Tuesday, April 28, 2015

America: Where soda is cheaper than water

This weekend I was in the grocery store, about to check out, when I decided I really needed a beverage since I was coming down with a sore throat and pressurey sinuses, and this was really getting to me all of the sudden. I didn't know off the top of my head where nearby I could fill my water bottle, was in the checkout line with a cart full of stuff and various kids and elders in tow, so decided I'd just buy something. My position at the end of checkout line was right at the head of the beverage aisle, plus there were various fridges and bins of beverages near the checkouts.

I looked around, and discovered that the cheapest single-serving thing was store-brand soda. It was cheaper than the store-brand water of the same size and even cheaper than the smaller store-brand water. I don't generally buy bottled water because it's a waste of money and horrible for the planet, but it was there, it was what I wanted and what I ended up getting. Just killed me that water with chemicals in it costs less than plain water.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Places to find inexpensive spices

When I post a recipe along with cost information, I generally don't include the cost of things like dried spices or small amounts of pantry staples. This seems to be true for most bloggers and writers who include cost information. But if you're like me and have gone from being a middle-class small family eating Trader Joe's food and takeout to a lower-class large family cooking from scratch most every day, you might find that your spice stash is running low. Sure, spices are versatile, and they keep fresh for a long time, but do I really want to pay $6 for cinnamon?

Here are some of my spice tips and tricks:

Goya adobo

I probably put this in 90% of the things I cook. (The others are baked goods, and that would be weird.) Goya often has a 50-cent-off coupon on their website or in the paper, and it often goes on sale for 99 cents at Stop-and-Shop, which doubles coupons. I currently have five bottles of free adobo in my cabinet. If you aren't familiar, it's salt and pepper, plus garlic, onion, and various other versatile spices (cumin, parsley, etc.) depending on the variety. I pretty much use it in every recipe that calls for salt and pepper.

Spice blendsFor whatever reason, these are cheaper than individual spices. My favorite two -- pumpkin pie spice (cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, a few other things depending on the brand) and poultry seasoning (sage, marjoram, thyme, etc.) -- are significantly on sale around Thanksgiving. Pumpkin pie spice works great in, well, pumpkin pie, as well as apple pie, holiday cookies, various fall baked goods, and just about anything that calls for cinnamon. Poultry seasoning is great for pretty much every Thanksgiving dish, or anything that calls for sage.

Latin, Caribbean, Indian, Middle Eastern, Asian stores...or the Latin aisle in the supermarket. You can often find the same spices either in small plastic bags or large jugs for a fraction of the price per ounce of the same spices on the spice aisle of the supermarket. If you get them at a family-owned local store, you can support local businesses, people of color, and/or immigrants. The bags can be messy once you open them, and the jugs are kind of ugly if you store your spices on the counter, so I either purchase the spice the first time in a jar and then refill it, or get some jars from Amazon to pour them into. These snazzy glass ones are about a dollar apiece, or these plastic ones are 59 cents each. If you have more time, a Google search shows that you can buy empty plastic spice containers by the dozen for 5 to 15 cents a piece directly from many suppliers.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Chili: ridiculously cheap and ridiculously easy

Chili (shown here on some delicious nachos) is one of my favorite standby meals. Everyone in the household likes it, it keeps for a week in the fridge if it lasts that long, it freezes well, and best of all, it's incredibly easy and cheap to make.

It's easy to make with couponing finds, pantry staples, veggies from Fair Foods, WIC, or your other favorite source. Pretty much all you absolutely need is beans, some sort of tomato product, and seasoning.

My easiest chili recipe is quite cheap, but isn't actually the cheapest recipe I've come up with (which I'll get to later.) Here's what you need:
  • Two cans of beans -- I used one can of kidney beans and one can of black beans
  • One 16-ounce can of diced tomatoes -- can also use one can of tomato sauce, one can of tomato puree plus water to make it about 16 ounces, or two to three fresh tomatoes
  • One onion
  • Spices -- I used Goya adobo plus lots of cumin
  • Peppers with some heat to them, or powdered pepper, or hot sauce -- I used hot sauce
Put everything in a pot. Cook on the stove until boiling, then turn down and simmer on low for about two hours, until it looks like chili. If it needs it, add a pinch of sugar to bring out flavor and help everything caramelize. Add salt, more seasonings, and more hot sauce or other hot peppers if needed. As listed here, it makes about six servings for about $2.50 worth of ingredients (assuming full shelf price). If you coupon, you likely have cans of beans and tomato products in your stash that were somewhere between free and 20 cents each.

If I have time, I prefer to cook chili in a slow cooker. It's less likely to stick and turns out better, but you need to plan ahead. I would at least double the batch if I were doing this.

You can also add veggies to chili. Zucchini and yellow summer squash are my favorites. Corn, yams, pumpkin, spinach, kale, and peppers are all great too. Especially if you're using the slow cooker, I imagine you could add just about any vegetables, since they get really soft and blend together with the other ingredients.

If you want to make the recipe even cheaper, use dried beans. Obviously this method takes several hours, even if you use the stove on high heat. They're considerably cheaper though, since a pound of dried beans is about the same price as a can but will absorb water and yield a whole pot. I don't bother soaking beans when doing slow-cooker chili. My slow cooker is the large oval type, and I generally put a total of one pound of dried beans (usually some combination of kidney, pinto, and black beans to add up to one pound). For a pound of beans, I would use two to three cans of tomato products or several pounds of fresh tomatoes, two to three onions, and a lot more spices.

Where to get inexpensive spices warrants its own post, I think. Stay tuned!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Steep post-Passover markdowns still available

Universal Hub posters report on which stores still have items for 50% or more off. A lot of foods sold for Passover make good staples; the latke mixes are great to add various shredded veggies to, and matzos and matzo meal are great for breading things.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Free insulation and other weatherization services if you qualify

If you qualify for fuel assistance through ABCD, and you call them and tell them you're interested in weatherization, they have some really great benefits. I had heard from people in other communities that the waitlist was several years long, but apparently this isn't currently the case, at least in Boston at the moment. I called them about two months ago, they sent me an application, I sent it back, and last week someone came out to do the audit.

They said they would insulate our home, tune up the furnace, and repair some leaky siding and roofing -- all for no cost. They also can replace furnaces if yours is beyond repair. I will update when the work actually gets done, but they said it would be within the next few weeks. The program is available to homeowners of any type of home and renters with landlord's permission. The only thing they no longer do is repair or replacement of windows, but this is inexpensive compared to insulation and heating systems, and the Building Resource Center can hook you up with necessary supplies.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

In case anyone says the government just hands out money

I think our food stamps are reinstated. The web portal thing is showing that we're getting $66 per month this time.

What did I have to do to get this $66 per month?

February 23: Faxed the updated income information to DTA.

Several times in the weeks after that: Looked in the online portal, saw that nothing had been received or processed.

March 19: Finally called them, which involves six minutes of typing in my EBT card number, social, ZIP code, birthdate, and pressing keys acknowledging that I know that the info can be found online (no it can't; that's why I'm calling), then waiting on hold for 10-30 minutes.

Was informed that my fax arrived there on the 23rd but even though it was clearly labeled with my name and SSN, it got filed to another household member's SSN, not mine, and that person isn't listed as a head of household with an open case, so it just sat there having nothing done with it. They then decided they would process the info and give me my benefits back.

March 30: Nothing had been done, called back. Someone was confused about one family member having self-employment income plus W-2 income. Decided we were trying to call the job self-employment and deduct things we aren't allowed to. Instead of just realizing people can have two jobs, they mailed me a paper letter which I never got, asking for entire business records for said self-employment income (which is about $1000 a year). Person on the phone actually agreed the records weren't necessary and cleared that request out. Spent several minutes asking me for the name of the family member's business. Couldn't seem to wrap brain around that most people filing Schedule C don't have a business and you put the person's name under "business name." Kept saying "I need a business name."

April 2: Saw on online thing that we were given benefits starting next month, along with summary of our household income and how they had arrived at $66. Called to ask why they weren't put in going back to when the paystubs were from, which was what they said would happen. Spent 45 minutes on phone, while worker asked me about every paystub, whether that was my correct income, whether relative's disability income was correct -- pretty much just read the entire file to me and asked me questions about it, even though the previous workers had already calculated the amount and I was just asking about the retroactive part. Worker agreed that retroactive benefits were due and would be deposited. Said something about how "if you don't say anything, no one knows that you didn't get the benefits we said you would."

Is this some kind of intentional cost-saving measure? Or are they just incompetent?

I'm thinking it isn't worth $66 per month to do all this faxing and calling and waiting on hold. Maybe that's the point? Still, I'm sitting here in the richest country in the world, and every time I have a small victory over DTA, the school system, the community health center or some other organization that hoped we would just go away, I can't help but think of all the people who don't have the resources I do and are just hanging up the phone defeated. Should you only be able to feed your family if you previously worked in finance and know to correct DTA's math and correct their understanding of tax codes? Should your kids only get services if you know people who know special education law and Medicaid policies?