"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Friday, June 15, 2007

Urban Oasis

I half-assedly attempted to garden when I lived in the country, but it never really amounted to anything. Living in the city again, and this time with access to a little bit of garden space, I'm discovering gardening as a chance to get close to nature. I find myself watering diligently every day, pulling weeds, cutting my wee bit of lawn with garden shears, and otherwise puttering around in the green space I have created in an otherwise barren cityscape. I've arranged for 'plant sitting' during my holidays and I hope to come back to fresh vegetables, not dry stalks!

This year, I am attempting to coax out of a few inches of rocky soil some tomatoes, cucumbers, and red peppers, and out of pots some cherry tomatoes and herbs.

The herbs are doing well so far. It's fantastic to be able to step onto the porch and snip from my basil plant

I am surprisingly content here. There are moments when I even think I'm happy.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Uncharacteristic Patience Pays Off!

Since I stopped wearing pants, I've learned that denim skirts are a girl's best friend. I like to have a short (just above the knee), medium-length (just below the knee), and long (to my ankles) in my closet. A couple of months ago, I had to give up my well worn long jean skirt because an unfortunate event made me realise that, um, maybe I'd lost a bit more weight in the past three years than I thought--I was walking down the street and my skirt wound up around my ankles. Yeesh. The seamstress I took the skirt to told me that it wasn't worth trying to make it smaller, she would have charged me as much as a new skirt would cost because of the amount of work involved. So, I donated my skirt to a grateful thirteen year old girl and started to hunt for a new long skirt.

My hunt was quite leisurely until I realised that my trip is coming up quickly and I didn't have a long thick skirt anymore, something I know will be useful on, say, a 'cruise' to Alcatraz. Unfortunately, the long skirt offerings in the spring were ugly and summer is not the time to find a long denim skirt. I did all the new clothing stores I normally visit and a couple of thrift shops. I came really close to giving up and buying an okay, but not great, skirt.

Then last week a colleague who is an amateur professional shopper mentioned that a boutique in our building had a couple of long jean skirts in for 50$, possibly marked down. That was more than I was willing to spend unless the skirt was really something special, but I decided to go check them out. One thing led to another and I didn't get to the shop until yesterday.

There were three of the skirts left and the first thing I noticed was that they were perfect. Plain denim, no fancy stitching, but an interesting cut. I checked the sizes--the first was too small, the last too big, and the middle was just right.

It was a skirt worth 50$... but I was even happier to pay the price that had been inked in next to the 50$: 25$!!!

Monday, June 11, 2007

Frugal Bedroom Decoration

When I moved, I redid my entire bedroom using donated furniture and bed dressing. It wasn't stuff that I would have otherwise chosen for myself, but it looks good and fits in nicely with the colour the landlords used on the wall, if not the navy blue blinds used to inadequately cover the window. Initially, I was just going to add the balloon valance that matches the bedspread when I realised that I needed a lot more opacity than just a blind. I was going to go out to price material for curtains, dreading the thought of having to sew them, when I realised that there were a lot of pieces from the bed dressing that I hadn't used. Perhaps something in there could be suitable? Perhaps I could turn the unused sheets into curtain... Well, as it turns out, I had two more balloon valances, which just happened to be finished fabric panels that fit my windows perfectly and which have little loops across each edge.... I nailed five nails along the top of the window frame and hung both panels from them. I went for two to get maximum opacity. Then, I installed the balloon valance over everything to give it a more finished look. And to think I was almost too short sighted (and even lazy) to go through my linen closet before heading off to Bouclair!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Frugal Iced Coffee

I have accepted that I cannot give up coffee. Part of accepting that is learning to make coffee at home. Of course, when it's 30 degrees out, the last thing you want is a hot coffee.... so here's homemade cinnamon iced coffee. Yum!

Friday, June 8, 2007

Away a Thriftin'

I went to Value Village this evening. It's not the value it used to be, but I did pick up some items:

5 scarves (to wear in my hair) for 2$ each
5 Harrowsmith Country magazines for 4$
a picture for my bathroom for 3$
a 'dust buster' for 7$
a spring form pan for 2$

Total was just shy of 30$

Driving home, I was craving a bad habit that I must nip in the bud--a Starbuck's cinnamon soy latté. So, I got home and made myself a decaf with extra soy milk and a sprinkle of cinnamon. Most satisfactory and took care of the craving!

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Travel Plans

I just got my credit card bill and almost fainted, until a review of the items on the statement reminded me that 75% of the bill was pre-payment for a trip I'll be taking in two weeks. After paying the bill in full, I began to evaluate the 'frugalness' of my trip.

For me, travel is one of my 'rewards' for being frugal(ish) the rest of the year. I allocate a budget for the trip and aim to spend every last cent of that budget. That said, travel for me consists of splurges and saves. I know what I'm willing to fork out big bucks for and what I'm not. Let's dissect the trip I'm about to undertake.

I'm flying to San Francisco, spending five full days there, then traveling to Las Vegas for one or two full days there, visiting the Grand Canyon, then moving on to Hollywood for a day and a half or so. I'm hoping to add in a day trip to Tijuana, Mexico, too, before driving back to San Francisco to spend one last day there before flying home.

My initial plan was to spend one week in San Francisco because it would a) be incredibly cheap and b) offer me a chance for a total change of scenery (I've never been 'south' or that far west or seen a palm tree). All of this was possible because a friend lives there and agreed to provide me with free lodging and a place to cook my own meals if I was willing to come within a set window of time (since a lot of other friends of his want to take advantage of his new location!). This would make for an incredibly cheap trip (under 1000$).

But I got to thinking--what else is there near San Francisco that I wouldn't otherwise go see but which interested me. The answer was obvious--Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, and Hollywood.

So, now I'm flying to SF to spend a week with my friend. Then, I'm renting a car and driving to Vegas. My first day in Vegas, I'm splurging (after doing lots of research and finding the best bang for my buck) and taking a half-day helicopter tour to the Grand Canyon! I'll then use my rental car to get to Hollywood, possibly San Diego, and then return 'home' to SF to return the car and take my flight home.

The rental car is a definite splurge considering the current price of gas in that part of the country. But the fact that I'll be able to make up my own schedule and route makes this cost worth it. I took a fantastic road trip in 2005 which really taught me that road tripping for me is worth its weight in gas.

The helicopter trip is another splurge, but it's a once in a lifetime type of thing. I rarely return to the same place twice, so the odds that I'll be in the general vicinity of the Grand Canyon again are slim. I look at this splurge as being like a similar splurge I once made in Scotland by taking a day trip to the Orkney Islands and back. I blew a full day's budget then, but not once in the nine years since that trip have I kicked myself for taking that risk. I also used this thought process to purchase tickets to visit Alcatraz, a pricier excursion than I would have imagined. I'm, of course, paying for my friends' ticket.

I also found ways to save a lot of money on the trip. I planned my trip to be within the limits of the 'low season', meaning that I'm saving money across the board. My plane tickets are several hundred dollars cheaper than if I'd left just two weeks later. Of course, I planned the trip to lie between dates for ultra cheap tickets, finding the best deals if I left on a Tuesday and returned on a Sunday. The Sunday I'm returning happens to be Canada Day... and I'm arriving in the capital. I'm hoping to be able to get bumped to get a voucher for a future trip. Thankfully, my boss doesn't really expect me back the day I said I'd be back, so I could be bumped to a later flight without consequence.

My activities in SF and Hollywood are prepaid thanks to CityPasses. These packets of discount vouchers for local attractions and public transportation add up to almost the full sum of what I'd want to see in SF and Hollywood and offer incredible flexibility and value.

I discovered that Vegas during the week is much cheaper than during the weekend. I found an off-strip hotel for 69$ per weeknight, vs 125$+ for a weekend night. Two days after I booked, I found a better deal for this same room and was able to rebook for 50$ per night... including two breakfast and dinner buffets. A lot of people admonished me for getting a 'cheap' hotel instead of splurging on a classic Vegas hotel. What can I say? I prefer to spend my money doing things on trips than staying in a posh place.

Another way that I'll be saving money is by taking advantage of the current USD/CAD exchange rate. I bought almost my full amount of pocket money for the trip this week. I'll divide this amount into different hidden places on my person for the trip and pay cash for as much as possible, including the rental car (you need a credit card to reserve, but when it comes time to pay, you can do so in cash).

A final way I save money when I travel is to make my own meals as much as possible, or, at the very least, stop at a market before lunch to get bread, cheese, and fruit to munch on, with leftovers for breakfast the next day. I do like to occasionally get breakfast at a restaurant, but do so later in the morning so as to be able to skip lunch. I do like to go to restaurants for dinner, two-three times per week of travel because I do very activity-oriented travel and am usually wiped by dinner hour. When I do eat out, I favour local establishments and get things I couldn't get at home. I know it's usually cheaper to eat out for lunch, but I rarely like to stop mid-day long enough to eat a sit-down meal at a restaurant. I don't add food to my travel budget because I'd be eating at home anyway and rarely, if ever, go over what my food budget at home would have been.

So, I leave in two week for a trip that'll cost me about 2000$ and of that I've prepaid close to 1,750$. The remaining 250$ is for that/those rare and wonderful item(s) that I couldn't possibly find here and which will constitute my 'souvenirs.'

The last few trips I made, I visited antique stores, flea markets, and even garage sales to find the three items I scrounge for--blue willow ware inexpensive enough for daily use, specific-style candlesticks, and specific-style carved boxes. These practical items see daily use, are constant reminders of the trips I took, were cheap, and provided hours of entertainment to find. Visit a souvenir shop? Not me!

I love that so much of my trip has been pre-paid because it'll be my first trip where I won't really have to mind my budget. It's going to be a blast and my first time in years where I can just relax, have fun, and forget about my life.

I'd like to add that I don't think that spending 2,000$ on a trip is excessive at this point in my life. My only current debts are a student loan and a car loan (both have negligible interest), I have a healthy savings account, and I'm not sacrificing any necessities (eg. postponing a medical procedure, avoiding car repairs, putting off a home renovation, etc.) in order to go.

Garage Sale Finds

I attended my first garage sale of the season on Sunday. It was being hosted by a community centre that offers inexpensive used goods to the less favoured. As I expected, most of the offerings were junk, but my watchful eye found a beautiful wrought iron coat hook, which I snapped up. Encouraged, I continued to comb the tables and, five tables later, found another identical coat hook!

In my opinion, one can never have too many coat hooks. I've been carrying the same three oiled bronze ones for ten years and have used them in almost as many homes, screwed to the inside of a closet to make a place to hang my purse or on an inconspicuous wall to hang my broom. As I headed to the cash with my treasures, I saw a small MasterCraft(TM) speed clamp that just needed a bit of oiling. I work a lot with my hands and have a fully equipped workshop, so such a tool is very useful to me.

I put the three items down in front of the cashier and she looked at them for a moment. "A dollar?" she asked, obviously expecting me to barter her down. If she had been selling things for herself, I could have countered with seventy-five cents. But the money was going to a good cause, and I was getting a really, really good deal, so I smiled and replied that a dollar was fair, forking over a shiny gold coin.

THAT to me is what garage saling is all about--finding treasure you'll use, not treasure that's a bargain but whose use is dubious.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Tightwad Gazette

So, I finally got a copy of The Complete Tightwad Gazette and am so put off by the author that I'm not convinced the book is going to be any use to me.

Now, I have no problem with thrift, admire even the psycho thrifters who make their money go further than I could ever dream of making mine go, and agree that there are lots of places in my life where I could be a lot more thrifty. But I think that being thrify can become an illness and the author of TCTG has reached that point as far as I'm concerned.

The first article that tipped me off was the 'tightwad test.' One of the questions was what the dinner conversation would be at a fancy restaurant, the meal for which was being paid by gift certificates. The 'correct' answer, according to the author, is to spend the evening analysing how much more cheaply the meal could be made at home! WHAT?! Now, I'm someone who likes to dine out who had cut back her dining expenditures significantly. So, when I treat myself to a meal out, it's to enjoy being served, not having to make the meal and clean up after it, etc., that I think about. If the meal is a gift, so much the better. That question implied that the author would have preferred to have received the value of the gift certificate in cold hard cash for her grocery budget. Personally, I'd strike her off my gift list.

The other comment that irritated me was when she chided herself for taking a hot bath. COME ON! If you're being thrifty in every other area of your life, that you're working hard at home to work less outside the home, have a family, etc., what is so wrong with taking a time out in a hot tub of water???

Finally, what is with her attitude regarding seafood??? Yes, seafood is pricier than tuna or chicken, but what's wrong with wanting shrimp once in a while??? You know what, author? Yeast costs a lot of money, so why don't you make unleavened bread instead?

I agree with the author in principle in regards to her basic philosophy--that thrift can be used to buy your freedom, but when thrift becomes a reason for denigrating generous gifts or little luxuries, then I think there's a problem. The author does have a lot to teach, with years of experience backing her up, but her attitude towards 'spend thrifts' is so superior as to be insulting.

Yes, I am currently one of those spend thrifts she so despises (although I do have areas where I show astounding frugality), but I haven't always been. There was a time in the not so long ago past, that I had to make do--make do with two shirts and one pair of pants for a whole semester because I couldn't afford even thrift store offerings, make do with a 25$ per month food budget because the food banks turned me down (thank goodness for wild foods which probably account for the fact that I never got scurvy), make do without social outings, make do with the boots that had a hole in them.... All that make doing taught me the value of certain things, like a splurge for shrimp or a hot bath on a cold winter's night.

Summer is Here!/Mid-Winter Treat! Salad

Several years ago, I learned that the reason I had a hard time digesting green peppers is that they should be labeled inedible in that they are a non-ripe vegetable. At the same time, I discovered that, lo and behold, I could digest the colourful, but pricier peppers... because they are ripe. So began my love of bell peppers, those delicious but ridiculously priced bells of great taste. Coloured bell peppers are usually about 4.99$ per lb in my area (OUCH). So, whenever they go on sale to 1.99$ per lb, usually mid-winter and early summer, I stock up. Two or three go to making the salad the recipe of which I am about to share, one is for eating fresh in the day or two after the salad is gone, and the rest are roasted and frozen.

This salad is fantastic because I always have all the ingredients, except the peppers, on hand. So, except for the extravagant vegetables, it's a rather frugal meal. My favourite way to eat it is rolled up in a tortilla, burrito style.

Black Bean Salad With Bell Peppers

1 1/4 cups dry black beans, washed and sorted
1 small yellow onion, peeled
2 bay leaves
2 big peppers (red, orange and/or yellow), or one big one and two small ones to get all three colours.... :-), seeds removed and diced


5 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp lemon juice (I once put 5 in by mistake and it was even more delicious, go figure)
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 clove garlic, minced
3/4 tsp salt (I find that 1/2 tsp is way too much, but, I don't salt much and have noticed that guests tend to add salt)
1/4 tsp ground cumin (I make it a rounded 1/4 tsp)

Bring the black beans and some water to a rapid boil. Remove from the heat, put on a lid, and let sit for one hour. Drain the beans, and put them back in the pot with water to cover. Add the yellow onion and the bay leaves. Cover and simmer for 70 minutes, adding water as needed.

Alternative method: Heat one can of black beans, the onion, the bay leaves, and a bit of water until the onion is soft.

Meanwhile, in a big bowl, combine the dressing ingredients. Add the peppers. Drain the beans and dump them, still hot, in the bowl after removing the bay leaves.

This salad keeps for three days in the refrigerator and serves four (meals) or six (entrées)... or so the recipe claims. It's just enough for a black bean, bell pepper, and cumin lover to eat for half a week for lunch and dinner. :-) It tastes best at room temperature.