Living Room Refresh: Under $100



Just because I’m a grad student–although I’m pretty old–  doesn’t mean I have to live like one. Unfortunately, my living room looked like, well, pretty much like the living room I had when I was in my early 20’s and working at an entry level job. No milk crates, but lots of thrown-together stuff. With a visit from my dad in the offing, it’s time for a change.

But…but…but…money! Tuition for next semester looms. Low on cash, high on hopes, I did some hard thinking.

I started by giving the space a good cleaning and looking at it with fresh eyes. I thought about the positives and the negatives of my circa 1980 home’s living room.

Positive aspects: a tile floor in a nice neutral color, we painted the walls a soft buttery yellow that  I adore. I have a cool wooden bench I love, but I wasn’t quite sure how to use it. We have a big picture over the couch of a tranquil seascape in blues and grays. It looks fantastic against the yellow walls and it calms me just to look at it. It’s beautifully framed with dusky blue-green wood trim. We cashed out the piggy bank and bought this picture two years ago from Goodwill for $15. When I walk into the room, my eyes go right to the seascape and I feel instant peace.

Negatives: It’s a small space, overall. My house has the bane of the circa-1980 design, a living room/dining area combination, and there’s just not much room in the living area. We have a couch and a big-screen tv, which is mounted on the wall. We have seating for two on the couch, but desperately need more chairs…except we just don’t have much room for chairs.

We also have a mishmash of stuff in this room, including a weird faux bamboo floor lamp on my side of the couch with a teeny tiny glass shelf. The teeny tiny shelf just didn’t hold my books, my magazines, my notebooks, my ever-present iced coffee.  On my husband’s side of the couch: a horrific gray plastic shelf, waist-high and covered with all manner of STUFF. Bamboo Thing and Awful Shelf had to go.

We live in Florida and I like the whole coastal ambiance thing, but I’m not into it enough to actually pursue it as a decorating choice. It’s awfully easy to go overboard (at least, if you’re me) and cover every surface in shell-crusted crap.

Instead of hitting the shell-crusted crap aisle at my local HomeGoods, I found myself thinking about the colors in that picture. Ordinarily I’m into very bright colors–I could (and usually do) wear something red on any given day. But that picture speaks to something deeper inside, a desire for a living room area that would be calm and soothing. We spend a lot of time in the living room, and I wanted it to be relaxing.

I became obsessed with side-tables. I wanted to get rid of the Bamboo Thing and Awful Shelf tout suite. With that nice chunky tuition payment due in a few weeks, money was the issue. I did some shopping for new side tables and found that with my budget ($125 to cover the cost of 2 tables) I could buy some wood-veneer tables at WalMart. Ick. Over the years I’ve found that when I buy furniture, I prefer to buy used. I can afford actual real-live wood rather than wood veneer or plastic. So I hit Craigslist.


I found some end tables I liked very much. Real wood–the frame painted a dusky blue-green that matches the frame of our favorite picture. The seller wanted $50 for the two tables. I wanted the tables, but a series of unfortunate events made it impossible for me to get over to her place to pick them up. After emailing a few days later and not hearing back, I figured she’d sold them. But no! I heard from her two days ago: If we could pick them up that day, she’d sell us both for $30. When my husband and son arrived home with them, I was delighted. Perfect!

Meanwhile, we needed an extra chair for the living room.  I have a beloved old rocking chair that belonged to my mom and has a nice forest-green cushion on it. That was one possibility.

My $30 tables answered the question for me. The pattern on the tops of the tables matched my bench beautifully. What if we used the bench for extra seating? I needed a cushion for that bench, though, and the bench is kind of a weird size: 38 inches long, 16 inches wide. Hmm. Having a custom-made cushion would be way more than I wanted to pay. Couldn’t find that size exactly, so I decided to go with something 36 inches long and hope for the best.

I found my cushion on the JC Penney website. It’s 36″ x 14″, green (ok, not an exact match for the dusky blue-green theme I’ve got going, but I’m okay with not being completely matchy-matchy) and it was marked down to $48 from $80. It has little grippers on the bottom of the cushion to keep it from sliding around when someone sits on it, so the wood will be visible around it and that will like nice. Even better…a 25% discount using the convenient savings code in the ad. $36 was far better than anything else I’d seen by about $20. Shipping, however, would set me back another $9. Driving three miles to the store to pick it up would eliminate that shipping charge. Voila!

So I’ve spent a grand total of $71 on refreshing my living room ($30 end tables, a cool glass lamp my husband bought with the end tables for $3 which I plan to paint with stencils–that will set me back a few more bucks, but not much–and $38 including tax for my bench cushion.) I don’t plan to get an area rug, although I think it would bring the living area together even more, because I have an elderly dog with occasional bladder issues and I don’t want to spend her golden years feeling frustrated with her.

I still have some cash to spend if I find something else I want for the space, but I’m pretty pleased with what I’ve got. I want to live with it for awhile before considering any changes.

Next step: tuition. Somehow I don’t think I’ll enjoy that nearly as much as I did shopping and saving for my living room!


A Milestone in the 25 Percent Life




Today marks a milestone in the 25 Percent World. I quit my 9-to-5 as of Friday, and today I start my new life.

I’m not sure what it’s going to look like when all is said and done, but I’ve done everything I could do to prepare. Our expenses are decisively low. We have a hefty savings account. We have a little money coming in. We both have health insurance at a fairly decent price, though my deductible is huge (at least I’ve got the catastrophes covered!) In a pinch, we could rent a room in our house and cover the cost of our mortgage easily. We have a freezer full of food and a packed pantry.

I’m going to start where most people do, by doing what I know. I can work per diem as a hospice chaplain for my long-time employer. I can work when I want, as much as I’d like, and set my own hours. This is great because I also need time to write, to think, to recuperate from a toxic and painful situation in my life, and to plan my next moves. I’m about 2/3 through with my Masters Degree in counseling and it will be such a gift to give up the 15 hour days of full-time work followed by evening classes.

And I want to pursue wellness. I want to start running again. I don’t like running, but I sure love having run—the stress relief, the endorphins, the feeling of a nice cool shower after a hot, humid run in the Florida morning heat. I want to go to Saturday morning yoga in the park. I want to have time to attend morning Mass at my church before work. I can do all those things now. I want to work hours that allow me to beat the rush hour traffic.

And there’s more that I want out of life. I want to explore opportunities to write and to speak about things that make me passionate. I want time to run two or three little small microbusinesses out of my home, and to write about those. The times in my life when I’ve been happiest are those times I’ve designed my life consciously, and it’s time I do that again. Over the last 16 months, I gave up my designed-life for one of other’s people’s expectations. I ‘m too old and too independent to do that again. No more. Ever.

So here’s to healing. Here’s to life. Here’s to good friends and the time and energy to enjoy them. Here’s to growing. Here’s to the life I want to live! May you live the life you want to live, too.

Friday Frugal Challenge: Review Your Benefits

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Got benefits?

Your Friday Frugal Challenge: Review the benefits you have from your job. Sure, you know about the health insurance—you’ve been griping about that high-deductible plan ever since your employer discontinued the PPO you loved. Your challenge this week is to dig a little deeper into your employer’s offerings and to take advantage of those you’ve been neglecting.

Here are some common benefits offered by employers. Are you fully using your bennies?

401(K). Free money—your employer matches part of your contribution to a retirement account. You like free money, don’t you? I do.

Dental and vision insurance. Some policies cover only the basics, others are more generous. Take a look at your company’s plan.

Tuition reimbursement. Want to improve your skills or move toward a better position? Take advantage of tuition reimbursement for professional and personal growth. I’ve used my company’s tuition reimbursement to finance most of the Masters Degree I’m doing. The skills in counseling that I gain will help me in my job as well as opening future opportunities for me.

Adoption assistance. Some companies provide financial assistance for adoption.

Flexible Spending Accounts. These accounts allow you to put pre-tax dollars into accounts that pay for medical or dependent expenses. You can pay for childcare or for a broad range of medical costs from your account. You generally need to use the funds within the calendar year and there are limits to how much you can contribute. We took full advantage of this perk when my son was young to cover his child-care expenses–and it helped.

Health Savings Account. When your employer has a high-deductible insurance plan in place, you may be able to take advantage of a Health Savings Account. This account allows you to deduct from your paycheck to save for expenses that aren’t covered by your deductible as well as other medical expenses. Unlike the Flexible Spending Account, the funds in these accounts carry over from year to year.

Group Term-Life Insurance. Your company may pay the premiums for a limited amount of life insurance for you, and give you the option of paying to increase the coverage. If you’re young and don’t have dependents, your company’s benefit may be enough to pay for your funeral expenses, and that may be enough for you. If you have dependents you may opt to add on coverage.

Accident or cancer insurance. These policies pay only in the event that you have an accident or that you contract cancer, but they include broad coverage that pays for many expenses not covered by health insurance.

Once you’ve reviewed the benefits, take advantage of any perks you’ve neglected in the past. My company allows employees to access tuition reimbursement at any time during the year without waiting for a benefits enrollment period, for example.

You may find that many benefits can only be added during your company’s benefit enrollment period. Keep your notes on file so that during your next benefit enrollment period you’re ready to take advantage of all that your employer offers.

Road Trip! Save Money, Have Fun


Summer time means road trips—and you don’t have to go broke to enjoy your vacation. Here are some tips to help you save money on your vacation.

*Gas Buddy is your friend. You know where the best gas prices are at home, but on the road you don’t. Get the Gas Buddy app and you won’t get gouged.

*Take a picnic. On the first day, pack a picnic and enjoy a break from driving.

*Camp out. Camping is much cheaper than staying in a hotel. Be aware that many state and national parks fill up way in advance, so plan ahead.

*Car check. Get your car checked out before your trip. Repairs on the road are expensive and a huge hassle.

*Eat cheap on the road. If you can, pack your lunch and do the picnic thing every day. If that’s not feasible, try the dollar menu at a fast food joint.

*Use your money strategically. Spend your money on people, experiences, and things that make your vacation worthwhile. I’m willing to pack a picnic if it means I can afford a memorable night out with friends when I reach my destination.

Toolbox: Checklists to Save $$ and Time

With at least two million things on my mind, I need to write stuff down. I used to scribble lists on envelopes, sticky notes, or my hand, but pre-printed checklists (saved in the computer and printed up as needed) give me peace of mind and save money.

Here are some pre-printed checklists to prepare and use:

*Pre-printed meal planner. You can download one from the internet or make your own.

*Pre-printed grocery list. There are things you buy every time you go to the store. Make a list of those things and print it when you need it.

*Travel planning worksheet. Mine has a place to list lodging price, airfare cost, and the cost of special activities.

*Travel prep list. I have an extensive packing list and my husband keeps a list of what must be done to prepare our pets, home, and cars for travel.

*Housekeeping lists. You can make a list of deep-cleaning projects you need to do only onc a year or so, a list of weekly cleaning tasks, chore assignment checklist if you’re sharing the chores with others, and checklists for specific rooms.


Where Time Meets Money: The Kitchen Version

I’ve noticed that in most choices in life, there’s a time vs. money component.  Sometimes that cost is in time, sometimes it is in money.

Cooking is that way. It’s more time efficient to swing by a drive-through for fried chicken than to make the chicken at home along with the side dishes. It’s quicker to toss the boxes than to wash dishes. However, you can make the chicken dinner cheaper at home and you will likely have leftovers, which brings the cost down even more. (I’m completely leaving out the health part of the equation here. Cooking at home opens up all kinds of opportunities for avoiding additives, portion control, and using fresh ingredients.)

This is where the time and money balancing act pays off: when you have time to save money. In my own life, I have little time these days. I’m working full-time, commuting roughly two hours a day, and I take classes at night. However, my weekends aren’t so packed in terms of scheduling.

The solution? Cooking on the weekends. This weekend I’m baking a chicken, which, with all the trimmings, will make a nice Sunday dinner. Afterward I’ll cook a chicken pie and my husband will make his delicious chicken salad. Our typical pattern is to “scrounge” during the week, which means to eat whatever we have on hand, because after nine hours at the office and two hours in the car I don’t feel like cooking and his kitchen prowess is limited to baked beans, fruit salad, and the aforementioned chicken salad.

Some other ideas for cooking on the weekend which will save you money while leaving time for relaxation and rest:

*Homemade soup or chili.

*A roast or stew.

*A giant salad, to which you can add meats and cheeses for a chef salad, feta cheese and olives to make it a Greek salad, or leftover steak or grilled chicken. You can also just package up some of the basic salad with a sandwich to make a healthy lunch.

*A casserole of some sort.

These are some things that work nicely to have on hand for those weeks when life is way too busy and the time side of the equation is way too short. By shopping sales you can make sure that the money side of the equation makes sense, too.

Bon appetit!


Lose the Flab, Keep Your Cash: Dieting the Frugal Way


What do you do when the excess weight finds your hips or belly again? You know you need to diet, but you’re also committed to frugality, and so many diet plans require expensive special food, regular fees for weigh-in or counseling, or supplements. Losing weight doesn’t have to mean that you spend a lot of money, though. Here’s how to lose weight without adding fat to your budget.

*Consider a real-food diet. To save money while you lose weight, find a diet plan that lets you use “real food”—vegetables, lean meats, fruits, whole grains—rather than processed, packaged special “diet foods.” You’ll save money by shopping at the grocery store instead of paying high prices for special food. Real-food diet plans include Weight Watchers and Atkins among other choices.

*Watch the treats. When I was on the Atkins Diet, I looked forward to my low-carb candy bar each day as a special reward. Those candy bars were expensive, though! I’d still spend money on the candy bars because they kept my motivation high, but these days I’d avoid the protein shakes, special low-carb energy drinks, low-carb baking mixes, and many of the other specialized low-carb products. I’ve done calorie-counting diets, too, and I can attest that there are many low-fat/low-calorie choices that I’d pass up in favor of real food.

*Exercise. No matter which diet plan you choose, exercise is your ace in the hole. It’s also relatively cheap. You can walk, play with your dog, join a low-fee gym, lift weights in your own home. You don’t need to spend big bucks to get your glow on, and exercising will jump-start your weight loss and keep it coming.

*Be kind to yourself. As the weight comes off, reward yourself frugally by treating yourself to some new clothes (purchased using your best frugal strategies, of course!), tea or coffee with a good friend, a long afternoon to read a good book, or a hike in the cool autumn air.

*Have a strategy for when (not if!) you have a bad day. Let’s face it, changing the way you eat is hard. You feel deprived. You might be hungry. Your body image has taken a hit on the way to admitting that you need to lose weight. You get bored with your diet foods. Maybe (gasp! Probably) you mess up and blow your diet. Don’t beat yourself up. Give yourself the gift of grace and kindness when you mess up, and plan to resume your diet right away.

Losing the excess flab doesn’t mean padding your budget. What low-impact diet strategies have you found that have a high impact on your weight loss?