Frugal Tuesday: Freeze it!

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Years ago, Nigella Lawson blew my mind when she suggested freezing the rest of any wine still left in the bottle, to use for cooking later. Poured into a freezer bag and tossed in the freezer, it makes a sort of slush that is easily measured for use in recipes. I tried it, and I haven’t looked back! You can freeze all sorts of things: bread, milk, grated cheese, casseroles, Chinese take-out… even fresh herbs in olive oil or broth, poured into ice cube trays. Do you like iced coffee? Coffee ice cubes are a game-changer!

Frugalista extraordinaire Donna Freedman has mastered the art of freezing food scraps in a “boiling bag “to be reincarnated as broth later. If you like soup even a little bit, this practice will ruin you for canned soup forever. Luckily, soup freezes well, too.

If you’re not freezing your leftovers, or your little bits of ingredients that are left after using what you need for a recipe, not only are you wasting food and money, but you are depriving yourself of the enormous convenience of having just-enough tomato paste, pesto, or other fantastic things to take your weeknight cooking from adequate to awesome.

What’s in your freezer?

 

 

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Frugal Tuesday: Batch Cooking

Taking an afternoon to whip up a batch of burritos, or really anything that freezes well, isn’t always my first choice for weekend fun. But every time I do it, I’m glad I did. Having some grab-and-go breakfasts, and also some lunch or dinner meals ready and waiting, keeps us eating more healthfully and also saves us from the siren song of takeout or delivery.

This weekend, we made breakfast burritos, and my comfort-food favorite, bean & cheese. What are some of your favorite make-ahead meals?

Battening Down the Hatches, Y’all

We received a letter this week from Mr. Vega’s employer, regarding medical benefit options in light of their upcoming corporate merger. There is quite a bit of uncertainty regarding how coverage will be handled, and they’ve made it clear that there will be employment redundancies. The bottom of the letter contained this lovely tidbit:

* If you are terminated, you may have rights to continue your FSA through “COBRA” (which we’ll explain more about if that becomes necessary), but you’ll do that on an after-tax basis, which is not advantageous for most.

This is the point in our program where we prepare for the worst, while continuing to hope for the best. All expenses must be questioned, and all unnecessary spending gets put on “pause” until our financial skies are clear again. Waiting to make changes until after a job loss could be devastating for us, both financially and emotionally: we could weather a transition much more gracefully if we were already prepared for it, rather than trying to make drastic lifestyle changes while also dealing with the psychological trauma that can accompany the loss of a job.

Fortuitously, I spent some time the other day creating a menu plan for November. I took my inspiration from The Prudent Homemaker, a full-time wife and homeschooling mother of seven children, who used their food storage as the basis for keeping her family cared-for during her husband’s eight-month period of unemployment. Using her seasonal menu as a template, and making adjustments for our smaller household, dietary preferences, and busy schedules, I put together a month-long plan for eating delicious and healthy meals that are also lower-cost. An unexpected benefit of meal planning is that it gets us out of our ruts, and reminds us to eat a greater variety of food. Left to my own devices, I’d eat Trader Joe’s whole wheat cinnamon rolls and a latte every. single. morning. But there’s a whole world of breakfast food out there, and writing it all down helps me remember how much I also love fresh fruit and Greek yogurt, oatmeal pancakes, and eggs scrambled ever so slowly.

As timing would have it, Mr. Vega’s 1991 Honda CR-X has reached the point where the annual repair costs are more than the value of the car itself. After running the numbers and weighing the pros and cons, we’ve decided to purchase a newer used vehicle. Counterintuitive as it may seem, we have enough in savings, and we’d rather buy a reliable car now than continue to pay for unforeseen repairs during a potential period of unemployment. And let’s face it, job interviews are stressful enough without worrying about whether your car will start to get you there, or having your air conditioning give up the ghost when it’s 90 degrees out!

Ironically, we do most of our shopping in anticipation of lean times, as that’s when we feel the need to stock up, in case we won’t be able to later. I dislike shopping so much that I generally don’t replace my clothes until they are threadbare, but I may look to upgrade my wardrobe a bit in the light of this merger uncertainty. I currently have just one pair of shoes that I wear for work, and I’d prefer to shop the sales now, rather than scrambling to get something cheap-but-appropriate if these give out during a time of hardship. This is also as good a time as any to start planning our spring garden so that we’ll be ready to plant our balcony container garden when the time comes. Fresh, homegrown food is lovely whatever one’s circumstances, but it’s especially wonderful to be able to get food from your garden instead of the market when money’s tight.

Because the merger threatens to leave us with reduced benefits even if we do keep the job, we’ll be sure to attend to our medical needs before the end of the year. We want to have healthy bodies, strong teeth, and brand-new pairs of eyeglasses that have been covered by insurance. One of us could use a new set of orthotics, as well. These are the sorts of things we should be doing anyway, but this new sense of urgency will make sure that we do.

Mr. Vega will indeed be updating his resume and LinkedIn profile and seeing what his options are, sooner rather than later. If his company’s merger results in widespread layoffs, the market will be flooded with folks looking for work, and we want to get the jump on the rest of the talent pool.  And because our household functions as a cooperative whole, it’s job-search time for everybody around here. So, while I do enjoy my part-time and freelance work, I also have two interviews scheduled this month for full-time positions that come with the all-important Benefits Package. Landing one of those would allow my husband to widen his job search to include less traditional opportunities, without worrying that we’d be left without medical coverage.

We’ll also be making a greater effort to keep up with our still-forming social and professional networks. We view “networking” as a way to cultivate and deepen authentic relationships, rather than as strictly transactional contact, and so it’s important to us that we spend some time with folks now, and not wait until we’re in need. Whether those connections result in professional opportunities or not, a robust social life will go a long way toward easing the stress of unemployment, if it happens.

We are very lucky to have moved to a city with so much free and inexpensive fun. There’s almost never a cover charge for live music (and when there is, it is oh-so-worth-it), there are plenty of festivals and activities happening all the time everywhere around here, so it will be easy to keep our spirits up and hang out with our new friends at bargain basement prices. We’ve got a couple of social buying vouchers hanging around for inexpensive dinners and movie nights, and we’re looking forward to hosting some game nights at home, as well. It’s good to have a little fun once in a while, especially during periods of increased stress or uncertainty.

We were already planning on keeping things low-key this year, but we’re still going to need to rethink the holidays. We generally do home-made, consumable gifts for everyone in our fairly large family and closest circle of friends, but this year’s gift idea is a bit pricier than usual. Not crazy expensive, but when you’re giving to a couple dozen people, it adds up quickly! We’re going to have to reconsider our gifting, and perhaps just send cards to everyone but family. We do feel blessed to have people around us who aren’t likely to feel slighted, though… material things mean much less to our loved ones– and to us!– than the actual relationships. A card means as much to all of us as a gift… especially if the giver is on a budget!

Closer to home, our own first holiday season in Austin will be spent exploring the city’s decorations, giving some of our time to help people who are currently less fortunate than we are, enjoying homemade seasonal goodies and free holiday movies, and video chatting with our faraway loved ones.

Once the merger has come and gone, we’ll be able to breathe our sighs of relief, and return to business as usual around here. If the layoffs don’t come, we might find ourselves on the other side of this with more stable, higher-paying jobs, closer relationships within our community, in better health, and with some more money in the bank. Sacrificing just a little comfort and convenience now, when we can afford to, seems like a small price to pay in exchange for the security of knowing that we could take care of ourselves in the event of a job loss.

How have you “battened down the hatches” when faced with uncertainty in the workplace or periods of unemployment? 

New Month, New Budget

The September Budget Meeting in the Vega household was not an easy one.

We had given ourselves a lot of financial leeway as we gave up everything we knew last May to move halfway across the country to a city we had only visited briefly, separately, and years ago. During our transition, we focused more on comfort than on frugality, which means that if we felt we needed something, we bought it… That included the purchase of a King-sized bed to replace the 10-year-old Queen mattress we’d been using. For some reason it surprised me that when we got a bigger bed, we also needed bigger sheets and blankets! The comforter set naturally came with King-sized pillowcases, which meant we also bought bigger pillows. We also had two cars to register the first week we lived here. Because we moved to a more affluent neighborhood than our old place in Los Angeles, our food bill grew considerably higher. The air-conditioning in Mr. Vega’s 23-year-old car gave out just in time for the local temperatures to hit triple digits, and when he took the car to the mechanic, it turned out that he also needed a new exhaust system and ignition switch (old cars sometimes wear out, what can you do?). Additionally, our attempts to meet people, make friends, and experience some of the awesomeness that is Austin had us spending a great deal more money in restaurants and bars than we’re accustomed to.

After four months here, our finances have begun to settle into a more familiar rhythm: we’ve found less-expensive options for groceries, our apartment feels fully furnished, and we’ve gotten our professional wardrobes better adapted to the local culture (and climate!). But one spending category still looms large: FOOD.

To be honest, this has been an area of concern for me throughout our marriage. Every month, I am horrified to see how much we’ve spent on groceries, restaurants, fast food coffee shops and alcohol. But every month, we find ourselves rushed, or tired, or invited out with friends and there goes the budget. Mr Vega believes that if we’ve tried our best, and haven’t been able to make a change, then perhaps it’s an unreasonable expectation to continue trying to wrestle the number into submission. We certainly earn enough, even at our newly reduced income, to accommodate what we’ve been spending on food. I, on the other hand, think that a lot of the expenses result from exhaustion/impulsivity/not having found a system that works well for us. During the Budget Meeting, we found ourselves at loggerheads, until, in exasperation, I said “How are we ever going to buy a house if we keep spending like this on food? We are eating our house!”

That broke the stalemate, and we took a closer look at the budget, and made some decisions about the coming month. Fortunately, we haven’t got much planned for September, so if there was ever a good month to rededicate ourselves to this mission, this is it. We’re going to put our attention to planning ahead so that fatigue doesn’t get the better of us at the end of our longer workdays, and to make it extra delicious, to fortify us against the siren song of takeaway, or lunches grabbed on the fly. I’m also going to focus on avoiding food waste, because I have a sneaking suspicion that, since our move, ours has increased by much more than we realize… it’s easy to tell ourselves that “It’s not that bad,” when it really is, or that “This week was an anomaly,” when it really wasn’t. Finally, I’m going to do something I haven’t done in years: I’m breaking out the envelopes! Every dollar we spend on food in September is going to be cash money, honey, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. If we can actually do this, we’re going to reach our goal of homeownership so much faster, and I bet our waistlines will thank us, too.

What are you saving for and spending on in September?

Our Grocery Budget

I was halfway through Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University personal finance course when Mr. Vega and I started dating, and he was nearing the end of a period of unemployment he had navigated more deftly than most. Because neither of us had any money when we found each other, we enjoyed mainly home-cooked meals on our early dates. And because neither of us had any money, that became a topic of conversation very early in our courtship. We began doing our individual budgets side-by-side while we were still dating, and have continued to create a budget every month since we’ve been married.

While we do enjoy cooking together at home, I confess that our food and grocery budget remains the biggest area in which we still have plenty of room for improvement. We generally pack and bring our lunches to work, do our best to minimize food waste, and have dinner at home most weeknights, but we are not immune to the siren song of takeout on the days we find ourselves exhausted, and I am very guilty of impulse buys at the grocery store. Menu planning is also challenging, because sometimes we just don’t want what we had planned to make, and we haven’t got ingredients in the house to make what we do want.

We’re still working on finding ways of planning, spending and eating that blend our desire to eat a frugal, organic, real-food diet that is also delicious and interesting. So we overspend. On a regular basis.

But we haven’t given up: we set up a balcony garden almost as soon as we got settled in Austin, and are hoping to have a quick learning curve about container gardening in this hot-humid climate. We signed up for a weekly CSA box from Johnson’s Backyard Garden, and are enjoying learning to cook new-to-us veggies like sweet potato greens and okra.

What are some of the challenges you face in keeping your food costs low? Where have you succeeded?