Thursday, April 28, 2011

Easter

We are fortunate enough to live close to a lot of family.  Or not so fortunate, depending on how you look at it. :)  Each holiday we have to make a decision as to who to spend it with, and let me tell you, it can be pretty heart-wrenching.  At least, it is for me.

As the kids get older and we start doing more holiday celebrating on our own, I think it will slowly get easier as others start joining us, rather than us joining them.  I look forward to establishing our own traditions, but I'm not worried about it at the moment since the children are so young.  For now, I will appreciate the opportunities we are given, because I know what it's like to be away from your family when all you want to do is see them and get a few hugs.


This year we went to Grandma and Grandpa Torgeson's in Glendale. They are Stephen's mother's parents, and they are wonderful.  They live very close to Griffith Park and let me drop by whenever I'm in the neighborhood.  Plus, Grandma Torgeson makes the best food. Ever.

After big holiday meals at the Torgeson's we go for walks through the neighborhood.  It's an older neighborhood with beautiful houses, but it's really hilly!  The pictures don't really do it justice.



Ben got pretty tired and I forgot to bring the stroller (whoops) so he needed a lot of motivation.  He was such a trooper!


The main reason for the walk on Easter is to get the kids out of the house so the grown-ups can hide the eggs.  It was Stephen's job this year, and he was pretty effective.  Ben needed help for some of them, since Stephen would do things like hide a yellow egg in a lemon tree.
 


The next oldest after Ben is Jonny, who is in high school. Ben absolutely LOVES Jonny and follows him around whenever they're together.


We had such a good time.  Thank you, Torgesons!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Meal Plan Wednesday

Hello again!  Here I am with another report from the front.  The store front, that is.

This week (well, the last few anyway) presented a special challenge to me because we are approaching the end of strawberry season.  "But, Alicia!" I hear you say, "Strawberries are available year-round!" Why yes, they are.  But can you get deliciously sweet, melt-your-taste-buds, quality strawberries year-round? Absolutely not.

I make strawberry jam every year.  Well, I have since last year when I moved to a city with strawberry fields growing next to main streets.  Jam has to be made from quality ingredients or the end product is watery or pulpy, so I feel so lucky that we live in an area that produces amazing, quality strawberries.  My dilemma for this year was that they tend to be pretty expensive (I didn't care as much about the price last year).  A half flat of seconds (perfect strawberries, usually used for dipping in chocolate, are firsts, while seconds still have the great taste of firsts but are usually shaped funny and thus, cheaper) runs about $16 at my local grower. A half flat of strawberries is about 5-6 pounds, so that comes to about $2.65 a pound.  Sorry, but that is not a good price.


I told myself that if I saw good, quality (I mean, nearly perfect) strawberries go through my regular supermarket at an amazing price, I would give in and buy them.  I didn't think it would happen, but it did!  My local store was selling one pound packages of excellent strawberries for... $.88/pound! I was so excited! I bought 4 pounds and I already had a leftover package of pectin (I use Sure Jell), so we are making jam tomorrow.  Dilemma solved.

Here's the plan for the week (parenthesis are things I needed to purchase that I didn't already have):

Breakfast
Cream of Wheat
Cereal (milk)
Pancakes

Dinner
W Pasta & Salad (lettuce, bell pepper)
T Scalloped Potatoes with Ham (potatoes)
F Pizza (bell pepper)
S Roast Chicken with Potatoes and Green Beans (chicken @ .75/lb)
M Chicken Tacos (jalapeno)
T Fried Chicken with Mashed Potatoes and Steamed Carrots (chicken @ .75/lb)

Extras
Watermelon
Strawberries
Face Moisturizer
(Possibly Cadbury Eggs? No, they were already out.)

Sprouts                6.87
Stater Bros        18.16
Costco               12.98
TOTAL            $38.01

Woot!  We did it again!  A whole $1.99 under!  And I can still make jam! Maybe I can still go find those chocolate eggs somewhere.

This whole thing still amazes me and the money we are saving is shocking.  Last year (April 2010) we spent a whopping $476.17 on grocery shopping and diapers.  This month (including my trips to Joanne's for diapering materials), we've spent $214.88.  That's a $258.29 difference! Holy cow!  Imagine what we could do with that!

I think it's safe to say that we really do have control over our finances (at least the grocery part).  Last year I thought I was doing all I could.  Apparently not. :)  Because I stay home, I feel like it's my responsibility to make sure we have an efficient household, not to mention a healthy one.  I have really enjoyed this last month.  I've noticed a marked difference in the way we've approached dinner.  People in my house are happier.  I love knowing what I'm making, and dinner doesn't feel as much like a chore.  It almost seems like I should feel the opposite, but I've freed up so much time and worry!

Here's to happy planning!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Not Just Meal Planning...

So I've been thinking more about the blog and how I tend to get overly involved in something and it sort of overtakes my life. Like meal planning. I'm really good at concentrating on one thing, but then other things get left out or left behind in the dust of my creativity or determination. I must be better at balance.

Speaking of balance, I've been trying to do yoga (thank you netflix for instant streaming) and I found a video that I like because it has only 10 minute increments. That means I can actually complete something while the kiddos are otherwise occupied. Meanwhile, I'm not sure yoga is really "me." There's a lot of "relaxing" breathing in the video... along with loud breathing sounds for when you're supposed to exhale. I understand that is part of the exercise, but really... it's a bit distracting at times. Plus, I fall over a lot. I am just not a physical person.

So the latest project I have taken on has been another money saving strategy.  I am switching to cloth diapers.  Yes, you read that right.  Initially I was only going to switch Ben to help with his potty training, as he had no problem sitting in a full disposable diaper all day.  He just didn't care if he was wet or dirty, so the move to cloth was designed to help him feel when he was wet or dry.  It totally worked!  We did cloth off and on with him for about 3 weeks, alternating between cloth diapers and underwear.  He'll go whenever we tell him, but he needs to be reminded.  Overall, he is doing great and will even stay dry through the entire night.   What a pro!

Now we are moving to cloth for Sophie.  I've been researching a lot on the internet because cloth diapers are not how they used to be!  My favorite brand is called Thirsties, a system involving a cover and inserts.  To save money I am making the covers myself, as they cost about $13.00 each.  The covers are adjustable so they will fit her through multiple sizes and I bought simple Gerber birdseye prefolds.  It's working pretty well so far.  Here's my favorite cover I've made so far:





The materials I used were a waterproof polyurethane laminate for the lining, a poly-cotton blend for the cover, and fold over elastic for the binding.  It was surprisingly easy to make and took about 2 hours from start to finish, but I was moving slow because I had to draft a pattern and I'd never made one like this before.  I'm sure it will move faster.  I'll be saving about $50 a month on diapers, not to mention that I've learned a skill that will save money for all our future children.  The supplies for everything cost about $75 which included prefolds, fabric, and notions for about 20 diapers.  Not including the cost of prefolds (about $20) that comes to $2.75 a cover!  I also bought fabric to make swim diapers and lined training pants for nighttime.  This was well worth the investment for me.

Speaking of saving money, here's my menu for the week:

Breakfast
Pancakes (buttermilk)
Cream of Wheat
Cereal

Lunch
Leftovers
Sandwiches

Dinner
W Cream of Broccoli Soup & Rolls (broccoli, cream)
T Chicken Fajitas (bell pepper, red onion)
F Pizza (bell pepper, onion, sausage, cheese)
S Beef Back Ribs, Potato Salad, Green Beans (ribs @ 1.47 lb)
M Bean Burritos
T Ham and Bean Soup, Rolls, Salad (navy beans, red bell pepper, egg, lettuce)

Stater Bros       15.33
Sprouts              4.08
Costco              17.97
Total                37.38

Do you see that total? We did it!  I think using inexpensive meats, having two vegetarian meals and using dried beans helped a lot.

Stephen has the day off from work tomorrow, so we're going to have a fun Friday together. :)  TTFN.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Meal Plan Wednesday

Yes, I know it's Friday. Sorry this is late.

It's been a busy week for us, as we had a funeral yesterday for a friend of the family. It was sad, though her death was expected because of a brain tumor. I must say, it was probably one of the most uplifting (almost happy) funerals I've ever been to. The woman who passed away was such a selfless, friendly person and I think her family was relieved that the fight was over. Her grandchildren sang, we sang a song she wrote with a choir that got together Wednesday, and the mood in the room was peaceful and celebratory. It felt like we were all patting her on the back whispering "Good job, Linda" in her ear.

Anyway, despite the busy-ness of the week I was still able to get our grocery shopping done. Here's our meal plan for the next week:

Breakfast
Cereal
Muffins
Pancakes

Lunch
Sandwiches
Leftovers

Dinner
W Tortilla Soup (Got moved b/c of the funeral- we ate at Stephen's parent's house)
T Bean Burritos (Also moved b/c of the funeral- ate at In n Out, which is covered by a separate $20/month eating out budget)
F Pizza
S BBQ Chicken Strips, Potato Salad, Green Beans
M Mac & Cheese, Smoked Sausage, Sauteed Spinach
T Chicken Fajitas

Snacks
Bananas
Watermelon
Pretzels
Juice for Ben

Baby
Rice cereal
Green Beans

My estimate for the week came out to exactly $40 (woot). However, I realized that I was nearly out of butter, and I use butter frequently. I have no shame about this. There is nothing tastier than a creamy, slightly salty addition to vegetables or baked items. Also, butter is my preferred fat for sauces, soups and gravies. The cheapest butter I found listed on sale was for $3 a pound! Ridiculous! Since when is that a sale?! At Costco I was able to purchase it for $2.32 a pound, but I had to buy 4 pounds. That set me back nearly $10, but it will last over a month if I limit my baking. Another thing that set me back more than I would have liked was a cereal sale at Albertsons. They were selling cereal at $1.75 a box, but you had to buy 4. That should last me 1-2 months.

Total for the week: $54.62

Not great. So, where did I go wrong? I spent the following:

Sprouts (produce) 9.13
Costco (diary, juice) 28.06
Albertsons (cereal) 7.79
Stater Bros (meat, grocery) 9.64

I think it's safe to say that Costco is the bane of my existence. Speaking of Costco, I had the following conversation with the clerk at check out:

"Has anyone offered you the executive membership yet?"
"Yes, I'm not interested."
"Um, you spend a lot of money here!"
"I know. I'm trying to change that."
"You have 2 babies! That's not going to change. Every time you eliminate one expense something else will come up. You should really think about getting the executive membership."
"Yeah, I'm still trying to be better about my spending..."

That whole experience made me want to NEVER get that executive membership. And slap her. I really am trying to do better. I mean, I only bought 4 things at Costco and I'm trying to only purchase necessities, like eggs, milk, cheese, or potatoes. Things that are always less expensive there. I could probably eliminate apple juice, but I'm trying to water it down so we go through it more slowly, and if I got rid of it I'd have one angry toddler. Anyway, I still want to smack that lady for telling me that I can't get any better with my spending habits. It reminded me of those lap band billboards that say, "Diets Fail! Lap Band Works!" I hate those- really, what a downer.

I think my grocery budget will have to come down to an average of $40 a week so that when I need to buy a lot of something, I can. After the month is out, I'll know for sure if I can do this and if it's realistic.



Let me explain why I go to so many stores. Firstly, I have the time to go to them. Secondly, it is less expensive for me to drive around than to ignore the deals and only shop at one store. Sprouts is amazing and has double ad Wednesdays, when their ads overlap between weeks and I can get consistently great prices on fresh produce (bell peppers at .77 each and heads of lettuce for .50, etc). Their produce is quality and some of the best I've seen in the area. However, I will never buy other items from them because they specialize in organic/whole foods. They are expensive. This is the case for the other stores I shop at: good prices and quality for some things, yet terrible prices or quality for others. If there was a store that existed with great prices and good quality for every item I needed I would go there, but there isn't a place like that where I live. It only exists in my imagination.

I do not coupon because I generally try not to buy prepared foods and that's usually what coupons are for. I always try to use them if they are in a grocery ad. I will use them for specific items items I need, like face wash or toilet paper, but I sign up for specific newsletters for online coupons. That's the extent I go.

Lesson learned for the week: It's only a good deal if you would normally buy the item. For example, if soda were on sale next week for .50 a liter (in my dreams) I wouldn't buy it even though it's a fantastic price. Why? I don't usually purchase soda, so I'm still spending extra money for something I wouldn't buy anyway. If I were planning a party in the near future? Then I would purchase it because I would have bought it in the near future. Root beer... yum...

Happy shopping and happy weekend!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Beach

We went to the beach a few weeks back with my good friend, Jessica. The kids had a blast! Ben has always hated the sand, but Sophie loves it! Here she is digging her first hole:

video

We love the beach!






If you look carefully, you can almost see Catalina Island!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Grocery Store Lessons

Yesterday I put my grocery and meal plan into action and was a little shocked by the results.

I went through my cupboards and made a list, deciding meals mostly based on what I had. I followed a meal plan template similar to this one I found through a link on Dave Ramsey's website (love his financial planning stuff, by the way) and here's what mine looked like:

Breakfast
Cereal
Cinnamon Rolls
Pancakes

Lunch
Leftovers (this is what we usually eat)
Sandwiches

Dinner
Sweet & Sour Pork with Fried Rice
Roast Chicken with Rice Pilaf
Pizza (probably a white pizza because I already had most of the ingredients)
Shepherd's Pie
Chicken Parmesan
Bean Burritos

Snacks
Pretzels
Apples
Melon
Chips & Salsa

Baby
Rice Cereal w/squash or green beans

After I made my list I found I only had to buy THREE THINGS. I only needed to purchase eggs, spinach for the white pizza (which I didn't really need to purchase) and a can of pineapple for the Sweet & Sour Pork. Obviously every week won't be like this, but I don't think I realized how much food I had in my fridge and my cupboards, and I find this a little frightening. I thought I was running a semi-tight ship, but I guess not.

My eyes have been opened to the failure that is my kitchen efficiency.

I think the real test of running a $40 a week kitchen will come when I don't already have a ton of meat stockpiled in my freezer. But here are a few lessons I've learned so far:

Plan your meals using your weekly grocery ads for deals. Don't try to do this at the store. I found that even though I had already made my list, the pressure to impulse buy and change my list was quite tempting. I always tend to go into a daze when I walk into a store and I feel like saying, "Oh. Shiny things."

Incorporate food storage items into your meals. I was trying to come up with a meal that didn't require me to purchase meat as this can be a very high ticket item. I thought about it and remembered my giant can of pinto beans in my food storage and decided that we were going to have bean burritos. Beans take a long time but don't require a lot of work. If your beans are old (like mine), you can add baking soda to the soaking water to them to help them get softer, though you must rinse it off before cooking.

Estimate your cost before you get there. This can save a lot of headaches at the store, especially for people like me with small children who need to get in and out quickly. Some grocery stores have their items listed online, like Vons. I like using their site because typically it's a little more expensive there and I can almost guarantee that I won't underestimate my costs, though I always make adjustments for what's on sale on my favorite grocery store.

Bring a calculator. I like knowing exactly what I'll be spending so I can put things back if I'm going over budget. Most, if not all, cell phones have a convenient calculator application already there, but I prefer using an actual calculator. I like writing down the cost of the item next to it on my list so I can make more specific adjustments.


So that's what I've learned so far. Hopefully I can stick with the plan!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Welcome Back

Yes, yes, I'm back. It's been long enough, I think.

Our holidays were great. But I didn't send out over half of our Christmas cards. Better luck next year, I guess.

We have been pretty busy with the kids. Ben is now three years old and my dear daughter will be nine months in a few weeks! The speed of life is mind boggling sometimes.

We are about 2000 dollars away from being completely debt free and it feels amazing. Between student loans, medical bills and a car it's been an interesting ride. We have been working on this since we graduated two years ago and are excited to be nearly finished paying it all off.

Next goal- buy a house. That's a lot of money.

I have been reevaluating our budget today and trying to figure out where we can save more money, and we haven't been so great with the grocery budget. For a while we've been justifying spending extra on groceries so we don't go out to eat, but that clearly doesn't work since we've been eating out anyway.

I'm going to try and feed a family of four (well, three and a half) on $40 a week. April will be our experiment month to see if I can pull this off (though, I'll admit, I'm fairly skeptical I can do it). I have a few tricks up my sleeve to try and accomplish our goal:
  • Plan every meal, especially dinners.
  • Treat meat as a side.
  • Plan a few quick and easy meals so I don't burn out and give up.
I think if I make and stick to a plan I could be successful.

On a side note, we watched conference this weekend with family and it was great. I always come away feeling so pumped to improve my life. Speaking of life, here are some pictures of the babies:





My little sister takes fire dancing classes and she totally works it. It looks awesome on camera: