Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Easy savings

Once my kids became teenagers, my grocery and household goods expenses skyrocketed. I started looking for a way to save money without compromising quality and without the hassle and time involved with coupons or going to a bunch of different stores each week.

Here's what's been working for me:

  1. Buy store brands unless there's a noticeable difference in taste, quality, or convenience. For example, I regularly buy fat-free refried beans. The name brand was costing me $1.89 per can. The store brand has the same ingrediants and costs on only 85 cents for the same size can. That's more than 50% off. I also buy store brand pain killers (like ibuprofen), toilet paper, allergy medicine, etc. Consumer Reports just published a great article about store brands that's worth reading.
  2. Buying in bulk - but carefully. When a staple like peanut butter or chicken broth is on sale, I buy several containers (sometimes even a case) at a time. However, I don't buy big containers of anything that goes bad. It's no savings if I throw half of it away, and I don't want to eat stale crackers. I sometimes buy in bulk at Costco, but I check prices at regular stores first, to be sure the big package is really a good deal. I've been burned on this before.
  3. Choosing when and where to shop. I do read the Target weekly ad, and I shop there for some items that always seem to be cheaper there and regularly go on sale, like Diet Coke and cereal.

Overall, the most important aspect for me in terms of saving money has been knowing what things cost, so if I see a "deal" I know if it's really a deal or not, especially for the items I buy regularly.

What are your best tips for saving money on everyday purchases?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Public schooling in Silicon Valley

I am torn by the public vs. private school debate. In general, I believe in supporting public schools. However, I won't sacrifice my children's safety or future opportunities to make a political point.

The elementary and middle schools in my San Jose neighborhood are safe and provide a good level of education. For the most part, the teachers are engaged and provide challenging and interesting instruction. My daughter is in 7th grade and is still attending public school. (There have been some instances of teachers showing movies in class and using instructional time for fund-raising events like walk-a-thons, but it's been more the exception than the rule.)

By comparison, the high schools in my neighborhood (Eastside Union Highschool District) are abysmal. Out of the 22 high schools in the district, 19 of them scored in the 60 or lower percentile when compared to other California high schools. (Particularly horrible considering that California schools rank 34th in the nation to begin with.) I find it amazing that in what must be one of the wealthiest counties in the United States, the public high schools are so bad.

After significant angst and weighing of options, we enrolled my 15-year-old son at a private high school this year. It's turned out to be a great decision and a worthwhile, though costly, investment.

To see what the situation is with your neighborhood schools, go to GreatSchools.net. If your nieghborhood schools are decent, I urge you to support your public school system. If not, it may be time to start investigating other options...

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Swear Jar

My family and I have been suffering from potty mouth lately. My teenage son was the worst (I include frick and fricken as swearing), but my husband and I were pretty bad, too.

A few days before Thanksgiving, we decided that we needed to do something about it. We agreed that each of us would put $1 into a jar on the kitchen counter each time we swore. We're running this program on the honor system. At the end of the month, we divide the money between the 4 of us. The first 10 days were the worst. We had almost $30 in the jar by the end of November.

I'm embarrassed to say that I had to put a $5 bill in last Sunday after a rant, but overall, I think the plan is working. I noticed that we have been cleaning up our language. If nothing else, it has certainly raised our awareness of how often we swear.

We've been extending the system lately to include some other bad verbal habits. My daughter is working on not saying "Huh?" in response to every comment, and my teenage son is working on not addressing my husband and I as "Dude."

Maybe we'll work on "like" next...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Maintaining my weight

I was overweight for several years, up until the summer between my freshman and sophmore year in college. I made a decision then to get my weight under control and to keep it there - not by dieting, but by adopting better eating habits in general. I'm in my 40's now and have been happy with my weight for the last 20 years. Here are tips that have worked for me (and my family):

1. Don't rely on willpower alone.
I don't buy ice cream, chips, or candy at the grocery store. Having those items in the house means I have to make the decision not to eat those things several times every day. By making the decision not to buy these items at the grocery store, I only have to have willpower once a week.

2. Have treats occasionally.
While I don't keep ice cream at home, my family and I go out for ice cream cones most Monday evenings. It's a family tradition that lets us spend some time together, it's something to look forward to, and I get my favorite treat. One scoop of any flavor I want. If I go out to dinner or to someone's home, I have dessert if I feel like it. If I crave something sweet, I have a tootsie pop. They're only 60 calories and I can make one last at least 5 minutes.

3. Be realistic about snacking.
I know I like to snack, so I eat smaller, healthier lunches. At 3 in the afternoon, I can have a little snack without guilt. Sometimes a few pretzels or almonds, carrot sticks, fruit, or even a cookie is just what I need.

4. Stay hydrated.
I drink all day. I have one cup of caffeinated coffee each morning, then I drink lots of decaf tea and water all day. I like Diet Coke, but I limit that to once a day as well. Drinking makes me feel full and warm drinks bring comfort. I don't drink alcohol often, but I do like the occasional glass of wine. If I have a drink, I skip dessert.

5. Take responsibility for your choices.
I don't specifically count calories, but I do read labels and try to be aware of calories and fat. I make trade-offs when I decide what to eat. If I'm really in the mood for french fries, I have some, but I don't pair them with a cheeseburger. Instead, I order the baked chicken breast for the entree. I choose pretzels over potato chips. I choose steamed veggies over rice. I never eat sweets or carbs that taste just so-so. If I'm going to ingest the calories, I want them to taste really great.

This is actually my worst area. I go for walks, play Wii Fit, and occasionally ride my bike, but I'm really not as active as I should be. I'm still working on this one...

Monday, December 8, 2008

Live theater - a forgotten joy

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of seeing a play, Around the World in 80 Days, with my family. To be honest, the main reason we went was that my 9th grader had an assignment from his Drama class that required him to see a live performance and write a review.

Sitting in the theater watching that play, I realized that I hadn't been to a play or any other professional production in years.(I don't think my kids' school band concerts count!) I'd forgotten how creative live theater can be. With 5 people and a single, simple set, this play transported us by train and ship to several cities around the world. It was wonderful! It was so much more engaging than the typical movie or television show. It required us to use our imaginations. My kids and I really enjoyed the show.

Before the show, the Director of the theater came out and implored the audience to make donations to keep the theater going and to support their arts education program for local schools. It was sad. I couldn't imagine Steven Spielberg standing up in the front of a movie theater and begging for donations to help him make his next movie.

Have Americans forgotten the joy of live theater?

At first I thought maybe it was the expense or the planning involved, but then I realized that it's not as expensive as a live sports event and it doesn't take any more advanced planning. In my case, I think I had just forgotten about theater as an entertainment option.

I think I may give my family tickets to a future play for Christmas. It's a gift of time together, and it will help us remember this simple pleasure.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Fire safety - one simple habit change

Tonight as my husband was making dinner, the smoke detector in the kitchen went off again. My son, my daughter, and I were all upstairs busy with a variety of activities. We all trooped down to the kitchen to investigate.

A year ago, my kids and I would have ignored the smoke alarm, assuming that this was just another case of someone burning food. (Yes, this happens fairly frequently at my house.) Over the last several months, I've been on a mission to retrain my family to always react when the smoke alarm goes off. At minimum, we all need to go to the source of the alarm and verify that there's no real issue.

I think this would be a good habit for everyone to develop and one that parents need to teach their children. When you hear a smoke detector or fire alarm going off... you need to stop what you're doing and get out (or at least investigate the issue if it's at home).

In the case of an actual fire, we've got an agreed on meeting place. Everyone needs to gather at our mailbox by the curb. That way we can quickly determine if anyone's been left inside. It's important to review fire safety with your kids on a regular basis, so they remember what to do in an emergency.

Anyone have any other tips for helping kids be fire safe?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Paying it forward

Blogger Colleen Gleason is holding a Pay it Forward contest this holiday season.

To participate, you just need to do something kind, unexpected, and unnecessary for someone else between now and December 19th.

It can be as simple as letting the person behind you in line go ahead of you, grabbing the door for the woman struggling with the stroller, donating blood, or taking a plate of cookies to a neighbor. If you just keep your eyes open for opportunities, plenty will present themselves.

You can enter more than once, so take every opportunity to do that little something extra for someone else. Who knows, it could become a wonderful habit.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Teaching your teen about charity and poverty

My kids have everything they need and almost everything they want. This has made gift giving a big challenge and has led to a sense of entitlement that really bothers me.

Last week, a co-worker told me about the Kiva gift certificate program. You can give your teen a Kiva gift certificate in an amount as small as $25 that will let your teen choose an entrepeneur in a developing country and make a micro-loan to that person. Your teen can then follow the progress of this entrepreneur online over the course of the loan (usually 6 to 12 months). This teaches your teen about the situation in developing countries, what it takes to start a business, and the power of one person to make a difference.

At the end of the loan period, your teen can get his money back or loan it out again to support a new entrepeneur.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Tips for Eco-Friendly Holidays

According to the Use-Less-Stuff Report, Americans throw away 25% more trash during the period between Thanksgiving and New Years.

Check out my slide show for lots of ideas to have a greener holiday this year, from gifts to shopping to decorating.

You can buy energy-saving LED lights on Amazon:

100 Mini White / Clear LED Holiday Lights

100 Multi Color C5 LED Holiday Lights

Add a comment to share your ideas for new eco-friendly holiday traditions.