Saturday, March 19, 2011

Weekly groceries

This wasn't as great a week for groceries, but we did pretty well, and topped up the pantry a bit further. We did pick up about 5 lbs of boneless beef on sale for less than $2 a pound and large eggs for $1 a dozen. Otherwise, we mostly picked up milk, a little produce, a couple of things for my "emergency lunch" stash at work, plus items for the pantry---dry beans, flour, barley, salt, and applesauce.

What pushed our bill up over the $40 I'd projected were three items: dry powdered milk, honey, and a six pack of ale. I picked up the milk because I want at least one unopened box in the pantry, and honey because we use it to make granola (and the price is projected to rise). The ale, obviously, was a "for fun" purchase for myself. I haven't bought any in a couple of months, but with spring break nearing an end, the prices finally dropped. Those three items alone were almost $20, and, with the unplanned purchase of meat on sale, pushed my bill up to $63.85 for the week.

Most of what I bought are things I consider "pantry" foods, and we're only close to running out of one or two of them. If we'd had an emergency this week, I could have gotten by with half a gallon of milk, the produce, and a couple of small items, totalling about $16 (and in a real pinch, could have gotten by with milk alone). This is the advantage to buying in quantity when things are on sale and creating a pantry: there is very little you actually NEED in any single week. Even more important is knowing I could cut our bill further.

Now, my grocery bills do vary widely. I rarely get it down to $30, mostly because I like fresh produce and milk and if I'm not getting much else, I pick up pantry items. Some weeks, it shoots up to $80 or $90 (usually the result of a serious bargain on something). The average probably ranges between $50 and $60. We're still so well-stocked that I don't expect to buy much next week, and the pantry is full enough that I would only pick up more now if it was a really GOOD bargain.

By the way, this total does not include non-food items. I rarely, if ever, buy toilet paper or paper towels and similar things at a grocery store. I make a trip once every month or two to a local department store and buy those things up in bulk. And I don't normally include alcohol purchases as "food". That is strictly entertainment, but I left it in this week's total as an example.

And my pot of lunch soup for this week? About $1.06 to make, and of that $.43 was for some fresh mushrooms that were on sale. I have enough for at least 5 lunches, and I'll be eating it over some store-baked pumpernickel rye bread that was marked down to $.79 (part of the loaf will be used for breakfast toast and spornj).  I figure each lunch will be about $.30 or less, counting the bread. This week's mix was brown rice, pearled barley, pinto beans, black beans, and 1/2 a cup of chopped mushrooms and some mixed frozen peppers and onions. Depending on how much bread I use for a bowl, the calories should be around 200 to 250 with about 10 to 15 grams of protein. Add a glass of milk, and you're up to about 20 grams of protein. Can't beat that combination for price, nutrition, or diet...

Friday, March 18, 2011

Making do

Just a few quick ideas for making do on the cheap:

Plastic lids, particularly the kind that come with margarine or yogurt, make great spoon rests on the counter and stove, with the bonus that if you get surprise company, you drop the spoons in the sink and the lids in the garbage. Instant clean without feeling guilty.

Ziplock bags can be washed and reused, though I strongly recommend against trying to reuse any bag that held raw meat for safety reasons. And greasy bags are a nuisance to wash, but most others are easy to wash and dry. It's a little savings, but it also only takes a few seconds to wash out a bag that held a sandwich.

Shake out crumbs and save bread bags to hold packages of raw meat that might "leak" in the refrigerator. It helps keep things from getting messy, and the bag gets an extra use before being thrown out. These tend to be more leakproof than the plastic shopping bags too. You can also use a small dishpan or plastic shoebox or one of those large plastic coffee canisters to hold raw meat in the refrigerator, but you have to clean and reuse those rather than throwing them out.

Instead of buying expensive "chip clips," use clothes pins to hold things closed. You can usually buy an entire large package for less than a couple of the chip clips. And keep a few  twist ties from bread bags around to close bags of chocolate chips or rice. Heavy rubber bands are fantastic too, just fold over the top, and put the rubber band around the entire package.

Reuse old file folders by removing the old labels or putting a new one over the old one.

Need a return address and hate to write it out yourself? Cut out your name and address from a piece of junk mail and glue it on the envelope. Instant label.

I took a plastic one pound peanut butter jar, weighted the bottom with pennies to make it hard to tip over, and use it to hold all my pens, pencils and markers. If you want "decor," cover it with a cute cloth bag or decorative paper sleeve.

You can save money on a calendar, and make one really unique to yourself. Use a word processing or publishing program to create a calendar "grid", then fill it in for each month. Then pick out some digital photos to add as "watermarks" (that means something kind of faded in the background). This is pretty easy in Office. Unless you have a color printer, format the photo in grey scale before printing. My calendar has family photos (I can almost hear my oldest daughter groaning, and yes, the graduation photo of you with Beevo is my May page....)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Radical food for the truly broke

OK, as I promised, I'm putting up some posts just for people who are truly desperate, and this is one. Most of you in the US who are interested in budgeting aren't going to be interested in these extremes.

I'm starting with some assumptions. One is that you have access to some form of refrigeration and some means of cooking, even if it's just a cooler and a hot plate. Second, that you do have at least $50 a month for food. Third, that while you won't be at home at lunchtime (so want foods that don't need refrigeration or heating) but you aren't employed full time so have some extra time. Understand, this is NOT a healthy diet (and probably not adequate calories on some days), but it should keep you going long enough to get things back under control.

For breakfast the first day, a hot dog on a slice of the cheapest white bread you can find (from a day old bread store is even cheaper) should run you no more than $.03, and about $.09 for the cheapest brand of hot dog you can find. This will get you about 8 grams of protein. With this, have half a glass of milk for 4 more grams of protein at about $.08 (if regular milk is too expensive, check the prices on powdered milk to try to get this.) And have a very little bit of fruit or fruit juice. Our local store sells "lunchbox" apples and oranges for $.25 each, eat half of one of these. If you're large and/or do physical work, have an extra piece of bread or two as toast, but try to keep breakfast under $.35. For lunch, one to one and a half peanut butter sandwiches, the cheapest brand you can find, and the other half of the apple or orange should run you about $.25 to $.30.

During the day, find someplace that sells produce that's past its prime. Locally, I can get a small basket for $1. Get a couple of these, preferably things that can be eaten raw, will stay good for two or three days more, and will go well together. If nothing else, buy the cheapest bag of potatoes you can find. For supper, fix a pot of brown rice, about 1.25 cups dry weight (half a pound). This is about $.34 and should make about 4+ cups of cooked rice. Put a little oil in a non-stick skillet, heat to medium, and add half this rice (cool the rest and refrigerate for tomorrow). Break an egg (about $.10) and beat it a little before dribbling it over the rice, stirring it in the pan constantly. If your produce purchase includes anything that could go well in this (onion, pepper, squash, etc.) add about $.05 to $.10 worth when you add the egg. Stir until the egg bits are cooked thoroughly, salt and pepper and eat. First day's food consumed should be around $1.

For breakfast, warm up the leftover brown rice ($.17), and have with half a glass of milk ($.08) and, if you got a bit of fruit that can be eaten raw, have about $.10 worth for a total of $.35 for breakfast. If that's not quite enough, have a slice or two of toast, but try to keep it under $.40. For lunch, make a cheese sandwich with the cheap bread and the cheapest sliced cheese you can find, about $.20 for the sandwich, plus a bit more of your fruit. One to one-and-a-half sandwiches plus the fruit should stay under $.40.

Start supper early. Put a couple of quarts of water to boil. Assuming you have a few spices and such, a little cayenne or garlic powder can add some flavor, especially if you don't have some boullion to put in at this point. Add one and a quarter cup of brown rice, stir in, cover, and reduce to a simmer. Wash and cut up your cheap produce (potatoes, turnips, carrots, cabbage, peppers, onions, anything that will go well together in a soup), cutting out the bad spots. When the rice is about half cooked, add the vegetables, stir, cover and let simmer. If you need more water, add it now, then bring back to a boil before reducing to a simmer. Cook until the rice and vegetables are tender, then serve over a slice of your cheap white bread. The rice is about $.34, and the produce should have been no more than $1.50 total, and you should have a pot of soup big enough for three to four days. If you have 1/4 tonight over two slices of the cheap bread, you have a filling supper for about $.52. Your total for the second day is about $1.32. If you have a freezer, freeze two portions of this soup for later.

For the third day, dice two slices of bread ($.06), beat an egg ($.10), dice a cooked hot dog ($.09) and warm up a small skillet with just a little oil. Add the bread cubes and hot dog, and stir until warmed through, then add the egg. Cook like scrambled eggs until THOROUGHLY cooked. Serve with half a glass of milk ($.08) for a $.33 breakfast (I first saw something like this called "spornj" which I assume is Scandinavian.) For lunch, peanut butter sandwiches again, with half a piece of fruit for about $.35. During the day, buy a jar of the cheapest apple sauce you can find and the cheapest bag of potatoes. For supper, warm up leftover soup and serve over a couple of slices of the bread, $.52. Third day total, $1.20

For the fourth day, fix a big batch of oatmeal for breakfast ($.12), eat with half a glass of milk (.08) and a little applesauce (either in the oatmeal or separate-$.10) for about $.30.  Lunch-cheese sandwiches, about $.30. For supper, start early and bring a couple of quarts of water, mixed with milk made from instant ($.25) and salt, pepper, and garlic powder, to a boil while you wash and dice up about 2 pounds of potatoes (leave the peels ON, but cut out bad spots.) Add the potato (about $.60) carefully, stir in, reduce to a simmer and cover. Check and stir about every five minutes. When the potatoes are soft, with the skins starting to fall off, remove from heat. This soup should be enough for about 3 suppers (about $.30 each), served over the cheap white bread (2 slices at $.06) and a little apple sauce ($.10) for a $.46 supper. Total for day 4, $1.06

So, you've eaten for 4 days for $4.58, and there are lots of variations on the cheap starch/legume meals and the least expensive fruits and veggies. Think with these kinds of cheap starchy meals, you can make it through 30 days for less than $50? At this rate, you could get through for less than $40.

Now, some suggestions. First, if things are THIS bad, look for help: food banks and other charities. But if you get some food from one of those sources, don't immediately blow your own food money on expensive stuff. Use their food to stretch yours, especially if they provide fruits and vegetables and meat, which this menu is VERY short on. With this supplement, you can increase your calories and protein some, stock up on a few extra good bargains in grains and legumes, and add a can of beef or chicken base to give those soups more flavor; plan for NEXT month when you may not have that help anymore.

If you can't get really cheap older produce, look at the best bargains in bags of frozen produce. I often find bags of frozen diced onions for $.60, not much more than what they'd cost fresh, and onions are not only particularly good for you, they really add flavor to boring soups. Applesauce is often very cheap. Powdered non-fat instant milk is often, though not always, cheaper than fresh. It's a good source of protein. Eggs are usually one of the cheapest proteins. There are usually brands of hot dogs and bologna for less than $1 for a package to add protein as well. Cabbage is often cheap. If you can get squash cheap, it's a filling vegetable. Overripe bananas. Some types of apples at certain times of the year.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Monthly food budget

Looking for a way to cut your budget a little? Often food is the area where there's the most room to cut. Generally, if you aren't desperate, it's best to cut back slowly and in small steps so you don't feel deprived, and your family doesn't rebel. So, look at what you would normally make for dinners for a week, and pick two nights to cut costs. If you normally go out a couple of nights a week, cut one of those out and make a modest dinner at home instead.

Keep in mind the idea of perception. If you tell your family that you're making cheap meals to save money, they're going to think of it that way, and feel deprived. If you don't tell them anything except you've found a fun new recipe you want to try, they won't (though it also depends on how picky your eaters are.)

So, one night when you would normally have, for instance, a family-style frozen lasagne, costing about $6 with a $3 salad out of a bag, make a big pot of the bean soup I mentioned a day or so ago with a little ham added, and serve it with toast and a salad you make yourself from a head of lettuce. You should be able to make the soup for 4 for under $1.50, the toast shouldn't be more than $.75, and the lettuce shouldn't be more than $1. So, you have a "comfort" food meal for about $3.25 in place of one that would cost $9, saving $5.75. And the actual work invested is only about 5 minutes. Not a bad profit.

On the night you normally go out to eat or get take out, make homemade cheese pizza. It's actually much easier than you might think (I'll try to post a dough recipe sometime soon), and kids can get really excited about helping make it. It's also a time when you can toss on some vegetables that they might eat (or put them on your half of the pizza). You should be able to make enough for four people for under $5, depending on the price of cheese in your area. So, instead of $5 by 4 people for even the cheapest of meals out, you only spend $5 and the family has a lot of fun while you save another $15. BTW, we made this once for a young teen sleepover, and they not only ate enormous amounts, they raved about it and loved watching it being made. I hate to think what it would have cost to feed them take-out pizza.

Now, you've saved a bit more than $20 over the week. Do NOT turn around and reward yourself by spending that money on a treat. That defeats the whole purpose, and most people end up spending twice what they really saved. Tuck that money away into savings or to use for bulk buying. If you use some discipline, you can save $80 in the first month (assuming you normally spend what I'm projecting here). While $20 doesn't sound like a lot, if you save the full $20.75 every week, at the end of a year, you'll have $1079 plus interest. Now THAT sounds more like it.

And once you've introduced these changes and gotten several recipes worked out that everyone likes, take another night and start substituting lower cost meals for that night. But, unless you're desperate, don't eliminate expensive favorites entirely. You might decide to have steak or chicken cordon bleu only once every 2 or 3 weeks instead of weekly, but if favorites vanish entirely, people notice. And get grouchy.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Cheap but good food

OK, so you haven't done a lot of cooking from scratch. I've found an amazing number of people even my age (almost 50) who have never gotten past convenience foods.

To make one thing clear, btw, my daughters are probably giggling at the idea of me writing about cooking. I don't particularly enjoy cooking (though I love baking), and when my oldest was about 2 and showed interest, I was thrilled to let her help. As she showed herself to be competent and safe, I let her make more and more. Years later, when I got divorced and had to work full time, she took over most of the cooking, and as a thank you, I paid for several gourmet-type classes for her (with the bonus that she then made some incredible stir-fries and other dishes). However, I do take credit for at least teaching her an attitude about cooking, which is to be willing to take chances, and the idea that very few recipes are cast in stone. 

So here is a recipe that I invented, as in I just started putting things together. It's cheap, tasty, filling and nutritious, and you can change it infinitely. All it took was a general knowledge of cooking times and what goes well together and the basic idea for making soups and stews.

Start with about a quart of broth, possibly about a cup more if you don't want it too thick. Put it in a 2 qt sauce pan with a tight fitting lid, add a little salt, pepper, and a very little cayenne pepper, then heat to a low boil. Rinse and add an eighth to a quarter cup of dry pinto beans. Stir in, cover, reduce to a moderate simmer for about 10 minutes. Rinse and add a half cup of brown rice. Stir in, cover, cook at a moderate simmer for about 10 minutes. Rinse and add about a quarter cup of dry black beans. Stir in, cover, cook at a moderate simmer for about 10 minutes. Add about a quarter to a third cup of split peas and about a quarter cup of chopped onions (I buy frozen bags of pre-chopped onions that work perfectly for this). Stir in, cover, cook at a moderate simmer for about 20 minutes. At this point, test at least one grain of each ingredient to make sure they're soft. It may need 5 to 10 minutes more cooking time. Serve over a slice of whole wheat bread.

The only thing complicated about this recipe is that you have to keep coming back every 10 minutes to add something. You really need to stir and check to make sure it isn't boiling over anyway, but if you aren't too picky about something being a bit overcooked and your lid has a steam vent, add the brown rice at the beginning with the pintos and cook for 20 minutes, and then add the split peas and onions with the black beans and cook for 30 minutes for a total of about 50.

Made like this and served over whole wheat bread, I get enough for at least three hearty lunches (actually usually four, but I'm allowing for bigger appetites) at a  cost for the entire pot of soup (based on my sales prices) of about $.45, plus the bread it's served with. That's either three lunches for about $.23 each (counting bread) or a meal for three for about $.70. It's a complete protein because you're combining legumes, brown rice, and whole wheat bread. And it's low fat to no fat, depending on the broth you use, and is even better warmed up as leftovers. That little touch of cayenne keeps it from being too bland without overdoing the salt.

Don't forget that you can change this around and substitute other legumes and grains. Just pay attention to which things take the longest to cook. It can also be "beefed" up a bit. Have a little leftover pork roast, ham, or bacon? They go great in this. I find a single slice of cooked pork loin, about 3 ounces, shredded into the pot when I add the onions and split peas, make this seem much more like a meal in itself. Garlic would probably go really well with this, and a little potato. Mushroom too, though mushrooms generally are getting out of the cheap food category. You can double or triple the batch or increase the broth to make it soupier. Don't reduce the amount of broth, though, because this is pretty thick at these proportions, especially the next day.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Thrift shops

Some of you think, thrift shops, and roll your eyes, thinking of people who dress like bag ladies. That just shows you're letting stereotypes get in the way.

My mother let us wear hand-me-downs as play clothes when we were kids but was always very uncomfortable with the idea of us wearing them, even nice ones, for school or church. I never cared but knew that my mother had grown up appallingly poor.***  To her, wearing second-hand clothes in public was a sign you were poor, something she was scared of. We were a respectable middle-class family, and that image was important to her.

However, she had a friend whose husband built up a prosperous business. Mildly wealthy by the standards of the early 80s, but they continued to live about the same as always. However, she always dressed beautifully in designer clothes, and one day she asked my mother to go shopping with her. My mother loved to shop (shopping, as in looking, should have been an Olympic sport in her mind), so she was delighted.

And then, her friend let her in on her secret-resale shops. They lived in a major city with a large entertainment industry, and many of those people would buy designer clothes, even originals, wear them briefly, then sell them. I think my mother was in shock that her wealthy friend wore SECOND HAND CLOTHES. Then she thought about the fact that her friend was always so perfectly dressed and took a closer look at the clothes on the racks, all of which looked as if they hadn't been worn more than once or twice. And she realized that for the first time, SHE could afford to own clothes that looked that good.

My mother's entire outlook on "second hand" changed, all because someone she admired showed her that this was "respectable" and that even the wealthy did it. More, there was a bit of a thrill in the idea she might be wearing something a big name had worn. Now, the clothes they were looking at still weren't cheap, but the $40 she might have paid for a quality designer dress in a resale shop was no more than she'd have paid for a new one in a department store, and she got a much better quality product.

Now, I shop the real bargain stores, but you'd be surprised at the quality of clothes that sometimes show up in them. I have a name brand cotton sweater I bought almost 10 years ago that still looks almost new... for less than $5. It takes a lot of sorting through the racks, though, and you won't find good things on every trip. Yard sales are another source. And if you know how to make even minor alterations to clothes, your options are even wider. My daughters have both gone off to conventions and interviews in clothes we bought this way and remarked later that they were at least as well dressed as anyone else.

***And for anyone who thinks, yeah, U.S. poor, must mean they had to make do with one car and no steak on Sunday, I'm talking Appalachian subsistence farm, so poor that my grandfather finally got an INDOOR FLUSH toilet in about 1976. They did have one tap with running water in the kitchen. A few electric lights, but a wood stove for heat. They still didn't have a telephone in 1980 when he died. I have vivid memories of trekking out to the outhouse at 1 AM with a flashlight...

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Coffee on the cheap

I have friends who who are serious coffee gourmets. I mean, they have coffee makers that cost more than I spend on groceries in two weeks, multiple coffee grinders, special gadgets and carafes, and they never drink anything but coffee made from expensive gourmet freshly ground beans and distilled water. These are the people who keep the real coffee bars in business.

I understand their love of really good coffee, and I occasionally treat myself to a cup of one of those gourmet coffees. But I admit I don't know the difference between Sumatran and Brazilian (though I can find the countries on the map, more than most Americans can), nor is that kind of obsession in my budget. I buy the cheap brands on sale (I start watching for sales as soon as I open a canister). At 5:30 AM, my taste buds aren't awake enough to tell the difference anyway, and as a bonus, I get plastic canisters that I use for storage (there are currently at least 7 of these on my counter with everything from flour to split peas.)

But I don't just go cheap on the coffee. I make it cheap too. Years ago, a gourmet coffee friend recommended one of the cheap line of coffee makers as making decent coffee for the price range, and I bought one. That first one lasted about 3.5 years, which was a reasonable return for the price, though I would have preferred a model that held up a little longer. So I bought another one. The second one lasted about 1.5 years. I was pretty upset when this one gave out that fast, but I took a chance on a third one because at $25, it was one of the cheapest, and I had been told the other cheap ones didn't last either. The third one lasted less than a year, and at that point, I'd had enough.

The same friend had also told me about something called a French press coffee maker, and I had bought one for my older daughter to use to make small amounts of gourmet coffees (she is a foodie, btw). At the time, I thought it was a nice toy, but the drip coffee maker seemed a little safer and more convenient, largely because we didn't have a garbage disposal. But at this point, I went looking for one for myself along with a good whistling tea kettle. The French press cost a bit less than $20, and I don't remember how much the kettle was but probably around $15.

So, what is a French press? It's easier to describe how it works. You take the lid with rod and attached screen out, put coffee in the bottom of the carafe (it came with a scoop, I use around 2 scoops to get a really strong coffee). Boil water (the reason for the kettle). When it boils, pour it into the carafe part, pull the rod with the attached screen up to the top of the lid, and put it on. The rod should stay pulled up while the coffee steeps for about 5 minutes. Then slowly push the rod down, which will strain out the grinds. And pour. That's all there is to it.
Here's the Wikipedia article on them, with a couple of decent, though not great photos:
It's recommended that you use a coarser grind of coffee, but regular grind coffee seems to work fine for me. I've been using this press exclusively for over 2.5 years, and it's still in perfect shape. I may have to replace the screen at some point, but the rest of the pot is very durable, I may be using it for 10 or 15 years. Certainly a lot cheaper than $25+ every 10 months.

It has two minor possible drawbacks. It doesn't make a huge amount of coffee at a time. I get about 4 cups out of a pot, which is generally perfect for me, but that could be a drawback if you have several serious coffee drinkers. And I think it uses a bit more coffee per cup, but you don't have to buy paper filters either. Otherwise, it takes about the same length of time as the drip machines I've owned, and I think the coffee tastes better. It's probably as easy or easier to clean, especially if you have a garbage disposal. You do have to use the stove to heat water, but this could be a plus for a family with both coffee and tea drinkers. Heat up a kettle of water and make coffee and tea from the same kettle.

Oh, and if you camp, just think about how easy this is to take along...