Last night I was channel surfing when I came across the latest episode of Oprah, and something caught my eye...something that exposed me to a side of frugality I wasn't really aware of until I saw this show. Now, as a forty-something-year-old man, I'm not a regular viewer of Oprah, but I was intrigued.

The show was about something I can only describe as "extreme frugality": freegans, or freeganism. Freegans are people who believe that Americans, while being the biggest consumers on the planet, are also the most wasteful. Each year, billions of dollars worth of food is discarded into the trash, even if it hasn't yet hit its "sell by" date. Freegans say that's a terrible waste of our food and resources, and they are there to make use of it.

That's right, Freegans regularly "dumpster dive" to get the majority of their food, home furnishing and clothing. At first, I was extremely repulsed by the thought of eating food that came from the trash. However, I was also surprised at some of the things the Freegans found: unopened canned goods, sealed vegetables, bread, lunch meat, seafood -- all dug out of the trash to become some Freegan's free meal. One Freegan had not purchased new clothing in three years because she regularly found designer duds discarded in the trash.

A group of Freegans in New York even sponsored a sort of dumpster-diving tour of the city. They scrounged through trash bins and dumpsters and found all sorts of food they said was perfectly fine and edible. They found an entire 30-gallon bag of bagels in front of a bakery, destined to become part of some Freegan's frugal breakfast. While I truly believe New York bagels are the best in the world, I'm not brave enough to eat baked goods pulled from the trash.
You might think from my description of Freegans that they are trash-eating, dreadlocked, homeless hippies who refuse to work for a living and would rather live off the cast-offs of others, but you would be wrong. Many of the Freegans were people who worked as engineers, doctors or some other lucrative position. They said it wasn't about saving the money they would otherwise spend on food. It was about preventing edible food from hitting the landfill and recovering other perfectly useful items that would otherwise be wasted.

There is no doubt there is a lot of waste in the U.S. I furnished one of my son's bedrooms with a futon mattress that I found sitting on a curb. There was nothing wrong with it. The previous owner was moving and just trying to get rid of it. I'm afraid I have to draw the line at food when it comes to my dumpster-diving.

If more people adopted the frugal mantra of "buy it for less, make it last longer, use it more", there would be a lot less waste in the U.S....but the Freegans would also have to start paying for a meal.

Last year, Raina Kelley, using the moniker Freegan Girl, blogged about her experiment to live as a Freegan for 30 days. It looks like she nearly went insane by Day 30. Apparently, you can't find a good cheeseburger in the dumpster. There is also a web site where you can find more info about Freegans, but the folks who run the site seem a bit more anti-social than the merry trash-pickers I saw on Oprah.

Savvy Frugality Tip: Some things, like cheeseburgers, are worth paying for.

My insurance agent doesn't know it yet, but he's fired. It's not necessarily his fault, but I'm going to have to go with another company for my car insurance (I may stick with the company for renter's insurance).

When I moved recently, I was told my insurance premium had gone up by $100 for a six month policy term because of the change to my zip code. Not only this, but the company charged me an additional $39 to "move" my policy from one zip code to the other. I moved a total of 15 miles, so I don't understand the rate increase or the $39 charge to increase my rates.

My auto and renter's insurance came to a total of $123 when I first purchased the policies about three years ago. After a year or so, there was a rate increase to about $138 a month. Last year, I backed into a parked car. Most of the damage was to my car, and nobody was injured. My rates climbed to $148 a month, which I expected since the accident was my fault.

What I did not expect when I opened my latest bill was to discover that my insurance rate has now climbed to $178 a month -- all because I moved 20 minutes away from my old residence. Enough is enough.

I went online and filled out a form at one of the services that helps compare car insurance rates. Within a half hour, an insurance agent was on the phone with me, giving me three quotes which were all cheaper than the insurance I currently have. The cheapest quote I got was for about $80 a month... about $100 a month cheaper than what I currently pay.

I will be comparing the policy I have now with the quoted policy, but if the coverage matches up, I'm making the switch. I'll still need to pay for renter's insurance, but the two rates combined will still be cheaper than what I was paying by having both policies with the same company. I currently pay about $22 a month for renter's insurance. Even if that rate doubles if I drop my car insurance, I'm still saving money.

Savvy Frugality Tip: if a monthly household bill is getting out of hand, shop around. There is a lot of competition for your business, especially in the auto insurance industry. About 20 minutes of effort helped me find potential savings of about $1,000 a year. If you don't want to completely switch to a different company, call your current provider first and see if they can do anything to lower your rate. They'll likely do something to keep your business. That's what I'll be doing with my renter's insurance policy. It certainly doesn't hurt to ask, and you could save yourself hundreds of dollars over the course of a year.

It's time once again for the weekly Festival of Frugality. Savvy Frugality's post, ten easy ways to save money on household bills, is included in this week's update. Other posts worthy of special mention this week:

Cheap Healthy Good writes about brand loyalty and how to love generic.

The Digerati Life writes about slashing a budget by 25%.

Money Blue Book writes about ten purchases to avoid if you want to save money.

Sound Money Matters writes about saving money when filing taxes.

Quest For Four Pillars writes about the true meaning of ‘the good life’.

There is lots of other great reading in this week's festival. Enjoy!

Even though the new home my family recently moved into is rent-free, we have still had to make some major adjustments to our monthly spending plan. The utilities, trash pick-up, car insurance gasoline and even groceries are all more expensive in the new area where we live. The cost savings I thought I would realize from not paying rent or a mortgage each month are not as great as I thought they would be.

It's usually a good idea to review your monthly spending plan at least on a quarterly basis, but preferably on a monthly basis, to make sure you're staying on track and make any necessary adjustments. Here are 10 quick ways to cut what I call "the monthlies"...the monthly household bills that you must pay each month no matter what.

1. Automate your bill payments. There was a month when I was really busy and forgot to pay my water bill. I had the money for it, but it just slipped my mind. That episode of forgetfulness cost me an extra $10. Most banks now offer free automatic bill pay. Take advantage of it, and never pay late fees again.

2. Read your bills. Most people just pay their bills without reviewing them, but bill collectors aren't perfect, either. They could be overcharging you for a service, or you might be paying for something that you don't actually use (phone bills contain charges for numerous services you probably don't use). Review your bills and see if there are areas you can cut, or if an error has been made in your favor.

3. Pay your bills on time. As I mentioned in tip number one, even being late by one day can cost you extra money. Pay your bills on time, and you'll also be protecting your credit rating. If you have an unexpectedly high bill one month, such as a heating bill, work out payment arrangements with the utility, but don't ignore the bill.

4. Use Average Monthly Billing. This is a service many utility companies use. They average out your energy uses over the course of a year and determine a monthly bill payment for you. So, if you live in Minnesota, instead of paying $10 for a month's worth of natural gas in June and $300 in December, you might pay $60 a month all year round. It doesn't cut the total amount you pay, but it keeps your monthly payment consistent.

5. Shop around. Your cable or internet service provider might not be the only game in town. Shop around and see if you can get a better deal on some of the bills you pay each month.

6. Keep an eye on your bank, too. When I first joined my bank about 5 years ago, I signed up for "club account" which provided overdraft protection. That "protection" cost me $11 in fees every month. After some time had gone by, I realized I don't need the protection because my account is never overdrawn. By switching to a free checking account, I saved myself $132 a year and eliminated an annoying monthly charge. Ditto with the savings accounts. While your brick-and-mortar bank may only be paying half a percent in interest on savings, online banks offer savings rats of 3 to 4 percent.

7. Use a game plan for groceries. Identify the supermarkets in your area with the best sales, double coupons days and bargains if you have their store loyalty cards. These can help you cut your grocery bill by 25 percent or more.

8. Monitor car insurance rates. As I mentioned before, my car insurance rates increased by $100 just because I moved to a new zip code. There is a lot of competition in the car insurance industry. Shop around and you may find a much better deal. Also, keep on eye out for arbitrary increases in your rate after your policy term expires.

9. Determine if your "monthlies" are necessary. You may have a monthly household bill that isn't a necessity at all. If you have a video or gym membership you rarely use, or pay for the premium cable TV plan when you really watch the same 10 TV channels each week, you've probably got some fat to cut from your monthlies.

10. Become an expert on your own finances. You can't even begin to figure out if you're paying too much on your monthlies if you have no idea what you're spending or where your money is going. There are plenty of programs out there to help you get a handle on your finances, whether it's Quicken,, Mvelopes, Wesabe or Yodlee. Mint, Wesabe and Yodlee are free online services, and it doesn't get much better than free!

The Frugal Freezer

Posted by T | 10:46 PM | | 3 comments »

With food prices on the rise, many people adopting frugal living principles are trying to stretch their grocery dollars by purchasing meats and vegetables when they go on sale, and then storing them in their freezer. There is no doubt about it...a good energy-efficient upright or chest freezer is probably the most frugal appliance once can have in their home. I have a regular freezer built into my refrigerator, but a chest freezer is definitely going to be my next appliance purchase. I'm just waiting for a great sale.

After awhile, there is always one question that comes up when people are freezing meats and casseroles for later long can I freeze this stuff and still eat it? I'll never forget a disturbing episode at my grandmother's house. She had become quite ill and had to move into a nursing home, so it was up to our family to clean out her apartment and help her make the transition. As we cleaned out her freezer we discovered packages of meat which, according to the dates on the packages, had been stored for anywhere from two to five YEARS. Now, I knew my grandmother was something of a pack rat. She reused things not just once, but two or three times. Still, a five year old roast was something of a shock. There it was, tucked away in the top half of her refrigerator, as if it had been cryogenically preserved until it could be reanimated by scientists in the year 2525.

Shockingly, the USDA says food stored at zero degrees Fahrenheit remains safe to eat indefinitely. Only the quality of the food is reduced with long term freezing, not the safety. So, even though Grandma's five year old roast wouldn't send anyone to the hospital with a raging case of food poisoning, it probably wouldn't win any awards in the Pillsbury Bake-Off, either.

Even the dreaded "freezer burn" doesn't mean that food isn't safe to eat. It just means that part of it is dried out. The USDA says you can just cut the freezer burnt portion of the food and discard it, and the rest is fine to consume.

There are a few keys to remember when freezing your vittles. First, your freezer must be cold enough. That means zero degrees Fahrenheit. You must freeze your food as soon as you bring it home, and it must be frozen quickly. It is best to re-wrap your meat, rather than storing it in the supermarket packaging. I wrap our meats in aluminum foil first, and then place it inside of a plastic freezer bag, taking care to squeeze out all of the excess air before zipping it closed.

The USDA has plenty of other freezing tips, too. They also have a handy-dandy freezer storage chart. The chart indicates the length of time food can be frozen and still retain its quality, not the length of time until it goes "bad". As long as it is wrapped and frozen properly at zero degrees, the stuff in your freezer isn't going to send you to the emergency room.

Freezer Storage Chart (0 °F)
Note: Freezer storage is for quality only. Frozen foods remain safe indefinitely.

Item Months
Bacon and Sausage 1 to 2
Casseroles 2 to 3
Egg whites or egg substitutes 12
Frozen Dinners and Entrees 3 to 4
Gravy, meat or poultry 2 to 3
Ham, Hotdogs and Lunchmeats 1 to 2
Meat, uncooked roasts 4 to 12
Meat, uncooked steaks or chops 4 to 12
Meat, uncooked ground 3 to 4
Meat, cooked 2 to 3
Poultry, uncooked whole 12
Poultry, uncooked parts 9
Poultry, uncooked giblets 3 to 4
Poultry, cooked 4
Soups and Stews 2 to 3
Wild game, uncooked 8 to 12

Your freezer really is a frugal food storage option when you can get the food items on sale, so freeze away for a rainy day.

I still don't recommend eating five year old beef roast, however.

We've all heard the advice over and over again: "you've got to have an emergency fund", "you must save money for retirement", and the one I hear David Bach say on Oprah and The Millionaire Inside on CNBC: "pay yourself first".

"That's all good advice," I used to say, "but I have plenty of bills I have to pay. What about those?" A few years later, I still had bills, but my nest egg wasn't any bigger than it had been when I first heard the advice. That is, until I changed my mindset about saving money.

I concluded that if I treat my regular savings deposits like another bill I had to pay...something similar to say, for example, rent or groceries...I would rebuild my savings in no time. So, that is what I did. Every payday, no matter what, I write a check to my savings account equal to ten percent of my net pay. Some finance experts say you should save ten percent of your gross pay, but hey...I have other bills, too.

I treat these payments just like regular bill payments. In fact, I treat it like it is my most important bill payment. I'll always find a way to eat, pay rent and keep the lights one, but I can't always go back and wish I had a savings account and all the interest my savings could have accumulated if I had just made those payments. In fact, by missing a payment I would be penalizing the form of lost interest and lost money.

When I get paid, my "bill payment" to my savings account is the one that gets paid first. The other bills come after my savings payment. If I have an unexpected expense, one that is truly an emergency, well...that's what the savings account is for. By treating myself as bill collector who must be paid no matter what, I am ensuring that money is there for true emergencies and critical expenses. No, a new TV is not a critical expense. If your refrigerator dies and you just bought groceries, that would be a critical expense.

So, don't think of savings as merely "paying yourself first". It's too easy to skip it and send your money to a different bill collector. Be your own bill collector, and watch your nest egg grow.

Savvy Frugality is once again pleased to be included in the latest Festival of Frugality. This week, the festival is hosted by Mighty Bargain Hunter, and the festival takes on a President's Day theme. Savvy Frugality's post, Ten Lessons from a One Income Family, was selected as an editor's pick this week. Thanks, Mightly Bargain Hunter! Here are Savvy Frugality's picks this week:

Millionaire Mommy Next Door has a great post on being outwardly simple and inwardly rich.

Is poor record-keeping costing you money? The Personal Financier lists a number of good tips for taming your paper. My own filing skills could use some work. It's not that I'm not aware that good filing is a must...I just don't like doing it.

Sound Money Matters gives directions for freezing bread, herbs, and sauces. I really need to get a chest freezer. It's my next appliance purchase.

Digerati Life lists twelve ways to go about affording the big stuff. Number 10 is great advice. Rent-to-own is a rip-off...a lesson my family learned the hard way a number of years ago. A better tip: buy things the rent-to-own store is looking to get rid of. It's usually in great shape, and it's priced to move. I bought a sofa and love seat on sale from a rent-to-own store for $150. They looked brand new, and the store delivered them for free!

With increasing fuel and commodities prices sending the cost of groceries even higher, one segment of the economy is apparently trying to lend consumers a helping hand by stretching their food dollar: fast food restaurants.

According to this story carried on, restaurants like McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's are expanding the selections on their so-called "dollar menus" to give their customers inexpensive options and keep them coming back for more, even as the economy slows.

I admit, I do hit the drive-through to work on occasion if I'm in a hurry to get to work and need a quick breakfast. Then I started thinking about it....sure, the items on the dollar menu are cheap enough, but are they really frugal?

I can get a sausage biscuit at McDonald's for 99 cents. That's pretty cheap, as sandwiches go, but is it possible to do better than that? I sat down and figured out the price of the same item, made from scratch at home. Surely, a big company like McDonald's, which gets all of its items in bulk, can produce this cheaper than I can at home. At least, that's what I thought.

My wife makes our biscuits from scratch, using the homemade baking mix recipe that we use for a lot of our pancakes, biscuits and waffles. She probably spends about $5 purchasing all of the items needed to make the baking mix, so one biscuit is literally produced for pennies. OK, so how about the sausage?

The last one pound roll of sausage we purchased at the grocery store cost 89 cents at the discount grocer we use. Each roll contains about 8 servings. That's about 11 cents per serving. Let's say for the sake of argument the biscuit actually cost 25 cents in materials (that's on the high end). So, if I were to make the same sausage biscuit at home, I can get it for 36 cents. That's still cheaper than McDonald's dollar menu, and I have to admit, the home version tastes better, too.

A cost savings of 53 cents doesn't sound like much, and it isn't. However, if one is accustomed to eating a quick dollar menu item three times a week, that's about 100 dollars over the course of a year. That's about a week's worth of groceries in my home, for a family of four. When put into that perspective, the dollar menu doesn't seem all that frugal at all.

Of course, we should all be eating something healthier each morning than a sausage biscuit. After all, there is no such thing as frugal heart bypass surgery.

Before adopting a lifestyle of Savvy Frugality, at least 5 to 10 percent of my family's grocery budget was spent on something that we couldn't eat: cleaning products. Between window cleaner, toilet cleaner, spray cleaner for counter tops and sinks and other assorted cleansers, a significant portion of our food budget went instead toward the purchase of chemicals. We still use a few store-bought cleaning items, such as dishwasher and laundry detergent, but we discovered a better way of keeping our home sparkling clean without the magic of chemicals.

It might surprise you that all you really need to clean your home is probably already in your pantry, and these items are cheaper and clean just as well, if not better, than anything pumped out by a chemical company. Mix a few simple household items, and you've got your own homemade cleanser!

The main ingredients you will need for your own home-brewed cleaning products are vinegar, baking soda, and lemon juice.

Vinegar - This is probably one of the most versatile items you can use to clean your home. I usually buy a gallon jug of this every month or two, and a little goes a long way. It's inexpensive, effective and when diluted half and half with water, you barely notice the smell, which dissipates quickly anyway. The great thing about vinegar is it is naturally acidic, so it cuts through dirt, soap scum and grease. I usually buy an empty spray bottle from Home Depot, fill it half full with vinegar and half full with wanter and use it for my general cleaning needs in the kitchen. For tougher jobs, just use it full strength, but not on marble or tile grout. Check out the many other cleaning uses of vinegar.

Baking Soda - Baking soda is a natural deodorizer. When I was growing up, my family used open boxes of baking soda to deodorize the refrigerator and freezer. I also sprinkle some on the bottom of my cat's litter boxes, and I put a couple of table spoons in the garbage disposal following up some vinegar to keep it clean and odor-free. Baking sods is incredibly versatile and has many household uses.

Lemon Juice - Why use commercial cleaners scented to smell like lemon juice when you can just use lemon juice? Lemon juice is a natural bleach and disinfectant. You can use it to clean wooden chopping blocks, to polish copper or chrome plumbing fixtures and even to bleach your whites in the laundry. That's certainly more "green" than dumping a bunch of chlorine bleach into the sewer system. Learn more about the cleaning properties of lemon.

If someone in your household is sensitive to the cleaning chemicals in your home, you're concerned about the environment, or you just want to save a bunch of money on the cost of cleaning supplies, try the natural ingredients our grandparents and great grandparents used. It worked for them, and it still works today! Why spend more on commercial cleaning products if you don't need to?

My wife and I have been married for nearly 19 years. During most of our years together, we have been a two-income household. Both of us always worked, and there were years when she made more money than I did. A couple of years ago, the unforeseen happened: she became very ill with diabetes and was unable to work. In fact, her doctor gave her authorization to get a handicapped parking sticker because nerve damage to her feet prevents her from walking too much or standing too long. My wife has applied for disability through Social Security, and is till fighting for it. She is only 40 years old.

Very quickly, we had to adjust to becoming a one-income household. It meant that we had to watch our spending and stretch my income as far as we possibly could. We had never planned on living on one income, and we quickly burned through our emergency fund, which I am once again in the process of rebuilding.

Is it possible for a family of four to live on one income? Sure it is. Is it easy? Not exactly. We learned some hard lessons making the transition from a two income household to having only one breadwinner in the family. Here are some lessons we picked up along the way.

1. Expect the unexpected. If you are married, don't expect that you and your spouse will both be able to work until you hit retirement age. Things happen: people get sick, they become disabled, they get injured on the job, etc. Don't automatically assume "this won't happen to me". Ask yourself "what if this happens to me?". What will you do then? Make a plan in case the worst does happen.

2. Don't skimp on insurance. This includes health, life and long-term disability. If you and your spouse both work and depend on both incomes to cover your household expenses, you should both have all three of these insurance policies. This is one area where you can't try to get by on the cheap. If one of you is suddenly unable to work due to illness, death or disability, you will need this insurance.

3. Two words: emergency fund. Not all illnesses and disabilities are permanent. Ideally, your emergency fund will have three to six months worth of expenses (not three to six months worth of income. There is a difference). Determine what that number is and start socking away some money. On personal finance blogs, the term "emergency fund" has almost become a cliche'. There is a reason for that. It's that important.

4. You can't live like you still have two incomes. Why? Because you don't have two incomes. Now you only have one. That means less money to spend on things you might have taken for granted. Downsizing to one income is not just a fiscal change, it's a lifestyle change.

5. Don't stop saving for retirement. No matter what your current situation is like, you will still need money for retirement someday. You might have less to save for retirement, but save something.

6. Remember, you will save money, too. With only one person going to work each day, you might be able to get rid of that second car. Also, only one person needs to pack lunch each day, pay for a business wardrobe or work uniforms and other work-related expenses. If you had been paying for daycare for the kids, you can get rid of that bill, too. Shift money you were spending on these expenses to other areas.

7. Use the Savvy Frugality spending plan for unexpected windfalls. If you come into some unexpected money, don't automatically think of this as "mad money". Pay debts first, then your emergency or savings fund, then household expenses. For example, if you have no long-term debt, then throw that money into savings. If your emergency fund if fully funded, then take care of those household expenses. Whenever I get unexpected windfalls, I always use 10 percent for "fun money". By doing that, I don't feel like I am depriving myself, and I prevent myself from blowing the other 90 percent.

8. Diversify your income. Never depend on one job or one income source for your living expenses. I am like Kramer from the TV show "Seinfeld". I am always looking for another way to make a buck, because my family could always use an extra buck. This could mean being a regular seller on eBay, working a part-time job, making and selling crafts, etc. I have a 9 to 5 job, but I also do freelance writing for web sites on the side. I volunteer for extra work at my job, especially if there is a bonus involved. This extra money will never replace my income from my regular job, but it sure makes life more comfortable.

9. Remember this important advice from The Tightwad Gazette: Buy it cheaper, make it last longer, use it less. This can apply to many things in your household, or to your car. The less often you have to replace something in your home, the less money you will spend.

10. Don't live on credit. Don't try to get by temporarily on credit cards or payday loans. You will only dig yourself into a deeper hole. These are no substitute to emergency funds or reducing your spending. You may have to downgrade to a less expensive car, a cheaper home and tap water instead of bottled water (which is a good idea anyway). Remember, these things don't define you as a person, and who cares what other people think? They aren't paying your bills. Also, some people CHOOSE to be a one-income family, either due to a new child, one spouse returning to school, etc. There is nothing wrong with that, but these moves do require some pre-planning.

As always, there is more great personal finance reading at this week's Festival of Frugality, hosted by Lazy Man and Money (I love the name of that blog!). Savvy Frugality's post, Romance Without Finance is Ignorance, was among this week's entries. Here are some more great posts you should not miss:

Being Frugal brings us 75 frugal hacks for your home.

Value For Your Life writes about Las Vegas on a budget. I have always wanted to go to Vegas, and this post makes it look like that's a trip that can be done frugally.

Blueprint for Financial Prosperity lists some free tax preparation services.

For more great reading, check out the rest of the Festival of Frugality.

My Dollar Plan hosts this week's Carnival of Personal Finance, which takes on a Valentine's Day theme this week. Included in this week's carnival is Savvy Frugality's post, Of Course the Economy is Bad…It’s an Election Year!

There is an extensive carnival this week, with lots of great posts. These are Savvy Frugality's recommended picks:

David at My Two Dollars presents 5 Frugal Ways To Make Your Valentine Swoon.

Trent always has great advice, and this week is no exception. Check out 100 Great Tips For Saving Money For Those Just Getting Started at The Simple Dollar. This one is bookmark-worthy.

Ryan from Millionaire Money Habits presents 8 Habits of Millionaires. My favorite tip: make more money. I'm always looking for a way to make an extra buck.

Jeremy from Generation X Finance put together 15 Ways to Establish and Improve Your Credit History and FICO Score. Great advice here, especially if your credit score isn't up to par. I'm still working on boosting mine. Medical bills can be a real credit killer.

Amanda Milne from Value For Your Life presents How to Survive Losing a Job. This is a good how-to guide in case you get laid off or canned. I could have used this when I worked in broadcasting, a career rife with firings and station ownership changes.

Brooke from Dollar Frugal presents Why We Don’t Need Trucks. You know, I've had the same thought. I live in an urban area, and for the life of me I don't understand why some guys need a truck that gets 3 miles to the gallon and is half the size of my house. There's never anything in the back of the truck, so what's the point? I guess if worse comes to worse they can always live in it.

I love my wife. She is the love of my life. In April, we will have been married for 19 years, and we have two great sons. My wife is truly my soul mate, and I can't imagine myself with anyone else. However, when it comes to personal finance, she doesn't have a clue.

I'm not afraid she will stumble upon this post, because she would be the first to agree. When we first started living together I discovered that she was deep in debt. She had two store credit cards that were maxed out to the limit and she was upside down in a car loan with payments that were too high on a vehicle that was too expensive. She had no credit, so she got raked over the coals at the auto dealership. Meanwhile, I was driving a Chevy Impala that cost me $400 and the only debt I had was a student loan.

You might think that my wife's situation would have been a major red flag to me, but what can I say...I was in love. We got rid of my wife's credit cards, returned her car to the nearest Toyota dealership and made due with my Chevy. Then I did something that in hindsight was pretty ignorant. I let her manage the household finances and pay all the bills.

Things were OK for awhile, as far as I knew. I had Direct Deposit for my pay checks and she handled all of the finances. If I needed cash for anything, I just asked her if we had enough in the bank and then I would make a withdrawal from an ATM. Life was good...that is, until the bill collectors started calling our house.

My wife assured me that all was fine, there must be a mistake, she just mailed the payment, etc. This should have been another red flag, but this is my wife, and what is a marriage without trust?

One day, I came home from work and there was no electricity in the apartment. My wife assured me she had paid the electric bill. "Maybe they just didn't receive the payment yet," she said. Meanwhile, I was still in the dark about our finances. I didn't even know how much was in the bank. Looking back, I guess I didn't want to know.

This went on for several years until finally, things reached the breaking point. We received a notice from our landlord that we were going to be evicted unless we paid our back rent. As far as I knew, rent was being paid like clockwork. I called the landlord to find out how far behind we really were. The news was stunning: they had not received rent for six months. Against my better judgment, we borrowed money from family to pay the back rent. A few weeks later, we received an eviction notice. We were told the rent had still not been paid. I protested, and assured the landlord we had indeed paid all six months of back rent. However, we had paid with a money order, the receipt was nowhere to be found and we had no proof of payment. To this day, I am convinced someone pocketed that money order. Nevertheless, the result was the same: we were going to be homeless, and we had nowhere to go. I had always heard the saying that most Americans are one or two paychecks away from homelessness. I just never thought it would apply to me.

Fortunately, I received a job offer in another state, and we moved and did find another apartment right away. It was at that time that I took a drastic step: I would be taking over the household finances, the checking account would be in my name only, and I told my wife she could get her own banking accounts. Household bills would be paid through my account, and I would let her know how much money I needed from her to cover them. To say she was angry would be an understatement.

However, the bills got paid on time. In fact, most were paid early. My credit score started to improve. We built an emergency fund. I balanced my checkbook regularly and made my wife aware of all of our much we owed, to whom, and how much was in the checking account, down to the penny. One day, she said something that caught me off-guard.

"I never should have been in charge of the finances. I had no idea what I was doing. You're doing a great job." After months of expressing bitterness over not having a joint account, this was a pretty stunning admission on her part. She still gets comments from some of her friends and other people who know her when she tells them we have separate bank accounts. "You can't be married and not have a joint account," one told her. "I wouldn't stay married to my husband if he didn't give me access to all of our money. Your marriage will never last." To be honest, we've never been happier. My wife DOES have access to our money, but she is held accountable for every dime she spends. In other words, it must all be entered in the checkbook register, and there is no hiding how much is being spent. It's a system that works great for us.

These are the lessons that took us nearly 15 years to learn:

Talk about finances with your spouse, BEFORE you get married. Determine if you have the same financial goals, how money will be handled, how expenditures will be accounted for, and if a joint account is for you. Some people are savers and some are spenders. The spenders should not have total control over the checkbook.

Pay the bills together. This doesn't mean you both have to walk the electric bill to the mailbox, but sit down together at least on a weekly basis, and go over the bills due, payments made, and amount in savings and investments. Total disclosure is the key.

Just because you're married doesn't mean you need a joint checking account. That system may work for some couples, but not for others. Some couples have their own bank accounts for "their" money, and also a joint account for household bills. Determine what works best for you. There is no one "best" way.

Learn what you don't know. Couples don't instantly know about personal finance just because they are married. Don't just "figure it out as you go". If you don't know the first thing about setting up a budget, saving for retirement or buying stocks to save money for the children's education, ask for advice from a competent financial planner. It's OK to ask for help. You might also consider taking a class at the local community college about personal finance or financial planning. Doing it before you get married or start living together is best, but couples that have been married for several years can do this, too. It's never too late.

Money problems are often cited as one of the top reasons for divorce in the U.S. With some pre-planning, education and total honesty about finances, you can defeat money problems without destroying your relationship.

If there was ever a sign that the U.S. Dollar is losing steam, this is it: stores in New York City are now accepting Euros as payment, alongside the dollar. Part of this is due to the fact that a lot of Europeans are taking advantage of the bargain prices they can get in the U.S. because of the current exchange rate, so they're crossing the Atlantic and living it up in NYC. Meanwhile, it is increasingly expensive for Americans to travel to Europe, so many are staying closer to home.

About 20 years ago, when I was in the Navy, I remember things being a lot different. The U.S. Dollar was king. I traveled to a lot of different countries at the time: Spain, Italy, Israel, Bahrain and France...and no matter which country I was in, the merchants, restaurants and taverns all accepted the U.S. Dollar. In Italy, the U.S. Dollar was actually preferred by many merchants over the Italian Lira. You would not get your change back in U.S. Dollars, but the exchange rate the merchants gave was actually much better than anything you would get at a bank or on the base.

I was raised in Minnesota, but even so, it was nearly impossible to spend the Canadian Dollar on our side of the border. It was practically worthless. No stores or banks in my hometown would take it. Now, not only is the Canadian Dollar being accepted in many border states, but it's practically worth just as much as the U.S. dollar, if not a little more, depending on the exchange rate for the day.

The sad fact is the American dollar just isn't worth what it once was, and in fact it's getting a bit of a bad rap in Europe. This isn't good news if you like to travel, or if you invest in companies which are based in a European Union country. Your money just won't go as far. Some investors are trying to cover all their bases by actually investing in foreign currencies, which probably isn't a bad idea. If you invested in the Euro or in a European-based company before the dollar started going South you are probably counting your blessings right about now.

This helps illustrate the importance of diversifying your investments. Foreign investments should be part of your portfolio, and bargains can still be had for American investors in Central American and Latin American companies.

This week's Festival of Frugality over at takes on a Super Bowl theme this week, appropriately enough. My team, the Green Bay Packers, did make it to the Super Bowl, so I didn't watch what has been called one of the best bowl games in recent history...perhaps the best ever. Oh well.

There is still some great reading at the festival. My post on The Savvy Frugality Recession Survival Guide was included this week. Here are my picks from the rest of the field, which are better than my Super Bowl bets:

Being Frugal Isn’t Being a Miser at Credit Withdrawal. Amen, brother. That's a central theme here at Savvy Frugality.

Cheap Healthy Party Food at Cheap Healthy Good. Where was this list during the holidays, before I gained 10 pounds? These recipes sound good, but I'm still addicted to Cheetos.

The Two Income Trap - Book Review at Four Pillars. Wisdom from The Great White North. My family has lived in a one-income household for nearly two years now. It hasn't always been easy, but we've made it work. The key: I do other things one the side, besides my 9 to 5. One should always diversify their income, just in case.

12 Strategies for Saving Money While Paying Your Bills at The Digerati Life. Great advice here. Definitely worth book marking!

I spend a lot of time watching the presidential campaigns of the various candidates on both sides of the aisle. Call it force of habit. I worked as a reporter for more than 20 years, and I covered the 2004 primary and presidential races. I interviewed every candidate for president that year with the exception of President George W. Bush and Al Sharpton. In the cases of Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich, I met and interviewed them several times. For some reason, they made multiple trips to Oklahoma during that campaign.

One thing that I noticed then, and that I am hearing again during this election year, is how important the economy is to voters. The candidates always talk about how hard it is for people to afford food, medicine and gasoline to get to work. They mention that single mothers have to work two, sometimes three jobs just to make ends meet. Current government programs aren't doing enough to help the truly needy Americans, the candidates say, but they have a PLAN to make everything better.

The only thing is, we hear this speech every four years. The people (that's us) just can't make ends meet on our own, so we need their (the candidate's) help. It's not a Republican or Democrat issue, either. Candidates from both parties talk a lot about how Americans are "struggling".

Well, of course the economy is "terrible"'s an election year. If this country weren't in dire straits, we wouldn't need their (the candidate's) help. After the elections, the president always talks about how the economy is "improving" or "on the upswing" and they detail the many ways they made this happen.

The fact of the matter is, the economy runs in cycles. There are "boom" and "bust" periods to the economy, and they are quite natural. You know the saying "what goes up, must come down"? In a nutshell, that is how the national economy works. The good times never last forever, and there are naturally "corrections" (when the economy stalls, or enters a recession). How we as American consumers prepare for and deal with these negative periods as individuals will make far more difference in our households than anything that happens in Washington D.C. during the next four years.

Here are some of the ways presidential candidates propose stimulating the U.S. economy, and how you can apply it to your own personal situation:

The Spending Freeze - The candidate proposes a freeze on all government spending, meaning they promise not to increase spending above current levels. You can actually implement this at home right now. Vow not to add any additional debt to your credit cards, and start paying more than the minimum payments. Pay the basic necessities at home, but put off making any luxury purchases, such as large appliances, a home or a car.

The Tax Cut - The candidate promises tax cuts to let tax payers keep more of their money, which in turn gives consumers more spending power. This helps stimulate the economy. How do you give yourself a tax cut? If you have been receiving a tax return each of the past few years, you are having too much money deducted from your pay check. Anytime you receive a tax return, you are just getting back money you overpaid to the government. Essentially, you gave the government an interest-free loan for a year. Adjust your W-4 at work at keep that money yourself.

Shrinking the Size of Government - This means that the candidate wants to eliminate or reduce the size of certain government agencies. Never mind the fact that the government is the largest employer in the it has room to eliminate a few jobs to make it appear the U.S. taxpayer is going to save some money. You can shrink expenses at home, too. Take a look at your monthly bills. Is there any fat to trim? Do you really need 10 movies channels on cable TV, or can you live with two? Are you still using a land line phone? Could you get buy just using a cell phone, or switching to the VOIP Internet phone service? Are you overspending on groceries? How often to you go shopping for clothing, movie rentals, and other items at the mall? Even if you can cut ten percent of your spending, that will add up over the course of a year.

Increase Revenue - This is the government's way of saying they are going to raise your taxes, or "user fees" for certain services. You can raise your fees, too. Are you overdue for a raise at work? Do you get increased pay for overtime, or for increased production at work? Volunteer for those opportunities, or seek that raise you should have received a year ago. If you can't get a raise, perhaps you aren't taking full advantage of the benefits you already receive at work. Some people aren't even aware of all of their employer-sponsored benefits. Check out your employee handbook and see what you might be missing. Do some work on the side. Can you freelance, consult or take a part-time job? Perhaps you've always wanted to start a side business. Increasing your take-home pay, even a few hundred dollars a month, could be used to eliminate debt, build your emergency fund or invest for retirement.

Manage your personal finances wisely, and you can enjoy "four more years" of positive cash flow!

(This post is also featured on's Smart Spending Moneyblog.)

Each year, we make resolutions with the best intentions of keep them. We're going to lose weight, quit smoking and make other important changes in our lives. At the beginning of the year, I shared My Frugal Resolutions. I thought I would revisit them at the end of each month, just to keep track of my progress so far. So, this is my January Update.

Resolution #1 - Rebuild My Emergency Fund - My goal was to stash away $1,000 in my emergency fund. I was at $0 (I had an emergency), but now I'm back up to $500.

Resolution #2 - Eliminate $10,000 in debt - Again, I had to rebuild my emergency fund, first, but I still managed to eliminate about $500 in debt in January. Only $9,500 to go! After I have my emergency fund stashed away, I can really start attacking the debt.

Resolution #3 - Save For a New Home - I have to take care of Resolution #1 first, then I can start working on this one. Total saved: $0

Resolution #4 - Contribute to my IRA - I have decided I'm actually going to start contributing to Fidelity's Freedom Fund for my retirement. I'll also do an IRA, but the Freedom Fund is going to be my first option for retirement savings. I have about $5,000 in a Fidelity account right now, and I plan to transfer this over to the Freedom Fund. The Freedom Fund adjusts its investments according to the year you plan to retire.

Resolution #5 - Continue to Live Below my Means - This was awfully hard in January, since I had to move and pay double for my utilities. I still have a $200 electric bill to take care of, but otherwise I think I've lived up to this resolution in January. It was living below my means that enabled me to pay off some debt and stash some cash in my emergency fund. Medical bills continue to be a challenge, however.

Stay tuned for the next update at the end of February!

It's time for another Carnival of Personal Finance! I've Paid Twice for This Already hosts this week's carnival, which features the Savvy Frugality post Your Zip Code Could Cost You Money.

There's more reading than usual this week. Here are some great reads:

The Simple Nickle asks us What Does It Mean to Be Financially Secure? There are six guides to financial security. If you don't have them, you probably aren't financially secure (yet).

Millionaire Mommy Next Door created a budget sheet for success with Craft a Budget That Fits Your Needs AND Wants. Great post, and very similar to my previous post on Playing the Percentages.

Are You Going To Be This Way The Rest of the Time I Know You? provides Auto Insurance 101 Part 2: Ten Tips For Shopping Smart. Don't forget, when shopping for auto insurance Your Zip Code Could Cost You Money.

Money and Credit explains how to determine How Many Allowances Should You Claim on Your W-4? Timely advice, with April right around the corner.

Sound Money Matters appeals to the frugal romantic in all of us with Five Ways to Save Money on Valentine’s Day. Who decided I should only show my wife I love her on February 14th? To me, every day is Valentine's Day (OK, not really, but I'm convinced Valentine's Day was created by the greeting card companies).

Christian PF gives us 16 Ways To save Money By Not Being Normal. Excellent advice here. If what you have been doing isn't working, then do something else.

I get comments here at Savvy Frugality and I do enjoy all of the tips and advice that I'm given by the readers. I thought it would be great to make Savvy Frugality even more interactive by adding a forum to this site. Please check the new Savvy Frugality Forum frequently, and feel free to add your own frugal living topics, pass along advice, share recipes, talk about something that saved you a lot of money (or cost you a lot of money) and help others develop strategies for eliminating their debt (or get ideas for eliminating yours). I look forward to building this community with you! We're all in this together!

This week's Festival of Frugality is hosted by the Mrs. Micah blog. Savvy Frugality is once again featured, with its post on what a price book is and how it can save you money.

Other posts from this week's festival which I highly recommend:

Are you looking for alternatives to freecycle? Mel of Bean Sprouts has some listed. Apparently certain people have become disenchanted with it. The only problem I have with Freecyle in my area is that there are more people posting lists of free things they want than there are people listing things they are trying to give away.

Wenchypoo tells the story of a man who turned a $55,000 salary into a zero tax liability. You don't have to be a millionaire to take advantage of tax shelters.

Gibble at Gather Little by Little has a great list of free software you can use instead of buying name-brand products. I'm always looking for freeware versions of software, and this is a great list. I highly recommend the Avast! anti-virus program and Adaware anti-spyware program, both of which work great and are free.

Ana at DebtFREE-Revoltuion has discovered that crock pots can be really good for your budget. I agree. My only problem is my crock pot isn't big enough. I have to get a new one soon. It sure does save a lot of cooking time. I just come home from work and dinner is ready.

New Old-Fashioned Gal has a recipe for fantastic deep dish pizza dough. If you like to cook everything from scratch, this is great. I usually just get $5 pizza from Little Caesars. By the time I buy all the toppings I want for my pizza, Little Caesars is actually cheaper, and I don't have to cook it. I only have pizza twice a month. If you eat it more often, making it yourself is probably the way to go.

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