Monday, July 29, 2013

A Week in the Rough

It's easy to be sweet when things are going your way, but a nice long easy patch in life has its disadvantages. For one, it's so very jarring when reality hits - life is not always smooth. That reality has hit me this week, in little ways, over and over. On top of that, I've just been bad at life for at least three of the past seven days. Here are a few of our (mis)adventures.

At 7:00 on Thursday morning, I loaded two sleepy boys and one sleepy me into the car and made the hour long trek to east Joliet. I had some shutters I found on Craigslist the day before. I emailed the seller to ask if they still had them. They responded that they did and named the price. I replied that I was coming for them in the morning, and they said, "See you tomorrow!" Imagine my surprise when I pulled up at 8:05 a.m. and was told that the family just sold them to someone who was most definitely not me.

Irritating. Disappointing. We are buying a house with a basement space that, as you can see, is not for the faint of heart.

Don't get me wrong, I like leopards as much as the next guy, but we have extensive plans for this space. Plans that can be summed up with these pictures.

A little less this...
...and a little less this...
...a little more this...

...and a little more this.

So, I will have to find shutters elsewhere.

Fortunately, the trip was not wasted. We were planning to visit my mom, who took a nasty spill the other day and ended up with a leg full of stitches. I stopped to get some coffee for us, but no trip through the Dunkin drive-thru goes unpunished. As I began to order, I was rear ended by the lady behind me. Oddly, the "small, decaf YOU-HAVE-GOT-TO-BE-KIDDING-ME" is not a menu item anymore. Something about it being a very unpopular drink, except among insurance agents.

*May I offer a brief note on accident etiquette, even though I know you are all wonderful drivers? Should you somehow find that you have struck some part of your vehicle against some part of another vehicle, it is wholly unacceptable for you to wave off  the offended party with a nonchalant, "Eh, you're okay." This tends to elicit an uncharitable response.*

We finally made it to my parents' house, and Carson was immensely impressed by Grandma's injuries. I truly meant to be helpful, but I started out by making an epically terrible pot of coffee (I wasn't supposed to have coffee, it seems). I finished the visit by accidentally omitting a very important two cups of milk from the recipe I made for their dinner. My poor mom. I ended up moaning something like, "I'm going to bed until it's tomorrow!" She's my mom, and she lets me be pathetic like that from time to time. I love her for it.

On the bright side, I've been looking for some vintage/antique dining chairs.  While in my parents neighborhood, I got these for a steal. Coming soon, a post on refinishing antique solid oak chairs!

I had been negotiating about a refrigerator with a lady on a Yorkville garage sale Facebook page, since the house is coming with not one single appliance. She sent me a message, asking if we would come look at the refrigerator that night. "Yes we can," I replied. Just like that, we cancelled our plans and the grandparents graciously came over to babysit. We waited. And we waited. We waited some more. She never responded to us. So we had a fun night in, eating chocolate chip cookies with Gramma and Grampa and watching "Wipeout". Appreciating symmetry the way I do, I felt it only made sense to both begin and end the day with inconsiderate online sellers. (We did end up getting the refrigerator. It's great, and so was the price.)

*Insert a few more days of curveballs* One of these was that my mom went into the hospital for an infection in her leg, where they kept her a couple of nights to get it under control. The boys and I took her home and stayed with her over the weekend in what felt like a more successful attempt at being helpful.

We left bright and early this morning to go meet and pay the pest inspector at the property we're trying to buy. This is the LAST THING that has to be done before our closing date can be scheduled. We waited an hour and forty five minutes. When the pest inspector arrived, the people in the house wouldn't let him in because he was late. 

Dear sweet mercy. 

For ELEVEN days, I have been working on coordinating everyone for this dumb formality termite inspection on a house that has already been thrice inspected by three different entities. I spent a good four days smoothing ruffled feathers and getting ducks in a row after the first termite inspection that didn't actually happen because of a listing agent error. We picked an inspector who was nice enough to us, but ended up being a complete diva with everyone else. He called us this afternoon after his inspection and reported there were no termites. Score! Give us the paperwork and let's get this show on the road! He launched into a spiel about the work we needed to do on the house if we bought it (yep, that's why it's cheap). He informed me that he would not buy it if it was him, (it's not) and that he felt compelled to put these opinions into his report and our lender would surely not approve our loan. 

*When my brother was a little guy, he would bang his head on the floor when he got frustrated. Twenty years ago it seemed really counterproductive. This afternoon, all of the sudden, it made perfect sense.*

Termite Man, you have one job! We need you to say, "Why yes, there are indeed termites!" or "No, there is nary a termite to be found!" Wait. We would also like for you to be on time, so you have two jobs, of which you have done exactly zero

So we wrote him his stupid check and called Terminix for a second opinion. In fairness to Termite Man, he said we didn't have to pay for the inspection, but I paid him out of spite. Because nothing says, "Thanks for nothing!" like a $75 check, right?

Carson had a rough night tonight. He got in trouble and couldn't spend the night with his cousins. He cried and cried, and then cried some more before bed tonight. I pulled him onto my lap, and we talked through the awesome day he had just had with 15 of those cousins. We talked about all he had to be thankful for. It struck me that I'm not exactly qualified for this particular teaching moment at this particular time. I know I have a whole lot to be thankful for, and I really am. 

But please toss up a prayer for this termite inspection tomorrow. Sister's about to start banging her head on the ground, here!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Vietnamese Iced Coffee Fail {and Sweetened Condensed Success}

Yesterday, I came across a post from the fabulous Ree Drummond. She shared a recipe from Imbibe magazine for "Vietnamese Iced Coffee". I was instantly intrigued.

How -To: Vietnamese Iced Coffee
This sweet, creamy coffee tastes like coffee ice cream. In balmy Vietnam, it’s called cà phê sữa đá. Look for the cute, stout brewers at Vietnamese markets.

Ingredients: 2 tablespoons sweetened condensed milk; 4 teaspoons medium-fine coffee grounds; 6 oz. boiling water; several ice cubes

Tools: stainless steel Vietnamese coffee brewer ($4–$5 at Vietnamese markets); tall glass

Servings: 1

1. Pour 2 tablespoons sweetened condensed milk into a tall, ice-filled glass.

2. Place the brewer on top of the glass and put 4 teaspoons medium-fine coffee grounds in the brewer.

3. Set the filter plate in place, so that it sits loosely on top of the grounds. Tighten it slightly by turning it.

4. Pour boiling water over the filter plate to fill about one fourth of the brewer. Wait 20 to 30 seconds. If coffee streams out into the glass, the filter plate is too loose and needs to be tightened. Pour more hot water to fill the brewer. Cover with the brewer lid. Coffee should drip slowly onto the ice, with the entire brewing process lasting about 3 to 4 minutes.

5. After coffee has brewed, remove the brewer and stir the coffee drink

First of all, "cute, stout brewers at Vietnamese markets"? How quaint! But, alas, I know of no such market, nor do I possess a stainless steel Vietnamese coffee brewer. I knew I needed a backup plan because this recipe called for one of the loves of my life, sweetened condensed milk, and I just had to try it. I studied Ree's eight-hour process for cold-brewing the most perfect coffee know to man, then I pulled out my coffee pot. There was approximately six tablespoons of tepid, filmy coffee, left from this morning.

Good enough.

I poured the coffee over some ice, dropped in a generous dollop of sweetend condensed milk and a splash of half and half, and I stirred vigorously. It was pretty good, except I could hear the voices of all Vietnamese people everywhere, crying out over the injustice I had done the one drink that bears their name.

My gaze fell on a coupon that had just come in the mail, and I hatched a plan to make amends with southeast Asia.

While I was out this afternoon, I stopped at Dunkin Donuts and ordered a medium iced coffee, black.

The drive-through box squawked back at me, "Medium black coffee. Is that all?"

"Yes, iced coffee, please." (I learned this fun technique in child psychology! You repeat the child's statement, nonconfrontationally correcting them within your own statement. Noam Chomsky would have been impressed. Drive-through-guy wasn't.)

[squawk] "Yah, yah, yah... Pull a-head please."

Ah, Dunkin. Always with the excellent customer service.

I went straight home and mixed in a heaping spoonful of sweetened condensed milk, another splash of half and half and some more ice. I casually staged it on the deck railing, nestled between the decorative lighting so I could take a picture. And, yes, I tied a precious little bow to the adorable paper straw. I know you appreciate this as much as I do.

By the way, it tasted fantastic!

Monday, July 15, 2013

confessions of a hippie chick food hoarder

A few friends have asked if I'd tell them about our grocery budget and how we make it work. I usually launch into disjointed rambling about "rolling catalinas" and "shopping the cycles". I'm pretty sure I begin and end every sentence with "...but I'm NOT a couponer..." Even if it's only for my benefit, I thought I'd write this out and hopefully discover that there's a method to my crazy.

The most challenging part is the budget itself. We do $45/week, which divided by four people and seven days, works out to about $1.60 per person, per day. It's not easy, but it almost always works.

The second most challenging part is that I try not to buy too many processed foods. If you're a textbook couponer, you could probably budget $25 per week and feast daily on every new variation of Activia, Fruity Pebbles, and cheap turkey dogs. But I read this book and I'd rather not.

I'm an unconventional shopper. My brain just works differently when I think about what to buy, where to buy it, and how much of it to buy. Here are ten things I'm intentional about.

1. Buying seasonal foods

This is pretty common knowledge. Buying seasonal produce is best, it's fresher, tastes better, and is cheaper. Blueberries were $3.99 a pint a few months ago, I bought and froze several pints in the past few weeks for $.99 a pint. Love it. I also lovesuperlove the farmer's market for the 7.5 seconds it's open in this midwest climate.

2. Shopping the sale cycles

This changed the way I shop. I used to go to the same places every two weeks and buy the same things. If I went to an "Everyday Low Price" or "ELP" store like WalMart, I would pay pretty much the same thing every time, which would be a not too high (but not too low) price. If I went somewhere like Dominick's, I could spend nearly $4.00 one week on the same box of cereal that would cost $1.49 in three more weeks. At non-ELP stores, there really is a pricing cycle, rumored to last 12 weeks. Within that cycle, there will obviously be a highest price and a lowest price. Ideally, you can buy enough of the product at the lowest price of the cycle to last roughly 12 weeks. Even more ideally, you will have some coupons to bring the price down even more.

3. Stockpiling

This is just a fun way of saying "hoarding". Just kidding. Kind of. We bought a chest freezer a couple of years ago. Since I'm buying fewer processed foods, it means I'm buying more perishables. That makes stocking up for 12 weeks or more difficult, unless you have some sweet freezer space! Which we do. And I love it.

4. Watching Coupon Blogs

My favorite coupon blog for the past three or four years has been mashupmom. I like to keep my eyes on these for awesome deals and coupon links for things I already want to buy.

5. Rocking the store cards and perks

I'm a big fan of Dominick's just for U. I just added "$5 off a $20 grocery purchase" to my card, which is just a bonus on top of physical coupons and all the other deals. Just for U has a "Deal Match" feature so you can get the same prices that Jewel and Target are offering this week in their ads. There are store coupons and personalized deals based on what I have bought before, all of which you can add to your card before you go to the store. A few months ago, there was a store buy one get one free sale on a nice brand of bacon. The store price for one package was a ridiculous $7.00. In my personalized deals, I had a price of $2.50, so I got them for $1.25 a package, which was definitely the best deal I would get on that brand for a long time. So I bought 50. And we still have lots of bacon in the freezer. It sounds a little crazy, and sometimes there's a little bit of an investment on the front end, but the longer term savings pays off. I told you, not conventional.

I also like grocery shopping at Target now. Because I got a REDCard, I get some good grocery coupons in the mail. You can stack coupons and deals like a complete, total boss at Target. They text you mobile coupons, you can print coupons, you can stack their store coupons with manufacturer coupons, you can use your mail coupons for things like "$5 off a $30 grocery order", and you can use the Cartwheel app for extra percentages off.  I also almost always have at least a $2 Target giftcard because I use the Shopkick app. THEN you get a bonus 5% off at the end if you have the REDcard. You can do really, really well with smaller, well-planned grocery shopping trips at Target.

6. Not being too loyal to any store

I liked living in Joliet because there were lots of grocery stores in a small area competing against one another. This made for good sales. I could sometimes even be drawn into the unpleasantness that is Food4Less. Sometimes. I still try to keep up with the ads and make my way back there for a shopping trip every now and then.

7. The order you hand over your coupons is important

This is a real thing. I mentioned Target sending coupons like $5/$30. Last week I did a trip with one of these. I used a smattering of paper manufacturer coupons, Target mobile coupons, printable Target coupons, Cartwheel, my REDcard, and a $2 giftcard on my phone from Shopkick. I got just over $30 of groceries, handed that $5/$30 coupon over first (because my other coupons would bring my total below $30 and I wouldn't be able to use it). The paper coupons aren't such a big deal but I tend to do them next, then the mobile coupons. It seems to work best to do Shopkick last. It wasn't a TLC Extreme Couponing type trip, but we got a lot of real, healthy food and we didn't pay much for it at all.

8. My level of savings seems to be directly connected to how much food prep I need to do

Obviously, foods that are fully or partially prepared will come in smaller portions and cost more. Also, I am my mother's daughter. For a lady that spent ten years in the military, she totally could have been a homesteader in a peasant skirt, a gypsy Ma Ingalls, if you can imagine the awesomeness of such a combination.  I remember homemade bread, clothes on the line, and being the last family in the western hemisphere to get air conditioning.  I find myself feeling like I'm doing things "right" when I'm cutting chicken off the bone and when I cut and peel my own vegetables and fruit. I try to save scraps and make chicken stock. I try (try!) to be creative and not waste much. The smaller budget kind of rules out convenience foods, which works for us but might not for others. My proudest discovery of the month is this homemade substitute for canned cream soups. It's legitimately tasty!

9. Planning around what I have rather than what I need

I find recipes based on what I have and what is on sale, rather than planning a menu and shopping for all those ingredients. Allrecipes has a great little feature that lets you type in what ingredients you have on hand and pulls up recipes based on those. I experiment a lot. It usually works out for my poor family. It's sometimes a hard life when the cook is the only one with an adventurous palate.

10. ...and more planning...

I plan the heck out of my shopping trips. Sometimes I plan for a day or two. I know where I'm going, what I'm getting, and what I'm getting it for. I have my nerdy coupon envelope in hand. I don't impulse buy very often, usually because I have no energy for deviation from "the list".

So now I've done it. I've laid bare my hippie food hoarding ways for all of blogosphere.

But really, people, it kind of works.

Please don't submit my name to TLC. We're not actually hoarders. :) Come on over, I'll fry you some bacon and prove it!