Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Help this reader buy a house

Meet Lulubelle.

Lulubelle lives in the Pacific Northwest, and she's a thirty-something residential and commercial property manager. Lulubelle got a late start on saving, but one of her personal finance goals is to buy a home of her own. Here's her current net worth:


As you can see, Lulubelle's retirement savings consists of a 401(k) worth $1000, plus a traditional IRA that's currently stored in a certificate of deposit valued at $9200. She also has $8400 in passbook savings and coins. Beyond this $18,000 in savings and investments, Lulubelle's net worth consists of a car and household items.

Now, let's look at Lulubelle's income and budget for July:



Lulubelle's total income for July is $2698, and her annual income is $39,780 per year. (I'm assuming that that's pre-tax.) Her job doesn't provide medical insurance or a 401(k) plan. Lulubelle doesn't have private medical insurance, but she does have a minor chronic medical condition that requires two prescription drugs to manage. She has a roommate to offset half of her rent and utility costs, and she has a cell phone but no land line.

Lulubelle's July savings rate is very high relative to her income, but since her budget for July doesn't cover periodic costs like travel, car and renter's insurance, or household items like detergent, it's probably safe to assume that some months, her savings rate is somewhat lower. Her target savings goal for 2009 is $15,000, which is 37.8% of her gross salary.

This, by the way, is a most impressive percentage, so two thumbs up for Lulubelle!

Lulubelle buys most of her food and household supplies at Costco, but she has two spending priorities: A gym membership and expensive shampoo for her fine, thin hair. Those two items are important in what looks like an otherwise spare budget, so let's consider them non-negotiable.

I checked salary.com to get an idea of what the normal income curve looks like for property managers in the Pacific Northwest. In a relatively small town that I picked at random, here's what came up:



As you can see, Lulubelle's salary falls in the bottom tenth percentile of the curve, so there appears to be fairly significant growth potential for her income in future. Given the aftermath of the real estate bubble, however, I think short term growth is unlikely.

I reviewed Lulubelle's budget from two perspectives: First, for general feedback; and second, to see what she can do to get her into home ownership. Here's what I came up with:

General feedback

  • I think that more granular budgeting would give Lulubelle a clearer picture of where her money goes and how to plan ahead for periodic expenses like travel and car insurance. If she has a sense of how often and in what general intervals she needs to have a little extra cash on hand, Lulubelle can set aside money each month so that she doesn't need to tap into savings when one of these expenses comes up.

  • I don't like to see anyone without health insurance in general, but if Lulubelle gets a serious illness or into a bad accident, she'll be wiped out. For that reason, even if she can't stretch her budget to cover regular medical insurance, I strongly recommend that she at least pick up catastrophic insurance.

  • If Lulubelle's two medications are available in generic form and she's not already taking generics, it's absolutely worthwhile unless her doctor feels otherwise. Walgreen's, CVS, and several other big-box pharmacies have plans for generic medications that keep drug costs as low as $4 per month or $9.99 for a three-month supply.

  • Lulubelle's IRA is in a CD, which is as safe as safe can be. With nearly thirty years left until retirement, however, I think Lulubelle can afford to take a little risk. Target retirement IRAs are designed to modify holdings to become more conservative and less risky as investors near retirement, and that's a simple rollover choice if Lulubelle doesn't want to get involved in tracking her investments closely. Alternatively, a total stock market index fund will give her average performance at low cost, although she'll need to remember to adjust to something more conservative as she nears retirement age.

  • Today, Lulubelle's IRA is a traditional deductible IRA. Rolling it into a Roth may be a good choice, but it may not. The Roth IRA is flexible in that Lulubelle can take out up to $10,000 penalty-free for a down payment as a first-time homebuyer. In addition, the growth on a Roth IRA isn't taxed, so if Lulubelle can afford to pay taxes on that income today, she won't have as much to pay in the future. That's great if she expects to have a higher income in retirement than she has today. If her outlook is more modest and she doesn't intend to pull out any money for a down payment, however, she might do better sticking with the traditional.


Home ownership
  • Small is beautiful, and that's how I think Lulubelle should start. By that, I mean a condo instead of a private home. In the past couple of years, we've seen what happens when people get overextended on mortgages. The conventional wisdom is that a mortgage should never be more than three times one's gross income. Personally, I think that for most people, two to two and a half times is generally more appropriate. Two and a half times Lulubelle's gross income is just shy of $100,000. I don't know the real estate costs in her specific area, but I think she'd generally find much more selection in the condo market anyway. Since Lulubelle should plan on setting aside about 5% of her home's value every year for regular maintenance and upkeep, without a major change in her income, there's even more incentive to buy a condo instead of a house.

  • On the whole, I think it's going to be tough for Lulubelle to stretch her income to fund both retirement and down payment savings adequately unless she either spends less or earns more. There isn't much room to cut her budget any further, so I think Lulubelle should consider what she can do to increase her income. As the graph above shows, Lulubelle has potential growth in her salary, so she might consider negotiating for a raise or jumping to a new employer. She should be somewhat cautious, though, given that real estate in general has been hit so hard.

    Another alternative Lulubelle can consider is adding on a part time job to bolster her savings. The job market is bleak right now, though, so I think she'll need to think creatively. Hobbies can often be turned into a source of cash; alternatively, if she has flexibility in her schedule and either the patience to tutor or babysit or the ability to help other people look after their property (e.g. mowing lawns, odd jobs, and the like), she could leverage her talents to make a few extra bucks.


As it turns out, Lulubelle has already thought through all of these suggestions on her own and is working on putting some of them into place. She'd like to hear from f.z. readers to see what other ideas are out there, so don't be shy! If you have some additional thoughts, please drop a comment or send me an email and I'll make sure Lulubelle gets it.

Two caveats: First, I warned Lulubelle to consider any suggestions strictly amateur, and mine in particular to be the ravings of a drunken madwoman.

Second, the only rule that applies around here is the usual one: Treat Lulubelle the way you would want to be treated. She was generous enough to share her backstory, so please phrase your feedback in a courteous and constructive manner.

Can't wait to hear your brilliant thoughts. In the meantime, if anyone else wants me to bust his or her budget, feel free to shoot me an email at frugal (dot) zeitgeist (at) gmail (dot) com. Thanks!

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

I survived

. . . but barely.

I worked 20 hours straight (I'm being serious, 8 a.m. to 4 a.m.) on the last of the prep, the actual painting, and the cleaning up, but the bedroom is painted. Still have no electricity in there, though. Hopefully that'll get sorted out tomorrow (and that's another Stupid Tax I'm going to have to pay).

The paint store guy talked me into Benjamin Moore Aura for the accent wall on the grounds that it's self-priming and will cover just about anything (even my electric blue) in one coat, so I gave it a try. I HIGHLY recommend it! It's expensive, but it actually worked out to cost less in the long run because I didn't have to buy primer. I don't think I could have handled another coat anyway - I'm physically tapped out.

I made plenty of mistakes, but I know better what to do for the rest of the apartment, and that helps. It's not perfect, but it's pretty good. . . and for me, that's good enough.

PS. How do you get paint out of hair?

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Friday, June 26, 2009

Damn. Damn. Damn. Damn. Damn.

I shorted out an outlet, so there's no electricity in the bedroom (where I'm painting tomorrow).

Fun with electricity:

1. Don't do anything unless the breaker is off!
2. If you're painting, just remove the outlet cover. Leave the innards alone!

Yup, that was stupid. . . but I'm pretty sure I won't do it again.

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All the inside dirt you never wanted

The lovely Serena from neighborbeeblog asked me for an interview the other day, and she's posted the results here. I had fun doing it, and I hope you enjoy reading it.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

The inflow is a trickle, the outflow is a flood

Between tickets for two trips out West, setting aside travel money for Europe, copays on eight (eight!) prescription renewals, gifts, and home renovations, June has been a rudely expensive month so far. I'll share the dirt on how it's impacted my savings goals for the year when I do the quarterly review next week, but in the meantime this seems like a good time to focus once more on things that are the best price of all: FREE. Here are all the free things I've scored in the past couple of weeks:

--Free Burt's Bees lip balm (hat tip to Abigail for the giveaway info)
--$15 in free merchandise at the drugstore due to a rewards program gone awry
--Another $5 in free merchandise at the same drugstore, thanks to racking up purchase points (partly earned by using up the $15 in rewards!)
--A free apparel item from a company that asked me to do an online review
--$225 net from a miniscule but still appreciated recognition award at work
--Free shipping and no sales tax on my new toilet
--Got a price adjustment of $16 for said toilet since the price online dropped before it was delivered
--A little free blog publicity from a website interview that I'll share with you when published
--A great, restful weekend out of town
--A free plane ticket to Europe on air miles (Okay, this isn't something I received recently, but I'm using it in two weeks. Does that count?)
--$25 from Shadox's giveaway

The inflow is tiny relative to the outflow this month (which is more like a hemhorrage), but free stuff always gives me the jollies. Have you gotten anything for free lately?

Referring back to my last post: Several commenters mentioned that they don't really get the attraction of second homes. For me, the desire for eventually having a second home is about having a permanent foothold in more than one place I love. That could be one of several places, with the strongest candidate currently being the Pacific Northwest.

That's the theory, anyway; I haven't owned a second home to date, so I can't speak from practical experience. Do any second-home owners want to weigh in on this one?

And finally. . . I've been spackling and sanding and taping and caulking, and the great frugal DIY painting adventure begins this weekend. I'm doing one room on Saturday; I'll post this weekend and let you know how it went.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Where the wealthy go to play

First of all, thanks and appreciation to Shadox for putting on a very cool contest. The contest was simply a solicitation for good career advice in ten words or less, and the winner of a random drawing ended up with a cool $25 in cash. As it turned out, my number came up in the drawing. Imagine my delight when I came back from a weekend of hanging out in the Hamptons to find out that I was $25 richer myself. Thank you, Shadox!

About the Hamptons. You've seen it on TV: The massive, twenty-bedroom beachfront mansions that take a staff and a half to run, not to mention plenty of security from the paparazzi and fame-stalkers alike. You know what I'm talking about, right?

Well, I didn't stay there.

The house I stayed at wasn't a mansion, but rather your ordinary run-of-the-mill weekend house for a couple who are on the top of their game at their careers and with money to burn. I guessed the cost of the house at purchase at about a million flat. When I looked it up on zillow.com (because that's the kind of bad house guest I am), I was pleased to see that my guess was off by only 2%.

In that part of the Hamptons, a millionish will get you a large, rambling establishment in the woods on a relatively small lot with an in-ground pool. My hosts sold a smaller house that they owned free and clear nearby to buy this one, so although they took out a mortgage, it's not a big one relative to their income. They are also very close to owning their primary residence in the city free and clear.

I wondered if the house creates more stress than the relaxation it's supposed to bring simply because maintenance takes work. As it turned out, I learned over the course of the weekend that the owners simply outsource everything: pool maintenance, yard maintenance (except for hobby planting), cleaning, painting, the works. As a result, the owners can spend their time doing the things they like best: cooking, shopping, watching TV, and just relaxing. They also own the absolute best of everything. Kitchen appliances, pots and pans, furniture, wineglasses, decorations (restrained but elegant), and everything else are all top of the line.

My hosts are gracious, gentle, generous people. It's a nice life they have on the weekends, and I can see the attraction. The built-in costs of having a weekend life like that are daunting, though. First of all, Manhattan residents who own a Hamptons house of necessity own a car. I hate driving in the first place, but between gas, parking, and insurance, the costs of car ownership in Manhattan are very high. That in itself is a barrier to having a second home.

Second, there's a premium to spending time in an area where everyone's expected to have money: when we were out to lunch in one of the local towns on Saturday, I visibly blanched upon finding out that a plain, ordinary sandwich cost $15. My host simply laughed and said You're in the Hamptons now! That's one of the other hidden costs of owning a home out there, and it's one that adds up over time.

Finally, outsourcing chores is wonderful, but it gets expensive. If I'm spending my weekends at a house where I'm already paying to outsource maintenance, nobody's staying back home to iron my shirts unless I outsource that too. Outsourcing then becomes a double whammy. All in all, if I had a second home out there myself at this stage in my life, I wouldn't be living true to my principles on money or even acting my wage.

The barriers to entry haven't stopped me from looking at house porn ever since I've been back, though. One day, I do want to own a second property - but I'm not there yet. In the meantime, here's hoping that working hard to be a good guest (not to mention the $80 bottle of champagne I gave as a housewarming gift) will score me another invitation or ten.

What's your experience with second homes, either your own or someone else's?

PS: While I was gone, my new toilet was installed. Since returning, I've been able to, um, test it thoroughly, and I must say: this one is a winner. Two thumbs up for the Toto Drake.

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

I'll trade you a baby grand for a dental implant

I read an interesting story on CNN the other day about how bartering is becoming increasingly popular, even extending into the realm of medical and dental costs. According to the article, as the number of employers able to offer health care benefits has decreased, some private medical providers have stepped up to engage in trading care for goods and services.

That's an innovative way of dealing with health costs when no other way is available, but I can't see it really going mainstream. For one thing, it may be possible to put a fair market value on some trades (cleaning services for dental cleaning, for example), but how do you make change when payment comes in the form of a baby grand piano?

On top of the impracticalities built into bartering, bartering doesn't address the larger problem of health care affordability. While I admire the innovative spirit of both health care recipients and providers who manage to make bartering work, I think there's an element of shame in the fact that the largest industrialized nation in the world and the only remaining world superpower still hasn't managed to pull it together enough to prevent people from resorting to desperate, niche measures to obtain basic health care.

Have you made bartering work for you economically? If so, how?

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Friday, June 19, 2009

Ms. Popularity no more

Thanks to a generous invitation, I'm off to the Hamptons this weekend to see how the rich people spend their weekends. I'll be back next week with a full report.

I have one post scheduled to publish while I'm gone. In the meantime, last week the New York times published an article about Ruth Madoff. Ruth Madoff has become persona non grata among family, friends, and especially among the people who provide goods and services to the rich and famous. The article noted that while Ruth Madoff isn't currently under indictment and claims not to have had any knowledge off or complicity in Bernie Madoff's massive Ponzi scheme, she also hasn't done much to rehabilitate her image or gain public support.

Do you feel any sympathy for Ruth Madoff? Why or why not?

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The project that ate my life

The good part of regrouting is that the bathroom grout now looks really nice.

The bad part of regrouting is that I really, really, really see the other things that need touch-up. I haven't done diddly to upgrade my apartment in the nearly eight years I've lived here, and suddenly it looks like it needs it.

I mentioned before that I'm gearing up to paint my apartment and get my toilet and bathroom cabinetry replaced. In the little downtime I have from jobworld right now, I've been buying and borrowing tools, pulling down shelves, spackling, and caulking gaps in the baseboards. So far, so good: The first room painting kicks off a week from Saturday.

In the meantime, I've also spent some time looking for a contractor to build a custom cabinet in the bathroom. That's been an interesting experience. I've reached out to four people, and here's what transpired:

Contractor 1: Didn't return my call

Contractor 2: Didn't return my call

Contractor 3: Not only returned my call, but also really chased me down until we connected. This guy is a cabinetmaker rather than a generalized contractor, and he had some great suggestions for making better use of my cabinetry space than the unit I have today. He also recommended building in a vanity around the wall-mounted sink for extra storage and brought me a couple of samples of bamboo to look at, since we talked about different kinds of wood on the phone. He's been very forthcoming with photos of previous work and references, and since I've learned from sorry experience that wood countertops and bathrooms without exhaust fans don't go together, he located someone who can build a matching Corian countertop.

The guy is great.

His estimate is also rather high for the scope of work.

Contractor 4: Returned my call and scheduled an appointment promptly. English is not his first language and we stumbled over a few things (I said drawers and he kept hearing doors). This guy is a general contractor, so he can do all of the work I plan to outsource. Unfortunately, he also had some drawbacks:

No recommendations on building materials.

No references or photos, despite a couple of requests.

I had to chase him down to get an estimate.

On the other hand, he's really cheap. His estimate for the cabinetry came in at 20% of Contractor 3's cost.

I thought about this long and hard, and I hired Contractor 3. The estimate for all of the work and materials for a custom bamboo vanity, storage cabinet, and Corian countertop comes to $3225. This sounds expensive to me, but I asked around and on the whole most people I've talked to think it's pretty reasonable for custom woodworking in Manhattan.

I justified the cost to myself in about every way possible: I found a 35% off deal on a top-rated toilet in the budget class (one reviewer claimed that it's probably powerful enough to flush a cat), so I saved money both on the purchase and hopefully on future maintenance. In addition, I've already put a huge amount of sweat equity into the regrouting and I'm doing the same for the upcoming paint job over the next few weeks. Finally, this is the first home repair effort I've done other than getting wall and ceiling reconstruction and a partial paint job in 2002, courtesy of my neighbor's insurance after he flooded me. If you amortize the costs against regular home maintenance that everyone should do over time, it's actually very cheap.

At the end of the day, of course, all of these reasons are nothing but rationalizations: I know what I want to do, and I'm looking for arguments to support it. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's important (to me) to recognize the behavior for what it is.

$3225 is pretty costly for the small amount of building that I'm doing, but the true reason I'm moving ahead is that on my personal satisfaction scale, I get the most marginal happiness out of balancing cost against function, quality, and aesthetics. (For a different but also completely valid perspective on function, cost, and aesthetics, see Grace's recent post on the choices she's made for the kitchen of her dreams.)

I only want to do bathroom furniture replacement once and then be able to enjoy the end result for years to come, and I'm willing to cut costs elsewhere by personally doing all of the work I can do on my own. Spending money on the things that align with one's values and saving money on other things is what frugality's all about, so I'm okay with the decisions I've made.

I set my final budget for the entire mini-renovation at $4700, which includes tools, materials, professional labor, and my unpaid labor. Here's what I've spent so far:

$90 - Grouting tools and supplies
$90 - Painting tools and supplies (excluding paint)
$1825 - Deposit for bathroom cabinetry
$200 - Processing fee for getting building permission for the work (blatant ripoff, in my opinion)
$303 - Flush-a-cat toilet
$11 - Corian samples

Total so far: $2514

Here's what I've budgeted for the rest:
$200 - Paint
$350 - Toilet installation (also a blatant ripoff, but it saved me some extra costs in building paperwork to use the guy the building wants me to use)
$1500 - Outstanding cabinetry costs
$100 - Cabinetry hardware (I have no idea what this is really going to cost)

Total outstanding costs: $2150

Total expected costs: $4664

Those are the thought processes I went through and the decisions I made for my first real home repair and renovation effort. How'd I do?

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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Poor widdle me

Commenter goldsmith came up with such an interesting question in the comments on my last post that I decided to bump my planned topic and feature it instead. Here's what he asked:

Anyone else here who is as annoyed as I am about the way people in supersafe jobs - such as tenured public sector jobs - have started to play "noveau pauvre", and trying to elicit sympathy for how they have to save all of a sudden?

This has become the habit of bosswoman A and bosswoman B during coffee breaks (one with a 140k annual income, and the other with 200k, and each with a pension and a paid-off house), and it annoys the hell out of me. I mean, there are people in deep trouble all around, whether unwise financial decisions contributed to their woes or not, and I find this so tasteless. Anyone else who observed this?


I haven't seen this in the course of this recession, to be honest, probably because most people I know (including a few in public service!) are genuinely at risk for and worried about the chopping block. It does remind me of sophomore year in college, though: There were a few middle class kids like myself, students at a rich kids' college, so the extortionate tuition was a pretty common topic around the time that payments were due. I never had much to say: my parents covered what scholarships didn't, and I worked on campus to pay for my books and personal expenses. It wasn't a glamorous life, but I wasn't racking up any student debt (and for that, I'll be forever and ever grateful to my parents).

One freshman in the same dorm happened upon one of these conversations one day and loudly echoed the same concerns about how much tuition cost and how worried she was about whether she could afford school.

We all looked at each other. Everyone was thinking the same thing, but no one wanted to say it.

But Christy, I finally said. You don't pay tuition. Your mom works for the school, so your tuition is waived.

I don't remember what happened after that other than Christy sputtering and probably hating me for life. I know it was mean to call her out for being a blowhard and a liar, but the poor-widdle-me attitude annoyed me, probably in a way that's similar to how goldsmith is annoyed by the noveau pauvre blowhards in his office.

Have you seen anything like this in your own life lately?

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Windfall!

To borrow a gardening metaphor, it's all asses and elbows around here at the moment. By that, I mean that I'm working like a madwoman: I just finished up and launched a big project with global impact, and now I'm in all-day meetings with a vendor trying to wrap my head around designing something bigger, with complexity x 10 and even more global impact.

With that as the general context, last night I got home late again, though not as late as tonight. Midway through my commute home, the hunger I'd been carrying around since mid-day marched forth into full-blown nausea and dizziness.

I've passed out from bad blood sugar drops a few times. I may be a slow learner, but eventually I internalized the fact that when I start feeling sick and dizzy, I need to eat right away. I didn't have anything on me since I'd cleaned out the breakfast and lunch I'd brought to work, so I stopped in the local drugstore for a jar of generic peanuts.

The peanuts were $3.99, which I thought was a gratuitous rip-off for sixteen ounces. With my blood sugar plummeting, though, I wasn't in much of a condition to debate it.

As the transaction rang up, the receipt kept printing for an unusually long time. As it turned out, when it printed my receipt, the cash register also cranked out a free five-dollar coupon for my next purchase.

And another.

And another.

$3.99 for peanuts resulted in $15 in free coupons, a net profit of $11.01. RA!

Have you had any unexpected windfalls lately?

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Sunday, June 7, 2009

Saving money through gentle subterfuge

I have a friend (let's call her Germaine) who is close to the same size as me and a total clotheshorse. Clothes in the 4-6 range with occasional forays into 8 normally fit me, and Germaine generally wears a 2-4.

Germaine likes to clear out her closet regularly to make room for new stuff. She gravitates towards low to mid-range prices, but never pays full price for anything. When Germaine is clearing out her closet, she likes to pass her very gently used items off to me.

That's all well and good, but Germaine and I have very different tastes and very different builds. I'm muscular, with a large build and something of an hourglass thing going on. Germaine has a much smaller frame and no really defined waist or backside. Germaine always looks nice, but her clothes aren't usually something I'd pick out for myself. To compound matters, if something of Germaine's fits me, it usually looks just horrible because it emphasizes all of the wrong things and none of the right ones. Nevertheless, Germaine inevitably beams and tells me how nice it looks. Even if I demur, she quickly packs up the unflattering castoffs and sends them home with me.

I'm not sure if she really believes that her things look nice on me, or if she's lying just because she hates taking her castoffs down to the thrift store. I think it's the latter. Whatever is going on in her head, however, most of the time she's sending me home with useless clutter.

If you've been reading for a while, you may have guessed that I despise clutter. At the same time, there's no really polite way to tell Germaine that with a few rare exceptions, her clothes works for her but I find them appalling for me.

Germaine and I have been friends for fifteen years and we do other things to help us both save money, like sharing magazine subscriptions; it's just the damn clothes that are a problem. Over the years, however, I've quietly been making lemons from lemonade: Once Germaine is done clearing out her clothes (usually over the course of a couple of weeks), I thank her for her castoffs, haul them down to the thrift store myself and collect a little tax write-off. No one's the wiser, and everybody wins!

Do you have any cost-sharing habits with friends and family?

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Thursday, June 4, 2009

Frugal Blog Network roundup: The home improvement edition

'Tis the season of redesign and reconstruction for me, apparently, and maybe the same is true for a few other people. While I was struggling with grout and the merits of bamboo cabinetry, here's what happened in the Frugal Blog Network in May:

Kelly at Almost Frugal is redesigning her site layout, and I like the fresh, new look. In her spare time, she also wrote an article about how she's not always frugal.

Frugal Babe is involved in her own reconstruction of sorts: she just bought a house.

The Frugal Duchess found that new-to-you can be just about as good as new.

In an unfortunate sign of the times, Not Made of Money offers some coping tips for dealing with sudden job loss.

Tight Fisted Miser took a trip down memory lane as he revisited his goals from ten years ago against where he is today.

That's all for this month's roundup. Check back in early July for more doings from the network, or start following some of these great blogs yourself.

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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Monster unleashed

So, grout.

I'm still walking into the bathroom from time to time just to gaze at the walls. I've never done a home renovation project of any significance, especially with my own hands, and it really feels good to see how nicely it came out - all thanks to my SO for guiding me through the how-to and doing plenty of the work.

Seeing how nice the bathroom walls look has made me want to take the home renovation further. I wrote before that I intended to replace the cabinetry and toilet, so I've had a couple of contractors in to take a look and write up some probably horrendous estimates. That's all well and good: I know I'm out of my depth with carpentry and plumbing, so the only way to get those things upgraded is to pay (and pay and pay).

However. . . I could probably paint the place myself, couldn't I?

I found a website called Monkey See, which is a collection of how-to videos on subjects ranging from gardening to pole dancing. (Monkey see, monkey do. Get it?) I've been viewing all the ones about how to paint a room, and it looks pretty doable, except for the ceiling.

It couldn't be that hard.

Could it?

Encourage me or scare me off: you be the judge.

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