My School Supply Shopping Strategy

Here in upstate New York, school doesn’t start again until after Labor Day, so when the back-to-school catalogs started arriving in the mail a few weeks ago, I was not happy. Of all the seasons, summer is the one I least want to wish away! However, now that the Sunday newspaper fliers have started to highlight back-to-school sales, I’ve decided to make the most of the time and savings.

This year, my daughter’s first grade school supply list came home with her final kindergarten report card on the last day of school. At first it seemed depressing to be mentally skipping right over summer, but I’ve come to appreciate the notice I have to buy supplies for September. Here’s what my daughter needs to bring with her on the first day:

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And here’s my school supply shopping strategy for saving as much as possible this year:

  1. Reuse. While some things are used up completely or take such a beating they can’t be reused, it pays to give everything a once-over to determine what – if anything – can be. The headphones, art smock, scissors, and one of the plastic folders on this year’s list are all items I bought last year, and that my daughter can reuse this year.
  2. Raid my stash. A few years, ago, I first learned about the insane back-to-school deals stores like Staples and Target offer on some items every year. I started stocking up when things were dirt cheap, even if we didn’t need them right away. Now I’ve got pencils, glue sticks, crayons, and notebooks coming out of my ears, and I paid just pennies for all of them!
  3. Shop the sales!! Any items I’m not able to reuse or find in my stash, will have to be purchased. Because I already have the list, I’ll check the fliers for the things I need every week. When they’re offered for rock-bottom prices, I’ll grab what I need. Because there are still about five weeks before school actually begins, I can spread my spending (and saving!) out over time.
  4. Use gift cards. I can earn free gift cards for stores like Staples, Target, and Amazon through sites like MyPoints and Swagbucks, and use them to pay for my daughter’s school supplies.
  5. Use coupons and earn cash back. At this time of year, coupons start appearing for school supplies online and in the newspaper. I clipped several paper coupons on Sunday, and printed an online one from the Target website. There are also some great Cartwheel discounts for additional savings at Target. Some items on my daughter’s list for this year – like zip baggies and tissues – may also be eligible for cash back on sites like SavingStar and Checkout 51.
  6. Earn cash back for online purchases. I hope I don’t have to, but should I need to purchase anything online, I’ll shop via Ebates, and earn cash back on my purchases.

When does the school year begin near you? How are you planning to save on school supplies this year?

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2015 Meal Plan #30

My sister and nephew visited us from out-of-state this past weekend, and as I always seem to do, I spent a good amount of money stocking up on food for their visit. I have now surpassed the $400 mark that I try to stick to for grocery spending every month, and as a result, I’m not buying any groceries until this Friday. (We’re having a family we know over for lunch on Saturday, but I haven’t finalized the menu for that, yet.) Since fresh produce is something I value and always purchase, we have quite a bit of it on-hand. (My garden is also keeping us well-stocked with lettuce for salads.) I also have tons of cheddar cheese, dry pasta, and a package of bacon I meant to use last week, but didn’t. So, I put together a meal plan taking all of this into consideration. Here’s what it looks like:

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(Like my meal planner/grocery list sheet? It’s from the List Plan It Meals ePlanner.)

A side benefit of this rather boring meal plan is that it’s doesn’t involve very much cooking! What are you having dinner this week?

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The Most Frugal Decision We’ve Made

Please note that this post is written without judgement of anyone else’s choices, or the decision-making process behind them. I hope it will also be read in this way.

My husband and I each have one sibling, so we always assumed we’d have two children, too. But after getting a later start at parenting – my husband was already 35 when our daughter was born, and I was two months shy of it – we decided to be a single-child family. It wasn’t just our age, since plenty of people have children at ages later than 35. The bigger factor was that we were shocked at how life-changing the transition from married couple to parents is. Sure, we’d heard the stories and understood the difference intellectually, but the reality still took a lot for us to get used to. And this isn’t a reflection on our daughter, whom we love dearly, and who has always been a pretty easy kid (and baby). By the time she reached the age at which most couples seem to have second children – 18 months to two years old – we just didn’t want to start over with another newborn. We freely admit that this was in some ways a selfish decision, but then again, family size is usually an inherently selfish decision. Fortunately, it has turned out to be the right decision for our family.

Lake George point

“I spy Lake George!”

Although we made this decision without considering the financial ramifications, we’ve come to realize that it’s actually the most frugal decision we’ve made as a couple. You’ve probably seen the statistics the government periodically releases, stating how much it costs to raise a child to the age of 18. The most recently released numbers were for a child born in 2013, and the range was $245,340 to $304,480. There’s always much debate about whether these numbers are too high or too low, and since my daughter is only 5 1/2, I have no idea how accurate they are. Do they assume that parents are buying all organic food? All the latest toys and gadgets? Paying for private school? Taking multiple trips to Disneyland? Who knows. But here are some concrete ways I know my husband and I are saving money by having only one child:

  1. Diapers, food, and clothing. I’ll start with the obvious: diapering, feeding, and clothing one child clearly costs less than doing all these things for more than one child – especially when you’re feeding teenagers! However, there are clearly many ways to economize in all of these areas.
  2. Vision care. I have horrendous vision, and started wearing glasses when I was in second grade. My husband made it until college before he needed to wear glasses most of the time, and he has worn them all of the time for his entire adult life. While we haven’t noticed any problems with our daughter’s vision yet, we know we’re looking at years of paying for regular eye exams, glasses, and/or contacts.
  3. College. Although we don’t think we’ll be able to pay for all of our daughter’s college education, we’d like to help out as much as possible. Needless to say, doing this for one child, will be a lot cheaper than doing it for more than one.
  4. Orthodontia. I had braces three times – sorry for not wearing my retainers, Mom and Dad! – and my husband had them once. It seems pretty likely that our daughter will not be blessed with naturally straight teeth, either.
  5. School supplies. My daughter’s list of supplies for the upcoming school year came home with her final report card in June. Although it’s definitely shorter than last year’s list – and there are several things that she can reuse from last year – it’s still likely to cost us $40 – $50. (Thank goodness for all the back-to-school sales which have ALREADY started!)
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My (only) kid watching fireworks this summer

While we didn’t consider finances when we made our decision to have an only child, seeing the “savings” has certainly been a nice benefit.

How many children to you have? Did financial considerations play into your decision?

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Priceless to Me & 2015 Meal Plan #29

I’m half Italian and half German, but I’ve been much closer to my Italian side for my entire life. (Long, family-drama-filled story…) My Italian grandmother was an amazing cook: not fancy, but delicious. Although she had quite a few specialties, her shrimp scampi and baked ziti were two of my personal favorites. Until I left for college, most Sundays were spent with my family, at her house, eating her wonderful Sunday dinners.

My grandmother died a couple of years ago, and she became increasingly demented in the years leading up to her death. She stopped making Sunday dinners about five years before she died, and because she was self-taught and cooked mainly from memory, many of her recipes were lost with her. However, she did keep a collection of recipes – some clipped from magazines, others hand-written – and they were the only thing of hers I really wanted after she died. Not only was her food wonderful and something I wanted to recreate, but it was also the thing most closely associated with her in my memory.

Unfortunately, my grandfather didn’t realize I felt this way, and he threw out the recipes with a lot of other things, in the months after she died. A relative who lives much closer to him than I do, knew that my grandfather was cleaning house, and she asked to look through some of the boxes of things he planned to donate. She knew about my interest in the recipes, and miracle-of-miracles, found a ziplock bag containing some of my favorites – including shrimp scampi and the wonderful cookies my grandmother made every Christmas! It truly felt like a gift from my grandmother. I can’t wait to make this recipe, myself.

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Grandma’s Shrimp Scampi Recipe

 

Speaking of recipes, here’s my meal plan for dinners this week:

2015 Meal Plan 29001

(Like my meal planner/grocery list sheet? It’s from the List Plan It Meals ePlanner.)

It’s a bit of a light week, since my husband and I are going out to dinner with friends tonight, and my sister and nephew will be here this weekend. We have a day trip planned for Saturday, so we’ll pick up takeout on our way home that evening. I’m particularly excited for the chicken piccata I’m making on Wednesday. I’ve made it before, and it’s delicious! (But what food soaked in lemon and butter isn’t??)

What’s for dinner at your house this week? Do you have any treasured family recipes?
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July Garden Update

One of the things I most look forward to during the winter – aside from temperatures above freezing!  – is gardening. We have several perennial flower beds in our yard, but vegetable gardening is what really excites me. Sure it’s nice to watch a flower bud and bloom, but, for me, it’s much more thrilling to watch a plant grow, develop, and eventually turn into something I actually eat.

This year, I have three separate veggie gardens: a set of three raised beds, a collection of about 10 containers on our deck, and my first-ever straw bale garden.

The Raised Beds

These guys get the least attention and love of all three gardens. They’re in a partially shaded area, so things grow slowly in them, and don’t get very large. This year they’re kind of a hodge-podge of plants, many of which were leftover seedlings I couldn’t bear to throw away. (When you start growing things from seed in March, lovingly checking on them several times a day, it’s too painful to just toss any of them.) Most of the cooler-weather crops are planted in them, too: sugar snap peas, mesclun, spinach, and broccoli. Since I’ve had success growing zucchini in them in the past, I have some of that in them, too. I planted them very late this year, though, so they don’t even have any blooms on them, yet.

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Lots of zucchini flower buds…

The raised beds – like several of our flower beds – have been visited by the chipmunks which seem to have proliferated in our yard this year. They actually cut right through several pea plants!

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Chipmunk handiwork. (And LOTS of crab grass.)

Containers on the Deck

Our deck gets full sun until about 4pm, and my containers of tomato plants have always done well there. This year, I have a bunch of grape tomato and cherry tomato plants growing in pots, as well as mesclun, cucumbers, carrots, and cantaloupe. The latter three are all intended for small growing spaces (containers), and I’m excited to see what they produce!

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“Minnesota Midget” Melon and Carrot Tonda di Parigi sharing space

 

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“Jelly Belly” grape tomatoes and spinach sharing a pot

The Straw Bales

Last winter, I read the straw bale gardening bible, Straw Bale Gardens: The Breakthrough Method for Growing Vegetables Anywhere, Earlier, and With No Weeding. The concept of growing veggies in slowly decomposing straw bales amazed me, and I couldn’t wait to give it a try. I planted my bales in May, and after a slower start than I expected, they’ve really taken off. I am a straw bale gardening believer, and hope to double the number of bales in my garden next year. (I have six this year.)

straw bale 1

Tomatoes, cucumbers, butternut squash, and lettuce

I clearly haven’t figured out the best way to use the wire to support the Red Siberian tomato plants. (Actually, I think the wire is a little too thin, but my husband got so grouchy while putting it up, I’m not going to point that out to him!) There are carrots and basil growing under the tomatoes, beets growing under the cucumbers and butternut squash, and potatoes growing inside the Buttercrunch lettuce bale.

straw bale 2

Tomatoes, eggplant, and Romaine lettuce

In this row, I have Glacier tomatoes, Black Beauty eggplant, and Freckles Romaine growing, as well as beets, carrots, parsnips, and parsley growing underneath. There are also more potatoes growing inside the lettuce bale.

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Tomato close-up!

 

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The basil seems very happy under the tomato plants

If you’ve been following my garden harvest tally, you know that I’ve only picked lettuce/mesclun and sugar snap peas, so far. (And some basil leaves, which I forgot to add into the total.) I’m anxious for the tomatoes to start ripening, so I can (1) stop buying tomatoes, and (2) start seeing the weight of my harvest tally increase more quickly!

Are you growing veggies (or anything else) this year? How has your harvest been?

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5 Things I Happily (Almost) Spend Money On

Money text

I’m always looking for ways to save money. I love a doubled coupon, a Cartwheel deal at Target, and a clearance rack find. But like most people, there are some things that I’m willing to spend more money on, even if cheaper options are available.

  1. Warm winter clothing. We live in upstate NY, or as my husband lovingly calls it, the frozen tundra. Winters are long and cold – although we have nothing on Minnesota! Good-quality boots, coats, and layers are a must. As I often as I can, I get them at end-of-season sales, but there are times when I have to bite the bullet and buy them during the prime season. I always go through Ebates when I order them online, and search for coupon codes before making my purchases, though.
  2. Green cleaning products. With a young child and two geriatric cats in the house, I’m extra-careful about using as gentle cleaning products as I can, while still getting things clean. I also do my best to make green choices whenever possible, so I tend to use cleaning products from Method and Seventh Generation. (Although I’ll admit to busting out the Lysol anti-bacterial kitchen spray after I cook raw meat.) I typically buy my green cleaning (and some personal care) products from ePantry, except when there’s a good sale on them at Target. (Where I use my Red Card to save 5%.)
  3. Fresh fruits and veggies. I strive to get my five servings of fruit and veggies every day, and to get as many daily servings as possible – often less than five – into my husband and my daughter. As a result, typically about 1/3 of the items in my weekly grocery cart are produce. I try to buy things in-season and/or on-sale, and save a lot using coupon apps like SavingStar and Checkout 51, but this is one area were I prioritize my grocery spending.
  4. Books and learning activities for my daughter. I have always loved reading, and now that my daughter has finished kindergarten and can read (very) simple books on her own, I want to help her develop the same love. We’re heavy users of our local library, but I’m also willing to buy high-quality books and other educational materials for my daughter to use at home. I belong to the frequent buyer club at our local bookstore, and also use some of the Amazon credits I earn through Swagbucks, to save on these items.
  5. Care for my cats. I have two geriatric cats, one of whom has a chronic illness that requires medication, more vet visits than I’d like, and occasionally, a $550 enema. Before we identified his illness, we paid over $1,000 for him to have an endoscopic biopsy! Ouch. But my cats are my first babies, and they’re truly a part of our family. When I adopted them and said I’d take good care of them, I meant it.

What kinds of things are you willing to spend money on?

*Part of Financially Savvy Saturdays on brokeGIRLrich, A Disease Called Debt and Shoeaholic No More*

 

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Spontaneous Happiness Review

spontenous

I recently finished reading the book, Spontaneous Happiness, by Dr. Andrew Weil. Dr. Weill is a Harvard Medical School-trained physician, a professor of public health and clinical professor of medicine at the University of Arizona, and the director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. He’s basically the integrative medicine guy.

I picked up this book because I’m prone to anxiety, and while I’ve become much better at handling it, I’m always looking for more effective ways to prevent and manage it. This book is written with an emphasis on preventing and managing depression, but a lot of the same techniques and strategies apply to anxiety.

Dr. Weil’s premise in Spontaneous Happiness, is that Western medicine has become too focused on the biomedical approach, which looks for purely biological causes of illness – both physical and mental. This excludes a number of critically important factors, including psychology, nutrition, sociology, environment, and more. He believes that this emphasis on the biomedical approach causes many people to be unnecessarily medicated for mental illnesses. He expressly states, however, that people who suffer from major depression and other serious mood disorders often must take medication, at least for a while. As someone with several family members who have suffered from major depression, I know this to absolutely be the case.

I am what therapists call “the worried well”. (My sister, a therapist, taught me this expression.) Basically, I have an undercurrent of low-grade anxiety much of the time, and, periodically, circumstances or situations lead it to become much more pronounced. I’m not unique in this; many people fall into the “worried well” category.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve discovered a few things that help me manage my anxiety quite well, including exposure to nature, physical activity, and deep breathing. I’ve tried meditating, but I haven’t had much success with it, yet. I’m terrible at just being still and maintaining a “quiet mind.” My quest to learn additional techniques for preventing and managing my anxiety, led me to pick up Spontaneous Happiness. (The title, by the way, refers to one not needing to look to external factors and events to experience happiness. Rather, it’s about being able to adjust one’s emotional set-point, and experience contentment at almost any moment.)

Dr. Weil’s strategies fall into three general categories: caring for the body (nutrition, physical activity, etc.), caring for the mind (positive psychology, meditation, social connectedness, etc.), and secular spirituality (art, nature, compassion, etc.). Here are some of the things that resonated most with me, and which I’m working to incorporate into my life:

  • Increasing consumption of omega-3s. I eat salmon several times a month, and will be increasing my consumption of vegetarian sources, such as walnuts and chia and flax seeds. Since the vegetarian sources of omega-3s do not provide EPA and DHA, Dr. Weil recommends fish oil supplements. I’m considering giving them a try.
  • Limiting my exposure to media, especially television news. I’m a CNN junkie. Even when there’s nothing particularly newsworthy being covered, I often have it on in the background. I’ve recently cut back on my mindless news consumption, in an effort to decrease the amount of negativity I’m surrounding myself with.
  • Meditating, or at least trying to. I really struggle with this, but I keep hearing about how beneficial it is, so I’m going to keep at it. At least at this point, I think I need “guided meditation”, essentially one of those calm voices, walking me through my meditation attempts. I’m on the hunt for apps, podcasts, and CDs that will help me with this.
  • Feeling and expressing gratitude. I used to write in my gratitude journal nightly, but it’s been at least several months since I last logged an entry. I’m going to dig it out of my nightstand drawer, and start writing in it regularly again. I’m also going to get into the habit of expressing gratitude to others. I don’t mean just thanking the bank teller after a transaction, but also expressing gratitude to family members and friends for less tangible things.
  • Limiting caffeine consumption. This is a tough one for me. I LOVE my morning coffee, and often enjoy a Diet Coke in the afternoon, too. I’ve pretty much cut-out the Diet Coke, and I cut the number of cups of coffee I make in the coffee pot every day, a little. I haven’t noticed any difference in my anxiety or mood, so while I’m probably physically addicted to caffeine, I don’t think it’s adversely affecting my mental health. (Whew!)

I highly recommend Spontaneous Happiness to anyone looking to increase the level of contentment they experience on a regular basis.

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Have you read any of Dr. Weill’s books? What do you think of his integrative medicine philosophy? Are you one of “the worried well”?



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2015 Meal Plan #28

Happy Monday! We’re finally experiencing true summer weather in my corner of upstate New York, meaning lots of heat! This past Friday was the first day that I actually wanted to get into the pool with my daughter! She finished swimming lessons last week, and while she’s still not ready to put her face under water or jump into the pool, the girl can swim! Sure, it’s more doggy paddle than graceful crawl, but she can get around and keep herself afloat for periods of time now. Would I still be terrified if she fell into a body of water? You bet. But she’s enjoying swimming and is clearly proud of herself and the progress she’s made. Can you tell that I’m proud of her, too?  :)

Now that swimming lessons are over, my days will generally be less chopped-up, but we’re still keeping busy. In addition to morning camp, we’re attending a frog education program in a state park today, interviewing a new potential babysitter tomorrow, going to ballet lessons and a NYC Ballet performance on Wednesday, and getting to the pool to keep the momentum going whenever the weather permits.

With all that in mind, here’s my meal plan for dinners this week:

2015 Meal Plan 28001

(Like my meal planner/grocery list sheet? It’s from the List Plan It Meals ePlanner.)

On to a New Book

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I finished reading, Spontaneous Happiness, yesterday, and I loved it! I also started reading ProBlogger, after Jessi Fearson from The Budget Mama recommended it. You can see all of the books I’ve read this year here.

One Pound Down, 199 to Go

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One of my goals for this year is to grow 200 pounds of produce in my garden. Thanks to my lettuce and sugar snap peas, I’ve crossed the 1-pound mark! I can’t wait for the tomatoes to ripen, so I can really pick up some steam! You can watch my garden harvest tally grow here.

What’s for dinner at your house this week?

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2015 Goals Check-In #6

Red clipboard with blank checklist.  With clipping path.

First of all, I need to chuckle that I’m posting this nearly halfway through July. This month really has my head spinning!

  1. Try 40 recipes from Martha Stewart’s Cookies. I tried only one recipe in June, the soft chocolate chip cookies. They were much puffier than my usual Toll House cookies recipe, but tasted pretty similar.
  2. Decrease debt total by $5,000. We paid off $734.27 worth of day in June, not including our mortgage.
  3. Read 15 books. In June, I read Anything Goes: An Autobiography of the Roaring Twenties. (You can follow my progress toward this goal here.)
  4. Create a weekly meal plan every week. 26 meal plans completed!
  5. Visit Aldi to develop an informed opinion, and, if appropriate, make it part of my shopping routine. While I don’t think Aldi will be my go-to grocery store, I will stop there periodically to pick up some items. I found the selection to be somewhat limited, and the store closest to my house is a good bit further that quite a few other grocery options.
  6. Develop and stick with a monthly cleaning plan. Finally done! We had two sets of overnight guests in June, so those gave me extra motivation to get things clean!
  7. Put together a chore list for my daughter, and make it a part of her routine. I’m still reminding my daughter to do some of the things I expect her to do on a daily basis, but others I can count on her remembering to do herself. I consider this progress!
  8. Grow 200 pounds of food in my garden. Finally some progress on this goal! In June, I harvested a whopping 9 ounces of produce from my garden! (You can follow my progress toward this goal here.)
  9. Have monthly financial check-in meetings with my husband. In June, we talked about our anticipated expenses for July. It wasn’t our most eventful or deep check-in meeting.
  10. Make-ahead and freeze two meals each month. Only one in June, a tray of baked ziti.
  11. Sell all remaining small business inventory. My plan for completing this goal is here. Effective June 1, all of my remaining inventory is discounted by 40%. I hosted a shopping party in early June, plus had several additional customer purchases and Amazon sales. The wholesale value of my inventory is now a little under $4,800. (Shameless plug: The discount code is CLOSING40, if you know anyone who’s looking for high-quality children’s books, toys, and more.)
  12. Redesign blog. I’m not going to lie: this goal (still) terrifies me.

How did you do with your goals in June?

Frugal Real Food Meal Plans

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Out-of-the-Ordinary Expenses: June Update & July Projections

Overall, I’m happy with how June turned out. Most of my projected expenses ended up where I thought they would. We spent more than I anticipated on my husband’s birthday dinner, but the savings on veterinary care balanced it out. Plus, I ended up with a surprise $300, which padded the month, even more.

Update on June Expenses

  1. Teacher gifts: $100 (projected) $120 (actual). My daughter’s class mother told me that very few families contributed to get gifts cards for the art, library, music, and PE teachers, so I gave her a little additional money for them.
  2. Dentist: $110 (projected) $110 (actual). I’m being a little more hands-on with my daughter’s brushing and flossing after shelling this out to have her two cavities filled.
  3. Hair cut: $60 (projected) $60 (actual). 
  4. Father’s Day & husband’s birthday: $100 (projected) $200 (actual). My husband and I went to a nice restaurant for his birthday dinner. It was pricey, but a lovely evening.
  5. Veterinary care: $200 (projected) $16 (actual). Tony hung in there, and I just needed to pick up some medication for him. I’ve gotten much better about adjusting his medications when he’s not feeling well, rather than rushing straight to the vet. I’ve learned that most of the time, I can manage his flare-ups on my own.
  6. HVAC club membership renewal: $199 (projected) $199 (actual). This entitles us to semi-annual system inspections and new filters, plus a discount on any additional parts of services throughout the year. At June’s system check, the technician told me the system looks great. Let’s hope is stays that way!

July Projected Expenses

  1. Car insurance: $596. This is our semi-annual payment.
  2. Entertainment: $100. We have an outdoor arena in our area, and the NYC Ballet is in residence during the month of July. My daughter and I are both big ballet fans, so we’ll be taking in a couple of shows (lawn seats, of course!) this month.
  3. Ballet: $60. This is the cost of summer ballet lessons for my daughter.

An Extra $400!

My daughter is an only child, and my husband and I think it’s important that she socialize with other children on a regular basis over the summer. As a result, she goes to summer camp for five or six weeks each year. Last year, she went to a wonderful camp, which she loved. I registered her for it again in the spring, but then started hearing good things from a number of parents about our town’s camp. Because I knew several of her friends would be attending the town camp, I switched her from the other camp to this one. I was able to get a refund from the first camp, which came to $393! (A processing fee was subtracted, otherwise it would’ve been the full $400.) The town camp only came to $68, including field trips, so I had a surprise “extra” $300 in June!

How was your June, and how is your July going?

 

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