Sunday, February 28, 2010

Cartoon economics

Two days in a row last week I caught myself buying coffee with the debit card. Though I usually make my own, I don’t begrudge myself an occasional caffeinated indulgence -- so long as I pay with my allowance money, which, like the song in the old “Schoolhouse Rock” cartoon, comes to “$7.50 once a week.”

I buy the same kind of stuff with my allowance as that kid did: a cheap burrito here, a cold soda there, a comic book or magazine from the library‘s secondhand sales rack. It doesn’t really matter, as long as I stay within my budgetary boundaries. Those few bucks are meant to be spent on frivolous crap, and if I‘ve got a dollar or two left at the end of the week, then I set it aside in case I want to buy more frivolous crap later. (Since I’m attempting to buy all my clothes secondhand this year, I’ve even thought about trying to fund my clothing budget with leftover allowance money.)

This is the nature of the budgetary universe I’ve constructed over the years, a complex yet simple system in which no part is so tiny as to be considered insignificant. My allowance belongs to the cash-based world, where it coexists with the grocery fund, the dining fund, the kid activity fund and other budgetary organisms, each playing its role.

When my childish impulses grab the debit card, they enter the digital world of our budgetary universe, populated by larger creatures with more complicated needs and relationships. Those coffee purchases may not seem like much, a little nibble here and there. But left unchecked, they can throw the whole ecosystem out of alignment.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

A nutty fashion trend that could save you money

It’s 29 degrees with wind gusts up to 26 mph as I drop our daughter off at school yesterday, but only one student is wearing a coat. Granted, we’ve arrived early, and there are only a dozen students on the scene. Most, like Rowan, are at least wearing hoodies. But two guys make the long trek from their cars to the entrance in short-sleeved T-shirts, ambling along like they’re walking on the beach. And the kid in the letter jacket? He’s got shorts on.

All winter I’ve been spotting kids in shorts, and it’s not just teenagers, either. At a birthday party Ben attended last weekend, half the preteen boys showed up with their shins exposed. I don’t pretend to understand the cultural confluence at work here. Rebellion surely plays a role, as does youthful confidence that they won’t get stuck outside for very long. The length of their shorts -- made popular by Michigan’s Fab Five, who blew the NCAA tournament before this crop of high school kids was even born -- is another likely factor.

I don’t know what other parents think about this fashion trend, but I say, bring it on. I’ve often suspected it would be cheaper to live in a warmer climate, without heating bills or a winter wardrobe. Those long shorts are a heck of a lot cheaper than blue jeans.

Friday, February 26, 2010

$2 dinners (hold the fine print, please)

I was killing time at the Walmart magazine rack the other day, waiting on the kids to set their spending money on fire -- I mean, find those indispensable items that would give their lives meaning -- when I noticed an article on $2 dinners.

That’s what it said on the cover, anyway. When I flipped open the magazine, though, it turns out the writer was talking about meals that cost $2 per serving. For us, those would be $12 dinners. That’s $84 for seven dinners -- about what I usually spend on all our groceries, including laundry detergent and shampoo and toilet paper, for an entire week.

As it turns out, we had an actual $2 dinner at our house just last night: Baked leftover spaghetti topped with a little mozzarella cheese, leftover banana bread, some iceberg lettuce (I know, I know, but that’s what my husband prefers) and homemade brownies flavored with cocoa powder. I figure the brownies contained about $1 worth of ingredients, and we used about half a head of lettuce (50 cents) and about 50 cents worth of cheese. Everything else had been through another meal previously, and for accounting purposes would have already been “expensed.”

Here are some non-leftover dinners that really do cost $2, with no fine print. They make less-than-ideal glossy magazine photographs, but at least your kids will go off to college knowing what to eat when they're broke:

-- Ramen noodles, a sliced carrot, 1 cup of frozen peas, 1 can of tuna.
-- Baked omelette and toast.
-- Grilled cheese and tomato soup.
-- Peanut butter and jelly pizza. (Make your own crust).
-- Baked potatoes topped with a can of chili beans and a sprinkle of cheese. (Use potatoes from a bag, and you’ll pay just a few cents per potato.)
-- Store-brand macaroni and cheese, store brand green beans and store brand tuna.
-- Tuna noodle casserole, using a homemade white sauce instead of cream of mushroom soup.
-- Homemade pancakes or waffles and homemade syrup, made with one part brown sugar to one part water.
-- Homemade polenta topped with spaghetti sauce or salsa and sprinkled with cheese.
-- Beans and rice

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Infiltrating Hilfiger's army

So I've got these two Tommy Hilfiger long-sleeve T-shirts, hand-me-downs from my mom, and they're really comfortable and I like the colors and they don't actually say the designer's name anywhere except the inside label, which deluded me into accepting them in the first place. But I just can't seem to leave the house in this garb. Even if I just need to go to the post office, I invariably wind up changing my shirt first.

I suppose I should take them to Goodwill, so a bonafide member of Hilfiger's army can claim them. Yet they're so comfy, I can't quite give them up. For now, I've marked their demotion by moving them from one cube in my duct-taped, cardboard-box closet organizer to another. But if I get extra motivated, maybe I'll sew something funky over those Hilfiger stripes -- like the time I "recovered" a Vera Bradley purse I once got as a Christmas gift.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A frontal assault on the grocery termites

I got so wound up yesterday about that expiration-date article in Slate that I forgot to post my Weight Watchers cost-analysis update. And it’s not like I was trying to overlook bad news, either: I dropped another four pounds. That brings my totals to a little less than $60 spent, a little less than 17 pounds lost.

So far, I continue to feel like it’s been worth the expense. Obviously I wish I could just do this on my own -- and I’m getting to the point where I think I could -- but I keep wondering if part of the reason I’m taking this so seriously is because there’s money involved. I always want to make sure I get my money’s worth, ya know? (This isn’t a factor for my mom, and so this whole process has been more of a struggle for her.)

My motivation is probably different than many other people who go to these meetings. Yeah, I want to look and feel better, and I’ve definitely already noticed an energy boost. But the main thing, I think, is that I want to bring my eating habits into alignment with my frugal values. On the one hand, I go to these extreme measures to save money on our grocery bill, but on the other hand my mindless noshing and overgenerous appetite was wasting some of our food supply. It was like having grocery termites -- and they had the gall to set up their command center inside the skull of the family budget nazi.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

More notes on experimenting with expiration

I finally got around to reading the food writer's article on expiration dates yesterday, after hearing her on NPR. Her findings confirm what I’ve long suspected, that expiration dates are mostly unregulated, highly variable and ridiculously conservative. We’ve got four half gallons of milk in the fridge right now that supposedly “expired” on Sunday. Our record is six days. Not because we‘ve lost our nerve after that point, or encountered stinky milk, but just because we‘ve usually drunk it up by then.

Our family goes through six gallons of milk a week. We should probably get a cow. But in the meantime, scoring short-dated milk is a high priority for us. The kids know to look for the orange stickers some supermarkets put on their most aged cartons. I paid only 65 cents each for the ones in the fridge.

Not everybody’s so desperate to unload old milk, though. At a general store in a village near here, I once found a gallon of milk six days its expiration date that had been marked down only 40 cents -- and because it started out higher to begin with, was only slightly lower than my target price of $2 a gallon. “Those dates don’t mean anything,” the store clerk said, nodding her head toward the back of the store. “He‘s drunk it 10 days past the date, and never had any trouble.” She didn‘t say who “he” was. For all I know, she was talking about her dog.

Nadia Arumugam, the Slate writer, makes a good point that “expiration bacteria” is much less harmful than “unclean” bacteria like e coli or salmonella. I’m still wondering, though, whether the “expiration bacteria” in pasteurized milk is the same as the “expiration bacteria” in raw milk. Can modern milk transform into other delicacies, or has it lost that capability? As the descendant of Swiss cheesemakers (though I believe what they made on my great-grandfather’s farm was more akin to cottage cheese), I intend to find out.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Apple prices trending lower?

In the 15 years that I’ve been tracking grocery prices in our area, my “buy” price on apples has remained consistent: 99 cents a pound. But recently I noticed Aldi has been selling three-pound bags of apples for $2, which comes out to 66 cents a pound. And this week Meijer is advertising three-pound bags of Jonagold and Delicious apples at three for $5, which comes out to $1.66 or $1.67 each, or 56 cents a pound.

If you’re buying bagged apples, by the way, don’t forget to check how many you’re getting per bag. Three-pound bags typically contain 8-10 apples. If you pick up an eight-apple bag, you’ll be paying 21 cents an apple -- whereas if you get a 10-apple bag, you’ll pay 17 cents an apple.

Orange-potato experiment results

To recap: After a bag of potatoes nestled between a bag of oranges and a bag of grapefruit in the pantry turned slimy in just a little over a week, I couldn’t help wondering if the citrus fruits were to blame.

To check this hypothesis, we set two bowls on the counter, one containing a potato and an orange, the other a potato and a grapefruit. It’s been 12 days now (11 for the grapefruit), and both potatoes look fine. In fact, I’ll probably use them in a soup tomorrow night.

To see past posts on this experiment, click here and here and here.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

What’s in a word?

Anybody who reads this blog will likely notice that I avoid using the words “tightwad” and “cheapskate,” even though two of my frugal heroes -- whose writings I include in my frugal bible -- use those words to refer to either themselves or their writings or both. But much as I admire Amy Dacyczyn, author of "The Tightwad Gazette", and Jeff Yeager, the "Ultimate Cheapskate", I just can’t bring myself to use words that carry such negative baggage.

I prefer the words frugal and thrift, whether you’re talking about an act or a person or a movement. In fact, I like to use the plural form of frugal (there isn’t one, I made it up, though I probably wasn’t the first) to refer to people who examine the economic impact of their actions: Frugals. I just like the sound of it.

The hulking 2,662-page dictionary my husband got me for Christmas a few years back, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, supports my intuition on this word-choice issue.

Here are the definitions it lists for these four words, presented in alphabetical order:

cheapskate -- first entry is “a miserly or ungenerous person” and “one who tries to avoid his share of costs” Lists this quote by Frances W. Browin: “If we were courageous enough to demur at the price we were made to feel in no uncertain terms that we were cheapskates.”

frugal -- “economical in the use or the expenditure of resources“; “not wasteful or lavish”

thrift -- believe it or not, the first definition listed is “healthy or vigorous growth.” Definition No. 2: “good fortune, success.” 3. “savings accumulated through frugality” 4.a. “careful management of financial affairs” It’s not until definition 4-b that a negative connotation arises, “stinginess, miserliness”. But by definition No.5, it’s back to positivity: “Gainful employment, useful occupation.” (There’s a definition No.6, but it’s a reference to a specific type of plant that’s n/a here.)

tightwad -- a person who spends, lends or gives away money grudgingly or not at all; a close or miserly person.

I should note that this dictionary’s copyright date is 1993. It would be interesting to see if the definitions of these words have been updated in recent years to account for the many “frugals” who have tried to take ownership of them and expand their meaning. Yeager, for instance, may well be the “Ultimate Cheapskate,” but he advocates charitable giving and other admirable, earth- and people-friendly acts in his book, “The Ultimate Cheapskate’s Roap Map to True Riches.”

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Another zombie ad rises from the grave

So Ben talked me into buying Ovaltine at the grocery store yesterday, and it turns out his craving was artificially induced by a zombie ad. This time it was Joe Namath touting "my old pal Ovaltine" on an old video of vintage sports commercials the kids popped in the VCR to entertain Colleen when she was sick this week.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The long view on weekly purchases

Eggs are 88 cents this week at Scott’s and Kroger stores in the Fort Wayne area. That’s not much under my target price of 99 cents. But if you buy 10 packages at a time -- as I plan to do -- it‘s the difference between paying $8.80 instead of $9.90.

Actually, the cost difference is even greater than that, because I can’t always find eggs when I need them at my target price. Sometimes I wind up paying $1.19, or even $1.29, or once in a great while, $1.59. If I buy roughly a dozen eggs a week, and over the course of 10 weeks I buy two cartons at the 88 cent sale price, five cartons at my 99 cent target price, and one dozen each at the other prices I mentioned, then my cost for 10 packages of eggs comes to $10.78. Spread out over time, it doesn’t seem like much of a difference. But if you bought them all at once, you would certainly choose to pay $8.80 rather than $10.78, right?

There was a time when a minor sale price like this one would’ve enticed me to buy only one or two extra packages, because I was always having to balance my urge to stock up with my desire to not derail our weekly grocery budget.

Now, though, I let my “Grocery Holding Company” foot the bill. I’ll store the eggs in our garage fridge until they’re needed, and when I want a dozen eggs I’ll put $1 from my weekly grocery fund into my Grocery Holding Company envelope. That way I’m guaranteed a price just one penny over my target price, and the GHC, as I fondly call it, will see its $8.80 “investment” eventually turn into $10. It’s not much. But it’s a better rate of return than you can get on a savings account, or even many investment accounts these days.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

I'm never buying wax paper again

And neither should you, so long as you've got a steady stream of breakfast cereal coming into the house. Flatten out the wax-paper liners, snip off the seams, and you've got a perfectly usable piece of wax paper. The only real problem is taking the time to do it, and figuring out how to store it. One option: Wrap these sheets around the cardboard tube from an empty wax paper or plastic wrap box and secure with a rubber band. Or fold and store in a zip-loc bag or plastic container.

Another thing you can do with a cereal-box liner is subdivide it into sandwich bags. For two larger bags, simply cut the liner in half horizontally. The bottom half is then basically ready to go, needing only to be folded over and fastened at the top with a piece of tape. The top half needs tape to make a bottom seam.

To make four smaller bags, cut the larger bottom bag vertically along the seam, then reconstruct the missing side seams on both bags with tape. The top bags will need tape-constructed seams on two sides.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The caste system as applied to paper products

Why is it that you never see a roll of toilet paper outside a bathroom? Except in our kitchen, I mean?

To me, a toilet-paper roll is nothing more than the little brother of the paper-towel roll: Smaller, thinner, less muscular, ill suited to heavy lifting, but just right for the occasional small job, when all you need is a thin layer of something disposable between your fingers and an icky substance. It’s less of a drain on the environment, and cheaper, too: We buy the 1,000-sheet rolls when they go on sale for fifty cents each, which comes out to 1/20th of a cent per sheet. (I don’t know how much paper towels cost per sheet, because we rarely buy them, preferring to sponge up bigger messes with cloth towels. But I’m guessing it’s a heck of a lot more than that.)

There’s only one problem: Perception. As in other people’s. No matter how I feel about the usefulness of toilet paper outside the bathroom, I can’t get past feeling funny about leaving the roll sitting atop the microwave when company comes over. That’s why I made this handy decorative toilet paper holder, kind of like a Kleenex-box cover, except I made mine from the top and bottom segments of an oatmeal canister, cutting an X in the lid for dispensing.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A new kind of predator ad?

The other day I talked about a special breed of advertising predator: the zombie. An ad so ancient you assume it‘s essentially lifeless, only to discover that it can still crawl inside your skull and take control of your brain.

Now I’m wondering what to make of this ad on the cover of my son’s manga magazine. (Technically it’s on the back cover, as manga is read back to front. But since he leaves it lying around the house in classic Western fashion, I see the ad much more than I see the cover.)

As you can see from the photo, this skater dude’s stomach has hijacked his brain, literally sprouting a big hairy arm to stuff a hot dog in his mouth. The message: “Hunger gets what hunger wants.” But what I don’t get is why the hot dog company’s logo, Ball Park brand franks, is such an afterthought on the page. I saw this ad dozens of times before I realized which brand of hot dog was being pushed. So is it just a poorly designed ad? Or is there some hidden component here that makes this a special breed of predator? I’m going to see if I can track down the authors of “Ad Nauseum” to see what they’ve got to say.

Weight Watchers cost-analysis update

After dropping 12 pounds in my first three weeks, I was down only .4 of a pound at last night’s weigh-in. (That’s what I get for having a second slice of pizza Sunday night at Grandma Linda’s). So I’m at just under $50 paid in, and still less than 13 pounds taken off. If it were just me, this might be the point where I say, see ya later, folks, I’m doing this on my own. (Though I could still make the argument that losing 12 pounds feels pretty good, maybe even $50 worth of good.)

The thing is, though, I agreed to do this with my mom, to help support her, and while this was my stalling-out week, it was her breakthrough week. After three weeks of negligible weight loss, she finally lost four pounds in a single week. And she’s so excited she’s planning to find a Weight Watchers meeting to go to while she’s in Florida the next couple of weeks.

She really wants me to keep doing this with her, and I guess I will. For now.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Four Shirts and a Skirt Menu Planning System

Recently I ran into an old acquaintance at a library book sale, a scandalous housewife from a well-thumbed Judy Blume novel I got introduced to back in the 1980s.

She hadn’t changed a bit. But I could tell I‘d aged, because as she rehashed the monotony of her existence, harping about chicken on Wednesdays and something else grownups like a lot on Saturdays, I kept thinking, what’s wrong with a little structure in your life?

If that renegade housewife had wanted to spice up her kitchen repertoire, it might have helped if she thought of that chicken as a skirt in her wardrobe, to be matched up with four or five distinctive and alluring tops to create a different “look” for every Wednesday of the month. But why stop there? Google “chicken recipe” and you’ll find enough variations for a different chicken entree every Wednesday for the next five years.

We don’t eat much meat at our house, so rather than build our menu “wardrobe” around animal-flesh building blocks, we use themes. Mondays, for instance, are “breakfast night,” which can mean anything from a simple baked omelet or homemade waffles to a family favorite, Dr. Seuss-style green eggs and ham. (The green tint comes from chopped spinach or broccoli.)

We also have soup and homemade bread night, stir-fry night, casserole night, pizza night and pasta night. (We also do a meat-and-potatoes meal, except the “meat” is usually vegetarian, whether it’s store-bought Boca chicken patties or homemade TVP veggie burgers or meatloaf.)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Gently used valentines

It’s my belief that you can’t really cut the frugal life if you don’t plan ahead, and so I figured I was gonna get skunked on valentine’s gifts for the kids this year because I hadn’t really given it any thought until yesterday afternoon. Basically any themed present bought the day before a holiday is going to be at peak price. As I was gloomily pondering this conundrum, I suddenly thought of a gift Grandma Linda often gives -- red or pink shirts. Of course, hers usually come from The Children’s Place or Dick’s Sporting Goods or some other high-profile store. I decided to go see what I could find at Goodwill.

Sure enough, I found something for everybody, including a really nice pink-and-gray Columbia winter coat with a removable liner for whichever of the girls most needs it or it fits best. Total cost, for winter coat plus eight shirts (I bought two or three extra ones): $21. Now I need to go throw them in the washer so they‘re all comfy and ready to wear.

Happy Valentine’s Day, everybody!

Potato-orange experiment update

Nothing is happening with either bowl. Both potatoes, one paired with an orange and one with a grapefruit, look completely healthy. At this point, I‘m thinking that it wasn‘t the grapefruit that slimed my last bag of potatoes. But I‘ll go ahead and continue the experiment a few more days, just to make sure.

A reprieve? Or just a slower, more agonizing exit?

Turns out I’m not getting laid off. But my hours are getting severely “downsized.” I’m still sorting through my feelings on that, but one thing is clear: This marks the end of my all-expense-paid* weekly trip to the discount bread store. I’ll only be working on Saturdays now, and the bread store near the office is closed that day.

*By all-expense-paid, I mean that the gas to drive to the bread store was already covered by my commute to work. Because the bread there is so cheap, driving even a few blocks extra to get there would quickly eliminate any savings by the extra cost in gas.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Zombie ads

In their book “Ad Nauseum,“ Carrie McLaren, Jason Torchinsky and Rob Walker refer to advertisements as predators. In our experience, they can also turn into zombies, rising up from the grave to try to crawl into your skull via your eyeballs. (Or in some cases, your ears). Take this improbable but true story from our family archives:

Three or four years ago Bob brought home a library DVD of 1950s “Superman” episodes that happened to include a commercial in which Superman plugged the corn flakes made by the show’s sponsor, Kellogg’s. Now, this is a commercial that was made more than half a century ago. The man wearing the Superman suit in the commercial, George Reeves, has been dead since 1959. Nonetheless, the ad still managed to hypnotize three of our kids, because when movie time was over they dutifully filed out to the kitchen to pour themselves -- you guessed it -- heaping bowls of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.

What makes it even weirder is that this wasn’t a cereal in our regular rotation. Bob picked up a box on a whim a few days before because it happened to be on sale. When he first brought it home, the kids rolled their eyes. Nobody even bothered to open the box -- not until they saw the zombie commercial, that is.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Thrifty sleepover strategy

After working hard last week to come in nearly $20 under our grocery budget goal, we decided to ease up this week and let ourselves spend the full $90. Pacing is important if you want to keep morale up. It’s funny how you can feel like you’re living large on $15 a person per week when you’ve been getting buy on considerably less than that for a few weeks in a row.

For us, living large included takeout pizza, trying a couple of new dishes for a Super Bowl party and hosting not one but two sleepovers -- one on a school night during a stretch of three straight snow days.

Sleepovers needn’t be expensive, though. For us, the key is making a big batch of bread dough. Use half the dough to make pizzas, and the other half for cinnamon rolls the next morning. Throw in some popcorn and Kool-Aid, and you’re all set.

The bread dough I make most often now is both tasty and simple:

Take 2 cups of prepared mashed potatoes (I usually make instant in the microwave, if I don’t have any already made in the freezer), add 1 tablespoon of yeast, three tablespoons of salt, four cups of warm water and about eight cups of flour. (You might need more or less, depending on the flour; keep adding until the mixture is not too sticky for you to start using your hands.) I usually use a bit of whole wheat flour in my flour mix, but obviously you don’t have to.

Cinnamon rolls are easy, too. Just spread some dough on a greased surface, as if you’re making a pizza, only slather it with butter instead of tomato sauce. Then sprinkle it with a mixture of cinnamon and sugar, and roll it up into a log. Slice each roll off and set it in a greased baking dish. Then butter each top and sprinkle with more cinnamon sugar. Bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes (it depends on the size of your rolls, which depends on the size of the “log” you rolled up.)

For icing, the simplest is to just pour a dab of milk into a cup of powdered sugar and whisk with a fork until your get a consistency you can deal with. If you want to go all out, though, caramel icing isn’t too much harder nor much more costly. Just heat a stick of butter and cup of brown sugar until it boils, stir for a minute or two, add 1/4 cup milk and heat til boiling again, then remove from heat and cool. Add 1 teaspoon vanilla flavoring and a couple of cups of powdered sugar. (That’s what the recipe I use calls for, but I sometimes like to use a little more than that.)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The cheapest thought I’ve ever had (I think)

The other day I found myself wondering how much more ink I’ll use over the course of my life by drawing boxes around the headings in my notebooks rather than merely underlining them.

Orange-potato experiment update

Yesterday I reported (and photographed) a small damp spot underneath the potato. Today it’s gone. The potato looks as healthy as ever. Which makes me wonder: At one point I wondered if I should use a grapefruit instead of an orange, given that grapefruit seem so much more acidic and therefore possibly more likely to produce potato death rays. So I swapped out the orange for a grapefruit for a few minutes before deciding to proceed with the original experiment. (Some scientist, huh?) Anyway, now I’m wondering, is the grapefruit so powerful that it produced this effect in just those few minutes? Did I imagine the whole thing? What about the photographic evidence? What would Bill Nye the Science Guy say?

At any rate, here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to leave the orange-potato bowl alone (except for my previous tampering, I mean) and then I’m going to put another potato in a second bowl with a grapefruit.

Baking soda liberation

What a great feeling to look under the sink and note without dismay that we’re running out of dishwasher detergent -- because for a mere 49 cents, the price of a box of baking soda, I know we can keep feeding the dishwasher twice a day for another week or two. (We still have half a box of borax, the other ingredient in homemade detergent).

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Potato disaster yields experiment, recipe

Week before last I bought a 10-pound bag of potatoes on sale at Meijer for just $1.69, well below my target price of $1.99. I remember thinking they looked like good, sturdy potatoes, and knowing that I once counted 41 potatoes in a 10-pound bag, I couldn’t help running the figures in my head, right there in the store: 17 cents a potato if there were just 10 in the bag. But no, there were likely four times that many, so these potatoes likely cost only about 4 cents each.

This would’ve been a fantastic buy -- if I hadn’t plunked them down in a corner of the pantry, next to a giant bag of grapefruit that I’d bought on sale just a few days earlier. I baked a big batch of eight or so potatoes that week, and then didn’t get into the bag again until Super Bowl Sunday, when I was preparing to make diet stuffed potato halves (see recipe below). When I peeked inside, I recoiled in horror: the potatoes on top were slimy, and those on the bottom had literally been liquified into a foul potato soup.

So much for my savvy potato investment. But in grocery shopping, as in sports and life in general, you’ve got to move on. Ruminate on a mistake, and you’ll miss your next opportunity.

In this case, I’m moving on by running an experiment: Do citrus fruits really produce death rays when forced to share housing with potatoes? Or did I just misjudge the quality of the potatoes in the first place? (The potatoes were purchased on Jan. 30, and had been reduced to mush by Feb. 7.)

An initial search on the Web didn’t yield any insights on this question. Plenty of people have theories on the danger of storing onions with potatoes, but apparently nobody else is dim enough to store potatoes with grapefruit (and oranges; a couple of days after I bought the potatoes I bought a big bag of oranges, and put it in the same corner.)

At any rate, yesterday afternoon we put an orange and a potato (purchased on Super Bowl Sunday) in a mixing bowl. When I checked it early this morning the potato looked and felt fine on the surface, but when I picked it up there was a wet spot underneath. We’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, here’s that recipe for diet stuffed potato halves, courtesy of Weight Watchers Weekly:

Cajun-style Potato Skins
2 large potatoes, baked, cooled and cut in half length-wise
1/4 cup barbecue sauce
1/8 tsp hot pepper sauce
3/4 cup cooked chicken breast, chopped or shredded
1/4 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Scoop out half the potato from each half and set aside to use later, in soup or mashed potatoes. Combine barbecue sauce and hot pepper sauce and spoon into the potato halves. Fill each potato with 3 T. chicken and top with 1 T. cheese. Put in baking dish and bake for 8 minutes, or until cheese melts and potatoes are hot.

Note: These potato halves are supposed to be 3 Weight Watchers points per serving, but I think that’s if you use the big baking potatoes bought individually. I used regular potatoes from a 10-pound bag, and there was no way I could fit 3 T. of chicken in each potato half. So I’m guessing using smaller potatoes, you might count this as about 1.5 points. But that’s just a guess. (BTW, according to my handy-dandy Weight Watchers points-calculating “slide rule,” three points ranges from 120 calories and 2-12 grams of fat for something with zero grams of fiber to 100 calories and 15-20 grams of fat if it also contains 3 grams of fiber. Actually, that’s not so much a range as simply two different settings on the old slide rule. Not very definitive, but just to give you an idea.)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

No-egg chocolate cake with freakish ingredient

This low-fat cake (see recipe below) was tasty enough to satisfy my cravings at a Super Bowl party the night before my Weight Watchers weigh-in, and it occurs to me that with one modification it could also go on my fallout-shelter menu.

The secret ingredient: canned sauerkraut.

I am not making this up. We really did put sauerkraut in this cake. And my kids liked it. And said they’d eat it again, even now that they know about the sauerkraut. I suppose it helps hold things together in place of the eggs.

In a true fallout-shelter situation, you’d have to figure out how to puree it, but hey, people are resourceful under duress. ( I’d probably use a knife.) Everything else -- flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, etc.-- could easily endure long-term storage, with the exception of the melted butter. Because time was a factor on Sunday, and because even with the butter this cake only registers four Weight Watchers points a slice, I didn’t bother substituting oil or, even better, applesauce. But we’ll definitely swap that out next time we make this and see what happens.

Weight Watchers cost-benefit analysis update: Three weeks, a little over 12 pounds. (But I’ve actually paid for four meetings, counting the initial weigh-in, which I forgot to count last week.) So at a little less than $10 per meeting, I’m looking at a ratio of roughly $10 for every three pounds. If this rate continues (which it likely won’t), it would cost $100 to lose 30 pounds.

Weight Watchers Dark Chocolate Cake Recipe
(This comes from For a printer-friendly version, click here.)
Nonfat cooking spray to lightly coat a Bundt pan (we used a 13-by-9 pan, which worked fine)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/3 cups sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 1/2 cups hot water
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup sauerkraut, pureed
1 tsp unsweetened cocoa for dusting (you can also use powdered sugar and a light drizzle of Hershey’s chocolate syrup for no extra WW points)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, coat pan with cooking spray.
In large mixing bowl combine dry ingredients. Add melted butter, hot water and vanilla extract, then mix. Add pureed sauerkraut and mix thoroughly.
Pour batter into pan and bake 55-60 minutes, until fork inserted in cake’s center comes out clean. Cool for 20 minutes before removing from pan (if you’re using a Bundt pan; we just served ours in the baking dish.)
Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of coca powder (or same amount of powdered sugar and light drizzle of Hershey’s syrup). Cut into 14 slices to get advertised points value. (We cut ours in to 15 slices, given the rectangular shape of our pan. Better points value, too.)

Monday, February 8, 2010

Paralysis in the grocery aisle

In the aftershock of the job-cuts news at the office, I found myself wandering around the grocery store on my way home from work this weekend, knowing I needed to pick up a few things and seeing the deals I would ordinarily put together -- the “plays I would make,” to put it in the ex-athlete’s sports terms I find myself frequently using in my head -- but somehow not being able to pull the trigger, so to speak. It was like my whole carefully constructed routine was falling down, and my little mind games I play with our grocery budget suddenly seemed silly. Irrelevant.

I made about five laps around the beverage aisle and the frozen foods section one aisle over, unable to decide whether to pay full price for a big package of chicken tenders or knock two dollars off by piling nine 2-liter bottles of pop into a cart. I needed the chicken for a Super Bowl party. It was the pop that was causing my walking paralysis. If I bought the whole ensemble, I‘d be getting our two mainstays -- Diet Pepsi for Bob and I, whose drug of choice in middle age is caffeine, and Mountain Dew for the kids, when they have friends over -- for just 79 cents a bottle. But in a crisis, the only beverage you only really need is water.

Was this a crisis? I couldn’t decide.

We don’t rely on my paycheck for our day-to-day living expenses. Our grocery budget isn’t threatened -- at least not yet. That’s what I kept telling myself as I circled the aisles, while in another part of my brain, my imagination was generating all sorts of creepy sideshows. Finally the message got through, and I “made the play.”

I paid for the bag of chicken with our grocery money, and bought the pop with another fund I call our Grocery Holding Company. That way we get the good deal, without having to sandbag this week’s budget. When we use the pop, I’ll pay the GHC, as I call it, $1 a bottle -- a good price, my target price, as a shopper. But the GHC will make a profit. And eventually those profits will help fund a weekend getaway.

Is that a silly little game? It doesn’t feel irrelevant to me.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Bad news on the budget frontier

Turns out my Salvation Army shirt-and-scarf combo I wore to work yesterday, while comfy and, in my eyes, at least, attractive, isn’t likely to become my copy editor’s version of a ballplayer’s “lucky underwear.” We found out some part-timers’ jobs are disappearing. Maybe mine. Not exactly surprising, given the state of the newspaper industry. But no, not lucky. Not lucky at all.

Under the circumstances, we decided not to hit the Chinese buffet this weekend, though we’ve “earned” the money by beating our grocery budget by $53.17 over the last few weeks. We’ll probably go out for a family Valentine’s Day dinner next weekend instead.

Some people might think that saving money on your grocery budget just to turn around and spend it in a restaurant is defeating the purpose of saving money.

I disagree. What defeats the purpose of saving money is letting those saved dollars wander unsupervised back into your own private budget wilderness, where they’re likely to vanish without a trace. As long as you account for it, you can put that money in whatever holding cell you think makes the most sense. That’s what a budget’s for. Establishing control. Developing the wilderness in a way that makes you feel safe, protected and happy, however you happen to define those things.

We’ve subdivided our budget wilderness over the years so that we’ve got one cul-de-sac devoted to our next used vehicle, another devoted to property taxes and insurance, another for gas, and so on. My paycheck, though limited, helps build our crisis fund, our charity fund and a long-term investment fund.

We never set up a dining fund, though. To me, it makes more sense to let the dining fund grow or wither based on our grocery-and-kitchen smarts rather than letting it siphon off part of our primary stream of income. It’s a reward, not an entitlement.

Besides, we only drop $15 per person per week into our grocery fund to begin with. Last week, when we beat our grocery budget by 17.33, we spent less than $10 per person on groceries. When we do that -- an effort that involves all six of us, especially the younger kids, who could derail our efforts with not very much whining -- I say, what the heck, we deserve to go out to eat.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

No more ogling wardrobe circulars

One of the advantages of the no-new-clothes pledge is that I no longer waste time looking through the weekend clothing ads to see what’s on sale at Kohl’s or Target or wherever. Those ads always look alike to me anyway, and besides, it’s not like they advertise what’s on the clearance rack, which is where I‘ve traditionally done most of my shopping.

By the way, I forgot to post my January clothing purchase totals: $2.14, including tax, for one shirt and one scarf purchased at Salvation Army. (I'm wearing them to work today, as it turns out.)

Friday, February 5, 2010

What the Sweetbriar Rose could’ve served “Under the Dome”

Last night we had one of those end-of-the-budgetary-week dinners where I scrape together whatever I can find to avoid adding to this week’s grocery tally, when it occurred to me that our dinner was one that could easily be served at a fallout shelter, assuming you had some propane for cooking. (This is what I get for reading Stephen King’s “Under the Dome,” not to mention the occasional dose of “Coast to Coast,” that late-night radio show where the advertisers are always trying to sell you what you need to survive the end of the world.)

The menu: Mexican “meatloaf” made with texturized vegetable protein instead of meat, instant mashed potatoes and corn.

Ordinarily I crack an egg into our veggie meatloaf, along with breadcrumbs. I didn‘t have either of those on hand, so after letting the dry TVP granules soak in hot water, I added salsa from a jar, canned refried beans, a bit of olive oil, a chunk of boxed Velveeta-style spicey cheese and, for thickening, some flour stirred with a bit of water to form a paste. Tasty. And I wasn't the only one who said so.

Our corn was frozen, but it could just as easily have come from a can. And for the mashed potatoes, I mixed dry milk powder and water into the potato flakes, along with a touch of salt and a couple of bullion cubes to add flavor to make up for the missing butter. (Another possible fallout shelter-flavoring for nonbutter mashed potatoes: bottled Italian salad dressing.)

We came in 17.33 under our weekly budget of $90, by the way, bringing our dining fund tally to $53.71. So this might be the weekend we hit the Chinese buffet, if the kids are willing to forego soda and just order ice water. (The nice thing about this project is that they’re in charge of all the dining-fund decisions, so I don’t have to be the bad guy telling them they can’t order root beer.)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

A new twist on cereal-box collecting

Cereal boxes are like album covers.

The cardboard frontispiece doubles as a canvas for the creative types employed by the cereal makers. They’re limited in their subject matter, but a true artist rises above such limitations. Narrowed options merely concentrate the force we call creativity, like a poet confined to seven syllables in haiku. (Or a copy editor given a tight headline count on a one-column story in the old-fashioned world of print journalism.)

I’m a sucker for pop-culture art, and early on in our frugal-living experiment I remember being so taken with a couple of cereal boxes that I felt compelled to save them. A few years later, taking a spin on eBay, I discovered my empty boxes had no value to collectors, who prefer “mint condition” packages with the cereal still inside (and no doubt still edible, even years later, thanks to all those amazing preservatives.)

Well, I’m too thrifty to let a box of cereal go to waste. So now when I want to preserve a cereal-box cover, I convert it into something I can actually use: a file folder.

Actually, my first few cereal-box file folders were pressed into duty not because the covers were cool, but simply because we needed file folders and I didn’t want to go buy some. It takes only seconds to strip the extra flaps off a cereal box -- most of the time I just tear neatly along the edge, and don’t even bother hunting down a pair of scissors -- and if you leave one narrow side of cardboard connecting the two broadsides, when you fold it into a file one side naturally rises above the other, creating space for labeling what’s inside.

Cereal-box collectors may disagree, but I believe my method actually enhances my appreciation of cereal-box art, because it cranks up the function part of the form-function ratio without destroying the form. (Assuming you consider the form to be the “cover” on the frontispiece, as I do, and not the box in its entirety, as they do.)

There’s also the occasional satisfaction that comes with matching up a cereal cover with the material that goes inside, like the Life cereal folder that contains my “Stuff to Deal With” paperwork, or the Special K folder that holds my Weight Watchers material.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Another All-Star Pantry Performer

I bought some borax last year as a home remedy for ants. Since then we've worked it into our laundry arsenal and discovered a borax-based homemade dishwasher detergent that works at least as well as the commercial brand we'd been using -- and even better when you pour vinegar into the rinse-agent well.

Apparently, though, we've only scratched the surface of potential uses for sodium borate (Na2B4O7.10H2). Did you know you can also use it to cure snake skins, clean your toilet, control the pH in your swimming pool, fertilize soil (in small amounts), turn campfires green, make an awesome batch of play slime, and even, depending on which health ministry has jurisdiction over your part of the globe, use it as a texturing agent in cooking (though I wouldn't recommend it; ingested borax can cause green vomit, diarrhea, convulsions, and even death, according to the National Institutes of Health.)

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Weight Watchers cost-benefit analysis

It’s probably too early to do one, but so far I’ve paid a little less than $20 and lost a little more than 10 pounds. If it were just a matter of paying $2 a pound to take this weight off, I guess I’d say that’s well worth the price. The extra energy that comes with even a 10-pound loss can’t be replicated by caffeine, that’s for sure.

Paying money just to eat less and exercise more goes against every frugal fiber in my well-padded body. But I’ve tasked various committees of brain cells with this assignment numerous times over the years, and never had much success. So if I’m going to pay a subcontractor to orchestrate this process, it seems I‘ve picked a good one, who’s not only generating the desired results but teaching me exactly how the job is done. Eventually this could, and should, turn into a do-it-yourself project.

As for whether I’ve eaten $20 less worth of our family food supply, that’s harder to quantify. I did notice that the takeout pizza we got last week lasted longer -- there were still a couple of slices left 24 hours later, and that feels, well, unprecedented. A jar of cheese dip that usually wouldn‘t last more than a day or two is still hanging around 10 days later. (It‘s amazing how long that stuff can last if you only apply the 2-tablespoon serving size, rather than dunking directly into the jar.) The funny thing is, I didn’t think I was the only one who scarfed cheese dip when it ventured onto the premises. But this experiment indicates otherwise.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Price recognition in the toilet paper aisle

Every few weeks Walgreen’s prices its Big Roll of toilet paper -- 1,000 sheets, just like Scott’s brand -- at 50 cents a roll. When that happens, I stop and buy toilet paper nearly every time I pass a Walgreen’s store.

On my way home from work the other day my route took me past two different Walgreen’s, and on my last stop of the day I happened to notice that just one shelf down from the sale-priced Big Roll, the store was offering four-packs of Scott’s brand toilet paper for $4.19. More than $1 per roll. Twice the cost of what I was paying, plus a little more.

I couldn’t help wondering how many times that week someone reached for the four-pack, oblivious to the fact that they could have bought essentially the same thing for half the cost just by reaching one shelf higher.

I’d like to think it didn’t happen at all, not even once, because if you’re a Scott’s brand loyalist, you’ve already weaned yourself off cushy overpriced toilet paper. (Once you’ve gotten used to 1,000-sheet rolls, it’s hard to go back Everything else just disappears too darn fast.)

But I bet it did.