Overcoming Rising Energy Costs! Thursday, Feb 24 2011 

Hey everyone – How about that gorgeous weather last week? I don’t know about you, but I loved the opportunity to throw open the windows and let in a blast of fresh air. Heaven. Along with all of the great news on the weather, however, was sobering news reports regarding fuel prices, power costs and their expected climb for the foreseeable future.

I’m already receiving emails from local consumers requesting suggestions to offset spikes in power costs, especially as another summer rolls around. Let’s face it, if this summer proves to be anything close to the utility headache this winter was, it’s never a bad idea to come at July with frugal forces blazing to keep costs to a minimum. In my pursuits, some of my power-saving strategies were a definite hit, others were filed forever in an ever-expanding “Cost-Cutting Comedy” file. Here are the tactics that packed some proven punch:

(1) Research alternative energy providers. Yes, many of us got stomped with the (approximately) 30% rate hike last year. Boo hoo. Pity party over. In defense of local utility companies, rates hadn’t been raised in ages, and I’m certainly not going to begrudge a company the right to make a reasonable profit. That being said, the timing stinks. Unemployment is up, people are dipping into personal savings just to keep at the status quo, so any strategy we can put in play to combat higher utility rates is going to be a good move.

Until now, when it came to energy providers, we went with the one automatically provided. Since the rate hike, I was BOMBARDED with mailers from alternative providers. When our household switched over to an alternative supplier last September, we were guaranteed savings of 15% over current rates (a nice dent in the 30% rate hike). If you’re getting hit with stacks of mailers from these alternative companies as well, take some time to tear a couple of them open. Do some number crunching and see if any might be a good fit.

Somewhat related note: I’ve come across an energy-analyzer that can tell you pretty much what every, single appliance in your home (from freezer to hairdryer) will cost you to run & use. You go in thinking you’ll spend 30 seconds to determine what a new hot water heater would save you, and suddenly you’ll become obsessed by how much the light in the fridge is costing you whenever you open the door (or maybe that’s just me). Take a look when you get a chance: http://www.energyguide.com

(2) Reducing electric dryer dependence to almost nothing. Those of you familiar with my blog already know I’ve been drying my clothes, the kids’ clothes, sheets, towels, etc on our clothesline for over a year now, and it’s taken down costs fabulously. To create even bigger savings this year, I’m going to try to do more towels on the clothesline, even though significant-others-who-shall-remain-unnamed really aren’t crazy about the final result.

Yes, I’m the first to admit there is a marked difference in air-dried vs. dryer-dried towels. Basically, it takes the concept of exfoliation to the level of a North Korean torture camp. That being said, towels are an energy HOG to dry in the dryer, especially when I watch the meter just outside the laundry room window spin like a Russian skater on steroids. Who needs that? I’ve heard from fellow frugalistas that putting air-dried shingle-like towels into the dryer for 5-10 minutes has them coming out fabulously fluffy. Sounds promising. Stay tuned.

(3) New-fangled light bulbs. I replaced eighteen 60-watt bulbs with the new squigeldy GE Energy Star bulbs (they’re 13 watt bulbs that light like 60 watts). Boiling down the math as described on the back of the package, I’m supposed to save approximately .92 per month per bulb, so these bulbs alone should save me around $17/month, or $204/year. I’ve had these in the house for a while, and believe it or not, they do seem to be bringing down costs. That, and their reputation would suggest they’ll last somewhere into the 23rd century. Okay, not that long, but the savings are there, and significant, so it’s a good move if you want to bring down costs.

(4) No more dishwasher use. Again, I’ve had this strategy in play for over a year, to great success. Energy costs came down huge, this even though I have an “energy efficient” dishwasher! At this point, I’m using my dishwasher strictly as a drying rack, and running it once every two weeks on low settings just to keep it in good shape.

(5) Turning into the Power Nazi. At night, and when I leave the house during the day, the computer goes OFF. When it’s a bright, summertime day, there’s no need to turn on lights, unless complicated surgery is being performed in the same room. If I’m cooking on the stove, I cover pots & turn the heat down to simmer. If I’m baking like a crazy woman (my kids are muffin hounds and I’m often on cake detail for family celebrations), I use only one of the ovens in my (yes, ultra-spoiled) top/bottom convection wall unit (purchased when I was part of a “Dual Income, No Kids” household. Ahem). If I’ve got a lot of different things to bake, I’ll now keep it to one oven, alternate pans on different racks & switch it up halfway thru the baking time.

Now, with all of these strategies in play – and they really are pretty easy to implement – utility costs here at the house have been reduced by about 20-30%, easily accommodating the recent spikes in rates. If I can do it, anybody can. If you find your pretty little blue utility envelopes giving you an itch between the shoulder blades, try any or all of these tactics for a powerful punch in savings. Frugal On!

Fabulously Frugal Valentine’s Day Gifts: 90% off retail, 100% brilliant! Monday, Feb 7 2011 

Brilliant Frugal Living
Okay, where did January go? Did anybody get the license plate as that month FLEW by? Personally, it’s just a hazy memory of blizzards, snow days and torpedoed New Year’s dieting resolutions blurring together this point. The great news is that Valentine’s Day is upon us! WOO HOO! And yes, Frugalista or not, I am chick enough to be totally sucked in by this utterly Hallmark holiday. Any day of the year that specifically steers men towards gifts of chocolate, romantic dinners, flowers, lingerie or (let’s face it) anything for the ladies is going to get a rousing WOOT-WOOT! in my book. Here’s my only gripe – Valentine’s Day gifts are insanely overpriced. Yes, I’m as desperate for a heart-shaped box of candy as the next chocoholic, doesn’t mean I want to spend $20 a pound for it! Luckily, opportunities abound for V-Day gift givers to look like a romantic hero without having to sell his white horse. Read on, Romeo.

Gorgeous Roses – Guys, I don’t care how liberated your ladies appear to be, trust me, it’s built right into a woman’s DNA to adore these heavenly flowers, myself included. Send two dozen to Gloria Steinhem and her heart will go pitty-pat, I kid you not. This gorgeous, classic gift is also one of the highest priced gifts out there on February 14th. Online flower websites are offering two dozen red roses delivered to your house for $140, not including tip. Well, here’s MY tip: get to your nearest wholesale produce warehouse! Yes, produce warehouse. Granted these local goldmines are more famous for their top notch, low price fruits and veggies, however they also often have absolutely beautiful flower selections. At the produce warehouse near us, gorgeous long stem roses in beautiful colors of your choice are – ready for this? – $7.00 a dozen. Go online to find the one nearest you, then drive by on your lunch hour, pick up a gorgeous dozen (or two!) in your sweetheart’s favorite colors, and save yourself $100.

The Chocolate – I know what you’re thinking. Heart-shaped boxes of candy. So clichéd. So ridiculous. So FABULOUS. Oh yeah, come to Momma. However, $20 per box (in the respectable chocoholic size) is completely insane. I also take issue with those “combination” chocolate boxes where half the contents are magnificently compatible with your tastes, but the rest are things like chocolate covered nougats that always feel like they’re going to pull out a filling. Not cool. For the chocolate gift givers out there, do yourself a favor and hit the local dollar store, where adorable empty candy boxes and tins await you. Frugalista’s hint to the wise – this is a great opportunity to prove the “more is more” mentality in chocolate gift giving. (Translation: get the BIG box.) Then hit your local discount grocery, where gorgeous gourmet chocolates are waiting for you to purchase in bulk, often for $3 or less per pound. Best of all, you can customize the gift to the recipient’s taste! Does your Valentine adore chocolate covered cherries? Go for a full pound (or better yet, hello, five pounds) of those! Truffles? Vanilla Cremes? Coconut clusters? Go for it! Another hint from my experiences – if you’re putting these boxes together yourself for friends, be sure to purchase at least one extra pound of goodies. For, ummm, quality testing. Yeah, that’s it.

Lingerie – Okay guys, coming right out with some insider information here. Victoria’s Secret commercials to the contrary, I know precious few women who enjoy receiving lingerie that not only reveals every holiday rum ball consumed 6 weeks ago, but also puts on spectacular display every conceivable inch of untanned skin we own in the dead of 18-degree February. That being said, if you’re currently keeping company with a 17-year old Sports Illustrated model who bought herself some lipo for Christmas and recuperated with some quality time on a sunny, no-carb Carribean cruise, this paragraph is for you. Specialty lingerie stores may have a great selection, but your local top notch Consignment Shops will have fabulous collections as well, for easily 90% off retail. Head there first. Not only will the original sales tags no doubt still be attached to the Consignment Store offerings, but you may even come across some still in their untouched, expensive boxes.

A Romantic Dinner – Think back to a fantastic, romantic expensive restaurant you went to, back in the day when you were trying to impress each other and pretended money was no object. Those days. Can you recall anything your sweetheart enjoyed that night? Some fantastic pasta dish, maybe a great dessert? Okay, write it down, then call the restaurant. Ask to speak to the Chef, and rave about how fantastic their food is. Explain how you can’t make it out to their restaurant for Valentine’s Day this year, but how you’d love to recreate it at home for that special someone. Folks, I’ve done this no less than FOUR times, calling the head chef at expensive Inns & top notch restaurants, and the Chef never hesitates to give out the recipe! They’re fabulous! Once I called to inquire about a fantastic Fettucine Alfredo, one was a rustic chicken dish with amazing sautéed vegetables on the side, two other recipes were for to-DIE-for chocolate dessert recipes. The most delightful shock? These dishes are EASY to prepare with even moderate cooking skills. Think about it, if they want to create these dishes at a high quality for their guests time & again, it needs to be a relatively simple-to-follow recipe. When your honey gets home on Valentine’s Day, dazzle them with a candlelit dinner, featuring their favorite dish from their favorite romantic restaurant. This time, you’ve got money in the bank when dessert is finished.

The Valentine’s Day cards – Is it my imagination, or were these on store shelves around January 5th? Don’t get me wrong. They’re poetic, they’re beautiful, they’re filled with romantic sentiment that our tough guys would rather fling themselves off a cliff than write themselves. I get all mushy in the knees at this flowery prose myself. These cards clearly have their place in society, especially amongst our adorable yet otherwise romantically-mute menfolk. Unfortunately, when a five-cent piece of paper (pretty words or not) goes for $6.95 retail, it gives me a serious itch between the shoulder blades. Gentlemen, I would like to suggest an idea so terrifying that only the bravest of you will dare attempt it. Write something yourself. Be modern and send it via email, or get wild and write it by hand. Something short and sweet, and depending on how brave you are, it can range anywhere on the romantic scale. Your Valentine’s Day message could be a passionate essay on how her blue eyes still remind you of a perfect Tuscan sky (this rates a solid 10 on the romantic scale, with extra credit if you go to Altavista.com and translate it into Italian first), to “You’re still the kickinest bowling partner ever!”, which will score you a solid 7 (9 if you include a 2-pound nougat-free chocolate assortment with your note). Be creative. Be daring. Be a dork. Valentine’s Day only comes once a year!