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Quick Tip – Taco Seasoning

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Mexican food is one of my all-time faves (comes with the territory of growing up in Texas and currently living in Arizona…I’ve always been very close to the border!)

It tends to be cheap, quick and easy to make, and delicious!

So I just wanted to peek in today with a quick tip on cheap taco seasoning.

One word: COSTCO!!!!

I mentioned a couple months ago that I buy Taco Seasoning from Costco because its so cheap and I had several commenters mention that they make their own for pennies compared to the store bought stuff. So feast your eyes on this photo….

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That’s $4.29 for a 24 oz jar of seasoning, coming out to .179 cents per ounce. (To be clear, this is not a sale price, either. This is the normal everyday price).

To make my own, the very cheapest seasonings I could find were $1 per 2oz. container. So even if I made my own taco seasoning mix (by buying garlic, chili pepper, etc. and mixing everything together), I’m still coming out way ahead by just buying the Costco taco seasoning.

Those of you who make your own….do you find seasonings somewhere cheaper? Grow (and dehydrate) your own? Other secrets I don’t know about?

If not, then you might be better off just picking it up from Costco, too.

But if I’m wrong and you actually do have taco seasoning cheaper somehow, please let me know in the comments!


Goodbye, Good Friend!

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A little background information about me (this may be a review for long time readers) – husband and I are originally from Texas, then moved to southern Florida (for my Masters degree), and finally out to Arizona (for my PhD). We’ve now been here (Tucson, AZ) for nearly 6 years. But one of the bad things about moving to a place specifically for grad school and then staying there is that all your friends eventually move away! They graduate and get jobs or drop out and move back home. Either way, they leave.

So although I had a lot of grad school buddies my first few years here, the further I get away from grad school (I’ve been done for nearly 2 years now), the fewer friends I have left as they all leave.

I still have a handful of more casual friends/neighbors, but I’ve got 2 really good/close friends in the area. Sadly, one of them is leaving on March 1st  (edited, for mistake): May 1st.  This is a friend I’ve mentioned several times on the blog. We get together about once a week to do a workout (walk/jog a pretty river trail in town), and she’s the friend who got married this past October.

I’ve known for awhile now (and just haven’t mentioned it here), but her new husband scored a new job that will cause them to relocate this summer. His contract doesn’t officially start until June 1st, but they’ve bought a house in their new city so they’re getting a U-Haul on May 1st, driving cross-country, and taking a few weeks to get settled in before his job begins. Hopefully I’ll see my friend again. I’m not doing a lot of “fun” travel these days so it’s unlikely I’ll fly to visit her in her new city. But we’re in the same basic field so hopefully our paths will cross at academic conferences. Also, her parents currently live in Tucson so hopefully I’ll still get to see her every once in awhile if she chooses to come visit them here.

Regardless, it will probably be quite awhile until I get to see my good friend again. So this month has been a bit more spendy than usual in terms of eating out.

First, I went out with my friend and her husband to celebrate her husband’s successful dissertation defense (they met in grad school, so he’s in the same program we had been in).

Second, she expressed interest in having a little going away party. The timing didn’t work out as she’d hoped with everything going on so, in lieu of an actual party, I told her I’d love to take her out for a “going away” lunch the day before they pick up the U-Haul.

To try to offset these expenses a bit, I’ve really tried to reign in my family’s eating out. We try to stick to a $100 monthly budget and this usually equals one time eating out as a family (as a real restaurant), a pizza night, and another cheap food night (like Mexican take-out). The budget also includes if I run through Wendy’s for a strawberry lemonade (my favorite) or if the family goes to Sonic for an after-dinner ice cream treat. You get the idea.

At any rate, I’ve gone out of my way to really make everything at home and avoid eating out at all. I think this has helped to off-set some of these other eating out costs that I’m incurring this month. But the going away lunch has yet to happen so I do have one more potentially spendy meal out. Luckily, lunch is generally not as pricey as dinner but I still wouldn’t be surprised if the single meal ends up being $50. Might not seem like a lot for a going away celebration of sorts, but it’s 50% of my entire month’s budget for eating out, so it makes me nervous about potentially going a little over in that budget category (and trying to find another category to cut-back in this late in the month is a bit of a challenge, too).

At any rate, I’ll keep you updated with how it goes. I can’t believe how quickly this month has flown by! Just as March seemed to draaaaaaaag on, this month has just disappeared! I guess its a good thing – I’m already looking toward next month and being able to make a larger car payment now that those pesky license fees are gone! Yippee!!!

What do you do to celebrate a good friend when he/she moves away?

And  – just for fun – what’s your eating out budget set at for your family (and what’s your family size)? Just curious and nosy on that one. ; )


A General Life Update – Rambling Style

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Accept my apology up-front for this kind of rambling update.  I think Ashley sent us her cooties (ie allergies) and it’s been a miserable couple of weeks for those of us with allergies and those of us without listening to those that do have allergies.

As of this week, I have paid all this month’s bills and next month’s bills (ie rent + utilities + insurance.)  For the first time in I don’t know how long I am not waiting nail-bitingly to see when my checks arrive and prioritizing who to pay with this money and who to pay with a subsequent payment (remember, as contract labor I have no set pay dates and am really at the mercy of my clients time table.)

I still have 4 checks that should arrive before the end of the month or soon thereafter.  I will be socking away that money for June’s monthly bills and then proceeding with debt payments (remember we only paid the minimums this month to allow me to get to a place to live on last month’s income.)

We’ve spent all of our grocery allowance for this month and I’m hoping to save May’s until after our mini-vacation in mid-May.  We will have 2 months (April and May) of our Misc money to spend on our vacation.  And frankly, living with no extra has not been so hard.  I think having the incentive of what promises to be a really nice mini-vacation has made it much more bearable.

As  I mentioned last week, I have gotten two new work jobs…one project and one on-going.  I have decided to delve into that money a little bit and give eh kids a birthday party this year.  It will still be frugal, but with us being so close to being consumer debt free, this being “extra” money that is not currently incorporated in our budget and the kids being SO, SO good about our cutting back in all aspects of life, I think this is a great way to treat them.  I’m hoping that since they are not expecting a party, I can pull off some sort of surprise party…still frugal.  So I’m sure I’ll post on this once I get more of a solid idea.

We are wrapping up our school year this week with standardized testing.  So every morning the younger two kids go to a small private school who is also doing their testing.  For a nominal cost of $25 each, they sit in a classroom with kids their age and take their tests.  We’ve done it this way since they were K and 1st grade and it’s a week they look forward too as they get to be in a “classroom” and it symbolizes the end of their school year.  (We school year round, but our summer schedule is much looser and we will take the next few weeks off until after our mini-vacation.)  The twins can’t go to this same school as it only goes through middle school, so I order their tests from setontesting.com and I proctor them. That costs me $40 per child and it will take 2-3 days 2-3 hours per day.  Just a glimpse into our homeschooling world and costs associated with it.

I think that about sums it up on the financial end.  We are still staying busy with gymnastics 3 days a week, field hockey 2 days a week, Navy Sea Cadets 1 drill weekend a month and finishing up the high school lab sciences for the twins.


Never Going Back: Homemade Yogurt

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One thing that is consumed A LOT in our house is yogurt.

We can have yogurt just about any time of day….

For breakfast I’ll often serve it with fresh fruit and wheat toast for the girls/raw oats for me (don’t knock it ’till you try it. It actually tastes really good, and way healthier than super sugar-fied granola!)

I’ll sometimes serve it as an accompaniment to lunch. Particularly on days that the girls are in preschool I like to send yogurt since its a good source of protein. The girls’ preschool is meat-free, so I sometimes struggle with protein-based options (peanut butter gets OLD after awhile). Yogurt as a side is always a good option.

And yogurt is just about everyone’s favorite snack.

MMMmmmmmmm yogurt!

Until this point I generally spent a good $5-6 on yogurt per week. Maybe more (okay, probably more).

But no more, my friends!

I have discovered how incredibly EASY and DELICIOUS homemade yogurt can be! Who knew?!?

I used this recipe and followed it to a T, so I won’t rehash all the recipe deets, but I wanted to give some commentary on my experience making my own homemade yogurt for the first time.

The Basics

Okay, so read the recipe, but to give you the gist, you’re going to pour a gallon of milk into a crockpot, heat it up in your crockpot for nearly four hours, then cool down to a specific temperature (which can take another hour), add a yogurt “starter” (you need the live yogurt cultures…this could be store-bought or leftovers from your last homemade batch), then let it sit for up to 12 hours.

Whew! That’s a lot of time!

My Thoughts.

First, you’re going to have to plan ahead to make your own yogurt. I tried for 3 consecutive days to do it, but time got away from me and I ended up having to put it off until the next day (because making it in a crockpot takes HOURS to do). Sure, there are faster ways (like stove-top), but I liked the leave-it-and-forget-it method of the crockpot and I didn’t have a timeline for when I needed the yogurt, so I just pushed it back a couple days until the timing worked out. But just a heads up that it DOES take some pre-planning.

Second, Stephanie mentioned how the “tang” in homemade yogurt might surprise you. I’ve had plain yogurt before, so I wasn’t at all surprised. If anything, I thought my yogurt was less tangy than what I’d expected. As she mentioned, the longer it sits the tangier it gets. I’d left mine for about 10.5 hours, so it would have been tangier if I’d left it longer.

The Taste.

In my opinion (and the reason I’m Never Going Back <<the title of this post), the taste of homemade yogurt is WAY superior to store-bought! OMG, it tasted so decadent and delicious! I could close my eyes and almost have an out-of-body experience, pretending to be in some super swanky brunch spot enjoying a freshly prepared yogurt parfait. Dramatic? Yes. True? Yes!

Plus homemade yogurt costs PENNIES per portion, compared to store-bought yogurt that often costs up to $1+ per portion!

Storage.

You should note that homemade yogurt doesn’t last as long as store-bought yogurt. This makes sense since there are no preservatives (or other icky stuff for that matter). According to google, it can last for up to 2 weeks in your fridge, and 3 months in your freezer. Not too shabby if you consume as much yogurt as we do. Bonus – the frozen homemade yogurt can be thawed OR eaten frozen (duh! Like frozen yogurt!)

I store my yogurt in glass mason jars that I keep in the fridge. If you’re going to freeze it, however, you may want to put it in a plastic container (sure, glass freezes, but I’ve had more than my fair share of “oopsies” after accidentally breaking a frozen glass container)

Fruit Options.

There are a ton of ways to eat yogurt. I’ve used plain yogurt before as a substitute for sour cream in various baking recipes (healthier and cheaper). I also enjoy plain yogurt, but most people probably prefer to add in a little fruit.

I made a strawberry-banana yogurt that was TO DIE FOR (ahem, if I do say so myself *brushes shoulders off*)

All I did was take a very ripe banana and some strawberries and put in a large container. I used a potato smasher to “muddle” the berries and basically worked everything into a pulp. Then I stirred in the yogurt and mixed everything well. It’s important to note that once fruit is muddled like this, it immediately starts to break down (meaning:  decompose). So you cannot do this if you plan on putting it in your fridge for 2 weeks. But, its perfectly fine for a few hours. In fact, allowing the flavors to meld for a few hours is what makes it really taste like HEAVEN! I did this in the morning and then served it as an afternoon snack and it was the perfect amount of time.

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Fruit in the bowl before muddling

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All together now!

You could do this with any of your favorite fruit combinations, or you can always just serve the plain yogurt with whole or sliced fruit, too.

I honestly can’t decide what’s best:  the money I’ll be saving making homemade yogurt from now on, or how good I feel about healthify-ing one of our favorite foods!

Most people already think of yogurt as a pretty healthy food (it can be, though lots of the stuff sold in stores is loaded with sugars and additives), but it really doesn’t get any healthier than making it yourself! I used rBST-free 2% milk when I made mine (you can use any type you like), which I thought was perfect! I’d imagine that whole milk would provide an even richer taste, while skim milk will obviously save you some calories. Since my kiddos are some of the biggest consumers of yogurt, I like to buy 1% or 2% so they can get some of the healthy fats from the milk (and/or yogurt), but you can use whatever you prefer.

Let me know if you try your hand at making homemade yogurt and what you think!

Do you make any “fun” foods homemade? I’ve toyed around with the idea of doing homemade cheese but I’ve been scared of dealing with the rennet. I’ve also thought of doing homemade pasta one day, but it also seems so prep-intensive that I’ve been scared off for now. Maybe one day. : )

 


Cheap Meals

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I mentioned that money is extra-tight this month, and I’ve really been making a conscious effort EVERY.SINGLE.DAY not to spend money. It’s weird really. You know how once something is “forbidden” it’s suddenly all you can think about?

For example, I’ve been pining over the idea of doing a little garden. I have the blackest thumb known to man, but I like to try to plant flowers from hanging baskets in the back yard and see how long they’ll live (my record is about 2 years, but most only last a matter of months). I also used to have a pretty good herb garden and I’d love to get that going again, as I’ve been missing fresh rosemary and basil in our meals. Sorry to those of you in freezing weather, but we’re probably past our last freeze here in Tucson so it’s the PEFECT weather for planting stuff! But that all costs money – soil, seeds (and/or starter plants), maybe some new pots, etc. Sigh. That stuff’s all been put on the back burner for the time being (maybe next month when things aren’t so tight I can squeeze an extra $20 from our budget for gardening stuff).

But that’s not all. It’s probably no surprise that the area where my shopping urge has manifested itself the most is with food. Oh, food. But unlike last time (in January), where I justified extra grocery shopping trips as a necessity, this month I’m really, really trying to be good. No extra trips to the store. Use up everything at home first. Figure out creative ways to make meals with things we already have. Eat stuff out of the freezer. You get the point.

And I have to say that so far I’ve been proud of myself. Here’s a look at some of the cheap meals I’ve made lately to try to stretch our grocery bucks to the limit.

Side note: I am NOT a chef, nor am I even a very good cook. So I’m not giving recipes here, I’m just giving ideas of cheap foods I’ve made. If you want a recipe, do yourself a favor and google one because I have no advice to offer on the cooking front. : )

Black Bean Burgers

Okay…..this meal came THISCLOSE to being just tossed in the trash. I was all proud of myself to use all ingredients we had on hand, many of which were begging to be used up (e.g., leftover beans and cilantro from a previous taco dinner). But when I read the directions I missed the part where it said to put everything in the food processor except the beans!!! Instead, I food processed everything to a pulp, then wanted to cry as I thought there was no way the burgers would hold together. I seriously stood there with the glop mess next to the trash for a good 30 seconds contemplating my options when I finally decided just to try the bean mess. The original recipe called for cooking it in a little bit of oil in a skillet. I immediately nixed the idea (0% chance the burgers would hold together), and instead opted to bake them in the oven. God must have smiled down on me because, lo and behold, the burgers held together! They didn’t look pretty, but they tasted just as good as if I hadn’t pulverized the beans into a nasty-black colored pulp.

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Uh oh, caught a little hand trying to still the cheese!IMG_0790

Much better! Well…still not the most appetizing-looking, but you get the point. And it tasted great!

Pantry Foods

I haven’t always been this way, but in recent years I’ve tried to make more of an effort to eat FRESH and NATURAL foods.  So although it is not the norm for us to essentially eat-out-of-a-can, I do still have many canned foods in the pantry. And – what can I say – they’re cheap. I’ve found myself resorting to a meal-in-a-can a couple of times this month so far, particularly for quick lunches. The two main things we’ve had so far are canned soups (seriously, these needed to be eaten because they’ve been hanging around forever, but I know the sodium content & ingredient list is awful and I never buy them anymore) and tuna fish sandwiches (something about canned meat creeps me out). No disrespect intended to those who love these foods. I think our knowledge about food nutrition has come a long way and these are totally normal foods that I ate all the time as a kid, but not something I want to be feeding my own family on a regular basis. But I also hate waste and these are foods we already owned, so might as well eat them up. Highly unlikely that I’ll be replacing any of these canned meals, so it almost feels like a free lunch.

Vegetarian Meals

One of the best ways to stretch a buck is to make vegetarian meals since veggies often cost way less than meat. This can be tricky for us carnivores, though, because it often doesn’t feel as filling or you might get full initially but then be hungry again an hour later. But I make a couple of vegetarian meals that are particularly hearty. One is eggplant parmesan. It’s a bit prep intensive, but I always double the recipe and freeze half for a quick meal sometime down the road. Plus the eggplant is thick and hearty – I’d even call it “meaty.” Plus super tasty. I also like to cook up some  frozen cheese tortellini as a super quick veggie meal. In my local stores I can get a bag of cheese tortellini for $2.50 and its enough to feed my family of 4. I boil the noodles, add some marinara sauce, and stir in spinach over the heat so it wilts before serving. This is another great idea for a quick lunch, but it can be dressed up for dinner with a side, too (steamed broccoli pairs well).

“Steak” Quesadillas

We’d had a pot roast a few nights prior that was huge. I’d eaten leftover roast for a few days and was sick of it, but didn’t want to waste any of the leftovers. So on this particular day, I sliced up the roast, sprinkled it with some taco seasoning (pro tip:  I buy the bulk jar of taco seasoning from Costco instead of individual packets from the grocery store. It’s much cheaper per oz. and then you can just use what you need instead of being committed to a full packet), and called it steak fajita meat. LOL. Obviously I could tell that it wasn’t the real thing, but I got no complaints from the girls and even hubs was tricked into thinking I was serving a new meat (he’s not a huge fan of leftovers). Mwhahaha!!!!!!!

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Here’s the roast meat all sliced up and sprinkled with taco seasoningIMG_0738

Cooked in a tortilla with some cheese, beans, onion, and bell peppers (another pro tip: I buy bell peppers when they’re super cheap in summer, then slice them up and freeze them so it’s easy to take out just a few and cook as needed). I add spinach or lettuce after its been cooked for a little boost of greens.

Chicken Everything

Okay, no pictures to share of this, but can I just say how many different chicken meals I’ve cooked lately? First, chicken is one of the cheapest meats around. Second, it’s just so easy to spice up in so many different ways! From regular grilled chicken to bbq chicken, chicken on a salad or in a wrap, chicken smothered in honey mustard and cheese, chicken stir-fried and served with noodles and peanut sauce, chicken dunked in wing sauce and served with ranch, etc. etc. etc. Lots and Lots of chicken dishes. It’s getting comical. Hubs asked the other day, “What are we having for dinner? Let me guess, chicken!” Yuuuup! Though you’re welcome to cook if you want something different ; )

So there you have it. These are some of our cheap, quick, and easy meals that I’ve been relying on lately. And anytime I can cook once and eat twice (or three or four times!!!) is always a good thing to me, so I’ve been loving trying to find ways to rollover and repurpose already cooked foods into a new meal. Good stuff!

What cheap meals are you loving lately? Feel free to link to any recipes you use!


Converting to Cash

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Going back to my recent post on The Cost of Convenience – Snack Time, I am finding the temptation to overspend or spend in situations where I don’t need to has become more of an issue as my debt load and monthly obligations continue to drop.  I have more available income and carrying plastic around…well, I have found myself making some bad decisions.  So effective immediately, I am converting to an all cash system.  I’ve cut up two of my cards and put the others away.

I will still pay my monthly bills online using either my debit cards or bank bill pay.  But for any “spending money” I will be withdrawing the money at the beginning of the month and sticking to it.  This money will be my grocery money and the money I would pay the kids for work (since they no longer get an allowance.)  And I’m debating the car money.  Obviously I have to get gas at least twice a month, and paying with a plastic is most convenient.  Not to mention maintenance, etc. that is not always predictable.  I’m considering opening a car only account (checking, that is, not credit) and using that card only for card related expenses.  Thoughts?  But since on most months there are monies left over for that budget item, I really want it in an interest bearing account.  So I’m still figuring that one out.

But essentially I am taking away all possibility of over-spending on a whim or giving into the temptation of convenience or acquiescing to the kids’ “mom, can I have this?”  And when the money is gone for the month…it’s gone.  The kids are used to this on a smaller scale as I’ve been trying it out on a weekly basis…and I’ll just tell them, we are out of  spending money for the week, we have to make due with what we have.  And they are getting that.

Teaser: New monthly budget coming soon as we have cut back on some other expenses to keep us on target for our 6 month credit payoff goal!


Grocery Shopping Update

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Remember how I went way over budget last month with grocery shopping? One of the worst parts was that I really had nothing to show for the huge overage (no stockpile of meat, canned foods, pasta, etc.). I literally had no idea where all the money (and food) went, but I knew it was gone.

But this month I was bound and determined to get back on track. Here’s what I’ve done differently this month to get my grocery spending under control:

  1. Meticulous meal planning. I always know that I save money when I stick to a meal plan instead of doing the whole “what should we eat?” (asked at 5pm) thing. That lack of planning had lead to many last minute trips to the grocery store to pick up “one or two” things for a given dinner (which, inevitably, always turned into 10-12 things by the time I was leaving). None of that this month! Not only have I stuck to my meal plan, but I’ve also purposely planned meals around items we’ve already had on hand and/or items that I could rollover into a second (or third) meal easily.
  2. Limited grocery shopping. One of my issues last month is that I was going to the grocery store a LOT. Like….5-6 times a week! How is that possible? I don’t even know. This month I refused to go grocery shopping at all during the first week of the month. Thereafter I’ve limited myself to a maximum of 2 trips per week (generally 1 larger trip at the beginning of the week, and a second much smaller trip to the farmer’s market for produce mid-week).
  3. Keep your eye on the prize. One thing that has helped with trying to really be mindful about my grocery spending is that I’ve been so focused on my debt-reduction mission this month. I’m trying to make some extra debt payments this month (above and beyond what I reported in my debt update last week), but the last extra payment is contingent upon my grocery spending. If I go over, then I have nothing extra to put toward debt. I’m SO, SO focused on knocking out some debts SOON that I am trying to squeeze every extra dollar I can find from my budget. It only makes sense to try to get some of that money from my grocery budget, particularly in light of having gone so far over in that budget category last month.
  4. Doesn’t hurt that it’s February. Can’t really claim any pre-planning on this one, but it sure helped that this was a shorter month than most. Whereas most months I’m left with more month than money, I still have money to spare in my grocery budget this month, even as the end of the month is fast approaching.

And although we still have a few more days left in February, so far the prognosis for my grocery spending is good. I did my last “big” grocery trip on Saturday and will probably need to go again mid-week (Wednesday-ish) for fresh fruits and veggies, but that is always a much lower-cost trip (maybe about $20ish). If that’s the case, then I should still have close to $60 leftover from my grocery budget. Combine that with little bits leftover from here and there and I should be able to scrape up about an extra $100 toward debt before the month ends. Fingers crossed! I know $100 doesn’t seem like much, but every extra dollar counts; every extra dollar is one dollar closer to paying off a lingering debt. Plus I’m getting so, so close to paying some debts off in full! I cannot wait until March because I’m really, really hoping I’ll be able to report a couple of newly cleared debts!!

How’ve you done on your spending and budgeting this month?