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Friday, 4 January 2008

4 Fastest Ways to Save Money in January: Eat Simply

I always think of January as the great month of purge. Armed with our New Year's resolutions, we march into battle, trying to fight off the consequences of our excessive holiday consumption. Our wallets feel thin even as we struggle to squeeze them into the pockets of our tighter-than-ever jeans. Everything seems stacked against us, from the temperamental furnace in the basement to the balding all-weather tires on the car. It's not exactly an encouraging month.

And yet, there are simple things we can do to keep our money in our pockets so that come the end of the month we can pay off those bills. Over the next few days, I'll be posting 4 of the simplest and fastest ways to save money this January.

The first one is to eat simply. After weeks of cookies, candy, pies, and roast turkey with gravy, it's time to stop. Not only does holiday food pack on the pounds, it takes a serious bite out of the budget.

Planning and making your meals yourself really pays off. As hard as it is to go to the grocery store instead of the restaurant, especially if you did all of the holiday cooking, there's probably little else that will turn your financial blues around faster. Remember how you planned out everything you needed for your holiday meal, wrote it all down on a list, and then cooked it up yourself? See, you have the skills already. All you have to do is transfer them to your day-to-day life for one month. Just remember to:

1. Set a budget.
Before anything else, you should set a budget for your meals. Know the maximum amount of money you want to spend on food each week and be prepared to stick to these spending goals.

2. Write a meal plan.
Plan out what you and your family are going to eat for the week by writing down the details of every meal, including the exact foods you will eat, how many people will be at the meal and where/when you intend the meal to be. When you've finished, make a quick list of the ingredients required to make each meal, keeping in mind the number of mouths you will be feeding. This will help you later when you make your shopping list and it gives you the opportunity to estimate the cost for each meal and revise your plans accordingly.

Remember to portion correctly. There should be no food left over when the meal is finished. Making extra food tempts you to eat more than necessary and/or risks that you will forget about the leftovers and end up throwing them away. If you want to make a lot of food so that you will have left overs for another meal, schedule the leftovers meal into your weekly meal plan in advance. Make just enough food for the two meals and then immediately store half of the cooked food in the refrigerator. Do not put all the food on the table, or you risk over eating and not having enough food left for the second meal.

Once your meal plan is complete, compare your estimated costs with your budget and revise your plan until these match. If you have scheduled to eat meals at restaurants or cafeterias, you can save money by planning to make your own foods. If the meals you have planned to make yourself are too expensive, choose different recipes, avoiding special ingredients, spices you don't already have on hand, and processed, pre-packaged foods. Base your meals on staples like pasta, potatoes and rice and inexpensive meats like ground beef and chicken thighs/legs.

3. Make a shopping list.
Once you know what you're going to eat and what you need to buy to prepare your meals, make a shopping list. The longer your meal plan and more comprehensive your shopping list, the fewer trips to the grocery store you will have to make, saving you gas. Another way to limit transportation costs is to avoid going to more than one store, if possible. If not, make separate lists for each store you intend to visit, so that you are less likely to forget something and need to return.

4. Don't shop when you're hungry.
If you skipped lunch and are heading straight to the grocery store after work, watch out. Everything looks tastier when your hungry and you put yourself in danger of buying things that aren't on your shopping list.

5. Skip the snacks.
Feeling hungry? Try chewing gum instead of picking up a bag of chips at the fuel station. If you're a constant snacker, you'll do best to schedule snacks into your food plan that way your mini-meals are sure to be cheap and fit into your budget. Even better, just drink water when you feel the urge to fill your stomach between meals (from the tap, of course). Many times, a glass of water can curb the munchies.
Applying the same forethought we applied to the holidays, we can make January a budget-friendly food month by eating simply.

Bon App├ętit!

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Is It Okay to Re-gift?

The holiday season is officially over. I hope you got, and were able to give, everything you wanted.

For me, the holidays were anything but typical. Accustomed to extreme cold and snow, I felt a little out of place surrounded by palms trees in African heat, but it was still the holidays. The essential elements were there: good food, good humour, good people. If there was one thing noticeably lacking, it was gifts.

Now I'm not the material type, a fact which makes living the frugal lifestyle infinitely easier for me, but I do like to have something for people to unwrap come late December. Like they say, it's the thought that counts, and if you don't have anything to give, it's a good reflection on the fact that you probably haven't done much thinking. I pride myself on coming up with thoughtful gifts that don't break the bank but this year was particularly challenging. I became very aware of how disconnected from the rest of the world the tiny West African country I currently call home actually is. Simply put, there's nothing to buy here and even the best online deals turned out too expensive when delivery costs were calculated in. So I had to get creative.

Instead of buying too many gifts, I made my own. Basically, I hit the kitchen and baked - cookies, cakes, pies, anything I could find the ingredients for. This approach had three affects. 1: It really started to feel like the holidays; there's something about cooking that gets me in the festive spirit like nothing else. 2: I saved a lot of money on gifts and was able to give my friends something novel they could really use and enjoy. 3: I put on those holiday pounds! (Which means there will be a few inexpensive exercise and diet ideas coming your way in the next couple of days...)

In my struggle to find suitable gifts I found myself reviewing and reconsidering my approach to gift-giving in general and the practice of re-gifting fleetingly danced through my head. I have never, ever been a proponent of re-gifting, or giving something as a gift that was once given to you as a gift (usually something you didn't like or ever use). If it's really true that it's the thought that counts, then what kind of thought goes into re-gifting? But in a place like Africa, where there's simply nothing to buy and it's too expensive to order anything, or in other such unusual situations, is it okay?

Personally, I'm still inclined to think not, but I started to wonder how often the practice really occurs and what people actually think about it. So I've decided to issue a poll (in the far-right sidebar) to see what you all think. Is it okay to re-gift? Did you see or experience re-gifting this year?