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! 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Laughing Cow Chicken and Rosemary Roasted Red Potatoes

You can probably use any type of potato.
Photo by Simon Howden.

I’m sorry, I completely forgot to take pictures of these before they got scarfed down!  I wanted to share the recipes with you, though, since it was a delicious dinner.

Laughing Cow Chicken

4 small (4-oz.) chicken breasts
12 slices ham lunchmeat
4 Laughing Cow brand cheese wedges
Shake n Bake

Preheat oven to 375.  Pound the chicken breasts to about a quarter-inch thickness.  Spread the cheese wedge on the chicken, and place 3 slices of the lunch meat on top.  Roll the chicken and secure it with a toothpick. 
Place the shake and bake in a bowl and dredge each chicken roll.  Place rolls in a baking dish sprayed with nonstick cooking spray.  Bake for 45 minutes.  Remove toothpicks before eating.

Rosemary Roasted Red Potatoes


12 small red potatoes, quartered or halved
Olive oil
¾ teaspoon dried rosemary, crushed
Pinch of salt
Ground black pepper

Spray a baking pan with nonstick cooking spray.  Place the potatoes in the pan, then drizzle with the oil and sprinkle with the seasonings, using more or less per your personal preference.  Toss with a spatula to coat the potatoes.  Bake at 425 for about 30 minutes.

Because I had two dishes going into the oven, I decided to do them both together, using the chicken’s cooking directions.  They turned out fine, although the potatoes didn’t brown quite as much as usual.  

Thursday, January 19, 2012

And That’s Why You Need Insurance

If a tree falls in the parking lot.... oh wait.

I don’t care how poor you are, if you have any assets worth anything at all, you absolutely must protect them.  We don’t have a lot, but we do have a car.  It’s just an ’03 Hyundai, worth about $3,000 according to Kelley Blue Book.  But we need that car, and I sure don’t have the funds to purchase another one right now.

We are currently in the midst of a nasty ice storm, something we haven’t seen around here in about 15 years.  Trees are falling, power lines are down, everything is encased in ice.  That tree in the photo up top?  Last night it was happily sitting, minding its own business, protecting our bathroom window from people peeking in.  It’s currently lying across one of my favorite parking spots.  I’m pretty grateful right now that I didn’t park there Tuesday night.

But let me show you another picture.

That’s the fallen tree’s partner, placed so things look nice and symmetrical.  See that lean?  Oh, and you see that little car underneath it, next to the van, encased in a sheet of ice?  That would be our little Elantra.  I’m not going to lie… I’m pretty nervous about it.  I can’t move it – I can’t even open the doors on it.  It’s there until things thaw out a bit. 

I’m worried, but I’m not panicking.  We have insurance coverage.  When we bought it, we had to get full coverage for it to get financing.  When we paid it off last year, we were tempted to reduce it to the bare minimum required by law.  I’m really glad we didn’t.  The coverage is through Gavin’s work, and the premiums are paid right off his paycheck. 

We also have full health insurance through Gavin’s work.  And we have renter’s insurance that is paid as part of our rent.  Pretty good thing, too.

Here’s another picture for you.  

That’s the tree right across from our balcony.  See how it’s leaning? If that bad boy goes, it's coming in through someone's window.  Not a good thought.

The one thing we don’t have is life insurance.  We are working on that one.  Like the other insurances, it’s available through Gavin’s work and can come right out of his paycheck.  We just need to free up some money to pay for it.  Catastrophes can happen at any time, as so many of our family, friends and neighbors are unfortunately finding out.

Here’s some ideas for getting insurance when you don’t have a lot of money:
  • Check with your employer.  If you work for a larger-sized company, they might have a partnership with a major insurance carrier, which can get you a discount.
  • Have your insurance deducted straight from your check.  This prevents missed payments.
  • If you can’t get the insurance through your employer, use automatic bill pay so your premium is always paid on time.  It can be harder to get other insurance companies to take you if you’ve been dropped for missed payments.
  • While “price match” websites can be helpful, their ultimate goal is to get you to buy their product.  A great insurance deal might cost you more in the long term.  Ask your family and friends for referrals.  It could get you both a nice discount.
  • Go ahead and carry a high deductible – but only if you know you can get the money to make it.  It will lower your monthly premiums. 

In the meantime, we’re crossing our fingers and keeping an eye on the tree.  Good luck everyone.  Stay safe.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

How Does Your Garden Grow?

The balcony in question.

I know it seems a little odd to be thinking about my ideas for my container garden when the snow is drifting up onto my balcony.  But it’s been in my head more and more these last few days.  After all, isn’t it sort of comforting to be dreaming about warm days and fresh veggies during the midst of a major cold snap?  The stores are already prepping their shelves for Easter (crazy stores) and our local small nursery has their “Re-opening Soon” sign up.

I love having my little garden out on the deck.  I don’t have a lot of room, but I try to do the best with what I have.  And after all, what could be more frugal than actually growing your own food?  Stepping out on the patio to pick a handful of tomatoes or a few leaves of basil is a lot more efficient than driving to the store.  Tastes better, too. 

Last year, unfortunately, was a bit of a bust.  The weather just never warmed up enough.  I only got about three itty-bitty tomatoes off my plant and one poor little pea-pod.  The blueberry plant never got going, Elias’s sunflower struggled gamely before ultimately keeling over, and the beans never actually appeared.  The herbs hung in there (as herbs are wont to do), and, funnily enough, the strawberries went bonkers.  We actually had two seasons of strawberries!  

Maybe I’m being optimistic, but I’m hoping for a better season this year.  I have all the pots, I have all the soil… I just need the plants.  I’d like to try raising more plants from seeds this year.  I still have a number of little peat pellets and mini-greenhouses, and seed packets are really inexpensive.  I’ve decided this year I’m going for a lettuce or two, Elias has requested spinach (probably let him go for that on his own – would be a great way to work toward his gardening merit badge), definitely doing tomatoes again, the usual herbs (basil, oregano and rosemary)…. What else?

I think I’ll do another hanging basket of strawberries.  The kids loved ‘em.  Not sure if I want to try blueberries again or not.  Knowing the PNW climate and my gardening limitations (second floor balcony, not a lot of direct sunlight), what would you try to grow?  

Monday, January 16, 2012

Tortilla Soup

Did you save your broth from last night’s pork roast?  Time to put it to good use!   This recipe is fast and versatile – it never comes out quite the same way, since I add or delete ingredients based on what I have on hand.  It always turns out fantastic though.  Here’s how I made it tonight…


  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • Onion, diced (use however much you like)
  • 1 lb. chicken breasts (or less), cut into bite-size pieces
  • ½ tsp. chili powder
  • ½ tsp. cumin
  • Pork broth
  • 2 cups chicken broth or stock
  • 1 cup or small jar salsa
  • 1 can corn
  • 1 can diced tomatoes
  • Baked tortilla chips
  • Sour cream (optional)
  • Cheddar cheese (optional)


  1. Start heating a large pot over medium heat and add the olive oil.  Once the oil is hot, add the onions and cook until they soften. 
  2. Add the chicken, and cook until nearly done.  Sprinkle with the cumin and chili powder and stir to blend.  You can adjust the amount of spice you add to your preference.
  3. When the chicken is nearly cooked through, add the saved broth from the pork roast and two cups or canned or homemade chicken broth. 
  4. Stir in the salsa, corn and tomatoes.  Kidney or black beans are also delicious in this soup and can be added at this point.  I didn’t have any on hand tonight. 
  5. Bring the soup to a boil, then turn down the heat and let it simmer for about 20 minutes. 
  6. Ladle the soup into a bowl then top with a handful of crushed tortilla chips, a spoonful of sour cream and a sprinkle of shredded cheddar.   Dig in! 

This soup makes awesome leftovers, by the way.  Sorry that I couldn’t get a picture; it tasted delicious, but it doesn’t photograph well!  I also need to find a way to un-yellowify all my pictures.  That drives me nuts!  

Why Should Only Rich People Be Healthy?

I am loving this book.

How many times have you avoided doing something good for yourself and cited a lack of money as a reason?  I know I’ve used the argument plenty of times.  “I can’t lose weight – Weight Watchers and gym memberships cost a fortune.”  “Who can afford to eat healthy?  Have you seen the prices on produce lately?”  “I can’t make time to work out.  I have to work full time and take care of the kids.”  Feel free to add your own.

As you know, I’ve taken the weight issue in hand and decided to make this thing work.  No, I can’t afford one-on-one sessions with a health guru, and yes, Weight Watchers is definitely out of my budget.  The heck with it. 

As of today, I’m down 7.5 pounds since Christmas.  Not too shabby, right?  What am I using?  A book I purchased for 12.99 and a free website.  I have a free membership to the Y courtesy of the CCORS program, but even if I didn’t, the apartment complex has a gym, I have a car to drive to Seward Park, a number of DVDs and a whole library of workouts of Netflix. 

Has food been more expensive?  Nope, I’m spending less on groceries now than before.  Funny how a bag of oranges costs the same as my favorite brand of potato chips.  I can buy the chips without even thinking about it, but I complain about the cost of the oranges.  When I’m not making all the impulsive junk food purchases, the bill goes down.  Strange, how that works!

Okay, so how about this book?  Why did I spend anything at all when so much information is out there for free?  The book is Full-Filled by Renee Stephens.  I found Ms. Stephens through her podcasts (free, by the way).  She has over 200 podcasts available for free on her website.  They are also available through iTunes.  What makes this book so special?  There’s not a word in it about how to count calories or how many times you should exercise in a week and for how long.  So many of us who struggle with our weight struggle with a lot of inner baggage as well, and that’s what the book addresses.  Her words are powerful.  She has taken the essence of the podcasts and condensed it into a workbook.  I can’t believe how much I’ve already gotten out of it.  If you can’t get the book right now, see if it’s available at the library (request it if it isn’t) or start listening to the podcasts.  Good stuff.

The website I’m using is  There’s plenty of other excellent free websites out there… SparkPeople and MyFitnessPal come to mind.  SparkPeople has many of the same tools as Weight Watchers Online (except that it’s free).  I found it too cluttered.  It demanded too much of my time and the emails were tiresome.  I haven’t tried MyFitnessPal, but I’ve heard really good things about it from people who have.  I like LoseIt because it’s simple, without too many frills.  It helps me track calories in and calories out, tells me how many calories to shoot for each day, gives me reports and breakdowns if I want them (without shoving them in my face) and has a great network of supportive people.

Speaking of support, I’ve been getting the most support from my friends and family through Facebook and emails, and those are completely free. 

What’s your best cheap/free way to stay healthy?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Crockpot Pork Pot Roast

This is one of our favorite crockpot meals and a great way to use pork loin bought in bulk.  Not only does it make enough to keep you in leftovers all week, the broth is used in tortilla soup.  Lots of flavors blend together and the pork, potatoes and carrots absorb them.  The pork cooks until it is fork tender and moist, and the potatoes are fluffy.  Sometimes they lean against the base of the crockpot and then you get a nice caramelization on the outside. 

  • Boneless pork loin roast (about 2 to 3 pounds)
  • 4 peeled russet potatoes, quartered
  • 1 onion, sliced into quarters and separated
  • 2 ribs celery, chopped
  • 3 carrots, peeled and chopped (or about 1 cup baby carrots)
  • 1 cup orange juice
  • ½ cup dry white wine
  • ¼ cup ketchup
  • Juice of 1 lime (I use bottled, and I substitute lemon juice when I don’t have lime juice)
  • 2 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced or 1 tbsp. jarred minced garlic

  1. Place the meat in the crockpot.  Add remaining vegetables, tucking around the meat.
  2. In a small bowl, combine the remaining ingredients and whisk to blend.  Pour over the meat and vegetables. 
  3. Cover and cook on low for 8 – 10 hours.  If we are short on time, we will start on high for about 4 hours and then switch it back to low.  

This Week’s Meal Plan

Trying out some new tastes this week.
Image by digitalart

Continuing with the theme of using whole foods and a minimum of processed ingredients, I worked out a plan with some new tastes for our family to try and some old favorites that always go over well.  I was able to replace the nasty chicken with 2.49 a pound chicken from Fred Meyer. Not the best price in the world, but I didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter.  What a hassle!

Here’s the plan.  I’ve linked recipes available on the internet, and I’ll create a separate post for the ones that aren't available.

Saturday (last night) – Orange Chicken with Bulgur   This was sooo good.  I was worried that the chicken might be too “orange-y” (I’m not a big fan of fruit-flavored meats, although I know some folks are).  It turned out fantastic.  The meat had just a hint of orange, and the juice created a nice caramelization on the chicken.  I don’t think I’ve ever made bulgur before, but after this, I will definitely make it again.  It was cheap (1.99 a pound in the bulk bin at FM, and 1 cup made more than we could possibly eat), filling, tasty and the kids scarfed it down.  In this recipe, it was mixed with grape tomatoes and kalamata olives (drooool) and a bit of olive oil.  Oh, and we had enough chicken that Gavin was able to wrap some up for his lunch later this week.

Sunday – Crockpot Pork Pot Roast  This is a recipe from Cheap, Fast, Good by Beverly Mills and Alicia Ross.  It’s one of our favorite cookbooks, but not all of the recipes are exactly healthy.  This one fits in perfectly with our healthy eating plan and is ideal for a cold, snowy day!  One of the biggest bonuses of this meal is all the leftover pork we get and the amazing broth that is left.  We use the pork in a number of other dishes, like stir-fry or sandwiches.  The broth goes into another recipe…

Monday – Tortilla Soup  This is the recipe that uses the broth.  It’s also from CFG, and makes the best tortilla soup I’ve ever had.   The broth of the soup is incredibly savory and flavorful thanks to the boost it gets from the pork roast broth, the homemade chicken stock and the salsa that goes into it. 

Tuesday – Laughing Cow Chicken  I’ve also seen this one called “Poor Man’s Cordon Bleu.”  There’s a number of variations on it, and I’ll happily share ours with you.  We’re serving rice and salad with this one. 

Wednesday – We are babysitting some kids for a friend on Wednesday evening, so we are going the cheater route.  I have a couple frozen pizzas hanging out in our big freezer, and those bad boys are going straight into the oven.  Tossed salad will help us fill up and avoid a pizza binge. 

Thursday – Sage Pork Chops   I found this one on the web after discovering I had a batch of bone-in pork chops in the freezer and doing a search for healthy pork chop recipes.  It looks quick and easy, it fits into the healthy eating plan and it sounds really delicious.  We’re serving it with roasted red potatoes and green beans.

EDIT:  Due to some schedule flip-flopping, we did the pork chops tonight (Tuesday).  We found that they were far too salty for our taste.  I would definitely make them again, but cut back to about half the salt used in the recipe.  

If you decide to try any of these, let us know what you think!  

Friday, January 13, 2012

When a Deal is Too Good to be True

It feels like I'm throwing money in the garbage.
Photo by jannoon 028

So you remember when I bought all that chicken at Tukwila Trading Post?  It was a pretty sweet deal – 10 pounds of chicken at 1.49 a pound.  Score, right?

Not so much.  We cracked into that bag last night.  I pulled out a couple pieces to thaw in a water bath (chicken in a Ziploc in a big bowl full of cold water), which is our preferred method for thawing meat.  It was time to cook dinner, and I pulled the bag out of the water, opened it… and just about barfed.  The chicken had almost completely disintegrated, and it reeked to high heaven.  I was pissed as hell.  What a waste of money! 

I know it wasn’t our freezer because nothing else in there had funkified.  What did they do, package up a bunch of rotten chicken, freeze it and slap it on sale?  Needless to say, I won’t be shopping there again.  It’s frustrating, though, because I had our meal plan for the week set up, and a lot of the recipes featured chicken (because, of course, I thought I had a ton of it).  So it looks like I’ll be making an emergency run to Fred Meyer tonight to pick up more chicken (because it will be easier and cheaper to replace the chicken than to try to come up with new meals for the other meats we have on hand).   

In case you were wondering, we had grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup for dinner last night.  I count that as a win in my book, because before we would have thrown our hands in the air and run to McDonalds or something.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Going Easy on the Meat (and the Wallet)

Chop it up.  It'll last longer.
Photo by Worakit Sirijinda

Something I took into consideration this week when I was setting up my menu and grocery list was reducing how much meat we use.  We are a family of carnivores, and unfortunately our budget (and our tummies) show it. 

Meat is expensive.  It’s hard to find quality, lean meat for less than 1.99 per pound.  Frozen chicken breasts are usually as good as you’re going to get, but who wants to eat nothing but chicken day in and day out?  If you want to eat some steak, you’re going to be paying at least 3.99 per pound (the cheapest I can usually find for petite sirloin).

So we have a few options here.  We can either drop the meat entirely and go vegetarian (yeah, right), we can continue shelling out for menu plans that feature meat as the main part of the meal, or we can make meat an “accent” and have occasional meals that don’t feature it at all.

We have opted for option number three.  Take a look at our meal plan for the week.  Notice anything?  Most of those meals are just using a little bit of meat.  The Golden Chicken and Caesar salad only used two breasts to feed the whole family.  The split pea soup is using a cup of leftover ham that was in the freezer.  I bet we'll have enough of that soup to eat for the next few days, too.  The steak salad is using a leftover hunk of London broil, maybe about a pound total.  Even that chicken and rice dish only uses two breasts because we chop it up and toss it in the rice.  The pasta salad had just a smidge of turkey pepperoni in it, for a little burst of the flavor every now and then.  Tonight’s spaghetti pomodoro recipe doesn’t use any meat at all.  Score!

Because we buy our meat when it’s on sale, we want to make it last as long as we can.  Doing this, we can make a bag of frozen chicken or a nice hunk of steak last two to three weeks.   There’s a ton of different meals you can make that stretch meats out like this:
  • Chili
  • Spaghetti
  • Stir-fry
  • Salads
  • Soups

One of the big benefits of doing this is that you will need to find another type of food to round out your meal.  May I suggest going heavy on the veggies?

Set up your menus for the week and give this a try.  Go through your freezer and see what’s hanging out there.  Can you get through a shopping trip without purchasing any meat?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Time to Deal with the Budget

Coming into the part I've been dreading...
Photo by Stuart Miles

Now that the emergency fund plan is set up and running, I’m finally able to move forward in the Planner.  Rather than reading it straight through and trying to create some sort of hybrid plan (my usual way of dealing with things, because I always somehow think I know so much more than the experts), I’m treating it like a workbook.  I’m doing the assignments as they come up, and I’m following the directions. 

I despise budgets.  It doesn’t matter what you call them:  budget, spending plan, cash management system… I know perfectly well what they are.  They stress me out.  Quite frankly, they scare me.  I keep finding myself going back to the weight loss analogy.  Who wants to go on a diet or make a budget?  I want to do whatever I want and nobody else can tell me what to do.

I guess we can all see where that particular attitude got me. 

I need to approach this part of the book the same way I am approaching the weight issue.  Namely, I’m tired of living this way.  Following this plan will help and I am dedicated to seeing it through to the end.  I’ve done a great job these last two weeks on the weight-management plan.  I’ve worked out every day, I’ve tracked my calories, I know exactly what’s coming in and what’s going out.  Hmmmmmm…. Kind of sounds like a budget, doesn’t it?? 

Answering the questions in the planner:

Which of these describes how I view a budget?
“I’m afraid of what I’ll find.”

Denial is my problem here, all the way.  I know our income is low and our bills are out of control.  We need to get Comcast and PSE paid this week.  That stresses me out.  I was hoping to toss a little cash that way, but then I remembered that my gas tank is on empty and I promised to make a payment to Elias’s therapist. Since we had to deal with a car issue, that pretty much cleans out the extra from our incredible grocery trip.  Looks like we’ll be calling them this week to ask them to hang tight ‘til Friday.  I hate doing that and I want that to stop

Describe the way your parents managed their finances. Did they have a budget?  Who created it?  How did they talk with you about finances?

Would it surprise you that the answer is “I have no idea”?  I had no concept of money or budgets. I had a vague awareness that we weren’t rich, but that wasn’t until I was about 12 and we moved to an old house out on the Peninsula.  I think our suburban two-story new home in University Place might have been foreclosed on, but I have no idea.  My parents divorced when I was 14.  Today, my mother appears to mostly have her finances in order – she is the one who loaned me the Planner, though, so she must have had concerns at some point.  My dad’s finances are, frankly, a disaster.  I suspect he’s actually quite a bit worse off than we are.  That’s a little frightening, since he’s in his 60s now.

What has kept you from sticking to a budget?

We’ve gone through periods where we’ve done pretty well, but I think complacency and denial are always what do us in. We go through a rough patch and don’t want to face the reality anymore, start borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, and pretty soon we are in a major downward spiral.

When was the last time you reconciled your bank statement?

In all fairness, I no longer have a checking account.  I have my Paypal account and with the debit card attached to it, that works fine for me.  Better than fine actually, since I can’t overdraw the damn thing.  My old checking account drove me nuts.  No matter how often I requested that they remove the “courtesy overdraft protection,” it never budged, mistakes happened, and I’d suddenly be drowning in overdraft fees.  Gavin watches his account online, but because he’s not good about keeping track of debit card use and check transactions, we get hit with “surprises.”  That has to stop.

Looks like our next step is to create an equity sheet.  Not sure if I have enough red marker for that.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Greek Inspired Pasta Salad

I don't claim to be the world's best photographer,
but trust me, it's tasty!

This recipe is fast, tasty and flexible.  You can modify it to suit practically any palate.  Don’t eat meat?  Leave out the pepperoni, no harm done.  Like your food with a bit of a zing?  Sprinkle in some red pepper flakes.  If you have fresh herbs lying around, toss those in.  Basil and oregano go especially well in this.  It makes enough that you can have leftovers the next day (when it’s even better, in my opinion).  After eating our fill tonight, we still had enough for Gavin to take to work tomorrow and for me to have for my lunch. 

12 ounces whole grain pasta (we use Smart Taste penne)
2 ounces turkey pepperoni (about 25 slices)
2 medium tomatoes, cored and chopped
2 cloves of garlic (or 1 tablespoon of jarred minced garlic)
1 small can sliced black olives, drained
1 can artichoke hearts, drained and roughly chopped
1 teaspoon onion powder
4 ounces reduced-fat feta cheese
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Black pepper

  1. Cook the pasta according the package directions, until al dente.
  2. Place a paper towel on a microwave-safe plate and then place the slices of pepperoni in a single layer.  Cover with another paper towel and microwave for 45 seconds.  This step is great because it crisps up the pepperoni just a bit and also causes it to release oil, which is then absorbed by the paper towels.
  3. Place the chopped tomatoes in a large bowl.  Add the garlic, olives, and artichokes.  Roughly chop the pepperoni and add it to the bowl.  Sprinkle with the onion powder. 
  4. Once the pasta is done cooking, drain it and add it to the other ingredients in the bowl.  Toss in the feta cheese and drizzle with the olive oil.  Mix it very well to blend all the flavors and season with the black pepper to taste. 

Makes 8 servings, 235 calories per serving.

My Amazing Half-Price Grocery Bill

Shopping the produce section does wonders for the grocery bill.
Photo by kratuanoiy

Last night we hit the grocery store to get our supplies for the week.  On Thursday, I set up our meal plan for the week, with a focus on whole foods with lean proteins, whole grains and lots of veggies.  I was expecting our bill to be kind of high.  My jaw practically hit the floor when the total came up.  It was easily half of most of our grocery bills. 

How was this possible?

  1. We didn’t have to buy many proteins because our freezer was well-stocked.  As I pointed out to Gavin, though, even if we had needed to buy a bag of frozen chicken breasts, we still would have come in under $100. 
  2. We used a lot of items that were already in our cupboards.  However, we saw a good sale on the whole grain pasta we liked and bought a few boxes to keep.
  3. Bagged salad was on sale for super cheap this week.  We decided that once it goes off sale, we’ll just buy whole heads of lettuce instead -- the good stuff, not iceberg.
  4. Most of our purchases came from the produce and condiment aisles.  We barely touched the rest of the store.  

What meals are we having this week?  Are we going to be eating meager rabbit-food meals?  Nope.  Check out our meal plan:

Friday (last night):  Golden Chicken with Tomatoes and Olives, brown rice, tossed salad (this was AWESOME by the way, and we had enough leftover – yay, portion control!—that Gavin could take some to work for his lunch today).

Saturday :  Greek-Inspired Pasta Salad (this has tomatoes and artichoke hearts in it, so it’s pretty much a full meal)

Sunday:  Chicken Caesar Salad (we’re going to marinate the chicken breasts and cook them up earlier in the day)

Monday:  Spaghetti pomodoro, with tossed salad (we are making a few modifications to the recipe based on what we have on hand)

Tuesday:  Steak salad, French bread (we have a loaf of French bread in the freezer from Christmas, and we are using the last of a London broil – this will stretch the meat so it goes farther)

Wednesday:  Crockpot split pea soup (split peas are CHEAP, and the ham is more Christmas leftovers out of the freezer)

Thursday:  Chicken and rice, salad (not very creative this time, but it’s a simple meal that everyone likes)

Lots of variety, lots of flavor, nobody is suffering here.  And I can use the leftover from the grocery budget to put toward a bill!  Everyone wins! 

Friday, January 6, 2012

The $1000 Emergency Fund Plan... As Promised!

Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration... not much, though.
Photo by Bill Longshaw

It’s a miracle!  We have our plan in place!

Gavin and I sat down and worked out our plan.  Just like everything else I tend to dread (I’m looking at YOU housecleaning), it didn’t take nearly as long as I thought it would.  It wasn’t too difficult to work out a solid plan.

My friend Erin was kind enough to forward me an interesting blog post this morning that took a slightly different spin on Mr. Ramsey’s plan.  This plan had a different approach to savings, namely just start saving and then figure out how you’re going to continue.  Without intending it, we had actually done just that. 

I had $50 hanging out in my savings account.  I left it there when I cashed a check.  We also have quite a bit of assorted change in the family jar currently, but I’m not going to sit down and count it all out.  It probably has about $5 or $6 in there.  We’ll work that out later.

Here’s the plan we decided on.  

In order to do this, we will have to go a ways out.  Our goal is to have $1000 in our savings account by the end of the year.  Counting the $50 we currently have, we will need to withhold approximately $40 per Gavin’s paycheck.  It would be $20 per paycheck, but my Paypal doesn’t want to link with the savings account, so we are just going to do it this way.  I know to a lot of folks, that doesn’t sound like much, but that figure makes me a little shaky.  We are going to need to trim a few more expenses to come up with that amount.   We’ll discuss that in an upcoming post. 

We are also going to be contributing any amount of change we can gather into the family money jar.  We’ve had that jar for a while.  We usually let it accumulate for a bit and then use it on a grocery run.  From now on, it’s going to be deposited monthly into the savings account.  We debated whether to use that extra bit to lower our biweekly contributions or to reach the goal faster.  We decided to try to reach the goal faster, but like any other plan, we may eventually decide to tweak that.  We’ll see how it goes.

So there it is:  our plan to save $1000 by the end of 2012.  It feels good to have it in place.  

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Will Somebody Please Invent a Perfectionism Cure?

Image by Grant Cochrane

I’m doing it again. 

We are supposed to be figuring out how to come up with that $1000 emergency fund.  It’s been our assignment for nearly a month now and we haven’t gotten anywhere with it. 

Excuse #1:  It’s the holidays.  Who wants to deal with it right now?
Excuse #2:  Rent’s due.  I don’t want to deal with it right now.
Excuse #3:  Gavin’s at work.  I want to sit down and have a real conversation about this, not over Google Messenger.
Excuse #4:  Gavin’s off.  I have other things I want to do. 
Excuse #5:  (I don’t know what this excuse is, but give me another day and I’ll use it.)

I want to come up with the perfect plan, the one that will solve all our problems.  I think I need to accept that that’s probably not going to happen.  I’m determined that the plan will be created tonight and will be posted here tomorrow.  It might not be ideal, but it will be good enough and it will be a starting point, which is all we really need right now.  We can tweak it as we go.  

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Facing Two New Year’s Challenges Head On

What does weight loss have to do with money management?
Photo by vorakorn kanopipat

Last night a lot of people made a lot of resolutions to change themselves in the coming year.  Many of those resolutions have likely been broken already.  In years past, I’ve made resolution after resolution, and it’s always the same ones over and over.  I seem to be stuck in a cycle.

This year, they aren’t resolutions.  For one thing, I didn’t make them last night, and I didn’t start them today.  They’ve been ongoing projects, with clear lines and clear plans of attack.  Two of them are, of course, the perennial favorites:  get my money situation in order and get rid of all this extra weight.  I know – fix finances and lose the weight.  Practically a new year cliché, isn’t it?

Well, maybe so, and with good reason.   For me, these two are intricately tied to each other.  I strongly suspect that by fixing one, I will fix the other.  There’s something in my head that just doesn’t quite work right when it comes to these two subjects.  Both appear to come from a fear of denying myself anything.

Why is this?  What is it that I’m trying to make up for?  Granted, I was never taught the best habits.  I find that I am jealous of those for whom these two things come so easily.  I envy those people who claim to love vegetables and exercise.  I’m flabbergasted by those for whom money management is practically second nature.  I feel angry that I’m not one of them, that I have to struggle.  I’m angry that I never learned these skills from my parents (sorry Mom and Dad, I know you read here and I’m not trying to throw you under the bus, but you have to agree that these skills weren’t exactly well-modeled).  I’m angry at myself that for some reason I continue to struggle. 

I’m not a stupid person.  I know perfectly well that eat less + exercise more = lose weight, and spend less + save more = good money management.  But putting those things in practice… it’s a constant struggle.  I can complain until I’m blue in the face about how hard it is to buy healthy food on a budget, and it’s true that it’s a challenge, but I also must make the choice to take that challenge on.  I’m educated, I have no excuse.  I know how to fix healthy meals – I just prefer the taste of salt and fat.

I can complain about how I can’t afford Weight Watchers or a personal trainer – but I do have access to many free programs that can help me and provide practically the same tools.  I can complain about not making enough money, or I can learn to properly manage what I already have.  And when I choose to waste money on meals out or junk food, that is a choice that impacts both areas and affects my progress on both fronts.

So.  I have a plan. I’m dealing with both.  I’m aware of the problem and I’m actively working on a solution.  My mantra for 2012?  No excuses.  No bitching about the problem unless I can find a solution for it.  There’s plenty of things in life that are completely out of my control.  Those things are the ones I should be complaining about. These are the things I can fix.