Thursday, March 24, 2011

Falling off the Wagon

March is always a month where I seem to spend a lot of money, and this March is included. Of course, I never remember that this happens until I look at my credit card balance later on and think egads! I've spent a lot of money this month.

This is partly not my fault. One of my blogs switched to its own domain and I had to pay for two years up front (which I'll hopefully make back by soliciting advertising), I had to buy a plane ticket to go to a conference in June, and I had to put a hold on a hotel room for said conference. The problem is, once I start spending large amounts of money on things I have to get, I start to get a bit petulant, and start feeling like I need something for me as well.

I've also re-noticed one huge thing about my spending habits i.e. I have a tendency to spend when I'm bored or when I feel like I'm not in control of my life. Without getting too bogged down in details, I'm incredibly frustrated with a situation at work, and frustrated with the fact that despite my experience, education and intelligence, I'm still just a part-time employee with no real responsibility besides just doing what I'm told.

I've never been good at blind obedience.

About four years ago, I finished grad school with a Master of Fine Arts in fiction and screenwriting. Of course, a degree like this doesn't have a job attached to it, so I was still at a loss for what to do with my life, just now in a lot more debt. I quickly started researching other graduate programs that I could do successfully; I started reading voraciously determined to finish 100 books by the end of the year (it was May when I started, so I had to read about 5 a week), and I started shopping. Every afternoon that I wasn't working, after I had read, and gone to the gym, I would go to Old Navy or Target or Bed Bath and Beyond, buy things I didn't really need, but come home with a tremendous sense of accomplishment.

Fast-forward to May 2009 after I finished my second masters degree and again, had no real job prospects. I contacted people, I applied for jobs, but I also started couponing voraciously. At my high point, I was going to the grocery store four times a week stocking up on various things, spending significantly more on food than ever before.

I've reigned it in considerably, but am still likely to fall into old habits, as I've found out this month. Going shopping gives me a sense of control, it gives me a sense of purpose, it gives me new things to wear (even if I don't really need them, but I'm still struggling with this "business casual" thing), and it's immediate satisfaction.

My clothes budget is blown for yet another month, but I've got some really cute capris and I'm happy about that.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Butternut Squash Mac & Cheese...but with Barley

This is my new thing that I do, I take a recipe that exists, and then I sub in barley. I know what you're thinking, Andria, not all of us bought a ton of barley. When are you going to make real recipes again?

Well, the answer is: soon. But now when you find an amazing deal on barley and wind up with a huge overstock, you'll have lots of options.

The amounts in this recipe are a bit vague because, let's be honest, I was making it up as I went along. But the result was most excellent! Hearty and healthy, and that's what cooking with barley is all about!


2 cups cooked pearl barley
1 butternut squash
1/2 brick sharp cheddar--shredded
2 tbsp butter
1/2 flour
1/2 milk
olive oil
salt & pepper

  • Peel and cube the squash, then spread on foil covered cookie sheet
  • Drizzle olive oil on squash, sprinkle salt, pepper and rosemary, then bake at 400 degrees until fork tender
  • In a medium saucepan, start a roux by melting two tbsp butter, then slowly add flour until the smooth and about the consistency of caramel.
  • Slowly add 1/2 milk, and stir until smooth
  • Slowly add cheese
  • While cheese is melting, pulse about 1/2 the roasted squash cubes in food processor until smooth
  • Add pureed squash to the cheese sauce until fully mixed
  • Stir in barley and warm through
  • Add remaining squash cubes and stir

Monday, March 14, 2011

Terrarium DIY

Since I am not a craftster, or really a maker of things that turn out well (but I have a whole bag of yarn that used to be mis-shapen scarves), I imposed on a friend to tell how she made kick-ass terrariums recently. Today's Guest Post is by Jenn.

My fiancĂ©e and I acquired a modest little bungalow two years ago (thanks, housing market crash, for screwing the world and yet making it possible for me to have to worry about things like sewer lines and property taxes). At first, we attacked it with an almost manic zeal, trying to erase the ghosts of the previous owners, who continued to visit us daily with bad decorating decisions (Yes, put that poop brown tile in the bathroom. Oh, what I’d really love is for this room to have wood paneling, sponge-painted orange faux brick, and seafoam green trim, while THAT room – I think that dark eggplant color would be good. No, no I told you that we need wallpaper with FRUITS ON IT.). Then a couple things happened. We ran out of steam, and after a few unexpected plumbing, electrical, etc.-related disasters, we were running out of funds.
After months of a depressing decorating stalemate, I realized with the help of the Internets (specifically – and even you non-mid century inclined folks should check out Morgan at The Brick House that scouring eBay and Etsy for beautiful vintage furniture and vignettable sundries was only one of myriad options before me. Tapping into my inner hipster, I looked for craftier, budget-friendly solutions to assuaging my boredom. One of the things that I knew I wanted to attack was the overblown cost of owning succulents in twee glass containers. I mean, really, you expected me to lay down a couple hundred bucks so someone in Brooklyn could ship me a tiny cactus in a jelly jar? Oh no. You didn’t.
The beautiful thing about making your own terrariums – in addition to how cheap it can be – is how freeform and lackadaisical you can be about the process. I’m not one of those people who can crochet a 3d sculpture of Abe Lincoln for my foyer, so I’m just going to get real with you: I need – and you need – something simple. I can’t quite figure out what it is about the terrarium that makes it seem beautiful no matter what – I think right now I’m inclined to say it’s the mystique of the glass container plus the aesthetic superiority of succulents as opposed to some frilly vomitous carnation or what have you.
Here’s what you need, and this is how you do it:

Ingredients – Activated charcoal (odor control), cactus potting soil, decorative landscaping accoutrement, PLANTS, glass container.
Sourcing – Never, EVER pay more than $5 for a glass container. Go to Salvo or Savers and get creative. One of my terrariums is in this sort of fish bowl situation, and the other one is in something that used to hold a potpurri scented candle, no doubt. Even weirdly shaped containers will work. With regard to soil and succulents, wherever you feel comfortable shopping. We indulged in a trip to a fancy greenhouse (so these are not so frugal), but I have since gifted very frugally made terrariums. For the charcoal and the decorative layer/base drainage layer, I recommend going to your home store OR local aquarium supply (think river rocks, that kind of thing). We picked up white sand for some (not pictured), as well as some lava rock.
Step 1 – Put in a layer of activated charcoal. I have no idea how much you should put down, I just put a good amount. Think of it like that box of baking soda you have in the fridge.
Step 2 – Put down a layer of rocks for drainage.
Step 3 – Put down a layer of soil. Stick to the rule of thumb you may have heard some pretentious person utter down at the community garden and give it as much depth as it’s been growing in the pot.
Step 4 – Dig little holes for the plants (if the mouth of your terrarium is narrow, I would highly recommend using the business end of a screwdriver to arrange rocks/soil/dig holes). The handle is great for smoothing out the edges once you’re done, and positioning the plants.
Step 5 – Put in your plants, surround with a layer of rocks, and voila. You basically live in Williamsburg.
Estimated time: 15 minutes (not including shopping). Cost: You can do this as cheaply as you’d like, but I would say that $5-10 is a good materials cost outlay per terrarium, less if you’re doing more than one at a time since you’ll already have the materials on hand at that point.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Veggie Fried Rice...but with Barley

I have no idea what to call this dish. I usually call it barley stir fry, but that doesn't explain the flavor as much as calling it veggie fried rice...but there's no rice in it. Basically, I made veggie fried rice but subbed in barley instead of rice, which is a delicious substitute, so I'm pretty pleased with myself.

Since I have scads of barley that I got a fantastic deal on, my quest of late has been to add barley to as many things as I can. It's going well--except for the naming of these recipes. Let's face it, barley is a tasty treat, but certainly doesn't sound sexy. Even soups like Vegetable Beef Barley, which are expected, and which I've never tried but people seem to really like, the barley is an excellent addition, but makes the whole thing sound practical and school-marmish.

Perhaps I'm over-thinking this.

2 cups cooked pearl barley (I did a big batch in the crock pot)
1/2 cup spinach
2 cups frozen mixed vegetables (I use the super cheap peas, carrots & green beans mix)
1 can mushrooms
1 can tuna (you can leave this out, but I add it sometimes for extra protein)
Assorted spices: I used salt, pepper, curry powder, ginger and rooster sauce
Olive Oil
Sesame Oil (essential for that "Chinese food" taste)

  • Heat about three glugs of olive oil in large skillet. Add garlic and sautee until brown. Add salt, pepper and assorted spices
  • Add cooked barley and sautee until heated through
  • Add vegetables and sautee about five minutes
  • Add tuna, if using
  • Add mushrooms
  • Add spinach
  • Add rooster sauce or other spice agent. Drizzle on some sesame oil. Taste test and add more spices if desired
Voila! Delicious, filling and good for you. Double bonus, it freezes very well. Since this is a meal I'm usually eating by myself and it's a bit labor-intensive, I usually freeze half right away and then get about 2-3 meals out of the unfrozen half. It travels well, and is tasty both hot and cold. Basically, perfect.

I don't have an exact cost breakdown--but let's estimate $1 for the barley, $.75 for the veg, $.60 for a can of mushrooms, $1 for a can of tuna, $.50 for spinach, $.50 for spices and oil. That's $3.85 for about six large servings, or $.64 apiece.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Why SwagBucks isn't worth it

If you're already familiar with SwagBucks, you may find that statement baffling; for those who are not familiar, let me explain.

Swagbucks is a search engine that you download to your internet toolbar. You register, and do searches that you would normally do, and occasionally get rewarded with "swagbucks." Those swagbucks accumulate, and you can redeem them for gift certificates. Sounds great, right? Well, there is one huge drawback:

Swagbucks is a terrible search engine.

It not only doesn't deliver the results you want, but even when you search for an exact web address, that address may be #7 on your results list. I may be extra picky because I'm a librarian, but because searching for information is what I do for a living, I can sniff out a shoddy product right quickly.

I stuck with swagbucks for a good six months, and in that time, I think I got a $10 amazon gift card. I mostly got that giftcard because you get bonus bucks for signing up. After I'd been with the service for a while, the points stopped coming with any regularity, and it took a long time to get any. This could be my fault though, because since swagbucks is such a crap search engine, I never wanted to use it.

Eventually, I just started typing in web address, just so I could potentially accrue some swagbucks. Like I said, sometimes those specific web addresses came up as far down as seventh in the results list. When that happened, I severed ties with swagbucks.

Plenty of people will say, it's not that bad and it's free, so who cares. I counter that with the age- old frugality argument--my time is worth something too. I don't mind spending 30 minutes a week clipping and organizing coupons--I actually kind of enjoy it, but what I don't have time for is a search engine that can't find anything. I see no need to scroll through five pages of results to find what I'm looking for, and I'm offended that there's a search engine out there that boasts "powered by google" yet seems to perform in a most un-google manner.

Swagbucks gets a huge thumbs down from me, but try it for yourself and see if you like it.

Anyone else have better luck with swagbucks?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Playing the Percentages

I stumbled into a conversation at work the other day where we started discussing how much of ones income is supposed to be directed toward necessities like rent/mortgage, food, etc. This was based on an article my co-worker had read, which stated that Rhode Islanders pay far too large a percentage of their income toward housing. The article warned that the high cost was not sustainable and that RI is heading for a crash. Except the percentage they quoted was 30%, which I thought was standard.

So how much is supposed to go toward what? Obviously this is different for each person, but there are some standards out there. Personal finance guru Dave Ramsay says housing should be 25-35 percent of your budget, and others seem to agree with him. Personally, I've never actually sat down and looked at these percentages because I was always making so little money that I knew half of it would go toward rent--so why bother?

So let's see how I'm doing, using guidelines I found on

I have six main budget categories: Food, Alcohol, Misc, Clothing, Gas and Bills. Misc is a catch-all category where I put everything that I pay for infrequently, or that doesn't fit in anywhere else i.e. car insurance, entertainment, household items etc. I don't have a set limit in this category since it tends to fluctuate wildly, and last month, when I started trying to set a limit of $300, I promptly got a car repair bill of $600. I'm going to base my misc numbers on the average spent in that column last year.

Also, I put a significant chunk of my income toward savings and a little toward student loans, I'm going to average those and include them in the percentages too.

Food: 8% of income
Alcohol: 2% of income
Misc: 20% of income
Gas: 4% of income
Clothing: 4% of income
Bills: 32% of income
Savings: 28% of income
Student Loans: 12% of income

So those number actually add up to 112%, but I think it's still pretty accurate considering the way things change month-to-month. I'm actually pretty surprised and pleased that my precentage spent on food is so low. Most other lists show the average for money spent on food per month to be around 15% of income. Granted, I only pay for half of the food consumed in my house, but if I factored in the other income and cost, the percentage would be about the same.

My bills are about as low as they can get--rent is low for the area I live in, and I've employed cost-saving measures toward my utilities such as switching to CFLs, keeping the heat low, turning down the temperature on the water heater and unplugging my laptop overnight (which also saves my battery). I have to say, I think I'm doing pretty well.
Pat on the back.

Friday, March 4, 2011

March Goals

A little late this month--this blasted sickness is still sucking all my energy, but I'm slowly climbing out of the abyss of illness. Or, in less emo terms, feeling a little better each day. I am officially skint after last month's car repair, and though I know my emergency fund exists to get me out of situations like this, I've been working too hard to build it back up just to empty it out again. So for the month of March, I'm eating from the pantry.

I have a pretty good cache of staples, so I'm going to eat my way through them over the course of the month and spend as little as possible on groceries. Certainly I'll still need produce, milk and eggs, but I'm going to use my ingenuity to make the bulk of my meals with things I already have on hand. To that end, I made up two (dry) cups of barley in the crock pot this morning. I'm freezing half for future prep ease, and making the other half into a stir fry tonight. After that, I have a butternut squash I'm going to make into soup, tuna for my lunch sandwiches, plenty of ingredients for frittatas and split peas for soup after I'm done with the butternut. I'm getting hungry thinking of all the food options I have, to be honest, and that's a pretty good feeling.

Certainly saving a bit on groceries won't be terribly significant, but it will help.

Other goals: The standard savings account refilling project, and now that it's finally warmer and gas prices are about $3.35/ gallon, I'm going to walk everywhere I go in town, and try to not spend more than my budgeted $100/month for gas.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

February is over?

I think I can safely say that February is one of the worst months I've had in a long time. Coming immediately on the heels of my stupid car repair were two bouts of sickness, which left me down for the count and housebound for far too long. The upshot of all this illness, is that I spent very little money, and lost a little weight--hooray for appetite loss!

Looking back on my February goals, I did spectacularly.
  1. Keep refilling savings account: Done and done. I have been putting 70% of job #2's paychecks into savings and have not taken anything out. I'm right on track
  2. Call Student Loan People: Did that, got some good news and a tremendous feeling of accomplishment.
  3. Retirement account: I set up my direct deposit from job #2 to put 3% of income into my new retirement account. I think I'm up to $30 by this point. It's a laughable amount, but it's mine!
  4. Taxes: I filed my federal taxes online for free and since I have to pay up, I told the IRS to take the money out of my savings account April 1st. Though it pains me to pay in, I should be getting back a little from the state due to clever use of the 1040-H form (still need to file state). I certainly cannot take credit for knowing how to use this form, however, I tried to do my taxes on my own and nearly had a panic attack. So I imposed on a much smarter-than-me friend, who fixed me right up while I drank her tea and ogled her adorable toddler. Friends rule.
As far as the no-buy month, this one was a bit of a fail, but not as bad as other times I've attempted it. I did buy clothes, again, but I reigned myself in considerably, and got some serious deals. Also, all month long I've been yearning to buy a new pair of jeans since I recently discovered my go-to pair are getting a lovely hole in the crotch. Because I was feeling pretty good about myself after my post-sickness weigh in, I went through the jeans I already have in my closet. Turns out there's a pair that I forgot I have, and that I like even better than the ones I wore out! If it hadn't been for the no-buy month, I would have just gone to the Gap and bought a pair of jeans, now I don't have to.

I'll come up with some March goals and post those up tomorrow. How did you do this February?