Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Evening Contemplations... Looking at My House Through Other Eyes

Yesterday I mowed my lawn at 8:30 at night. The days are getting shorter here in the Midwest and though just a month ago there would have been plenty of natural daylight to finish the job, last night it was pretty darn dark out by the time I finished. I hadn't mowed in quite awhile, and the lawn was looking pretty shaggy. I knew that it was supposed to rain, and since I can't mow when it is wet, I figured I better get it taken care of while I could. I'm sure I missed a spot or two, but it was at the point where no matter what I did, it was bound to look better than it did! It turned out to be good timing, a few hours later it started to pour.

While I was outside pushing my mower about, I got to thinking about my house. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in the bills that I forget how wonderful the place really is. Recently one of my coworkers, let's call him Darren, asked me about where I lived. "Hey, don't you live on Fabulous Boulevard*?" he said, "I have a friend who is looking at home for sale on Fabulous Boulevard." I confirmed that yes, that was where I lived and yes, it really is fabulous. Darren then asked how to get to Fabulous Boulevard, as he wanted to see the house his friend was looking at. I gave him directions and then said, "And hey, if you want to see where I live, it is the big blue one with the dark blue trim." (I have worked with Darren for years, and had even went with him to look at a house back when he was shopping for one for himself.)

So, Darren grabbed his roommate and they went off to see the house their friend was looking at. Apparently, as they were driving around, they also checked out my house - several times. According Darren's roommate (who happens to work with my sister, which is why I know this part of the story**) they drove by my house a couple of times - going around the block and coming back to admire it. (Rereading this I realize it makes Darren sound a bit creepy - trust me, he isn't. He is just like me, someone who loves old houses.)

This story made me step back and look at my house in a new light, figuratively speaking. In actuality I was stepping forward pushing my mower in the gloom, but you know what I mean...

It was one of those moments when you suddenly step out of yourself and see things from a completely different view. I've always loved these big grand Victorian dame houses - and here I am, living in one. True, it isn't exactly under the conditions I would have wished, but how often does life go perfectly according to plan?

I occasionally get stuck on how big the house is, how old it is and how much work it can be, but then there are moments like last night when I realize that other than the paint and occasional landlording problems, the house really isn't that much work. Once the house is painted, I don't have any huge problems that must be done. I have some that should be taken care of in time, but nothing all that pressing. Yes, it is big, but I never feel 'lost' in the house. I don't feel like I am rattling around in it. The size works for me. And yes, it is really old, but then again, that is part of its charm.

So, I go back and forth in my mind about whether I want to sell it or not. There are days I want nothing more, and other times, like last night, when I start to question if that is really what I want. The truth is, the point is moot. I am not going to put it back on the market until the economy picks up a bit anyway. Until that happens and I see homes in my area selling, I'll just keep going at it as I am. Still, it is nice to have moments like last night when I can look through someone else's eyes and see how lucky I really am.

* No, Fabulous Boulevard is not really the name of the street where I live. It is a red herring to protect me from financial blog stalkers.

** What can I say? It is a small world. When you consider I am only 4 degrees of separation from Chuck Norris, three from Dan Ackroyd and two from the late Pavarotti (and no, I am not famous nor do I know anyone who is - it's just chance,) the fact that my coworker's roommate works with my sister just isn't that big of a coincidence.

Photo by: tsuntsun3
via flickr

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Weekend Shopping

This weekend I was feeling a bit decadent! I ended up spending the majority of the weekend at home, taking care of all those little nagging home projects that we all have. I weeded the garden, started pruning back some trees (got rained out though), did laundry and cleaned the house. I also tackled some improvement projects that have been bugging me - re-gluing a mirror that had come out of its frame, fixing my drain spout and spot cleaning my dining room rug.

In addition to all this time at home, I ended up running a few errands about town and I spent more than I am used to. It was a strange feeling - I've rather gotten out of the habit of shopping! I don't usually go that often anymore, and when I do go, I tend to make one quick stop and that's it. This weekend was a little like the old days and how I used to shop, with a few little exceptions....

The first thing was, I had serious coupons. In fact, not once, but twice, did I have employees of different stores say to me, "Wow, this is like what we get as our employee discount." I've got to say, that felt pretty good! The second thing was how many of purchases were preventative maintenance. Not all, but most of the items I bought were to try to prevent future damage. Here's some examples:

Nightlight and timer - I bought both of these items for safety and security. The nightlight is for my cabin. I always keep a low wattage dusk-dawn nightlight on up there so that the house looks a little occupied, even when I am not there. I saw the last time I was up there that the one I had had burned out. The nightlight (with LED bulb) was about $7. Well worth the peace of mind! There were cheaper ones, but I liked the LED light for low electrical usage and I liked that it was a yellow/white light rather than blue. The blue ones are fine, but I think the yellowish light looks more "homey", if you know what I mean.

The timer was for at home. My big old Victorian house looks mighty dark at night, even when I am home (as I tend to be in the back part of the house.) The other night when I drove home from a friends', I noticed how dark and abandoned the place looked from the street, and I decided it would be a smart idea to get a programmable lamp timer for a light that was close to the front of the house. That way, whether I am home or not, the place looks occupied. I decided on a programmable timer would let me do different settings for weekday and weekend modes. It was $14.00. For both of these items I had a 10% off coupon.

Duster - Although this isn't strictly preventative, it is part of maintaining a house. My house has 10' and 12' ceilings, plus all sorts of old fashioned nooks and crannies. I bought an inexpensive microfiber duster with an extend-able pole so I could get up there and clean out the cobwebs. Lowes had them on sale for 20% off. I will say this, I've always felt that tidy house = a tidy mind, so cleaning out that dust and those cobwebs (some of which I am sure have been there since I moved in) felt great!

Plumber's snake - My tenant is having shower drain problems again. I was up there this winter and cleaned it out, but then last week she let me know it was clogging again. Both times that I have gone up to clean it out, I borrowed my co-worker's snake. I know he'd lend it to me again, but for $10, I decided it was just easier to buy my own, especially since I got an email from her today saying that even though it is a lot better, it still isn't completely draining. Guess who will be heading up there with her elbow length rubber gloves again this week?

Dental Items and Hair Care - I had a 20% off coupon for Rite Aid (one of the places I got the employee discount comments.) which was only good for this weekend. I bought some mouthwash that prevents cavities and some Head and Shoulders shampoo. I was really happy with the sample I got of their new line and I've been wanting to pick some up. My plan is to alternate shampoos each time I was my hair, that way I can stretch my high end stuff out a little longer and my hair doesn't get fatigued with using the same thing over and over.

Books - Not at all preventative. However, I had a great coupon (this was the second of my employee discount comments) for 30% off two paperbacks. I had one in mind for a gift and I splurged on the other for myself. I haven't bought a new book for myself in I don't know how long... probably over a year. (This is coming from a woman who used to drop $150 every couple of months on books. Not anymore, though!) So, I let myself splurge, and I have to say it was worth every penny of the $7.00, especially since I am a re-reader and know I will read what I bought again and again.

Rug - This was my one "big" purchase this weekend. The rug is 30" x 40" and was $25.00. Why did I buy it? Well, when I was vacuuming and cleaning my bedroom, I noticed that the carpet near my vanity was getting lightly spotted with makeup. It wasn't too bad, but I do have light gray carpet. Since I plan on selling my house in a few years, and don't plan on replacing the carpet, I bought a pretty dark red rug for under my vanity. It looks great, is washable and will help protect my carpet!

Watch batteries - Okay, also not preventative, but it is money making opportunity. I have some watches that are really great, but needed new batteries. Now that they have batteries in them, I can turn around and sell them on eBay.

Drain Spout - As mentioned, my downspout needed repair. It was horribly mangled recently when a friend of mine ran it over with a very large truck. Accidental, of course, but one of those things that definitely needed fixing. Without this section, the water would come down off my gutters and pool up near the foundation - not good! I replaced the portion that moves the water out and away from the house. It only cost $8, but does a lot towards keeping the basement dry.

When I got home I was kind of surprised by the number of shopping bags I had.* I don't remember having that many for a long time. The best part was that I didn't have one drop of buyer's remorse. I felt good about everything I bought, and it all had a purpose - even my book splurge!

* I brought my own reusable bags, I hate plastic bags.

Photo by: the G
via flickr

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Car Repairs and Budgets

I mentioned a little while ago that I was in the process of completing a few routine car maintenance items in order to keep my car on the road longer. My car is five years old and I am determined to drive it until it falls apart! I paid it off this June and I am absolutely loving not having a car payment and I want to make that feeling last as long as I can. Shortly after I wrote that post, a coworker of mine noticed that one of my brake light bulbs had burned out out, so I added that to my list of auto repairs. I also took a peek at my car's manual for other standard services I should have done. I missed my 30,000 mile routine service by 10,000 miles, so now I am going through the manual and picking them off one at a time as I have the funds.

Currently, I am in search of a local mechanic I can trust. I've read some reviews on some local shops and heard some good things about a place down the street, but I haven't been won over yet, so for the past few years, I've been taking mainly it to the dealership for oil changes. I know that everyone says that dealerships overcharge, but I have to say, I really like my dealership. The service people are all friendly and helpful and in 5 years they have never tried to get me to buy something I didn't need. Awhile back I had a horrible experience with one of those little quickie oil change places - not only were they incredibly pushy, but the oil change cost about twice what it does at my dealership! At that time I swore, "Never again! From now on it is either the dealership or a reputable mechanic for me.

So, off to the dealership I went - I had the bulb replaced, the oil changed and the air filter replaced. While these are all things I could have (and have in the past) done myself, I know that if it was up to me, the job would never get done...

My dad was a car guy and he taught me how to change oil and change air filters. It isn't hard, just a little dirty. Changing bulbs is even easier, but let's face it, I'm busy, and if those things had to wait until I had the time and more importantly, the motivation to do them - they wouldn't get done. I'm all about being frugal, but this not a job I was excited about doing myself, so I didn't.

The cost for the oil change was $27, the tail light was $4.83 and the air filter was $29.85. All total, with tax and everything else, it came to $64.41. Now here's the great news - I had the money all set aside in my budget. When I redid my budget back in June I started a car maintenance fund. I have a Honda and it has been incredibly reliable so far, but as I said, it is 5 years old, and this is the time things start to break. Currently I am putting $50 a month into the account, so I had plenty to pay for these repairs. In the future, once things have settled down a little, I plan on upping that amount considerably. I plan on it being not only my repair fund, but also my "next car" fund. As I said, I am really liking this no car payment thing. It would be great if I could pay for my next car in cash!

I am really pleased with my car maintenance budget. Last year I had $25 in my budget each month for repairs, but I didn't actually take the money out of my regular checking account. This meant that some months that extra just ended up in general funds, but when I did need the money, I never had enough. Now, I take that $50 out of general checking and it goes into a small savings account. That way, it is actually there when I need it! When I got back to the office, I just did a quick transfer between accounts and poof! everything is taken care of. Man, is that a nice feeling.

Photo by: His Noodly Appendage
via flickr

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Conversations on the Benefits of Having a Budget

So the other night I was sitting with a friend of mine, we'll call her Maxine (since that is what she calls herself) and we were discussing budgets. Maxine has a seasonal job. She works very hard fall through spring, but in the summer her work is so slow that she usually is laid off. I should note this is an actual lay off - unlike what is happening now where "lay off" essentially means "fired" - she is rehired again once work picks up.

Maxine was telling me that for the first time, she used a budget to plan out her erratic year, and she was really happy with how it came out. "I love my budget," I sighed dreamily. Maxine looked at me, puzzled. She had discovered how good a budget can be, but hadn't yet found the love. "Why?" she asked. "Tell me why you love your budget."

So I did...

Prior to having a budget, I equate my financial situation with walking through the woods - blindfolded. I knew that there were rivers and bears and trees and grassy meadows out there, but I didn't know where they were. People say that ignorance is bliss, but not in my case. Sure, I could pretend to be happy because I didn't see any danger ahead, but inside I always felt lost and scared - never knowing when something terrible was right in front of me. Even the good times were filled with fear - was the sun shining on my face because I had made it to a big sunny clearing, or was I standing on the edge of a cliff?

Over the last year I've been perfecting my budgeting strategies. Simply figuring out what bills I had to pay and how much money I needed each month was like taking that blindfold off. Sure, there was still danger, but at least now I knew where it was. Suddenly, I could see the little roots across the trail that used to trip me up. I could easily avoid them. Do you know that in the last year, when I have had to come up with nine hundred dollars each month and seriously feared foreclosure, I have never had one late bill? That I have never had to use my overdraft protection? And in fact, I have had far more money in my account than I ever had before? The biggest step was just taking off that blindfold.

Then I have tweaked that budget, tried new budgeting challenges and even created an extra budget based on time, which was like creating a map. The blindfold is off, I can see what is ahead of me, and now I even have a map so I can plan ahead. Sure, nothing is perfect, surprises could still pop up, but the big obstacles I can avoid or find my way across. It is so much easier to find the sunny meadows now.

Don't get me wrong, I still wish I had more money.. who doesn't? I have big goals and am working hard to make them happen, but I while I still have my own internal drive, I don't have nearly as much fear. Getting your financial house in order isn't about being super organized or being great with numbers. It isn't about sacrifices, suffering or scrimping. It is about putting everything on automatic so you don't have to worry anymore. It's making it so you can just glance around and see where you are in the woods, rather than having to feel your way every inch. People sometimes say to me about how much work it must take to do what I do, and I just keep trying to tell them, yes it is a little work - but all it does is make life so much easier.

Photo by: kwefeldein
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Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Few More Tips and Tricks on Menu and Meal Planning

So, you have your grocery list in hand, menu sketched out, now what?

Psychsarah made a comment in my last post about how she makes her grocery list with items sorted by aisle. She says:

I find this doesn't take extra time to make my list this way, and it saves me tons of time at the store, because I don't go down aisles I don't need anything from, and I don't have to double back because I get everything I need in that aisle all at once.

Her comment was very timely because I was going to recommend doing the same thing! My ex and I used to have a word doc that we would print off with different grocery categories: Produce, Dairy, Canned Veg., Meat, and so on. Now, because I prefer to jot my list on the back of a junk mail envelope (with my coupons tucked inside, naturally.) I just roughly group items together by where they are in the store. Produce goes on top, then I leave a little space and jot in meat items, then a bit more space and put in dairy, etc. It isn't perfect, sometimes I end up writing something in sort of crammed in on the side because I didn't leave enough space, but for the most part it works - and, as Psychsarah said, it saves going up and down the aisles.

So, you are about to go to the store, what now? I make sure I have my calculator, a pen, my list and coupons. I also try to make sure to grab the recyclables (in Michigan you can return soda bottles and cans for $.10 a piece. Since you can do it at the grocery store, I consider my bottle return money a grocery coupon.) Finally I get my reusable cloth bags. Now, here's the thing. I find I have to put my recyclables and reusable bags in the front seat. If I don't, I forget - guaranteed. I won't remember until I am deep in the freezer aisle and getting ready to head towards the check out, so my goal is to always make sure I have those things where I will remember them. Some grocery stores will give you a small credit if you bring your own bags, but that isn't why I do it. I do it because I hate what plastic bags do to the environment.

But it is my calculator that is my true shopping friend...

Math is just not one of my strong suits, and remembering strings of random numbers, even less. On the back of my envelope, I jot down the price of each item as it goes into the cart. When I have 5 or 6 items, I pull my cart over to a quiet spot and add them up. This way I can keep a running total of my purchases and not end up going over. This is really important when using a cash system for grocery shopping. If you don't know how much is in there, what happens if you get to the checkout and find you are over? Do you have the guts to ask the sales clerk to put something back? I don't - I get embarrassed easily! I would much rather know I can afford everything in my cart before it is rung up.

My calculator is also my friend when it comes to figuring out item unit prices. My store usually has it on the shelf label, but not always, and especially with sale items. Buying the larger package isn't always the better deal. As I said, I get embarrassed easily and at first I was a bit self conscious about walking through the aisles with calculator in hand, but I quickly got over it. In this day and age, everyone has their own ways of saving a few dollars and this is one of mine.

So, you've got your groceries, you've gone through the checkout, loaded all your purchases in your reusable bags - now, don't forget to check your receipt! At some places I can see everything as it rings up, but some times it is hard to do. If the number is drastically different than what I have calculated, I try to find out why. I admit, how hard I work at this depends on the amount and whether I have ice cream melting, but people are fail-able as are the computers they program - more than once I have found errors on my receipt.

One more tip that has saved me money - when I get home, I try to never put produce in the "crisper" drawer anymore. Most of my produce now goes on the second shelf - right in front of my face when I open the refrigerator. For me, that simple change really helps prevent spoilage. In fact, I noticed this morning that a cucumber I bought at the market is looking a touch wilted. Tonight I am going to make refrigerator pickles so it doesn't go to waste. Having the produce where I can see it reminds me to make the dishes that have perishables in them first, and save the dishes that call for frozen and/or canned items for later.

Hmmmm... writing this article has just made me very hungry!

Photo by another meal planner: Kurt Wagner
via flickr

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Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Who, What, Where, When and Why of Menu Planning


You! Menu planning is all about making it easier for you. I'm writing about how I menu plan and grocery shop, but really this is all about you. Take whatever you can use from this and discard the rest. For example, I readily admit that I have never had kids or had to cook for a larger family. The closest I have ever come was making a menu for a dinner party, so there may be considerations when it comes to making food for multiple people day in and day out that I won't even think about. Just like there isn't one set perfect budget for every single person, there isn't one set way to make a menu. Do what works for you and your family.


Here's what you will need to make a menu - 1 pen or pencil and 2 sheets of paper, scrap is fine.
Optionally you may also want a cookbook or two and/or access to a computer. You may also want your coupons and/or store fliers.

One sheet of paper is going to contain your menu. Personally, I really recommend writing your menu down. If you want, do it day by day. My ex and I used to do this. Having your menu by day has some advantages, specifically in that you can see in a glance what the week looks like. You can also stack the menu so that the dishes containing perishable produce are first and the ones using frozen or canned items are last. Our menus would look something like this:

Monday Dinner
Turkey Kabobs, Oven Fries (Weight Watchers, pg. 85)

Tuesday Lunch
l/o kabobs and fries

Tuesday Dinner
Out, dinner with friends
Note: thaw chicken for Wednesday!

Wednesday Lunch
Ham and Cheese wrap sandwich, apple, yogurt

Wednesday Dinner
BBQ Chicken (Grilling C/B, pg. 105)
Grilled onions, corn on the cob, boiled potatoes

...and so on. It works well, especially at pointing out times you need to plan a spare lunch or extra food for company. We also made notes about thawing food and marinating food for the following day. However, menus like this can feel constraining. It comes back to that old inner rebel not wanting to make what is on the sheet. That is why I don't make my menu that way much anymore. Now I tend to make lists of things I can make and then just cook them up whenever I want. In some ways it requires more thought, because I have to plan the night ahead if I need to thaw food out, but it still works better for me. My menu now looks more like:

Shrimp Curry (Penzy's Catalog)
Rice with Onions (Indian pg. 161)

Tuna Salad stuffed tomatoes

Grilled chicken
Lebanese potato salad (Lebanese, pg 86)
Green beans

...and so on. This gives me a little more flexibility and I can even swap out things. If I don't want the green beans one night, I can look down the menu and maybe have broccoli instead - that kind of thing. It is up to you what will work best but, however you decide to make your menu, write it down. After all, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry... especially when they are forgotten.

The other sheet of paper is for your shopping list. Here's what I do - as I jot down a dish to make, I also jot down all the ingredients I need on my shopping list. For me, this is the big advantage to making my menu ahead of time. I can create my shopping list right then, while the recipe book is open. I can also make sure I have whatever I need - a quick look in the kitchen to see if I have enough chickpeas for the hummus recipe, for example. Personally, I like to make my grocery list on the back of an old junk mail envelope. Then I can tuck my coupons inside and I am ready to go. Because I am now on a cash system for groceries, I use the other side of the envelope to add up the price of what is in my cart.


Recipes can come from different sources. You can get them from books, online, in magazines, from friends and family, even make them up on the spot. Let me give you a couple of tips when it comes to using cookbooks...

When you are first starting out, use just one or two cookbooks for your entire menu. When I started making menus, I cooked almost entirely from The 15 Minute Single Gourmet, sadly out of print now, but what I loved about this book was that recipes were 15 minutes from fridge to table. On top of that they were all healthy and designed to make a single serving. Ironically I usually doubled the recipe so I had leftovers for lunch the next day! Now my cookbook of choice is Mark Bittman's The Best Recipes in the World. My theory is that an abundance of choices sometimes makes it impossible to choose. Limit yourself and make it easier by flipping through just one book.

Personally, I enjoy occasionally flipping through my cookbooks over my morning coffee. I mark recipes that look good with little markers I have made by cutting sticky notes into strips. (I also have some reusable Post-It arrows that work well too.) I don't do this often, maybe once a month, if that, but I mark anything that looks good. Then when I make my menus, I can just flick to the page and know there will be something that looks tasty.


When you make your menu is up to you. My ex and I used to do it over Sunday morning breakfast. We'd pack a tote with a few cookbooks and go out to eat. Pouring over cookbooks while eating breakfast, waiters always thought we owned a restaurant! Now I like to make mine Thursday or Friday night so I can make my list to take with me to the Farmer's Market. Kari from How I Became a Fiscal Fussbudget says she makes hers at the store after seeing the manager's special on meat. When you make it is up to you - I like to do it when I can get on the computer afterward and search for coupons, but I see the advantage of waiting until you see the store deals. It is up to you.


I pretty much discussed this in depth yesterday. Why is because it will save you time and energy. The goal of a menu isn't to be a straightjacket - it's to be a map. It is to help you stress less and enjoy your evenings more! I am all about that.

Photo by: Urban Combing
via flickr

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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Why Menu Planning is Worth the Hassle

Continuing with my series on menu and meal planning:

So, why do a menu at all? Isn't it a lot of time and effort?

Because making menus saves you time and money, plus it is good for your health and your stress levels. Here's how:


When you have a list of meals you can make right at your fingertips, it saves a ton of time staring into the refrigerator with the door open. Instead, with a menu, right when you walk in the door you already know what's in there and what you can make.

Many people think cooking takes longer than eating out, but if you think about it, the average pizza delivery is 30 minutes, but there are tons of cookbooks out there with meals that take 30 minutes or less. I even have several cookbooks all dedicated to 15 minute or less meals! If you know what you are going to make and know you have all the ingredients, you can make a meal in less time than a restaurant can serve it.

No more emergency grocery store runs. Ever realize in the middle of cooking a meal that you don't have an ingredient you thought you had? Making a menu (and a shopping list from that menu) prevents this.

Less time spent shopping - when you know what you need, you can get it and get out. Having a plan means you have to spend less time going up and down every single aisle in the grocery store, and more time at other things you would rather be doing.

While making a menu does take a little extra time, you save far more than you spend. It isn't about being super organized, it's about making your life easier.


You know what one of my biggest pet peeves is? Throwing away produce that has gone bad. Ugh I hate that! I used to do it to myself a lot, and it is just like taking your money and throwing it into the compost pile. With a menu I am more likely to use up what I buy while it is still fresh.

Personally, I am not a big fan of stocking up. I know people who are, and I see why they do it, but in my case, money is scarce enough that I want it in my bank account rather being tied up into 50 cans of sale priced tuna. With a menu I buy just what I need, when I need it. On the other hand, when I do occasionally stock up, having a menu helps me use my sale items. Say chicken is on sale and I buy a family pack. I'll put chicken on the menu several times so I use it up, rather than forgetting about it until it looks like an ice age hit it.

Menu planning also curbs my impulse grocery shopping. When you have a detailed list in hand you can hit the grocery store, get exactly what you need, and get out. Oh sure, occasionally something I didn't plan on still ends up in my basket, but very rarely - and certainly a lot less than when I used to roam up and down the aisles looking for whatever "looked good."

If you have a plan, you can search for sales and/or coupons. After I have made my grocery list, I always hit the computer and look for coupons for those items and then look through store fliers for sales. Sure, you can go to the store and just buy whatever is on sale, but what about the other ingredients? For example, say you see ground Italian sausage is on sale and you have a coupon for some pasta - lasagna starts to sound good. Now what about the ricotta cheese, the tomato sauce, the spices? Do you know if you have them at home? Will you try to find a coupon or just buy them at full price? If you planned it ahead of time, you would have known what you had in the cupboard beforehand and had a chance to look for sales.

Cooking from scratch is almost always cheaper than restaurant food or processed food. Think about it... let's take an $.89 burrito. Yes, it will cost me more than $.89 to buy all the ingredients to make a burrito, however, I can make a lot more than one burrito with what I buy. My favorite tortillas are $1.25... for 30. Add together the cost of the food then divide by the number of meals you can make, and you will almost always do better by cooking at home. Personally, my budget is $125 a month. If I didn't buy cleaning supplies, pharmacy items, bags, wraps etc. also out of that budget, (which I do) my meals cost would roughly be about $1.40 per meal. When you throw in all the other stuff that I buy with grocery money that isn't actually food, I bet I am a lot closer to that $.89 number, and I eat well, really well. Tonight on the menu? Grilled bruschetta chicken, sweet corn on the cob and fennel salad. For desert? Haagen Daas ice cream. (chocolate) Take that $.89 burrito!

And that isn't all...


As I wrote in yesterday's post, I believe it is easier to plan a menu around what you already eat than to try and change your diet all at once. That doesn't mean that you can't start slipping in a few healthy meals here and there. Even just planning out your healthy snacks rather than hitting the work vending machine makes a difference. As I mentioned yesterday, on my most recent menu I tried to hit some seafood dishes because I was feeling like I wasn't eating enough fish.

The closer food is to its original state, the healthier it is. Doing a little bit of pre-planning means you can start eliminating overly processed foods that are high in sodium and fat and low in nutrition.

When we don't eat well, our bodies don't feel well. For example, if I eat too much greasy food, my face will begin to feel oily. If I don't drink enough water, I can get major headaches. Too much rich food leaves me feeling bloated. I do love to eat out and I do love me some horribly unhealthy food, but I have learned that, like everything else, it needs to be done in moderation. By making sure I eat well most of the week, I can allow myself to indulge a little now and again, without feeling bad. (Like my Haagen Daas. heh!)


Let's face it, there are very few hours in a day once you subtract time spent commuting, working, running errands and sleeping. Having a menu takes a little stress out of your day by giving you your time back. You can walk in the door, glance at your menu and put together a lovely meal to be enjoyed in the comfort of your own home. I don't know about you, but I don't find grocery shopping relaxing. I enjoy it, but I would much rather do a few, very productive trips, then do what my coworker does and go nearly every day.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but having a menu actually allows you to be spontaneous. Let's say three of my friends called me up and said they wanted to have dinner tonight. I could easily invite them to my house - I know I have chicken marinating, I have two left over salads in the fridge, and have fresh summer corn ready to go. I could plan a meal in minutes, just based on what I already have on the menu. But what happens if they would rather go out instead? No problem! I can just shift my menu items to another night.

Any time spent worrying is adding to your stress level. The reason to have a budget, ultimately, is to get your financial situation in order so you never have to worry about it. Making a menu works the same way, the goal is take away the worrying and the over thinking, and put things on automatic so you can just relax.

Photo by: seq
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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Fighting Foreclosure's Frugal Menu Planning

Angelica of Learning to Manage My Finances wrote a comment on yesterday's post that I wanted to respond to. She says:

It´s interesting you´ve written about grocery shopping when I was about to ask you to write something on the subject. Could you write some more on food planning and menus? I tried menu planning but it turned out to be a total failure: I plan what I should eat, buy everything, and then always want something else :) Maybe I should base on not what is needed and useful, but what I usually tend to eat. After scrupulous writing down all my expenses I discovered I live mostly on fried rice! I was really, really surprised that I eat rice that a lot. Sometimes I cook something else, but I have to kinda force myself. Maybe this month I should use my habits as the guide and buy more rice and some things to cook risotto, paella and the like (a chance to learn to cook them, too) :)

So, could you please dwell some more on your eating habits and menu making? If that´s not a secret you don´t want to tell :)
Angelica, I will be happy to, thanks so much for asking! In addition, you might want to check this post that I wrote awhile ago about how I choose what to cook. As I started to write today's post, I realized that this is a question that I want to explore in depth, so I am going to turn this into a series. Over the next few days I will write about my years of menu planning, shopping and cooking and the lessons I have learned from it. Today I am just going to hit some general ideas about planning a menu and talk about a few pitfalls I have encountered.

Menu Planning:

Awhile ago I read something that said that all the unread books on our bookshelves are there because we want to be the kind of people who read those books... but aren't. We want to be someone who has read Last of the Mochians, Naked Lunch or The Heart of Darkness, but what we really go back to, time and time again, is our dogeared copy of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple stories. I think we frequently get too ambitious with our menus too. We want to be the kind of person that bakes their own bread and makes pasta by hand, or we think it would be a great idea for our health to eat salads all week, but the reality is, by the time we get home from work the last thing we want to do is bake bread, and after the second salad of the week, we are speed dialing the local pizza place.

My first piece of advice on menu planning is to be honest with yourself and make menus that actually reflect how you eat. Know your schedule and how long you will have to cook each night. I like to have a variety of things on my menu - some slow cook dishes for the weekends, some 30 minute or less meals for weekdays and some items I can throw together in just a few minutes for those nights I have no time at all or am just plumb exhausted by the time I get home. For example, on my current menu I had a shrimp curry (cook time 1 hr. 15 min) for the weekend. It worked great because while it was cooking I was doing laundry and cleaning the kitchen. Last night I had salmon with ginger glaze and crunchy fennel salad (cook time under 30 min.). It worked because I got home at my usual time and had time to cook, but tonight, when I will be working the part time job until 10:00 p.m. I need something fast and easy, so I'm planning on tuna salad stuffed tomatoes (cook time 10 min. or less).

I am all for trying to improve your diet or be more frugal through your menu, but my strong suggestion is not to overdo it. Start changes like that in moderation. For example, I realized that I have not been getting a lot of fish in my diet, so I made an effort to have a couple fish based meals, but I made sure to pick things I know I like and counter it with other non-fish meals. (The rest of the week I have chicken and vegetarian dishes on the menu.) I have tried making menus based entirely on "what I thought I should eat" rather than "what I actually eat" and it was a recipe for failure. Slip one or two new dishes in, if you want, but also plan on old favorites. Creating a menu of food you won't eat is like making a budget you won't stick to - in the end it's just a waste of time and energy. I have done it, many times. Now I know that when it comes to making my menu, I need to be honest with myself.

Here's another tip: Punishing yourself is no way to eat...

It is easy to sit on high and tell yourself you will eat what's on the menu when your belly is full, but that changes dramatically when you're hungry. For example, I don't care for cooked carrots, but awhile back
I was given a large bag of frozen carrots. It came with other foods I did want so I didn't feel right about turning them down. Last month I found a recipe for a spiced carrot soup that sounded pretty good, and I really do want to get those carrots out of the freezer, so I put the recipe on the menu... however, it never sounded like something I wanted to eat - so I didn't make it. I moved it over to this month's menu, but if I don't make it, I'm going to scrap the recipe and maybe make the apple carrot muffin recipe I found instead. Know what you are really going to eat. Buying ingredients for food that doesn't get eaten is just a waste of money.

One other quick point about menu preparation - a menu is a guide, not a lawbook. Some people work really well with a weekly regimen like Monday meatloaf, Tuesday pasta, Wednesday chicken, etc. I don't. I don't know what I am going to be in the mood for and I hate being locked into having to have something - my inner rebel comes out. Instead, I prefer to make a much looser menu and then just pick off it what sounds good. Sure, by the end of the week the choices are a lot more limited, but as long as I have made sure there are things on it I like, that usually isn't a problem. I do always have a back-up though. Sometimes I don't feel like a meal, so I plan for that. I might make sure there are ingredients for grilled cheese or toast with peanut butter in the house. I might know that I have pasta, fresh basil and tomatoes at hand. I like those "third tier" options as backup plans - they are my defense against getting frustrated and eating out.

To summarize:

- Create a menu that has dishes on it that fit your busy schedule
- Make sure it has food on it you actually like and will eat
- It is okay to set goals with your menu, but do them in moderation or it will backfire
- Don't punish or try force yourself to eat something you don't want to eat by putting it on the menu. You either will regret it later or just never do it at all.
- Making a menu day by day is great for some people, but if you need flexibility then be sure and give yourself other options. Don't turn your menu into a straight jacket!

Over the next couple of days I will right about how and where I get my recipes, how I grocery shop and other meal planning techniques. Thanks again to Angelica for asking such a great question that has me inspired!

Photo by: cloth.paper.string
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Monday, August 3, 2009

August Grocery Shopping - Experiments in Saving Money

So as I mentioned in my last post, I am determined to have a better plan heading into August than I did in July - starting with my grocery shopping. Friday night I worked at my part time job then came home and kicked back with my shopping lists, coupons and recipe books to create a menu for snacks and meals for the next couple of weeks. I ended up with a list for the farmer's market, the grocery store and a couple of spices needed from Penzy's. Saturday morning, I hit the farmer's market early. The place was hopping and up to the rafters in beautiful produce. I was thrilled to see that the first ears of corn are hitting the market, which meant I could pick them up and cross the bagged frozen corn off my grocery store shopping list! I love shopping at the market, but I hate the crowds, so I try to make sure that I am well out of there by 9:00 a.m.. Other purchases there included: tomatoes, green peppers, potatoes, cucumbers, parsley and raspberries. Yum!

After the market it was back home for coffee and breakfast (including some of my fresh picked raspberries.) Over coffee I hopped on the computer to see if there were any additional coupons I could get for my shopping list and also peeked at the sale flyers. There were some pretty good deals out there this week! Then it was time to grab my bottle returns, shopping lists, coupons and my calculator and head out the door. The first stop was to Penzy's. I try to buy all my spices there or at other small spice shops. Ounce per ounce, it is frequently less expensive than the megamart, and the quality is much, much higher - not to mention fresher. It is also frugal in another way - I have found that certain Penzy spices (namely cinnamon and cayenne) are so intense that it makes sense to use a little less (up to a third less) in recipes.

After Penzy's it was off to the grocery store, but first I decided to make a little detour and try something new...

Along my route from the spice store to my usual grocery store was a Save-A-Lot. I have never shopped there before, but had heard they were a bit like Aldi... of course, I had never shopped at Aldi before either. But I thought, "Why not?" I had my grocery list in hand and figured I could swing in and see what it was all about - and maybe find a few things for less. Here's what I ended up getting:

- One can of black eyed peas $.59
- Two cans kidney beans, $.59 each
- Two cans of black beans $.69 each
- 3 pound bag of frozen, skinless, boneless chicken breasts $4.99
- One box of aluminum foil, 25' $.79
- Ground turkey $2.69
- One bag of green lentils $.79
- 3 pound bag of yellow onions $1.99
- One red onion $.99 a pound, my onion was $.56
- Plain string-less tea bags $.99

Total - $16.00

These were all things I was planning on getting at my local grocery and none were on sale there, so price-wise, I did quite well. Now the question is quality. I've already cooked with the onions and the lentils and they were great, but it isn't as though there is much in the way of processing there. It will be interesting to see what I think of the meat, tea and canned beans. I will be sure and let you know.

Shopping at Save-A-Lot was interesting. Not all prices were low, milk for example, is cheaper at my megamart. I also noticed they were missing some things that seemed like obvious foods for them to carry - like butter and plain yogurt. On the other hand, they had a lot of Hispanic based foods, including a big endcap devoted to everything you need to make tamales. (This store is located near some Hispanic communities.) In the meat section I noticed a lot of unusual cuts - smoked neck bones and fresh pigs feet, for example. I wondered if they had them because they were relatively cheap pieces of meat, or if they were, like the tamales, a cultural preference of their shoppers. In a way this is an advantage to me - I happened to love tamarind flavored products and can usually only find them in my Middle Eastern market. They had quite a selection at the Save-A-Lot and while I stuck with my shopping list this time, I might give something a try next time.

I will certainly say this in favor of the store - it was clean, well lit, and the people working there were very friendly and helpful. Since I am not a fan of crowds, I also really appreciated the wide aisles and the fact that was pretty quiet compared to most grocery stores. Their selection wasn't a large as a regular grocery, but if I end up being satisfied with the quality, I will certainly go back there again.

What about you? Are you an Aldi or Save A Lot shopper? What do you think?

Photo by: Alicia Griffin

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