My Frugal Habits that have Stood the Test of Time

Our ever-blooming orchid

I’m going to start this post with a confession: I’m not actually very frugal.

Not really, not at heart.

For instance, we just bought a new (to us) vehicle, on credit, and it’s a gas-guzzling mini-van.

Percentage of trips with more than one human inside: approximately 1%.

It seemed to make sense at the time, and yes, it does make shopping at Costco easier, but the number of times we’ve actually needed a mini-van to do what we were doing is a bare fraction. Live & learn, I guess, plus we’ve been driving a lot less!

Essentially, I’ve learned that I’m frugal when I have to be, cheap about things that make me anxious, and a 100% middle-class suburban mom when it comes to a few things. Like the mini-van.

I’m in no way “all-frugal-all-the-time” — I’m not even going to tell you about all the ice cream we eat or just how many Amazon boxes landed on our porch in December — but there ARE a handful of habits I’ve held on to since the earliest days of this blog when we were living on a single income and I was a stay-at-home mom. These are my stand-bys, saving us a few dollars here and there, making it possible for us to have adventures — whenever we can go back out into the world again.


#1. Making my own yogurt

As I type this, I’ve got a pot with 3 litres of milk on the stove, slowly heating up to 180 degrees. Once it gets there, I’ll turn it off and let it cool to 120 with the lid on, stir in a quarter cup of last week’s yogurt from the fridge, pour it into glass jars which I’ll put in my instant pot, fill with hot tap water, and let sit for 6 hours. It’s that easy! It saves a ton of money and a load of plastic containers, and it guarantees that my kids have a healthy, probiotic snack all week. We use it in smoothies, with granola, stirred into oatmeal, and in mini mason jars every day in their school lunches, flavoured with some local maple syrup. As I’ve observed before, having frugal healthy snacks and ingredients available means the kids will choose those options more often.

I’ll teach you how if you ever want to learn!

#2. YNAB

I can honestly say, the budget app YNAB saves me thousands of dollars every year.

I don’t get anything out of promoting it here–no kick-backs, fees, pats on the back, nothing. I just truly believe this budgeting software is awesome! I’ve never tried any other one, so I can’t compare. It’s possible that using ANY budgeting app might be just as good, but since I’ve only tried this one, I will recommend it 🙂

I’ve been subscribing for a few years and in that time, I’ve gone through periods of using it and periods of letting it slide. The times of letting it slide, that’s when I’ve gotten into trouble financially, even when our income went up.

The trick I’ve found is spending just a few minutes with my budget every day. This January 1, I started tending my budget first thing every morning, and it has been hugely rewarding. It just gives me much more control over where we are spending our money, by encouraging me to set aside the amounts for all the upcoming bills I know we’re going to have. So every paycheque, I slot a certain amount into the mortgage line, a certain amount for groceries, electricity, water bill, internet, cell phones, etc., etc.

This way, I know when I have extra money. I know that if I overspend in one category or have an unexpected expense, that it has to come out of another category. It allows me to react sensibly to the curve-balls, and really enjoy when we have any extra.

I can also use it to track things like back-to-school expenses, or how much that little weekend visit to Ottawa costs, so I can budget for those things in advance instead of being surprised by them.

The other benefit it has is providing a neutral place for my partner and I to talk about money. I can show him where we’re at, and we can figure out together where we want to be, then work out goals together, and track our progress. It’s taken a lot of the emotion and guess-work out of our money talks, and helped us get into alignment with one another.

#3. Drinking tap water

This one is very un-exciting, but it is healthy, frugal and environmentally sustainable. A great triple-hitter.

We are lucky to have a great-tasting, safe water supply, so it is an easy choice to make for us. My daughter and I are constantly refilling our water bottles, while my partner and son prefer Bubly . . . Not the most frugal choice, but it could be worse!

#4. Hanging most of our clothes up to dry

While I do use the dryer for our linens, I still hang up our clothes to dry. It takes a few minutes in the evening to hang it up on our folding drying racks, but usually my partner and I do it together, so it’s a pleasant little part of our evening routine. I’ve read that it reduces wear and tear on our clothes, and it uses much less energy than the dryer, even though we use the ceiling fan to help things along.

It’s even nicer once the sun gets warm enough because then our clothes come in smelling wonderful and outsidey: better than any perfumed laundry additive! While I would love a laundry line, our yard doesn’t offer a great solution for that, so I just bring our drying racks outside and place them in the sunniest spot on the lawn. It gets me outside for a few minutes of peaceful, quiet alone time. It’s really serene — now I really can’t wait for spring!

#5. Staying put in our “starter home”

We’ve contemplated moving so many times since landing here. Wanting something closer to my sister, or closer to the lake, or in a fancier neighbourhood or a cooler house. But something has kept us here every time.

Our house is nowhere near perfect, but the truth is, there’s nowhere that’s perfect! There will always be pros and cons, but the sticking point for us is that this house is pretty cheap. We’re getting to the half-way point of paying down our mortgage by now, and it is really hard to contemplate making that number bigger instead of smaller. Plus, from here we can both walk to work, which saves us thousands per year on parking, gas, wear and tear, and only needing one vehicle.

Moreover, our expenses here are pretty predictable. We know what our bills will be month to month. And, we can see most of the problems coming down the road, so we can make a plan to deal with them.

I have another, very selfish reason: in this house I have my own little room where I do school work, yoga and writing. A precious space all my own where I can close the door and be myself. It’s hard to find four-bedroom houses in our price range, and I am very reluctant to give up this luxury!

I’m not saying we’ll never move, but for now we’re deciding that this mess is our mess, and in this mess we’ll stay.

#6. Cooking meals at home

A lot of this blog has been dedicated to cooking, recipes and shopping smart. Even in this busy season, we cook most of our own meals, though when we’ve had more money we’ve eaten out a bit more and tried to support small, local restaurants that we value for bringing delicious variety to our city’s culinary landscape.

We have a few simple staples that we rotate, like spaghetti sauce and chili, that we get a few meals out of, plus other favourites that we repeat often. My partner and I do a very loose meal plan on Sunday before grocery shopping so we have an idea of what we will eat that week, plus we keep certain staples on hand so we can throw together a healthy-ish “emergency” meal at a moment’s notice if need be.

#7. Eating more veggie meals

We’ve been eating less and less meat, and choosing mostly local, grass-fed when we do eat meat. Not that we never have a burger or a sausage, but for us, adding more veggie meals to our repertoire works a lot better than cutting out meat entirely.

For instance, we’ve learned that the kids like Red Thai Veggie Curry (with butter instead of coconut oil), and they like Butternut Squash Soup and even Beet Soup. A couple of their favourites — mac & cheese, and perogies — are simple and meat-free, and we’ll occasionally make a vegetarian burrito bar with scrambled egg, refried beans, tomatoes, cilantro, salsa and cheese. We’ve recently fallen in love with breaded baked cauliflower bites which are made even better dipped in the best thing in the world: Sriracha mayo!

One thing I’ve done to make it easier for us to choose veggie more often is to make a list of all the vegetarian dishes we all like, and put it into a shared note with my partner. Every Sunday before grocery shopping, we take a look at the list and choose a few of those options that sound good and we haven’t had for awhile. This helps us remember all the vegetarian things we love, and it’s really working to keep our meat consumption low, without missing it at all.

#8. Walking

It’s my frugal workout. It’s my transportation to work and back. It’s my personal and couples therapy. It’s my favourite date and best hang-out activity. Yes, sometimes I’ll even drive to my hike, but I do a lot of walking around my neighbourhood too.

Last fall, the kids, their cousins, my sister and I hiked the 10K at the Conservation Area. I can’t even tell you how much fun it was! We saw all these gorgeous, hidden vistas, and the feeling of triumph when we got to the 10 of 10 kilometres was absolutely incredible. We made some amazing memories that day, and the kids learned that they can do hard things.

Maybe some day I’ll take my walking into the back country with a tent, sleeping pad and ziplock baggies of dehydrated food on my back, but for now I am content to stick to exploring our local vistas with a day pack, water bottle and some home-made cookies.


There you have it! 8 frugal habits that are still saving us money, keeping us healthy, and reducing our environmental footprint just a little. Helps me feel less guilty for the mini-van!

None of these things are going to make us millionaires — and that’s not really my goal here — but like a rudder in a boat, they help to keep us stable and on course.

These are the ones that are here to stay.

I would love to hear what frugal habits have stayed with you through the years. Let me know in the comments!

Five Dollar Dinners?

I recently found a website that specializes in $5 dinners. Unfortunately, I can’t fix any of those dinners for the prices listed–mostly due to the price differences with meat, eggs and dairy items in the US. And vegetables. Sigh.

Not that I think all our food should be that cheap. In fact, most of the problems with our food system are due to the super-cheap prices we demand. North America spends less on food than anywhere else in the world, which leads to all sorts of problems like concentration of power, over-use of chemicals, mono-cropping, super-sizing animals with hormones, etc. etc. etc.

But. It is a challenge to feed a family of four healthy foods on a budget in downtown Ottawa. Yep, that’s 50% of my blog content summed up right there.

So I’m going to try producing some of my own $5 dinners. Not $5 per serving. Not $5 per night. $5 for the whole dang healthy pot of dinner. Now, I guarantee these won’t be anything fancy. You won’t find any arugula or pancetta or anything else in French or Italian. You might not even want to admit to eating this for “dinner”. But I will guarantee they will be healthy, balanced, and contain at least some fresh vegetables.

I’m going to try making this black bean casserole I saw online some place, and if it comes in under $5, I’ll blog the recipe. Until then, let me know your favourite cheap meals! If they’re under $5, I’ll add them to my list.

A pita-riffic dinner idea

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been buying cheap whole wheat pita bread from the Food Basics that my friend has taken me to a couple of times–$1.69 for 6 huge pitas. Turns out they’re a great replacement for tortillas. I think they’re tastier too, and more filling.

So tonight we had sort of a Tex-Mex burrito/fajita/wrap kind of dinner, which could have been very inexpensive if it hadn’t been for the red and yellow peppers that each cost $3.99 a pound. It was around five dollars for just two peppers! But if you can get your peppers cheap, this would be a very tasty, filling and inexpensive meal. I should also mention that this turned out to be another accidentally vegan meal!

One thing with using pitas rather than tortillas is that they do tend to get soggy faster. I suppose one could use a lettuce leaf to hold the fillings to protect the bread from the moisture, or possibly skip the salsa, or at least squeeze the juice out of it. I just went with it, and then gobbled my wrap quickly before it fell apart.

I’ve never had much luck eating tacos neatly either 🙂

Pita Fajitas

four large whole wheat pita breads, split into rounds

one onion, sliced lengthwise

two red, yellow, orange or green peppers, or a combination, sliced

chili powder

salt

refried beans

salsa

2 avocados, sliced lengthwise

other optional additions: sour cream, shredded cheese, cilantro, guacamole, shredded lettuce, chopped tomato, chopped green onions, etc.

Saute the onions in olive oil until dark brown in places. Remove from pan and set aside. Add peppers to the pan and season with chili pepper and salt. Saute the peppers until blackened in places.

Build your pita fajita with generous spoonfuls of refried beans, avocado slices, onions, peppers, salsa, and any optional condiments you choose. Wrap and enjoy.

Serves four.

~ / ~

One of my next projects will be to make my own refried beans. I’ve got the pinto beans–now I just need a good recipe. Any recommendations?

Work Lunches: a new strategy

Some times you have to spend money to save money. It’s a hard, cruel fact. One that I’ve ignored for far too long. Today I broke the bank with pyrex, but it should save us a bunch of money in the long run!

Now that we’re doing Your Money or Your Life step 2 (part 2)–which involves tracking every cent that comes into and goes out of our lives–I’ve realized just how much money is being spent on food outside the home. Lots! One area where we have fallen down is in organizing my partner’s lunches at work. When he doesn’t bring something from home, his lunches out can easily cost around $10 per day. And that doesn’t count the $5 afternoon Starbucks run. Fifteen bucks a day adds up quick, and my partner is the first to admit that the food is crappy and not worth it.

Now that the baby is eight and a half months, things are beginning to stabilize a bit in our household, and we can start building some systems again, start re-organizing. So we had a chat about the lunches, and came up with a strategy for reducing his food costs at work.

Basically, the plan is to have five lunches ready and waiting in the fridge or freezer at the beginning of each week so that there will always be something to grab each day and he won’t end up needing to buy lunches any more. The specific strategy points are as follows:

1. Try to do better with leftovers. I always “intend” to make sure there are leftovers to take, but too often I forget to actually allow for them in my cooking. Leftovers will be priority #1.

Spaghetti lunches, ready for the freezer

2. Make big-batch home-made “frozen” lunches. This is where the pyrex comes in. I finally broke down and bought five glass freezer containers suitable for a decent portion of food for my partner’s lunch. My idea is to do just like the frozen dinners do and have a bed of noodles or rice dumped over with a good helping of sauce. Only this version will be home made, and it will be super duper cheap!

So, today I did a big batch of spaghetti. We ate a good helping for dinner, and then I made more noodles and packed up five yummy portions for frozen lunches. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. I’m planning to make big meaty saucy stewy meals every Sunday from now on to stock up the frozen lunches for the week. These home-made frozen dinners will be priority #2.

3. Buy enough frozen meals to last a week. My partner doesn’t mind the President’s Choice frozen Indian dishes, so I will try to make sure there are at least five in our freezer at the start of the week. That way, if we fall down on #1 and #2, at least he has those.

4. Make cookies. What can I say? My man likes my cookies. I figure for the cost of maybe two cookies at Starbucks, I could make a full batch of cookies at home. If I make them, he’ll eat them. And we all save money.

So there you have it: the new plan. It involves a lot of Sunday cooking and shopping, but I think we’re ready for it. There is a lot to be said for getting ready for the week on the weekend, instead of playing catch-up the rest of the days.

I also wanted to add that today I shopped at the Isabella Loblaws and found some great sales. First off, the PC frozen meals were on sale for $3 each, so I bought enough for two weeks. There were also all these bread products, reduced to 50% off. Due date: June 15! I don’t know who is getting fired over this, but I got a loaf of bread, a bag of english  muffins, and two bags of bagels, each for between $1 and $1.50.

So we are really really really well stocked at the moment. It feels good. But MAN my freezer is full!

“Chips”

A friend of mine has started taking me to Food Basics down at Herongate. It’s got some great deals, including large pita bread at $1.69 per package. That’s 6 very big pitas–about 12″ across–at about 30 cents each. I’ve been getting the whole wheat ones which are very tasty and also very filling, especially with hummus or refried beans. Yum!

Last time I went I stocked up and got about 4 bags and thew them in the freezer. Now when I want something to dip, roll or top, I pull out a pita.

But my favourite thing to do with them, especially if they sit around and get a little stale, is to tear them up into pieces and toast them in the oven to make “chips”. Super fast, healthy, substantial and delicious. Maybe next time I will try brushing them with butter or olive oil, plus some salt and/or spices for an even more delicious treat.

Other things I’ve been doing with the pitas include tearing away one half, folding it over with shredded cheese inside, and making a melt in my skillet. I’ve also used them as a wrap for scrambled eggs, but you could wrap anything inside really.

What do you do with your pita bread?

Pastured Yogurt!

Home-Made Raw Milk Yogurt
Home-made raw milk yogurt

I didn’t buy the cow, but I got the milk for free . . .

Raw organic pastured milk, that is. I was going to buy a cow share, but in the end took a long hard look at the budget and decided against it. The very sweet farmer, after hearing my budget constraints, sent a free bottle of milk along for me with my friend who did sign herself up for his milk.

So I became the owner of 1.5 litres of raw milk. It had nearly 3 cm of cream on top, and it smelled like a fragrant pasture. There are many health benefits attributed to raw, pastured, unhomogenized dairy products; access to this kind of “real milk” is lobbied for by the Weston A. Price Foundation.

The only thing was that I found it just a little bit different from what I’m used to. So instead of pouring it over my cereal, I used some for making pancakes, and the rest, I used for making yogurt. I took a very low-tech approach, as outlined below. Keep in mind, the milk is no longer “raw”, as heating for yogurt effectively pasteurizes it.

Home Made Yogurt (without a thermometer)

milk

yogurt with active cultures

Warm up slow cooker on low setting. Add hot tap water.

Heat milk in a saucepan on the stove until frothy and steamy. Then cool the milk by placing the saucepan in a sink of cold water and stirring the milk. Cool the milk until it is “warm-hot, not owie hot” (as my daughter would say). Add active yogurt–approx. 2 tbsp yogurt per four cups of milk–and whisk until combined.

Pour into clean mason jars and place jars in the slow cooker, making sure the hot water does not rise above the jars. Turn off/unplug the slow cooker and wrap it with towels. Let sit for several hours. The longer you let it sit, the firmer and more sour the yogurt will be.

Remove from slow cooker, place lids on jars, and refrigerate. The yogurt will firm up as it cools.

~ / ~

It’s like magic: milk alchemy! I was so excited to be making yogurt that I kept on wanting to lift up the towels to take a peek–a peek of what, I have no idea! But it worked, and I’m stoked. The sourness of the yogurt works very well with the more complex flavour of the pastured milk. And the price is better than any organic yogurt out there, even with the $3 per litre price tag. And hey–no more plastic yogurt tubs to stress about!

How about you? Do you make yogurt? Have you tried raw or pastured milk?

Don’t believe everything the internet tells you

When I saw instructions on Flickr for making Apple Cider Vinegar from apple scraps, it seemed too good to be true. And I said as much. Apparently you can just stick apple cores in a jar with some water and it will magically turn into lovely ACV after a couple of months.

Well, I stuck my cores in water–organic cores, tap water–and now I’m waiting. Every once in awhile I sniff the jar, and PHEW!! it stinks to high heaven! It just smells like mold, disgusting putrid immune-busting mold. It’s been over a week now, and it ain’t getting better.

Now, against my better judgement, I’m going to keep this thing around just in case it MAGICALLY transforms into vinegar. Which I doubt. But if it does, I’ll be sure to tell you.

The miracle of life–a sourdough starter

I started my new starter three days ago, according to Peter Reinhart’s new “Artisan Breads Every Day”:

Day 1: combine 1 oz flour with 2 oz pineapple juice. Stir together and leave at room temperature for 2 days, stirring three times per day.

Day 3: add 1 oz flour and 1 oz pineapple juice to the Day 1 mixture. Stir together, and leave at room temperature until it becomes frothy and bubbly, stirring three times per day.

The idea is that the pineapple juice prevents the bacteria leuconostoc from taking over, and the stirring  prevents the mixture from getting moldy. The next step is adding 2 oz flour and 1 oz water, leaving for 1-2 days and stirring intermittently. Then adding 3 oz flour and 1 oz water to 4 oz of the previous culture, at which point you let it ferment and then it is ready to become your Mother Starter.

So today is day 4 and I am delighted to report that my goop is starting to bubble! It is delightful to be bringing a new starter to life. It holds the promise of amazing tasting bread to feed my family. The promise of not having to go out and buy bread because I’ve just baked up a couple loaves. Just the smell of sour yeasty goodness makes me verklempt. (Really. I get choked up very easily).

Now, if only I had thought of doing this at the beginning of winter instead of the beginning of summer!

A Cheaper Way with Beans

Cans of beans were on for 99 cents for the last few weeks, and I stocked up on some of our favourites: black beans for soup, mixed beans for tabouli, kidney beans and white kidney beans for chili and other stuff, and our favourite: chick peas, for hummus, tabouli, and many other things. But darn, they take up a lot of room! And is 99 cents really a bargain?

Well, we ran out of chick peas, and I really want to make both hummus and tabouli this week, but the sale is over. So I finally pulled out the giant 2 kilo bag of dried chick peas from the back of the cupboard. I measured a cup of dried peas and almost 2 litres of water into a large bowl, and left them out to soak last night. This afternoon I’ll give them a good boil for about an hour, and I’ll be good to go with the equivalent of 2 cans of chick peas.

And is it cheaper? Well, if memory serves, my 2 kilo bag of chick peas cost about $3.99, or $2 per kilo. 1/2 cup dried peas (equivalent to one can) weighs about 110 grams–about 22 cents. Yes, it takes some energy to boil them afterwards, but it’s still about 1/4 the price.

The other benefit is how little space dried beans take up to store compared to cans. A great benefit in our teeny tiny kitchen.

Once I’m done this 2 kilo bag, I’ll head to the Sandy Hill People Food Co-op and pick up some organic beans for $3.85 per kilo–still around half the price of conventional canned! I’m all about bringing down the price of organics.

So, for beans, as with many other things, I can either spend money or time, and in the words of Erik Knutzen, “my time is cheap”! (And BPA free.)

Stepping back into Sourdough

I’ve lost my sourdough starter. By which I mean, it got so polluted and gross that it wasn’t working at all any more. So I’m starting my starter over. Again.

I actually gave it a try not long ago, and found my starter infected with leuconostoc, which imitates a true starter by getting bubbly and smelling sour, but it is actually bacteria, not yeast, which is bubbling. It gets very sour right off the bat, and doesn’t have that yummy beery/yeasty smell that makes bread taste like bread.

Peter Reinhart says to make the starter with pineapple juice, so that is what I am going to do. I’ll start it tonight and will report back soon. Once my starter is established, I’m going to follow the methods described in Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day, which incorporates the no-knead approach with sourdough techniques, exactly what I set out to investigate last summer. Fortunately, Peter Reinhart, with his big team of testers, has taken the challenge instead!

I’ll let you know what happens . . .