Friday, April 23, 2010

The Art of Frugality

There really is an science to saving money.  But when you save a lot of money, it feels like an art.  It seems perfectly designed for your benefit.  That is what I have been learning through experience for the last month and a half or so.  In a post last month, I wrote a little about somethings I learned online from different "coupon experts" and bloggers.  I linked myself up to several good RSS feeds to be "in the know" about specials and deals in my area at my favorite stores.  And I feel like I have learned SO much from them that I would like to tell a little about how I have saved by following these ladies lead.
It REALLY began for me after getting in line behind two old ladies that were "power shopping".  I decided to go ahead and get in line behind her, even though she had a large order, because it looked as if she were almost done.  What remained on the conveyor belt was about 30 boxes of cinnamon toast crunch.  I kinda figured they might be non profit, because I had seen these two shop together before, and I even knew that they drove together in a large van with no seats so they could pile all their goods in about once a month or so.  As I looked up I saw her friend was talking with an employee who was loading up a huge cart (I mean huge, like a lumber cart from Lowes) of what appeared to be full of boxes and boxes of frozen food.  There were two of these carts.  I had my son with me at the time, and we patiently waited behind them, mildly curious about what the were up to, and if they worked for Boys and Girls Club,  or the Kitchen or what?  As we waited the lady was licking her finger, counting out her coupons and handed over what looked like 300+ little clippings, and she told the other lady, "oh I owe you such and such" amount of coupons, and thumbed out a few more.  She then turned to me and asked..."Do your kids like cinnamon toast crunch?"  I said "Well, sure! It's full of High fructose corn syrup and doused in sugar, who doesn't?" with a huge grin.  She said, "well they are on sale, why don't you go back and get yourself a few boxes, with these coupons they will only be...$x.  This is going to take a while" she said as she looked back at the cashier who was furiously swiping and scanning as fast as he could, while the bagger was packing box after box of discount goods.
"Thanks! I will" and I ran back to get them.
When it was all said and done, the cashier asks her for $83 and some change.  She pays her tab and he hands her some catalina coupons and looks at the end of her infinitely long receipt (he must have folded it six times!) and says "You've saved $348 by using your Dillon's Plus card.  Have a great day."

What else could she do but smile???? 
and say "thanks, I sure will!"
Wouldn't you?

Not long ago they also did a spot on a cold news day about a lady who buys coupons online and uses them during sales to get things cheap.  She claimed to save all sorts of money doing this and could justify paying for other people's duplicates and extra newspapers.  She caught a lot of response when the newscasters asked the viewers to email their opinions.  Most folks said they clip and occasionally use coupons but that they save more money by far, using store brands and sale shopping.  Now, these are also frugal folks, like I thought I was at the time.
I became loyal to store brands that I began using as soon as our little family was out on it's own.  I would always feel so grateful when I could spend $100 on groceries, and feel spoiled.  Only to have the groceries run out before the next payday, then having to calculate what ingredients I could afford to buy for dinner on a Wednesday and Thursday night.  And I bought tons of generics, while my family insisted (although no complaints at mealtime) that I should buy the known brands.  And I insisted that sometimes the store brands are just better.  (this is my opinion here).  But still, I thought I was being as cheap as I could be...still thought I did well to get on sale what I could, and buy what I need when I need it. But after a few good go around's, I finally see what they are doing right, and why it works so very wonderfully.

I shop pretty much at Dillon's and Walgreen's only.  I trust their store brands and they always have great sales.  I have shopped at both stores loyally for many years.  But now I know how to shop so much better.
I used to go to Walmart for the items I found were too pricey at the grocery store.  Always a special trip for bathroom, laundry, and cleaning supplies, paper goods and pet food. I just assumed it was always cheaper.
But now I know that is not always the case, and it'd be hard for them to really keep track of what the bottom dollar rollbacks SHOULD be, to match the deals I find everyday, at my grocery store.
I have proved the value of this by buying boxed Au gratin Potatoes.  I used to go to Price Cutter's for their store brand, until I purchased the Kroger and it was just as good.  Then I didn't have to cross the street for them and save a bit too. The Generic potato at Price cutter's was $1.89, never a sale.  I am not positive how much regular price for the Kroger, but they run their brands on sale all the time, and a good deal for theirs is $.99.  The Betty Crocker Potatoes at Dillons are regular price $1.69.  And a week ago the SALE price at Walmart was $.94. (are you following me?) I also have a few $.40 off One box of Betty Crocker potatoes coupons that I could use at any of these stores.  Why chose Dillon's? The highest price is actually the Price Cutter store brand, so they are out. I'd imagine Betty Crocker would be more (if I remembered the price).
So its between Dillon's and Walmart, and Walmart looks like the winner...on the surface.
If I take my coupon to Walmart, my $.94 Potatoes are now $.54 potatoes, which is a steal by any account.  Cheaper than the Dillon's store brand, even.  Almost worth the trip to Walmart, if I planned on buying other things at the same time.  It's a 20 minute drive through lots of traffic to get to Walmart.  So back to Dillon's ...I could save the gas and just buy the $.99 store brand and call it even if I factor in the gas...but probably not feel better about it since I already know there is a cheaper box of potatoes out there. Or maybe just that it is nearly half price for name brand, either way.... but now that I know about a few VERY IMPORTANT websites, I buy them closer to home, at a discount!
Here are the links
Cellfire..............Shortcuts.................and...............Upromise where I can load coupons onto my store loyatly card.  Not to mention all the printables from many others. Store sites like Walgreens, CVS, and Dillon's home site are invaluable, they allow you to see (or downloaded if you really wanted) their weekly flyers, and usually will have exclusive, web-only printable coupons as a bonus.  It really is worth the afternoon looking at these, to save BIG.

So, back to my story! The above sites are how you get cheaper potatoes without a trip to Wally World.
I went to those first three sites and I registered the number on my CVS and Dillon's cards on the appropriate sites.  Then I loaded a score of coupons to the cards, not thinking much of it all.  In fact, most all of these coupons were duplicates of coupons you get in the Sunday Paper.  At the time I didn't realize how cool that is, I thought, many boxes of potatoes do I need?  HMMM...that is a good question!!!
So there is a coupon for Betty Crocker Potatoes, for guess what? $.40 off per box.  So that is $.89, right?
WRONG!!!!  Dillon's is so awesome...they double paper coupons, a lot of time they even double the ones that say not to.  {Up to one dollar}.  If you have a $.50 to $.75 off coupon, it is actually a dollar off.
 So, my $.40 is now worth $.80.  That works out to $.49 a box, cheaper than Walmart's $.54 a box and half price from the store brand!
The cellfire and shortcuts coupons you load from your card come off before your coupons, without any action on your part.  What is better?  They have duplicates on your card from the different websites, and you can load them monthly.  They do have expiration dates, but they are easy to use.
NOW imagine you used this in conjunction with a sale.  For example.....this week both Kroger brand and Green Giant brand frozen veggies are $1.  Normally I buy the kroger when it is 10 for $10, and I am out of my own homegrown frozen veggies. But on my Dillon's card I have loaded $.50/2 coupons, and I also have $.50/2 paper coupons.  If I buy 2 veggies, I can subtract the $.50 right off the top....$1.50 for those two...but I also have the coupon...THAT DOUBLES to $1.  That is $.50 for TWO or $.25 each.  If I bought the store brand I would still be paying $1 you can see how this works out very well.  You always have your store brands as back up if you run out, and nothing is on sale...but the point is really to stock up. So it lasts until the next sale, and save up your coupons.
Ok so how much time do you have to spend figuring all this out?  Not much really, you are already wasting a lot of time listening to me ramble aren't ya?  Check out the other blogs, and waste some time with the specialists....Coupon MOM, Frugal fritzie, I heart coupon deals, Be more blogs...find one in your home town, some one who shops where you shop.  Buy the paper, save the printed coupons from the register, and print online (they have some really good ones online.) Join facebook, a lot of companies think it is cool to make you be their fan to get the I do....and print it twice.  But the most important thing, is read the parts about store policies...not everyone knows Dillon's will double those under a dollar coupons up to a dollar...(a $.75 only goes up to $1, but it's YOUR quarter!) Not everyone knows that many Dillon's will also take expired coupons. Not everyone will remember what coupons they have either, and that is why the blogs are great.  They are so fast to update with each and every deal, so they can do some legwork for you...all you have to do is decide, what you like to buy, that is on sale, that matches your coupons....and Viola! You save more than you spend.  I have done it 3 times in the past 24 hours....I saved $15 on my $12 out of pocket at Walgreen's on some odds and ends.  I saved $17 over my $13 out of pocket at CVS on absolute necessities.  But the best was at the grocery store, Dillon's huge 10 for $10 sale, store wide, with many unadvertised manager's specials....I saved EXACTLY $65.35 on my $65.34 order! One penny over.  But I realized right then and there....last time this year, i was hitting those same sales, and coming home happy enough to spend $130.69 on that amount of food.  (this trip I threw in a few tubs of ice cream, and caramel topping, and kid's toothpaste....all sorts of impulse, not on the list buys...yet I still SAVED BIG TIME).  And all I did was walk a bit slower and thumb through some little pieces of paper, and read a blog or two every other day while I drink my coffee.   That is it.  I saved $65 this morning, by doing not much....and last year...I didn't.  And that is the kicker.

I have saved so much money in the last month and a half.  I have been able to buy name brands cheaper than store brands, and stock up on a lot of household goods while at rock bottom prices, that should last until the next time they are on sale. I have been intentionally over-buying the things we use the most.  I am shopping for things "because it is on sale".  But, once you have a small stockpile, you only have to replenish what you have set aside, instead of starting from scratch.  Even so, I was able to begin the stockpile at a discount to begin with!

Google: Coupon Match ups, and Coupon Stacking...I promise you will learn a lot!  =)
There are several sites linked to what they call the "frugal Map" so you can locate a "good deal" blogger in your area, that will post the sales, coupon matches and discounts or rebates for you.  All you do is read, print and buy the Sunday paper! And maybe All You magazine.
It is so easy...and it is worth the 50% off, especially when your store runs as many great sales as mine does!

Good luck to you, I hope you save a TON of cash, and invest it in something you WANTED, instead of always those things you NEEDED that always cost too much!!!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

How big is too big??

Yesterday I had a surprise visit from my FIL and BIL.  They were in the neighborhood dropping off a mower to be repaired and wanted to swing by and pick up some equipment that the had loaned us.  My FIL is an avid gardener, and works at a local restaurant that specializes in serving locally grown food.  A great place to eat with a friendly laid back environment.  And my FIL has learned a lot from his involvement there...and off handedly told me my asparagus was much too big.  He said that the restaurants want the thin spears (the ones off the smallest plants or late in the season).  I told him no, I don't think so.  Why would you stop harvesting at that very stage?  I told him it was unhealthy for my plants to harvest the tiny "newbie" spears, that that weakens the crown.  And that the largest ones are in fact quite tasty, and not at all woody.
But at the same time I became perplexed.  Here he is, working with a fine gourmet chef, and I believe he knows what they say they want and need in the kitchen.  No doubt I trust his judgement.  But why then, do the plant breeders emphasize the size of the spear?  My particular variety, I read, can get up to 4 cm in diameter, on the healthiest spears.  And other similar varieties are named for their size and girth...IE Jersey GIANT.  Why then would the chef's think that they are inedible?  I don't understand this at all.

I have been thinking how beautiful and creamy colored the spears are when they begin to push through the surface...and thought about blanching a few spears for experiment's sake....then he could see how very tender the spears can be.  I just don't know that is true of it.  What I know of Asparagus, you do NOT harvest pencil sized spears, because it marks the end of the harvest.  And that it is common, or preferred to have spears the size of a grown man's thumb.
So...I must do the only thing I know how....GOOGLE IT!!!  :)

Here is what I've found:

This is from a PDF from Texas A&M University:

Harvest asparagus spears from established
beds for about 8 weeks, depending
on the area. Do not harvest during the first
2 years after planting. This waiting period
enables the underground crown to grow
and store enough reserves for a strong harvest
for many years to come.
Harvest the spears when they are 4 to
10 inches long. To prevent the spears from
becoming fibrous, harvest at least every
other day. The fibrous condition is caused
by overmaturity or inadequate fertility.
Spears with loose or opened heads are too

To harvest, snap off the spears by
hand at ground level. Never snap asparagus
spears above the ground or allow a
stub to remain. An alternative method is to use a
knife to cut the spears 1 to 2 inches below
the soil level (Fig. 4). To avoid damage to
the developing buds in the crown, never
cut the spear too deep. However, this
method is not recommended because the
knife may spread diseases from crown to

Stop harvesting when the spear diameter
becomes less than 3⁄8 inch or when the
spear heads open up with rising temperatures

And even better, because it verifies my belief, from Illinois;

"While Europeans prize white asparagus, Americans tend to prefer the green or violet-green varieties. When buying asparagus look for compact tips and smooth green stems that are uniform in color down the length of the stem. Check the cut stem end for any signs of drying and always avoid withered spears.
Pencil thin or thick stems can be equally delicious. Contrary to popular belief, thinner stems are not an indication of tenderness. Thick stems are already thick when they poke their heads out of the soil and thin stems do not get thicker with age. Tenderness is related to maturity and freshness.
Asparagus comes in a variety of colors including white, violet-green, pink and purple. If you must store any variety of asparagus, treat it as you would treat a cut flower. Trim the stems and stand them in a glass with one to two inches of water. Cover with a plastic bag and refrigerate for 2 to 3 days or until ready to use."

This is even more helpful to Missouri growers, because of the proximity to our state and similarity of climate. As far as I know, bigger is better...this is not a zucchini or a cucumber, where maturity means the seeds are ready to reproduce, and sacrifice flavor for it's growth...this is altogether a different entity. 
Here is another excerpt from Ohio;

"Buds on an asparagus crown are arranged in a "dominant hierarchy" or "pecking order" system. The first bud to emerge as a spear is the largest in diameter. When a spear from a crown is harvested, it signals another bud on that crown to send up another spear. With each successive spear that is harvested, the spear diameter decreases because the lower-order buds are smaller and produce smaller diameter spears. The largest spears occur between the second and fifth week of harvest and decrease rapidly thereafter. This is why asparagus harvesting should stop after a certain number of weeks to allow the crown to send up small diameter spears that will lignify and become ferns to manufacture carbohydrates to send down to the crowns for next year's crop. Spear diameter during the first year after crown planting will be smaller and possibly more difficult to market than the larger spears produced after the first harvest season.
Because the length of harvest season will vary from year to year depending on air temperature, stopping the harvest when one-fourth to three-fourths of the spears have a diameter of less than 3/8 inch (about the diameter of a pencil) is a better guide than harvesting for a specified number of weeks. Experienced gained by growing the crop will make it easier for the grower to know when to discontinue the harvest. Over-harvesting will weaken the crown, reducing the amount of carbohydrates stored for the following year, and will lead to further decline of the planting, putting plants under stress and making them more susceptible to insects and diseases."

And here is a brief (ha ha, to me brief!) list of links:
Asparagus yields

Kentucky U Asparagus bulletin

Maryland U

how stuff works

I think I am satisfied with the answers, but if anyone has personal experience with growing Giant Asparagus, please feel free to comment.  But, in the meanwhile, I like that mine are humongous and will enjoy them thoroughly.  In fact, while googling the answer to this quandary, I found several suggestions for preparing the Asparagus, including bacon wrapped grilled ....mmmmm, yum!  Everything tastes better with bacon!!
Catcha later!  :)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Tomato Massacre Spring....are we on round 3 ? ? ?

I can't begin to tell how irritated I am at myself for allowing this to happen, not once but twice already this season.  It is enough to make me cry, that I have killed yet another batch of tomatoes.  I know it happens to the best of us, I know we all have our "off" years...but the frustration of the waste of time, money and materials just gets so dejecting!
But as I always say, you pretty much learn nothing when you don't make mistakes.  And I am a big fan of picking things apart, so here we go....what went wrong?

Ok so the first batch that I started from seed died from a number of factors, as I have explained in a previous post.

  1. Didn't sanitize pots
  2. Used potting soil, instead of soil less mix
  3. overwatered (seeds rotted, not one sprout out of a dozen and a half seeds)
That is newbie stuff, I wrote it off and bought transplants, and started Roma seeds from my dehydrated tomato from last year.  We'll see what happens with my seeding (AGAIN) later.....we'll see, we'll see.
But what about those transplants?  HMMMM????  I was so excited to try new varieties of heirlooms, and what did I do???  I am not sure.  I am thinking that there are so many variables to this one it is hard for me to narrow it down.  Either way I am sure it was my fault!  The thing I should have done, first and foremost, that I can never do is just leave well enough alone!!!!  But here is how I think I massacred a perfectly decent batch of transplants that some nursery people spent 8-10 weeks nurturing, in less than two weeks!

  1. I put them in the prop box while it was much too warm.  even vented it was an oven.
  2. I potted up the transplants into larger containers, WITH PEAT MOSS. (that would be for seed starting) When likely, the only plants it was imperative to pot up would have been the ones in the 4 cell packs that looked like crap to begin with.
  3. I bought plants that looked like crap to begin with. (Juliet tomato)  And kept them with the others.
  4. When I potted up the transplants I buried them deeper than in their original pots.  this is fine in the ground...I do it every makes the tomato sturdier with a much denser, deeper root system....but apparently you can't do that in their pots...
  5. I gave them fertilizer...I don't know if that also shocked them.
  6. I moved them into the house during a 2 day cold spell, then back outside.  I took them in and out of the prop box, as weather changed.
I could probably think up a few more things I did to contribute to their sickliness....I just can't think of how many more ways I could have screwed this up that I didn't do already.  There are signs of fungus establishing on the surface of the peat.  The plants that actually have died show signs of damping off, just as the seedlings would.  That is a combination of the peat's moisture retention and perhaps over watering.  Plain peat is just as bad as plain soil I suppose...not a lot of room for air transfer...I have smothered them.  A few others show signs of burn, like in the peppers.  The Juliet's were just in steady decline to begin with.  There is no end to my frustration.  All I can do is get the bed in, plant and cover, and PRAY.....and perhaps start some late seeds, as a back careful in planting, if the survivors are permanently stunted and become bug magnets....GEESH....what a waste of 30 bucks!

Anyways, I had to share tomato story as a reminder to myself, a lesson to be learned or maybe just plain out common sense, or the lack there of, that caused this....I have to be humbled by my inexperience, grit my teeth and sink my shovel back in the dirt....and keep on truckin'!!

Take care, and may your tomatoes stay lush, green and healthy...and not keel over as mine have.....Oh, and could you spare a cutting??? LOL

Sunday, April 4, 2010

New *Improved* Potato Bins

Today Mickey helped me rebuild the potato bins, and they look sweet, if I do say so myself.  So far, we just have one around the earlies, and I will be in desperate need of compost to fill it, as well as building a second bin. Of course I still have about 30 seed potatoes to plant but the ground is much to wet to work at all.

The Giant Jersey Knight asparagus is tipping out of the ground about two a day for the last two days.  I am very excited for the arrival of Asparagus harvesting!  It is a proud moment for me, and I encourage the investment of time and money to anyone who enjoys this crop, it is so worth the effort and the wait!  Being Perennial, a lot of people are afraid to try to grow it, but it is so easy, anyone can and should try it.  Not to mention when the harvest is done, the ferns are so graceful and pretty in the garden.

I have been seeding spinach and lettuce, and I plan to continue that, as well as carrots outdoors until I finally get a sprout or two.  I will also be planting another sowing of peas soon as well, So we can continue to harvest as long as possible.  The succession of planting is a bit harder to time than I had expected, but we are going to keep trying to get everything in and pray that there is room for it all! =)

My new Tomato, Pepper and Eggplants seem to be doing quite nicely in the Prop Box, until the proper planting time. And we are about to start sowing more seed.  Roma Tomato, melons, and squash for early summer and another round following by a few weeks.  That is the tentative plan, anyhow. I want to try to have some really late tomatoes that will have to be pulled before frost.  The more that I get growing the more I have to learn about it. I think will have plenty of fresh veggies this year, but that doesn't stop me from wondering how to grow more!

Yesterday we also bought a garden cart from a neighborhood kid.  It is pretty sweet, and we have considered getting one before but they run about $100 and Mickey knew he could weld one up, he just never has.  This one was at a good price and I think it will come in very handy.  I have already used it to drag bagged leaves all over the yard and move pots from here to there.  And I bet the kids will love to be drug around the yard in it, too!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Damping Off

For all my planning I am still having a rough start this year.  I started my seeds in a mix of potting soil and mushroom compost.  I knew that what I should have was peat moss, and probably a few other things like perilite and vermiculite, but I used what I had.  This is another one of those lessons that it is better to learn from someone else's mistakes than to risk losing time in your own garden.
Damping off is a term used to describe sudden seedling death.  It can be caused by a lot of factors, but preventing it is easy, and I knew that to begin with!
1. NEVER use soil to start seeds.  Always use a sterile soil-less mix, purchased or homemade, but it must be sterile.  Peat moss is difficult because it absorbs water and forms a dense structure, that when dry, is impenetrable. You must keep it thoroughly moist at all times, or your seedlings will die from dryness associated with the brick like nature of the peat.
2. Don't over water.  The fungi that can cause these dilemmas thrive with excessive moisture.  While germinating it is important to keep the mix constantly moist, but as the seedlings emerge, tapering back to moderate watering and light (1/2 strength) fertilizers will allow the little plants a chance to stand up on their own.
3. Be Sterile.  washing all of your seed trays, pots, spades and scoops with a 10:1 water/ bleach mix, will help to prevent spread of fungi and any related spores or bug eggs or other pests.

Some information I found at this site, states the following;

Not only will controlling your watering help to prevent fungus gnats, it will prevent the second most common problem, damping-off. This condition is caused by several fungi such as Phtophtora and Pythium. These fungi live at the soil line, just where air meets the moist soil surface.

When your potting soil is kept continuously moist by overwatering, the fungi attack your seedlings. The telltale symptom is a constricted stem, just at or below the soil surface. Once seedlings are infected, they tend to fall over at the soil line.

As mentioned, allowing the soil surface to dry out will go a long way in preventing this problem. If, for some reason, your potting mix remains wet for an extended period of time, look to your kitchencabinet to help prevent the disease. Cinnamon powder is a natural fungicide and has been shown to be particularly effective against damping-off. In addition, Weak chamomile tea (after it has cooled) is another natural fungicide

Honestly I did not know that there was much to be done for it at this stage.  Not all the seedlings are infected, some are, some aren't.  And prevention is always the cure.  I figured my only alternative is to cut my losses, and begin anew.  This may also be why I have no tomatoes sprouting as well.  Which is of more concern, because my leafy greens can be started all season long, but tomatoes have to been in like YESTERDAY....

I have to get to work, but I thought I would throw that out there.
My broccoli and Brussels sprouts have a few seedlings that are bent at the stem, preventing water or nutrients to help sustain them.  I have used unsterilized pots, unsterilized soil, and let my daughter over water.  Basically I have done everything that you are not supposed to do, and learned the hard way, yet again. It's a good thing out livelihood does not depend on the earliness of our garden...because I blew it!  I guess I will be going to the hardware store now!