1.27.2012

Alfredo Sauce

I forgot to grab alfredo sauce at the store last week. I needed it to make Pot Roast casserole with our leftover pot roast from earlier in the week. Normally I'd hop in the car and swing by the store to grab a jar or text MacGyver and ask him to grab some but, instead I hopped online and looked up recipes for homemade alfredo sauce. Thankfully, I had on hand everything that was needed! And this sauce came out better-tasting than anything I've ever bought in a jar. I tweaked what I had found just a bit to tailor it to my family's palette:


1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese
1 Tbsp. minced garlic
2 cups milk (2%)
6 ounces grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper


If you compare that to the ingredients in Classico's alfredo sauce, you'll find that
the ingredients in the homemade sauce are fewer and easier to understand/pronounce. And I'm sure it cost less too.


The pot roast casserole was easy-peasy too - the most difficult part was keeping MacGyver from eating all of the leftover pot roast!


8 oz egg noodles, cooked
2 cups chopped cooked pot roast
2 cups alfredo sauce (see above)
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1 cup bread crumbs
Dump it all in a 9x9 baking dish and bake at 350*F for 20-30 minutes.


I served it with steamed green beans, a loaf of freshly baked French bread, and a salad. Yummilicious!




Pau.




- hfs

Coupon binder

Thanks to Crista, I'm slowly getting the hang of this couponing thing. I don't plan to ever be on any of those crazy Coupon Queen shows or anything like that but if I can free up a few bucks from our food budget and establish a basic level of preparedness in the process, I'm good with that.


One of the things I've been working on this week, as I slowly build my coupon stash, is a coupon binder. I love binders and I love being organized. Letting me loose in an office-supply store is a dangerous thing. In the past, my coupons were in one of those coupon wallets and, while it was organized to a certain extent, it didn't quite work for me. Then I saw someone with a coupon binder and THAT made sense to me! The woman I saw had a zippered binder with sections for things like dairy, meat, canned foods, dry goods, toiletries/household items, produce, frozen foods, etc. And she used baseball card holders/inserts to hold her coupons. INGENIOUS! So I've been scoping out Target and Wal-Mart and the PX for them and then found a sale on Amazon with a price I couldn't beat. Add to it free shipping (yay Amazon Prime!) and it was a go! The sale is over but the card holder/pages I bought came today:





I can't wait to sit down later today and get everything organized. I just need to print up labels for my dividers. I'm not particularly crafty so my dividers are just that - nothing fancy or scrapbook-y about them. But they ARE in rainbow order so that soothes my OCD soul. I'll post a picture of this thing when I'm done with it. I don't want it to be massive - the woman whose binder I scoped out had a massive one. I don't want to have to put it in a backpack so I can carry it. I just want something that holds my small stash of coupons.


What other tricks do you have for staying organized when it comes to your coupons? How do you track what items you're planning to buy at the store when you go?




Pau.




- hfs

Laying low

Things here have been pleasantly quiet - not just in the past few days or weeks but pretty much since we arrived. Our time in Hawaii was full - full of fun, friends, things to do, places to go, things to see. But here...life is quieter. I'm sure it's because I've not met a lot of people but a big part of it is the feeling I get that I just want to be still. It's really nice to just hang out at home - to putter when I feel like it; to watch a movie when I feel like it; to read a book or bake some bread or troll around on Pinterest looking for the next yummy recipe I want to try out.


I was thinking about this the other day as our small group leader at church was challenging us to listen to what it is tht God wants us to do - how he wants us to step out and go and I don't get that feeling at all. I get the feeling that He's telling me to sit down and be quiet. I tried applying for a job and received a solid "NO" as an answer. Same goes for the EMT course I was planning to take. Every big opportunity I've pursued that would take me out and about and give me 'something' to do has been quashed.


I thought it would drive me batty - I'm normally quite an extrovert. I thrive on being around people and doing things and going places. Like The Girl, my usual first thought of the day is "Where are we going today?". But lately, I'm content to just chill at home. There are days - like today - where I"m going a little stir-crazy but I suspect that is because we've had a run-in with a tummy bug and I've not really left the house since Monday. But I've read 4 books this week, baked some YUMMY meals, caught up on laundry, taught my children (including building the Great Wall of China out of Legos), researched a few things for some ideas I've had, learned a lot about Gross Domestic Product, the Laffer Curve, national debt, mandatory spending versus discretionary spending when it comes to the Federal Budget, had great conversations with my children about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploding 26 years ago, 9/11, and many other things. I'm caught up on my Bible reading, and I only have piddly things left to do on my "to do" list.


Normally my "TO DO" list is taunting me but lately, I've owned that bad boy. And I'm cook with that. Plus, if I don't go anywhere, it's harder for me to spend money! So I'm good with that too.


Next week will pick up - not only are we back in the swing of Awana, gymnastics classes, hockey, and co-op but PE starts next week and, while The Boy and The Girl are at Awana, I am meeting a friend for coffee. So the busy-ness of life will creep back in. For now, I'm enjoying the quiet, the warmish temperatures, and plotting my plot and what to plant this spring. It's about time to place an order for seeds and start in on our Botany study. I'm looking forward to being able to step out on to the back deck and pick out salad fixings this summer!

1.22.2012

Dishwashing detergent update...and other stuff

We've had to abandon the homemade dishwashing detergent. Or at least temporarily suspend its use. It was leaving a horrible cloudy/chalky coating on everything, especially the glassware. I need to look into what is causing this and see if I can rectify it. If not, that's ok - this learning experience has only cost me a little more than $2.00.


The homemade laundry detergent seems to be working and our first utility bills (since starting to line dry some of our clothes) have come in and they were slightly less than previous months' bills. I expect to see a more significant drop come next month. And I'm loving the smell of our clothes - just a faint smell of 'clean laundry'. MacGyver's PT gear seems to smell like clean laundry as well which is a plus.


The new year brought changes in spending habits including converting to Dave Ramsey's envelope system. The first pay period was pretty mellow and I was able to dump a significant amount of my spending money back into our cash savings. At the end of each month, whatever of my spending money (and any other overage) is leftover will be split between savings and an extra payment on the credit card. I figure that's covering two bases at once: building up our emergency fund and paying down our debt. Once our emergency fund is where I want it to be (I'd prefer to have 6 months' worth of expenses socked away), ten all of my overage will go toward paying down our debt.


Another way I'm looking to cut down on our food budget is by starting a small garden this spring. I don't have time to grow an apple tree or a pear tree (the two fruits this family eats the most of) but I can plant all of our regular salad fixings, and the majority of the veggies we eat on a regular basis. I ordered the Burpee catalog and the kids and I are having a blast going through it, trying to figure out what varieties of fruits and veggies to order. Right now, my list includes:

~ spinach
~ lettuces (a variety)
~ tomatoes
~ bell peppers
~ strawberries
~ green beans
~ peas
~ carrots
~ radishes
~ jalapenos
~ onions
~ herbs
~ pumpkins (? not sure about this one yet)
~ cantaloupe
~ honeydew


I'm saving the excess money in our food budget to cover the cost of the seeds and supplies. Because the soil here is so junk, most of the things we plant will be either in a raised bed or a container of some kind. The soil on this lot is horribly clay-like and rocky and it will be easier to construct a simple raised bed and plant in containers than it will to get our soil rehabilitated to the point where it will allow us to grow decent food.


Thankfully the extension department at the local university is a WONDERFUL resource for backyard gardeners like myself. And, once we wrap up Astronomy, the kids and I will start in on Botany as our next science unit. I don't expect to get through it before summer break - and that was my plan. We'll use the curriculum all summer long as we tend to our garden (but shh! Don't tell The Boy and The Girl - they won't know that we're still technically "doing school"!).


And now, it's bedtime. The rain outside is turning to snow and the roads are going to be an icy mess tomorrow. For now, I will hunker down with my heated mattress pad (a WONDERFUL Christmas gift!) and stay warm.




Pau.




- hfs

1.14.2012

Not too shabby

Today was my day to grocery shop. Meals have been planned out for the next two weeks and it was inevitable. My list was surprisingly not very long and I had some coupons/deals to take advantage of at the local grocery store before I ventured on post for my main shop. When I signed up for the Club Card at the local grocery store, they gave me a batch of coupons for various items - some for FREE! Even though the items were not ones that we normally use or brands that we normally buy, I'm not going to pass up FREE food! In addition, they were having a special, in-store discount on soy milk, for which I had regular coupons as well so I wanted to start there and see just how low of a price I could get on an item that goes quickly in our house. After the in-store special and my regular coupons, I managed to score the soy milk for 50% of the regular price.


SWEET!


My savings percentage (thanks to the free items in addition to the deal on soy) was 63% at the local store. It would have been higher but they had Vernor's ginger ale and it's something my entire family loves so I couldn't pass it up. It tends to be tough to find.


I have also started a spreadsheet to track the price differences between the commissary, Wal-Mart, and the local grocery store so that I know the best places to get each item in addition to what the 'normal' price is - that will help me budget better in the long run. Surprisingly, the commissary isn't always the least expensive place to buy food. Out of the 45 items in my spreadsheet, about 10 of them are cheaper by a few cents off post. And yes, I realize the commissary doesn't charge sales tax but they do charge a 'surcharge' which is just a few percentage points below the sales tax rate here.


My savings at the commissary weren't as spectacular but they were still significant and, overall today, I saved approximately 18% on my total grocery bill. Not too shabby! And our food bill this go-round wasn't very high (lots of easy, low-cost items on the menu this time) so I used a little bit of our excess to stock up and take advantage of some of the specials the commissary had: 25 cent boxes of pop corn, sale prices on Pilsbury biscuits and bread dough, cheese, and a great price on Clementines!


Years ago, I found a site called The Coupon Clippers and I will order from them from time to time, especially if my Sunday paper is lacking. The nice thing is that I can pick and choose what coupons I want based on our upcoming menu (another good reason to plan menus ahead of time) and our family's preferences. And what I order in coupons rarely costs what a newspaper subscription would run.


One more thing that I've done (thanks to Crista's comment on my last post) is to start tracking my savings. Without even trying, I average about 5% savings per month. Our montly food budget is $500 so that's $25 per month that I was averaging. Times 12 months that equals out to about $300 per year in savings. Decent but I can do better. My goal is to average a 20% savings ($100 per month) throughout the year. That would save us $1000 right off the top of our food budget without having to make any other changes.


In addition to trying to save 20% with coupons, I'm aiming to get our monthly food budget closer to $400. I think it's doable and once this month is over and I have a better idea of our 'normal' monthly expenditure on food, I will know if this is possible without a lot of pain.


My low-cost recipe of the week is Pecos Pasta - one of MacGyver's old camping recipes.


PECOS PASTA

2 cups elbow macaroni noodles (cost = $0.50)
2 cans Stagg chili with beans (cost = $3.00)
1/2 yellow onion, chopped (cost = $0.50)
1 green bell pepper, chopped (cost = $0.76)
1 can corn (cost = $0.85) *can use frozen as well*
1 Tbsp butter (cost = $0.09)
1 Tbsp crushed garlic (cost = $0.05)
cheese to garnish (about 4 ounces for 4 people) (cost $0.75)

TOTAL COST for 6-8 servings = $6.50

1. Cook mac according to package instructions.
2. Saute onion, pepper, and garlic in butter until cooked but still firm
3. Pour in chili and corn - simmer until pasta is done cooking (you want it al dente). Add mac to chili mix.
4. Top with cheese and serve.

* Great with cornbread (cost = about $0.75 for 6-8 cornbread muffins). Makes excellent leftovers.*




Pau.




- hfs

1.12.2012

Correcting my math

Ok - I ran some numbers and my savings on laundry and dishwashing detergent isn't quite what I thought it would be. BUT it is still significant! And, if it keeps me from having to venture out in this frigid weather, I'm all for it.


I ran my first load of dishes using my homemade dishwashing detergent and the load came out quite nicely! I was most curious to see how my cheese grater would come out as it was the most gunked up of the items in my dishwasher. Even though the house we are renting is newish, the appliances in it are not even close to 'top of the line'. The dishwasher, for lack of a better term, sucks. The sprayer arm consistently comes unattached from the bottom of the dishwasher, doesn't retract the telescoping arm, and often leaves much to be desired in terms of the quality of the wash. Needless to say, we prewash out dishes, which annoys the snot out of me. Why HAVE a dishwasher in the first place if I'm going to wash my dishes in the sink before I put them in the dishwasher?!? This load was no different than any other load and received the same prewashing that all of our loads receive.


Before I show you the 'after' picture of the cheese grater, let me show you the recipe I used and the cost breakdown. The ingredients:

1. Borax: $10/76 ounces



2. Washing Soda: $8.75/55 ounces



3. Lemon Kool-Aid: $0.20/pack = $0.80 total



4. Kosher salt: $9.38/48 ounces



My recipe was:
1/2 cup borax
1/2 cup washing soda
1/4 cup salt (used Kosher...it's grittier)
4 packets of unsweetened lemon kool-aid


Using Amazon.com's prices, the breakdown is as follows:
4 oz Borax = $0.52
4 oz W.S. = $0.64
4 Kool Aid packs = $0.80
2 oz salt = $0.40
TOTAL COST for batch = $2.36

I use about 1 tablespoon (0.5 oz) per load which equals out to about $0.10/load. Assuming you compare it with Cascade Gel-Packs which cost $0.27 per load, you're saving about $0.17/load. Not too shabby! A savings of about 60%. And that's assuming that:

a.) you have no coupons
b.) the prices you find are comparable to Amazon.com's prices
c.) I can't find these items at the commissary (I can find Borax, Kool-Aid, and salt but not washing soda)



And here is the final product - my cheese grater!






Pau.




- hfs

1.11.2012

Crunchy mama

I always wanted a clothes line. I have vague recollections of my mom hanging our laundry out on the clothes line in the backyard and, after seeing what our electricity bill was going to run us in Hawaii, it just made me want one more. But the town association had strict rules and it wasn't feasible to run a clothes line in the garage (if you've ever seen our garage, you'd understand why). So no clothes line for me.


Until now. I bought a super fancy-schmancy clothes line but really don't have anywhere to hang it that makes any sense. I could put it up downstairs but the laundry room and our bedrooms are upstairs so it makes no sense to haul wet clothes downstairs, let them dry, and then haul them back upstairs to put them away. Instead, I've put up a shower curtain rod in the space between the cabinet and the wall over the dryer and am using the shower curtain rod in the kids' bathroom for overflow.


I only hang-dry tops, jammies, and lightweight pants. Towels, jeans, socks, and underwear still get tossed in the dryer. Just by drying the tops, jammies, and lightweight pants, I've cut back on our dryer loads by 1/2. I'm hoping to see a corresponding drop in our electricity bill! Thankfully the dry air means that the clothes dry quickly. I'm hoping to get to the point where I can run a line outside once it warms up and start drying jeans as well. We'll see. I suspect that drying the jeans on the line should cut back on our dryer loads and take us to a 66% cutback - or drying only 1 out of every 3 loads. Works for me!


In addition, I found a 'recipe' for homemade laundry detergent on Pinterest a short while back (I LOVE Pinterest!!!) and have been anxiously waiting for my current supply of store-bought laundry detergent to run out. I ran my last load of store-bought today and celebrated by blending up a batch of homemade laundry detergent. It's pretty simple and the hardest thing was busting up the clumps of washing soda. I love the smell and I'm hoping that it doesn't irritate our poor, dry skin. If it does, I'll make another batch, swapping out the Fels-Naptha bar for a bar of Ivory soap. If my calculations are correct, the homemade stuff will cost me about $0.02/load whereas the store-bought stuff was running me about $0.25/load. We average about 8 loads per week so we're talking a little less than $2/week worth of a savings. It's not much but it's something. And, if it works as well as the store-bought stuff, WHY NOT?


And I stopped using fabric softener a while back and switched to vinegar. Originally I had started adding vinegar to the stinky loads (PTs, soccer gear, workout clothes, hiking gear, etc.) and loved how it worked! It was magic at getting rid of the mustiness that seemed to invade our washing machine and any load left in the washer for more than 3 minutes after the cycle was done. Then I read that it can be used as a softener too and that was that! I've not really used softener in over a year. I do keep dryer sheets on hand for loads that will be staticky - especially here where it is so arid and dry.


Because I had the washing soda and Borax out already, I also whipped up a batch of homemade dishwashing detergent. Easy peasy and now it sits in a Snap-Ware container under my sink, just waiting for the next load of dirty dishes. Again, it should save us about $1-$2/week - not a lot but it's still $1-$2 I didn't have in my pocket yesterday!


So now I am left to wonder when I should stop shaving my armpits and go buy a pair or two of Toms shoes. Because I've obviously crossed over in to the crunchy side of life!




Pau.




- hfs

1.07.2012

Walking the Dave Ramsey walk

For years, I have listened to and agreed with most of what Dave Ramsey has had to say. I've talked the talk but found it tough to walk the walk. Moreso from my own lack of dedication and self-control than anything else.


With our budget tightening, it was time to start walking the walk. One of the things Dave advocates is the use of cash for things like groceries, spending money, clothing budget, etc. I'm not usually a fan of carrying cash - it tends to burn a hole in my pocket. However, with little wiggle-room in our budget, it was time to suck it up and do it. I now have three envelopes: FOOD, SPENDING, and EDUCATION. Eventually I suspect that the SPENDING envelope will break down further into CLOTHING, ENTERTAINMENT, and possibly HOUSEHOLD but, for now, I'm leaving it at SPENDING.


Our EDUCATION budget covers things like field trips, open gym days at the local gymnastics place, art supplies, etc. If there is a larger curriculum item to purchase, it will either need to come from our savings or, if there is leftover/carryover funds from the previous month, we can use those. Anything that is left over at the end of each month will be placed in a separate envelope to help offset next year's curriculum purchases.


Our FOOD budget was one place that I felt I needed to make the biggest adjustments. While I've been writing down our budgeted amount on paper, I rarely kept actual track of what was being spent - using my debit card to make on-the-fly purchases and not keeping track of what MacGyver bought if I asked him to stop at the commissary on his way home from work. The funny thing is that our food budget - even when out of control - is significantly lower than it should be, according to the USDA. Just looking at the OCT2011 figures, for our family size, our food budget is more than $100 UNDER what the USDA considers to be a "thrifty" plan. And here I thought we were eating quite well!


Because we don't eat out often, I have chosen to include any dining out in our FOOD budget, rather than SPENDING. Should MacGyver and I actually find time to break away from The Boy and The Girl for a dinner on our own, I would probably use our SPENDING money for that. So far, that has not happened!


One of the tools I'm using to help control our FOOD budget is planning weekly meals, including lunches. It's really helping and, in a moment, I'll give you an example of our weekly meal lineup but first, I want to share some of the money-saving tips I'm trying to adhere to:

- limit red meat (I LOVE a good ribeye! If I'm going to spend money on red meat, it's going to be on a GOOD cut of meat. But, because it's good, we don't feel the need to eat red meat more than once per week.)

- include at least 2 meatless meals per week (thankfully our family likes pasta and has no problem with the idea of breakfast for dinner)

- shop primarily at the Commissary but keep an eye on local retailers' deals and use our "club cards" whenever possible

- cut back on processed foods (Not going to eliminate them but my homemade chocolate chip cookies are MUCH better than Chips Ahoy!)

- double up on inexpensive recipes and freeze one

- keep juice and milk for mealtime and drink water in between meals and with snacks

- make your own if you can do it for less (bread, cookies, snacks, etc. I picked up a GREAT book - "Make This, Buy That" - that does the work of breaking down the cost of making things yourself and helps me decide what I'm going to try to make at home)

- don't waste leftovers! When I am making my meal plan, I know I'm going to have leftover chicken after having roast whole chicken for dinner so I include a meal later in the week to take advantage of that

- I love Costco!


What are your money-saving tips when it comes to your food budget?


Our meals so far this month include:

~ breakfast (homemade waffles, sausage, fresh fruit, eggs)(twice)
~ tomato-basil soup, bread, salad
~ shoyu chicken, rice, salad, steamed veggies
~ spaghetti, salad, bread (twice)
~ chicken black bean enchilada casserole (yay leftovers!)
~ leftovers (twice)
~ soup and sandwiches
~ beef tips, egg noodles, steamed veggies, salad
~ cheesy chicken tortilla soup, salad
~ teriyaki salmon, baked sweet potatoes, salad
~ take and bake pizza from the local place here (had a great coupon!)


I just did my second shop of the pay period and still have money left over for the perishable stuff that I'll need to replenish later this week. And, as you can tell, we need to grow salad fixings in our garden this summer!




Pau.




- hfs

1.03.2012

2012 MilBlogging Conference

UPDATE: Military.com says that they are not going to change the date. Their reasoning is that the venue - the Westin Arlington - only has Mother's Day weekend available. It's unfortunate that there are no other venues in the greater D.C. area that can handle a conference. /sarcasm


The MilBlogging Conference has been in existence since 2005. Every year the conference has been held in April (yes, there was that one time in Vegas but I try my best to block that out). It worked well for most people - didn't interfere with any holidays, school events such as finals or graduations, etc. I was looking forward to this year's MilBlog Conference - it's a family reunion of the dysFUNctional sort and it's good for my soul.


However, the 'powers that be' decided - with less than 5 months until the next conference weekend - to change the date. And in a flash of brilliance, the conference is now scheduled for the weekend of May 11-13. If you look at a calendar, you'll see that weekend is not only Mother's Day weekend but also the weekend where a large majority of colleges and universities across the country hold finals and/or graduations. Apparently no one in this brain-trust thought to actually consult a calendar when making this decision. In one fell swoop, the brainiacs at Military.com (who is owned and operated by Monster.com, in case you were wondering) have eliminated the following groups from attendance:

1.) college students (finals, yo! or graduation)
2.) parents of graduating seniors
3.) mothers who do not wish to be away from the people that made them such
4.) fathers who (if they are smart and know what is best for them) will not want to be away from the woman who bore their children


Brilliance. Brilliance, I tell you. Obviously the person (or people) behind this decision must be in possession of a Y-chromosome. I'm not male-bashing here but I guarantee you this was not a woman that made this decision. No woman would have looked at the calendar and decided to:

a.) fix something that wasn't broke to begin with
b.) change the date to MOTHER'S DAY WEEKEND


Definitely a tool. And not a very useful one, at that.


Regardless of who is responsible, the decision was a poor one and the people in charge need to hear from us. Hopefully the few people that read my blog will put fingers to keyboards and fire off an email regarding the absurdity of this decision. Your two options are:


Ward Carroll (editor, Military.com) - ward.carroll@monster.com
Sarah Blansett (POC for MilBlog Conference) - Sarah.Blansett@Monster.com


My hope is that the brain-trust at Military.com/Monster.com will realize the fact that this decision was ill-advised at best (much like the fee that Bank of America was going to charge its customers to access their own money...lame) and fix it. Otherwise, I do believe this will be the last year for the MilBlogging Conference. Way to go, Military.com. Way to go. Way to ruin one of the most enjoyable, yet dysFUNctional family reunions out there.




Pau.




- hfs