Cheap Wall Chalkboard

DIY chalkboard

Before I get to the part where we re-arranged our entire town home in order to make it livable for the time being, let me show you the cheap Wall Chalkboard that I made for under $20. I’ve always loved the idea of having a giant chalkboard in the eating area for drawing menus and making seasonal art, and one day my brain had a flash of inspiration about how I could repurpose things around the house.

See, for instance, this old sheet of metal? It was originally stuck behind the stove as a backsplash, but it was ugly and the paint was peeling off, so I had Jesse unscrew it from the wall. It’s been sitting unused in our sunroom for months now. Chalkboard Process 1

I turned it over and gave it a fresh coat of chalkboard paint. Jesse then used the nail holes to hang it into the wall. It’s very lightweight, so it only took two small finishing nails– nothing heavy duty that would damage the wall.

Chalkboard Process 2

After waiting 3 days for the paint to cure, I primed the chalkboard by rubbing chalk all over it, then erasing with a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser (this little secret does the trick, I tell you!).

Chalboard Process 3

Because I was impatient, I went ahead and started doodling before adding the trim.

Chalkboard Process 4

I cut four pieces of craft board from Home Depot for less than $10 (after cutting them to size in the store) and stained them using “Antique Walnut” that I already had. I then hung them using 3M strips instead of nails.

Chalkboard in the kitchen

And…voila! Chalkboard in the kitchen! Isn’t she nifty?

Finished chalkboard

Why We Bought a Nissan Leaf

FullSizeRender-4

Two nights ago, Jesse and I decided to take the plunge and buy a Nissan Leaf. For the record, we are not hippies– we don’t compost (yet), we don’t have solar power (yet), and we don’t exclusively buy things local and organic. We still visit the doctor, and we aren’t afraid of hospitals.

But…come to think of it, we have been moving in a direction where we are more environmentally conscious, striving to minimize when we can, save, reuse, and consider things. It doesn’t hurt that most “environmentally friendly” habits are also money-saving habits. In fact, out of the things I’ve mentioned, we do most things in order to save money, with the other as a side benefit.

We’ve talked about buying a 2nd car for a few months now, mainly because we share one car at the moment that has 172,000 miles on it. This hasn’t been so bad, since Jesse works half a mile away and whenever I need to get somewhere I use the DART public transportation system or ask him to get a ride with a friend. But we are finishing up a few things for our MA degrees next semester, which will require a 30 min. commute each way a few times a week. If something were to happen to the car, we wouldn’t have any recourse, and doing things out of distress and panic is never good, financially or otherwise. Our savings fund is needed for all of the repairs we’ve had to do on our house in CA (long story for another time!)– if we had to add massive car repairs for a 10 year old car, things would get bad pretty fast around here! The car also gets only 18 mpg, which kills me just to say it out loud. NOT the best car for long distances.

Originally, we were looking at the Toyota Camry, to be quite honest. They are offering some great deals on financing right now– 0% interest for 6 years, along with low low prices. We even walked into a dealer last week, fully prepared to walk out of it with keys in hand, but didn’t end up purchasing it (I’m a tough as nails/cranky negotiator, guys. Hopefully you don’t ever have to deal with me in that context!).

As we talked more about it with my family throughout the week, a suggestion came up. Why not consider the Nissan Leaf? This car was not even on our radar before this, but after I looked more into it some things started clicking and making sense. Cutting our gas bill out of our budget almost completely pays for the car on a month to month level, especially once we start commuting to grad school. End of the year price cuts, zero maintenance, no gas bill, insane tax rebates and tax credits…..the reasons started to pile up.

Our biggest question, after exploring the practical and logistical side of things was, did we even LIKE the car? We’d never seen one in person, let alone driven one.

So, Jesse and I picked the coldest night in over three weeks and headed to the dealer (we should’ve picked a different day cuz’ it was in the low 30s!). We test drove it one at a time so that the other one of us could stay in the lobby with the kids and the oh-so-sparkly-and-fun-to-break-touch Christmas tree.

And you know what? We LOVED it. The ride was smoother than the Camry, and the interior was almost as spacious. Heated seats and steering wheel, bluetooth radio and calling system, surprisingly large trunk, and a smart key system where you don’t have to manually use the key, so long as it’s in your pocket.

Since there weren’t any base models available (anywhere in the metroplex, turns out) we drove one that was middle of the line instead, which meant it had a back-up camera as well. We found out that this model had some features that we would’ve really kicked ourselves for ignoring, such as the ability to “fast charge” in under 30 minutes (480v stations only). The 4-11 hour wait time for charging was one of my biggest fears about purchasing or leasing an electric car, so this feature was a definite upgrade I was willing to pay for.

As far as the tax credits, I can only speak for our situation here in TX, but we did a “mock-up” of our taxes before hand to realize that the federal tax credit promise of $7500 (yes, really!) wouldn’t help us much in our particular situation. But others should definitely know that this incentive is out there, especially if you are self-employed or pay a lot in taxes!

Then there are the state incentives.  In TX, the sales tax on a lease drops from 6% something down to .6% something, which saves a lot if you’re doing a lease. In TX, instead of tax credits, they actually cut you a rebate check to arrive within 4-6 weeks– $2500 if you buy or lease for more than 4 years, $1850 if you lease for 3 years, $1250 for 2 and $600 for 1. That’s money that you get because the dealership sends in a form, in no way linked to your taxes! In other states, however, it appears to be just an additional tax credit, so make sure to check with your tax professional (this site lists all the different states and the electric car incentives).

Since we live in Dallas, there are around 40 different stations that we can charge at for 3-4 hours, including a dozen or so that we can get the “quick” charge at in under 30 minutes. Other areas of the country are not so fortunate (TX pride, ya’ll!), so before considering an electric car you should do yourself the favor of checking out this website to see the charging stations in your area. When all else fails, however, they give you a free “trickle” charge cord that you plug into your garage (or, in our case, the back of the townhouse since we have a carport). For around $20 extra dollars a month, a specialized electricity company will install a 240v station in your home, charging the car in 3-4 hours.

Also, a single charge can take the car between 80-120 miles, depending on driving habits and whether the a/c or heat are on. This is also why the car has heated seats and steering wheel– the heat drains the battery more than anything, so you can program the car (with your smart phone!) to heat up 10-20 minutes BEFORE you get in it, while it’s still plugged in. When you get in a toasty car, there’s no reason to crank up the heat in a hurry, draining the battery quickly. Since there is no exhaust pipe, there’s no danger in the garage either.

Many people might think that you replace your gas bill with electricity cost increases, but from the research I’ve done the average user only adds $10-12/month onto their electricity bill. But every buy or lease from Nissan comes with a 2 year free-charge card, so you can get free charging from any station anyways. So essentially, it truly does deliver the “free” part of the travel expenses (especially when you factor in the fact that you’ll never need another smog check or oil change!).

Of course, because I had to, I asked “what happens if you run out of charge while driving?” I was thinking about how I may or may not have played with danger for years by getting the gas tank super low….his answer was surprising and encouraging. There is a toll-free number that you call, and they have two trucks in our area that will come and GIVE YOU a fast charge, or tow you to the nearest station– FOR FREE. You could call them to rescue you every single day, and while that would be inconvenient since you’d have to wait for them, it still wouldn’t cost a penny!

One of the only downsides (that I can see) about this car is that it is not fit for long road trips. Not only are charging stations scarce once you leave big metropolitan areas, but the “quick charge” 20 min. solution shouldn’t be used more than once or twice a day since it heats the battery quickly and can damage it if done a lot. Add onto that a hot TX summer day, and it’s basically a no-no (although the car won’t let you break it at that point– it will simply sense that it is too hot and shut off). As technology increases, the battery will get stronger, and perhaps road trips will become possible.

Another drawback is that the mileage goes down significantly if you exceed 60 mph, so for some, that would be a lifestyle change 😉 And it is more “computer” than “car”, so since it’s only been around for 2 years, no one quite knows what some of the long term issues are.

BUT, all things considered, I hope more people look into buying or leasing a Nissan Leaf. Fun fact: Tessla (the super expensive electric car!) buys their engines from Nissan! Anyways, I am excited about the prospect of all electric transportation, especially considering what that would mean for the global economy and our reliance on foreign oil.

But enough about me! What experience have you had with electric or hybrid cars? Are we crazy for doing this, or have you considered it yourself? Let me know below in the comments!

Burlap Table Runner

$7 Table Runner

I promise this blog isn’t turning into Craft-aholics Anonymous. When I said I had the crafting urge of late, I really wasn’t kidding!

This table runner came about by accident, and I kind of feel like cheating for even calling this a “project”. I was at Hobby Lobby the other night, getting a wooden “C” for my wreath. All ribbon was 50% off, so I did what any sane human would do– I browsed.

I didn’t realize that Hobby Lobby sold ribbon that was 10″ wide. Seriously? How does this count as ribbon?

No matter. I realized that it would make the perfect table runner! And, at 50% off, it was only $7!

Of course, this table runner was just begging for some fall decorations.

Burlap Table Runner, Fall Decorations

Burlap Table Runner

Our dining room is almost complete…we just need a different light fixture (not shown…yet!).

Townhouse dining room

Now, go get thee to Hobby Lobby and buy yourself a burlap table runner!

Burlap flower turquoise table

How Our Family Spends Less than $400/month on organic and gluten free groceries

Budget Grocery Shopping

Last Fall, I wrote a post about how to shop at Trader Joe’s for less than $100/week for a family of 4. To this day, it is still one of my most popular posts, with a few hundred views a week.

I thought that I would update things, because not everyone has a Trader Joe’s nearby, and some people care about eating only organic, grass fed meat and dairy (I do!).

I’m not a nutritionist by any stretch– I have just done a fair amount of research, and I have quite a few dietary issues to be on the lookout for. It’s harder to act on the knowledge that “this could deteriorate my health over the course of many years”. It becomes easier and a much higher priority when you eat something and it hurts 2 hours later.

Our family has many dietary challenges, which is what has lead us to be as creative and thoughtful as we are about food. I cannot eat gluten, chocolate, dairy or potatoes. Gregory cannot have gluten or dairy, and since we are Orthodox, we all eat vegan on Wednesdays and Fridays.

While I devote time and energy to our meal planning and shopping every week, I’m also not willing to let it consume me. Deal hunting and making things from scratch is all good by me– up to a point. Cooking and baking have never been passions of mine, they have become learned skills in order to save money and avoid digestive issues. I know that if something is too arduous or time consuming, I simply won’t keep it up. Simple, therefore, is the “name of the game” for me!

The number one thing that I’ve learned about groceries and meal planning is that there is ALWAYS a compromise. Even if someone promises you the moon and beyond, there has to be a catch. I’ve seen “how-tos” that basically involve couponing until kingdom come (I like couponing, but I also like my time and the freedom to buy what I want instead of having it dictated). Many posts that promise to feed a family for “x” amount of dollars are also telling you to buy the cheapest of the cheap, regardless of whether or not it’s organic or has scary “mystery” ingredients.

My FIRST and MAIN piece of advice is to first decide what you are willing to compromise on. If you can’t have it all (you can’t), what is it you DO want? Is budget your only concern? Are you wanting gourmet meals, or are you okay with simple and repetitive? Are you willing to buy in bulk or do you only like purchasing a few days at a time?

For me, personally, I am not willing to compromise on budget. I have decided that we will keep all of our groceries under $400, not because it’s all we have but because it’s a challenge and I know that I can. 95% of the time, I am not willing to compromise on organic/grass fed ingredients, with a few exceptions here and there.

But I am willing to compromise on variety, and we only go out to eat once a week, at most (and even then it’s somewhere cheap). It’s a lot more expensive to eat out when you want healthy and gluten free, but even then, we’ve found some ways around it (chipotle? Thai food? amazing taco stands?)

So, without further ado, here are the ways I’ve found to keep our organic grocery bill under $400 for a family of 4!

1. Double Up: Let’s get “variety” out of the way. I’ve found that if I double up at least 2 meals a week, refrigerating the other half and using it on a second day later in the week, we ALWAYS save a lot of money. And every time I learn more about film folding wrappers, the more I seem to save on things that are struck with exorbitance. No matter what way you slice it, more ingredients= more money. For a family of 4 (with 2 toddler boys that eat as much as grown men!), we still don’t use an entire bag of carrots in one meal, or an entire 8 serving package of quinoa pasta. Doubling it up and having the same thing as another night a few times a week really saves a lot of money. And, if I make Tuesday/Thursday’s meal together, then I only have to cook on Tuesday! No meal prep on Thursday required. On an average week, I only “cook” dinner 2-3 times, and the food still tastes good one or two days later (vs. freezing stuff for a long period of time, which always tastes kinda gross to me).

My one piece of advice for gluten free folks like me: avoid doubling up on pastas. Gluten free rice and quinoa pasta does NOT save well! Just double up the sauce, save half the package of pasta, and boil it later.

2. Use the Crockpot: In order to stretch the organic grass fed meat we buy, I almost always throw it into a stew of some sort. 3-4 servings of meat becomes 8 when you are adding tons of veggies, broth, and any other ingredients. Liquid is filling, and you also get the “veggie” part of dinner out of the way (although eating raw uncooked veggies a few times a week is still essential).

And here comes the compromise part: when you cook beef in a stew, for instance, you are able to use tougher meat. Choice cuts=expensive, especially when you’re buying organic and grass fed. If you choose beef cutlets or ground beef, you pay half of what you would for a strip steak or filet. Drumsticks in a crockpot are delicious, and 1/3 the cost of breasts or thighs (plus, if you’re SUPER “crunchy”, you can use the bones to make your bread broth!).

Many people would not be willing to compromise on this, because they love a good cut of steak (I do!). So it all comes down to which compromise you’re willing to make. We would rather eat organic grass fed beef ALL the time, saving the cost of a really good cut of steak for a special treat or occasion.

And, as our naturalistic doctor told me, the 95% is what matters. If you eat non-organic (say, for a meal out or for a good cut of steak that’s not organic) only 5% of the time, your body can process out those toxins easily. It’s when we over-saturate ourselves with pesticides and additive hormones that the body has a problem and deteriorates.

3. Buy staples in bulk: I have friends who are much more hardcore about this than I am. My biggest fear about buying in bulk is that I’ll pay a lot of money up front, then not use the quantity wisely.

A happy medium (for me), especially since we don’t have a TON of storage space, is to buy 5-6 of our biggest staples through Amazon Prime. When you subscribe to 5 or more items, you not only get the subscribe and save price (with free shipping), you also save an additional 15%! A large jar 32 oz. jar of organic coconut oil at Sprouts is $23, $17 at Costco. I get ours for $12 using all the discounts on Amazon, knowing that we will use it over the course of 2 months. We also bulk buy coconut milk, gluten free organic oats, gluten free cereal, gluten free protein bars (a small amount, treats!), toilet paper and almond baking flour. I reserve about $100/month of our $400 for our bulk items, since I know that I have to buy them anyways. Just make sure you have at least 5 items to get the extra 15%, even if it means you have to “subscribe” to super little things in order to hit 5. I once bought $3 worth of Betta food in order to meet my quota!

Word of advice: The way automatic shipments make money for their company is by sending things to you when you’re not done with the previous shipment. Track how quickly you are going through items, and if you only need to replenish things every other month, have a few additional staples to rotate in on the off months. We only buy a shipment of toilet paper every 3rd month, for instance, so if you can group things together to fit your needs, you won’t spend additional money by using the automatic subscribe and save shipments.

4. Buy local: Of course buying organic fruits and veggies at the supermarket is enough to break anyone’s budget! Produce is very expensive to begin with , which is why we have an obesity epidemic (especially among the lower class) in our country.

Buying local is better than buying the non-organic in a supermarket, in most cases. For instance, if your grocery store gets their produce from Mexico, the standards on pesticides are even lower than in the U.S. (which is saying something!). Most people already know this, but many local farmers do practice organic farming, they just haven’t paid for the right certifications. Buying local is also extremely good for the environment (if you care about this). Basically, buying non-organic at a farmer’s market is almost always better (and cheaper) than buying non-organic at a supermarket.

So, when you compromise on “organic” or not in order to stay in a budget, buy from a local farmers market first, and then buy organic whatever else you could possibly need. And if you don’t need to buy it organic (avocados, bananas, etc.), don’t! Don’t throw money down the drain if it’s not going to actually make a noticeable difference in your health! Stick to the Dirty Dozen list, and then try not to worry about it.

Another compromise that our family is willing to make is, once again, variety. Certain fruits and vegetables are a lot pricier than others. Bananas and carrots are EXTREMELY good for you, they don’t have to be organic (carrots are a ROOT for heavens sake, haha!), AND they are dirt cheap. Apples, pears and raspberries, on the other hand, would add an extra $100/month to our budget if we were to eat them every day. They require the highest amount of pesticides to grow non-organically, so, simply put, we don’t buy them very often. I wait for a good sale, stock up and freeze a bunch! People have been eating foods in season for thousands of years, and my kids will not be malnourished eating “special” produce less often.

5. Cook From Scratch: Our family has to do this anyways, since we have so many special dietary needs. Unfortunately, gluten free comes with a price tag– unless you cook it from scratch or forego it altogether. Gregory and I share one small loaf of gluten free bread a week– anything more than that I force myself to make it. Same with gluten free cookies and pasta. We use corn tortillas instead of buying expensive gluten free ones.

6. Go Meat-Free: When I really sat down and looked down at our budget, I realized that eating vegan on Wednesdays and Fridays was a huge money saver. I can make a meal that will serve for 2 dinners for only $6!! That’s $3/dinner, folks (if you need ideas, try our Thai Quinoa Casserole which has been “pinned” nearly 800 times!). Just make sure not to buy any fake meat or pre-packaged meals– so many chemicals and additives!! If you are only going vegan for a day or two a week, it doesn’t need to be fancy, complicated or expensive. Quinoa and nuts provide a TON of good protein, and you might not even realize you didn’t use meat or dairy.

7. Use “Fillers”: No, not the hotdog kind 🙂 With 3 hungry man-sized portions at stake for each meal, I have to make it stretch (or double our grocery bill!). Although Paleo fanatics would not agree (starches=evil), you can add rice, potatoes or rice pasta to almost any meal to stretch it. I can’t have potatoes, but sweet potatoes do the trick. For 50 cents more at Trader Joe’s, you can buy the more nutritious quinoa pasta, or just add quinoa (well rinsed, it doesn’t bother most tummies, which is why Paleo followers are on the fence about it). Spending an additional dollar or two on adding these things can make a 4 serving meal into an 8 serving meal.

8. Make a Plan: I once heard the saying, “Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail.” For me in our meal planning, this is SO true. Back before I meal planned, we ate out a LOT, simply because the evening would sneak up on us and before we knew it, we were hungry. When I go to the grocery store without a super itemized list, I always spend at least $40 more (no matter how hard I try!). I know ahead of time what I want to pay for different things like meat, pasta and veggies, so I add it up ahead of time to get a rough estimate. If the number is higher than I want, I spend an extra 5 minutes tweaking the meal plan to get things in order.

Likewise, make sure to plan enough time for grocery shopping, and don’t do it when you’re cranky or worn out. I go into my grocery shopping time like I am playing chess. The moment I am not concentrating or I get exhausted, I end up paying more “just to save time” or because it “looks so yummy!”. Taking that extra trip to a different store, however inconvenient, could save $10-20 per trip– something that would equal $40-80 more per month.

Usually this means I don’t take the kids with me to the store, since I end up concentrating on them instead of my “grocery chess game”. Lately, however, I’ve started taking Gregory because we get a little date out of it, and he gets super involved and stoked about each deal. Sometimes he even cheers me on!

9. Know Your Stores: This probably goes with the last point. I make sure to go to my grocery stores in the right order, so that if I forgo buying something at one because it’s “too expensive”, I can get it at the next place. For me, I always start at Sprouts, Natural Grocers or Whole Foods (depending on my mood, haha!) and get my organic meat and a few gluten free products. I end at either Trader Joe’s or Aldi, and if there’s STILL something I didn’t grab (specialty), we grab it later at Kroger/Vons/Albertsons.

10. Grow Whatever You Can: I left this one for last, since lots of people don’t have room for a huge garden or orchard. When we had a garden bed in CA, without hardly any gardening know-how I was able to grow enough lettuce for months worth of salads, along with hundreds of cherry tomatoes. My parents had an apple and pear tree in their backyard, and it used to produce enough fruit in season to can and save for an entire year– not that we ever fully took advantage of this, but it’s true that just one or two fruit trees can take care of an entire family.

 

And, there you have it! The little things I’ve done along the way to keep our meals organic AND budget friendly! If anyone has any additional tips, please feel free to comment and I will add them to the list (giving you the credit, of course 🙂 ). Happy grocery shopping!