Category Archives: Finances

Articles concerning finances. This is the “budget” Epicurean after all.

How to make & stick to a budget

How to make a budget


Part of any healthy financial plan, a budget is a critical tool to help you find out and control where your money is coming from and more importantly where it is going. Many people cringe as soon as they hear the word “budget” because they think that means never having fun ever again, which is simply untrue. The beauty of a budget is that YOU are in charge of it. You call all the shots, from what categories there are to the amounts allocated to each. And they can be amended as your life situation changes to allow for schooling, a raise, a job loss, a move, a marriage, a baby, a divorce, etc. 

So how does one go about creating a budget? 

Your first step should be sitting down with a pen and piece of paper, or a Word or Excel document, and writing down every single thing on which you spend money on a daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly basis. Include housing (rent/mortgage/taxes), transportation (bus pass/gas/parking), food (groceries/dining out/coffee shops), and entertainment (movies/books/games/hobbies/vacations), as well as any other special categories you might need (children’s activities/debt repayment/investments). 

Your next step is to either: a. keep track for a month to see what level of spending is in each category, b. use an online tracker such as Mint.com to track spending, or c. estimate the amount spent each month. This is your total spending. Now estimate or calculate your income each month. This can include paychecks, investment dividends, interest on savings, gifts from relatives, inheritance, side jobs, etc. This is your total income.

Your goal: Make the difference between your income and your spending as large & positive as possible

This is the “spending gap”, as covered in several great articles (Minding The Gap & The Gap Matters More Than Anything) by Trent from The Simple Dollar. You can increase your gap by either spending less or earning more, or ideally doing both. The larger your gap, the more room you have to pay down debt, invest, and sock away savings, and the less stressed you will be. 

Let’s look at an example:

In the scenario on the left, the person in question makes about $54,000 a year (take-home of $4,500 a month) plus some extra from interest (assuming there are investments). The smart thing to do would be to re-invest that interest each month, thus adding to the principal amount invested and increasing the amount of interest. 

Anywho, that adds up to $4,750 coming in each month. This person also appears to have a rather nice home and car, as well as a lively social life, causing spending to total $2,450 per month. Even at this spending level, this person’s “gap” is a healthy $2,300 per month. They could use this to pay off debt like cards or loans, save for retirement, pad an emergency fund, or take a nice vacation.

On the other hand, the person on the right makes about $26,400 per year, and has no income other than their paycheck, which is $2,200 per month. While they have a lower housing payment, they have the same social and entertainment level as the person with a higher income, leading to a tiny “gap” of only $50 per month. 

The best way to approach this, with the intention of increasing the gap, is to consciously choose a number smaller than the current spending level. If you then hold yourself to those smaller numbers, you will naturally see your spending gap widen in your favor. 

If, for example, the person on the right were to move to a smaller housing situation or obtain a roommate, drive a smaller or older car, save money on groceries and eating out, decrease shopping and eliminate unnecessary spending like going out to the movies, the gap can widen to as much as $1,150 per month! That can become a nice savings account to eventually full-out buy a nicer car, a house of their own, make a job transition, or whatever dreams are yet to be fulfilled.

How to stick to a budget


Once you decide on the amount you want to spend per month on a certain category, now all you have to do is hold yourself to it. Easy right? Not so much when you’re new to budgeting. Or really at any point in your life. You see, we all have a tendency to get used to whatever lifestyle we currently lead. Our “wants” will always greatly outnumber our “needs”, and that leads to lifestyle inflation. That means when your income increases, you can fulfill more wants, so you expect a nicer lifestyle. Investopedia explains how this keeps us in the “rat race”, working just to pay the bills. 

This more expensive lifestyle then becomes the new normal. Inexpensive or free activities aren’t as appealing because it seems “beneath” you since you have such a nice way of living. Unfortunately things happen which may decrease your income, but will not decrease your expectations. It is also more difficult to save and get ahead financially. The Simple Dollar also has a great article about Avoiding Lifestyle Inflation.

There are several ways you can avoid the temptation of lifestyle inflation. 

  1. If you get a raise, pretend you didn’t by putting that money straight into a savings or retirement account. If you don’t know it’s there, you can’t spend it.
  2. Do NOT take on unnecessary debt. Just because you make enough doesn’t justify a huge loan for the newest car out there or a bigger house or more credit cards or whatever.
  3. Forget about the Joneses. What other people have doesn’t matter, there will always be people with more money and things than you. Focus on your life, your relationships, and the things that bring you joy.
  4. Continue finding free and inexpensive activities that fulfill you. Teach, tutor, volunteer, read, or go for walks. Enjoy the simple things in life.

For more ideas see YahooFinance, GetRichSlowly, or FabandFru

The single best tip I can give you on sticking to a budget is to automate as much as possible. If 10% of your paycheck goes straight to a savings account minutes after it is deposited, you don’t have a chance to spend it at the mall. If you have accounts set up for grocery spending or entertainment and put only the amount you want to spend, then you can only spend as much as is in the account. This takes a lot of the work out of budgeting, and makes you accountable. Just be sure to keep an eye on amounts and balances every month.

How to save money


Another problem people have with budgeting is not being able to “find” any extra money to cover the bills, savings, investments, as well as social fun. A lot of people view being frugal as the same thing as being cheap or miserly. This is not necessarily the case. You can still have a vibrant social life and enjoy leisure activities without spending large amounts of money every month. And many easy tips that save you money over the long haul don’t even make a noticeable impact on your daily life. 

You don’t have to go to the extremes of making your own laundry soap, living with a 55 degree home in the winter and 85 in the summer, or eating wild flowers to supplement your diet if you don’t want to. There are boatloads of frugal money-saving tips, and of course each one will not work for every person. You need to evaluate each tip according to your needs and lifestyle, try a few out, and keep only the ones that work for you. 

My favorite way to save money is on food of course. I combine many different techniques to keep my grocery bill as low as possible. For starters, I very rarely eat out. Nearly every breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack is made by me in my home. This saves me a TON of money yearly. Say I got lunch at work each day, for an average of $8 per day. $8 x 5 days per week x 48 weeks per year = $1,920! Nearly $2,000. That’s 2 1/2 months of rent for me, or 7 1/2 months of car payment, or 10 months of groceries. By making my own meals, I save that amount and put it towards savings, retirement, and other goals. 

I shop what’s on sale at the store, I stock on up frequently used items if there’s a good deal, I buy in bulk when I can, I pay attention to “per unit” prices, etc. I also take the bus to work in warmer months (I’m a student and we get a free bus pass, saving me $50/month in parking fees and gas), I insulated my apartment windows so the heating bill is lower, I buy clothes at Goodwill and consignment stores, and so on. 

For more great tips on daily money saving strategies:

America Saves – 54 Ways to Save Money
Daily Finance – 5 Tips for Frugal Living That Won’t Leave You Feeling Miserable
How Stuff Works – 5 No-Brainer Money-Saving Tips Everyone Forgets
Learnvest – 9 Frugal-Living Tips from the Great Depression
Little House Living – Frugal Tips
Living Frugal Tips website and Savings category
The Simple Dollar – Little Steps: 100 Great Tips for Saving Money for Those Just Getting Started
US News – 8 Painless Ways to Save Money
zenhabits – The Cheapskate Guide: 50 Tips for Frugal Living

What’s your favorite frugal tip?

How to: Make a “Door Snake” or “Draft Stopper”

Want to know a great way to help your budget in the colder months? Winter-proofing your house or apartment.

If you live somewhere that experiences temperatures below 60 degrees (which is much of the world) your skin and wallet will thank you for taking some simple steps. Winter-proofing is beneficial because it can help your heater work less hard (due to plugging up drafts and beefing up insulation), keep your living areas warmer, decrease your energy needs, and decrease your energy bills. All good things.

Some tips will not apply to you depending on what type of structure you live in and how much space you have to heat. A quick Google search brings up Yahoo’s list of 12 Ways to Winter-Proof Your Home, Women’s Day’s Guide to Winter-Proofing Your House,  and UK Money’s How to Winter-Proof Your Home and Beat the Big Freeze

A common thing among all winter-proofing lists is insulation.

Regardless of whether you have a 5-bedroom home in the suburbs or a one-bedroom apartment in the city, insulating your doors and windows will keep drafts at bay and heating bills manageable.

One way to insulate windows is to use plastic window cling or bubble wrap. I mashed several layers of bubble wrap over the bedroom window and duct taped it in place. There is definitely a noticeable difference in how much cold gets through the window now.

This guide is to show you another simple way to avoid under-door drafts: by making a door snake!

It may seem intimidating, but my friend B and I made two gorgeous draft stoppers in under 20 minutes.

 

You will need:

  • 1 sewing machine (or needle, thread, time, and patience)
  • Material approximately 1 yard by 1 foot (use thicker cloths to stand up to more wear)
  • Approximately 6-10 cups filler (rice, beans, sand, salt, kitty litter, etc)

Step 1: Lay your fabric pattern-side up, and flip it over onto itself so the ‘inside’ faces out. Pin along a straight line.

Step 2: Use a basic stitch to sew along the pins from end to end. You can measure the length of your doorway, leave an extra 2 inches per end. This doesn’t have to be super exact.

Sew all the way along the length. This will create a tube with open ends on both sides.

Step 3: Sew up one end of the tube. Make sure the two sets of stitches overlap to fully close that end.

Step 4: Now flip the tube inside-out so that the stitches are on the inside and the pattern is on the outside.

This is one of B’s 2 cats, she was very interested in what we were doing. Mostly the parts involving string.

Step 5: Measure against your door frame to make sure you fill the tube to the right length. Cut off the extra, leaving a few inches on the un-sewn end.

Step 6: Take the filler material, and hold open one end. Fill the tube up until the length of your door frame.

B proudly holding our first filled door snake. =) This is before cutting off the extra end material and sewing up the open end. Also of note, kitty litter is cheap but very dusty. Maybe try rice in yours.

Step 7: Fold the ends in by about 1/4 inch so that you have 4 layers of material. This puts the frayed, cut ends on the inside and creates a cleaner look & hemline.

 

Step 8: Sew along the double fold at the end. Make sure it is nice and tight, and goes all the way to both sides of material. You don’t want filler bits leaking out on your floor.

Step 9: Make sure your door snake is the right size for your door frame, and admire your hard work.

 

There you have it. A simple solution to cold wintry drafts that saves you from needing to double-sock and saves you some cash. You can re-use these for years, depending on the type of material and your level of sewing prowess. I’ve even heard of people sewing extra washable covers for these so they can wash the cover when it gets dusty/muddy/gross.

What’s your favorite money-saving craft idea?

 

What to Do With Vegetable Scraps

With one big cooking holiday down (Thanksgiving) and another mammoth of a food-waster coming up quick (Christmas!) most households probably have a lot of food and vegetable waste.

What should you do with leftover vegetable scraps?

You know, the butt of carrots, potato peels, mushy tomatoes. If you throw it into the trash can and send it down to the curb, it’s out of your house, but then what?

Channel4 in the UK wrote an article about visiting a landfill, a common feature of pretty much every country in the world by now. It’s something we don’t think about too much in our hectic, fast-paced, self-centered world these days. 

According to an article by the Huffington Post, Americans throw away nearly half the food we buy each year.

This is a waste of good food, a waste of hard earned money, and a waste of valuable and diminishing space on this planet.

But if something in the back of your mind nags you every time you replace the trash bag, then this is one small step in the right direction for you.

We can all try to reduce the amount of food we buy at one time, plan properly to use the food we do buy each week, eat leftovers and creatively use leftover food, and find uses for even the most seemingly unusable scraps.

1. Compost
If you’re lucky enough to have a yard, then there isn’t much excuse to not have a compost pile.

Even if you ‘don’t have time’ or ‘don’t have space’ or ‘don’t have energy’ to have a garden, composting just makes sense, and you can spread it around trees or in flower beds or even give it away on Craigslist once made.

If done right it doesn’t smell bad, and merely requires occasional turning to aerate. There are certain things that are great for compose and others not so much. NEVER put meat or animal bones or fat into compost because they will attract wild animals and cause unwanted reactions.

For more information about how to build a proper pile see here.

Photo from I Dream of Eden.

2. Muffins
This of course depends on the type of food scraps you have.

Carrot peels or leftover sweet potato can become carrot cake muffins, or be added to homemade coleslaw. If you have veggie pulp because of using a juicer, you can substitute that for part of the wet ingredients in a muffin mix.

Pay attention to what was in the pulp you juiced though. I think cucumber/grapefruit/kale muffins might be a little weird.

But who knows.



3. Vegetable stock
This is by far my favorite option, since I live in an apartment and don’t have composting access yet.

What I do is store all the scraps in a bag in the freezer as I make recipes. Potato peels, slightly brown pieces, ends of veggies, etc.

Once I have a full bag I put it in the Crock Pot and cover it with water, adding any other herbs and spices that sound good. Then just leave it on low overnight or all day, usually at least 8 hours.

The nutrients and flavors will boil out of the veggies and create a beautiful, healthy, salt-free stock you can then use in future recipes. The best part? It’s totally free!

Just freeze the stock in plastic bags laid flat in the freezer, or in ice cube trays to make little cubes.

You can then pop these into soups, stews, flavor rice, or in whatever you normally use stock. This same theory works for meat as well.

If you’ve made a lovely roast chicken and have the carcass left over, toss it in the slow cooker with some water for several hours. If you have shrimp tails, a bone-in pork roast, corn cobs, or some T-bones, do the same for some flavorful bases to use in the future.



If you know of a way to use leftover scraps not mentioned here, please share with us!

 

Oven Roasted Whole Chicken

 

When I moved into my new apartment, I went on a stock-up grocery trip as I always do. One thing that was on sale was whole chicken (90 cents a pound or something). Since I had already brined and roasted a whole pheasant, I figured a whole chicken shouldn’t be much more difficult. So I got one and stuck it in the freezer.

Then one day I decided it was starting to get cold enough to count as fall, and chicken soup is great fall weather food! Of course, I roasted the meat and just enjoyed some tasty baked chicken meat first. The carcass is in the crock pot today to make stock for chicken soup.

I took out the bird, made a nice brine*, and roasted it the next day. And it turned out tender and amazing!

*If you don’t want to brine it overnight first, don’t worry about it. Skip right to the roasting part.

Ingredients for brine:

  • 1 cup salt
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1 cup pink moscato (because I had no open white wines)
  • 5 bay leaves
  • sprinkle garlic, sprinkle black pepper
  • About a gallon of water

Step 1: Mix all ingredients in a pot large enough to hold the whole bird. Add water to the top (once bird is added, not before, or you’ll spill everywhere. Not that I’ve ever done that…).

Step 2: Stick it in the refrigerator overnight (or at least for 4 hours. You can put it in there in the morning, head off to work and finish roasting it later that night too). I had to put my milk sideways on the bottom shelf to make room for a day, but I feel it is well worth the space-hogging.

Ingredients for the bird:

  • 1 whole frozen chicken, thawed overnight
  • Several gobs of margerine or butter
  • 1 whole apple, lemon, orange, and/or onion cut into quarters (I used one whole Gala apple)
  • Salt, pepper, and paprika

Step 3*: Take the bird out of the liquid, and pour the brine down the sink. Wipe off any moisture with a paper towel and place in a large baking pan. Rub it down all over with margarine. I despise raw chicken, so this part is super disgusting for me, but it is a necessary evil of epicuriosity. (*IF you skip brining, this is where to start)

Shove some butter chunks under the skin if you can too. If there are bits and pieces inside the cavity, take those out and dispose of or cook separately. Then sprinkle it all over with spices, and shove the aromatics (apple, onion, lemon) up the butt. Sorry, inside the cavity…

 

Step 4: Put the bird breast-side down into an oven at 425 for 15-20 minutes covered with aluminum foil. Flip it over, take the foil off, and roast uncovered for another 10-15 minutes. This will lead to a nice crispy outside skin. Then lower the heat to 375 for about another hour, or until the temperature is at least 165 F.

 

Once it’s all nicely browned and roasted, it looks and smells divine!

 

Take the aromatics you stuffed it with out and discard (or compost it). Use the meat any way you like! It is tender and moist and super flavorful. Not bad for $5 a bird.

 

I served it with broccoli cheddar rice and candied carrots on the side. Perfection.

Now I think I also need to work on learning how to properly carve the thing rather than just stabbing and sawing until a piece falls off…