Tag Archives: budget

Culture Club

Holy cow … I made yogurt. Like, without a machine. You may not think it a big deal–though, really, when was the last time you made yogurt– but I was pretty daunted. I really enjoy cooking. But yogurt was … like, actual chemistry. It was scary to think that we would be consuming milk after we left it in the oven all night. However, we finally decided that paying $7.00 for the really good large container of Fage Greek yogurt was just too much. Sadly, the $6.00 price the prior several weeks was not too much. I don’t know why that one dollar broke the dam, but we had developed pretty high standards for yogurt. We wanted a really thick, high protein, creamy yogurt made without pectin. By the way, have you ever noticed that yogurt has pectin? Not that it’s bad for you, but it makes you feel like you’re eating milk jello. That’s why we eventually started getting the Fage Greek yogurt. It was thick without pectin. It’s delicious but expensive– and it isn’t even organic. So when it was no longer “on sale” we decided to explore other options. Or, rather, my husband looked at me and said, “I thought you said you can make yogurt at home?” I responded that, “well, sure, some people make yogurt at home.” I then immediately avoided eye contact. The truth is I had googled making yogurt at home several times. I had just never felt confident enough to make it. I finally just looked at him and asked if he was willing to experiment and possibly waste $4.29– the cost of a half-gallon of Kalona milk.

This isn’t an article where I regurgitate someone else’s recipe as if I made it. And, really, it’s not even a recipe because you are just applying heat to milk. It’s more like directions. The ones I followed I found on the site The Kitchn. It didn’t require anything fancy– and it worked! It wasn’t completely smooth sailing. After the four hours the author recommends you check on it, my yogurt had not actually become yogurt. When I stirred it, I encouraged my self that it was thicker that the whole milk I had started with, but if that was true it was just barely thicker. I totally thought I had ruined it and wasted a half-gallon of really good milk. I immediately googled “trouble shooting ruined yogurt” and came across sage advice like “whatever you do, don’t stir it.” Well crap. Stirring it was the first thing I did. However, the instructions on The Kitchn reassured me that I could have left the milk soup in the oven overnight, so I decided to see what happened. It was like Christmas when I ran down first thing the next morning to open up my pot. And by golly, I made yogurt!!!

Alas, that was not the end of it. I wanted really thick yogurt and what I had made was regular yogurt,even a bit runnier than regular yogurt. I then had to improvise a method to let the whey drain from the yogurt. I won’t even post a picture of my ridiculous set-up which consisted of a clean, thin tank top to strain the yogurt and several pony-tail holders chained together to wrap the shirt around a bowl. But it worked. It took another day but my end-product is thick, creamy, organic, and, I believe, high in protein.

In the end, I saved money and made a better product. It was easy, though rather tedious, if I am going to be honest. That being said, I didn’t have to do much to it. It just took a while. Nonetheless, my husband keeps telling me it is the best yogurt he’s ever had and that he can’t believe I made it. So, yeah, I will probably add this to my homestead Sunday repertoire. This will have to go on the list of things that are surprisingly easy to make at home. Please, share your list of things that you found surprisingly easy to make at home.

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Supermarket Sweep

The “Financial Independence-or bust” trip my husband and I are on doesn’t always mesh with the other life-style goals on LifeImproved. In fact, often times the goals are down-right conflicting. For example, our household budget for groceries each week is $100. For us, this includes cat food and litter, alcohol, toiletries and cosmetics. It also includes any entertaining we want to do, such as inviting friends over for dinner. Let’s just say, we don’t end up handing out too many invitations–but when we do it’s an intriguing challenge and we really hope they like boxed wine.

On normal, non-entertaining, no-special-occasion weeks, in order to stick to the budget, or to come in under budget we cannot put too many organic, grass-fed, hormone-free products in our basket. Who am I kidding?! We can’t put any of these in the basket. Eco-friendly and organic quite often means wallet unfriendly.

I want to shop local. I want to shop organic. I really do. I am a huge believer in it. But the truth is that right now I am more of a believer in sticking to the budget. And I really only choose to shop local or organic if the choice is equally convenient and comparably priced– or not much more inconvenient or expensive than the alternative. This is something we are working on, though ,because we want to shop more Eco-consciously.

The good news is that we are making some real strides. The idea is that we eventually will have such control over our groceries that we can get higher quality meat, grains and produce, as well as the eco-friendly products.

Luckily, the goals of being eco-friendly, healthy and, well, cheap aren’t always divergent. The goal to produce less waste has helped shave a fair portion of the grocery budget in the form of not buying paper towels and napkins, not to mention Swiffer wet mop pads. Also, in my goal to create less waste and be more healthy I switched from store bought laundry detergent and cleaners to home made versions, and I also stopped buying boxed rice and pasta mixes. I have to admit, though, that my goal to reduce waste was only acceptable because it was an inexpensive alternative. I can make ten meals or side dishes with a 2 pound bag of brown rice for $1.50. So win-win-win. But if it had come down to a choice? I would have chosen to win on the budget issue first. I have been considering lately switching from cheap store-brand pancake mix to a home-made choice but the recipes call for too many other expensive ingredients that I would have to buy just for the mix and the cost is not justifying the healthier, less wasteful option… Not yet. Right now we are nailing the $100 a week budget. We spend about 30% of the budget on produce, 10% on meat, 10% on the cats and the rest on everything else. I cook using whole foods and we eat a diverse and healthy diet. The choices to substitute good, healthy choices with even better, healthier choices has to be deliberate and strategic.

These are my goals: get free range, hormone free meat; buy hormone free milk; buy fresh eggs laid by hormone free chickens; maintain or increase the level of produce we consume but get more organic varieties; replace the items that come in plastic bags with alternatives; and support local farms. But considering that to get the above in just a gallon of milk, a dozen eggs, a loaf of bread, two pounds of chicken breast, two pounds of apples and and two pounds of bananas would probably be more than 30% of the budget (where as currently it is around 10%) some big changes are in order.

With those goals of getting more of the above, we have to continuously think of ways to reduce our grocery spending while still maintaining or increasing the quality of our products. We’ve been strategically planning all winter for this. Since we spend so much of our budget on produce, we just doubled our plot from last year and extending the planting season by starting a cool season in April. We should be harvesting radishes, lettuce and arugula by the end of May!

I am also researching the planting of edible perennials and annuals in my own garden. I already have a healthy herb garden and use and dry my own organic oregano, rosemary, chives, lavender, catnip, basil, parsley and sage. I plan to add more herbs and also replace some old burning bushes with edible currants or gooseberries. I just bought a black raspberry plant and a half-dozen strawberry plants.

You know what else helps save money at the grocery store? Free stuff. I am not talking about sending off for free samples, but I mean the stuff you can find in the great outdoors. I have big plans to kick up the level of my foraging this year. I highly recommend the book Foraged Flavor by Tama Matsuoka Wong. There are lots of books out there for edible plants but this one is wonderful! It has really clear photos, descriptions of the where to find the plants, how aggressive you should be with its harvesting, descriptions of how it tastes, and recipes!

The Grocery Game

When my husband suggested we review the budget on groceries, I immediately took offense. I mean, I was the one that always did the grocery shopping. I thought I was shopping conscientiously. Plus, it was my husband who ate so much and who needed diversity. I could live on eggs, rice and beans for the whole month. When he pointed out to me that we were spending around $700-$800 dollars a month, I didn’t believe him. I kept saying that the month he was looking at was an anomaly. I told him to just look at the month before. Yet, it never really went down, and sometimes was a lot more.

I am going to have to admit that I didn’t have any idea of what we were spending. But the next thought was, “well…what should we be spending?” The answer to this questions varied and vague. According to an online article by NBC the USDA estimates that for a family of four “spending ranges from a “thrifty” $524 per month to a “liberal” $1,014.

We are a household of two adults…and two cats. We only entertained about once every other month, and I’m talking dinner with another couple, nothing lavish. Plus, we did not spend a lot on liquor.

I was stubborn and insistent that we weren’t overspending, not based on our salaries and lifestyle. Plus, did I mention how much my husband eats? No, he’s not fat. But he does exercise and weight train and he needs to consume a lot of food to keep his weight up around 180. He is also a bit fanatical about healthy eating. And as we were trying to eat healthier my costs kept increasing. I was now buying ground turkey instead if ground beef, wheat pasta, a lot more fruits and vegetables, Greek yogurt, and gallons if milk, for example these things were all more expensive than their less healthy counterparts.

I then got to the point where I was looking at the amount of protein rather than price and I was also looking for a lot of convenience items that would be easy for my husband to grab if he were looking for lunch or a snack, like protein bars and sandwich fixings, since he always looked into our full fridge and said there was nothing to eat since we had ingredients versus meals. We also had started making runs to places like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. In my mind, I blamed my husband. Though have you ever tried to walk out of Trader Joe’s or whole foods without stocking up on wine or cheese? Maybe it was partially my fault.

My arguments weren’t swaying my husband. He acknowledged we ate well, he thanked me for the efforts I made to keep him fed, and asked, can we cut this in half? I began to see that he had a point, and begrudgingly answered that we could, of course. He challenged me to bring the spending down to $100 a week. I said fine, but he had to come with me.

Now, this is not a story about advocating extreme couponing. That stuff takes too much time and space. You don’t end up buying what you need, and it’s usually processed and not good for you.

However one of the time-tested techniques which we did abide by was checking out the circulars before we went shopping. Around our house we have the choice of over a dozen chain and independent stores. I would normally go to Jewel, which I always valued for what it was: a big grocery chain that would have a lot of loss leaders, hence great sales. And I could shop there consistently because I wasn’t married to a set list of items.

However, around the time that we decided to meet the challenge, Dominick’s came out with this amazing app (also the same company as Safeway). I had never really shopped at Dominick’s, but this app really appealed to me. It was the kind of app I wish Jewel had come out with. With this Dominick’s app, we could load coupons right onto the card from the smart phone. We could check out what was on sale and plan what we would buy for that week. The app didn’t just have the circulars, it also had items that were deal matches from other stores, specials just for me, coupons, and sometimes free items.

Prior to this app, I would do what most people probably do…cut out coupons and then forget about them. With this app, I didn’t have to clip coupons. Now, the savings were right there. The only thing they could do to improve this app is allow me to scan my coupons from other sources right onto my cars…but hopefully that is around the corner.

Nonetheless, that one step of looking over everything on sale that week, was a big psychological prep. With my husband in tow we set aside a specific time to go to the store.

I quickly realized that this was also one of the problems. Previously, I would go to the store a couple of times a week, either on my lunch break or after work. My shopping trips were unscripted and too numerous. While I didn’t spend a ton each time, it added up quickly. This was part of the reason I didn’t feel I was overspending…because I never was on individual trips. Plus, my husband would also sometimes make a run if he was out of razors, deodorant, or hair stuff.

I was leery of having my husband along. He has the attention span of a five year old and easily gets bored. Luckily, he now saw these trips as a challenge. He kept engaged and interested by running the calculator. This also helped keep to the budget.

On very rare occasions do we go over $100 a week. We stay on budget by buying ingredients rather than processed or boxed foods and by being flexible with the grocery list. Brands do not matter. We just want the best deal. And we are willing to put things back if we go over $100.

We always check our receipt before we leave and have lost our embarrassment about going to customer service and asking for rain checks or refunds of a couple of dollars. One of the things we have learned is to not be afraid to ask. A few weeks back at Dominick’s, we realized that we had lost a $10 coupon we had earned the week before. We looked for it, blamed each other and then basically figured we were SOL. We decided to go to customer service anyway just to see if there was something that could be done. There were a couple more hoops we jumped through, but in the end, they were willing to give us a $10 gift certificate. Incredible.

We are also willing to go to more than one grocery store if we can find a great deal on meat or produce, though we try to avoid that to prevent the temptation to over shop. But to be fair to places like whole foods, there is no better or cheaper place to buy bulk, diverse whole grains, beans and rice. And can you beat three buck chuck from Trader Joe’s for consistent cheap wine?

There were lifestyle changes that we made that helped us save. There were little things like my husband converting to a vintage double edged safety razor and getting rid of the Tassimo. I also don’t buy juice anymore. We just drink water, tea and coffee (we have milk, but we don’t drink it straight). I’ve started to make my own all-purpose cleaner and I have stopped using plastic wrap. We are not willing to give up meat, though we tend not to eat much red meat. I’ve also explored making things like hummus and breakfast bars, which were things that we previously bought thinking that they weren’t expensive. However, when you realize that a bag of dry garbanzo beans costs around a dollar and yields about four cans of beans at around a dollar a piece, or about six tubs of hummus at around three dollars a piece, it’s a huge savings.

At this point we have successfully cut our grocery bill almost in half. But I know there is more we can do. Many people may be reading this thinking that $100 a week is high (though keep in mind that this budget includes toiletries, cat food and litter, household needs like TP, garbage bags, etc). What is important is to take an accounting of what you spend, then take steps to reduce it. Set a goal. It’s easier to make changes gradually as you realize the benefits of making those lifestyle changes. You can’t make comparisons to other families, because everyone is different. But, more than likely you are buying a lot of crap you don’t need, that is not particularly good for you.

According to my own smug advice, now that we know we can shop, with all of our personal, household and feline needs met, at $100, the next step is to reduce it. There is room for improvement, and it may not all be in food consumption. For example, if we can really reduce our waste, we’ll need garbage bags less often. Or, if I can make a pleasant, effective laundry soap, I wont have to buy detergent every other month.

As far as food goes, I am looking forward to summer when we can grow and pick our own produce. I need to learn how to can or freeze foods so I can use what I grow and pick throughout the year. Right now, I buy some frozen fruits and vegetables to supplement our needs because I really haven’t thought through the freezing of fresh items. But if I just freeze the stuff I grow, or at least when it’s in season, then that would be a nice chunk of monthly savings.

We are also committed to increasing our intake of produce and need to decreasing the amount of meat we consume.

Do I miss really good cheese? YES. Do I wish I could always have a bag of brown rice in the freezer without having to cook and divide it? Sure I do. But we are talking real numbers here, not just a couple of lattes, which is my usual measurement for whether saving is worth it. We are saving thousands of dollars a year! And I know we can do better.