How I cut back my monthly expenses

I wrote a post about economizing after a divorce a few years ago, and I’ve been meaning to update it, since I’ve been living comfortably and happily ever since! So here it is, the revised 2017 version. In 2014, I was left with a hefty mortgage, a house’s worth of utility bills, and two dogs. I’ve always had an innate need to save money, so I wasn’t in immediate trouble, but I knew my expenses would quickly drain my bank account if I didn’t make some serious changes.

This is how I kept out of the red. I hope some of these tips are helpful to you.

Make a list of your automatic monthly expenses and only keep the ones you really need. It turns out I had a lot of recurring monthly expenses that I did not need, such as paid font services (I use Google Fonts now) and two hosting accounts (I consolidated, saving $20 a month or $240 a year). I kept Amazon Prime, which I use for everyday items, holiday shopping, and (now) groceries! I pause Netflix during months I’m not using it. I also pay for Crunchyroll.

Look at your data/talk time/text use and see if there is a cheaper phone plan. After looking at my meager phone use and deciding that, yes, I could live without unlimited data (I have access to wifi at home and work), I switched from a $90/month plan to a $40/month plan. I’m careful with my phone, so I’ve had it for three years. $50/month savings or $600 a year.

Eliminate the K-Cups. So when the Keurig came out, I was one of those people who made fun of people who owned them. Then I received one as a wedding gift and fell in love. It’s so handy when you’re bleary eyed with whining puppies at 5am! (Puppies are now almost five years old; how time flies.) I used to buy K-Cups monthly. Even at Walmart, they were about $11 for 18 (about 61 cents a cup of coffee). It was cheaper than Starbucks, so I happily bought a couple boxes a month, and more when there were fun holiday flavors! Or anything that sounded delicious! Chocolate raspberry? Yes, please! Fast forward to today. I found refillable K-cups, a one-time purchase, and a tub of ground Folgers for $4. That lasts me about two months depending on coffee consumption (it makes 90 6oz cups). Coffee spending went from roughly $25/month to $2/month (saving $276 a year).

Cut back on eating out. Eating at home was easy for me when I was first newly single, and it’s been easy for me to maintain it! I’ve learned to love cooking at home (ask me about my newfound love of tofu!) or going to a family member’s house. My spouse and I used to eat out several times a week, and it seemed like we always spent around $70. I tended to pick up the check. Eliminating dining out saves easily $200 a month, which I spend on groceries and dog food.

Cut back on takeout, too. Yes, that includes pizza delivery. Over the years, I’ve witnessed friends who struggle to pay their bills continue to order in lunch at work a few times a week. They’re easily spending $20-$80, depending on the restaurant. I adore getting to eat a hot lunch at work, and once in a while I splurge, but I stock on on protein bars, granola bars, and oatmeal packets. My office now stocks bread and peanut butter, so we can all make sandwiches on a busy day! Little daily expenditures, even if they don’t seem like a lot, can really add up by the end of the month.

I used to order Dominos about once a month, to the tune of $25 (pizza, chocolate lava crunch cake, delivery fee, tip). That’s not unreasonable, but now I buy frozen pizzas (hellooooo, DiGiorno) and keep them in the freezer for pizza cravings. One frozen pizza feeds me for three days, and they only cost around $5. When I want a chocolate lava cake, I bake my own.

Shop sale items. I know this won’t work for everyone, but being the only human in the house means I don’t have to please anyone else. If Amazon Fresh (which is the best thing ever, I swear) is offering yogurt for one cent because Yoplait decided to make French-style yogurt in glass jars, that’s the yogurt I’m buying this week. If Tide detergent is full price but Arm & Hammer is on sale? I buy Arm & Hammer. The only things I’m strict about are tea (Tetley British blend), dog food (Purina ProMax), and pens (Pilot G-2). Pretty much everything else is flexible.

Freeze things. When I cook, I make a plate for today, one for tomorrow, and freeze the rest. It’s so nice to come home and pop something into the convection over to reheat! Homemade frozen dinners.

Find ways to make your house more energy efficient. My entire house runs off of electric, so during the winter, my bills are sky high. Easy things I did were to insulate old windows with bubble wrap (it’s not cute, but it helps!), replace weather stripping around doors and windows, insulate all wall outlets, and install insulating curtains. I also found that there are vents on my foundation that should be closed in the winter! No more freezing floors. Changing your behavior helps too. Turn off lights when you leave a room and unplug electronics you aren’t using. If you’re cold, put on more clothes rather than getting out the space heater.

Embrace Do-It-Yourself projects. I had great plans to have my kitchen re-tiled once my dogs got old enough and stopped digging up the vinyl tile. (They dug down to the subfloor; it was a nightmare. One day I’ll post the before and after shots.) For $200 at the hardware store, I bought floor patch repair and enough peel-and-stick tiles to cover my kitchen and laundry room. It took a week and a re-watch of the X-Files season one, but the kitchen looks fantastic. I used leftover paint to freshen up my bathrooms and spray painted objects that looked tired, so they’d fit in with my current decor. I printed art from the internet (the copyright stickler in me feels slightly bad about that, but it was for private use, and I’ve since bought several prints) and put them in spray-painted frames so they matched. I shifted furniture to different rooms. If you’re creative, you can do a lot with your existing things.

Learn to love hand-me-downs. Over the past few years, I’ve become the proud owner of my grandmother’s beautiful wingback chair, which is now my bedroom writing chair; a set of French-themed dishes; soup bowls from Japan; two area rugs; and a shockingly pink framed picture of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which hangs in my guest bathroom. Coworkers like to give me clothes they don’t use anymore. Not everything is my style, but I accept them all happily and donate anything I end up not using.

Consider refinancing your mortgage. Depending on current interest rates, refinancing your mortgage could save you hundreds a month. Mine was required as a part of my divorce, so I had no choice, but it has saved me $200 a month. Unfortunately, it restarted the 30-year countdown, but…maybe I’ll pay it off early.

Treat yourself to a staycation. My first summer alone, I bypassed a vacation and stayed homed with the dogs! They thoroughly enjoyed having so much time together. I spent $50 on decor and spent the week meeting DIY goals, so it was productive, fun, and cheap! I also created a separate savings account for fun and vacations. I deposit $50 a week and don’t buy things if I don’t have the money for them.

Before you buy that dress, make sure you don’t already own one like it. I recently tried Marie Kondo’s method of decluttering my closet and dresser. I was so embarrassed by how much I owned; I hadn’t seen the back of my closet in years, and the pile of clothing on the floor – everything I owned – was at least three feet deep at its highest point and ten feet across. I didn’t wear half of it. I only kept items I love, putting the rest into bags that I really will take to the donation drop-off soon. (Hello, I’m an introvert and afraid of new things.) I had so many beautiful items I’ve forgotten about. I didn’t think I owned any belts. I have five. Five belts. That were buried.

Use ebates and Honey if you shop online! Before you checkout, check ebates and Honey (it’s a browser add-on for Firefox and Chrome) for offers. Ebates gives cashback on a large number of online stores for just clicking a link. It’s a small amount with each purchase, but it adds up over time. Totally free to use. You can sign up for ebates by using this link (I get a small referral fee if you do).

Skip the gym. I don’t like to work out in public, and gyms can be expensive, but I knew sitting on my couch after sitting all day at work was not good for my health. I bought an inexpensive elliptical machine on Overstock.com for $180. I use it 4+ times a week and am in the best shape I’ve been in since high school!

Ask yourself: do I really need it? Or do I just want it? I am an emotional shopper and often buy things to make myself feel better. I’ve learned to stop this, but it took some time. I had to stop doing things like going shopping every weekend with my mom, because the temptation to buy things was high. Now we do things at her house instead!

Find a free or low-cost way to have fun. I wanted to learn Japanese and brush up on my French, so I got the free language apps Duolingo and Memrise for my phone, discovered free online textbooks and podcasts, and bought the Japanese From Zero textbook for $25 because George makes me laugh and has an encouraging teaching style, plus the corresponding website has free resources and games. Coursera is a fabulous resource if you want to learn something new, and the courses are from major universities (click Enroll and look for “audit” to access the materials for free). YouTube is great for music and how-to videos (I learned how to fix my non-draining bathtub!). You can use Amazon’s free cloud reader (read.amazon.com) to read free books offered on the Kindle.

Make the most of your Prime membership. There are hundreds of movies and TV shows available to Amazon Prime members, so if you have this service, take advantage of its benefits! New this year is Audible Channels, part of the Audible app. It has free audiobooks for Prime members (you don’t have to belong to Audible!) and a great selection of podcasts on a variety of subjects like self improvement, mysteries, and sci-fi. I like to listen at work. You can also download a free book every month. What I use most is Amazon Music. My coworker and stream the Liquid Mind channel almost every workday, and I rely on the available dog sleep sounds to calm down Luke when he’s upset!


It’s been three years since I made the list this post is based on, and the dogs and I are very happy. I even took a vacation last year! Best of luck getting your own finances in shape. Please share with me any tips you have!

It’s hard to believe sometimes that these characters I think about have existed in some form for half of my life. Three of them came into being when I was seventeen; the fourth, a few years later. They’ve gone through various incarnations and evolved; the protagonist has become the antagonist, and the former antagonist has a love story.

Sometimes it feels like visiting a universe in my head and I’m not sure what I should write down. I don’t know if I’m doing their story justice. I don’t know if their story is all that interesting. But I am finally writing it.

Why the Echo Dot is great for writers (and everyone)

I’ve been a member of Amazon Prime for years. For about $8.50 a month (pre-paid once a year), Prime members enjoy free two-day shipping on any items marked “Prime” throughout the year. I order my dog food from Amazon and it arrives (in a 38lb bag–yikes) on my porch two days later. Plus, you can set up virtual Dash Buttons, which makes ordering as simple as a single click. This is good for someone like me, who is motivated to be productive but sometimes won’t leave the house because the idea of braving the pet store is too much for my introvert heart.

(It’s also fantastic when you have forgotten an upcoming birthday.)

But Amazon Prime isn’t just about free shipping anymore! Prime membership includes extras like a free e-book every month, access to Prime Pantry (where you can buy nonperishable grocery items and have them shipped for a flat-rate per box), Audible Channels (which I like to listen to at work), Amazon Video (lots of free movies and TV shows, which might be satisfying enough for you to drop Netflix), and Amazon Music.

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My Echo Dot at home on the microwave.

I use iTunes across my devices, so I didn’t pay Amazon Music much attention until last December when my mom gave me an Echo Dot. This unassuming device sits on top of my microwave and responds to voice commands. Alexa (that’s what you call her) is the closest I’ve gotten to my dream of a robot butler. Here’s why, as a human and a writer, I love Alexa:

  • Alexa can answer simple questions like, “How far is it from New York to Orlando?” and “What time is it in Toyko?” and “Who is the president of France?” and “What year was Vladimir Nabokov born?” That keeps me from opening a new tab and getting distracted by the internet. She can’t look up anything too complex yet, but I have my fingers crossed.
  • She can add items to to-do and shopping lists
  • She can read your upcoming Google Calendar entries
  • She can place an Amazon Prime order for you (I haven’t been brave enough to try this yet)
  • She can play any album, artist, or playlist included with Amazon Music! I like the playlist “Classical for Writing” and use it often. If you have the unlimited music subscription, you apparently have access to more.
  • She can play your custom playlists on Amazon Music! I have a few mood-specific writing playlists that she can fire up.
  • She can play dog sleep sounds for those times your dogs are feisty. They calm mine down within minutes. It’s magic. We use them so often, we have a playlist called “Go to sleep, Luke.”
  • You can pause, resume, and adjust Alexa’s volume with voice commands
  • She can hear you down the hall!
  • She can read to you. If you need a break and want to recharge your brain with someone else’s words, she can read any of your Audible books to you. If you have multiple Echo Dots (I have another one in my bedroom), she remembers where she left off reading and can pick up again in another room.
  • She’s an alarm clock and a timer. Alexa wakes me up every morning and times my writing sprints. And yes, you can tell her to snooze.
  • She can connect to your smart devices and turn lamps on/off by voice command, handy when you don’t want to crawl under the desk again to turn a rocker switch.
  • If you tell her that you love her, she says “thank you.”
  • She tells me she likes all AIs. 🙂

Things Alexa cannot do that I wish she could:

  • Take notes for me. Sometimes I don’t have my hands free and a line has popped into my head. Alexa can’t do this, but Siri can if plugged in with “Hey, Siri” activated.
  • Sync with Last.fm to keep track of my listening history (I’m hopeful this will eventually be integrated)
  • Play songs from my iTunes Match account
  • Let Luke outside
  • Make tea
  • Fold the laundry

The Echo Dot runs about $50, but last year it went on sale for $25, so you can sometimes find one a little cheaper. There are refurbished models available as well. It’s made my life a little easier and lot more pleasant.

Do you have an Echo Dot or another voice-activated device? How do you use it in your daily life?

Disclaimer: Links to Amazon.com are affiliate links. There’s no charge to you, but if you make a purchase using them, it gives us a little money for dog biscuits.

Writing tools for authors using a Chromebook

I grew up on PC and graduated to Macintosh when I got into a design field. A couple years ago, I made the decision to transition to a Google Chromebook. The primary factor was cost. (The second factor is that Luke the Dog likes to smack my laptop with his paw to get my attention.) I’m a dedicated, passionate writer–I write every day–but I don’t write for profit and couldn’t justify the cost of a MacBook. I picked up an Acer Chromebook for under $200 on Amazon, and it was one of the best purchases I’ve ever made.

That said, Chromebooks don’t support the novel-writing software I have on my Macintosh, which brings me to the point of this post: What are the best writing apps available to writers using a Google Chromebook?

If you already write on a Chromebook, you probably have favorite programs already. These are mine. And they might not work for you, but maybe you’ll get an idea or two out of this post. 

If you’re considering the switch to a Chromebook, I’ll be honest: your choice of writing programs is limited. Storyist and Scrivener don’t work on this platform. But if you’re adaptable, Chromebooks are fast and affordable.

Google Docs

Google Docs has been my go-to writing program for years. My documents are available on any computer, iPhone, and iPad, and it offers collaboration tools–invaluable if you work with one or more editors. Google Docs (part of Google Drive) is free to use and works on all browsers. There are apps as well for IOS and Android, so you can take your novel on the go.

The only downside I’ve noticed is that larger documents do not play well with my Acer, which does not have a lot of memory. I have to split anything over 20,000 words into multiple documents, but that’s no big sacrifice.

Google recently integrated Google Keep into Google Docs, giving you virtual post-its in the sidebar. You can drop and drag notes into the document, and they paste as text. I use it to hold cut material or the line that just popped into my head. No more jumping between my notes and the actual manuscript. It’s a lot closer to the Storyist experience now.

Calmly Writer

This Chrome extension costs a few dollars, but it’s worth it. It provides a distraction free, full screen environment in light and dark clothes, and you have the option of turning on the delightful typewriter sound! Ahh, the sound of productivity. It’s good when I need to write in sprints. Bonus: Calmly Writer can sync with Google Drive to back up your documents.

If you don’t want to pay for the extension, there’s a free browser-based version!


Writing-adjacent Tools

These tools add back some of the functionality found in novel-writing software.

Airtable

In February, I was invited to join a private writing group where we report our daily word totals, and since I have a poor memory, I knew I wouldn’t remember whether or not I had reported on any given day. I needed a way to track my daily writing progress, what I worked on, whether I had reported it.

If you’ve ever spent time around me, you’ve probably heard me gush about Airtable. It’s a database program with a clean, easy-to-use interface. The day I signed up, I was up and running in five minutes. I use it to organize everything from Christmas card lists to city-wide events. It’s free to use (there are paid levels) and can be fully tailored to your needs with a variety of field types.

I use it to track my daily writing progress and keep track of my works in progress. I’ve seen it used as a way to hold story notes and storyboard ideas.

Airtable’s website (if you sign up, I earn a $10 credit that goes toward writing challenges I organize)

Trello

Trello is an organizing tool. Create boards and move items between them to easily keep track of a list of story ideas, works in progress, characters, scenes, settings–you get the idea. How you use Trello is completely up to you. It is free to use and there are apps for on-the-go use. I use it to hold a list of story ideas that I might want to work on at some point, and I move them between likelihood boards.

Pinterest

I adored Pinterest when it first came out–all of those recipes I would never make! Houses I would never own! I stopped visiting it after a while, but a few years ago, when I was working on an intimidating story, I needed to collect visuals to nudge me along. I’m a visual person, so I came up with the idea of creating a Pinterest board for that story.

Since then, I’ve made Pinterest boards for nearly every large project I worked on. It’s an easy way for me to keep everything in one place, from links to research to inspirational photographs that remind me of a person or place in the story itself. Pinterest is free to use, has a Chrome extension to easily add articles or photographs to your board, and also has mobile apps.

If your manuscript’s content can’t be publicized, you can create a secret board visible only to you.

Canva

“Jess, this post is supposed to be about writing tools.”

Yes, well, writers need to create graphics sometimes. Canva is graphic design software right in your browser. If you need to make a new Twitter banner or design a shareable graphic to promote your work, it’s a fantastic tool. I like it so much for personal use, we’ve started to use it at my company. It saves time and doesn’t chain me to my desktop computer.


Luke just smacked the computer. A fitting end to this post.

Disclaimer: Links to Amazon are affiliate links and help pay for dog treats. There’s absolutely no cost to you. Luke and Leia thank you.