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The 25% Solution: Live Better on Less

How would you like to make 25% more? Tax-free and without adding hours to your work-day? Well, I can’t magically make your paycheck bigger, but I can show you how to live on 75% of what you earn, how to live well, and how to save money without compromising your values or even your fun. The 25% you keep in the bank can grow and fund your dreams, help you sleep at night, or support the causes you love when you give it away.

I can show you because I’ve done it and I’m still doing it. At this point, I live on about 65% of my income. In a few years, when I make a radical change in my lifestyle to support a long-time dream, I’ll live on a smaller income and I’ll be ready to follow my dreams.

Join me in the 25% Solution.

 

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Living Room Refresh: Under $100

 

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Just because I’m a grad student–although I’m pretty old–  doesn’t mean I have to live like one. Unfortunately, my living room looked like, well, pretty much like the living room I had when I was in my early 20’s and working at an entry level job. No milk crates, but lots of thrown-together stuff. With a visit from my dad in the offing, it’s time for a change.

But…but…but…money! Tuition for next semester looms. Low on cash, high on hopes, I did some hard thinking.

I started by giving the space a good cleaning and looking at it with fresh eyes. I thought about the positives and the negatives of my circa 1980 home’s living room.

Positive aspects: a tile floor in a nice neutral color, we painted the walls a soft buttery yellow that  I adore. I have a cool wooden bench I love, but I wasn’t quite sure how to use it. We have a big picture over the couch of a tranquil seascape in blues and grays. It looks fantastic against the yellow walls and it calms me just to look at it. It’s beautifully framed with dusky blue-green wood trim. We cashed out the piggy bank and bought this picture two years ago from Goodwill for $15. When I walk into the room, my eyes go right to the seascape and I feel instant peace.

Negatives: It’s a small space, overall. My house has the bane of the circa-1980 design, a living room/dining area combination, and there’s just not much room in the living area. We have a couch and a big-screen tv, which is mounted on the wall. We have seating for two on the couch, but desperately need more chairs…except we just don’t have much room for chairs.

We also have a mishmash of stuff in this room, including a weird faux bamboo floor lamp on my side of the couch with a teeny tiny glass shelf. The teeny tiny shelf just didn’t hold my books, my magazines, my notebooks, my ever-present iced coffee.  On my husband’s side of the couch: a horrific gray plastic shelf, waist-high and covered with all manner of STUFF. Bamboo Thing and Awful Shelf had to go.

We live in Florida and I like the whole coastal ambiance thing, but I’m not into it enough to actually pursue it as a decorating choice. It’s awfully easy to go overboard (at least, if you’re me) and cover every surface in shell-crusted crap.

Instead of hitting the shell-crusted crap aisle at my local HomeGoods, I found myself thinking about the colors in that picture. Ordinarily I’m into very bright colors–I could (and usually do) wear something red on any given day. But that picture speaks to something deeper inside, a desire for a living room area that would be calm and soothing. We spend a lot of time in the living room, and I wanted it to be relaxing.

I became obsessed with side-tables. I wanted to get rid of the Bamboo Thing and Awful Shelf tout suite. With that nice chunky tuition payment due in a few weeks, money was the issue. I did some shopping for new side tables and found that with my budget ($125 to cover the cost of 2 tables) I could buy some wood-veneer tables at WalMart. Ick. Over the years I’ve found that when I buy furniture, I prefer to buy used. I can afford actual real-live wood rather than wood veneer or plastic. So I hit Craigslist.

Ah!

I found some end tables I liked very much. Real wood–the frame painted a dusky blue-green that matches the frame of our favorite picture. The seller wanted $50 for the two tables. I wanted the tables, but a series of unfortunate events made it impossible for me to get over to her place to pick them up. After emailing a few days later and not hearing back, I figured she’d sold them. But no! I heard from her two days ago: If we could pick them up that day, she’d sell us both for $30. When my husband and son arrived home with them, I was delighted. Perfect!

Meanwhile, we needed an extra chair for the living room.  I have a beloved old rocking chair that belonged to my mom and has a nice forest-green cushion on it. That was one possibility.

My $30 tables answered the question for me. The pattern on the tops of the tables matched my bench beautifully. What if we used the bench for extra seating? I needed a cushion for that bench, though, and the bench is kind of a weird size: 38 inches long, 16 inches wide. Hmm. Having a custom-made cushion would be way more than I wanted to pay. Couldn’t find that size exactly, so I decided to go with something 36 inches long and hope for the best.

I found my cushion on the JC Penney website. It’s 36″ x 14″, green (ok, not an exact match for the dusky blue-green theme I’ve got going, but I’m okay with not being completely matchy-matchy) and it was marked down to $48 from $80. It has little grippers on the bottom of the cushion to keep it from sliding around when someone sits on it, so the wood will be visible around it and that will like nice. Even better…a 25% discount using the convenient savings code in the ad. $36 was far better than anything else I’d seen by about $20. Shipping, however, would set me back another $9. Driving three miles to the store to pick it up would eliminate that shipping charge. Voila!

So I’ve spent a grand total of $71 on refreshing my living room ($30 end tables, a cool glass lamp my husband bought with the end tables for $3 which I plan to paint with stencils–that will set me back a few more bucks, but not much–and $38 including tax for my bench cushion.) I don’t plan to get an area rug, although I think it would bring the living area together even more, because I have an elderly dog with occasional bladder issues and I don’t want to spend her golden years feeling frustrated with her.

I still have some cash to spend if I find something else I want for the space, but I’m pretty pleased with what I’ve got. I want to live with it for awhile before considering any changes.

Next step: tuition. Somehow I don’t think I’ll enjoy that nearly as much as I did shopping and saving for my living room!

Refrigerator Review Recipe: Leftover Chicken Becomes Chicken Cheese Chowder

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Do you regularly practice Refrigerator Review? We do. This week we had some celery that was a little limp, some cream of chicken soup on the pantry shelf, and a leftover chicken breast from a delicious broiled garlic-lime-rosemary chicken dinner two days ago.

He thought that I love Colby cheese and I thought he loves Colby cheese; we ended up buying it at the deli before discovering that neither of us is crazy about it on sandwiches.  No harm, no foul–relationship intact. Here’s what our Refrigerator Review looked like today:

Chicken Corn Chowder

¼ cup onion, diced

¼ cup celery, diced

1 TBS butter

1 cup water

Leftover chicken, skinned and boned and cut into small pieces (at least 1 cup—I used 1 leftover chicken breast)

1 10 ¾ ounce can of cream of chicken soup (you could use cream of celery if you have that on hand instead.)

1-8 oz can of corn

½ cup milk

¾ cup cheese

Melt the butter in a large pan (you won’t need the lid) and add the celery and onion. Add the water and cook on medium high heat until the vegetables are tender—they don’t need to be browned. Add the chicken, cream of chicken soup, corn, and milk. Stir and blend on medium high heat until everything is well combined. Add the cheese, stirring continuously until it melts. Serve with crackers or croutons. Reheats nicely!

What we did: We had 1 chicken breast left over from dinner the other night. I used this chicken breast and used about ½ cup sharp cheddar and about ¼ cup Colby cheese from the deli—this isn’t science, it’s just what I had on hand. This dish is comfort food, quick to make, and it will nicely complement your Refrigerator Review—ENJOY!

 

Pan Sauce Gravy Basics–YUM!

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You’ve got meat—beef, chicken, maybe a nice pork chop. You want it to go beyond Good into Delicious territory. Congratulations—you’re ready to make a pan sauce!

Pan sauces are an art, not a science. You can vary the ingredients, play around with them, innovate. Here are the basics, though.

Fat from meat. Sear the meat you’re going to use. Perhaps you’ll sear the meat with a little olive oil, or some canola oil, or clarified butter, or a combination of butter and oil. Sear the meat and pour off the excess fat from the pan. You want about 2 tablespoons of fat. Cook the meat to your desired doneness and remove from heat.

Liquid. You want to add some liquid to the remaining fat in the pan. This could be wine, broth, bouillon, you name it. For beef or pork, use beef broth or bouillon or red wine. For poultry, use chicken broth or bouillon and red wine or light red wine (maybe a nice rose?)

Aromatics.  You don’t want a boring sauce! Add something to kick it up a notch—fresh herbs, dried herbs, garlic, mustard, you decide. The Stinking Rose (aka garlic) is the house brand around here, but I keep spices handy. If I want a Tex-Mex flair, I might use chili power or cumin. If I want a nice Italian flavor, I have Italian seasoning herbs at hand.

Thickening. Who wants a runny sauce? You can thicken it two ways—by reducing it with heat or by using a roux. To thicken it using heat, just mix together the ingredients above, turn up the heat, stir frequently and monitor carefully. The sauce will eventually thicken, but there will not be as much of it. Still, it’s delicious!

Thickening with a roux. For a long time I was intimidated when cookbooks mentioned a “roux”. I shouldn’t have been, though. A roux is just flour and butter mixed together and plunked into the sauce. Melt 2 tablespoons butter and add 2 tablespoons flour to it. Stir it till the texture is uniform. Plunk the mixture into the sauce, stir well, keep stirring, and watch it thicken. Trust the chemistry—it works

Final touches. Melt a tablespoon of butter into the sauce for a decadent taste and texture. Another option: Flavored oil. Pour the sauce over the meat and serve immediately.

Add it back. Either pour the sauce over the meat and serve immediately, or add the meat to the sauce, stir to coat, and then serve.

Bon Appetit, chef!

Friday Frugal Challenge: The Laundry Edition

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Unless you’re padding around the house naked (and make a daily practice of doing so) you probably need to do a load of laundry. Today’s Friday Frugal Challenge: Save money on laundry.

Here are some options:

*Wash your clothes in cold water this week. Using hot water costs more—plus the colors in your clothes won’t run with cold water.

*Make your own laundry detergent. Check out the tutorial at  Houselogic.

*Ditch the dryer. For this week, hang your clothes up to dry rather than using the dryer.

What options work for you? We’ll be washing in cold water and I may experiment with homemade laundry detergent if I’m feeling ambitious. How about you?

 

Friday Frugal Challenge Update: Last week’s challenge was to either resell something you own or to buy something gently used. We sold two used books and made $7.83 with minimal effort. Did you buy or sell something?

Money Saver: Whipped Butter

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I enjoy whipped butter–the spreadable stuff, with the rich butter taste but without the cold hard butter un-spreadability.

Here’s my recipe for whipped butter at home:

2 sticks butter

6 TBS canola oil

Soften the butter and then, in a bowl, add the four TBS of canola oil to the butter. Whip until it is well combined, then turn into a refrigerator-proof container.

At the store, this whipped butter costs $3.32. At home it costs $1.58.

Enjoy!

 

 

 

Frugal Toolbox: Freezer Inventory

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I buy lots of loss leader meats. When it’s on sale, I buy it–usually in the large “family pack” serving, although there are only two of us at home. Most of the time I bring it home, plan weekly meals around it, and freeze the excess. What happens when the freezer’s full?

I took inventory today. Long overdue…I should be doing this monthly, but the last few months of full-time work and evening graduate school kept me way too busy. But I’m not busy now, and here’s what I found in my freezers…(we have a fridge with a freezer compartment, but we also have a chest freezer which saves us a lot of money on good meat deals.)

When I took inventory today, I found some things I’d forgotten: some frozen meatballs I bought buy-one-get-one-free. I love to make my own pasta sauce, but sitting on my pantry shelf I have some ludicrously cheap spaghetti sauce I picked up on sale. Voila! Spaghetti and meatballs, and the pasta jars can be repurposed to hold my future batches of homemade pasta sauce.  I also have a 10 pound bag of chicken leg quarters. We will barbecue, have friends over for dinner, and do all kinds of cooking with those chicken leg quarters. Some steaks I bought on sale which will be wonderful for Father’s Day and for those days when we feel deprived and want a treat but don’t want to blow the budget by going out to dinner. We’re stocked!

My inventory isn’t at all complicated. I just list the item and the serving size. I like to update it once a month or so.

The good news? I won’t have to shop for about a month–and when I do shop, it’ll be for add-ons to my main dishes. Some rice, maybe some beans, refill my cumin stash, some buy-one-get-one-free pasta. I have plenty of food to last us for a good long time.

How about you? What’s in your freezer?

Score du Jour for Tomorrow: Half-Price Cheeseburger from Sonic Drive In

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June 6–one day only!–Score your half-price cheeseburger at Sonic Drive-In!

Check out  Sonic’s Facebook Page for details. Here’s your Locator to find a Sonic near you.

Bon appetit!