Homeschooling on a Shoestring Friday, Jan 29 2010 

HOMESCHOOLING ON A SHOESTRING

Now that we have graduated four students, we have a set of books for every subject through high school. So, our future investment will be very low. At first we spent $500 on textbooks, teacher’s guides, computer software, and supplies each year, now it’s under $50. I’m teaching 6 students, from high school to first grade.

I realized early on that with the money I spent on preschool I could have bought a computer and a ton of art supplies. My change of plans was influenced by the mindset of keeping our money in the house. I’d rather go to free activities with my preschoolers and trade babysitting with a friend to get some free time than to spend money on preschool. Paying for preschool was especially ironic when you consider that I was a Child Development major in college.

The same thinking applies in upper grades. While I am aiming to give my children a quality education, that doesn’t mean I have to spend a lot of money.   How do I keep my homeschool budget low? I use the public library extensively, use a homeschool support group library, borrow science equipment, buy used musical instruments, and buy used books. Some of our text books were free. They were samples offered to the private school where my sister-in-law worked. She passed them on to us. They include a student text, a teacher text and some goodies like cassette tapes, overheads, tests and fun supplemental exercises. I’ve also benefitted from the hand-me-downs of friends who try a curriculum and then move on.  One way I’ve saved money is to not curriculum hop. The first grade readers that my 26 year old used are now being used by my 6 year old. Guess what, they still work. My supplies may not be so fun or modern, but they offer a sound academic education.

If you’re known as people who aren’t proud and will take what’s offered, you can get a lot of stuff free. We’ve gotten loads of paper, envelopes and notebooks from offices that were closing because we let people know that we are willing to use what’s given to us. We’ve also been given computer programs, older video gaming systems and lots of books.

Sticking to the basics can save you a lot of money.  Like what? A Bible for you to read! If you don’t have God’s direction and strength, you can just hang it up now. You’ll need a Bible for each student with age appropriate text. A good dictionary, encyclopedia on CD Rom, a computer. Lots of paper and pencils, good math text books, good grammar textbooks. Then you need lots of time playing with building materials (legos, lincoln logs, erector set), looking at leaves and bugs, writing and rewriting about anything and everything, and reading about history, science and current events. Visit museums and ask for study guides. Take vacations at historical locations. Go to the zoo, then look up your favorite animal when you get home for an extended study. You don’t have to buy packaged curriculum or spend a lot of money. You can learn as you live and collect materials wherever you go. Life is full of learning opportunities.

Literature is a foundation of our school.  It’s great inspiration to foster a love of playing with the language, feeding the imagination, and broadening the mind with stories of heroes, villians, hardship and triumph. About half of my students are avid readers. The other half is dyslexic. Literature is important to all of them though. For those who find reading a chore, we skip it for a long time. They listen to our literature reading at noon and they check out audio classics in different formats from the library. I call it going in the back door. If reading (going in the front door) is something the student hates, don’t do it.  If they love great stories, which is what classic literature is, then go around to the back door and go in through the ears instead of the eyes. The important thing is to get the material into the brain. Use whatever method is peaceful for you and your student. Now that we’ve been homeschooling for 20 years I can say that my fondest times are the times I’ve spent reading classic literature after lunch as we linger at the table. Cost, nothing….investment in our lives, priceless.

Paying for College….or Not Thursday, Jan 28 2010 

Elementary education is one thing, but what about college? If you just look at the numbers, a carpenter with 10 children can’t afford to send his children to college. But we have a plan and a source of money. The plan is this: we tell our children that we will send them to 2 years of community college and the next 2 years are theirs to pay for if they want a four year degree. They can go into the military, get employer sponsored tuition or enroll in a work/study program. They can save from the time they are little and pay for it, or they can get scholarships and grants. We will discourage loans. That’s the plan. What’s the source? It’s God. He has all the money in the world and can send a child to college if that is what He has planned for that young person. Not everyone needs to go to college either. It’s not a birthright and is not a guaranteed asset in everyone’s life.   So how is that plan working for us? Our oldest daughter graduated from UVA. She entered as a third year at 18 years old because she started community college at 16. She had 2 Associate’s Degrees already. UVA has almost no merit based aid, so her excellent grades didn’t help there. We filled out the FAFSA form which is step one in getting financial aid. Our EFC, or expected family contribution, was very low. She was awarded grants to cover almost all of her needs but did take a loan for $2000 for the year. She will pay back the loan on her own after graduation. A year before she went to UVA my daughter came to me and said she’d decided not to go to a 4 year school this year but would stay home and work. This was not the dream she’d been working toward so I asked what was behind her change of plans. She said she didn’t have the money for college, so she couldn’t go. I said “Oh honey, have I taught you nothing? God has ALL the money!”. She proceded with her dream plan and had her faith strengthened when she saw how little was needed from her for tuition.

Our next 3 daughters have also begun their college years at community college. One got a degree in Hotel & Restaurant Management plus a Culinary Arts certificate. She now has her dream job of working in the bake shop of a resort hotel. She gets to make wedding cakes and lots of other beautiful desserts and has no college debt. Sweet! The next daughter is getting 2 associate’s degrees. One in business, the other in interior design. The fourth daughter did 2 years at community college and transferred to UVA. Her grants and loans have covered all of her university expenses.

So, our plan is working and we will continue with it. We won’t take out a loan to cover our children’s college expenses. Putting our home at risk for the education of one child seems foolish. The financial security of the other 11 members of the family is the greater priority.

Grocery Saving 101 Wednesday, Jan 27 2010 

How do I feed 10 people for under $500 a month? What I don’t do is stroll through the grocery store dropping everybody’s favorite foods into my cart. I also never run to the store for a missing ingredient for a recipe. If I’m out of something, I change plans or improvise.

I use sales at the grocery store. I stock up on specials, especially half price items. This way I build my own grocery store at home using my freezer, my kitchen pantry and shelves in the basement. An extra freezer is almost an essential for saving money to the degree I do it. Even apartment dwellers can get a small chest freezer. The savings on food will have it paid for within 6 months. I buy much of our food from a frozen food co-op which gives me a huge amount of food for a very low price.

I travel to go to Aldi, a no-frills grocery store about every 3 months. At Aldi I get chips, crackers, canned refried beans, soup, vegetables and fruits. A trip to the warehouse store every couple of weeks is part of our routine too. At Costco I get dairy products like milk, cheese, butter and sour cream. For a family, savings on dairy products alone can pay for your membership at the warehouse store. Costco is also a good source for large size baking supplies like 20lb bags of sugar, 25 lbs of flour and 1lb of yeast.  Paper products are generally good deals too, but often you can do better with a sale at a grocery store or drug store.

I rarely go to more than one grocery store each week. I just select the one with the most good deals. Because I buy in quantity, I use food from my pantry instead of going to the store. Produce and bread sometimes run low, and I’ll stop into the store just for those things. I can go 2-3 weeks without a big shopping trip if I pick up bread and produce between larger shopping trips.

I get free bread from the food pantry. They get more baked goods than they need and make it available to the public. I often find organic and whole grain breads which I use for French toast, sandwiches and bread pizza. If I’m getting free bread, I’m thinking of ways to serve bread. I use whatever comes my way rather than having a meal plan and going in search of the ingredients. The deals come first, then the menu.

While the deals are important to me, it can’t be at the expense of eating healthy foods. We eat very well but we pay very little. We’re not eating white bread and Kool-aid. That would lower our food bill, but we’d spend more at the doctor’s office! We eat simple whole foods, bake from scratch, and eat lean meats. Salmon, chicken breast, roast whole chicken, venison, roasts, steaks and ground beef are all found in our dinner menus. Occasionally there’s some bacon or sausage. We also enjoy some meatless meals like mac and cheese, quiche or cheese fondue. Meat stretchers like rice, potatoes and noodles help us make the meat go further. Lunches include leftovers, soups, and sandwiches. Breakfasts include bagels with peanut butter, omlettes, and cereal with milk. In the winter we enjoy hot cereals with our choice of toppings like raisins, brown sugar, nuts and honey. We have fresh fruit on the counter constantly for snacks. Baby carrots, yogurt, pretzels, popcorn and cheese are also our snack foods.

 How can people get started lowering their food bill? Step one is to get a Sunday newspaper and scan the ads and coupons. I take a marker and circle the items that are good prices. My book has a target price list so you know what you’re aiming for. I cut coupons for any items I ever use and file them in a baby wipes box in envelopes according to category like: baby, baking, cereal… When a sale item’s price can be further reduced by a coupon I can really save. I get some items free and have even had the store pay me for some foods! My Mom and neighbor save their coupon sections for me so I can buy  several of the good deals.

My Sunday paper scanning routine takes me about an hour and a half a week. But it saves me time in the store because my decisions are already made. I can take my ad and list with an envelope of the correct coupons and shop very quickly. I don’t stand in the store wondering what to get. I spend more time planning at home than most, but I pay about half what other people do and shop quickly once I’m at the store. My 6 hours a month saves at least $300 for a payback of $50 an hour. Pretty good pay for a job I can do while watching a movie!

Even if there’s no way you’ll match coupons to sales, grab the ad as you enter the store. Quickly scan it for produce sales especially “buy one get one free”.  Also look for half price deals on other groceries. If you only spent a minute looking over the ad, you could still begin saving a lot by stocking up on your favorites when they are on sale.

We’re Thriving Near the Poverty Line Tuesday, Jan 26 2010 

Welcome!

Ten years ago I wrote a book called “Get More For Your Money”. It was self-published and I remember coming home with cases of books thinking “it will be so embarassing if I die with these books still in my basement!” Fortunately, I sold them all. Unfortunately, I sold them all. Now there’s a financial crisis and masses of people are at last willing to learn how to be frugal. A reprint is in the works.

My family has been living on one income for 26 years. This year it is a low income. My husband works in home construction and had his income cut by a third. But underemployed is better than unemployed!  I like to say we’re “thriving near the poverty line”. The only way we can live well without much money is by spending it only where it counts and getting creative for all our “wants”.

I want to encourage anyone who is finding it hard to make ends meet.  Your clothing budget can be nearly zero. Your food budget can be about $2 per person per day, and I’m not talking white bread and kool-aid! If you cut spending drastically, your dollars are available for housing, utilities, insurance and other essentials. It is hard to be poor. It means you can’t just throw money at a problem and do it the easy way. Every event or need means a little extra thought, planning and work. But being debt free is better than doing things the easy way. For our family being frugal even when we had extra money meant that when our income was cut, we were OK. We just needed to keep doing what we knew….don’t spend money on anything that isn’t a bill.

How do we dress a large family nearly for free? Our church hosts a clothing exchange twice a year. Everyone brings clothing they no longer want. Volunteers sort it by size & gender during the five days of set-up and shop for free. On Saturday we are open to the public who come and take whatever they want, as much as they want. What doesn’t get taken is donated to charity.

If there’s no exchange in your area already, maybe you could host one. A church, garage, or community center would be a good location. You’ll want helpers. It could be a neighborhood, work or church project. You just need space, racks & hangars, tables and signs. You’ll find that people have nice things to donate. We’ve all got clothing that we’ve never worn and it’s great to share it at the exchange.

Next post….food, my favorite place to save money!