Friday, December 31, 2010

My Top Five Frugal Successes of 2010


It's the last day of 2010 and I've been taking some time to reflect on the year's many joys and challenges. A lot of things have happened in our family this year (many of them too personal to share on this blog). What I *can* share are some of the frugal changes we made over the course of the year that have been the most satisfying to me.

1. Finally ditching cable...for good.
This one seems like a total no-brainer; after all it's practically Frugality 101. We canceled our cable service in January. For a family that previously lived without a TV for a couple of years, I don't know how we ever managed to get sucked into cable, but we did. We had it for about seven years, and in hindsight it's definitely one of those "what were we thinking?" situations. Neither my husband or I are big TV watchers in the first place. We discovered after we canceled our cable service that a simple pair of rabbit ears given to us by a neighbour allows us to receive the 3 or 4 channels we most commonly watch. Since we're in Canada, we don't have access to Hulu; however the netflix streaming service is now available in Canada and if we wanted to spend $7.99 a month we could stream it through my boys' Playstation 3 system. Right now we've been very content to watch shows on DVD from the library (we're fortunate that our library has an extensive DVD collection). The only thing I've really missed is being able to watch baseball games during the summer (we listened to them on the radio instead).

We had our phone, internet, and cable services bundled through a single provider, so when we canceled cable, we reassessed our phone service and switched to a less expensive package (this was a new package that wasn't available when we first signed on with our current provider). These changes allowed us to cut our bill in half, from $162 and change a month down to just over $82. That means we saved $960 over the course of the year. I'm so pleased we made this change, but really wish we'd done it a lot sooner (or better yet, never succumbed to the lure of cable in the first place).


2. Switching to a cash system for groceries and miscellaneous spending.
I've always paid fairly close attention to how much we spend and allocated specific amounts for each item in our budget. Most of our bills are paid by automatic withdrawal, so they're pretty easy to keep track of. The two categories in our budget that were the most difficult to keep a handle on were groceries and miscellaneous spending (which for us includes everything from personal care to general household needs, gifts and haircuts). We finally decided to switch to a cash system for these two categories, and it's worked out beautifully. It's so much easier to track how much we've spent and how much we have left for the rest of the month. I simply put the designated amounts of money into envelopes at the beginning of each month, and once it's gone, it's gone (if there's any left at the end of the month, I roll it over into next month's envelope). This method has really helped us stay true to our designated budget without spending a lot of time trying to track our purchases.

3. Switching to reusable feminine hygiene products.
This is a change I had been meaning to make for a few years now. I tried the Keeper several years ago, and I really *wanted* to like it, but it just didn't work out for me (it was uncomfortable to wear and I had some kind of reaction to it). I planned to sew some cloth pads and never quite got around to it (my bottomless mending pile has a lot to do with that). I definitely didn't want to spend the amount of money required to purchase pre-made cloth pads, but I'd had enough of purchasing disposable products (not to mention all the unnecessary waste they create). I finally came up with a very simple, no-sew solution that took me all of five minutes. It's worked well for me for several months now. I'll share more details in a future post.

4. Learning how to make my own homemade deodorant.
Not only is this a money-saver, it's very satisfying to find an all-natural solution that actually works! My husband and I have been using this recipe since the spring and we both love it. I add a few drops each of tea tree and peppermint essential oil for extra anti-microbial coverage and a fresh, clean scent. This discovery has blossomed into an interest in making more of my own personal care products, and a few weeks ago I discovered the awesome blog CrunchyBetty.com. Since then I have enjoyed making Mocha-Frappuccino face masks and Winter Face Scrub and am itching to experiment with many more concoctions in the new year.

5. Perfecting my homemade yogurt and granola recipes.
I definitely know my way around the kitchen and generally have no trouble creating a wide variety of tasty foodstuffs from scratch. The perfect yogurt and granola recipes seemed to have eluded me for years, though. This year I finally got them both right! I can now consistently turn out a vanilla yogurt that my family loves, and have achieved what I consider to be "granola perfection" - flavourful, crunchy, but not too sweet (recipe here).


What were your biggest frugal successes in 2010?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Year End Clothing Budget Report


I can't quite believe that Christmas is over for another year. I hope you all had a wonderful holiday! I guess it's time for me to ease back into my blogging routine. With just a couple of days left in the year, I wanted to make sure to squeeze in my final clothing budget report for 2010. In my mid-year update, I shared that we had spent a total of $99.54 on clothing for the first half of the year. Since then, I picked up a number of items at yard sales in July and August:

$1.00 for a black button down shirt for me
$2.00 for New Balance runners for hubby
$3.50 for 2 T-shirts, 1 long sleeve T and a denim stretch jacket for me
$0.50 for a long sleeve thermal undershirt for hubby
$1.00 for a short sleeve dress shirt for hubby
$3.00 for a long sleeve T, short sleeved summer blouse and black skirt for me
$5.00 for a Nike jacket

The total for these yard sale purchases was $16.00 for 12 items.

In late summer and early fall we hit several sale days at local thrift stores. A detailed report of our purchases at the Salvation Army and Value Village 50% off days is here. My boys needed a lot of new clothes so we ended up buying a lot - 32 items for $105.50. We also hit up Walmart to stock up on socks and underwear to the tune of $55.59.

After we completed those shopping trips, we had most of what we needed to meet our clothing needs until next spring. We checked out another 50% off day at Value Village in November, which I reported on here. We purchased 8 items for a total of $31.12 that day. I also picked up a couple of things at fall yard and rummage sales:

$2.00 for 2 pairs of running shoes for the boys
$1.00 for a pair of dockers-style pants for hubby
$1.00 for a long sleeved dress shirt for hubby

Our final purchase was a pair of winter gloves for my younger son at a local surplus store for $4.50.

That brings our total for the second half of the year to $216.71 - over twice what we spent the first half of the year! That is fairly typical for us I think, as we seem to need more items for the fall and winter months.  Just over a quarter of this total was for socks and underwear alone. It always amazes me how much undergarments can eat into our clothing budget!

Our grand total for the year was $316.25 or $79.06 per person. I had guesstimated that we spend about $300 a year on clothes (this is the first year I've kept such detailed records on our clothing purchases) so it looks like my impression was pretty accurate.

How about you? How much does your family spend a year on clothing? Were you over or under your budget for the year?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Two Last Minute Gifts from the Kitchen

It's only four days left until the big day! If you're still looking for a couple of gift ideas to "fill in around the edges", here are two of my tried-and-true, super simple food gifts. Despite the fact that they are some of the easiest treats I make, they are always received with delight.

1. Cracker Toffee
(pictured above)

1 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 sleeve soda crackers
2 cups semi sweet or milk chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 400F. Line a jelly roll pan with parchment paper. Lay the soda crackers over the top, covering the surface completely. In a medium saucepan, bring butter and brown sugar to a boil. Boil for 3-5 minutes, stirring constantly, until mixture becomes thick and toffee-like..Pour mixture over crackers and spread evenly over top. Bake in oven for 5 minutes. Be VERY careful removing from the oven, the sugar mixture will be extremely hot and bubbly. As it starts to cool down, you may need to rearrange the crackers back into their original position with a fork as they have a tendency to float around in the bubbling toffee mixture Sprinkle the chocolate chips over the top and let stand about 5 minutes until the chips have melted. Spread the melted chocolate evenly over the top. Refrigerate until thoroughly chilled (at least 2-3 hours, overnight is ideal). Remove parchment paper and break into pieces. This keeps well for a few days in the fridge and can be frozen if you happen to make it further in advance.

2. Chocolate Barks

Barks are about the simplest candy to make but they really seem to impress people! You can do just about any combination of chocolate and "additions" that strikes your fancy.

Basic bark formula:
2-3 cups chocolate chips (semi sweet, milk, or white)
1- 1 1/2 cups additions

Line a jelly roll pan with parchment paper. In double boiler or microwave, melt chocolate. Stir in "additions" and spread in a thin layer on jelly roll pan (usually it won't cover the entire surface). Chill in refrigerator until solid, then break into pieces.

Some of my favourite combinations:
-white chocolate with crushed candy cane
-white chocolate with dried cranberries and pistachios or pumpkin seeds
-semi sweet chocolate with raisins and peanuts
-semi sweet chocolate with marshmallows and peanuts ("rocky road" bark)

Other possibilities:
-white chocolate with crushed Oreos ("cookies and cream" bark)
-milk chocolate with toffee bits and almonds

You can drizzle a contrasting colour of chocolate over top of the bark once it's chilled, then re-chill until the drizzle hardens. Store in the fridge or freezer until ready to give.

This is a fun and easy one to do with the kids, and they will enjoy coming up with their own combinations!

I'm going to be taking a bit of a blogging break over the holidays, so expect to see me back sometime next week.

MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL!!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

RECIPE: Spicy Peanut and Tomato Soup


With less than two weeks to go until Christmas, most of us have schedules that are jam-packed and not a lot of time to cook dinner. This is when I resort to my quickest, easiest recipes. This simple soup is very easy to prepare and is also something a bit "off the beaten path" with its African-style blend of curry, tomatoes and peanut butter. This is one of my family's favourite soups and it goes together in a flash. If you don't have any sweet potatoes on hand, just add more carrot. It will still be fabulous!

Ingredients:
1 tbsp canola or vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, chopped
1 medium carrot, grated
1 sweet potato, peeled and grated
3 cups chicken or vegetable stock (you can use water if you don't have any stock)
1 cup crushed tomatoes
3/4 cup peanut butter
1 tsp curry powder
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper

chopped peanuts and green onions for garnish (optional)

Instructions:
In a large saucepan, saute the garlic, onion, grated carrot and sweet potato in oil until tender. Add stock, tomatoes, peanut butter,curry powder and cayenne pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer about 10-15 minutes. Ladle into bowls and sprinkle with chopped peanuts and green onions, if desired. Serves 4.

I shared this recipe at Tasty Tuesday.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Weekly Menu Retrospective #19


Welcome to my weekly roundup of the past week's eats. I prefer to report what we ate in the last week, rather than what we're planning to eat in the coming week. Why? The reason is pretty simple: although I usually have a general idea of what we're going to eat in the next week or so, life often unfolds a little differently than planned, and I adjust my menu plan on a near-daily basis to accommodate leftovers and other not-possible-to-plan-ahead circumstances. I find this is the easiest way to ensure that I minimize our family's food waste. I'm also willing to admit that I'm a rather spontaneous cook, given to preparing foods that strike me as the most appealing thing to eat right here and now!

Breakfasts: banana chocolate chip muffins, cornbread with jam, Christmas granola, French toast, banana bread

Lunches: pasta salad with sweet peppers, leftovers, pizza, peanut butter toast

Dinners:

Monday: Spicy Peanut Soup, cornbread

Tuesday: Smothered meatballs, rice, broccoli, carrots

Wednesday: Ham and cheese egg puff

Thursday: Baked pasta, peas

Friday: Leftover buffet

Saturday: Black bean chili

Sunday: Barbecued pork chops with spicy rub, roasted root vegetables

I'll be posting the recipes for most of these dishes in the next few weeks, so stay tuned!

For more great meal ideas, head over to Menu Plan Monday at orgjunkie.com. 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

GIFTS FROM THE KITCHEN: Christmas Granola


Homemade granola is just about one of my favourite things to make (and eat!). It is one of those foods that is made of such simple ingredients, you don't think it can be anything special. But some kind of magical kitchen synergy happens during the granola preparation process and the end product is both delicious and nourishing.

I decided I would embellish my basic granola recipe to make a holiday version by using dried cranberries in place of the raisins, and raw pumpkin seeds instead of my usual half sunflower seed/half pumpkin seed blend. This gives the granola a nice natural red-and-green effect, perfect for Christmas. You could use pistachios instead of the pumpkin seeds if you prefer, for another "green" option.

This is a great food gift when you're looking for something healthy to give that will still "wow" the recipient!

Ingredients:
4 1/2 cups rolled oats
1 cup coconut
1 cup pumpkin seeds or pistachios
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ginger
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup honey
1/3 cup coconut oil, olive oil or butter (or a combination of any of those!)
1 cup dried cranberries

Instructions:
In a large mixing bowl, combine the oats, coconut, pumpkin seeds, cinnamon and ginger. In a small saucepan, combine the brown sugar, honey and oil. Heat gently and stir until thoroughly combined. Pour honey mixture over oat mixture and stir until oats are evenly coated. Spread on a rimmed cookie sheet and bake at 300F for 30 minutes or until golden, stirring every 10 minutes. Let cool, then stir in cranberries.

Looking for more food gift ideas?
Candied Peanuts
Puppy Chow (for people, not pets!)
How to make a "fancy" loaf of bread for gifting
What to give with a loaf of bread

I shared this recipe at Tasty Tuesday and Friday Favorites.

Mountain Rose Herbs. A herbs, health and harmony c 
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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Weekly Menu Retrospective #18


Welcome to my weekly roundup of the past week's eats. I prefer to report what we ate in the last week, rather than what we're planning to eat in the coming week. Why? The reason is pretty simple: although I usually have a general idea of what we're going to eat in the next week or so, life often unfolds a little differently than planned, and I adjust my menu plan on a near-daily basis to accommodate leftovers and other not-possible-to-plan-ahead circumstances. I find this is the easiest way to ensure that I minimize our family's food waste. I'm also willing to admit that I'm a rather spontaneous cook, given to preparing foods that strike me as the most appealing thing to eat right here and now! 

Once again,  I don't have a lot of links to share this week - we managed to have a few tried-and-true favourites that I haven't posted here yet, along with a couple of new recipes I'm still tweaking. I will have a lot of recipes to share in the new year! 

Breakfasts: cornbread with jam, Christmas Granola (recipe coming this week!), blueberry pancakes, banana chocolate chip muffins

Lunches: pizza, leftovers, peanut butter toast

Dinners:

Monday: Lentil soup and cornbread

Tuesday: Creamy Tuna Pasta with Peas and Carrots

Wednesday: Ham and Cheese Egg Puff

Thursday: Cheesy Mac & Beef Skillet

Friday: Lentil burgers and oven fries 

Saturday: Black bean & sausage chili

Sunday: Indian spiced honey garlic chicken, spicy potatoes and peas, whole wheat vegetable roti, coconut cream pie

Thursday, December 2, 2010

GIFTS FROM THE KITCHEN: What to Give with Your Loaf of Bread


When I wrote my post on how to make fancy loaves of bread for gift giving, I promised to do a follow-up post with some ideas on what you could give along with the bread to make a satisfying gift basket.

Bread is such a versatile food gift; you can develop a number of different themed gift baskets around a gorgeous loaf of homemade bread!

My favourite is to make a "breakfast basket" with honey butter and homemade jams (this cran-raspberry jam is perfect for Christmas gifts) alongside the bread. You could tuck in some fancy teas, coffees, or hot chocolate mixes as well. To make honey butter, beat 1/4 cup honey and 1/2 cup butter together with a hand mixer until light and fluffy and pack into a pretty glass jar.

Another option is to do a "soup and salad" basket. This gift would include a bean soup mix (there are many different variations of this gift in a jar, there is a good basic recipe here) and some homemade salad dressing or some bottles of herb vinegar and olive oil. I did a variation on this and did an "Everything From Soup to Nuts" basket for my dad for his birthday which he loved. It had a loaf of bread, a lentil soup mix and a tin of candied peanuts.

For a slightly different spin on this, create a "pasta dinner in a basket" and include a jar of homemade tomato sauce (or a good quality purchased one), a homemade salad dressing or the oil and vinegar as mentioned above, a bag of spaghetti, and a jar of Parmesan cheese.

Any other ideas? What do you love to give with a loaf of bread?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Care to Join Me on My "Winter Walk Challenge"?


It's December 1st, and I'm forced to admit I've been a bit sloth-like lately. During the warmer months I spend a lot of time outdoors, puttering around in the garden, riding my bike, hiking local trails and walking "the stairs" (this huge set of metal outdoor stairs near where I live, there are 165 steps I think). So I have no problem keeping fit from roughly the beginning of April to the end of September.

Once the colder, darker days roll around, it's a different story, though. I'm very much a homebody to begin with, and once the temperature dips below a certain level, I'm not so inclined to go outside unless I really, really, have to. Since I homeschool my two boys (who are now old enough to go out and about in the neighbourhood on their own) I can get away with barely leaving the house for days at a stretch. In short, by mid-winter I can start to feel a bit like Sandra Bullock in The Net. No so great for my mental *or* physical health!

Oh, and did I mention how much I hate to exercise indoors? Forget the treadmill or exercise bike - I'm bored in about 86 seconds flat. So I'm determined that things will be different this winter, and I've come up with a plan! A simple plan, but a plan nonetheless. Here it is: I'm going to commit to getting outside and walking for at least 30-45 minutes EVERY DAY from now until March 31st. No, that's not an earth-shattering idea, but I think making it a daily thing is the key (if I say 3-4 times a week, I'll always say that I'll do it tomorrow ::grin::) I'm also going to plan on doing 15-30 minutes of strengthening and stretching work when I get back from my walk each day.

In addition, I'm going to be attending a 90 minute Bikram Yoga class 5 times a month until the end of March (I bought a 20 class package for only $45 through Groupon - amazing deal!) I'm even going to ride my bike to the classes, since the studio is only 5 km from my house.

So, that's my winter fitness plan. I will post an update at the end of each month to let you know how I'm doing. I actually started at the beginning of this week, so I've got a couple days behind me already. The weather's pretty dreadful today (really overcast and rainy) so this will be an early test of my resolve to stick to the plan!

Anyone else care to join me in the Winter Walk Challenge?
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