Guest Blogger #2- better late then never...

I was originally slated as a guest blogger for two days in April. Erin, however, was busy with her teaching practicum and I was busy building my house (www.darfieldearthship.com), so the two of us by unspoken mutual agreement, let the whole thing slide.

Erin is recovering (I think!) and my husband, Chris, and I are still building, but I did want to fulfill my obligation to the first of two guest blogs, before the serious building season is upon us.


Over the course of several years, Chris and I have drastically changed our spending habits as a means to work less at paid work, and to have more time with our children. While financial constraints weren’t the driving force for our change in spending habits, making them has allowed us to last longer on less money.

Even if your goal isn’t to free up your time for children or home building, our experiences and tips obviously work equally effectively in families where there is a desire to live within one’s means, have one parent in the home with the children, or to save money to pay off debt.

Spending less in my world is sometimes relative because my family tries to think about the environment when we make our purchases. For example, I’m not a big proponent of sending away or accepting free product samples as a way to spend less. My issues with it are: the packing of a small amount of product, the carbon footprint of the shipping, and often, the consumption of materials to produce said product (including nasty chemicals)! So, some of my comments need to be taken in that context; you will have to make your own decisions about spending within your own philosophical frameworks!

1.) Groceries.
This, as anybody who is trying to save money knows, is the single most important area where spending can be reduced. It is also one of the most difficult because food is an ongoing expenditure.

In Canada food coupons do not represent a significant source of savings to a grocery budget. Coupons generally are issued for processed foods and products, which I have an issue with philosophically, nutritionally and frugally (more later). They are also usually issued as a means to secure brand loyalty, rather than as a long-term commitment to saving loyal customers money.

I don’t generally use coupons. I do, however, have a Save On “club card” at Save-On foods, where I’m guaranteed to get the lowest posted price and I always ask at the checkout at The Real Canadian Superstore, if there is a gift card/food gift for spending a minimum amount. For example, often the store will issue a $25 gift card if you spend $250 or more. This is easy for me to do with our family of five. Watch out for “tax free” days at grocery stores. This only occurs once in a while, but I did calculate that my last shopping trip during one of the tax free promotions garnered me a $20 savings (just for showin’ up!)

Know your prices. Become familiar with great prices on the products you buy often. For us this is whole wheat English muffins (which go on sale for $1 for a package of six every two weeks or so). I buy as many as I can and freeze them. We also, despite having a garden, buy lots of tomato sauce and diced tomatoes, so I know that $0.89 for a large can of tomato sauce is a great price. Some frugalists keep a notebook of best prices but this is way too organized for me. I generally know in my head what is a good price and stock up when I see the item on sale.

No name brands are not always awful. Granted, the no name cornflakes taste like cardboard, but we have found that tomato sauce, pasta, cheese and jams (when we run out of our own) taste no different than brand name products. What you’re NOT paying for is the heavy marketing and advertising.

Plan ahead with two weeks of meals. I know this is easier said than done. Currently we are so busy we are back at only being a few days ahead of our meal preparation. But this strategy has always proven to be a money saver for us, if only because it allows us to bypass take-out pizza and other convenience foods when we are in a hurry.

Cook double or triple meals. This saves not only money (presumably you are buying items at low prices, in bulk) but saves time when you can pull a meal out of the freezer and warm it up. When our children were very small and we both worked full time, we used to spend one Sunday a month cooking and freezing. It was a lot of work but made the month so much easier.

Less processed food means less money spent. At first blush, processed foods seem to be cost effective, mostly because it saves you time cooking. However, processed foods are highly dependant on the corn industry which is in turn, highly subsidized by governments. You might not pay that subsidy at the checkout but you do pay it in your taxes. Without getting into depth in this issue (the ethics of feed lots, the poor nutritional quality of processed foods, etc.) processed foods are simply not a frugal choice. Cooking from scratch is the best choice all around. Home-made pizza really does cost substantially less than even a frozen grocery pizza. Again, the trade-off here is time…you really need to have/dedicate the time to cooking from scratch.

Eating out of the pantry. Despite our good intentions and planning, we sometimes end up with food items in the pantry and freezer that just sit there. Every once in a while we take stock and plan meals around these items. Hey, we’ve paid for them, it’s worth a little effort.

Have a garden if possible. Even the smallest city lot can produce a few basic vegetables. Plus it’s fun, especially if you have children! Try square foot gardening as an easy way to start. www.squarefootgardening.com If you can’t garden yourself, consider buying your produce locally. It’s fresher, and when in season, it can be less expensive than in the store.

Buy fruits and vegetables in season. This is pretty easy…strawberries at the grocery store are simply going to cost more in December than in June! To offset this, buy LOTS of in season fruit and freeze to enjoy in the winter.

There are many other ways to save on the grocery bill and I’d be very interested in hearing any not listed here. The most important rule in our family any time we are trying to be frugal is not to feel deprived. If we’re feeling deprived then we change what we are doing.

2.) Try using less of your cleaning products. I won’t go into the whole issue of nasty chemicals here. I use very limited cleaning products, mostly just dish soap, dishwasher soap and laundry soap (although once we move into our new, sustainable home, this will be greatly reduced). I don’t buy extra cleaners for anything else. Baking soda and a few other natural combinations work, albeit with a bit of effort. Don’t assume popular (expensive) brands are the best! I experimented with laundry soaps and discovered that in cold water (hot water washes cost more!) Purex or Gain worked equally well as Tide, Sunlight or Cheer and cost a lot less. AND I can cut the amount required down to a mere tablespoon per load (front washer) without seeing a difference in cleaning power. One of my next projects is to find a less-toxic alternative to soaps.

3.) Eating out/entertainment

When my husband and I were childless, earning two fantastic incomes in Toronto, we never thought twice about questioning our spending on meals out or what we spent on entertainment. When we were had small children and both of us worked full time, eating out became the easy way to end a tough day…we had no idea until we started tracking, that we were consistently spending $400 plus a month on meals out. Several years ago when we returned to tracking our expenses (and following the financial philosophies outlined in Your Money or Your Life http://yourmoneyoryourlife.info/ ) we decided that if we ate out it had to be worth it, meaning that we had to clearly enjoy it. That meant for the most part we left the kids behind when we went out and opted for great restaurants, rather than chain eateries.

At the same time as we were changing our eating out patterns, we were both undergoing a change in our diet and we discovered that portion sizes were just too big for us, no matter where we went. Although we felt a bit weird about it at first, we began splitting an entree and appetizer between us. Except at the most chi-chi places (where there is a splitting fee, or a ban on splitting entrees) no one batted an eye. Suddenly the portions were perfect for us and eating out became even more affordable.

When eating out with the kids we generally take them to restaurants where there is pizza or dishes that can be shared. About 90 per cent of the time we order water (at $2.75 per drink this adds up AND so does the sugar content!). Occasionally we break all the rules, like the lunch we had the day we attended the Olympics in Vancouver. It cost a fortune, we all had two sugary drinks each and enjoyed every minute of it!


We take the kids to movies occasionally and I use a Scene “club” card to book tickets. After a certain number of purchases, Odeon issues a free ticket. The Scene card also ensures a 10 per cent discount at the concession. When registering for this card I selected the option of NOT having promotional material or ads emailed to me, so I keep the electronic clutter to a minimum. At the concession, instead of buying the kids individual $8 popcorn/drink combo, we buy the large refillable popcorn bag and a large drink. I ask for extra cups which get handed over without comment. I walk over to the candy dispenser and grab four empty candy bags and before the movie starts we divvy all the popcorn up. The large popcorn usually comes with a free refill, but we hardly ever get it filled feeling that the amount is excessive. The savings? $13 versus $39. Having said that, when the kids take a friend or two to the movies on their birthdays, I will break our frugal rule and buy each child his/her own drink/popcorn combo. It’s all about moderation and enjoyment and we try to balance it as much as possible.

There is free entertainment all around us, even in our small town. In cities free or inexpensive family entertainment abounds. Use it, enjoy it, and save your entertainment dollars for the big stuff!

4.) Clothes

I’ve never blogged on my own site about clothes but plan to in the coming months. Our family has slowly begun weaning ourselves from retail clothes shopping. We shop at thrift stores and consignment stores and as we began doing this we were amazed at what is for sale, how new it is and just how much used and lightly used clothing is available. We have a strict rule that we have to really like what we buy (that whole deprivation thing.). The savings? Well, brand new Tommy Hilfiger jeans are pretty pricey…We found Stephen a pair of very lightly used TF’s for $5. After two wearings, he’d already frayed the hem anyway. I’ve found NEW leather shoes at thrift stores for $5 to $15. Real finds. Once you become knowledgeable about brand names and prices and how the thrift stores receive and sell, it becomes much easier to save money and buy high quality items. Underwear we still buy new. 

Some things, (like winter coats) are a bit hit and miss. I generally case out the sales at sports stores, etc in March and buy for the next season, often at 75% reductions. When you have kids and can judge their sizes 6 months into the future, the savings can be substantial. I also frequent a really great consignment sports store on Broadway in Vancouver and have found some amazing winter outerwear for a fraction of the “new” price.

Hand-me-downs are a tried and true method of keeping your clothing costs down, too.

5.) Use the library. I love the smell and feel of a new book. I used to spend a large proportion of my disposable income at the bookstore. My library membership, however, is FREE. Using the library consistently means being patient. In our small town of Barriere, not every book is available when I want it. Because we are part of a larger library network, I can have the book transferred from another location. Sometimes, when a book is very popular, I have to join a queue to wait for an item. (I waited 4 months for The Time Traveler’s Wife). Sometimes, however, you just CAN’T wait. We purchased the last two Harry Potter books the day they were available and at Christmas we each get at least one new book! Used book stores provide another way to lower costs on your book purchases. Many stores will “buy” back the books you bought from them, giving you credit toward future purchases.

6.) Always buy the highest quality you can afford. It will pay for itself in the end in terms of longevity. I can’t emphasize this enough. For example, when the kids had a total of eight sheep last summer, they asked me to buy grain buckets for them. In a fit of frugality I hit the dollar store and found plastic (ouch) buckets for $1.50 each. Five days later, every single one had a crack in it ($12 wasted). The metal feed buckets are $13 each and are still going strong.

7.) Buy holiday items out of season. I buy all of my Christmas decorations, cards, wrapping (fabric in my case, as I make fabric wrapping bags) and tags between Boxing Day and January 3. The later you leave it the better the prices. You will find discounts up to 90 percent! I buy anything to do with Halloween in early November, and Valentine’s after February 14. The first year I did this it was a pain because I had to wait a whole year to reap the benefits (and still buy holiday items for the current year). Now, I simply go to the appropriate bin in our storage shed and bask in my frugal-ness! I had been told not to try freezing Christmas chocolate for a year because freezing puts a “bloom” on the chocolate. Always up for an experiment, I once bought $30 of discounted chocolate after Christmas and stuck it in the freezer. Sadly, it (I) didn’t last a month, so I can’t tell you what it tasted like after a year!!

8.) Buy used, especially for large ticket items (excluding perhaps computer equipment). Used is good for the environment, too! Use the classifieds or the Buy and Sell, or go online and peruse Kajijii www.kajijii.com or Craig’s list. www.craigslist.com We found two of our three kayaks through Craig’s list for about a third of what they would cost new. As always when buying used, make sure you know what to look for to guarantee performance and quality.

9.) Stop reading flyers and catalogs. Seriously. You’ll never know how much you “need” something until you see it on sale in the Canadian Tire flyer. A good strategy to use when you think you really “need” something is to wait four months and see how you feel about purchasing it then. So many of our purchases are impulsive and I’ve found the “wait” usually cures me of the compulsion to buy.

10.) Eliminate debt. Debt is expensive. For the privilege of owning something before we can afford it, the banks charge us enormously. If you are good at math and spreadsheets, or can find an online loan calculator, try entering your loan information for your car or home reno project. It is amazing what the true cost of your purchase is after interest is calculated. It might make you pause and reconsider a used vehicle or a smaller reno project. Then try it with your home mortgage! Once you’ve entered all the information, shorten the amortization period or increase the weekly/monthly payments. You will be amazed at how many years (and how much interest) you can shave off, simply by adding another $25 each week to your payment.

We have found that the most important method of reducing spending is to be able to separate your emotions from your bank account. Truthfully examine how you spend, why you spend, the value you receive from spending and how your life could be more enjoyable if you spent differently. It’s not about deprivation; it’s about placing value on what you use your money for. Know exactly what you are spending and how much income comes into your household. It amazes us that we never really knew how much came in or out until we began tracking all of it. It’s an arduous and emotional process, but one that can give you an immense feeling of control over your life.

Check out Erin’s blog again on May 24th for my tips on how to get things for….FREE!

Sandra Burkholder was trained as a journalist and worked in pharmaceutical and health care public relations and marketing communications for 13 years in Toronto and San Francisco. She and husband Chris Newton built log homes for 10 years near her hometown of Barriere, B.C. in the late 90s after the first of their three children were born. Several years ago they slowed things down to spend more time with their children and become more involved in their community. They decided to confuse family and friends even more by going “frugal” and talking about it, starting a family farm, planting a garden and building a sustainable house out of old tires and pop cans. Please feel free to contact Sandra at Sandra@darfieldearthship.com or check out their blog at www.darfieldearthship.com

1 comment:

  1. As always, some great tips and advice for saving money & the environment!!