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E is for Eating In

September 20, 2013
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We all know that it is cheaper to eat in than to dine out, so why is it so hard? I recently committed to cook dinner at home twice a week to help reduce our spending and get us back on track with our savings. Know that 2 doesn’t seem like a lot, but when I say “2” I mean new recipes, real dinners. We’ll still eat in other nights but that’s when I will make our quick weekly staples: tacos, pre-made meatballs, and whatever else you can make with a rotisserie chicken from Safeway.

In addition to saving some dolla billz, I find eating in helps us to eat healthier and save even more on food because leftovers make for good lunches. Cooking is also great for stress reduction; when I’m trying a new recipe my mind can only focus on one thing: not effing it up.

That said, I am always looking for healthy and fast recipes. I’ve told you about a few of my faves before, check those out here and here, and wanted to share another easy, quick and delicious dish. It’s another Weight Watchers recipe, so it’s on the healthier side and comes in at $3.75 per serving: Orzo with Asparagus, Tomatoes & Cheese.

Ingredients
1 cup uncooked orzo pasta
1 pound uncooked asparagus, cut into 1 inch pieces
1 tbsp olive oil
3 garlic cloves
2 medium plum tomatoes
1 cup fat-free ricotta cheese
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/4 cup fresh basil, coarsely chopped
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
(recipe also calls for 1 medium yellow onion, chopped,  I dig onions and all but it’s a bit much in this)

Directions
Cook the orzo according to package directions, adding the asparagus during the last 2 minutes of cooking time. Drain and keep warm.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic; cook, stirring, until the onion is slightly softened, about 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook until just wilted, about 2 minutes. Stir in the reserved orzo and asparagus and heat through, about 2 minutes more. Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in the ricotta and Parmesan cheeses, the basil, salt, and pepper.

Yields 1 1⁄4 cups per serving.

Nutritional Information
(based on 4 servings) 284 calories, 19 g protein, 7 g total fat, 39 g carbohydrate, 5 g fiber, 11 mg cholesterol, 589 mg sodium, 8 WW points

What are your fave recipes? Please share!

If you are catching up, we are using the alphabet to guide us through ways to save money, time, etc. Catch up on the Alphabet Project here.

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Target: The $100 Store

September 17, 2013
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I know I am not the only one who can’t go in to Target without spending at least $100. From the dollar bins by the front door to the hidden shelves of sale items at the end of the aisles, I swear I am really saving money on things when I walk out of there $100 poorer (I know this is completely not true, but stay with me).

Enter the Target REDcard. If Target is also your $100 store, then you need one of these. Stat. It’s not a credit card (although there is a credit option), it’s a debit card linked directly to your bank account that comes with benefits:

5% back on purchases: Instead of $100, you will spend $95

Free shipping: Kind of like Amazon Prime, without the super fast shipping; this is also great for people like me who have a hard time getting to a physical store

30 extra days to make returns: For those of us who are indecisive

There is not much that could make me love Target more, but they’ve done it with the REDCard. I realize that in my effort to save even the smallest amount of money, I am giving them the right to track all of my purchases (it’s so hard to fight The Man). But hey, just add it to the list of things I have signed up for (from loyalty/club cards to e-mail newsletters) to save a few dollars.

Every little bit counts, right?

D is for Due Dates

September 13, 2013
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The Alphabet Project continues. If you are catching up, we’re doing a series on What’s My Deal?, check out what you’ve missed thus far, here.

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Did you know you can change the due dates for most of your bills so that they work for you, not against you? This may be common knowledge to some, but when I figured this out a few years back I was not only amazed, but relieved. So this is me, sharing the wealth; figuratively, but almost literally.

Now that you know what you are spending (this is assuming you’ve got your budget in order), it’s time to take control of those due dates. The goal is to even out your spending throughout the month so you don’t find yourself with little or no cash on hand at any point.

This is a fairly simple process: figure out what dates can be moved and then move ’em. Typically, most of your utilities and credit card payment due dates can easily be adjusted through a web or phone request; things like rent and mortgage payments are often not flexible. Do some research and see what can be moved around and what cannot.

We have arranged our due dates so that half our bills are due during the first half of the month, and the rest are due the second half of the month. While this doesn’t change what you spend on bills, it gives you more control of your spending and that’s what budgeting it all about, after all.

How to NOT save money on vacation

September 10, 2013
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Two months after getting out of the hospital I am finally ready to share my story. I’d like to say that this is a tale of overcoming fear, language barriers and taking on an illness that tried to get the best of me. But that it was not. This is mostly just a tale of tears, and how to NOT save money on vacation.

To set the stage: We haven’t taken more than four days off from work in three years, life has been beyond stressful (in ways I don’t care to divulge to the Interwebs) and I was misdiagnosed by two doctors in the United States before I boarded a plane to Europe for a 19 day trip; antibiotics stowed carefully under the seat in front of me.

Fast forward four days through the worst plane ride of my life (tears), a high fever causing hallucinations and black out periods (more tears), and the gargling feeling in my chest and throat every time I tried to take the tiniest of breaths (beyond tears). We were on our way high in to the Swiss Alps to participate in the family reunion for which we had traveled to Europe. Imagine this: tunnel vision, ringing in ears, switch back road, pouring rain, getting lost on said road, and the higher the altitude the less I could breath (tears, tears, tears).

And this is how I found myself in the Hôpital de Valais in Sion, Switzerland (1.5 hours away from my family) with a serious case of pneumonia that prompted the doctors to say “it would be dangerous for you to leave”. At least the hospital looked like a spaceship as imagined through the eyes of the 1970’s.

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Some shots from the inside once I was feeling better.

For the record, I had my amazing cousin Roger by my side in the ER and through the admittance process. He lives in Montreux, Switzerland, is fluent in French, and happens to be a nurse and health advocate for diplomats visiting Switzerland. In other words, I wasn’t flying completely solo in a strange, remote hospital where no one spoke English, or at least, I wasn’t flying solo until visiting hours were over that evening…

What happened over the next 4 days, during my first ever hospital stay, are some of the most funny, awkward, sad, strange and difficult moments of my life. I don’t ever want to forget these, so I am documenting them here. In no particular order:

The X-Ray: “Put your breasts here.” For my close friends, if you haven’t seen me re-enact the most awkward moment of my life, ask me the next time you see me.
The Language Barrier: One can only imagine the hand gestures used to explain medical issues, so I share with you one of the least graphic examples – as I pull down my hospital gown that the nurse has just pulled up – “Um, hi, yes, what is that shot? what is that big needle? you don’t know how to say it English? well please find someone who does before you stick that in my leg. Merci.”
The Crying: Everything made me cry, including (but not limited to) – the pain, our ruined vacation, the fever, when visitors would arrive, when visitors would leave, every time I had to get up to use the restroom, every time they delivered the food, every time someone would call from home, every time I would wake up in the middle of the night, every time Madame Claire would spray perfume… and I swear, I’m not much of a crier.
The Lack of Entertainment: Did I mention there was no TV, no WiFi, and my iPhone, iPod and iPad mini had all died? First world problems, I know. But staring at the ceiling for 12 -15 hours a day will make a girl cry, a lot.
The Bruises: Back to the aforementioned shot. These deserve their own line item especially since it has been over 2 months since that first shot, and I still have all 4 bruises. So hot. One per day to help with circulation from all the lying around on my ass. Most painful shot ever. I cried each time.
The one and only, Madame Claire: This woman knew everyone, appeared to live in the hospital and was a special part of my experience, so this is for her – Thank you for handing me tissue when I was crying, and for asking the nurse for my own box of tissue when I couldn’t stop crying. And thank you for gossiping about me to your friends; don’t lie, I know you were, there is no way you were talking about another person you just met from San Francisco, and thanks for the fresh raspberries since you could see I was not eating any of the food. I do not thank you for spraying your YSL perfume 3 times a day (we both couldn’t breathe and this did NOT help), for watching bad French reality programs on your private TV all day and night long (sick people don’t need to sleep, right?), and I’ll never forget that cough, that horrible cough.
The Food: Thought process of hospital staff: “You look really ill and haven’t eaten for 4 days, I bet some duck smothered in gravy with a side of french fries will settle your stomach.” Husband goes to nurses station, draws a picture of a cow and a pig, draws an X through his cartoons; nurses nod and understand “vegetarian”. For dinner I am served a smorgasbord of charcuterie. More crying.
The Fever: There was a lot of talking in my sleep; and I still feel bad for those who had to hear it – my mister, people on the plane, people on the night train, and poor Madame Claire, who got the worst of it. One night I woke myself up because I was waving, in my sleep, and there was Madame Claire, watching her reality TV and staring at me, frightened. And then there was the other night when I asked for something to help me sleep (still suffering from jet lag), and the herbal drink they gave me made me CRAZY! I passed out within minutes only to wake myself up because I had kicked Madame Claire’s rolling TV stand (about 2 feet way from my bed). Thankfully it was off, and she was asleep, but that woke her and now I was awake, scared to go back to sleep. No idea what that s**t was, but I will stick to Benadryl. Thank. you. very. much.
The Smoking: I knew smoking was much more prevalent in Europe; I did not know this included hospitals. Nurses were climbing out windows, patients were outside with their IV carts… seriously, WHERE AM I?
The Hospital Bed: Most comfortable thing on the planet, I can’t wait to be old enough to get me one of these without seeming like an old lady. I folded myself in there every night like a taco.
The Age Gap: I was easily 30 years younger than everyone on the floor, and the only mobile one. So I would walk in circles around the nurses station all day with my IV cart, and everyone would stare at me. And then grandma in the room next door passed. One day all of her family and friends were visiting, the next morning her room was empty. More tears.
The View: It could have been worse – the green rolling hills of Switzerland out of one window and a castle on a cliff out the bathroom window. But for some reason, more tears.

So all that said, here are some tips on how to NOT save money on vacation:

– Get sick; I mean, really sick
– Buy non-refundable train tickets twice
– Make international calls from your non-international smartphone
– Pay last-minute rates for hotels

Please tell me I am not alone here. What sort of mishaps or “adventures” have gotten you off track while on vacation?

Freedom!

Freedom!

The bruises relaxing on a beach in Hvar, Croatia.

The bruises relaxing on a beach in Hvar, Croatia.

Adventures in Thrifting

May 21, 2013
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So this one time I got up early (or early enough) to do some serious thrift store shopping on a Saturday morning. I love the hunt and amazing finds (jackpot!), so every few months will do a day of thrifting. As you would imagine, San Francisco has a lot of great thrift, vintage and secondhand stores and the best ones, if you ask me, are in the Mission. After a bit of Googling, I found a list on my go-to SF website, FunCheapSF, and decided to focus the days efforts on thrift stores, not vintage or consignment, to stretch my $40 budget for the day as far as possible.

First stop was Thrift Town, this place is one of my favorites because it is so impeccably organized that it is easy to shop (and frankly, good organization turns me on). In addition to having clothing organized by sleeve length, for example, clothing with brand names or in good condition are in a “Better Clothing” section. For reals. I focused my search on these “better” items, always keeping an eye out for yellow tags (each day of the week there is a 50% sale for a different color tag). After trying on a handful of items, I walked out the door with these two finds: GAP dress for $9.99 and dark gray cross-body bag for $2.99. Running total = $14.12 (with tax)

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Next on the tour, and just a few doors down: Goodwill. We regularly donate trunk loads of stuff (again, due to all of my organizing), so like to shop there too. This particular location is small, but clean and well-organized. Racks are not as clearly labeled as my beloved Thrift Town, but there is a lot of space in between the low racks, so it is easy to navigate. I really hit the jackpot here and blew most of my budget: brand new with tags American Eagle maxi dress for $10.99; black with gold chain cross-body bag for $3.99; silver vanity tray for $4.49; a cute kitty mug for a friend, $0.99 (not pictured); and a Winnie the Pooh Blustery Day record for $1.99 (also not pictured, but in case you don’t share my love of Pooh, fall in love here).

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Some tips for thrifting:
– It’s good to have a few things in mind that you are looking for; helps to narrow down which sections you should focus on
– At the same time, be open-minded, you never know what kind of treasures you will find!
– Bring cash, charging or using your debit card for $5 looks lame
– Set a budget, it’s easy to get excited about deals, but having a budget ensures that you only buy things that you will really use/wear

What are your favorite thrift store finds or tips for finding hidden treasures?

C is for Credit Cards and Credit Scores

May 9, 2013
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We’ve all got one or two or three (yikes!). I still remember the day when that first credit card arrived at my college apartment with a grand limit of $400. I felt so rich, like I could conquer the world. Turns out all I could do was buy some groceries and put some gas in my car until my next paycheck from the Wherehouse (which I believe no longer has physical stores; #gettingold).

Credit cards are a blessing and a curse. Having that AmEx handy can save you in an emergency, protect your real bank account from fraud, help you earn points towards things you really want, and help you to bump up that credit score for a significant, future purchase. It can also be where you charge everything you need but can’t afford or worse, the stuff you want but can’t afford.

I’ll be the first to admit that I am not an expert on credit cards or credit scores, but I know both are important for your current budget and financial future. Here are some tips for keeping that credit card debt down and that credit score soaring high:

Understand credit scores: Know it can be confusing and it can seem like it has no purpose, but you don’t want a bad credit score to come and bite you in the ass when you really need it. The gist: your credit score determines the credit that is available to you (i.e., your purchasing power) and the terms for that credit (interest rates, etc.). Read this for a lot more info.

Check your credit score regularly: There really is no excuse since it’s free to do it once a year. In addition to being motivation to pay attention to your finances, it also allows you to monitor  your credit history for any fraud. We’ve  made it a bit of a competition to see who can get the highest score. The mister almost squeaked past me a couple of years ago, but I’ve held my ground. Someday we will put our good scores to use, right now they are just numbers. Check yours now, here.

Lock away the credit cards: If you use your credit card most often for things you can’t afford, lock that s**t away! Bring it out for big purchases or emergencies. If you feel more comfortable having one on you, define parameters for use and most importantly define what “emergency” means. It’s not because those shoes look super-duper cute on your feet (I have used this excuse many times).

Use credit cards: Confused? You have to use your credit card to help boost your credit score. A lot of people use a card for all of their bills or all of their spending money, and then pay it off at the end of each month. This is a REALLY good idea, but requires you to flex that self-control muscle on a regular basis.

–  Get a good credit card: I’m still trying to find just the right one for me, but if you are going to use a credit card (which if you have been paying attention, I am telling you that you should), you will want to have one with a low interest rate and rewards of some sort. So do some research, and of course, the better your credit score the better the rewards and the lower the interest rate. See how that works?

That’s all I got. How do you manage your cards and scores?

And in case you are catching up, we’re doing a series on What’s My Deal?, check out the beginning of the Alphabet project here.

Living Room Makeover

May 7, 2013
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In my quest to replace all of our IKEA furniture with grown up furniture, i.e., real wood, we slowly pulled together our living room over the last year. Perfection takes time, right?

While the main reason for the slow process was picking out the right pieces, we also wanted to save up funds and do plenty of research to get the best deals possible. It was totally worth the wait; the living room has gone from being my least favorite room in the house to being my favorite, sunny and inviting oasis. Here’s a little bit on how we got great deals and found what we wanted.

Mid-Century Modern Coffee Table
This amazing Craigslist find (yes, Craigslist), may be the biggest bargain in our living room. For a super bargain price of $125, we landed this mid-century modern, G Plan coffee table that is really the most beautiful coffee table I have ever seen. We knew it was a bargain price, but when we sat down to watch an episode of Mad Men, and realized that Don Draper has the same one, it really sealed the deal.

Chevron Rug
I may be most proud of this purchase. Rugs can be EXPENSIVE and it’s oh-so-hard to find the right color/pattern/pile height. After many online and in-store searches, I fell in love with this black and white, chevron-print beauty on Overstock.com. We got this at no cost (free!) by trading in credit card points for an Overstock.com gift card. Once we had the rug picked out and the gift card, we waited for it to go on sale (which it did because Overstock always has sales) so the gift card would cover the full price. The fact that we paid nothing for it makes me a little less concerned about that imminent red wine spill.

Entertainment Console
This is where things get a bit difficult. We had the coffee table and the rug, so we had a specific style going on and matching can be rough. We wanted a hodgepodge of furniture that seemed like it didn’t go together, but in fact, went together perfectly. Again, I turned to Overstock.com and spent quite a few long nights going through literally hundreds of entertainment consoles. We needed one with feet, cabinets with no glass and at least one open shelf so we don’t have to open up the whole darn thing every time we want to change the channel. Thanks to Pinterest,  it was easy to track the ones I liked and even easier to get the misters sign off before making the purchase. Again, I traded in more of those credit card points to get this beauty.

Couch
And finally, the pièce de résistance. We searched high and low for this couch. You name a furniture store in San Francisco or its surrounding areas, and I can guarantee we went to it. We knew almost instantly that the Room & Board Townsend couch was the one: the right color, extra deep and with feet. We immediately started saving, and luckily, it was Christmas time, so we asked for gift cards to help us purchase this thing that we would sit on EVERY SINGLE DAY. Thanks to our loving family’s generosity and a post-holiday clearance sale, we got it at half price. We love it, and show our appreciation to our Townsend every day of the week as we catch up on our days, our DVR or our sleep.

Next up… the perfect throw pillows.

What’s the best deal you’ve gotten on a big household purchase?