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Archive for February, 2010

And the Winner of February's Home Cooking Challenge Is...

February 28th, 2010 at 02:03 pm



It's time to report your Home Cooking points for the month of February. How many points did you earn by eating at home rather than dining out this month?

After reporting your tallies below, feel free to add your comments. Did February mirror your usual dining in/out habits or did the contest make you think twice about eating out?

I'll start the ball rolling:

Fern: 26 points

Comments:
It was easy for me to eat at home on every day but two days this month since I am underemployed right now and my budget is very much on my mind.

On those days I did eat out, it was nothing extravagant, simply fast food I grabbed out of convenience (and hunger) while running errands.

It's your turn now!

Frugal Nugget #2: Meet Your New Best Friend

February 26th, 2010 at 07:54 pm



My mom often used a pressure cooker when I was growing up. That rapid-fire, sizzling sound coming from the kitchen usually meant that something delicious was in the works. I have one of my own today, but truth be told, I don't haul it out often. That's going to change, because cooking meals with a pressure cooker offers numerous benefits.

If you're unfamiliar with how a pressure cooker works, it's simply a specially designed, airtight cooking pot with lid that cooks food using high temperature steam. When you add a small amount of liquid, such as water or chicken broth, the pressure cooker traps the steam that rises from the liquid and raises both the temperature and pressure inside the cooker to cook the food.

Here are four tremendous advantages pressure cookers offer the frugal cook:

1. Pressure cookers are fast.
Pressure cooking can cook food in a fraction of the time needed to cook food by other means, whether that means an electric stove, gas stove or slow cooker. Here are some sample cook times for pressure-cooked meals that typically require an hour or more in a conventional oven:
* Root vegetables: 6 minutes.
* Beef pot roast: 35 to 40 minutes
* Meatloaf: 10 to 15 minutes
* 2- to 3-pound whole chicken: 12-18 minutes
* Chicken drumsticks, legs or thighs: 5 to 7 minutes

2. Pressure cookers save you money.
Pressure cookers save you money in several ways. First, because pressure cookers cook foods up to 70% faster than other methods, you'll use less energy preparing family meals.

According to calculations made by the Pacific Gas & Electric Company, a whole chicken that would require about an hour-and-a-half of cooking time in a conventional oven would cost .90 to cook in an electric oven, .17 in a gas oven and .08 in a pressure cooker.

A risotto simmering for 45 minutes would cost .23 if cooked on an electric stove top, .08 on a gas stove top and .03 in a pressure cooker.

Potatoes that were roasted for 60 minutes would cost .60 on an electric stove top, .11 on a gas stove top and .02 in a pressure cooker.

Pressure cookers use considerably less water than conventional cooking by boiling food. Depending on the pressure cooker brand, one need only add a half cup of water to cook corn-on-the-cob in a pressure cooker, for example. After three minutes at high pressure, it'll be time to butter your corn. So you'll save water, save the energy to heat all that water to boiling and save energy in cooking the corn for a shorter period of time. What's more, the corn will be more nutritious because the vitamins haven't been boiled away.

When used in summer, pressure cookers don't heat up the house like a conventional oven would, so you'll save on your cooling bills.

Best of all, pressure cookers allow you buy inexpensive dried beans or cuts of meat that would normally require hours of cooking to tenderize. Pressure cooking can turn a normally laborious, time-intensive task such as boiling leftover bones from meat for flavorful stews into a breeze.

3. Pressure cookers preserve food's nutrients.
Vegetables are a great example of how pressure cooking retains important food nutrients. Steamed vegetables retain more nutrients than boiling and because they're cooked so quickly, they also retain their bright colors and fresh taste.

Pressure cookers make cooking dried beans a snap. Dried beans are generally healthier than canned beans or other canned vegetables because they don't contain added sugars, preservatives or chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA)that are used in the inside lining of most canned goods.

Because pressure cooking is quick and easy, you'll find you have less excuses to stop for fast food or a pizza on the way home from work. Home-cooked meals are vastly better for your health than meals eaten out because they contain fewer hidden calories, salt, preservatives, artificial colors and fats.

4. Pressure cookers are good for the environment.
Pressure cookers reduce your energy usage due to reduced cooking time and so ease the load of greenhouse gas emissions you produce from your electric or gas stove.

How does pressure cooking compare to microwave cooking?

Unlike microwave-cooked food, which often heats unevenly or appears an unappetizing shade of gray, pressure-cooked foods remain moist and succulent.

How does a pressure cooker measure up to a slower cooker?

While slow-cooked foods usually require eight or more hours to cook most foods, a pressure cooker cooks most foods in under an hour, and sometimes just minutes. That's because a slower cooker operates at a relatively low temperature (about 175 to 200 degrees) over many hours, while a pressure cooker runs at a much higher temperature, typically over boiling (239 to 244 degrees). Both deliver a tasty meal, but the pressure cooker also saves significant time and money.

Using a slow cooker, or crock pot, also requires a great deal of advance planning and organization. The prep work for a meal has to be done the night before, or in the morning before you leave for work so that it will be ready when you return that evening. This is probably one reason why those who own slow cookers don't use them regularly.

Pressure cookers, on the other hand, let you to whip up a delicious meal at a moment's notice.

If you decide to give pressure cookers a try, be sure to purchase a new one that features all the built-in safety features of today's models. Older versions, perhaps like those used by your mother or grandmother, did not contain this new technology.

What percentage of your cooking is done using your stove/oven, slow cooker, microwave and pressure cooker?

***************


Frugal Nuggets represent the occasional piece of frugal wisdom for those who have mastered the basics.

Are You Saving Enough?

February 21st, 2010 at 01:36 am



Next week, February 21-28, 2010, is America Saves Week.

With a persistently low personal savings rate, inadequate retirement savings and a frequent shortfall in emergency savings, Americans clearly need to "build wealth, not debt."

Although America Saves Week is intended to encourage institutions like employers, banks, credit unions and lenders to promote saving, it also seeks to encourage individuals to take charge of their finances.

When visiting the website, individuals can:

* See the humor in saving by viewing a variety of videos.

* Read or subscribe to monthly e-Wealth messages on a range of timely topics like Retirement Savings in a Bad Economy, Developing a Debt-Free Game Plan and Saving Your Tax Refund.

* Read the inspiring personal stories of ordinary individuals who have overcome a specific financial challenge. You can also submit your own story.

* Test your savings knowledge.

* Assess how you're doing.

America Saves Week is jointly sponsored by America Saves, which is managed by the Consumer Federation of America, and the American Savings Education Council (ASEC), which is managed by the Employee Benefits Research Institute (EBRI).

If you had to submit a story about your greatest savings challenge, past or present, what would it be about?

Frugal Nugget #1

February 11th, 2010 at 01:48 pm



Save the water you use to cook vegetables to water houseplants after the water has cooled.

The water in which vegetables have been boiled contains minerals and other nutrients that will help your plants thrive. Cooked vegetables leach some of these nutrients in the water, even when the vegetables are steamed.

It's not advisable to water houseplants with cooking water if you've salted the water. If you're in the habit of doing this, another option to reuse this water is to freeze it for later use in soups or stews.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Southerners at one time used water left over from boiling foods poured over bread or biscuits or simply drunk from a shotglass. Such water was known as "pot liquor," or "potlikker."

American slave cooks started the practice of saving the "broth" from cooking greens like collards, turnips and mustards to feed their families.

Potlikker may have been associated with a life of hardship, but many of those who became accustomed to drinking such vegetable water - the precursor of V8 juice - relished the distinct flavors of waters used to cook specific vegetables.

If you're a Northerner, potlikker may be an acquired taste. And while the water used to cook other foods, such as pasta or hard-boiled eggs, may not generate the same praise from Southern foodies, it can still be used to refresh your houseplants.




Unemployment's Silver Lining

February 8th, 2010 at 11:25 pm



MainStreet.com has done an interesting series of vignettes on the varied ways that people have made the most of their layoffs.

In The Upside of Unemployment, you'll read about:

* A Michigan woman whose pregnancy coincided with her layoff. She ended up enjoying an "extended maternity leave."

* A commercial real estate analyst who used his unemployment benefits and severance to help launch his own organic beer, something he'd already been working on nights and weekends. When his company began a round of layoffs, he recognized the opportunity and asked to be laid off because he knew he needed to devote more time to ensure the success of his side business.

* A Des Moines woman who discovered that both she and her children would be eligible for a free year of schooling at her local community college due to her reduced income after layoff.

* Newlyweds who decided to leave their jobs together and travel the world. They took the money they received from their wedding, along with what they'd saved for a new house, and went on an extended honeymoon, figuring they didn't really need a house just yet.

* A former Lehman Brothers investment banker who chose to use his free time after a layoff to write a book: about his old employer.

* A former Goldman Sachs employee who joined a gym after her layoff and went from a size 16 to a size 6. She approached going to the gym, she said, like going to a job.

* A woman whose layoff occurred at a time when her mother was very ill and went into hospice care. Having no job meant that she was able to sit with her mother daily without the stress of worrying about her work backing up at the office and she was able to focus on being with her mother in her time of need.

* Another man who used his severance to travel. He earned money by blogging about his travels at http://www.NoDebtWorldTravel.com.

These are all wonderful examples of people who were able to pursue their personal interests, test their entrepreneurial skills or devote more time to family. While there is usually an element of risk involved in trying something new without a steady paycheck to back you up, many of those quoted in this story held high-paying jobs and relied on what were probably hefty severance packages to finance their pursuits.

If you were laid off this week, could you afford to indulge in long-held dreams like travel, or would you have to focus on mere survival?

Faces of the Unemployed - Meet Don

February 3rd, 2010 at 11:42 pm



This interview is the second in a periodic series profiling those who have recreated themselves following a job layoff. Each story is unique, yet the challenges they've faced will resonate with many who share their experience.

I recently spoke with "Don," a former senior-level IT director in southern Connecticut who carved a new path outside the corporate track after losing his job at age 58.


Q. What happened to your last full-time job?

Don: It's been four years since my job in IT was outsourced to India, like so many others. At the time, I was 58 years old and had known for over a year that this was probably going to happen as my company was merging different business units.

I had been working in IT for over 30 years, working my way up from a programmer's position to the level of director of information technology. My salary plus bonus in 2005 was about $125,000.

Q. What was your biggest immediate concern following your layoff?

Don: I had considerable savings and investments, so I was more worried about losing my medical benefits than I was about the financial impact of my job loss. After researching various options, I discovered that I would be eligible for health coverage if I worked part-time (at least 20 hours a week) at Starbucks, so I got a job at a local Starbucks as a lowly barista. I started working there in 2005, while I was still working as an IT director. It was just a few months before my layoff. So, for a period of time, I was working about 60 hours a week between both jobs.

As expected, I lost my IT job at the end of 2005. I got a very generous severance package and continued working part-time at Starbucks, which qualified me for medical coverage.

Q. Was it difficult to make the transition from senior-level corporate executive to coffee-server?

Don: For someone who once managed 10 people and a $5,000,000 budget, the Starbucks position was, of course, very menial; I was essentially a clerk serving beverages and emptying the garbage. But I enjoyed the job and felt a sense of relief that I had left the corporate world once and for all. It was kind of strange reporting to supervisors who were in their early 20's, but I got along well with everyone.

I enjoyed getting an inside glimpse of the workings of a large, successful company by day and reading the company's corporate news announcements in the Wall Street Journal the same night. Still, there were times when I was self-conscious and a bit embarrassed when former colleagues and friends would show up as customers at Starbucks.

Eventually, I took on two other part-time jobs to keep myself busy and supplement my Starbucks income. One was working as a clerk at a gas station eight hours a week at a low salary, but with one big benefit: getting my two cars fixed for free there whenever they need repairs. I always enjoyed being around cars, and it's a nice casual place to work, where I can bring my dog if I want. We have a big TV on all day too.

I also landed a job as a driving instructor at a local driving school for another 10 hours a week. It's something I enjoy immensely since, in the early days of my career, I worked as a high school math teacher. I like being with the kids.

While I've kept the driving instructor and gas station jobs for over two years now, I was laid off by Starbucks in mid-2009. It came during a big wave of layoffs there following a drop in coffee sales and the deepening recession, and a change in their business model where they wanted to hire mostly full time employees.

Q: Did you lose health coverage when you left Starbucks?

Don: No. I had remarried when I turned 60, so I wasn't upset to lose the Starbucks health benefits since I'm now on my wife's superior health plan. It was fun working there for almost four years.

Q. Are you able to make ends meet now and provide for a comfortable semi-retirement?

Don: My two jobs provide sufficient activity, stimulation and income, combined with my other investment income. I also decided to begin collecting Social Security benefits at age 62. This allows me to work only about 15 to 20 hours a week now between both remaining part-time jobs.

I'm happy to be out of the IT world with its politics, pressure and often incompetent managers.

Q: Did you consider any other career paths once you left the IT world?

Don: Early on, I did consider becoming a licensed practical nurse (LPN), since there's been a chronic shortage of nurses and the job prospects in that field are booming. I've also enjoyed working with elderly people in various volunteer activities I've had over the years. In the end, I decided not to pursue that path, though I'd recommend it to others. I chose not to pursue nursing because it would take me two years to get the schooling and license, and I don't want to be working that much longer or harder.

Q: Can you describe the most significant changes in your lifestyle today compared to just a few years ago?

Don: The best thing about semi-retirement is the added time it's put back into my life. I'm working less than 20 hours a week now and I have a lot of time to do many things I couldn't do before, like travel, golf, volunteer work and spending more time with my wife, family, friends and new dog.

Life is good. I'm happy, content and, while far from rich, I'm financially comfortable, with no regrets after 40 years in the work world.

Q: What advice could you give to others who face a possible layoff? How easy is it to reinvent yourself after investing so much time in your career?

Don: Take a chance and try something new. I could have advanced into management at Starbucks, but I wasn't interested. But there are plenty of opportunities out there for interesting jobs, where you don't have the pressure to make a lot of money. Just make sure you can continue health care benefits one way or the other.


Join the February Challenge: Home Cooking

February 2nd, 2010 at 01:04 am



First, I'd like to congratulate everyone who participated in the January "Purge 30 in 30 Days" challenge. There were many of you who went well beyond the basic challenge of de-cluttering your homes, whether by selling unwanted possessions, giving them away or recycling them.

While the January challenge was all about simplifying your life, the February challenge is about reducing your monthly food bill by eating at home as much as possible. While grabbing a pizza on the way home from work can be a convenience (and who doesn't enjoy being waited on at a full service restaurant?), dining out today certainly gives me a case of sticker shock.

And, let's face it, restaurant food is designed to taste good. Perhaps becuase of restaurateurs' desire to have you coming back for more, restaurant food is often laden with hidden salts, fats and sugars, all of which enhance the flavor of food, as well as our waistlines.

The February challenge is very simple: let's see how many days this month you can eat all your meals at home. Give yourself 1 point for each day when you don't purchase any foods or beverages outside the home. (Yup, this includes coffee from Starbucks or a candy bar at the grocery check-out line.)

If you eat at a friend's house, that's okay. You're still eating at (a) home. If you make your lunch at home but eat it at work, give yourself a point (as long as the rest of your meals are homemade, too).

The person who earns the highest score, or a score of 28, since this is February, wins.

Are you in?