Split-pea soup simmers in the slow cooker, made entirely from ingredients Nicole McDonald already had on hand, including last night's leftover ham. French bread rises on the counter, made from pantry items. Even if it weren't snowing, the McDonald family would be staying in, avoiding spending a dime on a restaurant meal, a movie or any other entertainment.
It's Frugal February, 28 days in which the McDonalds will voluntarily abstain from spending money on anything that is not a necessity.
No games or toys for the three children. No online shopping or drive-through coffee for McDonald, 34. No snacks from the cafeteria for her husband, Pete McDonald, 35, a civilian IT technician at Offutt Air Force Base.
They are spending money only on the essentials: the mortgage, diapers, a few perishable foods — milk, fresh produce — and any emergencies that arise. And no, cigarettes are not an emergency, which McDonald hopes will help her finally kick the habit after years of on-again, off-again smoking. When her last half pack is gone, it's gone.
Why would the McDonalds voluntarily endure a month with no shopping, torture for some shopaholics? After all, they're not broke; in fact, this frugal family, once in debt, today has several months of living expenses socked away.
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Nicole McDonald heard about the idea on a frugal living blog where the author went 31 days with no unnecessary spending. Other frugal-lifestyle advocates have blogged about going a week, or as long as a year. They say it's not so much a sacrifice as a chance to use up what you already have, develop a budget and plan for a truly meaningful purchase or investment, instead of frittering away small bills on impulse buys. In diet terms, it's a cleanse.
McDonald thought it was just the thing she and her husband needed to help them meet financial goals. The McDonalds hope to pay cash for a used car, take a vacation for their 10-year anniversary, and pay off their house in the next seven years, all big expenses she said will not happen without some “serious budgeting magic.”
She pitched it to her husband a few days before the end of January, thinking he would say, “That's crazy, no way,” but instead, he said, “Sure, why not?”
Coming from her, it didn't surprise him. Nicole McDonald isn't your everyday coupon-clipping mom.
The Lincoln native, with a bachelor's degree in business management, served seven years in the U.S. Navy, where she met her husband and was trained as a financial counselor, helping other service members prepare budgets and make financial decisions.
After leaving the service and moving with her family back to her home state, she took advantage of the GI Bill to earn an MBA at Bellevue University. Now she blogs and teaches classes in local libraries and community colleges about couponing, meal planning, how to win “freebies” and how to have frugal fun with your children. In 2013, she self-published a book, “The Extraordinary Art of Couponing,” available on Amazon.
McDonald practices what she preaches, using an all-cash budget and jotting down every expense on a spreadsheet on the fridge.
But she's never gone this far before and didn't know what it would feel like to crack down so hard on spending. She considers shopping recreation, even a hobby, and can recall exactly what she spent on items in her pantry.
She has an advantage most spending dieters don't: a big pantry full of food and household items accumulated from couponing. She buys in quantity to take advantage of grocers' predictable three-month sales cycles and seasonal deals. There are 12 boxes of Cheerios alone, plus pounds of coffee, frozen vegetables, chicken nuggets, crackers and tomato sauce.
McDonald is creating weekly meal plans that put her stash to work. Dinners aren't just canned soup; February's menus include baked chicken with rice, spaghetti and meatballs, beer brats with baked potatoes and beans, and omelettes with hash browns. For lunch, her kids can expect tortilla roll-ups, sandwiches or her homemade take on Lunchables.
But McDonald said you don't need a stockpile to do a spending diet. Just buy the minimum you need to get by, whatever that is. Groceries are a significant expense and a good place to start, she said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says a family of four including two parents and two elementary-school-age children would spend $1,038 a month on groceries under a “moderate” spending plan, or $829 on a “low-cost” plan. McDonald spends just $500 to $600 a month on groceries, including household items and toiletries.
Plenty of middle-class people who seem to be doing well financially could benefit from a spending break, she has observed. In the classes she teaches, McDonald meets people overwhelmed by consumer and medical debt, families barely able to make ends meet even with a good income.
“They want to get out of that debt rat race and live within their means,” she said.
She can relate. When the family moved back to Nebraska in 2006 to raise a family, her husband took a pay cut, and McDonald stopped working to stay home with her daughter, now 7. Their spending quickly surpassed their income.
“Our first year and a half, we racked up about $10,000 in credit card debt,” McDonald said.
It took the same amount of time to pay it off, with budgeting, couponing and the extra income of her federal educational aid.
She adopted the same frugal philosophy she's putting to work this month: “We just didn't buy stuff that we didn't need,” she said.
Today the family has a low-interest, 15-year mortgage on their brick ranch home.
They also have college funds, retirement funds and between three and six months of living expenses saved up at a time. That cushioned them through three unexpected expenses that hit over the past year: The furnace and water heater both conked out, and a plumbing line in their yard needed to be replaced, at a cost of about $2,000.
When Pete was furloughed this past fall as part of the partial government shutdown, the family didn't have to worry about paying their bills. (He was eventually repaid for the lost wages.)
“It's a great feeling to make such progress on our debt and to finally be free of it,” McDonald tells readers on her blog, Mom Saves Money.
Almost a week into the challenge now, McDonald said it's going well. Her cigarettes are gone, but an e-cigarette she had on hand is helping. Free items she's won keep showing up at the house, almost as if she bought them online. When the doorbell rings, it's a driver delivering a free full-size bottle of body wash.
A few of her blog readers have adopted some aspects of the challenge. One gave up recreational shopping for the month. Others think it's extreme. When McDonald shared her plans with an online group of Omaha bloggers, “They said, 'Yeah, no. That's a little nuts,' ” she said.
There are a few potential pitfalls on the horizon.
Next Friday is Valentine's Day, but McDonald doesn't expect a dozen roses. Her husband calls it a “Hallmark holiday,” and in the past has given her low-cost gifts such as a homemade book of coupons redeemable for chores or favors. That's what she prefers.
Her daughter's Feb. 21 school fundraiser, a bingo game and raffle, is another problem.
“It's hard, because I love, love, love raffles. I love winning stuff,” McDonald said. Normally she would spend about $40 that night, thinking the money goes to a good cause. This year she's coming up with other ways she can get a bingo card, possibly by bartering with a friend for a card in exchange for something she already has, like an unused gift card.
And now that it's been a week and she's low on milk, yogurt and bananas, there will be a trip to the store — but just for those few things, and she even has coupons for free dairy products. If McDonald can get in and out for just a few dollars, she'll be putting money away for those big purchases that in the long run add up to something more valuable — family memories and peace of mind.