Monday, February 20, 2012

Something From Nothing

My painter friend in New York, Billy, is the reason I'm writing this blog. He even thought of the title. Normally, I wouldn't write about how to save money, because I am no expert in finances and/or the economy. I have always been good at surviving and getting by in tough times, however, so I am going to offer some tips on how to get by on more for less in a time when prices rise by the minute.

For years, I have saved every receipt, even for sodas at the Mapco, to track how I spend my money. I also keep a spreadsheet on sales tax so I can see how much my local governments wrench out of my pocketbook in addition to property tax. In 2011, I spent $1,200 on sales tax alone and $928 on property tax. 

Yesterday, I reviewed my monthly expenses for February, and realized I had spent $94 for gasoline and only $11 on food. What is wrong with this picture? Not to mention, the higher cost of fuel translates to higher food costs.

When you make as little as I do, you don't have much wiggle room and when the price of something such as gasoline rises, something has to give somewhere. In my budget, groceries are where I cut.

Billy wanted to know how I could get by on spending so little on food in a month that is almost over, so I told him a few things I do to make my food budget stretch.

First, I make my own bread, which can cost around $4 a loaf. I can buy a five-pound sack of bread flour for almost $4 and I can get at least four loaves out of a sack. I'm no good at math, so I'll let you do it, but I know I am saving some money by baking my own bread instead of spending it. I also make my own pasta with a hand-crank pasta maker from time to time. And I can tell you this much, there is nothing healthier or tastier than homemade bread and pasta.

Second, I have always been a stockpiler of staples, canned goods, and food I can freeze for use during the lean months. I shop at wholesale places such as Sam's Club and Costco to load up on things I use a lot, i.e. ground chuck, pinto beans, rice, dog food (for the dogs, not me), coffee beans, toilet paper, bottled water, heavy whipping cream, onions, potatoes, and so on. Any meat I buy, will be divvied up into Ziploc bags and put in the freezer to use later.

Being single and somewhat on the smaller side, I am not a huge consumer. I don't waste anything. Any leftover food that I don't eat goes to the dogs. I know, I know. I can hear some of you screaming that I am not supposed to give dogs people food, but I ask you: What did dogs eat before dog food companies invented kibble? Well, there you go.

Third, I am mostly vegetarian and learned to cook working in a vegetarian cafeteria. I do not eat a lot of meat, but when I do, it is chicken, Black Angus ground chuck, flank steak, chuck eye, and chuck roast. These are versatile cuts and although chuck may be fattier than other cuts, all you have to do is cook it until the fat reduces down to nothing, which doesn't take long.

As for eating, I tend to be conservative there as well, preferring a small breakfast snack with a cup of black coffee over a full breakfast and a snack of an apple, raw carrots, pickled beets, and/or green olives at suppertime. My main meal is midday, around 1 or 2 p.m., and it usually consists of something healthy with beans, lentils, soy products, or one of the aforementioned meats as a protein.

These are the three main things I do to save money at the grocery store. At present, my home is paid for and I am debt-free. My biggest expenses are health care and, of course, the ever-rising cost of gasoline.

If you wanted me to offer tips on how to run either the economy or government, I would tell you the same thing: Less is always more. 


  1. Ok Eileen. This looks fabulous but it doesn't seem THAT cheap. And, as you know baking bread (and baking in general) is a science as much as an
    art, involving timing and exact proportions.
    Something very few are willing to do.

    The benchmark should not be just "inexpensive" and delicious, but "quick" and dirty, and delicious !
    I come from a family of food snobs. It doesn't HAVE to be Lily Pure organic ingredients (Butter is better !) but it has to be intense. Like a good bottle of wine. No thinking necessary.

    So here's my first recommendation to anyone cooking on the fly. Cheaply.

    -Buy one lb. of Catfish or Tilapia fillets ( bring to room temperature)
    -Melt 4 or 5 pats of butter
    -Dip the fillets in the melted butter and sprinkle the fillets with Paul Prudhomme's Blackened Red Fish Magic)
    - Heat a cast iron skillet till it's smoking hot. WHITE HOT and smoking.
    - Sautee the fillets (1/2" on both sides for a minute or two.
    Serve with cucumbers in sour cream.

    Takes 5 minutes. Works like a charm.

  2. This looks fabulous but maybe a little too
    technical, (cheap but technical) for non bakers. I'll send a recommendation later.

  3. That sounds fabulous, Gustav, and I am a big fan of Prudhomme's Blackened Red Fish Magic. I also get Tilapia and keep it in the freezer at all times. Butter is the best and I buy it in bulk at Sam's Club. I know many people worry that they can't bake bread, but I have one all-purpose recipe that is very good that makes two loaves and only takes three to four hours from start to finish. The one in the photo is an all-day project. I may post a blog on the other bread recipe next. It really is no big deal to mix up the dough and then let it rise while you are doing other things. You are right in that it is an exact science. The water temperature has to be 120 degrees F or it won't rise. In my all-purpose recipe, I spell out exactly what has to be done, when, and how hot, etc. If you follow the recipe, the bread will turn out. Billy, thanks for the idea and I will look for your recipe that you wanted to post.

  4. Ok. Let's start with... Desert. I generally
    avoid desert, cakes and pies, ice cream, (too many wasted calories ) but my father taught me a trick long ago and it always works.
    -Coffee Ice Cream (doesn't matter which brand. Best to buy a cheap variety with more water, less cream. )
    -Chilled Black coffee. (more bitter the better).
    Pour the chilled black coffee on the ice cream. It causes crystallization and sweetness unlike anything you'd get with high priced coffee ice cream, or day old black coffee with sugar.
    Secret is that both coffee and ice cream need to be highly chilled...for the crystalization to happen.

  5. 2 ingredients. That should be the rule...5 or 6 ingredients, or less.

  6. Simple is always the best way to go.

  7. I loved this article, Eileen. I tend to keep my eating light, as well--though I do get creative, from time to time... if you ever find yourself in the tampa bay area, you'll have to try my strawberry shortcake and a cup of joe.
    I have had several dogs in my life and I've always shared my food with them.. never seemed to hurt 'em, and acutaly, I think one or two of the "dears" might have hurt me if I hadn't shared..

  8. That sounds good, Lonnie. Nice and light. My dogs love people food; they'd rather have it than dog food and Delaney will eat salad and even broccoli.

  9. Salata
    OK. Everyone has their own idea about what makes a great "Salad". I prefer my greens
    "straight up", with Olive Oil, salt and pepper.
    I don't really enjoy greens dressed up with fruit, nuts, or Danish blue cheese crumbles, or croutons. I'm all for cheese crumbles. But not things that camouflage the expiration date of the greens.
    Last week I had dinner with a childhood friend I've known since the age of 12. He hails from Bologna Italy. Ok, there was a typical plate of homemade Tortelini his mother had made from scratch. Frozen. I'd had it many times.
    The real shock was a Salad...A Sicilian Salad. (and everyone knows the Northern Italians HATE the Southern Italians. And vice versa )
    Nevertheless, here's what he did:

    -2 plates of Arugula scattered on a plate (not much)
    -1 Blood Orange, slice thinly and carefully placed on top.
    -1 red onion sliced thinly similarly.
    -A piece of Fennel similarly sliced.
    -Top quality Olive Oil / drizzled over
    -Balsamic vinegar/ drizzled over
    -Freshly Ground Pepper and Salt.

    "THAT" my friend said, "is what's known as
    a Sicilian salad."
    It was primo. And I hate fruit in

  10. That sounds divine. I love balsamic and olive oil. The red onion with the blood orange would give it a nice piquant taste. I am going to try this.