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Saving Money Without the Sacrifice!

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The Year of the Tiger!

Posted by flsquared on February 22, 2010

This weekend, we decided to attend the “Biggest Chinese New Year Parade” in Manhattan.

Armed with a 15% off coupon, I traveled down to the BabiesRUS store in Union Square to check out the umbrella strollers.  It was about time we got one, and we would definitely need it for the subway ride.  As with any “big box” retailer (but especially with BRU), I immediately started to get overwhelmed with the choices and quickly slunk out without buying anything.

I perused the Union Square Greenmarket (and bought a huge bag of $1/lb local apples) to calm myself.

Then I went home and checked out Craigslist.

Lucky for me, I found a great used Maclaren Volo for $40.  SCORE!  (Oh, and by chatting with the woman selling the stroller, I made a new friend in Brooklyn!)

Bright and early Sunday afternoon, (40 degree, sunny weather!) we met some friends to see the dragons dancing and floats passing by.  I am kicking myself as I forgot my camera, but it was amazing!  The kids enjoyed the people watching, scooping up confetti and throwing it at each other, (I’m not sure how much they actually saw of the parade), and just seeing Mama and Papa happy.  We even popped into a crowded Dim Sum restaurant and stuffed ourselves while they ate and played with chopsticks.  We ended the day by going over to Union Square and hanging out at the playground (and buying a few bottles of “3 buck chuck” wine at TJs).  The subway ride was uneventful and I was actually able to carry the little guy up and down the stairs myself with the new, lightweight stroller.

After we had gave the kids dinner and put them to bed, my husband turned to me and said “What a great day!”  I totally agree.

For me, the best part about the day was exploring a new part of the city and seeing everyone have a good time.  Amazingly, there was no (well…, okay, very little) crying, fear of crowds, or explosive diapers.  Days like these bring our family closer and open the door for new events and experiences to further strengthen that bond.

Oh, and bill for the day?  $2.25 for the subway and $25 for 4 at the Dim Sum (and believe you me, the kids eat as much as I do!).  Not bad!

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There’s No Such Thing as a Cheap Lunch

Posted by flsquared on February 6, 2010

Today I made a big mistake.

On Saturdays, I have started swapping language lessons in the hopes of reviving my dormant French knowledge.  My instructor is awesome–a Parisian artist full of life and spirit and the patience of a saint!

After the lesson, I typically take advantage of the fact that I’m out of the house and go grocery shopping.  If you don’t live in Manhattan, you may not understand why I need to go shopping alone, but suffice it to say that Whole Foods and Trader Joes are “cheap” supermarkets, so much so that there are often crowds that would rival Black Friday sales at Walmart.

Today, we got together from 11am-1:30pm and I was starving as I left.  I hopped on the subway down to Union Square, but knew I would not make it through the hoards of Trader Joe’s groupies without a snack.  Right in front of TJ’s was a hot dog vendor.  Score!  Quick and cheap.  After all, I had to get back home to relieve hubby from babysitting duty.

(If my friend D. is reading this, I am sure to get a lecture.  Yes, I know, you have warned me time and time again about eating from the street carts!)

It was not a good sign when the guy cleaned out the mustard with a toothpick and then put the toothpick back in the box.  Ewww!

But the hot dog had already been paid for so I scarfed it down and ran inside to do my shopping.

As I waited in the 45 minute line to pay for the groceries, I grabbed a hot wing sample.  Spicy but good.

I was even counting my blessings as I got to the bus stop just as the 103 was pulling in.  Yoo hoo!

However, as the driver swerved through traffic and slammed on the brakes over and over again, my stomach began to turn.  I’m not really sure if it was the hot dog, the sole buffalo wing, or the 30 minute roller coaster bus ride, but I seriously didn’t know if I was going to make it home before I lost my lunch.

I actually got out of the bus 2 stops early and started walking.  I stumbled into the apartment and downed two hot chamomile teas with honey.  I laid down on the bed.  The room slowly stopped spinning and I was able to go out and play with the kids.

Sometimes I am so stupid.  I will spend double to buy hormone free milk or free range eggs, but I buy whatever crap they sell on the street corner.  Hopefully I’ve learned my lesson and the next time I need a quick snack I’ll either bring one with me or grab something at the fruit stand.

Posted in food, frugal, groceries, saving money | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Budget Update: Success in 2009!

Posted by flsquared on January 10, 2010

Looks like the budget went well for the last 5 months of 2009:

August: saved 9.7%
September: saved 13.4% (!!!)
October: overspent 1%
November: saved 12.4%
December: saved 1%

An average of 7.1% savings!

I’m pretty pleased as it always takes a while to figure out a place and learn how to get the most for your money. 🙂

Our highest costs, bar none, are estimated taxes, rent (duh! we live in Manhattan!), and groceries. Since the first two won’t be changing any time soon, I am going to have to get a handle on the food….It’s just not as easy as it was in Pittsburgh!

The good news does not come without the bad, as we have had to pay a number of bills already in January (remaining hospital, down payment for Victor’s school, among other things) and I know we are going to be a bit over. But we’ll continue trying to do the best we can!

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Clutter Costs: The Case of the Missing PJs

Posted by flsquared on December 13, 2009

I have admitted it before that I am an unabashed packrat.  I buy very little, but I have difficulty letting things go.  Coupled that with our living in a teeny Manhattan-sized apartment and my tendency to overestimate my free time and energy and thus begin (and not finish) projects, we have a full house.

It’s a slooooow work in progress (I work on projects and de-clutter about 15 min/day after my husband comes home), but since it doesn’t interfere with daily living it doesn’t bother me too much.

Well, let me say that it normally doesn’t interfere with daily living.

Here’s what happened a couple of weeks ago:

My oldest son’s PJs were starting to look a little small.  This summer, my mom scoured the garage sales for clothes for her grandchildren and brought up a few pairs of 3T pajamas.  Damned if I can find them anywhere!  I have looked high and low, emptied boxes and suitcases, searched closets and under the bed and they have just disappeared!

It is the worst feeling of frustration to know that you have stored something that you need and you just can’t find it.

After spending a total of probably 3 hours looking for them (care to put a cost on that lost time?), I decided that I needed to streamline the boys’ things.  I put old clothes and toys in bags and put an ad on Craigslist and Freecycle.  We got rid of 4 huge bags of stuff that was just sitting in the closet as well as our car seat travel system!  Hurrah!

I wish I had a happier ending and could tell you that after all of this purging I found the PJs but they are still missing.

The good news?  When I do decide to give up the search and rescue mission, I can use my $110 that I made from the purge and buy some new ones.

The bad news?  I sure would have rather used that time and money for something else!

Posted in baby, clutter, money, organization, saving money, simple living, toddler | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Can a Family of Four Live on a Salary of $150k in NYC?

Posted by flsquared on November 8, 2009

This was the title of an Urban Baby discussion last week that really got me thinking.  My quick answer was a resounding “Yes, and well!”, but many of the posters did not agree.

I suppose what surprised me the most was the tone of the responders.  They seemed to say: Don’t do it!  You will be sacrificing too much!

For me, it’s a given that if you live in Manhattan, you will, most likely, be living in a small apartment.  Even the “big” apartments are small.

On the other hand, in just 5 or 10 minutes walking you can find yourself in a park, a museum, a library, etc.  During the summer there are more festivals than you can imagine.  As the winter is closing in, it’s more difficult to find free activities but they are there.

For us, our major expenses are rent, health insurance, and food.  Next year, preschool will be included in that list.  We also try to go to Spain and Florida once/year to visit family.  Everything else that we spend money on is minimal and we don’t spend even close $150k/year.

We no longer have a car (and all that goes with it), our utilities are next to nothing, and entertainment is cheap.

I will say that I totally understand how you could spend even double that amount and feel like you are living a humble life.  Between eating out, endless forms of entertainment, preschools that cost more than my college tuition, nannies, housekeepers, etc, etc, etc. the money can just slip through your hands.

I have a friend who probably earns triple what we do and honestly feels poor.  She lives 2 blocks away, in a very nice, but not super-fancy, building.  She does not wear designer clothing or go out every night.  She has a part-time “mother’s helper” and someone to clean her apartment once/week.  They have a car and go away at least once weekend/month.  Nothing all too extravagant here, right?  Especially when she compares herself to her friends who have private jets and rent a place in the Hamptons for $30,000.

Saving (or just not spending) money in this town is hard work, but it is very doable.

I think the key to it is both simple and extremely complex.  Be happy from within.  Don’t compare yourself to others.  Be content with your choices, and don’t even notice the Jones’.

What are your thoughts?  Am I missing something?  What are we sacrificing that everyone else seems to need?

Posted in family, frugal, money, saving money, simple living | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

Toddler Tip: Displaying Art Projects

Posted by flsquared on November 6, 2009

Now that my oldest boy is 2, he is constantly painting and coloring and creating all sorts of masterpieces with stickers. But where should we display them?

Posting them on the fridge won’t work:  I’m not a big fan of the cluttered look.  However, more importantly, while he enjoys taking a look at them from time to time, his little brother enjoys eating them more often than not.

I don’t have the energy or patience to create one of those crazy post-your-toddler’s-artwork display centers they talk about on TLC.

And, living in NYC, if there was a “big box” store solution, it would be beyond us.  Plus, money is tight and I’d rather improvise in some way.

After scratching my head for a bit, and collecting a number of projects in a box until I figured it out, I came across the perfect solution in my gifted subscription to Family Fun magazine (November 2009 issue, tip given by Heidi Hadfield):

Tape your favorite projects to the inside of your kitchen cabinets!

aaaaaablog

Awesome!  Everything is tidy, and yet when we want to take a peek at his artwork (or need to grab a bowl), we just open the cupboard.  It’s also a hit with Papa, who loves to come home, grab a snack, and check out what the little ones created today.

Posted in family, organization, saving money, simple living | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 29 Comments »

Budget Update: It’s working!!!

Posted by flsquared on November 2, 2009

As you may remember, my family started living on a budget shortly after moving to Manhattan.  This has been a tough adjustment for us as we are not at all used to tracking expenses, but it has definitely been eye-opening.

In the budget, we only included my husband’s base salary as we are hoping to save his bonus outright.  Our hope is to save 10% of the post-tax base salary, but we will be happy if we just break even and don’t touch our savings or his bonus.

Here’s how we’re doing:

August:          saved 9.7%
September:   saved 13.4% (!!!)
October:        overspent 1%

NOOOOO!!!!

On the upside, we are net saving about 7% which is not too bad.

Additionally, we also made some big purchases this month like a membership to the Children’s Museum and NYC Rec Center as well as a big $225 application fee for Victor’s preschool next year.  We should definitely save some money this month as we went crazy buying food (nearly $600 this month) at the local grocery store’s huge Columbus Day sale.  Our cupboards, fridge, and freezer are bursting at the seams.

On the whole, I do think that tracking our expenses and being accountable to them is working. It’s difficult to spend money consciously, but it sure does help!

Wish us luck that we get back into the black next month!!

Posted in budget, frugal, money, saving money, simple living | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Last Minute Halloween Costume: Mini-Farmers!

Posted by flsquared on October 30, 2009

Today, on the way back from Central Park we passed Ricky’s.  Apparently, it is the one-stop shop for Halloween costumes.  At 50% off today, there was literally a line a block long to enter (at 2pm, no less!).

To be honest, I hadn’t thought much about it until last week.  I can’t say that I’m a huge Halloween fan.  My husband is from Spain and has never celebrated it.  He’s not into dressing up at all and, as such, I have not been to a Halloween party in, oh, 10 years.  My first son was born in 2007 and spent most of September and October in and out of the hospital due to jaundice, so we didn’t do much more than take him for a short walk on Halloween.  My second son was born last year on October 28 and I think we left the hospital Halloween morning.

This year, we have 4 Halloween parties for the boys!  We definitely needed costumes.

On to the thrift shops I went.

No luck.

No luck?  Wow.  New York (Upper East Side, anyway) is tough!

I went into their closets.  And I started thinking….Every time I put the boys in cute little overalls, my husband calls them “farmers”.  I pulled out blue jean overalls, a flannel shirt, and a couple of red bandanas I had for whatever reason.  I actually had everything for both of them except overalls for the eldest.

Back to Gymboree (I finally got to buy something for us at that sale!).  The sales girl found some PERFECT overalls marked down to $7.99.  20% off coupon added and that was the price tag for their costume.  Hurrah!

Here’s one farmer:

aaafb 013and the little guy:

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Posted in activity, family, frugal, saving money, simple living | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Never Give Up: Recovering our Security Deposit

Posted by flsquared on October 26, 2009

As you know, this summer presented a number of life changes for us, primarily my husband’s graduation from MBA school and our family’s move to NYC.  We had never moved with a baby before, and now we had 2 boys under 2 years old…. and only 2 weeks to pack and “get out of Dodge.”  We threw our stuff into boxes, loaded up the UHaul the best we could (with help from a couple of friends who were still in the city), and left with 2 sleeping babies at 4am.  After getting stuck in traffic and lost a number of times, we finally arrived at the new apartment–5 hours late!  We were so late that the moving men had left!  We were able to bribe one to come back and help unload, we returned out car and UHaul with minimal penalty fees, and we were in our new home!

Hurrah!  The worst was over, or so we thought.

Pittsburgh is renown (probably not unlike any “college town”) for dishonest management companies who refuse to fix the heat and return security deposits.  After all, tenants rarely stay longer than a year or two and then leave town.  Many are undergrads who party hard and don’t take care of the apartment.  We felt lucky to have a nice, private landlord who was somewhat responsive to our needs but who was, more importantly, a “nice guy”.

Or so we thought.

Shortly after giving notice we realized something was up.  He did not stop by the apartment (which he normally did a few times per month) and he did not return emails or phone calls.  We were unable to schedule a walk-through with him, but didn’t think much about it as we had such a nice relationship with him.  He had, after all, just written a shining recommendation for us to use in our NYC apartment hunt.

After a few weeks, and a few more unanswered emails (and no sign of our deposit), we began to worry.  The State of Pennsylvania gives the landlord 30 days to send a letter returning the tenant’s deposit and/or a letter stating why the deposit would not be returned.  30 days came and went.  Then 45.  No check, no letter.

With my husband working 12 hour days in his new job, my taking care of the babies all day, and no family in the area to help pick up the slack, the last thing we wanted to do was battle this out.  Logistically, going back to Pittsburgh to fight this in Small Claims Court would be a nightmare.  And depending on the transportation costs, when we counted my husband’s vacation days, we may only break even.  But the feeling of being “duped” and powerless did not sit well with us.

So we wrote a certified letter demanding the deposit back.

1 month passes.  No answer.  (big surprise).

What to do?  Did we really want to take him to court?  We learned that we had 3 years to do so and felt a bit better.  We gathered all of the evidence (phone calls, emails, letter of rec, check stubs, etc.) and put it in a folder.  We also talked to a friend who knew a lawyer who may be able to help us.  She said that for $25 she would write a letter.  We decided that it was worth another try.

1 week passes.  Surprise!  We get a certified letter in the mail.  Our landlord had not been kidnapped by aliens after all.  Unfortunately, I am out with the boys and not home to receive it.

The next afternoon, I walk down to the post office, sick to my stomach and just wanting this whole situation to be over.  Would it be a threatening letter?  Would it be the check?  Would it be a form letter from his lawyer saying “bring it on”?

There was no line and I walked right up to the window.  After waiting about 20 minutes for them to find the letter, we walk outside.  It is thin (bad for college applications, but good in this situation!) and I open it.  A check!  For 75% of the amount that he owes us.  I guess he wants to negotiate, but we’ll take it!

Honestly, this was a fight that we really did not have the time or energy to have.  We pushed ourselves and got it done.  It felt good to know that he could not take advantage of us and our situation, and perhaps he would think twice about doing so to another tenant.

And part of that $700 will go towards a nice bottle of champagne to celebrate!

I would love to hear from you–have you fought a “battle” (financial or otherwise) that you felt good about?  Did you “win”?  How did you celebrate?

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Mama’s Challenge: Can I buy a baby gift without purchasing anything else?

Posted by flsquared on October 22, 2009

Gymboree is having a 60% off sale on baby and kiddie clothes.  And I have a 20% coupon that a friend gave me to further discount the sale!

Awesome, right?

Except we don’t really need anything right now.  Well, that’s not exactly true–I could stock up on next fall’s clothing for my oldest.  However, my in laws will be in town in just 2 months and have already mentioned that they would like to buy the boys some clothes.

So we don’t need anything.

Except my Super just had a baby boy last weekend and we need to buy them a small gift.  Since they already have everything from their oldest (except in pink!), I thought I would get them a little outfit.

I entered Gymboree, kids in tow, impressed that they were actually content to hang out in the stroller while I shopped.  I found the PERFECT little outfit for the new baby, as well as a few things for my boys.  Luckily, I forgot my wallet, so I put ONLY the gift on reserve to come back later and pick it up.

The next day I stroll by and am welcomed by a huge line.  However, this is the only time that I can pick up the clothes so I stick it out…  And I start checking out little outfits here and there while in line.  Oh, the agony!!!!  Seriously, what is it about baby and toddler clothes that makes you want to buy everything even when you have more than you need?  I even check out the girls’ outfits and fawn over them!!!  (I sometimes wonder if they spray hormones in the air to make you baby-crazy).

I am happy to report that I only purchased the gift and nothing else.  Not even socks.  Not even shoes for next season (my weakness).

Do you have any tricks to avoid purchasing extra items when you are buying a gift?  I would love to hear them (as I think I got lucky this time!!!)

Posted in baby, budget, frugal, saving money, shopping, simple living | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »