The Home Haircut

We have a haircut routine: Phil and I meet after work and all three kids get a cut (cut + tip = about $20 X 3), then we have the mandatory dinner out at a “family-friendly” place the kids love and we despise. So it ends up being around a $100+ night that soaks up the whole evening. Back in high school my mom trusted me to cut, color, and perm (remember those?) her hair, and she was never publicly ostracized, so I felt like maybe I could tackle at least the boys haircuts and we could spend less time and money each month on this routine that always ends up being unpleasant. After I snagged a copy of Haircutting for Dummies on the Free Books table at work, I felt armed and ready to tackle home haircuts. But getting the kids to give up the evening (balloons! Dum-Dums! an indoor playground!) was going to be a tough sell. So I hit them where it mattered: Cash.

I made a deal with the boys that since the haircut out, base price, was $14, I’d pay them $7 to do the haircut at home. Money talked, and they agreed. Then I got cold feet. My dad once — once, and only once — gave my brother a haircut in an effort to save money. I remember my poor brother emerging from the bathroom where he’d been shorn, sporting Frankenstein-like bangs that went nearly to his hairline. My mom just leaned over and put her head straight down on the dining room table so she wouldn’t laugh out loud, but I could see her shoulders shaking until she could get herself together. The world is cruel. I didn’t want the same fate for my boys, so last month we still did the traditional haircut night.

This weekend, though, I bought a pair of professional scissors, and because Tom was getting closer to saving enough for a Lego set he wants, he asked several times if I could cut his hair.

Tommy has thick hair, and I always say that when he’s ready for a haircut he looks like a middle-aged lady shopping in a sparkly holiday sweater, shopping at a discount department store. His hair gets that kind of boufy look. It sneaks up on you, and suddenly he looks like he’s shopping for a pair of Sansibelts, which is how he was looking. So it was time.

Sylvie has curly hair like me, which is more difficult to cut. I know I came home over-curly and styled cuts (“I look like Jermaine Jackson!”) or straightened hair  (“I look like Linda Tripp!”) from hairdressers who didn’t know how to deal with my hair. So for her, I just pretended I was cutting the back, and merely gave her bangs a little trim.

Following the haircut Tom had, he emerged the handsome boy we know, $7 closer to a General Grievous Lego set.





The Amateur Tightwad Moves On

I had a blog ( for a year and a half. When I decided to start a new blog — this one — I thought I’d go for a publisher with a few more bells and whistles. But I haven’t really learned how to use those bells and whistles, so I’m dancing with the blog publisher that brought me. Please visit the Amateur Tightwad site at the following address:

See you there!

Magical Thinking

Here was today.

It snowed and sleeted in Indy, but not so much that I missed my routine weekly doctor’s appointment. While listening to the baby’s heartbeat, my doctor got that sort of unreadable concerned/thinking look doctors get. He said the baby’s heartbeat was very rapid, but he’d check again in a few minutes. A few minutes later, same look. So I had to be hooked up to the fetal monitor for half an hour to see if maybe her heartbeat would naturally come down. Which it didn’t.

So I got sent to the adjoining hospital, registered, braceleted, and set up in a “family room” where the baby’s heartbeat would be monitored for the next two hours. I was fortunate enough to have in my work bag a half-knitted sock I keep for flight delays, as well as my Blackberry and some articles to read. So I cancelled my meetings for the morning and early afternoon, called my boss to say I would either be very late today or possibly having a baby, and hunkered down.

This is when I learned that my baby apparently practices Tae Bo early-ish in the morning, and proceeds to spend the next several hours drinking herbal tea and catching up on her Jane Austen. Because as soon as I was hooked up in the hospital, her heartbeat settled way down, sluggishly down, and stayed that way for the entire two hours. Let’s hope she follows this same pattern when she’s out and about.

So while the morning wasn’t what I expected, it had a couple highlights. Such as that she’s just fine. That I wouldn’t be delivering her that day.

And that while I was relaxing and checking my Blackberry, I received an e-mail from my friend Carla asking if I was going to Michael Pollan’s free lecture this Monday. Michael Pollan. Free. Surely you heard my girlish peals of delight. I feel like somehow I willed him to come to the midwest by writing about him this week.

Which leaves me in a panic about what to wear, as these days there’s really only one honest answer to the question, “Do I look fat in this outfit?”

I Stand Corrected

Some time between feeding the boys leftovers and throwing in a load of whites, something about the last post wasn’t sitting right with me. So I checked out what I’d written, and sure enough, I typed too quickly.

 It was not 134 tons of meat that was recalled.

It was 143 million pounds of meat.

Which is a lot, lot more meat.

A Cheap and Delicious Alternative to Cheap Meat

A few days after I wrote the last post about antibiotic-filled cheap meat, I learned about the largest beef recall to happen in history — 134 tons of beef from the Hallmark/Westland Packing Plant, including a good portion of meat sold and used in school lunches. Lovely.

The plant was closed for investigation after Humane Society footage showed workers using cruel and inhumane efforts to move downed cows into the slaughterhouse for processing. The footage was disturbing for a couple reasons. There’s the obvious cruelty factor behind the story — can you enjoy your Beef Burgandy knowing the suffering that happened behind the scenes? But there’s also the health risk of processing and selling meat from cows too sick or injured to walk on their own. The processing of downed cows is supposed to be banned because falling down can be a symptom of Mad Cow Disease. “Supposed to be” banned.

Although we have a half-freezer full of beef (locally raised, fully grass-fed, antibiotic-free), I decided to go vegetarian for lunch yesterday while Tommy and I were home with strep throat. This recipe came from a blog I love, Adam Roberts’ The Amateur Gourmet. (If you head to the site, check out his classic post on the Janet Jackson Breast cupcakes following the Unfortunate SuperBowl Incident; that post still makes me laugh.) Adam got the recipe from Lydia Bastiniach of Lydia’s Italy, and it’s inexpensive and easy and delicious and makes great leftovers. And best of all, no downed cannellini beans are harmed in its creation.

 Pasta with Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Cannellini Beans

– 1 lb. pasta (rotini, penne, cavatappi — whatever’s on sale)
– 1 smallish can sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil (I buy SD tomatoes in bulk at Costco and put them in my own olive oil); you’ll need about 1 cup tomatoes, drained and sliced into 1/4-inch strips, as well as 2 Tbsp. of the olive oil
– 3 Tbsp. olive oil (2 Tbsp. now, 1 Tbsp. later)
– 4 big cloves garlic, thinly sliced
– 1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
– 1 15- or 16-oz. can cannellini beans
– 1/2 tsp. salt
– 1/2 cup Parmesan or other grated cheese
– Chopped fresh parsley (totally optional)

Start the pasta cooking; do note that you’ll only be cooking the pasta partway and you’ll be using about 2-1/2 cups of the pasta water later, so don’t get crazy and cook the pasta to doneness and throw out the water.

Meanwhile, in a good-sized skillet, over medium-high heat, warm up 2 Tbsp. olive oil and 2 Tbsp. olive oil from the tomatoes. Now throw in the garlic and stir around for a minute or so. Next add the crushed red pepper and stir around for another half minute or so. Add the drained and sliced sun-dried tomatoes; spread them out and let them cook a bit, and then throw in 1 cup of the water from the pasta cooking. Simmer this until the sauce reduces by about half. Now throw in the cannellini beans, salt, and another 1-1/2 cups of pasta water, bring this to a boil, turn down the heat slightly, and let it bubble for about 4 minutes.

Sometime around now, the pasta should be al dente, and you can drain it and add it to the sauce to finish cooking in the sauce. When the pasta’s at the level you like, add the cheese and, if you like, the parsley.

Cheap Meat at What Cost?

Cow Stand Up

For a couple years now, I’ve had a geeky, unrequited crush on Michael Pollan, a food writer — and, I recently learned, brother of actress Tracy Pollan. In buzz-building for his newest book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, he wrote an intriguing article for the New York Times Magazine that traces some environmental mysteries to common but unsustainable food practices.

One of these traces a fairly recent antibiotic-resistant strain of Staphylococcus bacteria to the widespread use of antibiotics used to keep disease and death at bay in overcrowded slaughterhouses. In short, these meat farms can’t exist without the use of heavier and heavier antibiotics, and $1.69 a pound ground chuck can’t exist without these overcrowded meat factories.

So where does that leave someone looking to make a reasonably priced bolagnese sauce?

As I see it, you have a few choices:

  • Ignore the issue, and keep buying the cheap chuck. The more I learn about food and our food supply, the less this has been an option for me and Phil.
  • Buy antibiotic-free at the supermarket. New food consciousness has given us some mainstream choices in our food supply, and one of these is national producers offering antibiotic-free, sometimes organic meats available in nearly any supermarket. The prices can be steep, often around $5 to $6 per pound for ground beef, but if you’re looking to shed the drugs, they’re a good option. You can make up the difference in your food bill in other ways.
  • Buy from local farmers committed to raising antibiotic-free meat.Last summer Phil and I bought a freezer and stocked it with half a dozen local, free-range, antibiotic-free chickens, and a quarter of a grass-fed, antibiotic-free cow. It felt very Laura Ingalls Wilder to stock up for the winter; this year I’m sending Phil into the big woods to shoot a bear for our winter eating. Anyhoo, the quarter cow cost $3.75 a pound, which included ground meat, New York Strip, roasts, soup bones, and a plethora of other cuts I don’t remember. When we buy just ground meat from this farmer, it’s about $3.50 per pound, or a couple dollars less than the supermarket antibiotic-free meat.
  • Get your protein elsewhere. Beef, pork, and chicken are great sources of protein, but so are beans, some grains, and dairy products. Even if you’re a happy carnivore, if you can’t afford the more expensive antibiotic-free meat and antibiotics concern you, check out a great vegetarian cookbook like Super Natural Cooking or How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. Or check out a vegetarian blog like 101 Cookbooks.

I’m all about saving money. Believe you me. But I think it’s important to strike a balance between values and a checkbook balance, and for me, looking for alternatives to cheap supermarket meat is one area where I’m okay with the budget taking a backseat to other issues.

Small Ch-ch-ch-changes

Heat by spcummings

Phil’s been on a mission the last year to walk behind me and the boys turning off lights. He’s also replaced all our regular bulbous light bulbs with flourescents, and he’s been cognizant of turning down the thermostat when we leave the house. I’ve humored him, and have gotten into the habit, with some backsliding when I’m forgetful, of being more conscious about the heat and light we use needlessly.

Phil’s main motivator was saving the planet, not our checkbook.

Last year we signed up for a budget program with our gas company in which our gas usage over the entire year is divided by 12, and each month we pay the same amount. So we have a relatively hefty bill in June that represents three times our usage, but we’re not floored by a bill in January. Last year our bill was $99 per month.

I just received our adjusted bill, and even with gas prices higher than the Sears Tower, Phil’s diligence paid off. The new bill is $91 — or almost $100 per year less than last year.

Amazingly, this hundred dollars was completely painless. We haven’t spent the year pulling on a third sweater or heating up foot bricks for the boys to take to bed. We just stopped using energy we didn’t need when we were away from home or out of a room. Who knew?

Book Review: All Your Worth

 I’m confident enough to admit it: During my maternity leave with Tommy, I developed a bad, daily Dr. Phil habit. Every day at 3:00, Tommy and I would stop what we were doing and settle in to teens gone wild or husbands who thought their wives were too fat. In between the heated lectures and doo-doo-DOO music going to commercial break and Dr. Phil cheekily using the word “ass” five times a taping, I saw a one or two shows that stuck with me. One exceptional offering featured Elizabeth Warren and her daughter Amelia Warren Tyagi, who had recently written All Your Worth. The book is a primer for getting your finances in order, regardless of where they currently stand, and provides a fairly simple game plan for doing so.

I immediately ordered the book, already terrified at the prospect of raising two kids without losing our shirts. I sweated over the worksheets, read through and integrated some of the tips for simple changes that can yield big results (like shopping insurance every few years), and ultimately felt much more comfortable about our finances. Then, when I realized the repo man wouldn’t be coming for our children any time soon, I put the book on the shelf and forgot about it until this summer’s third-baby wake-up call.

While the book contains fantastic advice for all aspects of your financial life, two pieces of information really stood out for me:

Insight #1: Finances should follow a simple 50-30-20 rule.

This formula breaks down your take-home pay into three simple categories. Fifty percent is earmarked for obligations like mortgage, insurance, food, utilities, car payments, and daycare (if it’s a necessity for income). Thirty percent is for “fun,” although that’s a loose term for anything that isn’t an obligation. Fun can be a vacation or this season’s It bag, but it also covers things like basic clothing, eating out, and satellite radio – areas we’ve come to see as necessities. The remaining 20 percent is for savings.

The authors maintain that if your money is in this balance, you’ll be fine. If it’s out of balance, you should strive to get it there. If you find that “fun” is taking 50 percent of your take-home pay, you need to scale it back to get things better in balance. If you’re not saving any money, you need to acheive a balance that lets you do so. If your obligations are requiring more than 50 percent of your take-home pay, there’s a solid reason why you always feel behind – it’s difficult to maintain or get ahead with that level of obligation. In the latter situation, the authors maintain, it might be time to look at downsizing a house, selling an SUV you can’t afford, or even moving to a more profitable part of the country. I loved this incredibly simple formula, seeing as I’m one of those people who periodically tries to track every little expense, and runs out of steam about four hours into the exercise. This was a system I could work with.

Insight #2: The rules have changed, and you need to get on board quickly with the new ones. 

Elizabeth Warren is the first person I’ve heard articulate how the current state of our finances is the result not only of complete lack of self control, but also the changing rules of credit and financing. It’s easy to see a problem: Consumer debt is escalating, foreclosures are at scary levels, and savings rates are in the toilet. But in the last 30 years, people have had much more ability and encouragement to get themselves into trouble than ever before, and she maintains that we have to understand the rules and arm ourselves. Fifty years ago, if your income wouldn’t comfortably cover a mortgage, the bank would turn you down; the bank wouldn’t try to put you in an interest free “product.” Likewise, you could have an outstanding record and a solid paycheck, and still not qualify for a credit card. External parameters were put around your finances that limited how far you could go into hock. This obviously is no longer the case. (If you disagree, rent the excellent documentary Maxed Out. Or better yet, borrow it from the library for free.)

In the relatively short time I’ve been managing my adult finances, I’ve seen these rules changing. When I was taking out a loan for my first house, for example, I was looking at financing about $65,000 on a salary in the mid-forties. At this point, I was still filing taxes with an EZ form and carried no debt, but my very simple finances were scrutinized fairly heavily by the mortgage company, and required what seemed to be reams of paperwork to show my income, my lack of debt level, my savings, my favorite flavor of ice cream…

Two years ago, when an atrocious, ostentatious, infamous Indianapolis house was foreclosed on and I wanted to get a viewing with my real estate agent, a prerequisite for seeing the place was getting pre-approved for the mortgage. The house was listed at $550,000, a figure so divorced from the reality of Phil and my ability to pay that it was laughable. But I knew that the kooky house required a “special” buyer and likely would sell for half that price (it sold for $267,000, although sadly not to us). So when I called to get pre-approved, I began blathering on that while the house was completely out of our means, it certainly wouldn’t sell at its listing price. Before I could get the sentence out, the broker cheerfully stated, “You’re approved!” Whether I could have actually gotten a half-million-dollar mortgage is debatable, but reading article after article about the current sub-prime debacle makes me think it was reachable. If I’m told by a mortgage company that I can afford a half-million-dollar house, without the personal backing to know the figure is ludicrous, I would assume the lender knew something I didn’t.

All Your Worth made me look more empathetically at those who were allowed – even encouraged and coerced – to finance an unsustainable lifestyle.

Regardless of your financial position, I think you’ll get something out of this book. It has now helped me, twice, relax about our finances, realizing that they’re in balance. Likewise, it’s given me some great advice on where to look for further savings, how to invest money when there is money for investing, and what to stay away from. On my shelf of financial books, it’s a stand-out.

The Birth of the Amateur Tightwad

Call me a tightwad dabbler.

Back in my 20s when I was single, childless, and saving for a first home, I subscribed to The Tightwad Gazette for a few years, tried tactics like making my own granola (which I found to be a *lot* of granola for one person to eat), and honed my DIY skills. There were still splurges, mind you, but I happily drove my Geo Prizm for eight years, balanced my checkbook weekly, and rejected what I considered needless expenses like cable TV.

A couple years later I married, and with the infusion of a second income into our Midwest household, we relaxed the rules a bit. We got cra-zay and started subscribing to cable, went for frequent martini nights with friends (this was the 90s, after all), and felt comfortable buying all the new music and books we could handle.

 About six months after the wedding, my husband Phil and I moved to New York City.  We lived in a great brownstone in Park Slope, a fun and gentrified area of Brooklyn, and our financial status can only be described as hemorraging money; I’m fairly certain some kind of fiscal hoodoo literally hooked a siphon to our accounts. Despite the blood-letting, when I discovered I was pregnant and we decided to move back to the Midwest, we had saved enough money to buy a house in a comfortable neighborhood. We set about raising our little boy, Max in comfort, albeit with fewer $100 Tuesday nights out with friends.

A few years after that, we had a second baby — our boy Tommy — and were ready to close the door on family-building and start focusing our energies elsewhere. Maybe we’d actually get around to the home projects we’d let go, we dreamed. With Max about to start kindergarten, meaning we only had one child in daycare, just *think* of all how much money we’d have, we said. We started planning in earnest for the next stage in our lives.

This all took a U-turn several months ago with an unexpected extra pink line on a white stick. After the shock and panic settled into the excitement of watching our family grow (as well as scheduling an appointment for minor surgery to ensure that this would truly be the end of the growth), I took inventory of what our next several years would look like. I’d given away all of my maternity and baby gear, so much would need to be replaced. Neither of our paid-for cars would accommodate two car seats and a booster seat, so we were looking at a new vehicle. We were back to having two kids full-time in daycare, never mind the summers when three would need full-day accommodations. Our house was perfect, if a little tight, for four; would we need to look at upgrading — and upgrading in the worst real-estate market since the 1980s? Suddenly, I was lightheaded and woozy from more than the pregnancy.

To steel myself, I dusted off those back issues of The Tightwad Gazette for inspiration. I find, though, that as a dabbler, I have some ideas, but not nearly as many answers as I’d like. I’m still a bit lightheaded and woozy.

That’s where I’m hoping The Amateur Tightwad can come in. I want this to be a forum where I can share ideas and thoughts and discoveries that have made our financial road easier — or didn’t work so well and will never be repeated — and also get ideas from readers about what they’ve discovered. This isn’t about finger-wagging or judging others’ thresholds; it’s about sharing what has worked and hoping others can glean some great information in the sharing.

I hope you’ll stop by often and pick up some ideas, and also share your thoughts about what you’re finding.

Welcome to The Amateur Tightwad!