Saturday, December 29, 2012

Cheap Date Night

If you've ever felt that dates were too expensive, or if you are saving for a big goal and need to cut costs but don't want to cut out the romance, or if there is just too much month and not enough paycheck, this list is for you. Here are some of my favorite free or affordable dates.

* Check out a movie from the library. Pop popcorn on the stove top or in an air popper.
* Have a campfire in the backyard. Roast marshmallows and snuggle under a blanket.
* Take a long walk through the neighborhood (provided you aren't saving money by living in a dangerous area). It's a great way to spend time talking and be active together.
* Call area museums and ask about free days. Some museums have free days weekly, monthly or annually. Have fun, get a bit of exercise while walking around and learn a little something.
* Go to a concert or poetry reading at a coffee house. Unlike a concert at a bar, you can get away with buying one drink and nursing it through the evening, or get a bottomless cup of regular coffee. For $5 you can have a night out.
* Look for special promotions for area restaurants. Some that we've enjoyed: free coffee at a chain coffee house on Earth Day when we brought in reusable mugs, free coffee and samples at a cafe when they were rolling out a new menu, $.50 iced coffees on the first day of summer at a fast food restaurant, free small lattes when McDonalds was starting McCafe, $.25 kiddie cones on Wednesdays at a chain ice cream shop, $1 coffees at another chain one day each week.
* Go to a second run theater for special promotions. My area theater sells tickets for $1.25 one day a week and $1.75 all other days. Skip the popcorn and soda.
* Go to the beach for swimming, tanning and playing.
* Have a do-nothing day. Don't get dressed. Don't run errands. Simply hang out at home, cuddle, talk, eat junk food, take a bath, whatever. Relax and enjoy each other.
* Go for a bike ride.
* Make a good meal together, especially a labor intensive one. Trucker and I like to make Chinese food together. He'll chop the veggies and meat for stir fry while I'm assembling egg rolls and crab rangoon. We get to talk and giggle together while preparing the food, and the cost and taste are far superior to what we find at our area Americanized Chinese buffet.
* Go to an antique mall and explore. There are many things to amuse or awe you. We look out for antique kitchen wares that are affordable and in good, usable condition. You don't have to buy anything though, so this can be a free date.
* Take a drive. While high gas prices make this less of a good deal than in previous times, this is still a fun date. Drive out of the city to explore the countryside or drive through the woods during autumn for a color display. A favorite of ours when we were saving for our house was to drive through different neighborhoods and discuss whether we would buy a house there and why.
* Take the bus to a new neighborhood with a set amount of money in cash, say $10, and see how long you can make it last. Explore the neighborhood on foot. Stop in every store and look around. Spend your money on small things, like the $.50 rack of books outside the used bookstore, penny candies, or a bagel to split from the small corner bakery.
* Go to a used book store and look around. Look for bargain racks or clearance sections.
* Look for coupons in the Sunday paper for restaurants. Once, I found Buy One Get One Free coupons for Caribou Coffee. I dived a recycling bin for extra coupons and for months we had $1 dates (Two regular coffees using coupon, plus additional money off for bringing reusable mugs and correctly answering trivia questions).
* Sign up for thrift store newsletters and text alerts. A few times a year, our favorite thrift store sends out coupons for $5 off a $10 purchase. We go to the thrift store and try not to spend over $10 so we can get half off. We score some great finds, but don't fall into the trap of buying a ton of stuff because it's so cheap.
* Go for a hike/nature walk. Most cities have a decent metro park system and you can find lovely walking trails. Take your camera for nature shots and silly pictures. Look for interesting plants or weird bugs.
* Have a picnic in the park or the backyard.
* Go to a free concert or play in the park. In my city a theater troupe puts on Shakespeare in the Park. Some people go all out, bringing little tables in and setting up elaborate picnics complete with wine.

What are some of your favorite affordable dates?

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The Welcoming House Welcoming Wednesday


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Practically Free Chicken Noodle Soup

As a follow up on my post on Making The Most of my $.20/lb Chicken, I wanted to share how I made a nice pot of chicken noodle soup almost for free.

After we had finished cutting off chunks of chicken for different meals that we made, I put all of the bones (along with the bits of meat I couldn't quite cut off) into my stockpot and simmered them with onion skins and carrot peels for a few hours. By this time the last bits of meat had fallen off of the bone.

I strained the broth off and packaged it into a few re-used plastic food containers. I picked through the bones for the last little bits of meat. I packaged that into another container and put it all in the freezer to make soup later.

Last night I pulled the containers out of the freezer to thaw. Today I scooped the fat from the top of the containers and dumped the broth into my slow cooker. I added the chicken pieces.

During one grocery shopping trip, I got a coupon for a free 1 lb bag of baby carrots (I got organic ones since the coupon didn't have any restrictions printed on it). I used about 1/4 of the bag cut into coins.

The only ingredient (besides seasonings) that I paid for was the onion. I paid $.11 a pound at Aldi by stocking up when they were selling 3 lb bags for 3 for $1. I used about 1/2 an onion. I sauteed this in a little bit of vegetable oil before adding it to the slow cooker.

This cooked on low heat for several hours. When I make soup for dinner, I usually get everything going while I make my breakfast and let it cook all day.

For this soup, I added the pasta about 20 minutes before we were ready to eat. Any sooner and it would get way too soggy. I used bits of different kinds of pasta: broken spaghetti or fettucini noodles, or bits of pasta that weren't enough for a meal, but were too much to throw away.

At the same time that I added my pasta, I added seasonings. Tonight it was simply a bit of salt, garlic powder (free from a previous employer of Trucker's), a pinch of cayenne pepper and some Italian seasoning blend. Before serving, I ground some black pepper and it was done. It turned out pretty good. I added a bit too much cayenne pepper (I admit, I accidentally added more than a pinch), but it was okay since Trucker's had a bit of a cold. Sinus busting power soup!

I love that all told, this soup cost around $.25 including seasonings for 4 meal-sized servings of soup. It was a perfect meal with some garlic toast made from bread I got for free (job benefit of being a baker!)

What are your favorite practically free meals?

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Homestead Barn Hop

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Rolling With the Punches

As some of you may remember, I recently purchased a house. With that has come the awesome and terrible responsibility for taking care of everything that breaks. Oh boy. And, of course, everything breaks within the first 3 months. Right now my oven is not working. The stove top works, but not the oven. I have the part to fix it, and Trucker has done all of the research. We could easily fix it. Fear of accidentally blowing up the neighborhood has thus far kept us away from what should be a simple fix.

For now, I'm using my stove top, microwave, slow cooker, waffle iron and electric wok to make most of the meals we enjoy. There are some meals that we have always baked in the oven, and for those, we've had to get creative.

Baked potatoes are a great cheap meal. Mum gave me a little cloth pouch that you put the potatoes in, and microwave for 7-10 minutes. It steams the potatoes really well. While not as amazing as baked, it is still great. A bonus is that it uses little electric. We will continue to use this even after we get the oven fixed, as it seems a shame to fire up the oven to bake two potatoes.

Pizza is a favorite in this house. When the oven first crashed, we started ordering out. A lot. While we used coupons, and went with a local pizza joint that offered low prices, it added up quickly. We decided that that had to stop, but giving up pizza just wasn't an option. I have learned to make Stove Top Pizza. I make my usual crust, and roll it into a circle a bit smaller than my saute pan. I add a good amount of shortening, bacon fat, or veggie oil to the pan and heat over medium heat. I place the crust in the pan and cover it. I let the crust get nice and golden, then flip it. I quickly add sauce, toppings and lots of cheese and cover again. I let the other side of the crust get brown and the cheese to melt. It actually turns out pretty good. The crust is very sturdy and crisp. My only complaint is that the cheese doesn't brown, and has a different texture due to the steam, but it is not too big an issue. This summer, I'll still use this on those sweltering days when I'm craving a pizza, but can't stand the idea of turning on the stove. This will save us some gas, and will definitely keep the house cooler.

We hadn't had homemade cookies since before we moved, so tonight I was craving them. Again, I turned to my stove top. I made a regular cookie dough, rolls it into little balls and fried in a pan like pancakes. They taste great. They look weird. And I made the dough balls a little too big, so when the cookies were brown on both sides, the inside was still a little doughy. Next time I'll make smaller cookies and cook over lower heat to allow it time to cook through. However, I got my chocolate chip cookie fix and
used negligible energy.

When I was in high school, living with my parents, we had a crazy ice storm that left us without power for 2 weeks. My parents supplemented their furnace with a wood stove, and so I learned to cook on that. I made rice and veggie stir fry and always had a pot of water on the stove for added moisture and for tea. I also made my first cookie/pancakes during that time. While most families on our street were eating cold canned goods with white bread, we were eating fairly well.

When Trucker and I moved into an apartment once, the gas had been turned off. By the time the gas company came to turn it on, then found that there was a leak, then we fought with the landlord to fix it, then the gas company found another leak, and we fought to have that one fixed, we were without gas for 3 weeks during a very cold October. We refused to take frigid showers and get ourselves sick. We had an electric stove, so we got out our pots and heated water to a boil on the stove top. We would then carry the pots all the way upstairs to dump in the tub. We were able to take lukewarm baths. We also heated water on the stove to use in washing dishes.

It is never pleasant to have an appliance break, or to have an emergency take your utilities away. However, if you foster a bit of scrappiness, you can more easily weather these difficult times. You will get through the difficult time without spending all of your savings, racking up debt or being completely miserable. You can also learn new ways to do things that can be useful later. And you'll definitely have some fun stories to tell.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Making the Most of My $.20/lb Chicken

Last week I went on one of my late night grocery trips. I go to my 24 hr grocery store at 3:00-4:30 AM because that's when all of the best mark downs happen (as the night crew restocks shelves, and marks down the items nearing the sell-by date or that have damaged packaging) and I can walk out with almost free food. I was armed with a sales ad and lots of coupons. One of the coupons that I had was a Catalina coupon from a previous trip. It was good for $2 off any meat or seafood purchase. It didn't have any restrictions on how much I had to spend to use the coupon.

After I finished most of the grocery shopping, I stopped by the meat department to look for some great bargains. I lucked out! There had been a lot of markdowns that night in the poultry department. I found a 4+ lb package of chicken quarters for $2.89. I used my $2 off coupon and got it for $.89, or around $.20 a pound.

That night I cooked up all of the chicken on the stove top. Once it was cooked through, I cut it into bite sized pieces. Over the next few days, this was used to make stir fry twice (for two) and once for wraps with lettuce, tomato and cheese (for two).

After that, I was left with the bones and skins. I put it all in a pot along with the onion skins and carrot peels left over from the stir fry, and covered with water. I covered and simmered for 3 hours. I strained the resulting broth and poured it into re-used plastic containers.  I got around 1 1/2 quarts of broth. I put the broth into the freezer for later use in soup making. I picked through the bones and was able to salvage around a cup of meat. This meat was just bits and pieces, but that's perfect for soup. I put that in the freezer also. I will be able to use the broth and chicken, along with carrots, onions, celery and pasta, to make 4 servings of chicken noodle soup.

So for $.89, I got enough chicken to make 10 meals (5 meals for two), for a cost per serving of $.09. To keep my meat costs low, I first look for a great deal when purchasing the meat. Then I chose meals that use meat as simply an ingredient, rather than the main course. Meals such as stir-fry, soup, casseroles, omelets, wraps, and tacos can use meat for flavor but not as the main ingredient. Then I make sure that I don't waste anything.

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