Monday, December 26, 2011

Being on a Tight Budget vs. Being a Tightwad

If you can afford to eat out, you can afford to tip.
Photo by worradmu

Remember this post?  It sparked several discussions, and I enjoyed following them.  One of the questions raised was:  “If you can afford special services, shouldn’t you be tipping those people?”

Of course you should.  My post was primarily aimed at people who can’t afford special services and who worry about trying to find extra money in the budget to tip people who are normally a part of life, like teachers and mail carriers and trash collectors.  If you’ve got enough extra money to consider hiring a house cleaner, you should think of the tip as part of the wages you can expect to pay, and budget for it accordingly.

I can’t afford a house cleaner.  I can, occasionally, afford to eat dinner out, on special occasions.  Actually, it’s probably arguable if I can afford to eat dinner out, but sometimes we do, so let’s not quibble about it, okay?  On those rare occasions when I eat out at a place where I am expected to tip, I do so, and I consider it part of the bill.  I would never not tip with the intention of saving money.  That is where you cross the line into tightwad. 

I’m on the mailing list of several “get your money under control” type people.  One of those people is Mary Hunt.  I don’t know if you are familiar with her or not.  She has a pretty decent method for getting out of debt and usually gives fairly good advice about handling your finances.  However, earlier this year, she posted a piece about tipping in restaurants.  I can’t link to it, because you have to pay a fee to get access to her blog (paying a fee to read a blog about saving money?  Sheesh) and I refuse to pay money, when so much advice is available for free.  She posts the blogs on Facebook, and they are accessible for about a week for free. 

Anyway… in this post, she was griping because the restaurant where she liked to eat lunch had raised its prices.  She wasn’t griping about the price increase, though; she was griping because she didn’t like that, based on the 15 – 20 percent tipping rule, the servers “got a raise” because of the price increase. She didn’t think that was fair.  She decided that she was going to tip based on the previous prices.

You should have seen the feedback she got on that one.  If people had had access, she probably would have been run out of town on a rail.  Talk about a tightwad.  I was one of the ones who gave her a good reaming.  Here were my primary arguments:

  1. Prices are going up everywhere.  Those servers probably have to pay more for their own groceries, health care, rent, gasoline, etc. etc.  Prices increase at restaurants because the business has to pay more for the ingredients.  They can’t afford to eat the difference.  You can bet the extra isn’t going into your server’s pockets. 
  2. In many parts of the country, servers quite literally live off their tips.  They are exempted from minimum wage laws because it’s expected that they will make up the difference in tips.  Trust me when I say that no server is getting rich because tipping 15 percent requires you to leave an extra quarter. 
  3. If you can’t afford to tip the proper amount, you can’t afford to eat out.  Period.  

Her attitude throughout this post was appalling.  She sounded so smug and seemed quite convinced that she was above these lowly servers.  I was glad so many people called her out.  

At one point in her life, she was like us.  Struggling and trying to get by.  Through her book sales, speaking engagements and website subscriptions, she’s become quite a wealthy woman.  I think she’s forgotten how it is to depend on others’ generosity. No matter how much or how little money you have, don’t be like that.  Tight budget is okay.  Tightwad is not.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Expenses Expand to Fill the Income Allotted

Her relatives are cheetahs.  Never forget that.

While feeding Minerva (our cat) the other day, I had one of those brain-lapse moments and opened the freezer instead of the cupboard.  As luck would have it, Elias noticed and started laughing at me.  Then he started asking why anyone would keep cat food in the freezer.  I recalled seeing a type of specialty raw cat food that you do, in fact, keep in the freezer.  I told this to Elias, mostly to demonstrate that looking in the freezer for cat food really isn’t as nuts as it might have looked initially. 

“How come we don’t buy Minerva that kind of food?”  Elias asked. 

“Because it’s really expensive and it’s not exactly within our budget,” I answered. 

“If we had a lot of money, we could buy Minerva that kind of food,”  Elias said.

Well, yes, I suppose we could.  At that point the little wheels in my head started turning.  What other little “improvements” would we make if we could improve them?  Although our income was essentially double at this time last year, we really weren’t any better off then.  With the cut in income, we cut down and cut back on every little item that wasn’t essential.  When we had more money coming in, we simply frittered away the extras on those things that were “upgrades” from the bare minimum. 

I think these sort of little expenses are part of the reason that so many people feel like they are constantly broke and can’t figure out why.  People don’t think about these kinds of expenditures.  After all, when we purchase the “upgrade,” it’s usually only a little bit more expensive.   We deserve these little luxuries, we tell ourselves.  Even when it’s just the more expensive cat food. 

I’m not saying deprive yourself of every little luxury in your life.  But the next time you start thinking of making an upgrade to something, ask yourself if a) you can really afford it, and b) you really need it.  After all, if your cat is like mine and spends most of her time laying around purring, I don’t think she really needs an evolutionary raw-food based diet.  She’s doing just great on the Whiskas.  

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Do You Believe in Magic?

I do.

Look around you.  The stories are everywhere.  People doing wonderful things for strangers, spreading kindness, love and joy all around.  The stories about people paying off other people’s layaways at Kmart are particularly striking.  Can you imagine being one of those people who received such a generous gift from someone you didn’t even know?  The idea brings tears to my eyes.  I would love to be on the other end as well, knowing that I’m making someone so happy and making a Christmas happen that might not otherwise.

Just this past month, our family has been on the receiving end of several gifts and kindnesses from loved ones.  Friends and family have reached out in ways I never would have imagined.  You’ve heard about the Shop with a Cop program the kids got to participate in.  Just two days ago, two of my friends turned up on my doorstep with about two weeks’ worth of groceries, gifts for the kids, and much more.  Gavin’s mom received a special bonus at her work and decided to share her good fortune with her kids.  All of these things couldn’t have happened at a better time. 

While grocery shopping the other night, we made our own effort to pay it forward.  We purchased a gift for the toy drive at Fred Meyer.  I hope our small gift will make a child happy.  It's not a lot, but it's something.

On a forum I belong to, a discussion has been ensuing about whether or not to tell a 10-year-old “the truth” about Santa.  Here was my response:

Santa is analogous with magic. If he (Elias) believes in Santa, he believes in magic. I love that. I think we SHOULD believe in magic. I believe that magic happens. How many times have I been saved from the brink of disaster? Magic happens. It doesn't always happen, and it doesn't happen in the manner you might expect, but it does happen. And it doesn't matter what name you choose to call it: magic, karma, answered prayers... whatever. It HAPPENS. I want him to believe that good things happen when you least expect them. And that includes Santa. Take away that belief and all you have left is sad cynicism, which is no way to live.

It's been a rough year. But somehow, Christmas has managed to come together. We have some gifts for the kids, the family really came through, and the kids even got to participate in a special event "Shop with a Cop." It came together like magic. 

I don't know whether he believes in a literal man who is going to climb down the chimney on Christmas Eve (we are 2nd floor in an apt building, I can't imagine the logistics on that one), but he is more than happy to play along with it and he encourages his 3-year-old sister, and that makes me happy. 

I see no reason to tell him otherwise. Because I believe in Santa too.

Do you believe?
Image courtesy of

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Breakdown

It adds up faster than you think.
Photo by Michelle Meiklejohn

Following the directions in the Planner, we’ve been tracking our spending since last Friday.  Here’s our report, warts and all. Take advantage -- be a little voyeuristic!  There’s some ugly stuff on here, so no judgments please.  We are aware of the problem, and that’s the point of this project.  Change isn’t overnight.

  • Gas   25.15
  • Groceries (including Christmas/Birthday gifts)  167.30

  • Coffee with Dad  6.00
  • Red Robin (Mom’s birthday lunch)  32.74
  • Lunch at work (Gavin)  8.00

  • Gift for my brother   20.97
  • Breakfast at work (Gavin)  4.93

  • Hulu    8.75
  • Gift for Gavin    13.93
  • KFC   18.92
  • McDonalds   10.05
  • Breakfast at work (Gavin)  6.47

  • Gas   21.00

  • Parking (for Elias’s appt.)  5.00
  • NSF fee through bank   25.00
  • Payment on Merrick account (credit card)  23.30

  • NSF bank fee 25.00
  • Breakfast at work (Gavin)  2.10
  • Sodas  5.25

Okay.  I can see some serious problems and money drains.  They’re pretty ugly in fact.  But that’s not what we are looking at today.  Our assignment was to evaluate how our spending reflects our priorities.

I can see my family priority reflected in my spending on gifts and the treats on Saturday.  I spent money I really couldn’t afford because I wanted to participate in my mom’s birthday.  Responsibility and health kind of flew out the window when I was feeling lazy on Monday and opted to get dinner at KFC.  Convenience really took over at that point.

Gavin’s priorities weren’t very well reflected in his spending this week either.  Taking care of the family with groceries and Christmas gifts was there, but he also spent a lot of money trying to streamline his mornings.  He will probably say that he is eating out in the morning to keep from waking Maddie up, and that’s his way of helping the family, but it’s clear that we are going to have to find a better solution.

And what about those bank fees?  Neither of us has a goal of keeping BECU in business, so we definitely need to get that under control.  

The next step is to figure out how we're going to save that $1000 emergency fund.  It looks pretty challenging at this point, but we're going to sit down tonight and hammer out a plan.  I plan to post the plan, along with constant updates on how we are growing that $1000.  I think it will be fun to see how it grows!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Problem of Tipping at Christmas

Are you really obligated to gift everyone who has provided
you with a service this year?
image by digitalart

There’s a certain expectation around Christmas-time that pretty much every single person you had contact with throughout the year needs some sort of tip or acknowledgement.  As lovely as that sounds, for those of us who can barely afford to get gifts for our own families, it can put us in a real bind.

Blog posts and tipping guides abound this time of year, with advice on how to tip everyone from teachers to the person who delivers your mail (who I don’t think I’ve ever met, by the way).  One site that claims to be about frugal living offered tipping advice for nannies, personal trainers and house cleaners.  Clearly their idea of “frugality” is a tad bit different than mine. 

So what am I supposed to do?  When the latest tipping advice suggests $15 to $20 gift cards for teachers, child care workers, and so many others, where does that leave me?  My son is in middle school – he has six teachers every day, and that doesn’t even include the therapists and other professionals who I think deserve tips more than the teachers.  At 20 bucks a pop, that’s $120 right there, over half of this year’s Christmas budget.  I can’t afford to get gifts for my friends this year – it seems unfair to be obligated to gift these other people.

What are the consequences if I don’t tip?  Is each teacher keeping a list and checking it twice, marking off the kids who brought in a gift card and pledging as a New Year’s Resolution to be much kinder to those kids for the second half of the school year?  Will my mail carrier start spitting on my mail if I don’t leave a Starbucks gift card for him in my mailbox next week? 

If you have the means to tip and you really feel like saying “Thank you” to someone who has done an exceptional service for you this year, by all means, knock yourself out.  But if your budget is already strained to the limit and you are only tipping because of a feeling of societal pressure, maybe you should rethink the reasons behind your tipping. 

There’s plenty of ways  to say thank you and acknowledge gratitude without buying gift cards or giving cash.  A nice homemade treat, especially one that your child helped make, is a great way to say thank you.  Better yet – call up the person on the phone and say the words “thank you.”  I bet they’ll actually appreciate that even more than the gift card.  

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Shop with a Cop

Officer Todd and the kids.

Thanks to the kindness of friends, the kids got a really special treat yesterday.  Shop with a Cop is a nationwide program to help lower income families get through the holidays.  The kids get to take a trip through a local Walmart with a local police officer and choose toys for themselves, up to $50. 

I had never heard of this program, then I received word from a friend that they had nominated me and my family had been chosen to participate. Since one of my friends is married to a cop who was participating in the event, we thought it would be pretty neat if the kids got to shop with him.  It didn’t work out that way, but it was still a special experience for everyone. 

We arrived at 8:45 a.m., per my friend’s suggestion.  My sister came with us (and all the photos are courtesy of her) and when we pulled in to the parking lot, we started laughing.  “Can you imagine being a shoplifter?” my sister asked.  The parking lot was wall-to-wall cop cars.  It was pretty impressive.  Cops from every nearby city and district were represented.  We saw Burien cops, Seatac cops, King County Sheriffs… 

When we approached the door, we were guided to the line.  Which wrapped along one side and the back of the store.  While the line was somewhat intimidating, I couldn’t help but think how many donations and how much kindness of others this represented.  What a wonderful thing, that so many families would be helped! 

The line moved quickly, and soon we were matched up with our cop, Officer Todd.  In the line, I had decided that Elias could ask for a video game, since that’s what he really wanted, but I told him that if they asked, mention that it had been a gift from his aunt.  As soon as we met Officer Todd, Elias walked right up to him and said “My mom said I could get a video game, but to let you know my aunt gave me my DS.”  If there’d been a hole in the floor, I would have gladly jumped right in.  Officer Todd grinned.  “He speaks his mind, doesn’t he?” he said.
Elias gets the game he's been dying for.

 Elias promptly picked out DragonQuest Monsters, a game for his DS that he has been begging for since August.  Maddie was a little more challenging.  She eventually found a little rabbit that comes with a dressing trailer (huh?), a pony that came in a purse, and a Magnadoodle.  The pony in the purse was the clear winner, and she pretty much refused to let go of it for the rest of the day (and she slept with it last night). 

Maddie shows off her pony in a purse.

 Officer Todd was friendly and patient with the kids, even when Elias tried to go into one-up mode, and the kids had a wonderful time.  I do hope they understand that this trip is going to help make up for the rather meager amount of presents that will be under the tree this year.    I’m deeply grateful to my friends for making this happen. 

Our Priorities

Spending money should reflect our priorities.  But first we need to know what those are.
Image by Naypong

So, moving along in the Planner.

After we dreamt about having a million dollars, our next job was to think about our top five priorities.  Gavin, Elias and I all worked on this, with fairly different results. 

I think Elias was probably the most honest in his priorities.  I know what my priorities should be, but sometimes I forget, especially when something tantalizing is in sight.  Gavin didn’t even list “fun” as one of his priorities, but I know that isn’t true.  I also noticed that each of us interpreted the question slightly differently.

Without further ado, here are our lists:


  1. Family
  2. Friends
  3. Having Fun
  4. Responsibility
  5. Health


  1. Being a good husband/father
  2. Being a good friend
  3. My job
  4. Money
  5. Myself


  1. Having fun
  2. Reading
  3. Learning science
  4. Colors (his fish)
  5. Maddie

I should probably be worried that he considers Colors to be higher priority than his sister, but he is, after all, only 11.  I also don’t think it’s necessarily true.  This morning, he made breakfast for Maddie, but I had to remind him to feed the fish.

So, on to the next question.  How did spending our million reflect our priorities?  Elias’s spending decisions clearly reflect his desire to have fun above everything else.  Because he has Asperger’s, he is also limited in his ability to look past himself and his own desires. 

Gavin felt that using the million to take care of the bills and other responsibilities freed him from stress, which would in turn allow him to be a better father.

I felt like my desire to have a house represents my need to put my family first. 

Our assignment for the next week is to track our money that we spend.  This is where things always tend to fall apart, but we’ve done alright for the first couple of days.  I don’t think it will be a fair representation of our spending habits, though, since Gavin is in between paychecks and we’re trying to cope with Christmas being right around the corner.  We’ll report the results when they are in, though.  The goal is to see if our spending habits reflect our priorities. 

What are your top priorities?  Do your spending habits reflect them?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

My Favorite Charities

No matter where we stand, we should continue to help others.
Image by David Castillo Dominici

I’ve read my share of “manage your money” books.  And one of the major tenants of any program involves giving to those in need.  I believe in this completely.  Even when I am not in a position to donate money, I still make the effort to donate time. 

For example, I am currently donating my time and editing talent to  This nonprofit provides an unbiased collection of news from different sources, providing a brief summary and a link to the source.  The site strives to stay free of left/right politics, and I respect that.  Additionally, it has been a fantastic place to hone my skills, and I have learned a lot about website editing and AP style. 

With the holiday season here, many people are in a very giving mood.  Before spending money on more stuff that you don’t need, consider making a donation to a charity that is actively working to make lives better.

Gavin and I support several charities.  Some of our favorites include:

  • American Cancer Society – Not just about finding a cure, ACS works to help patients affected by cancer and their families.
  •  Autism Speaks – I have participated in the walking event, raising money for this organization.  Autism has deeply touched our family, and this charity is working to find solutions.
  • Boy Scouts of America – Elias is a Scout and it has done wonders for him. 
  • Child’s Play – This charity was founded by gamers.  The goal is to make gaming systems available to kids I hospitals so they have something fun to do to take their minds off treatment.
  • Humane Society – We got our Minerva from the Humane Society.  Before buying a pet from a pet store, check here to see if you can give one of these wonderful animals a home.
  • Make-A-Wish – I think everyone knows this charity and its goal.  Make-A-Wish does phenomenal work.
  • Northwest Harvest – A local charity that helps put food on the tables of people who need some extra help.  We have been fortunate enough to not have to use this service ourselves, so we will continue to donate food to this program.
  • Northwest Hope and Healing – I did a 5K for this charity.  They work to provide help to women undergoing treatment for breast cancer, from providing financial support during the times they can’t work and even helping with child care during chemotherapy.
  • World Vision – I am hoping to participate in child sponsorship one day, although I have supported this program financially.  I know people who have sponsored through this charity and they were very happy with it. I think this would be good for teaching Elias more about the world, as well.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

If I Had a Million Dollars....

BNL back in the day....

This was a fun assignment in the Planner.   Each person in the family has an opportunity to create a list of what they would do if they had a million dollars.  There’s obviously more to this assignment, but we’ll take it one piece at a time.  I created my list, and I asked Gavin and Elias to create lists as well.  Maddie is exempt…

My list:

  • Buy us a new home, nothing too fancy.
  • Buy a newer car.
  • Pay off all of our debt.
  • Help out family members and friends who need it.
  • Donate to charities.
  • Set up an investment plan, including 401k.
  • Finish school and go for my Bachelors, and maybe a Masters.
  • Take a nice long vacation, maybe do some travelling.

Gavin’s list:

  • Pay off medical bills and all other debt we owe.
  • Get Elias into the school that specializes in working with autistic children.  (This is a really good one and I wish I’d thought of it).
  • Buy a home (about 300K).
  • Place enough money in the bank for the kid’s college (about 60K).
  • Send Amee back to school so she can get the degree she wants.
  • Buy new vehicles outright.
  • Place a good amount of money (about 300K) in the bank for our retirement.
  • Donate to a charity like Child’s Play (or another children’s charity).
  • Host a thank you party for family and friends to thank them for all the past help.
  • Buy new PCs for the home.
  • Invest the rest into accounts to protect it, while still having dividends to use as we may need them.

Something interesting I observed about both of our lists:  Neither of us said that we would stop working.  We would use the money as a buffer, but we still plan to earn our keep. 

Elias’s list:

  • Buy a house that I don’t have to keep paying bills on.
  • Buy myself some new clothes.
  • Buy a car like the one we have now.
  • Buy an indoor movie theater.
  • Buy my own Xbox 360 with Halo and Fable.
  • Buy a desktop PC.
  • Buy a widescreen TV.
  • Donate to the army.
  • Donate to some hospitals.

Spoken like a true 11-year-old boy, I guess.  Looks like we’ll need to keep working on that whole “materialism” thing with him.  The last two came only after I prompted  him with “Is there anything else you would do with it that doesn’t involve buying things?”  I’m not entirely sure what he means by “donate to the army,” but I didn’t press for details. 

Coming up next – a discussion about values.

What would you do with a million dollars?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Catching up on the Financial Peace Planner: Stuffitis

The problem with wanting the best
Image by Danilo Rizzuti

Have I been procrastinating on keeping up with the Planner program?  You bet I have.  One of the goals of this blog is to make myself accountable and practice building good habits.  But it’s so darn easy to fall back into the old habits.  Procrastinating, pretending my bills don’t exist, putting off the hard work.  It’s a lot easier to write fun blog posts about chicken recipes and try out new and cheaper ways of doing things than it is to face up to the major problems. 

Major Problem Number One:  According to the Planner, I have “stuffitis.”  I try not to.  But I do.  Apparently if you check more than one statement in the little quiz, you have it.  I checked two, so it’s only a slight case and, most likely, curable.  Gavin has this condition far worse than I do.  That’s not me placing blame; he’s totally upfront about it. 

Here’s the statements I checked:

  1.  “It’s not unusual for me to say ‘It’s only a few dollars extra’ when I’m shopping for something I want.”
  2.  “So I spent $100 on a pair of running shoes.  The top of the line lasts longer.”

I can sit here and try to justify those responses (and believe me, I can justify damn near anything), but I’m not going to.  I’m going to accept that this is a problem.  It does no good to catch a great deal on chicken if I go out and blow $40 on a dinner out because I didn’t feel like cooking.  I have several bills piled up on my desk that I could be putting that $40 towards, and there’s really no excuse. 

I do like to have nice things.  When I can get nice things at a lower price, it can sometimes be seen as a justification to purchase something I don’t really need.  This time of year is especially difficult.  I don’t just like to have nice things, I like to give nice things.  It’s fun to have someone unwrap something you got them and see a big smile on their face because it’s just what they wanted. 

If you look around our place, you might say “How can these people be in financial trouble?”  We have two desktop PCs, our son has a laptop, we have a flat-screen TV, an Xbox, a Wii… and that’s just the living room.  Well, the PCs have been mostly cobbled together (it’s nice to have a hubby who knows his way around a computer), the laptop was purchased several years ago and is no longer of much use other than as a word processor, the Wii was purchased as a family Christmas gift quite some time ago, and the Xbox and the flat-screen were both donations from people who had more than one. 

So why don’t we just sell these items and pay off the darn bills?  Well, I work online, and Gavin sometimes has to communicate online with his job, and we both really like our games.  So, come to think of it, I actually meet one more of the criteria for “stuffitis”:  “I can’t get rid of my boat/truck/Andy Warhol print.  That would leave a huge hole in my life.”  Just substitute TV/computer/Xbox for the other items.

I’ll keep working through Chapter 2.  This is usually the point where most debt plans make you actually pull out all your bills and figure out your debt.  I have to confess:  I’m pretty scared of that part.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Cheap and Easy Meals with Chicken

Stir-fry is a great way to use chicken breasts.
Photo by Sura Nualpradid

Today we scored a really good deal on chicken breasts.  We got a 10-pound bag of frozen chicken breasts for $1.66 per pound.  That’s a lot of chicken at a really good price.  So, what are our plans for all that chicken?

Chicken Tacos
  • 1 lb. chicken breasts (frozen is okay)
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1 packet taco seasoning
  • Soft or hard taco shells
  • Favorite taco toppings

Place the chicken breasts in the crockpot.  Mix the taco seasoning and chicken broth together.  Pour over the chicken.  Set to low and cook for 6 to 8 hours. 

When chicken is ready, shred with forks.  You can add in another pound of chicken breasts to have leftover meat for nachos or enchiladas.

Poor Man’s Cordon Bleu

  • 1 lb chicken breasts
  • Laughing Cow cheese wedges, or cream cheese
  • Ham lunch meat
  • Shake ‘n’ Bake or bread crumbs

Flatten the chicken breasts using a meat mallet.  Spread each breast with a cheese wedge, or about 2 tbsp. of cream cheese.  Place a slice or two of the lunch meat over the cheese.  Roll each chicken breast and secure with a toothpick.  Cover outside of the chicken in Shake ‘n’ Bake mix or bread crumbs.  Place in a baking dish that has been sprayed with cooking spray.  Bake at 375 F for 45 minutes or until done.

Mexican Chicken Soup with White Beans

  • 1 lb. chicken breasts
  • Onion
  • Minced garlic
  • 1 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1 tsp. dried cumin
  • 2 15-oz. cans white kidney beans
  • 3 cups chicken broth
  • Cheddar cheese

Cook chicken breasts in a nonstick skillet with about 2 tbsp. of olive oil until they are no longer pink on the outside.  Place in a slow cooker.  Add a little more olive oil to the pan and cook onion (however much you like, I use about ¼ of a sweet onion), a clove or two of minced garlic, oregano and cumin, just until the onion is soft.  Add this mixture to the slow cooker. 

Drain and rinse the kidney beans, then add to the slow cooker, along with the broth.  Stir well. 

Cook on low for about 8 hours.  When cooking time is complete, use forks to shred the chicken.  Mash beans against the side of the crockpot with a large spoon to thicken the soup.  Garnish with shredded cheese.

Chicken Stir-Fry

  • 1 lb. chicken breasts, cut into bite-size pieces
  • Assorted fresh vegetables, we like carrots, snow peas, celery, mushrooms, sliced
  • Canned, sliced water chestnuts

Sauce ingredients:
  • ¼ cup soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp. minced garlic
  • 1 tbsp. rice vinegar
  • 1 tbsp. ketchup
  • 2 tsp. minced ginger
  • 1 tsp. sesame oil

In a large skillet or wok, cook chicken in 1 tbsp. vegetable oil or wok oil over medium-high heat until cooked through.  Add vegetables and cook until desired texture is reached.  Add water chestnuts.  Mix sauce ingredients together and add to pan.  Cook a minute or two until sauce thickens slightly.  Serve over hot rice.

What are your favorite ways to use chicken breasts?

Friday, December 2, 2011

How to Teach the Value of the Dollar to Kids

Money management is the key to being successful.  It doesn’t matter if you make $25K or $250K a year.  But how do you instill these skills into your kids?  How do you make them realize just how much work goes into each dollar that goes away, and that the new video game they want with a price tag of $50 is actually a “big purchase”?  Here is one possible way to handle it...

With our oldest, we are trying a lot of tactics to get this through to him.  He has very expensive tastes, but they aren’t far from the average “tween.”  Video games, movies, and other expensive interests seem to rule his world.  When he gets a gift card for a store as a present (or any money), it burns a hole in his pocket.  Now, being who I am, I love gadgets and other stuff as well, so I know this feeling. I have had to learn the hard way in the past, and I am trying to get him to learn without the “growing pains” I had.  Here are a couple of possible ideas….

  • Have him sit in and see just how much goes to help the family get day-to-day expenses paid. Show your child the power bill, cable bill, how much groceries are, etc. 
  • Price out a trip to the movies for the family, right down to the popcorn.  Show them just how much of the family’s budget goes poof for a 2-hour trip to the cinema. 
  • Take your child shopping at the grocery store, and show them what the food portion of the budget goes to. See if maybe they can help plan meals that are within a specific budget, to get them thinking of concepts like the price per serving.
  • Have them make a wish list.  Then have them prioritize it, and use the web or go to a store to get the pricing for these items.  Assuming your kids have an allowance, it will make them aware that once money is gone, it is gone. 
  • Have them take over the costs of some of their interests.  If they want that amazing new video game, maybe have them pay some or all of the cost.   The goal there is not for you to save money, but to have your child start to take responsibility for their own money. 

These are just some ideas to help make your child aware of what things cost.  Once that gets through to them, they can start making choices and saving money as well.  Not just for items they want, but for the future.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Getting Deals at the Grocery Store

Comparison shopping pays off.
Photo by Ambro

Okay, so we’ve established that I don’t rely on coupons to whittle my grocery bill down to nothing.  However, I do make an active effort to get our food bill as low as I can.  At the same time, I don’t want to eat beans and chicken soup every day. 

I use a combination of several tactics to lower my grocery bill.  I plan meals, shop the ads, shop different stores, use coupons WHEN PRACTICAL, and buy in bulk when I get a good deal.  Here’s my weekly approach to shopping:

  1. Scan the ads.  My go-to store is Fred Meyer.  Not only is it practically in my back yard, it seems to have better sales and lower regular prices than Safeway or Albertsons.  I can occasionally catch a really good meat deal at Albertsons and I’ll go for that, but as a general rule, if it isn’t on sale at Albertsons, it’s going to be more expensive than anywhere else.  Unfortunately, Winco doesn’t have a weekly ad so I never know what the sales are going to be, although they do make a point of beating other sales.  They also don’t have a great selection of lower-fat foods and their produce can sometimes be crummy, so we don’t go there all the time. 
  2. Look for stock-up items.  What am I looking for in the ads?  Deals on the proteins that I’m going to build my meals around.  I’m looking for really good meat sales.  If I can spot a really good one, I plan to buy several pounds so that I can get a few meals out of it.
  3.  Plan my meals.  The goal is to always have enough meat for meals in the freezer (from previous stock-ups) that I can pull meals straight from the freezer and never have to buy meat that isn’t a good deal.  I see no reason to ever pay more than $1.99 for chicken breasts.  This doesn’t mean that I have to have 7 days’ worth of meat – we don’t have meat in every meal.  To keep Gavin and the kids happy, though, we usually have it four to five days per week.  Spaghetti nights or breakfast for dinner (pancakes and eggs) can fill in the blanks. 
  4.  Look for coupon deals.  Once I’ve made my main meal list and built my grocery list around that, this is when I look for coupon deals.  I go through the ad with my coupon binder and look for “matches.”  This is the only way to use coupons.  Combine them with a sale and you can get a really good deal, especially on stuff like bath wash, toothpaste, baby wipes and stuff like that.  Normally I would also add detergent and household cleaners to that list, but I don’t know of any coupons that knock detergent down to a penny per load!
  5. Fill in the blanks.  Some items we need pretty much every week:  Milk, eggs, yogurt, veggies, fruit, bread… These are our regular staples.  Occasionally we need some cereal, cheese, peanut butter and stuff like that.  I try to catch bread when it’s on sale and stock it in the freezer.  I need to get Gavin baking more bread! 

What’s your shopping technique for keeping costs down?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Homemade Household Cleaners: Homemade Laundry Detergent

In our quest to continue to find more ways to cut back, we have been experimenting with homemade household cleaners.  Since the spray cleaner was such a success, we decided to go ahead with laundry detergent next (plus, conveniently, that’s what we were scheduled to run out of next). 

I prefer liquid laundry detergent (it just seems like powders don’t rinse clean), so I looked around until I found a recipe I liked. 

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Fels-Naphtha – this is a bar of soap that can be found in the laundry section of your grocery store.  Apparently you can use Ivory soap as well, but we went with the Fels-Naphtha since everything I was reading recommended this.  At Fred Meyer, it cost about $1.50.
  • Arm & Hammer washing soda – Take note:  not baking soda, washing soda.  This was right next to the Fels-Naphtha at Fred Meyer.  The cost was about $3.50.
  • Borax – We already had a box on hand from the spray cleaner experiment.  How convenient!  But, also found in the laundry section.  This was about $3.00 when I bought it.

1.  Cut off 1/6 of the Fels-Naphtha bar.  Although most instructions tell you to grate it, it's actually really crumbly.  You can actually just chop it up with a knife the way you would baking chocolate.

The crumbled Fels-Naphtha

2.  Dump the chopped Fels-Naphtha into a large saucepan.  Add 3 cups of hot water.  Heat gently until the soap melts.  This took a little while for us.  Also, be careful how much you stir it, since it gets foamy.

1/4 cup washing soda

3.  Once the soap is melted, add ¼ cup washing soda and ¼ cup Borax.  Stir gently until completely dissolved.
1/4 cup Borax

4.  At this point we were ready to transfer the mixture to our big stainless steel mixing bowl.  First, we dumped 2 cups hot water into the mixing bowl, then gently poured in the soap mixture and stirred a bit to mix.

The melted soap combined with water, washing soda and Borax.

5.  We added another 11 cups of hot water.

At this point, the mixture needed to “set.”  We put it aside to cool.  Our whole kitchen smelled really soapy.
After letting it set for a few hours, we checked back on it.  It was congealing all right!  Using a funnel, we poured it into the detergent bottle we kept for the occasion.  Reduce, reuse, recycle!  This part was kind of tricky.  It definitely took both of us.  The consistency was rather uneven and gloppy, but apparently that’s pretty normal.  The important part, after all, isn’t what it looks like, but what it cleans like. 
Mmmmm, yummy!

This stuff is supposed to work out to ½ cup per load of laundry.  We decided to really put it to the test.  We had Elias bring a blanket from his bed that was in definite need of washing and ran it through with the new soap.

When it came out of the dryer, it smelled fresh and clean!  Victory!  Hopefully it doesn’t gel too much as it sits longer.  We’ll see how it goes and I’ll update you as needed.  The best part?  The cost of this stuff works out to about a penny per load.  Try to beat that at the grocery store.

Let’s see, what can I make next?  What else have you guys tried that’s been successful?

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Opposite of "Extreme Couponing"

I am both fascinated and repulsed by the concept of extreme couponing.  On the one hand, IT'S FREE STUFF.  On the other hand... it's free stuff I generally don't really need.  While the idea of getting $600 worth of groceries is appealing, how many bottles of barbecue sauce does one really need?

If you've ever watched the show Extreme Couponing on TLC, you know what I'm talking about.  These people proudly walk through their homes displaying their wares as if they were the crown jewels.  Toilet paper is stuffed under their kids' beds.  Closets are converted to storage areas for Chef Boyardee.  Basements hold practically an entire supermarket's worth of canned goods and toothpaste.

They brag about how many hours they spend clipping and organizing their coupons; it's essentially their full-time job.  The whole family, kids included, is gathered around the table setting up coupons for mom (or occasionally dad) to cut with industrial-sized paper cutters.  I remember one woman, who I thought was particularly sad.  She made a big deal out of how dressed up she got every time she went shopping, because she didn't want people to think she was poor or that she needed to use all those coupons.  She then did her hours-long shopping trip in knee-high stiletto boots and full makeup.  I don't know about anyone else, but I generally don't give a second thought to anyone I see in the grocery store (although I do occasionally wonder about those who shop in their pajamas...).

I have better things to do with my time then spend it cutting and organizing coupons, planning out shopping trips and searching for deals.  When I get deals at the grocery store, I want it to be on healthy foods my family can eat.  Have you ever noticed that coupons are always on processed stuff?  How often do you see a coupon for fresh fruit and vegetables?

I do like coupons for household products.  But since I'm now making my own cleaners (and I'm having a crack at making laundry detergent tomorrow -- I'll let you know how it goes!), that's one more area I really don't need coupons (unless I can score one on Borax).

I do still clip coupons.  But here's my couponing technique:

  • I only clip coupons for stuff I will actually use.  You shouldn't feel obligated to buy a product you wouldn't otherwise purchase.
  • I only clip coupons that come to me.  I don't spend a lot of time scouring the internet.  I get inserts every Wednesday in the mail and I go through those.  I clip coupons in magazines I have.  I use the store coupons in the weekly flyer and that print out at the checkout.
  • If a coupon expires, I throw it away.  I don't buy a product just to keep the coupon from expiring.
  • Even with a coupon, I still check to see if the store brand is cheaper.  With a really good coupon, sometimes the brand name will be cheaper, but that's not a guarantee.
  • I use coupons for the following products:  soap, shampoo, conditioner, toilet paper, paper towels, night pants, frozen vegetables, cheese, canned vegetables, pasta and cereal.  I check the weekly ads for items that match my coupons.  I have caught some good stock-up moments that way.  I was recently able to snag two bottles of name-brand body wash for 50 cents each.  That's about as extreme as I get.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Saving Money on Holiday Shopping, or Is It Really That Time of Year Again???

Making my list and checking it twice.
Image by Sicha Pongjivanich

Holiday shopping.  I don’t know about you, but those words strike fear into my heart.  We can barely make the bills as it is, and now we have to fit even more into our overstretched budget?  While I would love to say “The heck with it!  Everyone is just getting homemade gifts this year!”  the reality is that that option would never fly.

I have an 11-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl.  They aren’t going to be happy with handmade doodads or coupons for hugs.  The older one has already amassed his list for the year and, as usual, it’s pretty heavy on the electronics.  The younger one isn’t quite as picky, but she still knows her mind and knows what she likes.

Here’s the good news though.  There’s still ways to keep from taking such a heavy hit.  Here’s some of the strategies we’re going to be using this year to keep from getting evicted the day after Christmas:

  1. Starting early.  Since summer we’ve had our eyes open for gifts for the kids.  We started talking about it with the family a while ago too, so they know what to look for.  I’ve already picked up a game for the oldest that was part of a buy two get one free deal, and I have a Hello Kitty playset stashed in the closet for my daughter.
  2. Buy used.  The kids couldn’t care less.  Fortunately, most of my family who I am buying for doesn’t either (or if they do, they don’t say anything because they know we have a limited budget).  Places like Gamestop and Half-Price Books are great if video games and books are on your list.  Used clothing from a quality consignment shop can go a long way (my daughter will be getting clothes from here). 
  3. Shop online.  While this might initially seem more expensive since you have to pay shipping, it actually saves us quite a bit.  We can comparison shop and get good deals, and Amazon usually suggests used options for cheaper that can still be purchased through their site.  Plus, if you are doing most of your shopping at once, shipping is likely to be waived.  For me, the best part of shopping online is that I know exactly what I want to buy and I’m not swayed to buy more when I see the stuff on the shelves.
  4.  Pick little items up here and there.  For the next few shopping trips between now and Christmas, we’ll be picking up small items and stocking stuffers on our regular grocery runs.  Some great inexpensive stocking stuffers that kids love include coloring books, crayons, and candies.  My daughter loves to have her nails painted so I’m going to stick a couple of inexpensive nail polishes in her stocking.
  5. Know when to say when.  It’s easy to get caught up in the spirit of the season.  Everyone has all sorts of neat knick-knacks out and goofy little doodads, and I already catch myself seeing random items and saying “Oh, that would be perfect for so-and-so!”  But once the shopping is done, it’s DONE.  Don’t let yourself get caught up in the whole “Just one more” game.  Retailers are counting on this and you will quickly blow your budget.

Make a plan, make a budget, and stick to it.  We’ll get through this, I swear!

This Father's Path...a Work In Progress

Photo courtesy of Healingdream

I was brought up with the age-old mentality that the husband/father should provide for his family.  Not that the woman should stay at home, but that the husband’s job should be able to handle the load as life sent challenges at you.  My grandfather owned a dealership and always worked very hard, and he also taught me the importance of the integrity of your work, while at the same time making sure family came first.  My father also worked very hard and also instilled that work ethic in me, but the down side is that he was always gone.  I know he worked hard, but I also know his addictions took over.  More on that later… 

All of these challenges we have been facing place a lot of pressure on me, even though I may not be as vocal about it.  Some of it is the feeling that I should be able to make enough to provide for my family but, frankly, I don’t.   

When Amee had to leave her full-time position, I was incredibly stressed out.  Yes, she was going to be writing while she was at home, but I was worried about her stress level, and I felt horrible that being home with the kids full-time and being expected to work on her writing at the same time would completely overload her.  Once again, I felt like I was failing as a husband/father/provider because I couldn’t make enough in the current economy to provide for my family.  I am working on those feelings pretty much on a daily basis.    I am working as much as I can and helping as much as I can at home when I am not at work trying to take some of the load off of Amee. 

Part of the issue I have is that I am terrified I will end up making some of the mistakes my father made.  I am, after all, My Father’s Son.  I know the logic about being the man you want to be and such, but the worry is still there.  My father let his addiction with alcohol take over, and while he was recovering, he somehow thought the best solution to his problems was to bail.  He literally left one day while my mother and I were at work.  He hadn’t told us that at the time he had left, the house was three days from foreclosure, my mother’s retirement was gone, and the bills were incredibly overdue.  

Many years later, I thought maybe things were turning around with him as we tried to rebuild that relationship, but there was a selfishness still there that manifests even to this day in the fact that he doesn’t even call his grandkids on their birthdays anymore.  I am not sure if this is apathy or what but it really doesn’t matter.   How does this relate to me?  Well, I have noticed some shit I do is kind of similar, and that worries me. 

I get very “fixated” on stuff.  Be it a video game, a topic, or whatever.  It is almost obsessive.  For instance, I think about something like our TV failing and I will start researching TVs.  Now most people will do this and call it good, but I will always be looking at which ones are best, cheapest, or whatever.  The real issue with this is that I sometimes put off paying what I need to pay to fill the want.  Not that I am going to buy a new TV when rent is due, but I might see a DVD or whatever and tell myself, “Well, it is only 20 bucks.  We can swing that…”  That is where my issue is.  I struggle with it almost daily.  As a joke, a friend of mine would list this problem in terms of his music equipment…”G.A.S.”  or Gear Acquisition Syndrome.   

Looking at my history, I was always very giving to almost a fault.  Each relationship I was in, I would be left in deeper debt when it ended.  Now, as a father, I want to provide the best stuff for my kids and I loved the look on Amee’s face when I could give her something sparkly.  I obviously am not in the position to do that anymore, but I focus on trying to make sure we have the essentials and that the kids have good holidays. 

That is why I am taking a page from my grandfather’s book.  I am trying to not worry so much about the money one way or another and I am trying to be a better father.  I want to show my family just how much I care.  Be it playing Halo with Elias and getting fragged over and over, or snuggling with Maddie and watching a movie, I want to give the kids memories.  Yeah, stuff is cool and I DO love technology, but I am trying to stay focused on my family and providing the best I can.  

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

We hope that all of you have a wonderful Thanksgiving and enjoy the time with your family.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Is It Time for DIY Vehicle Maintenance?

Photo courtesy of

Everyone knows that going to get your car serviced can be a scary proposition.  For me, even oil changes are a stressful stop on the “honey do” list.  I have a degree in Network Administration and work in IT for a living -- I can set up and deploy servers that give hundreds of people access to resources, but you get me under the hood of a car and I am clueless!

We recently went to get our oil changed at the local Jiffy Lube that we have visited many times.   We pulled right in and they took our info.  About five minutes later, the mechanic called me over to the PC to run me through what they were going to do.  Now, not knowing cars, I trusted this guy because we have always seemed to get honest service from them.  

He talks to me about high mileage oil (we have about 150,000 miles on the car), and then he tells me my rear brake light is out.  They wanted $12.99 to replace it, but I figured I should be able to swap out a light bulb, so I declined.  I did, however, take the more expensive oil.  We are in and out in like 10 minutes.  

Part of the service package had to do with checking fluid levels.  Well, they didn’t come up with anything, but they topped off the fluids.    So I figured we were good to go.  We planned on dropping by an auto parts store to get a brake light, so I could swap it at home.  On a whim, I checked the back of the car and had Amee hit the brakes and turn signals… Everything looked good.  Were they lying about the light?  I figured I would just drop it and call it good. 

Then we had a headlight fail. No big deal, I have done these before.  So we purchased a headlight and I set up to change it.  As a side note, Amee had been telling me for about a week that the heater in the car had been really slow to kick in.  I figured it was the cold weather and the engine taking longer to warm up.  

Well, I found the cause of the heater issue by accident.  I was under the hood, working on replacing the headlight, when I found a hose and cap that weren’t attached and were just hanging off the radiator.  I wasn’t sure what it was but there was a reservoir wide open so I connected the cap and tube to it.  Now, as a disclaimer… I would NOT recommend just connecting stuff on a car if you aren’t familiar with it, but this was a pretty obvious one.  After letting the car run for a couple of minutes, the heater kicked in as it used to. 

So I am looking at two things….
  1.  I am losing trust in a place I thought would be honest. Whether this was due to a couple of bad employees or the all-mighty dollar, I know that if I had blindly allowed them to do the brake light replacement, I would be out money we need for other things.  And that I was lucky the open reservoir didn’t do bigger damage to our car.
  2. I need to get to work learning about my vehicle so I can do some of the basic maintenance on it. 

Well, I have found that they make a manual for our car.  The cool thing is, I am fortunate enough to have friends and relatives who are vehicle savvy so they can also help me as I learn this stuff.  I am hoping by the middle of next year to get some of the basics down like:
  • Oil changes
  • Tune-ups
  • Fluid level checks

I know there is a lot more to do as well, but I will start with those.  I know that I can get the supplies cheaper at the auto parts store than buying them through a mechanic.  What are your thoughts?