Ahh, March 2020. You will live forever in our minds as the month of both the Before Times and the After Times. We started the month celebrating my birthday with dinners out AT RESTAURANTS and ended March ensconced in our home, regarding restaurants as dangerous, forbidden places of the past. It was the longest month on record–proven by data–and combing through our expenses felt akin to the excavation of a past civilization.
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Groceries: So Many Groceries
As I predicted, we broke all previous records of grocery spending. I mean truly, it’s impressive. After schools (and daycares) here in Vermont closed and after statewide stay-at-home orders went into effect, we decided to limit our exposure as much as possible by curtailing our trips to the grocery store. In Normal Times, Mr. Frugalwoods goes to the grocery store once a week (on the same day every week) and buys everything we need for that week. In Pandemic Times, we made the decision to stop shopping weekly and to go as long as possible between trips. There’s no grocery delivery where we live, so we sent Mr. FW on a mega stock-up trip in late March. Armed with a printed and categorized list, antibacterial wipes and gloves, Mr. FW ventured out and shopped like he’s never shopped before (there’s a summary of what he bought here). We haven’t set foot inside a grocery store since and are instead eating through our stockpile of supplies and finding local, more socially-distant options for food procurement, as detailed below.
Mr. FW went on a second pandemic-themed grocery trip in late April and did the following:
- Curbside pick-up of fresh produce from a local produce store
- Went to a convenience store/gas station when it was empty of customers:
- Since it’s a much smaller space, he waited in the parking lot until the store was empty (except for one cashier) and then went inside.
- Curbside pick-up of flour and baking ingredients from King Arthur Flour
Thanks to these new curbside pick-up options, he was able to minimize his contact and stay outside of the larger grocery stores. We’re also buying eggs and beef from our neighbors via porch/barn pick-up and ordering bulk raw foods online, including these grits, oats, dried beans, and these popcorn kernels (affiliate links).
Our goal in doing this is to limit our exposure, limit the chances of us infecting others, and to be one less person in the grocery stores. Plenty of folks don’t have the financial ability to stock up on a month’s worth of groceries, or they don’t have the space to store that much food, or they don’t have a car in which to drive the groceries home. Since we have the privileged ability to stock up, we did. Now, we are one less body in the stores and one less potential disease vector.
At this point, we’re almost out of fresh fruits and vegetables, but we have a bunch of frozen produce we’ll tap into next. We also have the stuff we canned and preserved from our garden last summer. And, we’ve started our vegetable seeds for this summer’s garden (although it’ll be months before we harvest anything, thanks to our freezing Vermont spring).
In general, as I outlined in this post, we’re following the frugal ethos of cooking from scratch as much as possible. Instead of buying bread, we buy flour and yeast and bake our own. Instead of buying hummus, we buy dried chickpeas and make hummus. Instead of buying cookies…. you get the picture. This isn’t always possible, but the more you can stock your pantry with bulk, raw ingredients, the longer you can go between grocery store runs and the more diverse foods you can prepare from scratch.
Easing Pandemic Pain with Frivolous and Luxurious Spending
To ease the stay-at-home pain and stress, we did some frivolous shopping. Not going to lie. These are total luxuries, these are totally unnecessary, I feel BEYOND fortunate we have the ability to treat ourselves during this time of global trauma. And I do not regret buying any of it:
Airpods: I’m in love with these things. They’re wireless earphones/earbuds that connect to my phone or computer via bluetooth and allow me to listen to podcasts, talk to friends, participate in Zoom calls and more without being attached to my phone or computer via a wire. IDEAL for this time of all-virtual living and IDEAL for multiple people doing different things all at the same time in the same house. My major mom hack of the week is that Kidwoods can watch her TV show while Littlewoods naps and Mr. FW works upstairs while I listen to the news via my Airpods and clean the kitchen. Restrain your jealousy over my glamorous life (affiliate links). I can also do yoga classes on YouTube with the Airpods in, which means the kids are (less) inclined to wander over and climb onto my stomach while I’m in bridge pose.
- Historical fiction: I needed some escapist fiction and this series on queens of England is fabulous. I’m transported to the 1400s when things were, let’s be honest, a lot worse than they are right now. Nothing like some historical comparison to make you feel pretty darn good! Could I have checked these books out electronically for free? Probably, but I’ll be honest, I like to read from a real live book (affiliate links).
- Cheetos: let’s not discuss how many bags I’ve eaten by myself. In fact, forget I even mentioned this…
- Fancy drinks: As part of his massive stock-up trip, Mr. FW went to the liquor store for fun drinks ingredients and we’ve been trying out unusual cocktails that we don’t normally drink. He also stocked us up on local, fancy craft beers–we like to split a beer in order to taste test it together. Frivolous, fun, delicious.
Getting through this unusual, stressful, disruptive time sometimes involves giving yourself grace when you spend on luxuries. Everyone’s circumstances are different, everyone is impacted differently and, as I shared in this post:
Everyone’s ability to help during this time will be different and everyone has seasons of being able to help and needing to receive help. Please do not feel guilty for whichever group you fall into–we all experience both over the course of our lives. If you need help, please reach out. If you can offer help, please reach out. Now’s the time to set aside judgement, partisanship, and sanctimonious-ness and just help each other out.
This leads me to mention…
The Uber Frugal Week: A Pandemic-Style Series
As I’m sure you already know, I started an Uber Frugal Week series designed to help folks navigate their finances during the pandemic. The posts appear right here on the blog and you can start with Day 1 here.
So far in the series I’ve covered:
- Day 1: How to track your spending and establish a “time-of-crisis” savings goal.
- Day 2: What to do if you’ve lost your job. How to navigate pandemic-related benefits and services, such as unemployment, health insurance through the Affordable Care Act (ACA), loan forbearance programs, what the new CARES Act and coronavirus stimulus checks mean for you, and more.
- Day 3: Specific ideas on how to save more money in (almost) every category of your budget.
- Day 4: Make your money work for you: emergency funds, high-interest savings accounts, and using credit cards to your advantage
- And finally, a special Reader Suggestions on how to make extra money working from home during the pandemic
Credits Cards: How We Buy Everything
Mr. Frugalwoods and I purchase everything we possibly can with credit cards because:
- It’s easier to track expenses. No guesswork over where a random $20 bill went; it all shows up in our monthly expense report from Personal Capital. I spend less money because I KNOW I’m going to see every expense listed at the end of each month. Here’s a more detailed explanation of how I use Personal Capital for my expense tracking (and other stuff too).
- We get rewards. Credit card rewards are a simple way to get something for nothing. Through the cards we use, Mr. FW and I get cash back as well as hotel and airline points just for buying stuff we were going to buy anyway.
- We build our credit. Since Mr. FW and I don’t carry debt other than our mortgages, having several credit cards open for many years helps our credit scores. By the way, it’s a dirty myth that carrying a balance on your credit card helps your credit score–IT DOES NOT. Paying your cards off IN FULL every month and keeping them open for many years does help your score.
For more on my credit card strategy, check out The Frugalwoods Guide to a Simple, Yet Rewarding, Credit Card Experience. I also wrote this guide on how to find the best credit card for you.
If you want a simple cash back credit card, here are two good options that don’t have annual fees:
The best way to find a credit card that’ll work for you is to search for it yourself; I have a guide to help you do just that: The Best Credit Cards (and Credit Card Rewards)!
Huge caveat to credit card usage: you MUST pay your credit card bills in full every single month, with no exceptions. If you’re concerned about your ability to do this, or think that using credit cards might prompt you to spend more money, then credit cards are not for you–stick with a debit card or cash. But if you have no problem paying that bill in full every month? I recommend you credit card away, my friend! (note: the credit card links are affiliate links).
Cash Back Earned This Month: $49.67
The silver lining to our spending is our cash back credit card. We earn 2% cash back on every purchase made with our Fidelity Rewards Visa and this month, we spent $2,483.86 on that card, which netted us $49.67.
Not a lot of money, perhaps, but it’s money we earned for buying stuff we were going to buy anyway! This is why I love cash back credit card rewards–they’re the simplest way to earn something for nothing.
Personal Capital: How We Organize Our Expen$e$
Mr. Frugalwoods and I use a free, online service called Personal Capital to keep track of our money.
Tracking expenses is one of the best–and easiest–ways to get a handle on your finances. You absolutely, positively cannot make informed decisions about your money if you don’t know how you’re spending it. If you’d like to know more about how Personal Capital works, check out my full review.
Without a holistic picture of how much you spend every month, there’s no way to set savings, debt repayment, or investment goals. It’s a must, folks. No excuses. Personal Capital (which is free to use) is a great way for us to systematize our financial overviews since it links all of our accounts together and provides a comprehensive picture of our net worth.
If you’re not tracking your expenses in an organized fashion, you might consider trying Personal Capital. Here’s a more detailed explanation of how I use Personal Capital (note: these Personal Capital links are affiliate links).
Yes, We Only Paid $22.40 for Cell Phone Service (for two phones)
Our cell phone service line item is not a typ0 (although that certainly is). We really and truly only paid $22.40 for both of our phones (that’s $11.20 per person for those of you into division). How is such trickery possible?!? We use the MVNO Ting (affiliate link). What’s an MVNO? Glad you asked because I was going to tell you anyway. It’s a cell phone service re-seller.
MVNOs are basically the TJ Maxx of the cell phone service world–it’s the same service, just A LOT cheaper. If you’re not already using an MVNO, switching to one is an easy, slam-dunk, do-it-right-now way to save money every single month of every single year forever and ever amen. More here: My Frugal Cell Phone Service Trick: How I Pay $10.65 A Month*
*the amount we pay fluctuates every month because it’s calibrated on what we use. Imagine that! We only pay for what we use! Will wonders ever cease.
Where’s Your Money?
One of the easiest ways to optimize your money is to use a high-interest savings account. A high-interest savings account gives you money for nothing. With these accounts, interest works in YOUR favor (as opposed to the interest rates on debt, which work against you). Having money in a no (or low) interest savings account is a waste of resources–your money is just sitting there doing nothing. Don’t let your money be lazy! Make it work for you! And now, enjoy some explanatory math:
Let’s say you have $5,000 in a savings account that earns 0% interest. In a year’s time, your $5,000 will still be… $5,000.
Let’s say you instead put that $5,000 into an American Express Personal Savings account that–as of this writing–earns 1.70% in interest. In one year, your $5,000 will have increased to $5,085.67. That means you earned $85.67 just by having your money in a high-interest account.
And you didn’t have to do anything! I’m a big fan of earning money while doing nothing. I mean, is anybody not a fan of that? Apparently so, because anyone who uses a low (or no) interest savings account is NOT making money while doing nothing. Don’t be that person.
Be the person who earns money while sleeping. More about high-interest savings accounts, as well as the ones I recommend, here: The Best High Interest Rate Online Savings Accounts.
Expense Report FAQs
- Want to know how we manage the rest of our money? Check out How We Manage Our Money: Behind The Scenes of The Frugalwoods Family Accounts. We also own a rental property in Cambridge, MA, which I discuss here.
- Why do I share our expenses? To give you a sense of how we spend our money in a values-based manner. Your spending will differ from ours and there’s no “one right way” to spend and no “perfect” budget.
- Are we the most frugal frugal people on earth? Absolutely not. My hope is that by being transparent about our spending, you might gain insights into your own spending and be inspired to take proactive control of your money.
- Wondering where to start with managing your money? Take my free, 31-day Uber Frugal Month Challenge. If you’re interested in other things I love, check out Frugalwoods Recommends.
But Mrs. Frugalwoods, Don’t You Pay For X, Y, Or Even Z????
Wondering about common expenses you don’t see listed below?
- We pay bills in full the month we receive them. That’s why you won’t see monthly payments for things like car insurance or property tax. These expenses show up as the full annual (or bi-annual, etc) amount in the month we pay them.
- We don’t have any debt (other than our mortgages) and we paid cash for our cars.
- Our health insurance is paid for by Mr. FW’s employer (who he works for from home).
- Here’s how we make charitable contributions: How We Donate To Charities Like Billionaires and also How We Make Meaningful And Tax Efficient Charitable Donations.
- Here’s an overview of how we save for our kids’ higher education: How We Use 529 Plans To Save For College
- We live on 66 acres in rural Vermont, so our utilities and expenses are different from traditional urban and suburban homes:
- We don’t pay for water, sewer, trash, or heating/cooling because we have a well, a septic system, our town doesn’t provide trash pick-up (we take it to a transfer station once a week in bags we purchase from our town), we heat our home with wood we harvest ourselves from our land, and we don’t have central air conditioning (we use window units during the hottest parts of the summer). There are, of course, costs associated with maintaining these systems (such as having our septic system pumped and inspected) and those expenses show up in the months we pay them.
- We have solar panels, which account for our low electricity bill.
- For more on our rural lifestyle, check out my series This Month On The Homestead as well as City vs. Country: Which Is Cheaper? The Ultimate Cost Of Living Showdown.
If you’re wondering about anything else, feel free to ask in the comments section!
Alright you frugal money voyeurs, feast your eyes on every dollar we spent in March:
|Groceries||$1,475.10||Like I said, a massive stock-up|
|Daycare||$880.00||Read about our childcare decision-making process in this post.|
|Beer, wine, and liquor||$224.91||Another mega stock-up|
|Household supplies||$202.87||Ditto. Thrilling items such as: toilet paper, shampoo, laundry detergent, dishwasher soap, over-the-counter medications, dental floss, and more.|
|Frivolous pandemic luxury items: Airpods and books||$167.66||I got these Airpods and several books in this series (affiliate links).|
|20 lbs of local grass-fed, organic, free range beef||$140.00||Purchased from our neighbor who raises cows; now in our chest freezer.|
|Gasoline for cars||$137.07||The driving that occurred in the Before Times.|
|Birthday date night!||$89.19||Our customary once-a-month kid-free date night happened to be scheduled for early March, so we were able to go (and celebrate my 36th birthday!) while our adopted grandma neighbor stayed with the girls (we put them to bed before we leave).|
|50 lbs of oats||$76.98||50 lbs of oats|
|Internet||$72.00||We really, really, really love our fiber internet.|
|Vermont DMV||$51.00||To renew my driver’s license, which seems kind of pointless now… 😉|
|Tow truck||$50.00||That one time I got our Prius stuck on our driveway and had to call our neighbor the tow truck driver to pull me out…|
|Canning jar lids||$40.66||We reuse our jars and rings, but needed more lids for the impending canning season|
|Ladies’ Night Out||$33.34||My monthly Ladies’ Night kid-free dinner was, fortuitously in early March, so we were able to squeeze in one last in-person dinner before moving to a weekly FaceTime happy hour.|
|We bought a pulse oximeter in the hopes that if one of us gets sick, we can monitor our oxygen levels and hopefully avoid going to the emergency room unnecessarily||$31.69||We got this Pulse Oximeter (affiliate link).|
|Payment to daycare to hold Littlewoods’ spot for the fall term||$25.00||Fingers crossed that daycare actually happens in the fall!|
|Flour||$23.80||From King Arthur Flour via curbside pick-up|
|Birthday lunch and coffee||$22.57||I’m really thankful this year that I have an early March birthday! To treat myself, I worked at a coffee shop ALONE all day on my birthday and gorged on lattes, pastries, and sandwiches. Glorious.|
|Cell phone service for two phones||$22.40||This is so cheap because we use an MVNO called Ting (affiliate link). MVNOs resell wireless service at discounted rates (but it’s the same service).
MVNOs are basically the TJ Maxx of cell phone service.If you’re not using an MVNO, check out this post to see if you can make the switch. The savings are tremendous
|Utilities: Electricity||$20.90||We have solar (which I detail here); this is our monthly base price for remaining grid tied.|
|6 lbs of grits||$19.59||Bulk buy of these grits (affiliate link).|
|Local eggs||$16.00||We buy eggs from our neighbor every week.|
|Canning book||$15.40||I’ve been meaning to get an actual canning book for years (we’ve been using online recipes from extension schools) and this year seemed like the year.
We got this Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving (affiliate link).
|16 lbs of popcorn kernels||$11.65||Bulk buy of these popcorn kernels (affiliate link).|
How was your March?
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