Monday, May 31, 2010

No Spend Month Day 31: The Wrap Up

I've learned a lot of things this Month, but one thing struck me most of all. I have wonderful family and friends. They have been so overwhelmingly supportive and generous that a couple of times I felt like I was cheating. They've been there for me with constant encouragement and have treated me to lunches and even a movie. Above all I have to take a moment to thank my wonderful Boyfriend, without whom I surely would have cracked. It was very hard to leave a job I loved, even though I believe I'll be back, and he got me through that. That day I thought I just couldn't make it, he took me out for pizza and beer. He brought bottles of wine and a tub of decadent ice cream. These were just the physical tokens of his emotional support, which was constant and unfailing.

Anyways, that's enough mushy stuff, time to get to brass tacks: What did I spend?

I spent $99.32. Considering I spent more than that on each of my trips to Sephora last month, I'm pretty impressed with that.

I bought:
Milk, butter, eggs, honey, peanut butter sugar, green peppers, red peppers, corn on the cob, bananas, a candy bar and bag of chips, cheese, beans, peas, lettuce, rubber gloves, 4 cups of coffee (2 for Boyfriend, as small tokens of gratitude) 6 packets of vegetable seeds, and my last loonie went to an adorable little girl selling Kool-Aid to benefit the Janeway Children's Hospital.

The thing about this budget, is that it's unsustainable. I didn't buy any personal hygiene products, no clothing, no books, no gifts, less than $10 on entertainment. Also, I had a freezer stocked with chicken, salmon, ground beef and lamb stew. I had a pantry full of flours, pasta, lentils, rice, almond milk, chocolate chips, canned tomatoes, yeast, oils, vinegars and seasonings. I had large bags of apples, potatoes, carrots, onions and big head of celery. I even had a half bottle of wine for cooking.

This post is getting long enough, so I'll talk a bit more about lessons learned sometime this week. What I'm immediately taking away is this:

I set myself a goal and I achieved it. I lived on a very restricted budget for 1 month. I did it with help. I used what I had, I accepted the generosity of others, and I did without. I definitely think I'll do this again next year, and in the meantime I'll resolve to take my new habits forward. Here's to waste-less summer!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Make this Soup

This is exactly the kind of recipe I love, the kind that I could eat everyday for the rest of my life. It's healthy and simple and delicious. No surprise, it's a soup.

Although I talk about food a lot, I don't really post many recipes on this blog because I don't come up with my own. I take recipes mostly from friends, foodblogs and cookbooks. This one came from Marcella Hazan's "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking". I use this book often, even though I've run into a couple of duds, because it works wonderfully well as a general instructional manual. She's convinced me to put celery into almost everything, even though I don't like celery, she's explained why you brown the onions first, then add the garlic. "The alchemy of cooking" as Nigella Lawson once said. One of her big ideas about food, and this makes her different from Julia Child, is that you should really let the flavours of the food speak for themselves. There isn't a lot of seasoning or altering of the food.

First, defrost a small package of frozen peas (I used 300g) chop potatoes into small dice (3cups) and thinly slice 3 cups of onions. A note on quantities: I thought there were just a few too many onions. My lunch date, K thought there were a few too many peas. These can be altered to suit your preferences. Thinly slice 2 cloves of garlic.

Brown the onions in olive oil with a pinch of salt and a pinch of sugar. Add the garlic and cook a until just starting to brown. Add the potatoes and stir for 2-3 minutes. Add enough water to cover by a couple inches (in my pot this was 5 cups) and a beef bouillon cube. Reduce heat to minimum, cover, and let simmer for half an hour. Add peas and simmer another 5-10 minutes. Done!

It doesn't sound like a lot, but the garlic and onion make for a lovely savoury broth and the peas add just a bit of sweetness. It's yummy and healthy and it feels good to eat it, especially the way K and I did, sitting by a sunny window with big mugs of tea and oatmeal cookies for dessert.

I have no idea how much this cost to make, but I had everything in my kitchen already except for the peas, which cost $2.09. I got 7 servings so I'm considering it to be a very budget lunch.

Monday, May 17, 2010

No Spend Month Day 17: A bit of Math

I don't think I'd be able to even consider this No Spend Month thing if I had not already seriously considered my food budget. I've done this several times since I've been on my own, the last year in particular. Food is something I refuse to scrimp on, but that doesn't mean there aren't ways to save.

Bread is my favourite example. I eat a lot of bread. I eat bread like and 18th century French Peasant. (If, you know, they could get bread). I never really thought about bread as expensive. For years I used to eat Dempster's whole wheat, which cost $3.19 a loaf. That's not a lot of money, right? Plus, I have to have bread.

When I started shopping with Mom at Costco, I realized that I could buy two loaves for $6 and freeze one until I was ready to eat it. I was pleased with this savings, so I wanted to calculate how much I saved per year by making this change. Figuring that I eat about 1.5 loaves a week, my savings added up to $14.82 a year. Not too shabby.

A few months later I was out of bread and had no ride to costco. Rather than buying the Dempster's at full price, I picked up a loaf that was made in the grocery store bakery for $1.99. I actually really liked it. I was fresher than Dempster's, and had fewer mystery ingredients. I switched, and calculated my yearly savings again. This time it was a whopping $78.78 over what I was spending at Costco and $93.60 over what I had been spending before. I felt like a very savvy shopper and bragged to everyone.

Late last fall I started making my own bread from a recipe I got from Orangette. (See below). I fell in love with this recipe, and started making my own bread nearly all the time. For one thing, the only ingredients are yeast, water, honey, oil and whole wheat flour, so there is no salt or sugar or any preservatives or mystery ingredients of any kind. For another, it's delicious. Crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside, absolutely perfect for toast or soaking up soup. Finally, I discovered that I find it incredibly soothing to make bread. This recipe only takes 2 hours from start to finish (and most of that it's rising or baking) so it doesn't take too much time, and I get all my frustrations out pounding that dough. Not to mention how wonderful the house smells when I make it. My breadmaking day began to be my favourite day of the week. I didn't know how much the bread cost, but I didn't care. I won't compromise on the quality of my food.

But one especially dull afternoon, I decided to find out. I figured out how much I paid for the individual ingredients and how much of each I used and added it all up. I came up with about $0.90 a loaf. This is a lot cheaper than I had originally thought, and a heck of a lot cheaper than the store bread. How much am I saving a year? That's a yearly savings of $85.02 over the store brand and $179.40 over the original dempsters bread.

To emphasize: In 2010 I will save $179.40 on bread alone over what I paid in 2008. That's a lot of money.

Now, obviously not everyone is into bread baking, but my point here is that the best way to save money is to look at the things you buy the most often and try to think about a way to do it cheaper. Those savings might be small, but they add up faster. Can you buy in bulk? Is a cheaper brand just as good? (or better? As it was in this case) can you do it yourself? Just keep in mind that, when it comes to nutrition, a better price is not necessarily a better buy. Read all the ingredients and nutritional information carefully. Keep your body and your wallet healthy

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

No Spend Month Day 11: Love with Little Money

The biggest challenge while on a budget is gifts. I like to think of myself as a generous person, I sincerely enjoy buying things for other people. I like thinking about what they might like, searching for just the right thing, carefully wrapping it up and imagining how they’ll react, how they’ll use it, etc. This is even a bigger deal when it comes to a member of my family. My father, mother, brother and I are a real set of 4, and I’m very grateful for each one of them and all that they do.

So you can imagine how Mother’s Day falling in “No Spend Month” caused me some consternation. I thought about blowing half my budget on a present, because surely a Mother’s Day present is a necessity? But I don’t think my mother would like that. Mom has always been a paragon of thrift and minimalism. She taught us to save, to be careful and thoughtful with our money. She has been very enthusiastic and supportive of the no spending, and I think she would have been very disappointed if I broke it to buy her a present.

I had to do something else to show my appreciation of everything she’s done for me. The thing my mother appreciates most is time together. That’s why for the last few years my brother and I have generally given her experiences rather than things for gifts. I’ll take her for a mother-daughter manicure and he’ll take her to dinner and a movie. I knew without question that I would be spending all of Sunday with Mom, but doing what?

The answer was what it usually is: cook something. I know it sounds trite, but there’s something about sharing food that I strongly associate with sharing love. When I cook something for someone, it’s because I love them. When I make whole wheat bread or a nourishing soup for myself, it’s because I love myself and I want to be healthy and strong. When I make cookies for guests, it’s because I love them and I want to welcome them into my home. Even when I mix a box of Kraft Dinner for my brother, it’s because I love him and I enjoy spending Saturday afternoons the way we did when we were kids.

Saturday afternoon I made a lemon blueberry cake. Mom doesn’t like cakes that are too sweet or too rich, so I picked one that had no icing. Sunday I went grocery shopping with my Dad shortly after breakfast. He helped with the ingredients for the day and I made French onion soup for lunch, then a Julia Child steak recipe (Oh, so good) for dinner with mashed potatoes and peas. All her favourites. While pots simmered we chatted and played crib, and after dinner we retired with our glasses of wine to watch “Brothers and Sisters”. It was a really wonderful day. One of the most fun I’ve had for a very long time. I’m pretty sure Mom really liked it too, which is of course the point.

The idea of love with little money was reinforced for my last night. I had gotten a call from my friend J who wanted to lend her support for the no-spend project. She invited me over to her place for dinner and a movie. Fun and free. She looked up a fancy salmon recipe she’d had once (oh, so good) and picked out a movie I really should have seen a long time ago. (Can you believe I’ve never seen Dirty Dancing before?). It was a great time, but what touched me the most was how she’d gone out of her way to show her support by choosing an activity that would allow me to continue.

And it’s soon time for me to show her the same support, mere hours after I left dear J got engaged!!

Friday, May 7, 2010

No Spend Month: Day 7

I am a little bit proud and a little bit ashamed to admit that I have spent exactly nothing all week. I’m proud because it seems to me to be quite an achievement to spend nothing for that long. I’m embarrassed that I had more than enough food accumulated to make this possible.

So what did I eat? On the weekend I baked two loaves of whole wheat bread and made a big pot of barley soup. I had peanut butter toast and tea for breakfast every day and soup for lunch every day. I’m lucky in that I don’t mind repetition with meals, especially if they’re healthy and yummy. I get fatigued of processed foods after a few days, my body can really feel the difference, and if I don’t like something I’m simply not going to eat it. But I’ve had peanut butter toast and tea for breakfast nearly every morning for several years, and it’s still one of my favourite parts of the day.

Dinners I thought would be trickier, but apparently I thought wrong. I had braised chicken and veggies, spaghetti with home made sauce, even lamb stew! I buy meat in bulk and freeze it, so I may not need to buy meat at all during this entire month.

These meals were supplemented with apples from a five pound bag, popcorn from the pantry and chocolate from the stash. Yes, I keep a stash of chocolate in my closet, doesn’t everyone?

So I clearly haven’t been deprived, but I sure have been tempted. I went into Auntie Crae’s, a local bakery and specialty grocery store, to inquire about a certain ingredient and I nearly threw in the towel right then. Chocolates and nuts and fancy, fancy cheeses. After I spoke with the clerk I practically flung myself out onto the street to avoid the truffle oil. Side note: did you hear that scientists are working on cloning truffles so the masses can eat them? I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Worst was yesterday. I had a job interview. I’m pretty good at interviews, to quote Angela from “The Office” : “I believe I stand up very well under scrutiny”. But it’s still stressful. I usually cope by having a fancy coffee before and a chocolate treat after. Yesterday I held off! I had a standard cup of black tea from the box of tea bags I keep in my desk and waited until I get home to attack my stash. I still wanted to buy myself dinner, though. Boyfriend wasn’t over and I simply could not will myself to get down in the kitchen. I thought about Ziggy’s, the chip truck that parks down the street. Poutine for $6, would it really be so bad? It was looking bad.

When things look bad the answer is always the same: call mom. Within an hour I was at the table with my parents, tucking into chicken, rice and broccoli with homemade rolls and wine.

Overall I think this week was a very good start to my challenge. I will need to go to the grocery store tomorrow, so some spending will happen. I need more fresh veggies and I need a couple of ingredients to properly celebrate a truly fantastic mom this weekend. But more on that later.

PS: Basia Bulat’s new album “Heart of My Own” totally rocks. Get it.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

No Spend Month

For the month of May, I have decided to take on a "No Spend Month" challenge.

The goal is to buy nothing that is not a necessity for 31 days. I've heard of variations of this challenge before. I read a book about a woman in England with massive consumer debt who stopped shopping for a year. I read about a blogger from who stocked up his pantry and survived with his kitchen garden for a month. But these examples had slipped my mind until recently.

A couple weeks ago I went to visit my brother and a few friends in Toronto. While there I spent quite a lot of money. Because of brother's generous hospitality I didn't need a hotel, but we ate out every meal, I bought expensive cosmetics and bath stuff that isn't available in Newoundland, and I picked up 23 used books. (Funny story, just after I got home there was a massive used book store at the library where I was able to pick up 15 books for $6.50, then found a cookbook I wanted at Chapters for 75% off, bringing the total number of books purchased in April to 39!)

I got home slightly reeling from my credit card total, especially considering the looming layoff from work. I knew my job was up in July, and although there are several other opportunities there, nothing is certain. I needed to save.

When I got home I did the usual things, I bought groceries, did the laundry. But there was no room in the freezer or pantry for the new items, they were already stocked. I put the clothes away and discovered that if all the clothes are washed, there's no room for them. The closet and bureau were stuffed to overflowing, I wound up piling my jeans on the floor to make room. I have too much stuff.

That day, idly surfing the internet, I came upon It's a simple living blog, and the blogger does a yearly No Spend Month, in which the family attempts to curb all spending. It seemed like the perfect solution.

You pay your bills, obviously, and set aside a very tight budget for groceries, then spend nothing else. For example, you can buy fruit and milk, but not that oh-so-tempting wheel of camembert. The idea is to force yourself to really think about whether something is a need or a want.

Having never done this before, I'm not really sure how much my necessities will cost. I usually spend a lot on groceries, but that's because I like to cook and I'm always buying fancy ingredients. That's why the cupboards and freezer are in the state they are. I've decided to go with $100, because it's a nice round figure. I don't have a car, so I won't need gas. I have no dependents, but the budget will include the food I feed to Boyfriend and any guests. (Since there's no money for going out, I imagine I'll be having people in more often) That's necessary because the point is not to punish you by forcing you to end all social contact or subsist on Mr. Noodle. It's to make you think about what you really need to be spending.

I was pretty pleased with my plan. I didn't stock up, per se (I didn't really need to) but I did pick up a gift I knew I'd need. Then I had a meeting with my boss and received my two weeks notice. It turns out he can't make the changes to my position while I'm still in it. He hopes to find another place for me soon but, or course, no guarantees. So now, with credit card debt and unemployment bearing down on me with shocking speed, my little personal challenge has become much, much more important.