1. Hi, Paula - thank you so much for sharing your time with us today! First of all, can you tell my readers a little bit about yourself and your blog, Monroe on a Budget?
Monroe on a Budget was launched in January 2007 shortly after my newspaper, The Monroe Evening News in Monroe, Mich., launched a community blog site. Employees were encouraged to pitch their ideas and get involved in the project along with the community bloggers we had signed on.
One of my pitches to management was “how to live in Monroe on a budget.” My husband had gone through a layoff and unemployment and we were a frugal family to begin with. I thought our experiences might be helpful to other families going through the same scenario. I also had five press releases on my desk that I thought would fit in with such a topic.
The idea was very well received! The day I pitched Monroe on a Budget, the blog was up and running.
The launch happened about a year before the recession started to get really bad in Michigan. My co- workers and I originally thought the budget blog would be a niche topic. We had long been printing Sara Noel’s Frugal Village column in our Sunday edition, but we had no way to know how popular her content was. But as unemployment and layoffs grew in southeast Michigan, Monroe on a Budget became one of our most popular blogs. We now have a “hot button” directly off our newspaper site to the budget blog.
2. Monroe on a Budget seems to cover just about every topic imaginable for living frugally. What do you consider to be a good first step toward budgeting and frugal living for someone thinking about it for the first time?
The quickest place to cut back on expenses is with your grocery bill. If you are willing to change how and where you shop for groceries, you should notice the cost savings in about eight weeks.
The bigger picture is in becoming resourceful in every line item of your household budget. That’s why I hit on every topic imaginable!
You will find that many of the money-saving tricks that middle class and median-income families can use to significantly cut back on expenses are more long-term decisions rather than short-term ones.
For example, we didn’t need a third car when my daughter was in high school. It was possible for her and I to share my car because we live close enough to the newspaper office for me to walk to work if necessary. We also have a city bus service in Monroe, and my daughter used the city bus almost on a daily basis at one point when she was in high school. These conveniences were possible because my husband and I decided to buy a home within the city limits when we went house-shopping. If we had bought a country home or a suburban home, as is a typical middle-class dream, we would spend more money on transportation just to do everyday errands.
On the budgeting aspect, I’m starting to get back into that routine. We lost a lot of household financial data during a computer crash two years ago, but I started a new file at that point and I have a pretty good idea what our cost of living is now. If you are brand new to budgeting, you begin by listing all your expenses. After about three months of spending data, or reviewing three months of bank and credit card statements, you’ll have a good idea when and how the routine expenses fall into place. It is much easier to set a budget that works for your family when you have the actual numbers.
3. You write for a newspaper in addition to writing your blog. Do you focus on the same types of topics in your newspaper work, or is that totally unrelated to the blog?
The blog is somewhat related to my print newspaper work. I’m assigned to the community section, which is known as the social or neighborhood section at many newspapers. Any local non-profit event such as a children’s festival, spaghetti dinner fundraiser, freebie day at the regional park district, or a charity donation drive will be handled by the community reporters.
What this means for the blog is that I have easy access to public service announcements about free and low-cost programs and services that can make life a little easier for local families on a budget. Any announcement that is sent to the newsroom is fair game for the blog. Sometimes I copy over a press release to the blog as I’m setting the PSA for the print edition; other times I link to the story after it is posted on our newspaper’s web site. These items are mixed in with my own family stories, and other links and tips I find on the Internet.
4. You have a daughter in college. What are some of the things you and she have done to make college more affordable?
My daughter is not taking the path that is typically recommended for families on a budget of two years at community college, then transfer to a university. She started immediately at a four-year residential college that is located three hours away from home. She is also doing a study abroad semester.
We kept all options open during the college application and admission process. Her first-choice college responded with a partial scholarship, renewable for four years if she kept a certain grade point average. The other colleges she applied to offered only one-year scholarships. We showed the college letter to several other family members, and everyone agreed that she should take advantage of the offer. Renewable scholarships are very hard to find these days.
We had to come up with money to make up the difference, but it was clear that our out-of-pocket expenses for a four-year degree would be roughly the same no matter what college she attended. We also knew that a community college / transfer to university plan can easily result in 4 ½ to 5 years before graduation if the student does not get his or her required classes in the right sequence.
To make this work, we stay on top of all the deadlines for scholarships and financial aid. We get our tax returns done professionally in February so the figures are correct and available as soon as possible. Then by March 1, my daughter and I are filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and the CSS Profile application that her college requires. In the meantime, we watch for independent scholarship announcements that are posted at the high school counselor’s office, at her college, on the web or sent to my newspaper. We’ve found that local scholarships and those made available through her school are more accessible than scholarships one finds in the national databases.
My husband and I have maintained good credit ratings. We did that by keeping the bills paid, despite tight finances that resulted from his off and on employment. The result: I had no problem getting approved for the Parent PLUS loan, which has favorable interest rates for my daughter’s college expenses that are not covered by any other means.
5. Is there anything that you splurge on; an area of your life where you are not budget-conscious?
I collect Barbie dolls! At last count, I had more than 70 dolls and it is probably closer to 100 by now.
I started my collection in 1995 and focus on the international / multicultural dolls such as the Dolls of the World series. Most of my dolls are displayed on shelves in the master bedroom and I change around
I also keep a “pink box” play Barbie doll on my desk at work, and change around that doll and outfits according to the seasons.
I used to attend doll shows and was involved in a doll collector club for awhile, but had to cut back on that activity when funds became tight. The hobby magazine I used to subscribe to has shut down publication, but I kept issues that had helpful information on what to look for when buying second-hand dolls, and patterns to make doll outfits.
My Barbie hobby does fit in with a frugal lifestyle because my husband and daughter know what to buy me for birthday, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. They’ll hide the Barbie.com catalog if there’s a doll they are getting ready to order so that I don’t know what is available. I usually need to buy only two or three dolls a year out of my own spending money.
6. I loved your analogy between a box of crayons and frugal living! Can you share that idea with my
If you’ve ever watched a child work on a coloring page, you know that the child is much happier when there a big selection of crayon colors is available.
I noticed that when teaching my Sunday School class. My first-graders didn’t like being limited to individual 8-count boxes of crayons when they worked on a coloring page. You can’t make the Bible story picture look the way you want it if you don’t have a pink crayon, a peach crayon, or multiple shades of brown.
So I went digging around the church office and found leftover crayons from long-forgotten projects to make crayon buckets with a bigger variety of colors available. The children loved their new crayon selections!
The point is: if your goals at home include frugal living, you won’t get the best results if you limit yourself to a few money-saving tricks. There will be some tactics you use every week (primary colors), and some that you use maybe once a year (really unusual colors). But you want as many crayons as possible in your frugal living crayon box!
7. Paula, thanks again for spending time with us today. For our last question, can you tell us how
you got started writing about living on a budget?
To be honest, the budget blog was something I decided to do to get involved in my newspaper’s new social media project. It just happened to be in place at the right time for southeast Michigan families who got hit with layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts.
My husband and I have always been frugal minded people. We both remember times when we were growing up when money was tight for our parents. Even at times during our marriage when money was a little more free, my husband and I tried not to bump up our basic standard of living but instead used the extra money on extras.
Our frugal living tricks were seriously ramped up as we struggled through my husband’s terminal layoff from his radio career in 2002 and temporary agency assignments in the aftermath. My husband eventually did get a new permanent job in at an automotive supplier, but there have been lengthy factory shutdowns during the past two years because of the Michigan economy. When he’s not working, he gets only unemployment benefits.
I research and write with my family’s experiences in mind. If a tip isn’t immediately applicable to my family, it might be helpful for someone else.