Last fall I went on a cleaning binge. It wasn’t simply a matter of dusting or vacuuming; I felt a need to clean out the clutter in my life. Since that time, I haven’t felt the urge to replace the stuff, but I have been more aware of the value of the money that bought that stuff.

The Clutter Theory
I read in Suze Orman’s The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom that holding onto clutter actually reduces our prosperity. Her theory is that by holding onto items we no longer value, we aren’t making room for new things that we value more (like money).

You probably also heard this same theory if you watched Oprah’s hoaders episode or ever watched Clean Sweep. I won’t get into the psychological theories here, but I can see the truth in the statement.

How I Cleaned out the Clutter
I started under the bathroom sink – a pretty easy place to clean out clutter. From there, I continued through the closets, kitchen, and home office. I produced 8 bags of trash and 3 bags of clothes to give away.

In addition to tossing expired medications and makeup, used up cleaning supplies, and worn out clothes, I also took a hard look at my books, CDs, videos, and DVDs. I ended up throwing out at least a dozen old videotapes and selling numerous books. Most of the CDs and DVDs belong to my husband, and he wasn’t yet ready to part with them.

The Result of My Clutter Purge
Now that I’ve gotten rid of so much stuff, I can actually see what I have and make use of it. I tossed out about half my supply of candles and vases, and now make a point of using the rest. I tossed out several pairs of shoes, so now I can see which shoes I have and want to use. I got rid of old clothes, which means now I can find the clothes I do want to wear and that still fit me.

In the kitchen, I found food that had long since expired, or food we no longer eat. The good food went to a food drive. The bad food we tossed, and now I can actually find stuff in the cupboard.

Since my purge, I haven’t felt an urge to replace that stuff. Instead I’d rather use up the stuff I already have. I also think more carefully before buying something new. I confirm that it is something I will actually use, not something I think might be nice to have but don’t have an immediate use for. It certainly made my Christmas list much shorter last year! I just didn’t feel the need to get more stuff.

I can’t say that it’s directly related, but our debt has declined significantly since I completed the purge. I can say that uncluttering my life made me feel freer and happier. It also makes me much happier when I opened the linen closet or reached under the cabinet for a new bottle of shampoo. And sometimes, it’s the little things that matter the most.

How to Clean Out the Clutter
If you want to purge, start with one small section of your home. Set aside an hour, or maybe just fifteen minutes, to clean. Bring two trash bags: trash and donate. I suggest starting under the bathroom counter or the medicine cabinet, a place where most of the items have an expiration date. It’s pretty easy to toss a box of cold medicine that expired a year ago. It gets easier as you go. If you find something that’s still good, but will never use, then put it in the donate box. Shelters often need personal care items.

For serious clutter, you’ll also need a keep pile. Remove everything from the closet or room, and then sort it into one of the piles. Once you’re done, take a second look at the keep pile. Make sure everything you’ve decided to keep has a use. If it’s an heirloom, find a place to use it or display it. If you can’t, pass it on to a family member who can.

I completed my purge in an afternoon, but I have an apartment. If you have a big home or a lot of stuff, allow yourself more time to work through it all. At first, purging is hard. Once you get on a clutter-clearing roll, you won’t want to stop and the freedom you’ll feel is amazing.

This week I once again bring you three carnivals.

We’ll kick this round-up off with the Festival of Frugality #118, which wisely made my post on 13 ways to celebrate spring fever and editor’s pick. If you liked that, you’ll also enjoy Money and Values’ discussion of delicious homemade ice cream (which I also love.)

Next up, Money Hacks Carnival #5, which featured my review of Yodlee. If you liked that, you’ll also enjoy Moolanomy’s review of SmartyPig.

Finally, the always fantastic Carnival of Personal Finance #145. This week’s edition included my comparison of leasing vs. buying a car. If you liked that, you’ll also enjoy Single Guy Money’s advice on buying a used car.

For me, Suze Orman’s The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom: Practical and Spiritual Steps So You Can Stop Worrying was the book that really changed my life. I first saw her on Oprah and I believe I bought the book shortly after it was released. I still have it. Yes, it’s very basic, but that’s a good thing.

Here’s how this book helped me:

I understand how my attitudes toward money were formed.
Suze says that our attitudes toward spending are formed by the lessons we learn about money during our childhood. Not the financial lessons our parents intentionally teach us, but the lessons that they demonstrate. That rang really true for me. The summer when I was 15, my dad was laid off from his job and money was very tight. To this day, I live in fear of ever being in that situation and spending money can be painful for me when I feel our financial situation is threatened.

I got a health directive.
Around the time this book came out, my aunt died. As soon as I discovered that I could get a free fill-in-the-blanks Advanced Directive for Health without getting a will or hiring a lawyer, I filled one out. I wanted to make sure my parents had the power to make decisions if the need arose. This was before Terry Schaivo, and when that case arose I was very happy I had one already in place. You can get one for free from Compassion & Choices. If you have one, be sure to update it if your marital status or one of your designees dies or becomes unable to make decisions for you. I updated mine when I got married.

I understand the mechanics of money.
I received an inheritance from my aunt and Suze’s book taught me the basics about life insurance, retirement plans, wills, trusts, investing, and deciding to buy real estate. I’ve since learned much more, but this book provided the foundation for me to build on.

I continue to carry the lessons of this book with me, which is perhaps why Your Money or Your Life wasn’t a life changer for me. It had already been changed by The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom.

This isn’t to say the book is perfect. Certainly, she could delve deeper into each individual topic area, but if you don’t know the difference between a Roth IRA and a traditional IRA, or the difference between a 401K and other financial vehicles, then this is a good place to start. If you don’t think you need a will, this book will help you determine whether that’s true.

However, if you’ve already worked through the money lessons you learned as a child and already understand the basics of life insurance, wills, trusts, real estate, and investment options, then you don’t need this book. If you don’t believe that your childhood lessons affect your current financial attitudes, then this also isn’t the book for you.

If you want a basic book that provides an overview of several important personal finance topics and are interested in learning how you developed your financial attitudes, then I recommend this book.

Cathie Black is a powerful woman in the publishing industry. During her career, she has been in sales at Ms. Magazine when it first launched, the publisher of USA Today (also soon after its launch), and is now the president of Hearst Magazines. She has launched businesses, closed businesses, hired and fired, and commanded entire companies. She did all of this by starting at the very bottom. Her new book Basic Black: The Essential Guide for Getting Ahead at Work (and in Life) is part biography, part guide to both work and life. This is the book I wish I’d received as a college graduation gift, or maybe even for high school graduation. It’s also important for women to read because it includes advice men are socialized with, but women still aren’t usually taught.

Important Topics
Black weaves together important business and personal lessons while also incorporating case studies of businesses that thrived or failed. In addition, she lays down certain basic business rules everyone should know. The reason I think this book is better for women than men has little to do with her tone – she’s a powerhouse, no matter her gender – but because it’s important for women to see how other women can succeed and still balance their lives.

The book contains nine chapters:

  • Drive
  • Risk
  • People
  • Fear
  • Power
  • Passion
  • Attitude
  • Leadership
  • The Future Is Now

Her advice is drawn from her own experience, but she also recognizes that everyone has their own way of doing things, and their own way of responding. She explains how she learned to temper her own expectations and attitudes about how the workplace should be with the realities of other people. Doing so made her a better leader because she learned to speak to other people in their own language. At heart, the entire book is about becoming a good leader.

She discusses at length the idea that women no longer have to “have it all.” She stresses the importance of balancing life with work and of finding a workplace that accommodates the balance you require to thrive in both spheres. Her solution isn’t right for everyone, which she acknowledges, but everyone can find balance.

How to Get What You Want
The most important lesson from this book is her discussion of how to get what you want. This is valuable for both men and women, but it’s something more women need to learn to do because we’re not trained to do it. Her method doesn’t refer to raises, but to other situations, like avoiding interaction with a difficult co-worker, launching a new project, or requesting flex-time. Her suggestion is to create the solution before you ever present the problem to your boss. Be prepared to back up your argument with facts, and then ask the next steps before you leave the room.

Other Basic Business Advice
Several sections cover basic business advice we don’t learn in school anymore. She mentions things like taking the credit when it’s yours, which women often have a hard time doing. We always want to share it.

She also offers advice about:

  • Office parties
  • Presentations
  • Hiring
  • Firing
  • Making a good impression
  • Interviewing
  • Resumes
  • Being a team player
  • Being a boss
  • Overcoming fear

Basic Black is a good, basic business book packed with important lessons for any woman at any level, but that are especially important for women just entering the workforce.

For many items, like cars and houses, buying used is a good idea. In some cases, though, used is not better. Here are seven items you should always buy new.

Shoes: The problem with used shoes isn’t related to hygiene, it’s related to fit. Shoes conform to our feet over time, which means that used shoes have molded to someone else’s foot and won’t provide you with proper support or comfort. The only exception might be expensive stiletto heels that you can have resoled and relined. Then the only part you’re buying used is the pretty strappy part on top.

Helmets: If possible, always buy a new, custom-made helmet. Even if you’re just buying an off-the-shelf helmet, never buy it used. Many helmets can only withstand one serious accident, and you have no way of knowing whether that used helmet has been in a crash.

Car Seats: Car seats should only be purchased new for the same reason. You also shouldn’t accept hand-me-down car seats from other people. A car seat handed down from your own child is fine if you know it wasn’t in an accident.

Mattresses: Mattresses are expensive, but a good one will last you at least ten years. If you buy a used mattress, you’ll probably have to replace it sooner. It may also contain bed bugs or other nasty beasties that come out at night. Finally, like shoes, mattresses conform to our bodies over time. A mattress someone else has slept on for the last year or two is already imprinted with their body shape and may not provide you with the right support.

Undergarments: Underwear should be bought new for obvious reasons. Bras should also be bought new. Not only does the strap elastic wear out after about six months, but the cups may have conformed to someone else’s shape and not provide you with the right support.

Cribs: Although cribs are usually used gently, it may be subject to a recall or it may have hairline cracks you can’t see. If you do buy used, always go look at it and check before agreeing to the purchase.

Makeup: You often see used makeup on eBay, but it’s really not a good idea to buy it. First, makeup expires sooner than you think. Mascara lasts about three months and lipstick about a year. Second, they often contain bacteria. They don’t hurt you when they’re your own germs, but you don’t want someone else’s eye infection. Makeup artists suggest cutting off the tops of lipsticks if you do want to buy used, but I would recommend always buying eye makeup new.

Although most other items can safely be bought used, your health, safety, and body will thank you if you buy these seven items new. Is there anything else you would never buy used?

After I wondered if frugality is in the air, I started to think about the differences between living a frugal lifestyle and being environmentally conscious. Depending on how you choose to live, your frugality could automatically be better for the environment, or it might not benefit the environment at all.

When a Frugal Lifestyle Equals Positive Environmental Impact
Some of the most basic concepts of frugal living are in fact also environmentally-friendly, even if you don’t consciously set out to accomplish that.

Using less energy. If you unplug electronics that aren’t in use, use energy-efficient lightbulbs, turn the heat down in the winter and the air-conditioner down in the summer in order to reduce your electricity bill, you’re also being a friend to the environment.

Driving less. If you drive less in order to conserve fuel, you’re also being a friend to the environment.

Buying second-hand goods or borrowing from friends. If you buy most of your goods second-hand or borrow short-term items from friends in order to save money, you’re also reducing the amount of new goods that need to be produced or purchased.

Preparing fresh, natural foods. If you avoid buying pre-packaged meals and instead start with whole ingredients that are closest to their natural state, you not only save money, but you reduce the impact on the environment from packaging food.

Buying less. Many frugal people tend to buy less stuff, because stuff costs money. If you avoid buying stuff you don’t need, you’re not only helping your wallet, but you’re reducing the total amount of goods that need to be produced. The environment thanks you.

When a Frugal Lifestyle Conflicts with the Environment
On the other hand, being frugal doesn’t always mean being a friend to the earth. If you’re focus is on saving the most money, you might actually do more harm than you realize. Here are some examples:

Buying cheap goods that wear out quickly. If you buy a $5 shirt that you have to throw out at the end of the year, you may save money initially, but you’re not helping the environment. It would be better to invest in a $20 shirt that will last five years.

Using coupons to buy cheap pre-packaged food. I’ve noticed that many coupons are for pre-packaged meals, boxed mixes, pre-made sauces, and other commercial foods. If your focus is on maximizing coupons to reduce your grocery bill, but that results in buying a lot of boxed or packaged food, you’re being frugal but not environmentally-friendly.

Driving an old car to avoid buying a new one. Certainly I recommend owning a car for at least ten years, but if you’re driving a twenty-five-year-old car that guzzles gas and just barely meets emissions standards, being frugal definitely isn’t helping the environment any.

Buying less energy-efficient appliances. While buying a used ten-year-old refrigerator is cheaper than buying a new one, older appliances or new cheaper appliances may not be as energy-efficient, and therefore less environmentally friendly.

Now that I’ve compared these two lists, it strikes me that the poor environmental choice might not be the more frugal choice in the long run. A cheap old car probably uses much more gas, which will cost you more over time. The same goes for energy-inefficient appliances. Buying new cheap goods ever year will ultimately cost more than buying high-quality, durable goods.

I definitely believe in using grocery coupons to save money, but I don’t believe in pre-packaged foods. Although they’re a frugal choice when purchased with coupons, convenience meals often have more fat, sugar, and sodium than their homemade counterparts, so ultimately the health cost could outweigh the grocery savings. I would rather eat healthy, nutritious food that costs a little more than eat junk to save a buck.

This may come down to the difference between being frugal and being cheap. For me, a truly frugal lifestyle doesn’t simply mean saving the most money. It should also give some thought to the environmental impact it has and each choice should be considered in that light.

What are your thoughts? Tell me in the comments.

When I was a teenager, my boyfriend told me I needed a hobby. It sounds mean, but he meant it in a nice way. Unfortunately, my hobby turned out to be expensive and messy. Now that I live in an apartment, I don’t do it anymore. Instead, I’ve taken up a few inexpensive hobbies. Here ten cheap hobbies you can try.

I’ve said it before: reading is frugal. You could spend a lot of money on hardcovers, but you simply don’t have to. Become one with the local library instead. Of course, if you find an author you really love, buy all their books in softcover so that the publisher will continue to give them contracts, or tell your friends to buy their books.

Once you start reading a lot, you’ll probably wonder if you could do it better. That thought is the first sign that you should try writing. You can write articles, poems, short stories, or even give a novel a try. All you need is a pen and paper, or a computer. To improve your craft, borrow writing books from the library, join local critique groups at the library or through Craigslist, or find free online critique groups. It becomes more expensive if you want to get published, but then it’s not just a hobby anymore.

You probably already have the basic tools you need to take up cooking as a hobby: pots, pans, knives, and kitchen tools. Now check out the cookbook selection at your local library or start reading food blogs. Cooking really isn’t difficult, it just takes practice. Unless you’re preparing dishes that require obscure ingredients, it’s not expensive either. Best of all, you get to eat the food you produce, so you’re hobby is built into your grocery budget.

Baking is related to cooking, but the two really are different passions. I enjoy cooking and trying new recipes, but I really love baking and making chocolate truffles. You have to be careful with baking – if you like baking desserts (like me), it can add to your waistline. I limit my baking to food for parties and guests in order to keep my weight in check.

I’m also a big fan of hiking. Once you’ve got a guidebook and a pair of hiking boots, it’s pretty much free. I also have a hydration backpack, which I recommend for serious hiking. You can find them at Target during the summer, so you don’t have to spend a fortune on gear.

Team Sports
If you’ve got a local park, then you’ve probably got access to local team sports like soccer, baseball, and basketball. Check the community calendar, then stop by the next game to ask about joining the team.

If you believe in an important cause or support a local organization, volunteering is a great hobby. It may even come with free perks! For example, if you volunteer at a museum, you’ll be invited to volunteer appreciation events. Or you can volunteer simply for the joy of helping others, which is its own reward.

Crocheting is one of those hobbies that can be cheap or expensive. It really depends on the type of yarn you buy, how many classes you take, and how many books you buy. If you stick to cheap yarns and get your patterns at the library, then it’s a fairly inexpensive hobby. As a bonus, you can give the things you make as gifts, which reduces your gift budget.

Digital Photography
Simply going outside and taking pictures, or becoming the official photographer for friends and family, is a fun hobby that doesn’t have to cost a lot. Once you own the camera and memory cards, there’s no film to buy. You only have to print the pictures you want to keep. Of course, it can add up if you buy an SLR camera with all the attachments, but you can keep it cheap if you want to.

Arts and Crafts
If you’re a crafter or have an artistic spirit, you could take up whittling, watercolor painting, or a host of other crafty projects. Once again, there’s an initial investment for supplies, but then you can enjoy the hobby for decades. Projects also make great gifts for the people you love.

If you set your mind to it, you can find loads of inexpensive hobbies. What are some that you enjoy? Tell me in the comments.

Before I get to the blog carnivals, I want to mention Alltop, a new blog aggregator from Guy Kawasaki. It aggregates feeds on just about every topic on the planet, from celebrities to Linux. Of course, I’m partial to the personal finance section.

And now on to the carnivals!

Festival of Frugality#117 was hosted by I’ve Paid for This Twice Already. In addition to my post on wondering if frugality is in the air, you might enjoy Lazy Man and Money’s ponderings about what it means to be cheap.

Next up, the Carnival of Debt Reduction by Leading Online. Going one better than my February debt progress, the Chic Saver is now credit card debt free!

It’s officially spring! According to legend, you should have been able to stand an egg on its end at the moment of the spring equinox. In case you missed the moment, here are 13 frugal ways to celebrate spring fever (one for each week of the season.)

daffodil and iris

Buy fresh flowers: This year, the first week of spring also includes Easter, which will kick spring fever into overdrive. Visit a local farmer’s market or grocery store to pick a bunch of daffodils to dress up your table. Trader Joe’s had a bunch of 10 for $1.29! Of course, if you have a garden, you pick flowers for free.

Buy fresh herbs: Stop by a nursery or visit a friend with a green thumb to get a pot of fresh herbs. Choose something you use in a lot of recipes. Nothing brightens even the simplest meal, or cures spring fever, like fresh herbs.

Make a lemon tart: If Meyer lemons are available where you live, use those to cure your spring fever. If not, use regular lemons and add an extra bit of sugar. Lemon curd is very easy to make and costs less than $2. I like this bittersweet Meyer lemon curd tart (scroll down to the bottom), or this lemon curd recipe.

Make lemon olive oil: Spring is the season of lemons. For serious cases of spring fever, lemon olive oil is another cheap fix. Michael Chiarello’s Flavored Oils and Vinegars recommends this recipe: you need 3 lemons and 1 cup olive oil. Cut lemons into eighths. Put in a stand mixer with 1 cup olive oil (clean-tasting, not bitter). Stir for ten minutes, then let stand two hours. Wet four layers of cheesecloth, squeeze dry. Set strainer over a bowl, cover with cheesecloth. Pour mixture into cheesecloth and squeeze out liquid. Let stand another hour, then spoon clear oil that floats on top into a glass jar. Store in the refrigerator and use within one week.

Attend a baseball game: Baseball and spring go hand in hand. In fact, spring fever has a related condition called baseball fever. Most stadiums offer ultra-cheap seats for a few games, so score some of those and try not to buy a hot dog.

Visit a botanical garden: Most cities have a botanical garden. Take along a picnic and enjoy a lovely afternoon. If you don’t have a botanical garden near you, visit a nursery. Just don’t buy anything.

Go for a hike: Plan a lovely hike and picnic for a warm spring day. I suggest some options in my frugal exercise club post.

Change your home décor: If you’re like me, you’ve got candles, vases, and other décor items hidden away in closets. Spruce up your home by sorting through them and setting out some that remind you of spring.

Make deviled eggs or egg salad: Probably because of their association with Easter, deviled eggs and egg salad remind me of spring. Make some, alongside a simple salad and crusty bread, for a delicious light lunch.

Visit the farmer’s market: If you haven’t visited a local farmer’s market or green grocer, spring is the time to go. You can watch the season change before your eyes. Soon the oranges and apples will be gone, replaced by berries, grapes, peaches, nectarines, and other luscious spring and summer fruits and veggies.

Prepare lamb for dinner: Most meats are available year-round, but lamb is best (and cheapest) in the spring. Serve a simple lamb dinner with a homemade mint chutney for a taste of springtime.

Bake a fruit pie: How about peach cobbler? Cherry pie? Rhubarb pie? Buy fresh fruit at the farmer’s market and bake a fresh pie. Serve with fresh whipped cream. It’s like a taste of spring fever.

Tickle your toes in the grass: Go outside barefoot and let the grass tickle your toes. Be warned, though. This cure has also been known to make spring fever worse! If it does, see the other twelve cures.

Spring fever doesn’t have to cost a fortune. You certainly don’t have go to on spring break to enjoy all the season has to offer. Just make a point to enjoy the season before it melts into summer. Do you have a favorite way to celebrate spring fever? Tell me in the comments.

In the last of my free personal finance software reviews, I checked out Wesabe. After testing Mint and Yodlee, I was expecting Wesabe to have more features. Instead, it’s the most stripped down of the three, at least as far as the personal finance features go. Wesabe is actually a combination of basic personal finance software and social networking. I can do without the social networking, but I can see where it might be helpful for some people.

How Wesabe Works
When you join Wesabe, you can choose whether or not add your accounts. You can join simply for the social networking if you want to. I uploaded the same two accounts, a credit card and a bank account, to test the personal finance features. Rather than store your log-in information on their server, you install an uploader that stores the passwords on your computer. My credit card was simple to upload, but my bank was more complicated. Fortunately, they have a video that walked me through the steps. Once you do it the first time, it remembers for the future.

Wesabe Add An Account

Once your data is imported, you have to manually tag the transactions. If you tag one store, it will add that tag to all other transactions for that store, but I imagine there will be a lot of tagging for the first few months. For popular stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, it suggested tags, but other stores didn’t have default tags I could choose. The transaction list shows the store, the amount, and a running balance (the latter two parts that are blurred out.) Once tags are added, it shows you tips related to that tag.

Wesabe Account Register

Once I had my posts tagged, I could view a spending summary.

Wesabe Spending Summary

I could also view spending by category. It compares my spending with averages based on other members’ spending for the same tag. According to the comments I read, there is a problem with multiple tags for the same transaction being added together in your total spending. So if you tag “food” and “restaurant” for the same $10 purchase, your total spending summary would be $10 over.

Wesabe Category Spending

Finally, you can also create goals. I chose a sample goal based on the few tags I’d created. Once you link it to tags, it shows your totals for the associated tags. You can also join groups for support working toward your goals.

Wesabe Goals

The Positives of Wesabe
Like Mint, Wesabe was very easy to use. If I couldn’t figure something out, they offered a video that showed me how to do it. It was very Web 2.0, so the graphics were friendly and readable.

This was the only one that lets you track cash transactions.

It also offers the most privacy. Your log-ins are never entered anywhere on their site. When providing member spending averages, it doesn’t show specific details about you ever.

The Negatives of Wesabe
Like the rest, Wesabe had some negatives that will keep me from using it”

  • Inability to enter manual transactions
  • Very thin money management tools
  • Need to manually tag transactions for new purchases. The others did that automatically.

Final Thoughts
I can see Wesabe being very helpful for recent graduates and people new to money management. I think it’s also helpful for people who enjoy social networking and want to discuss personal finance in these areas. Personally, I wasn’t interested in the tips and I don’t want to join a lot of groups for support reaching my goals. I just want a personal finance tool.

Based on all my experiences with all three sites, Yodlee is the most likely contender, but it’s also likely that we’ll go with Quicken 2008. We know how it works and unless it has major bugs, the other three simply don’t have all the features we want.

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