Sunday, August 25, 2013

August on $100

Well, we managed to keep August to our $100/month grocery budget. I kept receipts all month and tallied them this weekend, and we had $18 to spend for this week, so overall our budgeting has gone pretty well.

We scored some major deals on meat this month, so our freezer is stocked. We found kielbasa going out of date at the HT with $2 off coupons on the packages from the meat department. So we bought four packages to use in the coming months for jambalaya, potato hash, and as add-ins in mac and cheese. Earth Fare was running a special on their grass fed beef, so we were able to get two and a half pounds for $10. I portioned it out into half pound portions and froze it to use in pasta, sloppy joes, stuffed cabbage, and soups over the next few months. We also had a friend give us some venison sausage, so I used a half pound of that in a breakfast casserole this month. Learning to cut back on meat hasn't been difficult for us, since we were already pretty much weekday vegetarians anyway. But we've learned to be creative. For instance, I made sloppy joes this week with only a half pound of meat and cooked lentils to fill out the rest of the filling. They were awesome! Not only did they taste great, but the lentils allowed us to make more filling than the recipe called for, so it fed us for an extra day or two beyond our normal recipe.

I've totally depleted my baking pantry this month, so I'm going to be stocking up on flour and sugar and cornmeal by buying them in bulk. We've been making about two loaves of bread a week and muffins for breakfasts and some cornbread to go with dinner, so the baking things have gone away rapidly. However, I think this scratch baking has allowed us to save significantly on our breakfast budget. We're no longer purchasing boxed cereals, which we never bought for much more than $1 per box anyway, so that means we're using less milk in a week. We're still getting our dairy in by using cheese and sour cream and milk in other things. We've been using the bread for sandwiches for lunches, egg and cheese sandwiches for breakfasts, and open faced sandwiches (sloppy joes and meatball sandwiches) for dinners. I also used some bread crumbs I had in the freezer as the basis for my breakfast casserole a few weeks ago, and it turned out very tasty with the wide variety of breads that were in the bag. (Saving your stale bread in a freezer bag in the freezer is a great way to not let good bread go to waste. We use it for casseroles, baked french toast, and bread crumbs for chicken nuggets or rounding out a meatloaf.)

We've been able to save on produce, particularly fruit, by purchasing things that are generally cheap or in season. Usually I don't like bananas unless they're really green and starchy, so I buy them green and eat a few, Benny eats most of the rest, and then the last few go in the freezer for banana bread or muffins. Bananas are really cheap and pretty nutritious, and they fill out a lunch easily or make a good midmorning snack. Peaches have been pretty cheap this summer, so I've stocked up from the produce stand and have made some peach preserves and peach salsa for gifting for Christmas too. A few weeks ago, organic strawberries were on sale, so we bought some and had fruit salad with our pancakes for dinner and really enjoyed them. Friends brought us some fresh corn and summer squash, so we had tacos one night with those.

Using dried beans has become a staple in our house too. I generally cook a crockpot full each week and use them in casseroles, stir fries, tacos, fajitas, enchiladas, salads and bean burgers. They also freeze well when covered with the cooking liquid, so I freeze some for soups. We do black beans, kidney beans, pintos, and black eyed peas this way. The black beans and pintos also make great crockpot refried beans (crockpot 365 is a great blog if you haven't checked it out!).

Probably the biggest change for us has really been in the beverage department. We're only making one pitcher of tea a week, and we've got no juice or coffee in the house. We will keep coffee on hand for when we have guests, and I still make a cup of herbal tea each morning before I go to work. I know I've been drinking far more water as a result of this shift, and I think Benny would probably say the same. It's definitely freed up about $10-$20 a month for us to spend on food, rather than extra calories we probably don't need anyway.

Southers Savers has really helped us make good use of our coupons, and its free, while the Grocery Game isn't. So, we cut out our subscription to the Grocery Game in the interest of saving a few bucks, and really have been pretty happy. Last week was super doubles at HT and this week is super doubles at Lowes Food, so we're doing pretty good with purchasing our toiletries, laundry detergent, cleaning supplies, etc. for free or super cheap.

Sharing meals with friends and family has also helped us stick to the grocery budget. We usually have at least on meal a week with my mom, and try to have at least one meal a week with friends. By doing things potluck style, it allows us to use things we already have to contribute to the meal, but it means we don't have to fix it all, which not only saves us money but time. We enjoy entertaining this way, and its definitely cheaper than eating out with friends.

We've still managed to have some treats in the house with our $100/month budget, like some chocolate mint cookies this week and I'm planning on making some homemade icecream next weekend. We really don't feel like we're deprived of anything, just changing our habits a bit and being a little more conscious of how we spend a buck. The occasional gift card we get for a grocery store will help us treat ourselves once in a while to those specialty ingredients we like to have, so we can still try out new recipes.

What about you? Have you been able to stick to your grocery budget?

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Feeling the squeeze, but not so much

As we prepare for Benny to become the stay at home parent, we're faced with the loss of income that many families face when they make this decision. However, its a reality we've planned for for several years, so we've managed to stash away quite a bit in savings in preparation. But we know this wouldn't be enough to keep us afloat in the long term, since we plan for Benny to be home for several years. So, we began exploring the options for other streams of income and getting creative.

First, we took a page from friends books and rented out our upstairs guest room. We knew that this would work for us, since we'd rented to family before and we'd hosted two divinity student interns. We're comfortable living with others and sharing common space. This might not be a solution for everyone, but it was an obvious choice for us. It also forced us to clear out some junk from that closet and do some regular maintenance (caulking, repainting trim, etc.) that needed to be done to that room. Our tenant will move in this coming week, so we're looking forward to getting to know him, and he seems like he'll be a good fit for our family. Plus, the extra income will help us pay off a small home equity line we have for finishing out the basement.

What, you say? Finishing out the basement...with a 7 month old?! Yes, we're crazy, but follow me here. We have known since we built this house in 2008 that we planned to finish out the basement one day. Half of that space is a walk out, one bedroom apartment. The other half is my art/craft room and storage for tools, garden supplies, and general garage stuff. We're hoping to have the basement finished by the end of this month in order to rent it out in September. The apartment is really nice with a full kitchen, four piece bath, and dedicated patio space with outdoor furniture provided. There's lots of storage, pretty wood laminate floors, plus great light in the afternoons and evenings. So, we're hoping to get top dollar for the apartment rent, although our neighborhood's road probably hinders that a bit with our winter weather. (Know anyone looking for a rental in the area? Our potential tenant for this space fell through...) With the two rentals, we're figuring we can have the home equity line paid off within two years, maximum.

Now, my art and craft room. It's a beauty... hardwood floors (mostly courtesy of my father-in-law's leftover wood and his spending a week's vacation here helping to install it), dusty lavender walls, and nice lighting, although little natural light since its in the most subterranean portion of the basement. Here's where I plan to begin teaching some art lessons, hopefully group lessons, to kids once or twice a week. I have a beautiful antique pedestal table I inherited that will be the perfect place for students to gather and work on their projects. I'm hoping to have enough students that I can offer scholarships to some kids who would enjoy lessons, but might not have the means for such. I'll probably just teach classes in the summer, spring, and fall, since winter weather would probably force me to cancel classes more than I'd like. While this is a smaller stream of potential income, it should cover our internet bill each month, if not a little more.

Benny's planning to sell several items we have on eBay and Craigslist. Some of these are things we tried to sell on consignment that just didn't sell, others are electronics and gaming things that he has that we knew were just too "niche" to try to sell on consignment. He's already sold some things, enough to cover our first bulk food purchase of spices and nuts from San Fransisco Herb Company, which I'm super excited about. Money from these sales will go toward bulk food purchases, savings, and Raygan's college fund.

There may also be days where Benny keeps another child for cash or bartering for goods or services. This has worked out well for us in the past; its how we got our last printer and how we get some things done around the house that we don't have the time or talent to do ourselves.

And of course, there's my Mary Kay business. It takes me away from my family more than I'd like, but when it goes well, it's a nice supplemental income. So, if you know anyone in need of products, send them my way, please!

Then we're saving where we can: combining errands, carpooling to work, not eating out, frugal meals, buying food in bulk, cloth diapering, watching our energy usage by not running the AC, using natural light when possible, etc., taking shorter showers, not renewing magazine subscriptions or online subscriptions, using credit card points to make purchases instead of cash, etc. Perhaps the biggest challenge I've posed for myself is to go as long as possible without spending money during the week (no extra grocery store trips, carpool to the max to keep from buying gas, no online or in store shopping, etc.).

So, we're figuring that although we might be feeling the squeeze a bit with this transition, we've planned well. These multiple streams of income will be sustainable for several years and will allow us to continue putting money into our savings. Hopefully it will only mean a few hundred dollars loss in income, and its totally worth it to us to know that one of us will be home with Raygan and providing him all the love and attention we can. And, it means that we'll really get to spend more time together when those snow days roll around and next summer begins.

Here's to living green and saving green at home!

Friday, August 9, 2013

A Baker's Pantry

Friends often ask me how I manage to make so much of our baked goods from scratch. The answer is simple; I have great cookbooks, a well stocked pantry, and baking is a hobby, so I enjoy it. Today, I thought we'd explore my baking pantry in the hopes that it inspires you to tackle some scratch baking of your own, even if it's just cornbread.

Since I do a lot of bread baking, I keep several different kinds of flours and meals on hand. We always keep whole wheat, bread, soy, and all purpose (AP) flours. Sometimes, I buy cake flour, but generally I just use the conversions in the back of Joy of Cooking and don't mess with cake flour. I also use the conversions for self rising because I find that I don't use it quickly enough or forget I have it and the baking powder in it goes bad. I use all of these on a regular basis for pizza dough, bread, pancakes and waffles, and quick breads like muffins. I tend to use the soy flour as an additive to baked goods, just substituting a tablespoon or two for the regular flour called for, to increase the protein content since we eat a lot of vegetarian meals. I also keep flax seed meal and corn meal on hand for making corn bread, dusting sheet pans for bread, and other things, but these are the primary uses. I tend to throw a tablespoon or two of the flax seed meal into most of our breads, again substituting for the flour, to increase the omega-3 content, since we don't eat a lot of seafood (I love fresh seafood, but it's not easily found here in the mountains). And I keep rolled oats on hand, since they're nice in lots of whole grain breads and make homemade oatmeal a snap.

I also keep a fair amount of other staples on hand for making bread and cookies. Many bread recipes call for buttermilk, but I hate to keep it on hand in the fridge since I don't go through it quickly and feel like its a waste of fridge space and electricity to keep it cool. So, I opt for powdered buttermilk, which you can find in the baking aisle. I also keep powdered milk on hand, since many bread recipes call for this. It is also fine to use in corn bread, muffins, etc. in place of regular milk if you reconstitute it. A lot of bread recipes, and many sourdough starters, call for potato flakes, so I have a big box. We keep sunflower seeds, poppy seeds, and sesame seeds on hand in the fridge, so they don't go rancid. Sometimes I have whole flax seeds too. If you buy them in bulk, they're a lot cheaper than the tiny bottles in the spice aisle. These are great on top of breads or mixed into muffins for a little extra crunch. (The sesame seeds are also great in homemade fried rice or stir fry.) We generally keep pecans and almonds on hand too. (If I can swing it, I love to have the pecans from my family farm, but right now the pecan trees are infested with a bug which bores holes in the nuts and makes them inedible. And the infestation lasts for 7 years, the lifecycle of the darn thing, so I won't be getting family pecans for a while.) Costco has nice prices on pecan halves, generally around $12 for a 2 lb bag. There is also a local guy who sets up a truck every fall with all sorts of nuts, so we try to buy from him when we can. I love to keep dried fruit on hand too: dried cranberries, cherries, prunes, coconut, raisins, and sometimes apricots or currants. These are fabulous in muffins or scones when its not berry season and I don't want to use my cherished freezer stash of blackberries and raspberries. And, of course, there's the chocolate chips... white and semisweet are the staples around here. I ask for the fun ones (peanut butter, mint, butterscotch etc.) for stocking stuffers and they get used throughout the year.

And sugar... who can bake without sugar? I keep white sugar on hand always. We stock up on brown and powdered sugar when it goes on sale around the holidays, so there's generally some of that around too. I keep honey and molasses in the pantry, which are called for in a lot of my bread recipes. If I'm out of brown sugar, I just make my own with molasses and white sugar. I don't keep fancy sugars, such as turbanido, but I do keep colored sugars and sprinkles for cookie and cake decorating.

Oils and fats are essential. Our butter we buy in bulk at Costco. I keep olive oil on hand for making pizza dough, and we keep some sort of lighter oil (vegetable, corn, etc.) for baking and stir fries. I keep crisco sticks for shortening. I know the cans are cheaper, but the sticks are so convenient and less messy. Keep them in the fridge to keep from going rancid.

As far as flavorings go, we keep vanilla extract and cocoa powder. I plan to make some homemade mint extract soon before my mint is done for the season, so I'll let you know how that turns out. I hope it is good, would be fun in homemade fudge for the holidays.

So, in summary, here's a rundown of the staples:

AP flour
whole wheat
soy flour
rolled oats
flax seed meal

Add-ins and staples:
powdered buttermilk
powdered milk
potato flakes
seeds: sunflower, poppy, sesame, caraway, flax
nuts: pecans, almonds
chips: chocolate, white chocolate, fun ones (peanut butter, mint, etc.)

olive oil
cocoa powder
vanilla extract
brown sugar

Did I forget anything? What do you keep on hand for baking? I'd love to hear from you!

$100 a month

For groceries...$100 a month. First of all, why? Well, since our little one was born, we've decided that Benny's going to cut back his hours at work significantly to only 10 or so a week, so that he can stay home with Raygan. This means that we're going to have to trim our already frugal budget a little more. So, one place where our spending can fluctuate some is groceries. Most months we spend about $140-$160, but we're going to try to reduce this by at least $50 each month, yet still maintain our healthy, earth friendly eating.

How're we gonna tackle this? Well, we'll continue with our regular meal planning, bulk shopping, and using some helpful advice from bloggers like Mavis and The Prudent Homemaker. We'll also cut out some of the extras that we'd been purchasing, like beer from Costco and wine from Trader Joe's. While we enjoy the occasional glass of wine or beer with dinner, they're certainly not necessities and are pricier, even when we bargain shop. We're also going to be cutting back on meat even more than we regularly do, eating more beans, eggs, nuts, and other alternate protein sources which are cheaper. We certainly won't cut out meat entirely; we both enjoy a piece of bacon way too much when we have breakfast for dinner to cut it out for good. And we're going to cut down desserts, something I love to make, to one per week, so once its gone, its gone. The same is true for beverages such as juice, which Benny loves. Why do juice when water is really better for you? We'll make tea when we want something different, using herbs from the garden and black tea bags we purchase in bulk or with a coupon and on sale.

We plan to do more in terms of bulk shopping, like buying our sugar, flour, dried beans, cheese, and rice in bulk from sources like Costco. The savings here is unquestionable and we'll find a creative solution to the storage issue, such as 5 gallon buckets... hmm, wonder where I'll get those? ;)

And of course, we'll make everything from scratch that we can...bread, tortillas, soups, cookies, jam & jellies, sauces, and salad dressings. The Joy of Cooking is a great place to start if you've not done a lot from scratch.

As always, this grocery budget includes toiletries and cleaning products, so we'll get creative here and use coupons, use less (by washing hair every other day and by using a lotion dispenser to control the amount we use of a product). I'll also pair down my makeup routine, which will not only save cash (although being a Mary Kay consultant saves me a bit here anyway) but also time, which is precious with a 7 month old. Since Benny will be staying home, he'll be shaving less frequently, which will cut down on the cost of razor blades and shaving gel/cream. We're already learning to be more careful with things like toilet paper, paper towels, and tissues (remember, we use handkerchiefs and rags any time its appropriate).

So join us on this journey and offer your tips in the comments. Here's to living and saving green!