Monthly Archives: October 2015

Current Challenges

Do you prefer to hear good news first, or bad news?

Personally, I prefer to get the bad news first, and then top things off with a hefty dose of optimism.  So, although things have actually been pretty awesome in our household lately, I thought I’d give our readers an update on all things Amanda and stewardship, beginning this week with the challenges, and finishing up with the blessings next week.

Challenge #1:  Cutting costs

I think it is safe to assume that most people would consider good stewardship of their financial resources to be a priority.  It is also safe to assume that when there is one parent staying at home with family, saving money is pretty vital to ensuring that parent can continue to stay at home.

1513269_10102792516860789_8531933613814555627_n
Peanut needing braces was an unexpected expense, but the positive results made it more than worth it!

Since staying at home with our kids is one of the biggest priorities for us as a family, that has meant more cost cutting measures being implemented lately.  Peanut had some medical tests earlier this year (he is fine–these were more FYI for the doctors than anything), and required braces, so that added up to some medical expense.  Other expenses have also necessitated cutting costs a bit more than expected.

The biggest way I have addressed this challenge is by looking at where our budget is the most flexible.  Since I have the most control over the grocery aspect, I have refocused my efforts on saving money in this arena…and have been doing a pretty great job of it, if I do say so myself!

Challenge #2:  Prioritizing Time

Pretty sure this is a continual struggle for most of us.  I’m happy to report, though, that my social media time has dropped quite a bit in recent months (shocking!), mostly due to the fact that I have more activities to create time for.

Challenge #3:  Practicing a Healthy Lifestyle

34928_845134431829_288270_nIt’s no secret I value cooking healthy, tasty meals for my family.  It’s a little less well-known that I loathe exercising.  I am always ready for an excuse to not be more active–it requires time, requires energy, etc.  I know it is time for an attitude adjustment, but that’s easier said than done, apparently.

I am toying with the idea of signing up for a 5K or something similar to help in the motivation department.  This has worked well for me in the past, but I am not keen on parting with the money required for a registration fee.  As such, I am also trying to embrace different forms of physical activity–not just the run-of-the-mill walking or running.  Maybe I will take a cue from Ronnica and try hiking!

What are some challenges you are facing in your stewardship journey?

Homemade Cream of Chicken Soup

Now that it has started to get cooler here in Denver, I’ve been craving warm foods. I have enjoyed the ease of throwing a few things together in my slow cooker and make enough for my dinner-time meals at work while I’m busy completing other chores.

One of the most versatile ingredients when making a casserole or slow cooker dish is a can of good ol’ cream of ______ soup. I’ve never really questioned what was in it…I just stuck the gelatinous stuff right in.

Some time back, I read of someone who made their own cream of ______ soup. It got me thinking about this go-to ingredient: would it be possible to make it in bulk, saving money and knowing more about what I was eating?

So that’s exactly what I did.

I highly recommend freezable mason jars. These are 12-ounce jars and are perfect for so many things.
I highly recommend freezable mason jars. These 12-ounce jars and are perfect for so many things, and you’re not creating unnecessary waste by using Ziploc bags.

I followed this recipe for cream of chicken soup and quadrupled it (though I made it in 2 batches, to fit in my saucepan). I used white whole wheat flour and skim milk. It came out to 12 12-ounce jars of cream of chicken soup.

So is it really cheaper than store-bought cream of chicken soup?

To make 12 jars I used:

10 cups of chicken broth, $4.27
6 cups of skim milk, $1.11
3 cups of white whole wheat flour, $0.60
garlic powder, onion powder, parsley, salt and pepper, $0.20

Total: $6.18

That makes each jar (similar size as a small can) $0.52 each. The cheapest cans of cream of _______ soup I’ve bought in the last year were $0.99 after tax, so I’m saving $0.47 a jar. I am also avoiding unnecessary soy and corn additives, MSG (though check out the chicken broth you use to be sure) and am using less-processed flour.

What am I going to do with 12 jars of cream of chicken soup? Well, I already used 2 to make chicken and rice for meals at work. The other 10 jars I stuck in my freezer for later. I’ve been told that the texture can be different after freezing, but I don’t anticipate that being a problem as I only use them in things and not by themselves.

Joint Book Review: Stuffocation by James Wallman

51Y2TcWSzPL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In Stuffocation:  Why We’ve Had Enough of Stuff and Need Experience More Than Ever, James Wallman discusses something we at Striving Stewardess have talked about before:  the value of experiences over more stuff (and all that “stuff” entails–money, storage, cleaning, etc.).

Amanda’s Take

Let me start my portion of this review by saying I loved this book.  While a great deal of this book was “preaching to the choir” as it were, I found myself being challenged as well.

For example, Wallman points out the flaws of the voluntary simplicity movement, a movement which I myself ascribe to.  He raises good questions regarding this and other methods of “downsizing”:  Do they go far enough?  What way is the best way to demonstrate balance (versus going all out as with, say, the tiny house movement)?

One aspect of the book that I still find myself contemplating is the idea of a “medium chill,” wherein Wallman discusses one individual who tries to strike a balance between extreme simple living/experientialism and a more consumerist lifestyle.  I am reminded more and more that a simplified lifestyle–and experientialist lifestyle–are all about balance, and this  concept–and the book–really struck a chord with me.

Ronnica’s Take

I absolutely believe that Wallman is asking the right questions, but I’m not convinced he’s providing the right answers.

Let’s first discuss the things that I affirm. We absolutely must turn away from the materialism of our society if we want to find happiness for ourselves and others. I think the author is very wise to recognize the downfalls of voluntary simplicity: you can’t just remove something from your life, it will be replaced with something.

I just don’t believe that experientialism is the right answer to fill it.

I think any focus on our own happiness is bound to fail in the long run. It’s just not how happiness works. Even with experiences, you will continue to require bigger and better ones to fill the same amount of satisfaction.

I believe that we’ll only have lasting happiness if we focus outside ourselves.

That said, I do generally try to focus more on experiences than possessions, and try to take that into consideration when I consider my own budget and considering gifts for others. And I do think that was Wallman’s point: he wants to encourage people to find a balance, as Amanda states above.

Getting Away on a Budget

With a little research, I was able to find the hikes just perfect for me, like this one to Mills Lake.
With a little research, I was able to find the hikes just perfect for me, like this one to Mills Lake.

I’ve made no secret of my goal to spend as little as possible. This hard-fought frugality has allowed me to pay the second half of my student loans in 8 months.

While paying off debt only took me 8 months of hard work, reaching my pre-house savings goal is going to take me closer to 8 years than 8 months.

I will still continue to practice a disciplined budget with my long-term goals in sight, but in the meantime, I’m willing to make a few calculated splurges. One of those I mentioned previously is travel.

To that point, I took my first non-family trip since I moved to Colorado and spent two nights in a cottage near Rocky Mountain National Park.

It felt a little wrong to spend the money, but it was money that I had budgeted for this purpose. I’ve been wanting to take a trip like this for a long time, and it was wonderful to know that I could do so without guilt.

Keys to vacation on a budget:

1. Set aside money monthly toward your vacation goals. For me, I budget $22-159/month for travel (the actual amount depends on the amount I make that month). This averages to be about $90/month.

This cabin was everything I expected based on the reviews I read.
This cabin was everything I expected based on the reviews I read. It even was visited by elk!

2. Decide what matters to you. For me, that meant finding a place close to hiking. Eating out was not an important part of the trip, so I wanted a place with a kitchen so I could cook my own meals. Paying a little more for my cottage meant I could spend less on food and spend more time doing the things I wanted: hiking and reading. If you’re primarily interested about getting away from your daily routine, consider a staycation…only don’t answer your phone or email, or you may not be able to get “away.”

3. Don’t go if you will have to scrimp in areas you’ll be tempted in. If you love to try new food, don’t go if you can only afford to eat McDonald’s. You’ll either be disappointed or splurge, both that will be counterproductive to your revitalization. Delay your trip until you’ve saved enough to do what you really want.

4. Research, research, research. In the age of the Internet, we can all be our own travel agent. Read reviews to determine the best place to stay for you, not just the highest rated place. After all, people may be rating their experience on factors that does not matter to you.

I’m already looking forward to making a similar trip next fall!

Christmas Prep

156362_904223042779_1338120_nI don’t think there has ever been a year where I have waited so long to start planning for Christmas as this one.  (Yes, even a Striving Stewardess procrastinates.)

That is not to say I haven’t determined various aspects of the holidays–the logistics, for example, likely won’t deviate from holidays of the past.  We know where we will be and when.

No, I mean gifts.  Experience-based or not, I have dropped the ball in this arena.  About as far as I have gotten in this is the budget and a few ideas for each person on the list.

I have figured out a common gift for extended family that will serve the four of us as well; now I just need to execute my plan!  The challenge I am running up against is buying for those in my own household:  my husband, two children, and yes, budget permitting, the pets.

It’s not that I don’t have ideas–as noted above, I absolutely do–but the budget is pretty tight this year.  Saving a lot throughout the year was next to impossible for a variety of reasons, so the gift budget is coming in at a pretty small sum; I won’t disclose the amount here (yet), but suffice it to say that it is what most people would spend on one gift for one person…not several gifts for several people.

Stay tuned to see what we wind up doing for gifts.  Experience-based?  Traditional gifts under the tree?  Forgo gifts altogether?  We shall see!

Are you ready for the holiday season?

Avoiding Ads

zillions cover
Yes, it was a very 90s magazine.

As a kid, my favorite magazine was Zillions. This was a magazine produced by the makers of Consumer Reports designed to mold kids into being savvy consumers. My favorite part were the cartoon-like illustrations of the hows and whys of advertising.

We all know (if we stop to think about it), that advertisements are designed to make us act in a specific way: buy a product, watch a show or desire to be associated with a specific brand.

Globally, companies pay $500 billion a year on advertising. These companies are smart: they use advertising because they know it will help them sell more product.

I have nothing against advertising necessarily, but I want to choose for myself what I buy (or simply choose not to buy). Whether I acknowledge it or not, advertising has a strong pull on me, particularly ads designed to evoke an emotional response. I’m not especially gullible, but ads often dig in deep to accomplish their goals.

Advertisements are everywhere. In almost no practical context would it be reasonable to avoid them altogether. Still, I can take action to limit my exposure wherever possible.

For example, I do not watch television advertising. If I can’t fast forward through it, I mute the television and turn my attention elsewhere until they’re over. No, I don’t even watch the ads during the Superbowl.

When I do experience an ad, I often pick it apart to weaken its grip. How does this ad want me to feel? What does it want me to do? What cultural lie does it depend on (or what truth does it distort)?

These questions are good for other forms of media. If we’re going to fight our culture’s over-consumerism and me-first attitudes, we’re going to have to question what messages we take in.

Hunting and Gathering

unnamed (3)Although I have gotten back on the grocery planning wagon, there are still many folks who are really, really passionate about grocery prep–even more so than I am.  Some of the ways some people prepare is by meal planning and/or freezer meals.

While I do try to have a good idea of what to make for meals in between grocery trips, I confess my planning is a bit more haphazard than I would like (for photographic evidence, one need look no further than the picture at left, depicting my “gathered recipes.”)  This is mostly due to the fact that I subscribe to a couple of cooking magazines courtesy of Recyclebank, and when those arrive each month, I manage to find some recipes that sound delicious that I must try as soon as possible.  (I am also a social media junkie, and when a great recipe comes up, I add it to the “to try” list.)

Another reason I may deviate from my meal planning is because I have too much (or too little) of a particular food or seasoning, or it needs to get used up quickly.  When that happens, I find myself searching online for a good way to use up that ingredient.  Many times, those recipes become new family favorites that enter the meal rotation!

One such recipe was for baked potato soup, courtesy of grit.com.  We had several pounds of potatoes that would be going bad soon, and it has been soup weather here in the Midwest, so cook soup I did.  It was fantastic!  Check out the recipe here.

We also had lots of carrots set to expire, and in true “Use it up” fashion, I put my love of baking to work and made carrot cake.  Maybe not the most nutritionally sound, but it was delicious.  It’s my grandmother’s recipe, but not a secret, so here it is for your culinary enjoyment.

Grandma’s Carrot Cake

2 cups flour

2 cups sugar

2 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

1 tsp cinnamon

3/4 cup oil

4 eggs

3 cups grated carrots (I grated in a food processor)

Mix all ingredients together, and spoon into a 9×13 greased pan.  Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.

Grandma’s Carrot Cake Frosting

1/4 cup butter

4 ounces cream cheese

1 tsp vanilla

1 3/4 cup powdered sugar

Mix all together and spread on cooled carrot cake.  (And this made me laugh–from my grandmother’s original recipe:  “[Papa] always liked a lot of frosting, so I doubled that recipe.” So I did too!)

Now to organize my cookbooks…

Clearing the Clutter

One of my neighbors regularly keeps large appliances and pieces of furniture in his pick-up truck. Occasionally he must need his truck bed for other things, as I’ll see these items sitting alone in his covered parking spot.

I don’t know my neighbor’s story, but from where I stand, this seems completely ridiculous. Regardless of the value he sees in these items, they clearly are costing him time as he’s having to regularly move them out of the way. Of course, when he drives around with these things in his truck, he’s also costing himself money in reduced gas mileage.

But aren’t we all like that guy?

Diet Dr Pepper cartons

No, I don’t have any appliances or pieces of furniture in my car. But until a few hours ago, I had 7 empty Diet Dr Pepper boxes (completely useless, especially as I gave it up) in my trunk. Looking around my apartment, I have Christmas notepads in a pile on my shelf, dishes to be washed on counters and table, a jacket I haven’t used in months on a chair…

Clutter.

I try to keep my life free of knick knacks, which definitely helps in the clutter department, but how many times have I walked by that jacket and not hung it back up?

How easy is it to come home and to throw things down in a pile instead of putting them away?

For me, I know that getting my foundational habits in order is the first step (and I’m doing better on these, though not great). But I think my next step is to put something away every time I’m up from my usual seat at the couch where I read, blog and watch TV.

How about you? How will you cut down your clutter?

As for me, I’m off to put that jacket away. (And strongly consider which things I can get rid of altogether.)

Eating Out Rules

3773196199_6094c7d815_mAs much as I have come to enjoy cooking healthy, tasty meals for our family, I enjoy a good meal out too.  There are times when we want to celebrate something special, and call for a meal out (and I want to enjoy a night off from cooking).

How do we make that happen on a tight budget?  Here are a few of our eating-out rules:

We only eat out for special occasions.  And we have outlined exactly what those special occasions are (birthdays, anniversaries, recognition at work), so there is no room for debate later on.

We go where the deals are.  See if your favorite restaurants offer birthday coupons, “Kids Eat Free” nights, or deals online.  It’s worth signing up for emails (use a designated email address for this, so as not to clutter up your regular email address) to get a good deal.

Cash has benefits.  Namely, you have a designated amount for eating out, helping to rein in any unnecessary spending.  When the cash is gone, it’s gone.

Consider alternatives.  Craving the pasta dish from your favorite restaurant but its not in the family budget?  Have a hankering for the scrumptious dessert from that bistro down the street but no funds?  Consider checking out options online.  You may be surprised at the number of recipes you can find online (or in cookbooks from the library!) that mirror your favorite dish.  The perk of this is that you control what goes into it, and you will almost always have leftovers for the next time a craving hits.

Bonus Tip:  Order the kids’ meals first.  Before you even look at the menu for yourself, order for the kids at the table.  It generally works best to look at the menu before you arrive at the restaurant so that when your drink order is being taken, you can also place the order for the little people in your midst.  Not only does this help prevent meltdowns from hungry toddlers, but it also helps keep costs down, as you won’t be tempted to order appetizers to appease hungry little tummies while you wait for the main meal.

Your turn!  What are your eating out rules?

Photo by Jim G.

What is an Emergency?

If you read a lot of budgeting and personal finance blogs as I do, you have probably read a lot about having emergency savings. On these blogs I’ve seen various recommendations as to the size of an emergency savings account: everywhere from 3 months to 8 months.

Personally, I am almost up to 3 months of emergency savings after getting debt-free 5 months ago. In addition to building my retirement savings, I want to double my emergency savings in the next year.

But what really is an emergency? Under what circumstances is it justified to break into this money?

I’m sure that you could get a lot of different answers to that question, too.

In the past, I’ve used my emergency savings for:

1. Paying down the last of my debt. This was a one-time thing, and a decision I made based on my relative stability at work and other resources at my disposal.

2. Living expenses after I made the move to Denver.

3. Buying a couch and other decorations after moving to my first apartment on my own (4 years ago).

4. Car repair expenses (3 years ago).

Of these reasons, I’m happy with the first two, but not the second two. The difference between them is that the first two were planned and deliberate decisions, the second two were I-don’t-feel-I-have-another-option decisions. But looking back, I should have been better prepared for those situations.

Since then, I’ve created my freedom account which gives me the ability to cover such expenses. I also have learned better to do without…though I can still grow in this area.

I hope that this is never me, but if it is, I'll be prepared.
I hope that this is never me, but if it is, I’ll be prepared.

Going forward, I will allow myself to use my emergency savings for:

1. Basic living expenses in the event of a job loss or inability to work.

2. An expensive medical emergency that goes beyond what my insurance and FSA can cover.

Honestly, that’s all I can think of. I have money in my freedom account for car repairs. Before I become a homeowner, I will have a separate fund saved up for housing emergencies and will make regular payments into that fund.

I can’t be prepared for everything, nor do I want to place my security in my savings. But I believe that there is wisdom in preparing for a rainy day.

What do you use your emergency savings for?

Photo by Scott Hughes