Thursday, June 21, 2012

Deep Thoughts

Once upon a time, I was shopping at Second Glance, my favorite upscale secondhand clothing store.  Hubby was qualifying for hubby of the year award, so he agreed to accompany me and give his unvarnished opinion of any and all outfits as I tried them on.  (To this day he claims his only motivation was a futile attempt to stem my tide of shoe purchases!)

At any rate, we were standing in front of the shirt section, and Hubby was pulling out shirts to get my "yay" or "nay" judgment before I took a pile of clothing to the fitting room.  One particular shirt had me hemming and hawing, when I finally replied to go ahead and put it on the pile, because I was desperate for shirts.

Out of the clear blue, a woman's voice came over to me and said in a kindly yet authoritative voice, "Don't ever be desperate, honey.  That's when we buy bad shirts."

Over the years, my mind has morphed this conversation to the point where I cannot recall if she said "That's when we buy bad shirts" or "That's when we make bad decisions."

Because she was right.

Desperation can make us do the most inane things.  Things that we wouldn't dream of doing if our logic and intellectual faculties were intact.  (Such as the 10 rolls of duct tape I purchased during my first hurricane when I lived in Florida!)

Ever since that conversation I've tried to live my life in such a way that I never feel desperate.  Each time desperation tries creeping in, that memory pops into my head, and my perspective changes in a flash.

On a day of deep thoughts, the thought I leave with you is this:

Don't ever be desperate, honey.  That's when we make bad decisions.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Life is uncertain: Eat Dessert First!

Today was supposed to be a massive cooking day.  I had my new disposable pans all ready:

The yogurt was starting in the crock pot:

The strawberries were prepped and sliced:

The bar syrup was cooling (recipe to follow):
And the potatoes were being peeled in the sink:

(Yeah, I forgot to photograph them.  But you can imagine.  Bunches of nekkid little potatoes, huddling together for warmth.)

Things were going along great until the sink stopper of doom decided to stop by:

So......I decided to eat dessert first:
It didn't last long........
And suddenly it was gone.....
I think the drain monster ate it.

(Recipes will be posted here soon.)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Yogurt in a Crockpot

Several years ago I modified a recipe for homemade yogurt so that it could be done in the crockpot, one gallon at a time.  We were going through a gallon of yogurt a week, and this saved us a ton of money compared to buying the store-bought version.  In addition, hubby loves my homemade yogurt way more than store-bought!

I haven't made this for about two years due to the workload of my last two jobs.  However, now that I'm Chief Bargain Hunter, it seems like a great time to dust off the old crock-pot and try it again. 

Essential items:
  • Food-grade thermometer
  • Crock-pot (I use a 5.5 quart to make a gallon of yogurt - feel free to adjust accordingly, just make sure you have 1.0-1.5 quarts more crock-pot than yogurt)
  • 3-4 good thick towels, or 6-8 thinner ones
  • A large bowl or measuring cup - something that can hold 4 cups of liquid easily and pour back into the crock-pot without a mess
  • A ladle is helpful, but not required
  • Lots of intermittent hovering time - start around 10 am or so on a weekend or day off where you're planning to be home and do other things (it pairs really well with laundry day)
  • 1 gallon organic whole milk (the organic is MUCH creamier and the taste is SO much better - I use Meijer's or Target's brand)
  • Yogurt starter (available at health food stores) OR 12 oz of yogurt from your last batch
  1. Pour gallon of milk into crock pot, cover with lid
  2. Heat (use high or low settings, depending on your time constraints) up to 180 degrees F
  3. After the milk measures just over 180, shut off the crock pot. Cool milk down to between 110 and 115. You can speed this up by leaving the top off, but don't cook or chop anything near it or the yogurt will pick up that flavor (yes, I once had green pepper flavored yogurt by accident!)
  4. Once it cools to 110-115, spoon out 2-3 cups of the warm milk into a 4-cup measuring cup (or large bowl). Add in yogurt starter or yogurt from prior batch. Mix in well, especially if it is the starter -- those powders take a bit of mixing to dissolve. After it is mixed well, pour slowly back into the crock pot, stirring into the warm milk as you do so.
  5. Once it's all back in, stir again gently, replace the top, and cover the top and sides with thick towels. Let sit overnight and in the morning place the crock and lid into the refrigerator. By evening your yogurt will be ready to eat - just stir and enjoy - it's really that easy!
Tips for Success:

  • Organic whole milk really is best. If you use non-organic, you'll want to pull out some of the milk and replace it with heavy cream.
  • Homemade yogurt is runnier than store-bought because it doesn't have artificial thickeners. But the taste is well worth it. You can strain the yogurt if you like, which will give you "Greek Style" yogurt, but then you lose out on the nutrients from the whey that's drained off. Some people like to drink the whey -- it's a little weird, but not too bad.  

WARNING:  Drinking whey can leave you susceptible to nursery rhymes regarding eating curds and whey dancing in your head. 

  • Pick a day when you'll be home with other things to do, like laundry. The heating and cooling takes hours, and once you make a few batches you'll get a better feel for what parts take what amount of time. The overnight part can be up to 24 hours if need-be, but the longer it sits like that, the more tart/sour the yogurt will be. I prefer 10-12 hours personally.
  • I really like to place fruit in my yogurt when I eat it. Grapes are my favorite. Some people also like to drizzle honey or fruit jams in their yogurt.
  • Don't let the milk cool lower than 110 -- doing so will not "re-awaken" the yogurt cultures. If it gets this low in temp, reheat to 180 and start again. For this reason, I always work very quickly once it drops under 120 on my thermometer. Have all your supplies ready and on hand so you're not fumbling with the lid off for long periods of time.
  • When you're getting close on your temps, set a timer to take with you for your other activities so you don't forget to check the temp again. I usually set it for 15-30 mins depending how close it is on temps. This is another thing you'll get a feel for after you have several batches under your belt.
  • If you're adjusting amounts for smaller crock pots, make sure you have 1-1.5 extra quarts room. What they claim as quart capacity in the crock pots does not always match the volume of quarts when the milk is poured in! Especially after you add in the yogurt from your prior batch.


Monday, June 18, 2012

Adventures with Bob Ross

If you've ever seen this man's shows on public television, you know that he makes painting look incredibly easy.  In 30 minutes, without any time lapse photography, he goes from a blank canvas to an incredibly life-like picture at the end.  Throughout the show, you hear this calm, soothing voice talking about happy trees, almighty clouds, and how everyone can be a painter and learn to paint what is in their heart.

He's pretty much a joy to watch, whether you're interested in painting or not.

Hubby surprised me a couple days ago with a bunch of Bob Ross' videos to watch, and after about 3-4 episodes, I had to try it.  It looked so simple.  A few brush strokes here, a few flicks with the painting knife there, and voila!  A beautiful print!

So after dropping hubby off at work this morning, I zipped on down to Michael's, one of our local arts and crafts stores.  After browsing everything else in the store for probably an hour (I'm like a cat in these places - have to sniff out everything that looks interesting before getting to what I came for in the first place!), I finally found the paint section and then found the Bob Ross section.  I picked up one of his instructional books and found the list of supplies I needed and started piling them into the basket.  When I got up to the cash register, my total was over $400!  *GULP*

So much for my time as Chief Bargain Hunter.  It was nice knowing all of you.

Out in the car trying not to have a panic attack over what I just spent, I decided to head over to Hobby Lobby, our other arts and crafts store in town.  In there, I checked the ad and saw that all "Artists Sets" were on sale for 30% off.  So I headed down to the paint section (avoided browsing anything else - panic brings incredible focus sometimes!) to see what their prices were for Bob Ross' stuff.

Lo and behold, there were Bob Ross STARTER KITS for a mere $59.99.  That's a heckuva lot better than $400!  So I picked up the box, headed up to the cash register, and with the 30% discount it was a grand total of just under $45 with tax.

Fortunately, at home I already had an easel, some canvases, and a painting area due to a previous interest in oil painting that netted one cathartic abstract piece of "art."  So the only items I needed to supplement were paint thinner and Bob Ross' brush cleaning system.  His brush cleaning is my favorite part.  (Shown here, around 0:55 timing.)

So I got everything set up, pulled out the written instructions, and cursed myself for being too cheap to buy the "Master's Set" that came with a DVD.  Instead I was stuck with pictures and written directions that were really confusing at times. 

Minus the bad glare in my photograph, this is what it was supposed to look like upon completion:

My first attempt failed so badly I had to start over.  I know that Bob Ross says there are no mistakes, only "Happy Accidents," but I was REEEALLLLLYYYY not happy with the accident at first. 

After starting again, things went much better with the sky this time.  I got the yellow in the right place, the pink came along nicely, and the purple stayed high enough that it didn't get streaked over the yellow on the blending step.

Then I tried those damn mountains.  And cursed a blue streak with how horrible they came out.  Then cursed even more at how horrible my blue trees in the background looked.  And by the time I had gotten most of the canvas covered, I was NOT a fan of Bob Ross.  I was SO MAD AT HIM for making painting look so easy when it was REALLY REALLY HARD!

So I QQ'ed a while with hubby over his lunch and he laughed at my blue hand

(which was much bluer by the time I was done) and encouraged me enough that I kept going.  When I finally got it to the point that I wasn't ready to throw the brush across the room, it looked like this:

Barely a step above paint by number quality.  But here's where I really have to hand it to Bob Ross.  He's right.  Damned if he wasn't right about those happy accidents.  Because as much as I hated my "scripted" picture above, when I went back to my "failed" canvas from attempt #1, I was able to change the painting into this:

My failed mountain became a beautiful iceberg in the middle of the ocean.  I actually like this "failed" picture more than the "successful" one!  Happy accidents indeed.

A great part of my journey in walking away from my job was to search for greater happiness in life.  As frustrating and difficult as these lessons may be to learn, I think Bob Ross' painting techniques may be teaching more than just how to create pictures on canvas.  If I can learn how to view mistakes and failures as "happy accidents" instead of the depths of despair, I'll be light years beyond anywhere I've ever been in life.

So thank you, Bob Ross, for challenging every facet of my life in this adventure - from financial to self control (in not throwing my brush across the room in frustration!) to life-changing perspective changes.  I look forward to learning the Joy of Painting!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Morning After

Sometimes the day after a yard sale bonanza you wake up with a bit of a hangover:

Remember the nice pretty dining room when the freezer arrived?
I miss that.  I really do.
Especially when my mother called this morning to tell me they'd be coming over HERE for Father's Day tomorrow!
Yup.  I'm pretty sure that's exactly what my face looked like as I calmly told my mother, "Sure, that sounds great.....were you planning on lunch or dinner?"

There's a reason I refuse to video phone.  With anyone.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Father's Day Ideas

Okay, now that I've calmed down about the yard sale crankiness from earlier, I'd like to dedicate some space to Father's Day ideas.  Since we don't have any kidlets of our own, I don't have to worry about coming up with ideas for hubby that involve OJ cans, yarn, and puddles of glue.  (Actual gift given to my father circa 1980-something.)

However, I still have to come up with ideas for my father, who pretty much has everything he wants and the means to buy whatever he wants (or at least more than I could buy him) if he so desires.  It's been about 30 years since I could get away with making a pencil holder for him and calling it good.  Nowadays, I have to actually get creative.

Both of my parents have so much stuff in their house I'm always reluctant to add anything to it that isn't:

a) a gag gift (and therefore able to be disposed of without any guilt)
b) consumable

This year, I'm planning on the following:

1)  Rhubarb Jam that we purchased from a roadside stand in Pennsylvania
2)  Crabcakes made with bluefin crab caught off the dock at my in-laws house in Virginia
3)  Homemade tapioca pudding

My dad loves rhubarb, and they've been trying to grow it in the garden for several years, with varying success.  He also grew up in Pennsylvania, so finding Rhubarb Jam made in the traditional Pennsylvania Dutch method is a double win.

Living in Indiana, my parents don't get to eat good seafood very often unless they travel to Florida to see my grandparents.  I personally can't stand seafood, but hubby loves it and my parents love it, so it's a labor of love for me to put up with the smelly stuff as I make crabcakes for all of them.  Hubby's labor of love is sharing his precious stash of bluefin crab reserve!

I recently came across a great recipe for homemade tapioca pudding.  I've tried it once and the results were simply DIVINE.  I think for this time around I will soak the tapioca overnight, but other than that I can follow the directions just as she wrote them.

Do yourself a favor and bring a stool into the kitchen for this one -- you'll be stirring for 35 minutes straight and your feet will appreciate the break!

What are YOUR ideas for Father's Day this year?  Struggling for ideas?  Have it all planned out?  Sound off in the comments below!

(Note:  I fixed the issue the comment box was having earlier - it didn't used to allow anonymous comments.  Now you can comment to your heart's content! :) )

Yard Sale Day!

I was so excited to be able to map out 9 yard sales for today which stretched all the way across town.  I started at 8:30 am, right after dropping hubby off at work.  Little did I know that by 2:30 pm, it would be 96 degrees out and I would have visited 30+ yard sales in 6 hours.

Warning:  I'm a little cranky.

Before I empty the trunk and tell you about all the great scores I got today, I want to write an open letter to all yard sale proprietors in Indiana:

Dear Yard Sale Seller:

As a frequent yard sale patron, I'd like to take this opportunity to offer you some advice for success on your next sale.

  1. Don't make me use my GPS navigator to find you after pulling off to the side of the road to read the tiny print on your sign that contains your address.  The more work I have to do to find your sale, the less money I want to spend on your items.  You've cost me time, now it will cost you money. 
  2. USE ARROWS.  For God's sake.  (And all the rest of us shoppers too.)  Seriously.  Invest a couple dollars in some matching fluorescent posterboard (they sell it at Walgreens, it's not that expensive), buy a giant size Sharpie marker, and use the top half of the sign to say "SALE" and the bottom half of the sign to have a huge arrow.  This works.  I know it does.  Because every yard sale I've ever hosted there's hardly any items left unsold and I always have steady traffic throughout the day.  If you do your arrows well, I don't need to know your address.  Your arrows will lead me right to you. 
  3. YOUR CLOTHES ARE NOT AT A THRIFT STORE.  Quit pricing them like they are.  This is a yard sale.  Clothes are a bottom of the barrel commodity and should be priced accordingly.  I don't mind you pricing t-shirts at 50 cents apiece, but when I have to sort through 20 shirts to find 4 that don't have paint or food stains on them, don't get all pissy with me when I offer you $1.00 for the four of them.  I just spent tons of time sorting through and refolding your shirts for you.  If you wanted me to spend 50 cents a shirt, you should've sorted them yourself and priced the paint ones at 25 cents apiece with a sign saying "Stained t-shirts: great for painting!  4/$1"
  4. EXPECT HAGGLING UNLESS YOU NOTE THE PRICE IS FIRM.  This is Indiana.  We love to negotiate.  So when you price a sweatshirt for $3, don't get all pissy when I offer $2 and then decide not to buy it because you cop an attitude and insist upon $3.  It's your option to sell it for $3.  It's my option not to buy it.  When it's 96 degrees out there's not really a high demand for sweatshirts.
Here's why we don't want to spend a lot on clothing when we buy it at yard sales:  
  • It's really hard to find our size  
  • If we're lucky enough to find our size, it's usually horrendously out of style
  • We always have to dig through piles to find our size and style and then hope against hope that you haven't put out stained or ripped clothing
  • By the time we find something that works for us, we've put forth so much effort we're only willing to spend about 25 cents apiece unless it's a real find (like the trenchcoat I'll be featuring later).  

If I wanted to spend $3-5 apiece for clothing items I'd head to Second Glance, my favorite upscale secondhand store.  There I can shop in air conditioned comfort, find my size by walking to a particular section of the store, and try on the items before purchasing to make sure I like them.  I'm willing to stand out in the heat and sort through your pile of clothes only because I want to get it cheaper than the thrift store.  If you price it as high as the thrift store, I'm not interested!  It's just not worth the time and effort.  Especially when 29 other sales are calling my name and some of them end at noon!

I'd love to buy your items.  You obviously want to get rid of them.  Let's work together to make it a mutually satisfying experience, okay?

Yours Truly,

Frequent Yard Sale Buyer

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Health Insurance

Lots of people wonder which health insurance plan they should choose at their company.  Others wonder if they can afford the monthly premiums deducted from their checks.  Still others wish they even had a choice.

Then there's me.  Sitting on a blog, trying to come up with a way to explain the complexities of insurance without putting you to sleep.  Or worse, confusing you.

Here are some cold hard facts about health insurance:

  • Most doctors give a cash discount for settling your bill at the time of service instead of having it billed or processed through an insurance company.  Just ask at the reception desk.
  • It costs your doctor a lot of money to process an insurance claim.  He has to hire people who specialize in specific codings and processes for multitudes of insurance companies.  Often it is months until he is paid.
  • The insurance company is a lot like "the house" in Vegas.  The odds are in the insurance company's favor.  
  • Health insurance used to be something purchased to insure against catastrophic expenses, such as major accidents or surgeries.  When people expect insurance to pay for everything, it increases the costs for everyone, including the doctors.
When it comes to making a decision about health insurance, you need to keep the following factors in mind:

  1. What medical expenses do I know I will have on a regular basis?  (ie, recurring prescriptions, bi-annual doctor visits, etc.)
  2. What is the actual retail price for those expenses?  (ie, the price without insurance)  You might be surprised to learn it is usually less than $150 to visit your doctor.  The lab tests are what will give you sticker shock.  Talk to your doctor or nurse to find out which labs in town have the lowest prices.  Walgreens now offers cholesterol screenings for only $30.
  3. How much can I afford on a monthly basis for medical costs?  This amount should include  premiums you're already paying (or planning on paying), any amount you currently set aside in an FSA or HSA, plus any extra you can devote to medical costs.
  4. What dollar amount on a medical bill would bankrupt me?  (This is the amount you want to insure against.)
Once you have the answers to these questions, you can begin to evaluate some of your decisions about health insurance.  It's all about running the numbers to see what choices help you come out ahead.

Are YOU facing difficult choices about your health insurance?  Sound off in the comments below or shoot me an email at and I'd be happy to help you!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

My Pioneer Cooking Habit

Thanks to Ree Drummond I had 4 pieces of chocolate cake this morning.  Granted, this was after having two eggs for breakfast, but those piddly little eggs are nowhere near enough protein to balance out the sugar high of THE BEST CHOCOLATE CAKE EVER

While energized with sugar, I managed to clean up the kitchen, put away all the remaining cake pieces out of sight (and eat one more), then start making Simple, Perfect Chili from Ree's cookbook, The Pioneer Woman Cooks

Suffice to say, I love how this woman cooks.  Real butter.  Real cream.  Whole milk.  Half and half without shame.  She's my hero.

I also like how easy it is to convert her recipes into gluten free (GF).  Since her target audience is cowboys, there's a heavy focus on meat and potatoes, which are naturally GF.  Occasionally I have to substitute cornstarch for flour (when needed for thickening) or Gluten Free All-Purpose Flour (when needed for baking), but usually I can stick with the recipe as she's written it.

And now that all that sugar is about to drop into a precarious sugar crash, I think I'll go fix some of my favorite PW Iced Coffee! Naturally GF, and oh-so-good with half and half creamer.  YUM!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Freezer Arrives!

Today our new freezer arrived and I'm super excited.  This pretty much triples our freezer capacity, allowing me to make stuff ahead and pull out ready made food to eat at a moment's notice.  This will also enable me to take advantage of those "Special Buys" that pop up at Aldi's and purchase in bulk to throw in the freezer.

Now I wouldn't be Chief Bargain Hunter if I hadn't gotten a great deal on this freezer.  I could have gotten a better deal if hubby hadn't been wary of buying a used model (hello Craigslist!), but I think I did pretty well for our needs.

Our needs were as follows:

$200 or less (total out of pocket up front, including tax)
Delivered (we live in an upstairs apartment and don't own a truck)
5.0 cubic feet storage (not too big, not too small)
Good ratings (didn't want it to crap out after a year)

After comparing all the prices, we ended up settling on the GE Freezer from Home Depot.  Listed price was $189, with free shipping/delivery, and over 300 people had given it very good ratings.  I logged in to Ebates, (my go-to place before purchasing ANYTHING online) and saw that not only would I get 5% back on my purchase, but their coupon section had a code for $5 off any purchase of $50 or more!

So initial out of pocket expense was $189 - $5 coupon = $184 + 7% tax = $196.88.  An additional $9.20 will be coming back to me via Ebates, bringing my final cost down to $187.68 - a savings of $14.55!

Delivery was done by Kid Glove Service, Inc., a subcontractor for Home Depot.  I could not have been happier with their service.  I placed the order on Sunday, June 10, and selected Tuesday, June 12 for delivery.  On Monday, a representative from Kid Glove called to let me know they would be stopping by between 12 and 4 pm on Tuesday.  On Tuesday, just before 1:00 pm, I received another phone call from the delivery driver stating that they were about 10 minutes out and would this be a convenient time to drop off the freezer?  Within 15 minutes the freezer had arrived, been installed, and the delivery crew was gone.  Impeccable service, professional handling, and a really satisfied customer!  I might give them half a star off for leaving newsprint fingerprints on the freezer (a likely side effect of unpacking it on the truck instead of in my living room), but I figure what's a quick wipedown with a microfiber cloth compared to excellent, on time delivery with professionals?

I'm definitely a very happy customer!  (And looking forward to sharing my freezer recipes with you soon!)


Monday, June 11, 2012

The Adventure Begins

On May 29 I turned in the keys to my old job and turned towards a new one:

Chief Bargain Hunter
(And Domestic Fiscal Administrator)

Fancy fun-sounding names aside, I was scared shitless.  I had just walked away from a good-paying job (sort of) and unabashedly cut our income stream in half.  Was I crazy? 

Fortunately, I had run the numbers before making my exit, and figured out that even though I was doubling our income with my job, I was also making us miserable in the process. 

As a Property Manager, I was responsible for the success or failure of the portfolio I managed, and I took that responsibility seriously.    My first month on the job averaged 16-18 hour days 7 days/week, including holidays.  I drank so much Starbucks coffee during that time I qualified for their gold card within 2 weeks.  I was literally running on passion, caffeine, and an unwillingness to fail.

As time went on, my workload lessened slightly, and I was able to take one day off per week.  This became my "household chores day" when I would madly do laundry, clean house, wash dishes, etc.  Fun way to relax, huh?

This continued for about 6 months, with both my husband and I becoming more and more miserable, and our bank accounts never growing substantially like we had planned. 

One night I sat down and calculated what we were currently spending vs. what we would spend if I weren't working.  When all was said and done, we could easily live off of one salary and still have a decent amount left over for savings each month.  If I could increase my cooking and reduce or eliminate pre-made foods, I could reduce our food budget and increase our savings even more.

The plan for exit was made. 6 weeks later I fired my boss and became CBH of our household. 

The adventure had begun!