Archive for October, 2009

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Secrets of the supermarket ninjas

October 27, 2009

In a previous post I claimed that we were “supermarket ninjas” and Mellopuffy asked how we managed on so little each week.

I’ve been thinking about this, and I think comes down to these things:

1. Kathy is a vegetarian, and I only eat meat dinners maybe half the week. When I look at our grocery bill, the priciest regular items are wine and meat. If we both ate meat in typical New Zealand portions every night, our grocery bill would be a lot larger.

2. We buy very little in the way of processed food. No biscuits, no cakes, no muesli bars, no pre-made sauce, no packet mixes or tinned soups. I make our bread from scratch, and usually our yoghurt. If I want baking to take somewhere, or for an occasion, I bake. I have a good repertoire of dinner dishes that don’t take much when I’m tired, so I don’t need sauce in a jar.

I think the bread in itself is good for about $10 in savings a week. We would normally go through three loaves and that would be over $12 at supermarket, whereas the ingredients for a home made loaf total less than a dollar.

Because of points 1 & 2, we incidentally have a pretty healthy diet, which is a happy bonus effect.

Of course cooking everything and avoiding treats is a lot easier when you don’t have children, and I know that plenty of grownups would balk at not having any snack food in the house. Well, tough. That’s how it’s done. My Mum always said if you weren’t hungry enough to eat an apple or make a cheese sandwich, then you weren’t hungry.

Cooking is like any other skill — if you do it every day, you can achieve a tolerable level of efficiency, whereas if you only do it when you have plenty of time, you will probably stay an inefficient bungler and packets really will always be easier.

Example super cheap, fast meal for low-energy  evenings:

Pasta with broccoli sauce. Chop broccoli into tiny pieces, mince a couple of cloves of garlic, saute in olive oil with pepper until broccoli is cooked (put a lid on the pan for the last couple of minutes and the broccoli will steam). Toss through rigatoni or similar with grated cheese on top and maybe some more oil. Should take 20 minutes or less, and is very tasty.

I find Italian cookbooks particularly inspirational because lots of country food from that region is cheap, fast, and based around seasonal vegetables, and tasty with a little sharp cheese, oil and pepper. An interesting thing I’ve found is that nice cheese and good oil seem like luxuries, but they’re actually condiments that you use in small amounts to make much bigger quantities of cheap stuff nicer. So I tend not to be so hard-arsed about olive oil and cheese.

3. I buy our fruit and veg at the market on a Sunday, and that’s about 30% cheaper than the cheapest supermarket I know of. It is another trip in my week, but on the other hand I enjoy the market as a social experience. I often spend some of the savings on a roti or a dim sum or something too…

4. We shop at the cheapest supermarket in the area. Last weekend I spent a New World gift voucher, and I noticed how much more expensive New World prices are compared to the Kilbirnie Pak’N’Save, confirming for me the claim that they are the cheapest supermarket in Wellington. I’m pretty sure I’d have to spend a significant amount in transport to go anywhere cheaper.

5. We are sensible buyers: we stockpile when staples are on special, diligently compare unit prices, and always use a shopping list.

6. We buy in bulk when we can. For example, I buy my bread flour in 5kg sacks. If I had suitable storage, I’d probably buy 10kg ones. Likewise I buy olive oil in 4l tins, onions in 5kg bags, and meat by the half carcass when the freezer has space. Moore Wilson wholesale is not as cheap as it used to be, I reckon, but still turns up some good prices on catering sized stuff. Basically, if it doesn’t go off before we can finish it, and we have room to store it, I’ll invest in any large portion.

In summary, I’d say it’s cooking our own semi-vegetarian diet that really makes the big difference. It’s the nice food from simple ingredients that backs my claim “we eat well.” But there are some other things that help too, allowing me to blow some money on wine and chocolate out of the surplus.

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Best investment ever. The footstool

October 26, 2009

I originally bought this stool with a 70s ‘lazy-boy’ design, waaaay back when I came home from Melbourne. Since then I’ve constantly lambasted anyone who’ll listen with the tale of the one that got away, a matching armchair and stool. Now, this is mostly because it is extremely comfy, and only cost $15, an absolute steal.

Since that time, i’m come to regret it more. This is because this stool has become the most oft-used piece of furniture in the apartment. In addition to serving as a footstool, it has been:

  • a seat for parents watching a wee man in the bath
  • a seat for parents feeding a wee man at his high chair
  • a spare chair at the dinner table when people come over

And, most importantly:

  • A zimmer frame for a wee man learning to walk about the house.

So why is this on Frugal Me you ask?

Because today I saw a walking-toy for boddlers (babies who aren’t quite toddlers), for a whooping $120!! And I asked myself, why in the hell spend that money when you have the superfootstool hanging about the place?

Again – the best damn investment I ever made.

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Making your own cottage cheese

October 12, 2009

Following hard on the heels of Stephen’s now-famous yoghurt-making antics, I thought I’d try out making cottage cheese, and see if the savings were enough to get me into the paper as well. I didn’t think that one would work twice, and thought I’d make do with the kind of crazy google hits were going to get off the frequent use of the word cottage.

If there is anything that makes me think of the 1970s it is cottage cheese. That and bean sprouts. But because around here we mostly stick to seasonal vegetables, getting greens for sandwiches is tricky, so sprouts it is. Likewise, with cheese being at times unreasonably expensive, cottage cheese is a good fat-and-protein addition to liven up lunches.

So how to make it? Easy. Put a litre of milk into a pot and apply heat, when it’s tipping 80-odd degrees, put one 1/4 cup of white vinegar into the mix and stir gently. The milk will curdle, and you strain the hot mixture through a muslin. And…. voila. Cottage cheese, or paneer, depending on your background.

I keep the whey and continually try to find uses for it, but let the curds cool in the fridge, mash it with a fork, and moisten it with some of that home-made yoghurt (you can’t use the whey, doesn’t work well). This makes it, to coin a phrase, just like the bought one.

And the savings. Well, I bought a litre of milk for this costing $2.09, and made 250g of cheese. 250g at the supermarket cost $2.35 the last time I checked. We’ll call that one “not a substantial saving”.

However, there are some key differences. My cottage cheese is incredibly simple to make, and is not time consuming. It is also without unnecessary packaging, and hasn’t been transported half-way across the country or world to my fridge (ignoring the packaging/transport of the milk, which I buy in bulk). Also, I know exactly what’s in it, something the me who has worked in food manufacturing knows is very, very important.

All in all you’d need decent access to a ready supply of cheap or free milk to make this one work well. But, there is satisfaction in making your own food, and in knowing that it has a low carbon-cost. Plus, you get to try celery sticks stuffed with raisins, and topped with cottage cheese! 1978 par excellence.

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Budgeting on an annual basis — what an eye opener

October 5, 2009

Part of buying a house is getting a mortgage; part of getting a mortgage is figuring out what repayments you can afford; figuring out what repayments you can afford requires budgeting; and to make a budget, you need to figure out what you spend already.

I use a program called Gnucash to track our spending. I export statements from internet banking, and Gnucash sucks the data in and categorises it.

Now I often run reports on a monthly basis in Gnucash, but there’s an obvious thing I should have been doing but only just thought about now.

Obviously, there are a lot of expenses that only happen once a year, like paying our insurance premium. And there are other expenses that are irregular, even though they’re certain, like holiday spending, or going to the doctor. So the right way to work them out for a monthly budget — we both get paid monthly, so that’s the best way to work it out for us — is to total expenses over a whole year, and then divide by 12. Or maybe even over two years, and divide by 24.

And what a sickening revelation that was. It turns out that there are things that I think of as “one-off” that really are recurring expenses, just not frequent or regular ones. For example, we spend quite a bit flying around the place visiting friends and relatives. I drink a lot. I buy $40 of books every month, on average. And so on.

The only comfort is that our grocery bill tells me that I am a supermarket ninja. We eat well on only $125 per week, and that includes a fair amount of wine and a teenage girl 12 weeks of the year. But apparently I have a long way to go in other departments.

I do sort of have a system for irregular stuff. I have an account called “bills” and put a fixed amount in it every month, and pay all the bills out of it, so if some months we spend less, there’s a buffer building up for the months when we spend more. But maybe it’s time to actually do a real business-style budget, with a forecast for the coming year, and a monthly update to track actual spending against the forecast.

As always, your suggestions on budgeting for irregular, infrequent things are welcome.