Taco Tuesday: Better Living Through Cheap, Easy Recipes

Taco Tuesday. Because you need some deliciousness that won’t break the bank…

Cheap Tacos at Home. Make up your own taco seasoning mix at home (thanks, BudgetBytes, for the recipe!) Estimated cost of 5 cents per serving beats that pre-packaged stuff you pay a buck for at the grocery store. Consider making your own tortillas with the recipe below, which will bump down your cost even more. Use shredded leftover beef or chicken and you have frugal dining bragging rights for at least a week.

Cheap Tacos Away from Home.  Del Taco has budget tacos (a little smaller than the full-size version, and oh-so-tasty). $1.29 buys you three.

Fresh Tacos. Try making corn tortillas at home–this 3-ingredient recipe includes a photo tutorial over at Isabel Eats. The only thing I do different? I don’t have a tortilla press, so I use big fat books and wax paper to squoosh the tortillas flat. Doubles as cheap therapy, too. Check out the ethnic section of the supermarket for the masa flour.

So Easy Taco-ish Nachos. It’s Tuesday, I want the tacos but I’m too tired to even blink let alone squoosh tortillas. I cook and season taco meat then layer it on Doritos with the fixings, including sour cream and salsa and grated cheese. It’s trashy but effective in taming the cravings.

Super Easy Quesadillas. Two flat tortillas. Cheese. Some kind of meat if you like it, some veggies if you wish. Cook it like a sandwich until the cheese is melted inside. Way easy, nice and cheap. A salad on the side? You’ve got this.

Taco Tuesday Social Club. Yeah, you know your friends want Taco Tuesday and you know you want your friends over. You know what to do.

What’s YOUR secret for better living through Taco Tuesday?

 

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The I-Hate-Leftovers Guide to Brown-Bagging

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I hate leftovers.

Maybe it’s a remnant of my childhood in a family of eight kids. Maybe I’m just a snob for fresh. Whatever the reason, leftovers are not my favorite thing in the world. So when I realized that a critical piece in my food-saving budget involved cutting waste and not eating lunch out, I had to get creative with my yummies, reframe a few self-defeating attitudes, and spend just a little bit of cash to make it all work. Here’s what I did.

Cooked strategically. The plain truth is, some meals make much better leftovers. Give me a gooey Italian marinara/cheese dish to reheat any day! Leftover chili with crackers and a little cheese to melt on top after the microwave? Delish.

Some foods just taste better the second (or third) time around. Anything with a tomato base will like taste great reheated. Something with a creamy base, not so much. Roasted meat? Mine always tastes dry and stale the next day unless there’s gravy involved. When you’re planning meals, purposely make bigger batches of foods that taste great for future meals.

Garnished.  So what to do with the roast chicken, the steak, the leftover veggies? I made ‘em into sandwiches, soups, or salads with plenty of flavor added so that the meat doesn’t taste so…second meal. It’s easy to add roast chicken to a nice chicken broth and bring homemade-tasting soup on a cold day. It’s great to include some beef with a rich blue-cheese dressing on a homemade salad—maybe add a corn muffin left over from last night’s dinner as a side dish?

Splurged (but just a little bit!) Okay, the whole point of using up my leftovers is to avoid waste and ultimately save money. I discovered that if I include high-quality additions to my brown bag, everything tastes better. For example, I can make homemade sandwich rolls using the Dough feature on my breadmaker  that taste amazing. I like to make my own ranch dressing and I use real butter and mayo. I love rich Gouda cheese and I find that a little bit goes a long way with some sliced ham and some crackers for a light lunch.  Sure, you don’t want to go overboard on the fat and rich stuff, but a little bit goes a long way.

Try a little homemade aioli (garlic mayonnaise) on your sandwich. You’ll never look at leftover roast beef the same way.

What are your brown-bag secrets?

 

 

My Promotion Was Killing Me: Here’s What I Did.

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My promotion was killing me.

I’ve got a management background although I’ve been playing happily in the fields of the helping professions  for the last seven or eight years. But at the end of 2015, I was feeling the tug of management again. A job that sounded great for me opened up in my company. On paper, it looked great—a nice raise, working with volunteers (one of my loves!) and a little more prestige on the resume.  What could possibly go wrong?

Within a few months, I knew I’d made a huge mistake. I loved the part of the job that involved working with the volunteers but I spent far, far too much time in front of spreadsheets, preparing reports, and doing paperwork. I missed my patients and their families. I missed doing the work that I love. The raise that went with the position wasn’t enough to compensate for what I missed.

I floundered along, trying to make the new position work. My department achieved some of the turn-around goals we were working on, but I fell deeper and deeper into an emotional and spiritual rut. I was disconnected from my purpose in life, which is to help people who are hurting emotionally. There were some great highs because working with volunteers who are passionate about what they give is a blast, but ultimately I knew that I wasn’t passionate about what I was doing. I needed to make a change.

Fast forward to February, 2018. My life looks nothing like I expected, but it’s awesome.

For one thing, I’m back to doing what I love, but I have much more autonomy. Instead of working full-time, I’m working two per diem positions and completing a second Masters degree in—you guessed it!—a helping field profession.  One of my jobs is in a Trauma Unit, so I’m stretching and growing professionally while I help people and prepare to expand my ability to serve hurting hearts.

Living the 25 Percent life helped me make the change I needed. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be blogging at times about career changes. I’ve made some pretty major ones in my life, going from being a salaried wage slave to an entrepreneur without a net, from an insurance agent to a hospice work, and the most recent change into and back out of management. I hope you’ll comment on your own career changes and what worked, what didn’t work, and how it all happened.

Frugal Friday Challenge: No Meat, No Problem!

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Save money, eat healthy, be kind to animals…today’s Frugal Friday Challenge lets you hit the hat-trick!

This week, set aside a day to go without meat. Some ideas: a hearty salad with vegetable soup, fish (and how cool if you caught it yourself!), pasta with homemade marinara, breakfast for dinner with pancakes and fresh fruit, grilled-cheese sandwich comfort food, or a healthy smoothie.

Try it this week and let me know how your meatless Monday (or Friday, or Thursday, or all three) turned out.

 

 

Lazy Saturday? Let’s Save!

 

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Lazy Saturday? Here are five ways to save money (and one way to earn a little!) this weekend.

  1. Start (or add to) your stockpile. Smart shoppers know how to stockpile—buy items when they’re on sale and keep them in stock till you need them.  Start your stockpile this weekend by scanning the loss leaders in your local grocery ads. You only need one can of those tomatoes that are on sale for 59 cents this week? That’s ok—buy four or five, you’ll use them for making chili or a nice crock-pot spaghetti sauce before the winter’s over.
  2. Review your automatics. It’s almost February, you haven’t been to the gym you joined on New Year’s Day yet, and you know in your heart you’ll never go. You signed up for that shockingly-cheap magazine subscription two years ago and you never got around to cancelling the auto-renewals. Go through your withdrawals with a fine-tooth comb to find those little cash leaks.
  3. Cook at home. Now you’ve got seven boxes of noodles and three whole chickens from your stockpiling shopping trip. Find a tried-and-true recipe or scan the internet for a new and exciting way to leverage your good buys into good eats.
  4. Visit the library. Pick up some free DVDs. Grab a big stack of books to read over the next few weeks. Check out the upcoming classes and speaker events.
  5. Cash in your coins. Check out a Coinstar near you for cold hard cash (unfortunately, there’s a fee!) or gift cards (no fee!) Alternately, roll up your change to deposit at the bank on Monday.

And one way to make a little cash:

  1. Treasure hunt! Go through your house with an eye toward things you can sell. Don’t use it any more? Find a new home for it and make some cash on Craigslist, a Facebook for-sale group, or eBay. Bonus: you’re decluttering while you make a little cash!

 

Score du Jour: 99-Cent Chicken Breast (A Love Story)

I love loss leaders, and this week’s 99-cent chicken breast couldn’t be beat (Winn Dixie was the benefactor, but I’ve seen it at other stores). I picked up two big packages. These chicken breasts were from a national brand name which advertises no hormones.

Here’s how I plan to use my chicken-breast bounty:

*I made a comfort food favorite, chicken cheese chowder, to carry in my thermos for class tomorrow night. This used up one of the massive chicken breasts, with three servings left for lunches or for a repeat on Thursday night, when I have my second class. (1 chicken breast, four servings).

*I’ll make chicken parmesan later this week. Each breast will easily make two servings, so we’ll have dinner plus lunch the next day. I have some leftover spaghetti for a nice side dish when the times comes.

*I’m going to broil one of the chicken breasts and use the meat for a chicken pot-pie (four servings total.) I have some frozen pie shells from a buy-one-get-one deal last Christmas and some mixed veggies to throw in. This qualifies as Eating Ourselves Out of House and Home.

*Two more chicken breasts will go nicely on the grill, with leftover meat to make chicken salad. I may get all fancy and make chicken kebabs with onions, green peppers, and tomato. There will be plenty of chicken. I anticipate using about half of it for the meal–one breast will be enough for two people if I make the kebabs or if I have some hearty side dishes. (Three total servings. Let’s be conservative here.)

The final chicken breast will make a lovely chicken and rice casserole. Four servings, one chicken breast, what is not to like?

So there you have it. 19 servings for $9.03. Of course, chicken’s not the only ingredient. Most of the stuff needed for my meals is in the pantry as a result of prior stockpiling shopping trips, and it’s pretty cheap. Noodles for a stir fry, rice for chicken and rice casserole, eggs for the chicken salad, these things are pretty economical if you’re on a budget. My big splurge? Mozzarella cheese for the chicken parm was a store brand plus it was on sale, so I spent a whole $2 on it.

For less than a dollar a pound, I’m good with boning these breasts and using the bones to make chicken stock. I’m experimenting with all the good pan sauces I can do using stock, and this will come in handy.

I’m looking forward to getting tired of eating chicken.

Chicken Cheese Chowder

1 chicken breast (boneless or bone-in, either will work)

1 teaspoon oil

1 can condensed cream of chicken soup

1/3 cup onions

1/3 cup chopped celery

2/3 cup water

1 1/4 cup milk

1 can corn or creamed corn

8 oz mild cheese (American, mild cheddar, whatever you like).

Heat the oil in a skillet or a large saucepan and add the celery and the onion, cooking until the veggies are soft and tender. Add the chicken and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes (for boneless breast) or 15-20 minutes (bone-in breast) or until the chicken is no longer pink. Cut the chicken into small-bite pieces and return it to the pan with the soup mix, corn, and milk. Stir it all together until it’s heated through and add the cheese, stirring until it melts. Cook it over medium heat for ten minutes, stirring frequently to prevent it from sticking.

Enjoy it with cornbread, a salad, or a crusty French loaf.

 

 

 

 

 

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!