I love to cook, and I’m always trying to save on groceries so I can have more money to buy healthy, fresh ingredients. Unfortunately, much of the kitchen frugality advice out there is impractical for my life: use a bajillion coupons (too tedious for me), buy everything at warehouses in huge quantities (I live in a small apartment), and store-hop like 3 different grocery stores to get the best deals (really?).
Instead, I’ve adopted a really simple approach that works for me, and I’m thinking it might make things easier for you, too: whatever you buy, just actually eat it.
Here are five tips to this end that require no coupons, little extra time or effort, and that you can use no matter what you like to eat and where you shop.
1. Waste not, want not
My husband makes fun of me for all the tiny containers in our fridge, but I use every bit of leftover food I can. Half of a leftover banana can be the base of a smoothie. Two slices of a leftover baguette can mean homemade croutons for tomorrow night’s soup or salad (plus they taste sooo much better than the bland rock-hard store croutons). If this sounds ridiculously frugal to the point of being obnoxious, get in touch with your earth-friendly side and just think of it as not wasting food. Since I’ve started doing this, the amount of food I have to throw out has considerably shrunk, and saving a few dollars here and there is a nice side benefit.
2. Magic produce saver spray
Produce is especially prone to waste because it can go bad so quickly. I learned this tip from Cook’s Illustrated: make a quick rinse that will help prolong the freshness of veggies by mixing 3 parts water to 1 part white vinegar, and soak hardy veggies for a few minutes before rinsing them off and storing them. The vinegar kills off mold spores and bacteria and will help produce last longer–hopefully in time to actually use it all up. (Don’t worry, your broccoli won’t taste like vinegar.)
3. Dry goods stockpile
I keep a list of the basic dry staples we eat on hand and then stock up on them when I find a good deal–sometimes this means at a grocery store with bulk bins sold by weight, at Costco, or just by buying a few extras if I happen to see them on sale. If I add to the supply a little here and there or when I run out of something, it only costs me a few dollars a week, and then I can focus on spending more of my grocery budget on fresh items like fruits, veggies, eggs and dairy.
I call this the carb cupboard.
It’s only helpful if you only buy what you actually use, though. Here is my list of items:
- Oatmeal: For breakfast and baking. I buy this for around $0.60/pound from bulk bins.
- Brown rice
- Whole wheat flour: For homemade bread, pizza dough, baked goods…etc.
- Dry cereal (I prefer boring bran flakes and Kashi, but if cocoa crunchie marshmallow milky doo-dads are your thing, that works too.)
- Whole wheat pasta
- Popcorn kernals: Healthier and less expensive than buying packaged microwave popcorn
- Canned tomatoes: for pizza sauce and other Italian meals. This GIANT can from Costco looks ridiculous in my cupboard (like, am I feeding a football team?), but it’s a better deal than buying smaller cans. Once I open this baby, I can divide the tomatoes I don’t use into containers and freeze them.
4. Freezer time
Speaking of the freezer: as much as I try not to waste food, I inevitably end up with leftover ingredients or extra food that sits in the fridge and slowly gets sour, moldy, and unappetizing–or inedible. My new trick is freezing whatever I can as soon as I suspect it might be doomed to the trash. I also pre-emptively freeze stuff that can go rancid in the cupboard. Some examples:
- Bread products: Regular sliced bread, specialty bread, everything from pitas to tortillas–if I don’t think I’ll eat them in time, I put them in the freezer. (Tips: If you want to toast frozen sandwich bread, defrost it first or it will end up really stiff. To get a frozen baguette or artisan-type bread back to life, rinse it with water and reheat it in the oven at 350 degrees until it’s warm and crispy.)
- Flour: The higher fat content in whole wheat flour means it can go rancid faster than white flour. Stick it in a plastic freezer bag and store it in the freezer to prolong the life.
- Nuts: Same goes for nuts–I freeze walnuts for baking, and almonds and sunflower seeds for salads so they’ll last longer.
- Veggies: Clean them beforehand, and if possible chop them up into the size you will eventually want to eat them. When I make soup, I usually have leftover vegetables like celery, carrots, and onion. I now chop up whatever is left and freeze it in individual bags. Later if I want to make soup again, I already have the basic vegetables ready.
- Fruit: As soon as any bananas start to get spotty, I peel them, put them in a freezer bag and save them for smoothies (same goes for berries).
- Cheese: Wrap up half a block of cheese tightly and freeze it until you’ve finished what’s left in the fridge.
Certain types of leftovers can admittedly taste downright sog-tastic after sitting for a day or two in the fridge, but eating up leftovers is like the cherry on top of the don’t-waste-food sundae. There are things you can do along the way to make leftover dinner more palatable as tomorrow’s lunch. For example, don’t mix dressing into a big salad before you serve it and store the extras. Add a little lemon juice to leftovers like hummus or pasta salad to freshen it up again. And make soup–it always always tastes even better the next few days.
When my grandfather was diagnosed with colon cancer, my dad took some time off work to take care of him. He was working a job that let him rack up overtime to use as time off, and he had quite a bit stashed away. But he also took some unpaid leave, provided for by the Family Medical Leave Act. It was pretty new back then, but basically it allows eligible workers to take up to 12 weeks of medical leave per 12-month period to take care of a family member with a serious health condition without losing your job. It also protects you if you’re the one with the serious medical condition, and for a few other family events, such as the birth or adoption of a child, making this the maternity leave act.
Here’s something even cooler. It covers you for 12 weeks if an emergency comes because you have a spouse, child or parent in a covered military job on active duty (legalese for deployment), and for 26 weeks if the servicemember is injured or ill. It’s always great to see that laws like these take provisions to protect those who serve.
Why do you need to know this? Well, aside from the military tangent, which as a family member of a deployed servicemember, is mostly for my own interests, you may need to know it when you’re ready to have a family, when the family has a crisis, or when you’re in a bad way. Tuck it away. You’ll need it eventually.
Do you know anyone who is so frugal that they’re a downer to be around? You go out to eat with them and the entire time they complain about the price of the food. After the meal is over, they’re pissed that they just spent $15.99 on a disappointing entrée, and on the way home they list off what they could have used the money on instead.
We all waste money sometimes on stuff that sucks–money that we can’t get back, or sunk costs. It’s life. The thing about complaining the whole time is that you’ve already spent the money anyway, so you might as well at least try to appreciate SOMETHING about what you got in return.
- That crappy entrée? Consider it a small price to pay for soaking in the ambiance of a mediocre American chain establishment.
- The shirt you bought that fell apart 3 weeks later? Hey, new dish rags never hurt anyone.
- The really awful movie that cost you $9.50 and 2 hours in a theater of squealing pre-teens? It’s about time you took Rotten Tomatoes seriously. Lesson learned.
When you can, send it back, ask for a refund, or just vow to never go back.
But don’t be a wet blanket.
My Facebook feed is always being bombarded with links to controversial research articles, which always incite arguments among friends. I’ve found, though, that a little research into the research, however, usually reveals the mistaken significance of its findings. So, in an effort to combat reader ignorance–or to give you some fodder next time someone argues about the “facts” they read–here’s a crash course on how to properly interpret research studies.
- Research is driven by theory, not fact. Particularly in psychological study, fact is nonexistent. In fact (pun intended), any Intro Psych class will tell you just that. It’s rule number one, so if you see language that suggests the contrary, always be skeptical (e.g., fact, prove, confirm). Acceptable research language is more ambiguous (e.g., results suggest, the research shows) because at the end of the day theories are never fully provable.
- Avoid opinion at all costs. People are naturally susceptible to preconceived notions, so studies that quickly affirm a reader’s expectations can gain misguided approval. This can be done using a variety of biased language, but the actual killer is the quotation mark. When reporting past findings or ideas, direct quotes are typically frowned on because researchers should be writing in their own words. In opinionated writing, it’s not uncommon to see quotation marks used for sarcastic interjection (e.g., “men of science” or “the experts”), so when this tactic is used in research writing it’s easily confused as something previously studied or the all-too taboo “fact.” Be on the lookout for distasteful use of this punctuation.
- Who’s being studied? No researcher could test every subject in the world, so smaller sample sizes are used to project the research findings onto the total population. This is called external validity. If a study has poor external validity–meaning you can’t really claim the findings are significantly related to a larger population–then the findings are crap. For example, if research says Americans don’t like cheese anymore but the study only tested twenty people, that’s probably not an accurate statement.
- How old is the source? Many landmark studies were conducted decades ago, but they’ve since been recreated and improved upon. Always be wary of articles that source five- to ten-year-old research. Chances are it’s either been updated or it was never studied again. There’s a reason for the latter. Maybe it was just crap.
Remember February's cover story, novelist Katie Kacvinsky? Her second book was released today, called First Comes Love. I read it last night, and I can tell you that it's fantastic. It's a great teen love story, following free-spirit Dylan and dark and stormy Grey. Together, they navigate the ups and downs love and life in Phoenix, Arizona. Here are a few ways to get involved.
- Buy the book! You can find it at a variety of retailers online, or look in the Young Adult section of your local book store.
- Rate, review or comment on the book at Amazon or Goodreads.
- Tell Katie what you think about her book by commenting on her blog, leaving her a post on Facebook, or sending her a tweet (@KatieKacvinsky).
- Show up at a book signing. She already has events scheduled in Oregon and Wisconsin. Make sure to tell her you heard about her from brass.
I hope you enjoy her book as much as I did. Let us know what you think.
Kickstarter.com is an online platform where anyone can fundraise for projects in art, design, fashion, food, film, music, and more. The basic process goes like this: Users sign up their project, set a funding goal, and establish rewards for backers. Next, they spread the words to friends, fans, and the Kickstarter community. If the fundraising goal is met in time, they collect the funding and distribute backer rewards in thanks.
Liz Marek, our current cover story, raised $12,171 in 45 days on Kickstarter to cover renovations for her Savor Cakes food cart, and she learned a few things along the way. Here are her 5 tips for a successful fundraiser:
1. Build a fan base first. “The first thing is definitely to have a fan base already established.”
2. Quality photos & video. “Photos really matter, and a video really matters. If you're gonna spend money on anything, hire somebody to do it, or find a friend who can do it for you."
3. Be concise. "If you can't explain your product and your idea in under three minutes, you don't understand it well enough."
4. Keep the timeframe short. “Don't have a project that lasts, like, 60 days. The longer the project, the less likely it is to actually succeed, since nobody's motivated to donate right then.”
5. Keep rewards simple. “I would recommend keeping it to five different rewards. Definitely have something elaborate for the heavy donators, but don't do something for every price point. It just gets way too overwhelming figuring out how to mail all the stuff later.”
It must cross everyone's mind at one point or another. "This essay sucks. I wonder if I could buy one?" There are actually several sites, called essay mills, where you can (and this is one post where I won't be revealing as many resources as possible) potentially buy an essay. However, if you happen to have the money to buy an essay, there are a few bumps in the road to consider.
- Teachers do check for plagiarism, and though these sites swear they don't plagiarize, and that the essays are unique, you didn't write it yourself so you don't know for sure. Also, if the teacher gets wise, an oral quiz about your paper could out you.
- It's a big risk. If you get caught, you could flunk the class or even get kicked out of school.
- It's cheating! Not because you might get caught or because you're not supposed to, but think about all the hours your classmates slaved over the computer to make their C+ masterpieces. For you to fork over some cash and play video games the whole time just isn't fair.
- The cost is substantial. One site I found proposed that one custom essay only 15 pages long, given a deadline of 4 to 6 days, would cost a whopping $500.
These essay mills usually employ writers to create the final product, though there are some that claim to buy essays if you have a couple extra laying around you'd like to try to sell. I'll leave the moral implications for you to untangle
Yes, it would be a miracle stress relief if you didn't have to write that dreaded paper for history class. However, the risk is rather high considering that the benefit is a few more hours with your Xbox.
Denmark is the happiest country in the world, according to a new report by Columbia University for the United Nations Conference on Happiness. The World Happiness Report analyzes levels of happiness in countries worldwide, and examines how various economic and societal factors affect happiness.
According to the study, Norway and Finland round out the top three happiest countries; at the other end, Togo, Benin, and Central African Republic--impoverished countries in Sub-Saharan Africa--ranked lowest on the study's scale. Though income does play a role in happiness, the study notes:
But it is not just wealth that makes people happy: Political freedom, strong social networks and an absence of corruption are together more important than income in explaining well-being differences between the top and bottom countries. At the individual level, good mental and physical health, someone to count on, job security and stable families are crucial.
As for the United States, which ranked #11, the study's authors give an explanation for why we may not be higher on the list:
The world's economic superpower, the United States, has achieved striking economic and technological progress over the past half century without gains in the self-reported happiness of the citizenry. Instead, uncertainties and anxieties are high, social and economic inequalities have widened considerably, social trust is in decline, and confidence in government is at an all-time low. Perhaps for these reasons, life satisfaction has remained nearly constant during decades of rising Gross National Product (GNP) per capita.
According to the FTC’s 2011 list of top consumer complaints, ID Theft has the largest number of reports for the 12th year in a row. Don’t let this scare you into buying extra ID theft protection, though. In fact, Consumer Reports reported that in 2010, identity fraud actually dropped 27% in 2010. On top of that, the instance of the really bad ID theft, where someone uses your identity to open new accounts or mooch on your insurance, is really quite rare.
Not only is ID theft not as big a problem as some protection and insurance sellers claim, it’s usually not necessary. Federal protection guarantees that you’re only liable for $50 max if your credit card is hacked. For debit cards, you’re liable for only $50 if you catch it within two business days, and $500 if you catch it within 60 days, though you may be on the hook for everything if it goes unnoticed for longer than that. If you’re checking your accounts regularly, like you’re supposed to, then it shouldn’t be a problem. Even if you don’t notice a fraudulent charge right away, it will depend on the fine print whether your fancy-schmancy ID theft protection will even cover the loss, and many financial institutions have policies that actually reduce your liability beyond federal requirements.
If you still feel like you’re exposed and want some type of coverage, don’t jump immediately to a service. First check your home or renter’s insurance policy. I know mine has an ID theft clause in it, which I’m actually seriously thinking about dropping just because it’s an extra expense I probably don’t need. If you must, and I mean absolutely must, get extra protection from potential ID theft, make sure to check out the company you’re getting it from with the Better Business Bureau. That will at least give you an idea of whether others have had good or bad experiences with them.
In the end, though, a lot of the services these companies offer, you can do it yourself. Get your free credit report every year from annualcreditreport.com to check for inconsistencies. Keep an eye on your accounts regularly and use smart Internet safety tactics.
Some things in life are a major rip-off, but we buy them anyway. At the top of the list: movie theater treats, with prices like $6 for a bucket of popcorn and $3.69 for a box of Sour Patch Kids blaspheming the good name of cheap corn syrup and palm oil.
Joshua Thompson of Livonia, Michigan got so tired of being hoodwinked at the concessions stand that he’s filing a class action lawsuit against AMC theaters, for what he considers violations against the Michigan Consumer Protection Act. The suit seeks a civil penalty against AMC as well as refunds for customers who have been overcharged on their Red Vines, tubs of popcorn, and Cherry Cokes.
We all know that movie treats are a major profit boon for movie theaters–some industry estimates claim up to an 85% profit margin on concessions. But is the price inflation really such a big deal? Research from Stanford University argues that by charging more on their secondary product (concessions), movie theaters can keep the prices of their primary product (tickets) lower, which may be good for all moviegoers.
My issue with pricey theater treats comes down to very basic business values. I say theaters are justified in charging whatever they want for popcorn: the theater pops and salts and butters it (or just douses it in “butter flavored” oil) themselves. It’s a product that they actually make and dress up. But when it comes to a box of Junior Mints, the theater didn’t do anything innovative; they aren’t selling a type of candy that you can’t get somewhere else. A movie theater in a rural area that’s 50 miles from a grocery store? I could see some justification in the markup, since customers would be in part paying for convenience. But when theaters sell candy that I could literally buy next door at the grocery store for $.99? I’m insulted.
Or maybe I just go next door and bring a big purse.
Of course movie theater owners aren’t dummies, so they attempt to rig up an artificial supply and demand situation to justify the increased prices by banning Sour Patch Kids and Bon Bons from the Walmarts down the street. Put in a different context, it sounds absurd. “We want people to buy concert t-shirts at our venue, so let’s ban them from wearing their own. You want to wear a Taylor Swift t-shirt in our venue, you have to buy it from us.” Or, ”You can stay at our hotel, but if you want to drink a Pepsi, it can ONLY be from the locked and loaded in-room mini bar.”
Isn’t the goal of running a successful business to beat the competition, rather than eliminate it with uptight rules imposed on customers?
I get the argument against bringing in a bunch of outside food that would make a mess or damage the theater. I once smuggled Cold Stone ice cream into a movie, and if I’d been less agile and spilled that “Love It” waffle cone, I’m sure a few high school-aged ushers would have been pissed. But this obviously isn’t the primary motivation behind movie theaters’ outside food bans.
Ultimately, though, the pricing works if people are willing to pay. Earnings data from Regal Cinemas shows that popcorn and candy sales were actually up 5.5% per person in fourth quarter 2011, so maybe price isn’t holding us back as much as we think.
What’s your take on the popcorn and candy debate? Are you a high-price payer or a rogue candy smuggler?
As for Thompson’s lawsuit, lawyers quoted by the Detroit Free Press say the case will likely be dismissed, as Michigan’s Consumer Protection Act gives exceptions to regulated industries–like movie theaters. I guess this is just another bad example of how our legal system can get as bloated as my poor cankles after a popcorn salt hangover.