Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Food, glorious food

Kent and I have a second strategy we use to control grocery costs. I wrote about shopping the pantry earlier this month; the second approach involves buying mostly first order foods. I learned about first order foods and stacked costs a couple of years ago from a blog I read, Casual Kitchen.

Daniel, the blog owner, wrote an article about stacked costs and second order foods and discussed how food manufacturing layers in additional costs at every processing step. Think of first order foods as those that come directly from the garden with almost no processing. Second order foods are processed, packaged, reduced in size and scale—and the costs associated with that processing gets passed right along to you and me.

I’m not going to outline the entire article; go read it, it’s well written and worth reading. I do think that sticking with mostly first order foods is another reason why Kent and I have been able to cut our grocery bill.

Kent and I have fun rating food orders, and sometimes we’ll add a decimal point. For example, the so-called baby carrots you can buy in the produce department, which aren’t baby carrots but have been peeled and somehow whittled down to size—we rate those a 1.5. But the individual serving size cups of peeled, sliced and diced fruit are clearly a 2. Then the bagged salad mixes are 1.5 while the bagged salad mixes with small packets of dressing, croutons, bacon bits and so on are off the chart. By the way, we don’t buy any of these things. We just point and laugh.

Edited to add: bonus article link today for Casual Kitchen. You should read his blog.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

About that disbelief

I’m not much of a movie watcher; in fact, I generally watch maybe two or three movies a year. Kent knows this and has complained about it in the past. He pointed out that when we first started dating, we went to maybe half a dozen movies in two months' time. I pointed out that I was displaying courtship behavior. Once I won his love and affection, then I was done with that strategy.

We did watch a lot of movies in November and December last year when I truly needed the break from reality. But I hadn’t watched any movies this year, at least not that I recall.

I find most movies require I suspend too much disbelief and then I realize I’m watching a movie, not experiencing it. That probably sounds weird but I think that’s why I didn’t think Avatar was such a great movie.

I watched it on the plane to Hawaii, so I didn’t see it in 3D. Yes, yes, I know the 3D version is supposed to be visually stunning and that some will say I haven’t truly seen the movie since I saw it on a dinky airplane screen. That’s not why I thought the movie was merely OK.

This will sound like I’m going off on a tangent but Kent and I are also gamers; we play World of Warcraft (official site here). The game is set in a very different environment and filled with creatures that almost certainly never existed anywhere except in stories. But it’s very immersive, and since we play on a roleplaying server, we stay in character when we game, which adds to the immersive experience.

Pandora reminded me somewhat of Azeroth, the world in the game we play (if you are familiar with the game, I think parts of the movie were drawn from Zangermarsh). So I fully bought into the notion of the alienness of Pandora. I just thought the plot was simplistic. Even though I didn’t know prior to watching the movie how the story ended, I'd figured it out in the first 30 minutes or so.

Suspending disbelief over the alien world was easy; the predicable plot yanked me right out of that world much too easily.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Fisher cats

I listen to the New Hampshire NPR station online in the morning. I tried listening to the Boston station since I do live here, but grew frustrated with their frequent fund raising—every other month, they hold fund raising events. Also to be honest, the morning anchor’s voice bugs the heck out of me. So I listen to the New Hampshire station instead.

At the top of the hours, they run through the call letters of all the public radio stations in New Hampshire; as you might guess it’s not a long list. And they also provide updates about the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, a minor league baseball team.

I never heard of fisher cats until I started working in New Hampshire, but the people I work with sure know about them. My coworkers had me listen to YouTube videos with the sounds of their cries and boy if I heard that sound in the middle of the night, I’d be scared. But I like the name: fisher cat. Each morning, when I hear the score updates on NPR, I smile and I always hope they won.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Yesterday I filled up the gas tank, something I do every other day. I spend $90 - $130 a week in gas, so that's a real cost in our budget. I always check the gas prices along Route 1 because they can vary by a good 20 cents a gallon. Yesterday I cut that cost even more.

For a long time, we refused to sign up for grocery store loyalty cards—we didn’t see the point and didn’t want to share our names and addresses with yet another vendor. That’s changed and today we always use our Stop & Shop loyalty card. Using our own card instead of letting the cashier use the register’s loyalty card means we can get a register coupon for something useful, since those coupons are most certainly targeted to our buying habits. In addition to those, we’ll occasionally get store coupons for $X off when you spend $Y.

The best feature of that loyalty card is the discount we can get on gas. We get points for our purchases, and for each 100 points we earn, we get a 10 cent discount per gallon of gas. Yesterday I had enough points to drop that price per gallon by 30 cents.

I will say the participating gas station on my commute isn’t the cheapest one, but I still saved 18 cents a gallon over the normal, cheaper place I usually go.

I read a lot of blogs that extol the wonders of the CVS loyalty card, which we have. But we don't shop there enough for us to be able to play the CVS game, although our daughter-in-law does.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Virtually speaking

My friend Jeanne wrote about having a first face-to-face meeting with someone she’d met through her blog. That got me to thinking about the nature of friendship and how my definition of that has changed.

I met two of my very best friends—Angie and John—a decade ago through an online forum about an online game we all played. At the time we played on the different servers, so we didn’t interact through the game, we only knew each other through that forum. And yet the three of us became friends. Years later, I did end up transferring my character to the server they played on but our friendship was already well established.

In 2003, Kent and I drove out to Colorado for Angie’s wedding (which is when I first met her face-to-face). A month later and the day after we got married, we flew to Calgary and spent the night with John and his wife (again the first face-to-face-meeting) before heading up to Lake Louise for our honeymoon. A few years ago the six of us spent a summer vacation at Yellowstone, camping and checking out the sights.

We’ve been there for each other a lot of the normal major life changes: divorce, cross-country moves (yes, plural), floods, unemployment more than a few times, job issues and so on. Just like any face-to-face friendship, we annoy each other, get in arguments (one of us loves to debate), tell each other when things have gone down the tubes, and get encouragement and support too. And yet I never talk to them on the phone and haven’t seen them in the real world since that Yellowstone vacation. Practically all our communication is by email or instant message. Heck none of us even play that original game anymore.

I count them among the very best of my friends. I figure after 10 years, they know all about my personality flaws and they are still my friends. That’s a pretty good definition of friendship.

Do you have virtual friendships also?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Shop the pantry

Today’s post is partly from that tome I mentioned I wrote about the things that Kent and I have learned in the last 32 months.

This afternoon we’re heading to a barbeque with some friends. In the past, I’d have made a shopping list and gone to the store to get stuff to make whatever was on my list. We don’t do menu planning that way anymore, and that’s a direct result of the 32 months of living on a single income. Here’s what we do now:

We completely changed our approach to menu planning and grocery shopping. I’ve always been a good menu planner so I didn’t need to learn to plan our meals. But I would shop for the week and plan menus around that week’s sale items or I'd buy things that weren't on sale because that's what was on my menu list. That’s not a horrible approach but I read about a different way to go and it’s saved us a lot.

We stock our pantry with sale items we know we always use—for example we have about a dozen cans of black or pinto beans in our cabinets right now because they were 2 cans for $1 which is a great price. Previously I’d have bought the one or two cans I needed and missed out on future savings. Now my pantry is stocked with beans within our space limitations and I won’t need to stock up again until the next sale. I’ve read in various other frugal blogs that the sales seem to be on a 10 to 12 week rotation, so I try to get about a three month supply of the sale item if we have the room to store that much of it.

Now we shop the pantry for our menu planning. What that means for today’s get-together is that I looked at the ingredients I already have on hand (which were all pretty much on sale when we bought them) to plan what to bring to the barbeque. As it turns out, we’ll bring a pasta-mushroom dish from Nigela Lawson that I love, plus I had everything I needed to make my amazing brownies (not bragging, they would rock your socks off).

For fresh produce and fruit, we do still shop the sales because clearly those won’t keep for months and months. Buying produce in season helps to keep costs, too, although I'm not the best at that. I flat out don't like a lot of the New England seasonal vegetables that can be gotten for practically nothing (Brussel sprouts for example). But I get the ones we do like and we eat a lot of salads. Salad fixings tend to be inexpensive if you aren't going for the more extravagant items like avocado.

We also keep a price book in our heads. Some people actually create soft copies of this but I’m pretty anal about numbers so I haven’t taken that step. We know the normal prices for our regular items so when something is on sale or says it’s on sale, we know if it’s a good deal. For example, last week Kent passed on “sale” tuna at Costco because we can get it cheaper at a regular grocery store.

If you'd like to see the average cost of food as reported by the government, go here. Then you can select the month you want to see (the actual reports are PDF documents). It makes for interesting reading and also a good place to start figuring out where you are, and where you'd like to be with your grocery bill.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

That's life

I’ll confess I was feeling a bit complacent this week. Kent busted his butt and got all our budget stuff loaded into Microsoft Money Plus (it’s free, find details here from one of my favorite personal finance blogs) which is letting us track our budget pretty much in real time, we've tweaked and adjusted that budget so now it's really working for us, and we aren’t touching our savings (although they aren’t growing either alas).

You may recall we have an unfinished repair to flood damage in the foundation on the patio side of our apartment. We'd been calling around to various masons since April, but no one would return our calls, let alone come out and give us an estimate. We know it’s because our job is small potatoes to them; most of them have a lot of work right now from the damage all the brownstones across Boston sustained last March. So we asked our realtor for a recommendation, which he provided and he suggested mentioning his name. Wow did that ever work! We called Friday, the mason came out Tuesday and gave us the estimate yesterday—$3300. Gulp—we aren’t in Kansas anymore.

We do have the money, but replacing it will hurt. This is the nitty gritty party of budgeting, not the fun stuff. I’d much rather be considering spending that kind of cash on a super cool trip rather than on a house I dislike and can’t wait to sell.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Money saving me

So someone else in my inner circle of family/friends is losing a job. This loss cuts their income to the lower of the two incomes and is something they haven't gone through before.

Well Kent and I have--for 31 months. And while neither of us are advice-giving people, we did a brain dump this weekend about what's worked and not worked for us regarding managing a restricted budget and also how we've handled the emotional/relational issues that are part of the unemployed territory.

Much to my shock, I ended up with a six page document, and it's not even double-spaced. I guess we have learned more than I realized.

Here's an excerpt:

Coupons. We tried this probably four or five times but realized that (a) we buy very few processed foods and (b) even being on email lists for getting coupons, it takes a lot of work to track down the one or two that might apply to us. If you buy more processed foods, you can save a ton with coupons so consider doing the work if that’s the situation. For us, the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze.

How do you handle reduced finances?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Controversy? Why???

Do you recall my link to miss minimalist's blog about the 100 items she doesn't own? Apparently she got a lot of negative comments when Lifehacker picked up that post. In fact, the comments got so hateful, she pulled her original post. If you click through to Lifehacker, be warned: the posts get nasty and personally insulting.

Please help me understand why folks feel the need to poop all over a different way of thinking.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

They know the deal

Ever since I got Chloe, we've had an agreement: if I open a can of tuna, she gets to lick it out once it's empty. Until recently she hasn't cared for tuna water and wouldn't eat her kibble if I put the water on her food. So she gets the can. Once we got the boys, we needed to figure something out because even if both of us have tuna for lunch, they don't all get their own can. The compromise is pretty simple--the boys get the tuna water and Chloe gets the can.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

King Eddie

The boys are pretty clearly a bonded pair of cats—and that makes sense since they are litter mates and have been together the whole of their lives. Being bonded like that means they take turns cycling through various places they both consider theirs in terms of territory, and they’ll also share those spots.

Sometimes, though, they get in a tussle for whichever spot is the current favorite. That happened yesterday when Eddie invaded the top shelf on the cat perch. The top one is the smallest; in order for both boys to fit up there, they need to be in a cuddly, kitty piling mood. It's pretty cute when that happens. But Eddie wanted it all for himself so he picked a fight with Wally, who finally gave up in disgust and left. This video shows Eddie enjoying the perch all by himself.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Should work

We've plotted out how to keep water out of our patio when we get the fortunately rare torrential rains. The first step was putting in boards along the outside of our fence down at the bottom. We will be grading the parking spots and hauling in gravel to help mitigate the slope from the alley to our patio.

Yesterday, Kent started on another part of the project by pulling up the rotted railroad ties and putting in stones instead.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Dancing in the rain

We had torrential rain today. But this was the first chance to see if the Hydra Barriers helped at all. You'll see in this short video that the water reaches the bottom of the gate--without our lovely orange plastic tubes, all that water probably would have overwhelmed the drain again. I think we got our $70 worth today.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Flat Bear

A few days ago, I mentioned that Chloe is obsessed with sleeping on the brown bear. Well she's mashed that sucker absolutely flat.

We attempted to fluff it back up, and found her kneading it the next morning, getting it flat again.

Photo by Kent Johnson

Monday, August 2, 2010

Locked and loaded

Finding a running bra has always been a chore for me. I realized pretty early on that the over-your-head uni-boober sports bras like this were a waste of fabric and money for me because I have a narrow back (learned that about myself when I sewed most of my own clothes). If I can get something like a uni-boober bra over my shoulders then it’s too big around and does nothing to support or compress the girls. Let me tell you, running with a chest that's doing a double dribble is not my idea of fun.

I’d found a great running bra by Adidas a few years ago. It held everything where it was supposed to be, had underwire, adjustable straps and hooks/eyes in the back. Plus it was made from the wicking material that pulls your sweat away from you, which makes summer runs much more pleasant. But that bra didn’t survive the post-flood salvage process. Whatever was used to remove the damage also left some sort of residue in the bra and I broke out where ever it touched my chest and back.

I still had an older bra that was marginally OK. Made by Nike, it lacked the essential underwire but did alright otherwise—until a strap broke halfway through my run a couple of weeks ago. I’d used that bra for years so it didn’t really owe me anything, although I’m sure I looked weird as I ran holding the strap up by my chest.

I’m pleased to say that I found a great running bra. In addition to having all the proper hooks/eyes and adjustable straps, I also just flat out don’t notice it at all when I run.

Now that is the best kind of running bra.