30 September 2011

Frugal Friday: Entertainment

It's one thing to save on necessary items, but it's quite another to save money on the fun stuff. We probably spend much less than most people, but that doesn't mean we're twiddling our thumbs at night to keep ourselves entertained. Here are a few things we do to keep those expenses to a minimum.

1. Cable TV. Assess how much TV you actually watch in a given month and determine if it's worth that chunk of change. Most places will have a handful of network stations available with only a cheap set of rabbit ears. If you decide that you watch enough TV to warrant the expense, consider bundling with your internet and/or phone to save a few bucks. Shop around and ask for a better deal from your current carrier if you find a better rate with another company. Forgo the add-ons and extra channels if you never watch them! In some markets (my own included), the big broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX) are not available without cable. Cable companies in those areas are required to offer a basic basic package for considerably cheaper than the regular basic package that they usually advertise. They have to offer it, but they don't have to advertise it; you'll have to ask for it specifically.

1b. Internet TV. If you've only got a couple of shows that you want to keep up with and can't justify the expense of a cable package, see if they're available to watch online. Hulu is a great source for current and classic TV shows, and they even have quite a few movies. Network websites will also often offer episodes of their current shows for online viewing. The downside to this is that there is a delay between the initial broadcast and its online availability (usually just one day). BUT, you can watch it at your convenience, and you don't have to remember to set your DVR to record it. If sitting in front of your computer screen to watch a show or movie isn't appealing, consider buying an inexpensive HDMI cord to connect your TV to your computer.

2. Subscription services. We were Netflix subscribers for several years but canceled it last month when they raised their rates. On the other hand, Amazon recently added free streaming videos for Prime members. Now, this costs a bit up front, but you also get free shipping on Amazon purchases. Even excluding that benefit, it's still cheaper per month for the same streaming-only service that Netflix now offers.

3. Kiosk rentals. For only $1 per movie per night, you can get DVD rentals from freestanding kiosks. Blockbuster and Redbox are a couple of the big names. Even better, these companies frequently publish codes for free rentals! (You'll still need to swipe a credit card, though, for identification). We only get these movies when we have a free code. The downsides: Selections are limited, especially on the weekends. Also, movies are often due back by 8 or 9 pm the following day and you'll get charged the extra $1 if it's turned in even at 9:01.

4. The library. For books AND movies AND CDs AND audio books AND magazines. These items are usually all available for free. If you're late with your returns, the fine is much less than it would be with a traditional movie rental place. The downside: you're much more likely to get a scratched or otherwise damaged movie/CD than if you were paying for it. Our DVD player isn't very good at handling scratched movies, so we sometimes have to return movies unwatched.

5. Low tech entertainment. Board games, hobbies, crossword puzzles, crafts, etc. Entertainment doesn't have to involve the TV or computer!

6. Local events. Many cities big and small hold festivals and other events, many of which are free and open to the public. Check the local paper or be on the lookout for signs advertising the events. Even better if it's within walking distance of your house - you won't have to pay for gas or parking! Also be on the lookout for free or discounted admission days to museums, zoos, and local attractions. Always check out the websites for venues to see if they have coupons to print!

Any other savvy tips for saving on your entertainment expenses?

28 September 2011

The home stretch

It looks like we're in the home stretch with the contractors. Thank goodness. They're nice folks and all, but having a constant stream of people in and out of the house gets nervewracking. Since Harry, the crew's boss, is offsite on another job, I feel like I've been playing the part of general contractor. It's like babysitting only worse since I'm the one paying them. I made the mistake of assuming that the guys hanging the drywall would know how to do it correctly. You're supposed to leave a 1/2" gap at the bottom to allow for house movement and to prevent any water that gets in the floor from getting wicked up into the drywall. Most people just lay down a scrap of drywall on the floor as a spacer so they're not trying to manually hold the sheet up half an inch off the floor. About half the drywall touched the floor and a day was wasted correcting the problem.

But now all the drywall is hung in the bedrooms and the finishers are on the second coat of mud. I have a lot more faith in the mudders than I do in the hangers, who were just part of Harry's general crew and apparently need almost-constant instruction. They should be finishing up the rough plumbing today and hanging drywall in the bathroom. I already told them that they're done when the baby is born regardless of whether the work is complete. We'll do whatever they haven't finished. Anyhow, here are the three rooms as they are now:

Back bedroom.

Bathroom. Obviously lots of work left to do in here.

Front bedroom. Trying out the panoramic feature on my phone's camera.

So that's where we are right now. Hopefully the bathroom will look a little better tomorrow.

Philosophical differences

In each of the bedrooms, there were areas of flooring that were missing and had been patched with plywood. My guess is that the previous owner wanted to install carpeting in the bedrooms and didn't worry about replacing the missing flooring with equivalent material. Not wanting to go the carpet route ourselves, we had our contractor feather in flooring for the missing areas. Luckily for us, the floors upstairs are the same as the subflooring we tore out downstairs, so we had plenty of matching material for him to use.

After the first few rows, he stopped and told us that we wouldn't be happy with how the floor was turning out. He didn't think he could eliminate the gaps between the floorboards that seemed to be appearing, even though the replacement material was an exact match for what existed. Not only that, he continued, but "pine just won't ever look as good as oak." He suggested we cover the floors with oak flooring or, to cut costs, a wood-look laminate.

Uh. No.

It was the end of the work day anyway, so we told him we'd sleep on it and tell him the next day what we wanted him to do. Encouraged by a wealth of information on the internet (God bless Google), we told him to do the best he could and that we'd deal with the gaps and cracks later. At this stage of the game, we are not going to worry about refinishing the floors. Sure, it'll be a pain to empty out the rooms in order to sand them, but it's just not crucial right now. We'd much rather have the drywall up than perfect floors.

Really, though, we don't expect the floors to be perfect. A smooth-as-glass gym floor would look strange in this house. Oak might be a harder material, but new oak will never have the same charm and character as these 100-year-old pine (or fir, we're not sure) floors. Anyway, here's what we ended up with. I was bracing myself for far worse!

He won't be doing the floor refinishing himself (I'm not trusting ANYbody to put a drum sander on those floors!), but I can only imagine the response when he finds out I don't want to use poly but only a natural tung oil finish (or Waterlox if I chicken out on the pure tung oil).

27 September 2011

The vanity

A couple of weekends ago I dragged Tom downtown to show him a couple of possibilities I found for the bathroom vanity. I wanted something old but not a precious antique that I would ruin by modifying. We bought an old dresser for $85 (including tax) from one of the junk antique shops downtown. It's not the curvy dresser I originally envisioned, but it fits the bill. It's well-built and solid but has a couple of minor condition problems. A little bit of the veneer is bubbling up on one of the drawers and the paint is chippy, but really nothing that some wood glue, sandpaper, and a little paint can't fix. Here she is:

The ladies that run this particular shop (Tootsie's Antiques, if you're ever in town) bought much of our house's contents when Retta Seymore was selling the house (two owners ago). In fact, they still have several pieces in their own homes! They also told me that they have some old diaries of Retta's mother-in-law, Kitta, that they'd let me have. It pays to get chatty with old ladies, I guess!

22 September 2011

Moving right along

After a few very long evenings, Tom and I finished the insulation in the bedrooms enough to where the drywallers could start. I had a couple of minor tasks to finish up this morning when they arrived, but nothing that kept them from working. Insulating is a colossal pain in the behind, but I am glad we did it ourselves. Not only did we save ourselves $2000, but we made sure to tuck insulation into cracks and crevices and behind studs that hired help would have probably overlooked. I'm hoping that the R-30 in the ceiling and R-19 in the walls will keep us from paying out our life savings to the electric company every month.

Our contractor said that they'd probably only need two days to hang the drywall in the two bedrooms, but I have serious doubts. When they left for lunch today, they had hung a grand total of TWO sheets. Granted, a lot of the morning was spent cleaning up and clearing out the rooms, but you'd think a crew of 3 guys could manage a little more than that in three hours.

20 September 2011


Apparently the construction industry is really pushing the new formaldehyde-free insulation. They claim that it doesn't off-gas, doesn't itch as much during installation, is easier to install, and will scrub your toilets clean for the rest of your life.

Don't believe it. I've never had any trouble with that formaldehyde-filled, asthma- and cancer-inducing Pink Panther stuff that the greenbuilding industry says will hunt you down and kill you if you've ever been in contact with it. Granted, I never rolled around in it, but I have hung plenty of it without a respirator, gloves, goggles, or even long sleeves. Itching was never a problem (of course, poison ivy doesn't seem to do anything to me, either, but extended use of antibacterial hand soap makes my hands crack and bleed, so I may be the exception in all this). Now that the pink stuff is unavailable (at our local Lowe's, anyway), we've had to buy the newer formaldehyde-free product. This stuff is AWFUL to work with. From what I understand about it, formaldehyde is used as a binding agent to keep all the fluff together. It has nothing to do with the itch factor - the fiberglass itself is what causes that. In my opinion, they haven't found an adequate replacement for formaldehyde's binding properties. The new stuff sends a cloud of fiberglass dust into the air the moment you so much as look at it. It gets into your eyes and mouth and skin and nose with very unpleasant results. Even after a long bath and fresh clothes, I still itch all over. I can't seem to get it out of my throat, either.

Now, I could be wrong, but it seems like a chance of a potential future problem caused by off-gassing seems like a better bet than the definite and current problem of breathing in fiberglass shards and scratching myself to distraction. There is a study that gets cited stating that indoor air quality can be worse than outdoor air quality because of the off-gassing of building materials, insulation among them. We keep our windows open most of the year, and we'll never get this 105-year-old house as "tight" as new construction. Off-gassing just doesn't seem like a problem for us. The asthma and breathing problems have not materialized in the year-and-a-half that we've lived here, and we're literally surrounded by formaldehyde-filled insulation in the master bedroom.

While I think it's admirable that companies are trying to make "green" products available at a reasonable cost, why can't I choose which version I want to use in my own home?

16 September 2011

Frugal Friday: Postage

Today's tip comes from my sister, Catherine. She recommends paying your bills online (saving the cost of a stamp) but still receiving your statements in the mail. By getting your statements on paper, you can also save the envelope they send you for other mailings! I think she also said, "Booya!" to emphasize her frugality. Be careful, though - some companies charge a fee for paying your bill online or over the phone!

Other ways to save postage (other than not sending any mail!):

1. Send a postcard. Postage for postcards are about half the price of an envelope. Twenty cents here and there adds up if you're sending birthday cards and holiday cards to family and friends all year long!

2. Mail it from work. Obviously you shouldn't take advantage of your workplace to mail thousands of flyers, but even strictly-run offices probably won't mind an occasional letter to Grandma slipped into the outgoing mail.

3. Media mail. Every so often I'll send a box of books to my nieces. Mailing these first-class would cost me more than the books did! Media rates are drastically lower, and though they warn of longer delivery time (up to three weeks!), I've found they usually arrive just as fast as first class mail.

09 September 2011

Frugal Friday: Wall Art

Finding unique artwork doesn't have to be an expensive venture. If you're not interested in a museum-quality collection but just want something to enhance your room's decor, here are a few frugal ideas.

1. Paint something yourself. A cheap white canvas (Big Lots has several sizes for very reasonable prices) and a few tubes of acrylic paint could be all you need to make the perfect work of art for your space. Leftover wall paint from your other painting projects can help coordinate it perfectly with your decor. Get the kids involved, especially if it's for their room!

2. Framed wallpaper or fabric samples. I love fabric and wallpaper but have a hard time committing to one pattern for a large project. Throw a sample in a frame and hang it up! Or if you're a nail-hole-commitment-phobe, too, lean it against the wall on a shelf or ledge. It will provide a cheap, easily changeable accent to your room. Or instead of using a frame, use embroidery hoops to frame your fabric. If the hoops are smaller, group several together with a collection of coordinating fabrics.

3. Copyright-free artwork. There are lots of online resources for old artwork that can be downloaded and printed without worry of copyright infringement. Here are a few of my favorites:

Vintage Printable
The Graphics Fairy
NY Public Library Digital Collections
Clipart ETC
Boston Public Library Digital Collections

If you don't want to burn through your printer ink, take them to Staples or other print shop (be on the lookout for coupons!). It'll still be cheaper than the real-deal vintage items in your local antique shop!

08 September 2011

Wherein I pretend to be some kind of designer

I'm tired of sawdust and debris. I want the pretties! Here are a couple of things I've drawn up. {Click on images to enlarge.} All prices listed are full retail, but I'll do my best not to pay even that much (though nothing I've chosen is particularly high-end to begin with).

First, the plan, bird's-eye perspective, and elevations - boring but helpful architectural drawings.

And the essentials - plumbing and fixtures. Plain white toilet, tub, and sink. Brushed stainless steel faucets (for tub and sink - these are the same fixtures as those in the master bath). Aged brass/bronze lights.

And finally materials and finishes. I actually came up with two options. The hard, permanent surfaces (cabinets and floors) are the same in both, but the soft goods are different. I think I like the first one better, but I don't know if I'll be able to get those rose knobs locally. Also, that marble floor probably won't be as cheap as the drawing indicates. It was on clearance at our Lowe's store, but they've sold out. It's available at other stores, but not at that price.

I have no idea what I'm doing for the vanity sink base and countertop. I'd like to retrofit an old, curvy dresser, but I need to find one first!

06 September 2011

Labor Day labors

We took advantage of Tom's day off of work to get a bit more done. The outlet circuits for the two bedrooms are just about complete! We need to pick up some circuit breakers, but the wire has been run all the way to the breaker box in the basement. We are waiting on the plumbing to be finished before we do any of the wiring for the bathroom. I got a start on insulation, too. R-19 batts in the wall will help keep the rooms nice and toasty warm in the winter. It's been dark and dreary (but wonderfully cool), so I haven't gotten any pictures. Plus there are tools and insulation and sawdust strewn everywhere, and electrical rough-ins aren't much to look at anyway. I'll get it cleaned up and update with photos.

03 September 2011

Frugal Fri...er, Saturday

I've been feeling a little uninspired for Frugal Friday lately - it's hard to feel frugal when you see dollar signs racking up above the heads of your construction crew. Tom participated in a 5k run this morning, so Clara and I hit a few nearby yard sales while he ran. As I mentioned before, I've been thinking a lot about the fixtures and finishes for the second bathroom. Pretty, affordable, and appropriate is apparently hard to come by in a new light fixture. I found several options and wasn't crazy about the prices, but I would have ponied up the dough anyway. These were the contenders, just to give you an idea of what I was going for:

Didn't like the chrome, and it was probably too mod for the house anyway. Sparkly and pretty, though.

Top contender because of its price. Simple but appropriate.

Probably my favorite aesthetically, but the most expensive and therefore least likely.

As luck would have it, the second garage sale of the morning had a light fixture that I scooped up for $4. Of course it's used and not exactly like any of the options that I posted above, but I'm happy with the purchase.

I'll have to see how it looks in the space before I do anything to it, but I'll probably tone down the brighter brass with a little Rub n Buff. So the Frugal Friday tip (I know it took long enough for me to get to it) is to be flexible. Even if something isn't an exact replica of what you have in mind, it can still be great and save you money in the process! (And I bet you thought the tip would be to go to garage sales!)