Saturday, April 2, 2011

Budget food for the non-cook

My daughter was at a conference this morning, so I'll post tomorrow night about our weekly groceries. On the way home from my exam yesterday, I swung by the retail outlet for the school's ag program and picked up pepper bacon ends and pieces, ground pork sausage, bratwurst, and a package of sausage wraps. I don't have the exact prices on me, but the meat ranged from about $1.90 to $2.25 a pound for great quality and taste. The wraps are, perhaps, slightly pricey, and unfortunately high fat and calorie, but they can be individually frozen and used for emergency meals when I need something that will stick with me.

Which leads me to my topic: budget food for the non-cook, or for when you just don't have time to really cook. When I worked as staff at a university several years back, I used to watch the students, who made barely minimum wage and could only work 20 hours a week, buy expensive fast food for almost every lunch, and often carried in fast food breakfasts as well. I'm pretty sure most of them spent most of their check each week on fast food. All of them told me "I don't know how to cook" and a couple of the guys made it clear that cooking would threaten... something.

There were a lot of options that would have been much cheaper than fast food and even cheaper than the typical frozen dinner. Hot dogs are sold precooked, all you have to do is heat them up and top them. One of the pizza places in town used to sell a large cheese pizza for about $4 on Tuesday nights. Buy one of those and a cheap salad in a bag, and you have supper for about 3 nights for around $1.50 a night, which is a lot cheaper than the $4+ a night they were spending for burgers.

Even better, start looking at the non-frozen-dinnner items in the frozen foods section. French fries, tater tots, and hash browns come in huge bags that are cheap (by the by, hash browns make a good casserole topping). You can also buy bags of pre-cooked hamburgers (check to make sure they're 100% beef, though) and chicken for a reasonable price. Even the most hopeless of non-cooks can manage to turn on an oven, put some fries on a sheet pan and set a timer, then warm a couple of burgers in the microwave.

Another easy one, somewhat healthier, is a baked open-faced sandwich, particularly if you're feeding several people. Buy a loaf of French bread, or something like it. Preheat the oven to about 375F. Slice it in half, long-wise. Put the halves of the bread on a sheet pan. Add sandwich meat and some tomato, onion or pepper (or combination of your choice). Top with cheese. Put in the oven until the cheese melts. Or spread jarred spaghetti sauce on the bread, add some sliced veggies and cooked meat, and top with cheese and bake for a quick French bread pizza.

How about homemade soup? I can hear you saying "But this is supposed to be for the non-cook!" Relax. Buy two large cans of broth and some frozen cut veggies and use a couple of those frozen precooked beef patties. Pour the broth in a large saucepan and warm almost to boiling. Thaw the burgers and 2 to 3 cups of frozen vegetables of your choice in the microwave. Add the vegetables to the broth, then crumble or cut the burgers into bite sized pieces and add them as well. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 10 to 15 minutes. Add salt and pepper. Serve over slices of bread. See? As long as you don't walk away and forget about it, this isn't much harder than warming up a can of soup. You can use canned vegetables (and canned beans) as well, but those don't taste as good.

These aren't as cheap as really cooking and most aren't exactly low-fat, but all of them should be cheaper than fast food. And look for unusual things like the sausage wraps. Each one is filling enough for a meal, especially with a piece of fruit, and by buying an entire package, I paid about $1.10 each. By thinking creatively, you can find a lot of ways to eat more cheaply than fast food and frozen dinners.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Think double

One way to save money is to think double. If you're going to run the oven, especially on a hot day when the oven use is going to push up the AC bill, don't run it just for a single item.

In the simplest form, if you are putting a chicken, turkey, or roast in the oven, put the vegetables in with it. My mother always added potatoes, carrots, onions, and, sometimes, mushrooms to the broth surrounding a roast. And frankly, those were some of the best vegetables I've ever had. But it also saves on extra dishes and pans and saves the energy that would be used to cook those vegetables on the stove top or in the microwave. You can bake potatoes in the oven while other things cook as well, which saves the cost of microwaving them (and I like them oven-roasted myself).

Even better, put some bread or a cake in the oven to bake at the same time, and get twice the use from the electricity. For example, tonight I have a casserole baking in the oven, and I put in some bread to bake at the same time, essentially getting the bread baked for free.

Another approach to this is to cook up a lot at once to freeze. We do this regularly, mostly with meats. If we buy a lot of chicken on sale, it gets baked in the oven all at once, and most of it is then cooled, cut up, and frozen for future meals. I also roast two or three packages of hot dogs in the oven at the same time to freeze for my lunches. But if you like homemade breads, you can bake several loaves of bread at the same time, especially if you have a larger family.

But don't limit this idea to saving on energy while cooking. Buying something new? Think multi-use, like a swiss army knife (but don't get suckered into buying a gadget that does a dozen things, but all of them poorly). Decide whether getting a specialized gadget is really necessary for you with two questions: Does it really work much better than an ordinary hammer, or whatever? And will you use it often enough to make it worth the investment?

For instance, a special mallet with spikes for pounding meat DOES work better at tenderizing than pounding it with an ordinary weight of some sort. But if you're only going to use it once every 2 or 3 months, is it really worth the extra cost and storage space? The same for a double boiler (sp?). Yes, the fancy thing works best. But you can nestle a metal bowl over a couple of inches of water in a sauce pan and do about the same thing, and the metal bowl and sauce pan can be used for lots of other things. However, we've found spending the extra $2 or $3 to get a real corkscrew is MUCH easier than trying to remove a cork with the one that's part of the bottle opener.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Small pleasures

Americans have become jaded. For most of them, their pleasures and luxuries have to be really, truly expensive, and they've come to believe that a lot of things are necessities.

My perspective tends to be different. While my parents grew up poor---in my mother's case, extreme poverty---my family was middle class. My dad is old enough to remember the Great Depression. People tend to react two ways to handling money after this: either they take the "eat, drink, and be merry" attitude and are always broke, or they scrimp past the point of common sense. My father tends toward the latter. My mother bounced between them, I think. 

My dad's income was noticeably lower than most people in his field, but his job was far more stable, his reason for picking it. We lived much more modestly than most people with similar incomes, more like my classmates, kids from small farms that barely got by, including gardening, canning, and cooking almost all meals at home. But we had our pleasures. Our house was nice and comfortable. We had a telephone. A television which usually picked up the 4 channels in that rural area. We may not have had our own bedrooms, but there were only two of us in each room. We never worried about food, clothes to wear, a warm coat. Since my mother was an excellent cook, we generally looked forward to mealtimes, especially desserts. Garden work was sometimes tedious, but the pain of picking rows of strawberries was offset by bowls of delicious strawberries covered in milk.

And I saw how my classmates, and some of my relatives, lived, and by comparison, our lives were luxurious, just as later, when we moved as I started high school, I often felt poor compared to many classmates (and now realize that many of them were much worse off because their parents overspent to "keep up with the Joneses") I later lived two years in (then) West Germany, and got yet another perspective on need, want, and luxury.

I've learned that with the right attitude, you can find as much, or more, pleasure out of little things. Few people in this country know the luxurious taste of just picked ripe strawberries, covered in milk or a fully ripe tomato picked and sliced just before supper. The stuff from the grocer's has NO taste compared to these. A cup of hot coffee or tea on a cold morning is a delight. An iced drink, even water, on a hot day is as well. I think one problem is that most of the pleasure people get out of their luxuries is now from showing them off. Once the novelty wears off, the pleasure is mostly gone, and the person needs a new purchase to be the envy of his or her friends.

Sixty years ago, when a woman turned on her stove in the morning to make coffee (in a percolater that went on the burner), she smiled at the stove in pleasure because she often remembered her own mother cooking on a wood-stove. When she opened the refrigerator to get eggs, she smiled in pride and remembered her own mother's ice box. When she turned on the kitchen tap to fill that coffee pot, she might remember a pump in her childhood, even outside in the rain or snow. And both she and her husband remembered World War II and shortages and rationing of almost everything, especially food. As he went out to start his car, he remembered horses and wagons still on the road when he was young. They had no doubts about how much these things had improved their lives and that they were luxuries. They probably still knew a few people living without them.

I think two things are important for perspective. First, become genuinely aware of how many things we have that are not needs and how much harder life would be without them (maybe even actually try splitting wood, then building a fire in a woodstove and cooking on it). But don't let that make you feel guilty or scared. Instead, learn to take pleasure in them and get the same delight out of the commonplace, small things in our lives that you do out of the impressive luxuries and toys. Learn to consider little "extras" as much luxuries to be savored as the expensive sports cars. And second, try to make all luxuries less frequent in your life. A single cup of gourmet coffee in a month is almost a ceremonial event to be enjoyed thoroughly. Two cups a day, and you probably don't even think about it anymore.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Thrifty entertaining

OK, so you have family coming for dinner unexpectedly and you don't have much left to spend this month. You don't want to put a lot of expensive stuff on the credit card or take them out to have a nice dinner, but you still want to do something nice for your family.

A lot depends on how broke you really are, what you have on hand, and how much time you have to prepare. And just who is coming. Your elderly grandparents won't necessarily appreciate the same meal that would go over well with families with small children and probably have different dietary considerations. 

If you're only a little tight on money: For the family with small kids, if you have a grill and not much time to prepare, consider grilling hot dogs for the kids and grilling chicken or steak or pork chops (whatever is on sale or in your freezer) for the adults. Make a salad to go with it, bake potatoes on the grill, and make a quick cake or cookies for dessert. For your elderly grandparents or even your sister and her husband, consider baked or roasted chicken, a salad, freshly made bread of some kind or pasta, a vegetable side dish or two, and fresh fruit for dessert (if strawberries are in season and cheap, wash, hull and slice them and serve with just a little sugar sprinkled on them).

If you're really tight on money but have more time, consider homemade spaghetti, with a cheap salad made at home, a side dish of vegetables (corn or beans), homemade garlic bread, and a cheap cake. You should be able to make this meal for 4 people for about $7-$8 or less. Homemade spaghetti sauce is easy, by the way. My mother made it with two cans of undiluted tomato soup, 1 tblspn of brown sugar, 1.5 tblspns of chili powder, and some bay leaves and whole cloves (make sure you remove these before serving) simmered for up to an hour with some browned ground meat. And garlic bread is just a loaf of bread sliced in half, buttered and sprinkled with garlic salt before toasting.

Another option, depending on who's coming, is homemade soup and homemade bread. I've discussed making soup before. Homemade bread is also pretty easy, and I'll post a couple of recipes sometime soon. But on a cold day, there's nothing like a bowl of hot soup and warm bread (not to mention the aroma of bread baking). Add some fresh fruit for dessert, and you have a very satisfying meal for four, possibly for less than $6, depending on what you use. This is usually better for adult guests than kids, though. But you should have enough "pantry" foods to whip this out without running to the store, except maybe for the fruit.

If you're mostly having children, consider baked macaroni and cheese, a salad, and a cheap cake. Mac and cheese is cheap, but the baked kind makes it seem a bit more upscale for the adults. And all you need is two cups (pre-cooked measure) of cooked macaroni, 2 cups of cheddar cheese, and 2 cups of milk and 1 egg beaten together. Grease a casserole, layer the mac and the cheese, then pour the milk and egg over it. Bake, covered, at 350 for about 40 minutes.

Oh, and my favorite quick cheap cake recipe: Mix together 1 cup of sugar, 2 tbsp of shortening or melted butter or margarine, 1/2 tsp of salt, 1 cup of milk, 2 cups of unbleached flour, and 1 tsp of baking soda. Grease and flour a pan, and sprinkle cinnamon sugar over the top. Bake until the center is done at about 350, usually about 35 minutes. Makes a nice quick dessert without a lot of heavy icing for about $.60, possibly less. It has no eggs, and you can substitute oil for the butter or margarine if you have a guest with health concerns.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Budget pizza

Homemade pizza is easy, and can be quite cheap to make. What seems to scare people the most is making the crust. A basic crust is a snap (my daughters were making pizza crust when they were barely literate). It needs:

1 tablespoon (or package) of yeast
1 cup of lukewarm water
1-2 tablespoons of oil or melted margarine
1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt
a pinch of sugar
flour (2-3 cups worth)
(optional-a tiny bit of lemon juice or dried herbs)

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water in a mixing bowl. When it's dissolved, add the oil or melted margarine, then add the salt and sugar (and optional items if using them). Slowly stir in flour, probably about 2 1/2 cups worth: you may need more or less. Add until it isn't wet or too sticky, but not so much it gets dry (sounds scarey, but it really isn't). Beat in, then let it sit for a few minutes while you grease a sheet pan and make the pizza sauce. If your house is cold or drafty, it may help to put it on top of the fridge while you work covered with a dishtowel.

This dough recipe is enough for one pizza made on a normal-sized sheet pan. Put the dough on the sheet pan, get a little flour on your fingers, and pat it out until it fills the pan evenly (kids LOVE doing this if you don't want to get your fingers dirty). An option at this point is brushing a little melted butter on it if you're ok with the extra calories. Either way, now spoon sauce onto the pizza and spread it out with the back of the spoon, covering all but the bare edge at the outside. Sprinkle with cheese or add thin slices of cheese (mozarella is the classic for this, and it's relatively cheap and low fat), however much looks good to you. Add any other toppings you want.

The pizza sauce is pretty easy too, and really isn't much different from a spaghetti sauce. We use one small can of tomato sauce, one small can of tomato paste, with garlic, oregano, basil, salt, and pepper, but you can vary it to whatever appeals to you. One of my daughters likes to add a touch of paprika, and I do love her pizzas. Experiment with ingredients and sauce and crust until you get it just the way you like it.

Bake in a preheated 425F oven on a lower rack for about 15 minutes (or until the cheese is melted and beginning to brown). Let cool enough to be safe to eat, then slice and serve.

And as for my claim that this is cheap? I buy yeast in bulk rather than the little packages, so the crust costs less than $.40, the pizza sauce is about $.75, and the cheese is about $.60 to $1.20, depending on how thick we spread it. So, as little as $1.75 for fresh, homemade cheese pizza. Sometimes, but not always, kids will cheerfully eat vegetables on pizza that they won't painlessly eat otherwise, too, and most kids LOVE helping to make this (they seem to get more excited about eating things that they helped make too). I could do a really nice veggie-and-cheese pizza for about $3.

And if you're looking for cheap food for a kids' party, especially a sleep over, this is almost always a sure hit. We hosted a sleepover with young teen girls who ate close to a pizza each (plus other party food), and they hung around the kitchen, watching in fascination. Definitely the hit of the evening.

Monday, March 28, 2011

USDA spending levels for food

If you have a clear idea of how much you're spending a week and month on food, you may find this interesting:

This is the most recent table of the USDA's estimated cost of food for individuals and families at different spending levels. I first became aware of this table through Amy Dacyzyn's Tightwad Gazette back in the 90s. 

Now, it's easy to look at this and say, as I do, that you could easily feed one adult on less than the $153.10 per month shown for one adult female on the thrifty plan, and I have no idea how I could spend the $304.80 for the liberal plan, especially as these rates exclude all restaurant meals. But their numbers are based on prices all over the country, including cities where prices are much higher, and I believe they look for ordinary prices, not sales prices. Many of us save money on food in ways they don't take into account. And can't reasonably. I briefly skimmed through their report on how this was calculated, and while I saw a few things I disagreed with, I also better understand how they come up with this. I will note that I'm particularly puzzled with the INCREASE in allowance for families over individuals. It's cheaper per person to feed several people than one, not more expensive...

While we tend to compare these amounts to OUR local shopping, like it or not, the majority of the US population live in urban centers where food tends to be very expensive (relatively). Over 10% of the total US population live in the Greater NYC and Greater LA alone, and 0ver 70 metropolitan areas have a higher population than Alaska's total population. And many people are not aware that grocery stores in the poorest neighborhoods tend to be far more expensive than those in affluent neighborhoods. The people in those neighborhoods often are unaware that there's a store 10 miles away with much better prices, or have no access to them. Owning your own car in some of the biggest cities is impractical even for many of the middle class due to things like monthly or daily parking charges, much less for the poor in those cities. And interestingly, public transportation often doesn't go near the shopping in more affluent areas.

Another thing that rather shocked me is that once you get a certain distance from major urban areas, the price of groceries can skyrocket again. A friend says her elderly parents in East Oregon pay outrageous prices at their local grocery store. While it may be  more expensive for these smaller stores to get their food from the wholesalers, that should be off-set by the far lower overhead in these towns. Her conclusion, and one I agree with, is that the store owners essentially feel that they have a captive customer base. It may be legal, but it's not good business practice in the long-run because your customers not only have no reason to be loyal but may actively detest you. Small towns closer to urban centers may be a bit more expensive, but usually the difference is low enough to be offset by gas savings.

The problem with a single number for the entire country is that prices are very different across the country. Those expensive areas push up the average prices, but the USDA can't ignore them or exclude them. A majority, perhaps a large majority, lives in those expensive places. These numbers are the ones used by courts in estimating child support and bankruptcy and by agencies. It would be nice if we could have "regionally adjusted" rates, but then you'd have people in Texas protesting that you were allowing them less than someone in NYC.

For the people with the over-priced local stores, my suggestion is team-work. If you live in one of those poor neighborhoods in an urban area, find one person with a vehicle, and 4 or 5 people go together once a week to one of those affluent grocery stores to shop. Figure out which things you really need that are most overpriced and concentrate on getting those (and consider space in the vehicle in deciding how much to get). However, to avoid getting hassled or singled out at the store, I'd recommend overdressing for the visit. If an entire group of people who look out of place (i.e. poor) come in at once, paranoid store managers could overreact. I don't care if someone takes offense to that from either side; think reality, not the ideal world.

For those in a rural area, you can use the same approach once a month; several people drive together to a much lower priced store, or find someone who already regularly makes a trip to a city and, as a group, offer to pay part or all of that person's gas in exchange for picking up some staples for your group. Buy bulk items and divide it among the group. I like the idea of several people driving in together, planning an entire day's outing to include other shopping (thrift stores maybe?) in addition to groceries once a month. Realistically, you may not save that much on your groceries with gas costs added, but it's a quiet form of protest, and your local store owner might get the message if enough people do this. Though take a close look at the store owner. If he or she is driving a beat-up old car and lives in a very modest house and works long hours in his or her store, then there may be a legitimate reason for the high prices.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Tax facts

NOTE: I'm not a trained tax preparer, talk to an expert for expert advice. But anyone can read the tables...

This is specific to the US, where I find there are huge myths and misconceptions about how federal income taxes work, and at almost every education level. I sat in a college class with a professor who made gross mistatements about how tax rates work. Of course, I've also found that history academics generally have an allergy to math anyway. And this post is not meant to be controversial, just lay the facts out clearly for people who've been confused by things they've been told.

First, there is not a magical point at which your tax rate changes and suddenly all your income is taxed at that new rate, making a large increase in your total tax (what my professor asserted until I brought him proof in the form of detailed calculations). I often hear this as "Oh, you can get a small raise and end up making less money because you're in a new tax bracket." Nonsense. You may lose certain deductions or credits that could, theoretically, cause that to happen, but it isn't the tax rate change that did it.

If you look closely at the tax tables, logic will tell you this. There is NO place where the amount of tax takes a huge leap, as it would if your overall tax rate jumped by 5-10%. For example, look at the difference between the rate for $8300 and $8350 and the rate for $8350 and $8400, the point at which the rate changes for a single filer from 10 to 15%. If the change in tax bracket  was applied to all of your taxable income, there should be a noticeable change in the amount of tax owed. But there isn't. The difference between the two is about $7 if you're single ($833 to $845). If your taxable income was all now taxed at 15% instead of 10%, you'd be paying about $1260 in taxes for $8401 in taxable income.

Let's take another approach. If your taxable income, married filing jointly, is $75,001, you're solidly in the 25% tax bracket. If you were being taxed at 25% for your entire income, you'd be paying $18, 750 in taxes. Consult the tax tables for your filing status and for $75,000 to $75050 , the tax is actually $11,119, slightly less than 15% overall ($75,001 x .15 = $11,250). What you actually pay when you file a joint married return is 10% on the first $16, 750, then 15% on the next $51,249. Then anything more than $68,000 is taxed at 25%. There is no huge sudden increase.

And remember, this taxable income is after deductions. A family of four with children young enough for the child tax credit can earn $26,000 before any income is taxed (standard deductions, plus 4 deductions for family members) regardless of income, then the first $2,000 in tax is eliminated by the child tax credit. So, that family of four would actually have to make at least $101,001 to have that tax rate, and then their tax is reduced to $9,119, less than a 10% tax rate on actual income. Start adding in itemized deductions for things like mortgage interest, all the pre-tax deductions and untaxed benefits like employers' contributions to health insurance which can easily be $15,000 a year and 401K contributions and matches, and your family of 4 probably has a REAL income of much closer to $125,000 and that tax of $9,119 is a bit more than 7%. And none of this even begins to touch on non-income extras from a job, such as travel and per diem meals in nice restaurants (a big "bonus" for some people at a couple of places I've worked). I also want to note here that I have not referred to tax rules for when people lose the child tax credit or fall under the AMT, but at the same time, I didn't include a number of credits and deductions that often apply.

I've been told by people involved in tax preparation that millionaires generally pay 10% or less of their real income in taxes, in spite of the top rates.  Some of that is apparently because capital gains are taxed at a lower rate than work income, supposedly to encourage investment. Remember that they also only pay SS on a small percentage of their income, and only on the work income, not investment income. Plus they are much more able to take advantage of tax shelters like 401Ks and fancier instruments like living trusts, and can often arrange to have what are personal expenses paid for by their employer, who in turn gets to treat that as a business expense.

At the lower end of the spectrum, people complain that the poor don't pay taxes. That's absurd. They may not pay income tax, but they generally pay a high percentage of their income in OTHER taxes, and they are much less likely to have benefits, particularly not pre-tax benefits, and many deductions people take for granted, they don't get. People tend to forget about property tax, sales tax (a BIG bite in some states), SS tax, gas tax, and all the others. Even renters pay property tax indirectly through their landlords. Remember, you aren't paying federal income tax on that first portion of your income either.

Whatever you think about the tax system, at least keep to the facts. Remember, if you make a claim that's overtly absurd, like the one about paying tax at the higher rate on all income, anyone who's informed will stop listening to anything else you say, no matter how good your argument is.