We are poor

This year, we started the year with about 25k in savings, rainy-day fund, and over the course of the year, well, it rained. Three cats with cancer, one new computer, two vacations, and a couple other extravagant purchases later, we have officially drained the rainy-day fund.

To make matters worse, I changed jobs, which is a good thing for me and our family considering the Hellish commute and crap management/political infighting/reindeer games at the old place, but I have taken a big step down in pay to make it happen. Next year’s forecast is that I will take home 13k less than 2008.

We are planning to do a lot of belt-tightening, especially in the “dining out” arena. As in, cut our dining out and take-out by half. That will mean eating at home a lot more… our habit has been an average of 4 or 5 nights a week getting take-out our going out, and we’ll need to scale this back to 2 per week. I’ll need to scale back my lunch budget too, and get serious about sandwiches again. That also means we’ll need to buy groceries, and cook for ourselves, as the primary food source *and* as the backup plan (i.e. frozen or canned items as the “emergency” item, not Baja Fresh.) We will also cancel some extras like Vonage and Netflix, but that’s only 50/month combined, so small change.

If we make serious cuts in the dining/entertainment area, have no new computers or bling next year, have no other huge disasters, we will just about break even next year. That’s not a comfortable position for me… I’d really like to have savings equal to 6 months of living expenses (or at least, enough to cover 6 months if we cut non-essentials like dining out at all and directv).

The biggest impact for next year will be the plans for fixing up the house and moving out. Our house may have dropped in value, but we still have a hefty equity stake. Last time we moved, we were fortunate to be able to buy a new house, move, and then show our old condo in an empty state, and made a considerable profit on it. Most of that profit went into this house’s equity, so the house we bought for 460k we probably owe 320k. If we could sell it for what we bought it for, or more, that would mean we have 140k or more for downpayment and reducing our loan. But, if we move into a house that costs us roughly the same amount, our loan will end up being the same amount (and same monthly payment) as now. We also have no cash to apply to needed improvements/completions. I’d like to check around to see if we can get a house we can tolerate for less than our current house, and if we can get a 2nd loan or home equity line (I should have kept the old equity line open but it had a hefty yearly fee).

More extreme measures? I suppose if we were to totally clear out the spare room, we could take on a roommate and share the rent. M is highly skeptical of this idea… I could think of a few people we wouldn’t mind as roommates but they are all unemployed at the moment. Another option might be asking M to go back to tech writing- if she were to earn 10k or 15k that would definitely help.

So, friends. What are some of your favorite cheap, easy foods to make at home. I’m pretty good at making large soups, salad, spaghetti, hamburger-helper or other boxed side dishes, steaming veggies, and other simple stuff. Any other ideas are welcome!

13 thoughts on “We are poor

  1. bryant

    Having just had a similar decision, along with my sweetie…

    Pasta is filling and pretty easy. We make pasta a lot, using sausage (comes in a variety of types, so you can get flavor variance that way) or chicken as the protein. Frozen veggies go nicely as a side or in with the sauce — we do a lot of leafy greens: spinach, kale, so on. We don’t use premade pasta sauce; we do, say, saute onions and spinach together and use that as a sort of topping for the pasta. Any pasta works — rotini, angel hair, etc.

    I also cook in the rice cooker a lot. Two cups of rice, a can of beans (again, any variety is fine), cut up sausage or ground beef or chicken again. Cook the meat first. You can also skip the meat entirely to save money. Leafy greens go right in along with the rice. For a bit more flavor, use a can of chicken or beef broth instead of water.

    Depending on the spices you use, rice and meat and veg can be all kinds of flavors. E.g., we dump in a small can of green chilies and use jalapeno sausage and some cumin for a Mexican flavor. Go with oregano, Italian sausage, and spinach and garlic if you want something more Italian. Cook the chicken in spices to intensify and alter the chicken’s flavor.

    Rice is way cheap; beans are also pretty cheap. We use canned but if you want to be even more economical, get dry beans and soak them. Lentils don’t need pre-soaking.

    A bit of shredded cheese on top of either pasta or rice is good.

    For emergency food we do mac and cheese with a can of tuna dumped in. Easy and filling. Tabasco to taste.

    Much of the goodness of this is because my sweetie knows how to do spices. I’m not sure how you learn that; I’m not half as good as she is.

  2. ravan

    I have nice big stock pots. I make soups and sauces, then freeze in microwavable chinese take-out containers (available at United Grocers)

    I buy food in bulk at places like Smart n Final, United Grocers, and such.

    Boxed dishes are a rip-off. They are usually based on the “casserole” concept, but without veggies.

    Base = starch (rice, pasta, potato)
    Protein = meat, fish, eggs or beans
    Sauce = tomato, cream soup or gravy
    Veggies = frozen of fresh

    Hamburger helper == pasta, tomato sauce, hamburger and spices, plus too much MSG and salt

    Hamburger casserole
    Ground beef, browned
    Elbow macaroni
    1 can tomato sauce (or marinara sauce, if you’re lazy)
    Onion, garlic, oregano and salt

    Tuna Casserole:
    Egg noodles
    Frozen Peas
    Cream of mushroom soup

    With casseroles, you cook the starch, add the sauce, meat and veggies, and maybe bake a little. Easy.

    Buy your pasta in the 10 lb box, hamburger in 5 lb chubs, and your tomato sauce by the case.

    Just for reference, we eat out about once a month. We don’t get take out. I take microwavables to work for lunch (even pasta).

    You aren’t taking extreme measures, you’re just getting started.

    1. nekodojo

      Thanks for the great tips! I definitely agree that boxed dishes are a scam, and the Alton in me wants to figure out how to make something similar (or better, even) from mostly scratch ingredients.

      You’re totally right, even with this step down, we are still very fortunate to have a very high standard of living. My sweetie and I come from families of more-humble means, so we’re aware of how well we have it, though we probably take many of our comforts and bad habits for granted.

    2. kethry

      Its funny. Everyone has a recipe for tuna casserole that is always the same except for the starch. My stepmother *insisted* the only way was with potato chips (ick). I grew up with rice and you use egg noodles but the other ingredients are the same.

  3. nlguy

    For what it’s worth…

    We’ve been on the verge of broke almost all our marriage so I totally understand where you’re coming from. Saving money is an art form, as far as I’m concerned!

    Saving money on groceries… well, I’ve never seen anything better personally than shopping at Trader Joe’s. For what I spend for one bag of stuff at Safeway, I can bring home three or even four bags of *good* food – fresh, organic produce, pantry staples, rices and pastas, cereals, drinks, exotic dishes, etc. etc. etc. at TJ’s. The Everyday 365 brand at Whole Foods is pretty good too.

    We don’t eat meat, but you could put meat in anything we eat. Our diet here consists of a lot of pasta, rice and soups. Sometimes I make burritos or pad thai, or if I have a free afternoon I’ll make something more involved, like veggie burgers from scratch or curry and naan (I keep a few packets of yeast around for things like that).

    I make half a pot of espresso every morning and drink it on my way to work. If I do buy coffee during the workday, I just get regular coffee with soy (costs $1.50), versus buying a mocha or a latte. When we go out to eat, we share dishes as much as possible. And we frequently walk or ride our bikes everywhere on the weekends.

    I frequently brown bag my lunch, and with Cole not eating meat, he HAS to have his lunch for school packed. I invested in two Laptop Lunch systems, which are wonderful! I probably spend $1.50 to $3 per meal by bringing them from home.

    Don’t know how helpful that is, but there’s my $.02.

    1. nekodojo

      Re: For what it’s worth…

      Excellent ideas, and thank you for those. I have to look up where the closest Trader Joes is… I know of a couple but they are pretty out-of-the-way.

      Thanks again. Be well!

  4. nlguy

    Oh, and come to think of it…

    The Dinner that Makes Itself

    1 cup rice or quinoa
    2 cups water
    frozen veggies

    Cook rice or quinoa in rice maker (I have this one), with frozen veggies in the top steamer part. Takes 45 minutes for rice, 20 for quinoa. Ta da! :)

  5. iceblink

    I’m a huge fan of hot pot

    Hot pot is inexpensive and easy to make. The reason why, you just throw in what you think tastes good.

    I have a skillet that I bought for it. But, if you have an electric skillet that would do. I don’t know if your family has any food allergies, but I do, so this is what I eat and you can change for your taste and budget.

    I put 2 cups of water into the skillet and turn it on. To that I add 2 teaspoons of sugar (I am sugar conscious), 2 tblspns of soy sauce (I buy non-wheat stuff, but any will do) and a couple of tablespoons of Mirin (or whatever kind of Asian cooking wine I have around – sake works, shochu works, really anything Asian based works). Stir it around until the sugar dissolves. Alternatively, you can just add water and beef broth or chicken broth or just soy sauce or pre-made sukiyaki soup base, etc.

    Then I just start adding the veggies and things that I like: diced up tofu, sliced carrots, chopped onion, mushrooms (I like shiitake), tofu noodles (or you can add ramen), sliced bamboo shoots, and so on. Whatever you like to eat. For the meat I use thin sliced shabu shabu meat (chicken, beef, or pork) that is available and most Asian markets and I grill it/cook it quickly and either toss it with some soy sauce or some watered down tonkatsu sauce. I place that meat on top of the other ingredients in the electric skillet, add the top, and just wait until the carrots are cooked through and then it is ready to serve.

    I use all kinds of things and it is a versatile dish. You can stretch it out by putting it over rice. I don’t eat rice, so I just have it plain. I have never calculated the actual cost, but one pot serves 3 – 4 adults easily. There is usually enough left over that I can have it for lunch.

    Also the Korean markets and Ranch Market 99 are GREAT places to shop to stretch out the food bill. I eat a lot of meat due to my high-protein diet and that can get expensive. But I find the same quality of meat (or higher) at the Asian markets. Usually I can get a couple of packages of meat for 5 bucks each and each lasts me a couple of meals.

    I make this dish a couple of times a week.

  6. kethry

    Damn, sorry to hear that Greg. Sadly, I don’t think you are alone in this and wont be for quite some time. Its good that you see the importances of a 6 month e-fund!

    First question, why are you thinking of selling/buying? Is it because of the commute? Right now is a great time to buy but a gawd awful time to sell. We want to buy once John gets tenure, but that is looking unlikely, the condo across from us sold for 70k less that what I paid, and I bought 7 years ago. Are you getting your 460K house value from Zillow? Even if you break even, there is always the closing cost/moving expense and the agent commission as a seller.

    As for dining/entertainment. Yeah those are huge money drains. We have only the very basic cable ($19.00 a month) and a netflix plan. What cable plan do you have now? Do you need 300 channels? Check out your local library for dvd’s!

    I am a *big* fan of the crockpot. Throw meat, veggies and spices in the morning, set on slow and its done when you get home. Possibilities are endless.

    Bulk Food:
    Being a MEAT EATER, I buy chicken when its on sale and I buy a lot and freeze it. I almost never buy beef anymore (except ground occasionally). I buy canned veggies when they are on sale, because there is always a night I am just too damn tired to go to the store and we are out of fresh veggies. You have space in the garage, buy staples in bulk when its economical. Rice in bulk? Do the math though, sometimes its not. Like Costco sells bread relatively cheap as well as bunches of veggies but who can go through all of that? Split it with a local friend? Spices in bulk are darn cheap but really only helpful if you can split it. Last year a friend got 50 vanilla beans for like 40 dollars and we split them 4 ways. I got 12 or so beans for 8 dollars. Normally they cost about 7 each. Since then I have been making my own vanilla extract. Yum!

    Experiment! I try a new recipe about once every 2 weeks. if we like it, it stays in the database and its kinda fun.if not we laugh about it and eat it anyway way. I just make sure the ingredients are cheap stuff. I am hosting Thanksgiving this year and plan on making a turkey stock with the carcass, recycle! You are hosting Turkey day this year right? Give it a shot!

    One of my fave recipie (well right now) – Roasted carrots!
    Peel carrots and cut to about 2 inches pieces. Place in bowl with olive oil, salt, pepper and chopped rosemary. (I get the rosemary from a large rosemary plant outside). Put on baking dish and place in broiler (500 degrees) for about 15 minutes. Halfway thru shake the baking dish to rotate the carrots. The roasting brings out the carrots sweetness! YUM@

  7. lwood

    Alton Brown just did an awesome beans and rice with pickled pork, is good, and pretty simple if you sub 12 ounces of pork butt for the pickled stuff.

    — Lorrie

  8. aellya

    Some easy things:
    I call it goulash but I don’t know what you’d call it, its sort of like spaghetti but I like it better.
    1 lb ground hamburger, browned.
    1 diced onion
    some minced garlic to taste (I like a lot so a few tablespoons hehe)
    Cook all that then add two cans of stewed tomatoes, don’t drain.
    1 16 oz bag (or a little less) of shell pasta (or some other kind of shaped pasta)
    Mix the pasta into the tomato and ground beef. Tastes good like that with some parmesean cheese.

    Another idea: Beef Pepper Steak
    Cut sirloin or chuck, green/red peppers, some other stuff. I’ll get the recipe later for you. Can be cooked in crock pot for day, come out real tender and tasty, served over rice.

    And nothing wrong with grilled chicken breast :D

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