Counting Costs, Part 2

wealthdemotivator

“Wealth: All I Ask for Is a Chance To Prove Money Can’t Buy Happiness.” from Demotivators

If you’ve been reading my blog for a few months, you know that I work hard to keep track of expenses. This is even more important for me since I’ve opened an IRA (yeah adulting!) and would prefer to save money instead of spending $16/month on gum.

With a new school year only a few days away, I’ve taken the time to plan out some “food rules” to keep my spending on food & household items in check, and still keep my house stocked with healthy snacks and meal items. Specifically, I wanted to keep myself from spending money on stuff that had little or no nutrition, like gum, and I wanted to keep myself from visiting the grocery too frequently, since like most people I usually wind up buying more than I intend to. I also wanted to streamline the grocery and meal planning process, since I’ll be very busy this year, and much as I enjoy cooking, I don’t want to spend thirty or forty minutes in the kitchen.

A new school year always feels to me like a brand-new start, as much a new beginning as the actual new year and a second great opportunity for resolutions.

So here’s the plan. A few new habits I want to develop:

  • I’m going to try a weekly grocery shopping trip, where I pick up most (not all!) supplies for the upcoming week. I’m thinking about Friday night, which I estimate is the night that Aldi’s is least likely to be crowded.
  • I’m going to actually plan meals, instead of deciding on the spot what I’m hungry for and what I have the ingredients for. Because I try to use up food that’s in my house but also don’t really plan meals, I’ve eaten some weird meals and also some repetitive meals (lots and lots of lentils!)
  • I’m going to limit my consumption of sweet stuff to a couple times a week. This is out of concern for my budget’s waistline, not my own. A veggie & chocolate loving runner, I’ve earned the nickname “rabbit with a sweet tooth,” and it’s important to me that I don’t put too big a chunk of money towards chocolate every month.

To go along with the goal of regular grocery shopping, I’ve put some thought into what I buy where. I’ve avoided Aldi’s in the past because invariably, I show up at the register with blackberries and a jar of peanut butter, and wind up waiting behind someone who is doing the grocery shopping for ten people for the next month! But if I figure out when Aldi’s is quiet and buy more than two things there, I can start stocking up on other, cheaper things as well.

From Aldi’s I plan to buy baking goods, coffee, cereal, eating chocolate, cheese, some fruit & veg (berries especially), canned goods, and flavoured drinks. Wal-Mart is the cheapest place I’ve found for toiletries and paper products, though, and there are a few things that are actually best purchased from Hy-Vee: bananas and apples, bought one at a time instead of in the huge bags that Aldi’s sells; bulk grains and pulses like lentils, and milk and yogurt.

I also have a couple new rules about what I’m going to keep out of my kitchen, and what I want to keep in it instead.

On the way out are things I eat way too quickly when they’re in the house: gum, candy-coated pretzels, chocolate-covered nuts, and trail mix (especially the kind with chocolate!).

On the way in are things I eat and enjoy for snacks, but at a reasonable pace: banana chips, baby carrots, hummus, pretzels or chips, non-caf tea, and (maybe) salted cashews.

One final goal that I’m not going to be dogmatic about: I’ve experimented with making yeast bread in the past and gotten much better at it. Rather than purchasing bread, I’m going to try to get in a rhythm of making it regularly, perhaps every two weeks, and freezing what I’m not going to eat immediately. I love bread and I love making it, so I want this to work! But it also takes time to make, and I want to be realistic about my goals.

As for why I’m doing all this: I enjoy food, preparing it and eating it. But I’ve caught myself putting too much thought into my supper plans in the past, when I should be putting more thought into lesson plans or into my future plans. I’ve caught myself expecting every meal to be fabulous when sometimes it just needs to be fuel, healthy and delicious but not so fancy as to take away from other responsibilities.

I have a few personal and professional goals this year that I think will be better accomplished if I discipline myself to spend less money buying food and less time preparing it.

We’ll see how this goes. Good luck to me! 🙂

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Beet & Apple Pasta Salad

IMG_0336Another entry in my summer salads. The next post will be back to serious stuff, I promise! (Though food is serious!)

Only last summer did I learn to like beets, and this is a fantastic way to enjoy them. The earthy beet flavors were balanced nicely against the tart sweetness of the apple and the dressing, with the garlic adding a nice kick. Also, the crunchy apple and soft roasted beet and boiled pasta played well together.

Here’s the specifics:

  • 1-2 small beet, roasted and then chopped
  • 1/2 medium apple, chopped fine
  • 1 TBSP minced red onion
  • 1 tsp minced garlic scape
  • 1 TBSP sharp cheddar cheese
  • 1/4 cup chickpeas
  • A few leaves of spinach and basil, to taste
  • 1/4 cup pasta, cooked
  • 1 TBSP each olive oil and lemon juice; 1 tsp white balsamic vinegrette; dollop prepared Dijon mustard and honey

Because this is a salad, the directions for assembling this basically amount to “mix everything together.” I did that, then left it in the refrigerator for half an hour, so the flavors could develop. Then I took it out, topped it with bacon, and ate it.

I should note, when I roasted the beet I erred on the side of under-roasted, rather than over-roasted; I wanted the beet to be al dente. Also, if you can’t find garlic scapes, adding minced bottled garlic either to the dressing or the salad would work as well. One final note: I got the idea for this salad from this blog here, but since I only had a few of the ingredients mentioned, I used different ones instead. Creativity is the mother of invention.

In any case, this was wonderful. Highly recommended if you like beets, and if you don’t, perhaps the salad will help you learn!

It was wonderful.

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Radish Panzanella

salad

How not to do salad.

Whenever I hear someone say they don’t like salad, I get a little sad inside.

I love salad. 

It’s fresh and flavourful and so good for you!

My theory? If you say you don’t like salad, you just haven’t had it made right. Because honestly, I don’t care much for lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and carrots in a bowl. This was the salad I grew up on, and – sorry, Mom! – it just wasn’t that great.

But then I went to college, where some days the salad bar was the only edible thing around, and I learned to add Craisins and nuts and beans to my salad. I learned to combine flavors and textures to make something delicious.

So this summer, now that fresh produce is in season and I finally have a smartphone, I want to highlight some of the salads that I eat. I get it, this is a totally dorky series of food posts. Please don’t give up on this blog – I have some posts on teaching and Christian living coming soon! But salads are delightful, and I want to inspire people to break out of the tomato-and-cucumber-tastes-like-I’d-rather-be-fat rut.

Here’s what I had today: radish panzanella.

My new book, The Flavor Bible, assures me that radishes go really well with bread, and so a bread salad (that’s basically what a panzanella is) with radishes made sense. To the radishes and bread I added red onion, chickpeas, a little bacon and cheese, parsley, and Craisins. The Craisins were a great addition; their tart sweetness paired nicely with the peppery radishes. I topped the whole thing with a yogurt dressing.

Here’s the full recipe:IMG_0267

  • 3 radishes, sliced thinly
  • 1-2 TBSP Craisins
  • 1 TBSP chopped parsley
  • 1/4 cup chickpeas
  • 1 slice bacon, fried
  • 1-2 TBSP feta cheese
  • 2 TBSP chopped red onion
  • 1 slice bread, torn into pieces and toasted

I’m running low on spinach, so I didn’t add it, but some gorgeous green spinach would be a nice addition. Once I’d chopped everything up, I made the dressing:

  • 1 TBSP plain yogurt
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 1/4 tsp minced bottled garlic
  • 1/4-1/2 tsp honey (to taste)
  • 1/4 tsp white balsamic vinegar
  • Salt & pepper

I shook the dressing together, stirred it into the chickpeas, then added the ingredients that weren’t likely to crumble: the onion, radishes, parsley, and craisins. Over the whole thing I added the bread, bacon, and cheese.

Delicious!

 

Counting Costs

Comic-about-money

Me, except instead of packets of sugar and ketchup I have a free banana from my staff meeting today and twenty tomatoes from last summer in my freezer

After my last post on the Benedict Option, which netted me a few new followers (hurrah! And if you’re reading this, welcome!), I felt as though I needed to live up to my status as a thought-provoking writer, and write a thought-provoking post.

This post is not that.

One goal of this blog is to engage with larger, thoughtful conversations, like that surrounding the Benedict Option. Another goal is simply to chew through the daily experience of living, and this post falls into that category.

I’ve been working through my budget lately.

A few years ago, I caught myself running short on food money every month, so I limited myself to a certain amount per week: between $40 and $50, for just me. (This sounds high, but when I compare it to USDA stats, I realize it’s about average.) Using a set amount of cash to pay for food-related expenses has stabilized my food spending.

But I’ve also been burning through $200 on “miscellaneous”, which I find difficult to track and keep in check. Curious where the money all went, I tracked my food expenses in April and my miscellaneous expenses in May. The results were illuminating, and embarrassing

Some miscellaneous funds go in big chunks. In May, for my birthday I received an excellent coupon for Mary Kay products, and so I spent nearly $50 on makeup, all at once. More concerning are the little expenses, which add up slowly:

  • Gum: $16.00
  • Nuts: $16.00
  • Yogurt-covered pretzels: $5.00
  • Library fines: $9.00
  • Plants: $20.00
  • Random fun stuff (a pretty teacup here, a few books there, some chocolates): $25.00

For several years now I’ve been increasingly aware of the consumerist society we live in, and upset by its dominance over our lives; through reading Wendell Berry and others, I’ve noticed how shopping helps not only fill up our free hours by also defines who we are. (We’re the kind of person who shops at the farmers’ market or only buys free trade, we go church shopping and career shopping, and we devote hours to websites such as Pinterest which are essentially geared to get us to buy stuff.)

And I’ve liked to think that I’m above the consumerist society. After all, I haven’t had a new pair of jeans in three or four years, and I almost never go out to eat.

But looking at my spending makes me wonder if that’s true. After all, why else would I spent half a week’s food budget on teacups and chocolate if I didn’t feel that having stuff made my life better? And there are weeks when I catch myself stopping at every shop, looking around for good things.

Look at the plants expense in particular. I like to be surrounded by beautiful things; I get one petunia, and immediately I want three more petunias. Right now I’m growing one pot of basil and wondering whether I should purchase a second pot in case something happens to the first. There’s always the desire to have more. 

And so it’s my goal to make do with less, to remember that having a satisfying life has nothing to do with how much stuff I have. This is easy to say, easy to pay lip service to, but surprisingly difficult to do.

I’m not entirely sure how this will work, though I have a few ideas. Maybe instead of daytripping to a city I’ll take my journal and a book to a local park. Maybe instead of shopping around in secondhand stores, I’ll organize my yarn collection. I’ll be more home, I’ll go on more walks, I’ll find the beauty in the everyday and not always be looking for something new.

I read a book recently, Acedia & Its Discontents, and it argued that when we’re bored, when we’re weary of our work, the cure is not to throw off the work and go do something exciting; we must, like the ancient monks, keep at the tasks we are set. This is my hope: that rather than seeking out excitement in the city, I keep at my task here, and find joy in my home, quiet though it is with just me.

I may also cut back on certain forms of media consumption. Useful as websites like Pinterest are, the fact remains that all those pretty pictures make me want to buy more stuff.

The other thing I’m interested by is my food cost. Some trends there:

  • About 10% of my food budget every month, $20 out of $200 and change, goes to yogurt, usually really good brands bought on sale.
  • Nearly 25% of my food budget goes to produce: apples, bananas, berries, onions and bell peppers, and chickpeas.
  • I spent $70 on snack items, including the gum and yogurt-covered pretzels.
  • I spent $10 on wine & alcohol, which was more than I thought but much less than it could have been.

My main goal with the food is to cut back on items which deliver little or no nutritional value: the snack items; and to spend the money on better food, like a meal out with friends or even takeaway from Panera. I also want to watch how much I’m spending on yogurt and produce. Since I’m not about to stop buying yogurt and fruits and veggies, I want to make sure I’m spending money in the right areas.

I’m planning on tracking my miscellaneous and food expenses both through the month of June. Tracking food will be particularly interesting, since farmers’ markets are alluring to me. (My freezer has far too many tomatoes in it.)

BooksSpending

Me again, only at the library booksale. 

So here we are, at the start of a new month. I have money set aside for food, for travel, for some new yarn I had ordered and for clothing, and a little miscellaneous for purchasing ingredients for desserts I make for book club, or gifts for friends, or postage for letters.

The goal is to buy, and be thankful, for what I need.

And apparently, to break my gum addiction.

 

 

Vegetable Barley Soup

IMG_2043We got our first snow last night, a winter storm that carried 10.5 inches. I went out for a run this morning, and will presently go run a few errands before night falls, but other than that, I haven’t braved the outdoors. I’ve stayed inside: knitting, chatting with friends, and (a favourite wintertime activity!) making soup.

One of the things I love about soup is that no recipe is required. I simply grab whatever vegetables I have on hand, throw them in a pot, and have something delicious.

(To be fair, in the past a few soups have turned out . . . not so good. But throwing soup away because it tastes weird is very rare indeed.)

Today, with the Thanksgiving holidays upon me, I was trying to use up random vegetables in my refrigerator: carrots and red onion.

Because I hate throwing spoiled food away, and because carrots and red onion make a poor salad, I pulled a soup together. Here’s what I used:

  • Half a red onion, diced.
  • A teaspoon(ish) chopped garlic
  • A pinch of crushed red pepper
  • Five small carrots, chopped
  • Three tiny sweet potatoes, chopped (about a cup’s worth, or a little more)
  • 2 cups of frozen chopped tomatoes
  • A cup and a half of barley, which has been sitting in my pantry since last November

I fried up two slices of bacon, then removed them from the pan. Then in their greases, plus some olive oil, I sauteed the onion and garlic. Then I added four or so cups of vegetable broth, the rest of the veggies, and the bacon. I brought it to a boil, let it simmer for a little while, then added the barley. About ten minutes from when the soup was finished, I added a can of chickpeas for fiber.

I probably added too much barley. When I first added it, I thought I had too little; a few random barley flecks floated about in the soup, and that was it. So I dumped in an entire cup and a half or so of barley. But by the time the soup was ready, the barley had soaked up much of the liquid.

Still, after about half an hour the barley had cooked, the veggies were soft, and I sat down to eat. I put green onions and cheese on top.

Delicious!

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Ready for the freezer!

 

Best of all, I have seven freezer bags full of soup, so I’ll be reheating and enjoying this for some time to come.

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Just waiting to cool off.