January 2009 Archives

What's cooking in the kitchen?

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One of the number one ways to economize is to cook your own food. Whether it's breakfast ($4 for a cup of coffee is way overpriced), lunch, or dinner, preparing it in my own kitchen saves dollars. And over the course of a year, that's thousands of dollars.

It's also fun, therapeutic, and can be more healthy than eating out.

A simple pasta dish like spaghetti carbonara can cost $20 or more, but the ingredients to make four servings of it at home (even with splurging on expensive grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese) costs about $10. Why? Because it's just pasta, bacon, cheese, eggs, and pepper.

I am fortunate; I love to cook. The entire process: searching recipes (so much easier thanks to the internet, instead of flipping through heavy tomes), reading through variations on a recipe (epicurious is great for that, with its giant backlog of archives), shopping for the ingredients, and finally getting busy in the kitchen.

It doesn't need to be complicated, though it does require planning. There are certain items I always have in my kitchen, because they are the basis of any cuisine I make. These staples include onions, garlic, brown rice, pasta, some kind of leafy green, and eggs.

Don't skimp on good kitchen gear, because you want to facilitate cooking:

sharp knives (I'm still in love with my Santoku knife)
good cutting boards (I'm partial to flexible & thin plastic boards that I can easily walk over to the stovetop, but I admit I like the looks of a hefty wooden slab)
high quality pots & pans (Alton Brown has a great book on what to buy and what to eschew, and it's my go-to book when it's time to replace something)

We're in the process of converting our low quality cookware to the high quality stuff when the need arises. It's a large up-front investment, but the stuff is guaranteed for life, so it's the last saucepan or pasta pot we'll buy again.

What I also enjoy about cooking for myself is that I feel more connected to the seasons because we shop for the bulk of our vegetables at the farmers' market. We see the life cycle of the fruit or vegetable over time: when they first trickle in, just a few anemic offerings, but a fortnight later there are lush, zaftig versions in a bountiful display on every table. Then the anemic late bloomers herald the end of another season.

I'll be sharing my favorite recipes here, as well as thinking aloud about new ones I'd like to try.

Cooking is my hobby, a means of self-expression, and fuel for my body.
Buon Appetito!

Your Money or Your Life, part I

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Years before Jen and I met, Your Money or Your Life had also had a big effect on me. Its core guidelines are easy to describe:

  1. Calculate your real hourly salary: include all the time you spend getting ready for work and commuting for work; deduct all the money you spend on job-related costs, e.g., professional clothes, transportation, or even comfort food to compensate for a bad day.
  2. Track all of your expenses (every penny.)
  3. At the end of the month, categorize the expenses in some way that makes sense to you, and total the expenses for each category (exclude the things that were already deducted in step 1, or they'll be double-counted.)
  4. For each category, divide the total expense by your real hourly salary. This yields how much of your life, in hours, it cost you that month.
  5. Reflect on whether that's how you really want to be spending your life.

I'll stress that there's nowhere this process is making its own value judgements. The categorization is yours; the reflection is yours. If your real hourly salary is $10/hour, and you see a movie every Friday night at $11 per, for $44 a month, then those movies cost 4.4 hours of your working time. It's entirely up to you whether you consider that a good trade. If you do, great! If you don't, then maybe you'll want to try something different.

It's with this spirit that this blog is intended. We're not here to tell you that no one should ever buy thing X, or that thing Y is always better than thing Z. We're here to encourage paying attention to whether the ways you spend your time and money are consistent with your values and your goals. And, if they're not, to suggest alternatives in some cases.

But, in the end, it will always come down to your values and goals.

Do you know what they are?

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Happy Year of the Water Buffalo!

It's fitting that our first post coincides with the first day of Chinese New Year, as this blog celebrates frugal culture.

What exactly is frugal culture? Here is an excerpt from the novel Sarah Canary that may help:

A white miner circa late-nineteenth century United States is talking to a Chinese miner.

"You tell me, how it is that you Chinese make a dollar a day in a job where a white man makes a dollar seventy-five and you always got more money than anyone else."

"Frugal. It's a frugal culture."

That's why I'm blogging. Since the collapse of the worldwide economy about four months ago, articles upon articles on how to economize and live with less a la recession chic. What struck me was that every article's "Top 10 Money-Saving Tricks " was simply the way I've been living since I've been an adult. These so-called tricks were common sense to me. They were nothing new, nothing I hadn't heard already, nor even particularly thrifty.

This has been my way of life as far back as 1994, at least.

A transformative book for me was Your Money or Your Life, a classic that made me take a hard look at what my life "costs" me, and whether I want to continue living in that vein. I read that back in 1998, and haven't worked full-time since March 9, 2001. I have a much more fulfilling life, and I hope I can help others find their own way to financial sanity & life balance. I'll talk more about YMOYL later.

I was raised in the aforementioned frugal culture, but it was more of a "penny smart, pound foolish" kinda way. What I figured out over the years is that value is what matters the most when it comes to spending money. It'll save you time & money in the long run.

One way to maximize value is to shop at retailers with a "guaranteed or replaced for free" promise backing up everything they sell. When I lived on the east coast, it was LL Bean. Now that I live on the other side of country, REI is my retailer of choice for outdoor wear and gear (not to mention it's handy because it's not just a catalog presence). REI's house-branded products come with the aforementioned guarantee.

For example, I bought a rain shell in 1998 for $190. Yes, that's a lot of money, but it was well-constructed and had all the characteristics I required for the trip I was taking. At the time of purchase I was deciding between this REI product and another manufacturer's jacket. I chose the REI brand, knowing that this would be the last rain jacket I'd buy from them. Sure enough, the jacket lasted me into 2006, when the zipper finally failed.

I strolled into my local REI store and asked for credit towards my next jacket. I received $190 credit towards its replacement, a $125 jacket, and pocketed the difference in store credit.

Sadly, that jacket lasted a meager two years before its zipper called it quits, whereupon I strolled yet again into REI with $125 to spend towards a new jacket. As it turned out, the jacket I selected was on sale for $80, so I pocketed some more store credit.

Let's recap: I bought a somewhat pricey jacket twelve years ago, and now I'm wearing a third jacket downstream from that original transaction, without spending an additional dime. Whenever I shop at REI, do I endeavor to buy whatever I can with the REI label? Damn straight I do.

New articles every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday