It was a banner week at the blog carnivals. Two of my posts were selected as editor’s picks! So, without further ado, here is this week’s blog carnival round-up.
First up, Money Hacks Carnival #14 at Prime Time Money. If you liked my editor’s pick post about stopping credit card offers, you might also enjoy Free From Broke’s story about his experiences with the American Express gold card.
Our second carnival is the Carnival of Personal Finance #154 hosted by Vanessa Teretto. In addition to my post about budget party planning, you might also enjoy Bible Money Matter’s post featuring 7 frugal wedding tips.
Our third carnival of the week is the Festival of Frugality #127 at Funny About Money. My post about 9 nearly free ways to entertain (my second editor’s pick), you might also enjoy Save and Conquer’s additional tips for entertaining yourself this summer.
Recently, I bought a pint of dreadful strawberries (I skipped the farmer’s market and took a chance on grocery store fruit.) Unfortunately, there was no saving them. However, I have found several ways to save fruit just on the verge of going bad. It not only saves money, but it adds variety to my menu.
Apples are so easy to use up. If they’re bruised, cut off the bruised parts and then sauté them in a pan with cinnamon, sugar, and butter. It’s a quick and easy side dish. I also like to serve oranges on the side of jerk chicken, that way we can use up fruit with dinner. If you don’t want a fruit side dish, make baked apples or an apple tart for dessert.
Banana bread is the best use for mushy bananas, but you can also use them in smoothies.
Strawberries and cherries also make great tarts, if they haven’t gone bad yet. If you don’t have enough to bake, toss strawberries in the blender and make a delicious smoothie. Other berries can be frozen before they go bad. Lay them on a sheet pan in a single layer, and then put in the freezer until hard. Once they’re hard, put them in a freezer bag or plastic container. They won’t defrost well enough to eat alone (although frozen cherries can be yummy), you can make them into delicious sauce or use in a tart, pie, or fruit bread later. I use them in smoothies, which also replaces the ice in the smoothie.
Rather than keeping store-bought lemon juice on hand, squeeze fresh lemons. If they’re about to go bad, squeeze them and freeze the juice for use later. You can do the same thing with oranges, limes, and other citrus fruits.
Peaches, Apricots, and other Stone Fruits
When I was growing up, my backyard had a peach tree, an apricot tree, a plum tree, a cherry tree, and grape vines. The peach and apricot trees produced so much fruit that it would fall right off the tree before we could pick it. There was way more than we could eat, so we salvaged what we could by making jams and jellies, canning cut fruit, and dehydrating slices for delicious snacks (although my sister and I usually ate all the dehydrated peaches the second the lid came off the dryer). They also made it into numerous pies and breads. We often froze a loaf to have at Christmas.
Cut them up and use them in a summer chicken salad or fruit salad. You can also dehydrate them to make your own raisins.
The average person doesn’t buy mangoes, pineapples, or passion fruit without an intended use for it, but here are a few ideas in case you overbuy or your plans change. Like other fruits, these can all be dehydrated. You can cut them into chunks and freeze them for use in sauces later. If still reasonably fresh and firm, make a fruit salsa to serve over fish or chicken. If they’re getting a bit soft, make a tart or cobbler with them.
Fruit is plentiful now, but it won’t be in just a few months. Preserve what you can so you can enjoy a sweet treat in the dead of winter, or just make sure you use it all up now to save some cash.
If you have other uses for old fruit, please share them.
A lot of people hate leftovers. Who wants warmed over chicken from the night before, served exactly the same way? Blah, boring. But leftovers don’t have to be bad. You can change things up a little bit to stretch one meal into without spending a lot more money. It also saves a lot of time.
This is one of my favorites. If you’ve got a leftover chicken breast, use it in fried rice. This is especially good for those runty breasts that aren’t quite a serving of chicken but you don’t want to toss. Simply dice the chicken and some veggies – whatever you have will do. I like bell peppers or snow peas (in season) because they add color and crunch. Scramble an egg and some green onions (optional) in a pan. Remove and set on a plate. Add oil to the pan. Add the chicken and stir fry until warmed, about two minute. Add the veggies to pan. Stir-fry about one minute, until warm but still crisp. Dump in the rice, chicken broth, soy sauce (get crazy and add a dash of sesame oil if you have it), and egg bits. Rule of thumb: for four servings, use a half cup of total liquid. Halve that for two servings. I’ll usually do six tablespoons of broth plus two tablespoons of soy sauce. If you have cashews or peanuts, toast them and add them to the pan. Mix and serve.
You can also turn leftover beef into a quick stir-fry. Slice it thin, and then add it to a pan with some cooked noodles (rice noodles or spaghetti) and veggies. Once again, soy sauce mixed with chicken or beef broth adds the last dash of flavor. It’s ready in minutes.
If you’ve got leftover meatloaf, it will make a great sandwich the next day, or you can warm it up in the office microwave and bring a small container of gravy. Somehow meatloaf at lunch feels luxurious.
Leftover ground beef – make a quick beef stroganoff with noodles and sour cream, serve it over pasta with tomato sauce, or add it to a pot of rice and beans. If it’s fresh ground beef, mix it with diced onion, form it into a patty, and freeze it for quick burgers another night. If it’s defrosted beef, you’ll have to cook the patties before you can freeze them again. I usually cook them to rare, and then freeze, so they can cook to medium when I defrost them again.
I tend to have a lot of leftover rice. If it’s a mix, I’ll just save it as a side dish for the next day. If it’s plain white rice, I might add some beans and sausage pulled out of the casing to make a quick rice and beans dinner. All you need is cayenne pepper and chicken broth to make a simple sauce for it.
Leftover veggies are the simplest. They can be mixed with other veggies to make a side dish the next day. If the veggies are raw, they’ll keep for a few days in the fridge. Use them in salads or add to stir-fries or rice and beans. If cooked, mix with other cooked veggies to make a veggie trio side dish the next night.
Leftover fish is the toughest to deal with. You have to be careful not to overcook it when reheating. Salmon does well cold over salad. Firm white fish is also good cold with salad. Shrimp, of course, make great stir-fries or spices up rice and beans. They also freeze really well in a zip-top bag. For other fish, I try to avoid having leftovers. Instead I buy it as close to the serving size as possible. It might not be the best thing to do, but you can break a thin frozen fish in half and keep it frozen if you have too many servings. Fresh fish also freezes well if you flash freeze it and then put it an airtight freezer bag.
Like rice, beans are easy to get rid of. Obviously, you can make rice and beans. You can also serve over pasta with a white sauce (for white beans) or a spicy sauce (for red or black beans). If you’ve got leftover beans and beef, make chili. They also make a good side dish with mixed with fresh herbs and diced tomatoes.
Most leftovers will keep in the fridge for 2-3 days. To avoid the whining about leftovers, wait a day before using it. If you’re stretching your grocery budget, then these tricks can help you save a few bucks and avoid wasting food. As your mom used to say, “There are children starving in Africa.” True, eating your carrots won’t make them less hungry, but if we all learn to throw out less food, and therefore buy less food, there will be more of it to go around.
It seems that every week some personal finance writer or speaker explains that we could all get out of debt if we just stopped buying $5 lattes every day. If I hear that one more time, I will scream.
Why have all of these advisers fixated on the latte factor? While it’s true that buying a $5 latte every weekday for a year will cost you $1300, the average person has much more than $1300 in debt. I do realize that they’re trying to tell us to cut unnecessary daily expenses that add up over time, but at this point the latte factor has become such a standard claim that no one bothers to listen anymore.
True personal finance advice shouldn’t rely on tired clichés that everyone is using. If it were really as simple as drinking the free office coffee, no one would be in debt anymore. I don’t even drink coffee, so how on earth did I wind up in debt? Surely it can’t be that advanced degree I got? Could it be the wedding trip I had to take last year? No, it must be the lattes. That’s clearly the problem.
Getting out of debt requires more than simple cuts. It involves changing your attitudes about money, changing your lifestyle, and cutting many expenses so you’re living within your means again. Trimming that $5 a day is a good start, but it won’t solve the problem unless you’re exactly $1300 in debt due to your addiction to drinking high-calorie frothy beverages five days a week for the last year.
Real Debt Reduction Techniques
If you aren’t a big fan of lattes (like me), you may still have a few wasteful spending areas. Combine spending reductions with other tried-and-true debt reduction methods if you really and truly want to get out of debt.
Step 1: Go through all of your monthly spending – write it all down for a month – to see where your bugaboos are. It might really be a latte, but it could also be trips to the vending machine, your unused gym membership, or even library late fees. Cut several wasteful spending habits to produce real savings.
Step 2: List all your debts, and make a plan for paying them off. Set goals with realistic but challenging dates. In other words, plan to pay off $10,000 in a year, not in two months (unless you know you’ve got a big chunk of money coming.) The realistic date will provide motivation to avoid spending. Without a goal, it’s easy to say, “Well, buying this Coke won’t delay my debt too much, I’ll still pay it off eventually.” If you have a debt-payoff date in your mind, you know much all those little purchases will delay you.
If it helps, you can tell yourself that you can resume your normal spending once you’re out of debt. Here’s the secret they don’t tell you: once you pay off the debt, you probably won’t want to resume your old spending habits. Saving money feels good.
Step 3: Learn to be frugal in other areas, too. With the cost of food rising, groceries are big place where cutting spending is important. Eat more whole foods and fewer convenience foods. Shop at farmer’s markets, use coupons, and shop the weekly grocery flyer. Plan your meals in advance. Chances are that you’re wasting money if you buy groceries every day. You may forget that you already have food in the fridge and buy a duplicate item. Or you might forget to use something up before it goes bad.
Step 4: Change your attitude about money. This will happen over time as you pay off debt, learn to control spending, and learn to be more frugal. You’ll come to recognize money as a powerful, yet limited, resource that can help you reach your goals, not an endless spigot that you can fritter away at will. It’s not proof of your value as a person and spending it doesn’t make you into a better person or a better friend.
The latte factor certainly does apply to some people, but other people may hear that advice and dismiss it because they don’t buy lattes. If you’re that person, take a hard look at your finances and make a commitment to plugging the holes wherever they are.
I’m not a member of the Money Blog Network, but they pose interesting group writing projects from time-to-time. This month they asked bloggers to compare their finances today with how they were ten years ago. Ten years ago was an interesting period in my life, and I just happen to still have the tax records from 1998, so here goes!
Ten years ago I was three years out of college and still working in the field of my degree. It was a low-paying field but I’d managed to snag a relatively high-paying job in 1997, around $36K a year, plus medical. 1998 was my highest paid year for a long time because a miserable work situation forced me to start cutting my hours after that year. I was also renewing my interest in writing and earned a whopping $20 from side projects that year.
After college, I had a string of low-paying freelance jobs, and then a low-paying full-time job ($6 an hour). That meant that I had about $10,000 in debt racked up by 1998. The money went for things like groceries and gas, not for anything fun. I had no college debt and was transferring the credit card debt between zero-interest cards while I worked it down. I also had a car loan, which I was still paying off.
Unfortunately, I received an inheritance of $52,000 that year (which is why I have the tax records still). That allowed me to pay off my debt, buy decent furniture, save a little for retirement, and invest in the stock market. Yes, I invested just in time for the big crash of 2000. Yay me!
My Living Situation
Due to a series of bad living situations, I moved into a one-bedroom apartment by myself in 1995, and was still living there in 1998. My landlords had never increased my rent, so I was paying $600 a month for a nice little place with a kitchen I miss to this day.
Fast Forward Ten Years
Now I’m working in a field that didn’t exist in 1998, and have another degree. I’m also married. Together our income is significantly higher than my solo income ten years ago, but it’s taken us a long time to get there. Although I had no credit card debt when we married, he did and we created more while we were both in grad school. I also married into significant student loan debt, and have some of that of my own.
I hoped we’d own a house by now, but the market run-up made that impossible. I do regret investing in the stock market rather than buying a small condo in 1998. If I’d bought real estate, I would have had to sell it at the peak, because that’s when I got married and our stuff won’t fit in a one-bedroom. I could have $400K to put down on a new house! But instead, I have $0 to put down. The retirement savings and investments were used to pay for school and a period of self-employment when that bad work situation got so bad I had to quit.
So ten years later, I’m starting over again on building a financial future. My financial resolutions will have a significant chunk of debt paid off by the end of this year, and we’ll be boosting our retirement savings, too. It’s not a great place to be, but I think the next ten years will be much, much better financially than the last ten.
It’s Friday, which means it’s carnival round-up day! This week we once again have three carnivals to enjoy.
First up, the Money Hack’s Carnival #13, hosted by Moolanomy. In addition to my post about credit card purchase protection, you might also enjoy Credit Addict’s advice about cash back rewards cards. I don’t have one of those, but I’m thinking about getting one.
As I said yesterday, summer is a time for throwing parties. But, with all your money going into your gas tank, you might not have anything left for entertaining. Or you might just be bored and need something to do now that there’s nothing to watch on TV. Here are 9 nearly free ways to entertain yourself, your family, and your friends at home.
Host a Game Night
Drag out all those old board games (or fire up the Wii if you have one), and invite everyone over for a game night. Ask your friends to bring snacks and drinks. Use your regular plates, cups, and utensils to avoid buying them. You can also do this with the family. Rather than a full dinner, make nachos and then play a game together.
Open that Bottle Night
Technically, Open That Bottle Night falls in February, but that’s nine months away, so do it now. The theory is that everyone has a bottle of wine they never opened. Maybe they were saving it for a special occasion that never came or they just forgot about. Invite all your friends over to open those bottles. Even if some are crap, you’ll still have plenty left. Serve veggies, finger foods, cheese, etc. Since your friends are bringing wine they already have, they can bring snacks, too.
Open the Freezer Night
This is a great one for barbecue season. Ask everyone to dig a grillable out of the freezer, thaw it, and bring it to the party to share. Assign the buns, side dishes, and drinks to the guests and you’ll have an instant party for little cost.
Silly Movie Night
Each family member or friend picks a DVD they love (the sillier the better). Put them all in a bag and draw one. That’s the one you watch with lots of popcorn and other junk food.
Have a Treasure Hunt
Write names on dollar store goodies and hide them in the yard, then send your kids or friends out to hunt for them. The challenge is that they have to find their own name, and can’t help anyone else. If you hide them well, this could fill hours.
Play Obstacle Croquet
This one’s good for a weekend day. You probably know someone with a croquet set. Borrow it and set it up in your backyard or a nearby park. Up the ante by introducing obstacles like a wooden bridge (just two small planks leaned over another piece of wood), or a tough root to get around. In my epic set-up, my friends had to hit the ball up a seam in the concrete, up a grate, across the deck, down a gravel path, across the lawn, over a bridge, through a tunnel, and then go through all the wickets. The winner got the glory.
Play Farmer’s Market Bonanza
Take the whole family to the farmer’s market and have each person choose one ingredient. Then you all have to figure out how to combine them into a delicious meal that you cook together.
Ask your friends to bring hors d’oeuvres, preferably in bite-sized pieces. If it’s you and the family, plan a dinner of appetizers while you play a game or cards.
S’mores don’t have to be a camping food! Get out the supplies and roast them over the BBQ. Use a gas burner if you don’t have a BBQ. Sit around whatever flame device you have eating s’mores and telling ghost stories.
If you invite friends to share in these activities, then they’ll have to drive to get to you and spend a little to provide snacks, but it will still keep the costs pretty low for everyone. If you stick to your family, then your costs are slightly higher, but you don’t have to drive far, so it’s still pretty cheap.
Do you have any ideas for entertaining for free or nearly free? Tell me in the comments.
Summer and the winter holidays are the two biggest times of year when people host parties. If you’re planning a party, and are worried about busting your budget, use these tips to keep the party costs in check.
Plan Early or Plan Late
If you plan for the party early, you have plenty of time to plan an affordable menu, schedule the party prep, and scout out affordable supplies. If you wait till the last minute, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be serving simpler and cheaper fare and paring down on the decorations. It seems to be the middle of the road planning that gets people into trouble with their budget – there’s not enough time to scout deals, but plenty of time to decide on a gourmet menu for twenty.
Avoid Meal Times
Unless you’re holding a simple barbecue in the summer — where chicken, hot dogs, and burgers are expected — hosting your party during a meal time can quickly eat up the entire party budget. Instead, schedule a cocktail party from 4-6 or after 9. That way people will know not to expect a meal. If you don’t want to limit the hours, indicate that it’s an “open house” party, which means people can drop in and won’t expect a big meal.
Skip the Theme
Some parties lend themselves to a theme automatically – red, white, and blue for Independence Day, holiday décor for Christmas. The rest of the time, skip the theme. Simple decorations you can use at another party are the best way to go. Think low candles in votive holders and a few flowers. Maybe some twinkle lights for an evening party.
Stock Up On Cheap Supplies
First, drag out all of your current platters, pitchers, and glassware. It’s fine to mix and match. If you’re hosting a large gathering, you’ll need to buy plastic cups, paper plates, and plastic utensils. Visit Costco, Target, or a dollar store to nab deals. Don’t go to a party store unless you want to overpay.
Use Free Invitations
Unless this is a formal event like a shower or wedding, use evite or just email your friends. Paper invitations are easily misplaced, and most people are fine with electronic invitations these days.
Hold a Potluck
For several years, my friends and I rotated New Year’s Eve duties. Most of the time it was a potluck – everyone brought a favorite dish. That also keeps your costs down as the host. You can do the same thing for a dinner party with friends – everyone brings their favorite to share.
Have a Buffet
For a large party, a buffet is pretty much the only way to go. Be sure to choose simple foods that taste good at room temperature. Think veggies and dip, chips, cold cuts and bread. Avoid items that must be kept hot, like soup. If you want to serve something cold, set it on a bowl of ice. Finger foods are best – it’s too hard to deal with a fork, a plate, and a cup if you’re not sitting down. Most of these can be found cheaply at a bulk store like Costco or Smart & Final.
Limit the Liquor
Stick to one kind of liquor that goes with several mixers, or skip the hard stuff all together and limit the options to wine and beer. The standard rule of thumb is 2-3 drinks per person. A bottle of wine gets five servings, a bottle of beer is one serving, and hard liquor is usually 1.5 oz. per serving. When buying, remember that many of your guests will bring a drink or snack. That means you can buy a little less than recommended without running out. Be sure to provide some bottled water and soda for the non-drinkers.
Make Your Own Music Mix
Create a music mix in your iPod or computer, hook it up to speakers, and you’ve got free music for the whole evening.
Formal Parties for Less
Formal parties are a little different. For events like showers, guests will only bring a gift for the guest of honor, so buy enough wine for everyone. Although you will probably need to serve a meal, you can still serve it buffet style. Look for menu items that can be prepared well in advance and are made with affordable ingredients. Again, skip the big theme. Simple, elegant decorations in the bride’s color are best. Skip the games, too. They usually require supplies and no one really enjoys them.
Some people think they must go all out to host a party – plan a huge theme, make tons of food, and schedule out activities. The truth is, most people go to party to relax and talk with their friends. Keep it simple and you and your guests will be happy. Your budget will be happy, too.
In the last few days, I’ve seen several lists of personal finance books floating around the blogosphere. That got me to thinking: which four books and which four blogs would I most recommend to someone new to personal finance? If you haven’t already read them, I highly recommend you add them to your summer reading list or blog reader.
Top Four Personal Finance Books
You’ll notice that I don’t have many personal finance book reviews on the site yet. Of those I do have, here are my top picks as basic reading for everyone interested in personal finance:
The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom. As I said in my review, this was my first personal finance book. It’s a broad overview of a number of topics related to personal finance, including debt, real estate, retirement planning, and estate planning. Despite the name, it’s not really a workbook, but it will enlighten you about your financial philosophy or spur you to get your affairs in order.
Your Money or Your Life. As I said in my review, most of the advice doesn’t apply to me, but it’s a great book for anyone who tends to overspend or doesn’t understand the role or value of money in their lives.
America’s Cheapest Family. If you’re starting your frugal kick, this is my top choice for learning to make frugal choices. The book is well-organized and contains great little nuggets of advice. It’s also not quite as extreme as some other guides to frugality.
The Total Money Makeover. This book is best if you have serious debt and don’t know how even start getting out of it. Ramsey’s step-by-step guide is part inspirational, part solid advice. Although I disagree with some of his advice, it’s a great tool for the truly desperate.
Top Four Personal Finance Blogs
If you don’t have time to read personal finance books (or, perish the thought, hate reading books), then add these four personal finance blogs to your feedreader promptly. Even if you have time to read books, add these four feeds to your reader. These are the blogs I always make a point to read.
The Simple Dollar. Trent has quickly grown his blog into one of the best of the bunch. Although I don’t always agree with his advice or point-of-view, he has an interesting perspective on frugality and personal finance.
Get Rich Slowly. Like Trent, JD Roth also worked his way out of debt and became one of the powerhouse PF bloggers in the process. The blog’s tone is more journalistic than some of the other blogs, but it’s always interesting. I tend to agree with his advice more often.
The Digerati Life. Like me, SVB lives in a big metropolitan area and is familiar with those specific challenges. This blog features in-depth analyses of various PF topics and solid advice for people at all levels.
Mrs. Micah. Also like me, Mrs. Micah is new to the PF blogging world. She’s one of the youngest of the bloggers, which gives her an interesting perspective on all things related to being young and frugal.
The spring TV season is nearly over, which means you’ll have plenty of time to read. In between the fun fiction you plan to read, add these books and blogs to your schedule. You might find a tip or two that can help you save money or spend better. At the very least, you’ll learn something.
What are your favorite personal finance books? Tell me in the comments.
Recently, I read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and immediately started looking into grass-fed beef. I’m also considering the switch to naturally-raised pork. I found both at my local farmer’s market, but then I had to confront the issue of price. Is it possible to that grass-fed beef is a cheaper alternative to corn-fed beef?
Cost Comparison: Grass-Fed Beef vs. Corn-Fed Beef
On the face, grass-fed beef is more expensive than corn-fed. I compared the prices from the beef at Ralph’s with those of the beef I found at my farmer’s market:
As you can see, corn-fed is cheaper from a purely cost perspective. The price at the farmer’s market also recently went up a dollar, due to the increased fuel cost to transport it to the market. I expect the grocery store price to increase some, too, but not as much.
Once you consider other factors, grass-fed beef starts to look cheaper. First, there’s the nutritional element. According to Time Magazine, grass-fed beef is 35-65% lower in fat, depending on the cut. By some estimates, it has only 10% of the saturated fat of corn-fed beef and is much lower in calories.
Grass-fed beef also has much higher ratios of omega 3 fatty acids and a healthier ratio of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. Finally, it’s higher in vitamins A and E, both antioxidants.
If you compare eating mostly corn-fed beef with eating mostly grass-fed beef, it seems clear that it’s much more nutritious. Although it’s still high in cholesterol, you will ingest and store less saturated fat and receive more heart-healthy fats.
Health Cost Comparison
Corn-fed beef is more likely to contain E. coli and other harmful bacteria because of the way it’s raised. It’s also more likely to contain antibiotics due to the presence of these bacteria and the infections cows develop as a result of eating corn.
I believe that switching to grass-fed beef could reduce your health-care costs later in life. You may require fewer blood pressure and cholesterol medications. You may also be slimmer and have less fat in your arteries. You’ll have a lower risk of food poisoning. If everyone switched, we’d worry less about bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics.
Energy Savings Comparison
Grass-fed beef saves energy on a number of levels. To start with, it cooks 20% faster, which means you’ll save money on gas or electricity when you cook it.
Grass-fed beef requires less energy to produce it. A substantial portion of the corn grown in this country is feed to livestock and poultry. Corn consumes a large quantity of energy in the form of fuel for farm equipment, fertilizer, fuel to transport the grain to the feedlot, and fuel to process the grain for livestock consumption.
In contrast, grass-fed beef produces some fertilizer as it grazes, in the form of its own waste. Growing all that grass still requires some fertilizer, but not as much.
Grass-fed beef is gentler on the environment, but not completely gentle. They still produce methane, which is a huge polluter. However, they produce less pollution because you can’t raise as many of them in one place and they take longer to mature. They also don’t contribute to increased pollution from growing corn to feed cattle.
If more people switched to grass-fed beef, we’d have to eat less of it because less of it is available for consumption. More grass-fed cows would (hopefully) reduce the number of corn-fed cows, which would further reduce pollution from cattle.
Once you factor in the nutrition, health, energy, and environmental benefits of grass-fed beef, I think it wins the cost comparison. We now only eat beef a couple times a month, whereas we used to eat it once a month. For the most part, I’ve switched some of those beef days to meatless days. I haven’t yet switched to naturally-raised pork, but after seeing the environmental impact of feedlot pigs in Discover Magazine, I think I have to. Again we’ll reduce our consumption there, and replace it with more vegetables.