Monday, November 30, 2009

Starting Sage

After watching Julie and Julia the other night while knitting a mug cozy, I was inspired to pull down my cookbooks and read them instead of just browsing for a specific recipe. One cookbook is The Naked Chef by Jamie Oliver. He starts out the cookbook explaining things like how he got started, what staples he keeps in his pantry, what herbs should be grown fresh, etc. This inspired me to start a pot in my kitchen windowsill, especially since one of my goals for 2010 is to have a small 3'x3' vegetable garden (more about that later).

In my pursuit of frugality, I fought the urge to go shopping for new gardening supplies and seed and instead went on a search to see what I already have on hand. On my front porch I found a cluster of pots with dried potting soil from an herb garden attempt two or three years ago. I didn't realize at the time that if I sat the pots in front of the window a/c unit, the hot air would dehydrate them. Now I'm starting small with one plant. Jamie recommends rosemary, thyme, sage and bay and says they can be grown in most climates.

In my fridge I found a packet of sage seeds, so I am starting with those. I'm doing some googling to try to understand the plant better, but I start all my seeds the same with generally a lot of success. I find a small container like a seed starting pot, a small terra cotta pot, a paper egg carton, a toilet paper or paper towel roll, etc., fill with a little soil, moisten, add the seed, then place in a plastic ziplock bag in a warm, dark place for up to two weeks. I check on the bag to make sure mold is not growing and see how the seedling is coming along. Once it starts developing it's first leaves (the cotyledons and first true leaves) then I move it to a sunny location and keep damp. I seem to be great at starting seeds, but my forgetfulness which manifests into neglect is what kills the plants after it's first month or two of life. I'm going to be trying to develop habits and routine though so I can avoid this problem in 2010. We'll see how it goes...

Shopping Tips

A conversation I had with my mom this morning got me thinking about making a blog post on questions I ask myself when I'm shopping to keep from over buying. Hopefully they can help when you are on a budget or just looking for ways to help save more money.

First, I maintain a list on a dry erase board that I update in between shopping trips, plan all the meals in advance, and anything not on my list (and even some stuff on the list) get asked these questions:

1. Do I need you? If no, then I ask why do I want you? I put it away and in two weeks when I'm in the store again and I'm still thinking of the item and know exactly how it will benefit me then I will purchase it if it is within my budget.

2. Do I need you anytime in the next two weeks? If the answer is no and it's regular price, it goes back on the shelf and remains on my shopping list until next time. If it's an incredible bargain and it is something I truly need in the next month, then I will purchase it.

3. Is there a way I can get you cheaper? For example, if I see a book I want I make a note of it and order it off PBS. If it is food, can I make it from scratch with what I already have on hand? For home decor, is there a way I can make it? You get the idea.

4. Are you something I will still want in two weeks? The trick here is not to answer the question and just put it back. I had carried the same purse for the past four years and earlier this year saw an olive green oversized boho bag at Walmart that I fell in love with. I knew it would be perfect to keep a small knitting or crochet project in as well as all my personal items. Weeks went by and I couldn't get this bad out of my mind, so I went ahead and bought it and have never regretted it. Anything else I have forgotten about by my next shopping trip. (This is just a further illustration of a response to question 1).

5. Are you on my list? Why did I pick you up? Sometimes I'll just carry items around the store with me until I am ready to leave and once I realize how much I am already spending or that I don't need it, I'll make a final lap around the store to put things back (It's a great way to fit in some extra walking too). In a way it helps to get past the impulse urge by picking it up and putting it in the shopping cart, but the trick is not to let it leave the store with you.

6. Is purchasing you going to put me over my budget? This goes for items I put on my shopping list as well as impulse items. Sometimes I think I would like a new pair of cleaning gloves or a bag of chocolate, and once I have the things I know I need and have them added up, then I examine the less crucial items to determine whether they really need to be purchased or not. There is nothing more stressful to me than going over budget and knowing I'll be dipping into what I could be saving.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Frugal Tips of the Day

I just finished putting away groceries from my bi-monthly shopping trip and there were some real bargains on things I regularly use that I just could not pass up. I now have an excess of celery and heavy cream that I will use at later dates and wanted to share how I preserve them.

*Wrap celery in foil and it can keep as long as two weeks before use. I suspect they may last even a bit longer if you keep your fridge cold and they are wrapped in foil. I also chop and freeze to use in soups and stews. Celery can also be dehydrated. Here's a link for drying in the oven (Blanching is important to kill harmful bacteria or enzymes):

*Heavy whipping cream can be stored in the freezer, just make sure there is enough room in the container to allow for expansion. The cream can not be whipped after freezing, but it can be used in general cooking.

*Another tip I thought of this week is if you are ever in need of refried beans and do not have time to cook beans from scratch or you are looking to save a little money use canned pinto or black beans. Empty entire contents of can into sauce pan, heat thoroughly, then mash with fork or potato masher. If beans get a little dry add a couple tablespoons of water in increments and stir until beans are creamy.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Cheap Entertainment

I want to let you in on a secret. You do not have to pay full price for books, cds or dvds. I have been a member of (PBS) since June 2006. It has been an absolute life saver. I have a book addiction and instead of dropping $200 at Barnes and Noble or $50 at Half Price Books for approximately 10 books, I can get them for $3.45 a book (or less) at PBS. If you post books and mail them, the postage is less than $3.45 and you get a credit to request another book with. For me it's also cheaper than going to the library because I would spend $5 in gas per trip to the library. There are also and, and credits can be transferred between all three sites. I urge you to go check them out. Feel free to let me know if you have any questions! - Book Club to Swap, Trade & Exchange Books for Free.

Spaghetti Carbonara

This is one of those dishes that I can buy the ingredients and not have to worry about them going bad quickly, so I can make it in a pinch and it's quick and easy. It's also inexpensive, costing me about $5-6 to make. Serves 4.


1/2 lb bacon (approx, I buy bag of bacon ends at store, then separate meat from fat before putting in skillet)
black pepper
1 onion diced
1-2 garlic cloves minced
1 Tbs olive oil
1/2 c white wine
1 c pasta water
3 eggs
5 oz package Parmesan, grated (I buy already grated, both the wedge and grated are same price and same weight at any store I check)
1 pkg angel hair pasta

While bringing a pot of water to a boil, combine eggs and Parmesan in a bowl until well blended and set aside. Pepper and cook bacon over medium heat about 3-5 minutes, add olive oil and onion and cook until onion is translucent. Add garlic and cook an additional one minute (you don't want garlic to burn or it becomes bitter). Add white wine to deglaze pan.

When pasta is done cooking reserve one cup of pasta water (the starch in the water helps thicken the sauce), add a small portion of water to egg and cheese mixture to temper, then add water and egg and cheese mixture to skillet with bacon and allow to thicken slightly. After draining pasta, return to pot, add contents of skillet and mix to combine.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Bacon and Cheese Potato Soup

This is essentially a variation of the spicy sausage potato soup I posted previously, and while that was really yummy, I like this one even more.

Ingredients (I don't recall making many ingredients lists before, I think I have some editing to do!):

1/4 to 1/2 lb smoked bacon ends (the package sizes vary at the local meat market)
1 onion diced
1 Tbs chopped garlic
2-3 lbs potatoes, peeled and diced into 1 in pieces
8 cups water
2 Tbs chicken base (Better than Bouillon is a wonderful brand and is found with bouillon cubes)
2 Tbs olive oil
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
Black pepper
White pepper
Crushed red pepper

First trim the fat from the bacon ends to help reduce fat content of dish, then in a Dutch oven cook over medium to medium high heat in a Tbs of olive oil for 7 to 8 minutes, remove bacon from pan and onto towel-lined plate.

Next add remainder of olive oil to pan and cook onion until translucent. Add garlic and cook for one minute (you don't want garlic to burn or it will become bitter).

Add water, chicken base and potatoes to Dutch oven, bring to a boil and cook until potatoes are soft and break with a fork.

Ladle about half of the onion and potatoes with some broth into a blender and puree. Return back to Dutch oven, add bacon, black pepper, white pepper, crushed red pepper and thyme to taste. I'd approximate 1/4 tsp each of the pepper and 1/2 tsp thyme. Let simmer 30 minutes.

During the last 5 minutes of cooking up to serving time, add cheddar cheese and stir to blend.

I served this with toasted Irish soda bread.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Money tight? Here's some tips!

I've been getting a lot of positive comments about the blog lately and been hearing a lot of opinions about how people feel like the economy will not be getting better any time soon. This got me thinking about all the ways I have cut back in our family but do not feel like we are missing out on anything. My husband is a truck driver and I am a housewife. I do try to work when a job comes along, but in the area we live in there just are not many jobs to be had, and in the nature of hubby's job about 2-4 times a year we are going to be seriously strapped for cash. It's taken several years and some very hard lessons to help me figure out how to manage our money better and things I can do to ease the burden during hard times. So here are some of the things I have done and continue to improve on:

1. Create a budget. I started this by keeping a log of how much I spend on each individual bill, dog and cat food, groceries, dining out, entertainment, household purchases, gas, cigarettes (hubby smokes), and misc expenses. After 4-6 months I started seeing trends and I would try to make small changes in various categories. After I became accustomed to making small changes and cutting back, I started putting a cap on how much I could spend in various categories then setting aside money in savings. Tony and I now pretend that each of his checks are a certain dollar amount and when the checks are over we save everything over that amount, then when he has checks under that amount we have a cushion to help make up the difference.

2. Household bills. I have had my mortgage now for just over 6 years and early this year I shopped around for a new insurance policy. I still have a low interest rate from when I worked at the bank, otherwise I would have shopped around for a lower rate too. At the same time I got a new auto policy and between the two I am saving about $80 a month. For the electric bill, when we had a little extra money with our tax return we replaced our computer server with a smaller, more effective unit. I also called the electric company and they came and replaced our old meter with a newer one which we've noticed a big change in how much the unit says we use per day. If you know or suspect your current meter is at least 10 years old, or is analog and not digital, call to see about having your meter replaced, the company will generally do it for free. My electric company (Green Mountain in Texas) also has a customer loyalty program where I was able to lock in my rate at 12.5 cents per kilowatt hour for a year. Shop around for electric rates. I have also gotten into the habit of paying our bills 2 to 4 weeks in advance. If bills are the same amount every month then I'll pay them a month in advance. If they are variable, I'll pay a little extra on each one and pay it as soon as it's available. After keeping a log you will start to notice trends in how much those bills are at different times of the year and can anticipate how much they will be. Then when we have a month where Tony either does not work or works very few hours, playing catch up is not very difficult if we have to at all.

3. Pets. I started checking out different places that sell pet supplies. For years we bought our food at Walmart, and believe it or not, Walmart is not the cheapest place to get pet food. I found Tractor Supply Company had better prices on name brand food than Walmart, then started checking feed stores and found they have even better prices than TSC.

4. Food. Back when Tony and I both worked full time we would eat out 3 times a day. Then when I became a housewife we would eat out 2-4 times a week. Gradually we continued to cut back and now we only eat out one or two times a month. The cheapest we can eat out for is $15 if we hit a buffet, but often our bill exceeds $30 after tip at regular restaurants. I've made a game of trying to figure out how to make at home those foods we love when we eat out. The most expensive meals cost $10 to make and some I can make for $2-4 and feed 2-4 people and sometimes get multiple meals out of them. The past month with the cooler weather and tighter budget I have been making a lot more soup and serving homemade bread or grilled cheese sandwiches. I'll freeze the leftover soup to serve for lunch another day. Even convenience foods from the store I've started making at home for less (for example: pizza, burritos, french bread, refried beans).

5. Entertainment. Tony set up the new server connected to our television in the living room and set up Hulu desktop so we can watch tv shows and movies on demand for free. We do still have satellite service since we don't pick up local stations without it, but we are able to get by with just a local package since we can watch a lot of our favorite shows online for free. Tony and I do still go to movies once every couple of months, but instead of going to the big, mega theatres that charge $10+ dollars for admission then even more for the consession, we started going to the Movie Tavern which only charges $5 for admission. Sometimes we will eat there as the prices are good, but when money is tight we will get Taco Bueno before and just get a drink to share at the movie (which comes with free refills).

6. Household purchases. It's amazing how much money we spent on things like cleaning supplies, bottled water (our water here isn't always safe to drink), hardware, car repairs, etc. Many of you are familiar with my recipe for making laundry soap, I believe it is a November 2008 post. That alone saves me at least $120 a year, $170+ if I include fabric softener savings. For $1 I can make a batch of detergent that will last me a month, and I've replaced my fabric softener with 1/2 cup to 1 cup vinegar in the rinse cycle (cuts down on odors and lint). I do still use dye and perfume free dryer sheets, my mom bought me some dryer balls but they just did not seem to work against the static. I have also started making many of my own cleaning products, but I do also keep a bottle of Clorox Green Works dilutible soap on hand and use a few drops in water for everything from cleaning windows and mirrors, floors, walls, counter tops, degreasing the stove, etc. This one product instead of tons of others for each individual job has helped me save money and space. Tony and I also try to figure out how to fix things ourselves rather than having someone else do it like we did in the past. As for our water, we bought an under-sink cold water filter then use a Brita to filter it a second time instead of always buying bottled, and I found some inexpensive bpa-free reusable water bottles on that Tony uses for work.

7. Cigarettes. I hope each of you reading this does not smoke, but if you do, then rolling your own cigarettes saves A TON of money. We make a trip to the Oklahoma border once or twice a month (we only live 40 miles from the nearest border tobacco shop) and for about $30 Tony can get enough tobacco and tubes for two cartons of cigarettes vs. $50+ a carton here in Texas.

8. Changing my mindset and constantly asking questions has made the biggest difference. In everything I do that costs money, I ask myself "Is there a way to do this cheaper?" and with my purchases I ask "Is this something I need before our next paycheck?" If I see something that I think I really want I make myself wait to purchase it. If by the next check I'm still thinking about it (like a new purse) and it's affordable, then I let myself have it. Most of the time I find I have forgotten all about it.

I hope some of these ideas help. Times are tough for many if not all of us, and even though I've learned to cut back I really do not feel like I am missing out on anything. The sense of pride and satisfaction in doing things yourself and seeing yourself improve is the most amazing feeling.

If you have any tips you would like to share please leave them! I am always looking for new ways to change.