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Frugal goes only so far. Some things are worth the money (even though you may not have to pay retail).

By Donna_Freedman Nov 1, 2012 1:25PM
Logo: Senior woman (Corbis)My dad has been building and remodeling ever since he was old enough to help out his own father, a carpenter. When he wasn't working on our home he was out helping someone else, or tearing down old buildings in order to re-use the wood on projects. (Clearly, the apple doesn't fall far from the frugal tree.)

He's never bought cheap equipment.

"There's an old saying with tools: 'Buy once, cry once,'" Dad said. "Of course, that applies to just about everything in life."

I've heard it another way, too: "Buy it right or buy it twice." In other words, frugality has its limits. Some things are worth the money.  

Why spend a fortune on stuff that will be torn to shreds on Christmas morning? Use these alternatives to ribbons and bows.

By Donna_Freedman Oct 31, 2012 2:58PM
Logo: Gifts (Image Source Black/Jupiterimages)How much do you spend on wrapping supplies each holiday season? And does it irritate you to see those pretty papers and beautiful bows torn and tossed aside?

Frugal options exist, of course: 
  • Stock up at the after-Christmas sales. Last year I paid as little as 50 cents per giant roll of paper and a dime apiece for bags.
  • Look for wrapping supplies at thrift stores and yard sales.
  • Open gifts as carefully as you can, and reuse the paper and ribbons next year, trimming off the tape marks/ragged edges.
  • Check the recycle bin behind your apartment building, since a ton of gift bags and wrapping paper will be chucked come Dec. 26. I've rescued and reused both; a couple of years back, I found a giant, still-shrink-wrapped roll of wrapping paper next to the Dumpster.

But maybe carbon footprint is as important to you as cost. According to Stanford University, if every American family wrapped three presents in reused materials, the saved paper would cover 45,000 football fields.

A frugal and eco-friendly approach would be to place gifts under the tree with tags and no wrapping. Of course, though, the tantalizing "What could this be?" factor provides a holiday frisson, and some people really do love to tear open a gift.


For unique (and free!) entertainment, invite friends over for a mystery role-playing game.

By Donna_Freedman Oct 30, 2012 1:36PM
Logo: Spy (Corbis)Bored with board games? Try murder.

Having friends over for an evening of Pictionary or Scrabble is a great way to stretch your entertainment budget. But if the prospect of another Apples to Apples marathon leaves you cold, try hosting a mystery evening.

It's like a live-action game of "Clue." Each person is given a role to play and a certain amount of information regarding a fictional murder that takes place at your home.

Of course, it won't really be your home. Just for the evening, your living room will become an English manor, a winery, a rock club or several other locations noted in the mystery scripts available free for the downloading.

As a nation, we're obsessed with mystery/crime shows on TV, and mystery authors are always on the best-seller list. So why not try an evening of "CSI: My Apartment"?  

If your housemate's sweetie is always around, should he or she be paying rent?

By Donna_Freedman Oct 29, 2012 11:37AM
Logo: Couple arguing (Turba/zefa/Corbis)Getting along with roommates can be a challenge even when you all agree on certain points: cereal bowls in the dishwasher, utility shares paid promptly, advance warning if significant others will be sleeping over.

But what happens when the love of your housemate's life gets a little too comfortable?

Visiting boyfriends wander around in their boxers; visiting girlfriends hog the bathroom. You can't come out for breakfast in your nightie because you never know if some dude's going to be in the kitchen, eating his way through your box of Kashi.

Small apartments can get downright claustrophobic. But even larger spaces feel less your own if you’ve got two or three extra people who never seem to leave. Shouldn’t they at least be paying for the convenience, if not the Kashi?  

Work with your contractor by doing a 'partial DIY.' Not everyone is super-handy, but most of us can bag trash or paint.

By Donna_Freedman Oct 26, 2012 3:15PM
Bathroom remodel (Digital Vision, Photolibrary)Recently I talked with a woman whose contractor husband frequently encounters resistance to his bids. No doubt a lot of contractors get the same reaction. The fact is (a) insurance and equipment aren't cheap and (b) he and his crew are entitled to a living wage.

But instead of getting defensive, he gets creative.

"Paint the remodeled rooms yourself and the job will be $X cheaper," he'll tell homeowners. Or: "Tear out all this paneling and take care of the on-site trash disposal and you’ll save $X."

Not everyone is the DIY type but almost everyone can learn to use a paint roller, or a sledgehammer. While you'd need to be choosy about which tasks you take on, doing some of the work of a repair or remodel can save some serious coin.  

Extracurricular activities are 'pay to play' in many schools. Rec-league sports aren't cheap either. Here are 14 ways to trim costs.

By Donna_Freedman Oct 25, 2012 2:39PM

Logo: Girls playing tennis (Digital Vision)Sports, music, drama, student government and other extracurricular activities can help students stand out in the push for college admission and funding. Chances are your kid started at least one activity before high school, though.

Maybe long before -- children who can't even stay dry at night are studying and competing in programs like tumbling, ballet, T-ball and Suzuki violin.

Rec-league sports, art class, voice instruction, swim club, piano lessons, karate. Ever add up the annual cost?

And not just the price of fees and cleats, either. Financial expert Suzanna de Baca says the "true cost" of extracurriculars may surprise you.


Little things mean a lot -- but they don't have to cost a lot. Stretch your gift-giving budget with these frugal tips.

By Donna_Freedman Oct 24, 2012 2:22PM
Logo: Gift (RubberBall, SuperStock)Stocking stuffers used to be a lot less complicated. You'd get an orange, a candy cane and maybe a tiny present or two. Some families didn't bother with them at all; they hung their stockings by the chimney with care for sentimental rather than avaricious reasons.

These days some people put almost as much work (and money) into filling the socks as they do on the under-the-tree gifts. A couple of years back I saw an article about "stocking stuffers under $25."

Yikes! I don't spend $25 on stocking stuffers for all my friends and family put together.

There's no reason you should, either, when so many free and cheap sources of small gifts are out there.  

Cheap or free diversions can really stretch your travel dollars. These 12 tips will get you going.

By Donna_Freedman Oct 23, 2012 2:05PM

Parked airplane (Sava Alexandru, Vetta, Getty Images)While visiting my dad last August I made a side trip to New York City, partly for business and partly for fun.


Some of that enjoyment was free because New York is not only walkable, it's watchable.


The architecture, the store window displays, Central Park, and the fashionably (and eccentrically) dressed residents are pretty entertaining.

Even the pets are dressed up. I saw one pooch wearing a raincoat and, I swear to dog, little rubber boots.

I made a few other trips (Anchorage, Denver, Philadelphia, South Jersey) in the past six months -- and found free fun in those places, too.



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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.