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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Cookie Monster Costume

I got this really cute, fuzzy blanket as a baby gift when Spike was born. Each time I would look at it, I would marvel at how closely it resembled Cookie Monster's fur.
When the time came that I required costumes for my two children, I knew that I would turn that blanket of Spike's into a cute Cookie Monster costume. But how?

As someone to whom recycling and frugality is important, I didn't want to make the costume in a way that it would cause the blanket to become ruined and unusable. That put any cutting and gluing out of the picture, as those would both ruin the blanket for further use.
Here is the idea with which I came up that left the blanket whole and made a cute recognizable Cookie Monster for my baby using mainly things I already had in my house.

Equipment needed:
2 ping pong balls
1 soft hat (not necessary, but I used it for ease)
1 needle
1 spool of blue thread
2 sets of snaps
1 black permanent marker
1 fabric belt

Instructions:

Take the hat and place it open side up along the edge of the blanket, somewhere around the middle of the longer side.


Loosely stitch one side of the hat onto the blanket. I would suggest doing this by hand and with thick stitches so that it is easier to undo when you are finished with the costume.




Fold  over the edge of the blanket towards the middle. You want to have a good half a foot or so overlap of material, as this will become the "sleeve" of the outfit.
Sew a snap onto the blanket- one on the corner and one on the main part of the blanket. If you look closely at the picture, you can see the snap sewn on. The other snap is sewn onto the underside of the folded over part of the blanket.

The next three steps have no picture, sorry.
I bought a package of ping pong balls from a discount store. I paid 50 cents for six of them and used 2 of them for my Big Bird costume, which will be posted tomorrow.
Take a black permanent marker and colored black circles onto two ping pong balls. These are for the eyes.
Using your needle and thread, poke a two holes through the side of your ping pong balls. This the hardest step, but with a little effort you'll succeed. I found that leaning the eye of the needle into a hard surface and pushing the ball onto the needle worked best.
 You want the two holes you make to pretty much be level so that your Cookie doesn't end up cross-eyed. Pull the thread through and repeat this same process on the second ping pong ball. Pull the string tightly together and tie it so that you have two ping pong ball eyes attached, looking at you.

Flip your blanket over so that your hat is facing downward. Sew these ping pong ball eyes onto the blanket directly on the reverse side of the blanket from the hat.

You're pretty much done now.

Take your baby and put the hat on his head. You want to center it so that the eyes are above his eyes. Make sure the snaps are closed and put his arms through the "sleeves". 


You'll want to wrap the extra parts of the blanket around the waist/chest and up between the legs to create "pant legs. Secure  the whole thing with a belt tied around the waist.

Here is the finished costume:



Caveat- this costume probably wouldn't be the greatest  for crawlers/walkers, but I could be wrong. It was perfect for my son who only really was going to be in a costume long enough to snap a few pictures. 
Total cost? 25 cents.
Total time? 20 minutes.
Reversible? Easily. Just snip the few strings holding on the eyes and the hat and you've got a blanket ready to be used. The snaps can also be removed, but its completely unnecessary as it does not impair function of the blanket at all.

Tune in for tomorrow for a homemade Big Bird costume. 
Have you ever made a costume from scratch? How much did it cost you? Have you ever seen a piece of something that inspired you to make a costume based on that? If so, what was that something that inspired the costume?

This is part of Creative Jewish Mom's Craft Schooling Sunday.

An Easy Sesame Treat


Ok, I have an admission. This recipe isn't so healthy, because its made with white sugar. I made these  to give away, so the health benefits of it mattered less to me than how they tasted and looked. Anyhow, they had no preservatives, no additives, and they are chock full of calcium, so they're healthier than the store bought version.
These can be made with either whole sesame (pictured above) or regular, white sesame. I prefer to use whole sesame in everything as it has much more nutrition than the white.

Sesame Candy
Take 1 cup sugar and 1 tablespoon oil and 1 tsp salt. Stir in a pot on medium heat until it all melts and becomes a golden color.
Remove from fire.
Add 1 tsp baking soda. Mix well. The melted sugar should start to bubble up a little.
Add 1 cup sesame seeds. 
Mix very quickly as the sugar hardens quite quickly. You want to get a uniform mixture. 
Press the sesame/sugar mixture down onto a bendable pan (disposable aluminum pans and silicon baking dishes are good for this) with a spoon.

Once the sugar/sesame mixture hardens a bit, score it with a knife. Then let it cool completely.

When completely cooled down, break apart the candies along the scored lines.

Enjoy!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Loss Leaders- Get the Better End of the Bargain

Grocery stores have many tricks up their sleeves to making more money.
One technique used worldwide is the technique of "loss leaders".
Stores often sell certain items to the public at less than cost price. In other words, they are selling you an item so cheap that they are actually losing money on that item, they're not even breaking even.

The reason stores are willing to sell you items for less money than it costs them to purchase the stock is for two reasons.

The first one is because of store loyalty. Store X knows that if they become famous for good sales, they'll 'buy' you and you'll end up shopping at that store only because you'll want the bargains they offer. 
The second way that stores use loss leaders, connected to the first reason, is this. Stores know that if they offer a sale on ketchup, for example, you will come to the store to stock up on ketchup. While you're there, you'll also grab some burgers, relish, mustard, buns, some beer, etc... to go with your cheap ketchup. While the ketchup may be selling at 10 cents for a large bottle, a true bargain, you're enabling the store to make a profit off of you, because the profit that they're making on the buns, beer, relish, mustard and burgers more than offset the loss of the horrendously underpriced ketchup.

My local store uses their vegetable sales and meat sales as loss leaders. I'll admit, they do have my loyalty because of their unbeatable veggie prices. Even so, I want to make sure that I'm not getting tricked into spending more money than I can afford.

How do I do that?
Don't become too attached to your favorite store. For a while, I was only shopping at "my store" because they won me over with their vegetable prices. I would do all my shopping there and end up paying quite a bit of money for most fruits, even when they were in season. One day I discovered that my local mom and pop's store charged half the price for fruits than what "my store" charged for those same fruits. Since that day, I've made special trips to the Mom and Pop's just to buy cheaper fruit. I wouldn't let my loyalty to "my store" blind me to overinflated fruit prices.
That brings me to another point. When you are shopping for loss leaders, take advantage of the loss leaders and don't let the store lure you into buying more expensive products. If ketchup is cheap, buy that and stock up. Do not, however, buy overpriced chicken nuggets while you're already in the store. If you need to buy chicken nuggets and cannot make your own, wait till those chicken nuggets are on sale and stock up then. If your store never has sales on chicken nuggets, look around and comparison shop. Can you possibly get chicken nuggets for cheaper at another store? Can you control your impulses and not buy impulse buys when walking into the other store for cheaper chicken nuggets?
If you cannot do either of this, is it possible to just do without?

I have limited funds and don't need to be padding the pockets of the megabucks supermarket corporation. Sometimes, the only way to do that is do just do without. It won't kill you to never buy caramel fudge if you can never get it for very cheap. I never buy cottage cheese (ok, once in a blue moon) because it is so expensive here. The store lured me in because of their loss leaders. I want to make sure that I don't ever get tricked into paying more than I feel comfortable spending.

Do you feel you or the store get the better end of the bargain while shopping? Have you ever walked in for the sale item and realize at the register that you haven't saved anything at all because of all the extras you bought? 

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Avoiding Impulse Buys

There are many pitfalls in grocery shopping of which the average consumer may not be aware.
Impulse buys are how grocery stores try to lure you in to spending more money. Strategically placed items on sale are meant to lure you into doing exactly that. Of course you'd never buy apricot scented exfoliating face wash with coconut milk on a regular shopping trip, but its buy one get one free, so how can you pass up on that savings?

Point to remember- its not saving money if you're buying something extra that you would never get were it not on sale. If you would buy that apricot scented exfoliating face wash with coconut oil when it wasn't on sale, and now you're getting two for the price of one, then it is worth it to take advantage of the sale. If something you buy on a regular basis is on sale, it can pay to stock up on the sale items. However, keep in mind that money spent on “extras” that are on sale are not saving you money, but rather, are causing you to be wasteful.
Because of the temptation of impulse buys, frugal shopping enthusiasts advise menu planning and writing shopping lists and sticking religiously to those lists. I shared here what I do about grocery shopping, list writing, and menu planning.

My suggestion to avoid impulse buys is to calculate how much your grocery shopping should cost you and bring that much money with you in cash. I add on a few extra dollars and am set. This way you know that you have a clearly defined limit to how much you can spend, which is harder to remember when using plastic, and that limit helps you to not waste your grocery money on impulse buys.
I sometimes will put an impulse buy in the bottom of my shopping cart. When the cashier finishes ringing up my groceries, if I spent less than I had planned to spend on grocery shopping, I'll allow myself to ring up one or two impulse buys. But only so long as I stick within my budget.
As you become more savvy and aware of how much money you actually need for your grocery shopping, you can allot less and less money for each trip and free up that cash for more important uses.

My other suggested technique for cutting back on impulse buys is to only do as few grocery shops as possible. The ideal frugal shop is to go shopping only once a month. Or so I've heard. I'm still unsure how people manage that and still have fruits and vegetables at the end of the month. If anyone has suggestions for me how such a thing is doable, I'm all ears. For now, I've only gotten my produce to last 2 weeks between shopping trips, so that is why I do a bi-weekly shopping.
The reason fewer shopping trips are recommended is because each trip generally ends costing more money than was originally planned. Even if “I'm just going in to buy eggs and that's it” you'll more often than not proceed to the checkout with eggs, milk, cereal, disposable pans, apples, etc... You get my drift. The more trips to the store in a week, the more money you end up spending.
People usually are tempted to buy extras while in a store. Those who are not tempted to buy anything other than what they came for are few and far between. I always remember something else that I "need" that I "forgot" to put on my lis and end up getting that while shopping.
For all that I think I need these things, I survive and manage quite nicely even without these things, so buying those items that I "forgot" to add to the list is a money waster. The fact of the matter is, I can do without many things that I convince myself that I need.
One month was an especially hard one for us financially, and I only spent a total of 15 dollars for food for that month. I didn't have much of what I usually keep in stock in my home, our meals were very very simple, and I made do without many of my needs. Such an experiment, which I had entitled my "Dirt Poor Experienent" was no fun at all, I will freely admit. It was a time of great stress, and I wish to never need to repeat such an "experiment". However, living on 15 dollars worth of groceries for an entire month taught me much, like the things I took for granted and assumed were needs were really not necessary for living a happy fulfulling life.
I currently am out of wax paper. I am tempted to go to the store and replenish my stock, but am holding off until my next shopping trip. Until I buy new, I find a replacement for the wax paper and have been using aluminum foil in its stead. I know that once I enter the store to buy that one item, I will leave the store with many more items that I've convinced mysef that I need.
Making infrequent shopping trips, at a maximum of one trip per week, preferably less, is one of the best ways to cut impulse buys and help reduce your grocery bill.

How frequently do you go food shopping? What are your tips and tricks to help avoid impulse buys?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Menu Planning, Shopping Lists, and a Dash of Creativity

I hope that by now, I've drilled into you to buy produce in season. While some say menu planning and buying from lists is the key to running a frugal kitchen, I take issue with doing so as such shopping does not take into consideration fluctuating prices.
I had always been buying whatever was on sale, plus a few basic staples and then throwing them together in culinary feats. I would buy a little bit of this and a little bit of that, because that was on sale, and I just needed to take advantage of the bargain. Then I would get myself into “trouble” when my next shopping day would come and I still had a head of cabbage, a pound of oranges, and some hardy root vegetables from my last round of shopping. I'd be faced with the dilemma whether to buy more food on my “Tuesday sale day” or see if I could hold off with the items in my home until my next shop day would roll around, and inevitably fail when my food would run out before Tuesday, and I'd need to go shopping and would end up buying produce at full price instead of on sale.
Also, sometimes I'd never get around to using some of the food I would buy before it spoiled, because my refrigerator was so packed that I forgot which foods were hidden in the back.

A few months ago I decided that I needed to stop overbuying cheap produce. As rule number 8 (on the sidebar) says, something is only cheap if you actually will use it. I was overspending by overbuying cheap foods. Even at a good price, those 25 cents per pound added up and I ended up wasting money by buying large quantities of foods that would spoil before I could get around to using them.
Here I had a quandary that stumped even me, the great Penny. What to do to not overspend on cheap food, yet not be tied to buying strictly from a shopping list that can't take sale prices into account?

This dilemma was perturbing me for weeks until I finally figured out a workable solution. The answer to the problem took a little creativity, some ingenuity, a bit of time, and some forethought. Creativity comes easily to me, but the forethought is a bit of a challenge to someone ADD brained like myself. You know my bi-weekly menu plans posted on my blog? That's a new thing in my life, uncharted territory for scatterbrained me, but those menu plans were necessary in order to quit overbuying and overspending on cheap food.

The solution to my issue is this- I make a menu plan. Only while I am in the store. I do a perusal of the store, note the sale items, and then sit down and write down a menu plan based on those cheap items. While still in the produce department. This necessitates a bit of mulling over the vegetables, but I'd rather dilly dally around the cukes than than overbuy vegetables that will remain uneaten and end up satiating only the rubbish bin (or compost heap, in my case).

To menu plan while in the store requires either creativity or an arsenal of varied recipes. To see that potatoes, cabbage, carrots, onions, and tomatoes are cheap and to decide upon colcannon for one night, sweet and sour stuffed cabbage for the next, chicken stir fry for another, hash browns and eggs for another, and cabbage tuna noodle casserole for the last meal can be quite daunting for someone unused to menu planning without cookbooks for inspiration, but its a skill worth learning.

When I see a whole bunch of items on sale, how do I know what dishes can be made with these available cheap ingredients?
Well, usually I read other frugal moms' weekly menu plans and get an idea of what these other ladies are cooking for their family. Usually the dishes that these women are making are made with in season produce. No, I'm not living in the US, but I am also living in the Northern Hemisphere, so what is in season in Nashville, Tennessee, home of Frugal Nashville Blogger (made up name), is usually also in season in my locale. Reading frugal menu plans is good inspiration, and usually, they give good ideas of what to make with the foods that will likely be on sale where you live.
If ideas for foods slip from your mind under pressure, consider jotting down these bloggers' menu ideas and the main ingredients in a notebook. While shopping, reference the list and see what can be made with the sale items as ingredients, and then use those dishes in your menu.

If you're a bit more adventurous in the kitchen and don't mind experimenting a bit, you can either keep in mind or write down in a notebook which food combinations are tasty. Then, you write down in your menu plan “eggplant, tomato cheese dish” and then when home, either experiment with a recipe, or use Google to show you a tried and true recipe using this food combination.

Here's a list of which foods combine well. These combinations will give you many choices of dishes and recipes to make:
Starches like potatoes, noodles, rice go well with anything, whether vegetable or protein.
Eggplant goes well with tomatoes, zucchini, greens, cabbage, poultry, beans, cheeses.
Tomatoes go well with peppers, eggplant, zucchini, greens, dairy, beans, poultry
Cabbage goes well with either tomato based, dairy, poultry, stir fry type dishes with carrots, peppers, zucchini
Zucchini goes well with dairy, tomato, beans, poultry
Carrots go well in most soups, stir fries, with other orange veggies like sweet potato, pumpkin, butternut squash
Please add more great food combinations for readers to keep in mind, in the comment section below.

Since I've started menu planning while in the store, I've cut back on my grocery bill even more than I already had been. I don't stick to my menu religiously, but I do reference it when I get overwhelmed and think “What on earth can I possibly make with 5 lbs of beets!?!?”

Do you menu plan? Where do you write your menu- in the store, or at home? Or do you just buy what is on sale, possibly overbuying, and then cooking with what is already in the house?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Cut the Garbage- Eliminating Waste and Getting the Most Out of What You Have

As a family of four, we fill two full sized garbage cans each week. We keep two garbage cans in the kitchen and only need to empty them once per week, during our thorough weekly cleaning. Some families I know need to take out their full bin once a day at least, giving them the opportunity to enact the typical aggravating scenario played out in many marriages in which the husband forgets to take out the garbage, yet again. I don't know the average rate of filling up garbage bags to know if our two garbage bags a week is insanely minimal, but I do I know that it is an ease on our housekeeping burdens to not need to take out the garbage daily.

We have to face it, people go through a ton of garbage. Landfills are filled with people's cast offs, piling higher and higher each year. If you've ever seen the movie Idiocracy or Wall-E, you'd get an idea of people's satirical predictions of the world's garbage problems culminating in epic proportions. Sure, those are just movies and nothing like that has actually happened yet, nor is it likely to get to that extreme any time soon, however, these movies are trying to bring out a point- as a world, we are filling garbage dumps at a much faster rate than our waste can decompose.
I'll admit, when thinking about the issues that trouble me, landfills getting full and other environmental concerns is not uppermost on my mind. Frugality is though. The reason why landfills accumulating junk even became a topic of discussion on my blog is because the second something ends up in the garbage bin, you've cut its life short and ended its potential for giving you benefit. Recycling is both environmentally sound as well as frugal, as you have less need to spend money on things when you maximize the potential of whatever you have by reusing.

I would wager that the reason we go through less garbage than the average family of our size is because we try to be as frugal as we can. To save money, we reuse things as many times as possible before throwing them away, reducing our family's garbage output. We try to use disposable items as infrequently as possible, even when others might deem it odd.

We Use Reusable:
Diapers. I've written many times on my blog about cloth diapering.
Toilet paper. We use family cloth.
Tablecloths.
Dishes and cutlery. We rarely ever use disposable.
Unpaper towels. We use washable cloths instead of paper towels.
Sanitary napkins. There will be a future post on this topic.
Handkercheifs. Ok, this is really a misnomer. I use washed and dried baby wipes for this, but I plan on making hankies for family members in the near future.
Napkins. I only switched to cloth napkins recently and still need to build my supply. Cloth napkins are cheaper, environmentally sound, and even look fancier to boot!
Pans. Ok, I lied. I occasionally do use disposable pans, but this is a rarity. I've used disposable pans to send over meals to ladies in my community who just gave birth, as I would rather them toss the pans than wait months till they're up to returning my few pans to me. I also am a little short on baking pans, so occasionally will use a disposable pan when I'm in need of an extra baking dish. However, I frequently wash and reuse these.
Shopping bags. We bought cloth shopping bags and bring them with us on our bi-weekly shopping trips. We do also use plastic shopping bags inside these big cloth shopping bags (we use the cloth ones because it makes it easier to transport lots of shopping without a car and without needing to pay for a delivery) but we still use the cloth shopping bags, so it was worth a mention.

We Do Use Disposable:
Sandwich bags. We haven't bought good quality bags that would make it worth it to rinse and reuse, so after one use these go straight into the trash.
Aluminum foil. I use cheap quality stuff, so again, not really reusable.
Baking paper. The best imitation here of wax paper.
Cling wrap. I don't use this often though.
Wipes. Err... Trying to get myself out of this habit. I feel less bad about it because I wash these wipes after and use them as handkerchiefs.
Garbage Bags. I'd like to switch over to using our disposable shopping bags as garbage bags. Perhaps after our big roll of garbage bags gets used up.
Sponges. I'm thinking of switching to scrub brushes because these work a lot better than sponges do anyhow.

Ok, so many movie references in one blog post. Anyone ever see the movie Dead Poet's Society? If you have (and even if you haven't), the character played by Robin Williams talks about “sucking the marrow out of life.” Sucking the marrow is an allusion to making sure to get out every last drop of goodness from something, the way that sucking the marrow out of a bone ensures that not a single drop goes to waste. I like to “suck the marrow” out of my things, only throwing them out when I am able to ensure that there is not a single other thing that can be done first with that item.
Here are some ways I like to “suck the marrow” from everything I own.

Reducing Food Garbage:
Use up food before it spoils. Use methods to keep food fresh longer. Once food starts to turn, don't throw it out if it can be made into tasty food.
Use chicken scraps (carcasses, skin, fat, etc...) to make soup.
Once you eat poultry or meat and have bones left over, boil these with some vegetables (or vegetable scraps) to make a broth.
If you have pets, feed your animal whatever food scraps are safe for him.
Make a compost heap. Put any food scraps (non fatty) that you would otherwise throw out (like if you have no animals, or whatever foods are not safe for your animals) in the compost. I plan on writing a detailed post on composting.
Make food from scratch. When you buy ready made, in addition to spending more money (and usually ending up with a less healthy, less tasty product), you end up with lots more garbage from all the packaging.
Save food packaging that can be used for crafts.

Growing up, we had a video about a little girl who received a beautiful dress as a present, and then it got worn out, so she made a vest from the dress, and when that got worn out, she made a button from the vest, and when that got worn out, etc... I think it's a famous story, but I can't remember the name. Either way, in that story, the girl tries to "suck the marrow" out of her dress and get all last vestiges of goodness from her dress before it heads into the garbage. I try to do the same with everything I own. Before throwing something out, I try to see if I'm using up its potential, or if perhaps, I can yet make that cereal box into a cute tree shaped craft.

General Recycling
-Use your cast offs as materials for crafts. Paper towel rolls and toilet paper rolls are great for many projects, as are cereal boxes, milk cartons, drink bottles, and old iced tea containers. Plastic bags can be cut to make plarn, a plastic yarn, good for many crocheted projects.
-In my childhood home, plain white paper and lined paper were rarely used. Our scrap paper was printer paper, printed on one side but blank on the other. While we don't usually print in our home, as printing is quite expensive, and the only papers we usually have floating around our home are double sided bills, we don't reuse paper as much. However, we have a huge box of used packing paper that officially has become the coloring papers, used for scribbles or when I just need to jot something down.
-When cutting materials (like felt, foam, or colored paper) for crafts, take the scraps left and save them for a time when you only need tiny little pieces of material. Why waste a whole piece of foam/paper when you want to make "confetti style" cuts or similar, when you can use the scraps from your last project to do so?
-You can make your own paper from used papers, magazines, and newspapers. Ok, I don't know exactly how frugal, time efficient, and worthwhile it is to do this on a regular basis, but its a great craft idea.
-You can use old, unwanted clothing as material for newer, nicer sewing projects, like homemade stuffed animals.
-When clothes or towels become too ratty for use, they make great cleaning rags.
-Old toothbrushes make good cleaning tools.
-Many cities have recycling programs for bottles, cans, papers, etc. Though this may not be saving you money (unless you live in a city that charges for each non recycling bag of garbage they collect from you), it is a good idea anyhow as it is very environmentally friendly. Unfortunately, our city does not have a recycling program, so that adds to our garbage production.

Ok, this list was pretty extensive. I think I'll stop here.

How much garbage does your family produce each week? Do you recycle? In which ways do you maximize the potential of your possessions? Do you do any of the above? Any other ideas to share?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Because of the Blog- Motivation

Today I was at my friend's house, and while our kids were playing together, I pulled out my sewing scissors and a length of fabric and started cutting.
"What are you doing?" she asked me.
"Preparing a costume for Lee. I need a costume for him for next week. We have a costume party to attend."
"You're nuts. Why not just buy a costume and be done with it?" She was incredulous that I would actually take the time to do something as "tedious" as make a costume from scratch when I could just buy one.

Aside for saving money, as my homemade costumes are much cheaper than any store bought one, there's also this motivation in making Lee's costume from scratch: I want to have something to blog about. What type of frugal blogger would I be if I did the more expensive thing for the sake of convenience? Not to mention, I wouldn't have a "How to make your own costume from scratch" tutorial (coming soon!).

That's one thing I love about this blog. It gives me accountability. I am owning up to you, both my successes and my failures. It gives me motivation to do more, save more, and not just fall into a rut of complacency. I wrote here about my goal to conserve on utilities. Each time I finish a load of wash and see my dryer beckoning me, I tell myself firmly that I already announced my resolution to the world to line dry unless I have no other choice... and walk to my laundry rack and hang my clothes to dry. 
Sure, money is a good motivator, but in my opinion, an even greater motivator is pressure. Whether that pressure is self imposed or others imposed it, by feeling accountable for your actions to others, it makes you more likely to act as opposed to just contemplate. 

I've been trying hard to conserve resources. The accountability is what gave me the push. When I picked up my mail today, I looked at our water bill and saw that it was 1/6th of the cost of our past water bills. This is even after a price hike because we live in a droughty area. I'm very proud of myself for cutting back so much on our water bill. This is even with washing our cloth diapers at home. Now, if only we could get our electricity bill down. Our most recent one arrived and its amount is more than I wished it would have been. (Heating in our home is electric, and the winter necessitated some heating. But even so.)

By having a blog, I have a written record of what I'm doing. A log book of sorts. By penning my thoughts and my progress, I find I get further with my goals than if I just had ideas floating around my head, but nothing concrete.

How do you motivate yourself to be frugal? What keeps you motivated to make the extra work to save? Do you find that sharing your progress with others helps you keep on target?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Tomato Tandoori Seitan, and Miso Seitan Stir fry

What do you get when you have a recipe planned and end up missing some of the basic ingredients needed?
You experiment and come up with two other great recipes.

I had planned on making jerk seitan for today. Only... I am completely out of soy/tamari sauce. The other recipes I wanted to try with seitan all contained brewers' yeast, something I finished up with my popcorn last night. I was a little stuck as my seitan was already prepared, but I had no idea how to season it without either soy sauce or brewers' yeast. Fortunately, with a little help from trusty ol' google, I made 2 delicious dishes using what I already had in my home. (The reason for 2 different dishes was so in case one of them flopped, hopefully the other would be decent.)
I ended up making an Indian style black bean and seitan dish, along with a miso based seitan stir fry.

I shared over here how to make seitan but didn't include any pictures of the process. Because of this, there may have been some confusion (and there were many questions as well). This time I took pictures during the seitan making process, and hopefully the instructions from here will be easier to follow now that there are pics.

I started off with 1 kilogram (2.2 lbs) of white flour. I mixed it with enough water to make a relatively stiff dough. (The exact consistency does not matter. You just need it to be dough as opposed to batter.)



After kneading it, I covered it in water. Again, a pic.



After kneading out the starch underwater, I was left with this beige colored, silly putty textured mass. This is the gluten. From the original 2.2 lbs, I got roughly 2 cups of wheat gluten.



I haven't tried it, but I was told you can use the starch washed off in the seitan making process as food for your sourdough starter, or as a thickener for soups/dishes.

At this point, I divided the gluten into two parts, for use in these two different dishes.

Miso Seitan Stir Fry

The typical way to make seitan is to boil it in a soy sauce based mixture. Being that I was out of soy sauce, I boiled the seitan in a mixture made out miso and worcestershire sauce.
Mix 3 tablespoons brown rice miso and 3 tablespoons worcestershire sauce with roughly 3 cups of water. Bring to a boil in a wide pot.
Wet your hands and then take seitan and break it into walnut sized chunks. Flatten these chunks in your hands so they're pretty thin and wide, and then drop them into the boiling mixture. Let simmer on a low heat, uncovered for about 20 minutes.
When finished, you should have a few spongy, waterlogged cutlets.
(I'm sorry there are no pictures of these last few steps.)
Remove the cutlets from the pot, stack them one on top of the other, and wrap the lot in a cheese cloth. Put something heavy on the cheese cloth, leave for 20 minutes, and let the weight push the liquid out of the seitan.
While you're pressing the seitan cutlets, bring the miso water back to a boil and let it become more concentrated. After 5 minutes on a rapid boil, turn it off and remove it from heat.
Take the seitan out of the cheese cloth and cut them into strips lengthwise, and then again cut them widthwise, depending on how large or small you like your pieces to be.




Take a non stick pan (please, I beg you- non stick only. Otherwise you'll repeat my mistake and loose half of the seitan to the bottom of the non-non stick pan.) and saute an onion.
When the onion is translucent, add the seitan. Stir fry till the seitan becomes golden, and add 3 carrots cut into  matchsticks or a little bigger. When that is nearly cooked, add a diced green pepper and cook for another few minutes.



When all the vegetables are cooked, add some corn starch, a drop of sugar, and a pinch of  salt (to taste) to the miso mixture, and pour it into the stir fry. Cook till it thickens.


Serve over rice.
This came out absolutely delicious- 5 stars- and is definitely a keeper. Lee kept on asking for seconds and thirds.

Tomato Tandoori Style Seitan

I had higher hopes for this recipe. I messed it up a drop and I'll let you know how so you don't repeat my mistake, but even so, this recipe earned a 3.5 or 4 stars.

Take 1 cup of cooked black beans. Blend it in a food processor until it is completely blended. (I did this wrong and didn't blend it all the way. Because I didn't, the texture wasn't as good as it could have been. If it isn't blending easily, add a little bit of water or oil and then blend it until it is a smooth puree.)
Add 1 cup of your prepared seitan and mix it up very well.



(I added these spices but mine was underspiced. I would double these quantities next time.)
1 tsp turmeric
2 tsp curry powder
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp cumin
3 tsp salt

Mix the spices together with the mixture and form into a log. Wrap the log tightly in a piece of aluminum foil with both ends twisted. Bake in an oven on 350 for 90 minutes.
When finished, remove from the oven and let cool completely.
When cool, unwrap the log and cut it into cubes.



Saute an onion in a non stick pan. Add the seitan chunks and season liberally with turmeric, curry powder, and salt. Dice 2 large tomatoes and add them to the mixture, and add 1 cup of water.
Let simmer until tomatoes soften.



Serve over rice.
This gets 3.5 or 4 stars. Once I seasoned the mixture liberally with turmeric, curry powder and salt, it was quite tasty and its only detraction was that the seitan was a bit spongy, and that issue would have been resolved had I finished blending the beans into a paste first before mixing the lot.

What is your favorite way to make seitan?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Marble Cake with Beet Frosting

I've never bought a birthday cake from a bakery. To be honest, I think that buying one is a true waste of money. Spending 10 or more dollars on a cake that can cost you less than 2 dollars to make yourself seems a bit ludicrous. Yes, bakery cakes might be a drop more artfully designed, but I'll wager that the birthday guy or gal will feel just as loved with a homemade, less intricately decorated cake as he or she would have with a bought cake.

I made a birthday cake from scratch that came out looking beautiful... until I found a toddler (who shall remain unnamed) picking away at the cake when my back was turned. Perhaps it was all for the best that the picture somehow deleted itself from my camera, so I don't post a mauled birthday cake for the world to see.

I don't use artificial flavorings or colorings (or msg) because doing so leaves me with a long lasting headache (in addition to whatever other long term health effects), so making  a pretty birthday cake was a bit of a challenge. 

I was inspired by this recipe as a way to add vibrancy to my frosting without the chemicals.

I ended up making a glaze, if only because my margarine (I needed non dairy- yes, I know, not exactly healthy) was not cooperating. (Next time I use butter.) I took a beet, boiled it, peeled it, and blended it in the food processor until it achieved a baby food like consistency. To it I added powdered sugar, lemon juice and oil. I drizzled it over my cake and it was so beautiful and magenta. Even my beet hating dad loved the cake and glaze- it did not even taste remotely of beets.

I used my mom's simply divine plain cake recipe and spiffied it up to make it marble cake. It earned rave reviews.

Plain Cake Recipe:
1.5 c sugar
.5 c oil
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1.5 c orange juice (I used freshly squeeze orange juice that I made at home)
3 c flour
3 tsp baking powder
.5 tsp salt

Preheat your oven to 350.
Mix together the sugar, oil, eggs, vanilla, and orange juice. Dump in the rest of the ingredients. Mix together until you get a uniform consistency.
Lightly grease a cake pan. Pour in the batter. Put the cake pan in the oven. Let cook for 20-40 minutes. Depending on how deep the pan is, it will take either longer or shorter.
Take the cake out when a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Variations: Mix 4 tablespoons sugar, 1 tablespoon cocoa, and 1 teaspoon cinnamon. Cut this mixture into the cake in swirls to make a marble cake.

Lekue Silicone Deep Fluted Pan, Blue I used a silicon bundt pan like this. This made the cake so much more beautiful and made it have less need for decorations. I greased the pan with a very thin layer of coconut oil, though I'm sure any other oil would do the trick as well.

Tips to Keep Cakes Complete: I have always broken my cakes when trying to get them out of the cake pan. If I can help anyone else prevent making this same mistake as I always made, I would be thrilled.
Do not try to take the cake out of the pan immediately. Wait till the cake completely cools down before attempting to remove it. Sugar melts in the oven, so when the cake is hotter, it is less firm because of the melted sugar. When the sugar cools down and hardens, it'll be easier to remove the cake without breaking it.
Greasing the pan also helps.
Before trying to remove the cake, pull the silicon sides away from the cake gently. Do this bit by bit around the whole perimeter of the cake. Once you loosened all the sides, when you flip over the cake pan onto your desired surface, the cake should slip right out on to the pan.

Do you buy birthday cakes or make your own? If you avoid food colorings, how do you make your frosting pretty?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Yemenite Flatbread- Lahuh, and a Cereal Replacement


Cereal Alternative

My husband is addicted to cereal. Ok, maybe addicted is too strong a word, but he would gladly have me stop cooking and just serve him cereal and milk for 3 meals a day.
Where I live, cereal is quite expensive. As high as 5 dollars for a "cheap" normal sized box. Imported American brands can go for up to 7 dollars for a measly little box, so... I guess you can imagine that I try to wean my husband off of cereal.
I've been looking for satisfying alternatives for breakfast, especially if those alternatives would satiate that "cereal craving" and have decided that oatmeal makes a good, cheap, hearty breakfast. I'll share in a future post how I make my oatmeal delicious and interesting. However, I am not always in the mood to cook food when I first wake up, and don't want to dirty another pot if it is not necessary.
The cheap cereal solution? Raw oats with milk or yogurt. This is a perfect cereal alternative and even tastes and feels like cereal. They sell this prepackaged in the store and call it muesli. But why would I want to buy it premade at 3 times the price of making it myself?
I embellish the cereal with any of the following: a sweetener like sugar, honey, or molasses; some cut up fruit (non citrus- like apples or bananas or plums); chocolate chips (remember what I said here about using up bulk foods too quickly?); dried coconut; flax seeds and or whole sesame seeds; dried fruit if I buy them cheap (like raisins). Usually I use yogurt instead of milk with my meusli. This comes out delicious and is even friendly for those who wish to soak their grains.


Here is my artfully arranged breakfast that was waiting for my husband when he woke up yesterday morning. No, it wasn't a present I bought, but it was a kind gesture to prepare him breakfast the night before. I think he appreciated it.





Lahuh

We have a family dinner once a week in which I serve fresh bread. On days like today (that I don't have the head space to be making bread, kneading, shaping, etc... I find that Yemenite flatbread, Lahuh, a spongy pancakey yeasty flatbread, is a decent replacement for bread for our dinner.
Lahuh (pronounced with a guttural kh) is quite easy to make and seems easier than regular bread making, though I've never timed the difference. 

Ingredients
2 c whole wheat flour
2 c white flour
4 c warm (not hot!) water
3 tbsp yeast
3 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt

Combine all the ingredients and mix well. Let the mixture sit in a warm place for an hour to rise.
When it is finished rising, it should look like this:


Rub a non stick pan with oil. You do not want to be able to see the oil (if you can see a pool of oil, it means you put in too much, and it'll be harder to make the lahuh), just rub it in so you know it is there. I use a cloth napkin to rub in the oil.
Take a ladle full or two (I prefer one and a half ladles) of dough.


Drop the dough into the pan. Use a spoon to flatten the dough into a large, flattish pancake covering a large portion of the pan. (If you used too much oil, as seen in this last pic- this step will be quite hard to do.)



Turn the flame on under the pan to a medium high heat.
Lots of bubbles will begin to appear in the dough, and it will begin to have a cooked appearance. First to cook will be the outside and the inside is cooked last. Traditionally, you should be done at this point, but I find that if I wait to let the lahuh cook thoroughly on the inside, the bottom becomes crispier than I would like.


When the dough is mostly cooked aside for that last raw center, you want to flip it over with a spatula.


Leave the lahuh to cook on the other side for 30 seconds to a minute.
Then slide the cooked lahuh onto a plate.


Before you repeat this process, you want to let the pan cool down, as if you try to make a new lahuh without letting the pan cool, it will toast the bottom of the lahuh too quickly. 
To make this cooling off process go quicker, I stop up my sink and put in an inch of cool water. I dip the bottom of my pan in the cool water (yes, I know, this shortens the life of a pan but I couldn't care less) for a few seconds, wipe dry, and then make the new lahuhs.
I find that I need to re-grease my pan every 2-3 lahuhs. You know you need to re-grease when the lahuh starts sticking to the pan instead of sliding out easily.


Yield: Between 7 and 10, depending on the size.
Traditionally, these are served with fenugreek dip and grated tomatoes, but I'm going to be untraditional and serve them with lacto-fermented salsa and homemade whole grain tahini.
Variation: These can be made completely with white flour, simply by substituting.

We used to buy these lahuhs from a vendor, but now that we know how easy it is to make them, we make this simply delicious flatbread quite often.

Do you ever make or eat flatbreads? What type do you like best? Ever make lahuh before?


Thursday, February 18, 2010

Happy Birthday to me, Penniless Dad and Penniless Niece

Yes, we all share a birthday.
My husband turns 24 today, I turn 22, and my lovely niece by marriage turns 8 (I think).
Well, that's one frugal thing- save money on birthday parties by sharing a birthday. That is what we usually do, but this year there are other plans because of my dad's recent (as in yesterday) move to my country, so we're having a birthday bash cum welcome party today with my immediate family. My niece will be celebrating how 8 year olds enjoy best- with their friends and with grandmas visit. Sorry, Penniless Niece. Next year we'll have another combined celebration.

My husband and I aren't giving each other gifts this year. We've come to the conclusion that our money should be spent on other things. We don't have enough spare cash to be buying nice gifts, and junk gifts are not worth the few cents even. We don't need to buy something to show the other person that we love them.
I would have made a birthday gift for my husband, but I'll admit, I used up all my creativity this past holiday season when I made my husband a work apron (for gardening and tinkering) out of scraps of fabric we had in the house. Yes, its a touch feminine, but my husband doesn't mind. He's masculine enough to get away with it. (Kind of like how those macho guys can wear pink shirts, ya know?) And with a hammer and cable ties and a bunch of other stuff in it, it looks a lot more masculine.


That picture on it on the green? A picture of chickens. He appreciated that touch, especially since he'd love to live on a farm.

This year, my gift for my husband is of a completely different sort. I spend way too much time online and (ok, I'll admit it, but just grudgingly) consequently, my house can look like a tornado hit it... on average of 3 times an hour. I let a mess pile up until I get so overwhelmed by the sheer workload that I beg my husband to help me climb out of this rut.
My birthday gift to my husband is that I will (*fingers crossed*) not be turning on the computer the whole of February 18th. (This post is actually being written 11 minutes till midnight on February 17th to keep good with my word.) During this time, I will be doing productive things, like cleaning my house, preparing for my father's welcome party, and just doing general wifey things.
I also prepared him a cute little surprise for when he wakes up on his birthday. Pics on Friday, hopefully.

My mom has been very thoughtful and has arranged a lovely birthday gift for us. My husband and I (ok, its mostly me... but he plays along) like to go out on two dates a year- once for our anniversary and once for our birthday. We didn't have money for a date night this past year, so ended up having a picnic in a park when I was nine months pregnant- in August- as a really belated birthday date, slightly early wedding anniversary date (because my anniversary was one week after my due date for Spike and I knew I wouldn't be up to gallivanting around town to celebrate). This picnic was so sweet and romantic, and even though I made fancy foods, it ended up costing a fraction of what a decent restaurant would cost. Picnics are really great frugal dates.
Unfortunately, even that type of date is not so easy for us right now, as we'd need to pay for a babysitter and that is a little beyond our budget at the moment.
My lovely mom decided to treat us for our birthday for free babysitting (for both the kids) and to pay for us to go out to a nice restaurant. Thank you so much Mom, I love you!
I can't wait!

My dad has given me a great gift as well. While it was not the most expensive gift, my father has brought with him from the USA many things that I cannot buy here easily, or at least not cheaply. Among them, my father brought me a hunk of cheddar cheese, my favorite type of cheese that is hard to find and insanely outrageously overpriced here. I'm really psyched about this as well.

The world wide web also decided to give me a nice little birthday gift. I'd read about this little (ok massive!) thing called Search Engine Optimization (SEO). This basically means that there are certain techniques (and usually pay SEO professionals to do this for your website) to ensure that your website becomes a little more Google friendly, to make it more likely that your website will show up on Google searches. Looking at my stats of how people ended up on my site, I found that many came through Google. I checked into it more and discovered that my website is on the first page and often one of the first few links in many Google searches. Way too cool. I've optimized my site for search engines without even realizing it and without even knowing how. This feels like a birthday gift to me from Google.
Did any of you readers find your way here through Google?

And as a last point before the clock strikes midnight-
I'm making a cake for our birthday. A vanilla cake with colored frosting. I need to stay away from food coloring now because it makes me sick, so this frosting will be colored with beet juice. Yay! I can't wait to show you a picture on Friday how it came out.

Hope you have a great day, and wish me luck in sticking to my guns and not turning on the computer for the whole of February 18th!

How do you celebrate birthdays on a tight budget?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

I failed at grocery shopping.


I lost my receipt. So no, I won't be able to tell you exactly what I bought for the next two weeks, so this will be an approximation.
Oh, and another big fail. I didn't send my husband with lunch today. I had nothing ready made (not even bread or crackers) and I was way too wiped out to put anything together for my husband last night before I went to sleep. He left this morning to work before I got up, and isn't even near any place he can buy himself something to eat. Ok, I took some unrecognizable dish out of the freezer and stuck it in his backpack before he left for work, but it was a gross looking something that leaked all over his bag and is an unappetizing mess. 
That's what happens when you're insanely overtired from a too long hospital stay and still haven't caught up on sleep because you're too net addicted to sleep even when you're zonked.
My father just moved to my country today and he's coming together with the rest of my immediate family for a "Welcome home" party combined with a double birthday party for me and my husband. Lots of stuff going on tomorrow, so I won't be spending as much time at the computer these two days because I need to be getting the place spiffy. (Don't worry, you'll still be getting your posts.)

One thing I wanted to point out is that it may seem that I spend an awful lot on shopping, especially because I have such a minimal income. However, we do not have couponing  in my country, so I can only try to do the best I can by maximizing the benefits of sales. If you spend less than I do on groceries, how much of the savings is from couponing? I wish we had coupons here because I'm sure that then I'd do even better on saving money on groceries.

Tuesday's grocery shop: (We have a holiday coming up within the next two weeks, so I bought whatever I needed for the holiday, and that is included in the grocery total as well.)
5 lbs oranges
8 lbs grapefruit- both ruby and yellow types
4 lbs ugly fruit (or sweeties, depending on whether you're the half full or half empty glass type_
5 lbs lemons
3 lbs apples
10 lbs potato sack (Mistake. I spent way too much on these because I didn't realize that the sale price applied only to the first 4 lbs and I got charged the full, expensive price on the other 6 lbs. I already had potatoes even, so this was a waste!)
2 heads purple cabbage
1 head green cabbage
5 lbs carrots
5 lbs onions
5 lbs fennel
4 lbs tomatoes
2 lbs cucumbers
3 lbs radishes
3 lbs kohlrabi
3 lbs beets
4 lbs green peppers
2 bags (about 3.5 lbs) of corn flakes (I rarely ever buy cereal, but the price on these were just too good to resist, and they were buy one get one free to boot, and my husband can live off of cereal, so I "splurged".)
2 bags of pretzels (for our upcoming holiday)
1 bottle grape juice
1 bottle wine
1.9 gallons of milk (I've been buying less until now, but we frequently run out, so I decided that more is better.)
7 oz regular cheese (our mozerella type equivalent)
10.5 oz sheep cheese (sounds like it should be expensive, but it really is very very cheap. The cheapest cheese type, actually)
1 stick butter
1 stick margarine (*blushes* For the holiday as well, and I don't plan on eating the food made with margarine, just giving it to people that do.)
2.5 lbs Nile perch (for our holiday)
3 turkey wings (quite large, actually)
1 whole chicken (for our holiday)
2 oz chicken kidneys (sounds gross, but its for a delicious dish that I'll share with you later)
2 lbs turkey gizzards (again, for that same dish)
4 lbs white flour (for seitan)
2 lbs sugar
2 lbs mayonnaise
7 oz craisins
10 oz chestnuts (total guess as to the amount)
7 oz whole sesame seeds

And that's it. Give or take a few things. Total bill? 82 dollars for a two week shopping, or 41 dollars per week. A bit of a splurge, but there were a few necessary extra expenses because of the holiday.


Now for the menu---

Tuesday- Boring leftover supper. Chicken turkey soup with dumplings.
Wednesday- Cream cheese, salsa spirals
Thursday- Dad is coming and bringing all the food. Probably will be Chinese food as that is his specialty.
Friday- Baked grapefruit, salsa, fennel salad, russian salad, kohlrabi slaw, beet salad, turkeys buried in mashed potatoes
Saturday- Scottish Haggis with leftover salads and mashed potatoes
Sunday- Jerk seitan with rice
Monday- Spanish tortilla lasagna
Tuesday- Eggplant "parmessian"
Wednesday- Baked beans, rice and veggies
Thursday- Colcannon
Friday- Potato soup, fennel salad, russian salad, kohlrabi slaw, curried purple sauerkraut, glazed turkey wings, candied carrots
Saturday- Friday leftovers
Sunday- Chicken stuffed with chestnut stuffing, sweet and sour cabbage, Moroccan style Nile perch (maybe),Yemenite flatbread
Monday- Tuna casserole
Tuesday- Fermented bean dip with flatbread and salads

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

My First Blogging Award- And my nominees

I received my first ever blogging award from fellow blogger Felissa Hadas. Its little thoughtful gestures like this that really brighten people's day. Just letting someone know that they make you smile, as this Sunshine Award implies is a great way to encourage people to keep on doing whatever it is that they're doing, letting them know that you find them inspiring, interesting, and a good read. Positive feedback is the perfect antidote to the blogging midwinter blues.



Isn't that a pretty flower? It just makes me want to run outside and embrace the beauty of the world, soak in the sun, and sip a mixed drink on the beach. In my dreams. But even the Sunshine Award's logo makes me all sunny and giddy inside and reminds me of the time that I bought those types of flowers for my friend after her surgery. I would have had these bright Gerber Daisies as my wedding bouquet, but that was a little too unorthdox for me.

Anyhow, the rules of accepting this award are:
Put the logo on the sidebar or within a post
Pass the award on to 12 bloggers who brighten your day
Link to the nominees within your post
Let the nominees know they received this award by commenting on their blog
Link back to the person who gave you this award, as a way of showing your appreciation for being appreciated.

Here are the posters to whom I would like to pass on this award:

Alpidarkomama- This wonderful lady is my inspiration in many ways. It was she and Oceans of Joy who introduced me to the concept of homesteading, of making my own food and living a simpler life. I've gotten so many ideas from this wonderful lady, and she always gave such great feedback on my old blog when I was first starting out on my homesteading adventure. She has been a little slower at blogging these past few weeks what with making a cross country move in record time, but I'm sure she'll be picking up her blogging pace soon enough. I love reading her blog.
Oceans of Joy- As I mentioned above, Oceans of Joy and Alpidarkomama were the ones that gave me the inspiration to be a little more self sufficient and be a little more convinced that I can homeschool my kids even if I am living a frugal life. I look to Avivah at Oceans of Joy for lots of parenting advice, health related advice, and get lots of inspiration for new foods and healthier lifestyle habits from her. This is the first blog I make sure to read every single day, and she definitely, absolutely, deserves this award. I would like to accomplish what she has accomplished when I have lived as long as she has. (I've still got quite a ways to go- I'm not that much older than her oldest kid...)
Under 1000 Per Month- Emily at Under1000PerMonth was the one who inspired me to become a public blogger. Before I had a semi private blog, but seeing what she did with her blog gave me the push to think bigger and write a blog for the general public. I have a different and more varied menu than Emily, and have different beliefs than her, and I don't think I'd be able to do half the things she does, but I do get plenty of ideas and recipes from Emily and this is my way of saying Thank You to her.
The Happy Atheist Homemaker- Desiree at Happy Atheist Homemaker has gotten a little ticked off at me lately *(edited now that I see her response)* because I said some pretty thoughtless things on her blog and I wanted to apologize for that. My brain was not functioning properly due to lack of sleep and I probably sounded like a total *insert swear word here*. Even though she may be annoyed at me still, and even though I know she's already gotten this award, I wanted to give her this award again, as I find her to be cute, fun, and inspirational. She's got a chic decorating style, and has given me plenty of great ideas for delicious foods to make for my family. Thank you Desiree, and I'm sorry. You rock! (And everyone should go check out her website because she's got loads of great ideas!)
BubbleJ- BubbleJ is a relatively new blogger, but she brings a smile to my face. She is similar to myself in age and is very on top of her finances and desires to live a frugal life. Many people my age are just interested in "the fun life" and aren't willing to take responsibilities for their actions. They want to be able to spend money and let Mommy and Daddy bail them out when they get stuck, or the rack up tons of credit card debt. BubbleJ gets this award for having a good head on her shoulders, realizing the important things in life, and for being an interesting read.
AlmostUnschoolers- I love reading about this mom's homeschooling career. She makes a bunch of great stuff with her kids, crafts and recipes, and I've gotten some lovely idea
s from her. One of the things I love best about her blog is she makes everything into a learning experience for her kids. Her baking becomes science experiments, for example. I love this approach and try to implement it with my son (as best as I can, he's only 2.5 after all) and appreciate seeing ways to make learning fun.
Our Life From Scratch- Another new blogger, this blog has lots of great recipes and frugal ideas. I enjoy reading her blog and I'm sure you will too!
My Mommy Makes It- I first found this blog through a crafting party. She makes the most awesome things, especially environmentally friendly children's toys. Ok, I'll admit, I have to work more on being environmentally friendly, but her environmental friendliness means making new things out of older things... and that is pretty much what I try to do with my dumpster diving crafts. I want to try making homemade toys and My Mommy Makes It has inspired me to do so.
Pacy Crochets- is another great crafting and frugal blog. I first learned to crochet from my grandmother when I was 8, but I have slacked off at it. I want to start crocheting some more and making some more homemade things. She's also got lots of life experience and a good head on her shoulders.
Creative Jewish Mom- Nice stuff cost money, right? CJM shows you many ways to make beautiful stuff for your home without spending much money (if at all). I've also used some of her ideas for projects, scaled down, for my playgroup kids to do. I love reading CJM's blog!
Curly Q's Hairdos- I like this blog. It makes me feel like an utter failure when my son's long hair is a royal wreck and glued with snot to his face because I forgot to make  a pony tail in it that morning... But she gives me great inspiration to what my son's hair could look like, if I just tried a little harder. In fact, after first discovering her blog, I sat down and did the fanciest hairdo I ever made for my son.
Everyday Adventurer- This blog is a bit random in the sense that it has absolutely nothing to do with any other blog I've mentioned, however I really like it. I live in a place with few trees and little water and no snow... and going to this blog evoked so many nostalgic memories of hikes in evergreen forests, camping in a creekside log cabin in the mountains, and just growing up with snow. I couldn't help but go back through a month's worth of posts when I first discovered it, I was that enraptured by the ethereal beauty of the nature pictures on this blog.

I had originally intended to include a recipe in this post, but I think that with website descriptions, I've written more than enough.
My usual bi-weekly shopping post will henceforth be the Wednesday post, to give me some time to shop, take pictures, and write up my menu.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Scams and "Special" Offers

“Jason, we've got a really amazing present for you. A genuine cubic zirconium tennis bracelet, perfect for showing your beautiful girlfriend just how much you love her.”
“Um... I'm married.”
“Not to worry, Jason, my friend. This beautiful faux gold, genuine CZ bracelet will sweep the love of your life off her feet, and its yours completely free- just for the insignificant sum to cover shipping and handling, $999.99”
“That's ok, I'm really not looking for something for my wife. She doesn't even wear jewelry, and $999.99 is just a little bit steep.”
“Hold on a second, Jason... (hushed mumblings) I just spoke to my supervisor, and he told me that since you're call number 35149 today, you're eligible for a discount in shipping- you'll only be charged $578.99. If you don't like it, just give us a ring and we'll send a courier to your home with a cash refund and he will relieve you of the jewelry and you won't even need to pay for postage.”
“Ma'am, I told you that I'm not interested in this piece, no matter how much the discount. My wife doesn't wear jewelry and I don't have any secret lovers on the side to whom to pass on this bracelet.”
“Jason, would I try to trick you into taking something you didn't want? Its just that I care about you and wouldn't want you to miss out on this amazing bargain merely because you have no personal need for it. Why, you're getting a really valuable piece of jewelry. If your wife won't wear it, I've heard this piece can fetch a high price on the international market; pieces of its ilk have been sold for as high as 10 dollars on eBay!
“Because I wouldn't want you to miss out on the deal of a lifetime, I'll make this free gift to you even better- I'll throw in a Barbie set of your choice, free of even shipping charges.”

Eventually you just get so sick of them and want to get them off the phone, so you just acquiesce and accept this “free” gift, emptying your pocket of hundreds in exchange for a dollar store trinket.
(Based on a true occurrence.)

Moral of the story? If you want to save yourself the aggravation and cost of these “bargain of a lifetime telemarketers”, don't even begin the conversation. Once you start talking, if you're polite you'll hear them out, they'll never give up, and you'll just end up accepting the “offer” to get them to shut up already and leave you alone.

When they call and try to be chummy with you by calling you by your first name, take a step back, call them on it and say “Ma'am, I have no clue who you are nor do I have any desire to do so. I don't appreciate you calling me by name, Sir or Ma'am will do, and I'm especially not interested in anything you have to offer me, no matter how good it sounds, so you can just save your breath. I am going to end this conversation now and you can either hang up first or I'll hang up anyhow. Have a good day. Bye.”

What was the worst special offer you've ever received? Have you actually received a special offer via the telephone that actually ended up being worthwhile?
How do you let telemarketers know not to mess with you?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Buying Bulk- When it Pays and When it Does Not

This post and the next few were written while I was sitting in the emergency room with my son for 28 hours, so I apologize if they're a bit long winded...



Everyone knows that when buying food or similar, when you buy more, its cheaper- right? Wrong.
Sometimes it pays to buy larger quantities, but other times you're tricked into wasting your money by buying in bulk.

Before buying bulk, there are a few questions you need to ask yourself to ensure that bulk buying will save you money.

Is bigger cheaper?
You're in the store and see two ketchup bottles. One is 16 oz and the other is 24 oz. Automatically you reach for the bigger container, assuming the merchant is rewarding you for buying larger amounts. Sometimes this chain of thought is correct- when you buy more of a certain item, you're paying less per oz, even if the overall expenditure is greater.
Other times this is not so true.
I remember my elation when I shared with my husband a certain “wise” purchase I had made. I found a 2 lb container of whole sesame paste for only 5 dollars- quite a bargain- until my husband informed me that he regularly buys the 1 lb containers of sesame paste for 2 dollars and there pays only 4 dollars for the same amount that I bought for 5.
When I was buying whole wheat flour in bulk, I inquired about the price of regular white flour and found out that if I bought 25 lbs at once, I'd be able to pay 43 cents a pound instead of my usual 32 cents a pound. No thank you. What a rip off!
Because you can never be sure whether the bulk item is cheaper or not merely from the fact that it is bulk, always go shopping with a calculator. Figure out exactly how much you're paying per x amount and make sure that you really are getting the better deal.

Will the food keep well?
Reading that Oceans of Joy's bulk bought sweet potatoes spoiled quickly after their purchase reminded me of the time that I bought a 10 lb bag of rice, only to have it get heavily infested by buys and I ended up throwing out a large portion of the food.

Do I need a lot? Will I even use it?
I don't use capers much in recipes. If I would find that buying a large container of capers would end up being cheaper per ounce than buying a small amount of capers for a cheaper overall price, I would buy the smaller amount even if it has a higher cost per ounce, as I have no need for a large amount of capers. It is not cheap to buy too much of something you don't need.

Will I end up eating more of the bulk food than I would otherwise because I have it in stock?
If the answer to this question is yes, whether it pays to buy it in bulk depends on one thing. If it is something cheap bought in small quantities and is even cheaper when bought in bulk, then it is perfectly fine and money smart to fill up on this cheap food. Case in point- I bought 25 lbs of whole wheat flour nearly 2 months ago and have only 8 lbs left. We usually go through flour at a much slower pace, but having so much of this item made me us it as a staple in our house and the base for many dishes. Of all starches this whole wheat flour was practically the cheapest one around. Therefore, by using the whole wheat instead of my usual potatoes, rice, or read made noodles, I was not wasting money, but rather, making a prudent choice.
On the other hand, take for example something that is a n expensive extra, like berries bought in bulk for a fraction of the price of what you usually pay for berries. The key phrase here is “what you usually pay for berries”. If berries are usually 10 dollars a pound (made up numbers) and you find it for 5 dollars per pound, so you buy lots, and then you use it in place of your usual dollar a pound fruit, you would be wasting money on those berries.
I bought 10 lbs of chocolate chips for a third of the price that I usually pay for this treat. Because these chips were lying around my house, we've used them at an incredible rate; we've gone through in two months the amount we would usually use in a year. Chocolate chips (at least where I live) are a costly snack, even if I buy them for cheaper than their usual.
The rule of thumb with eating bulk bought food is: if the food is absolutely cheap, feel free to finish it as quickly as you would like. If its only cheap in comparison to its usual overpriced cost, but is expensive in relation to other foods, use it at the same rate as you would have had you not bought it in bulk. If you don't have the self control to eat bulk bought expensive foods at a slow pace, in my opinion it is better to not buy those foods in bulk, as you'd still be spending less total on your chocolate chips than you would on large quantities of “cheap” chocolate chips.

Is there enough of a saving to make it worth tying up your money in that food?
Sometimes, buying food in bulk would only provide minimal savings and you'd be spending your money on buying bulk instead of letting the money accrue interest in the bank, or you'd need to borrow money for your other expenses and pay interest on that loan. If that is the case, then you have to do a calculation to see just how much money you're saving total versus how much money you're losing (either by not letting your money accumulate interest or by paying interest on a loan) to decide if you're truly saving money by tying up your money in food instead of leaving it in the bank.

Is buying in bulk for you? Only if the food is cheaper, won't spoil, you'd actually use the whole amount but won't overeat if because of its presence, and the savings are significant enough to outweigh the downsides of money tied up in food.

Have you ever bought bulk? What did you buy? Do you think that even with all the aforementioned points that you still saved lots of money buy purchasing large quantities?

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