Winter Wonderland

There’s not much better than escaping the city to a winter wonderland. The brilliance of a snowy landscape is awe inspiring.
Many people think of winter sports as expensive, thinking about the cost of lessons and lift tickets. Yet is plenty of frugal fun to be had in the snow.
  • Sledding – Pure fun can be had by careening down your nearest bunny hill. A great way to introduce kids to the snow.
  • Snowshoeing – Snowshoes have become pretty inexpensive (yes, if you watched The Story of Stuff, the price has been externalized). You can also find them second hand or rent gear.
  • Cross-country skiing – Swedish family friends  I stayed with would go out for a quick twenty minute ski season to get some exercise and fresh air.
  • Hot chocolate picnic – Pack up some special snacks, a thick comforter and hot drinks for a special wintertime outing. We usually plan a picnic with our snowshoeing trips.
  • Snow Angels and Snow Families – Creating in the snow can get very imaginative, and it fun to come up with special traditions around snow storms. As a kid I remember using a particular apron and always making a snow woman, sometimes a whole family.
What kind of good cheap fun does your family have in the snow?
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Sustainable Family Finances 
The story of a family creating an abundant and sustainable life.

Story of Stuff

If you haven’t seen it already, this little video is as powerful as it is simple. It’s truly worth twenty minutes of your time. I’d love to hear your feedback on it.
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Sustainable Family Finances 
The story of a family creating an abundant and sustainable life.

“Second Mortgage” aka Child Care

I love our child care center, and adore the villagelike feel of giggly wee ones. I love to visit on breaks and be there when they have a boo-boo. I love the professional and friendly staff with their thoughtful infant curriculum and preschool pedagogy of constructivism. I love the art work and photos of their daily activities with captions about their learning (fine motor/communication). I love the smell of fresh baked granola bars and homemade soups, and the positive peer pressure to eat vegetables amongst kids. I love the field trips and friendships, and how children discover themselves by interacting with others.

Yet, every month when I first check my balance, I’m shocked to realize that half of my salary has been siphoned from my account via “tuition express.”  Somehow the automatic debit does numb the pain, since I don’t have to see the cash flowing from my hands. Before kids I could have never imagined paying almost $2k in tuition for an wobbler and preschooler. Actually come to think of it, that’s about how much money I was making in the non-profit sector.

I recognize that my complaint is privileged, since we can actually still make ends meet even with this “second mortgage.” And of course like all working families, we evaluated whether we could afford to fork over $24k annually for toddler/preschool tuition. Every family has their own financial threshold as well as personal preferences. In the end, our rationale was financial, parental and personal:
  1. Pay Our Family Bills – We both work full-time in order to pay our mortgage, household expenses and put organic food on the table. Theoretically our bills could be lower if we lived elsewhere, so it’s also a lifestyle choice.
  2. Graduate School Debt – My goal was to finish graduate school before starting a family. I was thrilled to announce that I was pregnant at graduation, but I was also deeply in debt, $60k.
  3. Long Term Net Loss – My Masters’ degree meant that my career was poised to advance. Even accounting for childcare costs, I’m fairly certain that if I had left my field for 5 years that my career would have suffered a long term net loss.
  4. I love my work – I’m fortunate enough to do work that I truly enjoy, and I couldn’t quite imagine my life without feeling a greater sense of community contribution.
  5. Early College Prep – Paying for quality care now may even be a better investment than college (at least they are only chugging milk and they aren’t ditching class!)
  6. Social & Emotional Development – Group child care provides an intuitive knowledge that cannot be taught by a single care giver. They know we love them deeply, but we can’t teach them to be friends. With two kids a nanny could be more slightly more affordable, but we prefer the group teaching setting.
  7. Location, location – While there are many factors that play into where your child should receive care, location is a big one. Located in my lobby, we pay a premium for this convenience.
  8. Light at the End – We’ll feel rich when we stop having to pay for child care, even though I know the costs just get redistributed to summer camps and activity fees. I’m hopeful that we’ll manage to gain some ground once they hit grade school.

What decisions have played into your child care choice? 
Do you have similar justifications or a differing view?


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Sustainable Family Finances 
The story of a family creating an abundant and sustainable life.

Trash Day

One way our family saves money monthly is by limiting our trash to one can per month, saving us $32.90 monthly and $394.80 annually. While not a mountain of cash, our family feels really good about not sending a mountain of trash to the landfill.  
So how does a family of four limit to one trash can per month?
  • Reduce – You don’t ever have to throw something out if it never enters your home. It can also be thought of as “precycling,” continually evaluating how much packaging an item comes in to consider its long term implications. It can also be seen as ReThinking. Do you really need it? How long will you benefit from it? Is it recyclable?
  • Reuse – If you think creatively enough, almost anything can be reused. You can also donate for reuse. The School & Community Reuse Action Project (S.C.R.A.P.) accepts donations of all sorts to be used in creative reuse projects, like turning CDs and records into clocks. Portland’s ReBuilding Center has been very successful at tackling a big waste source; building waste accounts for at least 20% of landfills. I also found a national organization, ReDo Reuse Development Organization that accepts donations for a variety of items from across the country and helps match you with more local reuse centers.
  • Recycle – Not surprisingly, the biggest factor that helps us stick to one garbage can per month is recycling everything possible. We have large roll carts for co-mingled recycling, and we do have pick up service every week, although we usually put it out every other week (no need to make the haulers stop if its half full.) If you don’t already, get to know what materials are accepted in your local market. With a little research you might find that some materials can be dropped off special places (like sour cream tubs and plastic bags). One last recycling tip, make sure any plastic bags get separated since they can ruin most recycling conveyor belts.
    • Compost – Food scraps typically make up 12% of garbage, and is completely and naturally recyclable. Exchanging garbage for soil is really and environmental no-brainer. There are more and more municipalities offering compost/yard waste pick-up, and even downtown offices have composting.
    • Remember – Sometimes it’s easy to loose sight of how some handy convenience will lead to a heap of trash and why it is so important. The best reminders for me are age one and four.  Plus, wouldn’t it be nice to only take the trash out once a month?!
      I also don’t want to make our one garbage can out to be such a big deal, since I know we’re not the only family to limit our trash. EnviroMom even has a “One Can Challenge,” and the entire City of Portland is shifting the policy to pick up trash only twice a month, once they add composting to yard waste bins.
      How have you reduced your family’s trash? Could you live with one can?
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      Sustainable Family Finances 
      The story of a family creating an abundant and sustainable life.

      Drive Less. Save More.

      Drive Less. Save More.” is more than a bumper sticker on our family rig, it’s a motto that we try to live by daily. I’ll share some of steps we’ve taken to transport ourselves in a frugal and low-impact way.

      1) Live close to where you live/work/play
      This is truly the biggest factor in our ability to keep our costs and carbon impact low. When choosing your family’s home, make sure to account for the cost associated with transporting yourself for home to work and beyond. We can run 90% of our errands within 5 miles; I can walk in less than fifteen minutes to the bank, pharmacy, post office and grocery store, plus the community center and several family-friendly restaurants. Family’s often don’t take this into account, and end up paying at the pump, not to mention quality of life. 
      2) Calculate Your Costs
      You’ve probably seen charts showing that the average American spends over $10,000 a year on transportation, driving an average of 12,000 miles. Metro’s “Drive Less. Save More.” campaign has a unique Driving Cost Calculator, which shows you what you spend currently, what you could save if you reduced your driving by 15% and 40%. This potential savings can be a good motivator to reduce your time behind the wheel.
      3) Take Transit
      Taking the bus or light-rail may not be an option for all families, but if it’s available near your home, don’t be intimidated to try it out. I’ll write more on this topic soon, since we take the bus every week day with two small ones. It can be fun and educational to take transit with your kids. If living in the suburbs is the only way to go for you, try carpooling. Most big areas offer programs or you can make connections at your workplace. Friends I’ve known who have carpooled enjoyed the camaraderie.
      4) Mileage Matters
      I wish I could say that our family car, a Subaru Forrester, gets great mileage, but it’s OK at best. Sadly, there are no good green family vehicles on the market yet. If you’ve got one you like, I’d like to hear about it! So, in the mean time, before a true eco-friendly family wagon exists, we’re going to have to continue to compensate by reducing our trips altogether.
      5) Plan Trips Strategically
      Often called “trip chaining,” planning your trips strategically can save you both time and money, which are both valuable to busy families. Make sure to plan your route to only include right hand turns, which the UPS found to be the quickest and thus most cost-effective. Simply taking a moment to plan out your trip will also help you feel more focused than frazzled, another genuine benefit.
      6) Reduce your insurance costs
      Insurance may be required, but there’s no need to overpay. You can quickly find low cost car insurance rates that will get reduce your monthly transportation costs. There are also some companies that offer pay-as-you-go plans, which gives incentives to driving less.
      7) One Car
      Owning only one car has always made sense to me. Perhaps it’s because I lived in Europe and biked everywhere before I ever got a driver’s license, but I promised myself long ago that my family would only have one car. Even when my Hubby worked in the burbs and I traveled to Seattle for grad school, we’ve always made our schedules work out. I know that those with older kids say that it gets harder, and I imagine it might. But call us wacky, we like going places as a family. If you really think you need two cars, try a ZipCar membership. Believe me, I looked into ditching our car altogether, but with car seats, camping and Doggy, it just wasn’t feasible.

      8) Use Home Delivery Services
      In many urban areas there are plenty of home delivery services, like grocery delivery and dry cleaning pick-up which can save you time and money.
      9) Bike Places
      I once biked 12 miles a day and loved it, but I have to admit that biking has taken a back seat since I became a Mama. I do know plenty of Mamas who take their kids to school and then head to work by bike. I hope to get back in gear this spring…I’ll share more once I’m back on the saddle.
      10) Think Twice
      More than anything, reducing your family miles relies upon reframing your thought process around what it is possible and what you really need and want. In college friends would ask me how I could afford to travel back to Europe each summer, and the answer was simple: I didn’t have the expense of a car. If it motivates you, think about the payoffs or log the savings and put it towards a vacation fund.
      Getting from here to there can seem to be the bane of modern existence sometimes, especially when we feel the twofold guilt of the cost and pollution. But you can make a difference by finding ways to reduce your driving and save your family money. Which ways will you “Drive Less. Save More.”?

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      Sustainable Family Finances 
      The story of a family creating an abundant and sustainable life.