The pandemic, the election, rising Covid cases and deaths, intonations of entering a dark winter… shall we talk about that today? Nah. In a world that’s (potentially) spiraling out of control, let’s focus on the things we can control. I can’t control politics, I can’t control the coronavirus, I can’t control what other people do or don’t do.
All I can control is myself (and my success rate there is only about 60%). I’ve known this for approximately 36 years, but WOW does it feel relevant right about now.
My mother-in-law once distilled this into a phrase that’s stuck with me for going on twelve years, “My job is to manage what happens inside this house because I can’t control what happens outside of it.” She wasn’t talking about the pandemic, but I recall her words DAILY as I doom-scroll and doom-listen to the news.
So today I inhale, I exhale, I eat my morning oatmeal (yep, still eating oatmeal every day) and I present to you something I can control, something we can all control: OUR EXPENSES!!! Come on, you KNEW I was going to say that.
The Principle of Shop Around
I shop around for everything. Not just for stuff you’d imagine, like toothpaste and dishwashers, but for stuff you might not imagine like my cell phone service and–last month–my heating oil. We heat our home primarily via our wood stove (fed with wood Mr. Frugalwoods harvests from our land), but we have oil as a back-up in case of emergency, or really cold nights, so the pipes don’t freeze.
Every fall, I order an oil delivery to top off our oil tank so we’re ready for winter. We typically use about half the tank each winter, but I like to have it full before going into the coldest 12 months of the year. And every fall, I call every single company that delivers oil to my area and ask their price per gallon. I do the same thing with our propane, which we use for cooking.
I was talking about this with friends recently and they looked at me (over Zoom) and said, “but aren’t things like oil and propane just based on the market price and thus the same at every company?” After my 25-minute long response, WOW do they wish they hadn’t asked. The short answer is: NO! The long answer is that while yes, there’s a market rate for things like oil and propane, companies mark up this rate at different levels.
Plus, there’s often a new customer discount, which incentivizes shopping around and, if needed, switching companies every year. Yes, you can do that!!! I’m not a fan of long-term contracts or automatically renewing memberships for anything–I like to make my own decisions every year because often, I find a better deal by switching companies. I’m very much a pay-as-I-go-gal, which, side note often nets me a deeper discount. Paying in full and upfront has saved me money on everything from my LASIK eye surgery (really, folks, I cannot make this stuff up) to my solar panels to my propane delivery.
And now, I present the results of my fall 2020 comparison shopping, sorted two ways to reflect cheapest by propane and cheapest by oil:
Cheapest By Propane
|Company||Propane Price Per Gallon||Oil Price Per Gallon|
|West Leb Feed & Supply||$2.22||N/A|
|Bob’s Service Center in WRJ||$2.65||N/A|
I want to point out that the difference between the cheapest and most expensive propane company is $3.50 PER GALLON!!!!! Depending on how much propane you use, that’s hundreds or THOUSANDS of dollars every year.
Cheapest By Oil
|Company||Propane Price Per Gallon||Oil Price Per Gallon|
|West Leb Feed & Supply||$2.22||N/A|
|Bob’s Service Center in WRJ||$2.65||N/A|
I sort the spreadsheet two ways because there’s no law saying you have to use the same company for oil and propane–you don’t!!!! Also I really wanted to use those spreadsheets for something other than myself. If you live locally, I hope this helps!!! This year, based on a tip from my good friend R, I joined a local fuel club to get the cheapest price on oil. If you have fuel clubs in your area, it’s worth checking out their rates.
The bottom line is to shop around. There are deals to be had on pretty much everything and, when you’re talking about vast quantities–such as oil and propane–the difference between the cheapest and most expensive is actually quite a lot of money.
I’m not terribly interested in saving 0.35 cents on shampoo, but boy howdy am I interested in saving $247.32 on my oil and $321.52 on my propane.
I bring this up because people often assume it takes a lot of time to be frugal. To which I reply, well, kinda, but also kinda not. I don’t sweat the teensy expenses–the 0.35 coupons of the world–instead, I focus on stuff that’s:
- Expensive, which means the potential savings are tremendous (i.e. buying a used car)
- A recurring monthly expense, which means the savings accrue significantly over time (i.e. using an MVNO for cell phone service)
Bringing intention to everything in your budget that falls into those two categories is a fabulous first step to savings tons of money every year. Yeah, it’ll take some work upfront, but then, you’ll just rake* in the savings month after month, year after year.
*yes, that is a leaf pun
Personal Capital: How We Organize Our Expen$e$
Mr. Frugalwoods and I use a free, online service called Personal Capital to keep track of our money: our spending, our net worth, our investments, our retirement–everything!
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 write-up.
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).
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 mortgage, having several credit cards open for many years helps our credit scores. 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 a few good options that don’t have annual fees:
- This one’s good because it offers a flat 1.5% cash back on all purchases. There are no categories to keep track of, you just get a straightforward 1.5% cash back on everything you buy. Nice, easy, and fee-free!
- What this means is that if you spend, for example, $1,000 on this card in a month, you’ll get $15 back.
- Plus, if you spend $500 in the first three months of having this card, you’ll get $150.
2) The Chase Freedom Unlimited:
- Also offers a flat 1.5% cash back on all purchases–with no categories or restrictions–which makes it super simple to use.
- You can earn up to 5% cash back in specific categories as well, which makes it really attractive to folks who can track their spending carefully.
- This card also offers you $200 if you spend $500 in the first three months of having it.
3) The TD Cash Visa® Credit Card:
- This card gives you 3% cash back on dining, 2% cash back at grocery stores, and 1% cash back on all other eligible purchases.
- Plus, if you spend $500 within 90 days of opening an account, you’ll get $150 back.
- And, there’s no annual fee!
4) The Citi® Double Cash Card:
- Gives you a total of 2% cash back (1% at the time of purchase and 1% when you pay your credit card bill).
- This is a really good cash back percentage and it means that if you spent, for example, $2,000 on this card in a month, you’d get $40 back, just for using the card! Not bad.
- I also like this card because there are no categories for purchases–anything you buy with the card is eligible for the 2% cash back, which makes is super simple to use.
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 using credit cards might prompt you to spend more, then 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: $53.77
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 $2,688.63 on that card, which netted us $53.77.
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.
Yes, We Only Paid $29.58 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 $29.58 for both of our phones (that’s $14.79 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 the TJ Maxx of the cell phone service world–it’s the same service, but A LOT cheaper. If you’re not already using an MVNO, switching to one is easy, slam-dunk, do-it-right-away 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.
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.
- Don’t you have a rental property? Yes! We own a rental property (formerly known as our first house) 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.
- Why don’t you buy everything locally? We do our best to support our local community and we buy as much of our food as possible directly from our farmer neighbors. Our town doesn’t have any stores, so we do rely on online ordering and larger big box stores for necessities like toilet paper. The closest stores are 45 minutes away and Mr. FW goes once a month to stock up on what we can’t get from our neighbors or online.
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 October:
|Utilities: heating oil (annual supply)||$495.03||303 gallons at $1.63 per gallon. This’ll last us all year.|
|Household supplies||$467.10||This category’s been really lumpy since the pandemic hit and we started ordering more household supplies online. Some months this line item is $0 and other months, it’s pretty high.
This includes everything from toilet paper to laundry detergent to light bulbs to craft supplies for the kids.
|Fancy craft beer||$240.34||This is not a typo. Priorities, people!|
|Clothing||$186.12||A stock-up on things like socks, long underwear, jammies, dresses for me, etc.
I can write a whole post on this if folks are interested?
|Winter boots for Mr. FW||$154.95||Mr. FW’s previous winter boots, Muck Boots, developed rips along the top of the shoe (where you bend your foot) and he patched them with a patching compound last winter. But, they ripped again. And so, he’s trying out a new brand this year: DryShod. They’re rated for -50F, so hopefully they’ll be warm enough.
He has discovered that his feet stay plenty warm when he’s hiking or working, but when he’s stationary in the freezing cold (like when he’s plowing our driveway on the tractor), his feet ice up. Hopefully these boots’ll help!
|Organic Oats: 50lbs||$93.98||Another 50lb installment of oats!|
|BJ’s Membership||$55.00||Pre-pandemic we considered letting our BJ’s membership lapse, but its been awesome in pandemic-land. Mr. FW’s able to go once a month and come home with massive quantities of everything from organic quinoa to onions.
I’ve been storing all the produce in our cold basement, which seems to work! Bananas, apples, lemons, limes, avocados, etc—they all do just fine down there in the cold and last the whole month.
|Local pizza take-out!||$48.00||Our town did a few pizza fundraisers from our town wood-fired pizza oven and, of course, I had to participate. I mean, it was for a good cause AND IT WAS PIZZA!!!|
|Annual Vermont Woodlands Association Dues||$40.00||Dues for our forestry association|
|Annual Fuel Club Dues||$30.00||Dues for our oil & propane fuel club (it’s still a savings even with these dues!)|
|Hose pliers||$29.58||Knipex long-nose pliers (affiliate link).|
|Cell phone service for two phones||$29.58||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 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: Electric||$22.76||We have solar (which I detail here); this is our monthly base price for remaining grid tied.|
|Gasoline for cars||$20.63||Clearly we’re not going many places these days…|
|Caramel Vodka||$11.80||Worthy of its own line item. Mr. FW found pumpkin-spice egg nog for me and I have to say, caramel vodka mixed with pumpkin-spice egg nog is where you’ll find me in heaven. Let’s hope egg nog is only sold seasonally…|