Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Weekly List

Time to make this week's grocery list.
Image by digital art

One of the easiest ways to keep costs low when grocery shopping is to look at the weekly ads and try to tailor a weekly meal plan around that list.  This week, we also had a lot of stuff in the cupboards to work with as well.  Take a look at our shopping list and see how we're trying to keep costs down.  

english muffins
breakfast sausage
milk,  soy, 2%
half n half (2 cups)lunch meat?
refrigerated pie crust
Lunches x3
9 oz cheese tortellini
cat food
spray cleaner (i think)
apples (78 c/lb)
2 cans white kidney beans 
3 cups chicken broth
Idahoan potatoes (10 for 10)
1 can condensed tomato soup
2 cups vegetable broth
parmesan cheesesugar

As you can see, we have both processed and fresh ingredients as options.  I listed the apples since they were on sale for a good price, but we'll pick up some additional fruit as well.  I'll post later, after we shop, to show you what we purchased that wasn't on the list.  Hopefully not too many items!  The list isn't terribly long, and it's mostly back-up ingredients and filling in the blanks in the recipe.  Here's what's on tap for dinners this week:

Monday -- Chicken Chili with White Beans (crockpot)
Tuesday -- Pancakes, Sausage and Eggs (breakfast for dinner, a cheap way to eat)
Wednesday -- Crockpot Whole Spice-Rubbed Chicken
Thursday -- Tomato Soup with Tortellini
Friday -- Home Bake Ham with Hashbrowns (one of the "meals-in-a-box" from Gav's mom)
Saturday -- Quiche

I haven't added side dishes yet, but we'll probably have corn bread with the chili, potatoes with the chicken, salad with the soup and bake, and fresh fruit with the quiche.  

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Keeping the Spark Even Under Stress

Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures
 Financial “issues” are one of the largest factors cited in divorces.  Stress from all of the bills, appointments, work and even kids can really take it’s toll on the romantic side of the relationship.   Finding ways to express ourselves as a couple can be very difficult to arrange and afford.  So with our finances like they are, I have been trying to find ways to make sure our relationship does not end up on the back burner.  The main way I am approaching this is with “at-home date nights.”

This is time we set aside without the computers, writing, texting, or anything else.  We get the kids to bed and hopefully get some time to spend just with each other.  Here are some ideas that may help you keep the spark going when you are in stressful times…

Movie night.  Everyone knows this one… pull out a movie you both want to see, pop some popcorn and cuddle up on the couch.

Cook a special dinner.  Find a meal that is affordable but also fun to eat, maybe a fondue or a pasta dish.  Make a special dessert or treat to munch on.  It is fun to cook with your partner and it gives you a chance to be together.

Game night.  Everyone has a competitive side.  Pull out a board game or your favorite Xbox game and go at it.  Maybe play for “favors” or something to make it a bit more interesting or intimate.   If you want to take it further, look into a more intimate game from a specialty store near you.  Just make sure your partner is ok with this… or better, let them pick it out to keep them involved.   

Living room picnic.  Get some simple fruits and foods that are fun to nibble on and share them like a picnic in your living room.  Turn down the lights and just have a good time.
Act like a teenager.  Simply take some time to spend with your partner kissing and making out like you did back when you first met.  This time together will help keep a close bond between yourself and your partner.

Be spontaneous and take control!  It is very easy to let day-to-day stresses take the joy out of life and the passion out of your relationship.  Don’t be afraid to take charge and show your partner what you are interested in doing.  Spring the date on them when they don’t expect it!  If your family keeps a calendar, with all of the events going on it is easy to see when some good times to do this would be.  Don’t be shy, take charge and have fun!  Maybe send an alluring email or text message (make sure you double check the recipient’s email or phone to minimize mistakes) to get the anticipation building!

Also, there are books full of intimate ideas for couples.  Some of the most known books are by Laura Corn.  These books offer pages you can tear out with ideas or instructions to play out with your partner.  Some of these take some planning but others can be very spontaneous.  Once again, communication is key and it is fun to alternate who tears a page and plans for the time.

The best part about this is your only limit is your imagination.  Be sure to keep a solid flow of communication with your partner so they can also help with this.  No relationship should be one-sided when it comes to the closeness you feel together.

The Problem of Eating Healthy on a Budget

Think food like this is available at the food bank?
Photo by Vitasamb2001

Last night’s dinner was supposed to be a roast chicken in the crockpot, but we forgot to thaw the chicken the night before, so instead we wound up raiding the cupboard and fixing one of the quick-fix meals that Gav’s mother brought us. 

Have a look at those stats and see if you can spot the problem.

At a quick glance it doesn’t look too terrible – 220 calories, 6 grams of fat per serving.  I can live with that.  But wait, what’s this?   Sodium 1330 mg???  Are you aware that’s over half the sodium you should be eating in a day?  And these serving sizes are puny.  Only ¾ cup.  Not exactly the most filling meal.  You can round it out with a salad, but it’s not going to get rid of those 1330 mg of sodium.  In fact, if you add dressing to your salad, you’re just adding to the sodium situation.

We confess to not being the healthiest of eaters.  I have high cholesterol and Gav is well on his way to full-blown diabetes.  We are both significantly overweight.  The kids are in better shape, although the 11-year-old has high triglycerides.  This can be partly blamed on one of his medications, but we still need to work on getting it down.  Plus, we have to work on getting more fiber into his day, to ease a constipation situation.

For our family, meals like this are an occasional quick fix.  For many families facing money problems, they are a nightly fixture.  This is the stuff that gets donated to food banks and the stuff that gets handed out to people who need help.  For a while, we signed up for the Angel Food program, in an attempt to get a bit of help with the food budget.  While the concept is noble and it’s good that people get help, the reality is that the food the program provides is overly processed and unhealthy.  After a few weeks, we left the program, deciding that we could do better on our own.

We are advised to “shop the along the edge of the store,” meaning that this is where fresh produce, breads, meats and dairy are kept.  The shelves that run along the inside the store are primarily packed with processed goods, loaded with preservatives, trans fats, sodium and other food evils.  But the reality is, this is the cheap, fast prep food.  Cooking with whole healthy foods is time consuming and many people who are poor are working long hours at difficult jobs and simply don’t have the time and energy to make healthy meals from scratch.

Let’s get something straight:  I’m not making excuses.  This is the reality.  Studies have shown time and time again that obesity rates are linked to economics.  Poor people can’t afford to eat healthy food.  This is a serious problem in our society. 

We’re going grocery shopping tomorrow.  I plan to post our grocery list, so you can see how we try to get around this challenge.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

What's For Dinner? Potato Parmesan Soup

As part of our money saving strategy, we are always on the lookout for inexpensive but delicious and -- most importantly -- kid friendly recipes.  We'll be sharing the best of these with you.

The crock-pot is a fabulous invention for folks on a budget.  It can take the cheapest of ingredients and transform them into something fantastic.  Whether you're working with cheap stew meat, whole chickens or a mess of vegetables, you can toss them in the crock-pot and have dinner.

Potato Parmesan Soup

8 white potatoes, peeled and cut into evenly sized cubes
6 cups chicken broth
1/2 of a sweet onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon Johnny's Seasoning
1/4 teaspoon sage

Combine these ingredients in your crockpot.  Set to low, and cook for about five to six hours, until the potatoes are nice and tender.

1/3 cup flour
1/2 cup whipping cream (half-n-half or regular milk will work fine, too)

Mix these together in a bowl, stirring until smooth.  Add the mixture to the crockpot

3/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
8 cooked and crumbled bacon strips
1 1/3 cups cream or milk

Stir all of these into the crock-pot.  Cover the pot and cook for about another 30 minutes, long enough for it to thicken.  Top each serving with additional cheese and crumbled bacon, if you like.

This recipe makes about 12 servings.  Which means..... LEFTOVERS!!  This soup stores well and heats up nicely in the microwave and tastes even better the following day.

Cost per serving: $1.09
(Note:  I didn't include items that are typically in our kitchen, like the spices and flour, when calculating the price per serving of this recipe.)

Why Payday Loans are Predatory

Payday loan places are everywhere nowadays.  The attraction is there for their services, as well.  I know because I have used them.  Everyone has come up short before payday and these places are claiming to help you “bridge the gap” between what needs to get paid and what you have in your account.  As the saying goes, nothing is free, and this is definitely an example of it.  Here is a bit of our story with these “services”.   

The scenario is fairly simple and unfortunately common for our family:  Our son had a trip to the hospital for a week and our life ground to a halt.  Extra trips up to the hospital, eating there, sitters for the other little one, missed work and just general chaos brought us into the “hole” again.  Rent came around and we were short, so we used one of these services.  I went in and after the requisite employment check, walked out with $700 and, after the fees, owing $785 on my payday.  We got the rent paid and such without any problem, then payday came. 

I ended up going onto a “payment plan” that basically allows you to pay the fee you originally paid for the loan and extends your payback period to 45 days.  I had to make payments each payday after that.  Here is the first nail in your coffin… the fee you pay for the “payment plan” (which is equal to your loan fee) doesn’t come off your balance.  So we still owed $785 for the loan even after we paid the $85 fee.  So it is a service that appears to help the customer but actually just gives you more rope to dangle from. 

Here is the reality of the situation:  If you don’t have the money and need to get a loan for it, you won’t have the money to pay it back.  Especially after they start tacking on all the extra “fees.”  It is better to try to ask for help from friends and family. 

We stuck to the payment plan, but what we discovered is that the payment plan they give you is pretty unforgiving.  They “lost” a payment I made and then pushed the balance through my checking account causing me to overdraft, yet again.  I know I should have kept the receipts for the payments made, and we paid the price for my lack of record-keeping. 

Our state (Washington) has laws about how these places can do business, but they still find ways to work around these laws and take advantage of the people they are purporting to help.  I am sure to some people, these might be useful services.  But after going through what we did, I don’t see it as being helpful.  Even with the “payment plans,” it feels like they can shaft you beyond just getting you for the additional fee.  Keep in mind, the average annual percentage rate for these run above the 300%  mark.  Would you take a credit card if it had that as its interest rate?  You’d be insane to do so!   Offer a family member the same amount you would pay as the initial fee as a “payback amount” and you will be better off. 

Even if you feel like you need these services, stay away from them.  They’re nothing but sharks.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Hitting Bottom

It's time to start digging.
Photo by Clare Bloomfield

The bottom looks different for everyone.  Here's our bottom:

We've (so far) managed to keep a roof over our heads, but that could change any day.  In June, I had to stop working because our son has high-functioning autism and was requiring far too many special services.  I now write freelance for extra money, but it's nowhere to the point where I can reliably pay bills with it.  Gav is working at a job he's overqualified for, but it's a job, right?

Last Friday, the managers of our apartment complex showed up at the door, asking for the rent or the keys.  To back up a bit -- we've been hanging on by our fingernails since early September when our son was hospitalized. At the time we took out a payday loan to cover our increased expenses (I promise you will get a post on why you should NEVER NEVER NEVER use payday loans).  We had been hanging in there, making our payments, when they suddenly decided that we were in default (we were not, by the way), reached into Gav's bank account and yoinked out the rest of the money.  This knocked Gav severely overdrawn and set the stage for the crises down the road.

Since we obviously need a roof over our heads, we called the people we knew who were in a position to help.  I called my mom and my sister and Gav called his mom.  We've managed to pay about $1400 of what we owe, but I'm having trouble cashing the check from my mom. They haven't come after us, yet.  Hopefully tomorrow will be the big day.

As if to drive the point home, Gav's mom came by with a ton of groceries for us as well.  We had just done our grocery shopping the day before, but she brought by three whole frozen chickens, spaghetti, sauce, canned soup and noodles, boxes of no-prep meals... our cupboards look like we visited the food bank (a post coming about how poor often equals fat).  I'm not complaining, but it's primarily stuff I try to avoid -- lots of fat and sodium, highly processed stuff.

I cashed in my retirement from my old job and we are sitting on pins and needles until it turns up.  It's scheduled to get here November 2, and we'll be paying everyone back out of it, and playing catch-up with all the rest of our bills.  We were hoping it would help give the kids a nice holiday, but I don't know if that's going to happen. It's more important to bring the bills current, since we are being creamed with late fees.

So that's where we're at right now.  Counting the days until the retirement comes in, hoping we don't get evicted in the meantime.  Please join us as we work to fix this situation and provide better lives for our kids.  We would love it if you would talk to us about your own journeys.  We all have something to teach someone else, and the more people involved in this conversation, the more we can join forces to fight our debt.