Last year I read a delightful book called “Shoe Addicts Anonymous.” In the book, four women are forced to go on budgets. Rather than give up great shoes, they form a club to trade them. Since it’s a novel, close friendships and major life changes ensue. You can do something similar, but without the major life changes, by setting up a toy, shoe, and clothing exchange with friends.

How to Find Traders
In the novel, one of the women posted on Craigslist and then arranged to meet with potential trading partners. If you don’t want to do that, you can instead gather up a group of friends who live in your area and have children your age or a decent sense of style.

What to Trade
You can trade just about anything. Here are a few ideas:

Toys: Most children outgrow their toys long before they wear out, so a toy exchange is a very affordable way for your kids to receive new-to-them toys that are in good condition and free.

Children’s clothing: This usually works out to be a better deal for families with younger children because those with other children will doing all the handing down. However, if you have a good mix of people, you should be able to arrange it so everyone finds something they like.

Shoes: Both kids shoes and adult shoes can be exchanged. When I think of adult shoes, I’m really thinking of designer heels. You don’t want shoes that may have molded to someone else’s foot unless you can get a new insole put in.

Adult clothing: If you want a few new tops or pants, but don’t want to spend a lot of money, you can exchange stylish clothing with someone else. Look for clothes with limited wear. This is also a good way to get rid of clothes that don’t fit you anymore (or never fit in the first place.)

How to Organize a Toy and Clothing Exchange
Organizing the exchange is a simple enough process. You could set it up in just a few hours and hold it in a few weeks. Just follow these steps:

Decide what to exchange. You could focus on one area, or you could decide to exchange a few different things at once so more people will find something they want.

Choose the traders. Decide which of your friends would be interested in such a trade. You could choose friends in your area, friends from your child’s school, or just about anyone whose taste you admire. Be sure to choose a good mix of ages and sizes so everyone can find something.

Set the date and time. Aim for a weekend, but avoid holidays and busy travel periods. If you have a lot of children’s sports in your area, choose a day when games aren’t likely to be scheduled.

Set the ground rules. Finally, determine your ground rules. Let everyone know ahead of time that they should bring items in good condition that they would wear or feel comfortable having in their home. This is not a way to get rid of junk. Your guests should also only take what they can actually use. No grabbing something because they might want it eventually. And no hoarding. Remember that sharing thing you learned in preschool.

Send out the invitations. Now all you have to do is send out the invitations. Use something like Evite for free, or just email a group of people with the concept and rules.

Host your party. Serve some light snacks and make space in a bedroom with a good mirror to serve as a changing room. Serve clear liquids only if this is a clothing exchange. After the exchange is done, unchosen goods can be donated to a local charity or taken home by the people who brought them.

If you do it right, your toy and clothing exchange will be a success for everyone. Not only will your friends take home “new” toys and clothes without spending a dime, but you’re also being a friend to the environment by recycling rather than replacing or throwing out. That’s something everyone can get behind.

I like to get to the farmer’s market first thing in the morning. My parents like to go to the farmer’s market in the afternoon. It may seem like a simple question of timing, but there are other differences. Which do you prefer?

Advantages of Getting to the Market Early
For me, there are three primary advantages of getting to the market:

Fewer crowds. I like to get through the market quickly about an hour after it opens. By going early, I avoid most of the afternoon crowds. My market can get VERY crowded, as I discovered last Thanksgiving week, when the crowds arrived first thing.

Better Selection. Since my market is the second largest in Los Angeles, it’s also very popular. That means that certain things sell out fairly early. Since I go with a list, I like to arrive early to ensure I can find what I need.

Easier Parking. Most farmer’s markets in Los Angeles have pretty tight parking. By arriving early, I don’t have to fight for a spot.

Advantages of Getting to the Market Late
My parents don’t plan their menu ahead of time, so they go the market just to see what’s there and then decide what to eat that week. They like to go late in the day to take advantage of other aspects.

More Leisurely Visit. True, there are leisurely families in the morning at my market, but it gets more relaxed with each passing hour. Most of the activities are scheduled for later, which is great for families.

Lower Prices. As the day winds down, the farmers start to lower their prices and make deals so they don’t have to take the produce back to the farm, especially for items that won’t last until the next market.

Additional Activities. This isn’t necessarily true of all markets, but my market has children’s crafts, cookbook signings, and other events in the afternoon.

There’s no right or wrong way to shop the farmer’s market, just the way that works for you. Since I plan my menu and shop at the farmer’s market before my other shopping trips, I like the early morning method. If you shop an afternoon market, then the deals might allow you to plan your menu around the items you find at the market.

So which do you prefer – more selection or saving money?

This week we have just two carnivals to share.

First, the Carnival of Personal Finance #197 hosted by Four Pillars.  In addition to my post containing 13 ways to celebrate spring, I also recommend Almost Frugal’s list of four unlikely books that made her more frugal.

Second, the Festival of Frugality #170, hosted by Money Ning.  In addition to my list of milk substitutions, I recommend Suburban Dollar’s comparison of store brand and name brand items.

The third annual Earth Hour takes place this Saturday, March 28th at 8:30 PM wherever you are. Earth Hour was started by the World Wildlife Federation in Sydney, Australia. About six months later, other large cities jumped on the bandwagon. Now they’ve joined together to observe Earth Hour on a single day around the world.

What Happens During Earth Hour
For that single hour on a Saturday night, participating cities turn off non-essential lights. Local businesses and residents are encouraged to turn off their lights and electronics, too. Actually, it might not be electronics, but I plan to turn off everything and not drive during that hour.

How You Can Observe the Hour
There are several ways to observe Earth Hour. Some might even save you a few pennies on your electric bill.

Turn off the lights and electricity at home. Rather than going out, sit and read by candlelight. Or do other things that are often done in the dark. Hmmm – I wonder if anyone’s tracked an increase in the birth rate about nine months after Earth Hour.

Walk around your neighborhood to see the difference when there are fewer lights. This will vary depending on how light-polluted your area is, but city-dwellers will probably notice a big difference. No neon signs, no flashing signs, no bright decorative lights at businesses and restaurants.

Visit a local restaurant participating in the event. Restaurants across the globe have agreed to turn off the lights at the agreed upon hour. Going out to dinner won’t save money, but it would be fun to experience the camaraderie of the event. Go to the US Earth Hour site to find your location and then find local business that are participating. If you live outside the US, click the “location” button near the top of the main Earth Hour page to find a map of all participating countries.

Twitter or blog about your Earth Hour experience. Tag posts as earthhour or voteearth. Tag Tweets #earthhour or #voteearth. You can also post photos on Flickr or videos on YouTube so the whole world can share your experience.

If everyone participated in Earth Hour, it would have a small impact on our climate. If everyone participated and then vowed to be considerate of energy use from now on, we could make a huge difference in our climate. As frugal people know, high energy use can get expensive. That will become even more so in the future. So, being mindful of your energy use is not only good for the planet, but it’s frugal, too.

Are you observing Earth Hour? What are you planning to do?

Yesterday I talked about setting up a garden share day, for you home gardeners. But what if you don’t have a home? Condo and apartment dwellers can still enjoy the gardening experience. You just need to join a community garden. True, you won’t be able to plant some of the larger items like fruit trees, but you can grow flowers, berries, and vegetables like lettuce and tomatoes in your very own plot. Here’s how a community garden works and how to find one near you.

Garden Rules and Requirements
Most community gardens are either free to join or require affordable annual dues. In addition to the fees, which are used to pay for things like water. Most are city-sponsored, so land rental isn’t an issue.

In addition to the low annual fee, you’ll also be required to work a certain number of “community hours.” These are spent cleaning up the grounds and maintaining group projects. Usually the work is performed on group work days. The hours requirement isn’t excessive – typically 12 hours per plot per year.

Most gardens limit what you can grow on your plot, so that you don’t interfere with someone else’s plot. Things like tall structures and trees that would shade a neighboring plant are usually forbidden. Most other noninvasive plants are permitted.

Finally, and this should seem obvious, you can’t take anything from anyone else’s plot and you must keep your area tidy as a courtesy to others.

How to Find a Community Garden
Community gardens have sprung up all over the United States. You first resource is the American Community Gardening Resource. They list many community gardens and provide resources to people who want to start on.

The second place to find a garden is Google. Just search for your city name and “community garden.” If that doesn’t bring up anything, try the nearest large town or city. That should yield plenty of results. If you still can’t find one, maybe it’s time you started one yourself.

If you’ve always wanted to garden, but your landlord or condo association doesn’t fancy a rooftop plot or a walkway covered in container plants, a community garden is the best option. My old neighbor had one and she grew her own lettuce, potatoes, and tomatoes (as well as flowers.) It cost her more in time and effort than store-bought, but it tasted much better and she earned bragging rights over dinner. How many people can say “I grew this lettuce myself.” My guess? Not many.

If you’ve had an experience with a community garden, share it in the comments. What would you grow in a garden if you could? I think I’d start with herbs, tomatoes, onions, and garlic. Those are the items I go through the most (aside from lemons, of course.)

I don’t yet own a house, but I’m already dreaming of my future garden. At the very least, it will have a lemon tree and an herb patch. I might also try tomatoes and another kind of fruit tree. However, having grown up with several fruit trees/plants in my backyard, I’m well aware of the challenge of growing produce: getting rid of it before it goes bad. You could just foist it on unsuspecting friends and neighbors, or you could set up a neighborhood garden share day (or two or three.)

Poll the Neighborhood for Fruits and Vegetables
Even though most of these crops won’t come in until the late spring at the earliest, you can start doing some planning now. Start by polling your neighbors to find out who grows what. Then look at a seasonal calendar to find the date that bisects most of their harvest seasons. If you have a wide variety, you might need to set up two or three garden share days over the course of the growing season. One in May, July, and September would probably be ideal.

Poll Neighbors for Folding Tables
While you’re at it, find out which of your neighbors have folding tables they can contribute to the day. Being able to set everything out will make it much easier to deal with.

Invite Several Neighbors to Participate
Start small with just a few neighbors, then see what happens as others learn of your plan. The set-up is simple: everyone brings their excess garden bounty to the share day and puts it on the tables. Everyone else wanders around with their bags or baskets and fills them up with the produce they can make use of. That way the neighbor who grows oranges will also get lemons and cucumbers while the cucumber and asparagus-growing neighbor can grab some strawberries and mint.

Donate or Can the Excess
If you have excess produce at the end of the day, contact a local homeless shelter to see if they can accept it. If they can’t, then organize a canning day for the next weekend. Put all that goodness in cold storage until then.

Repeat Again Next Year
If this becomes an annual tradition, it will quickly grow to the point where everyone should be able to find something they can use and can get rid of all their excess without having to tote multiple large bags to work or to relatives for distribution. That will also prevent your friend from starting to hate you after spending days dealing with the giant bag of apples you dropped on her doorstep one night.

Successful garden share days depend largely on the variation in local gardens and the number of people participating. It also helps to have a good growing season. If everyone in your neighborhood grows peaches in the same month, then no one is going to want to take the peaches off anyone else’s hands. But, it’s something you can keep in mind when planning future garden updates – what do you like that no one else is growing? That’s probably something that should be in your yard (assuming it will grow in your region.)

I’ve talked about sharing tools communally to reduce the cost of home improvements before. The hardest part of tool sharing is knowing which of your neighbors owns which tools. If you’d like to save money on tools and give others in your area the benefit of the tools you own but rarely use, you can easily set up a tool sharing database with just a few clicks. It’s easy to maintain and simple to share.

Broach Your Neighbors about Tool Sharing
You could visit them one-by-one, introduce the topic at a block meeting, or discuss it with them at various neighborhood barbecues and parties. You only need one other person to start sharing. Once others get wind of what you’re doing, they’ll want to participate.

Inventory Your Tools
Go into your garage, tool shed, etc. and create a list of all the tools you own that you’d be willing to share. Ideally, you should share the tools you use infrequently and can live without for a couple of weeks. Don’t list your only hammer or screwdriver. If the tool is difficult to use or very expensive to replace, you might not want to share it at first, but you might be able to add it to your list later.

Establish Borrowing Guidelines
Of course, tool sharing could lead to problems. What do you do if someone breaks someone else’s tool? What happens if they don’t return it? Before you start borrowing, everyone should agree to basic rules:

  • He who breaks it replaces or fixes it.
  • He who borrows it returns it within the agreed upon time.
  • He who borrows it may not lend it to anyone else.

Create a Google Spreadsheet
Go to Google Docs and create a new spreadsheet. If you don’t have a Google account, they’re free and easy to set-up. Everyone you’re sharing tools with will also need a Google account so you can grant them access to the database. All you have to do is add their Gmail address to the list of collaborators and they’ll be able to edit the document, too.

Enter Your Data
Start by entering your name, tool, phone number, and email address into the database. Include your name and contact info with each tool. Also add columns for “borrowed by” and “borrowed date.” That way you can track who borrowed a tool and how long it’s been out. Once it’s returned, just delete the data from those fields. The other alternative is to add a “returned on” field. When it’s reborrowed, delete that field and fill in the first two fields with new information.

Invite Others
Ask your tool sharing partners to add their data to the document. Everyone stores their tools at their homes and then contacts each other directly to borrow them. Your only involvement is in creating the list. Borrowers and lenders police their own activities, and if there’s a problem, they deal with it.

Start Borrowing Tools
The next time you need a specialized tool, go to the database first. If your neighbor already has it on the list, it will be much cheaper to borrow it than to rent or buy it. Take care of borrowed tools as you would your own and be sure to return them as soon as you’re done. If the project takes longer than expected, ask if you can keep it longer.

Sharing tools with your neighbors isn’t just a great way to save money, it will also help you get to know your neighbors. You might discover new projects to improve your home, or be able to learn a new skill. You might even be able to recruit some of those neighbors to help you with your home

A day at the spa can get pricey. Once you decide to have a day at the spa with your girlfriends, it gets a lot more expensive. Instead, you can host a spa party at home to relax, hang out, and not worry about how many people you have to tip. If you all chip in, you can have a spa day at home almost for free.

Keep the Party Small
Keep the guest list to four people or less. Many more than that and you’ll cross the line from spa party to facial assembly line.

Split the Spa Party Supplies
When your friends agree to come, tell them to bring their robes. If possible, ask if they’ll share the cost of the supplies or bring some of them with them. See my facial post for a list of possible recipes. Since everyone has different skin, it might be easiest for each woman to bring her specific facial products. You can supply yours and the cucumbers.

Get Rid of the Husband and Kids
This will not be a great spa party if your husband or kids are wandering in demanding attention. Tell them to make plans to be out of the house for the day. Maybe they can go to a friend’s house for playtime, beer, and sports.

Set the Scene
Get out clean towels and washcloths, fluffy pillows, several glass bowls or plastic tubs for foot soaks, candles, and soothing music. Arrange comfortable chairs, or maybe your deck chairs. If it’s warm, plan to have the spa party outside. If it’s too cold out, then arrange them in the living room with lots of clean towels around. Just before the party, fill the bowls with clean warm water and either a foot soak powder or some fresh lavender and lemon slices. Place a clean towel on the floor next to each bowl.

Make the Menu
Spa party food should be light, so iced tea, water with lemon, a veggie platter, a cheese plate, and maybe a shrimp dip should be enough. If you need sandwiches, choose light options like cucumber sandwiches or turkey and cheese with lots of lettuce. You can also get really fancy with Giada De Laurentiis’ spa party recipes.

Start the Party
When your friends arrive, start by sending them into the guest room to change into their robes and pull their hair back. Then send them directly to the bowls to soak their feet and start relaxing. As you progress through your facial products, you’ll need more warm washcloths, but everything should go smoothly. Make sure to take a break to eat.

Emerge Refreshed
At the end of the spa party, you’ll feel relaxed and refreshed. If you planned properly, you should be able to just toss the dishes in the dishwasher and the towels in the laundry. You don’t want to deal with extensive clean-up.

This spa party should cost around $50, maybe less if you split the tab. That’s certainly a far cry from the $400 you and your friends would have to spend for a day at a spa, or the $175 each it would cost for a party catered by a professional home spa party company. In this new age of frugality, you don’t have to give up all the luxuries, you just have to find a way to enjoy them for less.

Yep, it’s that time again.  Here’s this weeks wrap-up of my favorite blog carnivals. (Favorite being defined as a carnival I’m in.)

First, the Money Hacks Carnival #56 hosted by Good Financial Cents. In addition to my post about playing Top Chef at home, I also recommend Passive Family Income’s advice from the Great Depression. (Note: at least the food will be better this time.)

Second, the Festival of Frugality #169 hosted by Remodeling This Life. In addition to my post on using up leftover cream, I also recommend Chief Family Officer’s comparison of Costco, Trader Joe’s, and Ralph’s. As most of you know, I’m a TJ fan.

Third, the Carnival of Personal Finance #196 hosted by Green Panda Treehouse. In addition to my latest stabby post, I also recommend Uncommon Cents’ explanation of how lower interest rates are supposed to help the economy.

Daffodils and IrisesIt’s spring! Get out your eggs and try to stand them on their ends at the precise moment of the equinox. No, it won’t actually work, but it’s a nice theory. Here are 13 more effective ways to celebrate the return of spring.

Plant Fresh Flowers
Whether you have a garden or a small container in your home, plant flowers somewhere so you’ll be able to enjoy the beauty of spring for several weeks.

Plant Fresh Herbs
I’ve never had success growing herbs from seeds. If you’re like me, pick up a few herb plants like sage, thyme, chives, and mint while you’re at the nursery, then nurture them all spring long. Warning: do not plant mint with your other herbs. Even if you have access to an outdoor garden, keep the mint in a large pot. Given a chance, mint will take over your garden.

Plant a Lemon Tree
The tree itself will set you back $50-$100 depending on its size, but it will save you a fortune once it starts producing lemons. I go through a few lemons a week all year round. That can get expensive, even buying them at the farmer’s market.

Make Lemon Olive Oil Cookies
Last year I told you how to make lemon olive oil. Make some oil again and use it to make delicious, refreshing, lemon olive oil cookies.

Photograph Nature
Visit a botanical garden or local hiking trail with your digital camera in hand. Practice capturing nature in all of its glory. It certainly a way to force you to stop and smell the roses.

Play Hooky
If you have a lot of vacation days stored up, take one as a personal day. You don’t have to go anywhere, just put on some shorts and hang out in the backyard for a day. Soak up the growing sun and let your cares melt away.

Change Out Your Candles
I have four seasons worth of decorative candles. I change them on each solstice and equinox as a cheap and easy way to bring the season inside. You can pick up affordable candles at places like Ross, TJ Maxx, and Marshall’s, or wait for a clearance sale somewhere like Pier 1.

Make an Omelet for Dinner
Eggs are synonymous with spring. Make them into a dinner omelet with a little ham, fresh chives, and fresh cheese. Serve with crusty French bread and white wine for a decadent spring meal.

Visit an Orchard
The fruit won’t be ready yet, but fruit trees release gorgeous flowers in early spring. Visit the orchard to see how the growing process progresses.

Buy Fresh Local Fruit
Spring is sort of a shoulder season in the fruit world. The apples and citrus are fading, and the berries and summer fruits aren’t yet available. Start visiting the farmer’s market and grocery store for fresh local fruit.

Update Your Linens
Visit a white sale or clearance sale to update your household linens in spring colors. Since they’ll last for several seasons, you only need to buy them once every several years. Then rotate the sets over the seasons so you home always feels fresh.

Make Custard Topped with Fruit
Custard is egg-based, so it’s also lovely in the spring. It’s also delicious topped with fresh fruit and berries. Make it even better by drizzling chocolate on top!

Dry Your Clothes Outside
Some people think clotheslines are white trash, but they’re actually a great energy-saver and easier on your clothes. As an added bonus, they’ll have that lovely fresh spring scent that doesn’t come from chemicals. If you’re worried about stiffness, use a liquid softener in the wash load.

Spring goes by quickly, so make sure you get in some time to celebrate it. You don’t have to spend a fortune or do everything on this list, but pick a few to get you out of the winter doldrums and ready for the summer.

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