Friday, February 3, 2012

chill out

When trying to stretch a dollar, one of the first things I look at are appliances. If you use a hair drier or other heated styling tool, keep in mind that they are energy eaters.  Reducing your time with these tools can help save on the power bill.  In our house, the kitchen holds most of our energy hogging appliances. 

We have a microwave, a chest freezer, a refrigerator/freezer, a hot-plate, a toaster oven and an instant-heat water carafe.  You may notice that I don't mention an oven or range - that's because I don't have one.  We had a propane oven/stovetop, but when the local gas provider continued to raise prices and decided to deliver on their schedule rather than ours, we decided to fire them and opted for alternative arrangements.  With just the two of us, it is fairly simple to use a large toaster oven (ours has a convection option as well as rotisserie capability) and a single hot-plate to cook our meals.  Larger meals are usually shared with my husband's mother and are prepared at her house.  The instant-heat carafe is used daily for my husband's Yerba Mate and my tea, as well as for brewing iced tea base.  None of these items remain plugged in when not in use, so they do not have that annoying trickle-draw of power found in most appliances.  For the same reason, I've recently unplugged the microwave when not in use.  That leaves the fridge and the chest freezer. 

A chest freezer is wonderful - when it is full.  Once it goes below half-full, it becomes more economical to move the contents to the smaller refrigerator-freezer and take the opportunity to completely thaw and clean the unit.  This clean out has the advantage of making sure you don't have any mystery packages lost in the depths of the freezer.  I grew up with a chest freezer in the basement that was a constant source of vegetables and meats that would be brought upstairs a day or two in advance for upcoming meals.  In fact, my mother not only has a chest freezer in her basement, she now has two additional upright freezers - and all three are completely full.  Having grown up with a separate freezer ever-present, it is odd for me not to have one.  However, we have put our little chest freezer into storage for the time being and are using only the refrigerator/freezer for cold storage.

There are some easy things you can do to make sure your refrigerator isn't wasting your energy dollars.  First, make sure the coils on the back and/or bottom are clean.  A brush attachment on a vacuum cleaner does a good job for removing accumulated dust and a quick wipe with a rag will take care of the rest.  Second, once the coils are clean, move the fridge away from the wall - give those coils a couple inches of  breathing room.  Air space will let the coils dissipate heat more efficiently - making the unit run less and costing you less money.  Next, make sure the unit is set at an optimum temperature.  Get a thermometer - I use the instant-read stick-type that I also use for testing cooking temperatures for meat - put it in a mug of water and leave it in the fridge for 24 hours.  It should be between 37 - 40 degrees F.  38 degrees is a good number to shoot for.  Tweak the temperature controls and check the thermometer again after another 24 hours.  keep doing this until you have the temperature fine tuned.  The fridge won't run as much and foods are less likely to randomly freeze when the temperature is set correctly.  Now, don't forget about the freezer portion of the unit.  Slip the thermometer between two frozen items and check it in 24 hours.  This time the temp should be between 0 and 5 degrees F.  Adjust accordingly. 

Keep in mind that a full freezer is a happy freezer.  If you don't have much in your freezer, it will have to work harder to keep the things in there at the proper temperature.  An easy way to bulk up your freezer contents is to freeze extra ice cubes.  Put them in gallon-size freezer bags for storage.  Or wash plastic juice or milk jugs and fill 2/3 full of water, loosely cap them and stand them in the freezer.  Tighten the caps once the water freezes solid.  These can be used as ice blocks in a cooler or picnic basket when you need the freezer space for other things.  Keeping your freezer full will save power and wear-and-tear since the unit won't need to turn on and off as often.

A little bit of maintenance makes cents.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

grocery trip

I think my new favorite store is Winn-Dixie.  At least it is this week.  I am fanatical about checking the weekly ad flyers for all of our local stores and doing serious comparison shopping.  This week, Winn-Dixie won.  First, they had a "meal deal" where you purchase two 12" frozen pizzas and get several other items for free.  The other items were a chicken appetizer (boneless buffalo wings), an appetizer (mozzarella cheese sticks), little smokies and a 2 liter of Pepsi.  For us, that equates to four meals, all for the price of two pizzas.  With the coupon for the pizzas from the ad flyer, we ended up with 4 meals for $12.00.  Even though the pizzas are more than we'd usually spend on that sort of thing, after having one for lunch, I'm happy with the purchase.  They are almost as tasty as homemade.

As great as the meal deal was, there were a few more things during this shopping trip that ended up making cents.

Scanning the ad, I noticed 5 lb red potatoes for $3.49, baby carrots 2 lbs for $3, whole chicken for .99/lb and yellow onions for $1.29/lb.  That sounds like a roast chicken dinner to me.  We ended up picking one of the larger chickens for $5, but skipped the onions because we found a 3lb bag for $2.99 instead.

So, split the red potatoes and lined a baking dish with them, quartered an onion and layered that on the potatoes, added a half-bag of the baby carrots and put the chicken on top of all that.  Popped it in to bake.  We'll have roasted vegetables and chicken tonight, then debone the rest of the chicken and make potato salad from the leftover potatoes and carrots.  Tomorrow we'll have potato salad and some of the chicken with pasta.  The day after, we'll use the rest of the chicken for chicken salad sandwiches.  That's 3 meals for 3 people and a total of $9.74.  Not too shabby!

But we're not done yet.

If you're a bacon lover, you know how expensive those little strips of pig can be.  We love bacon, but we refuse to pay the outlandish prices.  Instead, we've learned to look for the larger packages of "ends and pieces" rather than the pretty 10oz packs.  Today we found 3lbs of bacon for $7.  The great thing about getting bacon this way is the variety within the package.  I divided it up into several sandwich-size zip bags when we got home.  We ended up with 7 bags, each will be part of a meal for the three of us.  Three bags are full of bacon strips that look like they were pulled from one of the expensive smaller packages.  Three are full of meat chunks that will contribute to pots of beans or split peas.  One has smaller pieces of bacon that will most likely end up in omelets.  In addition, I have an entire bag of fatty pieces that will be rendered into cooking grease.  The last treasure in our bacon package was about half a cup of what appeared to be ground bacon pieces.  These went right into a cast-iron skillet over low heat.  The crispy little bacon bits made a wonderful smoky topping for our salads with lunch

Sometimes it makes cents to think outside the tidy package.

Summing it all up, we have 14 meals for 3 people at $3 per meal... or $1 per person.  Now that makes cents.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

cleaning house

I like to think that Spring is coming soon after the New Year begins.  Usually this means that I start my garden seedlings far too early.  This year, however, I'm focusing on cleaning house.  As I go through my cleaning chores, I'll pass on any money saving hints that we use.

I use a swiffer on all of my carpet-less floors.  Yikes, those cloths can be expensive, even when buying the off-brand.  If you must use the cloths, use both sides before discarding.  I don't even bother with the cloths anymore.  Instead, I use my ratty washcloths or rough rags.  They clip in just as easily as the disposable cloths, but can be tossed in the laundry and used over and over.  I use rags and my swiffer as a mop, too.  For heavy cleaning, I don't bother clipping the rag to the swiffer, I just swish it in my mop bucket, wring it out a little and toss it on the floor.  The swiffer holds it well enough to mop with only pressure on the handle.  For touch-ups between regular cleanings I keep a spray bottle with diluted floor cleaner.  A few sprays and a quick wipe of a rag on my swiffer and the floors keep their shine.

Another thing that makes cents - wash your clothes in cold water.  The detergents don't care if the water is hot or cold, but washing in cold keeps you from running your water heater - and that's a huge chunk of any power bill.  If you can manage it, switch to an on-demand water heater.  We are waiting for our tank style heater to die before switching over, but going by friends who have already made the change, we'll really see the savings on the bill each month.

Nothing bugs me quite like spotty mirrors.  No need to spend a lot on glass cleaner, though.  Put vinegar and water in a spray bottle and use that instead.  Wipe the mirrors down with newspaper instead of paper towels and you'll save even more.

We have dogs, and I have to admit that I'm kind of hooked on Febreeze to tackle some of the stronger odors - like when they decide to romp through damp grass and have that lovely wet-dog smell when they come inside.  When I want to make the whole house smell better, instead of spraying around an air-freshener, I put a small saucepan of water on to boil.  Drop in a cinnamon stick and a few cloves and your house will smell spicy and fresh without any effort at all.  Just make sure you don't boil away all the water!  That wouldn't smell nice at all.  Another idea for making the house smell nice is to bake a batch of cookies or a cake - or even make a pot of spiced tea.  The advantage of these methods is getting to nibble on the results while enjoying your nice-smelling house.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

chocolate craving

Sometimes you just want something decadent, something melt-in-your-mouth delicious, something to soothe the inner chocoholic.

Granted, there are some good inexpensive chocolate bars out there.  I am kind of hooked on the ones from Dollar General - but they are on the thin side and they don't have that high-end chocolate flavor.

Now, unless you're living in the Miami area and can duck over to Wilton Manors to The Pink Submarine for some of Dawn's incredible Gourmet Chocolates, or if you have a serious discount card to one of the high-end chocolate makers, you're going to have to learn to make something on your own.

By far the best, easiest, most delicious thing I've ever had homemade chocolate-wise is Brigadeiro.  This tasty truffle-like treat is a favorite from Brazil - and after you discover how easy it is to make at home - it will be a favorite among all your friends and family.  If you let them sample it, of course.

Now, don't confuse this with real gourmet chocolate (and you really should "Like" The Pink Submarine I mentioned earlier - they're good people and their stuff is delicious)... it tastes incredibly close to gourmet, but it's as simple as can be!  The hardest part is waiting for it to cool.

You'll need a saucepan, a plate and (optional) mini muffin cups for the finished product.

One or more of the following on plates to roll the chocolate balls in after shaping:  powdered sugar, cocoa powder, ground nuts, sprinkles, crushed vanilla wafers... or you can skip this bit and just leave them plain.  They are tasty either way!

3 Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 Tablespoon butter
1 (14 oz) can sweetened condensed milk

Stir together all the ingredients in the saucepan over medium heat.  Stir constantly.  Seriously, keep stirring, otherwise it will scorch on the bottom and the whole thing will be ruined and not chocolatey at all.  Continue stirring until the mixture thickens - it will pull away from the sides of the pan as you stir and seem to come together into a thick mass.  This usually takes about 10 minutes or so.  Then, take the pan off the heat and let it cool to room temperature.  If you don't mind getting another dish dirty, you can pour it into a buttered, glass pie pan or baking dish to help speed the cooling process.  Make sure it is cooled all the way by checking the center.  If you check the center with your finger, make sure to sample what you've tested - it's only fair.  Once it's cool enough to handle, butter up your hands and form the chocolate into small balls.  These can be left plain or rolled in your choice of topping.  If you prefer sweeter things, you might want to roll them in regular granulated sugar.  Depending on how big you make the balls, you should get around 20 out of this recipe.  Arrange on the plate.  Rearrange them on the plate after you sample a couple more.  Hey, that one doesn't fit the new arrangement, better eat it, too.  You can put them in the cute little mini-muffin cups for individual serving if you're taking them to some sort of social function, but if you're just going to hide them from family... I mean, share them with family... loosely cover the plate with saran and pop them in the fridge.

~insert chastisement from the awesome chocolate diva @ The Pink Submarine about refrigerating fine chocolate~ 

But really, I've already said this isn't to be confused with those luscious morsels, so refrigeration in this case is just fine.  Or you could eat them all.  Not that I'd do that or anything.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

soap, part two

I finished making a giant batch of laundry soap the other day and that reminded me of the little bits of bar soap that I've been collecting.  Yes, collecting.  I can't really call it a "dirty little secret" because it's soap... and therefore not all that dirty when you think about it.  The process goes something like this:

The bar of soap in the bath or on the sink is used until it resembles a miniature cuttlebone.  We stop using that bar of soap.  It sits in the soap dish for a day or two (while we use the soap from the other bathroom location) until either my spouse decides to open a new bar of soap or I open a new bar of soap.  The person doing the opening of the new bar is very important.  If he opens the bar, he will moisten both the old and new bars and affix the old bar to the new bar by squishing them together.  I don't find this to be a very successful method because, for me, the little semi-adhered bar just slides off as soon as I start to use the new soap.  He, however, swears by this method of using up the tiny bar and in the interest of peace, I don't fight it.  Plus, if I were really that adamantly against the method, I'd have gone ahead and dealt with it myself before he could do his grafting.

Now, if I am the one changing the soap bars, I will use my soap-sock as a receptacle for the tiny bar and quite happily dump the pristine new bar into the empty soap dish.

I cannot take credit for the soap-sock invention.  That belongs to my mother... or maybe even her mother...  I'm not entirely sure.  I know that we did this all the time as I grew up.  Whenever a pair of socks developed holes that could not be easily repaired, they went into a "rag-bag" of assorted bits and pieces.  Some of these were destined to become soap-socks.  To make a soap-sock, simply turn the sock inside out and sew across the toe area to close off any holes, then turn right side out again.  Stash the sock in a convenient, but out-of-the-way location in the bathroom and fill it with the bar soap remnants as they become available.  When the sock becomes somewhat full, preferably after accepting a soap remnant from the bathtub, sew the opening shut.  Then use the soap-sock in place of a bar of soap in the bathtub.  The sock acts as a washcloth while holding all the little soap bits together inside.  Do make sure to not leave it sitting in a puddle of water, though, or you'll end up with a soggy mess of soap squeezing out of the sock.

While the soap-sock method works, I have recently started using liquid soap - especially beside the kitchen sink where a bar of soap just wouldn't look right.  Liquid soap can be expensive, even when you purchase it in large refill jugs.  Plus, the empty dispensers and refill jugs become so much more garbage for the landfill.  I found a solution!  I have discovered that, with a minimum amount of effort, I can turn those collected soap bits into liquid soap to refill my pump containers.

Instead of putting the soap bits into a sock, grate them into a small jar until you have at least 1 cup of shavings.  Technically, you could use a pristine bar of soap for this as well, considering bar soap is usually cheaper than liquid soap.  (Note: I don't recommend using an intensely moisturizing soap for this method, it doesn't seem to turn out as well as "plain" soap.) 

Once you have about a cup of shavings, put them in a saucepan with 2 quarts of water and bring to a simmer.  Stir gently until the shavings melt completely.  Take off the heat and stir in 2 Tablespoons of glycerine.  You can usually find glycerine in the health and beauty section of Wal-Mart, in soap-making sections of craft stores or in pharmacy sections of grocery stores.  Now, let it sit until completely cooled.  This may take several hours or even overnight.  Stir again to check consistency. 

If it is too thin, in a measuring cup mix 3 Tablespoons of table salt in 8 oz water and add this mixture 1/4 cup at a time, to the soap mixture - mix each addition thoroughly and give it time to rest between additions - keep adding the salt mixture until the soap reaches the desired consistency.  If you get through the entire cup of salt water and the soap still isn't thickening, warm it up and add another half cup of soap shavings, stirring until they melt completely.  Let it sit overnight again and it should be thick enough for use.

If it is too thick, stir in some more water, one cup at a time, until it is the right consistency.

Just be careful not to mix several different strongly scented soaps in the same batch.  Adding Ivory to Irish Spring is fine, but mixing Irish Spring with scraps of Lavender/Vanilla ends up smelling icky.  (It does still work, though!)

Once your batch of liquid soap has cooled completely, you can use it to refill your dispensers.  Store any leftovers in a clean, capped jug and shake before using.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Spicy Savings

Spicing up your foods is a great way to turn a mediocre meal into something spectacular.  Unfortunately, if you browse your grocery store spice rack, you're going to spend a small fortune for a few tiny bottles.

Luckily, there is a solution!  Well, there are a few solutions.

You can grow fresh herbs in a sunny window or small outdoor pots.  That will take care of the easy ones like basil, oregano, rosemary and chives.  But if you want something more exotic, you might need to find another route.

Check out the ethnic food sections of the grocery store.  These sections often offer a selection of low-priced herbs and spices.  Don't look for tidy little jars, though.  Generally, seasonings offered in ethnic sections will be packaged in cello-bags with paper labels.  Once opened, you'll need to transfer the remaining contents into a better container.

If you tend to use a large quantity of a particular seasoning (in our house that means garlic powder, cinnamon and ginger) check warehouse stores for bulk packaging.  Store the larger container away from heat and light and use it to refill smaller, user-friendly dispensers.

Don't shun dollar stores in your search for seasonings.  Many dollar stores offer at least a limited selection of herbs and spices at far less than you would pay elsewhere.  Make sure you check expiration dates and quantities before purchasing.  Spending $1 for a 4" container of bay leaves becomes far less economical when you get the jar home and open it to reveal a pitiful offering of 5 or 6 leaves covered in brown spots.

My favorite seasonings that make cents?

A rosemary bush that has decorated the corner of my small flower garden for nearly ten years and has lent a pine-y aroma and delicious flavor to countless dishes definitely tops my list.  My favorite ethnic section find was a small package of real saffron snagged from a shelf in the "Mexican" area of a local Wal-Mart - enough for over 10 recipes for less than $3.  I shop Sam's Club for bulk garlic powder, cinnamon and ginger, and once found whole nutmegs for a bargain price.  A dollar store once saved our Yuletide holiday when I needed a large amount of poppy seeds for a traditional Polish recipe - the store was the only place I could find poppy seeds in more than tiny jars, and we ended up buying all 9 jars that they had - for $.50 each.

I understand the desire to have all your spice jars in the same style.  It just looks nicer in the cupboard.  Instead of going for the expensive branded seasonings, try putting your random purchases in 1/2 cup size jelly jars.  Most boxes even come with a sheet of labels so you'll never wonder if that strange green leaf is basil, oregano or tarragon.  And, trust me, if you want basil on your pizza and you mistakenly use tarragon... you'll always remember to label your jars!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

the change jar

I have a confession to make.  I hate to jingle.  Change.  Jingly coins in my pocket or in the bottom of my purse that weigh me down and make a spine-grating racket drive me bonkers.  One solution, of course, is not to use cash - but breaking out the debit card (or worse, a credit card) is an easy way to let spending get out of control.  Having to handle the actual cash makes each purchase more deliberate, the costs more tangible.  So I am an advocate of using cash for most purchases, but what to do with the change?

Don't let it accumulate in your pocket/purse/ashtray of your car.  Having bits of change in a dozen different places not only contributes to clutter, but also keeps you from knowing just how much money you actually have.  Instead, start a change jar.  Regularly drop your change into this jar and forget it.  Let it accumulate undisturbed.  Use a good-sized jar.  Pick one day a year to empty and count your change - I like doing this in early December.  A family tradition is to use the accumulated change to buy a gift "for the house" - a board game, new curtains, towels - something everyone can use, since everyone is contributing to the jar throughout the year.

Some years might find less in the jar than others.  One year, the jar change kept us from having to eat ramen for a month when money was tight.  Another year found us with nearly $100 in the jar, giving us the flexibility to take a quick, unexpected road trip to visit family.

Our current jar is a giant Budweiser bottle my husband won years before we met.  It is dark brown glass, so the level of change inside isn't immediately obvious.  We regularly forget about it for weeks at a time - until I start to jingle.  Then, all the change comes out of pockets and purses, off nightstands and the top of the washing machine and goes clinking into the jar.

Individually, the coins aren't worth much, but over time saving in a jar makes dollars out of cents.