Thursday, August 30, 2012

Running On Empty (In The Best Way Possible)

Tomorrow is payday and there's $9.16 left in my checking account and I'm about half a hair away from having an empty tank of gas. Some people might be freaked out by this, but for me, it's a sign of a successfully budgeted week (and for the record, I do have a savings account, I only keep "spendable" money in my checking).

Victory! Congratulations Danne, you're getting really awesome at living within your measly means.

Don't tell my Dad, he hates when I run the tank this low...

and there's even $9.16 to spare for the week, woohoo!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Meal Planning 101 With Ashley Sway

A few months ago I was snooping around on my new friend Ashley's Facebook page when I saw a link she posted to her blog. Being a nosy new friend, I clicked on it and started reading swupper, the blog she writes that chronicles she and her husband Hank's weekly meals—and more importantly (and impressively)—meal planning.

While I'm certainly a planner, I've never been a meal planner, so it was fascinating for me to see that people are actually dedicated enough to do this—and stick with it. Since she's so amazing at it, and because this month is all about saving money (she swears that meal planning will save you tons), I thought I'd put together a little Q&A  in hopes that you'll be as inspired by Hank and Ashley as I am.

Danne: You are the most dedicated (and awesome) meal planner I know. Did you grow up in a meal planning household or is this something you've adopted as an adult?

Ashley: Thanks. It's something I'm pretty proud of. My parents definitely weren't meal planners. We had a bunch of stuff in the freezer (meat), and my mom bought enough veggies for the week on her weekly grocery run. Each day she would say, "What do you want to eat tonight?", and we would say things like, "Pork chops and broccoli", and there you have it.

Danne: Describe to me the process of putting together your weekly meal plan. When and how do you pick out the week's recipes?

Ashley: Here is what we do during CSA season: Monday night we get an email saying what we will get on the farm on Tuesday. We make a list of the things that we want and then start our planning from there. I take out a piece of paper, write down if we have plans on certain nights, like yoga (which means that the meal needs to be especially quick), or dinner plans with friends/family. I ask Hank if there is anything that sounds good to him. He usually throws out at least one idea. Based on what we are going to get, we plan our menu with a mix of throw together meals and recipe meals. Throw together meals are things like curry, salads, grilled cheese and veggies, etc. Our goal is to use all of the vegetables, which means that our menu is based directly on what we are getting and not just what we want to eat. We hate wasting food, and we rarely ever do. By Tuesday evening we have the menu and grocery list all set. We use an app called Our Groceries that syncs between our phones. We make a shopping list of what we need besides the vegetables from the farm, and we try to make it all at one grocery store. On Tuesday evening, we go to the farm, pick up our vegetables, and head to the one store where we can get what we need. This is usually either Trader Joe's or Whole Foods.

Non-CSA season is a little bit different, but basically the same. If we are doing the shopping on Friday night, then by Thursday evening we have our menu all set and our grocery list made. We have a little bit more freedom on these weeks since we have to purchase everything that we will need. We usually try to narrow it down to two stores, and one of these is almost always Russo's (a great whole sale, mostly veggies, grocery store in Watertown) and the other is either Trader Joe's or Whole Foods. 

Danne: Once you've done your shopping, do you prep your ingredients in advance? If so, how long does it usually take you to prepare dinner on a given weeknight?

Ashley: Our food prep varies. With our CSA we often do a little bit of prep/re-organization when we get home from shopping. As mentioned before, the nights that we do yoga are the hardest. We get home at about 7:30 and want to make something as quickly as possible. This usually means that the night before we at least cut up the veggies that we will be using. Often, on weekends or non-yoga nights, we might cook a bunch of rice or whatever other grains we plan on using that week. We also prep random other things on the weekends. For instance, we usually have cornbread in our freezer, because we often make meals that have barely any carbs and calories. We make a big batch of this whenever we run out, cut it into serving size pieces, and freeze it. We also make our own stock by saving our veggie scraps, chicken carcasses, and Parmesan rinds. Last weekend we learned how to can, and canned whole tomatoes from the plethora we got from our CSA. We also blanched some green beans that we didn't eat, and stuck those in the freezer. Basically, by the end of the week our fridge is totally empty.

It usually takes us between half an hour and an hour to make dinner every night. It can really vary though. Sometimes I think that it takes us as long to cook dinner as we have time to cook it.

Danne: You seem to try out new recipes all the time, where do you find most of them? Any favorite cooking blogs?

Ashley: We have some great cookbooks like Mark Bittman's, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, and I have a binder of recipes that look great, or that we have tried and really liked. Or, we will have an ingredient that we are tired of cooking the same way over and over, so I'll check our cookbooks to see if I can find something new. Pinterest is a good source to find new things, but I have found that a lot of it is sweets, which isn't really my thing (not that I don't like sweets, I just don't bake much). I would say that the main place that I find new recipes is from theKitchn. I get updates in my Google Reader and look through them every single day. Other than that, I just keep my eyes open in magazines, websites, and other blogs.

Danne: How often do you stray from your original plan? There must be some nights when you say "Ahhh, forget it" and order a pizza, right?

Ashley: Honestly? Never. Well, to the pizza part. Once in a blue moon I will say to Hank, "You just wanna get Chinese?", and he will say, "I don't know…", and then I will say, "Eh, we have stuff at home we should eat." We do stray though. We often switch around the days that we will make things on our menu, because I didn't think about the fact that a certain ingredient won't last as long as we need it to based on the plan. Also, we often plan one less meal than we need for the week. This allows for frantic eating of leftovers/extra veggies or for an impromptu meal out with friends/family or by ourselves.

Danne: What are a few tips and tricks you've learned about meal planning in your experience with it? Any advice for someone who's just getting started?

Ashley: Here's the thing. If you have a plan, you have all of the food, and you don't want to waste the food, then you will eat at home, eat healthier, and eat cheaper. We also almost always cook for 4 people too so we'll have leftovers for lunch every day. We prep our lunch while we are cleaning up or dinner so it is all set to go the next morning.

We also have a budget for everything in our lives. Our grocery budget is $450/month and our eating out budget is $200/month. If it is getting close to the end of the month and we don't have much money left in the grocery budget we think hard about how to eat cheaply. And if we run out of eating out money then we don't eat out any more. We got our budget amounts from looking back over a few months of grocery receipts and figuring out about how much we spent. Right now we don't spend nearly that much on groceries because of the CSA, and a typical month has us spending a lot less on eating out as well. It all depends, but it is nice to have the fixed amount to help you stay on track with your money.

And like most things, you have to want to do it to be successful at it and to keep with it. I recommend starting small by thinking ahead to the week and jotting down just a few things that you want to eat. Buy the ingredients for those things. Over time, you will figure out the things that you always need to keep around.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Vegetarian Christmas

My favorite way to save money this month so far? Accepting the generosity of a coworker who knew I was on a miser mission and offered me her CSA share this week while she and her family are away on vacation. YES.

This afternoon I headed over to Drumlin Farm in Lincoln, and pretty much had the best time ever picking out produce and walking around the beautiful farm grounds. When I came home with my bags overflowing with fruits and veggies and flowers, it felt like some sort of amazing vegetarian Christmas.

Thanks Erin, you're the best!

My bounty

Farms are magical, right Jess P?

Danne = 100% signing up for a CSA next summer

Monday, August 20, 2012

Budget Blackout Period

Did I mention at the beginning of this month that my best friend's bachelorette party was going to fall right in the middle of The Wallet Diet challenge? Yikes, major budget buster, right? In most cases yes, but luckily I knew this was coming up, so I assigned it a separate budget (a lot less fun would have been had if I had tried to work it into my weekly $100), and one of my bestie's pet peeves is "expensive bachelorette parties". Total win. We were able to plan something that was super fun and also super affordable, and I made it out of the weekend financially alive...and maybe a little hungover.

My budget blackout period is over now though, and I'm back on track for week 3. I've been a good little miser too and have only gone over my weekly budget by about $6 to date, and my credit card has remained in the freezer (where I think it might take up permanent residence). Not bad, eh?

The bride to be, in my new favorite photo of all time...

Me and Sondra

Bachelorette cookies made by our friend Amy

and this about sums it up...

Thursday, August 16, 2012

You know you've reached a new low when...

You see a post on Facebook that your friends received 16 lbs. of tomatoes in their CSA this week and you jokingly (but totally seriously) offer to take some off their hands...and then you actually do when they offer. Instead of thinking of this as totally rude (sorry Mom, I hope I didn't embarrass you),  maybe I'll look at it as helpful?

Anyways, thanks for the tomato donation Hank and Ashley!

Cuttin' Costs

One of my goals this month is to take a closer look at my spending and find some "areas of opportunity" for cutting costs. While I could certainly take it to the limit and downsize like a true minimalist miser, I'm not in that dire of a financial situation that I need to consider things like selling my car and sending Fanne out to hunt and gather (although she's much better at this than you'd think).

So, here's my (reasonable) list of things to get cheap about:

Food & Drink: I already touched upon this in my last post, but my biggest money suck is definitely food—and rightfully so because it's a necessity to life, but I can certainly eat very happily and healthily on a much more restricted budget than I usually do. More specific strategies on this to come (hint: meal planning). I'm also trying to get into the habit of stocking up on wine at Trader Joe's at the beginning of the month rather than paying twice as much at the liquor store. The $4.49 bottle of Pinot that I buy there is just as good—if not better, than the $10+ one. Plus, my wine rack will look a lot more impressive at the beginning of each month. Bonus!

Car: Luckily I've finally paid the thing off (woohoo!), but my goal this month is to get into the habit of filling up the tank at the cheapest gas station (instead of wherever I can find when the gas light is on) and to start taking the back roads to and from work more often so I can cut down on my Fast Lane costs.

Fanne: Oh my god, I cannot believe how much money I spend on this animal. It's a special situation because she's diabetic and requires prescription food, insulin and needles, and unbelievable amounts of cat litter, but wow—there's got to be a better way.

The food is sort of non-negotiable because it's worked really well for her so I'm not looking to cut back there, but the insulin and needles are so freaking expensive. Has anyone ever used Is that cheaper? Is there a diabetes black market? Any other ideas for how to save on this? I already tried to up her pet insurance plan (which I may just nix altogether since it's essentially useless) to see I could pay more monthly to cover more of her expenses, but—I kid you not—they told me her diabetes was a "preexisting condition" so upping the plan wasn't an option. Really? No, really? Wow, even Fanne is a victim of our bogus health insurance system.

And seriously too, she's practically peeing me out of house and home. I need to find a way to save on litter. Do any pet owners have any great tips for this? Buying litter in bulk from BJ's or Costco? A brand that works better than another? Anything? S.O.S.

What'd I miss? What are your favorite money saving tips?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Channeling My Inner Helen O'Connell

A few weeks ago, my mom and I were in Brockton visiting my grandmother for the day. Being 92, Grammy doesn't make it out to the grocery store on her own anymore, so my mom travels up from the Cape once a week to take care of it for her (along with a number of other errands).

After we chatted for a bit and finished our Christo's lunch, aka Brockton's finest, my mom took Grammy's weekly shopping list (hand-written with impeccable penmanship, of course) and went off to the store. Grammy and I were left at the kitchen table and I noticed a stack of those weekly grocery store special flyers that I usually just toss into the recycling bin. I asked her if that was what she used to make out her grocery list each week, and without a moments hesitation, she answered yes, giving me a look that seemed to ask "Is there any other way to shop than to buy what's on special?".

Oh Grammy, how much I have to learn from you...

I'd say that by far—after bills—the majority of my income is spent on food. I'm not loading up at Whole Foods all the time or hitting up Watertown's 5-Star restaurants on any given day, but I somehow manage to spend an uncomfortable amount of money each week at the grocery store. Why? Well...

#1: Instead of planning out my meals for the week and doing one big grocery store run (like normal people do), I end up figuring out what I'm going to eat day by day, therefore having to go to the store multiple times a week, therefore making 5 times the amount of impulse purchases. This is a habit that I'm intent on breaking this month.

#2: I never even think to buy what's on sale, or even what's the cheapest. I buy my favorite brands, I give into my impulses, and I generally just buy whatever I want. Omg, what is wrong with me?

#3: I'm not a lazy person, but I do get lazy about cooking—especially after I've been on my feet all day at work. I end up eating out a lot more than I should, mainly because if I get home after a long day's work and don't have dinner ingredients ready to go, I don't have the energy to make it out to the store and make a decent meal, so...I order out.

But this week will be different! I channeled my inner Helen O'Connell this morning and made a weekly meal plan and shopping list based on what's on sale at Shaw's (I've been all over collecting game pieces for their Sizzlin' Summer Giveaway ever since my parents won a TV from it last winter, true story).

My goal is to buy enough food today to sustain me for the entire week so that I don't need to go to the grocery store 300 times and buy 300 things that I definitely could have lived without. Easy peasy, right?

Friday, August 10, 2012

Rule #2: Freeze My Credit Card Spending (literally)

The newest addition to my freezer (yep, that's my credit card):

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Rule # 1: Set A Strict Budget and Stick To It

Four words: Easier. Said. Than. Done. However, I can and I will do this. And for the record, I'm almost a week into this challenge and I've managed to stick 100% to budget so far (thanks for picking up the tab for the sangria the other night Dan, that most definitely would have put me in the red).

So, how did I come up with this budget? Well, first I had to figure out what all of my expenses are; those annoying monthly bills and expenditures that suck all the fun out of payday time and time again. They're outlined as follows:

Danne's Current Expenses

  • Rent
  • Utilities (Gas, Electric, and Cable + Internet)
  • Student Loans (I've got 3 of 'em)
  • Cell Phone Bill
  • Car Insurance
  • Credit Card Payment (luckily there's only 1 of these)
  • Fast Lane & Gas (I work way out in the 'burbs)
  • Web Hosting for 2 sites
  • Food & Drink
  • Princess Fatty Fanne's Needs: Food (prescription diabetic cat food), Litter, Insulin & Needles, Pet Insurance
After writing all of this out, I added up how much money I typically take in on the average month, subtracted all of my expenses, and was left with a (smaller than desired) number. From this, I concluded that a reasonable weekly budget for me during this miserly-minded month is about $100 a week. Gulp.

It's tight—especially because food, gas, and any form of fun/entertainment comes out of that little number (thank God the Olympics has been on, talk about my all-time favorite form of entertainment), but it's doable, so...I will do it.

Next step? Freezing my credit card, literally.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Wallet Diet

I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir here, but holy crap, summer is expensive. Between weddings and weekend trips, beach parking and summer ale sampling, I'm getting dangerously close to broke. So, what's a girl to do? Channel my inner cheapo and get thrifty. This month, it's time to actually start living within my means. Welcome to The Wallet Diet.

I'm not planning on forgoing spending altogether and living off the land (the herb garden on my back porch probably wouldn't sustain me for lunch, let alone a whole month), but I'm really just focusing on reigning it in, cutting costs where I can, and putting as much as I can away. You know, all those things I should be doing in the first place.

So, what are the rules?

1.  I'm setting a strict weekly budget and sticking to it 100%. No borrowing from the next week, no taking money from my savings, no putting it on my credit card, no excuses. If I can't afford it, I'm not buying it. End of story.

2. My credit card is being kicked out of my wallet and potentially frozen into a block of ice in my freezer. Anyone dare me to do this? Ok fine, I dare myself.

3. Any money that isn't needed for a bill or some other necessity that I've budgeted for goes right into savings.

4. I will do a serious audit of my spending and determine where and how I can cut costs. Is it worth it to fill up at the cheap gas station once instead of having to stop multiple times at the Mobil on the highway when I'm running on empty? Probably. Is there a way for me to spend less than $45 a month on cat litter for my diabetic cat who pees more than I do? Lord, I hope so. Time to get smart.

5. If there's something I want to purchase that isn't within my budget, I will write it on a list and at the end of the month, if I still want it, only then will I consider buying it. Sayonara impulse buys!

And um, did I mention that I work retail? Oh boy, wish me luck. And please, if anyone has any great resources/suggestions for thrifty living, I'm all ears (or eyes in this case).

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Tuesdays With Grammy Wrap-Up: Afterwords from Helen and Danne

Afterword from Helen
My grandmother Helen would like to conclude her depiction of our family history by saluting the immense courage and bravery of her parents, Eduardo and Lucia D'Amarino. As mere teenagers, they left behind the only life they'd ever known and their beloved Italia in search of a better life, not only for themselves, but for future generations.

Helen knows that Lucia, who could not read or write, would be brimming with pride if she could see that some of her grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren, were given the opportunity to receive a college education. 

Because of this alone, the sacrifices that were made all those years ago were more than worth it.  

Afterword from Danne
I can't conclude the transcription of my family's history without expressing sincere gratitude to my grandmother Helen, one of the most incredible women I know (with a memory like no other—let me tell you, she puts me to shame).

Through the hours that we spent together going over story after story, not only was I finally able to parse together the bits and pieces of family folklore that I'd heard over the years, but I truly feel like I got to know these people—my grandfather Frank especially, and develop a deeper connection to them, and in turn, to my roots.

So Grammy, I'd like to salute you. Not only for taking the time to share the family history with me, but for teaching me lessons of pride, dignity, loyalty, and above all, the importance of family. I will always hold this time we spent together very close to my heart.

And to everyone out there who read these stories on my blog, know that my family is not unique. Your family has a history too, full of its own set of fascinating characters and stories. I'm sure there's someone out there who'd love to share it with you too. All you have to do is ask. 

And now? I assemble the final family history transcript into book format for Grammy. I'll be sure to share a photo of the finished product. And for August's Lent? It officially kicks off on Friday, details to follow. 

A photograph (of a film photograph) I took a few years ago of Grammy's "favorite things", some of which you might recognize.