Frugal Friday!

It’s frugal Friday here on the blog. Come check out my frugal wins and frugal fails!

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It’s frugal Friday here on the blog!  I’m going to reflect on my week of spending- what were some frugal successes? What were some fails? You get to hear about it all!

Frugal Wins

  • I used up ALL of the leftovers in my fridge this week.  Throwing out food costs money so using up leftovers is a frugal win in my book!
  • I tried to make black bean burgers for lunch this week, but added WAY too many bread crumbs, resulting in black bean um…crumbles. BUT. I mixed them up with a bunch of sweet chili sauce and ate them anyway. Yum yum yum. Just kidding. It wasn’t but I’ll be damned if I’m going to throw out perfectly good food.
  • I made coffee at home every week and took it to work, despite the very lovely temptation of Starbucks AT work.
  • One of F’s beloved tutus got a big hole in it. I am the absolute worst seamstress (B. fixes almost everything that needs sewing around our house. He possesses so many more domestic talents than I do!) I pulled out my needle and thread and managed to do a passable job sewing it up. It doesn’t look pretty, but it also doesn’t have a big hole in it anymore!
  • I’ve been in need of new shorts, as none of the ones I had fit after giving birth (I know, I am super on the ball about this…) but I just. hate. shopping.  So I bought some new to me shorts of ThredUp instead (which you should totally check out if you haven’t tried it).  I can try them on in my own home and hopefully they fit.  I consider this a frugal win because buying consignment is far cheaper than buying new.

Frugal Fails

  • I was feeling totally lazy on Tuesday and forgot to defrost the meat needed for dinner so Fiona and I went to a very popular red and yellow fast food restaurant for some not-that-tasty chicken nuggets.
  • I forgot about an early doctor’s appointment Fiona had on Wednesday morning until…um…Wednesday morning. I forgot to eat breakfast or pack breakfast before we left, so I ended up grabbing something at work.
  • I gave in and splurged on coffee Thursday afternoon.  Ever since the free coffee went away at work, this has become much harder to avoid.  It’s not that I need coffee. I just….need coffee. Or a better solution to the afternoon sleepies.

So that’s my week! How did you guys do?

5 Frugal Recipes

Five of my favorite frugal main dish recipes.

As promised, a few of my favorite, very frugal recipes.

What I look for in a recipe:

  • Inexpensive ingredients- I love my crockpot, because it can do wonders for making cheap cuts of meat taste absolutely delicious.
  • Large quantities- Anything that makes enough to be used for more than one meal is a big win in my book
  • Healthy- a lot of “cheap” meals out there are also cheap in nutritional content. It may be inexpensive to toss a can of cream of mushroom soup over some pork chops, but that doesn’t lead to the most nutritional meals.

 

Five Favorite Frugal Recipes (All main dishes!) 

  1. Slow Cooker Korean Beef – this isn’t my original recipe, so go check it out on the Damn Delicious site. I have made this with every type of cheap beef roast out there and it always turns out lovely and flavorful and takes soooo little work.  Pro tip: it’s best if you follow the recipe and brown the meat beforehand, but it’s still really good if you just (ahem)…throw an entire frozen roast in the crockpot, set it, and forget it.
  2. Slow Cooker Chana Masala– The main protein source for this dish is chickpeas, which come in a can for under a dollar apiece. I skipped the ginger and jalapenos to make this more family friendly (and because I’m just not a huge ginger fan) and my toddler and I both gobbled it up. It makes enough to last me for an entire week.  It’s warm and flavorful and generally just delightful to eat.
  3. Peanut chicken (recipe below) – This is a great recipe. Don’t let the ingredient list fool you- I almost always have most of these things on hand.  This recipe is great because it only uses a pound of chicken, but makes enough to last our little family through at least three meals.
  4. Meatloaf (recipe below)- This is an old family recipe and man, this stuff is good. I’m a bit of a meatloaf snob, because my dad used to make this all the time when we were kids. It wins a frugal award because it turns out awesome with ground turkey (which is literally half the price of ground beef). A pound of ground turkey from the freezer section at Aldi costs…$1.50 maybe?
  5. Slow Cooker Pulled Pork– Are you sensing a theme here yet? My slow cooker is my number two most-utilized kitchen appliance, second only to my beloved coffee maker. This pulled pork is phenomenal. I made it for a baby shower I was hosting recently and it was a huge hit. Put it on a bun with some coleslaw and it’s like taking a big bite right out of summer. Plus, it freezes well, for those dreary winter days when you  need a little summer kick.

 

Peanut Chicken Stir-Fry

Ingredients:

  • 1 Tbsp oil
  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken, cut into one inch pieces (or smaller!)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced (or, if you’re lazy like me, one heaping spoonful of pre-minced garlic)
  • 1 16 ounce pkg of frozen veggies. Or whatever veggies you have on hand. I’ve shredded up fresh carrots and broccoli and it has turned out just fine.
  • 1/2 cup chicken broth
  • 1/4 cup peanut butter
  • 1 Tbsp brown sugar
  • 3 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 tsp cornstarch
  • 3/4 tsp ginger (I never put this in, ginger = yuck)
  • 5-6 drops hot pepper sauce (I also usually omit this, since the wee one isn’t a huge fan of spice…yet)
  • 3 cups shredded cabbage (or, you know, a small head of cabbage. Whatever. It doesn’t have to be exactly three cups)
  • 1/4 cup chopped peanuts (I don’t put these in, but I bet they’d be good!)

Directions

Heat oil in large skillet. Add chicken and garlic. Stir-fry three minutes. Add veggies (except cabbage) and cook until tender-crisp (5-7 minutes). Add all other ingredients except cabbage and peanuts.  Cook two minutes or until boiling. Stir in cabbage and cook two more minutes.  Sprinkle with peanuts to serve.

The directions call for serving this over rice, but I LOVE making lettuce wraps with this recipe.

Meatloaf

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups soft bread crumbs (approximately two slices of bread)
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1/2 small onion
  • 1/2 cup boiling water with one beef bouillon cube dissolved inside
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed thyme
  • 1 pound ground turkey

Directions

Place bread and onion in food processor, process until fine. Add remaining ingredients, pulse until mixed. Place in greased loaf/bread pan. Bake at 325 degrees F for 45 minutes.

Topping

  • 1/2 cup ketchup
  • 2 Tbsp brown sugar
  • 2 tsp yellow mustard (teaspoons is super important here- I once did 2 tablespoons and the topping was inedible).

Mix and spread over top of meatloaf. Bake additional 15 minutes. I often make up a second batch of the topping to use for dipping during dinner. It’s that good.

5 Benefits of Meal-Planning (and 2 Challenges!)

Meal-planning: not just a money-saving tool. How meal-planning helped us eat better, feel better, fight less AND save money!

Yesterday I talked about my approach to meal planning. Tonight, I’m going to talk a little bit about the benefits of meal-planning (and why everyone should be doing it!) Yay meal-planning!

However, I also want to talk about some of the challenges I face around meal-planning and how I’m working to overcome some of those challenges. But first, the good stuff!

5 Benefits of Meal Planning

  1. Stress reduction- Until I started planning meals on a regular basis, I didn’t realize how much stress and brainpower I was putting toward figuring out what we were going to have for dinner.  And we usually ended up with takeout! So every night was a lot of worry and stress and fretting for nothing.  Now, with a kiddo, the transition time between work and dinner is stressful enough without the added stress of planning what to eat.  The fewer decisions I have to make during the so-called “witching hour,” the better.
  2. Grocery shopping made easy– It’s no secret around here that I really really really dislike grocery shopping.  I always wanted to be that person who could walk into a grocery store, pick out 5-6 ingredients seemingly at random, and put together a delicious dinner. Um…yeah. Not me. Without a list and a plan, I stand in the grocery store like a lost puppy, desperately trying to figure out what goes together other than pasta sauce and spaghetti. Meal-planning helps me put together a comprehensive list of ingredients beforehand.
  3. Meal-planning saves us money– Obviously, meal-planning helps save us money, since we aren’t eating out every night. But it helps us save money in other ways too.  First, it saves us money because I always plan around what I already have in the fridge/freezer/cupboard first. Food I don’t have to buy is money in my pocket. Second, I have a list and plan when I go to the grocery store, so I don’t end up buying a bunch of food we don’t need and don’t eat.
  4. Fewer arguments about stupid things– Neither B nor I think that marriage is easy and we both strive to bring our best selves to our marriage. But you guys, that’s hard. It’s even harder at 5:00 at night, with a screaming toddler and two very tired parents. And it’s really easy to lose your cool over something stupid, like who is responsible for making dinner and who never has any ideas for meals and who has no idea what we actually even have. Those are stupid arguments that build and fester over time and hand to heart, meal-planning gets rid of such a large chunk of that.
  5. Better food– now that we meal plan on a regular basis, B and I eat much better than we used to.  Protein isn’t hard to get from take-out meals, but fruits and veggies are usually lacking. Good food makes me feel good.  Take-out makes me feel like crap.  We had to subsist on microwave meals for a month once while we redid our kitchen. I felt awful.  I craved veggies so bad that I bought a salad kit and literally ate it out of the bag it came in. Having planned meals ensures that we’re eating adequate protein, fruits and veggies for every meal. Feeling good and saving money feels like a double win to me.

Challenges of Meal Planning 

  1. I don’t want to eat that– No, this isn’t my toddler. She’s lovely and literally eats anything (veggies, dirt, rocks, everything!).  This is me. I am not picky, but I have to be in the mood to eat something or I can’t eat it. So when we first started meal planning, this was a huge challenge for me.  I had this (in retrospect, dumb) idea in my head that I needed to eat exactly what I planned on exactly the day I planned it. But good news! You don’t! I solved for this challenge in two ways. The first was to see my meal plan as suggestions, or a list of “meals we have ingredients for in the house.”  That gave me freedom to choose, which is really the fundamental thing I needed on a daily basis- choice.  Second, I have a few “go-to” meals that I know I’ll always want to eat. Fettuccine. Pizza.  Chili and grilled cheese.  So I make sure to keep ingredients for these meals on hand pretty much all the time. That way, if I’m having a severe case of “that doesn’t sound good,” I have options that aren’t take-out.
  2. Finding the time– With two working parents plus toddler, time is always at a premium. Sometimes, even finding ten minutes to myself in a day is a challenge.  So time is a big factor in meal-planning for us. I don’t have a good solution to this other than just get it done.  There’s nothing I want more after F goes to bed than the couch, my phone and currently, Gilmore Girls.  But, this is where having a list of the benefits actually helps me out. It’s really easy to call up those feelings of stress, anger and resentment. I don’t  want to feel those things and that’s usually enough motivation to get me through the meal-planning process.  And if it isn’t, then I have a memorized pep talk for myself that consists of four words: “suck it up, buttercup.” Usually, acknowledging to myself that this sucks and I don’t want to do it, but I have to anyway because I’m an adult is enough to make me actually do it.

These are my two greatest challenges for meal planning. How about all of you? What do you get out of meal-planning? What’s keeping you from being successful?

Be on the lookout tomorrow for some of my favorite uber-frugal recipes!

 

A week of meal planning!

This week, I’m going to do a little mini-series on something near and dear to my frugal heart- meal planning.  Up first: my approach to meal planning.

This week, I’m going to do a little mini-series on something near and dear to my frugal heart- meal planning.  Up first: my approach to meal planning.

There are many parts of living on a budget that I really don’t like, but meal planning is my happy place in so many ways.  Why, you may ask? Because I’m a slightly neurotic type-A in recovery who loves lists. And a meal plan is essentially a giant list. It’s organized and easy and I get a lot of mental satisfaction out of making lists and therefore making meal plans.

But! Meal plans come with an added bonus- they make eating on a budget SO much easier.

A long time ago, way before we started budgeting, this is what dinner looked like nearly every night in our house.

Me: What do you want to do for dinner tonight?

B: I dunno. What do you want to do?

Me: *hangry inability to decide*

B: Let’s go to *random fast food joint*/Here, look a box of mac and cheese!

Now, our average McDonald’s bill didn’t ever seem very high- $15 or so. But if you figure that we were going out 4-5 times a week, rather than cooking, our restaurant budget was around $60 a week or $240 a month. That’s a lot! And it wasn’t just dinner where this was happening. Consequently, our restaurant spending was a lot higher than that.

Plus, no question, that amount of junky food is not good for you.  So one of the first things we started doing when we started budgeting was meal planning. Since I love lists and organizing things, I do most of the meal planning. And even though it was totally overwhelming when I first started, I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be complicated.

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(apologies for the terrible picture.  Pictures are not my forte) 

This is what I use on a weekly basis for meal planning.  In case you can’t tell, it’s a piece of paper I had laminated- erasable and re-usable!  I actually have two- one for the current week and one for the following week.  This is what it looks like filled out:

20170710_192657(Clearly, I haven’t quite figured out how to make meals that are appropriately-sized for just F. and I, since three of the seven days are leftovers…) 

That’s it. That’s all I do each week. Just jot down meal ideas and sides.  There are a lot of ways to make meal planning really complicated, but I’m just not willing to invest time in anything complicated.

The above meal plan is based off of two things:

  1. What we have in the house- the cheapest food is the food you already have and the biggest waste of money is food that goes bad before you eat it.  I see dollar signs every time I thrown food in the garbage.
  2. What can be made in thirty minutes- I get home at 5:00. F. is hungry at 5:30 on the dot.  Time is short. Meals need to be easy. Or in a crockpot.

A common tip I see in a lot of frugality books and blogs is to buy and plan meals around whatever is on sale at the grocery store (i.e. if chicken thighs are on sale this week, eat chicken thighs).  I have absolutely no qualms with this particular method of meal planning, but a) I do not have time to go trolling through the store ads and b) I  don’t like chicken thighs! Turns out that purchasing food on sale is only a frugal endeavor if you eat it.  Instead, I generally plan meals around food (especially meat) that I know is usually affordable and that I know I like- chicken breasts, pork chops, and ground turkey. Red meat is a rarity around here, because it’s almost never affordable.  For fruits and veggies, I just buy whatever is on sale when I get to the store.  Or bananas, apples, carrots and cucumbers if nothing is on sale, because those things are always affordable.

So there you have it. My quick and dirty approach to meal-planning.  Tune back in tomorrow for a discussion on the benefits and challenges of meal planning. What are all your experiences with meal planning?

 

Why we’re on this financial journey

Our long-term life and financial goals

There is one very simple reason why we’re so focused on paying off debt: options.  If you don’t owe money to anyone, you suddenly have room in your life for new options that maybe weren’t available before.  For example: B. and I both work full-time. We both like our jobs, but also would like to start our own business (or businesses!) someday.  Turns out that fierce independence is often at odds with not being the boss…

But the harsh truth is that right now, we aren’t in a financial place where either of us feels comfortable taking that risk.  When your student loan payments cost more than your mortgage (or rent) each month, you start feeling risk-averse pretty darn quick. We know what we need to live on- if we didn’t have student loans, one of us could quit and turn their attention full time to either child-rearing, starting a business, or both.  Debt is currently crushing both of our entrepreneurial spirits and we both want, like hell, to be out from under that weight.

All in all, we have some specific long-term and short-term goals that we’re working toward (and the reason we throw as much money as we can at student loan debt):

Short-term goals

  1. Buy a modest house- Before we moved to our current location (for my job), we owned a house. And it was nice. Even though it added to our overall debt, we actually felt like we were investing in something real, rather than throwing money away to someone else each month. Plus, in our current over-priced rental market, buying might actually put us in a better place financially.* Plus, it’d be nice to not have to worry every time the toddler spills on the carpet!
  2. Pay off private student loans– Hey, we did this one! Go us!
  3. Increase charitable contributions- Life has been sort of crazy since I started my job um…almost two years ago. B. was in training, then home, now overseas for the rest of the year, so this goal kind of fell by the wayside. But this has been an important part of our budget in years past and I would like to get this arm of our life back up and running. Doing good things for other people makes me more humble and grateful and cultivating that attitude is important to me. We both recognize that we’re in a privileged place financially (more about this in a future post) and both feel a strong need to give back to those who aren’t. But lately, we haven’t been doing a good job of living out that belief.

Long-term goals

  1. Fully-funded college accounts- I had a pretty sizable college account by the time I went to school and it kept me from amassing much in the way of debt (thank you parents/grandparents). I want that for our daughter and any future children as well, to try and ensure that they don’t end up in the same place we did.
  2. Land- We both love the country and being outdoors and would love to be able to buy land out in the country and build or remodel a house. Fresh air, sunshine, gardens, woods- all these things sound lovely (but nearish to a big city because I need things and like amenities).  B. has a dream business he would love to start, but it requires some land to do it.
  3. Own our own business- B’s dream business is something I would love to do as well and we both look forward to the day that we’re financially secure enough to take this leap and this risk.
  4. Financial independence- Again, so many possibilities when you don’t owe a darn thing to anyone (this includes a mortgage, which we would aggressively start paying off if we didn’t have student loans).

*We learned a lot about buying a house the first time around, where we bought a house that we thought needed minor updating which actually turned out to need a lot more than that and ended up being kind of a money-pit. Don’t get me wrong, I loved our house, but at the end of the day, we’d probably have been better off putting all that renovation money toward debt.  The only smart thing we did was buy a house at the very low end of our budget (and way less than what the bank approved). Everything else was pretty much Dave Ramsey’s 101 for not buying a house.

July Budget

Our budget for July

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DEBT OWED: $153,000 (roughly) 

July Budget

Yucky yucky debt

  • Minimum payment: $1400
  • Planned extra payment: no less than $2500 (this is above and beyond the $1400 we would normally pay, so a grand total of roughly $4000 toward debt)

Necessities

  • Rent: $1300
  • Utilities: $260
  • Cell Phone: $50
  • Groceries: $500
  • Gas: $200
  • Daycare: $980
  • Maid: $206 (Trust me, with a deployed husband and a two year old, this is a necessity at the moment. Sanity and sleep allow me to make better choices in budget areas we usually suck at. Like eating out. Oh McDonalds, why are you so close to my house and on the way home from work??)
  • Lawn care: $150 (again, deployed husband + two year old. I feel really grateful that we can afford these small luxuries while Brian is away.)
  • Brian: $500 (Brian is in charge of managing his own money while he’s deployed. I just give him a chunk of money to work with. How he spends it is his own business.)

Other expenses

  • Clothing: $200- This is high this month. I realized that I have exactly zero pairs of shorts (note to self- clothing purging CAN be taken too far) and it’s hot.  Plus F (my rambunctious two-year old) WILL NOT STOP GROWING and has about grown out of the 3T wardrobe I purchased for her approximately two months ago.  So new (to us) clothes it is.
  • Gymnastics: $48
  • Restaurants: $100 (eating out has really declined as taking the toddler out to eat alone is a mildly terrifying prospect)
  • Netflix: $10 (because it’s cheaper than cable, but not by a lot because our Internet is freaking expensive)
  • Hair Care/Cosmetics: $100 (higher this month because I had a rare morning where I didn’t have to work but F had daycare and I got a pedicure! For the first time since…hmmm… I think my best friend’s wedding like 7 years ago. It was glorious. See you again in 7 years, oh great and relaxing pedicure chair)
  • Fun money: $100 (Mine to do whatever I want with over the course of a month. Lunch out? Afternoon coffee date? All coming out of this fund)
  • Miscellaneous: $200 (Because I’m terrible at budgeting (STILL!), I need a “slush fund” to catch random things that come up during the month.  It’s always capped at $200 because otherwise, I could probably find a lot of things I “need”)

Total planned expenditures (excluding debt payments): $4704

% of projected monthly income: about 50% (which is what we like to see!) 

We set our budget every month using Every Dollar. I love this software- it’s linked to both our bank account and our one credit card (that we never ever use except right now because it has lower international fees for my husband).

Our Financial Journey/ Welcome to the Blog!

Our family’s financial journey starts with a whole lot of debt.

Hi!

I’m Liz and this is my blog about my family’s journey to financial independence. My husband and I have been working (for a long time) to pay off student loans, but it’s easy to fall into the mindset of “needing all the things.” At least, it is for me. So I’m hoping that this blog will keep me accountable for our spending as a family (and help me commit to things like updating my budget monthly and tracking expenditures). Expect posts that are part finance, part frugality and a lot of humility. Hopefully we can all have some fun along the way!

About our finances:

My husband and I use and follow Dave Ramsey’s* Total Money Makeover plan and we use his EveryDollar budgeting software to create and track our expenses on a monthly basis. We’ve also been through his Financial Peace University (FPU) course, which was fantastic. This software can be linked to both credit cards (although Dave Ramsey strongly discourages the use of credit cards) as well as bank accounts.

About our debt:

Oh man. This is a hard section to write. I never like talking about money (half of the motivation for starting this blog is to make ME feel more comfortable talking about this stuff) and I REALLY don’t like talking about all the money we owe (or owed). I’m a little late to the blogging game, as we’ve already paid down some debt, but back when we started the Dave Ramsey plan (like…6 years ago?), this is what our financial picture looked like:

DEBT (seriously, all the debt).

  • Car Loan (I want to say this was roughly $10,000? I can’t remember now)
  • Student loans. The big motherload. Roughly $225,000. Maybe more. I can’t remember exactly, we’ve been paying on them so long. It was so much money that the FPU leaders thought we’d messed up and included our mortgage when reporting our debt (HAHAHA). This was a mix of both federal loans (slightly less bad, still bad) and roughly $60,000 in private student loans (holy batman bad. So bad. Don’t do this.)

In total seriousness, those numbers above are why I need this blog. It makes me sick to think that we jointly owe ANYONE that much money.

Where we are today (June 1, 2017): 

  • NO car loan
  • NO private student loans
  • $153,108.14 in federal loans

For those of you doing the math, we’ve paid off about $70,000 in debt over the last six years. $11,500 a year. I am PROUD of that number. Sometimes debt can feel pretty overwhelming, so it’s nice to look back and celebrate everything we’ve accomplished so far.

So welcome to my financial life! It’s going to be a messy ride!

*I have to be honest and say that I do have some ethical qualms with Dave Ramsey and this plan. This may have changed recently, but when we went through Financial Peace University, we found out about halfway through that LGBTQ couples weren’t allowed to participate. This is horrendously awful and I know our church at the time would have allowed them to participate anyway, but I felt like crap knowing that they wouldn’t be *technically* allowed to participate. This is an issue I continue to wrestle with, because we have not found as much success with any other budgeting plan (and paying off debt will allow us more money to donate to causes that are near and dear to us) but again, discrimination.