Blast from the Past: Lovely Leftovers

Go to your wallet, take out two or three dollars and throw them out in the street.

Sounds silly, but that’s what you’re doing when you pitch leftovers.

Leftovers get a bad rap, but when you throw out leftovers, while they’re fresh or once they’ve gone bad, you’re throwing away your food dollars.

I think leftovers are wonderful. I often double a recipe I’m making for dinner and we eat it two nights in a row. My husband doesn’t mind (he loves home cooking), and it means I only have to reheat dinner the next night instead of making something from scratch. Since I work at home, I’m always looking for easy, economical ways to make dinner, and leftovers fill the bill.

Yesterday we had a wonderful rump roast with mashed potatoes and peas for dinner. Afterwards, there were no veggies left over but quite a bit of roast. So I cubed the leftover roast, added the drippings, and put the cubes in the fridge.

Tonight I nuked some potatoes, then sliced them and fried them in a little oil with some leftover onion slices. I added half of the beef cubes and stir-fried them until they were hot. Topped with Trader Joe’s organic ketchup, it was a delicious dinner.

I put the rest of the beef cubes into the freezer. The next time I make noodle soup, I’ll toss them in, along with any leftover celery, carrots or onion I may have sitting in the fridge at that time.

I do that a lot with meat. If I’m oven-frying chicken pieces, I like to cook extra (the family packs are always a better price anyways) and freeze the uneaten chicken after stripping it off the bones. Then it just waits in the freezer to be added to soup or chicken tortellini salad.

Sometimes I forget what I have left over in the fridge. I used to be afraid to use old leftovers because I wasn’t sure just how old they were. But I got in the habit of writing down menus ahead of time, and now I just look at the calendar to see which day we had the pork chops, or whatever. I’m pretty strict about leftovers; once they’re four days old, I’m afraid of them. So I make a real effort to use them up before the fourth day.

Often, I find weird odds and ends in the fridge and wonder how to combine them. An omelette serves this purpose pretty well. All sorts of veggies or meat taste good in a cheese omelette. A little leftover cheese is good in muffins or bread. A couple of lonely hot dogs can be sliced and stirred into a pan of homemade cornbread. Mmmm….there’s never any leftovers of that stuff!

On the rare occasions when we go out to eat, we always bring the leftover part of our dinner home with us. Restaurant portions are so huge these days that you can’t finish dinner anyway, but they taste even better as the next day’s lunch. I’m not embarrassed to ask for a take-home box. If anyone who sees me with it thinks I must be cheap or tacky, that’s only fair, because I think people like that are stuck-up and very likely not debt-free like we are.  ;)

Whether your leftovers come from the fridge, the freezer or the restaurant, the most important thing to remember about leftovers is that they’re like money…if you lose track of them, it costs you. Leftovers can really stretch your food dollar by making sure you don’t waste anything.

(Originally posted 1/21/09.)

Don’t Let Inflation Keep You from Homeschooling

A lot of popular items from the 70s have come back into style over the past several years: fondue pots, platform shoes and wrap dresses come to mind. But now, one of the worst features of the 70s is back, and it can hurt a lot more than falling off your platform shoes. It’s inflation.

Inflation causes your dollars to be worth less and less. All of a sudden you’re paying more at the supermarket each week. The sale prices of clothing and supplies seem high; after all, 25% off of a rising price equals a rising sale price. When an economy is subject to inflation, it seems like prices are higher every time you go shopping….and they are.

This can really hurt homeschooling families. We tend to be single income families, or maybe we have two parents working at least part-time. Homeschooling families aren’t generally classified as wealthy because we tend to put more time into raising children than earning money.

A big jump in expenses can force us into a higher-paying and more time-consuming job that prevents us from homeschooling, and that’s something we must avoid. But we can’t stop prices from going up, and we need to buy food and clothing. How can we keep our budgets under control even as prices rise?

It’s not always easy, but it can be done. I’m willing to do whatever I have to in order to be home with my kids, and I’ll bet you are, too. So let’s look at some strategies for fighting inflation.

Strategy #1: Saving Gas

Whether you’re worried about the planet, your wallet, or both, saving gas is more important than ever. Gas prices have skyrocketed over the past few years ($5 a gallon in parts of California just this week) and continue to do so. This is a real problem for homeschoolers on the go, spending the week driving from co-ops to music lessons to organized sports. If you have several children, you probably drive a gas hog, but even if you toodle around in a small car that goes easy on the gas, you’re probably seeing a jump in what you spend at the pump.

This is a good time to reevaluate the activities your kids are in, and decide which ones aren’t really essential to their upbringing. If you remove the lesser activities, and keep only those that can be limited to one day a week, you’ll find that your gas consumption (and expense) will drop quite a bit.

Combining trips also makes a big difference. If you’ve got to take the kids to a class, shop at the nearest grocery store before heading back home instead of making a separate trip on another day. The more you combine your errands, the more gas you save. Get used to organizing your trips out so that you hit a number of spots in a row, rather than making separate trips on different days and using up far more gas.

If you live out in the country, driving is a necessity. But if you’re in a city or suburb, rediscover public transportation, your bike and your legs. Use backpacks and tote bags to carry purchased items and library books. A family walk or bike trip to the public library will save gas and also count as P.E. for that day.

One side effect of saving gas is that you end up staying home a lot more than usual. If you’re a homebody, high gas prices can be a ready excuse to get things done around the house. But if you usually prefer to be on the go, you may discover that staying home is not a bad thing. There are so many things you can do while you’re home that will save you even more money (more on that later), plus you’ll have more time for homeschooling.

Strategy #2: Controlling Food Costs

When all my kids were living at home, I could fill our minivan with grocery bags packed with food, yet have to do it all over again two weeks later. During their growing years, my kids seemed to inhale food. With the steadily increasing prices we’re seeing in supermarkets these days, feeding a growing family is becoming a very expensive proposition. But it’s not impossible.

Even though most food prices are rising, convenience foods still cost far more than basic ingredients. If you learn to make even a few of your family’s favorites from scratch, you can save a bundle. There are hundreds of cookbooks that can help you with this, but you probably don’t have time to scrounge them up, so let me just suggest two things:

  • Search for recipes on the Internet
  • Buy The Complete Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn (I consider this the equivalent of a graduate course on saving money)

Please don’t say you don’t have time to cook from scratch. You’re going to be home more often anyway since you’re saving gas. And this is something your children should help you with, so that the burden isn’t all on you. Even small children can peel potatoes. Not only does it count as Home Economics, but kids who help cook grow up into teens who make dinner, and believe me, that’s a wonderful thing.

If you’re lacking the proper cooking supplies, don’t rush to buy them from a store (rising prices, remember?) unless you have to. Try garage sales and thrift stores first. Also, ask friends and relatives if anyone has a such-and-such they want to get rid of.

Another way to keep food costs down is to limit how often you go out to eat. With food prices going up, restaurants have to raise their prices if they’re going to make a profit, so you’ll be paying more there, too. Save the eating out for special occasions. Replace trips to the ice cream shop with make-your-own-sundae evenings at home. Bring a cooler of food and drinks with you when you travel or run errands. A cold 2-liter bottle of pop and some paper cups will save you $8-10 on drinks at a fast food drive-through.

For those busy days when you’re going to get home too late to make dinner, keep some convenience foods (bought on sale and preferably with coupons) in your freezer. Yes, convenience foods cost more than those made from scratch, but they’re worth it if they keep you from going out for dinner, which costs far more.

Strategy #3: Controlling Clothing Costs

Kids grow, and that means you’re always hunting down larger clothes for them. It’s a fact of life, but it doesn’t have to cost a fortune. First off, get it out of your head that every piece of clothing has to be new. As Amy Dacyczyn of the Tightwad Gazette often said, used clothing is just new clothing that’s been washed at least once.

Thrift stores and garage sales are great sources of clothes for kids, and they’ll save you a lot of money. Also, after reading part one of this article last month, Imperfect Homeschooler reader Debra J. from Texas suggested Freecycle (http://www.freecycle.org) as a great resource for free goods for families. But if you have issues about putting strangers’ clothing on your kids, why not try a clothing swap with your friends? Trading outgrown clothing with people you know and like may make you feel better about dressing your kids in used clothes, and a clothing swap can be a social event, too. Bring snacks for the kids and let them play while you go through the clothing.

Sewing for your kids is another option, but it has its limits. Patterns are ridiculously expensive unless you find them on sale for a few dollars, and the same is true to a lesser extent for fabric. I’ve found that sewing works best for special occasion dresses, saving you a lot of money because dressy clothes cost more than play clothes.

For the clothing you prefer to buy new (such as underwear), be sure to hit outlet stores and sales. This is where it really pays to know your prices. When underwear is on sale for a good price, buy the next size up as well as each child’s current size. Do the same for socks and jeans. The thing about inflation is that it makes tomorrow’s dollars worth less than today’s, so anything you can stockpile saves you money. Of course, you’ll need to be organized about storing clothes for future use, because if you can’t find them once you need them, they’ll be wasted money.

You may have to handle clothing purchases differently with your teens than your younger children, because they’re likely to be pickier about where their clothes come from. There’s a simple solution for this. They should find a job and buy their own clothes. It’s amazing how quickly they learn to find good deals when the money is coming from them and not you.

Strategy #4: Controlling Entertainment Costs

Movie tickets are going up, but there’s an easy way to fix that. It’s called staying home to watch movies. DVD rentals (local, Netflix and even your public library) will save you a fortune on movie tickets and refreshments, too.

As for other entertainment like mini-golf, bowling and amusement parks, it’s time to look at them as rare treats instead of regular events (and even then, use coupons to reduce fees). Instead, stay home and play board games. Bring home stacks of library books and computer games. Buy a second-hand trampoline for the back yard. Dig out the toys the kids got last Christmas. It will be good training for your kids to learn to use what they have instead of going out to be entertained all the time.

This goes double for birthday parties, those money-eating events that can leave you dazed and broke. Let’s bring back the old trend of a birthday cake, ice cream and no goodie bags. Set up a few games in the back yard or family room. The birthday child and his siblings can make decorations for the party room. (A homemade pinata out of paper-mache can count as an art class project.) Ideas for party games and decorations can be found in books and magazines at your public library. Use creativity instead of money.

Strategy #5: Controlling Shelter Prices

The previous strategies were for controlling relatively small expenses that occur regularly. The cost of your housing, however, is something that you’re locked into for months or years at a time, so making wise decisions in this area is crucial.

Back in the late 70s, inflation caused home prices to skyrocket along with everything else. But this time around, strangely enough, house prices are dropping because of the after-effects of the housing bubble that’s deflating. Many people have to sell their houses because they can’t make the rising payments of adjustable loans. As a result, there are so many houses on the market right now that prices are being forced down. The irony is that you can buy a nice house for less money, but only if you can get yours sold. If you decide to go that route, be sure to price your house very competitively, and be prepared for a long time on the market.

If you’re a renter, you may find that rents are dropping because so many vacant houses are coming up for rental. Unable to sell them in the slow market, their owners have decided to become landlords so that the monthly rent will help defray their mortgage payments. If you’re feeling cramped in your rental house, you may be able to find a larger nicer house for less rent than you’ve been paying. This could work out well for you! However, before you sign a lease, make sure the house isn’t about to be repossessed; some unscrupulous sellers are taking security deposits from potential renters knowing full well the house will be going into foreclosure and repossessed before long.

Whether you own or rent, you can save money on rising utility costs by being careful about your energy usage. Wearing sweaters and keeping the thermostat a few degrees lower than normal this winter will take the edge off the higher heating bills we’re sure to see. Hanging damp laundry around the house instead of putting all of it in the dryer will add to the humidity level (making you feel warmer) while reducing the amount of electricity or gas you use to run your dryer. We hang shirts and jeans from the door trim in our house in the cold months; you’d be surprised how quickly the clothes dry, especially if the humidity in the house is low. No, we’ll never make the cover of Better Homes and Gardens with clothes hanging from the doorways on laundry day, but I’d rather have lower utility bills than live in a model home.

Keep your shades and blinds up on the sunny side of the house, and down on the cold, windy side. If you live where the winters are very cold, you’ll find that insulating windows with plastic can help keep out cold drafts. Back in the 70s, people made draft dodgers (long, skinny stuffed fabric snakes that lay along the crack where the door meets the floor) to keep out drafts; maybe that’s another 70s trend that needs to make a comeback!

 

These are just a few ideas to combat inflation, but if you know anything about the 70s, you know similar ideas made a big difference in keeping costs down. If you were just a child in the 70s, or weren’t born yet, ask your parents about how people fought inflation. Knowing how to do so could make the difference between being able to homeschool your children and having to put them in school so you can get a full-time and/or better-paying job.

New Homemaking Tips

After so many years of reading homemaking tips in books and magazines, and later on at websites, I thought I’d read them all. But this week I stumbled onto two tips that I’ve never heard of, and now I wonder why I never thought to do them? They make so much sense!

The first tip is in this beautiful cookbook I’ve been reading called Organic and Chic: Cakes, Cookies, and Other Sweets That Taste As Good As They Look. (Seriously, it’ll give you a sugar buzz just flipping through it.)

Author Sarah Magid shares this tip along with her brownie recipe:

I like to be resourceful and eco-friendly by covering the bottom of the brownie pan with butter wrappers, butter side up. (Save butter wrappers by placing them in a plastic freezer bag whenever you go through butter sticks. Simply defrost when you’re preparing your pan.)

Later in the book, she elaborates a bit:

They make the perfect coating because they’re already covered with a thin film of butter. Just fold each one in fours and snip the corner off in a rounded shape and place it in the pan, buttered side up. It will open up into a round that’s perfect for smaller pans.

Ever since I learned about what’s in margarine, I’ve used butter for all of my baking and cooking, so I know I could amass a nice little stack of butter stick wrappers fairly quickly. And using them in baking pans would save money on parchment paper. Again, why didn’t I think of that?

By the way, did I mention that this is one gorgeous cookbook? Her cakes are works of art. Those concerned about the sources of their food will appreciate the fact that she bakes with only organic ingredients, and shares her sources for them as well as for her equipment.

I’ll share the other great tip next time :)

Exercises in Frugality, Part 2

Hot Chocolate Mixes

Living here in chilly Wisconsin, we love our hot chocolate. I usually buy big boxes of hot chocolate mix at Sam’s Club, but decided to try to save a few dollars by making my own. Since I have a food processor, this isn’t hard to do.

There are many hot chocolate mix recipes online. Here’s the one I found, with ingredient costs in parentheses (all ingredients purchased at Aldi):

Hot Chocolate Mix

4 cups dry milk ($1.87)

1 1/2 cups sugar ($.26)

1 cup powdered coffee creamer ($.26)

¾ cup cocoa powder ($.50)

½ package instant vanilla pudding ($.25)

Blend ingredients together in a food processor. Use 1/3 cup mix in a mug of hot water.

A mug of this hot chocolate tastes fine. The instant pudding prevents the mix from sinking to the bottom of the mug. So what’s the problem?

The cost! It works out to 14 cents a serving. A box of 60 envelopes of Swiss Miss mix from Sam’s Club is $5.38 for 60 envelopes, or 9 cents a serving. Bummer. I didn’t work out the price ahead of time because I figured homemade would be cheaper.

However, all is not lost. Our son loves a brand of peppermint hot chocolate mix that is a bit expensive. Adding ½ t. of peppermint extract to this mix recipe makes the hot chocolate he loves at far less than its usual cost of 28 cents per serving.

Exercises in Frugality

R2D2, aka DAK

R2D2, aka DAK

Frugality, one of my favorite topics, continues to increase in popularity as the economy negatively affects more and more families.

Some people apparently take frugal tips pretty seriously; note a couple of cranky commenters at this post. Two thought the blogger’s tips were too common, and one misguided soul suggested the blogger stop homeschooling, put her kids in school and start an in-home daycare.

Instead of complaining that someone’s frugal tips are too basic, most commenters helped by sharing their own tips. I think I’ll do the same for the next few posts.

Bread machines

My beloved Oster bread machine died several months ago after about ten years of use. The unit still worked but the pan began leaking oil (or something similar) into the bread because the seal was shot. A perusal of eBay introduced me to a few people* who would love to sell me a replacement pan for $20 plus $10 shipping.

Not interested. Instead, I hit the local Goodwill and bought a replacement, a Regal for $9. It made so-so dough and baked bread that resembled a doorstop in shape and heft.

I waited patiently while watching Goodwill for a new bread machine but kept seeing the same type as the Regal. A blogging friend suggested I buy a Zojirushi BBCCX20 Home Bakery Supreme Bread Machine as she’d had great luck with it. I checked it out on Amazon: $200+, and some (though definitely not most) people had trouble with it.

I know how ticked I’d be if I spent $200 on anything and it didn’t work right. So I decided to keep being patient and checking Goodwill. But then I saw a Sunbeam breadmaker at Walmart for $50. It had pretty decent online reviews, so I decided to use my birthday gift money to buy one, but when I went back, they’d cleared out that model and replaced it with another, whose model number came up empty on a Google search. Not a good sign!

Not long after this, I stopped by Goodwill and found four bread machines. Three were Regals or looked like them. The fourth was so funny looking that I didn’t realize it was a bread machine at first. But it came with recipes, and at $5 it seemed worth the gamble.

Turns out it’s old (1990) and works great! It has quite a fan club, and I can see why. I thought I was being so clever calling it R2D2 until I found out that many people call it that.

Anyway, it makes great bread and dough, it was $50 cheaper than the bread machine I saw at Walmart, and $200 cheaper than the Zojirushi. Definitely worth waiting for!

* Sounds like a profitable racket, so I gave my old Oster and the Regal to my eBay seller daughter, hoping she can make some money off the parts, paddles and manuals :)