How Balanced Is Your Budget?

 

I love seeing everything at once in my tiny, organized pantry!

I love seeing everything at once in my tiny, organized pantry!

I’m bracing myself for a barrage of hate mail for posting this, but my recent discovery has brought me such freedom that I simply must shout it from the rooftops!

I’d like to think I’ve proven myself as a reasonably frugal consumer. When I say “frugal”, I mean that I am budget-conscious and put some effort into finding decent bargains while also recognizing that my time is at least as limited as my finances. 

First an admission: I do not coupon (gasp). I found it to be too time consuming and confusing. On top of that, in order for couponing to work, you have to actually remember to give the cashier your coupons…oops!  I used to be a regular shopper at warehouse stores like Sam’s and Costco because of the low per-unit price you could get by buying in bulk. But then I realized that while spending $400 in one week for 3 different items may save me money in the long run, my short-term cash flow was precisely that…short. So I began shopping at a discount grocery store that stocks mostly off-brand products but where the prices (and the quality) are at least as good as the coupon and warehouse deals without the hassle or the huge outlay.

Finally, I had managed to secure a low unit cost without having to purchase a high quantity. I began to see the benefits of fitting normal-sized products into my tiny pantry (pictured above…I just love my pantry). Gone (eventually) were the 2-liter bottles of soy sauce and vats of olive oil. Crackers, pretzels and cereal were no longer going stale before they could be consumed. I was able to reclaim part of my garage for storing other items besides overflow food. And it no longer took the National Guard to help me unload all the groceries each week.

Unfortunately, I kept buying more cans and boxes than I actually consumed each week out of pure habit…”just to have some on hand”. I still had one large shelf reserved in the garage for storing all my extras. In the garage, mind you…where I hate to go. I would send the kids down to get stuff for me, so I lacked a keen sense of what was actually there. I was always buying things we didn’t need and not buying something we did need simply because I assumed we already had more of it down in the garage.

And then something happened to knock some sense into me. I fell down the stairs and dislocated my shoulder…badly. I could no longer carry as many groceries and was forced to shorten my weekly shopping list to only what I knew we would use in the next week or two. 

Eureka! Now I can fit everything into my pantry where I can easily see at a glance just what we need. Everything is fresh and actually consumed rather than wasted. Putting the groceries away is quicker and easier, and I now have even more room in my garage. I feel so FREE!

All of this has made me realize that being a “frugal” consumer means respecting not just your financial and time limitations, but your space limitations too. My father used to always say, “Space is at a premium.” It surely is a precious commodity to be used wisely. Don’t squander your spacial budget just to stretch your financial or time budgets. Find a balance of all three.

How do you balance your financial, time and spacial budgets?

Note: Your Sam’s or Costco membership may still be worthwhile for purchasing household items, office supplies, electronics, etc. at a great price or for when you are feeding a large crowd. I am not suggesting you ditch it!  Just don’t let bulk purchases of regular groceries eat up all your space.

Keeping Up While Cutting Down

Summer sleep shorts

The karate kid sporting his “new” jammies

To say that my kids are “growing like weeds” takes on a lot more meaning if you have ever seen my yard. While my closets are neatly organized and my pantry is a masterpiece of space management and convenience, it is an understatement to say that my garden could use a little tweaking. Sure, I appreciate other people’s beautiful landscapes and wish I had one too, but I don’t do bugs, snakes or itchy creepy crawly stuff. Thus mine is a tangled patch of overgrown weeds that I can’t keep up with…much like my kids. Do you see where I’m going with this?

Like most moms, it’s important to me that my progeny look presentable. Heaven knows that I have expended more energy than I probably should on arguing with them over proper teeth brushing, appropriate haircuts and fingernail length. I’m frankly surprised that Child Protective Services has not appeared on my doorstep yet, given the blood-curdling screams my son lets rip on nail-clipping day or my daughter’s gnashing of teeth at the mere prospect of having her hair braided. Apparently I could teach the CIA a thing or two about torture.

I gave up the stripes with plaid and boots with shorts war years ago due to pure battle fatigue. They are now free to express themselves (within reason) with their wardrobe choices. I’ve even recently developed a  new “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy toward tears and stains after discovering the multiple holes my 9YO son created in the crotch of his new shorts…I just don’t want to know. I simply don’t have the time, energy or budget to stay on top of it, and some days this weary mom feels lost in the weeds.

It is upon this backdrop that I looked up last Sunday evening and realized that my son’s sleep pants were about 5 inches too short. They have worn well and still fit perfectly in the waist. More importantly, he loves them! But so pathetic did he look in them, that I had to do something to save my poor child from the certain ridicule that awaited him if one of his neighborhood friends should come knocking at the door after he was ready for bed (as they sometimes do). My solution was so quick, easy and free that I had to share it. After all, it isn’t often that he and I are both this thrilled with a wardrobe solution. All it took was a pair of scissors and within five minutes, he had 6 pairs of adorable, comfortable, summer sleep shorts!


Five minute fix for outgrown jammies.

Five minute fix for outgrown jammies.

This simple yet elegant solution got me thinking about other ways that I stretch (literally) the kids’ wardrobe with minimal time and effort. (I’m not much of a seamstress either.) Here are just a few:
  • Turn a short dress into a tunic by pairing it with leggings or bike shorts.
  • Hang onto outgrown leggings until they are short enough to become capri leggings.
  • Lengthen skirts and dresses by adding a ruffle or lace hem to the bottom.
  • Convert stained t-shirts and comfy elastic waist shorts into pajamas.
  • Missing one unique button? Replace half of them (alternating) with new ones.
  • Cover up a stain or tear with a decorative patch or iron-on applique.


What shortcuts do you take to stretch your time and budget?

Waste Not, Want Not

ImageImageBy now you should know that I’m a big fan of keeping things simple and affordable. One of my favorite places to practice this is in the kitchen. Some of the best culinary inventions were born of a need for frugality, convenience, or both (Think pizza, soup, and croutons). For someone like me who is one part lazy, two parts budget-conscious and three parts control-freak, finding ways to reduce waste in the kitchen satisfies my need for easy, cheap yet homemade cooking in one fell swoop. What could be better than saving myself time, money and guilt all at the same time? (Well, besides eating all the yummy results of my efforts?) All it takes is a freezer, a little planning and a few new habits in order to get started.Whether your freezer is stocked full of ice cream and frozen pizza or you use it primarily for taking advantage bulk deals on meat and other expensive ingredients, here are a few items you can store in this under-utilized appliance to you save time and money and reduce waste:

  • Vegetable Scraps – Start saving all those cores, ends, leaves, husks and peels in a zip-loc freezer bag. (Make sure they are clean and only save scraps that are not beginning to rot.) No need to separate by vegetable…the more variety, the better. When the bag is full, dump the contents into a large stock pot, cover with water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 30-45 minutes, then strain for a tasty homemade vegetable broth for use in soups and stews. (Tip: Skip the salt; you can add it to your recipe later and eliminating it from the broth gives you more options in how to use it.)
  • Bread ends and stale (not moldy) leftover bread and rolls – Process into crumbs using a food processor to make homemade bread crumbs or cut into cubes, spritz with oil or butter, season and bake until crunchy for homemade croutons.
  • Crushed chips, crackers, or pretzels – Don’t throw out those last few crumbs with the bag…freeze them for later. These make a great crunchy topping for casseroles, soups and salads.
  • Leftover coffee – Bottom of the pot gone cold? Pour it into ice cube trays and use it to chill your iced coffee without watering it down. (You can also keep a pitcher of the leftover coffee in the refrigerator for use in iced coffee drinks.)
  • Bones – Any kind of bones can be boiled with some of your vegetable scraps for a tasty broth.
  • Butter wrappers – These are convenient and less messy than cooking spray for greasing baking pans.
  • Juice from cans of fruit or tomatoes – Pour these into small containers or ice cube trays and use to cool drinks without watering them down, in smoothies, and to thin or add flavor to soups or stews. Toss fresh fruit in leftover pineapple juice to keep it from browning.
  • Herbs – I hate having to spend $2 on a huge bunch of parsley or cilantro when I only need 50 cents worth. Instead of letting it rot and wilt in your fridge, chop it up and freeze it in ice cubes for later use or add it to your vegetable scrap bag to flavor your next batch of broth.
  • Ripe bananas – Peel them, mash them and freeze them for later use in delicious banana bread and muffins.
  • Sweet Potatoes – Did you buy the 5 lb. bag when you only needed 2? Wash them, prick with a fork and nuke in the microwave on high for about 5 minutes or until soft. Scoop out the center and mash and freeze for use in lots of yummy recipes.
  • Leftovers – Even if you have just one serving left over from dinner, freeze it for a tasty brown bag lunch at the office one day in the future when you don’t have anything else prepared. This takes the pressure off yourself to eat it before it goes bad. You can also make extra and freeze individual portions for this purpose. Leftover pasta, rice, barley, etc. thaw nicely and work well in soups, salads and casseroles.

The sky is the limit on other things you can freeze, from lemon zest to extra frosting or cookie dough. Be realistic when you are shopping and only buy what you need, but when you find yourself with obviously more than your family can easily consume, freeze it before it goes bad. Not only will you reduce waste, but these little gems just may come to your rescue the next time you find yourself in a pinch.

Share the wealth! Comment below and let us know what you save and how you use it.

The Inconvenience of Conveniences

Is your bread machine covered in flour or in dust?

Is your bread machine covered in flour or in dust?

I recall the look of complete amazement and bewilderment on the face of my British friend as I described to her, sometime back in the late ’80’s, how a drive-thru bank worked. I’m not sure if she was impressed by the ingenuity of such an idea or astonished at the sheer laziness of an entire culture where such a phenomenon would even be needed, much less commonplace.

Indeed, we Americans seem to be almost obsessed with an ongoing demand for more and more “convenience”. As though drive-thru restaurants, pharmacies and dry cleaners are not enough, we now have curbside pickup, hands-free concierge service on our cell phones, and remote controls that open our car trunks for us from 50 feet away. Of course, being the queen of laziness, I love it all and can’t wait for the day that someone invents an exercise machine that allows me to burn calories and tone muscle while napping.

But if we aren’t careful, our never-ending quest for convenience can become downright inconvenient, particularly when it comes to all those “convenience” kitchen appliances: juicers, bread makers, rotisseries, countertop grills, food dehydrators and vacuum sealers. Look around you. Are the appliances that are intended to conserve your time just consuming valuable the real estate in your home?

As with anything else, it’s all about choices. Choose which convenience you want…drive-thru burgers, or easier homemade burgers? Vacuum packed groceries you can freeze for fewer trips to the store, or door-to-door grocery delivery? Be realistic and consider your lifestyle and current needs to determine which you will really use. If you want to keep the food dehydrator, fine. USE IT! Commit to it. Let go of that notion that you’ll use it “someday”. If “someday” ever does come, the newer models will be better, even easier to use, and probably worth the cost of buying a new one, so there’s no need to keep this one around and in your way until then (unless it’s Grandma’s old ice cream maker and you are keeping it for sentimental reasons…but that’s another post). Realize that there is nothing convenient about having to move the juicer every time you need to find a glass for your store-bought juice. ALL conveniences require some type of sacrifice–time, money, space, accessibility–so choose wisely.

I have a bread maker I bought about 15 years ago but rarely used because it was too big to store on the counter and required too much effort to get it out when put away. Storing such a large and infrequently-used appliance in my tiny kitchen was a luxury I could no longer afford, so I gave myself an ultimatum: either start using the bread maker regularly or get rid of it. Thus I re-organized my kitchen to make it easier to access my bread maker and  have started using it at least weekly to make homemade dough for pizzas, pita bread and hamburger buns from pre-measured, homemade mixes I toss together once a month or so. I am choosing the convenience of having easier homemade pizza over the convenience of ordering pizza delivery, but that’s a personal choice. The point is, you need to evaluate your current needs and priorities and stop allowing your convenience appliances to inconvenience your life by either finding a way to make using them easier or getting rid of them to make room for a different kind of convenience.

By the way, unused space is a pretty versatile convenience of its own. Just saying.

I’ve Got Something in the Oven

Christmas Cookies

No, no, no…it’s not that kind of “something”…those days are over (thank goodness)! But it’s not too early to get your holiday bake on. Whether you are baking pies for Thanksgiving, Christmas cookies for Santa, yummy bread to give as gifts, or quiche for a New Year’s brunch, planning and doing a bit ahead of time will reduce some of that holiday stress…save that for dealing with the in-laws and your sugared-up kids!

  1. Start by creating space in your freezer. Use up some of the stuff that’s been in there for awhile before it expires. (If you lost power during one of the recent storms, here’s your silver lining.)
  2. Next, pick up extra baking staples during your regular shopping trips whenever you see them on sale. Flour, sugar, brown sugar, baking powder, salt, butter…did you know that you can freeze your butter?
  3. Make a list of all the old family favorites and any new goodies you’d like to bake this year. (If your family is anything like mine, this alone will make you realize that you should have started on December 26 of last year.)  Gather your recipes in one place or include cookbook names and page numbers on your list so that you have it handy when ready to dive in.
  4. Make a list of any special ingredients you don’t normally keep on hand so that you can keep an eye out for sales and purchase them as you see them. Many items go on sale right after Halloween or Thanksgiving, and coupons abound.
  5. Whip up a batch of cookie dough or pie pastry as time allows. It literally takes only minutes, and if you start making just one or two batches each weekend, you’ll have a wide assortment by the time you need them.
  6. Cookie dough can be rolled into logs (for slicing), cut into shapes, or shaped into individual balls and then frozen. Pie shells can be shaped and frozen raw, and quick breads can be baked first before being wrapped and frozen. Just be careful to package everything well in airtight freezer containers or wraps and label them clearly. (I wondered why my Maple Shortbread tasted so peanut buttery last year!)
  7. Just pull your goodies out of the freezer and bake as and when they are needed. Most recipes can be baked straight from the freezer but be sure to allow additional baking time.

No more marathon baking sessions three days before your party or giving away stale cookies because you couldn’t get them delivered right away. Bake only what you need, package them up and deliver them fresh from your oven straight to your boss’ desk. Can you say “Christmas bonus?”

Scare Up Some Fun This Halloween!

Halloween Spider attack!

Pipe cleaners and black pom-poms never looked so scary!

For many of us, Frankenstorm was scary enough but for kids, Halloween is a big deal that only comes around once a year. So don’t let Hurricane Sandy have the last cackle. Even if your Halloween celebration was postponed or your trick-or-treating canceled, you can still scare up some fun and make a few spooky memories that don’t include gusty winds and flooding.

The good thing about Halloween is that shabby is chic and less-than-perfect is perfect. It was a holiday made for making do with what’s on hand around your home. And it’s the ideal way to use up some of those excess craft supplies that seem to multiply in your closet. I’ve put together a few of my favorite ideas in this Homemade Halloween How-to page in the Parenting Tools section of this blog. I apologize for my tardiness, but hopefully you will keep it in mind for next year even if you don’t have an opportunity to do any of these today.

The important thing to remember is that there are a million and one ways to make it fun with little time or money. It doesn’t take much to thrill your little goblins, and it’s still not too late for gray spaghetti brains and monster toe hot dogs for dinner.

Stay safe and have a Spook-tacular Halloween!

Battening Down the Hatches for “Frankenstorm” Sandy

Why is there always a rush on toilet paper whenever a storm is expected? It’s a massive disturbance in the weather system, people, not in your…er..system!

But with the obligatory battery and water run out of the way, I’m focusing my efforts today on some other, less obvious, preparations for a potential power outage as a result of Hurricane Sandy. On my To Do list for today:

  1. Doing laundry (at least we’ll have clean underwear)
  2. Securing deck furniture, trash/recycle bins and removing the campaign sign from my front lawn (I’m guessing that people will be less likely to vote for a candidate whose sign impaled their car windshield during a hurricane)
  3. Refilling prescriptions (the storm inside could be worse than the one outside if the meds run out)
  4. Making extra ice (for preserving perishables or for fixing myself a stiff drink, whichever need is greater at the time)
  5. Locating my flashlights and batteries, candles and matches, sterno, manual can opener and paper plates (simply add graham crackers, chocolate and marshmallows and we’re all set for a Girl Scout singalong)
  6. Tidying the house (a floor strewn with marbles, jacks and GI Joes can make one heck of a booby trap in the dark, as proven in Home Alone)
  7. Cooking (transforming raw ground beef into chili that can be easily re-heated over sterno or in a pot on the grill is much easier now than chopping the onions for it will be in the dark…OUCH!)
  8. Noting down phone numbers to call for news and information on school closures and to report downed power lines (since the Yellow Pages never makes it through my front door now that we have this Internet thing)
  9. Baking (I think the press totally misinterpreted “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job!”)
  10. Charging my cell phones (because it takes more than a power outage to shut me up)

To all my readers in the path of the “Frankenstorm”, please be prepared, stay safe and don’t take any unnecessary chances. For the rest of you, pray for us. We’re gonna need it!

“Where’s the Beef?” in Your Thanksgiving?

It’s almost Halloween, and that can only mean one thing: Time to start thinking about Christmas! (Or so the retailers would have you believe.)

But what about that other holiday…you know, the one where we watch football and stuff our faces so that we have plenty of energy to shop til we drop on Black Friday?…the one that heralds the coming of the Christmas season and the official start of the decorating wars?…when we get the green light to start spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need? What’s that called again? Oh yeah…Thanksgiving! Thanks giving…giving thanks.

Thanksgiving is unique among the end-of-year holidays because it really lasts for only one day (okay, maybe two or even three if you are the one doing the cooking for the feast). Even Halloween gets bigger billing these days, with all the Halloween decorations, parties, costume preparations, and spooky movie marathons on TV. By the time the big Thanksgiving holiday rolls around, we are usually so focused on football and eating and planning out our 4AM shopping strategy that we forget what it is really supposed to be about. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Anyone?

Well, it is not about extravagant spreads of food. It is not about beautiful, impressive tablescapes a la Martha Stewart. It is not about kickoff time or fires in the fireplace or putting up the Christmas tree. It is not about traveling or pumpkin pie or gourds or falling leaves. It is not even about pilgrims or native Americans or survival. It is about gratitude…gratitude for life and whatever it has handed you…gratitude for blessings and gratitude for the hardships that make you appreciate the blessings…gratitude for what you have now and gratitude for what you once had…gratitude for the love of others and for the ability to love them back…gratitude for hope and for the ability to keep on hoping even in the most hopeless of situations.

Gratitude is an attitude. It is the only thing that makes it possible to get through even the worst of days and still want to wake up and try again tomorrow. Want the secret to “easy peasy living”? It’s gratitude, and it deserves your full attention on at least one day of the year. So this year, before you dive head first into that turkey with all the trimmings, take a little time to ponder all you have instead of all you wish you had, and have a truly Happy Thanksgiving!

My (Not So) Secret Hoard

After nine months of procrastination, excuses and cancellations, I finally had my “annual” physical yesterday. I had been dreading this since January, knowing that my likable yet firm and forthright nurse practitioner was going to lecture me about my hoard. Yes that’s right…I’m a hoarder…a hoarder of calories. And just like all the hoarders on my favorite “Buried Alive” TV episodes, my years of hoarding have finally started taking their toll and are doing some real physical damage to the hoarder home…in this case, my body.

It’s not exactly a secret to anyone who sees me that I like to eat and hate to exercise. I’ve struggled with maintaining my weight for most of my life but really began losing the battle after I had kids, not unlike so many people who lose their tenuous grip on organization and time management when the demands of life begin to outgrow the number of hours in a day. In fact, there are so many similarities between getting fit and getting organized:

  1. Both require long-term patience and determination
  2. Both involve a lifestyle change that must be maintained in order to be successful
  3. Both are freeing and empowering and remove obstacles to fulfilling your potential
  4. Both are immensely rewarding and lead to a better quality of life
  5. Both are more likely to be successful when accompanied by the support and encouragement of others

I have a triathlete friend who wishes her house looked like mine. I wish my body looked like hers. Put us together and we’d be one smokin’ hot room mother!  I went over to her house a few months ago to give her some organizing advice. It was the first time I’d seen her house, and she nervously met me at the door, admitting that it was hard for her to let me in (it truly wasn’t that bad). As I was leaving, she asked if she’d be seeing me up at the pool this summer, and I replied, “The way you felt about letting me into your house is the way I feel about putting on a bathing suit in public.” I didn’t make it up to the pool this year…clearly my friend is more courageous than I am!

My nurse practitioner has given me three months to start clearing out my hoard “or else” (meaning that another lecture from her will be the easiest part of my next appointment, I’m sure). So I find myself in the role of encouragee after months of playing the encourager.  I hope it will make me better able to relate to my clients’ struggles and find compassionate ways to encourage them. I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

In the meantime, if you see me stuffing my gob with cupcakes, remind me that “it’s all about making choices”.