Expert Interview with Heather Peters on Frugal Living

After the birth of their first child, Heather Peters and her husband had a philosophical wake-up call of sorts.

"We had this sweet baby who was growing up in the blink of an eye, and we felt like we were missing it," Heather recalls.

They were always running, dealing with tenants, putting out fires and burning the candle at both ends to pay for and maintain a variety of things that didn't really add value to their lives, while sucking up an extremely valuable commodity: their time.

So they decided to make a change. Instead of devoting their energies to owning material goods, they would focus on being happy with what they had.

"I often tell my readers that time is the only truly valuable commodity any of us has in life," Heather says. "We each have a set number of days, and we cannot reclaim them when they're gone."

In 2008, she launched her blog, Want What You Have, to share how her family goes about focusing on the simple life. The site includes tips on organizing, frugality and living debt free. Here, she shares more about her site and offers advice on money management. Read on:

Tell us a little about Want What You Have...when and why did you start your site?

I launched the site in January 2008, six months after my husband and I paid off every last cent of more than a half million dollars in debt. When I met him, my husband owned a business, and he had accumulated several rental properties, a snowmobile, a motorcycle, cars, and boxes and boxes of "collectibles," as well as the debt that often accompanies the trappings of the material world. He had even built a multi-unit storage building to house all his stuff!

Who should be reading it?

The vast majority of my readers are mothers with children who are looking for ways to get organized, save money, simplify their lives, and make time for what matters most to them - their families.

However, I write for anyone with a genuine desire for a happier, more fulfilling life, free of the shackles of debt. We've had the insanely busy life, the stuff, the "success," as defined by society today. There was no real happiness to be found in any of it. When we sold everything, paid off our debt, and focused on our faith, our children, and each other, life became joyful and fun again.

When and why did your family make the decision to live debt-free?

In 2000, my husband was a very unhappy man. He knew that his life was out of control, and he desperately wanted to change, but he was so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of his stuff that he had no idea how to start. It seemed much too daunting to tackle alone, so he had a tendency to avoid the problem. When we fell in love, I felt that his problems were my problems, and I couldn't stand to see him so miserable. Though I too was overwhelmed, I told him that if he wanted to sell everything, I would help him. I had never used eBay before, but I figured out how to use the site, and we began by selling a few small collectible items. Over the next couple of years, we worked our way up to the vehicles, and eventually sold all the real estate and our business as well. The entire process took seven years. July 3, 2007, was the day we sent in the final payment on our home mortgage. It was our personal Independence Day, and we vowed that we would never borrow money again. We remain debt-free to this day.

What has been the most surprising thing you've discovered about debt-free living?

It requires great discipline and planning, and it can be surprisingly difficult. We rejected something that is widely accepted as a fact of life in America - payments - but debt freedom comes with its own set of financial challenges. Major expenses, such as vehicle purchases and home repairs, must be carefully planned for to avoid borrowing money. Sometimes it seems like it would just be easier to borrow, and in the short term this may be true, but when you're in debt, you're a slave, and ultimately it's not worth it. So we continue to work hard, practice frugality and make smart choices so we can have reach our goals, and have the freedom of a life without debt.

What is a price book? Why should we start one?

If you're serious about getting control over your budget, a price book is a valuable tool. It is essentially a record of prices for items you regularly purchase. If you shop at more than one store, this record-keeping allows you to buy only the lowest-priced items at each store, and to watch for sale cycles and trends. It also provides the information you need to evaluate unadvertised sales and unexpected sources of goods. If you know your target prices, you will always know when you stumble upon a great deal and you can stock up with confidence.

I keep my price book in an Excel spreadsheet, which is formatted to automatically calculate unit price. I sort items alphabetically and by category, one category per page. With the exception of clothing, which I rarely buy new anyway, I monitor prices for most consumable products we purchase, but there is no right or wrong way to do this. Some people like to track prices for just the 25 most commonly purchased items, and this alone will have a positive effect on your budget.

What are some of your favorite tools (software, apps, websites, etc.) for managing your family's finances?

I think that many people have an "out of sight, out of mind" philosophy when it comes to their finances. They have their bill payments automatically deducted from their account every month, and with the popularity of online banking, many people don't even bother to balance their checkbooks anymore. This is a mistake - banks are staffed by humans who can make errors! I'm very "hands-on" when it comes to my money. I balance my checkbook on paper, to the cent, every month. I also love QuickBooks - which I learned to use when we still ran our own business - for keeping track of our expenses, and making our budget. Also, because I do our taxes myself to save money, I use and love TurboTax online, and I have a Mint.com account, too!

What are some of the most unique ways your family has found to save money?

I think that one of the most unique ways we save money is by the use of our local "swap shop," sponsored by our county solid waste agency. People donate useable products that should not go into the landfill, such as paint, motor oil, and cleaning supplies, and the public is free to "shop" there anytime during business hours. Everything is free, and there is no limit on the number of items you can take. In the last year and a half, we've added two bedrooms for our girls, as well as a ground floor laundry room to our home, and we got all the paint we needed for free from the swap shop. Our girls wanted purple and pink paint, respectively, so we picked up every shade of pink or purple they had, and mixed and matched until we arrived at shades they liked.

We also save money by using a Roku to stream programming through Netflix, as well as a digital antenna to watch our local networks. We use our cell phones and do not have a landline phone, and this has allowed us to cut our cable/phone/internet bill in half.

One of the biggest ways we save money is through simple ingenuity. We live near a library with a collection of more than 300 cake pans, so I check them out and make all of my kids' birthday cakes from scratch. I also cook all of our meals from scratch, and whenever we try a commercial product that we like (such as Belvita breakfast biscuits), I figure out a way to duplicate it as closely as possible at home in order to save money. I like to be creative in using up leftovers so that no food goes to waste, and I make my own cleaning products. When my children were babies, I also made my own baby food and baby wipes.

My husband does nearly all of our home and vehicle repairs, and he has built money-saving household items from scrap or recycled wood. For example, he built this kitchen trashcan designed to store and utilize free plastic grocery sacks, so we haven't purchased trash bags in nearly a year. He also built a riser for our frontloading washer/dryer.

What are some often-suggested money-saving techniques that you've found don't really work for your family?

I experimented with couponing for a few months, but I had several issues with it; the cost of obtaining coupons, the time commitment, and the very fine line between stockpiling and hoarding (which some people skirt dangerously). There is a difference between need and greed. When I factored in the cost of newspapers, gasoline and the value of my time, I didn't find that I spent less overall on groceries in the months that I was couponing. In fact, there were months when I spent more.

I also do not find buying clubs such as Sam's Club and Costco to be great money-savers. We had a membership to Costco for one year, and I did not renew it. Because I've kept track of prices for 15-plus years, I can tell you that most unit prices at Costco are just not that impressive. Also, the package sizing is a problem for most families. If you buy a five-gallon bucket of pickles, eat a few, and throw the rest away, you might as well just walk to your trash can and toss in some cash. Waste is never a bargain.

What advice do you have for teaching children smart financial habits? When have you been most proud of your kids when it comes to how they managed money?

We give our children an allowance when they start school, and we "pay their grade." This means that in kindergarten, they receive 50 cents a week, $1 a week in 1st grade, $2 a week in second grade, and so forth. We do this because we believe that it's very important to teach children how to manage money at an early age. At age 16, they'll be expected to work part time to earn their spending money, as my husband and I both did.

The truth is, most people learn absolutely nothing about money management until adulthood, and unfortunately, their money lessons are often learned in the school of hard knocks. People learn very quickly about the dangers of racking up unmanageable debt at high interest rates when they have to file bankruptcy, but I believe that my job as a parent is to give my children the tools they need to avoid that kind of painful situation. No one else is going to do this for me, and I don't want to wait until my children are adults to try to teach them good money habits. In adulthood, their money problems could be very complex, costly and tied to great emotional upheaval. However, when children are young, their sponge-like brains are eager to learn, so this is the best time to teach them about good financial management.

I also try very hard to teach my children that people matter more than things, and possessions will not bring them lasting happiness. I want them to think carefully before they spend. Instead of wasting their money on worthless trinkets, I encourage them to save it for something that will add real value to their lives. I was very proud when my then-10-year-old daughter saved enough of her own money - $179 - to buy a Kindle so she could borrow eBooks from the library. At $5 a week in allowance, it took her nearly 40 weeks to save that much money, and I was so proud of her discipline and dedication.

Follow Heather on Facebook.