Tag Archives: waste

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!


Take Your Stuff and Shove It

This weekend I had a powerful lesson reinforced: No matter how good a deal something is, if you forget you have it or fail to use it, it’s just a waste of money.

This lesson was not relayed in a subtle manner.  Someone who shall remain nameless is contemplating moving, you see. So some of us helped her clear out the kitchen cabinets. We had to throw away a huge quantity of unopened and expired items. Don’t misunderstand, we’re not squeamish. We all seemed to agree that many items could be consumed past their expiration date. But when things expired almost a decade ago, we drew the line.

This unnamed person grew up dirt poor just after the depression. She didn’t gather and forage in the wild in order to have free fruit to add to her daily protein shakes.  She didn’t gather dandelion greens to try the trendy new superfood.  Rather, her family canned in order to have food in the winter.  I can acknowledge that the projects that I smugly post about “sewing”are style over substance. And that the latest, newest up-cycle I pretend to have invented are likely things that this person did out of necessity. If and when I ever get around to canning, it will probably be so I can try to create a gourmet fruit butter.  I get that I am not coming up with new ideas. I do things because of the luxury I have to choose to do them.  This person and her family did things because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t eat.

It is perhaps with this mentality–the one that feels compelled to gather for future stores–that would lead a person to have accumulated so much stuff, particularly food. When I joked with her that she should open up a convenience store on her block, well… it wasn’t a joke.  She had enough inventory. She had so many cans of beans and tomatoes that she could easily have made chili every day for a month without running out of either. Yet, I bet this poor soul still buys a couple cans of each when she finds them to be on sale. I mean, how else did she end up with over 50 cans of beans and tomatoes. And at least 40% of the cans had expiration dates of more than a year ago– many more than five years ago. And here it was–the height of irony and quite a bit of dismay–rather than being the frugal shopper on a fixed income that she thought she was, she was really just wasting money.

We made an interesting discovery this weekend, too.  Over the years, she kept filling up her kitchen with cabinets and refrigerators…saying she needed more storage.  It got to the point where every surface of every wall had a table, cabinet, refrigerator or shelf on it.  Her kitchen had two full sized single door refrigerators, plus the freezer in the garage.  There were two elderly people living in the house.  Two.  That’s all.  Just two.  What they had started doing when they ran out of room in the pantry and cabinets and shelves was store stuff in the fridges.  There were several boxes of pasta in the refrigerator and several boxes of Jiffy Cake mix and corn bread mix in the freezer.  I’m sure there were other things in there that should have been in the pantry, but I was a bit stunned.  Mostly by the eight packages of american cheese singles that were blocking my line of sight.  Meanwhile, dozens and dozens of cans of vegetables and chicken stock were shoved forgotten in other cabinets.  Along with jars and jars of tomatoes and venison that were canned.  She later admitted that it has been years since she has canned (yet she still held on to four different pressure canners, too!)

What this person had been doing was extreme, but it is something that so many of us are guilty of.  We buy these houses that have an extra bedroom, or a basement or an attic–or even all three– and then we proceed to get so much stuff that we fill up each space until it overflows and we create a new space until it overflows and we finally declare that we don’t have enough room.  The truth is that our houses are not too small.  They are just too full of stuff.

I’ve written about this before.   You are not a store. You should not have inventory.  Whatever your shopping obsession, the first thing you must to is just stop.  Stop buying more stuff.  See what you have and get it organized.  Many people buy double or triple an item–or if you’re the person above, nonuple the item–simply because they don’t realize they already have one, or several. The next step is to start using your stuff.  Once you use your stuff, you will be conscientious about what you have and what you need.  Then, if you realize you have no need of it anymore, sell it.  Your stuff is just money waiting to be made. Once you start to get rid of your stuff, not only will you realize how much money you wasted by buying it in the first place, but you will realize that you don’t want to keep wasting your money in that way.

I have picked on various family members–but, then again, I have the blog.  Perhaps, in way of reparation, I will admit to my guilty addiction–though I have received counseling and am in recovery.  It’s romance novels.  You know the kind, with the half-dressed lady in a gown on the front and a dark-haired stud with tanned, muscled forearms holding/capturing/abducting her (not Fabio, though, that’s, like, my mother’s romance novel).  They always have names like “Tough Rider, Tender Kisses.” Anyhow, I had hundreds of them.  I am a pretty avid reader and I read quickly, so I would simply devour these books.  I hid them all away in a cabinet and shut the door.  I wouldn’t admit to myself how many I had…or how much money I was spending on them.  Sometimes, I even bought the same book twice (even I can admit they all kinda look the same after a while). I even re-read them multiple times, but still didn’t stop buying one or two, or several, a month.

Then my husband and I agreed to purge our stuff and I made serious efforts to sell them.  Well, actually, he gave me a Nook for Christmas and strongly hinted that the books had to go.  In any case, I tried every trick in the book to make some money back on these.  For the thousands of dollars that I spent over the course of several years, I probably only made back around three hundred.  Maybe. I am, perhaps, being a little too kind to my folly. This taught me everything I talked about above. In the end,  I realized how much money I had spent in the past and I decided not to throw away that much money again.  I am now happily checking out eBooks from the library. They are free and don’t take up any space.  Plus, I don’t have to feel sheepish about reading a book with two half-naked people on the cover.

Feed the Worms

I am going to be honest with my readers–which at this point is probably just my mom and my sisters–and admit that I have only become “enlightened” recently. Rather than “enlightened”, my readers–again, see above–might say smug (I do drive a Prius), self-righteous, and odd (I think only my mom thinks that), but I really do feel that I was so wasteful–and still am–and that it is my individual responsibility to do better. Worm composting was one of my first efforts. I had heard about this concept of having worms inside your house and thought that it was a bit too icky. Not that I am squeamish about worms. I love to get my hands in the dirt and worms are like little gold nuggets when you like to garden–grubs are another story … vile, disgusting things. Anyhow, a friend that works in horticulture mentioned a book called, “The Worms Eat My Garbage'”. Apparently you can have these little red worms in your house (or more realistically, your basement or garage) and they will consume your veggie scraps, paper, coffee grounds, tea leaves, card board, leaves, dryer lint, etc. They would leave behind thick, rich compost. I thought this was amazing but what I was skeptical of was the smell. But I did the research and decided that enough seemingly legitimate persons assured me that it would not smell like garbage.

I took the plunge and ordered a kit. I saw a lot of make your own options but I knew myself…I needed the process to be as simple as possible or I would never “harvest” any compost. The one I bought was from Hayneedle and I not only highly recommend the product but also this company. Phenomenal customer service. I had to purchase the worms separately since they are special. You can neither just dig them up from your backyard nor release them into the wild. At least not in Illinois.

I had also done quite a bit of research on what to feed them and fretted a lot about this. In the end, I did not buy anything special for them to start with, but just made a bed of moist, shredded paper and dumped the worms in. The worms came with some dirt, which was recommended as an additive in a small dose. From then on, I added my scraps, coffee grinds, tea leaves, some cardboard from dry good boxes, grass clippings, leaves, egg shells, dryer lint and some yard waste.

Initially I was pretty concerned about the size of the “food” and would spend a lot of time cutting it up. I had also read that some people microwaved the scraps to make them mushy. The latter always sounded kind of gross and the former soon got old. Overall, here are some things I have learned about my worm farm:

1) they do not really eat eggshells. They may really like them as I have read, but unless you are wiling to pulverize them, then pass them up. They do not consume the hand-crushed variety and when you harvest your compost there will be pieces of egg shells throughout.
2) you really should keep a scrap container by your sink or prep area to encourage collection of scraps. Otherwise you will not feed them and it seems that the more you feed them, the more compost you get. I have read that they can handle up to a pound a day. I have no idea if this is true, but I don’t really exceed this, if averaged out. It is pretty obvious, though, that the worms cannot handle every ounce of compostable material that comes out of my house. If I want to get rid if every cardboard box, every bit of junk mail and shredded document, not to mention raked leaves, garden refuse and grass clippings, I have to commit to outdoor composting.
3) Worm composting is a compliment to outdoor composting because even if they could handle all the volume, they can’t handle anything even remotely woody or tough, like carrot and zucchini tops.
4) The worms survive just fine in my garage through the winter. It is attached to the house, and partially insulated, but it does get down to the 20’s in there. Also, it is sweltering in the summer. They do just fine.
5) Always avoid milk products and meat. They will spoil and stink, and, I hear, attract unwanted bugs. Nonetheless, you will get bugs in there. Probably little fly type things. Not a big deal.
6) Avoid throwing seeds in there or they will sprout. Unless you want them to sprout, then throw seeds in there.
7) keep a couple of gallon jugs around for easy access to worm tea. My worm factory has a spigot on the front, but honestly, nothing has ever come out of it. I think worms clog it up. Or my husband’s car tapped it one too many times. But a couple scoops of compost and the rest filled with tap water makes an excellent, nutritious drink for houseplants.
8) Kids love worms. And it is such a neat way to teach them some basic biology and science. Get a worm composted and you may be able to avoid getting a dog.

Stop the Madness

This year we had a death in our family.  It was sad.  He had been with us for about seven or eight years, and always faithful, consistent and reassuring.  It wasn’t a pet, it was our coffeemaker.

Despite now having reached a new level of awareness, my husband and I have often been victims of falling for the “newest thing”.   This includes one of those press one button, pod, instant coffee machines. Our machine of choice was the Tassimo. Yes, we know we basically chose the laser disk of the coffee pod machine world, but we were loyal and committed, even as Keurig began to take over the world and Tassimo pods were harder and harder to obtain.  Plus, the Tassimo made cappuccinos and caramel macchiatos, which the Keurig never did (and still does not!).

We originally converted from a regular coffee maker to the Tassimo because only my husband was drinking coffee and he wanted a single serve machine that was convenient and low fuss. And it truly was convenient and low fuss. I mean, how easy: choose pod, insert pod, push button and voila, instant, good coffee for one person. As time went on, though, we realized that it was an expensive habit.  A package of regular coffee, with 16 servings would run about ten bucks, maybe less if you had a coupon, and many packages, especially of the larger servings had fewer pods. So if my husband wanted two cups of coffee a day, we would be spending close to $40 a month…on coffee.  If I spent that much on Starbucks a month, I can assure you my husband would have given me a talking to.

But that was only one aspect. We were also aware of how much we were throwing away with each serving of coffee. Sometimes I would remove the coffee to feed to my worms, but that was tedious and I was still throwing away the pod. Yes, once again here we are telling you what you should do, only after we splurged on what you shouldn’t do…we’re like your parents in that way. But as much as we hate to admit it, parents know what they’re talking about, right?

Still, we didn’t want to spend money on a new coffee maker when the Tassimo was still working. And we didn’t really know in what direction to go, so we just kept using it. It was almost a blessing when it started to crap out. Though, being conscientious, we tried quick fixes we found on the internet.  They worked! And Tassimo gained another eight months of life.

In the end, though, we decided when the last round of expensive coffee was done with, we would retire the Tassimo.  We spent a long time researching our options. My husband still wanted a coffee maker that would only make one cup at a time and now we had a new goal of not generating pod waste every day. Consequently, we wanted a machine where we would be able use our own coffee.

At this point we seriously considered a keurig or a keurig compatible machine, which honestly was, like, 99.9% of the single brew market. (Completely made up number.) There were so many options and brands, too.  With many styles you could buy your own K-cup and use your own coffee.  Plus you could always splurge on one of the billion flavors of coffees, teas, and hot chocolates in pods–you know, if you were into that kind of waste. Let’s not pretend I would be above that. We thought for sure we would end up with a Keurig, or K-cup compatible machine…I mean, really, do they make any others? Why, yes, they do.

We decided on the Hamilton Beach Single Serve Scoop Coffee Maker. http://www.amazon.com/Hamilton-Beach-Single-Serve-Coffee/dp/B005GUGBS4.  It is everything we wanted in a coffee maker.  Convenient, single-serve, very reasonably priced and we can use our own coffee.

With my husband as the judge, it makes a really good cup of coffee. And there is nothing to throw away but the grounds.  It has a double filter system which they advise you clean out after every use.  Amazingly, my husband does this step, which really just amounts to rinsing out the grounds and occasionally giving it a good rub with the sponge. Easy enough. Some reviews complained about excessive splashing on the backsplash, but that is because they either didn’t realize or were to lazy to move the platform up.  It adjusts for your cup/mug.  It can accommodate any size mug, and most normal sized travel cups. This was actually something annoying about the Tassimo.  It did not fit many of our mugs, and none of our travel mugs. The Hamilton Beach Scoop only has two options, regular and bold, hence two buttons.  This is a definite advantage over the Keurig machines since I think their machines are often confusing and difficult to maneuver–and I am no button-maneuvering slouch.  I know my way around buttons and menus, and Keurigs are plain tricky. This machine takes the “choices” out of the equation.  You only get the amount of water out that you put in and you measure a the coffee in your scoop according to your preference.  It may take a couple of cups to get it perfect, but even your trial runs will net a pretty good cup of coffee.

Because you are brewing your own grounds, this machine could still work for a large family or a fanatic coffee drinker. There is the extra step of rinsing out the scoops, but 1) it’s easy and 2) they actually give you two of them. So everyone can have the exact cup of coffee they want.  I like flavors, my husband doesn’t, now it’s a win-win. An six ounce cup of coffee is plenty for me and he wouldn’t mind drinking a 16 oz cup.  We can both have it to order and the coffee doesn’t have to sit around to thicken like office coffee if we’re on different schedules.

Just to be clear, my snobbery does not override my common sense. We did not resist a K-cup machine just because we had been loyal to the underdog, Tassimo, but also because the reviews for the re-usable filters were pretty unfavorable.  Plus the machines themselves were much more expensive.

Now, instead of spending $40 a month on coffee, we are spending around $15.  We still buy good coffee, like Starbuck, Gevalia and Caribou Coffee brands. Incidentally, have you noticed how they now sell coffee in 10 oz and 12 oz instead of a pound? Sneaky marketing bastards. We could spend even less money and get cheaper coffee, but let’s not be too hasty.

It doesn’t do espresso…but then again, neither does the Keurig  (though the pricey Starbucks Verissimo does.)  It just makes a solid, consistent cup of coffee that meets our goals of being less expensive and producing less waste.

One last thing, to try to decrease the amount of waste we would generate by disposing of the Tassimo (it wasn’t in good working order, if you recall) we gutted the Tassimo and listed the parts on ebay.  This idea may have been a few years too late.  We still have all the parts.  But at least it made me feel a little better about throwing away the entire thing.