The Provident Professor

Literary Finance and Personal References

Meal Planning for Fun and Profit

You know how come families ate home-cooked, (more or less) healthy meals together at the dining table every evening in the fifties? Because (middle class) women didn’t work, and middle-class women often had domestic help. Cooking dinner every night is hard work, and don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

Cooking dinner is just as much hard work now as it ever was, but now women have jobs and no one can afford domestic help anymore (which is actually a good thing—domestic help was so available in the twentieth century only because the labor of women and people of color was grossly undervalued). Apparently lots of people have determined that cooking dinner on the regular is simply more trouble than it’s worth: this year, Americans spent more money on eating out than they did on groceries.

Eating out is expensive and unhealthy and did I mention expensive? But it’s also fun and tasty and you don’t have to cook or do dishes. Plus, you don’t buy a bunch of expensive fennel for a recipe, use a third of it making something that doesn’t even taste that good, and then have to throw the rest of it out.

The key to eating at home more and wasting less food is meal planning (it’s also the key to making lunches for work that aren’t sad desk sandwiches, but that’s a post for another time). A meal plan keeps you from buying food you don’t need, from throwing away food you don’t eat, and from coming home to an empty refrigerator on a Thursday night.

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How to Save More and Eat Out Less When You Don’t Like to Cook


We actually love to cook in the Provident household. Prof. de Cuisine makes the best Mexican food in town (admittedly, it’s a pretty small town), and I bake bread and make a mean roast chicken. Eating well is important to us.

But though we like to cook in general, we often really don’t like to cook on a Wednesday afternoon after a long day of teaching and grading and meetings. And we really, really don’t like to cook on Thursday evenings when it seems like the week has taken twice as long as they should. Those are the nights we order pizza or convince ourselves that we deserve to go out.

Not only is that reaction expensive and unhealthy, but we’re often too tired to really enjoy eating out. So we’ve developed some strategies to cut down on those mid-week calls to Pizza Hut and keep us cooking dinner, even when we don’t want to.
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July Spending

I have been dreading this post, because July was an expensive month. Also, June was an expensive month. And, as we are currently on vacation, August is likely to be an expensive month.

But many of July’s expenses were related to our move. And since the move will save us $300 a month (at least–we’ll have to wait and see if our utilities drop any. I’m doing everything I can to see that they do), the moving expenses will likely be worth it.

So without further ado, the inaugural Provident Expense Report:

Provident Household Spending

Rent (we only paid for half of July at the new house and I negotiated a discount after I had to do extensive cleaning before we moved in) 350
Utilities (gas and electric at the old house) 137.67
Mowing (the old house had an enormous yard, and we paid someone else to deal with it) 80
Cell phone 92.66
Entertainment (newspaper subscription, Netflix, and a trip to the movies to see Ghostbusters) 44.48
Hardware store (we built some shelves for the new house and there were some start-up costs: a circular saw, stain, lumber, and other assorted tools) 393.34
Amazon, Walmart and Target (curtains, blinds, and the many miscellaneous things you always need when you move) 477.34
Groceries 504.64
Medical and dental expenses 360.74
Student loans 222.84
Gas 62.63
Auto inspection 16
Eating out 133.63
Costco annual membership 55

Total: 2930.97

Prof. Provident Spending

Eating out 20.18
Hair (my hair is my major spending vice. I don't want to talk about it) 170.40
Software (Scrivener for iPad is as great as everyone says) 21
Skin care 37.65

Total: 249.23

Clearly, July was off the charts in the merchandise category. But we did buy some things that we’ll continue to use to produce more things. The circular saw, woodworking tools and stain have already been put to good use: we made some extra shelves for our kitchen cabinets, plus two other shelving units for our kitchen, which was a bit lacking in the storage department. And Prof. de Cuisine (the other half of the Provident household) has been busily tinkering away in the basement.

In addition, we did all the moving and cleaning in both houses ourselves, so there were no expenses for the actual move, beyond the food and beer we provided for our friends when they helped us haul our stuff to the new house on a hot Saturday morning. Now that everything’s pretty well settled, our spending on household stuff should drop a bit. (Although, I whisper shamefacedly, we are planning on stopping by IKEA next week to pick up a few last household items.)

Provident Bread

I know I’m far from the first person to make this insightful observation, but good bread is expensive. Heck, mediocre bread from the grocery store is kind of expensive. The good stuff from the bakery is like four bucks a loaf, which adds up quick.

Fortunately (kind of) for the Provident household, we do not have a bakery in our tiny town. And since bread is not so fantastic for the waistline (plus, I prefer to get my grains via beer), I tend to just not buy bread.

But sometimes you want a sandwich. Or a colleague gives you some homemade jam as a housewarming present. What’s an aspiringly provident person to do?
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Know the Difference between Your Major, Your Skills and Your Work Experience

So you’ve decided what kind of degree is right for you. Maybe you’ve even chosen a major. Maybe you haven’t chosen a major–that’s okay, too. You don’t need to know what you want to major in from the very instant you get to college. Some people do, and that’s great. Some people change their minds, which is also great. I know this sounds crazy, but your major is not the most important career decision you will make in college.

As I mentioned earlier, there are some majors that correspond directly to careers: engineering, computer science and many of the other applied sciences. But lots of other majors will prepare you for multiple careers, and there are multiple majors that can prepare you for the same career. If you want to go into law (don’t do this), you can major in history, English, political science, philosophy, or pretty much anything else. Believe it or not, you can major in one of those subjects if you want to go to medical school, as long as you take enough science classes along with your humanities courses.

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Against De-cluttering

I’ve said it before: I love stuff. I love making things and then seeing and feeling and using the things I’ve made. I love getting gifts that someone else has picked out for me and then remembering that person every time I see the candlesticks on the dining table or the little ceramic drawers on the mantelpiece. I love that, because no one else wanted it, I have all the family china from both sides of the family. I keep it all displayed in the dining room so that I can always think about my grandfather, who I never got to meet, buying the game bird pattern from the Orvis catalogue some seventy-five years ago.

I collect teapots, which is the opposite of de-cluttering. I’m very selective about what I collect: no kitschy teapots, and I don’t have that many–10 or so, several of which are in regular use, two of which are family hand-me-downs, and three of which are gifts. When she found out I collected teapots, my aunt got several from an antique-dealer friend and gave them to me each Christmas. I love looking at them and knowing that my aunt picked them out because she knew I’d like them.

Stuff is important. Some of it is laden with memories; some of it was made by someone you know, or you yourself. Lots of it is beautiful. I don’t hold with the minimalist idea that you should have just a few really beautiful objects. You should have lots of beautiful objects. (Though for my part, I try to stop well short of Victorian rococo proportions, but you do you.) And beautiful doesn’t have to mean expensive. Lots of my china was free, though some of it would be quite expensive to replace. My favorite purple ceramic vase, which sits on our mantle, cost $30 when I bought it from the potter.
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Bill-Busting Summer, Part III: How We Cut Our Monthly Rent By $300

Easy: we moved. We hadn’t been planning on moving, but our landlord wanted to raise our rent, so we figured it couldn’t hurt to see what lose was out there. Once we started looking, we realized our current house was a little overvalued, even before the rent increase. What’s more, we didn’t actually need all the space we had. There were smaller, cuter, cheaper houses available in town.

Lesson 1: Don’t let the pain of moving keep you in the wrong place.

We should have moved earlier, but moving just seemed like such a pain that we stayed put year after year. Inertia is not your friend.

It took our landlord trying to hike our rent to get us to really consider leaving. Once we said we’d be moving out, our landlord tried to backtrack on the rent increase, but by then it was too late. (Sometime later I’ll write up the many lessons of property ownership that our inept landlord has taught me.) We discovered we could rent a smaller but more charming house just around the corner from our old house for $300 less than we were currently paying. That’s $390 less per month than the proposed rent increase.

Lesson 2: Every year before you sign a new lease, look for a new place.

You don’t have to move, but you should at least consider it. Go see two or three places that are available. Are they better? Cheaper? Try to forget the pain of moving (this checklist will help you out when the time comes) and imagine how a new house could change your budget or your commute.

Of course, moving can be a budget-buster. Our actual move was cheap, if protracted. We borrowed a pickup truck and enlisted some friends to help us move all the big stuff one Saturday. Then we took another week to ferry everything else from the old house to the new. But we’ve had to buy quite a bit of new stuff: the new place has much less storage, so we had to stock up on IKEA shelves and carts and drawers. And of course there were the curtains. And the inevitable multiple trips to the hardware store for all the things you suddenly discover you need.

Lesson 3: Weigh the cost of the move against the rent savings.

In our case, we could afford to spend quite a bit on the move before we started to eat into our savings: at $3600 less per year, we’d have to make a lot of trips to Lowe’s before we tipped into the red.

I’ve been avoiding tallying up our total spending on this move because we did buy a few more things than we strictly need, but most of what we bought is the kind of thing that’s always good to have: kitchen carts, metal shelves, and closet storage. Sure, we could have just gotten rid of a bunch of our stuff, but we actually use it all. We cook a ton, and we really use all the pots and gadgets and spices that we have crammed in our kitchen.

Lesson 4: Learn how to make creative use of storage space.

We could have easily looked at the new house and dismissed it because the closets are tiny and we used every one of our eight closets in the old house. But we spent some time thinking about how we could reorganize the stuff we had unreflectively jammed in the closets so that it could all live in the new house. And once we really thought about it, we realized that there was plenty of stuff we could move to the basement, and plenty more that we could store on shelves around the house. We’ll need to be a bit tidier and more organized, but that’s probably for the best.

Has anyone else learned any valuable renting lessons? I feel like people don’t talk about tips for renting as often as they talk about home ownership, but sometimes renting really is the smarter choice, and the tips and tricks are very different than they are for owning your home.

Moving Checklist: Relocate without the Chaos

As I said yesterday, moving is both an enormous pain and a fantastic opportunity. Right now, the Provident household is feeling the pain. There’s still a ton of stuff to be moved, a house to be cleaned, and we’re about to experience a record-breaking heat wave.

There’s nothing to do but embrace the pain, and if you’re moving, I can’t help you much with the unpleasant reality of packing and carrying and unpacking. But the other pain of moving is all the administrivia that goes along with a change in residence, and I’ve got your back there.

This checklist will get your started with the moving paperwork. It probably doesn’t include everything you’ll need to do, but if you check off all these boxes, you’ll be in pretty good shape.

Tips for Energy Efficient Window Treatments

The Provident household has moved! Well, if you want to get technical about it, we’re still in the process of moving, but we are now fully occupying our new house, even if some of our stuff is still occupying our old house.

Moving is both an enormous pain and a fantastic opportunity. Our move is part of our Bill-Busting Summer, and I’ll talk about the money-saving details later. I don’t have definite opinions in the rent vs. buy debate except the opinion that renting is right for us in our particular time and place, but I will say this for renting: when you decide you want to spend less on housing every month, you can make that happen in the space of a month. Try doing that if you’ve got a mortgage.

Our new house is almost a hundred years old and is high on charm. It’s not exactly vintage, because that’s not our aesthetic. We’ve got more of a classic-meets-cheap furniture look going on, paired with my only slightly out-of-control collection of family china and glassware. Sort of a Minimalist Grandma kind of thing.

Whatever it is, it fits well in our new little bungalow. We’ve got high ceilings and chair rail molding and tons of great light coming in through what may well be the original windows. They are certainly not from our modern era of window technology. They are single pane and counter-weighted and they look lovely.

They also present a pretty big thermal problem. We’ve had highs in the 90s ever since we moved, and the sun beats down on the windows and the house heats up like a charming little greenhouse. I think we’ll see a similar, but more welcome, radiant heating effect in the winter, but at night, I’m fairly certain the windows will jettison every bit of warm air out into the world.
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Making the Right College Choice for You and Your Finances

The one thing everyone seems to agree about when it comes to college is that it costs a lot of money. Beyond that, everyone’s got a different idea about whether it costs too much, how it should be paid for, what you should major in, and if it’s even worth it. Some people do fine without a college degree and some regret having gotten one, but statistically speaking, you’re more likely to have a job if you have a college degree than if you don’t.

As a college professor and aspirationally provident person, I know quite a bit about colleges and a decent amount about making good financial choices. In this series, I’m going to try to demystify college a bit by shedding light on some of the aspects of higher education that don’t really get discussed with enough clarity in the gloom-and-doom student loan articles, or in the predictable encomiums encouraging everyone to be a STEM major or just drop out and start a tech company.

So if you’re unsure what you want from a college education, don’t know where to go to get what you want, or aren’t sure how to make the most of your tuition dollars once you get there, your in the right place.

Part I: Know the Difference Between a Vocational Degree, a Professional Degree and a Liberal Arts Degree

Not all college degrees are the same. For one thing, there are a lot of different letters you can end up with: AA, BA, BS, BFA, JD, MD, PhD, EdD. That’s only a few. But in addition to denoting different things, different degrees serve very different purposes, and it helps to understand the difference before you start earning yours.
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