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?