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Saturday, December 8, 2012

Little Ms Do-It-Yourself

For me the worst part of the whole broke and desperate scenario has always been the "what if" question. What if my car breaks down and I can't afford to take it to the shop? What if the washer stops working and I can't afford to call the repair man? What if my son gets a hole in his tennis shoes and I can't afford to replace them? These are scary thoughts and if you don't have an answer they can be down right terrifying!

A long time ago (way before the broke and desperate scenario) I decided I didn't like the feeling of being helpless and at the mercy of either some overpriced repairman or the inflated retail establishments. I figured if it was broken already, and I was careful, I might as well try to fix it first, right? I have been known in years past to take apart vacuum cleaners, laptop computers, toasters, ect. And the truth is the only one of all these things I was not able to fix was the toaster. I was not always sure what it was I did that actually fixed them, but I was grateful and delighted that they once again worked.

The other day I was once again faced with a "what if" situation come to life. The power window on the drivers side of my car stopped working, then a couple of days later the power locks and my alarm system and remote stopped as well. This is not a catastrophic event, I realize this. But it is inconvenient and could be an indicator of a larger problem.

After the initial panic subsided I summoned forth "Little Ms. Do-It-Yourself". This is my alter ego that hangs out in my subconscious until she is asked to come out and play, then happily trots out to explore what ever problem I am facing. My first thought was it had to be fuses. When I couldn't locate the fuse box because it wasn't where I expected it to be (under the driver side dashboard), I consulted my owners manual and was informed it was under the hood in my engine compartment in a locked case. Okaaayyyy. It took me a half an hour to wrestle that box open only to find I have 82 fuses. EIGHTY TWO!!!!! Ok, deep breaths, consult the manual, find the diagram, realize the diagram is actually of the box upside down that I am looking at, identify the right fuses, pull them out and.... crap. The fuses are fine. Now what? My son's comment was "don't worry mom, we will take it in have it looked at". NO. This shall not defeat me. I decided to go searching for answers. After 15 minutes of searching on Google and phrasing my question six different ways, I stumbled on a forum dedicated to my vehicles model. Evidently my problem is relatively common for my car make/year and others have gone searching for the same solution. Lucky for me they have posted both question and several solutions.

I am the first to admit I am not a mechanic. I am a 46 yr old soccer mom who specializes in arts and crafts. But I have always have a fascination for cars and love getting greasy in the pursuit of how things work. That being said, I was pretty skeptical about the solutions posted. Of course the first one was to replace the fuses. Check. The second was so far fetched I had to reread it 3 times to make sure I was understanding it correctly. Here is what it said:

"Remove both battery cables from the terminals, tap them together a couple of times, leave off for at least 5 minutes then reattach the cables to the terminals, making sure to clean the posts of any corrosion."

Really? Should I do a little "electrical system" dance and tap my heels together 3 times as well? Ok, enough of the sarcasm, but you get the idea. I had a little disbelief going on here, but what the heck. Of course the first time I tried it it didn't work. After laughing my butt off at myself that I had actually went through the little process with any thought that it COULD work I realised I had skipped one part. I didn't wait the 5 minutes before reconnecting the cables. So I did it again, waited 10 minutes (just in case) and reconnected the cables. It worked. I couldn't believe it. The logical part of my brain knows it probably has something to do with resetting some electrical power module thingy, but the fanciful part of my brain just said YIPEEEEE!

What is the point of this whole commentary? The point is this. Before we let the panic and despair of the whole situation pull us further under we can look for do-it-yourself solutions. It may not be as easy as picking up the phone and saying "come fix this", or as quick as just running and buying another one, but it is doable. When you feel you are out of options and facing a real dilemma, change your mindset.

Try to calm the panic and evaluate the problem. If the vacuum cleaner is not sucking pull off the hose and check for clogs. Not the problem? Is the brush thing spinning? Look for answers on the Internet, call and ask everyone you know, take the thing apart and look for loose wires, clogs, blown fuses, ect. Don't be afraid to try and fix it yourself first. If you still can't figure it out and can't afford to fix/replace it look for alternatives. Can you live without the window rolling down? Could you borrow a vacuum from your neighbor a couple of times until you can come up with a solution? Could you ask a good friend if you can run a couple of loads of laundry at her place while you sit and have coffee (and some Banana Nut bread you baked and brought with you)? Then, after you have bought a little time look for ways you can divert funds from other areas to cover this expense, keep asking to see if anyone knows of a inexpensive alternative or if anyone knows someone qualified to fix the thing who will work with you. If you put the word out you might even find someone who has an "extra" of whatever it is and is willing to give it to you or work out a fair deal.

If we change our mindset to "I can and will find a solution" instead of throwing our hands in the air and wailing about the injustice of the universe we can find a way to overcome any obstacle life throws in our way.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Dollar Store Dilemma

For years I always considered the dollar store (insert whatever dollar store is closest to you) an occasional stop for things like gift bags, Christmas bows and candy before we went to the movies. Over the last year I have discovered it is so much more and can be a regular weapon in my frugal fight on high consumer prices and my grocery bill.

I have recently started casually introducing the topic of shopping at the dollar store into conversations with my friends to get an idea of the typical attitude. Almost overwhelmingly the consensus was the same. "Great for wrapping paper, cards or party favors, but I would never buy food there!"

The "Dollar Tree" is the local store chain in my area (the west coast). I don't know if they are typical of most dollar store chains. Maybe someone out there can comment on others because I am not likely to travel the country and check this out for myself. That being said, I have been amazed at the plethora of good quality food products I have found.

My conversion was actually purely by accident. I was there looking for a plastic soap dish with a suction cup to stick on the wall of my tiny master bath shower and noticed an end cap display of Hunt's Spaghetti Sauce. This same spaghetti sauce will occasionally go on special for $.99 ea, usually with a coupon, at the grocery store. But this is sporadic at best. The Dollar Tree had three different flavors and when I asked the clerk she said this is a regular stocked item. Huh. I thought maybe I should see what else they "regularly" stock.

 I have to admit that when I perused the shelves of the food isles I saw a very mixed bag of brands, a lot I had never heard of and a few "name brands". The reality is there are very few food items I am a die hard name brand shopper. Do I have my preferences? Of course. I love Coffemate Italian Sweet Cream coffee creamer, but at $3.69 ea, unless it is on special and I have a coupon, I buy Lucerne Italian Sweet Cream which regularly goes on sale here for $2.49, and if I have a coupon, WooooHooooo! It tastes almost as creamy/sweet and I am still satisfied. So if I am willing to try a new brand at the grocery store, why not the dollar store? I started small. They had 2 lb packages of Allegro spaghetti noodles, the Hunt's spaghetti sauce (I bought 2) and 3 count packs of Cup-O-Noodles (these are $.53for 1 on sale at my local grocery store). Total of $4.00. I went home that night and made a big pot of spaghetti for my son and his 2 friends (and 18 yr old boys can eat A LOT) using the noodles, spaghetti sauce and one package of ground turkey I picked up on a big time special at 2/$5.00. It was delicious and there was more than enough to feed the four of us for $5.50.

Before I go any further I want to comment on prepacked foods vs scratch for all the black belt tightwad frugalnistas out there cringing at prepackaged spaghetti sauce. Please see the paragraph at the bottom of this post for my opinion.

Back to the dollar store. After the success of the spaghetti and Cup-O-Noodles, which are a cheap staple in the cupboard for snacks for my son and friends, I was hooked. I went back with a notepad, $20.00 and an open mind. This is what I came home with:

2 2lb pkg spaghetti noodles (off brand)
2 cans Hunt's spaghetti sauce
1 pkg egg noodles (I use these in homemade soup and beef stroganoff, a staple in my house, off brand)
1 package burrito size flour tortillas (8ct, off brand)
1 tall glass jar of minced garlic (off brand)
1 canister of granulated garlic (off brand)
1 canister of onion powder (off brand)
1 canister of season salt (off brand)
1 box of 3 pkg brown gravy mix (used to thicken/flavor soup and beef stroganoff)
1 box cherry poptart like pastry (off brand)
1 can chili (for chili baked potatoes and snacks, off brand)
1 family size box shells and cheese (off brand)
1 box Kraft mac n cheese
2 packages Bar-S classic hot dogs (I use these for dog treats, more on that later)
1 small jar green olives (I like to put out a tray of little foods for company, off brand)
1 bag garlic bagel chips (name brand but it escapes me right now)

Of all that I bought only the green olives, shells and cheese, poptart like pastry and bagel chips are things I normally wouldn't buy because they are way too expensive at the grocery store. Everything else I buy on sale/coupons regularly, but almost never for $1.00.

I am happy to report that the only thing we didn't like was the shells and cheese. Everything else was tasty, fresh and good quality. I have since tried many other food products from Dollar Tree. They have an entire aisle of snack foods. Chips, cookies, candy, etc. When I have a craving for kettle chips (one of my secret obsessions) I stop at the dollar store. The bag isn't as big but they are just as tasty as "Tim's" kettle chips at $3.49 and are only $1.00. I don't need the larger bag. The strawberry fig newton like cookies are yummy. I have bought a large Gatorade (in the cooler) when we head out to school to go with my sons packed lunch. They have an interesting and varied refrigerated/frozen food section. The selection varies widely, week to week, but they always have certain regularly stocked items.

Now after I make out my grocery list using the weekly flyers and coupons on hand I stop at the dollar store to see if they have what I need first. It's not a good place to find staples like flour, sugar, eggs, milk etc, though they do carry those things, and in a pinch if you only need a couple of eggs to get you through $1.00 for 6 is better then buying a whole dozen for $2.29. Especially when you know eggs will be on sale with that coupon for $.99 a dzn in 2 days. But it is definitely one of my best weapons in my arsenal for saving money and still having the life we are comfortable with. If you haven't given it a shot, check out your local dollar store with an open mind and you might just be pleasantly surprised.

I cook most meals from scratch. I prefer fresh vegetables, meat bbq'd (year round) and scratch made potatoes, pasta or rice. But there is a place for "semi homemade" in my household as well. Sometimes meals are a combination of the two. I have limited space (1000 sq ft 3 bd, 2 bth), limited time and limited resources available. Though I live in a small town and am surrounded by farms and ranches ,what we grow in this area is limited because of our climate. Tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower etc is expensive. I also have a black thumb and plants of any kind start screaming when they see me coming. It is not feasible either space, time or money wise to can my own spaghetti sauce. If I truly were a black belt in the area of frugality I would never buy prepackaged food of any kind. I sadly am not. What I am is a freshman frugalnista doing her best to create a quality life that is still comfortable for my family and does not leave me stressed and exhausted at the end of each day. I admit to having a mix of prepackaged as well as staples in my pantry cupboards and fridge/freezer. Some "convenience" foods also regularly find their way into my house if I can find them cheaply enough. Enough said.