‘Use What You Have’ Eating

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I woke up this morning to a dusting of snow on the ground – the sun is glowing and the sky is cloud-free, and other than a little wind blowing, it just added a sugar coating to a glorious morning.

We’re about 5 days into the spending freeze, and a good chunk of the grocery money is already used up.  I budgeted $450 this month just to see how that worked, which is about $100-$150 less than we usually spend.   That budget includes most of our meals – Eli works from home 100% of the time, and I do about 65% of the time.  We rarely eat out, although I tend to have to when I travel, which is reimbursed.  We pack the kids lunches 50% of the time, and breakfasts for all of us are home-based most of the time.  We try to eat healthily, and our meals include lots and lots of vegetables.

I spent $75 yesterday at Trader Joe’s on both food and wine (it’s a spending freeze, not a life of bleak deprivation).  Add to that what we’ve spent on things that arrive automatically and we should be ok, although this will be tighter than our usual.  All we really will need is lunch meat, milk, and fruits and vegetables and a few  staples.

Next week our Walden Local meat food order will arrive ($167), although because of the holiday and so many meals away from home, we still have a lot left from last month.  We have some Amazon Subscribe-and-Save items arriving as well ($132.66) that will come in handy, especially the 30 lbs of organic flour that arrives 2x a year.   And gets used, I might add.  At about $1.42/lb, it’s more expensive to buy organic flour by a fair bit, but knowing that I’m minimizing our pesticide consumption helps.  The next step is to get our flour locally, which will increase our costs but support a local, truly organic grower, but not yet. Add to that the food we’ve put up and purchased, and I think we’ll be in good shape, even though there’s a lot of January left.

We still have most of the sweet potatoes, a lot of regular potatoes, onions and 2 big butternut squash from our Thanksgiving weekend stock up.  We’re also completely buried in fresh eggs, so fritattas, deviled eggs, quiche and lots of other options can be both breakfast and dinner.  So long as we employ some creativity, we should eat well and healthily for the month.

Our biggest risk area for the budget is snacks – I plan to make some homemade granola bars next weekend (this recipe is great, even without the coconut, which is not my favorite), and there’s always cookies, popcorn, and homemade guacamole with some tortilla chips.  Plus I stashed some Nutella-and-Breadstick snack packs for when the kids are completely frustrated by the lack of appealing snacks later in the month.  It’s probably not a flawless plan, but it’s pretty solid.

Last night we finally used up the spaghetti squash that we came home in November with – I halved it, scooped the seeds and then baked it with olive oil, salt, pepper and a few cloves of garlic until it was soft.  Then I filled it with a mixture of cooked ground lamb seasoned with garlic, and then mixed in goat cheese and pesto, and I topped it with a little shredded cheese.  Spaghetti squash ‘boats’ stuffed with almost anything are a favorite of mine.     I had no idea that my husband had never experienced spaghetti squash when I bought it, but he was so impressed by both Mother Nature’s ingenuity and dinner generally that we’ll be adding it to the list of things we grow and buy in bulk this year.

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And on that topic, I’m thinking next weekend I might start some winter lettuce indoors to cut down on what I’m buying.  I don’t usually grow much in the winter, but it’s a pretty low-effort endeavor to grow stuff from scratch, especially in small quantities.

When you are trying to eat what you have, it’s the time to use cookbooks and food websites as a starting point, not in order to follow recipes precisely.  For example, find a recipe for stuffed spaghetti squash and then modify based on what you have rather than what the recipe says exactly.   Tonight for dinner I need both kid-friendly food and to start to tackle the red peppers that have been sitting around for a few days.  I pulled some beef bulgogi from the freezer, and that, along with a salad and some quick and easy popovers will cover down on dinner tonight and likely leave Eli some leftovers while I travel.  Those red peppers will be sliced up along with cucumbers for the kids, who consume both without question.

I have mushrooms  that need to get used up when I return as well, so I’m trying to decide whether to saute and freeze them now, or wait until I get back and turn them into something interesting, like a new variation of stuffed mushrooms, perhaps using more of the ground lamb that comes with our meat share.

Key here is to use cookbooks and web recipes for ideas.  I’m lucky enough to have a freezer and my pantry completely full, so my options are great.  But I’ve had times in my life where all I had was some flour and yeast, cheese and spaghetti sauce, and a few onions, and I made some really good homemade pizza with caramelized onions, which fed me until the next paycheck arrived.   I’ve used solid white tuna as a cheaper alternative to ground beef in pasta sauce, and it’s really good.  Surprisingly good.

Food writers, bloggers and chefs are always on the lookout for the newest and the freshest ingredients, and I love that – I have learned so much from so many about things I never thought I could cook at home, and flavor combinations I wouldn’t have ever considered on my own.  But the reality is that it isn’t how most of us truly eat – most people have budgets, food preferences, limited time to cook, kids who will try a very few new things.

But what we all have is the ability to be limitlessly creative in the kitchen – the worst that can happen is that what comes out isn’t that great, and the best that can happen is you pair flavors you like and come out with a new greatest hit.

 

 

 

 

 

New Year Spending Freeze

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2019 took it’s last bow, while we ate a combination of takeout and homemade Asian food and finally got a chance to put on our matching family penguin pajamas.

2020 came in with a gorgeous orangy-pink sunrise.

Today is for sleeping in, removing the last of the Christmas decor, and our most important New Year’s Day task, setting our goals as a family for 2020.  Those penguin pajamas that I’ll spare everyone a picture of?  They were on 2019’s list, the kids having determined that we needed to have a set of matching ones. Other key goals were ‘have a family picture done’, the wedding, and Connor’s perfect addition of ‘share our love’.

Every year we make a list, and every year we try to get to all the things.  This is an acheivable list – not ‘Mom becomes and Olympian’ but things like ‘more family dinners’, ‘do something new on vacation’.  Our first year at Sithean the list included meeting our neighbors, which we’ve done rather successfully.

In addition to the fact that I intend to mostly live on broth and salad for a week or so, to offset the heavy foods the holidays brought with them – I enjoyed them all, but I need something lighter for a while, today kicks off a major initiative for us – a Spending Freeze.  From now through April 15, we’re only buying groceries and things we absolutely need.

So what is a spending freeze?  It’s not a financial diet (diets fail), it’s merely a course correction.  We have all the things we need and many things we don’t.  We have a lot of big, big goals coming up in the next couple years.  We’ve accumulated some debt, which I hate.  Our pantry and freezer are completely stocked.   And over the 3 years we’ve been here at Sithean, clutter has crept in.

It’s time to clean out, not add more.  Ending mindless spending is one way to do that.

For 4 1/2 months, we’ll focus on the things we need, such as food, and make lists of the things we might want.  Since we won’t be buying stuff, we’ll have time to really consider if we want it.  Every purchase needs to be weighed against questions – do we need it?  Can we get it without spending?  Can it wait?

But surely there are things that will come up?  There are. 

K’s 11th birthday will be an exception, although her big gift is already purchased.  I have a little cash set aside for things like book fairs for the kids, and Easter is in there too.  Car and house maintenance that must be done, will.  I ordered our garden seeds early, along with some much-needed tomato cages, and pre-ordered 2020’s fruit trees, because those are time-sensitive items.  I can’t start seeds in mid-April and have a successful garden.  

But for the rest, it’s going to require creativity.  For Eli’s birthday in early April, it means I need to create or find for free a gift, a challenge that I need to start thinking about now.  It means I’m not planting Cranberry bushes until 2021, because those didn’t make the priority list.

If Eli and I find we really need a meal out, we have a couple gift cards we can use, but otherwise it’s home for us for a while.  Which is great – we love to cook, we have lots of food to use up, and honestly if we get tired, there’s nothing wrong with the occasional bowl of Cheerios for dinner.

The key here is not to feel deprived.  We are doing this so we can have other things, not giving spending up because it’s what we ‘should’ do.  This is the path to way more opportunity in the future, not a diminishing of our present.

Happy Frugal New Year to all of you!

 

 

 

How to Simplify Your Life – Stocking (and De-Stocking) the Pantry

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Today,  I wanted nothing so badly as to just have a very large, calorie-intensive italian meal delivered to me.  Whatever it was, it needed to involve lots of food slathered in sauce and ricotta cheese.  What can I say – it’s cold outside, and  I wanted Eggplant Rollatini and a lot of things to go with it.  I was hungry, more than a little, I certainly didn’t feel like cooking dinner, and I definitely wasn’t interested in anything I had in the house.

Even with my near-limitless pantry options, I get bored.  And unmotivated.

So when I pulled some meatballs out of the freezer, added them to tomato soup, and then tossed in some chopped, frozen kale, and added a cheese quesadilla (melt some cheese on a tortilla, fold, eat)  I felt virtuous on a couple levels.  First, because I really don’t need the calories from a large Italian dinner right at this moment – this was a loose take on it without the guilt.  But secondly, because this is food I have already bought and paid for.  Part of my effort to eat down the pantry over the next few months is pure housekeeping.  But there’s another, no less important part of this – to offset the myriad expenses that have popped up as Eli and I combine lives with some budget sanity.  Avoiding take out for one night will hardly offset the money we just put into a slightly used Nissan Pathfinder, or cover the cost of a new chicken coop with a predator-proof enclosed run, but I truly believe that attention to the small leaks of money is just as important as the big successes.

That doesn’t mean we never intend to eat out or pick up ready-made food again.  Just this weekend Connor and I ordered Chinese food, because that was what he wanted more than anything for our special weekend.  And I fully believe in prepared food -sometimes from the store, but often from my own freezer, like the meatballs in my soup.  But part of simplifying your life is learning to be content with what you have.  And today, that contentment consists of not having to drive to pick up food when there is plenty available right here.

I believe strongly in having a full pantry for a number of reasons.  They are, in relative order of importance:

  1. It is an emergency fund you can eat.  In times where paychecks might be spotty or income inconsistent, even the most well-prepared of us will want to tighten the belt.  A full pantry is a buffer against times of having less
  2. It offers options to the perennial question of ‘what’s for dinner?’
  3. If stocked properly and over time, it’s variety of the inexpensive sort – out of my pantry I can whip up Thai, Indian and lots of yummy favorites, like my Simple Lentil Sausage Soup

Stocking the pantry is simple.  Focusing on the things you eat, buy them at the most affordable points.  Some foods go on sale cyclically, such as baking supplies in November and December.  Others you have to watch sale flyers for.  Some things, like my favorite wine, that also happens to sell for $6.99 a bottle at Trader Joe’s, I buy half a case or a full case at a time – not just for the case discount, but because I am not the only one that likes it, and it sells out quickly.

By the way, a great skill to cultivate in life is to like the cheap wine just as much as the expensive stuff.  Cheap doesn’t have to mean bad, although you may have to taste a few bad ones to encounter something you like.   I know a lot of people who only like ‘good wine’ and while I do too, I cheerfully enjoy the not-so-fancy too.  Which leaves a lot more options open to me, and is a lot less painful, budget-wise.  

When pasta goes on sale for 69 cents a box, I might buy 10 boxes.  And then not buy any more for a while.

I admit, I’m lazy about it.  I’m imperfect about watching sales, and sometimes I end up paying more for bulk than I would individually – I try to be careful, but it does happen.  I have also learned that you will never get the best price in one place – one of the grocery stores I tend to find the most expensive has the best loss leaders around.  So long as I stick with the sales, I do very well there.

I also strongly advocate periodically eating through what you have in your pantry and freezer before restocking.  It will force you to be creative after the first week or so, but it will also be kind of…fun?  I found some Stone Crab meat in my freezer that I bought a month or so ago and promptly forgot about.  Apparently we’re having crab cakes pretty soon.  Eating down your food supply gives you a chance to clean the fridge, the freezer, the cabinets, as well as making sure the investment you have made with your wallet in your cabinets doesn’t go to waste.

What do you keep in your pantry, and have you ever skipped the grocery store to clean it out?

Journey’s End

In Florida, where I lived for a few years, most of the houses are in communities, gated or otherwise.  One, in West Palm Beach, was named ‘Journey’s End’.  Whether their target audience was simply the elder end of the snowbird set, or they helped people speed the path to their maker in order to ensure consistently available housing inventory was unclear to me, but I could never go by it without a giggle.

When I moved to Sithean, I had some goals set in my head.  At the top of the list, though, was ‘Never move again’.  After 5 moves in just over 2.5 years and some serious life transitions, the kids and I needed stability and predictability above all.  While a little updating couldn’t hurt, and it was definitely in need of basic maintenance, the house has stood for 168 years, and it will almost certainly outlast me.

Most financial advice around housing presupposes that you will, at some point, move, and therefore things like market value, financial return, and renovations with an eye towards selling are 99% of the commentary.  But when you buy a house to live in for 40+ years, it changes your perspective.  All of a sudden, the things ‘the market’ might prefer don’t really matter.  That isn’t to say that one should jettison good taste, but honestly, if you like something and want to do it, ‘what will the next owner think’ isn’t an issue.  When there is a next owner, I fully intend to have become compost for my peonies.

Hopefully not very soon.

To pay off the mortgage early or not is a debate in finance circles as old as time.  It’s true you may be able to grow that money faster in stocks, which is what most financial planners would say.  Most of the frugality-focused financial folks, on the other hand, loathe debt and recommend reducing housing costs by paying off the mortgage early.

I see both points of view, but it’s my take that there are those of us who are comfortable with mortgage debt, and there are those of us for whom outsized interest payments and owing someone the roof over our heads makes our skin crawl, and you should behave according to which type of person you are.  I am, without a doubt, the latter.

I hate debt, but my decision to work towards being mortgage free also has more specific reasons.  My oldest goes to college in 9 years, and my younger child will follow her a few years later.  I want to be able to help them, and without a mortgage payment, that should be comfortably possible.  I may not have it knocked off for my daughter’s turn, but by the time my son launches, I intend to have the house owned by me, outright.  This was number 2 on my goal list when I moved here.

Today I have no idea how that happens.

Ok, I do.  You toss money at it until it’s gone.  For a time when you take on a mortgage, you pay more interest than principal.  As the mortgage matures, that situation reverses, and you pay more principal than interest.  The quicker you reduce your unpaid principal balance, the less interest you pay, and the faster you pay your house off.

But logistically, today, my plan isn’t feasible based on the calculators I have run.  I’m not even a little worried about that.  I mean, in the dark of night when I wonder how it’s all going to work out, sure.  But generally, nope, not concerned.   What I have learned over the years is that calculators are one thing.  Deciding you are going to do a thing and then working towards it is quite another.  While ephemeral determination is not something you can take to the bank, making a plan and figuring out how to get there as you go along is absolutely critical to getting what you want.

A critical rule of goal-setting – first, decide what you want to do.  Then figure out how to do it, adapting as you go.  For long-haul goals, you have time to experiment.  For this particular goal I have 1 and 3 year plans that involve all ‘found money’,  unexpected windfalls, and a percentage of income going towards it.  Once I get through the next 36 months, I should have a good sense of how much I need to modify my goals to meet my target.  Or modify my target if I must.

Most critical though, is to listen to your gut.  My gut tells me that I am at my best when setting my sights on a few big goals, with some smaller ones along the way.  I’m focused and determined, and more often than not I get where I need to be, even if the route takes longer than I had hoped.

Should you pay off your mortgage?  Only you can answer that – no one else has to live your life, not your financial planner, not the money advice columnists, no one but you.  Your inner voice should guide you on the big things, and this is no exception.  But if you do decide to, don’t worry so much if the numbers aren’t clear when you get started.

“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.”

― Joseph Campbell

Sithean in flower