Cut Back on Summer Spending

Kristen Hagopian of Chester County, Pa., has slimming her summer grocery bill down to a fine art. “When you don’t tell friends and neighbors exactly what to bring to a barbecue, everyone shows up with a fancy bottle of wine -- more than we could possibly drink,” says the author of the self-published book Brilliant Frugal Living. “But when I say to bring chips or ask a guest to make their delicious cupcakes, we save a lot of money, and still have a great time.”

Hagopian is also a big believer in skipping the rented bouncy houses for the kids: “Instead, we stock up on bubbles and sidewalk chalk at the dollar store, and my kids, along with everyone else in the neighborhood, have a blast while the adults relax.”

Here are other ways to keep costs down this summer.

Reduce Electricity Use

Whether you simply raise the temperature on your air conditioning a degree during the day or choose to run the swimming-pool pump only at night, you can lower utility bills, says Sharon Lechter, co-author of Three Feet From Gold. “And use your dishwasher, when possible. It costs money to heat the water and pipes, which is something that happens every time you wash a few dishes by hand.” Train older kids to walk around the house and unplug things like stereos, TVs, computers and coffeemakers: The U.S. Department of Energy says 75 percent of the electricity used to power home electronics and appliances is consumed while the products are turned off.

Lower Landscaping Costs

Annette Pelliccio started The Happy Gardener, an organic products line based in Ashland, Va., so she could stay home with her kids and help the planet. But she also found wheelbarrows full of savings along the way. “People spend way too much on bagged potting soil for summer containers, when they could use their own kitchen scraps, and with really basic composting techniques, make a higher-quality product within six to nine months.”

Pelliccio also suggests planting more shrubs, gradually reducing the amount of mowable grass in your yard. “Xeriscaping, which is what we call landscaping in a way that cuts down on the need for water, lowers your energy costs, but also reduces the need for fertilizers and mowers. I don’t have any grass in my yard anymore, and it’s beautiful. I use native mosses and ground covers that are maintenance-free.”

“Splurge” on an Appliance Upgrade

“Shopping [for] an expensive new appliance may not seem like a money saver,” says Ryan Himmel, founder of BIDaWIZ.com, an online marketplace for financial advice, but taking advantage of rebate programs going on this summer may pay off faster than you think. “Between the federal tax credit -- up to $1,500 -- and long-term energy savings, these can really pay off.” (To find out which products are available for rebates in your state, go to EnergyStar.gov.)

Relax More, Entertain Less

Entertaining can get expensive, says Hagopian, who points out that more-impromptu parties are inherently cheaper. “If you throw a cookout idea together last minute, no one cares that you don’t have matching plastic forks and paper napkins, that there’s no theme and that you didn’t organize all the cooking and shopping. It’s much more relaxed.” After all, isn’t that what summer is about?

Clean More Frequently

Summer means more outdoor time, which can lead to dirt, sand and dirty dishes from barbecues taking over the house. Instead of larger, tougher and less-frequent cleaning jobs, doing some daily maintenance on the floors and other spots will lessen the need to purchase specialty cleaners for tougher messes. A quick daily swipe of the counters and floors will, in the end, save on time and money. 

Grill for Less This Memorial Day

The backyard picnic table, an icy cold something to drink, smoke rising from the grill. Grilling is one of this season's greatest pleasures, and there are plenty of reasons to indulge (besides the food). Plus, less kitchen cleanup and less heat in the house also means you save on dish liquid, water and air conditioning bills. And if you shop well, you can expand your culinary repertoire without blowing your budget. Here, some things to think about before you head to market and fire up the grill.

1. Go veggie
.
Corn, asparagus, summer squash, zucchini and peppers: They’re all great on the grill. All you need is salt, pepper and a bit of olive oil. “No need for the pricier extra virgin when you grill, as you’re unlikely to taste the difference over the charcoal flavor,” says Ann Taylor Pittman, food editor at Cooking Light magazine. Buying locally grown produce saves you money too, especially if you shop at farm stands. And if you load up on veggies at dinner, you can buy less meat or fish.

2. Kebab it. 
Grilling kebabs is not only a healthier way to cook meat (less time and less heat mean fewer potentially dangerous cancer-causing compounds), but you’ll also get more servings for your buck. Skewered between vegetables and mushrooms, the meat is just a part of the meal, not the main attraction, so you don’t need to have as much of it. Plus, people often take less when food is already cut up into smaller portions.

3. Slice and dice it.
Think of your beef, chicken or pork not as a main dish but as an ingredient in other dishes -- so that less serves more. After you grill, slice your meat into thin pieces and toss over salads or pastas.

4. Choose cheaper cuts.
Grilling brings out the best in some of the less expensive meats. Pittman recommends chuck-eye steak: “It’s cut from the chuck-eye roast and tastes similar to rib eye but costs less.” Flank steak is another good alternative, because “it absorbs moisture quickly so you can marinate it in 10 minutes, and it stays tender on the grill,” explains Pittman.

5. Ditch the meat altogether.
Vegetarian burgers are healthier, less expensive and taste good with or without the fixings. Boca and Morningstar brands both recently won kudos in a Good Housekeeping taste test. Portobello mushrooms also provide some non-meaty bulk inside the bun.

6. Get spud-happy.
Potatoes are easy on the budget, grill wonderfully and are very filling. For health bonus points, go for the nutrient-rich sweet potato instead of classic Idaho.

7. Fill the grill.
For maximum fuel efficiency, put every square inch of the grill to good use. Cook two types of meat at once and save one for the next day. Slice the meat cold and serve over salad, or reheat it in the microwave, which uses very little energy.

8. Top it with leftovers.
Grilled pizza is the perfect base for food from the fridge that you might otherwise toss out. You can buy dough from the freezer section of your grocery store or at your local pizzeria. Roll it out and then plop it directly on the grill. “Pizza’s great for using up all your leftover veggies -- that half bell pepper or handful of arugula -- or even little pieces of meat,” says Pittman.

9. Heat up dessert.
Skip the premium ice cream or the artisanal gelato. Get whatever brand of vanilla ice cream is on sale and top it with warm slices of grilled peaches or plums. 

6 Ways to Save: Big Celebrations

Wedding brunch for 80? Family reunion for 150? It’s the perfect season to celebrate life’s special events. And because keeping costs down is on top of everyone’s party to-do list, we asked the most fun-loving frugalistas we could find to share their secrets. 

It turns out a big budget isn’t nearly as important as big ideas. “Creativity and personal touches definitely outweigh the money you’d spend to do something chic and memorable,” says Erika Lenkert, author of The Last-Minute Party Girl: Fashionable, Fearless, and Foolishly Simple Entertaining. “The more personal it is, the more impact is leaves.”

Creative thinking really pays off in these six places:

1. Location, location, location 
The right venue can elevate a party from mundane to magic, but hotels and banquet halls are pricey and predictable. Instead, look for character: historical societies, funky VFW halls -- even churches and libraries often have portions of the building, including garden spaces, available to rent for reasonable rates. 

To celebrate her father’s 80th  birthday, Julie Rains of Winston-Salem, N.C., and her family rented a banquet room in a park in Charlotte, N.C. With linen tablecloths and a glass wall overlooking the park, the $250 room “just made the event," says Rains. "It was so pretty!” she adds.

2. One-of-a-kind invites
For her wedding invitations, Lenkert and her husband posed for 30 strips of dime-store photo booth pictures, cut them out with craft scissors and attached them to card stock. They did all the printing on her computer. 

“I tried to match funny pictures with people who’d get a kick out of it and romantic ones with others, and I included antique postcards for the RSVP, which I also personalized," says Lenkert. People were blown away. "One even gave me back that same photo as a wedding gift -- she loved it so much she had it mounted and framed,” she says.

Savings on invites can be significant. When Janis Brett Elspas’ two triplet daughters chose a roaring ’20s theme for their bat mitzvah, the Los Angeles mom designed invitations with recycled paper textured like alligator, then accented it with a rhinestone buckle and velvet ribbon to make it look like a 1920s purse. “It cost us about $4 each -- we saw the same type pre-made for $18 to $20 elsewhere,” she says.

3. Unforgettable food
Feeding people well doesn’t have to break the bank. Sheila Lukins, a Silver Palate legend and author of Ten: All the Foods We Love and 10 Perfect Recipes for Each, swears by big pots of ethnic foods, “like a curry or couscous." Because they’re usually served over rice or pasta, they’re inexpensive, she says. "And because they’re a little exotic, they’re very impressive.”

Another favorite, discovered on a recent trip to France: “A small-plate buffet, based on dishes like roasted peppers with homemade pickled onions and paella rice with shrimp and chorizo. There’s something so beautiful and inviting about all these brightly colored vegetable dishes laid out on the table -- almost like a patchwork quilt,” says Lukins. Small plates, whether it's tapas, antipasti or hors d’oeuvres, allow you serve up plenty of flavor but not too much food.

4. That’s entertainment! 
Hiring a band usually means paying the going rate for what is -- and let’s be honest here -- three parts bad oldies, two parts Macarena and one part noise. 

Try thinking smaller. For elegance, get a single harp player from a local college; for fiesta ambiance, see if the guitar player from your local Mexican restaurant ever moonlights, or book a juggler who’ll wander through your garden party. “I am hiring my girls' former gym teacher to come and teach the Charleston,” says Elspas. And for music? A pre-loaded iPod. “It’s a lot cheaper than live musicians or a DJ.”

5. Signature spirits
To save on booze, “I love to come up with a signature cocktail for the evening and put a twist on it, like Thai margaritas,” says Lenkert. “Since you mix it in batches, you don’t need to buy high-end liquor -- just serve it in really pretty glasses.”

6. Strong and simple decorations
Keep décor simple by focusing on a few colors and things you can stock up on for cheap, such as mason jars to fill with wild flowers. And be wary of themes: “Buying red, white and blue paper products for a Fourth of July family reunion, for example, is much more expensive than buying red cups, blue plates and maybe just themed napkins,” says Jenn Fowler, a mom in Syracuse, N.Y., who blogs at FrugalUpstate. Not only will it create a more unified look, you’ll get more use out of every item. “I’ve got big star platters in both red and blue, which are great in the summer, but the red ones are perfect for Christmas too,” adds Fowler.

Spring Breakā€¦in a Day

After a dreary winter, the obvious recovery plan involves tropical breezes, sandy flip-flops and colorful drinks with paper umbrellas, right? Well, yes, maybe in a perfect world. But sand and surf can cost a lot of time and money. When a week or even a weekend away just isn’t in the cards, carving out a few hours in your schedule to recharge with a change of scenery -- or activity -- can have the same uplifting effect.

What to do? That depends, says Karol Ward, author of Find Your Inner Voice (New Page Books 2009). “The ultimate goal of your minivacation should be to feel calmer, more energized, more clearheaded and happy,” says the New York City-based psychotherapist. Consider whether one of these breaks from the everyday inspires you.

A-maze-ing walks Sure, you can take a stroll just about anywhere, but have you ever traveled a labyrinth? These elaborate pathways look like mazes, but are actually beautiful, winding walkways, each with a single route and endpoint and usually shaped to fill a large circle. Thought to clear the mind and encourage relaxation, labyrinths are found in parks, public gardens and in or near houses of worship, and each has its own special history. Labyrinthlocator online can help you find one nearby.

Anything but routine workout Challenging the mind and body with a completely different kind of athletic pursuit can take cross training to a new level. Consider, for example, indoor rock climbing. Climbing gyms are everywhere, and the adrenaline rush alone of scaling a rock wall is worth the price of a lesson (the Web site indoorclimbing lists climbing gyms around the country).

Or take to the water and try sculling or rowing. Between handling the oars, balancing the narrow boat and learning to move your vessel through the water smoothly, there’s no time to dwell on work projects or household duties. Introductory rates make the sport accessible to novices. (USRowing lists nearby rowing clubs and associations.)

Make it or bake it Complete this sentence: “I’ve always wanted to make….” Share the labor (and fun) with a friend or really do it yourself -- without taking a class. Whether it’s beef Wellington or banana cream puffs, there are plenty of cookbooks, recipes and online how-to videos to guide you.

The same goes for art projects. Have you been collecting broken pottery for the day you make time to try mosaic art? Well, that day is here. Take on a mosaic tile mirror or café table, using instructions at such places as Mosaic Tile Guide.

Go to extremes Ellen Yacoe runs nearly every day, but when the dance therapist and mother of three really wants a change of pace, she goes for a Polar Bear swim in the freezing cold Atlantic Ocean -- off season. “All thoughts of work, how my kids are doing in school, even the family budget go out of my head in an instant,” says the Oakton, Va., resident. “It’s a scary but exhilarating event.”

On the other extreme, a long session in a steam bath or sauna can be so relaxing that you’ll have noodle legs when you’re done. Take a complimentary day membership at the Y or local gym. You can work out and then reward yourself with a mind-clearing blast of heat. Or skip the workout entirely and meet a friend for lunch.

Take a midday snooze Don’t discount the possibility that a two-hour nap is just the stimulus your winter-weary self needs. You may not sport a tan by day’s end, but the glow that goes with feeling good will be just as noticeable.

Holiday Greetings for Less

We all like to receive holiday greetings … but sending them? Not so much. Traditional cards and letters take time and money. But thanks to new Web sites and tools, plus your own creativity, you can make merry for free -- and skip the trip to the post office. Cheers!

Put Words Into Action!
This year, send your greetings up close and personal, in a holiday mini-video. Thanks to easy-to-use gadgets like Flip camcorders and Aiptek pocket cams, videos are now easy to make. Your iTouch and some cell phones work just as well too. Or if your computer has a camera, you can shoot it right from there. Blogger David Spark of Spark Minute recommends the free site Tokbox to send your video. You can easily set up an account and send as many greetings as you want, all for free.

Tips: Check for sufficient lighting and keep the greeting between 10 and 30 seconds. If you’re providing a complete update, limit it to three minutes. Think about shooting in an offbeat or funny location and make sure the footage isn’t shaky.

Say It With Music
Send the gift of song along with your holiday hellos. It can be a contemplative classical piece or a lively, toe-tapping jingle. You could email a single song or links to all your favorites, suggests Heather Sokol, who blogs at Inexpensively. Amazon offers free downloads of five classics, including “The Nutcracker Suite” and “The Messiah,” performed by world-class orchestras. To hear some thrilling vocals, give a listen to the Web site Feels Like Christmas, with artists like Sixpence None the Richer performing “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and the seriously hip a cappella group Tonic Sol-fa performing their rendition of “Joy to the World.” All downloads are properly licensed and free.

Elf Yourself
Thanks to the Web site Elf Yourself by Office Max, you can finally find out what you’d look like as an elf -- and so can all your friends. This hilarious site lets you upload family faces (up to five) and pair each with one of four dances (disco, hip-hop, classic, country) complete with music. Think of an elf with your face hustling under a disco ball. You can post the 30-second spot on Facebook or email it to everyone on your list -- completely free.

Send an E-letter
Buying bordered paper at a stationery store, addressing all of those envelopes, making a trip to the post office for stamps: By the time you’ve finished all these chores, you don’t have the time or energy to actually write your annual catch-up letter! Here to help? The Web site My Web Letter. You can choose from among six Christmas and Hanukkah templates, write your letter and easily upload photos in it, then email it to as many friends as you want -- all for free. Your customized greetings can also be shared via Facebook. Expecting moms: This site also offers new baby templates.

Send a Flavor of the Season
It’s the perfect time of year to share a favorite family recipe -- for a special hors d’oeuvre, holiday dish or your killer spiked eggnog -- with the folks on your list. By illustrating your email with eye-catching clip art and adding a photo or two of your clan along with the recipe, you’ve created a delicious way to say “Happy Holidays.”