Friday, May 28, 2010

5 cheap things that are better than the expensive alternatives

You get what you pay for is a familiar refrain. I think in many cases it's true - often, spending money on quality means you'll get more wear, more use, better health, etc.

But sometimes the cheap stuff really is better. Even much better. Here are 5 cheap things that are better than good.

1. Petroleum Jelly as lip softener and eye makeup remover
I am one of those people who rarely goes out without mascara. It's not that I prefer to wear makeup, it's just that if I skip it, people have a tendancy to ask if I'm feeling okay. A combination of glasses and short, stubby eyelashes, you see. I have used expensive eye makeup removers - Revlon, Mary Kay, others. Best? Good old Vaseline. A small tub of generic lasts forever, and was $0.99 at the grocery store vs. the approximate $8-$13 for eye makeup remover. Plus I'm 37 and have almost no wrinkles showing around my eyes, due to a strict nightly regimen of vaseline and eye cream. Coincidence? Don't think so.

Plus it's great on the lips, although I keep a separate tub of it for that.

2. Mascara
I've tried the $20 tubes. I've tried pretty much every brand on the market, in a series of desperate attempts to improve the length and look of the aforementioned nonexistant eyelashes. Best? Cover Girl Lash Blast Length in the yellow tube. I think I paid $8.99 on sale, which is more than you could spend if you went ultra-cheap, but I think this stuff is the best value for the money.

3. Cooking Wine
Lot's of celebrity chefs will use expensive wine in their food. With a few exeptions (shrimp scampi may be one) this is a waste of good money and good wine. I know - I've used good wine, and I've used $2.99 a bottle cooking wine in all sorts of recipes, and unless the wine is a finishing ingredient, do yourself a favor and keep the good stuff in your glass, dump the cheap stuff in the pan.

4. Homemade soil amendments
Rose bushes love your old coffee grounds. Ground up egg shells - let them dry on the counter a while - amend the soil and keep slugs away. Mash up some hot pepper in water, put in a spray bottle to get rid of beetles and other garden pests (I haven't tried this one, but others swear by it). Compost literally turns your food waste into soil. All cheaper, and all work better than stuff you can buy in the store. Plus it's the heart of reduce, reuse, recycle.

5. Summer Picnics
Are about as romantic and fun as any expensive outing you can have. There is nothing better than sitting on a beach, in a park, or in your own yard on a blanket sharing food with people you love. I'll take that over a filet mignon in an expensive steak house any day.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Every now and again....

People ask me to augment my blog with things like pictures, recommendations for other blogs, that sort of thing.

I have the best of intentions about it, I do. I think 'damn, that's a great idea'. Then I realize that my daughter has dumped her entire tray of food on the floor just as work calls with an emergency and I tip over a glass of water onto my work files on the table/the floor/myself/all of the above. And then the fleeting memory..fleets somewhere else.

But I really do think these things are good ideas, and I've managed to retain them for at least long enough to log on to the blog. See? I'm trying. So here's a picture of me and my family. Not the best one I've seen, but hey, it was 6:40 am and already 80 degrees on Tuesday morning, so it was about as good as it was going to get.

So okay, now you can't complain for a while that I never post pictures. Okay, actually you can, I'm kinda lame about it.

"But what about those other blogs and sites, MoneyPenny, sweetie? C'mon. You must occasionally do something other than wipe up scrambled egg off the floor"

Okay, I do. Occasionally I wipe up potstickers, green beans, pasta and other things Kiera has hurled into the wall.

I also do read other sites. So here's a couple. I'm too lazy to make the titles links, so just deal, mmkay?

I really like The Pioneer Woman. She's funny, and I keep meaning to try her doughnut recipe, but must lose those 15 baby pounds first.

If you are interested in peak oil, and like a good scare, try Matt Savarin needs a different color background on his site, but then again, you all tolerated that awful orange banner from me for 2 years, so who am I to complain?

The bagel recipe over at Foodie Two Shoes is really really good. Plus I want her to come over and redesign my site. Pretty please?

I recently made the strawberry-rhubarb scones over at Sweet Life Laur's blog. Yum.

I'll have more for you later, but today it's doughnuts, scones, peak oil and bagels. Can you tell what my priorities are?

Happy Thursday, everyone!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Preparing for a layoff, t-minus 2 days

Tomorrow afternoon, my husband will leave paid employment for a while. We didn't choose this, but in some ways, it's turning into a wonderful opportunity. I think we're both a little surprised at how....good it feels.

Why? Because for a long time, time has been our biggest shortfall. And now we'll have enough. And that in and of itself worth a lot.

I've said it before, we're lucky. We can go a long time without risk. We're also making changes that may make this change sustainable for a longer time - even if we don't make it sustainable, reaching a point where only 1 salary is required for us to live on is a good thing, then another salary becomes savings. We have no idea whether this situation will last 3 weeks or 3 years.

Because it's unclear, we actually did some spending in preparation, which may seem like an odd way to prepare. We had a few things that we had to take care of - my husband needed interview clothes, his computer monitor needs to be returned to his workplace, so we got an inexpensive new one as the computer is essential for job searches, and we stocked our pantry and freezer over the last few months.

Then there were a few things that had been in the budget for a while - finishing some home projects, finally getting an inexpensive gas grill, and a few other things. Budget assessment said these purchases were still viable, so we're going ahead. We're also looking at a mortgage refinance, something that we're probably overdue to investigate. Right now our income vs. outgo delta (not including unemployment - with that factored in, we actually come out ahead) is somewhere between $1000 and $1400 a month, depending on what we include. If we can knock that down a couple hundred dollars a month with a refinance, that's probably a good deal.

The goal is to get the delta down to zero. To do that, we need to pay off my car before unemployment runs out in late 2011 (if we get to that point), reduce some monthly overhead, continue to focus on savings, and plan, plan, plan. But in running the numbers, it should work.

So now all there is left to do is more job hunting and enjoying the time he'll have.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Erase Poverty, 1 Roasted Chicken at a Time

So I have this theory. I think that a good chunk of hunger could be erased by learning to use our food better. Let's take chicken - a good old 4-5 lb roaster.

This yummy sustainably raised chicken costs about $8, although in the interest of food disclosure, it, along with 7 others, are an annual gift from my sister the farmer.
But still, if we were going to pay her, it would be about $8.

The other day I made chicken and roasted vegetables. The leftovers became a lunch for my husband and I, and part of my daughter's dinner yesterday.

Today, since I worked from home, I made chicken broth. I threw the whole chicken, including the leftover meat, and some herbs, a little vinegar and water in a pot and stewed it for a couple hours.

Once the broth cooled, I strained it, and picked the chicken of meat after I ate lunch (doing stuff like this is one of the perks of working at home). 2 quarts of broth and most of the meat went into one container, to be the basis of chicken soup some night, along with some leftover for lunches. Another quart went into the freezer to be used in recipes in the future. I held out a cup or so in a container in the fridge - I use a lot of chicken broth.

The remaining meat went into a small pile and will be turned into chicken salad for lunches tomorrow. Except the bit that will go to my daughter's dinner tomorrow.

So that 1 chicken, worth about $8, is making all or part of 14 different servings of meals. 14. Fourteen.

Sure, other things need to be added. But my point is this - most people would chuck a chicken carcass in the trash after a day or two. It might make 6-8 servings. We about double that. And I bet Julia Child, God rest her amazing soul, and others would laugh at me for what I didn't use.

Utilizing the most of your food is rewarding. Sure, it's not my favorite thing to pick meat off a chicken carcass - it can even be yucky at times. But boiling it first cuts down - way down, let me just say - on the ick factor. And the rewards are many.

It's an honorable thing to use most or all of the food you have. I don't mean overeat, but really, a chicken's life ended so my family could eat it. Having a few bites and tossing it in the trash is a really poor memorial, don't you think?

It's also good. It tastes good when you use whole, sustainably raised ingredients. Really, unless you try it, it's hard to describe, but it really is better food.

And then there's the cost savings. $8 up front, and here's what I think I got from it:
The original 3 servings for dinner (probably $8 at Boston Market)
A comparable container of chicken salad costs about $3.99 at the local deli. Mayo, vinegar and some celery I needed to use up anyway are the only ancillary costs to this one.

Broth costs about $2.99 a quart for the organic stuff

And a 2-quart container of chicken soup at the deli would be about 10 bucks. All I need to do is add some celery, carrots, and about 10 cents worth of rice and I have a great meal.

All told, that's about $25.00 worth of food for $12.oo. So by using up what I have, really using it, I've saved myself 50% of the food cost of those 14 servings. Oh yeah, with about 30 minutes of hands-on effort, so don't tell me it's too hard or takes too much time.

Food stamps for a family of 4 are about $220 a month, on the national average. In a given month, that family of 4 eats 120 meals plus snacks. If just 28 of those servings were from multi-use things like my roaster chicken, meaning 2 roast chickens a month, that would be $40 for almost 25% of the meals. Leaving $180 for everything else. Totally doable.

What we lack is know-how and will. Getting past the 'ooh it's icky' to 'ooh, it's yummy' is actually not that hard - really all it takes is a few meals eaten that way.

I don't seriously think that a few chickens are going to solve all food issues. But a few chickens and some hands-on education...who knows. Knowledge is a powerful thing.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

An Ode To My Oven

I love this time of year. Adore it really, as this is planting season, and I love to plant. Just today I planted chives, calendula, a geranium of a rather spectacular pink color, bok choy, hubbard squash, a type of french melon whose name escapes me at the moment, tomatoes, a husk cherry plant, some peppers and some broccoli.

But as the weather starts to warm up and stay warm, I always have a few regrets. One of them is that I soon won't be using my oven very much. And I love my oven. Sure, grilling is great, but ovens are just lovely inventions. Today, for example, a chicken is roasting along with some vegetables in a soy balsamic sauce. This is sort of wintery-sounding food, and so for the rest of the warm season, this type of dinner will give way to things like gazpacho, a variety of grilled items, and salads. I love all that stuff, I do. And I don't mean to complain, it's just that I really like homemade comfort food.

Comfort food is just that - comfortable. Pop a few things in the oven, go do something else, come back and eat when it's done and your whole house smells delicious. It doesn't have to be fattening, nor does it require a cream-of-something soup. It can even be somewhat fancy to the tastebuds or the eyes or whatever.

I really actually like chopping up a bunch of root veggies, or plopping some ricotta in with some ziti. There's something homey and warm about it. And there's nothing better than walking into a house that smells of something - anything, really - baking in the oven.

On a hot summer day there's nothing like a homemade chicken ceasar or chopped salad. Or a buffalo mozzerella, prosciutto and basil sandwich with a drizzle of balsamic reduction. To die for, can't wait.

But if we just have a few more not-quite-warm, not-quite-cold days, I won't be sad. I'll just cover up the garden plants and come back inside to dive into some pot roast. Yum.

Root Vegetables with Soy Balsamic Glaze
(this is a kitchen sink recipe, great for using up all the remaining veggies in the house, so look through the fridge)

A few potatoes and sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped large
An onion or two, about the same way
A few carrots, peel those and chop them too
Leeks if you have them (wash the dickens out of them, they collect dirt and sand in the layers)
Turnips are good too
And so on

Fill up a baking dish with the veggies, set aside

In a small pan on the stove, pour in:
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup soy sauce (tamari is lower in sodium, and tastes excellent, if you prefer)
1/3 cup sugar
Stir over low heat until the sugar is melted.

Pour over the veggies. Cover with tinfoil and bake at 375 for an hour
Uncover after 1st hour and continue to bake, stirring occasionally until veggies are soft, about 2.5 hours.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Facing a Layoff - T-minus 20 days

My husband has been cleaning out his desk. He's worked in the same place (although not the same desk) for almost 14 years, including an internship, so it's pretty bittersweet. While he's ready for it to be over, it's a tough change.

Emotionally, we're up and down. Thankfully I'm up when he is down and vice versa. While we know logically things will work themselves out, the range of emotions is pretty broad for us. There's worry, anticipation, sadness, and many more.

I know job losses often create tension in marriages - and for good reason. Losing an income is tough, feeling unwanted and unneeded is probably just as tough, if not more so. But the wonderful surprise about this layoff is that it has brought us closer than ever. We were always a pretty good team, but these days I really feel like we're truly in it together.

It's not all rainbows and flowers, not by a long stretch. But at this point, we're hanging in.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Diary of a Working Mom

So here I am, almost 15 months into motherhood, and I still haven't won the lottery.

It's not that I don't occasionally try, although to be honest, I really don't. Even if I bought a ticket, I'd probably forget to check the numbers. Because I forget basically everything that isn't essential to my or my offspring's survival these days.

It's not that I particularly want to be rich, but I do, as a working mom, often daydream about time. I have this idea in my head that if I just had more time, then everything would be so much smoother in our life.

I'm not sure where this time might come from if I was home all day, because I haven't noticed that I have all that much free time chasing my 14.5 month old around the house when I am home. But I have this epic delusion that if I had just a bit more time at home, financed by a lottery win (more on that later, no I'm not serious), I would catch up on things.

But since I haven't become wealthy yet, downshifted yet, or figured out how to make my toddler stay still for more than 2 nanoseconds, I guess getting caught up is a pipe dream.

Which leads me to my topic du jour - the unpleasant things about working motherhood that no one likes to talk about because it gives ammunition to the other side of the stay at home vs. working mother debate. Which is actually more like one of those wars where no one wins because eventually both sides have been completely gunned down, sorta like a lactating version of the fight scene in 'Grease'.

But really, there are some downsides of working motherhood, and the absolute lack of time is one of them. Like this weekend.

Saturday mornings I typically go to yoga when I get up. Right now, it's really the only exercise I get. Once I get home and get showered, we start our weekend for real. This past weekend it went something like this:

Once showered and ready to go, Sander and I feed the munchkin, and we headed over to my Mom's, where there was a Chicken Open House in full swing. Once a year they open their yard to all comers to meet the chickens, learn about chickens, etc.

After an hour there, we headed home because the munchkin was in dire need of a nap.
I went grocery shopping, Sander stayed home with her. 2 stores and nearly $250 later, I'd stocked us up.

When I got home, I unloaded the car (munchkin was still asleep on Daddy's lap) and started dinner prep. At this point, on Tuesday, I don't remember what I made, but I've mentioned my lack of memory before. Actually, I don't remember Saturday evening at all, I just remember that I went to bed really tired. So apparently I was busy.

Then Sunday. My husband got out the door 8 to do yardwork. When the munchkin went down for a nap, I did food prep, laundry, cleaning and organizing for about 90 minutes. Then lunch. Then some more food prep and running around, since we had to be somewhere at 3.

Then we went to a family barbeque until about 7. Then home, put munchkin to bed, start on Monday prep. You get the idea by now - let's just say I think I spent the entire weekend at a dead run.

And then it was Monday again.

I do like working, and I do like our life. But working motherhood is tiring, and frequently nonstop, especially with small children. And if admitting that gives ammunition to the stay-at-home warriors, so be it.

Preparing for a Layoff at T-Minus 27 Days: What We're Not Cutting

Okay, so we're cutting some things in our budget. Probably mentioned that.

What I might have passed over is what we aren't. Which, on some level, is just as important.
So here's a few things that are sticking, at least for now.

1. His gym membership and my bikram yoga classes
We both feel better and look better when we sweat regularly. Nuff said.

2. Quality local and organic food
Especially milk and eggs, along with whatever will come from the garden and what we can get inexpensively from local farm stands. On both a health and food security front, this is a big deal. I probably won't buy as much, but we'll still buy.

3. The extra mortgage payment we make every year
I cannot wait to not have a mortgage. I bloody hate debt. And I believe that financial security is best had by not owing anyone anything.

4. The overpayments on the 2nd mortgage and my car
We've been hoping my car is the last one we'll ever finance. Of course, that remains to be seen, since so much is up in the air, but paying it off as quickly as we can is still in the works. As for the 2nd mortgage, we got that instead of PMI, and we're working on getting rid of it.

5. Our June vacation
We'd already paid a big chunk towards it (over $900, or about half), most of which we would have lost by cancelling. We'll scale it back and eat in a lot, but otherwise are going to enjoy ourselves

6. Donations
My husband sponsors a little girl in Peru monthly, we give to church, and we donate to the local food pantry. We'll keep those in the budget - no matter how tight it gets, there are those who have less.

7. Retirement and College Savings
Retirement is still going to come at some point. So is college for our daughter. We'll save as long as we can and as much as we can.

I'm sure there's more, but that's what I can think of right now. All of the above add up to a fair chunk of our budget, so we can always revisit them if and when we need to.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Preparing for Layoff at T-minus 1 month

In 28 days, my husband will lose his current job. Until he goes back to work, this means some changes for us.

We've been amongst the lucky - with 3 months to prepare, outplacement support, and a significant severance, we've been able to make some plans. And as I've mentioned before, we have the money to go a good long long as we're careful.

I've spent the last couple months stocking our pantry. Over the next few months, we'll be shopping as little as possible, mostly for fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs and milk. Our freezer and pantry are quite full.

Through my sister, I've found a source of bulk foods and other items. We're 'checking it out' this month, with an order of 25 lbs of organic white flour. It's not that much cheaper than the grocery store, but it is, a bit. And we go through a lot of flour in our house. If we like it, we'll get other types of flour as well.

I also went halves on a container of our favorite honey wheat pretzels with my sister, and bought a bunch of the hair conditioner I'm addicted to at about 1/2 the price. The savings mean that these things don't have to be given up right away.

We suspended our wine club - one of our favorite indulgences, and the FIOS package bill is next. They've been escalating the costs lately anyway, so we'll definitely get that down.

We'll be carving down daycare to 3 days a week, 2 of them paid for (my Mom does the 3rd day for us). My husband will be home with my daughter for 2 weekdays. We'd cut it completely, but think that would be a huge disruption for both her and for my sister and her family when he does return to work- my sister is her caregiver the remaining 4 weekdays. This cuts our daycare bill in half.

We came home from a weekend visit to my sister's farm with quite a few seedlings, 4 dozen eggs from her chickens, and some goats milk. The goat's milk has been great in our coffee, and trimmed down our milk costs for a couple weeks. The eggs will last us a couple more weeks - we use a lot of eggs in our house, between baking, the fact that they are my daughter's favorite food, and they make great meals. The garden will start going in next weekend, with the hopes of offsetting some of our food costs...and I love to garden, so it's not a hard thing.

Aside from stocking up and cutting back, we're mostly just holding off on all but a few house projects that are currently underway, and trying to minimize costs on things. It's going to be an interesting journey, but I think we're as ready as we're going to get.