Blueberry Picking

About a year ago, I found out that there is a U-Pick Blueberry Farm in our area–Leavelle Farms! I was so excited…until I realized that it was already closed for the year. 😦 Bummer. I was determined not to miss it again, though, so I “liked” their Facebook page to make sure I was notified when they reopened.

They opened in mid-June, and I kept trying to schedule a trip out there…and kept having conflicts come up. I’m actually glad that I didn’t get to go sooner, because Michael was able to go with us when we finally got to go! Woohoo! I love a family adventure!

We headed out mid-morning on Saturday. We arrived to find the weather pleasant and the sky overcast–perfect berry-picking weather!  The farm was perfect–plenty of bushes with lots of berries, easily accessible bathroom (essential for a pleasant outing with kids), friendly owners, and only $6 per GALLON of berries you pick! We picked and picked…even through a rain shower. We all got a bit wet, but we also left with a full gallon of berries to enjoy.

It was a wonderful day, but I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves…

(I apologize for the focus issues in some my pictures. I’m still working on getting used to my camera, and I get in too much of a hurry sometimes.)

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Note that the focus here is on the bush, not the adorable face…should’ve switched to manual mode… 😉

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Note that NOTHING is in focus here…I like to call this one “auto-UNfocus”

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Marked improvement. I love this shot.

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All of my guys working together…smile.

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And finally, my little drowned rat. 🙂 Sweet boys, sweet berries, and sweet memories. You can’t beat that.

We had so much fun that I gathered up my mom, my niece and nephew, and our awesome neighbor friends and went back on Monday! We gathered another 4 gallons between the three families! There are now 12 quarts of berries in the freezer to get us ALL through the winter with muffins, cobblers, and other blueberry dishes. 🙂

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I’ll have to share my recipe for blueberry cobbler that came out of this adventure soon, too. 🙂 Yum!!

 

 

Muffins, Muffins, Muffins everywhere!

Sorry it has been so long since I’ve posted…I’ve been baking muffins.

Ok…maybe I’ve done a few other things too. I have baked a LOT of muffins though.

We’ve tried lots of new recipes over the last few weeks with lots of new ingredients. I’ve been trying to master the art of making a whole-wheat muffin taste more like a muffin and than like…well…warm spicy bread. Although my dad and Paula Deen say that you can never have too much sugar, I’ve been trying to find a balance that will allow the natural flavors to shine without feeling like I’m feeding my family a candy bar.

Since I’m trying to move toward more whole-food ingredients, there has been a definite learning curve. Some of the new ingredients I’ve been playing with in my muffin recipes include whole wheat flour, ground flax seed, raw honey, less refined sugars, and veggies!

I’ve had success with recipes like carrot-applesauce muffin, zucchini muffins, pumpkin muffins, and our old reliable banana muffins. I’ve also had failures with those same recipes–except the banana muffins…those are resilient enough that I haven’t managed to mess them up yet. 🙂

Some things that I’ve learned:

  • Adding sour cream or yogurt to the batter will help moisten whole wheat muffins and make the sweetener sweeten better
  •  Although they say you can substitute ground flax for an egg (1T flax + 3T water) or some of the fat (3T flax for 1T butter/oil) in a recipe, I’m almost always too chicken to try it. I usually just adding a bit for an extra boost of nutrients in the overall recipe.
  • Whether or not it is possible to have too much sugar, it is definitely possible to have too little.
  • If you put too little sugar in a recipe, you will clean up 6-10X the crumbs from your floor/furniture because the kids would rather crumble the muffins than gobble them down like properly sweetened ones.
  • Baking my own muffins from scratch is much less expensive than buying pre-made muffins, and I get to control what goes into them!
  • Muffin recipes are amazingly flexible. As long as you add enough sweetener (see above), you can add or substitute ingredients pretty much at will. Batter seem too thick? Add a splash of buttermilk! Don’t have buttermilk? Use sweet milk or almond milk or yogurt or sour cream or applesauce or…you get the idea!
  • I hate muffin papers. I don’t use them. I bake muffins in an oiled muffin tin and they come out just fine. I don’t lose any muffin yumminess to that sticky paper, and I have one less thing to pick up when the boys forget that our maid doesn’t exist.
  • I love silicone baking liners, but I don’t use them for baking. I use them for separating items in Zander’s lunch…sometimes even muffins! 🙂
  • Muffins freeze really well. I just cool them completely and pop 6 into each quart sized freezer bag. They warm up in 30 seconds in the microwave for a fast breakfast, or I can just pop it still frozen into the lunchbox. By the time they get to lunch, the muffin is ready to eat.

Now for a recipe!

Whole Wheat Banana Muffins (adapted from Heavenly Homemakers)

  • 1 3/4 cups whole wheat flour (I usually bump closer to 2 cups) 
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 cup mashed over-ripe bananas (about 2-3 bananas–I always use 3 and have a bit more than 1 cup in the end)
  • 1/3 cup honey (if using sugar, I would probably double this amount)
  • 1/4 cup melted butter
  • 2 eggs
  • up to 1/2 cup pecan pieces (optional)

Stir together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.  In a separate bowl, mash bananas, or puree them in a blender. 

I keep ripe bananas in my freezer all the time for this very purpose. You just let them sit for a few minutes on the counter (or zap them for 30 seconds in the microwave if you’re running behind like I usually am) to soften them enough to squeeze them out of the skins (gross but oddly satisfying). The great thing is that they’re already pretty mushed when they come out, so there’s not much mashing or pureeing required–just a few swipes with a fork to finish it off.

Mix mashed bananas, honey, melted butter and eggs into flour mixture.

Fold in pecan pieces if using–I actually spoon half of the batter into cups first, then fold them in for the last half of the batch because Michael only likes them WITH nuts and Zan only likes them WITHOUT nuts. Naturally. 🙂

Spoon batter into buttered or paper lined muffin tins. Bake in a 400° oven for 20 minutes.

I get anywhere from 12-15 muffins from this recipe, depending on how I hold my mouth when I’m mixing it up.

When they come out, I let them cool for a minute or two in the pan before removing to a wire rack. Since these are quite moist, they need to be completely cool before putting them into a container or you can put a paper towel in there with them to absorb the extra moisture if you’re too rushed to wait the whole time.

Enjoy!

I’ll post my pumpkin muffin recipe tomorrow, after I test it one more time tonight. It’s an adaptation of this recipe, but I have to make sure I can recreate it before I unleash it on anyone else. Ha!

Budget Crisis, Change, and a Challenge

I haven’t posted in a while for a number of very good reasons. I have been consumed with the transition to being a stay-at-home mom, I have been trying to get a routine in place that actually ALLOWS me to use the computer, and I have been being ruled by a demanding toddler. Those are just the daily frustrations and challenges. I have also been dealing with personal issues including my mother-in-law’s mini stroke and my grandmother’s hospitalization for a blood clot in her jugular vein (both are recovering well, but the immediate stress was excruciating).

To add to the fun and excitement of the aforementioned issues, my husband came home from his job (the one that was so stable that I was able to quite mine just a few weeks ago…) to announce that they were being cut back to a MAXIMUM of 40 hours per week for the forseeable future, and probably at least through the end of the year. His normal shift is a minimum of 48 hours, but he often works upwards of 55 hours per week.

After doing the calculations, and redoing the calculations, I realized that we would have about $400/month for gas and groceries after paying our current bills. We don’t have a ton of “extras” that can be cut, but if we go on “vacation” with DirecTV, cut off the house phone line, and cut off the pest control service, we should have an additional $155/month to cover any needed medical copays and unavoidable incidentals that come up.

Michael’s truck is a diesel, which is even higher than the sky-high prices of regular gas, so our fuel costs are pretty high right now. I really need to be able to hold on to almost all of our “extra” money for gas, so the problem of feeding our family was beginning to look daunting.

I have never tried the cash payment system with our budget because, quite honestly, I lack the discipline. I liked the idea in theory, but when it came time to actually withdraw the money from the bank to put into an envelope, I balked every time. This time, the setup was reversed.

Michael sold his old toolbox (mechanic box for work) to someone that works with him, and he brought home cash. I decided not to deposit it. Instead, I am issuing myself a challenge.

Terms:

  • For the next two months (through November 30), I will ONLY use cash for groceries AND household supplies (toilet paper, cleaners, etc.).
  • I will limit my spending to the cash currently set aside for that purpose ($420).
  • I will take advantage of the foods I have stocked in my pantry and freezer, but I will NOT deplete them to the point that I have to restock at full price. When I see a good price on meat and staples, I will still stock up with an eye toward the uncertain end of this “lean” time.
  • I will blog about and track my grocery spending to increase accountability (and the likelyhood of sticking to my budget!).
  • I will post my weekly menu plans to show how all of this works out to feed a family of five on roughly $200/month.

Soooo…here we go! I hope you will follow my journey, encourage me with comments, and hold me accountable for my progress. Unlike a lot of challenges that I have seen, this one is for keeps. If I succeed, we survive. If I fail, we flounder. Of course, it’s no fun if there’s no incentive…right?? 🙂

Extreme Couponing?

It’s Sunday morning, and you know what that means…COUPONS! It’s a time to grab your paper and pray that the coupons that you saw forecasted online are actually IN your area’s paper (since many offers are regional, and I often don’t live in the right region apparently).

Once you have seen what coupons you have, it’s time to hit the match-up blogs and sales papers to plan your shopping adventure. Plan, organize, clip as necessary, print online coupons, strategize, anticipate stock shortages and create alternate plans…

That’s what I did every Sunday for the several months that I now reflect on as my “extreme couponing” experimentation period. I was good at it too. I would often come home with 75% savings or better. My husband was in awe of my savings skills. My children detested shopping with me.

I had the binder. I knew the rules. I was rocking the shopping scene.

I was also making about 15 trips to different stores every week. I would often visit multiple stores in the same chain to get all of the deals on my list because of stock shortages. I was obsessed with getting good deals. My mind and day were consumed with planning and executing detailed shopping plans to avoid missing out on unbeatable deals.

Was it worth it?

I had a very well-stocked pantry. I had a stash of toiletries that I had purchased for little or nothing.

So why have I not rushed out today to get my 4-6 copies of this week’s coupons? Why do I have absolutely no idea what is on sale this week at the local drugstores? Why is my printer silent?

Here is my take on the pros and cons of extreme couponing.

Positives of Couponing:

  • I saved money on things that we use a lot like mayo, salad dressing, sauces for cooking, etc.
  • I saved money on toiletries. I haven’t bought razors, toothbrushes, toothpaste, or deodorant in over a year.
  • I increased my awareness of price cycles, sales gimmicks, marketing strategies, and real prices.

Negatives of Couponing:

  • I spent money on things I didn’t really want/need or never used.
  • I spent time and money on couponing outside of the products I bought (buying papers, ink, etc.).
  • I made extra trips to the store and had the extra stress of trying to shop with my kids without messing up my deals.
  • I had the pressure of making sure that I didn’t violate any ethics issues in the execution on my awesome deals.
  • Couponing consumed my mind.
  • Buying things that I didn’t really need or use led to additional clutter in my home.
  • The time and energy that I spent couponing and shopping reduced the time and energy that I could spend on my home and family (cooking, cleaning, and parenting took a backseat to deals).

For me, the cons outweighed the pros. I returned to shopping without a binder of coupons. I stopped stalking savings blogs for freebies and money-makers. I didn’t leave everything behind though.

Here are the things that I took away from my venture into the “extreme couponing” world:

  • Extreme ANYTHING is usually not a good idea. Moderation is key. Shop smart, but don’t obsess on deals, prices, sales, and stockpiles.
  • Pay attention to sale cycles and base prices for the products that you buy often. Shop ahead when you find a great price. Tomatoes for $0.52/can? Stock up! Just make sure that you only buy what you will USE. It’s not a good deal if you don’t use it up before it goes bad.
  • Don’t waste your time obsessing on the prices of things that you buy infrequently. Does it really matter if you save $0.50 on something that you only buy every 6 months?
  • If you don’t buy it regularly already, don’t buy it…no matter how good the deal! Spending $3 on a $15 product is not a good deal if it then sits in your closet because you didn’t need it to begin with (not that I have an automatic air freshener sitting in the bottom of my pantry or anything…).
  • Check deal-matching blogs if you want, but don’t obsess over “missed” deals.
  •  There’s a price for every coupon you use. Just use what you can easily get and forget the coupons that were in the paper that you didn’t get last week. The paper probably cost more than you would have saved!
  • Make sure you’re not sacrificing a clean and orderly home for a stockpile of “deals.”
  • Put your family and their happiness before shopping trips. Necessities are different—sometimes we HAVE to go to the store amidst protests, but if you’re just trying to “score” the great deal on deodorant…listen to the cries of your children.
  • If you’re too wiped out after shopping to cook, clean, love, or care for your family, you have things backward. Step back, reassess, and reorganize those priorities.

Needs vs Wants: Dishwasher

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dirty dishesEasy call, right? A dishwasher is obviously a need. In these rushed days, who in their right mind would opt OUT of having a dishwasher?

The situation is this…my dishwasher is dead. It developed a terrible sound, followed by a terrible smell, and utterly failed to wash the last several loads of dishes that I forced through it to a decent level of clean. Once I was sure that it was dead, I did what any normal homeowner does when a major appliance bites the dust–I went shopping.

I went to Sears first because (1) we have a card there and (2) our last dishwasher was a Kenmore, and I liked it a lot. I found a model that was perfect almost immediately. It had hidden controls (since I have a toddler and don’t like my dishwasher turning on at random times of the day), it had bells and whistles (something like a thermoblaster area for pots and pans…sounded perfect for those dishes that wait a week to be washed), and it had a moderate price tag for a washer with those features ($600…when sitting next to the $2000 washer, that looks like pocket change!). I always shop around though, so we left without even talking to a sales rep.

We went to Home Depot on a whim, but they didn’t have anything that could beat the Sears machine. Since I am not one to snub my nose at a discount, we also went to the local scratch-and-dent store. They had a washer with the hidden controls for $349! Of course, it didn’t have a thermoblaster, but it was also almost half the price.

At this point, I’m about ready to whip out the debit card and go for it. Of course, I know that I really need to talk to my husband about it before spending that kind of money, so I left.

After leaving the stores, I started having those guilty second thoughts. I remembered my efforts to rein in out spending habits. I remembered our decision to stop relying on credit for major purchases. I remembered my budget guide that tells me to save money specifically for big purchases. I remembered my resolution to be a lot more strict about needs vs wants with myself.

So I started washing my dishes.

Know what? My glasses aren’t nearly as cloudy as I thought they were. They actually sparkle. It also didn’t take that long to wash a day’s worth of dishes. Of course, I’m still washing because I had a LOT more than one day’s worth waiting on the new dishwasher.

The time I spent washing my own dishes gave me time to really reflect on the usefulness of a dishwasher and the habits that it creates in my kitchen. Here’s the problem: the more I rely on my dishwasher, the more dishes I allow to pile up.

Think about it this way. If you know that you have to wash the dishes by hand, are you going to let them sit in the sink or on the table overnight? No! Knowing you HAVE to wash them by hand instead of just throwing them into the dishwasher, you are more likely to just go ahead and rinse them off right after dinner. Newsflash: when you wash a dish immediately after using it, it comes clean with almost NO work! Holy cow!! (I know, I know…some of you are thinking that it should have been obvious to me much sooner than 28 years old, but I have always had a dishwasher to depend on.)

After all of that introspection and dish washing, I have decided to do something really crazy. I am going to wait to buy a new dishwasher until I can pay cash for it. I don’t want to put it on a credit card, and I don’t want to undo our progress toward having an emergency fund for a “want” that I can do without.

That means that I will be without a dishwasher for at least 3 months…one of those months, I’ll still be working outside the home. I think that it also means that I will be a lot more conscious of using only the dishes that are necessary when cooking and serving meals. I washed 36 cups and glasses today. That’s A LOT of cups and glasses for a family of 4…especially when we aren’t at home most of the day 5 days a week!

I have had Zander, my niece Katie and my nephew Joe playing at my house today. They have each had a single cup from this morning when they first started playing till now. They will keep that cup until this evening.  I have had to remind them and rescue the cups from the sink a few times already, but  I know that they will get into the habit.

Baby steps.

What do you think? Could you live without a dishwasher? What would you do without before giving up your dishwasher?

Cutting the Budget “Fat”

I have been trying to “cut the fat” from our budget today. It’s not easy, but here’s what I have found:

  • I called our telephone company, and managed to cut out a whopping $5/month from our home phone/internet bill. Of course, I could just cut off the home phone entirely, but I’m not sure we’re there yet. Soon maybe, just not yet.
  • I called our auto insurance company, and got a few good ideas about how to cut our premiums, but we’re really using most of the available discounts already. I’m going to get my info together and call about adding our homeowners to the policy to see if we could save on both, but that’ll be a task for another day. No direct savings here.
  • I reviewed our power bill and saw that we have reduced our average consumption from April to May even though it was hotter in May, so that’s good. In fact, we’ve dropped our budget billing amount by $17/month!
  • I’m seriously considering cutting off our satellite TV. It’s $90/month, and we watch a handful of TV hours a week. A little more soul-searching will be required before this decision is reached. I did cut off the extra receiver that we don’t use but have paid for about 6 years longer than we needed it. $5/month saved there.
  • I cut off the DVD service for Netflix, saving $7.99/month.
  • I cut off the Equifax reporting for Michael that I have let dangle for WAYYY too long. There’s another $14.99/month.
  • I cut off my subscription to WildTangent games since I really don’t use it much and don’t need to be playing computer games in my free time anyway. 🙂 $6.99/month saved.

Grand total: $39.97 of cut-off stuff + $17 power savings + lots of things to think about = not a bad day’s work

Baby steps…

Here are some other areas that I’m working on:

  • Using meal planning to cut grocery spending in HALF from May to June
  • Driving less, watching gas prices closer, etc. to cut gas consumption by $60 (getting it within our new budgeted level)
  • Eating at home more…MUCH more…to reduce our eating-out budget by 66%

Do you have other ideas on how to cut the budget?