Saturday, December 31, 2016

A few frugal things

We were traveling yesterday, but are now home safe & sound in California again. First up, we had a fabulous vacation. I feel very blessed that we enjoy spending time with our family so much.

It was my favorite holiday so far. As the boys get older, they appreciate everything, and of course, don't need naps in the middle of festivities, or need to be held/constantly watched. They are at a great age for independence, while still enjoying everything.

The boys got to go mountain biking with my dad, we celebrated, laughed & played games. We also had a great time at the beach. Lots of puzzles, monopoly games, and more family time.

Although vacations are typically pricey, we attempt to keep the prices down. Here's are some of our frugal accomplishments:

  • Meal planned on vacation, and used up the majority of the food. (Sent my sister with the leftovers that we couldn't pack). We had some pretty great meals with leftover shrimp & fresh local crab. Yum!
  • I packed lunch for everyone to eat in the car yesterday. We did buy clam chowder before we got on the plane, but that was it.
  • Brought my refillable bottle of water vs buying at the airport.
  • Took advantage of my (last - my status ends tomorrow!) free beer on the flight & gave it to M to enjoy.
  • We got one free checked bag through our credit card. The bags were delayed & Alaska has a $25 credit policy when bags take longer than 20 minutes, so I filled out a request for a credit.
  • Took two $5 off surveys for a purchase.
  • Participated in only free activities while at the beach. We did ride bikes to town for hot chocolate two of the days.
  • Ate zero meals out on our vacation (exclusions are hot chocolate & special clam chowder requested by my oldest at the airport).
  • Took an Uber home from the airport (cheaper than parking)
  • Made a quick frozen Costco pizza when we got home vs getting delivery or takeout.
  • Cleaned the beach house before we left, including all of the sheets, laundry, & closing up the house. Saved myself $75!

I have a bunch of things I need to get done today, including grocery shopping and stocking the freezer. We ate down most of our easy freezer meals in the first few weeks of December, so time to build it back & prepare for the very long month of January.

And, kicking us off with a solid meal plan for the first week, here we go!

Menu plan:
Saturday (12/31) - we are ordering delivery (using a coupon) for Chinese food
Sunday (1/1) - Steak, mashed potatoes & brussels sprouts
Monday (1/2) - beef kebabs, rice & yogurt sauce
Wednesday (1/3) - Grilled chicken with mashed potatoes
Thursday (1/4) - leftover kebabs & rice
Friday (1/5) - homemade pizza
Saturday (1/6) - mini meatloaves & stuffing
Sunday (1/7) - TBD (will go on my shopping list for next week)

What about you? What were your frugal accomplishments this week? What's on your meal plan? Still using up leftovers? 

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Smaller goals have a place

In our world, 2017 will be a time of big, giant, hairy decisions. Huge amounts of planning & budgeting, and life changing decisions. It's a little overwhelming to think about monumental categories like . . the mortgage & how it will affect the rest of our budget & lifestyle. ;-)

Because I'm a woman who likes a plan, and a challenge & re-thinking our budget, I need to be comfortable with a mix of smaller goals & then, when the time comes, I'll tackle our bigger challenges. My perspective is that financial success (along with a variety of other things) is a mix of small improvements over time, combined with the rarer big moments. It's easy just to focus on the big things, but getting comfortable & taking pride in making improvements to with your smaller goals can also provide a sense of motivation & progress.

So, what small goals am I contemplating for 2017?

  • A toiletry challenge! I consider toiletries any of the following: makeup, anything dental related, any product you'd use in the shower and/or to clean your face. I currently have $75 of Rite Aid plenti points, and I'm hoping to make these last for at least six months. Even better if I can make them last for all of 2017 by "rolling" the points. This may be tricky, as rolling your points means generating new points off of purchases made with points. It would take just the right combination of point offers & needs for this to work well. I'll be doing an inventory of our toiletries in the next few weeks, so I can see where we stand & determine what I need to look out for on sale. I've already raided my gym makeup bag when I ran out of eyeliner, because it's the rare day that I work out in the morning before I've showered at home. Using up what I have in various bags (travel, gym) may be my first way to reduce spending. 
  • Tracking all of our clothing purchases. I did this with our groceries in 2016 & it was both fun (sometimes tedious), but also really helpful when it came to understanding patterns, areas to stock up on, and where to cut back. We have a reduced clothing budget this year, so I'm hoping this helps. 
  • Every month, look for one permanent way to cut costs. It's totally fine (and, likely) that these will be small cuts that will add up over time. This may be finding a ziplock alternative for one of our common usages (school lunches), reducing our water needs by building rain storage, etc. 
  • Come up with two date night suggestions that don't involve an expensive meal out. 
  • Maximize my travel hacking. I'm not sure what 2017 will involve for work travel, but there are lots of opportunities to use points & credits for their best value & by keeping track of all of our rewards, it helps to ensure I'm using them well. 
  • Make $100 selling things on Facebook. 
I'm sure more will crop up as the year progresses, but those are a few of the smaller things I'm looking forward to in 2017. What about you? Any smaller goals you are working on & want to share? 

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

What I learned tracking my grocery purchases for a year

Well, I learned that we shop a lot more than I thought we did. ;-) When you are tracking every purchase, that becomes painfully clear.

I've always tracked "grocery" spending, but never what we were spending our grocery money on (i.e. fruit, dairy, etc). I decided 2016 would be the year where I would track all of our purchases. It was no small amount of work, but I'm happy I stuck with it*. It was really enlightening and gave me ideas on areas to cut back in 2017. (*and, disclaimer, M lost a few of the receipts when I was traveling, so this represents 95% of our spending, but not quite all, for those of you who love math. :-)) Also, I'm cutting this short by a week, as we'll be at the beach next week & I won't be tracking in any detail.

How many meals do we eat (or make) at home?
Breakfast - Our family eats breakfast at home (x4 people), every day. M makes eggs & fruit for the kids. The adults have a more varied breakfast.
Lunches -  The boys pack lunches every school day, and M & I get free lunch through work. If it's a weekend, we all eat lunch at home.
Dinners - Dinners are always eaten at home (x4), unless it's a meal out.

We tend to average about one meal out a week So, breaking the math apart a bit, for 2016, we ate 3,890 meals at home. Given our grocery spending, this averaged to a smidge under $2/per person/per meal. I think this is high, but. . .

What do we eat?
A lot of produce! Fruit rarely/never goes to waste in our house. There's the occasional bag of broccoli or cauliflower that starts to turn before I notice it, but we are good at minimizing fresh produce food waste.

Oh, and we drink a lot of coffee! Coffee was a huge line item in our budget that I wasn't prepared for when I started this tracking.

How did we spend our budget?
Our categories, ranked by spending (rounded):

  • Fruit - 30%
  • Meat - 20%
  • Vegetables - 17%
  • Dairy - 15%
  • Pantry (this is where we track the coffee) - 11%
  • Grains - 7%
  • Snacks - 3% (includes snacks for classroom events, soccer snacks when it's our turn, etc)
  • Prepared food (i.e. frozen pizza & the like when I travel) - 3%

So, what conclusions would I draw from this?
  • With fruit being our biggest spend category, finding cheaper sources for even a few of our regular items would be huge.
  • We should take better advantage of fruit we can grown on our own (oranges, lemons, mandarins, etc), to minimize what we're buying.
  • We should stock up on coffee when it's on sale. It varies in price around $5/unit, so stocking up when it's on sale would be a sizeable savings.
  • We consume significantly more dairy than I expected. There is an opportunity to better monitor portion size. 
  • We've started to buy a few things at the produce stand vs at Costco, and price watching, so this has helped decrease our vegetable budget.
  • We do a great job minimizing snacks & prepared food. So, hurrah for this one! :-) 

A few next steps for 2017:
  • It was a fun experiment, but not something I'm interested in maintaining regularly. I'll go back to my standard tracking in 2017.
  • I'm going to track our inventory of coffee, and watch for sales & stock up when we're low. 
  • I'll look for sales on fruit at our local grocery store & produce stand, to see if we can ever do better on pricing than Costco. Costco's pricing is pretty low, but I'll still look for options.
  • I can do better with dairy. It's much higher than expected, & I do think we can look for options to reduce our consumption & spend here.

That's it for me! How do you spend your grocery budget? Do you know what the biggest outliers are? Do you have a plan to reduce costs in 2017? Any tips you want to share? 

Monday, December 26, 2016

Shopping needs for 2017

And, "needs" probably should be read as "air quote" needs, because. . . other than kid shoes, there are very few things we could truly live without in the coming year. But, because I'm realistic, here are known things I'll be shopping for/replacing in 2017. Our clothing/shoe budget for all four of us is $1700.

  • A minimum of 4 pair of kids shoes. More if they need new soccer cleats, & I don't have the correct size from my sister. Her kids play single season soccer, and don't wear them out as much as my kids do. As a result, I have about 4 pair of bigger season cleats at the ready. Expected cost = $150
  • Slippers for me. Our house has no carpeting, & I've really missed slippers during this cold snap. Of course, as soon as I buy them, it will get warm again, & I'll wonder why I have them. ;-) Expected cost = $10
  • Running shoes for me. Expected cost = $75
  • Running shoes for M. Expected cost = $75
  • Replacement workout outfits (M + me). We wear things a lot, and although we hand dry, we typically have to replace 1-2 items each/year (sports bras, running shorts, etc). Expected cost = $150
  • Kids clothing, miscellaneous. I've not bought the kids much of anything, as they have lots of sports shorts (the only thing they will really wear), dry fit tshirts, etc. They each have one pair of jeans, a couple of pair of pajamas (mostly for trips to Oregon) & a couple of jackets. However, I'll add $200 just in case.
  • Socks, all. With the working out & kids feet growing, we tend to need to replace socks with some frequency. Expected cost = $40
  • Shoe repairs, me. I need to have my Frye boots reheeled. Expected cost = $25
  • Random things for M. He's a bit less diligent in his clothing purchases, and tends to pick things up at Costco that strike his fancy. I'll just build that into the budget, and be happily surprised if it doesn't happen this year. :-) Expected cost = $250

Total expected/planned for spend = $775. This still leaves us a huge amount of wiggle room. As a result, I'm going to further lower our clothing budget for 2017 to $1500, shaving another $200 off of what I'd originally planned. 

I'm also going to track our clothing purchases for the year. Similar to my 2016 grocery challenge of tracking our purchases, it's very helpful to understand where the money is actually going. Right now I noted when I've spent within a category, but don't track what the item was, which can make it difficult to break the spending down further at a later time. Did we spend it all on kids shoes, or was it splurges from me on a fun new sweater that's really crushing the budget? 2017 will be a year where we'll hopefully learn this!

What about you? How do you plan your budget categories? Do you review your spending after the year is over & look for modifications for the next year? How do you plan for any clothing/shoe purchases? 

Friday, December 23, 2016

Frugal roundup for the week

Here are a few of the frugal things I accomplished this week:

  • Took a survey at Rite Aid, and saved $5 off of a future purchase. Used that $5 to buy mailing envelopes for two holiday gifts.
  • Made all of our meals at home, despite the chaos of the week. I also used up a few things that were lingering in the freezer.
  • Picked a bunch of fruit to donate to a non-profit in our area, so nothing will be wasted.
  • Took stock of all of our gift cards, including them in our budgets for 2017
  • Minimized loads of laundry to save water, & line dried everything but the towels. They tend to pick up a smell, as they are very thick & take a long time if we try to air dry them. 
  • The boys made Christmas cards, rather than buying. I do need to replace my cardstock, but overall, it was a frugal win.
  • Found a $20 Uber discount code through work to use for our ride to the airport today
  • Will bring a water bottle (empty, reusable) as well as snacks for the airport.
  • Bringing library books on our trip vs buying new. This is so embarrassing, but in my 20s, every time I traveled, I would go to Target & buy books. I can read 5 or so books in a week on vacation, so this was obviously an expensive & wasteful habit. I'm reformed now! :-) 
  • Speaking of library books, I checked our account in advance of our trip, rounded up all books that we were done with or would come do & couldn't be extended. I also extended any that we were still reading. This will ensure we don't rack up fines while we are traveling.
  • We are taking our leftover fruit with us to the beach. Minimizing waste & reducing our grocery expenses. 

What about you? It's an expensive time of year, but there are always small ways to trim your spending. What kind of frugal things have you been up to? 

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Treating gift cards like cash

I've heard this phrase before, but always applied that to the logic of keeping the gift cards in safe & secure place to avoid losing them, which I've been good about doing. However, I was reading another financial blog a few days ago (the name escapes me, so apologies if it was yours!) & the blogger mentioned that she no longer bought gift cards on discount, because she didn't treat them like cash. For example, if she had a Subway gift card, she'd be much more likely to suggest lunch at Subway, feel like she could splurge more often, and potentially spend more than she normally would have. I thought this was an interesting observation and admit that I'm sometimes guilty of this as well.

So, I challenged myself to come up with ways where I will really treat those gift cards I have laying around (mostly purchased at a discount over the holidays) as true cash in my budget. Here's what I've decided. I'll inventory all of my existing gift cards for 2017, and then deduct that value from each category in the 2017 budget. If I have $100 of clothing store gift cards, I'll deduct $100 from the yearly clothing budget. This way, I'll be heavily incented to make the most of each gift card & save them for the right occasions! :-)

Here is my current inventory of gift cards, by category. And, to challenge my premise that I was previously managing my gift cards "like cash", while I was cleaning out my "gift card" envelope, I found two Starbucks cards. Convincing myself that I'd already transferred them onto my app, I was about to throw them both out. However, I decided to take the 30 seconds to add them & see what happens. . . One had $20 on it.

Dining out:
Starbucks (on my app) - $32
Subway gift cards - $50
Panera gift cards - $50

Target gift cards for kids birthdays - $45
iTunes gift card - $25
Play gift cards - $150

Microsoft Xbox credit (can be used to rent movies - I *think*. Haven't tested it) - $43

Nike gift card - $50
Gap gift card - $20
Under Armour gift card - $10

As a result of these changes, I've made some small tweaks to the above budget categories. (I did some rounding, hence the slight discrepancy between gift card value & budget impact). I'm going to take $500 out of our 2017 budget because of these changes. And, because some of these gift cards (almost all of them?) were bought on a discount, this means less actual cash outlay went into this reduction. We'll see how I get on with this tweak for the budget categories in 2017!

What about you? How do you handle gift cards? 

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

2017 Budget - a comparison to 2016

Okay, 2017 is almost upon us! I've reviewed a few budget categories, but thought it would be more helpful to go line by line & see which categories are going up (luckily, just a few), and which ones are going down. (Retirement savings, charitable donations, & healthcare are all handled before we get our checks. The smallish "health" line item you see is actually for things like 5K races, OTC medicine, and my family relay. Not actual health care costs.)

I budget in two different ways - monthly budget expenses (standard expenses that occur every month), and yearly expenses. Things we know we will spend on over the course of the year, but where the spend varies greatly month to month.

Here's our 2017 vs 2016 budget spending for our monthly expenses. The Seattle rental typically is  *exactly* break even (I'll get the final numbers at tax time), but we've been making additional principal payments on one of our loans, and this includes a small buffer in the event something needs to be repaired for that house.

The change in the vacation mortgage is from our refinance earlier in the year. As you can see, we've made a few small tweaks, but the only really significant change was from our mortgage refinance. The rest are small adjustments to better reflect our actual spending. And, of course, my 2017 toiletry challenge! My goal is to spend nothing (use up our stockpile, or make do) for as long as I can in the year!

Monthly Categories20162017Difference
Dining Out150125-25
Vacation mortgage23101425-885
Seattle rental100010000

And, here are our yearly budget categories. A few thoughts on this one. The boys activities actually cost more, so I bumped up to better reflect actual spend. And, sadly, taxes cost WAY more, even with increases on all salaries to withhold more. We do plan to spend less on travel, as we have a bunch of flight credits to use up as well as some hotel points. I'm hoping to spend less on summer camps as well. Once you minus out the tax difference, we are shaving $3,800 off of our yearly budget categories.

I get asked about the "boys - all" category sometimes. I find it helpful to have a budget item for things like: field trips, miscellaneous activities that don't fall into anything else, school supplies, etc. Some example expenses for this year would be: fundraising tshirts, yearbooks, a coach's gift & pizza party for the end of the season, parts for Nick's bike, a new helmet for Sam, etc. . . 

Personal is for hair cuts (all four), the occasional massage for me (helps with the aches & pains of lupus), and a once a quarter or so pedicure.

Yearly Budget Items20162017Difference
Boys activities15002000500
Boys college200020000
Clothes (everyone)180018000
Boys - All10001200200
Summer Camps15001000-500

And, for a nice historical view (again, removing the tax variance, because we grossly miscalculated when setting our budgets in 2015 & 2016), here's our budgets over the past few years:

2015 - $186,320
2016 - $164,340
2017 - $147,770

I'm very happy to see us driving down our expenses each year, as we grow our income. 2017 will be quite an interesting year for us, with potential housing & job changes on the horizon. Because of that, it's difficult to build a full 2017 budget, but this is based on existing expenses & income. I'll readjust once we have firmed up our next steps.

How about you? Are you making any big or small changes to your budget in 2017? Any areas you want to track more closely than others? Please share!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

2017 Goal Planning

2016 has been a wild & crazy year. In many ways, I've done well with my longer term goals. But, given our move, our family has been in a bit of flux. It's been very challenging to hone in on bigger decisions, such as where we will live. It's also made it clear that (drumroll, please) . . . M & I are very different people! This is something you sort of acknowledge when you are married to someone every day, but when you are prioritizing big decisions, it becomes very clear. Here are a few ways that's played into our location decision. I'm not a big city person. It's hard to explain, given that neither of the areas we've lived are truly "small towns", but the logistics, travel, and COL are significantly higher in the bay area. This causes me stress, but energizes M. He loves it. To put it in perspective, he grew up in a city the size of New York. I grew up in a town of 2,500 people. :-)

Additionally, M loves the thrill of risk taking, challenging us, and making big bets. I admittedly am far more fiscally conservative. I like to reduce our expenses, so we don't need all of the big salaries & what comes along with it. He feels like these are his career income maximization years, and wants to do the most with them. The area we are currently in is definitely one of the best spots in the world to maximize our income with our skill set. He is concerned (rightly so) that moving to Seattle will require a step back in his career, and has to decide if the tradeoffs are worth that.

He is comfortable making big purchases, and being fully leveraged. I'm not & would pay off our mortgage in a heart beat. Thus, giving us lots of flexibility.

He thinks big picture on income generation & the investment side. I make a big income, but focus on the smaller things (reducing expenses,etc).

Neither of us are right or wrong, and it can be really, really hard to acknowledge this and not judge another person for not sharing your perspective.

We have two paths in 2017. Path One: We can stay in the bay area, figure out a house, and it will be very, very tight. The house will be less than ideal, given the cost. It would mean the boys can stay where they are. I'd need to figure out another job (hopefully less hours). Path Two: We can move back to Seattle. We are very close to having enough saved cash that we could pay off our primary residence. We would be close to my family. M would need a relatively well paying job, but we could fairly easily live off of his salary.

I'll just say that these monumental decisions are really, really challenging, and I'm so happy to have a partner in life who may not share my perspective, but loves me enough to have mature conversations about very difficult things. Either way, there are compromises ahead. And, that's hard & requires quite a bit of thinking & rationalization, and kindess. So.much.kindness for each other.

There are obviously many other factors tied up in here (stability for the kids, being closer to family, the weather!!!) as well.

2017 will be the year of decision making & executing! So, stay tuned for many exciting life changes, either way it plays out.

Aside from that giant & thorny issue, 2017 needs to be the year that I get my health in order. I'm not at my healthy weight, and I've lost muscle tone. I'm not stretching enough, and hours spent at a desk are impacting my posture & flexibility. I need to prioritize my own health.

1) Financial - Figure out our housing situation, and get it all resolved (i.e. moved, job changes as needed) before school starts. 
  • Decide what to do with our Seattle house. Contingent upon location.
  • Move!
  • Build/follow a 2017 "interim budget" (until I leave my job) & a 2017 "post-job budget", after.
  • Inventory & track our various stockpiles, so we reduce waste & minimize what we need to move.
  • Every month, come up with a new way to reduce what we need on an ongoing basis. Examples I've kicked around: find an alternative to all of the ziplock bags/plastic wraps we use for kid lunches. Put a container in the shower to save water for the yard. Collect rain in buckets. Create a compost bucket for the kitchen, so it's easy to compost food scraps. All of these are meant to be permanent changes, so not focused on one time savings. 

2) Family - Spend more time together as a family!
  • Do a minimum of one fun activity/month with the kids. This can be family puzzle night, cooking dinner together, board games, going out somewhere, etc. 
  • Be more present with the kids & M - play games, minimize computer time, exercise together, etc. 
  • Have two dates with M per month (one lunch, one evening) 

    3) Fitness/health - Lose 20 pounds, bringing my weight to 133. This may sound familiar, as it's also a carryover goal from last year!
    • Make running a consistent part of my life. Build & follow a training plan.
    • Eat five servings of fruit & vegetables (combined) per day
    • Complete 10,000 minutes of cardio
    • Complete 50 strength workouts.
    • Complete 50 stretching workouts. Make yoga a consistent part of my life. 

    4) Work/career - Improve my work life balance.
    • Keep better perspective at work/reduce stress (until I leave)
    • Determine an end date for my job.
    • Take time off from my job.

      5) Personal/creative - Spend more time on myself/creative pursuits.
      • Learn a new skill. I'm thinking of learning a new language, but would be fine with anything: sewing, knitting, expanding my baking, etc.
      • Make time for my friends. Do something social at least once per month.
      • Volunteer a minimum of 1x/month.

      That was a lot! So, what about you? Any planning for your 2017 goals? Do you & your spouse have different perspectives on these issues? How have you worked around that?

      Monday, December 19, 2016

      Weekly spending roundup (12/12-12/18/16)

      As I think about a much harder blog post to write (my 2017 goals!), I thought I would stick to the basics today, and review my weekly spending. You can see that I wasn't entirely successful on my avoidance of end of the year deals & discounts, despite my best effort. ;-)

      Here goes!

      • Monday (12/12)- no spend day
      • Tuesday (12/13) - 
        • $29.35 - dinner out for four. Crazy, crazy work day followed by school activities in the evening. This was all I could manage.
      • Wednesday (12/14) - no spend day
      • Thursday (12/15):
        • $350 - nanny
      • Friday (12/16) -
        • $40 - for $50 worth of Panera gift cards (Amazon discount)
        • $24.89 - coffee at Costco (on sale)
        • $12.22 - oxiclean 
        • $2.03 - some sort of car charger that M ordered.
      • Saturday (12/17):
        • $83.98 - $100 worth of gift cards, on sale. These will be used for gifts in 2017
        • $22.62 - a weather station for our vacation house. Our last one blew away in the hurricane!
        • $19.95 - an unexpected gift for Santa to deliver to the boys. It's a board game that they can share. My uncle (aka Santa) said he wasn't ready for all four of the boys (Nick is the youngest) to be done with Santa yet, and he wanted one encore performance so he could say goodbye. It was so cute that he's enjoyed it over the past 13 or so years. My sister got the other two boys a puzzle to open. It appears that it will be extremely cold and/or snowing at my parents house, so the traditional mountain biking/bike park adventures may not work out. If we have four boys trapped inside for a couple of days, interesting games & activities will be critical to all of our sanity. ;-) 
        • $400 - deposit for spring soccer (for two boys)
        • $20 - hair cuts for the boys
        • $55 - sitter for our December date night
        • $91.35 - dinner out. This included two entrees, an appetizer & one dessert. We brought our own wine. We would have made at least two more meals out of the leftovers, but M forgot the takeout box. :-( 
        • $113.28 - Costco, groceries
        • $84.75 - Costco, wine
        • $102.25 - gifts for our white elephant, and a splurge sweater for the holidays that M bought me. It's pretty nice, but I may return it. It's not a "need", of course. 
      • Sunday (12/18):
        • $5.10 - lettuce, tomatoes & mini cucumbers at the produce stand
        • Peppermint hot cocoa & a cookie for the kids, while looking at Christmas lights. No out of pocket spending, as I used a Starbucks gift card. (I count this as spending in the month I buy the gift card).
        • $20.95 - two puzzles. What can I say - with the lack of sports (woohoo!), we're on a bit of a puzzle high at the house.
        • $6.99 - a thermal shirt for M for running.
        • $22.63 - more Costco groceries. They didn't have grapes on Saturday & M wanted to pick up a few soups.
        • $39.52 - gas for one car
        • $49.99 - gas for the other car
      Total spent = $1596.85. Oh my! $750 of that was on kid stuff (soccer + nanny), but the rest was on shopping & dining out. Time to tighten the purse strings & get serious! How did you do with your weekly spending? Any hits or misses? 

      Sunday, December 18, 2016

      Cardamom bread recipe & other happenings

      Sounds like there was some interest in the recipe, and I haven't found anything similar online, so here goes. This is an old family recipe (my great aunt brought it from Germany). We eat it at the holidays, toasted, with melted butter, for breakfast. ;-) It's a bit of an acquired taste, as it has candied fruit & a glaze. We typically toast in the oven, as the toaster can get finicky with that melted glaze.

      Recipe below, as well as a few modifications I make. Also, I buy extra chopped fruit (this is the glazed kind) & use it to top the bread with, while the glaze is still sticky. This year, I got 3 larger loaves out of it, so you may get smaller ones, depending on how big your yeast gets. I did get some very nice loaves, Rivulet. ;-) I laughed when I saw your comment. I make mine ahead & freeze, as I'm traveling with it. I hope you enjoy!

      Cardamom Bread Recipe:
      1 c milk
      ¾ c butter
      ¾ c sugar
      3 eggs, beaten
      7 c flour
      1 c chopped mixed fruit
      ½ c nuts (I skip this)
      1-1/2 tsp ground cardamom (based on your taste preference)
      1 tsp salt
      1 tbsp dry yeast
      ½ c warm water

      Scald the milk & butter (bubbles along the pan, don’t boil). Stir in sugar, cardamom, & salt. Let that cool all the way to room temperature.

      Dissolve yeast in water. Stir into cooled milk mixture, & beaten eggs. Stir in ½ of the flour. Beat until smooth. Stir in fruit & nuts. Add enough flour to form a soft ball. Turn & knead until elastic. Add only enough flour to keep from sticking. Let rise until doubled. Punch down & divide into rolls. (small four loaves). Let it rise again, bake 375 for 35 minutes.

      1 c powdered sugar
      2 tbsp of hot water.

      Makes small four loaves
      Other than that, we are busy getting the house cleaned (sheets, towels, etc) before we leave town, & exchanged our gifts to & from the boys this afternoon. It's hard to travel with everything, so they each opened up the gifts they had purchased for each other. Nick received a cool duffel bag for sports tournaments, etc. Sam received a puzzle. I gave M his jam. Nick was helping him take it out of the bag, and as Nick handed him one of the jars & reading the labels, he's said, here's the "lemon crud Mom got you. Enjoy." Totally deadpan. It was actually lemon curd. Hopefully it's an improvement on crud. ;-) Love kids.

      The boys may have had as smidge of financial help buying me my gifts, as I received a replacement Clarisonic & a new food processor. I had my eye on a replacement, after my 20 year old Cuisinart gave up the ghost & was beyond repair. With my arthritis (lupus complication), lots of easy things like grating cheese are challenging, so this really helps. I'm thinking that the allowance savings didn't fully cover this. ;-) M also received a pair of expensive running socks ($12/pair), but they are amazing. He' thrilled. What, with the crud & new socks, how can you go wrong?

      We will have pumpkin soup, goat cheese crostini, salad & grilled chicken for dinner, and then go drive around to see Christmas lights. Should be a fun & snuggly evening.

      Oh, and one recommendation for you. I had some leftover frosting (canned, bought on impulse for an impromptu cookie making session with Nick), & didn't know what to do with the rest of the can. I tried this frosting cookie recipe (yes, you use the frosting to make cookies!) & they were good. Not the best cookie I've ever had, but good with a hot cup of tea. I thought they could have used a little glaze, but that would get me back to where I started. . . ;-)

      Thanks for all of the great NYE meal suggestions! Do you menu plan between the actual holidays, or just nibble on what's in the fridge? Our kids don't like a lot of holiday food, so I meal plan, at least for them. And, how are your holiday preparations coming along? Are you feeling ready?

      Saturday, December 17, 2016

      A lovely Saturday & a menu plan for the rest of December

      I got up early this morning & went to my free 7:00 am yoga class. My first time in an actual studio. It was amazing, & so, so hard! I loved it. I'll have to see if there's a way to regularly fit it into my budget, because it definitely started my day on a very high note. I came home & made an egg & cheese burrito, and added a grilled tomato that was lingering in the fridge. Reducing food waste always makes me feel good!

      I'm in the middle of making our family holiday cardamom bread & waiting for it to rise. I've had trouble with the bread not properly rising the last couple of years, so I bought fresh yeast. Hopefully this year will be the year that I have gloriously high loaves! :-)

      The weather here is clear, but chilly. It was in the 30s when I went to yoga this morning. And, I have one little boy with a bit of a cold. M is taking the kids to get haircuts for the holidays, and going to Costco today. Other than that, we're going to get things down around the house, relax, and then M & I are having our December date night tonight! We'll keep it reasonably frugal (it's really not, because it's dinner out + a sitter) by bringing our own wine to our favorite restaurant.

      And, in an attempt to stay on track with our menu planning for the rest of the month, despite our crazy schedule, I've put together a rough meal plan. I'll chat with my mom this weekend & finalize our meals once we're at our vacation house, as they will be joining us for a couple of the days.

      • Friday - 12/16 - grilled burgers & pasta
      • Saturday - 12/17 - date night! I'll make the boys chicken & pasta before we leave
      • Sunday - 12/18 - We're opening our gifts from the boys that are under the tree, so we don't need to pack them. I think I'll do pumpkin soup + goat cheese crostini
      • Monday - 12/19 - tacos (meat from the freezer) + chips & guacamole
      • Tuesday - 12/20 - fish sticks & tortellini
      • Wednesday - 12/21 - spaghetti & meatballs
      • Thursday - 12/22 - leftovers. If there are no easy leftovers, then potstickers & chicken. Both from the freezer
      • Friday - 12/23 - flying to Portland. We'll be eating out with my family. 
      • Saturday - 12/24 - Christmas Eve! We are having festive pizza & pomegranate martinis. ;-)
      • Sunday - 12/25 - Christmas with the family. We have a microbrew tasting + appetizers.
      • Monday - 12/26  - we will be at our vacation house, so I'll inventory the freezer, but we typically eat very easy things. I won't sign up for anything too hard, so I'll go with pasta & meatballs.
      • Tuesday - 12/27 - grilled chicken & rice 
      • Wednesday - 12/28 - we will likely have guests, so risotto
      • Thursday - 12/29 - I'm thinking soup and appetizers
      • Friday - 12/30 - we are flying back from Portland this day & are arriving in the evening, so either Chipotle on our way home, or something super easy from the freezer.
      • Saturday - 12/31 - I need to survey the boys on what they want, but I'm thinking steak & appetizers. 
      • Sunday - 1/1 - maybe Thai food delivery or homemade pizza

      Two questions for you. What are you up to this Saturday, and what do you typically do for food on New Year's Eve/Day? Looking for inspiration!

      Have a great weekend!

      Friday, December 16, 2016

      Frugal Friday

      The last four weeks of the year tend to be my absolute craziest of the year for work, and this year is no exception. It's been a WILD time. As a result of that, and a weekend of soccer last, I was really unprepared going into the week. We had several "backup meals", as I call them. Which is me taking our backup chicken strips from the freezer & combining them with some sort of a pasta dish. It wasn't exactly a well planned week, which adds to my stress with work. I'm usually better about this, so I'm giving myself a pass.

      So, frugal wins for the week:

      • I earned a $5 Amazon gift card by using Bing rewards
      • I finally tracked down a missing water bottle (a nice insulated one, not one of the many plastic freebies we have at home). I hated to harass the person whom I thought might have it, but when I priced them & realized that replacing it was at least $10, I decided to suck it up. 
      • I passed on free concert tickets for a friend. It would have been fun, but I know I would have treated to a ride (Uber), food, etc. I also didn't have time, which was the reason for my decline.
      • I made treats for Nick's class party today, vs buying.
      • Used a coupon while dining out. (The second half of that sentence is where the non-frugal part comes in). ;-) 
      • Ate all meals at home, minus one outlier.
      • Avoided all of the sale offerings via my email, fliers, etc.
      • Made homemade hot chocolate for the kids vs going out. (We were out of the easy to make packs).
      • Signed up for an offer at work to test a free photo book.
      • Also, signed up through an offer from work to go to a free yoga class tomorrow morning.
      • I'm trying to really control my toiletry spending in 2017. I have a running inventory of things I should be looking for on sale. I found 3 razor blade replacements for $1.50 at my grocery store on clearance, because they were an outdated scent. ;-) They fit my Venus razor, so this was a huge deal.
      • I price checked the flights for my parents trip to visit & found out they were $5/each per ticket cheaper. I'll receive a $10 flight credit. 
      • I also found a deal for a $50 Panera gift card for $40 on Amazon, so I bought that. The boys love Panera when we're at soccer tournaments, etc, so this makes a nice splurge treat. 

      And, in frugal fails for the week:
      • We went out to dinner, as I was running late, had no plan & wasn't mentally capable of making anything after my day. ;-) 
      What about you? What kind of frugal wins or fails did you have over the past week or so?

      Monday, December 12, 2016

      What a weekend!

      Sam's team won first place in their state cup division! (Pretend like you can see the amazing photo I have of both boys holding the big cup, with the most excited smiles of all time). Nick was subbing for Sam's team, so both of my boys were playing & it was such a fun & exciting game to watch. They won 2-1, so a very close match. They are still dancing with excitement about the big victory. ;-)

      We also had some frugal moments (bringing our own lunch yesterday to the tournament), & then some very non-frugal moments. We wanted to celebrate our bonuses/raises on Friday night, and tried to order delivery Thai. Lots of issues & failures with that (sigh. technology :0), so we ended up going out, which was much more expensive. As a result of the failure of our initial order, Amazon sent me a credit to try them out again the next night. So, we really did takeout on Saturday night.

      Anyway, lots of expensive this week!

      • Monday - 12/5 - No spend day
      • Tuesday - 12/6
        • $47 - Christmas gifts
        • $332.40 - flights for my parents to watch the boys in April, over spring break
      • Wednesday - 12/7 - No spend day
      • Thursday - 12/8
        • $15 for a tip for a massage. I got the massage as a gift from work, so the rest was covered. 
      • Friday - 12/9
        • $127.62 - Bonus dinner celebration with wine (for 3 - Nick was at a soccer game)  
        • $45 - Target gift cards for two kids birthdays. We'll reserve the other gift card for a future gift, but they sell them in three packs at Rite Aid, which is the closest store to me. :-)
        • $4.76 - snack baggies
        • $15 - some sort of tool from Costco, that M needed. Not sure.
      • Saturday - 12/10
        • $8.98 - Lucky for yeast, mayo & candied fruit for my bread I'm making for the holidays
        • $106.82 - groceries at Costco
        • $31.54 - dinner delivery. Will make two full dinners + a bonus lunch for Sam
        • $185 - a hair cut & color for me. I go 2-3x/year, but it's expensive!
        • $50 - ski goggles for two kids
        • $11.75 - toilet paper from Costco
      • Sunday - 12/11
        • $13.64 - Christmas baking supplies at Lucky 
      Total spent = $994.51. What about you? How was your weekly spending? Any big splurges or frugal victories?

      Friday, December 9, 2016

      Our house budget - how do we spend it?

      Inspired by a post on Frugality, Financial Independence & the Middle Class, I took a look at our spending that we'd tagged as "House" in 2016.

      So, we spent a total of $3084, and our budget was $1,500. Our spending was more than double our budget! Never a good position to be in. As a result, I decided to look for outliers. This budget category is meant to capture household goods (soap, toilet paper, laundry detergent, light bulbs, etc). It's clear from reviewing the budget line items that we are actually using it for a catch all for expenses that don't fall neatly into other categories.

      Here are the biggest expenses for the year in the "house" category:

      • We paid $880 to have our vacation house appraised (so we could refinance). This was a one time expense. In case that sounds extremely expensive to you - it is! But, it's a tiny market, and our mortgage company had a very select list of appraisers they would approve.
      • We spent $300 to have gravel delivered to our vacation house. My dad volunteered to do a bunch of yard work and landscaping, and we covered the cost of the gravel.
      • We spent $280 on a suitcase. It has a lifetime warranty, so hopefully it will be worth it. M talked me into this one. He's more of a believer in buying the best you can afford, and using it forever. I tend to think there's a happy medium. But, there it is. 
      • We spent $168 on two chaise lounge chairs for our patio, and two pillows to go with them
      • And, $107 on our Prime membership (includes tax, I suppose)? We use Prime as our source of cable/tv, and don't have any other provider, so I'm wondering if I should count this in the utility budget instead?
      • $100 was for yard service for our vacation house. That we didn't ask for. Our handy man service previously was arranging this for us a while back when we had our house on the market, and it had to look polished. There was a miscommunication & they went ahead & had service done & then billed us for it. We've straightened that out moving forward. 
      Those expenses alone make up $1836 of our spending. Wow! So, that's where the overage came from. Soil & yard supplies added another $100, Christmas lights were around $60 (oops for my driving over one set in the yard) and the rest was truly "house" stuff. 

      In the furnishings/accessories category, we bought an assortment of other random things: a rug, steak knives, a scale, a soap dispenser, jam jars, we refilled our propane, and toothbrush heads. I think that category is likely pretty normal for a household of four.

      We also use this category for things like: batteries, ziplock bags, laundry soap, etc. I think we can do better here by watching prices. 

      All said, I'm going to leave our household budget at $1,500 for next year & hope for minimal unexpected big expenses. I love being able to review all of our spending to understand where the big outliers are. It's so helpful!

      What about you? Do you have a household budget? What kind of expenses do you track there? 

      Frugal Fridays & my yearly bonus

      I accomplished a few frugal things over the past week or so, which always feels good!

      • Sold 14 movies for $20 on Facebook sale, decluttering & earning money in the process
      • Supported a local woman who makes jams & donates all profits to a charity, as one of my Christmas presents. M & I aren't really exchanging, but I couldn't resist a little something to brighten his mornings. Not really "frugal" in the true sense of the word, but I was really excited to find a local gift that he'll enjoy, and that does something good for others. Win/win.
      • I found movie sized packs of candy for $.10 on clearance at our local grocery store. I was able to get everything we needed for our advent house, plus stock up on candy for either the movies, gifts (see below), etc.
      • Bought gift cards that I needed for the holidays at Rite Aid, earning plenti points for future spend. I now have just under $100 in points for future spending (ear marked for any necessary toiletries in 2017).
      • Bought Target gift cards (online) at 10% off through a special one day sale. I needed two for stocking gifts for my nephews, and saved $3. Also went ahead & picked up 4 more ($15/each) for kid birthday presents. That, plus candy always makes a favorite gift. 
      • Bought a birthday gift for my BFF, and used a $20 store credit to offset about half of the cost
      • We made all meals at home this week, including a fun use for the crescent rolls I found on super sale at Costco. We made pigs in a blanket (the kids actually made them) & chocolate "croissants", using chocolate from my giant stash I'm trying to make my way through. Both were fabulous. :-)
      And, it's that time of year at work, where I receive my yearly bonus & raise. The story is similar to what I received last year. My raise was a slightly smaller percentage (10.5%), my bonus was larger. 

      I will use my bonus for the following:
      • Max out my 401K (particularly important this year, as I don't plan to work for the entire year). This will ensure I get my full match from my employer. Why turn away free money? :-) 
      • Save $15,000 for our potential move this summer. If M happens to get a job with his current employer (but, in the Seattle office), his employer will cover most of the cost of this move, & I will redirect these funds. Better to be prepared, in case that doesn't pan out.
      • I'll apply $5,000 towards our Seattle house 2nd mortgage
      • Save $3,500 for our 2017 travel: 
        • This includes a potential ski weekend at Tahoe in January
        • A trip in February to Seattle/Portland (tickets have already been purchased). I haven't been back to our Seattle house since we moved. I want to get the boys familiar with the area again, take them skiing locally. We will combine that with a trip to see my parents to celebrate the boys birthdays, and my parents will likely watch the boys for a weekend so M & I can celebrate my birthday at the Oregon coast. Should be a super fun trip. I'm very curious to see how the kids remember their old home. 
        • A girls weekend sometime in April?
        • Anything else that arises. 
      • $3,000 for the boys college accounts
      • $1,000 is ear marked as "splurge". No idea what, if anything, I'll do with the money, but I want to be prepared.
      What about you? Tell us some frugal things you accomplished this week! And, any input into the bonus spending? Is the splurge amount too much? It's more than I've used in previous years, so I'm not sure if I can do it. I'll probably end up splurging on another girls trip, or buying my sister a ticket to come visit. Pretty sure there won't be clothes or shoes involved. :-) 

      Thursday, December 8, 2016

      Christmas spending details

      I always find it fascinating to hear about how others spend their Christmas budget (the nitty gritty details!), so I thought I'd share my budget, as well as the gifts we've purchased. I'm mostly done for the year, so this represents 95% of our Christmas plans.

      Our overall Christmas budget for the year is $2,380. This may seem insanely high (it is!), but there's a lot included here:

      • $605 - Christmas gifts. We buy for a very limited number of adults, so this also includes our giving tree gifts, as well as Christmas cards.
      • $100 - Our contribution for the holiday festivities. We fly, so I am not able to bring food & wine, as I normally would contribute. Instead, I give my mom money to offset her costs. 
      • $25 - a nanny bonus. We've really struggled with our nanny this year. In previous years, we've gone to $500, so this is very reflective of our satisfaction with our nanny. :-(. I may go higher, should things improve. 
      • $150 - a car rental while we're at my parents house, but mostly for our trip to our vacation house while we're there. 
      • $200 - beach house expenses. There are always expenses associated with a trip to the vacation house. Pantry stock up, toilet paper, etc. 
      • $1300 - flights for four from San Francisco to Portland. 

      The above was our initial budget. In the end, there are always tweaks based on how much I really spend, etc. We ended up using frequent flier miles for the flights, and paying just $44.80 for the taxes, for the tickets. The car rental, on the other hand, was over $100 more than expected. Lesson learned! 

      Now that I'm mostly done with my shopping & preparations, I'm expecting to spend around $1350-$1400. The reason for this was the flights, of course, which absorbed some other areas of overage. I was able to donate more to various charities (food pantry, toy drive, etc) as well as pick up additional gifts for my disabled aunt. I purchased a few extra gift cards that my mom will hand out throughout the year. (Giving them to her all at once isn't a good option). 

      So, what kind of gifts do we give for that budget? Well, let me break it down into a bit more specificity. Some of the non immediate family gifts are shared with my sister, so if the dollar values look strange, that is likely why. 

      • For my husband - this year, we agreed not to buy gifts. I did buy him $20 worth of local jam. He loves jam on his bread in the morning, and I'm not diligent enough to make my own. ;-) 
      • For my older nephew - I bought him a wifi booster, so he can do homework in his room with. I also got him a gift card. Total spent = $47.
      • For my younger nephew - I got him a gift card & a lego set. Total spent = $40.
      • For my aunt - I spent the most on her this year, as she is really struggling, and has very  little support system outside of my family. I got her $100 of gift cards, plus socks & a new mixer. Total spent = $132.
      • For Sam - he got an iPod (no gaming/texting, just the ability to listen to music), and a gift card for a trip to the movies. (A rare treat at our house). Total spent = $115. 
      • For Nick - he got a suitcase (his choice :-)), and a movies gift card. Total spent = $115.
      • For my dad - this is rare, we don't typically purchase for parents, but my sister found a great gift & asked if I would be interested in going in with her. It's a beer growler/chiller of some sort. Total spent = $25.
      • For my step grandfather - again, we normally don't buy for adults, but he is all alone in the world & now that my grandmother is gone, won't have anyone to purchase gifts for him. We bought him ingredients to make his favorite martini & a deck of cards. Total spent = $17.
      • For the daughters of my best friend - I got them scarves & gloves. I may add in a small gift card for each of them. Total spent = $32 (together)
      • Stocking gifts - The four kids in our family (my two + my sister's two) get stockings. Each family (my family, my sister's family & my parents) contribute two stocking items for each child. We try to keep the dollar value low, while still getting things people want. This is getting more challenging as the boys get older, so we may abandon this next year & opt for something else. For this year, I ended up with books, "tall socks - the cool Nike kind", and gift cards. Total spent = $76. 
      That's it for us! As per our usual policy for the holiday, any money leftover in our holiday fund at the end of the year will be donated to a food pantry. It's a big incentive for me to save money! This year, i was also able to apply a few random gift cards & Amazon credits to my purchases, as well as find discounted gift cards, etc. Every dollar helps. What about you? I'd love to hear about your budget, as well as what kind of gifts you typically purchase. 

      Wednesday, December 7, 2016

      2016 Goal Check

      It's almost the end of the year (23 days to achieve any goals you created for the year)! I thought it would be good to check in & see if there are any easy to wins to be had, or things I want to push myself hard to accomplish before the end of the year.

      Here's how I'm doing do far, in this home stretch of the year. As a reminder, I obviously decided to delay my "leave work" plan, and am now working on several exit dates in 2017. This plan changed as we were working through options to move back to Washington, and I wanted as much flexibility as possible.

      1) Financial - Save $160,000 for my "leaving work" nest egg ($100K to offset expenses, $45K for taxes, $15K for travel) - Yes!!! I'm currently at $217K. We are also relatively committed (M still has to find a job back in Seattle, come spring) to relocating back to Seattle. The timeline is a bit TBD, but the plan is coming together. We only had one budget for the year, but we are working on a similar strategy for 2017. 
      • Decide what to do with our Seattle house
      • Build/follow a 2016 "interim budget" (until I leave my job)
      • Build/follow a 2016 "post-job budget"

      2) Family - Spend more time together as a family! - I think we've done a much better job on this. Not perfect, of course, but more quality time together. M & I have done one date night per month, but alas, not two. Lunches are harder. I'd say we've probably done 5 lunches together this year. 
      • Do a minimum of one fun activity/month with the kids
      • Be more present with the kids & M - play games, minimize computer time, exercise together, etc. 
      • Have two dates with M per month (one lunch, one evening) 

        3) Fitness/health - Lose 20 pounds, bringing my weight to 133. Yes, I've gained weight since last year. Stress, eating poorly & no exercise will do that to you. - You knew there was a big fail coming up, and this is it! :-) I'm currently at 153, so exactly where I started the year. I ran a 5K, have tracked my food & exercise, and I'm actually on track to do the 10,000 minutes of cardio (assuming I have a strong December). So, progress was made, but as I get older, I need to continue to ratchet my calories down, and increase my fitness. 
        • Run a 5K, 10K, 15K, & a half marathon, as a 40th birthday gift to myself. Not all in the same day. ;-) 
        • Track my food/exercise every day.
        • Eat five servings of fruit & vegetables (combined) per day
        • Complete 10,000 minutes of cardio
        • Complete 100 strength workouts.
        • Complete 75 stretching workouts. 

        4) Work/career - Improve my work life balance. - Although I didn't leave my job, I've done a much better job at stress management (particularly over the last quarter), and have a revised plan for leaving work. 
        • Keep better perspective at work/reduce stress (until I leave)
        • Leave my job in June.
        • Take the summer off
        • Find a new, flexible job in the fall.

          5) Personal/creative - Spend more time on myself/creative pursuits. - I will end the year with close to 12 social events with friends (I think I missed one month), I definitely read more than 50 books, and I *started* (emphasis on started) to learn a new skill. I took a meditation class through work & found it fascinating. I haven't done a great job of making it a regular part of my routine, but I'd like to continue practicing. 
          • Learn a new skill. I'm thinking of learning a new language, but would be fine with anything: sewing, knitting, expanding my baking, etc.
          • Make time for my friends. Do something social at least once per month.
          • Read 50 books. 

          So, there you have it. A mix of wins, a big failure, and a modest improvement. You can see the biggest area of focus for 2017, in addition to our life adjustments (work, location, etc). How about you? Any goals you have in sight for the end of the year?