Monday, July 13, 2009

A fork in the road that led to the town dump;-)

I have a dear friend Lisa, who was also one of my college roommates. We both went to law school and she went on to become a successful trademark attorney and a partner in a major law firm, earning over $700,000 a year (and yes, that is five zeros). She now drives a Porsche convertible, has a personal shopper, and lives about a mile from the Pacific Ocean in San Diego, California, in a lovely, new home.

I chose a different road, teaching law part-time and living quite frugally. We chat often, and the conversation usually starts with, "So what are you up to?"

A typical Lisa answer, "I'm flying up to Silicon Valley to take a deposition."

A typical Eileen answer, "I'm off to the town dump to see what treasures I can find."

To this day, she remains slightly taken aback by my forays, but for a penny pinching gardener, it is it is like finding the lost city of gold with nary an Inca nor Mayan civilization destroyed in the process.

It isn't truly a "dump"; it is more giant compost pile for the town. And what people dig out and toss from their gardens is nothing short of amazing. Here is a glimpse at what seven trips brought in. This is from a few years ago, when I first started keeping a garden journal and recording my hauls.

July 10 (T.D) I actually coded this T.D. for "town dump" in my garden journal because I was a bit embarrassed to let some random person that might someday scour my journal to know I "shopped" there. But as I'm now committed to helping others by being open through this blog, I will share my best spot for garden loot;-)

Silver King Artemesia (small)
Lupine seeds (lots)

July 13

HUGE clump of iris (divided into five clumps around the yard)
2 spirea bushes
allium seeds
columbine seeds
1 fuchsia plant, very dry.

July 15

10 ferns
3 stalks of white phlox (may not root)
2 lily of the valley

July 17

4 BIG clumps of day lily (fine leaves so hopefully not the common orange ones)
1 big clump hardy geranium
1 big clump spider wart

July 18

July 19

Some yarrow

August 13

27 Huge iris rhizomes
17 small iris
2 small bags of ferns and lily of the valley
1 small hosta (white flower)

I now have over an acre of gardens (the first picture in this post is the view from my bedroom balcony) with over 30 large individual gardens, filled to the brim. It is fun now to look back at my garden journal and see how many of these plants subsequently multiplied and were further divided.

If your town has something like this (most do for grass clippings and then people bring in lots of other stuff from their yards) it is well worth checking out.

Will you be embarrassed? Yes. I've tried going all different times in the hopes of having the place to myself, from early in the morning to almost dark, when I needed my headlights on and worried about grabbing something slimy.

My best system is to bring a few things from my own yard as "cover". I make a big show of unloading whatever branches or weeds I've collected while quickly scanning the place. Then, I loiter and sometimes, the other cars leave and I feel like it's Christmas as I load up my mini-van with plant castoffs.

But sometimes, I've just had to blush and deal with it. I had some strange looks, and by the time my son is old enough to be in organized sports in this town, I'm not sure how he'll feel to have his mom known as stalking the town dump, but for now, I wear nondescript clothes, drive my nondescript beige mini-van and treasure hunt at will;-).

Happy garden treasure seeking. I truly believe this beats taking depositions any day, but I would trade my mini-van for a Porsche convertible in the blink of an eye, small trunk and all;-).

Knowledge + Action = Financial Independence

Now You!

Only garden fanatics need attempt this assignment. Find out where people in your town can bring leaves and grass clippings. A quick call to your township will determine this. Now load up a few branches or weeds into your trunk as decoys. Large black sunglasses will give you an extra boost of courage as will a baseball cap. [An aside: A frugal gardener would NEVER compost grass clippings as these serve as free food to your future lawn.] Now go and just poke around. It may take a few trips to get your first big haul, but once you do, you'll be hooked. Happy Gardening!!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

To barter, trade, and swap your way to FI;-)

There was a time when most exchanges were direct. My son and I are reading one of the Little House books and Pa just traded his wagon and horses for a plot of ground, a sod house, and two oxen with another family who was moving on farther west. Rather than going out to earn money, then exchange the money with each other, the two families each got what they want directly.

I've done this on a small scale and reading the story started firing up some creative ideas to continue along this line. Let me give you three examples from my life in the past few years and see if you can make it a goal to do one straight exchange this coming month. You'll be delighted to see how cost effective this is.

One of my neighbors, an ardent gardener, was having a baby. I knew she loved plants, but was on a tight budget. So rather than go out and buy a $20 baby outfit, I gave her a card with a coupon inside to come to my yard and I would dig her divisions of any plants she wanted. She was thrilled with the plants and received far more pleasure than a quickly outgrown baby outfit would have given. And I had saved $20, $30 pre-tax, to put toward FI.

Another time my two boys wanted a sand/gravel play area. I called the local gravel pit and found the gravel would be only $20, but the delivery would be $50, even though we were only two miles away (it was a flat fee). At that time, I was clearing out one of my perennial beds so the kids could use it for a play area. I had also been selling quite a few perennials to a guy in town. I called him up and told him if he would pick up that sand on his trailer, I would give him everything in the perennial bed I was digging up. He was glad to do it as he had to drive by the gravel pit on the way to my house and he was already planning to bring a trailer for all the other plants he was buying. It was a win-win situation. The only downside is my kids have yet to play in that area, which turned out to be a bit too shady and buggy - and it has since become overgrown with weeds - but the idea was still good;-)

One final example was yet another neighbor/friend who had asked me to water her plants while she was on vacation. I was glad to do so and when she got back she asked if she could return the favor. As it happened, we were going to my in-laws for a night and I needed care for our Pug Brandi. I had planned to kennel her, at the cost of about $30. Kathy said her daughter would be glad to let Brandi out, feed her and play with her after school. So this saved $30 on kennel expenses ($45 pre-tax) and Brandi got a "lot of lovin".

In addition to saving money, bartering of this sorts builds community with your neighbors and friends and is just plain fun!

Knowledge + Action = Financial Independence.

Now you!

Make a list of any successful trades you've already made. This will give you confidence going forward. Almost everyone has traded some sort of labor, items, time, or something. Now make a list of five potential trades just to get the creative juices flowing. It's fine if you don't do each. Just get thinking. Maybe you could find a friend to help you strip that 70's wallpaper off the bathroom in exchange for a few hours helping her weed her garden. You could look at Craigslist and other trading sites to see if you might be able to trade the old mower in your shed for a fishing pole for your son. Or just go to one of the barter sites, like online just to get some ideas. Happy bartering!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

When the living is free and easy;-)

My last post about Freegans had me looking around the house with new ideas. I realize MANY of our items were gotten this way, helping both our goal of FI and the environment.

One idea that Amy Dacyczyn proposes in the Tightwad Gazzette (one of the greatest books on frugal living ever written)is to "put the word out" for things you could use. Often a relative, friend or neighbor will have just such a thing sitting around and be more than happy to re home the item.

A good friend of mine has a son just one year older than my older son and just this last year, gave us the Land's End boots and Land's End coat her son had outgrown. New, these two items would have been about $100. The coat, still available in their catalogue is $69.50. The boots, also still available, are $29.50. These items were used by Kirk this year, and will be stored to be used by younger brother Kai in two years time. Land's End makes excellent quality clothing that will hold up and not go out of style.

A neighbor across the street was digging up a flagstone path to put in a sidewalk and offered it to me as I'd often given them perennials for their garden. I was thrilled and was able to use my wheelbarrow to bring home enough flagstone to border a forty foot garden.

Our two family room recliners and a lovely large wicker chest come from my mom as she decided to get new furniture. And a wonderful, large cedar arbor was free from Craigslist. Actually it was posted at $20, but since several of the earlier responders never showed up, the owner told me he was just glad I'd come and gave it to me.

I also posted a sign at my local grocery store that I was interested in buying perennials. Many times, people called to say I could have something they had too much of, whether it was ferns, hosta, or orange daylilies, if I'd just come and dig them up. In two cases, the owner was digging up an area to put it to new use and just glad someone was willing to get out there and dig out everything. Many a hot, sweaty hour was spent at this, but I now have over thirty large perennial gardens spread out over an acre all around our house, each with a special story.

Needless to say, there needs to be reciprocity or you're just free loading. I've given away many things from books to videos to clothing to purses to furniture to friends and family. And just in the past year, I used Freecycle to re home a big purple martin birdhouse, a crib mattress, a crib, a fish tank and about 100 kids books along with numerous boxes of items to various charities. I also regularly put out things we no longer need at the end of the drive with a huge FREE sign.

I rarely throw anything away now if I think someone could use it. If you post both on Freecycle and the free section of Craigslist, there are few things that at least one person out there doesn't want.

So next time you need an item, just remember to "put the word out". Lastly, it always pays to be gracious and mail or email a thank you to someone who offers you something.

May free and easy living be yours all your days;-).

The Frugal Millionairess

Knowledge + Action = Financial Independence

Now You!!

Think of three things you were considering buying and post for them on Freecycle or Craigslist. You have nothing to lose and could save money and help the environment. Then look around your house, basement, garage, yard or storage shed for some things you no longer need. Post these as offers on Freecycle or just put them out in your drive with a free sign. This giving and receiving helps keep the universal yin and yang balanced. And, you may also finally meet your neighbors;-).

Friday, July 10, 2009

Freegans and Freecycle and the joys of "Free Stuff"

Not long ago, Oprah had a show on Freegans. It was a fascinating look at how some Americans dumpster dive and trash pick to find food.

The people on the show do not do this out of need, but out of a moral calling. According to the Freegan website, "The outrage of wasted resources is compounded when we consider the dire unserved need of the hundreds of millions of hungry people in our world. Rather than ensuring that the fundamental needs of all people are served, our throw-away, profit-driven society continues to pollute the Earth with massive waste."

I was inspired by the show. I agree that the waste in this country is monumental and many could probably easily live off the waste of others. And while I have yet to dumpster dive for outdated apples, I have worked to keep useful things out of the waste stream and saved quite a bit of money in doing so.

Every year, our town has a giant trash day where people can put out anything they want to toss. Many of these fairly affluent families fill up the entire curb line of their property with items in the hundreds. I was so horrified the first year at the waste, I wrote an editorial to my local paper. I didn't see much reduction the following year in what people put out, but I did start cruising around in my mini-van just ahead of the garbage trucks salvaging what I could.

Many of the items were perfectly useful, clean, good items. There were baby toys, sports equipment, wood furniture, garden things, bikes, skateboards, etc. I took three entire loads worth of stuff back to my house. Two loads went to our local St. Vincents as donations which they were glad to get. About one load I kept.

In the load I kept, I had quite a few "treasures". I found a huge terracotta planter, very solid and heavy duty, at least a foot tall with an interesting design that now graces my back deck. I kept a kids bike that my son now rides, which only needed a new set of training wheels. Otherwise, it was in perfect condition. I kept a giant cardboard box of wrapping paper, much of it unopened, about 5 cookbooks, a giant sandbox shaped like a ship with a cover that I later sold for $20 on Craigslist when it became clear my kids had no interest in it.

From "normal" trash day in my own subdivision, we've gotten a complete drum set, including the drumsticks, old carpet I used in my garden under mulch for paths, and a lovely white metal chaise lounge.

I regularly set out items with a giant free sign at the end of my drive and always, things are taken within a few days. And it's kind of fun to know my neighbors to the north now sit on my two old green porch chairs to watch the traffic go by, another has my old kitchen table, another has many of the baby items my younger son outgrew to keep at their house for their grandson and many neighbors have perennials from my yard that needed dividing.

Happy trash hunting.....from your Millionaire friend;-)

Knowledge + Action = Financial Independence

Now You!

If you see something in the trash you could give a good home to, and in doing so, keep it out of a landfill, consider it your civic duty;-). And if there is ANY question about whether it's trash, knock on the door. More than likely, you'll be greeted by someone who will say, "I'm so glad you can use it!".

30 Tops Tops!

This is an idea I've been slowly implementing. If you have 30 tops (many women have 150 or more including tees, tanks, sweaters, sweatshirts, long sleeved, short sleeved, dress blouses, cotton blouses, etc.) you could wear each top ONLY ONCE A MONTH for an entire year!

A hundred years ago, even 30 tops would have seemed an extravagance few could afford and fewer could probably fit in those non-existent clothes closets. But now we Americans, at least according to the less is more Europeans, are swimming in a sea of mediocre at best clothing.

Imagine for a moment you cull the absolute best 30 tops from all the closets, drawers, laundry baskets, and to be folded piles of laundry all around your house and you toss anything that isn't in the top 30.

Now, each day, you will be wearing your "best" stuff and need not fear running into your boss, old boyfriend, new client, or new friend from your yoga class looking schleppy. You'll be dressed your best each and every day.

Now let's take it a step further. Let's say that old group of 100 tops was bought new for about $20 each. That is $2000 in clothing, most of which will not wear well, stay stylish for long, or be worth more than $1.00 at a garage sale within a year or less.

If instead you were starting from scratch (which you won't have to if you're like most over clothed Americans) and buying only 30 tops for the whole year. That same 2000 will buy 30 tops around $66 each. J-Crew has good quality clothing and you could currently buy a "featherweight cashmere short-sleeve sweater" on sale from $148 to $59.99.

This is a FAR better option than buying 3 cheaply made $20 tops. The cashmere will stay in style and last likely four or more years at an annual cost of $15 or less. If you repeat this thinking with all your clothing, buying good quality clothing on sale, you will soon build an impressive, high quality wardrobe for less or no more than you spend now and will up your style quotient exponentially.

Knowledge + Action = Financial Independence

Now You!

Tonight, if you have 15 minutes, start the process. Go though maybe 10 tops, keep the top three and go from there. Another great idea is to write down the things you keep and make a list of what you could still use. Maybe you already have three white cardigans. Make a note of that to avoid buying duplicates.

Happy shopping both in your closet and out of it!

$20,000 Experiment in Happiness.....a failure. Or the best investment of 2000 hours.

We all seek joy and happiness. That seems to be the very purpose of our being. But in the U.S. especially, we continue to believe happiness comes from things we buy, whether it's a Porsche, an exotic trip, a fabulous haircut, or an upscale cup of cappuccino.

Yet every single study on happiness shows happiness comes from within us and is connected to our relationships with others, a sense of purpose to our lives, and doing good for others.

The temporary high that comes with buying a new dress, car, or even a house simply does not make people happier six months to a year later. This is true even of those who win the lottery, though each of us seems convinced WE would be the one exception, living happily ever after if we could just hit those lucky numbers.

About a year ago, we put new siding on our home. The house had had dark brown, dated, vertical cedar siding and in the ten years since we'd moved in, I'd dreamed of a bright, white, lighter, more modern home. We finally did reside, a white cement siding, partly due to the 300 or so woodpecker holes all over. And it does look great.

But the truth is, the new siding, as nice as it is, hasn't made me significantly happier or more joyful than before we spent the $20,000 (which included a few new windows and two doors). And I don't think that will change in the next 5 to 7 years. At my job teaching law part-time, I clear $10 an hour after taxes, commute, dry cleaning, occasional baby sitting costs, etc. So the siding "cost" me 2000 hours. (My husband clears considerably more as a corporate attorney, but I always use my own salary to assess expenditures).

So the question is, how would those 2000 hours have been best invested for long term happiness? Where would the best return be? According to most studies on happiness, those 2000 hours would give the best long term return spent with family, volunteering, spent in nature, spent in "flow" activities, spent building community or with friends.

This analysis did make me decide against a sun-room, which I'd long wanted to have. The cost with a foundation was about $25,000, and though I love the House Beautiful version of myself with a cup of green tea, sitting on a white wicker lounge, perusing a good book, I think I can find even more long term happiness investing those work hours elsewhere.

Knowlege + Action = Financial Independence

Now You!

Make a list of ten purchases or home improvements you are considering. Next to each, put the number of hours you would need to work to get the item. Then google about three studies on happiness and just sit there and make some note to yourself. You may or may not make the purchase, but either way, you will be making a more informed choice.

Best wishes.

How to hang around non-frugal millionaire friends on a private jet;-)

Not long ago, we were invited to fly on a private jet to a wedding in San Juan, Puerto Rico, with some of my husband's clients. As my normal mode of transportation is a mini-van, I was delighted!

The next question was how to fit in so that I neither looked like the poor relation nor was asked for the bathroom key.

Fortunately, I have several books on style, and clothing, ever an area of interest, purchased for less than $2 each at thrift stores. According to a quote by Michael Kors in one, "White jeans and a black cashmere turtleneck are always stylish on a chilly airplane." This was only a week prior to the trip and I wasn't going to spring several hundred dollars for a sweater, so I interpreted the idea in a more frugal mode.

I opted for a pair of white Banana Republic jeans, purchased at the end of the season for $22 and a long sleeved black BCBG cotton top purchased at a consignment store for $12. Shoes were like new and purchased at Goodwill, a $5.99 pair of black leather Etienne Aigner loafers.

All in all, not a bad start. But what to do about the purse? I knew one of the women whom I saw occasionally at social events carried a Louis Vuitton bag in $2600 range. I did have the option of bringing my Coach purse, but it was getting a bit frayed, though not even a year old. I had purchased it for $350 as a rather extravagant birthday gift to myself, having read in my style books and noted for myself that few stylish 40 year old women carry cheap purses.

I had since found, however, that life with a two and five year old, which involve the purse getting tossed in and out of the mini-van and even on public bathroom floors (can you say YUCK and would the $:L&#*(%^ management of stores and restaurants make sure each stall has a hook), it was looking a bit ratty.

On top of that, I'd since realized that a Coach purse with giant C's all over it was seen by some as rather tacky and by the time I'd seen my fourth high school student carrying what appeared to be the identical bag, I realized I'd made a mistake.

But the fates smiled upon me as I scoured my closet, for wrapped in tissue paper was a vintage white beaded purse, with a lovely silver handle purchased at an antique mall for $30. The women at the checkout assured me this was quite a find and only wished she had seen it in the other seller's booth before I did. My outfit was complete!

The morning of the flight, we met the other two couples and lo and behold, both other women had on white jeans and cashmere sweaters (though not black) and my first thought was, "did they read the book too???."

The Louis Viutton woman instantly exclaimed over my bag and we chatted antique malls as we entered the private plane (I am not making this stuff up;). We were served lunch on silver trays with fresh flowers and exquisite chocolates and it was quite the day. The return trip was TWA coach (the other couples going on after the wedding to business interests the Dominican Republic) and was a mighty step down as I sat squashed into my seat and ate a few stale peanuts, dreaming of the friendly skies of private jets.

The morale of the story: with a bit of ingenuity, you too can dress rich for a fraction of the price with a few books on style (purchased used of course) and a bit of luck;-).

Knowledge + Action = Financial Independence

Now You!

Go to a library or thrift store and get three or four books on style. There are books for men and women. Find five or six classic looks that appeal to you and begin to use what you have to recreate the outfits on those pages. Then spice it up with some vintage jewelry or a purse or....?

Happy dressing up and what fun to have a frugal reason to hit those antique stores.....