Monthly Budget Update – October

50/30/20 budgetSo I decided to start a new budget feature here on Penny Thots. This is the first crack at it and I am sure that over the months it will grow and evolve into something new. I haven’t thought it through very much, just have the urge to share some budget details to help stay accountable and to help readers as well.

With that said, I am only going to track a few spending and saving categories at first. I don’t have the urge to track fixed monthly expenses, just the few variable ones that end up costing us the most over the long-term. These will include:

  • Groceries
  • Gas
  • Dining Out

These are fairly straight-forward and I don’t think I really need to go into detail as to what these mean.

When it comes to saving, I am just going to track 3 categories:

  • Mortgage Paydown
  • Rental Down Payment
  • Rebuild Emergency Fund

The mortgage paydown is additional money I am putting towards our mortgage on our house. The rental down payment money is money I am saving up to buy another rental property. As for the emergency fund, it has dropped over the past few months due to a variety of things. So, I am working now to rebuild it back to a respectable level. I figure I need $4,500 to get it back to where I want it to be. So with that said, here are my goal amounts for October:

  • Groceries -> $300
  • Gas -> $150
  • Dining Out -> $200
  • Mortgage Paydown -> $100
  • Rental Down Payment -> $100
  • Rebuild Emergency Fund -> $150

So there you have it. The goal is to move the money left over from the spending categories into these saving categories, assuming there is money left over. The catch is that I am not going to count this addition as part of my savings.

In other words, if I save $50 in my emergency fund and then add in $50 because I only spent $250 on groceries, I am looking at the savings amount as just the $50, not the $100. The money left over from spending less will be treated like a bonus.

Come the beginning of November, I will be updating my results in a new post as well as setting up some goals for next month as well.

Readers, what are the parts of your budget that cause you the most headaches? Any savings goals going forward?

Do You Grocery Shop Online?

grocery shop online

grocery shop onlineRecently the grocery store where my wife and I shop has started to offer us to grocery shop online. But the way they go about it is a little different than the other grocery store in the area.

This new version of grocery shopping online is to order your groceries online and then drive to the store in 15-20 minutes. You pull into a designated parking spot and use the call box to let the store know you are there. An employee comes out with your groceries, loads your car and you are on your way. (The question is, do you tip them for this?)

The older version offered by the competing store in the area is to grocery shop online, then have your groceries delivered to your door, at a time that is convenient for you.

Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages to grocery shopping online. Below I look at the pro’s and con’s of grocery shopping online.

Advantages

Saves Time: Obviously, if you don’t have to drive to the grocery store to actually shop, it is going to save you time. From my understanding, when you log into your online account, you have the saved items you order the most on the main screen. So instead of searching for items on the website, you can just click away since most of your items are right there.

Saves Money: You could save money when you grocery shop online. This is because you won’t be tempted to buy food you don’t really need. It’s easy to overspend when at the grocery store, with all of the great looking packaging and the sales signs grabbing your attention. Plus there is the waiting in the checkout line that does many people in. Finally, you have shopping when hungry, which is a big no-no.

When you grocery shop online, you don’t have these temptations. You actually have to search out the products you would be tempted to buy and most won’t do this, thus saving money.

Disadvantages

Costs Money: Getting your groceries online, regardless if you go to pick them up or have them delivered costs money. For the store that we would pick up our groceries from, the fee is $5. For home delivery, the fee depends on the size of your order. When I look at our average order size, we would pay around $15 per order.

Since we grocery shop 4 times a month on average, that is a cost of $20 to $60 for this service.

Makes Us Lazy: Grocery shopping online makes us lazy, plain and simple. For some people, walking around at the grocery store is the only exercise they get. Without doing this, they would sit on the couch even more. Personally, I want to be as active as possible. All of these studies showing how unhealthy sitting for long periods is scares me.

Grocery Shop Online: What’s The Verdict?

So is grocery shopping online worth it? I guess it really depends on your individual situation. For my wife and me, we haven’t tried it out yet. Mainly because we don’t have a need for it and the cost. We have the time to drive to the grocery store and shop.

We shop with a list (and buy things on sale) and very seldom do we stray from that list. Plus, our typical trip to the grocery store costs us between $50-$60. If we were to use the online services, we would see a dramatic increase in our monthly grocery bill.

But with that said, there are times when it would be nice. We grocery shop on Sundays and there are some weekends when we are away and are driving home on Sunday night. The last thing I want to do is go grocery shopping when I get home. In these times, it would be nice to just place an order online and be done with it.

The same might apply to families with little kids. I have two nieces and know you can’t take your eyes off of them for a minute when they are little. Packing them up and going grocery shopping is a chore. Being able to order groceries online and have them delivered would certainly be a benefit.

Final Thots

Overall, there are advantages and disadvantages to grocery shopping online. When asking if it makes sense for you, I cannot say one way or the other. It really comes down to personal needs. Is the added fee worth the time saved? Only you can answer that question.

Readers, do you grocery shop online? Why or why not?

Rhubarb: The Springtime Special

Who wants anything to do with this weedy-looking plant with the scruffy leaves and bright red stalks?

Rhubarb

Well, I do. Rhubarb, officially known as Rheum rhabarbarum. It’s one of the first plants to show growth in the spring, making it popular as a tonic — and one of the first sources of the season for fruit crumbles, crisps and pie. (Although it’s technically a vegetable.) That’s why rhubarb’s other name is “pieplant.” It was first brought into the United States in the 1820s, and popular with the pioneers, especially in the Midwest and on the East Coast.

It’s easily grown – provided you dig a bushel-basket-sized hole, add plenty of manure or compost, and plant the roots (don’t mess with seeds) just below the surface. Once established, it handles drought and neglect with equal indifference — in fact, many former homesteads still have rhubarb clumps and lilac plants growing to mark the spot.

Cut off the stalks (which range from pale green to bright red), but leave a little extra, so the plant can renew itself. (Discard the leaves, which are cathartic, and can cause stomach troubles.)
Wash and chop them roughly, and you’ve got the makings for:

RHUBARB SAUCE

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2/3 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon grated peeled fresh ginger root
2 fresh rhubarb stalks, leaves discarded, ends trimmed,
    and stalks cut crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick
slices, or 2 cups frozen sliced rhubarb, thawed and drained

Mix together. Makes about 2 cups; serve alongside chicken, pork chops or other proteins.

Rhubarb is also tasty, combined with strawberries — the colors and flavors both complement each other

RHUBARB-STRAWBERRY PIE

Ingredients:

1 1/4 c Sugar
1/8 ts Salt
1/3 c Flour
2 c Fresh strawberries
2 c Fresh rhubarb, cut in 1" pieces
2 T Butter or margarine
1 T Sugar
1 Pastry for 2-crust pie

Combine 1 1/4 cup sugar, salt, and flour. Arrange half the strawberries and rhubarb in a pastry-lined pie pan. Sprinkle with half the sugar mixture. Repeat with remaining fruit and sugar mixture. Dot with butter. Install top crust and flute edges to make high-standing rim. Brush top of pie with cold water and sprinkle on 1 tablespoon sugar. Cut steam vents in top crust. Bake in hot oven (425 F) 40 to 50 minutes or until rhubarb is tender and crust is browned.

(More recipes are here, including jams, cobblers and a recipe for ‘Star Trek Rhubarb:’ Klingon bread.)

Rhubarb’s crisp, clean, slightly acid flavor….it’s a wake-up call for your taste buds.

Rhubarb

Dandelions & Other Greens – A Spring Tonic

Dandelion

DandelionWinter’s dreary days and slushy landscape doesn’t last forever, fortunately. When it finally lets up, Spring gives one of her best presents: tender green growth. These aren’t just pretty to look at; their vitamin-packed freshness makes them an excellent source of nutrients, as well.

Obviously, you don’t want to pick greens from an area that’s gotten pesticides, like the average lawn. (Yet another reason to convert to natural fertilizers and weedkillers.) Look for a clean spot with sun, and bring along a sharp knife and a basket. You’ll want to keep your eyes open for:

Dandelions

These ‘weeds’ have been used as ornamentals, but their specialty has been their edibility for generations. Every part of the dandelion is edible, from its bloom (for wine) to its roots (dried and used as a coffee substitute). My grandma served these cooked as a “tonic,” garnished with bacon and hard-boiled eggs. Their only drawback: the older leaves can be bitter. Solve this by cooking the leaves in water, then drain and add more water. Check for taste; drain and simmer again in fresh water, if needed. Young buds and blanched leaves are delicious raw in a salad.

Watercress

Streamsides are the best place to look for this spicy green; it snaps the flavor of salads and sandwiches. Just make sure the stream area is clean and unpolluted. (While you’re at it, look around for the edible bright red berries and minty leaves of wintergreen; they’re often nearby.)

Pokeweed

If you’re thinking about poke salad (or “sallet”), or even Poke Salad Annie (gator got your granny), you’re on the right track. But this green takes some care. As Wikipedia points out, “The leaves of young plants are sometimes collected as a spring green potherb and eaten after repeated blanchings. [The same treatment earlier mentioned for dandelion greens, by the way.] Shoots are also blanched with several changes of water and eaten as a substitute for asparagus.” However, the leaves become “cathartic” and cause severe stomach trouble as they get older. (The root is poisonous, and shouldn’t be eaten.)  Many consider this the quintessential spring green.

Asparagus

This popular perennial grew wild in the drainage ditches, and by the side of the road, where I grew up in Michigan. Mom would send us out with baskets to snap off the shoots, taking care to leave the plant intact for more harvests. I buy my asparagus in the grocery store today, but it still grows wild – it’s known to flourish at the Boulder, Colorado cemetery, for example. (You might check your local cemetery, as well.) Try it stir-fried, boiled, or roasted – but make the cooking time brief, to maximize its nutrients. Serve with a cream sauce - Hollandaise is a favorite – or just a smooth pat of butter.

Enjoy. Welcome, Spring!

Roast Your Veggies

roasted vegetables

roasted vegetablesSpringtime gives us access to fresh, crunchy veggies that demand tender care. Take maximum advantage of their delicate flavors by roasting them for a few minutes. The results: crunchy, aromatic vegetables, and  low-calorie, as well. (They’re delicious with baked ham, fish, chicken or roast beef, too.)

Roasted Vegetables For Spring

  • Your choice of vegetables — washed, with the moisture left on, and cut thinly, if they’re thicker (I’ve tried brussels sprouts, carrots, onions, zucchini, kale and others. The hands-down favorite: asparagus. Allow 1/4 pound per person.)
  • good-quality olive oil
  • a spice mix, including ground pepper and your favorite herbs

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees. (Or if you’re cooking a protein, use that temperature, and put the veggies in to cook the last 20 minutes.) Rub a cookie sheet or small pan with olive oil, put the veggies in. Drizzle with olive oil, then sprinkle with the spices, plus salt and a good grinding of pepper. Bake for 15 min (up to 25-30 min. for more substantial veggies like turnips and potatoes).; serve hot. Yummmm….

Last-Minute Stretch

stretch

stretchAnd we’re not talking about exercise. 

Sometimes you need a meal to cover unexpected company. Or a second meal. Or leftovers the next day. What can you do, other than eat less?

Stretch it.

Soup

My grandma was a famous cook, known for her fried chicken and apple pies. But her specialty was soup. When cousins stopped by — and generally it was conveniently at mealtimes — she’d say cheerfully, “I’ll just add some water to the soup!” Grandma was right — you can add a few cups of water to stretch the soup to an additional serving.

Other ways: Add more flavor, along with the water — a bouillon cube or a few tablespoons of sour cream, a cup of milk or vegetable juice.  Mashed potato flakes give soup a nice thick consistency.

And of course, there’s STUFF — an extra cup or two of chopped vegetables like potatoes, celery, carrots, beans. Add and simmer for ten minutes. Or pour in 1/4-1/3 cup rice, and cook on low 20 min.

Try the same techniques with stews. Another trick: serve smaller amounts in bread bowls. The delicious juices flavor the bread…and the starch will fill your mealtimers up!

Casseroles

There are lots of great recipes out there for casseroles. Box mixes are out there, as well, and most are quite good. (Hamburger Helper, for instance.) Follow the directions…but add an extra cup of noodles, or if you’re watching calories and carbs, a can or frozen package of vegetables. Bingo – you’ve just added up to two servings, with no fuss. Try this trick with dishes like macaroni & cheese, as well as stroganoff.

Meat

You’ve got two pork chops…or chicken breasts…or a large steak…and 4-6 people are coming for dinner. Take the cue of Edith Schaeffer’s clever frugal living book, The Hidden Art, and cut!

“Chicken for six people become enough for twelve if you cut it off the bones and make it into a Chinese meal by adding onions, peppers, almonds and pineapple wedges. Or it can just be cut into large pieces and put into the gravy to serve over hot biscuits…which themselves can be made when the influx of people is discovered to be coming in the front door!”

“It is not necessary to have a large food budget to make meals interesting,” Schaeffer says. “In fact, it is often the other way around. The need to ‘stretch’ the money often gives birth to ideas in cooking and serving.”  She speaks from experience — for decades, she and her husband fed dozens of students, using a very small budget, at their conference center L’Abri in Switzerland.

Make it stretch — and it will still be delicious.

 

Raising Chickens in Winter

If you’ve been hanging out on Penny Thots, you know I like to write about chickens.

Partly it’s because they’re an excellent resource, including eggs and meat – full of vitamins and lean protein. And since you feed them, you can ensure you’re getting naturally delicious, pesticide-free food for yourself and your family.

They Also Help Pay For Themselves

With our flock (currently 15 chickens), we sell 4- 5 1/2 dozen eggs weekly…more than enough to pay for the chickens’ feed and some of their expenses. We still have plenty of eggs for our own use…and even some to give away. (If you’re curious, you can find out more via Part 2 and Part 3 about our chicken adventures.)

They’re also fun to watch! Whether it’s watching them chase each other around (or the dogs), chickens are a bossy, clucking source of entertainment.

If you’re thinking about raising chickens, doing it three seasons may seem just fine —

But What About Winter?

I would have never guessed this, before we started keeping a chicken flock — but it’s not that big a deal, if you take certain precautions.

First, choose your breeds wisely. Ask specifically which are more cold-hardy. Our Australorps and Rhode Island Reds are well-known for handling chilly temperatures.

Next, build a coop that keeps out the wind and rain. It doesn’t have to be that insulated (though that’s nice), but it does need to be wind-resistant, with a roof that doesn’t leak. Chickens handle the cold well– but they’ll get sick quickly if their feet and feathers stay damp, or get chilled in the wind.

Finally, give them a source of light and warmth. Chickens need at least 12 hours of sunlight to lay the maximum amount of eggs. Since they don’t get this in wintertime, you’ll need to add a low-watt lightbulb inside their coop, as an artificial stimulus. (Some people advocate making do with fewer eggs, and letting the hens ‘rest’ — but in two winters, we haven’t noticed any extra signs of stress.) This light can also help warm the coop — or add a heat lamp, as well.

Use a timer and heat sensor, to keep the lights going only when they’re needed. Note: We recently read an article in the Denver Post that railed against heat lamps — they caused at least three coop fires in the past few months. But, carefully reading, every one of the experts who argued against heat lamps were also using them in their own chicken coops! With care, you can, too.

We did add something new this winter: a bird bath heater. It keeps the chickens’ water ice-free. (We looked at stock tank heaters, instead, but they were far bigger — and much more expensive.) The added heat means some water goes up in steam, so extra buckets must be lugged down to the coop. And it does cost a few pennies a day to operate. It’s worth it, though, when the chickens can get a drink any time they wish. (I also get a kick out of the ‘spa atmosphere’ as they take refreshing sips through the steam.)

When it’s really snowy and overcast, the hens stay in their coop. They’ll snuggle in there, fussing and clucking. (And laying eggs.) When days are sunny, they’ll often spend all day out of doors, scratching in the bare spaces, and exploring their snowy new world. I often give them extra goodies, like greens and fruit, or an extra protein boost of meat scraps or dried worms. (Yes, worms — dried mealworms are available by the package or jar, and provide a tasty treat.)

They have a great time.

The Pantry Challenge

pantry challengeWant to save even more money this month? Try a Pantry Challenge. Basically, it means:

You eat out of your pantry for the next ___ (insert number here) weeks. Plus your refrigerator and freezer.

It’s become a tradition to do this in January, and again later in the year, for yours truly. Jessica at Good Cheap Eats leads the charge every year — currently she’s about Day Eleven or so.

Some people take the hardline, and barely buy any groceries — others give themselves a set amount of money to stock up on items like dairy, eggs and fruit. (Or sale stuff — who wants to walk away from 99-cent hamburger or marked-down broccoli, just because it’s not in the pantry!)

Benefits Of A Pantry Challenge

It Clears Out Your Food Supplies

Those bags of spaghetti, boxes of cookies and such aren’t going to get stale — because you’ll be using them up. Nor will items in the freezer or refrigerator be apt to rot, or get freezer burn. Few things are more irritating than being forced to throw away food, just because you missed it, or it stayed hidden behind something else.

Your Food Storage Areas Stay Cleaner And Tidier

While you’re eating away, the shelves are getting bare…which means they can be washed and tidied up with minimum fuss. Cleaning the freezer, an unpleasant job at best, is a lot easier when it’s half-full. (Trust me — I know.)

Lets You Clear Out Other Areas, Including Drinks

Consolidate those teabags, and rescue the last few packets of hot chocolate. Do the same thing for the baking area, getting rid of stale items as you go. Wipe the shelves down when you’re done; your kitchen will smell and look a lot cleaner.

Makes It Clear Exactly What You Have — And What You Don’t

Start a list of items that need to be replenished — but hold off on doing it now. See if you can do without for a week or two longer.

And the best thing the Pantry Challenge does? It saves a nice chunk of money.