What if you’re frugal but your roommates aren’t?

Eleanor wrote with a question that could test even the mightiest personal finance expert. "What," she asks, "can you do when you want to save money and your roommates don't care?"

I share a house with four roommates. This saves me at least $200 a month from what I would be paying if I lived in an apartment. But roommates raise expenses in other, unexpected ways. I have been trying to cut down on monthly bills and am finding it incredibly difficult.

For example, I live with roommates that want digital cable and high-speed internet bundle. I can live without the cable (I don't watch TV) and don't mind having a lower-speed connection. But because three of my five roommates want the more expensive package, that's what we get, and instead of splitting a $60/month bill five ways we're splitting a $100/month bill. I end up paying more money overall. While I can simply not watch cable and argue with them that I won't pay for that fractional cost of the bill, there's no way I can somehow use a lower speed internet connection without some serious technological finagling.

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Personal finance on film: The Farmer’s Wife

"It makes me feel so greedy and selfish to see these people struggling, almost losing it all, over a $100 debt, and I go out and spend $100 on yarn." — Kris, while watching The Farmer's Wife last weekend

Since starting Get Rich Slowly, I've been searching for movies and television shows that highlight the financial struggles of real Americans, shows about personal finance "in the wild". The first one that I can recommend without reservation is The Farmer's Wife, a PBS Frontline documentary from 1998.

The film follows a couple from rural Nebraska for three years (1995-1997) as they struggle to save their farm from bankruptcy. Darrel Buschkoetter was raised a farmer; he never wanted to be anything else. Juanita grew up in town, but when she married Darrel, she became a farmer's wife. The Buschkoetters have three young daughters. They want more children, but they can barely afford the ones they have. Continue reading...

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How to eat vegetarian on the cheap

I recently posted two articles for frugal carnivores: a guide to cheap cuts of beef and another on on how to buy a side of beef. GRS-reader Sally has produced an introduction to eating vegetarian for cheap. Though her tips are for herbivores, many are useful to omnivores, as well.

About a year-and-a-half ago, for health reasons, my husband and I committed ourselves to a mostly vegetarian lifestyle. At home we eat entirely vegetarian; when we eat out we allow ourselves to choose meat. It's also a priority for us to avoid the pesticides in non-organic produce and the hormones that come with non-organic dairy products. Here's how we eat a ton of fruits and veggies at a fraction of the price you might expect.

Our top strategy is to eat locally-produced foods as often as possible. (Actually, eating locally is a priority for us based on both our physiological needs and the need for Americans to reduce oil consumption. Produce at the grocery store has traveled, on average, 1500 miles to reach us!) Because we live in an Atlanta apartment with no yard or porch, we are unable to grow anything ourselves except for herbs — so we seek out local farmers. (If you'd care to try an urban garden, this video is a good resource.) Locally-grown foods are sold to us at the peak of their flavor and nutritional value, making them more enjoyable. Buying from local farmers, we are also able to ask whether the foods we are buying have been grown using pesticides. (The organic certification process is expensive for small farmers, so some small farmers may use organic methods but not have government certification for years, if ever.) Continue reading...

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Gardening 101: Plan Today for Summer Success

This was an actual weekend harvest from our garden last August.

At Get Rich Slowly, we get many requests for information about starting a vegetable garden. This is huge topic, and really enough fodder for an entire website. If you're a novice gardener you will benefit by asking yourself six questions before mail-ordering seeds or heading to your local nursery. Now is the time to do your research so that you'll be ready for planting season.

Do you actually like to eat vegetables?

If not, focus on fruits and herbs, edible and ornamental flowers, and a favorite veggie or two. A well-tended garden will produce a lot of vegetables. If you are lukewarm about zucchini then pass up that beautiful seedling. (Or go introduce yourself to your five nearest neighbors so that you can share come July).

What is your gardening space like?

This is probably the most important question for the novice gardener. If you are starting from bare dirt or, more likely, a patch of lawn, you have some work to do. The plot needs to be evaluated for sun and wind exposure, moisture/drainage, soil pH and elemental content, pests, and other factors.

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The cost-per-day expense chart

Elizabeth has a lifehack that allows her to manage both money and space. She writes: "This helped me curb my lifestyle choices when I was in high school and first on my own." Here is her guest entry.

Possessions scare me. My parents are pack-rats, and their house is full of things that have no right to be there. Desk space is taken up by dirty coffee cups, stacks of notebooks, and priceless, irreplaceable piles of loose paper. My Mom's office, the biggest room in the house, has three narrow pathways: one to her computer, one to her bathroom, and one to her closet (which will not open because there is too much stuff inside and outside of it). Scary!

When I became a college student with a (very small) room of my own, I learned how rewarding it is to be in control of your living space, and how important thriftiness is on a student-sized budget. This is how I came up with the following method of worth assessment: the cost-per-day expense chart. How much does something you own cost per day you use it? And how long until your assets break even?

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Making the most of cheap cuts of beef

You don't need to buy a side of beef to get cheap, great-tasting meat. Excellent inexpensive steaks and roasts are available at every supermarket. Here's a brief guide to common cuts. The information in this article is derived from two Cook's Illustrated pieces: "An Illustrated Guide to Beef Roasts" (Nov/Dec 2002) and "Tasting: Inexpensive Steaks" (Sep/Oct 2005).

Inexpensive Steaks

These steaks were priced $6.99/pound or less when Cook's Illustrated tested them in 2005.

Best Cuts for Pan-Searing

Boneless shell sirloin steak (a.k.a. top butt, butt steak, top sirloin butt, center-cut roast) — Very tender texture and beefy flavor. Look for a one-pound piece of uniform 1-1/4 inch thickness. Continue reading...

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10 Ways to Save Money on Books

I used to spend thousands of dollars a year on books, most of which I never read. Recently I've begun to trim my book spending. I spent nearly $3000 on books in 2003, but that number dropped to $700 last year. How did I do it? Through self-discipline and some commonsense tricks.

Avoid new releases
New releases sell at a premium. Sometimes you can get them cheap at Costco or Amazon. It's best to avoid them completely. Put them on hold at the library. If you're tempted to buy a newly-released book, ask yourself: "Why do I need to own this now? Can I wait?"

Read reviews
Reviews help separate the wheat from the chaff. It's a terrible feeling to spend $25 on a book only to discover it's awful. Amazon is an excellent source for reader opinion. I also like Metacritic and The New Yorker. Find a source that you trust, and rely upon it to screen books.

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The regift: Friend or foe?

Christmas is over. You received some thoughtful presents, but also got some duds. That collection of cooking spices from your Aunt Madge? You hate to cook! Here's some sage advice from Marie, a self-confessed re-gifting addict.

Regifting has a tarnished reputation in today's consumer-driven society. Perhaps it's driven by businesses hoping to convince us to spend more money, or by a misguided quest to shower our loved ones with extravagances we can't really afford, or simply by a fear of seeming cheap. Regifting can not only be appropriate, but frugal and fun. Regifting is recycling elevated to an art form. Here are a couple points to keep in mind before you put away this year's Christmas presents.

The number one rule of regifting is: Mark who gave it to you and when you received it. While regifting in itself is nothing to be ashamed of, shame on you if you give it back to the person who originally gave it to you! I usually try to avoid regifting within the same social circle. If I got scented potpourri from someone at work, I may regift it to someone in my book group, but not to another co-worker. Marking items is crucial because you probably won't remember who gave you the gift six months later. Nothing kills a regifting possibility faster than forgetting the giver — that potpourri is going to sit there until I meet someone from another continent who couldn't have possibly given it to me in the first place. Continue reading...

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Cheap Ways to Stay Warm this Winter

Winter weather has arrived in Oregon — it's rainy and cold. This time of year, Kris and I search for ways to keep warm. A lot of guides to saving money on heating contain impractical advice: "consider heating with solar energy!". They offer good suggestions for the long-term, but they aren't useful if you want to save money now. Here are some frugal ways we stay warm in our drafty old house.

  • Let in some light. Open blinds on south-facing windows during the day to let in the sun. Close them in the evening to add a bit more insulation. This provides just enough mid-day warmth that we don't need the heater.
  • Use rugs on bare floors. We have hardwood floors above a poorly-insulated basement. These floors are cold in the morning and the late afternoon. An area rug does a fine job of keeping my feet warmer.
  • Block drafts. This is best done with weather-stripping or other forms of insulation, but even a blanket in front of a door helps. Because our house is so old, nothing is level. This makes it difficult to install weather stripping. The bottom of our mudroom door, for example, has a one-inch gap on one end but is flush with the floor near the hinge. By laying a blanket in front of the door, we can mitigate some of the heat loss.
  • Use space heaters. According to Michael Bluejay's energy guide, this is the single best way to save money on electricity. As I learned from my tests with the Kill-a-Watt, a portable radiator-type oil heater uses a lot of power, but not nearly as much as a furnace. We have a couple of these heaters. They take a while to get warm, but once they're going, the can heat a small space cheaply.
  • Bundle up. I love cold-weather clothes: long underwear, sweaters, hats, scarves, gloves. Some days we simply bundle up and turn down the heat. It's cozy. And don't forget: house slippers go a long way to keeping you warm!
  • Install a programmable thermostat. My sister-in-law just received her first big heating bill at her new home. "It was $100!" she said. (She had been leaving her thermostat at 68-degrees around the clock.) Her heating bill was more than she had budgeted, and made it easy to justify the cost of a new programmable thermostat. They're easy to install and an excellent way to cut your heating costs. We set ours for 54 at night and when we're gone during the day. (Reader Adam G. reviewed his programmable thermostat last August.)
  • Use an electric blanket. There's no need to heat the entire house when you're asleep. There's no need to even heat the bedroom. An electric blanket is cheaper and cozier. (A blanket with dual-controls is best.)
  • Change the furnace filter. A dirty filter forces the furnace to work harder, decreasing its efficiency, increasing heating costs. We change the furnace filter at the start of the season, and once every month or two thereafter.
  • Close unused rooms. Do not heat them. This winter, we closed off our guest room and shut the heater vent. That room is now separate from the rest of the house. It stays cold, but there's no reason to keep it warm.

These steps can reduce your heating costs immediately. In the long term, your best bet is to make sure your home is properly insulated. You should also check that your heat source is efficient, and that you're not losing heat in unintended locations.

For example, I went down to the cellar last night to pull out some Christmas lights. I was startled to find that the basement was actually warm. It shouldn't be. It's uninsulated, below-ground, and exposed to the cold. The furnace was pumping away, doing its thing, heating the house. But it was apparently heating the cellar, too. It took only a moment to find the problem — our ductwork is not insulated. As the hot air blows through the pipes, the metal is heating, and the warmth is dissipating into the basement. We need to fix that.

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How to buy a side of beef

Kris and I grow our own berries. We harvest walnuts from a tree in the yard, and glean hazelnuts from a friend's orchard. We keep fruit trees and a vegetable garden. For city folk, we try to grow as much of our own food as possible. But one thing we cannot grow is our own meat. We've discovered the next best thing, though: we buy beef in bulk from a local rancher. Every year, we pool our money with three other couples to purchase an animal when it's ready to be slaughtered. In early December, we bring home about one hundred pounds of meat.

Buying beef in bulk can be an excellent deal, but not for everyone. Buying a side of beef is a good choice if you like to cook, you eat a lot of meat, you have storage space, and quality is important to you.

The advantages of buying in bulk include:

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