Money Basics Part 6: When you have to spend

Obviously, there are times when you HAVE TO spend money, like on food, and like, shelter. UGH. Well you may have to spend something, but you can spend smart!

1) The basic advice is don’t go grocery shopping hungry. You will buy WAY more than you intended. On the occasions I’ve done this on accident, I still stick to my list, and buy myself something I can eat immediately when I get home, like a frozen dinner, or just something I don’t have to cook. Knowing that is waiting for me gives me the willpower to stick to my list for the rest of the shopping trip.

2) Have a list to begin with: Keeping a running list during the week is extremely helpful. I have a notepad on the fridge so when we run out of something, like olive oil, it goes right on the list. I also review the mailings from our store of what will be on sale each week, and add sale items to the list. This also makes it easier to plan recipes for the week. Pot roast is on sale? I’m buying a pot roast, and we’ll have a side of broccoli and squash, which are also on sale. Also keep your eyes open for sales, coupons, and clearance items in the store, but do the math to make sure they’re actually a bargain before you stock up.

3) Buy store brands: NPR published a great article awhile back about buying generics. The bottom line is the store brand on most items is just as good as the national brand, and will be considerably cheaper. If you buy “Macaroni and Cheese Dinner” instead of “Kraft Macaroni and Cheese” what is the worst that could happen? The box turns out to be filled with old newspaper and rat poison instead of noodles? No, you just might not like it as much. What’s likely to happen? You’ll save $1 and find a new brand you love just as much. It doesn’t hurt to try it at least once. There may be specific items that you determine you NEED the national brand of, and that’s fine, if you’re making that choice in an educated way.

4) Compare unit costs: Some stores have the “cost per count” or “cost per unit” on the shelf label, which I absolutely love. It makes comparison shopping so much easier! But if your store doesn’t, you probably have a calculator in your cell phone, so just do the math yourself. Does this sound tedious? You don’t have to do the math on every item every time you go to the store. Once you know you prefer “Macaroni and Cheese Dinner”, and you did the math to make sure it was cheaper per ounce the first time, you can just grab it and toss it into your cart. Prices generally don’t change that much. Unless you have a coupon or there’s a sale, you can probably just analyze a few items per shopping trip, especially if you’re in the process of transitioning away from national brands toward store brands.

Note: Don’t assume that the biggest item will be the cheapest per unit. Most people assume this, but if you do the math the 64 oz. juice will often cost more per ounce than the 32 oz. size. Do your math!

5) Compare around the store: I noticed the other day that my grocery store has oatmeal in several locations: with the cereal, where you’d expect it, in the bulk bins (which cost more per ounce than in the cereal aisle), and in the FREEZER. I think that’s absolutely nuts. I mean, McDonald’s sells oatmeal now also, so apparently we’re living in a topsy-turvy ridiculous reality, but that was still odd to me. Of course the freezer oatmeal was the most expensive option out of the three, but this is a good example. Keep in mind that broccoli might be on sale in the produce section, but still significantly cheaper in the freezer section.

6) Make substitutions: You want juice, but do you really care what kind? Maybe orange juice is cheaper than apple, which is cheaper than grape. Your recipe calls for red onions, but white onions are $0.50 cheaper per pound. Does the color really matter? Do you need Coco Puffs, or will Coco Crispies substitute, since they’re on sale this week? (And hopefully you’re buying the store brand in the BAG, if you’re eating cereal). Can you use half lentils, or even all lentils instead of ground hamburger in your recipe? Be fluid with your list, and keep your eyes open around the store.

7) Cook from scratch: Most foods are cheaper when made from scratch. You could buy pre-made salads for $4-5 per day, or make your own for around $1 each. Mac and cheese might be the only exception I’ve found to this rule, but that liquid cheese (as much as I love it) is not really the same as actual cheese.

8) Use up EVERYTHING: Last week I bought some apples, and they are not crispy and delicious like I expected, so I’m going to make an apple crisp. Did you buy more squash or tomatoes than your family can eat? Time to make and freeze some glut sauce. Bananas turn brown? Peel them and put them in the freezer for smoothies or banana bread later. Did you make waaaayy too much soup, and you and/or your family are already tired of it? Put a bunch in the freezer to save for a day when you don’t feel like cooking. If you have too much of something, google a recipe for that item and make sure it gets eaten. Leaving more time between shopping trips also makes you more likely to eat everything, since there won’t be new food in front of last week’s. And don’t forget to add scraps to your freezer container for some Almost Free Soup. It also helps to buy things you’ll actually use in the first place. If mineral water is on sale for $0.05 per bottle, but you hate the stuff, it’s still a waste of money.

9) Try new, cheap foods: I have never been much of a fan of eggplant, but Hubby loves it, as does Sara of the Long Red Hair. Its low cost also got me to start buying and making some eggplant dishes. Lentils and other dried beans are extremely cheap, and easy to work with once you start. Try a new, cheap recipe every couple of weeks to build your repertoire.

10) Plan ahead: Bring your lunch to work for a start, but also have snacks when you’re likely to need them. On road trips, pack sandwiches instead of stopping for fast food. If you have a habit, like getting chips from a vending machine, buy chips at the store, and bring them with you in a baggy instead. If you’re going to a festival or concert, check their policies ahead of time, and pack a cooler with snacks and beverages, if you can.

For money-saving Black belts:

1) Compare stores: I don’t mean drive all over town to save 10 cents on your “Macaroni and Cheese Dinner”, I mean different stores will have different items that are cheaper. You can compare different stores, or even different locations of the same store. A Randall’s on the rich side of town can have higher prices than one in a lower-income area. Make sure you’re not burning up all your savings in your gas tank, though.If you live in a bigger city you can look for tiny, hole-in-the-wall Indian and Asian grocery stores that will sell rice, spices, and seaweed super cheap, or a Hispanic grocery store for cheap produce. There might even be a discount grocery store that sells items like dented or unlabeled cans on the cheap. Don’t forget clubs like Costco and Sam’s Club. Make sure to do the math and include the membership costs to make sure this will ACTUALLY save money. You can also consider splitting purchases with a friend for items that are too large.

2) Make a price book: This is one I need to work on. You can make yourself a notebook, or spreadsheet, or phone app (whatever these kids are using today) to keep track of how much certain items generally cost you per unit, so you know when something goes on “sale” whether or not it’s actually a good deal. So if your shampoo is usually $0.15 per ounce, and you find it at Costco for $0.12 per ounce, you know it’s a bargain. This can help you compare different stores as well as sale prices. Many stores will have a “sale” where your shampoo is now $0.149999 per ounce. It’s technically cheaper, but probably not worth stocking up on.

Saving money on groceries and household goods is one of costs that we have the most control over. Your car can only get x gas mileage, and your home can only be so energy efficient. I’m not pretending that you’ll get $200 worth of groceries for $4, like those crazy coupon shows (which I don’t think you should really believe), but every dollar you save on Mac and Cheese can go towards a goal, and help you get where you want to be in life.

December 29, 2013. Tags: , , , , . Thriftiness is Cool. 1 comment.

Merry Christmas!

From That Clever Family, I hope you have a wonderful Christmas, or holiday of your choice. (I’ll try not to get all Grinchy).

Merry Holidays!

December 25, 2013. Tags: . Random typing. Leave a comment.

Money Basics: The Holidays

When Hubby and I were at the grocery store back in November, the Christmas music had already started. I am so sick of it already that I feel like we could skip Christmas for a year, and I would be perfectly fine with that. And let’s all keep in mind what occurs during Black Friday each year.

The holidays are well known for over-spending, but you don’t have to fall into that trap! Hubby and I go against the flow every year and make one flat donation to a charity, rather than buying things for anyone. That keeps our costs predictable and contained each year.

The only thing I buy this time of year is a ham. They go on sale for ridiculously cheap prices, and I cut one up and put the chunks in the freezer to use year-round. You can do the same with other traditional foods, like turkey and brisket.

Rather than go on another Grinch-like anti-Christmas rant, I will say this: keep your long-term goals in mind when you’re shopping. Don’t get swept up the buying and bargain frenzy. Even things bought with the best intentions can give you a panic attack when the credit card statement arrives. Good luck, and happy holidays!

December 21, 2013. Tags: , , . Thriftiness is Cool. Leave a comment.

Money Basics Part 5: Reduce Bills

We’ve already discussed how to avoid spending, so now it’s time to reduce spending overall. I’m going to tell you right now, this post is not about “Extreme Couponing”. I honestly believe that type of spending is impossible for most of the country. Where I live there are no double coupon days, and you can’t even have 2 coupons for one item. Plus, who wants to live on Chef Boyardee? I mean, beyond the age of 5. Like most life-style changes, reducing your spending can be easier if you gradually prune your budget. If you don’t have the luxury of time, in the case of sudden unemployment, for example, you’ll need to cut down quickly. Either way, this is the process I follow:

Start by looking at your biggest expenses first. Since you’ve already done your budget, and have set your personal goals, you know which expenses you plan to reduce. Saving $0.50 at the grocery store is great, but if you’re paying $300 a month on cable, you should aim for that big bill first. If the enormity of the task is making you procrastinate, set a goal of lowering one bill per week (or a timeline that works for you, depending on your circumstances, but don’t be a slack-ass). One week, focus on your car insurance, the next work on your cable bill and/or phone plan. If it’s a big one, like refinancing your mortgage, that can take a long time, most of which nothing happens, so work on other things during your waiting time.

Paying off debts can have a huge impact on your budget, because even when it’s just sitting there, it’s costing you money in interest expense. Identify all of your debts and their interest rates. In general, you want to pay off the one with the highest interest rate first, since that’s costing you the most. An alternative strategy is to pay off the lowest balance first, so you have fewer debts overall, which can be a huge motivation. Either way, once you have one debt paid off, use the funds that were going toward it on your other debts, NOT ON FUN STUFF. And once a debt is paid off, don’t charge it back up! That’s how you got into these dire straights!

Reducing your utilities by making your home or apartment for energy and water efficient are well documented ways to reduce ongoing bills, so just do it. Try to hit the biggest costs first, like heating and AC, rather than worrying about the wattage of your fridge light. There are a million websites with advice on utilities, and when I find a really good one, I’ll link to it. Until then, use google and common sense.

Also beware of buying something to “save money”. If you spend $50 on a watt-o-meter that will save you only pennies a year, you wasted money. Same goes for replacing cars or appliances. Sit down and analyze how much something will cost you versus how much it will save. If you spend $20,000 on  a new car that will save you $200 per year on gas, it will take 100 years for that new car to pay for itself in savings (yes, this is an over-simplified example, but this is how you need to be doing your math).

Also keep in mind, just because you’ve been paying for something, do you have to continue? Do you actually watch your cable, or could you live without it? Are you paying for services, like dry cleaning, car washing, or other things you could be doing yourself? Do you actually need to water your lawn? If you do “need” dry cleaning, are you getting the best deal? Could you get a discount, use a closer location to reduce drive time, or wear your dry clean clothes less?

The bottom line for saving money: think about what you’re doing. Don’t let spending be automatic. Think about what you are spending and why, and be honest with yourself about your motives. Are you spending that way from habit and laziness, or because it will honestly get you closer to your goals?

December 17, 2013. Tags: , , , . Thriftiness is Cool. 1 comment.

Herb Biscuits

I wanted some biscuits the other day, but had no eggs or milk in the house. I googled “No milk, no eggs biscuits” and found this recipe from cooks.com. Since they use actual measurements in their recipes, unlike my half-assed “I think I used about a cup” type recipes, you should probably check them out. I mixed in some olive oil, dried basil, and garlic salt as a variation. The comments on the cooks.com site also mentioned using cheese and jalapeños as a topper and mix-in, which I might try next time. 

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Here’s my pinterest-quality before shot:

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They don’t really puff up, but I liked them. They are great with soup or a little butter inside. The recipe was really easy, and lots of variations are possible.

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Also, today is my due date, so this post is dedicated to the little bun in my oven! I’m pre-writing a bunch of posts, so I’m really hoping I had him by now. This has been a long, uncomfortable process that better be worth it in the end. (It probably will be, otherwise people would quit breeding after one kid). At least I’ll be able to drink again soon!

December 13, 2013. Tags: , , , , , . Cooking. 1 comment.

White Bean Enchiladas

Hubby and I both love cheese enchiladas, but the mountains of cheese they are stuffed with isn’t really that healthy or cheap. I decided to try something new. I made white beans the way I normally make my refried beans, and use that as the base for my filling. White beans are really high in potassium, which is another reason I wanted to use them. I chopped half an onion and 2-3 jalapeños and sautéed them in a little olive oil for a few minutes. I added about 4 cups of refried white beans to the pan, and about 1 cup of shredded cheese. I heated it all on low until the cheese melted into the beans, and added garlic salt to taste. The white beans are so bland, they just pick up the flavor of what you mix in. You could make the same filling with a higher proportion of veggies to beans if you’d like.

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To make this into enchiladas, get your 13×9 baking pan, and spray it with cooking spray. Open your can of enchilada sauce, and pour a small amount in the bottom of the pan. Pour about half into a broad-mouthed bowl, like so:

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Dip your tortillas into the sauce in the bowl and coat both sides. You can use either flour or corn tortillas. I think the flour ones stick together better, but that’s just my preference.

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Put some stuffing in your tortillas, then roll them up so the seam is on the bottom.

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Hubby likes his extra spicy, so I chopped up more raw jalapeños to stuff into his. I then marked them so I wouldn’t accidentally eat his and wish for death.

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You can make this as a sort of casserole instead if you don’t want to roll all the tortillas. Just line the bottom of the pan with them, spread your filling, add another layer of tortillas dipped in sauce, then either add another layer of filling, or throw cheese on top. I topped mine with 1-2 cups shredded cheese, either cheddar or Colby jack, whatever you prefer, and this pan made 8 REALLY fat enchiladas. I like the filling, what can I say? If you have leftover sauce you can pour it over the top, or just save it to throw into a pot of soup or something later.

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Bake this bad boy at 350 for at least 30 minutes, or until it gets all bubbly and melty and you can barely restrain yourself from shoving your face directly into the pan.

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Let’s all keep in mind I am not a tiny hispanic grandma, so these are not going to be authentic enchiladas. Although I am from Texas, so they’re pretty close. Enjoy!

December 9, 2013. Tags: , , , , , . Cooking. 1 comment.

The Phantastic Wedding

Crafting Party!

Crafting Party!

The fun/burden of being crafty is getting together to do crafts with all your crafty friends. When the craftiest of them all, Kathy Phantastic, is getting married it is all hands (with scissors in them) on deck. Our job was mainly to create mountains of fringe:

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Kathy Phantastic knows that proper crafting requires fuel and bribes. They were provided in the form of Topo Chico and pizza.

Crafting Fuel

Crafting Fuel

All that fringe was totally worth the final product: personalized pinata letters!

Personalized Pinatas

Personalized Pinatas

The wedding itself was amazing, with an entire troupe of chinese dragons performing! I don’t think anyone can top this one.

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Here’s to the amazing, beautiful couple. Congratulations!

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December 5, 2013. Tags: , , , . Arts and Crafts. Leave a comment.

How NOT to Move a Couch

Some of our very dear friends were moving across country recently, and couldn’t take their couch with them. This is a couch I have envied for YEARS, so I of course generously offered to give it a home. The couch seems normal at first glance, but it’s as deep as a twin sized bed, so I can sit on it cross-legged to do all my crafts, and it gives us another space for someone to stay over. It’s also gloriously comfortable. Our plan was to have the new couch live in Hubby’s Man Cave so it could easily double as a guest room. I want to clarify that all this happened when I was barely pregnant and still allowed to move lots of stuff. I was not doing this recently!

These two pictures show the living room after we completely cleared out the Man Cave in order to get the couch in:

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Yes, that is a ton of stuff for a tiny room. The tininess of the room is why we had to pull EVERYTHING out before the couch could go in. Here is the couch, after we took the legs off and attempted to get it to its new home. Also notice disgruntled dog, who was annoyed because I wouldn’t let him get a couch dropped on him. Some people are never happy.

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There are several things to consider when moving a couch:

1) Is it too big to fit through the doorway of the room you want it in?
2) Is it too long to make the turn in the hallway leading to the room?
3) Is it so long that if you try to move it on its end, it will rub all the texture off the ceiling, and attempt to remove a light fixture?

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Here is the results of not taking geometry into account. That white stuff is ceiling texture chunks, and it got EVERYWHERE. We first tried to just get the couch down the hallway, but there was no way it was making the turn, so we backed it all the way out, and stood it on its end. It is 8 feet long, exactly the height of our ceilings. I did not take into consideration that a) this is not the height of any of ours DOORWAYS, and b) if it’s pressed against the ceiling, there is no way to tilt it down to the floor; there just isn’t space.

We ended up moving this new couch into the living room and replacing the right half of our sectional with it. They are almost the same color, so most people don’t even notice unless we point it out. Yes, that means there is a sofa arm in our sectional, but it actually makes this comfy, adorable little nook to sit in our store my current craft project in. Plus the arm is padded, so it’s very comfortable. It’s not a typical living room arrangement, but it fits in with my Bohemian sensibilities. We’ve been using it for months now, and I still love it. The other half of the sectional went into the man cave, and Hubby as happy to have some real seating in there finally, so it was a win win, except for the ceiling.

So what did I learn?
1) Measure every possible angle of the furniture you’re moving
2) Measure every possible angle of the area you will have to move it through
3) You should probably just hire a 3D digital artist to build a model and do a test run for you to see if it’s even possible
4) Don’t feel like you have to stick to conventional furnishings or arrangements.

Your home should reflect your personality, not the artificial set up from a catalog. Would you use your living room more if it had your Hot Wheels ramp or pottery wheel in the middle of it? Then set it up there. There are no rules, do what makes you happy and you will enjoy your home way more.

December 1, 2013. Tags: , , , , , . House Stuff. Leave a comment.