Friday, April 20, 2012

Paying the Bills

At least we are reducing the load.
Image by renjith krishnan

The last few days I spent quite a bit of time sorting through my stack of medical bills.  I had received a decent payment from the flash card project and decided that, despite my desire to use it on more entertaining endeavors, taking care of this mess would probably be a much better decision. 

We had recently received a notice from the Most Evil Collection Agency Ever (hence after referred to as MECAE), one that we had finally paid off before, but was now back.  I’ve (unfortunately) dealt with collection agencies before, and this company is the most aggressive, nasty one I’ve ever worked with.  Explaining the situation does not help.  They would be perfectly happy with you living on the street as long as they get paid.  They are also the agency that our primary medical providers work with.  Our providers don’t dink around either; as soon as you are late you get sent to this agency.  Fun.

After numerous phone calls back and forth and several hours spent on hold (no, I’m not joking), I was able to set up payment plans with just about every creditor we have left.  Do you know how good this actually feels?  The initial payments have been made and the remainder of the payments are scheduled.  The plan at this point is to finish this wave and then pull our credit reports and see what else is lurking out there.  We will also have receipts in hand to dispute any debts that have been paid and not yet erased.  I feel pretty good about this plan.

Here are the steps I took to sort through the mess and get it all straightened out:
  • Gather together all of the bills.
  • Open each one.  Yes, I hate this part, too.
  • Sort them into piles according to creditor. 
  • Go through each individual stack and try to eliminate duplicates.
  • If you have bills that have gone to a collection agency, try to link up the agency with the creditor.  You don’t want to accidentally pay the same bill twice!  You may need to call the creditor to find out which bills have gone to the agency and which ones the creditor is still holding.  Eliminate any duplicates.
  • If you have medical bills, scrutinize them carefully.  Have any mistakes been made?  According to Consumer Reports, 80 percent of bills from hospitals contain medical errors!  While errors are less frequent at clinics and labs, they are still possible.  Some of the most common errors you might find are procedures that were never performed or failing to bill to your medical insurance.  If you encounter an error, contact the number on the bill to straighten it out. 
  • Go through the remaining bills and pay off the small ones.  This will give you a great sense of satisfaction and prevent future problems. 

Once this is done, contact the creditors with the largest bills and make payment plans.  I know this part sucks.  It sucks for me too.  Some of them will threaten and try to coerce you into larger chunks, but others will be glad you called and will willingly work with you.  Use your nice, indoor voice and be polite.  This will actually work wonders, since they are used to dealing with people who are pissed off and nasty. 

The other step I took that helped me keep my sanity throughout this mess was to work in 25 minute segments and take a break between each segment.  I got up and walked away from the computer and the phone.  This helped to reset me for new phone calls and reduce the stress and tension I was feeling.  I think if I hadn’t done this I would have started getting snarly at the people on the other line and probably wouldn’t have made such good plans. 

Fun, huh?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

My Struggle with Entropy

Photo by Stuart Miles

For the most part, I have no beef with the natural laws.  I mean, gravity and I get into it every once in a while, but we tend to just keep a healthy distance and respect each other.

Entropy, on the other hand… entropy is my mortal enemy.  I do battle with it on a regular basis.  Sometimes I emerge victorious and you get several pictures of how nice the house looks, other times I take a break.  As soon as I do, that sly little bitch sneaks in and invokes chaos when I’m not even looking.  Then I take a peek around and wonder what happened to my nice clean kitchen.

How do people do it?  Without constantly cleaning, day and night, how do their homes stay neat?  How does entropy stay beaten back?  I’ve tried a number of schedules to get both the housework and my writing work done and caught up, but one or the other always seems to suffer. Limited number of hours in the day and all that.   My most recent attempt has been taking 15 minutes at the top of every hour to clean up, but I never seem to get any further than a load each of laundry and dishes and maybe the kitchen counter get cleaned up.  And the next day, that same area is trashed again.

It doesn’t help that the kids go behind me actively undoing everything I’ve done.  Plenty of systems are out there, but they never seem to take MY life into account.  The problem is that the people who developed these systems (think Flylady) now have lives that completely revolve around these systems.  Keeping their homes clean is actually their job; they are quite literally being paid to pick up!  I think the Flylady system started out really practical, but it’s gotten completely out of hand.  Her website is (ironically) a cluttered mess, her emails primarily pitches for her products, and don’t get me started on her philosophy (I’ll bitch about nobody helping me as much as I damn well want to, lady).

This blog is essentially about the steps I am taking to get organized and get my life in gear.  It started out just being about the financial aspect of that, but over time it has emerged into something larger.  Getting organized really seems to be at the heart of it.  And there is actually a financial aspect to this as well.  Being organized will save me money and allow me more time to get my work done – I’m sure of it.  But getting to that point is costing me a fortune in time. 

So here’s what I want to know:  How do you do it?  How do you keep up the house AND keep up with your work?   What are your tips for me?  How can I make this work?  

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Harsh Reality

Basic Biology lesson -- Plants need sunlight.
Photo by Sura Nualpradid

This isn’t working.  Today is one of the first really gorgeous days we’ve had this year.  Full-on sunshine, temperatures in the 60s…  and I came to a sad realization.  The way my deck is situated allows for almost no sunlight during the day.  My poor plants!  I can feel them – reaching… reaching… trying to get to that sliver of sunlight.  Poof!  It’s gone. 

My radishes sprouts have all fallen over, the beans are looking a bit leggy (and really are reaching for the light), and my romaine doesn’t want to move past the sprout phase.  The blueberries are hanging in there (they’re zombies, after all -- it’s gonna take a blowtorch to take them out, apparently).  You can’t garden without sun.  Well, maybe moss. 

I’m looking forward to the move.  (Oh, I haven’t told you about that?  I should probably remedy that soon).  I’ll have a deck with full-on sun and no neighboring building to block it.  I might just have to hang in there until then and realize that container gardening in the dark isn’t an effective method of growing vegetables.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Zombie Blueberries!!

Wouldn’t that be an awesome movie?  I mean, of course, so terrible it’s awesome.  Blueberries, back from the dead!  It’s actually happening in my garden!

Since I’m a lousy gardener, I failed to mulch my poor blueberry plant last year.  By January, it looked like a dead stick someone had shoved into a pot of dirt.  Sounds like something one of the kids would do, to be honest.  I shrugged my shoulders and figured that I was simply not cut out to raise blueberries.

So imagine my surprise last week when I went outside to start checking out my gardening gear and found this!

Check it out!  Little green shoots!! 

Blueberries, back from the dead!  That poor plant hasn’t even been watered in months!  I ran inside, grabbed a watering can, and gave the poor little guy a drink, then moved it out where it could get some sun.  I checked on it again today, and the new little leaves are actually beginning to unfurl.  I gave it some fertilizer and another drink.  I’ll keep a close eye on the little guy, but I think it’s going to make it.

I read up on blueberries.  Apparently they’re a fairly hardy breed.  No kidding.  I’m planning on getting this guy a friend so they can cross-pollinate each other.  Breeding zombie blueberries!!!  Coming soon to a theater near you.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Baking Good Bread to Save

Photo from

So it is no secret that we are trying to save money however we can.  In addition to making our own laundry soap, dishwasher soap, and spray cleaner, we’ve also been working on finding a good recipe for easy sandwich bread.  My goal was to be able to shy away from the store bought bread since the prices average between $3 and $4 a loaf for the healthier brands.  

Here is what I was looking for in a recipe:
  • Soft crusted with a texture that mimics store bought bread
  • Easily adaptable to pan baking since I don’t have a bread maker
  • Makes two or more loaves at a time
  • Uses  whole wheat flour and no “junk” for a healthier loaf of bread

I set about hitting the interwebs, and tried a couple of recipes.  We have some of the Bob’s Red Mill wheat flour that I was planning to use, so I checked that site first....  The recipe was good, but the bread was a bit too dense to really fit what we were looking for.  After a bit more poking around, I came across a blog called “Tammy’s Recipes”.  I gave this one a shot, and right out of the gate, it was a hit!  According to her breakdown in one of her  recent posts, it only costs about a dollar per loaf to make your bread at home!  I can handle using a hand mixer for a bit and doing a bit of baking to save some cash! The full recipe for this wheat/white bread is on her blog that is listed above, but here are the single loaf ingredients:

1 cup warm water (110-115 degrees F)
1 tablespoon milk
2 tablespoons oil
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons instant active dry yeast (active dry yeast will work also; get more info on active vs. instant active dry yeast here!)

Not much to it really!  I would highly recommend checking it out if you want to try baking your own bread.  It is very easy,and if you have a mixer with dough hooks, it takes like five minutes to get the ingredients together and then the rise/baking time. 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

I Started Some Seeds Today

Today I went ahead and started some radishes, spinach, and romaine lettuce.  Sounds like a tasty salad, doesn’t it?  I had some help from my little gardeners, especially Elias, who is working toward his gardening merit badge.  Unfortunately for Elias, the merit badge is more than just sticking seeds in soil; he also needs to do some research to complete the badge.  He’s not so keen on the actual reading and writing part!

If we can get these seeds to harvest, he will have completed a portion of his badge.  He also needs to raise three vegetables from seedlings, so once the weather gets warmer he can choose some seedlings to transplant.  I wonder if it counts if I start the seeds and then he transplants the seedlings?  I have some beans planted and I was going to start peas once things get a bit warmer.  We’ll probably be doing tomatoes from seedlings.  That just seems to work better.  That will complete the vegetable portion of his badge.

He also needs to start three flowers from seed and three from seedlings.  I’m not quite as keen on that part, since I would prefer to use my gardening space (which is very minimal) to grow veggies.  I suppose we could have another crack at sunflowers, but that didn’t go too well last year.  Strawberries, tomatoes, and zucchini grow out of flowers… does that count?? 

I used some pellets we had left over from last year to start the seeds.  I picked these since they are cool weather plants, and the weather has definitely been cool!  We did eight pellets of radish (two seeds per pellet), eight pellets of spinach, and four pellets of romaine.  I labeled the rows for a change, so we’ll know what’s actually coming up. 

My labeled seed in their pellets in the "mini greenhouse."

 According to the seed packets, here’s the details on each of these:

Radish – Scarlet Globe:  I can keep starting these every two weeks to keep a nice crop of radishes going.  The seeds should sprout in about seven days.  I’ll thin them then (and have a little microsalad, haha!) and transplant them outside.  I can harvest them in just 24 days!  Talk about immediate gratification.

Spinach – Olympia Hybrid:  This one should sprout in about seven to ten days.  It sounds like I can have a spring harvest and then another one in fall.  I can start thinning when the plants reach about three inches, so I’ll transplant at that time too.  I should have a harvest in about a month and a half.

Romaine lettuce:  This should sprout in five to ten days.  I’m supposed to thin when the plants have three true leaves.  I’m hoping the temperature isn’t too warm inside for these.  If they don’t sprout when I’m expecting them too, I’ll just start a batch outside since they apparently really like cold weather.  Another batch I can start up again in the fall.  I wonder, since we don’t get that many freezes around here, can I plant spinach and romaine year around?  It would be great to constantly have fresh salad greens right from the garden! 

I’ll snag some pictures when the little guys start sprouting.  I’m looking forward to it!  I’m going to pick up more seed starting stuff the next time we go to the store.  Hopefully I can start kicking the garden into full gear now! 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

How I'm Learning to Start a Garden From Seed

Starting from seed is the cheap way to garden.
Image by Master isolated images

Tonight I had the opportunity to attend a Seed Saving Workshop (free!).   The people giving the workshop were fantastic.  I’m such a gardening novice, and I confess to having forgotten nearly everything I learned in Biology 101 (let alone Microbiology).  I tend to be of the “stick a seed in a pot and cross your fingers” variety of gardener.  This, of course, means that my garden generally doesn’t produce much.

After this workshop, I’m really excited to get some seeds started this weekend!  I got to take home some beans in potting soil, so hopefully they will get going.  I also want to get started on my radishes and lettuces.  Apparently, it’s getting to be prime time and they grow pretty good in cool spring.  I could be having my first homegrown salad in about a month’s time!   Looks like I need to pick up some potting soil and fertilizer this weekend too. 

This is how big a novice I am when it comes to gardening:  I was under the mistaken impression that fertilizer was fertilizer.  Bzzzzzt!  Wrong!  I wasn’t even aware of the nitrogen/phosphorous/potassium ratio.  I have a pretty good idea now why my tomatoes last year went insane with the greenery but only produced about three tomatoes.  Apparently my fertilizer was too heavy on the nitrogen side.  For tomatoes, I should have been using a low nitrogen, high potassium blend.  (Don’t laugh—I’m aware of my gardening ignorance!)  But I’m betting that what I used last year will be great for my lettuces.

One of the speakers at the workshop was a local gardener named Caitlin Moore, aka the Urban Food Warrior.  I highly recommend you check out her blog, since it’s just loaded with great information.  I plan on making it a regular resource.  She also works at a place called Cascadian Edible Landscapes, which is apparently not too far from me.  I fully intend to check it out, maybe this weekend.

I wanted to share with you some of the cool things I learned at the workshop.  If this isn’t news to you, I apologize.  Once again, gardening idiot in the house!  I fully intend to grow a decent garden this year!

  • If you want to save seeds, don’t buy hybrid.  You don’t know what you will get.  Open pollenated seeds are the best for seed saving.
  • You can store seeds for ages as long as you keep them in a cool, dry place, like a jar in the refrigerator.
  • Don’t fertilize seeds.  Fertilize seedlings about once a week.  Use liquid fertilizer if you are using sterile seed starting soil, pellets if you are using potting soil.
  • Plastic strawberry containers make great miniature greenhouses!
  • You can reuse your gardening containers as long as you sterilize them with a vinegar/water solution.
  • When thinning seedlings, you should cut, not pull, to avoid disturbing the surrounding roots.
  • Seedlings need 16 – 18 hours of light per day!
  • You should “pet” your seedlings to encourage them to develop strong stems that will help them survive once they are planted outdoors.
  • Soil temperature should be about 50 degrees before you plant seeds outdoors.  Containers (like I use) tend to keep soil slightly warmer (so what they heck am I waiting for??). 

I’m looking forward to getting the garden growing this year!  What other great seed starting tips do you have that aren’t commonly known?  

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Why You Should Switch to a Credit Union. Now.

This is how I feel about banks.
Image by David Castillo Dominici

I’m going to start with the bottom line.  We all make mistakes when tracking finances.  Yes, even you.  The thing is, when someone who has a healthy buffer in their checking account forgets to note last Tuesday’s mocha purchase, it’s not that big a deal.  You’ll catch it in a couple weeks when you get your statement, update your account, and life goes on.  Yay.

But when you are living paycheck to paycheck and your account flirts with zero on a weekly basis, these mistakes are devastating.  Let me paint you a picture of a typical payday for someone living this way:

Friday – Payday!  Money in the account!  Hurray!
  • Check your budget and add up the bills you have to pay.  Not bad.  Looks like you’ll even have about a $20 buffer this week.  Sweet.
  • Write the rent check.  Drop it off.
  • Hit the grocery store.  Since you came in under budget, you decide to treat yourself to a fancy coffee.
  • Transfer funds into savings.
  • Pay the light bill.

Saturday –
  • You’re at work.  You still have that buffer, and you’re exhausted, so you grab a coffee during the day.

Sunday –
  • You grab a pack of gum.

Monday –
  • You check your account.  Nothing has cleared from over the weekend.  Typical.

Tuesday –

  • Still nothing.  Account hasn’t budged.  You snort in annoyance that the office still hasn’t deposited the rent check.  If you had waited until today to paid it, you would have gotten a notice on the door (and had to pay more fines, but they have no problem taking their own sweet time.)  Seems odd that the little payments from the weekend haven’t gone through, though.

Wednesday –

  • You log in to check your account… and you’re $200 in the hole.  What the hell?

You go through your account to see what went wrong.  For starters, the damn sewer company that you have set up for automatic payment pushed through two days early.  But… wait a minute.  A closer look reveals that the payments you made went through in the following order:
  • Rent
  • Groceries
  • Sewer bill
  • Power bill
  • Deposit to savings
  • Coffee from Friday
  • Coffee from Saturday
  • Pack of gum from Sunday

And of course everything after the sewer bill got smacked with an overdraft fee of 30 bucks.  You check with the landlord.  Yup, they deposited the check on Tuesday.  But why did the coffee from Friday come through AFTER the rent check?  Looking again, you can’t help but notice that the transactions all went through in a clump… from largest amount to smallest.  If the stupid rent check had been the last to go through, everything else would have cleared just fine, and you would have only been nailed for $30 instead of $150.  Hmmmmm.

The worst part?  You’ll be starting the next payday cycle $200 short.  When you live paycheck to paycheck, that HURTS.  It means a bill isn’t going to get paid.  So you’ll have late fees.  If you have automatic withdrawal, the bouncing cycle is going to begin again. 

For the longest time, I swore that the banks were doing this on purpose.  I was assured over and over again that they were not.  Was I paranoid?

Nope.  Turns out I was absolutely right.  In fact, even though banks like Bank of America and Wells Fargo are being punished in class action lawsuits for the practice, they’re still doing it.  Just this past week, a friend was taken to the tune of about $1200 by her bank. 

Now let me tell you about our experience we had this week with BECU, a local credit union (that anyone can join, by the way).  A situation very similar to one described above occured.  When we realized it, we cringed and then watched the account miserably, waiting for the overdraft charges to come through.  When they hadn’t come through by Wednesday, I asked Gavin to call BECU to find out what they were going to be so we could account for them.  

Guess what?  There weren’t going to be any additional overdraft charges, except for the one charge on the sewer bill that went through early.  The rep explained that since the other, smaller debit transactions had been approved when there was money in the account, we were not charged overdraft fees on them. 

$25 vs. $100 in overdraft fees for this particular mistake.  Seems like a no-brainer to me.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Paying Bills Off Feels Gooooooood!

You might think I'm exaggerating... but I'm not.
Image by kongsky

In the past couple of weeks we’ve finally managed to say goodbye to a few bills that have been haunting us.  About a week ago I finally got caught up on payments to my son’s counselor.  I was sorely behind on those (to the tune of about $300), but we worked out a payment plan to get me caught up so he could continue seeing her uninterrupted.  I’m finally caught up now, so I only have to worry about the $10 copay when he goes to see her. 

The second big one was a medical bill that had gone to collections.  This collection agency is absolutely vicious.  A lot of financial advice online will tell you not to worry too much about collection agencies because the worst that they will do is call you and threaten you but won’t actually do anything.  Not true with these guys.  They don’t waste any time.  Two phone calls and you’re being served and they are getting ready to garnish you.  They are also difficult to negotiate and create a payment plan with.  “My way or the highway,” is their motto.  But this week we will finally be making our last payment to them, and we can cross off a $650 bill.

We also just paid off a $360 bill that we had been chipping away at.  This one was the result of a payday loan that we’ve been paying off for what seems like forever.  A word of advice?  NEVER.  NEVER EVER EVER get a payday loan.  NEVER.  They are practically impossible to pay and will only make the situation worse.  Here, have another NEVER for good measure.

It feels great to put these bills behind us.  It really feels like we’re making significant progress.  What are we tackling next?  A $700 bill that’s been bothering me and the power bill that’s been building up.  Unfortunately, when we fell behind on the power bill, they felt like the best way to solve the problem would be to charge us another deposit.  Which effectively doubled the power bill.  How helpful.  If we pay the power bill on time for the next several months, they’ll refund us the deposit, so I guess we better get cracking.  

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Organized Simplicity: A Book Review

Organized Simplicity by Tsh Oxenreider
Image courtesy of

A while ago, I was perusing the Twitter feed for Paying Our Way (@payingourway).  I’m connected to several money-saving blogs, and one of them regularly posts the day’s free e-books for Kindle.  I saw one called Organized Simplicity and thought that sounded like something useful, so I snagged it.  It hung out on my Kindle for a while, until I was bored and decided to give it a go.

I’ve read other books on simple living before.  Most of the time, the premise is nice, but ultimately unrealistic for how we live our life.  I can’t see us giving up the TV or the Xbox, and I’m pretty sure there’s an ordinance against keeping a cow on the back deck.  Plus most of these people are so green, they practically generate their own oxygen.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s just not my lifestyle.

I could tell right away, this one was different.  The writer, Tsh Oxenreider (not a typo, it’s pronounced “Tish”), lives more like we do.  They have an apartment and two kids, and you don’t get the feeling when you read that she’s hovering over you with a wild look in your eye wondering why you haven’t hurled your TV from the balcony yet.

Her advice is fairly simple.  The genius seems to be in the layout and the method.  This is very much a how-to, hands on book.  Some of the changes she was discussing were things we already strive to do.  For example, as you know, we are trying hard to make our own meals from scratch.  We also use a number of homemade household cleaners(by the way, the back of this book has an appendix that is just chock full of homemade cleaning recipes).   Others were changes that I have wanted to make, but felt overwhelmed just thinking about.

These are the changes we have made since I began reading the book:

1.  I implemented the use of the daily docket, a document that helps schedule and organize the day.  It’s simple to use and helps keep me on track all day long.  I’ve linked the one I devised that works best for me.  On the left I list the things I hope to get done during the day, on the right I write in the hours of the day and schedule when I plan to do things.  I’ve been so much more productive since putting this in place.

2.  We set up a daily chore list, featuring grown-up chores and kids’ chores.  Chore Wars is a thing of the past.  Elias was way too good at manipulating the system.  Now, before any TV or electronics time, both kids have to get their chores done (yes, even Maddie has some chores to do). They take about 20 minutes, tops, so there’s really no excuse.

3.  We’ve massively reduced the amount of time spent staring at the screen.  The kids get two hours per day, max.  Once Maddie has used up her time, she has been great about finding other things to do, including painting, blowing bubbles on the porch, and reading to her stuffed animals.  Elias usually doesn’t even watch all his time.  I think just knowing he has it is enough.  Gavin has also done great.  Before, the TV was on from the moment he gets home in the evening until we go to bed.  That’s about five solid hours of TV and that’s a bit much.  Having the TV off means we can play music, just read, have conversations… it’s much nicer.  I think even Gavin agrees!

4.  We began working through the 10-day plan for getting the house organized and more streamlined.  I think in our case it’s going to wind up being a 30-day plan, but the point is, it’s getting done.  The living room looks fantastic.  We rearranged some furniture, created a reading nook and an art station, and hauled about six boxes of stuff to the Goodwill.  We are also inventorying every box that goes out and logging on a website Gavin found called It’s Deductible.  It calculates the value of your donations and stores the info so you can import it directly into Turbo Tax.  So far we’ve donated almost $400 worth of stuff… and that’s just the living room.  Each room has a great checklist to work through for cleaning, and I’m really pleased with how it’s going so far.

I’m really loving the changes so far.  I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to make changes but isn’t sure where to start. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Homemade Carpet Cleaner

There's some stuff you just don't want on the carpet
when you have kids and pets.
Photo by renjith krishnan

One of the “joys” of having kids around is utter trashing that your rugs receive.  If there is something to spill, they will find a way to do that.  Between two kids, parents who like to drink soda, and a cat who had what appeared to be some sort of eating disorder, our carpets look like a Jackson Pollock painting. 

The other issue with having kids and cats underfoot is that the usual carpet cleaners you can purchase on the cleaning aisle are right next to stuff like Drano.  In other words, nothing you want your kids or your cats playing with.  They also tend to be one of the most expensive items on the cleaning aisle, especially since so many of them really only have one or two uses in them. 

So I was pleased to find a carpet cleaner that doesn’t contain anything horrifying that I can quickly whip up in my own kitchen, from stuff that I always have hanging around.  The trick to this cleaner is that you can’t just spray it on the carpet and let the foam sink in, you have to actually scrub it a bit.  I used a sponge and applied it and then scrubbed the dickens out of it.

It actually works pretty well.  Unlike some of the other homemade cleaners, I can’t say it works as well as the chemical stuff you buy on the store, but it wasn’t bad either.  I think it’s going to take another application, but I have hope of salvaging out poor living room carpet yet.  One thing it didn’t help with was a bright pink stain that I think might be the result of a spilled soda or some kind of juice.  However, it did great with a number of other stains.

The recipe is simple.  Not as simple as the dishwashing detergent, but just about.  Just mix equal parts salt (we used Kosher salt), Borax, and white vinegar into a thick paste.  I used about two tablespoons of each and that made enough to treat several stains. Just so you know, this isn't something you can keep.  You just mix some up as you need it.  It's just as fast as pulling a can out from under the sink. We also sprinkled baking soda on the carpet and then gave it a very thorough vacuuming.  I plan to treat it again tomorrow to see if we can get anything more up.  I’m thinking I might try adding a bit more vinegar into the mix so I can “dribble” the cleaner on, instead of dab. 

Not bad though.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Homemade Dishwasher Detergent

Sparkly clean dishes for nothing!
Photo by africa

I found a recipe for dishwasher detergent!  It’s really super complicated, so get your pens ready, okay?  Here it comes:

Mix equal parts of Borax and washing soda.

That’s it.  Seriously.  It works just fine, comparable to the big name detergents.  In fact, it actually works better than the generic stuff from Fred Meyer (never again, that stuff was awful).  The dishes are totally clean, the glasses are sparkly, no streaks or residue or anything.  

I mixed the two ingredients (which I still have a ton of by the way, despite several batches of laundry detergent and household cleaner) and have them in a plastic container under the sink.  You use the same amount that your dishwasher requires for any powdered detergent, about 1/3 cup for our machine. 

Dishwasher detergent for less than a penny a load.  Gotta love it. 

Monday, February 27, 2012

Black Bean Linguine

A new twist on pasta.
Photo by lobster20

This is a recipe that was provided to me by my cousin Tandra.  It’s an excellent choice for a healthy and inexpensive meatless meal.  Plus, it went together very quickly and was delicious!  I’m providing the recipe as we made it, with notes about how it differed from Tandra’s recipe.  Enjoy!

Black Bean Linguine

8 ounces linguine (we didn’t have linguine, so we used spaghetti)
¼ medium onion (the recipe calls for 1 whole onion, but we don’t like a lot of onion)
1 clove garlic  (we used the diced garlic that comes in a jar)
1 15 ounce can black beans
1 TBL vegetable oil
12.5-oz can stewed tomatoes
1.5 C picante sauce (we used enchilada sauce because we like the flavor better)
1 tsp. chili powder
1 tsp. cumin
1/4 tea oregano
4 ounces colby jack cheese (we used cheddar cheese)
cilantro (we didn’t add any)

We also topped ours with some light sour cream.  Yum!

Cook pasta using package directions; cover to keep warm.

Chop onion. Mince garlic. Drain and rinse black beans.

Heat vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high. Add onion and garlic, cooking until onion is tender.

Add undrained tomatoes, picante sauce, black beans, chili powder, cumin, and oregano.  Mix well and bring to boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes.

Uncover and increase the heat to medium-high. Cook, stirring frequently, until desired consistency is reached (about 5 minutes). Place hot cooked pasta on plate and spoon the sauce over. Top with cheese and cilantro (or sour cream!!).


Thanks again for the recipe Tandra!  This is one of our new family favorites and we usually have the stuff on hand.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

“Why Save When You Have Debt?”

Because sometimes it comes to this.
Photo by Daniel St. Pierre

This question was posed to me in response to this post, in which we discussed our budget (I was also thrilled by the lively Facebook discussion that ensued).  I thought it was a fair question.  The logic behind it was, we are charged a much higher amount of interest on our debt than we could ever hope to earn on our savings.  This is true, and I’ve noticed that even experts can’t agree.  Some state that you should put every extra penny into paying down the debt and leave saving until the debt is gone.  Others argue that you should do both because you never know what life is going to throw your way.

I personally agree with the second camp.  What good is paying down the debt if every one of life’s little tailspins causes you to add onto it?  Take the car incident.  If we had had our emergency fund built up, we could have just run to the bank and solved the problem.  Instead we had to borrow money and just tacked on more debt.  That’s not helpful.  It’s completely a step in the wrong direction.  If every time something goes wrong I add on more debt, I’m just endlessly throwing my money into a bottomless pit.  The point of saving while I work on the debt is to keep a stash of cash handy for dealing with emergencies. 

While the logic behind not saving until the debt is paid off is sound, I believe that it doesn’t take the reality of day-to-day living into account.  Shit sometimes happens.  I want to be prepared when it does.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Back to the Budget

Not one of my favorite things to do...
Photo by Stuart Miles

Tonight we finally got our act together and worked out… not so much a budget, but a map of where our money should be going.  I figured out one of the reasons I utterly hate looking at our finances on paper:  It’s completely stupid.  There’s honestly no reason on earth why we should be struggling the way we do.  Even with my own meager earnings, we should be getting all this stuff paid with room to spare.  I just don’t understand why it never seems to work out that way…

Well, that’s not entirely true.  There’s crap like the car repairs.  Plus, we always seem to be starting from behind.  But at least we can play a little catch-up – we filed our taxes and should be getting a little refund by the end of the week.  Nothing amazing, but at least enough to keep swimming for a while longer.  I’m really looking forward to the flashcards project payout.  That’s going to give us some really good breathing room.

One of the other things we accomplished with this was that I was able to see how much I actually need to make per day to stay afloat.  Once again, what gives?  I can do this, easily.  I don’t know how it’s not happening, honestly.  But at least I can have that number in my head every day so when I sit down to work I know what my daily minimum is.  I’m not going to count the flashcards project toward that minimum.  That’s going to be gravy, as far as I’m concerned.

I’m not going to lay our entire budget out for inspection; we do need to keep some things private after all!  But I wanted to at least show you our categories.  We haven’t yet set up the categories for things beyond the basics.  Most of our expenses really are monthly.  I didn’t set up an entertainment category, although we do have a spending money category.  Once we have this running somewhat smoothly, we are going to look at options for one evening out a month and hopefully a regular date night.

The budget categories:
  •  Rent
  •  Groceries
  •  Power
  •  Gasoline
  •  Water/Sewer
  •  Internet
  •  Emergency Savings Plan
  •  Debt repayment
  •  Cell phones
  •  Bus fare
  •  Taxes
  •  Spending money
  •  Netflix/Hulu

I should probably mention that I’m not counting things like insurance and such that come directly out of Gavin’s paycheck.  When we calculated our income, I only looked at the net that actually comes into the checking account.  The taxes category is for the taxes that I have to pay, since mine aren’t deducted automatically.

The next step in this process is going to be to track how much we are actually spending in each category to make sure the numbers are fairly accurate.  I think I overestimated in a few areas; groceries and gasoline come to mind.  I’d rather be over than under though.  

Monday, February 13, 2012

Weekly Meal Plan 2/14 to 2/17

Image by chawalitpix

This is a short one… we’re shopping tonight, then again this weekend, so we only needed a few meals to get us through the week.  Some of the ones I found look pretty tasty though, so I wanted to share them with you.

Tuesday – Appropriately named for a Valentine’s Day dinner, Romantic Chicken with Mushrooms and Artichokes.  We’ll be serving spinach salad with it.  And I’ll probably treat myself to a glass of wine with dinner.

Wednesday – Spaghetti with kielbasa and pasta sauce, because sometimes it’s nice to just throw stuff together and be lazy.  This is one of our go-to lazy meals.  I could give you a recipe, but the listing pretty much says it all. Fresh salad on the side.

Thursday – Extra lean ground beef is on sale this week (still pricier than I like, though) so we are going to grill hamburgers and let the side dish of home fries star.  This recipe looks fantastic, so I hope they turn out as tasty as they look.

Friday – My cousin Tandra Zimmerman, posted a photo of a recipe she made on Facebook called Black Bean Linguini.  I thought it sounded great, so I begged her for the recipe.  We’ll give this one a test run and post the recipe later this week!  I’m looking forward to trying it!

Any of these sound especially good to you?  What are your dinner plans for Valentine’s Day?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

All You Need is Love? Valentine’s Day for Cheap

Across the county, wallets everywhere are weeping.
Photo by zirconicusso

Here it is, that special time of year when you can’t turn on the TV without a massive guilt-trip and a plea to buy shiny little chunks of stone that will set you back about a week’s salary.  Oh, yes, it’s Valentine’s Day.

I know, I know.  It’s a made-up Hallmark holiday designed to sell cards, flowers, cutesy stuffed animals, and jewelry, blah, blah, blah.  I’m not going to get involved in that argument, and I’m not going to write a dissertation on the origins of Valentine’s Day.  Let’s just leave it at this – it’s part of our cultural, you’ve been hearing about practically since Christmas, and really, what’s wrong with taking a day to shower your loved one with (more than your usual) love and affection?  I can get behind that.

The thing is, there’s a lot of pressure to spend a small fortune just to let someone you know you care.  Not necessary.  Gavin and I brainstormed a few ideas for cheap ways to celebrate each other (not the day, each other), and we thought we’d share a few of those with you:
  •  Do you really need flowers?  Nurseries tend to hike up their prices right before the big day, knowing that plenty of poor schmucks will have few options but to pay their exorbitant prices.  Living in the Northwest, you can’t exactly go raid someone’s garden for some nice flowers this time of year (although I am hearing reports of early daffodils…).  If you can’t afford to spend a bundle on the holiday, I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to forgo flowers. 
  • What about jewelry?  Okay, I’m just not even going to go there.  Forget the jewelry.  Let’s be realistic, please.
  • Cards are nice, but spending $5 on a piece of paper with a sweet little sentiment on it seems an easy way out, but really, you could do plenty more with that five bucks. 

So what should we do? 
  •  Fix a nice meal for your sweetie.  It doesn’t have to be fancy or involve tenderloin.  Try out our chicken and potatoes recipe for a meal that looks pretty and tastes great but doesn’t cost a fortune.  Light candles, use the “nice” dishes, tablecloth and napkins.
  • Plan an inexpensive date night.  If you have kids, put in a movie and pop some popcorn after they go to bed.  Let that old “Valentine’s Day Magic” do its thing.
  • Pick a day after Valentine’s Day.  All the prices will have gone back down and you stand a chance of getting a good deal if you are able to splurge a little on a night out.
  • Take some time during the day (if you are both lucky enough to have it off) and just go for a walk in a nice location, if the weather permits. 
  • Set a small budget for each of you (maybe $5) and get each other a surprise.  Cards are off-limits!  Be creative.
What inexpensive ways do you find to spoil your sweetie during February?

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Pounding Poultry

photo courtesy of

Pounding out a chicken breast can be a bit therapeutic.  The trick is controlling and redirecting any aggression you feel and knowing when to stop pounding so you don’t end up with a piece of chicken that looks like it was ravaged by dogs.
  1. Trim any excess fat off the breast.
  2. From here, there are two ways you can enclose your chicken before giving it the smack down…     
    1. Use a long sheet of thick plastic wrap lightly sprayed with canola spray.
    2. Use a gallon-size zipper bag, and lightly spray the inside with canola spray.
  3. Place the chicken in your preferred containment method, and either zip the bag mostly shut or fold the plastic wrap over the chicken.  Don’t zip the bag all the way shut, or you may explode it.  The object here is to give the chicken room to spread out while preventing “splatter.” 
  4. Your meat mallet has two sides, one with the points and one that is flat.  You will want to use the flat side since we are just trying to flatten and not tenderize the chicken.
  5. Start from the underside of the breast.  Pound the chicken using fairly strong hits, but let them glance off toward the outside of the breast.  Start toward the middle, and work your way out and around the meat. Do not pound in one place too long or too often, or you will “break through” and cause a hole.  
  Depending on the size of the breast and the desired thickness you want, it can take a while to get there but with some practice it is a piece of cake.

And now back to your regularly scheduled programming....

And it's not even a train.
Photo by Sura Nualpradid

I've been stuck in meltdown mode since the car problem occurred, and it's definitely time to yank myself out of my deep, blue funk. The last couple days I found myself stuffing my face and slacking on workouts, so it's time to put a halt to that.

Plus I finally got some great news!  Back in November or so, I applied for a position with a company that makes study guide materials for professional examinations.  It so happens that one of the tests they provide materials for is the pharmacy technician certification exam.  As someone who took that test and was a curve-setter for that session of testing (sorry guys!) and then proceeded to work in the field for the next 10 years, an evil little grin crossed my face.  I had to be a shoo-in for this.

I applied.  They responded quickly and sent me a sample to edit.  I dug in and realized that they had actually sent me a sample of a paramedic examination.  I went through and fixed all the grammatical errors, looked up as much information as I could to fact-check, then got my very own personal paramedic on the line (that would be my sister) to double check my medical info.  This trick has always worked well for me in the past.  I may not know all the answers, but I sure as heck know where to find them and who to ask.  If that makes me look brilliant, so be it!

I didn't hear back for ages, so I figured I must have botched something after all.  Oh well.  What can you do, right?  And then, a couple days ago, an email turned up -- "Sorry we didn't get back to you, we were doing a little restructuring, so on and so forth.... are you still interested?"  Hell, yeah, I'm still interested.  Sent back an email with that message (expressed a bit more professionally, of course).

Yesterday, I was officially offered the contract.  Attached were the details, a contract (nothing scary, just "don't steal our company secrets or set up a competing company while you are working for us" -- seems reasonable), and a W-9.  Signatures applied, forms sent.  According to the email, once that part is received on their end, I'll receive my full instructions and procedures and assignments.  I will be creating flash cards, and I get paid by the card.  From what they've described so far, I'm guessing I will be able to make about $30 an hour working on these.  Possibly more.

There's still some questions -- I don't know how long the contract or the project will last.  I think about all the possible information that could go on pharmacy tech flash cards and my head spins with dollar signs.  But in the short term, it will be a much needed influx of cash, a technical writing credit on my resume, and a chance to use a lot of info stored in my noggin that's currently going to waste (not counting phone calls from my mother-in-law).

It's nice to see some light at the end of the tunnel.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

And… Cue the Meltdown

It was just a matter of time.
Image by digitalart

Sorry about my recent silence.  Beginning last weekend, things kind of went into free fall around here.  It started last Sunday, as I was on my way to the Y to get in a workout.  As I got off the freeway, I noticed white steam/smoke (I had no idea in that moment) pouring out from under the hood of my car.  I pulled over as quickly as I could. 

After getting the hood up, I discovered that my cooling system had completely blown its load all over the inside of the engine.  Unfortunately, I’m no car genius, so I had no idea what to do.  I posted an urgent message on Facebook for someone who knew anything about cars to contact me ASAP.  The phone started ringing almost immediately.  A huge thank you to Aaron, who was the first to get through, and the others whose calls I missed while I was on the phone with Aaron. 

My primary question was can the car be driven home, or would I be calling AAA for a tow.  (Get AAA.  Seriously.)  Verdict?  That car wasn’t going anywhere.  Great.  Another call out soon had my friends Kelli and Kris en route to help me get the kids home.  They showed at the same time as AAA, and we all got home safe.

To help distract me, Kelli and Kris helped me clean the place (bless their souls).  I was trying very hard not to think about the money situation.  I was hoping it was something small and maybe I could get away with a $200 repair bill.  At least the house wasn’t chaotic.

The next day, we started making phone calls.  We arranged to have the car towed down to the Firestone.  Bam.  $75.  We waited and waited, and finally they called back with the estimate.  The initial estimate was over $1000.  Gavin and I immediately began stressing out.  We were already late paying rent.  We had money in the account, but that was because we were holding it until Gavin’s next paycheck.  The apartment complex doesn’t let us make partial payments, which often presents a problem. 

At any rate, we had to have the car.  While the car was in the shop, we had a situation in which I had to go pick Elias up from school.  My friend Danielle came to give me a ride, but it really highlighted the fact that we needed the car fixed ASAP.  We were able to negotiate a bit and got the bill down to about $900, but this was still an ugly situation.
A temporary fix is in place to stop the bleeding.  I’m not happy about it, although I’m grateful for the help.  But it really emphasized the problem that we always seem to find ourselves in every time we try to save money and get things in order. 

Namely, SHIT GOES WRONG.  Call it whatever you want – emergency fund, freedom account, whatever.  I often feel like there’s this assumption that shit will stop going wrong while you try to build up the plan.  I can’t put the world on hold for the year it’s going to take me to build up this account.  We’ve saved about $100 toward the emergency fund and immediately get slapped with a $900 bill.  How is this going to be possible?  Now I need to pay back a ton of money, while still attempting to save for the future?  Do you see the problem here? 

And everything starts falling to pieces.  I ask Gavin about the transfer for this week.  It didn’t happen because we were trying to figure out the rent/car situation.  THIS IS WHAT ALWAYS HAPPENS.  It feels like there’s a hand on my head, pushing me back down, telling me to stop trying.  Why bother?  Things will always be shitty.  Shit will always happen.  I don’t know how to make it stop. 

So I’ve been in money meltdown this week.  Who the hell am I to try to help anyone else?  I can’t even help myself.  The more I try, the worse it seems to get.  We can’t continue this way, but no other alternative seems to present itself.  I can’t go to work full time because of the situation with Elias (which got considerably worse this week and, once again, emphasized that point).  I can’t change Gavin or make him do things he clearly doesn’t want to do.  I can only change my part of the equation.  I’m trying.  But I’m tired of failing every time I try.  

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Greek Turkey Burgers

One of the things I love best about these is the way the feta cooks when it’s mixed into the meat.  If there’s a hunk of feta on the outside, it caramelizes and gets that glorious crispy, crunchy grilled cheese texture.  The feta inside the burger appears at first to stay solid, and then it melts in a moment when you bite into it, bursting with oozy salty feta goodness. 

You can serve these on hamburger buns or round crusty rolls.  They are also delicious stuffed into pitas with tzatziki sauce.  We served salad on the side, with tomato and cucumber. 


½ cup crumbled reduced-fat feta
2 tbsp. Italian salad dressing
2 garlic cloves, minced
A pinch of salt
¼ tsp dried oregano
A pinch of pepper (or more, if you like)
1 lb. ground turkey (lean or extra lean)

Combine the first six ingredients in a large bowl.  Add the turkey and mix well with your hands, until the ingredients are incorporated.  Shape into four patties.

Heat a pan coated with cooking spray over medium-high heat.  Cook about seven minutes per side, or until a meat thermometer reads 165.  Covering the pan during the cooking time will help them get done through.  

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Weekly Meal Plan – January 21, 2012

Looks like this is going to be a regular feature!
Image by winnond

So here’s what’s being chowed down this week at our place!

Friday (last night) – Petite sirloin steak, baked potatoes, green beans
Maddie LOVES green beans.  I’m going to have to start making more at a time – they are just getting scarfed down!  We scored a good deal on petite sirloin at Fred Meyer last week, so we decided to treat ourselves.  We cut each one in half and actually stuck to the recommended serving of meat, about the size of a deck of cards.  And you know what?  It was fine.  Nobody was left hungry after dinner.  Important point here:  You don’t have to eat 16 oz. of steak!!  We have plenty of potatoes, so baking them was a no-brainer.  Good dinner and it really felt like a treat.

Pork chops were on sale at Fred Meyer ($1.88 per pound!!).  We are making the spinach sauté that goes along with this one.  Looks tasty!  I’m looking forward to it!

Sunday – Greek Turkey Burgers, salad
This uses ground turkey, which can often be found for fairly cheap.  It’s usually cheaper than ground beef and lower in fat.  Loaded with feta and spices, they are really delicious.  The salad is going to feature tomatoes, cucumbers and kalamata olives to continue the Greek theme.  I’ll post the recipe later.

We still have some leftover ham to use, so I found this recipe online.  It uses some processed ingredients, but I think we’ll be okay.  I don’t think it’s a tragedy to use them occasionally, as long as they aren’t the focal point of every meal.  I’m also making some changes to the recipe, like using the Healthy Request soup, low-fat sour cream and cutting the cheese, probably in half.

Tuesday – Beef Stroganoff, egg noodles, green beans
I had a taste for stroganoff this week, plus we have all that petite sirloin.   I looked for a recipe that is a little lighter than the usual and this one looks pretty promising.  We’re using low-fat sour cream. 

Wednesday – Bean and Rice Burritos, salad
This is our meatless meal for the week.  We are altering the recipe a bit.  Again, low-fat sour cream and instead of using the processed cheese, we are using good old cheddar.  I think about a tablespoon or two of shredded Tillamook per burrito ought to do the trick nicely. 

Thursday – Crockpot Pork Roast
Yes, again.  We still have another chunk of pork to use and this one just really does it for us!