Mary Beth Writes

Yesterday I turned 65. My birthday weekend was great; we saw all the kids and our grandbaby. The baby smiles slowly at us now. When she feels brave that we will be nice to her, she lifts her hand and waves. My socks melted.

So now I’m old!  Well, at least on the outside … inside I feel a smooth 47.  I went for a long bike ride Sunday afternoon and I wasn’t even sore yesterday when I apparently walked seven miles (in two walks). That’s cool!

My bike

I could write a 13-page tome on “How My Life has Worked’ – but I am thinking I don’t want to do that and you don’t want to read it.  In short, what are some of the frugal things that have made my life work?

FIRST and Most Important! I carefully managed to be born into a non-abusive, not-too-addicted Caucasian family. Irony intended.

So besides picking nice people in a nice time to be born ---  how can we peacefully maximize our luck?

1. Get an education. I know the conversation about the questionable value of higher education, let alone the value of studying liberal arts.  We paid more than $200,000 towards kids’ educations and have less house equity now than when they started college. Plus all three have burdensome student loans to pay.

Still. I can’t see the true downside to a good education. The kids are confident, smart, and able to determine who and what they want in their lives. They have jobs and are paying their loans.

Here’s a weird but true warning about NOT getting a liberal arts education. I met a few high-skills individuals in my jail-job years. These were (a very few, not many) smart young men who had completed training programs/internships to learn specific trades’ skills and by their early 20’s were earning $100,000/year - which too easily led to using drugs. I met them in my jail employment program.

I am not equating good jobs with drug addiction – this nation needs hundreds of thousands of competent tradespeople to keep us going. But knowing where to hang out in one’s free time, knowing what kind of people are fascinating and which ones are cool and dangerous losers – this is what liberal education is partially about.

Knowing what to think and what to do when no one is bossing you, this is a frugal life skill no matter how much you pay to get it. We are fools if we think an ability to think critically is easy to get.  

2. Have health insurance. For the past few decades of our lives our health insurance has generally cost us more than our mortgage. Not kidding. However, without it we wouldn’t have followed up on stuff that has, in fact, saved our lives.

Americans probably ought to call it “asset-protection payments” because health insurance seems to cover less and less. It’s mostly about not losing what we already earned and owned.  Without it Len and I would likely be living in your basement now.

3. Self-created bargains. If you use half as much shampoo, or laundry detergent, or hamburger in that chili recipe or anything else you use regularly – you just gave yourself a 50% off sale. If you cut a 50-mile round trip car drive– you save about $15. There are so many items we all use or do frequently. It might be interesting to list all the items you use in a week. All the regular places you go. Can you cut any of that?

Like this. All my life I’ve used a blob of toothpaste instead of a line of it.  Do you think those savings paid for the family trip to Italy?

4. Second-hand stuff. It’s fun to shop at Goodwill. It’s boring to write about it. Most of our clothing, furniture, kitchen equipment, and cool flotsam came from thrift shops. More irony - we often dressed/lived better because I like to buy nice brands.  In 2016 the average American family living on $75,000/year, spent $1800/year on apparel.

We spent $400/year on clothing (the prom dresses and tux rental years were pricier but fleeting). We did buy new shoes, boots, and under-stuff. The math says $28,000 saved.

WAY more than we spent on that fantastic trip to Italy when the kids where youngsters.

revived old dishes

5. Herbs, spices, and salt. Vegetarian/vegan dishes are generally healthy and cheap. Without the luxe of meat, though, they can tend to be bland. 

Add a LOT of basil, oregano, thyme to soups, stews, and casseroles. Add salt at the end. Taste what you are about to serve. A bland soup is almost always improved by a teaspoon of lemon juice, a quarter cup of milk and another five minutes in the pot. Put chili pepper or hot sauces on the table.

I think one of the reasons people think they need meat is because they don’t have a jar of Italian herbs and a bottle of sriracha.


6. Buy used cars and then drive them into the ground – which has been possible for us because of Len. I don’t know enough about autos to have been able to do this on my own. If I had been single, I would have spent extra money towards having a modest but reliable car.

7. Cut cable. We stopped in 1996 and never went back. At around $100 per month – over 20 years – we saved north of $20,000.

8.  Figure out what you DO like to do - and then do it. It’s easier to be frugal if what you are cutting back on leads to what you want to do. This is so simple yet requires honesty and courage.

Don’t wait around for someone else to act in some way that will make you happy. Experiment with activities until you find what pleases you, and then you find ways and times to do that thing. Music, reading, politics, art, crafts, helping, organizing, hiking, skiing, traveling, whatever.

Forward Band in Madison

I don’t know what the big answer is in a life crowded with family, jobs, obligation, and expectations. If you can find 20 minutes in a day to do what you love – that hiatus will often nourish the rest of your day and evening -- until you turn 65 and can have a website of your own and spend six hours wrestling with that joyful, exasperating thing.

In the next week I am going to try to write about 10 most expensively stupid things we did. That sounds like fun, don’t you think?



I love all the tips. We're in our 40s with two young ones and trying not to overdo anything. (My husband comes from frugality; I do not.) Everything in moderation is our motto. This makes me think we're headed down the right path.

Thanks for writing. I started INTENTIONAL frugality in my early 40's.

Hi Mary Beth, I enjoyed reading that. As you well know I have been practicing what you preach for most of my adult life and live pretty well. As a old hippie I have been recycling before it was popular mostly by purchasing used items. ( no packaging no waste ) A Baldwin baby grand at St. Vincent in like new condition. I thought I should learn to play the piano so I bought it to teach my brain something new. A small lawn and a push mower means no gas used and more time spent growing things I actually like. I spent the summer watering potted plants from three rain barrows. Cold, put on a sweater... All these things make for a ( Almost ) stress free life.

You are the most "off the radar" awesome lifestyle person I know. Even your Italian greyhounds are "used" i.e. rescued i.e. gorgeous and lively and happy as pups can be. The fancy big websites do "Interiors" of fancy important people. Let's set a time when i can take pix of your stunning little house and yard - and then Feature It!

I think I need to put off reading these, instead of reading them promptly. I like to read other people’s comments, love the frugality tips. Seeing someone else’s tips makes a person think

Love the 20 minutes per day to do what I want! For frugality I have rediscovered canning. Wonderful, spicy garlic dilly beans... Crisp, pickled beets...Blackberry jams that make winter less dreary. Also making large containers of soup using marked down veggies and then freezing leftovers has saved money, plus made for some easy dinners.

We didn't can anything this year, although we have in other years. When we were very young in Chgo, Len went to the neighborhood library, got pickling recipes, made amazing pickles. Everyone loved them. We ate them up in mere months. When he wanted to make more, we were in a different neighborhood and he couldn't remember what book he had borrowed. So they became Len's Brigadoon Pickles. We talk of them, but will probably never know them again...

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Retired Chicken Observations 3/22-2018

Two things I have been thinking about lately. Both are related to retirement income and retirement adventure.

1. Last week Len and I went to our Social Security office to sign me up for Spousal Benefits.  It took me several run-throughs to understand what “spousal benefits” are. Since then I have talked to several other people who were also unclear on the concept.

My confusion was this. I was already getting Social Security based on my earnings when I worked (as opposed to what I did when I stayed home and raised kids. But let’s not go there now. Grrrr.)

Franc’s Wildly Successful Life

This is a long piece of writing and I am proud of it. If you don’t want to read it all – here are my take-way points about how my friend Franc lives well on a surprisingly small income:

Mindful Chickens 2/24/2018

1.  We did it!  We called, explained what we thought we needed to do, made appts, were home for the appts, rec’d the estimates about - fixing the gutters and getting the house painted.  I think one of the reasons we usually do it ourselves is because this process is so daunting and time consuming.

The gutter guy is coming next week; we are looking forward to no rivulets when it pours. 100-year old houses built on non-waterproofed rubble foundations, like George Washington, cannot lie about what’s happening outside your basement walls.

Mindful Chickens - The Snickerdoodle Edition

1. When we were sick in January (with flu and cold) Len used the CVS card that I had signed up for last year and then barely used.  He bought several OTC medicines plus a cool-mist vaporizer using that card, which saved us 20%. That was helpful.

2. While I was under the weather I signed up for Starz in order to binge-watch an Outlander season.  After I watched TV for two days I canceled the subscription, thus paying nothing.  This is the third year I have done this.  Why do they let me do this??

Frugal Stuff/ Flu edition 1/22/2018

1. I donated blood Friday morning. This is a free mini-checkup every two months; they take your pulse, temperature, blood pressure, and check your hemoglobin levels (iron). They send your blood to be checked for various diseases such as Lyme disease, West Nile, and Zika.

DO NOT donate blood in order to determine if you have a disease or not. If you think you might be ill, go to a doctor or clinic and deal with it. 

But, if you (like me) need an extra reason to be generous, the screening to give blood is not a bad perk.

Two Piquant Recipes, No Waiting

This is not a recipe blog. You may sometimes wonder what kind of blog this is, but I bet you have figured out we’re not here to cook. Still, sometimes I come across amazing recipes and today I want to share two of them,by referring you to the sites where I found them.

How do I find these sites, you ask? 

Simple. Google the name of two or three ingredients you would like to use up. This takes you to recipes that use those foods; you decide if you want to try them.

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