A few years ago, my husband and I spent a lovely nine days camping in Sedona, Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, and Zion National Park. We hiked, we developed a new inside joke, and we ate dinner in our car because it turned out to be monsoon season. Despite the rain, it was a great trip, and it probably cost less than $600, including the rental car because neither of us wanted to put 1500 miles on our cars.

I’ve been camping with my family since I was a toddler. For a long time, we went every summer. It’s always a fun time. It’s also a fairly frugal vacation. If you need to get away, but can’t afford a vacation, consider camping somewhere within a day’s drive. Here are tips for planning your trip.

Reserve Your Campsite Now
Most campsites accept reservations about 7 months in advance. Visit Reserve America or the National Park site to book your site. Since we’re in April, holiday weekends will be taken. However, mid-week and non-holiday weekends should still be available. The key is to be flexible with your location and dates. Don’t just plan for the major national parks. Check out a state or county park.

Arrange to Borrow Equipment
If you don’t already have the necessary camping supplies: tent, sleeping bags, camp stove, lantern, and cooler, ask around. Your friends most likely do and would be more than happy to lend them to you for the weekend. Just make sure you sweep out the tent carefully and air out the sleeping bags before returning them. If you plan to camp frequently, watch for sales at Costco, Wal-Mart, and local camping supply stores.

Plan Your Menu
Camping food should be simple and it should be something you can cook on a fire or campstove. Aim for one or two pot meals. Eggs are the most common breakfast. Dinner is chili, tacos, barbecued chicken, and other dishes along those lines. Pack trail mix and sandwich fixings for lunch. S’mores are a must, so bring wire hangers for toasting marshmallows.

Plan Your Activities
You don’t want to plan your trip down to the minute, but you should have some idea of what you plan to do so you can pack accordingly. If you plan to hike, you’ll need hats, backpacks, and water containers. If you plan to photograph nature, pack the camera. If you plan to send your kids to Junior Ranger, check the website to see what sorts of activities are available. Is there a pool or lake on-site? Bring the swimsuit.

Follow the Rules
If the ranger says to use the bear box, use the bear box. If they say not a path is closed, don’t go down that path. If fires are banned, don’t light one. The rules are there for your protection – remember, it may be called a “park,” but this is the wild.

The nice thing about camping is that you’re forced to relax. You can hike or swim all day, but come nightfall, there will be quiet time sitting around the fire talking or playing games. You’ll go to bed early because it’s dark and rise early because it’s light. Your lungs will feel fresh and clean.

This post is making me want to camp! I may have to start looking for a nearby spot to park my tent for a few days. What are your camping tips? Do you have any favorite camping spots? Any good camping stories? Share them in the comments.

Spring has sprung, which means a bevy of delicious fruits and veggies will soon be arriving in our grocery stores. It’s also a time to start lightening up your dinners so that you can lighten up your body, too. After all, swimsuit season is just around the corner. Here are some frugal ideas for delicious spring foods.

Strawberries with Cream
They actually have strawberries at my farmer’s market year-round, but the prices are outrageous. Now they’re available on the cheap. If you’ve spotted strawberries at your local store and the price is reasonable, they’re best served simply: sliced and dipped in fresh cream. You can whip the cream if you want to get fancy.

Strawberry Shortcake
This is a crowd pleaser that couldn’t be simpler. Buy shortcakes, or bake them yourself. Mix sliced strawberries with sugar, then spoon over the cakes. Top with whipped cream.

White asparagus season is a major event in Germany because it’s so short. We mostly have green asparagus in the U.S., so snap it up while you can. You may be able to find it at the store outside the season, but it won’t be nearly as good. You can get fancy with it by mixing it into pasta or frittata, serving it as a prosciutto-wrapped side dish, or simply steaming it and drizzling lemon and butter over the top.

Rhubarb Crisp
Rhubarb also has a short growing season. If you find rhubarb stalks at the store, it’s best in a pie or crisp. Do not eat the leaves. They’re toxic, but my research tells me that they also taste so awful that you’re unlikely to eat enough to get sick.

Pasta with Fresh Herbs
Make a simple pasta sprinkled with olive oil and fresh herbs for a simple, delicious taste of spring. You can serve it warm or cold, with just about any herbs you like. Basil sounds good to me. You could also add spring vegetables like bell peppers to the mix.

Snapper with Almonds
This is one of my favorite dinners and it couldn’t be simpler. Simple pan-fry roast snapper with oil. Remove from the pan and add toasted slivered almonds and lemon juice to the pan. Cook briefly, pour over snapper, and serve.

Cuban Fried Rice
If you buy pineapple pre-cut in the store, it’s fairly cheap and much easier than dealing with a whole pineapple. Trust me, those suckers are hard to cut. Almost as bad as peeling mangoes and papayas. This simple recipe for fried rice with ham, pineapple, and black beans is delicious and fast.

Artichokes are one of my all-time favorite foods. They become available in the spring and then ramp up in the summer. Since a whole artichoke is quite a meal by itself, I simply steam it to eat with melted butter and a small serving of pasta with white cheese sauce. Add white wine and it’s simple, decadent, and elegant.

Pork Tenderloin with Baby Carrots
Pork is actually now a very lean cut of meat, thanks to the way pigs are raised. Pork tenderloin is one of the leanest cuts, so it’s very figure-friendly. Try this version of spice-rubbed tenderloin for a simple meal that will impress guests.

Spring Vegetable Rice Salad
This is an Italian dish that is simple to put together. The recipe calls for Arborio rice, which can either be expensive or cheap. If you buy “risotto rice,” it will be expensive. You can probably find rice labeled “Arborio” for less at your store. Or you can go to Trader Joe’s and get a big bag of Arborio for about $3. Make a lot for a party, where it will impress for less.

There are fewer foods that scream spring, the way certain foods call out for winter, summer, and fall. However, this is the season when everything you’ve been missing for six months starts to show up in the stores again. It’s time to start celebrating the bounty again!

I’m particularly pleased with that title. So, without further ado (except for this ado), here are the carnivals.

The Festival of Frugality hosted by Paid Twice chose my post on the tool sharing database as an editor’s pick. I also recommend Recession Depression Therapy’s advice on what to plant now. Use your shared tools!

Next, the Carnival of Personal Finance hosted by Wide Open Wallet. In addition to my post about hosting a spa party, I also recommend Passive Family Income’s post about the other benefits of eating at home (aside from saving money.)Your spa party can include a cheap, at-home meal.

Finally, the Money Hacks Carnival hosted by Ask Mr. Credit Card. In addiion to my post about hosting a garden share day, I recommend Money Ning’s new way of thinking about the cost of things.

It takes my husband a little longer than me to get around to enjoying the process of working toward our financial goals. He understands why we’re doing it, he just wishes we could “live a little more.” I don’t fault him for wanting to have more of a life, but I would get frustrated that he didn’t understand why I was pushing so hard to save money.

It started when we were paying down debt heavily. At first he doubted we could really do it, but then after a few successes, he realized my plan was completely doable and got excited about it. Then we got into saving-for-taxes mode, which neither of us enjoyed, but it had to be done.

When we had the money for our taxes saved, my husband complained a bit about my resistance to renewed spending. But I had a plan. I wanted to save as much as we could towards our new house. Even though the down payment was a gift from my dad, I knew we’d want some extra. It turns out we also need something called a “reserve,” which is cash on hand beyond the down payment and closing costs.

So, he understood why we were saving so hard, but he didn’t really like it. Then a few weeks ago, out of the blue, he said, “Saving money is fun.” It was a breakthrough! He finally understood it. I think seeing our sizable savings account balance, in addition to the money waiting to be paid to taxes (next weekend), made him realize that we were doing this for a reason, and that the act of saving money itself could be enjoyable.

We’ve reached a point where we’re saving about 25% of our monthly after-tax income. Of course, I will point out that we have a high joint income. That wouldn’t have been doable when we had our current expenses and much lower income.

Now he’s all about the saving money. We’ve come to an agreement on our goals and are prioritizing what we want to do. Since we’ve got a cushion, I’m more comfortable with the occasional splurge, as we did with the Elton John/Billy Joel concert.

It’s also changed our perspective on our desired home price. Instead of buying as much as we can, we’re looking to buy something really cheap that needs updating, but will see a sizable increase in value after we fix it up. Buying cheaper will bring our mortgage pretty close to our current rent, and allow us to put more money towards our other financial goals like boosting our emergency fund and sving for retirement, both of which he’s finally seeing as things we need to be working on.

The moral of this story: it can take a while, but if one spouse keeps plugging away at the goals, the other spouse will get there. If your spouse needs better motivation, figure out a joint goal and then demonstrate how much faster you’ll get there if you commit to saving.

It certainly worked for me.

Now that my husband and I are more financially secure, we’re developing a plan to donate money to charity monthly. We’ll choose 3-4 charities and rotate the money between them. Most charities are suffering right now due to the failing economy. If you have a little spare cash or creativity, you can find ways to donate to charity even in tough times. If you don’t already have charities selected, visit Just Give or Charity Navigator to find worthwhile charities. Use GuideStar to check them out completely.

Donate, But Donate Less
If you used to donate $500 a year to charity, see if you can give at least $120 this year. Set aside $10 each month to donate to a charity in bulk at the end of the year (or split between two charities). That works out to $2.50 a week. Unless you’re really living hand-to-mouth, you can probably spare that much. Skip one McDonald’s lunch in favor of a homemade sandwich and you’ve saved your weekly portion of the donation.

Look for Change on the Ground
Most people will walk right by coins on the ground. Pick them up – with a tissue if you’re worried about germs. You’ll quickly find that the money adds up.

Don’t Spend Coins
I got out of the habit of spending coins when I had to start saving quarters for laundry. My husband and I recently bundled up all our coins and discovered we had over $70! If you stop spending coins, or at least not spending the pennies and nickels, you’ll quickly gather enough for to help a charity. Take your change to a Coinstar machine to donate directly through the machine, or roll it up and take it the bank so you can send a check to a charity you support.

Use Coupons for Free Food
Collect grocery coupons and then watch the stores for great deals. When you have the chance to do a buy 1, get 1 free or buy something that’s free after coupon, buy it and donate it to a food bank. Food bank donations are down 40%, just when they have thousands of extra mouths to feed. Please help if you can.

Click to Give
If you absolutely can’t spare a dime and don’t get coupons, then you can donate for free. Try The Hunger Site, which has several causes including hunger, breast cancer, and the rainforest. All you have to do is click and their sponsors make the donation. Care2 offers the same service for a wide array of causes. If you like a little challenge with your donation, visit FreeRice, whose sponsor donates 10 grains of rice through the UN World Food Program for every vocabulary word you get right.

My husband and I plan to donate to the Komen Foundation (breast cancer), the Nature Conservancy (environment), and one other charity we haven’t decided on yet. We also plan to shift our donation when a natural disaster strikes. We’ve already done so with Hurricane Katrina and the Asian tsunami because we live in earthquake country and we know how valuable those donations can be in the midst of an emergency.

As the economy has worsened, have you increased or decreased your charitable donations? How are you finding creative ways to give?

Financial literacy month takes place in April of every year. First I’m going to share a little story about the power of financial literacy, then I’m going to share some resources to get you started on observing the month.

The Concert of a Lifetime
Monday, I went to the concert of a lifetime. Elton John and Billy Joel on the same stage. Our seats were about $215 each (after TicketMaster fees), but we sat in row S about 300 yards from the stage with a perfect view. We sat in what I like to call the “financially comfortable, middle-aged” section. And it was fantastic! 3.5 hours of nonstop music – all our favorites.

Was it the most frugal choice? No, of course not. It was cheaper than going to see Sir Elton in Vegas, but not cheap. However, we were completely comfortable spending that much money because of the performers. We were also able to pay for the tickets without creating credit card debt or delaying other financial goals.

A few years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to attend the concert without incurring credit card debt. Now that the debt is gone, we’re free to manage our money wisely, and still make room for the occasional splurge. Are you motivated to learn to manage your money yet?

What Is Financial Literacy?
Financial literacy isn’t knowing how to count money or knowing what a checking account is. It’s knowing how to manage money and taking control of your spending. This month, look to two resources for most of the information you need to take control of your money again.

The official Financial Literacy Month website features a fantastic 30-step process to teach you everything you need to know about managing your money. If you work through one simple step each day, you’ll be on your way to a lifetime of wise money choices. They also have an informative blog and you can sign a pledge to become financially literate – whether that means learning to budget or learning how hedge funds work.

The FTC launched a new website called Money Matters.  This is your one-stop resource for important financial information like how to watch out for employment or housing scams, how to manage credit cards, and how to deal with debt. The FTC is here to protect you, the consumer.

If you want more resources, check out my list of recommended books and websites.

My pledge for this month is to learn more about the home-buying process because I’m in the process right now. I’ll be sharing everything I learned after I close on the house.

What do you pledge to do for Financial Literacy Month?

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