Friday, September 23, 2011

The Grocery Envelope

A big pot of peasant food: French style cabbage soup

I have a new favorite blog: Get Rich Slowly, about all things personal finance.

A few days ago, this post, about a rivalry between Anthony Bourdain and Paula Deen, really got me thinking. The short version is this- Bourdain criticized Deen for encouraging an already overweight America to eat fried food smothered in butter, cheese, and gravy. The counter-argument was that Bourdain is a food elitist, with no understanding about cooking for a family on a limited budget. Bourdain responded that many of the most beloved dishes in the world are peasant food- made and eaten by generations of hard working poor people.

April Dykman, who wrote the post, challenges the notion that cooking healthy requires spending more. As I am getting more budget conscious, I am asking myself the same question. Obviously, I pay a premium for organic veggies and dairy products. Lean meats are more costly than fatty cuts. Fresh produce costs more than canned.

On the other hand, you can save some money if you're smart about it.  Skipping the processed food is pretty obvious (although I admit I eat a lot of Lean Cuisines). Ditto takeout. I have been saving a little on groceries by eating less meat, thanks mostly to my cooking bible, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, by Marc Bittman. I was also inspired by The Amateur Gourmet's post on shopping for a week's worth of meals rather than buying ingredients recipe by recipe. And I hate to admit this, but I had to make a personal goal of throwing away less rotten produce from the fridge. My eyes are bigger than my stomach at the grocery store, and I am re- learning the amounts I really need to buy.

Even though I am trying to spend less overall, I am not making big cuts to my food budget. I'm planning to save by eating out less and drinking less alcohol, but the grocery envelope is staying pretty fat. Americans spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than people in any other developed country in the world. Living on limited means is a reality for many people, but if you're not spending money on delicious, healthy food, what are you spending it on? Isn't it worth buying less stuff, so that you can sit down to a satisfying meal at the end of the day?

Anyway, I will refer you to my cooking hero, Marc Bittman, for some advice on cooking easy, quick meals: this article features 101 recipes for simple meals that are ready in 10 minutes or less. Most of them are concocted from pantry staples, and others just require a quick stop at the store for a couple of fresh ingredients.

I want to be just like Marc Bittman when I grow up
If you noticed that this post is just a big compilation of stuff other people wrote, I hope you don't mind too much. I'm still feeling a little uninspired and having trouble finding anything original to write about. Maybe you can tell me about things you are doing to eat well on a budget?

Until next time, KISS (keep it simple stupid), and try making some easy meals at home, without gravy, with veggies, and with maybe just a modest amount of butter!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Wardrobe Triage

From Stuff No One Told Me ( by Alex Noriega
I have been in a bit of a rut lately, with nothing exciting to share. Alex Noriega must be feeling the same way, because he posted the cartoon above. I always feel better about being disinclined to get anything done when I look around and see all three pets sound asleep and looking pretty pleased about it.

I wanted to get something done today, so I did a tiny bit of decluttering work on my wardrobe. Today is laundry day, which I think is a great time to get rid of clothes. There is a famous expression that describes me perfectly- "Most women wear 20% of their clothes 80% of the time." Waiting until laundry day means that the clothes I wear most often are in the hamper and I can look critically at what's left over and decide if I really need it.

The big lesson I learned this year is that you don't need as many of anything as you think. I changed bra sizes and I survived for months with five bras. I only have four pairs of jeans: two for every day, one dressy pair, and one white pair. I only need enough scrubs to make it through 7 work days (two weeks for me), and none of my co-workers cares if I wear the same sets over and over.

I also learned (from my pal Isaac Mizrahi) that it's worth it to invest in your clothing purchases, and you can accomplish it by buying fewer items of better quality.  I used to be very reluctant to spend more than about $40 for any one article of clothing, but after I read How to Have Style I really revised that opinion. I love my Marc by Marc Jacobs sunglasses, I can dance in my Sofft gladiator sandals all night without blisters, and my inc maxi dress totally turns heads.

Honestly, I still own more clothes than I need, and I still spend most of my days in overly casual mode. Thank goodness I live in literally the most casual place on the planet, so it kind of works. But in case you were looking for some advice, here are my favorite wardrobe resources:

Style on a Shoestring: Develop your Cents of Style and Look Like a Million Without Spending a Fortune by Andy Paige.  If you are looking for a primer on creating a wardrobe, this book is fantastic. It contains tons of great information about shopping, fit, and how to look great every day.

Scaling Down: Living Large in a Smaller Space by Marj Decker and Judi Culbertson. This is not a wardrobe book, but it does give some tips on deciding what to keep and what to toss from your closet. It also introduces the concept of "clutter triage," in which you walk through your house, pick up everything you can easily part with, and get rid of it. I triage my closet every few months (including today), and I always find things I can live without.

Wardrobe Oxygen, a blog by Alison Gary. I am personally attracted to this site because Allie and I have similar body proportions, which means I could theoretically just copy her outfits. She lives in the D.C. area, so we probably wouldn't run into each other. I particularly like this post because it can help you identify wardrobe gaps.

Thanks to some of these resources and a little effort, I am always able to close my dresser drawers and I have more hangers than articles of clothing in my closet. I am not the best dressed girl in the room, but I am never the worst dressed either (I think). I am happy to be appropriate for the occasion, not trapped in my college wear, and not living under the impression that I am a size smaller than I actually am.

So long for now, KISS (keep it simple stupid), and if you are looking for a small accomplishment, try clearing some of those monsters out of your closet!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dave Ramsey and the Envelopes

I finally decided that every financial adviser on the planet is right and I should be living with a budget.

John McNab- Flickr

It all started with this article about a guy who aggressively paid off a huge amount of debt in one year. I was intrigued by the article, but when I read the comments I found out that this is actually Dave Ramsey's "debt snowball" approach (although the article doesn't mention Dave at all).

I read a little more about Dave- I feel like we are on a first name basis already- and picked up his book The Total Financial Makeover from the library.

This plan is totally common sense, but it takes a huge commitment. Dave describes it as a need for "gazelle like intensity." You basically whittle your finances down to the lowest possible level, sell what you can, and possibly pick up a second job to help you achieve your goal. He includes tons of success stories- Four person households making $46,000 per year and somehow eliminating $60,000 in debt in 20 months. The common feature in the testimonials is the sense of peace that comes from getting out of debt. No job is completely recession proof right now- imagine facing a layoff in your present financial state. Now imagine it if your only debt was your mortgage and you had a six month emergency fund...

Bottom line is that I really want to Ramsey my debt, but I am not ready to do it right this minute. My finances are good not great- I live on less than I earn, don't have any credit card debt, I have some decent retirement savings, and a small emergency fund. On the other hand, I am upside down on my mortgage and I drive an 8-year old Hyundai with very little set aside for my next car. I am living on the assumption that I won't be laid off from my job, but Dave reminds me that if something happened and I became unemployed, my household would lose 100% of its income. Save for a rainy day, he says. It will rain.

So I'm not ready for gazelle-like intensity. Yet. This is the year of big travel, but I suspect 2012 will be the year of the gazelle. Meanwhile, I'm setting the framework. I have already learned not to buy so much crap. I'm pretty good at saving in advance for big purchases.  I recently started a cash diet to help me spend less. Now I have to learn how to stick to a budget.

I told you recently that I don't want to have to log everything I spend into a spreadsheet- I really hate the idea of receipts all over the place. The Dave solution is much easier- budget the amount of money needed for groceries, entertainment, pet food (a big expense in my house), etc. and put the cash into envelopes. When your dining out envelope is empty, you eat in. When your purchases envelope is empty you don't buy anything else. My grocery envelope is almost empty, and I am looking through the freezer and pantry to stretch it until Friday.

Dave warns us that as soon as we resolve to eliminate debt, there will be a test. On Tuesday, as part of a trifecta of terrible events, my car's alternator died. I spent over $400 to replace it. My plan has been to establish a sizable down payment before I buy my next car, but I started thinking about how much easier it would be to have a car that doesn't make me nervous. Instead, I fixed the alternator and got my head around the idea that an occasional big repair is still cheaper than a new(er) car. Dave says, "If you will live like no one else, later you can live like no one else." So I'll just have to get one of those bumper stickers that says, "Don't laugh, it's paid for," and make sure my cell phone is always charged.

So long for now, KISS (keep it simple stupid), and maybe check out some Dave at your local library!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Blessing in Disguise

"Persevere!" A mural in Nassau, The Bahamas
Today I'm reminding myself that big disappointments often turn out to be blessings in the long run.

When I was working in Cubeville, there was always a push for us to develop a long-term career plan. I explored some of my options, thought about what I was good at, and decided that I wanted to get into training and performance improvement.

This wasn't a whim. I had some experience in training new staff. I had been given the opportunity to train a team of associates on a new process. Working as an underwriter, I considered teaching insurance agency staff how to write better product to be a big part of my job. I had a business portfolio full of job aids and training documents I created to help sales staff in my district and my coworkers.

I think I did everything right, or pretty close. I put a development plan in action, my boss helped me find a mentor working in training, and I got involved in some activities to increase my experience. I had great performance reviews every year.

But I couldn't get hired.

I was really, really frustrated. I had worked hard toward a specific goal and I still couldn't achieve it. I also had some signs that a member of my senior management was working against me to keep me on her team (I don't think this was paranoia). I started to resent my job. I felt trapped in a boring rut.

Then the economy took a big turn for the worse.

I watched as the new training jobs started to disappear. Then, because new employees weren't being hired, training staff were the first people to be laid off. Employees who had worked for the company for 20 years or more were losing their jobs.

I learned that when times get tough, staff who teach (rather than "produce") have the easiest jobs to eliminate.

That was when I began thinking about what I really wanted to do with the rest of my working life. I did a lot of soul searching. For the first time in a long time I prayed for guidance. And I ended up in Nursing. Needless to say I love my new field and I feel like I have found my true calling.

What was a professionally frustrating time ended up being a blessing in disguise. If I had been hired into a training job, I probably would have loved it, and would have been laid off soon after. I wouldn't have been able to find a similar job in another industry because no one else was hiring training staff either.

This week I found out that a job I applied for and that I really wanted has been filled. I wasn't even interviewed. It was tough news to get, and I'm pretty disappointed.

I talked to a friend today who will be peripherally involved with the unit where I applied to work. He told me that he thinks the whole thing might be a disaster at first, and that maybe not getting the job will be a blessing in disguise. Hearing that reminded me of the time when I felt trapped in a job that I didn't like anymore. I had no idea at that moment, but God had other plans for me, and I just had to get frustrated enough to take some drastic action.

This time I'm not sure that drastic action will be necessary, but I was glad for the reminder that a larger plan seems to exist.  Sometimes you need a few roadblocks to put you on the right route.

So long for now, KISS (keep it simple stupid) and try to believe that it all works out in the long run.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Tao of Dishes

Vaedri1 from Flickr
I was so relieved when I learned that, like me, The Amateur Gourmet enjoys washing dishes.

In the afterword to his first, self-titled book, he describes the experience of throwing dinner parties in a Brooklyn apartment with no dishwasher.  He walks the reader through the steps of cleaning up the big mess, and writes one of my all time favorite kitchen quotes: "Are you suffering through this or has your mind entered a blissful place? It has? Okay, shhhh, I won't disturb you."

That pretty much sums up my enjoyment of dishes. It is so wonderful to keep your hands busy and your mind empty for a while. You can pour a glass of wine (unless it's Thanksgiving at your tee totaling grandparents' house), put the stereo on, and work your way through from start to finish.

Don't let me give you the completely inaccurate perception that I am a good housekeeper. I have to invite people over now and then or I never clean my house. Occasionally, I get caught with a grubby bathroom because I am so focused on my goals for the moment.  Or possibly because I am napping or otherwise engaged. Cleaning the house stays pretty low on my list of priorities, so if you are planning to drop by unexpectedly, consider yourself warned.

The thing about the dishes is that they are a solvable problem. You can't quickly fix your love life (or create one in my case), settle the feuds between your friends, or improve your credit score, but you can attack a messy kitchen and get it done. I especially enjoy washing dishes after a holiday meal.  You start with a disaster in the kitchen and end up with something spotless and ready for breakfast the next day. At the same time you get to hang out with your mom or whoever is drying and really get some time to chat, after the stress of cooking the big meal is over.

The running water sounds a little like this!

So try Adam's and my approach to the dishes- enjoy the process and relish the finished product. I'm not planning to give up my dishwasher or anything, but if you invite me over for Labor Day I will totally help you clean up.

Maybe you don't love washing dishes, but I bet there is some menial task you find relaxing: folding laundry, vacuuming, filing. What is it and why do you love it so much?

So long for now, KISS (keep it simple stupid), and try a little dish washing meditation!

By the way, the title for today's blog was inspired by a really delightful book I read years ago, called The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. Yes, like Winnie the Pooh, not like the stuff I deal with a work every day. Check it out (of the library), you'll be glad you did!

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