Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Reducing Your Fixed Costs!

Fixed Costs vs Variable Costs

Every month we have bills we have to pay. They aren't luxury items or extras. There are lots of ways to reduce your fixed costs when you are working on a limited budget. I just recently trimmed down all of my  variable cost as well as some of my fixed costs. Most people think of variable vs fixed when they are running a business. I have started running my household the same way I would run a business. 

Fixed costs are bills that you pay every month and are the same amount every month, your rent or mortgage is an example of a fixed cost. The payment you make every month is the same and it pays for a necessary service or good. 

Variable costs are bills or purchases that you make every month that change depending on usage or consumption. Your electric bill, grocery bill and gas bill are variable costs.

There are TONS of ways to lower your variable costs each month. I'll cover than in later posts. There are ways, however, to lower your fixed costs: rent, cable, phone, car insurance etc.

My fixed bills every month are: rent, car insurance, phone, cable, and payments for my timeshare.


I can't help at all with mortgage payments, but there are professionals out there who can. If you work at a low wage job you can check to see if you are eligible for Section 8 Housing. Check to see if the complex you live in offers Section 8 Housing.

Car Insurance

Don't stick with the company you buy your car insurance from just because it's convenient. When I moved to Florida and finally got around to registering my car in FL I needed new car insurance. I was using Esurance, because it was the least expensive option in New Orleans. I shopped around in Orlando and got a quote for $55 a month in Orlando from State Farm. I called Esurance to see if they could match it. They couldn't. Why? I don't live in the city of Orlando, I live in unincorporated Orange County. That lowered my rate with State Farm, but Esurance doesn't have a matrix for people living outside of the city borders. Shop around. You can multitask and get online quotes from companies like Progressive while you call others who aren't included in Progressive's best quote program! Take the extra hour or two and you can save 50% on your car insurance!

Phone Bill

There are so many ways to save on your phone bill I don't know where to start! Check with your employer to see if they offer any deals or discounts with a specific provider--it might be worth your while to switch! Some carriers will even pay out your old contract if you switch. I saved 19% on my cell phone bill because my employer has a deal with AT&T. Switch to a family plan if you have more than one phone line on your bill! Several carriers are also offering discounts if you bring in new customers!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Tiny Garden

Container Gardening

I am not lucky enough to have a backyard that I can fill with rows and rows of herbs, flowers, and veggies. I really wish I did. Instead, I have a balcony that measures about 10 x 4.5. It's not a lot of space. I can't grow anything that requires a whole lot of room for roots, or anything that crawls, creeps, or climbs. I'm working on the climbing problem. I think I can put some wire mesh along the side wall of the balcony in a way that won't be "offensive" to the people who check our apartment balconies for infractions. 

I realize that some of you are still locked in the snow, but now is the perfect time to start your container gardens inside, if you plan to start from seeds. If you start from seeds in a cooler climate get yourself a Jiffy plastic greenhouse and starter pods or try this nifty alternative using old soda bottles: Soda Bottle Greenhouse. If you live in a warmer climate, you can start your seeds outside, in whatever container you plan to keep them in. Make sure you keep your seeds moist and somewhere they will get enough sun to sprout. Also make sure you follow the directions on the seed packets, especially when it comes to planting depths. Lemon balm needs to be started right on top of the soil, but most herbs need to be started at 1/4" or so under the soil. If you seed packet doesn't have directions, look them up! I got an extra packet of seeds with a recent online order, but I never would have known how to plant Crocus sativus if I hadn't looked it up. (That, by the way, is the Saffron Crocus.) 

Once your sprouts are large enough, transfer them to larger containers filled with potting soil. Small bags of potting soil are available at Walmart for $.98 and fill about three 5" pots. 

This year I started with a mix of seeds and small plants already started. 

This year, so far, I've got mint, parsley, hot peppers and basil that I bought already started. I bought plants because I wanted to have the ability to use some of them immediately. The empty pots aren't empty at all. Inside those pots are lemon balm, dill and lavender. The large spiny plant in the middle is an aloe plant. I am a little bit of a klutz in the kitchen and the Florida sun can be brutal when you least expect it. I use the leaves of the aloe plant to treat burns of both kinds. 

Those little flowers are going to be peppers soon! 

Start small. It's easy to forget to water, or water at the wrong time of day, or any of the other millions of things I seem to have done that kill plants. I moved the rosemary inside when it was really cold. I forgot to move it back out. Lack of sun or too much sun can kill anything. Don't water your plants during the middle of the afternoon, when it's really hot. You can easily wind up cooking your plants. Water early in the morning or after the sun goes down. In addition to making sure the soil is moist, I like to give the leaves a nice healthy spritz with a spray bottle. I actually leave myself notes reminding me to water the plants. 

Plant herbs you actually use. My roomie keeps calling the parsley cilantro.  It's definitely not cilantro, I don't like cilantro, except in Vietnamese cooking, which is not in my culinary wheelhouse. (I'm working on that, I swear.)  

Do you need to feed your plants? No, most herbs don't like fertilizers at all. Can you use a store bought fertilizer if you want to grow flowers or veggies? Yes. Do I? No, my cats have enough ways to get into trouble without adding a bag of chemicals into the mix. If you wanted to you could start a mini compost heap using a plastic bin with a lid . . . go ahead and Google it. It's definitely not for my cat filled household.   

Finally, if at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Sometimes seeds just don't sprout. Sometimes we forget to water. It's okay. 

This is one of my favorite fresh herb recipes! It's also by far the easiest!

Cucumber and Herb Salad

1 Cucumber
4 Mint leaves
4 Parsley leaves
Red wine vinegar
Salt and Pepper

To peel or not to peel? If I'm using a conventional cucumber I peel. If I'm using an English cuke, mini cuke, or Kirby (pickling cuke) I don't peel. 
Slice the cucumber into 1/2" wheels and quarter them. Chop the mint and parsley. Add vinegar, salt, pepper to taste and chill in the fridge. This salad makes a great side dish for just about anything, but particularly meals with rich sauces!
A fun summer twist? Add chopped watermelon and thinly sliced red onion! 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Fake It Until You Can Make It!

Sometimes It's Good to Fake It

First order of business . . . I have an exception to a shopping rule.  It's a situation I had forgotten about until I ran into it today. Drug Stores have limited shelf space for products, especially food products. Sometimes products don't sell well and need to be moved off shelves quickly. These sales are usually not advertised (ad sales in drug stores are usually not good bargains.) These are clearance sales and can only be found by walking the aisles. I happened to be in CVS today and discovered two really good deals. 10oz packages of Heinz ketchup in a "pouch" were first marked 10 for $10 and THEN 50% off. Second deal was that Ragu Super Vegetable Primavera was marked down to $1.34 and that's a good deal.  Keep in mind that these clearance deals will usually be for only one specific item--not all Ragu sauces were on sale--just that one. 

Next order of business . . . that jar of Ragu sauce . . . yuck, right? Well one of the tricks you need to learn is how to take a product you don't love and turn it into a palatable meal. Pasta sauce is one of the easiest things to fix. (Don't buy a product you really hate, just because it's on sale though. I cannot stand Barilla pasta sauce, it's too sweet and I can't fix that properly so I won't buy it.) 

What You Need

1 jar of pasta sauce: store brand, on sale, or already in the cupboard (CVS $1.34)
12 frozen italian style meatballs: that's usually 1/2 a pckg (Walmart $2.25/2=$1.125)
1 box of pasta (Walmart $1.00)
1 clove of garlic
Italian spices from your pantry/garden: basil, oregano, parsley, bay leaf
salt and pepper
olive oil
red wine (optional)

What to Do

In a medium size sauce pot or small dutch oven (3 to 5 quart size) add your meatballs and jar of sauce and bring up to medium high heat. DON'T throw away the sauce jar!! Smash the garlic clove and add. Add 1 bay leaf, and about a teaspoon (t) of each Italian spice. Add 1 tablespoon (T) of olive oil and 2T of red wine (only if you have a bottle open, don't go to any extra effort for this one.) Bring up to a simmer, until you get bubbles in the sauce, stir and lower the heat to medium low. Allow the sauce to cook at least until the meatballs are completely defrosted. If I have time I let it sit on the heat for as long as I can, stirring occasionally, you can add water to the sauce as needed if it gets too think. I like to use the water the pasta is cooking in. (See below.)

In a large stockpot boil water for pasta. Make sure you have added salt to the water! Cook pasta to al dente--one minute less than the package tells you to cook it for! Drain the pasta and put the pot back on the heat. Add the pasta to the large pot and add 3/4 of the sauce and all of the meatballs. Put the remainder of your sauce back in the original jar and put it in the fridge for my left overs recipe. Heat everything through together and then serve one portion of pasta with 3 meatballs. You can top your dinner with grated parmesan cheese if you have it! 

Divide the leftovers into three portions and put it in the fridge: each portion gets three meatballs!  In your fridge you now have two more lunch or dinner portions and two breakfast portions.  Breakfast? Oh yeah!

It isn't homemade sauce, which I love to make, but good homemade sauce and meatballs takes all day. I very rarely have all day. So I fake it--I love it, my roommate loves it and it costs about $.92 per portion. (That means those breakfasts are even less!)

Bonus Breakfast Recipe

Spaghetti and Meatballs for breakfast? Yup--in fact, double yup. I discovered this idea an a tiny Italian restaurant in New Orleans called Red Gravy, where there is a Polpetta Omelet on the menu. It's an omelet made with ricotta cheese, meatballs and red gravy (that's red sauce to those of you from anywhere else.) They charge $10.95 for the privilege and it's well worth it, when I lived there I was addicted. I had the brainstorm that I could turn left over spaghetti and meatballs into a reasonable, much less expensive copy. 

What You Need

2 eggs
2 T milk or water
1/2 container of left over spaghetti and meatballs
Handful of shredded cheese: your choice, or omit
Salt and pepper
1/2 jar of left over sauce
Pam or generic cooking spray

What to Do

Crack two eggs into a glass, add milk or water and beat thoroughly, set aside. Chop up your leftover spaghetti and meatballs, set aside. Bring an omelet size frying pan (8 inches works) up to medium high heat and coat with non stick cooking spray. Add your leftovers and heat through. Turn the heat down and add eggs, add salt and pepper to taste and allow to set  for a few seconds . . . I cannot teach you how to make the perfect omelet. It takes practice. Keep trying, it's okay if you end up with scrambled eggs the first few times. You'll get it eventually and when you have been doing it awhile you'll be able to make tons of great low cost meals. Here's a tutorial: 

Add the cheese and fold just like Jamie shows you in the video. Reheat your sauce--you can do this in the microwave. Take the omelet out of the pan and top with extra sauce! Here's my most recent omelet, without the extra sauce:

Have fun with it! 

Just in case anyone is planning on visiting New Orleans, here's the website for Red Gravy: I highly recommend a visit for either lunch or breakfast! 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Your Library is Free!

Join the Library! It's Not Just Books Anymore!

I know I've written in other places on how great it is to have a library card, but just in case you missed those . . . and I know most of you did! My local library, that would be The Orange County Library System, has wonderful things going on all the time, and tons of different materials.

If you are living on $8.15 an hour, you can't afford to go to the movies, you can't buy books--real ones or kindle books with any frequency, and you probably don't have cable. I'll be honest, I have cable, it's a splurge and I know it. 

A library card is free. Your tax dollars, or more likely in our case, someone else's tax dollars, pay for the library system.

I'm stealing this from an old blog:
 I probably check out a dozen books a week. How you ask? A nifty little website/iTunes App called Overdrive.
How does it work? First you actually have to go to the library and get a library card. You will set up a four digit pin number, just like a bank card. Your library card and pin number allow you access to the digital library. Using Overdrive you can download books to either their e-book reader or your Kindle! The best part is that all of these books are FREE!
Lots of libraries are using this technology, so check your local library's website to see if they participate. The OCLS website is:

Other Things at the Library:

Your library has lots of things besides books! My library offers:
Movies--including new releases, and TV shows on DVD--including recent seasons and series from premium channels like HBO and Showtime
Music CDs
Guest speakers
A book club
Computer Classes
Fitness classes--there are even free yoga classes! 
Art Exhibits
Storytelling and other children's programs
Do It Yourself classes

This week I checked out four CDs--I'm sure you know what you can do with hard copies of CDs once you get them to your computer! I also borrowed four cookbooks about one pots and inexpensive meals--so that I can start working on making some famous chefs' recipes budget friendly. Plus I borrowed CSI Miami Season 2--I hate watching commercials, so this is far better that watching reruns!
I'm sure there are even more things that I haven't discovered yet, but you should go check out your local library. It's a great free way to spend an afternoon and you may discover lots of free resources or even pick up a new hobby at a free class!

Just remember to return your resources on time! Library fines can add up quickly!  

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Where to Shop?

Get rid of your Grocery Shopping Headache!

These days we have so many options for grocery shopping: big box stores, organic grocers, farmers markets, dollar stores, convenience stores, regular old grocery stores, and good old Walmart. There is a place for all of them, but not necessarily if you are shopping on a tight budget. In some cases, you might be shopping at the wrong store for the best deal on what you need or using the wrong strategy for the store you are visiting. I've done some personal research and have come up with a few simple strategies for stretching your budget, some of them sound really simple, but they all make sense in the end. 

A Few Rules

Forget about brand loyalty, you no longer have it, you can't afford it. The generic, store brand is going to have to be good enough. In many cases, with a little bit of help from your pantry, you can make the store brand just as good as your favorite brand.  Make sure you look at the packaging for generic items, many of them are made by name brand companies for stores private labels. If you look closely at the shape of jars and bottles, you may just discover that your regular brand name also makes your grocery store generic brand. I learned that trick from my mother, who many years ago figured out that the generic brand of ketchup she was so fearful of was actually made by Hunts. 

Forget about convenience stores, they have their name for a reason, and they take you to the cleaners for everything you buy there. The same is true for gas stations, drug stores, and specialty stores. 

Figure distance and time into your shopping needs. If the nearest Walmart is 20 miles away, you may end up spending more on gas than you end up saving, unless you only go shopping once a month. I am fortunate to live close to Walmart, Publix, Winn Dixie, and Whole Foods. However, the closest Save-A-Lot is too far to make saving $.05 on toilet paper worth it, but if you have one nearby, by all means use it!

Walmart vs The Dollar Store

It sounds like grocery shopping at the dollar store would be a great idea, right? I mean everything is only a dollar. Well only a dollar can be the absolute wrong answer in many cases. My favorite example is buying a a can of black beans. If you bought it at the dollar store, you over paid by at least $.32 because that can of black beans only costs $.68 at Walmart. If you have a Save-A-Lot in a reasonable distance from home you can save even more on canned goods. 

Don't get me wrong, sometimes the dollar store is the better option, but their selection varies and they may not always have the items on your list. There are some things that are almost always less expensive at the dollar store: hot dog buns, spices and pasta sauce come to mind immediately. Walmart almost always has better deals on canned goods, dried goods, and cleaning products. The other big pitfall at dollar stores is that the size of products may be different from what you find at Walmart. The other day I noticed that the dollar store had Sargento shredded cheese. When I looked closer I realized it was only a 3oz package. A 12oz package of shredded cheese at Walmart costs less than $3. If you don't have the $3 to spend on the larger package, by all means, buy the smaller one at the dollar store, but realize that you are not getting a bargain.

The Grocery Store

In order to save money at the grocery store, you really have to use the weekly ads and only buy what is on sale. Grocery stores generally don't have big sales on their own brands. Publix and Winn Dixie both have apps for your smart phone that have the weekly ads on them, including the big sale items. Winn Dixie has two categories you should look for: Buy 1 Get 1 Free and 10 for $10. Publix has tons of Buy 1 Get 1 Free items every week.

You should only bother with those deals if they actually save you money over buying the store brand or the Walmart brand. How do you know? 10 for $10 is easy, just see if the generic version costs more than $1. Buy 1 sales are pretty easy to figure out as well. Just take the cost of the item and divide by two. If the per item cost is less than the cost of the generic version you have a deal!  Last week Publix had Ronzoni pasta buy 1 for $1.49 and get one free. The per item cost is $.745. Pasta at Walmart costs $1 a box, making Publix a better deal, but ONLY if you have that extra $.49 in your grocery budget for the week!

Whole Foods

I do occasionally set foot in Whole Foods. The Whole Foods in my neighborhood has a "happy hour" on Friday night. Each department puts out a food and or beverage offering and it's basically a free meal if you sample all of them. They also have samples out in some departments every day. They make a great free snack. Do I ever buy anything at Whole Foods? Yes. 

Whole Foods has a bulk food area that can help you save money on things like dried beans. I personally prefer canned beans for the speed in cooking issue, even though dried beans are less expensive. Here's one thing I go to Whole Foods for specifically: bulk popcorn. I use an air popper at home and the only type of whole kernel popcorn that I have found that pops in it properly comes from the bulk foods section at Whole Foods. I have no idea if it costs more or less than dear old Orville, but it doesn't matter because only half the Orville kernels pop, making it essentially a useless, waste of money. 

The other time Whole Foods can be useful, or the meat department at the regular grocery store is when I want a limited number of a specific protein. I do not need a family pack of pork chops. I only need one. I don't need a pound of frozen scallops. I need three.  The butcher and fish guy at Whole Foods or the grocery store should be able to help you there, they won't split packages at my Walmart. 


Remember my rule about brand names? There is a caveat. If you find a coupon that makes the brand name less expensive than the generic brand, by all means use it. Don't fall into the trap of having to buy three or four of an item in order to save, you will either blow your grocery budget this way or run out of storage room. When you are living week to week, you should only buy what you are going to use in the next week or at most two. You don't want to be stuck eating the same thing every day, just because you think you got a great deal because of a coupon. 

Wrap Up

I know Walmart may seem like The Evil Empire, but if you are on a minimum wage budget, it's your best choice for most items. You may have to make more than one stop to really stretch your budget every week, but only do that if the travel distance doesn't eat up your savings. Look at packages and quantities to make sure you are getting the best deal for your budget. 

Coming soon: Your library, a mini garden, getting deals on your fixed expenses and finally some recipes! Eventually I'll have some posts that have photos too! 

Web Resources:

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Welcome to My Survival Guide

Welcome to Surviving on $8.15 an Hour

Hi everyone! I know there are lots of websites out there that offer great advice for cooking meals on a budget, but most of them involve cooking for families or in large batches to save money. What if you are just one person, with a tiny freezer, trying to survive on a very limited budget and you don't want to eat from the fast food dollar menu? You are sick of ramen noodles, hot dogs, and $1 frozen entrĂ©es. I'll be honest, I have all of those things in my house, but I cook real meals too! I don't freeze tons of leftovers to save money--I don't have room in my freezer. It's possible to cook great meals and not spend more than $1-$2 a meal. My favorite easy recipe costs $3.35 and I get three lunch/dinners and one breakfast from it! It's gone in two days and nothing went in the freezer!  I'll share it with you very soon! 

Lesson 1: Build a Pantry

There are a number of things that should be in your spice rack, and or pantry at all times. They add flavor, ease cooking, or stretch meals. They last a long time and you shouldn't have to replace them often. Most of them are pretty inexpensive if you buy the bargin/store brand or buy them at the Dollar Store. (My very next article is about what to buy at Walmart, what to buy at the Dollar Store and when to shop at the regular grocery store--even Whole Foods has a place in your shopping roster!) I do keep a small herb garden on my balcony and I'll teach you how to do that very soon!

My Pantry:

There are three things you absolutely cannot do without:

Salt--If you can swing it buy Sea Salt
Pepper--Buy whole pepper corns and a grinder--you can get one for about $4 at IKEA--or buy pepper in a grinder at the Dollar Store
Olive Oil--yes it's expensive, but look for a buy one get one offer (there is one at Publix right now) or buy whatever size bottle is in your budget--Walmart has it's own store brand of olive oil. 

Dried Herbs and Spices I use a lot:

Onion Powder
Garlic Powder
Chili Powder

  Dried Herbs and Spices I use a little:

Lemon Pepper

Dry Storage:

Pasta--I like to keep a couple of different shapes, but I use Angel Hair and Garden Rotini most often
Rice--brown or white, it's completely your call, I'm miserable at cooking rice so I use the instant or boil in a bag variety--and I use brown. 
Black Beans--dried is less expensive than canned
White Beans--same as above
Lentils--still dried
Canned Tomatoes--regular, Italian herb, and spicy--the store brand at Walmart is $.68 a can.
Canned Corn--It's the only canned veggie I use and it stretches lots of recipes!

In the Fridge:

Mustard--I use spicy brown
Hot Sauce--I use Crystal
I personally also always have: pickles, dill relish and plain yogurt

Now you have somewhere to start from!  In the next installment I'll talk about where to buy what and how to shop smart! STOP EATING RAMEN NOODLES!