Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Bargains for being ageless?

Recently, I came across this article about bargain beauty secrets for looking younger. As someone who does care about how I look, and always interested in finding new beauty tricks and tips, I clicked. I have actual opinions about some of the tips, but about others, I plead ignorance. Like those about make up; I plead ignorance about make up.

Some highlights:
Add volume to hair by using mousse. Generally, this necessitates washing (or at least wetting) your hair in the morning, and using a blow dryer (which I don't have, and haven't had since December 2004). The idea and technique discussed is sound, though, should you want to use mousse. And a blow dryer. If not, and you are a bit of a planner, washing/wetting your hair the night before, and sleeping in curlers, pin-curls or even a bun placed on the top of your head (a very lovely sight, I assure you  ;) ) can temporarily 'train' your hair to stand up a bit. Another quick volumizing trick - part your hair differently. If your hair is used to laying a certain way, changing that up will give you a bit of volume.

Hot oil for luster. Admittedly, when I first saw the line "Give yourself a hot oil treatment," I cringed, thinking about how if you don't do it right, or use the wrong oil, it can do more harm than good. But... they highlighted jojoba oil, something I haven't gotten around to talking much about, but want to. So... their method is actually pretty good. Plus, the whole cool-water-trick is good hair care in general. Kudos. I'll add that you can also try an apple cider vinegar rinse. This is one of those things that I haven't gotten around to trying myself, but have heard good things from long-hair communities (yes, on LiveJournal).

Most of the other tips, honestly, I have no experience with. And, the article is geared towards helping you look younger. I am still regularly asked if I am a student at the university where I work. (granted, there are some older grad students, but still...) A lot of the tips are also on how to use make up, something I don't really use. Aside from my admitted lack of experience with applying make up, I have yet to find one that doesn't feel heavy after an hour or a few, or that doesn't make me break out after using it.

What are your thoughts on these tips? Helpful? Do you have anything to add?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Interesting ways to use your freezer to save money

I found this article the other day, about weird things to freeze to make the last longer. Thought it sounded pretty interesting, and if you haven't read it yet, it does contain some new information. At least, new to me.

Here are some highlights:
Keeping candles in the freezer will help them burn longer
Some battery life can be extended, but only certain kinds are worth the cold shoulder.
Some seeds! will keep in the freezer, and even germinate better.
(re-use soda or other plastic bottles, fill with water as a freezer-filler. But really, with all your candles, batteries, seeds, soup, and meat already in there, will there be much room for the home-made ice packs?)
Pantyhose - really? Even if freezing it keeps it from running, I'm not sure that I wear it enough to siddle into cold pantyhose in the winter. Although, come summer, it might actually be refreshing. I just keep clear nail polish handy, and catch runs as soon as possible. And, if it will remain covered by my skirt or shoes, continue to wear the hose.
Laundry - this makes it easier to iron? Not sure I see that. But considering my aversion to ironing, and what happens when I actually do try to iron, don't see trying this one any time soon.

I will add:
nuts - I still have some cashews in the freezer from an alum fundraiser back in NC. You can buy nuts in bulk, on sale, or what-have-you, then freeze. That way, you don't have to spend your days and nights making unending batches pecan cookies. (Co-worker favorite, but I kept almost-burning my fingers rolling the blasted things in powdered sugar.)
juice - we'd freeze the cartons of juice for my lunch box growing up. That way, it would be cold, and keep the rest of my lunch from over-heating, and the juice would be liquid again by lunch time. Plus, they can make a fun, slushy treat. And, you can use these in the same way that the article recommends using those old soda bottles to keep your freezer full and functioning.

Do you have any freezer secrets? Care to share?

Monday, March 29, 2010

What is this crazy lady doing?

Hello all.
At the beginning of this whole blog thing (way back when in January), I told you that I was doing this to share my attempts at living more frugally. That I'd talk about ways to save money, tips to stretch what you have, or use things you already have around the house in new and creative ways. And now, here I come, talking about wacky things like honey-as-face-wash, grr-US-school-lunches-food-culture, and "I have long hair." You are probably wondering what I'm doing right about now.

Couple of things:
1) Turns out, there is a lot I don't know about saving money, stretching a dollar, and multi-purposing common household items. So, I am trying to learn. But, I don't want to go around preaching what I haven't at least tried. I *know* that you can use baking soda as a household cleaner, to replace shampoo, and even as deodorant. The things is, I haven't actually tried these things out, and don't want to just be a link-fest. Resources are great, wonderful, and helpful, but I want this blog to be more. I want to also provide (yet another) personal story of triumph or frustration, so that someone else can learn from my experiments, and feel a little less scared about trying it.

2) I do feel that living frugally and sustainably or thoughtfully go hand-in-hand. I know that some of the organic (or advertised-sustainable) products have a higher up-front price, but I do feel that they can be worth it, if they are truly free of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals. The way I see it, the more I can reduce my own and my family's exposure and risk, the more peace of mind I'll have, the healthier we'll be, the more potential time we'll have together, and the lower our lifetime health bill will be.

Also, with a lot of things, quality products can last longer. Good, whole wheat bread is more filling than the super cheap, fluffy, over-processed stuff. So you don't need to eat as much at a meal with the former to nourish yourself and be full. A good quality lotion will actually alleviate my dry skin (thanks, Mom) in one go, so I don't have to constantly re-apply or slather on ridiculous amounts. Lesser lotions, even though the same sized bottle may be cheaper, end up costing me more in the end, because my skin just doesn't get hydrated, and I have to keep on re-applying. And, while this example is not from my own experience, I think it illustrates my point well. My mom, and my step mom (as in my dad's second wife) have both noted to me that when they feed their dogs a higher quality (and more expensive) dog food, the dogs eat less, and poo less. In the good dog food, there are fewer fillers, so less is needed to keep the dog nourished and full, and less of what is consumed is unusable and therefore passed.

So, that may not have been the prettiest of images, but think about it. If you are thoughtful about what you actually need and consume, even if there is a higher initial price, you may end up consuming less, thereby saving money in the long run. Not to mention that the good stuff is often better for you. I also recognize that sometimes, in the moment, someone may want to purchase the more expensive, organic product, but simply doesn't have the resources to do so at that time. Been there. I understand. We can only do what we can.

All of this being said, I hope you can understand what I'm trying to do, and that I am only human, with constraints. I still have a lot of my own laziness to overcome, and waste in my life. I have a long way to go. I'd be honored if you'd stick around for the ride.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Tea Tree Oil Game: Can you guess?

As you know, I've been using tea tree oil on my face to treat acne and prevent future breakouts. And it has been working well.
I originally bought a bottle of the stuff at The Body Shop (in an airport!) while on a business trip, since the mall in our town doesn't have The Body Shop.

That was back in November, and no matter how sparingly I use the tea tree oil, it inevitably began to run low. So I set about looking for another place to buy it. I figured that a couple of places in this college town would have it. My search was not exhaustive, by any means, because the first place I looked (aside from regular grocery and drug stores) had it. The local Co-op.

Just for fun, I took a picture of the bottles from the Co-op and from The Body Shop. One is 25 mL; one is 10 mL. One was $9 plus tax; one was $9.99 plus tax. Can you guess which bottle was $9 and which was $9.99?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Recipe Thursday: Sneaky Potatoes

Yes, sneaky potatoes. Why are they sneaky, you ask? Because they don't include just potatoes.

So, this installment of Recipe Thursday was inspired by those breakfast potato things/home fries I love to order when we have breakfast out. They are so yummy. I didn't really start out following any real recipe for this, so there is room for improvement.

Anyway, the sneaky-non-potato part of this side dish is the turnip. I was thinking about making my own skillet-potatoes (see how many names those yummy things go by?!), and also thinking about how to get more veggies into our diet (way back when we were in TX), and I remembered a conversation I had had about turnips, and that they could be cooked just like you would potatoes. I'd successfully done the skillet potato thing before, so I decided to try adding turnips into the mix.

So, you start with however many potatoes and turnips you think it will take to feed your crowd, and wash/peel/chop. Rough, one-inch-ish cubes seems to work well. Peeling the potatoes is completely up to you.  It will be tasty with or without potato skins. The turnips, though, you do need to peel, and not just till the purple comes off. If you slice one in half, you'll see a slight color variation around the edge. You need to get all of that skin off. Trust me, it will cook up stringy and hard to chew. I've made the mistake before.

Then, you throw the potatoes into a hot pan, with a sparse amount of oil/butter. I have non-stick pans, so I really can use very small amounts of oil. Medium to medium high heat works. I like to get the browning on at least a few sides (yum!), so I do spend some of the cooking time on the higher end.

Salt, pepper, and season to taste. Stir constantly (although, you can be working on other things, just keep an eye/ear out).

In my experience, the potatoes take longer to reach the soft, ready-to-eat texture than do turnips. So, after 5-10 minutes, toss the turnips into the pan, too. Season more if needed. Keep stirring.

All in all, I'll usually spend a half hour so with the potatoes on the stove. I also almost always make too many, and then eat too many. That little fact is more to give you a gauge. The amount I usually make would probably do nicely as a side for a family of four, but I end up eating nearly a full serving as I am cooking them. Feel like you know more about me than you want to yet?

Anyway, you do have a window when it comes to the desired texture of the potatoes, so they can come off the stove a bit sooner, or stay on there longer, depending on how the rest of the meal is coming together.

Room for error, I like that. ;)

Do you share my love of breakfast potatoes? Do you think I should have told my husband that there were potatoes and turnips in his side dish from the get go, or was waiting a bit ok?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Hair today

Here's something you should know about me. I like my hair. I have long hair. (I believe it qualifies as iliac length, which means the ends reach the top of my pelvic bone in the back.) I like having long hair. I do not have any plans to cut it all off in the future. Also, aside from curling it (with overnight sponger rollers) for my wedding, and then again for a school project (that time with hot rollers), I haven't used a heat appliance on my hair since... December-ish of 2004.

I'm a bit obsessive about my hair and what products do or do not go on my head. There are ingredients I avoid, such as sodium laurel/laureth sulfate, and silicone and it's derivatives.

I even have my own pair of hair scissors that I use to dust, or snip off split ends when I see them. (Did you know that if you use the same scissors for paper and your hair, unless you sharpen the blades before using them on your hair, you are really just damaging your ends? It's like my mom having dedicated sewing scissors.)

Sounds like a lot of work, huh? Not really. I shower at night, and let it dry overnight. If it isn't dry in the morning, not a big deal, letting it down from the hair-turbin-towel (like this) helps. In the winter, a scarf can go over it to protect it from the cold.

I brush it with a wooden brush or comb. I wear it simply, often in a ponytail, braid or bun. If I want to fancy it up, I can do more elaborate buns, like a Chinese braided bun or an infinity bun.

I don't spend tons of time or money on frequent trims or styling sessions. I don't get it colored, highlighted or low-lighted. (I do like using henna to color my hair. I've only done it once so far, but liked the result.) I don't spend the time, money or effort to ensure a specific coif every morning.

For me, it is easier. When I had shorter hair (chin length-short), if I didn't wash it in the morning, then dry it, and curl the ends under, I ended up with weird-all-over-the-place hair that looked very unkempt.

I'm telling you all of this because I want to talk about various hair-related things later on in my blog, and I want you to know where I'm coming from on the issues. (yeah, hair-issues. With all the things going on in the world, there are more important things than hair, but here we are.)

I've mentioned quite a few things here without linking to more information. I hope to expound on my choices later on, and think that for a lot of these choices, I can ramble on at length. Quite frankly, I don't want to bore you.

What do you think about hair? Imagining me to be a crazy person right about now? Do you even care to learn about hair care and that you can't actually repair damaged hair?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Revolution and School Lunch, part 2

Thinking a bit about what I posted yesterday, I started reminiscing about my own school lunch experiences. I went to public school K-12, so I was right there, in the same sort of situation that Jamie finds himself in his show. I'd like to think that things were better way back when, but in all honesty, "way back when" for me isn't all that long ago.

In elementary school, I made my lunch to take to school, everyday. School lunch menus were printed up a month in advance, and handed out. I was allowed to buy lunch at school one day a week, as a treat (the thrill of the purchase? or not having to make my own sandwich, I guess). I don't remember much about lunch during middle school, other than the layout, and the treacherous landscape that was difficult to navigate with a growing body and backpack. In high school, I was given more autonomy when it came to lunch. If I had money, and wanted to buy my lunch, I could. Or I could take it. I'm guessing that I took my lunch more than I bought it. But, I still bought the crap. I bought pizza because pizza wasn't something we had at home.

If I went through the regular lunch line, I did usually get at least one fruit or veggie, but do remember that a lot of offerings were breaded and/or fried. That is just what the choices were. Salads were more expensive, and had cheese on them, plus the salad dressing choices were basically Ranch, Ranch, electric colored French, or Ranch.

Have I mentioned here that I don't like Ranch dressing? The spice rub, sure, but for some reason, once they are combined with sour cream or mayonnaise, it makes me a bit nauseous.

And, here is a blog by a teacher who is eating the school lunch every day this calendar year. She supplements with other information posts. It is quite interesting to read. She takes a picture of her lunch daily, and I've been shocked by the amount of plastic and pre-packaging school lunch has now. I remember getting corn dished out from a large, stainless steel container, directly onto my plastic tray. Also, I'm a bit surprised at the lack of utensils. I shouldn't be though. When I started public school, we still had metal utensils. By the time I had graduated, we were down to plastic, and I think that the knife was being phased out as too dangerous.

What about you? What was your school lunch situation? If you saw the program on Sunday night, how does your school lunch experience compare to what the show portrayed?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Jamie Oliver's Revolution

Did any of you watch the sneak preview of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution last night? I did. You may know Jamie from his series on the Food Network, The Naked Chef.

The premise of the show/series is confronting current eating habits and food trends.  He went to Huntington, WV, which was declared the unhealthiest city in America by a recent USDA study (here's an msnbc article about it) to see what, if anything, he could do about it.

A thread in Jamie's cooking and projects is stripping food down to basics. Getting to know the basic, raw ingredients, so that you can make good food, from the foundation up.

The one-hour sneak preview focuses on school lunched (and breakfast). He met varying amounts of resistance from the community, administrators and the lunch ladies themselves. It seemed to me that he was going out of his way to explain himself and not step on the toes of the administration. He encountered tons of red-tape when he was trying to put together a menu. He was misrepresented in the media, which didn't help his credibility at all.

He did spend a bit of time harping on the ingredients in the food being served the elementary school children. As an obsessive label-reader now, I get it. And I'm right there with him. One of the cooks kept pointing out that the first ingredient listed was chicken or beef, or whatever the product claimed to be. (That is cool - but what got me was the fact that half of a side of the box was taken up with the rest of the ingredient list - some very scary, hard-to-pronounce stuff. I remember my mom telling me that if I couldn't pronounce it, I shouldn't eat it. She is a smart lady. I really should have listened more growing up, huh?)

His entire 3+ month long experience in Huntington wasn't shown in the one-hour long program, or else it would not have been a teaser, sneak preview! In good TV form, he's facing a problem, and questioning his ability to conquer it. While I suspect they wouldn't have bothered airing the pilot if it didn't succeed to some extent, I am anxious to see what happens next.

He did this sort of thing  in England, already. So, he's not trying to pick on us Americans or anything. (Really, though, if you see the example of what that one family eats in a week, or what the children are actually eating from their lunch, and you don't think that something is at least a bit off, well, then, you and I will just have to agree to disagree, and move on. Also, I suggest you just click through the rest of this blog. I'm trying to combat my own food laziness, cook more, cook better, and eat a greater variety of good-for-me foods. That is sort of what is going on here.)

So, did you see the show? What are your thoughts on it?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Recipe Thurs-Friday

Hey, there.
I have a couple of excuses: 1) grant application crunch time at work [seriously, head spinning, and I've learned that I hate tables created in Word] and (2) generally feeling under the weather.

Those two forces combine to leave me little to no time to cook, much less blog. So, apologies to you, my reader. Recipe Thursday is coming to you late, and is not so much a full recipe as it is a flavor suggestion.

A few years ago, we would buy Ginger Soy sauce from William-Sonoma, even when we really shouldn't have afforded it. It is just so good!

Short on time, money, and car one day last year, I was thinking about what to do with a pork tenderloin that I had thawed out. I thought about that lovely Ginger Soy sauce, cursed my pantry for not magically producing a bottle, and had another thought. "I have ginger powder, and soy sauce! I can make a pseudo-sauce!"

In true lazy-cook fashion, though, I didn't actually make a sauce. Instead, I sprinkled the ground ginger (which I had from making ginger snaps - yum!) over the tenderloin, sparingly, maybe a couple of teaspoons. Rubbed that in. Sprinkled on roughly equal amounts of soy sauce, and rubbed that into the pork.

Cooked the tenderloin as directed, in the oven.

The flavor was nice, but very light. I have used this same sort of combination since, upping the amount of ginger and soy. How much you should use really depends on the size of the piece of meat you have, and how much you want to taste the spices.

There you have it: homemade, pseudo-sauce!

How do you feel about the ginger + soy flavor combination?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Saint Patrick's Day

Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

Have fun, and be safe!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Food Expiration Dates Poll Results!

It is about time I get around to talking about the Expiration Date Poll, huh?

Well, the consensus was that they are not to be taken as hard and fast rules. No one who responded regularly threw away food because today is or yesterday was the printed expiration date.

Some said that how much they relied on printed dates depended on the product. For things like dairy and meat, expiration dates are taken more seriously. But for things like crackers, there's some wiggle room.

In general, I'd say that I have to agree.

Very profound, huh?

In other expiration date news:
Crunchy Chicken also commented on the same Slate article that I did. (Great minds? Anyone? Oh well, I can hope.) She highlights that the food scientist explained that those dates on our food packages refer more to optimum freshness, not safety, and are very conservative estimates. They have to account for people who leave the milk on the counter for a few hours before putting it away, or who accidentally leave the block of cheese in the car overnight in the summer, or generally don't follow safe food handling guidelines. (I like her line about taking "food on a tour of the city." It just makes me smile to think of a carton of milk with a touristy hat on, snapping photos of the town.)

While I am no food scientist or food safety expert, it seems to me that if you follow common sense, and try to follow food safety guidelines, you can get a few extra days out of most products. That is, assuming it was fresh to begin with. (You know, there's always one store in the area that might have cheaper prices, but every time you buy produce or milk or meat there, it either spoils days before the printed date, or is spoiled when you get it home.)

Monday, March 15, 2010

GSC: Grocery Store Confidential

I found this article about tricks to make you spend more at the grocery store interesting, and helpful! Now that I've confessed my displeasure with shopping and savings articles, I start finding ones that are actually... helpful!

1. Entrance, or "chill zone" - Stores place impulse buys, like DVDs and seasonal, promotional items here specifically to entice you. I think I knew this, subconsciously. The description reminds me of walking into the Food Lion we frequented in NC, and we rarely bought anything from that section because they weren't displaying brands or products we normally bought. The article recommends lingering a bit to see what is there and remind yourself that you don't need it. I see how that could work; you don't feel like you are denying yourself, instead, you are simply allowing yourself a choice. However, you can easily make the less frugal choice.

2. Produce at the front - This one was a bit of a surprise to me. Thinking about it though, I am hard pressed to remember a traditional grocery store [not a big box store] where produce wasn't right next to the entrance, on the right hand side, waiting for me to start my circuit. Selecting your produce first does go against the idea of gathering your perishable foods last, so they have less time at non-ideal temperatures and in less-than-ideal conditions. I may have been going about this all wrong! (But... what about the idea of shopping the exterior of the store only/first...?)

3. Specials - Just because it is on sale, doesn't mean it is a bargain, or going to save you money. If the product or brand isn't something you would have purchased anyway, then a sale price or coupon doesn't necessarily make it a bargain. In fact, if the only reason you would only consider a product is because of a coupon or sale, you are better off skipping it all together.

I'm going to divert a bit here, and also mention something that I've noticed Kroger here doing for a while; I'm sure other stores do it to - I just shop at Kroger more often. Kroger's sale price tag is yellow. Bright, you can see it from miles away yellow. This is very helpful when you are scanning the bread aisle or beans, or what-have-you for the cheapest price. However, what they started doing is mimicking their sale tags (color and size) for the regular price of their brand of a product. So, instead of a white tag, saying the X product is 2.99, there is an over-sized yellow tag, with 2.99 in big lettering, and something akin to "everyday low price" in much smaller lettering. I guess they figure they've trained us to associate the yellow tag with sales and savings, making us more inclined to just grab the product with the yellow tag. Who knew grocery selling/shopping could be so covert?

4. Buried Products - By moving the most popular products to the center of aisles, they are forcing us to walk past and look at more options. More expensive options, different product options, and so on. The more we see, the more likely we are to buy. Here is where a list, and sticking to it, can help. Or, as they suggest, skipping the impulse buy, and seeing if you really want or need it later. They are right, usually we forget about it, or decide we don't really need it. I'd say that shopping with a spouse or a partner can be helpful here, because there is another person present to help keep impulses in check. (This can backfire, too, but, really, what can't?) And again with the sneaky grocery selling!

5. Private labels - These used to be pretty bad. But now, they are actually quite good, and a number of people find themselves preferring some store brand items over name brand ones. Private label = store brand, therefore they are cheaper, right? Unfortunately, no. Usually, this is the case. However, name brands have gotten wise to the fact that people are buying store brands with wild abandon, and sometimes will offer sales (and even coupons) that make their product cheaper. So, as the article says, comparing prices and prices per unit each time is the only way to ensure you get the best price. Time consuming, yes. Worth it? Depends on your preference.

6. Samples - This is similar to my mom always telling me not to go to the store hungry. Sampling will trigger your body to expect a big meal, which, as they say, makes you a less discriminating shopper. Which is also what shopping when hungry does. The article recommends saving sampling until you are about the leave. If you are disciplined about your shopping, you could probably make it through the sampling gambit unscathed. Or, you could not shop when samples are offered. I've really only ever noticed lots of sampling stations on Saturday mornings. So many other people are shopping at that time, too, making it a crowded headache, which also makes it harder to really take your time and price-shop. So, avoid samples, and you avoid the rush!

I'm still in a bit of awe at just how sneaky those marketers are. They sure do know their stuff. But I know some of their stuff, too. So do you! What do you think about these tricks? Do they work, and do you  have your own tips for avoiding their carefully crafted traps?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Recipe Thursday: Sweet Tea

So, this is a Southern thing that you are hard pressed to find much outside of the south-eastern states of the US. (That is, until McDonald's introduced sweet tea to their menu. It is actually quite good!) Having been raised by Northerners/Midwesterners, sweet tea isn't something that we had at home, but between going to undergrad in Tennessee, marrying a guy from TN/GA, and going to grad school in Texas, I've learned that I like sweet tea. A lot.

Iced tea itself is pretty much an American drink. A friend in grad school told me about when her mom was visiting from Russia. They had gone out to eat, and her mom had ordered tea. The server brought her sweet tea. She was utterly surprised, and despite the outrageous Texas summer, insisted on hot tea. Cultural mis-communication? I think so.

I do enjoy unsweet iced tea, and sometimes, depending on my mood, actually prefer it . (Do I hear gasps from anyone?) Some restaurants make a killer sweet tea, some make it too sweet for my taste, or have so little call for it that it is over-steeped, bitter and stale by the time I order it. Or it is make through the coffee maker, and tastes like it (a lovely sensitivity I got from my dad).

Looking around, there are also an incredible number of recipes and variations on how to make sweet tea.

From my somewhat-limited experience in making sweet tea at home, I've learned that if there is one thing that is paramount it is to dissolve your sugar in hot liquid [steeped tea or water] before adding the ice and cold water.

Some places use a simple syrup, and add it to iced tea. Some places will dissolve the sugar in the bottom of the pitcher. Some places will use store-bought sweetened liquid, or a fake sugar b/c it dissolves more easily in cold liquid.

I prefer using real sugar. So, that is what I use.

Depending on your taste, any recipe you find will need to be tweaked. Assuming you like (1) iced tea, and (2) sweetened iced tea.

One recipe that I like goes something like this:

Put about 4-6 cups of water in a sauce pan, and add 3-4 tea bags. Bring to a boil. (Yes, bring to a boil with the tea bags in it. One of the things about this is I'm using Lipton's iced tea or Lusianne iced tea bags. Tasty iced, but not exactly the creme de la creme of teas.)

Keep an eye on it. It will be ready when the kitchen starts to smell like tea, and the liquid reaches a dark tea color, darker than you would normally brew it.

As this comes to a boil, pull our your pitcher, and pour about a cup of sugar in the bottom. More if you like it sweeter. My husband likes it a bit sweeter, so I usually end up adding a bit more.

When the tea on the stove is ready, pull it off, remove the tea bags (step-mother-in-law is able to get a couple of uses out of these tea bags), and pour hot liquid directly over the sugar, stirring to dissolve.

When the sugar is completely dissolved, you simply fill the rest of the pitcher with water and/or ice. It will still be a bit warm at first, which is where more ice can help.

Do y'all like sweet tea? Or do you find this a blasphemy against all things tea?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Adventures in Couponing!

On a recent grocery shopping trip, my husband and I tried to stick to our list and use coupons whenever possible. (The list was the general, "what do we need/use" list. I haven't quite graduated to full-week menu planning yet.)

This took a bit more planning than usual for our trip. Originally, we were thinking about going grocery shopping on Saturday, since we wouldn't have been to work in the morning. But, he suggested we wait till Sunday, and see what coupons we could use from the paper that day. This meant that we would have to go get a paper on Sunday morning.

So, between laundry, coupon-clipping, and actually enjoying time together, shopping got put off. We are lucky in that we are not about to starve by delaying a shopping trip by a day or two.

We opted to go to the Kroger near us, and set off! Even though we've lived here for close to a year now, between going to different stores and admittedly less than organized shopping trips before, I am still learning the layout of this Kroger, which did lead to some backtracking and scrambling to look for coupons. After doing this a couple of times, I stood off to the side of a main aisle, mouth open and squinting at the directional signs, putting the relevant coupons in order as best I could, saving produce/frozen/dairy for the end. (Yeah, I know this goes against the "shop the perimeter of the store for whole food/cheaper foods" method, but it is what it is).

Having the coupons in this order did make the rest of the trip go more smoothly. A coupon wallet or organizer of some kind would be very helpful in keeping track of the coupons by brand, product type, expiration date, or whatever organizational method you find convenient. I just had an envelope full of the things. I do know that within the last year or so, my mom gave me a coupon wallet, but I can't find it. I blame moving.

We moved through the store slowly, and all told, ended up spending an hour and a half in the store. That doesn't really bother me, but that amount of time in a grocery store is not my husband's idea of time-well-spent. Hopefully, as we get into the swing of this couponing thing (if it should stick), we'll get more efficient, too!

This shopping trip was a fairly routine weekly type of trip, with other things, like soap, medicine and TP, thrown in. In fact, this trip would probably suffice for 1.5-2 weeks, all things considered.

Even if we had a coupon for something, we didn't just blindly grab that item. We still shopped the store. Were we sticklers for that brand? What are the stipulations for that coupon (did we have to buy 2 to get the savings)? Did the coupon make the unit price lower than the store brand or another brand? All of this resulted in more than a few coupons being relegated to my back pocket, possibly to be used at a later date.

In total, we saved about 30% of our total bill (according to the handy little calculations at the bottom of our receipt). It was not all straight coupons. We used our Kroger Plus Card, which yielded by far the bulk of our savings - about three quarters of that 30% was thanks to the store club card. Kroger also doubles manufacturer's coupons, up to $1. So, any coupon that we had an used, that was less than $0.50, got doubled. This is, honestly, something that I forgot to take into consideration as we were shopping.

A few things that were on the list didn't make it into the cart, b/c they were more general, "it'd be nice to have X on hand" and not necessary items.

All in all, I think that it was a successful shopping trip, and a successful foray into the world of couponing. We both have a better idea of what is actually involved, and how we can work to make the coupons work for us.

I see coupons in our future!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Fun with a Slide Show!

Here, we have a slide show that claims to show painless substitution to save you money.

1) Tights - buy non-designer instead of designer tights. Yeah. Seems a bit obvious to me, but then again, not sure I wore a single name-brand piece of apparel when I was growing up. Perhaps this particular tactic is a part of my childhood skill set.

2) Grocery store - buy store brand instead of brand name. Often, yes. For me, this is where couponing, should you do it, coupled with things like grocery store club cards, and comparing price per unit/ounce/sheet comes into play. A coupon does not always make a name brand product cheaper, but conversely, a store brand product isn't always the most frugal option either. Making the switch from name- to store- brand products that you purchase frequently will certainly help to bring down your overall bill. So will smart shopping. I guess my approach isn't so much painless as it is time consuming. :)

3) Movie Rental - opt for Netflix, not the brick and mortar store (if you can still find one). 5 bucks month for two movies (what they suggest) won't satiate the movie viewing appetite at my house. Honestly, we've recently discovered the joys of Redbox. The selection isn't always great, and outdoor locations do make on the spot browsing a bit chilly right now, but at a buck (plus tax) a day, it is far friendly on our wallets. We've also found out that you can search individual machines online and reserve specific movies. It does require a credit or debit card.

4) Coffee - froth the milk for your latte at home. Seems that they are suggesting a pseudo-latte, depending on your definition of latte, by brewing your own coffee, then adding the frothed milk. Substituting at-home coffee for cafe-coffee is always going to be a money saver. If you choose to go the route of buying a frother for the home, just make sure you research the appliances, and buy one that suites your needs, without breaking the bank.

5) Mail - pay bills online (automatically) instead of ponying up for stamps to mail them. Paying bills online is certainly a great way to eliminate paying for stamps and envelopes, and helps to cut the amount of paper you use. Scheduling online payments also helps you control when the money will actually be taken out of your account. All good - my sticking point is a personal one: setting up automatic drafts. A great idea in theory, especially if you are salaried, and always paid on the same day/date. If your pay amount or schedule is subject to change, automatic drafts feel risky to me. It can also be a pain to try to cancel automatic drafts once a service is terminated.

Having worked at a gym that sold auto-draft memberships, I fielded my share of phone calls from ex-members who were still being drafted. Sometimes it was their fault, sometimes ours, sometimes the bank. Also, we currently have our car insurance automatically drafted from an account. When we moved, we sold one car, and took it off our policy. Or so we thought; a random audit by the insurer placed the car back onto our payment plan, and for a few months, we were charged for a car that was 600+ miles away, titled under someone else.


6) Drinks - drink at home with your friends before going out. Or don't drink? Haha! Alcohol is expensive. Alcohol at a restaurant is mind-boggling. At a time when ordering a soda or iced tea (or sweet tea!) at a restaurant can easily add 2 or 3 dollars to your bill (per person), ordering one alcoholic beverage can be like adding a whole other entree! If drinks and friends are the motivation for going out, starting the outing at someone's house could be a more frugal alternative. Of course, this is provided that you do so responsibly, knowing your limits, and always having a designated driver, or alternate method of getting home. A cab ride is always going to be cheaper than driving drunk.

So, what do you think? Are these suggestions truly a painless way to make a few substitutions and save a bit of money? Are my critiques too heavy handed?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Carpool cool

As a way to procrastinate and learn about frugal blogging, I've been reading other blogs, archives and all. In doing so, I just came across Suddenly Frugal's "Carpooling in the Real World" post (from 2007 - see, archives, I told you!).

One thing she says is that she doesn't think the traditional notion of office workers carpooling really works in today's world, because of satellite offices, varied work schedules, and the variety of after-work commitments that people have. She does talk about carpooling for kids/after-work commitments as being green, frugal, and socially productive, especially for the kids!

Personally, I think that even with satellite offices and non-traditional work hours, carpooling can work, as long as the carpoolers can be flexible. If Person A doesn't need to be at work until after Person B, then Person B is simply dropped off first, and contents themselves to waiting to be picked up. Or Person A arrives early (which could mean starting work early, or taking advantage of the down time to read/eat breakfast/something), and knows that s/he will have some time at the end of the day to wait as well.  This isn't the most time efficient method, but it can still work.

On days when I don't take the bus, or drive myself to work (or before we had two cars), this is similar to what my husband and I do. He'll drop me off, and go on to work. I get to work on time, if not early, and have time to wrap everything up before he gets here. Getting me to work on time forces him to get up and get ready earlier than he would on his own (he is not a morning person - at all!), and he ends up being on time, if not early.

For us, being early is not a bad thing. We'd rather be early than late. Especially to work.

As a bonus, sometimes we have time to have breakfast together, either at home or at a restaurant (sure, not frugal, but it feels special to have breakfast - reminds me when we would do so in TX, before school). When we do have breakfast, sitting together feels is like a reflective respite before we start our days.

What are your feelings on carpooling (when public transport is not a valid option, of course)? Is it an outdated mode of transportation, or the coolest thing since sliced bread?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Recipe Thursday: Vegetable Beef Soup

Sheesh! I need to remember about Recipe Thursday before Thursday is almost over!

A few nights ago, we had soup-from-the-freezer for dinner. (Can't tell you how happy it makes me to be able to pull a fully cooked dinner out of the freezer to thaw the night before.)

I will do my best to recreate the recipe and method-to-my-madness that lead to a yummy soup.

It started with mangled pseudo-pot roast left-overs. I tried to pot roast a cut of meat that shouldn't have been pot-roasted, so it was dry, but perfectly edible. Also browned some ground beef, and sauteed some onions. Added a container of homemade stock (which might actually be broth, I may have my lingo confused) from the freezer (ideally, thawed, but in reality, sometimes I lazily let it finish thawing in the pot), and then water as needed to make sure the meat and onions were sufficiently covered.

Chopped up a few carrots, and added those.

Let it boil for a few minutes, then simmer for about half an hour or so. Really, as long as you keep an eye on the liquid level, you can probably let it simmer for an entire day.

Towards the end, I dumped in roughly a cup each of frozen corn and frozen peas (I love these things!), and let them thaw/cook in the soup.

Salt and pepper to taste. A bay leaf or two would be a nice addition.

The soup was tasty, and I didn't even add Worchestershire sauce to mine! I think I'm getting better at judging water amounts, and how long to boil turkey/chicken carcasses for stock/broth.

Apparently, I like making soup now.

What about you?

Death and Taxes

The only two things for certain in life, right?
I got a new job in 2009. A good job with amazing benefits, making a bit more money. This meant that when the husband and I set out estimating our tax bill, we were convinced we had under-paid throughout the year, and would end up owing money. Enough money that we would started a separate "Tax Bill" savings account right then and there.

Well, since that day, our taxes have actually been done, and we can expect a refund! Sweet! much prefer to get money back, as opposed to owing.

Last year, our taxes were split between Texas (no state income tax, or car-as-property tax) and North Carolina (state income tax, and car-as-property tax). Receiving the car property tax bill in NC at the end of November was a rude surprise, but shows the importance of knowing tax laws where you live/are moving and of having some sort of a cushion or reserve money. Also, last year, our federal refund roughly equaled our state bill. So, we came out even. Not bad. Even is still preferable to owing.

Now, I am quite happy about the prospect of getting a nice little chunk of change back sometime in the next 4 to 8 weeks, but it reminded me of something a professor I once had said. No, not a business or econ professor (two subjects I happily, although stupidly, managed to avoid in college), but a music professor.

Before my gen. ed. music class started one day in April, those of us who were early got to talking about taxes. I don't remember much of the actual conversation, aside from my professor stating that he tried to work it so that his refund was around $100 or less each year. I asked why. His reason was that way he knew he wouldn't owe money, but he would also be able to actually use his money during the year.

In the years since, that is hardly the only place I've heard the argument for arranging to receive a smaller refund. I've heard about, and read articles that call tax refunds "interest free loans for the government." Or this article, which does also address the "refund as savings plan (bad idea)."On the other hand, receiving a sizable refund check allows people to make substantial student loan payments, put money down on a home, start an emergency or retirement fund, or go on vacation.

Really, I am of two minds: 1) I really could use the money I earn as I earn it. Kind of need it, actually. (2) As much as I think I need the money as I earn it, I really, really don't want to owe money come April.

In years past, I was a student, or transitioning to or from being a student, or working different jobs, or moving  with such frequency that it was difficult to plan out what my annual income would be, and therefore what my taxes owed would actually be.

Now, though, with the aforementioned good job, we are more stable, and have the luxury of being able to tell in advanced what paychecks will be, and annual income. As I think about it, my music professor had a good idea: work it out so that you get a small refund, that way, you know you won't owe.

I still have the mammoth compilation CDs from that class, but aside from said CDs, that brief conversation is about all I really remember of the class.

In which camp do you fall: do you want to receive a big refund, or no refund?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Food Waste Reduction Challenge Week 4

Fourth and Final Week.
And I'm late in my tally.

I had forgotten to include a handful of mini-homemade biscuits in my last challenge post, so I should include them  here.

There was some more waste when eating out. I try to order only what I will eat, or take home the leftovers, but it doesn't always work.

That may have actually been it.

We may actually have our food waste under relative control. Not going to throw a party quite yet. Have to see if this is something we can maintain.

Have you been participating in the challenge, officially or unofficially? How has your food waste been this past month? Any plans to continue reducing your food waste?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Where did Monday go? And more on Honey.

Over the weekend, we house-sat for my dad and step mom. A great way to have an inexpensive mini-weekend away. We did spend for gas to and from their house, and ate out a bit more than normal, but, all in all, a lot cheaper than a hotel! Plus, seeing as it was a family home, that we have previously visited, we were comfortable there.

That's really an aside though, and the reason for no Monday post. I was in transit.

Between my recent business trip and this weekend away, I was confronted with the question of how do I transport my attempt at sustainable and earth-friendly personal hygiene.

The honey that I've been using to wash my face comes in a large jar. It is pretty tasty, too. I had two reasons for not just packing up the entire jar. One: it is big. I didn't want to be carrying that all around, and in and out of people's homes and hotels. As it is, at home, I take out of the jar roughly what I need. The jar stays in the kitchen. Two: I figured that my husband would not appreciate being deprived of honey while I was gone.

I was also completely out of commercial face wash, so just taking an old bottle or bar of that was not possible.

Off to the store with a Christmas gift card I went. I bought a squeezable honey-bear of honey, and put it in my toiletry bag, slightly amused.

Using the plastic squeeze bottle of honey was a bit easier for application than what I had been doing at home (spooning out sugared honey into a small bowl, and scoping some up, as needed with my finger). I could just squeeze what I needed onto my finger, instead of guess-timating.

What I noticed, though, is that my skin was happier at home than when traveling. Could be a number of things, like the constant change in temperature, humidity and the general stress of traveling. What I suspect, though, is that it has to do with the fact that the honey at home was sugared, and therefore was exfoliating and cleansing; and the fact that for my business trip, I had left the tea tree oil at home.

So, I've deduced that my skin like regular exfoliation, and regular application of tea tree oil. I don't use the tea tree oil every time I was my face, but have been aiming for at least once a day.

As far as my jojoba and vitamin E moisturizers - the jojoba oil I have is in a small bottle, so that is transportable enough, and I just threw a few vitamin E capsules into a bag (one pre-stuck with a pin) and was on my way.

1) Honey is still working out well on my face, and I'm happy with it.
2) Learned that my skin likes regular exfoliation, and tea tree oil as an acne treatment.
3) For all my fretting, traveling with this regime is surprisingly easy (I almost always forget something!). And, if I want to exfoliate on the road, I'm sure that I can always just mix some sugar and honey together in my hand.

Et voila!

How do your toiletries usually travel?