Friday, April 29, 2011

What about Exteme Couponing?


Have you watched Extreme Couponing, the new hit reality show on TLC?  As a frugalista, I hoped this show would be right up my alley, helping teach people about easy ways to save some money.  Unfortunately, if you are watching, it should be more for entertainment than coupon lessons.

Now, don't get me wrong, I love a good coupon.  One of my favorite sites online is The Frugal Girls, and I will pounce on any coupon they find for a product I buy.  I also clip coupons from the Sunday paper and print a few online.  But that is the extent of my couponing efforts, and I'll tell you why:

Back in the day, I did a very mild version of what you see on Extreme Couponing.  I never purchased coupons from a service, and I didn't depend on flexible store policies no doubt encouraged by the presence of TV cameras, but I loved to see how much I could "save" with coupons.  At the time, my local store had a Super Double Coupons promotion about once every six weeks, and I would save every $1 coupon just to see it doubled to $2.  Then, I would come home with my receipt and bags of stuff and crow about how much I "saved," looking at the difference between the retail price and the price I paid.

That's until the day I discovered I had four bottles of Febreeze.  (Note:  not a whole shelf of them, like on the show!)  Febreeze is a fine fabric deodorizer, but I was single with no kids and no pets; there was nothing I owned that needed that much work.  After a couple of years, I moved those bottles into a new home and tried and tried to use them up, only to finally throw about three of them away.  Some savings. 

I see a lot of this on the show, and better bloggers than I have commented on some of the other problems with the show as a learning tool.  So, in the interest of starting the discussion here, let me suggest a few rules for couponing and stockpiling:

1.  Only buy things you actually need and will use, even if they are free with a coupon.  Show participants display mountains of toothpaste and shelves of antacids, and it is questionable if they would have made these purchases anyway (thus making the discounts a true savings) or if the coupon made it an offer they couldn't refuse.  If you don't want the product at full price, it isn't a deal with a coupon, even if it is free.

2.  Only purchase the amount you could use in a reasonable period.  Stockpiling can be a good way to prepare for a number of emergencies, not the least of which is the rising prices we are all experiencing.  But no one needs 500 tubes of deodorant.  Set a reasonable time frame --  six months, a year, maybe two years for the most non-perishable items -- and stop buying when you reach that amount.  Rotate your stock so the oldest gets used first.  And remember, your stockpile is supposed to help give your budget a break, so if you have two years' worth of deodorant and are still buying it every time it is on sale, you may have an extreme couponing problem!

3.  Don't let the manufacturers or stores dictate what you buy.  Coupons and sales are a marketing tool called a sales promotion, which is designed to tip the balance that gets you to buy.  The companies that can afford to run a sales promotion often (but not always) are ones that are large and that add "value" to the product through processing.  So, it is more uncommon to see a flour coupon than it is a snack cake coupon.  Make sure that coupons aren't tempting you into processed foods and items that you would not otherwise have chosen.  (However, I think it is fine if you want to use coupons as the requirement for buying a junky snack, like not buying a favorite junk food if the price isn't where you want it.  That helps control that craving while allowing you to indulge it when you can find the sale.)

4.  Don't forget to buy local.  While there are occasional coupons for whole foods and organic options, you typically won't find a sales promotion attracting you to your local farmer's market, butcher, or independent grocer.  Remember that the best, healthiest foods are often the most local.  Spend your money there, and then indulge your coupon craving for things you can't buy locally or make yourself.

5.  And don't forget the things you can make yourself.  Laundry detergent, cleaning supplies, and other disposables can often be made at home for pennies, which is hard to beat even with a coupon and a sale.  Think carefully about all your options before you decide that you've found a deal.  And, with things like household cleaners, consider whether the amount of trash generated by the commercial brand is worth it to you.  This is especially true if you are considering environmental impact or if you have a trash service that charges by the can for pick-up.

6.  Finally, consider the time costs.  A half an hour a week clipping coupons and printing them online is reasonable.  Twenty hours a week of organizing and $70 paid to a clipping service sounds more like a part-time job and an unnecessary expenditure for me.  Remember to factor your time and any costs you invest obtaining the coupons into your final tally to see how much money you really save.

And now it's your turn:  Do you "extreme coupon?"  Have you watched the show?  It it frugality, or is it unnecessary obsession? 

Welcome to all the new readers of FC&G!  You, and those who have been here all along, have made April the month with the greatest number of hits to date!  I appreciate it, and I hope you'll keep reading and keep living sustainably!
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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Homemade Croutons

Isn't it funny how there are some categories of items that you don't think of making for yourself?  This occurred to me as I prepared Easter dinner; while I expect to grow my own greens and veggies, sometimes I forget that things like salad dressings and croutons are also easy to make in a way that is fast, cheap, and good.

So, this Easter I made my own croutons.  (I have a couple of bottles of store-bought salad dressing to use up, then I will start making my own.  More to come on that!)  The crouton project is as easy as can be, and it is a super-cheap way to create really high-quality croutons for your salad.

First, I baked a loaf of Four Ingredient French Bread, altering the flour mix to 2 cups of white and 1 cup of whole wheat.  Most recipes for croutons will tell you to use stale bread, but if I wait for a loaf of stale homemade bread around this house, I'll never have croutons!

I cut the loaf into thick slices and then 1-inch cubes.  I tossed the cubes in butter, sprinkled with salt, pepper, and dried basil from the garden (you could use oregano, sage, or many others, depending on what flavor you want for your salad).  And then I baked in a 350 degree oven until toasty-crisp on the outside and still a bit soft on the inside. 

On our Caesar salad, they looked pretty and tasted wonderful.  I'll be making my own from now on.

The Analysis

Fast:  Yes, this took more time than buying a package of those powdery, preservative-filled things from the store.  But I have bread-baking down to a science, and I baked the croutons while something else was in the oven, so I don't feel like I was really overworked on this.

Cheap:  I'm sure that, if I shopped for a sale and used a coupon, I could get the store variety for less than I spent on the bread ingredients, but I think these compare pretty favorably to the retail price of a bag of croutons.  After all, the bread itself is really less than $1 in ingredients, and I used maybe a tablespoon or two of butter.  That's it.

Good:  This is the reason to make your own.  These really elevated a simple salad, and I was so glad to have that nice touch!
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Monday, April 25, 2011

Ham and Pesto

You don't have to celebrate Easter to love a good ham, but it seems that everyone who even recognizes the holiday was queued up outside my local Honeybaked Ham store on Friday, waiting for the centerpiece of their holiday meal.  And with a ham that size, unless you have a really huge family, you are going to have leftovers.

To use up the leftover bone and butt, I will of course make ham stock.  I may even bring out my Tortellini and Four Cheese Sauce in the Style of La Trattoria.  But here is another idea that will also make good use of some of those little pieces of ham that are too small for sandwiches and too good to throw away.

Ham and Pesto
One box Ronzoni Healthy Harvest whole wheat pasta (50 cents from stockpile)
One container (half pint) pesto (from freezer from garden)
One clove garlic (from garden)
Salt and Pepper to taste
Ham pieces

Boil pasta.  Cook garlic and pesto together in bottom of now-emptied pasta pot until flavors combine.  Mix in pasta and ham, and cook until warm.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

The Analysis

Fast:  Pesto is always quick to make and makes a lot, so you have leftovers.

Cheap:  As you see above, my total outlay besides the ham was 50 cents.  (Remember, garden and preservation items don't count because I factor them into the grocery bill at the time of purchase of the plant, etc.)

Good:  Actually, this surprised me by being good.  It certainly isn't much to look at, either in pictures or in person, but it turned out really yummy. 
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Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Well-Heeled Apple Tree

The shipment of new dwarf fruit trees from Stark Brothers arrived, predictably, in the middle of a torrential downpour.  I discovered them as I headed out for the second-shift job, a mess of wet cardboard containing two dwarf apple trees and a Meyer lemon, completing our micro-orchard (which already has a key lime and a nectarine).  Of course, by the time I got home from the second-shift job, I discovered a flooded garage, so Mr. FC&G and I were certainly not going to be sifting compost and planting any dwarf apples that night. 

Seriously, once -- just once -- I would like to tell you "The additions to the garden arrived on a day with no pressing deadlines and when Mr. FC&G and I were both off work.  It was a beautiful day, so we went right outside to plant in optimum conditions."

Alas, this is not the case most of the time on the micro-farm.  We still need to get planters for our dwarf trees, and although the lemon tree is safe in its little nursery pot for a while, the apple trees arrived bare root.  Therefore, there was a limited amount of time they could stay bare.

Mr. FC&G thought of the solution, asking if he could bury them temporarily in the compost pile.  I suggested the garden, which had already been broadforked, and then remembered that the process of temporarily planting a tree in a shallow trench to protect its roots until it can go to its final spot is called "heeling in."

In any event, Mr. FC&G saved the day by coming home the next night and going straight out to heel in the apple trees.  Hopefully, in a couple of years, we will have at least one or two apple pies of our own growing!

The Analysis

Fast:  This is less about time and more about time management.  Heeling in the trees buys us some time to get to the home improvement store for some large containers to plant the rest of the micro-orchard.

Cheap:  Again, more about saving the investment already sunk into the trees.  They weren't terribly expensive, but that doesn't mean I want to reorder them.

Good:  "Good" is what Mr. FC&G is, for remembering this classic trick!  If veggie plants are my wheelhouse, fruit trees are really his.

Happy 10th Anniversary to Mr. FC&G!  Thank you for being my partner in this journey for the past decade and may we have many more together!
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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Easier Than You Think: Growing Mesclun

It is one of those days when Spring seems to not want to follow through on its promises, which Spring has a tendency to do.  It is 46 degrees and raining cats and dogs.  The bedroom was too warm all last night, so I didn't sleep well, but my office is too chilly this morning (and I'll be darned if I am turning the heat on and risk super-heating the bedroom).  It will be too rainy this afternoon to bike to my second-shift job, so I'll miss out on that little mind-clearing break.  I'm worried that the rain will cause the seed potatoes to rot in the ground, and they are too expensive to replace this year. 

Thank heavens for the sunroom. In it, my seedlings and lettuces are safe, warm, and growing.  And the easiest indoor crop of all is the greens that we all crave this time of year, as our bodies wake up and demand fresh vitamins for the challenges of longer days and greater movement.

I point this out because I have recently read several posts from different bloggers bemoaning how difficult or scary it can be to grow lettuce from seed, so they resort to lettuce starts from the garden center.  Kudos to these urban farmers for growing their own crops, but lettuce is one of the easiest, most fool-proof things to grow from seed.

Above, you have some mesclun I ordered from Burpee for $4.50.  I just threw the seeds into one side of an indoor raised bed we have, covered them up, and watered.  Bingo, mesclun sprouts.  And no, I won't worry about thinning these; as soon as they are big enough to start cutting, that will take care of the thinning for me.  (Most of the plants in the mesclun packet -- the word means "mix" -- are "cut and come again," which means they will put out new leaves every time you cut a few.)  Add three or four small side salads to your diet, and the pack of seeds will have paid for itself.

So yes, if you are scared of starting plants from seed, definitely go get plants to get you started.  But trust me, lettuces really want to sprout and thrive in any sunny room or windowsill, so pick up a seed packet instead.  Save your plant-buying money for the tomatoes or other plants (and then try those from seed later).

The Analysis

Fast:  I think planting mesclun took me less than 5 minutes, since I rotate crops through that indoor raised bed and leave the soil pretty much intact.  (I do add compost once in a while.)

Cheap:  Three to four side salads or one or two dinner salads, and you have already recouped the cost of the seed packet.  I promise you will get a much bigger crop than this, too.

Good:  There is nothing like having greens that you cut only minutes before you eat.  Yum!
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Friday, April 15, 2011

More from the Micro-Farm: Onions

I wrote last year, as part of Urban Hennery's Dark Days Challenge, that I ran out of cellared onions too ealy in the winter for my liking -- something like November.  That left me to buy organic from the store, which is still good, but since onions are a prime storage crop, I knew I could do better.

Apparently, I ordered the onion sampler pack from Burpee in January, because I was surprised to return from vacation to find a box of three different kinds of onion starts -- white, yellow, and red -- waiting on my porch in the same box as my seed potatoes.  As of today, the onions have been in the ground for a week, and both the white and the red are sending their little sprouts sky-ward.  Come on, yellow -- you're my favorites!

If you haven't started onions this year, there is still time for many of the growing zones to do so.  I have been increasingly expanding my growing of storage root crops because they are so easy to grow and easy to store, giving me even more of a break on that winter grocery budget.

The Analysis

Fast:  Although it has taken some time to broadfork and then garden claw the soil, planting the onions takes very little time.  I'll mulch them, and then they'll probably just sit there until they're ready for harvest.  Easy.

Cheap:  I paid $12.95 for 300 onion sets, which, if these all produce, should pretty much blow the price of store-bought onions out of the water.

Good:  I am so excited to eat my own onions.  I just have to keep my hands out of the soil, checking on their progress!
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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Reorganizing Priorities

One of the best things about our nearly-annual trip to Key West is that I have a whole week to reconnect with the kind of life I want to live.  My life here on the micro-farm is certainly pleasant, but it is easy to get caught up in the demands of Hilltop Communications, the second shift job, our dancing, the housework, and the gardening/preserving.  All of these things are very enjoyable, but sometimes they each take on a life of their own, and I feel like I'm along for the ride.  The vacation always gives me a chance to reset this and reexamine my priorities.  This time out, I found that I don't want to give up or lessen any of these demands, but rather that I think there is a place to add a new priority to my house schedule.

Mr. FC&G and I jokingly launched what I call "Project $2.5 Mil" upon our return, based upon the amount of money we need to buy the house we fell in love with in Key West.  This will probably never happen, but it is a fun way of reminding ourselves that if we want to add more fun to our lives in the form of vacations or day trips -- or if we want to have an even-better nest egg or some flexibility in our work lives -- we need to cut out unnecessary expenditures in order to afford the things that give us the greatest pleasure.

One of the obvious spending targets is the grocery store.  As you know, food and sundry prices have been and will continue to rise, and meanwhile, I have gotten a little lazy.  We really don't buy a lot of food, since we grow our own, buy freezer beef and meats, and cook a lot from scratch.  This has lulled me into a false sense of security that, as long as my purchases were things I didn't really need, they counted as discretionary rather than necessity and somehow were therefore not grocery budget issues.  (I know, I'm confused on that logic too.) 

But last week we spent $139 at the grocery, and there were very few groceries there!  Instead, there were health and beauty aids, household supplies, and then junk food.  And that means that the first step in Project $2.5 Mil is that the junk food needs to be cut in half  or more.  We both have fairly extreme sweet tooths (teeth?), but from now on, we are committing to buying a box or two of cookies at the store, and if we run out, it is either wait for the next week's trip or get in the kitchen to start baking.  I expect the strawberry shortcake recipe will be getting a real workout, since it is quick to make, has relatively little sugar, and invites the possibility of consuming some fruit with the cake. 

Better for our budget, and better for our health.  And the bonus is, if we ever do buy that house in the Keys, we'll still look good in our bathing suits!

What is your next target for cutting back?
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Monday, April 11, 2011

Aqua Globes

There are very few drawbacks to micro-farming, but the difficulty of getting away for a vacation has to be the main one.  Given that I start some seedlings in January and am actively preserving food into October, the window in which I am not gardening is pretty narrow.  This is great from a sanity-maintenance perspective, but I am unwilling to commit to never leaving my property.  (As a counterpoint, a coworker just told me of a farmer with dairy cattle who hasn't had a vacation in ten years.  No thanks.)

Last year, when we went to Key West, I lost quite a few pepper seedlings to lack of water.  I was unwilling to lose that many this year, but I was also unwilling to give up my trip down island.  So, I actually took inspiration from television commercials and ordered some Aqua Globes.

I expected them to not work, but I thought they were cheap enough for an experiment (under $7 per pair; I think I caught an even-better sale when I ordered mine) and they were pretty, regardless.  And with a few big pots of pepper seedlings, a key lime tree, and a nectarine tree, I was slightly desperate.

And you know what?  They work!  I just filled them with water, carefully pushed the stem into the soil, and let the plant take the water it needed during the week we were gone.  You can see the key lime tree enjoying a drink above. (Note:  be careful.  Drill yourself a hole in the soil first, and don't just ram them into the soil.  They are glass, and you risk breakage, not to mention the potential of cutting your hand.  Just follow the directions and you'll be fine.)

They seemed pretty silly on the face of them, but they certainly saved my investment in my crops thus far, and I didn't have to give up my trip south. 

(Note:  the link below is an affiliate link.  If you wish to support FC&G and wanted to buy these, I'll get a few cents back from your purchase.  If not, I have seen them in hardware stores, and I encourage you to patronize a local merchant.)

The Analysis

Fast:  These are quick to deploy, and they certainly save watering time even when I am home.

Cheap:  I think the price is reasonable as insurance against plant death, and they should last a long time if I treat them carefully.

Good:  Protecting my plants gives me peace of mind. 

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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

For Love of Raw Honey

It is a cruel twist of fate that someone who loves to garden as much as I do also has to deal with seasonal allergies.  I'm happy to be out there, with my toes in the dirt, sneezing and weeding, but I'd much rather do so without the sneezing -- and, without putting chemical antihistamines in my body every day. 

Luckily, a few years ago, I stumbled onto the idea that raw, local honey can help you build an immunity of sorts to the the types of pollen in your area.  I gave it a try, and for me it is very, very, helpful. 

We get our raw honey in bulk, 80-oz jars whenever we visit the U-Pick strawberry field.  Last year, each jar was $15.95, which is a substantial discount over buying little jars from the same provider in our local,  upscale food market.  I put about a tablespoon full in each cup of my coffee in the morning (usually 2 cups), and I find that my allergies are well under control with only occasional antihistamine use.

Honey stores forever; ancient, edible stores of honey used for preservation have been found on archaeological digs.  As you can see, the raw honey does crystallize a little bit faster than the pasteurized version, but it is easy to melt it in your coffee, in the microwave, or by putting just a little bit of water in the near-empty jar to get out the last crystals. 

With threats of rising food prices making many of us consider stocking up on the basics as a form of economic insulation, it makes sense to consider honey as a very storage-friendly sweetener, especially if you can score a deal like we usually do.  It is not out of the question for us to buy four of these 80-oz. jars to get us through a year.

Standard warning:  do not give honey, raw or otherwise, to an infant (or perhaps to someone severely immunocompromised).  Honey often contains trace amounts of the spores that can lead to botulism, and immature immune systems can't always cope.  However, I do believe (note:  this is my opinion; I am not a doctor; do your own due diligence and make your own decisions) that this gives our bodies a chance to learn to fight those spores, and it makes us stronger as a result.  Millennia of experience with honey shows it to be a safe, healthy form of sweetener, and for most of that time, honey was eaten raw.

The Analysis

Fast:  There is no time difference between using honey and using some other sweetener.

Cheap:  Honey is typically more expensive per ounce than white sugar, but the benefits of the local, raw stuff really outweigh this.  I know I make this kind of statement occasionally, but I truly can offset my honey costs in foregone antihistamine purchases relatively early in the season, netting an overall savings.  For example, I see that a 100-pack of OTC antihistamines costs just under $9 (not counting shipping) at an online retailer.  It would not be unusual to take 3-4 of these a day during the height of the allergy season, meaning I offset the cost of a large jar of honey (which lasts about four months) in around 25 days. 

Good:  Honey makes a wonderful cup of coffee or a great bowl of ice cream.  Never has allergy relief been so sweet!

Special Carrot Creations Offer for Readers of FC&G:

As you know, Mr. FC&G and I recently expanded into the craft business with an array of earrings, socks, and cowls; we have since added herbs and other garden products to our sales, with plans to add additional items. (Yoga socks and bath puffs are next on the list!)

We have just launched our Etsy store, Carrot Creations.  You will see a permanent link on the page at the top of the blog.  We aim to provide handmade products that compete favorably in price with the commercially-produced versions, allowing you to live a more sustainable, more frugal, and more fun life!  Many of the projects are ones you have seen here on the blog, so if you love an idea but don't have the time to undertake it, take a look at Carrot Creations!

To get you started, now through May 31, 2011, I am offering free shipping to my FC&G readers.  Just use the code FCGLAUNCH2011 when you check out.
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Monday, April 4, 2011

Sausage and Rice Burritos with Dandelion Green Salad

We are back from our nearly-annual trip to Key West, and as always, the island has given me inspiration for some fast, cheap, and good meals (drawn from a week of leisurely, expensive, and good meals while there!).  This is my meat-laced take on a veggie entree from one of our favorite Mexican places on Duval Street.  Obviously, to return it to its vegetarian state, just leave out the sausage.

Sausage and Rice Burritos

1 package sausage (I had some smoked kielbasa from Landes in the freezer)
6 whole-wheat tortillas
2 cups instant brown rice
1 clove garlic
chopped spinach and cilantro (Mine were from my garden, already booming this year.)
1 large can tomato sauce
8 oz smoked cheddar cheese (I got mine at Trader Joe's)

Cook the sausage on the stovetop in a covered pan with about an inch of water (you can skip this step if you use pre-cooked sausage).  Cook the rice according to package directions, adding a pinch of salt and a crushed garlic clove.

Mix cooked rice with chopped greens and place 2-3 large spoonfuls onto a tortilla.  Top with 4-5 slices of sausage.  Roll and place seam-side down in a baking pan.  When you have made all 6 burritos, top with tomato sauce and cheese, and bake at 350 for about 25-30 minutes or until cheese is brown.

Oh, and the salad?  Mr. FC&G was broadforking the garden so we could plant onions yesterday, and he asked me for a basket.  He came into the house with a beautiful array of dandelion sprouts, declaring, "It isn't weeding; it's harvesting!"  What a wonderful, nutritious, and free addition to our meal!

The Analysis

Fast:  Like all of my favorite meals, this comes together quickly.  Perhaps 20 minutes of prep plus the baking time.

Cheap:  This does a nice job of stretching your expensive sausage, which is important if you are splurging, as we do, on the most organic options out there.  This will be even less expensive this summer, when I can add some shredded zucchini and some diced tomatoes.  And did I mention how cheap (free!) those dandelion greens are?

Good:  A yummy and nutritious meal with all four food groups and some leftovers for the next couple of meals.
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