A Day in the Frugal Life

This post is an example of all the little frugal things we do throughout a typical day. They are just a part of our normal routine, but these tiny things add up to big savings over time. Disclaimer: some of the links are Amazon associate links. If you click them, and choose to buy something, this blog gets a tiny amount at no cost to you! Thanks for reading, we hope you find some things to think about.

 

6:00 am – Mrs. BE is up-an-at-em… errr, I mean, probably hitting the snooze once or twice… or staggering downstairs, brewing some coffee, and falling back asleep on the couch. I usually prep it the night before, filling the machine with water and coffee so that I just have to push the “on” button. We use store brand coffee, bought in bulk when it’s on sale, and just ordered this reusable filter to cut costs even more.

By making coffee at home, we save $2-8 per day, for two of us. It costs about a quarter to make 12 cups of coffee, and we each drink 2-3 cups. The rest we put in the refrigerator, and heat up the next day. This way we also only have to make a pot every other day. We sometimes doctor it up with fancy creamer, flavorings, or protein powder, but most days I just add enough 2% milk to make it beige.

6:10 am – Let the pups out; our house choice was influenced by the large fenced in back yard. This is a personal choice, we both value yard space for pups, as well as playing and relaxing. Plus, we’re lazy and like to let the little darlings get their own exercise. They each get 1/2 cup of dog food out of a giant 50lb bag we buy on Amazon once every 6 months. Yay little dogs = little food $$

We got two because then they will keep each other company, and we don’t have to feel guilty leaving them alone all day. Of course, this is less of a problem now that the Mr. can let them go outside midday, but still it is nice for them to have each other. And that way we don’t need doggy daycare or other pet-sitting / walking services.

6:30 am – Breakfast is a rotation of cheap, healthy options including smoothies with whatever fruits are on hand, eggs in various ways like bagel sandwiches, microwave poached, or scrambled with veggies, or oatmeal.

Making your own breakfast is a huge frugal tip because not only is having breakfast a key to energy all day long and maintaining a healthy weight, but you can make your own at home for FAR cheaper than any restaurant, even drive through.

Eggs are crazy cheap right now and a great source of protein. A loaf of bread costs $1-3 depending on your ingredients, and toast is a good on-the-go option, add a tbsp of nut butter and/or sliced fruit to up your game. You can also meal-prep by making a big batch of breakfast burritos or muffins and freezing them to use throughout the week.

6:40 am – Mrs. BE takes coffee upstairs and leaves a cup for the Mr., usually in addition to a smoothie. Yeah, he’s spoiled, sorry boys I’m very taken. 😉 Hubs is a lucky man, he works from home, and also starts work about an hour 1/2 later than I do. Good thing I’m the morning person in the relationship!

**You’ll notice, there is no “do hair and makeup” line item here. That’s because I don’t wear makeup. Any, ever. Unless I’m like, going to a wedding or about to be professionally photographed. By eating a whole foods plant-based diet and drinking loads of water, my skin is pretty darn healthy and I don’t have to hide it. This saves us boatloads of money year over year. Hooray for natural beauty!

I also have never been a fan of hair products. Curlers, crimpers, blow dryers, straighteners… these are terrible for your hair. And mousse, gel, spray, net, etc. are also bad for your hair, your respiratory system, and the environment. Save your self craptons of cash, space in your cabinets, and stop polluting the world with empty metal canisters and just don’t buy it.

7:20-7:30 – Mrs. BE leaves for work. It’s a sad fact of life that I have a 35-minutes commute, but in better, frugal news, I do have a 12-year-old, fully paid off (i.e. no car loan) Honda which gets fabulous gas mileage, and a parking pass to take a bus into campus.* (*this post)

This is great because it helps save gas and the environment by taking advantage of public transit, it gives me a chance to meet or talk to others who work on campus, and it gives me some down time where I can relax. I usually read, but occasionally I’ll type up some blog post ideas.

8-8:30 – 4:30-5  – Mrs. BE is a little worker bee, makin that bacon

8:50 am – Mr. BE cracks open an eye, slugs the coffee I left for him on the bedside table, and hits snooze

8:59 am – Mr. BE drags himself into his home office, boots up various computer(s) and his work laptop, and gets to work making and fixing apps. Being a programmer from the comfort of home gives him the world’s best commute of: approximately 1 minute!

11/noon – Lunch is nearly always leftovers from home. Brown bagging it does not have to be boring! I’ve brought my slow cooker to work for delicious soups, and a George foreman for hot tuna melt sandwiches. People often comment on how good my lunch smells or looks. Try getting that reaction from a boring $7 cafeteria salad.

Lunch hack 1: Make large batches (either all at once on the weekend, or cook double batches of dinners) and store them in reusable individual sized containers. You’re already cooking dinner, why not make double and keep a lunch-size-serving ready? You can use meal prep ready plastic, or I personally love these tight seal glass ones.

Lunch hack 2: Pack lunch the night before. If you already have a sandwich or salad made or tupperware ready to grab, it makes your morning easier and your lunches cheaper.

Lunch hack 3: Keep an emergency stock in your desk/cabinet/purse. I always have a rotating stock of a few cans of soup, rice cakes and peanut butter, tuna, and trail mix on hand in case I forget lunch.

Lunch hack 4: Bring a reuseable water bottle/cup and your own beverages/snacks to keep at your desk. Drinking water all day is good for you in a million ways, and also helps keep you full.

Mr. BE also has leftovers at home, or there are plenty of freezer options to keep his belly full. We have frozen ground turkey for burritos, ingredients for quick sandwiches or soups, and the always-an-option homemade yogurt.

5:30-6pm – Mrs. BE gets home, signaling the end of Mr.’s workday (usually, sometimes there are more issues and emails to attend to, it varies). I immediately pull out whatever is on the meal plan for dinner that night and heat it up, bake it, or do whatever needs done.

Usually dinner is ready in 30 minutes or less, and always using homemade, whole food ingredients that were planned for and purchased earlier. I also check the meal plan to see what is coming up for tomorrow, and take something out of the freezer if needed.

We have also recently been working exercise into our routine. Monday/Wed/Friday the Mrs. does a 20-30 minute yoga video. Tues/Thurs are run days, and the Mr. joins me for these, depending on the weather of course. Worst case, we almost always find time for a nice after-dinner walk together (sometimes dogs too).

Staying fit and exercising regularly is a huge frugal tip, for so many reasons. By staying in a healthy weight range, you keep your body functioning in top shape. You are avoiding a slew of medical bills, lab test, and medications. You are less likely to incur debt from hospital stays and chronic illness. You may qualify for better payments on health insurance, and your employer may give you perks for quitting smoking or seeking preventive care. And you spend less on clothing by staying about the same size season to season and year to year.

7-9:00 pm – Sometimes we work on individual projects; I will write blog posts or read while the Mr. works on VR. Both of us are pursuing several avenues for side income, or we will play (free) video games together. Usually we will watch 1-2 episodes of our latest TV fling on Netflix. We have never had cable in all our 4+ years of living together, and don’t feel like it affects our lives in the least.

9-10:00 pm – Showering & getting ready for bedtime. We save money in multiple ways with our personal grooming. I use conditioner as my shaving cream rather than pay the pink tax and buy $5 per bottle shave cream. We also both use changeable razors that we buy in bulk from some off-brand place once a year. Total cost per razor ends up being about 20 cents! Compare that to the ridiculous price of razors in the store. For really indulgent showers, I use my homemade body scrub.

We also both cut our own hair. We got an electric razor set for $20 and it has been the best idea ever. Hubs will get in the tub, and I buzz his hair, poof, fresh new haircut in under 10 minutes. For me, I just trim the ends every 3-4 months with regular scissors. I go for a “real” haircut maybe once every other year.

10:00: Bedtime! Getting 8 hours of quality sleep is a huge frugal tip because it is good for not only your health but also your focus and productivity. Getting your “beauty sleep” can in fact make you more beautiful as your body has time to repair DNA damage and reboot your physical systems overnight.

Enough sleep will also help you in the working world. You are a more attentive driver, meaning less likelihood of expensive mistakes. You don’t need as much or any help from caffeine and chemicals in coffee and energy drinks. You can focus better and longer, making you more productive and thus more valuable. You may be able to justify a raise, or seek a promotion or new job with all that energy!

 

And there you have it, the typical daily life of the Budget Epicurean family. Through years of trying different frugal tips and keeping what works for us, we have figured out the best ways to maximize our dollars and our time. 

 

How about you, what’s your typical day? Any frugal tips or routines to share? Any ways in which you think you can improve?

Weekly Eating – 9/11 & 9/18

Hey y’all! Welcome to the series Weekly Eating.

Here is where I’ll talk about the week’s meal plan versus reality, what we ate for the week, and how we did budget-wise. I hope it gives readers a behind-the-scenes look into our life through the lens of food, and it’s also a way to keep us on track with meal planning and grocery budgeting.

Feel free to share your wins and lessons in the comments below!

 

Well, this post is a surprise double feature, because last weekend we had a wonderful family wedding in Boston, but then nature conspired to strand us there Sunday night. It’s not a good excuse for not posting, but it’s the one I’m using.  🙂

The past 2 weeks have been an interesting see-saw of super frugal food choices and then accidental or on purpose food splurges. I did some creative re-purposing of leftovers too. The meal plan was sort of made up on the fly, but overall I think it was a total win. Let me know what you think in the comments!

Monday 9/11:

Breakfast – Brown sugar cinnamon raisin oatmeal.

I put together a little mason jar which I brought into work. I just add 1/2 cup or so of the mixture, and use the Keurig for hot water to make it in my coffee mug. Now I have oatmeal waiting for me in my desk drawer whenever I want!

Lunch – Leftover hibachi from the weekend before. My dad had been in town, and we explored a little near Cary and found a cute Chinese restaurant in a plaza that had delish hibachi. Of course I only ate half, and the other half was lunch.

Dinner – Chicken stir fry (even though it’s not Friday!) to use up the rest of the shredded cooked chicken and some rice we had. I also found packs of pre-sliced veggies on sale for $1 so this was perfect.

Tuesday 9/12:

Breakfast – raisin oatmeal (see above)

Lunch – Veggie soup & edamame. This was the last of a bag of edamame from last week, plus all the leftover bits of veggies simmered with some lentils. It’s more filling than you may think, and nice on a cold and dreary day.

Dinner – Salmon salad! I finally had to just post the recipe so I can refer to it (when I use it every other week in the future).

Wednesday 9/13:

Breakfast – raisin oatmeal

Lunch – salmon salad

Dinner – pasta with pesto, using basil from the front yard. It is going to seed and about done, so I harvested the most I could and made a big batch of pesto.

Combined with some tortellini, and meatballs with 1/2 pound ground turkey I had in the fridge, it was super tasty. Never would have thought pesto + meatballs, but it works.

Snack – half a can of pineapple

Thursday 9/14:

Breakfast – raisin oatmeal

Lunch – salmon salad!

Dinner – had dinner at a friend’s house, where we had wings and an assortment of cheeses and bread. It was so good, and we found a few new cheeses we like! Also I made a blueberry pie to contribute.

Friday 9/15:

Breakfast – I had some leftover milk that was about to go bad, and we were leaving town, so I made some yogurt! It makes the milk last longer that way.

For breakfast, of course I had fresh yogurt and some tropical granola.

Lunch – you’ll never guess…. salmon salad! Yes, I actually did eat this 4 days in a row. And loved it every single time.

Dinner – we were en route to the wedding, so we had Five Guys in the airport. Not the healthiest, but it was the first time I’d had fast food in… several months. Their burgers are pretty darn good.

The Weekend

This weekend was yet another wedding, this time in Maine! It was right on the water, and the fog cleared for about 5 glorious hours. It was an absolutely beautiful ceremony, and a joy to watch this family I have lucked into and chosen to join expand to encompass the bride and her wonderful family too.

I met new people, re-connected with a few we hadn’t seen since our own wedding last year, and danced my face off! Doing the electric slide with several fabulous people more than triple my age was one of the many highlights of the weekend. Another highlight: eating lobster twice in one day!

We went to what claimed to have the “best lobster roll on the East Coast”, and not gonna lie it was pretty great. Their clam chowder was also amazing. And then at the wedding, we each got our own personal lobster! I know, it’s decadent. The perks of coastal living ya know? But then, they also have to deal with winter… so… #notworth

On Sunday they had a lovely brunch, with mimosas and 4 kinds of quiche. Everyone said their goodbyes and we headed into Boston. We carpooled with several people who all had staggered flight times. But we did get a few hours of wandering with my in-laws, since we had the latest scheduled flights. We got some tasty pizza at a place in Charlestown, and then wandered around Faneuil Hall.

Monday 9/18:

Breakfast – well, since we were stuck in Boston, and the hotel had a free breakfast, we obviously took advantage of that. English muffins with jelly, coffee and juice, and tiny yogurts, plus a bagel for the road.

Lunch – Now in Boston Logan International Airport for several hours, I splurged on a big hot meal. I ate about half of it, then stuck it in my carry on. I ate the rest when I got hungry again on the plane.

Dinner – I finally got home exhausted around 7pm, so I basically just unpacked a bit, got the pups, and went straight to bed…

It was so nice to see these faces again  🙂

Tuesday 9/19:

Breakfast – brown sugar raisin oatmeal!

Lunch – peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I was too tired from traveling to bother making, like, real food. I didn’t even get a picture

Dinner – I went out to a new sushi place with a friend called RockinRolls. It is a conveyor belt style, where you just grab the things you want as they go by! It was very cool, even if the nigiri were a little small. They made up for it in choices. And the miso soup dispenser was absolutely fascinating.

As a HUGE fan of sushi and also not paying a lot, a $12 all-you-can-eat option that’s only 10 minutes from my house is the best/worst thing ever. I will definitely be back.

Wednesday 9/20:

Breakfast – oatmeal! Yup, this is a boring breakfast week. Sorry not sorry, this stuff costs like 10 cents per serving.

Lunch – black beans & rice with salsa. I made a package of minute rice in the microwave and added a half can of black beans, topped with some salsa from a food swap. The other half I saved for tomorrow. This is becoming a staple work lunch.

Dinner – I used the rest of the pesto from last week and a can of tomatoes to make a tomato-basil soup, and some grilled cheese. I love simple meals, and even moreso when I’m just cooking for myself. Hubs was on a work trip in CT this week.

Snack – a handful of pretzels and some gummy bears… yeah I don’t know, it’s just what I had at my desk 🙂

Thursday 9/21:

Breakfast – more oatmeal

Lunch – Black beans & rice with salsa. This is just so oddly fulfilling to me. Pretty sure this will be a frequent occurrence in my life.

Dinner – I took the pups over to a friend’s house, and we had a vegetarian and a vegan present. I introduced them all to lentils, and we had veggie tacos. I’m not sure what kind of “meat” they had but it was really good!

Snack – There was a retirement party at work today, and I snagged a cup full of raw veggies to snack on all afternoon. Love free food that is also healthy!

Friday 9/22:

Breakfast – oatmeal

Lunch – ravioli from my last food swap (I put it in the freezer for an occasion like now), with some frozen veggies, the last of the pesto-soup and some leftover feta. It was actually really good! Hooray for frugal wins.

Dinner – We kicked off the weekend with dinner at The Pit, a very well-known BBQ joint in downtown Durham. We got the Big Boy to split, it’s all of their meats in one tray! The biscuits were AMAZING, and the ribs were probably my favorite. Or maybe the brisket.

Personally, I’d skip the grilled chicken, and the sauces are all Carolina style (very vinegary and not thick) so we weren’t blown away impressed, but if that’s your thing then this is the place for you!

The Weekend

This weekend, my aunt and grandmother are in town, visiting from Ohio! I’m so excited, it will be the first time either of them have been down to see our new house (the first one I OWN) and all the things I’m falling in love with in Durham and Chapel Hill.

We have plans to stuff ourselves at the all you can eat Rockin Rolls sushi, check out the 5th Annual Bull City Burgers & Brewery Oktoberfest, and the 10th Annual Abundance NC Pepper Festival.  It should be a good time! And I may need to buy new pants in a size up afterwards…

Total: $55 (or $515, depending what you count)

My goal is to keep this number under $100 all the time, and eventually get down to $75/week for food.

Well… we were really good about eating from the freezer/pantry the past 2 weeks while at home. But the $55 is from various airport foods while traveling. If you add in the extra things (hotel, uber rides, tickets to festivals, etc). then the true cost of travel wrinkles is much higher. I’m going to stick with the actual food costs though.

Lessons Learned

Always be prepared! I am already obsessive about taking snacks with me everywhere, but evidently I should double my efforts. Because you just never know.

I also learned that eating super frugal meals doesn’t really bother me much at all. I’m perfectly happy with my rice and beans, PB&J, and grilled cheese, especially when hubs is away for work. I just don’t have the motivation to cook fancy things for myself alone.

This is a great thing, financially! The lower I can get the cost per meal, the lower our overall grocery bill each week / month / year. And then we have more wiggle room for the occasional travel issues or to treat visitor from out of town. That’s a win in my book!

 

How about you guys, did you have a great week or a learning week?

Decision Fatigue and Travel Stresses

We all know the importance of being prepared, and packing food and snacks when you will be traveling or away from home for a long time. Being prepared is one of my top ten frugal rules.

A bag of trail mix or a granola bar can save the day when you’re so hungry you can’t think straight but there aren’t many (or any) food options. This becomes even more true if you add children into the mix, who are not very good at waiting or ignoring hunger.

The most logical decision is to have snacks available. The Simple Dollar recommends planning ahead, packing food in coolers, and having less perishable things like boxes of granola bars always readily available. These tips are helpful whether in a car on a roadtrip or on a flight across the world.

But sometimes, even the best laid plans can go awry. There is construction that delays your route by hours, a big storm wreaks havoc, or your plane gets delayed/rerouted/cancelled. This is what happened to hubs and I when trying to get home from a family wedding in Maine last weekend.

Intense fog had rolled in, making it hard to see anything. Planes were unable to land, and circled Logan International for hours, trying to land before they ran out of fuel. In the end, over 400 flights were delayed or cancelled.

So now we were stuck in Boston, with no car or hotel or people to stay with. The airline rescheduled us to a flight the following day, but gave nothing at all for a hotel voucher or food. The only amenity we were given was the customer service rep telling us “we have cots in baggage claim, if you want one”.

Yes I’d like to sleep on a fold out cot, in an open room in a large airport, with all my bags out in the open, along with 500 other angry strangers. Sounds relaxing.

Unfortunately, by then it was late, nearing ten pm, and we just wanted to sleep. We were already exhausted from a long wedding weekend with little rest, and had reached the point of decision fatigue. The result was a pretty big hit to our finances.

What is Decision Fatigue?

Decision fatigue is that feeling when you have become so overwhelmed with making choices, whether multiple at once or over the course of a day, that when faced with another decision you are too exhausted mentally to think through something logically and instead choose anything, just to have the issue decided and to be able to stop thinking about it.

Your brain can only handle so many details at once, and we have a finite amount of decision making powers every day. This is why people like Mark Zuckerberg choose to have a limited wardrobe, or eat the same thing for breakfast and lunch every day. eliminating daily small decisions leaves more mental energy for bigger choices and creative thinking.

According to a 2011 study in PNAS, decision fatigue affects even the most logical of professions: judges. Judges are supposed to be the bringers of justice, carefully weighing facts and making the best decisions for the people, doling out punishments to fit the crimes. But the study showed that the decisions became harsher the longer it had been since the judges’ last meal! They serve harsher sentences when hungry.

If the smartest legal minds in the world fall prey to decision fatigue, don’t you think you would too? Well, that didn’t stop me from making some poor financial choices, that I knew at the time weren’t the best, and yet, we chose to make that compromise for immediate peace of mind and comfort.

The Damage

That one flight cancellation likely cost us at least one full flight.

We paid for a night in a hotel in Boston (which you can imagine is not cheap), 2 rides, to the hotel and back the next day, unplanned-for food for dinner that night and lunch on Monday (the hotel had free breakfast, which was great, but also was solely carbs), not to mention us both missing a day of work and having to use precious vacation hours to make up for it.

But all told, it could have been much worse.

What Can You Do?

So if your travel plans are wrecked, what can you do? Should you just pull out the credit card, and start buying all the food, coffee, shoes, and entertainment to get your mind off the stress? Just buy a whole new wardrobe once you get to your destination?

Of course not!

There are several things you can do, both in planning your trip ahead of time, and as the <insert travel disaster> is unfolding. It is unlikely you will finish the day with zero financial damage, but you can limit it to a few bruises rather than going 6 rounds with an angry tiger.

Make Important decisions first

We all have limited resources mentally. Especially at the end of a day, at the end of an already long trip. There are another dozen choices to make, so make it as easy on yourself as possible. Make the important decisions first, like whether to stop at a hotel halfway or drive straight through the night, or whether to try to get another flight out the same day versus renting a car and just driving.

These choices will depend on your situation, and also your own personal values. If you are in a great place financially and don’t care about the cost, you just want a fancy hotel to sleep, then go for it. If you are on a tight budget with almost no wiggle room, perhaps the free cot is worth it, and more appealing than an airport chair. What to wear to bed, when you can get to the grocery store, or what to do when you get home can wait.

Pack extra!

 

This goes for food as well as strategic packing of toiletries and clothing. Thank goodness we had packed layers, not knowing what the weather would hold. I ALWAYS pack a minimum of 2 extra pair of underwear than nights planned for the trip. Because you just never know, and they don’t take up much space. We still had clean clothes to wear, and didn’t have to incur the extra expense of going to a laundromat or dry cleaners while traveling.

See my list of snacks recipes for ideas, or the internet also has literally infinity ideas. Choose items which can be kept at room temperature, or ideally a range of temperatures. Granola bars are perfect, trail mix, dried fruits, nuts, chips/popcorn, whole fruits like apples or bananas… you get the idea.

Pack something for the travel to your destination, some for the travel home, plus a little something extra. We were able to eat the trail mix anytime hunger pangs hit, and thus stave off extra, expensive, food purchases in the airport. (Note: TSA does search food now, in the name of “efficiency”… so it may behoove you to pack things in see-through containers like Ziplocks so they aren’t touching your almonds and raisins, and take them out when going through screening.)

Use what you have

We did take advantage of the tiny breakfast buffet at the hotel. They offered small yogurts, orange juice and cranberry juice, coffee, bagels and toast and English muffins. We each had some juice and yogurt, and 2 cups of coffee. We split an English muffin, and took a bagel on the road as an extra travel snack.

If you have free food available to you, take advantage of it, even if it is not something you would normally eat. I try not to have too carb-heavy breakfasts, but a bagel that was free is better than $8 at Starbucks. By the third day you may get tired of trail mix or granola bars, but you can eat like a king once you’re safely home.

Have some miles or points banked

For those of you familiar with travel hacking, I’m sure I don’t need to expand on this. But if you’ve never heard of this, it is where you use credit card or chain rewards programs to earn free things. Cash back rewards, rental cars, hotel stays, and flights are all possible if you know the rules of the game.

Even if you don’t have the time or energy to invest hardcore into travel hacking, you can still sign up for a credit card with good rewards, or a hotel chain at which you frequently stay. That way, if you unexpectedly have to overnight in Omaha, you can put the $100 cash back towards the Red Roof Inn, or use your free stay at a Hilton, and take some of the sting out of the purchase.

Roll with it

As a kind lady I was next to at the airport for a few hours said, “Anything can be rescheduled, as long as you’re not dead”.

She had a great outlook. Several people were panicking about missing work, meetings, classes, etc. There are of course some things which are more important and cannot be rescheduled, like births and birthdays, graduations and wedding and ceremonies. But generally speaking, as long as you are alive, it will be ok.

No one likes delays, but try to remember it is likely either something out of everyone’s control, and / or it is for your own safety. I wouldn’t want a plane full of people to land blind, and potentially hit the watch tower or miss the runway. If there is a mechanical malfunction, do you really want to trust your life to that plane or car? Better to be patient and wait until the problem can be resolved than take that chance.

Deep breaths, and remember this too shall pass. And it will pass much easier if you have a handful of popcorn and a good book.

 

What travel troubles have you experienced? Any tips to keep disruptions from derailing your finances?

Salmon & Couscous Salad

The first time I had this salad was on a family vacation, and my sister-in-law and her friend were cooking a vegetarian dinner for everyone. She has been a vegetarian for going on 20 years now, which is an awe-inspiring lifestyle, for me. I’m not sure where the original recipe came from, but it involved corn and tomatoes, pine nuts and salmon, shaved parmesan and arugula. It sounded pretty good.

Then we sat down to eat. And it was presented beautifully, layered in a rainbow across a large serving tray.

And then I took a bite.

And I was in love.

That’s the story of my obsession with my favorite salad of all time. Since then I have made several permutations of this salad, for a dinner party, for hubs and myself, and just for me to enjoy at work. It is super simple to put together, and can be an easy thing to take to work to eat for several days. You can eat it cold or room temp, so there is no microwave fishy smell (which I’m sure my co-workers appreciate).

And it is virtually endlessly customizable. I’ve had it with pine nuts, walnuts, almonds, macademia nuts, or none. I’ve tried craisins, raisins, dates, and prunes. I’ve used couscous, quinoa, or no grains. And nearly every salad dressing on the planet will go with this well, as well as having it naked! (As in, no dressing, though do whatever makes you happy. At your house, not at work.)

If you’ve been keeping up with my Weekly Eating series, you know this is frequently a dish I make in large amounts so that I can have leftovers for several days. I’ve begun taking enough for 3-4 days’ worth to work, and just keeping it in the refrigerator and taking out one serving at a time. It is super healthy, quite filling, and pretty affordable if you choose ingredients seasonally and/or on sale.

If you’ve been looking for a recipe to impress at a dinner party, a meal that is inclusive for vegetarians (just offer extra protein options like quinoa and other toppings like beans/nuts), something light and fresh and healthy, or a make-ahead nearly-no-prep work lunch option, look no further!

Ingredients (per salad):

  • 2-3 ounces cooked salmon
  • 2-3 cups salad (spinach, romaine, mixed greens, arugula)
  • 1/2 cup cooked couscous (or barley, rice, quinoa)
  • Sprinkle of craisins or raisins or other dried fruit
  • Sprinkle of nuts (walnuts work best but any will work)
  • Sprinkle of cheese (parmesan, feta, goat…)
  • Optional other toppings: tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, peppers, carrots, beans, anything you can think of!
  • Dressing of choice

Step 1: Cook your salmon however you like, I usually pan-fry them with a spritz of coconut oil or bake them in the oven. Your choice to leave them as a fillet or shred them. You could also use canned, drained salmon here, or sub in cooked chicken, steak, or other fish.

Step 2: Cook your couscous or other grain. I like pearled couscous because it has a pleasant, sort-of-chewy texture that goes well with the overall texture of the salad. Quinoa is also good here.

Step 3: For visual effect, lay down a bed of greens and then layer each separate ingredient in a line across it. To just dig in, toss it all in a bowl, topping as you see fit. Enjoy!

 

 

Crock Pot Chocolate Chili

 

As we roll into the autumn months and the days get shorter and colder, we crave comfort foods. There’s nothing I like more than coming home to a house that smells amazing with a crock pot full of dinner bubbling away! It’s low work, high reward.

This is a chili recipe I decided to try based on what was in my refrigerator. We had some Hershey’s dark chocolate sauce from the sun-dae bar for the eclipse, so I got a little crazy! And you know what? It turned out great! Sometimes, the experiment that is cooking goes well. I’m glad this was one of those days.

This makes enough for 4-5 healthy sized servings. You can change up the types of beans, adding 4 or 5 kinds or using all one kind. If you drain them first, the chili will be thicker, but you can just open the cans and dump them in.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cans diced tomatoes
  • 1 can black beans
  • 1 can kidney beans
  • 1 can cannelini beans
  • 1 pound ground beef or turkey
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 onion
  • 1/4 cup chocolate sauce
  • 1/4 cup chili powder
  • 2-4 tbsp hot sauce (optional!)
  • 1/2 cup coffee or dark beer

Step 1: Open and drain all your beans, and dump into the crock pot. In a blender, add one whole can of tomatoes, the onion, and the garlic, and pulse. This breaks it up into smaller pieces, and the longer you blend the more juice-like it becomes. Add to the crock pot.

Step 2: Brown the ground beef or turkey. Drain off excess fat, and add to the pot.

Step 3: Add the coffee, chili powder, and chocolate sauce, and any other spices you want. I used some red hot sauce, but you can use ancho chilies, jalapenos, cayenne powder, whatever you like. Or leave the spice out completely. Cook on high 1-2 hours or low at least 4 hours up to 12 hours.

The best thing about chili is that it gets better over time! Leftovers the next day have more time to meld flavors and usually it tastes even spicier. We throw a tablespoon or two of plain Greek yogurt or sour cream in to cut the heat. You can also top with shredded cheese, diced green onion, avocados…

Chili makes a great topping for chili cheese dogs and chili stuffed baked potatoes too! Oh, and it freezes beautifully! What are you waiting for? Get some chili cooking right now.

 

Crock Pot Chocolate Chili

Yield: 5

Crock Pot Chocolate Chili

Ingredients

  • 2 cans diced tomatoes
  • 1 can black beans
  • 1 can kidney beans
  • 1 can cannelini beans
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 onion
  • 1/4 cup chocolate sauce
  • 1/4 cup chili powder
  • 2-4 tbsp hot sauce (optional!)
  • 1/2 cup coffee or dark beer

Instructions

  1. Open and drain all your beans, and dump into the crock pot. In a blender, add one whole can of tomatoes, the onion, and the garlic, and pulse. Add to the crock pot.
  2. Brown the ground beef or turkey. Drain off excess fat, and add to the pot. 
  3. Add the coffee, chili powder, and chocolate sauce, and any other spices you want.
  4. Cook on high 1-2 hours or low at least 4 hours up to 12 hours. 
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Weekly Eating: Labor Day 9/4

Hey y’all! Welcome to the series Weekly Eating.

Here is where I’ll talk about the week’s meal plan versus reality, what we ate for the week, and how we did budget-wise. I hope it gives readers a behind-the-scenes look into our life through the lens of food, and it’s also a way to keep us on track with meal planning and grocery budgeting.

Feel free to share your wins and lessons in the comments below!

 

Hope y’all had a nice long weekend, and made it through the short week! I know I had a great time, a friend’s wedding on Sunday was so much fun! It is nice to be part of such a joyful day in someone’s life. Plus, the food was phenomenal! Brisket, pulled pork, duck, the world’s most to-die-for creamy mac n cheese… mmm! Wedding calories don’t count, right?

Monday:

Brunch – since we had the day off, we slept in a little. Then I made a sausage and pepper breakfast strata with black beans.

Dinner – We decided to go exploring nearby, and ended up in the town of Pittsboro. It is a tiny little quaint main street southwest of Chapel Hill, in the middle of some beautiful country. We stopped and walked around the downtown, and had some sandwiches; I had a Reuben. It was huge and I only finished half, so hooray leftovers!

I also cooked a whole chicken in the crock pot overnight, and in the morning shredded it all into a container in the fridge for dinners / lunches this week.

Tuesday:

Breakfast – breakfast strata

Lunch – leftover sausage & peppers, black beans, mixed with some water and rice to make soup

Dinner – Ham & Potato soup (freezer to crock pot meal!)

Snack – sliced apple

Wednesday:

Breakfast – breakfast strata

Lunch – Leftover 1/2 Reuben sandwich, pickle, edamame

Dinner – Buffalo Chicken Potato Bake, one of my all-time favorites. I used Ranch instead of sour cream, and added frozen (thawed) cauliflower and broccoli. Winning!

Snack – 1/2 a cucumber sliced

Thursday 

Breakfast – granola bar

Lunch – Chicken salad w grapes, avocado, edamame; this was a very ‘green’ lunch   🙂

Dinner – Crock Pot Chocolate Chili. I tried a crazy new idea, and added a few tbsp of Hershey’s syrup to the chili, along with some coffee and hot sauce. It came out complex and delicious! We also stir in a bit of plain Greek yogurt, I’m a big fan of the flavor.

Snack – mint chocolate chip yogurt

Friday

Breakfast – chocolate coco loco yogurt

Lunch – Turkey sandwich, sunchips, mozzarella stick. I packed my sandwich in the bread bag because I’d used the last 2 slices, and waste not want not right??

Dinner – Tyler’s Taproom pulled pork mac n cheese & garlic fries (I stole a few from my dining companions 😉 ) I should write a review on this place, they had great atmosphere, great service, and the food was OUTSTANDING! Highly recommend.

The Weekend

My dad was in town (a trip to the Georgia coast got cancelled due to Hurricane Irma) so we hung out. Walked around downtown Durham and found some cool new hangout spots, watched The Office on Netflix, and had a miracle berry tasting party!

If you’ve never heard of Miracle Berry, check it out. It coats your taste buds, so that anything sour or acidic tastes sweet! It’s pretty weird, a great mind game. We tried pickles, sauerkarut, cranberries, lemons and lime juice, wines, and straight shots of vinegar! It was quite fun.

Total: $0!

My goal is to keep this number under $100 all the time, and eventually get down to $75/week for food.

We did not spend any money at the grocery store this week which is awesome! However we did spend some money out. Since my dad came for a spontaneous visit, we had to treat him to a few meals. We also did a fun ghost walking tour of downtown Durham, which stopped at a few pubs along the way, so we had a few drinks as well. It was so fun, we heard some great stories about Durham’s past, and found several great places that we want to come back to in the future.

Lessons Learned

It’s good to keep your grocery budget and your ‘eating out’ budget seperate! If you do well not spending on one, you can always boost the other. But to me, they are very different things, as eating out is a social occasion. Groceries are to have in stock in the home. And we also try not to eat out very often, about 90% of our food is all cooked at home. This also helps me to not feel at all guilty when we do indulge!

How about you guys, did you have a great week or a learning week?

Living the American Dream: Our Journey Home

 

This is the slightly crazy story of how my husband and I came to be homeowners just under the wire of turning 30.

 

Disclaimer: Home ownership is definitely NOT the only way to be an “adult” and is not right for every place and every person. If you want to rent forever, that’s totally fine. If you’re a “tech-preneur” who changes zip codes every other month, that’s great and I’m a little jealous. This is just the story of our own experience, and some insights gained in the process.

 

So, we may or may not have bought a house in another state, hundreds of miles away from where we currently lived, on a whirlwind spur-of-the-moment weekend, without telling a single soul. Not that this truly surprised anyone who really knows us.

After years of slowly upgrading from 1 bedroom, to 2 bedroom apartments, to rental houses (in 2 states, 1000 miles apart) and saving for a very long time, we were finally “ready” to take real steps to homeownership.

We knew what we were looking for in terms of general location, price range, bedroom count, etc. We wanted a fenced in yard for the pups, and newish construction (I do NOT want to deal with faulty wiring or rusty pipes from the 40s. No thanks.). But, we were also looking to move to a different state. So all the looking would have to be done online, from far away.

So, there would be a lot of trust involved, and we knew the most important part would be finding a real estate agent to work with that we could trust. The steps we took are below.

  1. We googled a list of realtors in the area, and looked up their online reviews
  2. We contacted the top 5 via email
  3. The ones that replied the fastest, and with a through and friendly response, we gave our list of must-haves and they started MLS searches for us
  4. We watched those listings for months. We Zillow-ed, we Google-ed, we learned all we could about the market in certain areas and what was or was not a good deal
  5. When we found one that met all our requirements, as well as most of our nice-to-haves, we POUNCED
  6. We flew into town, toured it, and had an offer signed and submitted within 24 hours of seeing the listing, and had our offer accepted 2 days later
  7. We panicked. Then we celebrated. Then panicked some more. Then we got on with life, and 30 days later, we closed
  8. We moved!

So how did we do it? Agonizingly slowly, with tons of reading and question asking and help. We essentially followed the steps below.

Know what you do (And Do Not) want

This is the first step if you are thinking about buying soon. Talk with your partner (or if you’re buying a house, solo, good for you! No compromises necessary) about what you do and do not want in your future home. Take into consideration the obvious things like the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, square footage, and location.

But also think about if there are certain features you desire like a fireplace, a large kitchen, washer and dryer on the ground floor or second floor, lots of windows, “green” appliances and features, amount of yard space, landscaping, whether you want lots of trees or open spaces.

Discuss what the next 5-10 years will entail; do you intend to adopt pets? Is there a chance you will have a child/children? Will you be changing careers anytime soon? Buying or selling a car? These will all affect the amount of space you need, and maybe what school districts you should be looking into.

And most importantly, set yourself a budget. Play with some mortgage calculators so you know what approximate monthly mortgage payment comes with a 100K, 200K, or 300K home. Know how your rate changes that payment, as well as how big of a down payment you can come up with.

Learn about things like mortgage insurance (if you have less than 20% down), HOA fees, closing costs, and other expenses that will inevitably come up, and budget accordingly.

The biggest mistake you can make on your first home purchase is to buy so much house that you are on a razor thin budget each month, such that one job loss or medical expense or dead car transmission will make you unable to afford the mortgage.

And once you decide on a number, stick to your guns, no matter how much more the bank may say you qualify for, or how pretty the homes your realtor may try to show you above your comfortable number.

Build a good team & rapport

Our realtor was amazing to work with, given the long-distance challenge. He was extremely responsive, in person and by phone. He had lots of experience helping people relocating to the Triangle area, so he knew all the digital tricks of signing online and what was required when.

He gave us referrals for our mortgage loan as well as our home inspector, and home insurance, all things that would have been a huge headache to figure out on our own from another state. Taken care of, easy peasy. We just had to show up at the required moments (signing the offer, and closing).

Therefore, do your homework. Ask around if you know anyone in the area. Send lots of emails, make lots of phone calls. Find someone that you click with and feel comfortable talking to. Someone who seems like they truly care about what you are looking for and want to help you.

And be nice to that person, and all the people on your team! Say thank you, make sure you communicate clearly, and let them know you appreciate their help.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions!

Your realtor, loan officer, inspector, and the internet are all here to help. The realtor and loan officer stand to make a pretty chunk of change from the cash YOU are about to lay down, so definitely don’t feel bad asking their advice and opinions.

Do take what they say with a grain of salt, because of the aforementioned conflict of interest (they want you to spend more money so their share of it is bigger). But they do know the business (probably, ask how long they’ve been doing real estate first) and will be a well of knowledge.

The only silly questions are the ones you don’t ask.

Know your budget

As mentioned earlier, make sure you know not only what you can afford but what you’re comfortable with laying down. Banks LOVE people who stretch their budget to the max, because the larger the loan the more interest they can charge on it. And realtors will never say to no a larger commission. So make sure you know not only your maximum, but also the range you are more comfortable with.

And remember the 30% rule saying you should only spend 30% or less of your take-home income on housing? That is not always true (actually, not even sometimes), as it greatly depends on the area you live in, and what your actual take-home income happens to be. 30% of 20,000 and 30% of 200,000 are vastly different numbers.

Just use a basic mortgage calculator to figure out an approximate monthly number you can live with and still have breathing room. Take a look at your current budget, and if your housing expense now for rent is fine, then consider a mortgage that amount to your rent your maximum.

For example, if your rent right now is $800, then you can afford a house for $185,000 with a 10% down payment. You have to save up the $18,500, plus about another $9000 for closing costs. Then your mortgage, at 4%, would be $794.90/month.

Expect delays, complications, and unexpected fees

In addition to knowing your budget range (see above) you should build in a good-sized cushion for closing costs and other fees. The number commonly thrown around is 2-5% of the house’s cost in closing fees, and on average across the country buyers spend roughly $3,700 in fees.

There will be an origination fee for your loan, earnest money when you put your offer in, credit report fees, realtor fees, document fees, insurance and taxes, appraisal fees, costs for inspections and repairs, and all the little things you don’t think of that immediately pop up (like changing the locks!).

It seems overwhelming, I know.

But just breathe, it’s a lot less scary if you know it’s coming and you’re braced. So if you want a house in the $200,000 range, plan for $40,000 for down payment, and another $4,000 – 10,000 for fees. I always estimate high just in case, so in this scenario I would start house-hunting once I had ~$50K saved.

Or, if you go with a different type of loan, you may be able to put far less than 20% down. Just know the trade off is an extra mortgage insurance payment every month, and more interest over the life of the loan.

Be patient, but be ready to pull the trigger

Once you have a good team in place helping you find that diamond in the rough, and you know your numbers, be ready to roll when you find the right place.

I’ve talked to many people, and have had several of my own experiences, where you find “the one”, only to hem and haw and think about it, and then when you go to make an offer, find out it is already under contract. Boo.

If you’ve done your due diligence, trust your numbers. Put in your offer, and hold your breath.

Celebrate!

When we got the call that our offer had been accepted, we definitely did a happy dance around the living room! It’s a very exciting thing.

But, this is not the end! You still have the due diligence period, where the lender is running the numbers, you are (hopefully) having inspections done and possibly repairs by the seller, and anyone can still change their minds and back out.

The due diligence period is typically 30-45 days, and you will have at least an inspection to do. They will give you a list of every possible thing they find ‘wrong’ with the house, from a broken dryer vent to a lack of insulation in the attic.

Talk with your realtor about asking the seller for any repairs or concessions. You have some room to bargain here! Maybe they will pay for a leaky sink repair, or give you a few thousand dollars off the asking price to fix it yourself.

You can’t get what you don’t ask for.

And once you finally are sitting at the closing table, signing what feels like a hundred pieces of paper, it can be super scary! But enjoy this feeling, and the fact that all your hard work of searching has paid off. And brace yourself for the next step… moving!

Happy house hunting!

 

How about you? Any housing questions or insights from your own experiences?

Weekly Eating: 8/28

Hey y’all! Welcome to the series Weekly Eating.

Here is where I’ll talk about the week’s meal plan versus reality, what we ate for the week, and how we did budget-wise. I hope it gives readers a behind-the-scenes look into our life through the lens of food, and it’s also a way to keep us on track with meal planning and grocery budgeting.

Feel free to share your wins and lessons in the comments below!

 

This week, the whole nation has Texas on our minds and hearts. With the crazy amount of flooding and destruction from Hurricane Harvey, I hope our readers and family/friends are safe, dry, and warm. We will rally together as we always do after tragic events, and will rebuild to rise stronger, y’all! If you feel the desire to donate to help those affected, please see one of the charities HERE.

On Sunday, I made my typical whole chicken in a crock pot, and then broth overnight. I had some fresh rosemary, sage, and thyme so I added that, as well as some bay leaves hanging out in the spice cabinet. This is one of my favorite smells ever to wake up to. Plus it makes several quarts of high quality stock to use to cook things like beans and quinoa the rest of the week, along with the pieces of the chicken for use in various dinners.

Monday:

Breakfast – Mixed berry smoothies (that I remembered to take a picture of!). 8oz frozen berries + banana + yogurt + protein powder + pomegranate juice = YUM

Lunch – turkey wrap & grapes. This is an easy peasy lunch option to throw together, plus it’s portable in case I’m away from my desk at lunch time (i.e. in clinic).

Dinner – Shredded chicken quesadillas with quinoa & black beans. I made a big batch of both quinoa (with the stock of course) and black beans to eat throughout the week. Some of the chicken meat from Sunday was shredded and turned into these delish quesadillas.

Snack – white bean rosemary hummus & 1/2 cucumber

Tuesday:

Breakfast – tropical mango smoothie. I used frozen mango and peaches, canned pineapple and bananas. Plus some pomegranate juice and plain Greek yogurt. SO GOOD! And it made enough for like 4 smoothies, which makes hubby happy.

Lunch – quinoa & black beans – I brought a big container full of both to work, to keep for easy lunches. I added some avocado and salsa to round it out and for flavor.

Dinner – Chicken Paprikush! This recipe tastes like a warm hug from the inside out. It’s salty, creamy, and absolutely perfect. I used plain Greek yogurt instead of sour cream to lighten it up a bit, and to justify eating at least 2 bowls at a time.

Wednesday:

Breakfast – egg & cheese Bagel Thin sammich. This is so dang easy, just scramble an egg in a cup and microwave it, put it on the bagel with cheese and zap the whole thing for 15 seconds. Done.

Lunch – quinoa & beans. I love bringing in a big container of something on Monday, and having lunch ready for several days in a row. This is a super easy option. I got extra fancy and also added a quarter of an avocado and some salsa.

Dinner – Whole wheat penne pasta with the bratwurst from last week’s Food Swap, peas & broccoli. I love one-pot meals! And the bratwurst was SO DELICIOUS!

Snack – 5 Susannah Smiles cookies & peppermint tea. This is a new lemon cookie from Girl Scouts, and someone at work brought in a box. Since I was making tea, I decided this would be the perfect accompaniment. They were tart, and quite hard, but when dipped in the tea it was perfect.

Plus my other snack option was an apple… today, I chose sugar 🙂

Thursday 

Breakfast – Tropical granola & milk

Lunch – chicken paprikush, with more left for tomorrow! I just love this stuff. Tastes like my childhood.

Dinner – Chicken Broccoli Cheddar Rice. This was a change-up from our planned Buffalo Chicken Potato Bake because I had a really long day at work, and got home exhausted and starving. I didn’t have the patience to wait for the oven to bake the things for over an hour, but we already had a baked chicken breast from Sunday and some leftover rice (I always make an extra big batch), plus I always have frozen broccoli. So pulling this together just required a little microwaving and we had dinner ready in 10 minutes.

 

Friday

Breakfast – Oatmeal with Apples, Raisins & Maple Syrup. Now that fall is setting in, and you can feel the chill in the air, I fall back on my favorite cold weather breakfast, hot oatmeal! Oats are very cheap, and filling, so they are an awesome frugal breakfast choice. And there are so many ways to dress them up, from Chai Apple & Brown Sugar to Peach Kefir to Chocolate Peanut Butter Banana.

Lunch – more leftover chicken paprikush! Hubby is not a big fan of soups, which normally frustrates me because I make a lot and can’t eat it all… but this one, I’m not mad about keeping all to myself!

Dinner – Mozzarella Stuffed Chicken Breasts. I saw some variation of this somewhere, and when I mentioned it to hubby his eyes got huge and I could practically see the drool…

So since I had some breasts in the freezer, I just quick-thawed them in hot water and we pulled this together in about 10 minutes (plus 40 bake time). With some fettuccini on the side, it really was super delicious! I would make it again for sure. But with fresh chicken, so it’s easier to pound flat.

The Weekend

Labor Day Weekend is a long one, but we don’t have any big plans as both the things we were going to do fell through. It’s all for the best though, as hubby has a project to work on and a trip back to CT for work things soon, and I can now attend a friends’ wedding on Sunday! Then take Monday as a bonus relaxation day. Ahhhh.

Total: $26.06

My goal is to keep this number under $100 all the time, and eventually get down to $75/week for food.

As you can see, we had a little rearrangement of the meal plan. I am really digging this whiteboard on the wall from our kitchen update, my hubby is the best! But I kept to the plan pretty well, with the exception of the late work night. Which brings up the point of convenience… a lot of people don’t want to or can’t cook every night due to their job and or life schedules.

I get it, when you are wiped out tired and hungry NOW, sometimes the last thing you want to do it spend an hour in the kitchen. That’s why it’s so important to have 3-5 meals you know you can pull together quickly and easily, with things you always have around!

Lessons Learned

We did really well this week! I tried to plan more based around what I already have stocked in the pantry and freezer. This is why I love stocking up on great sales, like $0.98/lb chicken breasts, or whole chickens on clearance. You pay more up front, but less per unit so that when you do use the food, the price per meal is lower than if I’d had to run to the store the week I need it.

 

How about you guys, did you have a great week or a learning week?