds, and singles, too!

Here are some secrets to the art of negotiating your bills.

Be nice.  Anyone who has ever worked with the public knows that you are more inclined to help someone who is friendly and firm than combative and cranky.  You want the person on the other end of the line to help you, not hate you!

Be flexible.  Sure, we would have loved to have gotten that piano for free.  But being realistic and flexible goes a long way.  Remember it never hurts to ask for a reduction in your bill (“I’ve been a good customer for a long time, and it would be great if I could get the interest dropped on this card” is a good example), but you may not get your way.  At least you can say you tried, and sometimes you may wind up with even more than you asked for!

Practice what you want to say beforehand.  This may not always be a feasible option, but for someone like me, who struggles to think on the fly, it is helpful to outline what, exactly, I want to achieve and how I will say it.  Use the time on-hold constructively, and brainstorm a little speech!

If you have ever negotiated a bill, what worked for you?  I’d love to hear from you!

 

Book Review: Depletion and Abundance by Sharon Astyk

depletion and abundanceI read Depletion and Abundance at Amanda’s recommendation. I’ll be honest, with the subtitle “Life on the New Home Front” I expected a much tamer read.

After all, I’ve bought into our culture’s devaluation of traditional “women’s work” at home.

Instead, Sharon Astyk fights for the importance of work in the private realm for our future. She anticipates (or at least prepares for) a time when our current economy is broken and we’ll be forced back into working to provide food and shelter for our families (rather than just for the money we use to buy those things).

I’m not a doomsday-er. However, I can’t help but see the current state of the United States as something that cannot be maintained throughout my lifetime. As individuals and as a country, you cannot keep borrowing against the future: at some point, it’s got to be paid.

That said, I’m more driven to make lifestyle changes towards sustainability by what Astyk calls “The Theory of Anyway:” “Living more simply, more frugally, leaving reserves for others, reconnecting with our food and our community–these are things we should be doing because they are the right thing to do on many levels.” – p. 49

This is my primary motivation for change: it’s how I love others. I don’t necessarily buy into the idea that we’re overpopulating the earth, but I do know that we’re not stewarding it like we should. As an American with an average paycheck, I can “afford” to use much more than my share of resources. After all, the burden of my excess pollution and waste isn’t shouldered just by me (or I might be driven to change more quickly).

One of the most interesting concepts in this book is the idea that the work that can be done at home is “better work”: work that actually feeds our bodies and nurtures the next generation. While we’ve all been lead to think of these types of task as drudgery, we forget to think that work that has purpose is often enjoyable.

Astyk longs for each of us to work more at home than we do now (as opposed to working for others outside it) and believes that we’ll all benefit from it. She spends a good amount of the book talking about the type of decisions that can be made in that direction. She’s more interested in everyone making better choices right where they are than for others to follow a particular game plan.

My one reservation about Depletion and Abundance is how family-centric the book is. As a single woman who lives alone, I’m more sensitive than others might be to this topic. That said, I don’t believe that the family unit is the most important organizational unit.

I like how the author pictures inter-generational families living together, but I think that we should take it a step farther, encouraging non-relatives to live in healthy community with one another as well, even under the same roof. I know that’s “weird” in this age when we value privacy and comfort above almost all else, but when you consider history, it’s far more normal than we might think.

Whether you spend an hour or twelve a day on domestic work, I think you can benefit from reading this book.

Bill Reduction: Part 1

In case you couldn’t tell, one of the aspects of stewardship that Ronnica and I feel pretty passionately about is personal finance.  We constantly strive to use our money in the best ways possible.  A significant number of posts on here discuss personal finance, debt reduction, and money in some way or another.

But if you are on a fixed or limited income, how else can you channel your money toward more meaningful things?

Enter bill reduction–specifically the following key points:

Reduction.

Negotiation. 

More negotiation.

Okay, perhaps the third one is a bit redundant, but if you are serious about reducing your bills, negotiation plays a huge part!

Negotiation is for Thursday, however.  Today, I’m discussing reduction.  I’m going to get a bit personal, and provide actual numbers from our own budget in this post and the next.  I hope that some of our tips and tricks help you as you tweak your own finances!

In much the same way that Ronnica made reducing her consumption of goods a priority, reducing what you spend on monthly bills should become a priority if you want/need money for other items in your budget.

Rather than go into detail on the obvious bill-reducing strategies–a simple search online will yield hundreds of great tips–here are some that have worked for our family.

A programmable thermostat will save a ton–of cash AND carbon emissions.  If you search for something like, “how to reduce bills”, chances are good this one will come up, and for good reason:  it works.  The premise is that you set the thermostat for a lower temperature (in winter) or higher temperature (in summer) when you are gone during the day, or when you are in bed than when you are up and moving.

N.B.  This tip will not work if you have a more “extreme” body temperature than others in your house.  It took Riley and I a few weeks–months, actually–to agree on a temperature that did not freeze me out or make him overheat in the winter!  But once you get that settled, you will not only save money, but you will also help the planet because you are not needlessly heating or cooling your home (depending on the season).  It is tricky to estimate the savings this has given us, because we recently got a newer, more energy-efficient HVAC system as well, but I’d wager this single tip has easily saved us several hundred dollars in the time we have lived in this house (five years).  Definitely invest in a good programmable thermostat–I promise you won’t look like this!

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Use a dishwasher instead of hand-washing dishes.  It seems counter-intuitive, but studies have shown that using a dishwasher is actually more budget-friendly and energy efficient than washing by hand.  It also saves time and cuts down on dishpan hands! I agree with the data presented by Energy Star–this has saved us about $40 a year.  Don’t scoff…every little bit adds up!

Don’t use a clothes dryer.  This one saves money and helps the environment in several different ways. (Isn’t it interesting how going green also saves money?).  First, it cuts down on energy usage.  Second, it helps save your clothes–lint isn’t just random fuzzies that crop up in the dryer, but is actually bits of your clothes!–which helps save you money.

Third, if you hang up your clothes on a line, either inside or outside, you are burning extra calories.  It may be a bit of a stretch, but I’d argue this also helps to cut down on long-term healthcare costs.  In addition, if dryer sheets are something you currently utilize, you will not have that expense either, with air-drying.  The savings on this appear to vary from person to person, but personally I notice a huge difference between our winter electric bill (when I dry clothes in the dryer more often) versus our summer electric bill (when I line-dry)–to the tune of $50+ a month.

By far the biggest and best strategy to bill reduction is negotiation…come back on Thursday to read about tips and tricks to cutting your bills even further!

How it Works: Surviving Unemployment

unemploymentI’ve gone through two periods of unemployment.

Most recently, I quit a great job that I loved to move from North Carolina to Colorado. All told, I was out of work for four months. Because I had prepared for over two years for the move, I was ready for it.

The first time I was unemployed, however, wasn’t by choice. I did have some warning–we all did, the industry I was in was one of the last dominoes to fall in the recession–but I wasn’t really prepared.

Four years ago this week I started work again after those three months of unintended unemployment. Each January I think back to that time and remember God’s faithfulness and the lessons I learned from that time.

Chances are, we’re all going to face times of unemployment or economic insecurity. It’s our actions in the fruitful times that will help us get through the leaner times.

So what steps can you take to be better prepared for potential unemployment than I was?

1. Live on a lean budget, no matter your income.

This is something that I learned to do after I was unemployed the first time. By continuing to live on an unemployment budget after I was gainfully employed allowed me to really save for the first time in my life.

Some expenses (like housing and car payments) are difficult to reduce once incurred. That’s why it’s so important to choose those purchases wisely.

2. Build up your emergency savings.

Speaking of savings, you knew that this would make the list. We all know we need it.

As someone who is in major debt-payoff mode, I don’t have a full 6 months’ worth of savings that I would like. I used most of my prior savings in the move and my first month’s here. I’ve decided to focus on paying off debt before rebuilding my savings. I feel comfortable with just two months’ savings during the last year of this process.

3. Build your skills.

Perhaps our grandparents had the luxury to expect to work for the same company (or at least in the same field) their entire career. Whatever may have been the case before, we should not have that confidence. We should be constantly improving our knowledge and skills to make ourselves marketable in a world that is constantly changing.

Perhaps, we should all consider alternative ways to provide for ourselves that we could either use to supplement now or to tide us over if our personal or national economy changes.

4. Invest in your community.

We should all be investing in our community regardless. But in times of adversity, it is our community that will help see us through. After all, none of us should be in this alone.

How about you? Have you dealt with unemployment in the past? What helped get you through (or what would you have liked to have done differently)?

Photo by Simon Cunningham

How it Works: Vinegar

I have alluded to my simple cleaning habits, especially Castile soap, but today I pull out the big gun.

Vinegar.

Without question, this is my go-to cleaning item.  It is ideal for the season of life we are in currently, because it is all-natural, non-toxic (very important with a new crawler in the house), and cleans well.  Plus, it’s cheap! As added bonuses, it also serves as a great cooking tool, is fabulous as a hair conditioner, and is also great for various home remedies of minor health issues.

But first, here are some questions I have received regarding how vinegar works for us, and responses:

What about the smell?  Honestly, I have not had any issue with the distinct odor of vinegar.  Once it dries, the smell is gone, regardless of whether it was used on the floor or on your hair as a conditioning rinse.  It is a natural deodorizer as well, so any unpleasant odors that were present before cleaning are almost always gone after using it.  I will say that I prefer distilled white vinegar (like this one) over apple cider vinegar–the smell of ACV rubs me the wrong way, but it is a personal preference .

Can you really use vinegar on everything?  With few exceptions (like granite countertops and certain types of flooring), yes!  We use it on our hair, on kitchen surfaces, on windows…just about anywhere.

Does vinegar kill germs?  To a point.  If killing every single household germ is what you are looking for, then hydrogen peroxide (if you want an alternative to bleach) would be a better bet for you.  That said, I would urge you not to look toss the idea of vinegar aside–germs are not necessarily things to wage war against.  Unless you have someone who is immunocompromised, work in a hospital setting, or desire to make every surface in your home hostile to any kind of bacteria (good luck with that!), I would submit that vinegar is a safe and effective alternative.  It has worked for our family for years!

So, how does our family make vinegar work?

We buy one gallon jug at a time, at the grocery store (we use about a gallon a month).  We then decant it–we fill a spray bottle with full-strength vinegar (some recommend doing a ratio of half water, half vinegar, which would probably also help cut down on the vinegar smell), and use it like we would any other household cleaner.  A picture is worth a thousand words:

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It’s just that simple!  It also takes up way less space than a different product for every surface in the home.

I also use vinegar in lieu of hair conditioner, simply spritzing some on my hair after using Castile soap, and then rinsing it out.  It makes a great detangler for my young daughter’s hair too.  Several of my friends also swear by it as a facial toner–though due to its acidity, I would recommend a cottonball doused in diluted vinegar, rather than full strength; it could sting otherwise!

Vinegar is an incredibly versatile liquid with myriad uses.  Do you use vinegar in your daily life?  What other uses have you come up with?

Buy Little Month: Halfway Point Update

As I write this post, I’m just over halfway through my Buy Little Month experiment. As a recap, here are the “rules” of this month:

1. Fixed expenses like rent, utilities, and insurance don’t count.

2. If I need something, use something I already have.

3. If I can’t make do with what I have, I’ll shop my own grocery reserves.

4. If I absolutely need something and I don’t have something that will work, only then will I buy something.

Already, I’ve learned so much. Truly, it’s been much easier than I expected. I anticipate the second half of the month to be a little harder, as I have less variety to choose from as far as food.

personal store
My “store” isn’t out of business yet.

What have I bought?

As of January 18th, I’ve bought:

medicine $7.40
eggs $1.98
dry milk $2.98

That’s it. There were another half dozen or so things I considered buying, but with some creativity, I figured out how to do without.

I’ve also spent about $20/week of my grocery budget “buying” things from my grocery reserve.

What have I saved?

$4.86 from my utilities budget
$49.80 from my grocery budget
$90 from my transportation budget

That makes $144.66 extra that I have put against my student loan. I should definitely make my goal of saving $220.

So, what is my biggest struggle?

Sweets. I knew that this was my weakness: I’ve long developed the habit of treating myself with something sweet at the end of a busy day. At first, I still had Christmas candy, but I ate through that the first week. I wish I had rationed it.

I’m learning that I don’t have to have that treat; I don’t have to be ruled by my stomach.

kitchen pantry
This is what I still have left after eating for 18 days with almost no shopping (not including what I still have in my freezer).

What are my 3 biggest surprises?

1. The reaction I’ve received from others. It’s incredibly humbling to have others offer you food, as several people have. While I know that this voluntary period of living without spending is nothing like true poverty, I believe I’m getting a glimpse of what it would be like to be hungry. I hope I respond with less superiority and more solidarity than I have in the past when I interact with those in need.

2. How much food I had in my small kitchen. Of course I’m only feeding myself, but my kitchen stores have been sufficient to feed myself for 18 days (and counting…the shelves aren’t yet bare).

3. I can settle for less than ideal. Of course I can, but I really thought that it would be more of a struggle. I’ve eaten some cobbled-together meals contently that I would previously have turned up my nose against.

I look forward to sharing again when I’ve completed my Buy Little month. In the meantime, I share updates on Twitter: @TheStewardesses.

Joint Review: This Land by Anthony Flint

downloadLand use.  Suburban development and sprawl. American development. While these don’t necessarily conjure up the most positive of images, they are absolutely worthy of discussion.

Enter This Land: The Battle over Sprawl and the Future of America by Anthony Flint.  This book gives a thorough review and commentary of the problem of sprawl in America.  Beginning with the 20th century and moving into present day, Flint discusses the history of this issue and offers up ideas for how best to address it.  Although it does not provide much in the way of ideas for how individuals can combat the issue of population sprawl in America, it does offer good insight into how complex the issue of development actually is.

Amanda’s Take

This book was preaching to the choir.  Despite living in the suburbs myself (or perhaps, because I do), this book spoke to me–I see the issues that Flint brings up on a regular basis:  longer commutes, less sense of community, and encroachment on wild areas, to name just a few.

Sprawl is a complicated issue for many reasons (not least of which is the fact that Americans value personal freedoms, which Flint alludes to).  As a result, This Land can be a bit overwhelming to read at times; as Ronnica notes in her review, it can be a challenge to read because of how large the problem is.

Despite this, I recommend this book to those who are interested in learning more about the scope of the problem of suburban sprawl.  It makes a better book for research and information than it does for problem solving.

Ronnica’s Take

When I was moving to Denver, I thought a lot about the type of area that I wanted to live in. While of course I cared about my safety, I was more interested in living in an area that was anti-suburban: I wanted to walk and take public transportation.

This Land goes into detail as to the extent of sprawl here in America and why it’s a problem. I agree, but I struggled when reading this because it is hard to think concretely about how I as an individual can fight it. I hope to buy my own place in the next few years (after paying off debt and building up my savings) and I hope to use some of the thoughts from this book when I make that decision.

I think my biggest takeaway from reading This Land is that the issue of sprawl is much more complicated than I realized. We Americans like our “freedoms” and tend to buck against anyone or any suggestion that we should give them up for the greater good.

Thoughts on Privilege and Wealth

On this day when we remember the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., I can’t help but ponder the place my own white American privilege and middle-class background play in my ability to focus on my financial health and making decisions that are better for the environment. After all, these are things to consider only if you have already taken care of sustenance and safety.

white picket fenceWhile everything written on this blog is told from our own limited points of view (which is probably obvious to you), I hope that there are things here that people from all walks of life can relate to.

Sometimes I do wonder how the blog reads to those who haven’t had the same advantages that we have. Are we ignorantly speaking about things that are givens for us but aren’t for others? I hope that if we do, someone would lovingly point it out so that we could learn and grow.

I still have a lot to learn about the extent of my privilege. I remember an eye-opening seminar I attended for work a few years ago that discussed the wealth disparities between races in the United States.

One contributing factor that was mentioned in the class was that when the social security program was set up, farm and domestic workers were excluded. It’s no coincidence that those were primarily black professions. Before that class, I hadn’t even considered the place that historical racism could still have in wealth disparity today. I know there are many other things I don’t know, because I have had no need to learn them.

It’s easy to feel guilty about having benefits that others do not. I don’t think that’s productive. We shouldn’t take our blessings for granted but should use them for the greater good of all. That said, I’m still working out how that should look.

How it Works: Coconut Oil

unnamed (14)If you are an aficionado of social media groups that favor holistic living, coconut oil and its
many uses are already well-known to you.  Do a simple search for “coconut oil” and the results will be staggering!

I am a recent convert to the coconut oil camp. This versatile oil can be used for cooking, personal care, health benefits and more.

Be forewarned that coconut oil, like castile soap, is not cheap.  However, one jar of La Tourangelle Virgin and Unrefined Coconut Oil gives our family several weeks of many different uses, so it pays for itself in no time.  You should also know that coconut oil is actually a solid when kept below 75 degrees, and becomes a liquid beyond that.

How does it work for our family?  Let me count the ways:

As bath oil.  With two little people needing my attention, I confess I don’t get to partake of this use nearly as often as I’d like, but that’s not to say coconut oil isn’t incredible for softening your skin, especially in the dry winter months!  I will warn you, though, that it makes the tub slick afterwards, so use caution.

As lotion.  Same principle, different setting.  My youngest kiddo has incredibly sensitive skin, and as one who values living as naturally and lightly as possible, coconut oil has been great for this.  You will have to melt the coconut oil (we put the jar in a warm water bath), so will need to watch the temperature to prevent burns.  You can also rub it on your skin as a solid; your body temperature will melt the oil.  It also works well on chapped lips!

Cooking.  I like to use coconut oil in place of olive oil, where possible.  Because the flavor can be a bit different for some, I recommend using it in baking before trying it in regular meals.  Don’t let the fat content scare you–it’s good fat, but as with all good things, moderation is key.

Coffee creamer.  Don’t judge–a dash of coconut oil in my morning coffee serves as a great, healthy alternative to other creamers.  Even though it may fill you up, be sure to eat a little protein or fiber with your coconut flavored coffee!

What about you?  What uses have you come up with for coconut oil?

 

How Businesses Can Promote Green Practices

I have had the pleasure to work for several companies of various sizes and industries. Lately I’ve been thinking about the things these companies did (or didn’t do) that can encourage their employees to behave in ways that are better for the environment that affects all of us.

If we’re going to overhaul our squandering habits, businesses must play a big part of the process. After all, if I as an individual choose to decrease the amount of waste I produce or energy I use, that can make an important, but small difference. But if a business makes the same decision, that’s a bigger difference.

But even more, a business can influence their employees and customers to also practice better habits, multiplying their efforts.

Here are a few ways that any business can promote green business (and personal) practices:

recycling binMake recycling something easier than throwing something away. I must admit that in my judgmentalism, I cringe every time I see a co-worker throw something in their desk trashcan that can be recycled.

I don’t blame them: we have a trashcan at every desk, but I’m only aware of 2 recycle bins on the entire floor, one of which has a can-shaped hole in the lid, so it appears to the casual observer to be only for aluminum (though a small sign nearby indicates it is mult-stream).

One office I worked in converted the desk trashcans to recycle cans, only putting cans designated for trash disposal in break areas. Even my co-worker who saw no point in recycling couldn’t help but do it, because he wasn’t going to go out of his way to stick to his anti-recycling ways.

Promote a paperless office, starting from the top. If you don’t want lower-level employees printing out unnecessary things (PowerPoint slides for every meeting participant is my personal pet peeve) don’t do it yourself. I think sometimes people print things because others do, and they assume it’s required.

Not only are printed notes wasteful, they’re less useful because they’re not searchable.

Incentivize employees to use public transportation or carpool. I was struck on my way home one  day recently at how almost every vehicle I saw had only one occupant, no matter its size. I and my other solo travelers were queued up to wait for the signal to get on the highway, while the HOV lane remained almost clear.

Obviously, I was part of the problem at that moment, though I do prefer public transportation when I can. But what if employers gave out free bus passes to employees that would agree not to drive? Or free gas cards or prime parking spaces for those who would volunteer to carpool? After all, as I read in Jeff Speck’s Walkable City, employers spend thousands on providing “free” parking for each employee.

There are of course many other things that businesses could, and I do believe should do encourage environmental-friendly actions. What have you seen businesses do (or not do) that facilities greener behavior?

Photo by Daniel Tuttle