No-Dine-Out February Update!

IMG_0961.jpgWhy hello there! Geez louise, am I writing an update about last month a month late?!? I’ve been a bit busy. And I’m about to get busier (psst! I’m gonna have an announcement in the near future!).

But! To refresh your memory, my family and I pledged to not go out to eat in February, with a few exceptions (coffee and a pastry allowed, in very limited amounts; we already had plans to go to Great Wolf Lodge for a night; we had one Burgerville “cheat” night to use).

The goal: To virtually eliminate our restaurant expenses (which comprises 33% of our monthly food bill) without increasing our remaining food budget by more than 10%.

The result: Overall, we reduced our total food budget by about 9%–which was disappointing, and far off the mark in terms of only increasing our grocery bill by 10%! But I was pretty sure why: while our restaurant spending went down by 70% (I did take advantage of our “cheats”), our grocery bill went up by 37%. This was mainly because of Valentine’s Day (I splurged on steak and lobster), and because we held two or three dinner parties for eight–lots of comics folks were in town for Wizard World Portland (no I’m not linking to them).

Conclusion: If we were going to realize the full benefit of cutting out restaurants, I needed to similarly tighten our grocery budget. A no brainer for most, probably, but oh well!

Plus, we did eat out a few times, using a loophole I discovered near the beginning of the month: we used our weekly cash allowance instead of our food budget. While not strictly kosher, I was grateful for this for a few reasons:

  • I got super sick
  • I had a week where I cooked three freakin’ four-course meals and I was exhausted
  • If I can’t go out to eat occasionally life is terrible

Other observations:

  • Cooking virtually every meal (with a few exceptions) was, overall, easier than I thought. When I made our monthly meal plan, I made sure to add in any activities/events we had, so I was better about planning something super easy the night I had book club, for example.
  • While the urge to have a treat is a powerful inducement to go out to eat, I actually felt like social pressure was even more of a factor. The idea of looking cheap (or like I was no fun) made me more uncomfortable than passing up a sushi dinner.
  • Using my “personal funds” (my weekly cash allowance) made me a lot more selective about going out to eat–the reality of handing over cash made it much more real!

Finally, the most interesting thing I learned during this experiment is how to make pressed sushi (pictured above)! I’ll post the technique/recipe . . . before June. I hope.

 

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cinnamon rolls

No-Dine-Out February Okay I Ate Out

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Yummy yummy cinnamon rolls!

Okay, I have a confession: I went out on Sunday. For a snack. That was sushi. I had a birthday party at a brewpub that I had already planned to attend (before coming up with my brilliant no-dine-out February plan), so I fed the family and headed out. My compromise: to use my personal weekly allowance to buy something small, so I wasn’t technically eating into (HA! I am a genius) our food budget, and I could still be social and not viewed as a cheapskate (my personal albatross from years of waitressing).

And then. When I got to the brewpub? The party had ended early! And me, with no dinner. And, more importantly: my husband was home with the kids and putting our toddler to bed for me. I suddenly had an extra hour and a half, out and about, on my own, with a couple of twenties in my pocket! Reader, what would you have done?!? I was hungry! I eschewed the brewpub and got a mocktail (don’t snicker) and a small plate at a nearby restaurant (okay it was Yakuza).

So . . . yes, I already cheated. But I don’t feel (too) badly about it. And the rest of the week has been going very well. I’ve been meticulous in outlining our various social activities in our monthly meal plan–for example, since I knew I had the birthday party that night, and a Super Bowl party during the day, I planned to make grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup for the family. Quick, cheap, and universally beloved! Yes, that also describes me.

Here are some recipes that have helped me out this week–all from the Pioneer Woman:

  • Seven-Can Soup: Open seven cans, pour them in (no draining), heat it up–boom, boom, boom, you’ve got some pretty tasty soup! I added tortilla chips and avocado.
  • Cinnamon Rolls: I made a huge batch of cinnamon rolls this morning (this recipe makes at last 60). I’m going to freeze them in packs of six and dole them out over the next month or two. Note: I actually use the dough recipe for her Parker House Rolls (it has butter instead of oil), and instead of the coffee glaze, I use the glaze from her Orange Marmalade Rolls.
  • Best Breakfast Potatoes Ever: I also made these for the month–it makes a ton! I’m going to freeze them in portions and thaw as needed!

I served my family (and Sid’s best friend Ernie) fresh cinnamon rolls and breakfast potatoes this morning and they lost their minds! I am actually really good about making breakfasts during the week (we need to eat, and we’re not going out before Scott goes to work and Sid to school), but it is nice to be prepared, and I’m hoping this makes us less tempted to go out on the weekends. I do love going out to brunch.

That’s my update thus far! Feel free to throw tomatoes–I need a couple for next week anyway.

sushi

No-Dine-Out February?!?

sushi

Farewell, sweet sushi! Picture from Haru Sushi.

Reader, I swear this seemed like a great idea right after Christmas. Like most Americans, we had spent too much money. I (specifically) had eaten too much candy. I was feeling undisciplined. And wasteful! What better way to get back on track, I thought, than to pledge to not go out to eat for an entire month? February seemed like a good pick–the shortest month of the year, I don’t need to be a hero–but also, it seemed so far away, back in January! Now it’s here, and I need a plan.

Crunching the Numbers

At first glance, it doesn’t seem like it would be too much of a change–looking at our spending on Mint over the past six months, we go out to eat an average of 12 times per month. This usually includes:

  • 4-5 brunches (I admit, I love not cooking breakfast on the weekends)
  • 3-4 lunches (usually my husband, on those days I don’t pack him a lunch)
  • 3-4 dinners (either sushi, Burgerville, or pizza delivery)

Currently, eating out comprises about 33% of our monthly food bill, with groceries totaling 61.5% and coffee shops about 5%.

The Goal

My goal for this month: to virtually eliminate our restaurant expenses without increasing our overall food budget by more than 10%.

The Exceptions

One: we are going to Great Wolf Lodge for a night this month. While we’ll bring food for breakfast/snacks, we’ll most likely eat dinner there. Two: getting a coffee and a pastry at a coffee shop is allowed, but I’m going to try to limit that to once a week at the most. Three: if I go completely crazy and cannot bear to cook one night, we can go get Burgerville.

The Plan

This is where I’ll put my monthly meal plan to the ultimate test. I’ve been using it for a year, so I just need to make sure to populate it with food I’ll be excited to eat–and cook–all month long!

Looking at when and where we typically eat, I can clearly see my weak spots. First up: I honestly dislike making breakfast and enjoy going out on the weekends. The solution? I’ll add things like cinnamon rolls, bread pudding muffins, and individual egg breakfast cups to our monthly meal plan and freeze them–then I can put breakfast on the counter to thaw at night and warm it up in the morning!

Second: While I’m pretty good at packing lunches for my husband, I’ll need to be extra vigilant this month. Making them the night before is best–I’ll need to get back in the habit.

Third: It’s a little eerie how we almost only go out for (or get delivered) three things: sushi, Burgerville (a regional fast food restaurant here in the Pacific Northwest), and pizza (although we do get Thai occasionally). This is because if I’m going to go out, I’m going to get things I either can’t or don’t want to make myself (homemade pizza is a paaaaainnnn). So I’ll be experimenting with oshizushi (pressed sushi) this month. As for burgers, we’re already covered–I received the Bob’s Burgers Burger Book for Christmas, and we’ve pledged to try a new burger every other week (so Sid doesn’t miss out). As far as pizza, there’s always Totino’s. Aw yeah!

But What About Burnout?

Yes, I love to cook. But even I have nights I just don’t feel like cooking. To combat burnout, I’ll be stocking up on go-to convenience foods like Kraft macaroni and cheese, Campbell’s tomato soup (with grilled cheese, of course), fish sticks and tater tots, and Seven-Can Soup. But I’ll also be making big batches of soup and freezing them for last-minute dinners.

Valentine’s Day

Actually, I think it’s been years since I’ve gone out to dinner on Valentine’s Day. As a former server, I think that’s for suckers anyway–too busy, too expensive, etc. Instead, I’m going to follow a Valentine’s Day menu from Martha Stewart (although I’ll probably do cherry pie for dessert).

So . . . wish me luck! I promise I’ll come clean if I fail miserably. And if you have any tips for me, post them below!

Coffee Grinder Zero Waste

Shopping With Less Waste: the Caffeinated Version

Coffee Grinder Zero Waste

My shiny “new” coffee grinder!

It’s been awhile since I’ve done a Zero Waste post, mainly because I’ve just been doing the same things: using reusable bags (including produce and bulk bags), doing as much bulk bin shopping as I can, and doing monthly meal planning to try to cut food waste. Unfortunately, I am still buying meat and cheese in plastic (although I’m buying large quantities to at least cut down on the overall packaging). But I did have a revelation a couple weeks ago that will propel me down a path to less waste.

Our house guest, Alise, stayed with us for a month after Emerald City Comic Con. That was enough time for her to acquire enough souvenirs and gifts from people and publishers that she needed another suitcase before she flew home to Latvia! Not wanting her to spend more money than necessary, I took her to the massive Goodwill Superstore near us. If you’ve never been to a Goodwill before (how?!?), it’s a thrift store filled with donations from people clearing out their closets, as well as some new things donated from companies.

I usually only go there to get rid of things (so many things). I rarely go in, because I’m trying not to buy more stuff. And yet. When I went down the aisles stuffed with electronics, kitchen gear, books, and more, I kept seeing things that yes, I had purchased new this year. A five-gallon drink cooler! A stainless steel travel mug! Pyrex (I bought a 10″ x 14″ glass casserole dish for $7.99, score)! My mind boggled as I realized I probably never needed to buy anything new again.

So this was fresh in my mind when I opened Sid’s Mother’s Day present to me, which included a bag of coffee! Yay, I love coffee! However, when I opened the bag, I realized it was coffee beans. And I have no grinder. Or rather, I had one, but I lent it to a neighbor 15 years (and about 12 residences) ago and never got it back (I am pretty weird sometimes).

Off to Goodwill, where I found two identical white Mr. Coffee grinders, one for $4.99, one for $7.99 (I picked up the $7.99 one just in case). Took it home–no bag, no packaging to toss–gave it a quick clean, and then made a pot of coffee. Perfect! I looked up my grinder on Amazon and saw an identical one for $15.44, so I felt very smug. Also caffeinated.

Thrift store purchases might be hard to stomach, for some. The stuff usually seems “used,” rather than “vintage.” It can make you feel poor. There’s definitely something in our culture that makes stepping into a shiny-new store and buying a brand-new, brand-name object feel so good.

But how many of those things have you donated to Goodwill–or a similar outfit–over the years? The “new thing” smell wears off pretty quick. And oh man, the gadgets I saw: Ninja blenders, juicers (juicers are like the gym memberships of kitchen appliances), espresso machines, old-fashioned giant coffee urns like you see at church suppers (that might be something only I coo over)!

My tips: thrift stores in wealthier areas tend to have more brand-name items. And if you want something very specific (like a coffee grinder), I’d suggest going straight to a Goodwill Superstore rather than one of the smaller stores (you’ll waste less gas or have a shorter bike trip). Also, when you realize that no, you really don’t want to buy 20 pounds of produce to juice every week . . . donate that juicer back so another sucker can pick it up.

What’s your best thrift store find? Post below!

Enchanted Forest Map

Enchanted Forest: How to Have the Best Time Without Spending All Your Money

Enchanted Forest Map

An outdated yet charming map of the Enchanted Forest! Image via the Enchanted Forest.

Oregon’s Enchanted Forest is a very special, deeply weird place. Created by Roger Tofte, who opened the park in 1971 after working on it practically single-handedly for seven years, the Enchanted Forest is still family owned and operated, and it looks it. This is not a dig. The description on the Google map is “enduring children’s theme park” which is perfect (but it’s not just for children).

Walking through this fairytale-themed wonderland, you can see the evolution of a singular vision: from the old, creepy animatronic dioramas of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, to the mid-sized but still very effective Ice Mountain Bobsleds roller coaster, finally arriving at the thoroughly modern (and cool!) Challenge of Mondor ride. I love it all. However, when we went last summer, I was shocked–shocked!–at how much money we spent without even thinking. So I analyzed the features of the park so I (and you) could strategize for the future!

Note: The purpose of this article is not to be as cheap as possible. I support the Enchanted Forest and want it to thrive for decades to come. This is more about allocating your funds in a thoughtful matter and prioritizing what you and your family will really enjoy. Think of this as a way for you to go to the Enchanted Forest more often, because you didn’t blow your budget the first time. So let’s get started!

Enchanted Forest

The Enchanted Forest is DELIGHTFUL. Photo via Wikipedia.

Arriving at the Enchanted Forest

You’re not getting in the door without paying admission: $11.75 for adults, $10.50 for seniors and children 3-12. This is also where you can buy ride tickets and bracelets. Danger Zone!

Big Timber Log Ride Enchanted Forest

The Big Timber Log Ride! Photo via PDXFamilyAdventures.com.

Ride Bracelets: Yea or Nay?

With ride tickets at $1 and rides ranging from two to four tickets, the unlimited ride bracelets can seem like a good deal–but check out the park and your kid’s tolerance for rides and long lines first! EF has two bracelets: a Regular Ride Bracelet for $25.95 (about 10 rides if you spent the equivalent in tickets and went on each ride once or so), and a Kiddy Ride Bracelet for $15.95 (about seven rides’ worth of tickets).

So, if your child (or, er, you) wants to go on more rides than that–or they prefer to stick to the more expensive rides (Big Timber Log Ride!), a bracelet can be a good deal. Check out the lines. Do you have enough time to get your money’s worth? Are you tall enough to go on all the rides? Go forth and spend your money! The last time we went, we bought Sid a regular bracelet without considering that 1) he doesn’t like roller coasters or log rides and 2) the line for Challenge of Mondor was really long. We would have been better off spending $8 for him to fight wizards and dragons twice.

Enchanted Forest

Good makeout place. Not in front of the kids! Photo from PDXFamilyAdventures.com.

Free Things to Do at The Enchanted Forest

If you’re on a super-limited budget (or have a goal of hitting EF every single weekend), you are in luck. There are tons of things to do at the Enchanted Forest that are free, once you pay admission:

  • Storybook Lane – The old-school part of the Enchanted Forest. Visit Snow White and see the Seven Dwarves’ mine, walk through the Little Crooked House, listen to Hansel, Gretel, and the Witch (super creepy), fall (or rather scoot) down Alice’s rabbit hole, and more. This is equal parts magical and kind of horrifying.
  • Tofteville Western Town – Includes a “town” with wooden sidewalks, Fort Fearless, the Indian Caves, and the Opera House gift shop (not free unless you shoplift–do not shoplift, there is a jail in Western Town).
  • Fantasy Fountains Water-Light Show – A water show with pretty lights set to music! Plays throughout the day. I find this very soothing.
  • Summer Comedy Theater – Each year, Roger Tofte’s daughter Susan Vaslev writes her own comedic take on a fairy tale, and high school drama kids perform it twice per day. Last year’s Emperor’s New Clothes was a crack-up (and also a musical)!
  • Smooching. I’m serious (not for children). The Indian Caves and inside the Witch’s Head are primo makeout spots!

Food: Bring Your Own

The food at the Enchanted Forest is not bad: typical plain-Jane fast food burgers, nachos, corn dogs, etc. It’s just not good. The Enchanted Forest is perfectly fine with people bringing picnics, so why not just pack a lunch and buy an ice cream cone while you’re there? You won’t be missing out on much. Just remember you’ll need to carry your stuff around–a backpack is good. This is why people keep using strollers when their children can walk just fine, by the way. I know this now.

Enchanted Forest Plate

Do I need this Enchanted Forest plate? No. Do I want it? Kinda. Photo via Etsy.

Do You Need Souvenirs?

This is a personal question that everyone must answer for themselves. I am currently in a life-or-death struggle against junk at my house, so my answer is no, I don’t need another mug or water pistol or whatever branded dollar store goods the Enchanted Forest has to offer. EF has expanded its offerings to include The Best Little Facepainting and Costume Shoppe (the name of which will never not make me laugh, hello Dolly Parton), which I think must be in response to Great Wolf Lodge’s similar offerings.

Didn’t You Forget Something?

Do not go in the Haunted House. It is super scary and I will never go in it again (the last time I was 22 and nannying two 8-year-olds and a 4-four-old, it did not go well). Stop reminding me. No I will not post a picture.

The Enchanted Forest is located in Turner, Oregon and is open daily from May 13 to September 5 (open weekends until September 25). Go forth and enjoy this unique, magical wonderland–wisely.

Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half

I Cut Our Food Bill By 44%–Can America’s Cheapest Family Get It Lower?

Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half

Lots of good tips, although I may have to work my way up to buying chubs of ham and asking the meat counter to slice it for me (their solution for expensive lunch meat).

So I’ve been making a Monthly Meal Plan menu and grocery lists for four months now–yay! I stopped posting my spreadsheets every month because I figured you’ve got the gist of them, but you can find past examples here.

Overall, planning out our menu has been very successful. We’ve averaged a monthly savings of 29.4% on groceries compared to our previous six-month average, plus we’ve saved 32.7% on restaurants. That means our average monthly food savings is 44%–which is insane!

But you know me: I figure I just cut the waste I should have had under control long ago. Surely there’s a way I can peel another 11% off our groceries, right? So I went to my beloved library and checked out Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half with America’s Cheapest Family, by Steve and Annette Economides, which had a lot of tips–some useful (create a price list), and some ridiculous (go out to eat at hospital cafeterias, I kid you not).

I don’t want to lay out all of their tips here, but there were a couple that struck a chord:

  1. Create a price list. I was bragging to Sid last week that I bought avocados on sale at five for $5, and he asked, “What do they normally cost?” Yup. Grocery stores advertise lots of “deals,” but if you don’t know the relative price of, say, a gallon of milk, how do you know you’re really getting a discount? The Economides (yes that’s their real name) have a “buy price” for almost anything–they won’t buy, say, chuck steak for more than a certain price, and if they find it at a deep discount, they stock up. I realized I shop at WinCo because the total bill is cheaper, but I really had no idea how much things generally cost off the top of my head. It’s going to be tedious, but I’ll be using my receipts to build a price list of all the things we buy regularly.
  2. Shop around. I really disliked the idea of this–I like to make grocery shopping simple, and usually just go to WinCo once a month (to stock up) and to Fred Meyer weekly for produce and dairy (because it’s close and I like it). I didn’t want to be slave to the weekly ads! But the book pointed out that every store has “loss leaders,” aka attractive items at rock-bottom prices, to get people in the door. Why not read the ads and see what I could find?
  3. Plan your monthly meal plan around grocery deals. This is so simple and obvious I should have been doing this before. Instead of making menus off the top of my head, I will definitely at least check our stores’ online ads and see what’s on sale.

I kept these ideas in mind this month and realized that Safeway (not my favorite store) was having a special on boneless, skinless chicken breasts (something we eat every month) at $1.69 a pound, compared to $3.29 a pound at Fred Meyer.

Because I’ve been keeping track with my monthly spreadsheets, I knew we ate four pounds of chicken breast per month. So I went and bought eight pounds, and separated and froze them all (note: I didn’t just buy chicken breasts–I did all my weekly shopping there, concentrating on loss leaders). The next time I was at WinCo, I checked out their prices: $2.69 per pound! So I saved eight dollars.

Of course, saving eight dollars over two months is not terribly exciting–gee, what’s that, a dollar a week? But that’s also only one item on my list. I’m hoping that by shopping a little smarter and using my freezer more efficiently, the savings will add up.

So . . . am I crazy? Just a little crazier than normal? I’ll keep you updated (on both our savings and my tenuous mental health). Got any tips? Post them below. And be honest: who among you have eaten at a hospital cafeteria . . . to save money?

Monthly Meal Planning Update: How Much Did I Save?

FritoNachos

Yes, this is a combination Frito Pie/nachos plate. Jealous?!?

Whew! We finished our first Monthly Meal Planning experiment–yay! I wanted to give a brief overview and share my boundless wisdom. You know, things like, don’t go crazy in the bulk aisle (spoiler: it’s too late for me). But first, I’ll go through my original goals.

Feed my family a variety of meals: Survey says: yes! It helps that my Monthly Meal Planning spreadsheet has categories like Soup, Pasta, Tacos, etc. While I did scrupulously freeze our leftovers and serve them later in the month, it didn’t feel like too much of a repeat to eat the same thing twice in a month.

Choose recipes that have common ingredients: I did accomplish this to some degree. Most of the pasta dishes involved spaghetti, for example, and a couple dishes called for ginger and cilantro (two things that are notorious for going bad in my fridge).

Go only once a month to WinCo: I love WinCo, but it’s at least a 40-minute round trip in the car. Unfortunately, I did not go to WinCo once–I went a second time after deciding, at the last minute, to throw a Super Bowl party.

Save time (both cooking and doing dishes) by making large quantities of meals and freezing/rotating them: Making double recipes of muffins and freezing half of our spaghetti sauce and taco fixings did help to a degree. If I were willing to eat the same thing more often, this would have gone better.

Be as zero waste as possible by shopping from the bulk bins using my own containers, and by shopping wisely and selecting common ingredients (see above) so I use everything up: I did have much less food waste–both stuff going to the compost bin, and fuzzy surprises in the fridge. Yay! Plus, buying from the bulk bin and using my own cloth bags and other containers cut down on trash (mostly just related to dairy and meat).

But Did I Save Money?

In our last thrilling installment of Monthly Meal Planning, we were on track to save 35%–but then, the Super Bowl party. Since I entertain all the time, I thought this would actually be a good measure of how much I could actually save in a typical month. But I did go to WinCo (mama didn’t raise a fool).

The final numbers? We saved 25% over our typical grocery bill (the average of the past six months). Not too shabby!

Other Things I Learned

  • Um, I need more snacks. The chocolate almonds I bought the first week? Only lasted that week. And then I needed Totino’s.
  • We consume about six large cans of frozen OJ concentrate each month. We used to always run out of orange juice, but I forced myself to do the math and buy a whole bunch at once. Yay, vitamin C! No more scurvy!
  • If you want to eat tacos every week, you need to buy enough tortillas to last through the month. Damn you, math!
  • My son likes plain yogurt with jam. And he’ll eat it really fast.
  • A quart of bulk maple syrup costs $25. That is insane. Although it looks like it will last at least two months, so . . .
  • Most importantly: I think I used to be loathe to buy enough, say, OJ to last all month, because I was worried about spending too much money. But not needing to make emergency trips for one or two things actually saved us money–because I wasn’t tempted to make impulse purchases or buy more things to make the extra trip “worthwhile.”

So overall, this was a success, and I’ve already planning out the next month and done my big WinCo trip. Stay tuned . . .