February 2014 - Posts - Live Like a Mensch
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Live Like a Mensch

February 2014 - Posts

  • The Frugal Olympics Final Event: Making Your Own Convenience Food

    Here we are at the fourth and final event of the Frugal Olympics: Making Your Own Convenience Food

    To be honest, I should never have qualified for this event. For one thing, I cannot be trusted with convenience foods in the house to begin with. For another, I tend to be somewhat challenged when it comes to making certain types of food from scratch--hence my reliance on convenience foods.

    However, this frugal Olympian has never backed down from a frugal challenge, and so I decided to attempt a convenience food that I do occasionally purchase: granola bars.

    After a quick jaunt on Pinterest, I found this recipe for peanut butter granola bars.

    The recipe, as written, called for 4 cups rolled oats, 2 TB chia seeds, 1/2 cup unsalted peanuts, 3/4 cup natural peanut butter, melted, and 1/2 cup brown rice syrup.

    Of those ingredients, I had 2 cups oats, no chia seeds, no peanuts, plenty of natural peanut butter, and no idea what the heck brown rice syrup even is. But since we're talking about convenience, I decided not to go out and get the missing ingredients, instead halving the recipe, omitting the chia seeds, and substituting slivered almonds and honey for the peanuts and brown rice syrup:

    With my lovely assistant ready to help, I got started:

    We mixed the almonds with the oats:


    We added the honey:

    And we then discovered that putting peanut butter in the microwave for 40 seconds does not, in fact, melt it, but instead cooks it:


    At that point, I was ready for some mix-ins. The original recipe suggests putting chocolate chips in, which I would heartily endorse. But there was nary a chocolate chip to be found in the house. Luckily, I'm a resourceful sort who also just made an impulse buy at the grocery story because it was on sale and it reminded me of my grandmother:

    So, I chopped up a couple of Hershey's Special Dark bars and threw in a handful of dried cranberries:

    At this point, I found myself wondering if the mixture was too dry. When I asked BB what he thought, this was his response:

    Since BB and I were in consensus, and since I was worried about the sugar content, I did not add more honey.

    I then baked that bad boy in a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes:

    It was at this point that I realized three things:

    • It's a bad idea to take cooking advice from a five-month-old.
    • If you think your granola bar mix is too dry, then it probably is.
    • I was not going to get photogenic granola bars and would instead end up eating half of the pan over the next four hours by grabbing loose handfuls of the goodness and eating it out of my hands like a horse with a feed bag.

    Ultimately, this recipe was delicious and a great way to use up some of the odds and ends in my cabinet. It does not, however, make my life more convenient in any way, shape, or form. (And even if I were able to make some sort of actual granola bar next time around, I'll bet you dollars to brown rice syrup that I'd still eat half of them over the course of a few hours).

    So no medal for me.


    But readers, it's your turn to compete! Tell me in the comments about convenience food recipes you have mastered. One lucky Olympian who comments on any of the four frugal Olympics posts will be entered to win a signed and personalized copy of my new book, The Five Years Before You Retire.

    You may enter up to four times (once per event), and I will pick a winner randomly on February 28 March 7. (Changed to reflect the fact that I am totally behind!)

  • The Frugal Olympics 3rd Event: Meal Planning

    Of all the frugal Olympics events, I feel meal planning is the only one in which I could be considered a true contender for a medal. I have been doing meal planning for about five years, and I've gotten my technique down to a wonderfully imprecise art.

    Basically, once a week I sit down with my meal planner, several of my favorite cookbooks, our iPad (for looking up other recipes), and my grocery shopping list:

    Using whatever we already have in the fridge, freezer, and pantry as a guide, I start planning our dinners for the week. (While there are several frugal Olympians out there who also plan out breakfasts, lunches, and snacks, I find that a little too constricting.) Then, I simply plan out which days we will have what dinners, and highlight whatever ingredients we need that we don't already have. Then, with list in hand, I go to the grocery store (where I invariably forget at least one item, despite having the list).

    Meal planning is deceptively simple. Yes, all you have to do is plan what you'll eat and buy the corresponding ingredients. But there are any number of pitfalls that are very easy to fall into. Here are several that I have learned from:

    1. Don't forget to consult your weekly calendar when you make your meal plans! There have been weekdays when J has to work late or I have a late meeting and I've planned to make something out of the Moosewood Cookbook (Subtitled: Delicious Vegetarian Recipes That Take Longer Than a TransAtlantic Flight to Complete). So take the time to figure out which nights you'll be crunched and which nights you can take the time to make a leisurely meal--and PAY ATTENTION to the cooking time information provided on the recipes. 

    (Side note: I'll never forget the first [and only] time I ever made a risotto. I didn't realize that this recipe was so labor-intensive, and the recipe didn't specifically tell you the full cooking time--I had to read through and add up the times listed. So, I got started making the risotto around 6 p.m. J got home about a half hour later and I was still stirring. He changed his clothes, played a video game, and wandered into the kitchen, wondering when dinner would be ready. I was still stirring. At about 7:30, I proudly told him to come get the mushroom risotto I'd made. He came and said, "All that work for gray mush?" I decided then and there never to make risotto again. It was tasty, though.)

    2. Don't plan on more than one experimental recipe per week. Whenever I've decided to try something new, it's always taken a couple of days for me to work up the enthusiasm necessary to tackle it. Because dinner is often a rushed affair, it's a lot easier to know that you're making an old standby that you barely have to think about. That's not the time to tackle slicing up the pufferfish correctly to ensure that no one is poisoned.

    3. Stay flexible. One common meal planning suggestion is to have a "theme" for each day: ground beef on Monday, crock pot on Tuesday, etc. This may work for other meal planners, but I find I can't stick to those sorts of themes/plans. So I simply plan out six meals for the week (I always assume there will be at least one night when our dinner plans change somehow--either I don't feel like cooking and make something out of the freezer or we get invited to a friend's house for supper or the like). My only hard-and-fast rules are that I need to make any meals with easily spoiled ingredients early in the week, and that I make something special for dinner on Friday night for Shabbat.

    4. Check your meal plan first in the morning the day of. I used to keep my meal plan in my head (as well as written down, of course), and so I'd think I could remember to defrost chicken for dinner. And of course, I couldn't, and I'd find myself covered in minor flesh wounds as a consequence of attempting to cut up icy chicken. Just check your plan and save your skin!

    Meal planning means I actually think about the food we have and what we need, and I get to try out new recipes all the time. I never get too deeply into a dinner rut because I can add new ideas every week and revist some old favorites that I'd otherwise forget about. Basically, meal planning is the cat's pajamas.


    Readers, it's your turn to compete! Tell me in the comments about how you do your meal planning. One lucky Olympian who comments on any of the four frugal Olympics posts will be entered to win a signed and personalized copy of my new book, The Five Years Before You Retire.

    You may enter up to four times (once per event), and I will pick a winner randomly on February 28 March 7. (Changed to reflect the fact that I am totally behind!)

  • The Frugal Olympics 2nd Event: Refrigerator Organization with a Leftover List

    Before we begin today's event, I must apologize for the week's worth of radio silence from a certain Mensch. Unlike Sochi, Lafayette, Indiana has been receiving record snowfall, freezing temperatures, and general discontented misery recently. Unfortunately, windy misery fronts cause school cancellations, which means LO has been spending a great deal of time bored at home while I attempt to work with the laptop resting on BB. (Note: that doesn't work).

    In any case, the weather has become springlike of late (i.e., degrees in the positive double digits), so I have hope that I will have no few further interruptions of my writing schedule.


    Today's Frugal Olympic event is refrigerator organization. Like luge relay, organization is a relative newcomer to the Olympics, although tidy frugalistas have been petitioning for its inclusion for quite some time. But considering the fact that Americans throw away 40% of the food that they purchase, this is clearly a place where frugality can shine.

    J and I are definitely guilty of throwing away food. Some of this has to do with genetics. I come from a long line of women who hate to see good food go to waste--but who are also not great at figuring out what to do with odds and ends of food. This is why when I was growing up, we would keep Tupperware around for the sole purpose of "aging" leftovers in the refrigerator until they were no longer good food and could be thrown out in good conscience.

    (I am also genetically related to my father, the man who would clean out his refrigerator once a year, whether it needed it or not. He would excitedly bring containers into the other room to show off the incredible colors that bacteria and mold were capable of creating in his refrigerator. And indeed, that bright blue growing on something that used to be food was quite beautiful).

    But though genetics plays a role in my refrigerator chaos, most of J's and my food waste problem stems from the fact that we are both organizationally challenged. J has an engineer's mindset that seems to think "if it fits, then that's where it goes!" (Which is why you will often find a carton of eggs precariousy perched on top of a head of lettuce in our refrigerator.)

    My organizational issues stem from the fact that I'm a perfectionist. If the fridge is overflowing and gross, I'd rather just throw things in there and close the door because I don't have the time take everything out, clean everything, disinfect everything, and replace it all where it belongs. So rather than make a minor improvement by removing the soon to be Humpty-Dumptied eggs from the top of the lettuce, I prefer to make it worse by shoving in whatever else I can fit.

    I wish I had a picture of this chaos. (Actually, that's a lie. I'm very very glad I did not think to take a picture of that because there are some things that the wider Internet really doesn't need to see).

    However I recently re-organized our refrigerator, for what I hope to be for good and for all:

    (And believe me, this is a model of organization compared to our usual food maelstrom.)

    However, as much as I badly want to maintain this level of organization in order to keep from wasting food, I know it's only a matter of time before J starts playing edible Tetris with our munchies and I start treating the refrigerator as if it's inhabitated by Zuul.

    So, in order to help keep track of the food in there, whether or not it's easily seen/accessible or perched on something ridiculous, I will also be keeping a leftover list and an ingredient list on my refrigerator door.

    And since I'm more likely to do something if I make it pretty, I've made my lists rainbow colored:

    My intention is to laminate these bad boys and write on them with wet erase markers, so I don't have to go from wasting food to wasting printer ink. You are welcome to use these lists for your own refrigerator organization events at your local Frugal Olympics.


    Has anyone found a wonderful refrigerator organization solution that they would like to share? It's your turn to compete! Tell me in the comments about your kitchen organization successes (or epic failures, because of those are fun, too). One lucky Olympian who comments on any of the four frugal Olympics posts will be entered to win a signed and personalized copy of my new book, The Five Years Before You Retire.

    You may enter up to four times (once per event), and I will pick a winner randomly on February 28 March 7. (Changed to reflect the fact that I am totally behind!)

  • The Frugal Olympics 1st Event: Creating a Grocery Price Book

    While I have established my credentials in other areas of frugal athleticism such as checkbook balancing, debt reduction, and both freestyle and synchronized penny pinching, I am still a relative newcomer to the sport of grocery price book making. (Which is not to be confused with bookmaking, which is of course illegal in the Frugal Olympics).

    When faced with any new challenge, I prepare for the onslaught in a time-honored tradition honed by hours of practice: by losing myself on Pinterest.

    (And it was on Pinterest that I was delighted to find that The Dollar Stretcher has already created a free Grocery Price Book Printable. While TDS's printable is great, I was afraid it would make the notebook I'll put it into a little too bulky, so I've decided to go with a different one I found here).

    If you are like me and have never before created a price book, your needs are fairly simple:

    1. A place to record prices of the items you buy the most often.

    2. Shopping receipts and/or grocery circulars and/or the time to wander around your local groceries recording prices.

    3. A calculator for determining unit prices OR the Excel Spreadsheet wizardry that does calculations for you.

    (By the way, my lovely meal planning sheet was created by I Heart Organizing and can be found here)

    Each time that I shop, I'll record the prices that I find for our favorite products, and if I stick the landing (that is, stick with it!), over time I'll start to know whether sale prices are really worth it, what the sales cycles are for my local stores, and whether bulk purchases are money-sinks in frugal clothing.

    As you can see from my receipts, I generally do my shopping at Target. There are a couple of reasons for this: 1. It's near LO's school. 2. I can get non-food items there.

    But, for the next few months, I'm going to expand my horizons and start finding out just where I should be shopping for what. All thanks to my trusty grocery price book.

    Readers, it's your turn to compete! Tell me in the comments about your price book successes--or why you've never gotten around to a price book either. One lucky Olympian who comments on any of the four frugal Olympics posts will be entered to win a signed and personalized copy of my new book, The Five Years Before You Retire.

    You may enter up to four times (once per event), and I will pick a winner randomly on February 28 March 7. (Changed to reflect the fact that I am totally behind!)

  • Announcing the Frugal Olympics (and Giveaway)!

    In honor of the Winter Games, I've decided to create the Live Like a Mensch Frugal Olympics!

    Over the next two weeks, I'll introduce four different Frugal Olympic "events," and write about how I have personally used these strategies. I'll then ask you, dear readers, to share your tips and tricks for making these frugal strategies work for you. I'll even pick a winner, who will receive a signed and personalized copy of my new book, The Five Years Before You Retire.

    The events will be:

    • Creating a grocery price book
    • Organizing your refrigerator with a leftover list
    • Creating homemade convenience foods
    • Meal planning

    In order to take part in the Olympics, simply post a comment on any of the event blogs. You may enter up to four times (once per event), and I will pick a winner randomly on February 28.

    Let the games begin!

  • There Will Be No Unauthorized Charges or Fees On My Watch

    When I got my first credit card back in 1999, I made a habit of saving every receipt from my credit card transactions in my wallet until my statement came in. At that point, I would double-check my statement against my receipts, using a highlighter to cross off each charge. Once I had done all that, I'd write a check for the full amount of the statement, mail off my payment, and place the receipts in the envelope with the rest of the statement and file the whole thing. The entire exercise would actually be something I'd look forward to doing.

    On reflection, I think I now have the answer to the question of why I didn't go on too many dates in college.

    While I no longer check each and every receipt against my statements, I do look through the charges on our credit card at least twice a month to make sure I recognize everything on there. (Those are the days when I bother J at work to breathlessly demand "Did you spend $63.47 on PayPal last week?" only to later realize that I was the one who made a $63.47 purchase that I completely forgot about. On reflection, I think I now have the answer to the question of why J doesn't necessarily sound thrilled to hear from me when I call him at work).

    Apparently, despite the fact that I drive myself and my family crazy with this habit, I'm apparently saving us from potential scams. According to NPR, there are scammers out there making off with $9.84 in fraudulent credit card charges, assuming that no one will notice such a small charge. Even if you are paying attention, $9.84 is a small enough amount that you don't worry about it. And co-owners of joint credit cards are each likely to assume that the other was the one responsible for the less-than-$10 charge.

    Clearly, these scammers have never met one of my ilk! They do not realize that there are those who read bank statements for funsies and who see no issue with interrupting an important engineer in the middle of engineering something (yeah, I don't have a great sense of what it is that J does all day) in order to double check  an unfamiliar charge.

    I also know that I'm not alone in channeling my inner accountant on bill-paying day. (Although I probably am the only one who throws confetti and releases balloons to celebrate bill-paying day).

    My dear friend and talented comedian Ken Schultz recently had to dispute an unauthorized charge on his statement--but in his case, the charge was coming from inside the bank!

    He was kind enough to create a hilarious vlog about his experience:

    Have you ever had to dispute a fraudulent or heck-if-we-know charge? (Or have you ever disputed a charge that you later realized was legitimate, like I have done on more occasions than I would care to admit to?)

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