A blog about spending wisely in your twenties, with advice on everything from cooking to saving money on gas; how to teach yourself to save money instead of spending it, traveling without breaking the bank, and much more.

Friday, May 9, 2008

I Was the Last to See Juno...

Possibly the most difficult aspect of living within my means is controlling my impulse buys. After years of not policing myself at all, I find myself in a position where I can got out to dinner and a new release movie AND drinks afterward if I so chose, and I do sometimes. The catch is that I now find myself honestly distressed when I know I've paid too much for something. Roommates, Boyfriend and I went to see a movie a week or so ago, and even with a student discount my ticket was $10. I could have seen THREE movies at the second run theater with that. I try not to think about it.

If I'm out running errands and I find myself getting hungry, I might buy a muffin or something. I can certainly afford this, but again - knowing that I could have made at least 6 muffins at home for the price of one bought ready-made? Totally stresses me out. When I go out the the bar and order a $3 (plus $1 for tip!) beer, all I can think about is how that's half a six pack.

This fussiness extends to those around me too. When I see someone paying more for something than they have to, I feel my bossypants-know-it-all tendencies beginning to twitch. Most of the time I keep my mouth shut, but sometimes I can't help but blurt out "Oh my god! You could have gotten that for at LEAST $5 less!"

But even though these purchases stress me out, I still find myself making them from time to time. Luckily most of my impulse buys are well under $20 (most are $10 or less), and I don't make too many of them. I might spend an unplanned $10 a week, usually on entertainment/books/beer. That's $520 a year!

Even if I'm still making impulse buys, I try to be certain that I'm getting the most for my money. When I talk about trying to slash my spending there are folks who laugh at me, but to be honest I'd rather spend $9 on a six pack and a second run movie theater ticket than $15+ on a beer in a bar and a new release movie ticket. If I'm going to spend $520 a year on entertainment - I better have been entertained as much as possible, dangit.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

A Universal Casserole Recipe

In The Tightwad Gazette III, Amy Dacycyzyn gives a universal casserole recipe, sent in by one of her readers.

Universal Casserole Recipe
1 cup main ingredient
1 cup second ingredient
1-2 cups starchy ingredient
1.5 cups binder
.25 cup "goodies"

She suggested mostly meats for the main ingredient (tuna, chicken, turkey, ham, seafood), but you could also use vegetarian options: kidney beans, tofu, even veggie dogs. Her suggestions for a second ingredient were celery, mushrooms, peas, & chopped hard boiled eggs, but this could really be anything. Starchy ingredients could be potatoes, noodles or rice. Suggested binders are soup or sour cream. Mix your ingredients, place the mixture in a casserole dish and then bake at 350 degrees for 30 - 45 minutes.

My favorite variation on this is what I call Quasi Jambalaya Casserole (emphasis on the quasi). The main ingredient is a combination of shrimp/chicken/sausage, the second ingredient is a combo of diced tomatoes/celery. My starchy ingredient, rice. I usually use a combo of tomato sauce and sour cream as the binder. I season it with cayenne, paprika, thyme, oregano, some onion powder, and a pinch of ground bay leaves. For the topping, I'll make a small batch of biscuit dough or cornbread batter and spoon it over the top.

It's fairly easy to take this universal recipe and use up your leftovers or random packages of food given to you by sympathetic parents/teachers/neighbors. Heck sometimes you just have random food sitting around - a casserole is a great way to make sure those foods don't go to waste.

Knowing how to make a casserole might not make you hip (in fact, it might be one of those things that officially qualifies you as an adult on some level), but it'll definitely use up the last chicken breast and the last bit of that package of frozen cauliflower you'd completely forgotten about until it resurfaced on top of the ice cream. It's a perfect cheap meal for weeks when the bills swing your bank account just a little too close to zero for comfort.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Save a Ton on Food with a Price Book!

In April, I started putting together the beginnings of a price book for grocery shopping. I recorded the lowest price per unit for every item I might need to buy in May at three different stores, two near my house and one near my work. Buy researching prices before I shopped, saved anywhere from 5 cents to over a dollar per unit on nearly every item. My May shopping haul should keep my basics stocked for a month or more.

To make your own, make a list of the items you buy the most often (save your grocery receipts to help figure this out). Make a seperate list for each store you plan to shop at. Record the price of the item, the weight, and the price per unit of weight. For items like bagels, use 'bagel' as the unit of measure. Sometime packaging can be tricky, a 10 pound bag of flour might cost more per pound than buying two 5 pound bags. Buying items based on unit cost rather than total price gets you far more for your money. By the same token, buying TOO much of something because it's cheaper per unit can be a bad idea if you won't use up the item before it expires. Once I gather the data, I use Excel to sort it; first by item, then by unit price.

I did my shopping last week using my price book. I was able to reference it when confronted with a sale price - even though cheese might be 25% off at one store, its everyday price might be still lower than that at another store. If a price went up between my price survey and my actual shopping day, I could use my list to determine whether to go ahead and buy the item or if I should wait and buy it for less at the next store.

The cost in gas was probably negligible, Fresh & Easy and Stater Brothers are less than five miles from my house and Food 4 Less is less than a mile from work. Eventually I'm going to see if the money I save comparison shopping is negated by the gas mileage I use by shopping at three different stores. I've got a sneaking feeling that I'm still saving money.

My impulse buy was three 10 packs of Jalapeno & Cilantro Tortillas at Fresh & Easy. They were marked down and 50% off, making them not too much more than a 30 pack of plain flour tortillas at Food 4 Less. This came out to about a $1 splurge. Even though I bought a slightly more expensive item, my price book told me just exactly how much more I was spending.

The initial gathering of price data for a price book can be a pain in the butt, but once you've gotten it once, you can keep it updated using your grocery receipts. It may seem like a lot of work, but when you make $1400 a month, every little bit counts!

Monday, May 5, 2008

Carnival of Personal Finance #151

I'm in again! Check it out at Alpha Consumer.

The Spice Must Flow

Once you've acquired some cooking equipment, a cookbook you like, and you've gotten used to the idea that sometimes you're going to have to clean up after other people, you'll want to start stocking up on some essential ingredients, specifically- spices. The 'spice rack' in my first apartment was salt, pepper, lawry's seasoning salt, jambalaya mix, and unused ramen flavor packets. Yikes.

A spice rack doesn't need to be gorgeous or full of Every Spice Ever. I keep mine stocked with the spices I use most often, and I buy spices I might need only once or twice in very small quantities. Here's the list of essential spices for my kitchen, yours might be different, and it might evolve as time goes on. More seasoned cooks might look at might list and say, "OHMIGOD! You skipped _____!" But remember, this isn't about how to be a gourmet cook, it's about how to cook pretty well for a fraction of what you might be spending on eating out.

Black Pepper
Cumin (a must for me, I put cumin in nearly every soup I make)
Basil (I usually use fresh basil from the container garden, but I do have a stash of the dried stuff)
Bay Leaves
Dill (I usually buy it fresh instead of dried)
Cilantro (I generally use it fresh from my garden, but you can keep dried cilantro [coriander] on hand just in case)
Ground Cloves
Ground Nutmeg
Onion Powder
Garlic Powder

I don't recommend buying spice mixtures (chili powder, taco seasoning, pumpkin pie spice), as most of these are simply combinations of other spices (which is another post). I can make just about anything I want with the spices on this list, though I'm sure that the more I cook- the bigger my spice rack will get.

Buy a spice rack with empty jars and then fill the jars with spices. Buying pre-jarred spices is insanely expensive (not to mention really cluttery after a while), try buying them in bulk or in bags. If you live in California, Stater Brothers has bagged spices (brand: Sunripe) that are generally $2 or less, and much cheaper per ounce than the stuff in jars. Try the ethnic foods aisle, or an ethnic grocery store. If you can't find anything but over-priced pre jarred spices, try googling "mail order spices."

I sometimes see unopened, well stocked spice racks at Goodwill, obvious wedding gift cast offs. Obviously if you score one of these, double check the jars to be sure all safety seals are intact before you eat any of it.