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Frugal living tip #49. December 14, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, homesteading, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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It’s Monday, and that means it’s time for a Frugal Living Tip here at Poor Richard’s Almanac. We committed to giving you a useful tip to help all of us get through these hard economic times every week throughout 2009. As you can see, we only have three more tips to go. If you’d like us to extend the series into 2010, please let us know!

Today’s tip is about reducing the cost of weddings and funerals. Please excuse our friend Ben while I rant about the two most pointless expenses ever created. To turn two of the most sacred events in people’s lives into excessive, tacky, bankrupting spectacles is, to me, both stupid and sacreligious. Many marry, and everyone dies. Can’t we manage to perform these ceremonies without putting ourselves, our parents, or our heirs in debt for a decade at least?

The average wedding now costs $20,398, not counting the cost of the engagement ring and honeymoon. When you add those in, you’re probably looking at $25,000, and that’s just an average: Half of all weddings in the U.S. now cost more.

Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood think there’s a better way, and this time, sure enough, it’s the old-fashioned way. Throughout much of history, the groom passed along a treasured engagement ring to his bride-to-be that had come down in his family. This heirloom carried great sentimental value and cost not a cent (or at most a few dollars to have it resized for the new bride). The wedding dress was often passed down from mother or grandmother to daughter. The wedding itself was a very elaborate affair held at the church, synagogue, etc., but the reception was a lovely, simple affair held at home.

We wholeheartedly endorse this approach: Give the pomp and ceremony full play in the holy place where you exchange your vows, then go for the simple but heartfelt home-based party afterwards. Have your friends bring desserts, flowers (better tell them the color scheme you prefer!), or champagne instead of gifts. Hold your reception in the backyard and string sparkly white lights in the trees. Or create a unique reception that captures who you are: a grilling party, a pirate-theme party, a locavore celebration where all the foods are produced locally, a poolside party, a picnic. So much more fun, so much more low-key, so much more real.

What if your parents want to throw a big do? If they really have that much money to burn, tell them to just give it to you as a wedding gift instead. You can use it as a downpayment on a house, buy a new car, take three months off and travel the world, pay for your doctoral degree. Or, say, pay off your credit cards. Whatever the case, that money will do a lot more good in your bank account than it would giving a great big party that lasts a couple of hours.

By the way, if religion isn’t your thing, you can still have a lovely wedding, as our friend Ben’s sister did: She was married in our parents’ gorgeous Colonial garden, surrounded by flowering trees, shrubs, and perennials, with a fountain splashing in the background as she and her husband exchanged vows with family and friends in attendance. True, our family spent a fair amount of time that summer making sure the garden setting was perfect, but even adding lovely blooms cost us less than $1,000, and that included the flowers and delightful celebratory feast we’d prepared and set out in the great dining room afterwards.

Now, let’s move on to that other unavoidable expense, funerals. Our friend Ben was in fact inspired to write this post by an article that appeared in our local paper, the Allentown, PA, Morning Call, called “Keeping funeral costs in check.” You can read the whole article at www.themorningcall.com.

Wow, a funeral’s such a bargain by comparison to a wedding: According to figures our friend Ben found online for 2007, it only costs an average of $10,000! Heaven only knows how much it costs now, on the verge of 2010. But one thing that all sources acknowledge is that most people can’t afford it. I was shocked to read that more bodies were being unclaimed at mortuaries because the families simply couldn’t afford to bury them. Cremation is way up because its cost is so much lower—more like $1,000 rather than $10,000—and more people are donating their bodies to science for the same reason; in the case of donation, disposal is free.

Ugh. How about respecting the dead and celebrating their life and death? Our friend Ben thinks of the Amish custom as the ideal in this respect. The dead are washed and dressed in their own clothes by their loving family, and laid out in a simple pine coffin built by community members. They are displayed in a room in the house so family and friends can gather and sit by the coffin, reminiscing about the dead or simply keeping respectful watch. (Neighbors, family and friends also deluge the grieving family with home-cooked foods to sustain them during their time of grieving.) Then an unadorned service is held for the dear departed and they’re taken to a private burial plot for interment. The cost to the bereaved? $0. The comfort provided, the respect for the dead? Incalculable.

For us non-Amish, this may be a non-option. It is apparently still legal to bury one’s dead on one’s own place in some states, but given most people’s rootlessness in today’s society, even were it legal where you lived, could you really say for sure that you’d live in your present place all your life, and your heirs and their heirs would do likewise? Here in rural PA, our friend Ben has seen many a private graveyard tucked away on a farm, and wondered if the farm was still owned by the descendants of the graveyard’s occupants. If not, what a burden to bequeath to strangers!

Frankly, it sounds like the military gets the best deal in terms of cost-free funerals—and God knows, they’ve earned it, risking their lives for the rest of us. If you or a family member was in the military, you and your spouse get free and honored burial and a free gravestone. But you need to contact the Department of Veteran Affairs, request a plot, receive confirmation, and file that confirmation with your papers, while, of couse, letting your family know. You (and your dependents) can also request burial at sea, also free, but family members can’t be present.

There are plenty of other options and cost-cutting suggestions both in the Morning Call article and in an online piece called “Plan a funeral for $800 or less” on MSN Money (Google the title for the link). Our friend Ben suggests that you check them both out and that you think seriously about what you’d like to have done with your remains, and what sort of ceremony you’d want performed to send you on your way. Do it while you’re not pressed by “old mortality,” so it seems more like a creative exercise than the icy breath of Father Time on the back of your neck. Yes, you could set money aside for an elaborate funeral so at least your heirs aren’t strapped to pay for it. But why not give that money to them and enjoy a serene, dignified, inexpensive funeral celebration instead? (Or, if you’re a riotous type, you could always specify that they celebrate a potluck wake in your honor instead, and it, like a wedding, could have a theme that highlighted something central to your life and enjoyment, such as Harleys, model trains, The Beatles, or what have you.)

The best funeral celebration our friend Ben ever attended involved a dear friend of mine named Norm. Norm’s wonderful wife Dolores chose to have a life celebration, and invited friends and family to come and offer their own memories of Norm. When our friend Ben’s turn came, I marched up to the front with a basket of hot peppers, Norm’s favorites, and gave a very short speech saying why I thought hot peppers were a fitting tribute to Norm’s memory, since he was much like a hot pepper himself (memorable, fiery, assertive, unafraid of taking his own stand, etc.). Norm’s family and friends, who knew him well, loved this, and fortunately the funeral bouquets featured hot peppers and garlic (Norm’s other favorite) along with the flowers, so my tribute fit right in. Dolores also showed a computerized slideshow of Norm and played his favorite music while it followed the high points of his life. It was just amazing. And then she had a tribute lunch afterwards so people would have a chance to see and talk to each other and celebrate Norm’s life in a more personal setting. I’ll never forget that day.

Our friend Ben urges you to think about your own wedding and funeral with an eye toward frugality. These are both times when sentiment, not expense, should be uppermost, when the triumph of the human spirit in love here and hereafter should be celebrated. In both instances, you deserve the best. And it’s the best, not that money can buy, but that the community of your friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues, acting in loving communion, can provide.

As is the case with so much else in life, taking the time to plan things carefully in advance can make all the difference between an expensive—sometimes ruinously expensive—and impersonal performance and a heartfelt, personal tribute and celebration. Time is money. Take the time now, while it’s not urgent, to make sure that when the time comes, you get what you really want.


Frugal living tip #48. December 8, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. This week’s Frugal Living Tip is especially for all you folks who buy boxed cereal. Once again, it comes to us courtesy of Spencer Soper’s “On the Cheap” column in our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call.

Our friend Ben and I aren’t big cereal eaters, though in cold weather, we enjoy a hot bowl of oatmeal with maple syrup and milk or (if we’re feeling decadent) browned butter and brown sugar, OFB’s father’s preferred topping. And in warm weather we’ll occasionally eat a bowl of bite-sized Shredded Wheat’n’Bran. (OFB and our black German shepherd puppy Shiloh are both fond of snacking on the little squares dry. Eeeewww.) But we buy our oatmeal in bulk, and are unikely to buy more than a couple of boxes of Shredded Wheat a year. So when I first read one of Spencer’s columns about ingenious uses for the waxed paper inserts inside cereal boxes, I was impressed, but not to the point of passing the tip along.

However, this past Sunday, Spencer’s “On the Cheap” column featured a slew of ingenious uses for the cereal cartons themselves. Okay, I thought, this really is too good not to pass along, and I can combine it with the earlier column so those of you who go through one or more boxes of cereal a week will have some great frugal options for reusing the empty packaging.

First, though, let me just say that on the rare occasions when OFB and I have a cereal box, we use the cardboard portion, as we do all cardboard packaging, for kindling, mixing it with some of the endlessly falling twigs and branches on our very shaded property. (“Pick Up Sticks” is one of our most constant chores.) If I have a bunch of smaller twigs, I’ll stuff them right into the empty box and add it to our firepit under a couple of logs. Works like a charm! Otherwise, we’ll flatten the box and add it to our bag of other flattened boxes (as in Kleenex), cardboard toilet and paper-towel rolls, envelopes, and the like, then use it the next time we build a fire.

But getting back to Spencer and his ingenious crew of contributors. In Sunday’s column, “An out-of-the-box solution for gift-giving” (ouch, Spencer!), he tells how reader Ellen Fried cuts out pieces of cereal boxes and reconfigures them into small gift boxes, which she fills with candy and money for Hallowe’en and jewelry and money for Christmas. Access the article online (http://www.mcall.com/onthecheap) and you’ll find a video in which Ellen demonstrates how to make the little boxes. The photo of them in the paper looked just adorable, and though I’d never go to that much work, it must be easier than it sounds, since she’s taught all her friends to make them and started a mini-craze.

This did give me an idea, however. If you make toffee nut or caramel nut popcorn and give it at Christmas, or make your own Christmas cookies, cheese straws, cheese biscuits, or crackers (yes, Virginia, people really do make crackers from scratch, but it’s not exactly easy), or the like, rather than buying yet another set of tins to put them in, why not put them in the cereal boxes, wrap them, and hand them out? The waxed-paper insert would keep the contents fresh, and if your lucky recipients decided to transfer your homemade treats to previous years’ tins, it would be up to them. Mind you, you should attach a little card or something to reassure the recipients that they’re not getting boxes of cereal for Christmas!

It also occurred to me that you could (after removing the waxed-paper insert) use an empty cereal box to package a scarf, gloves, hat, book, and/or many another gift, especially if you’ve been prudent enough to save tissue paper from previous years’ gifts to yourself to use as padding. (If not, dollar stores to the rescue!) Gift-wrap the box and you’re done. And you don’t have to turn the box into origami and piece it back together.

Apparently I missed an earlier column in which one of Spencer’s fans wrote in suggesting using cereal boxes to make magazine holders and desktop organizers. At a guess, you’d cut off the top of the box and maybe two-thirds of one side, use wrapping paper and glue to dress it up, add your magazines, printouts, or whatever, and voila!

But let’s get back to that first column, the one about reusing the waxed-paper inserts in the cereal boxes. This column, called “Cereal killers can help save on plastic bags” (okay, I actually loved this headline, I guess I’m a sucker for a really good pun), shared reader tips about reusing the waxed inserts from the cereal boxes to wrap bacon and other meats. One reader, Mary Collins, wraps ground meat in the cereal bags, then stashes them in freezer bags and freezes them. Since the meat never touches the freezer bags, she can reuse them indefinitely. But there’s more: “If I’m making meatloaf or meatballs, I put the bread crumbs and the eggs in the bag and just mix it up in there and knead it and I don’t have to touch the meat,” says Mary. “It’s nice because you can mix everything up in there and you don’t dirty a bowl. If I’m making hamburgers, I can shape the patties right in the paper.” You can read the article and watch a video of Mary at work while you’re checking out Ellen’s boxmaking technique.

But wait. That wasn’t the cereal box waxed-paper tip I remembered. A little more investigation revealed yet another column, this one called “Cereal box yields a hidden prize,” from way back in September 2008. (And yes, even back in the Stone Age, Spencer added a video you can enjoy.)

Here’s the tip I remembered, from reader Gayle Getz: “It’s about the inserts in the cereal boxes. I very seldom have to buy wax paper because I always use those inserts for baggies or I flatten them out and I use them for wax paper. I use them for wrapping bacon. I use it for little garbage bags. I use it for any kind of wax paper needs and also for little baggies. So it really saves on buying wax paper and little baggies.”

So there you have it. Doubtless there are plenty more uses for cereal boxes and cereal-box inserts than we’ve seen so far. Please feel free to send us yours! And Spencer, as always, thanks for keeping frugal tips in the public eye.

         ‘Til next time,


Frugal living tip #48. December 2, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. This week’s Frugal Living Tip is about clipping coupons. Well, not exactly. Luddites that we are, here at Hawk’s Haven I still clip coupons from the circulars in our local paper. (My beloved mama, who despised coupon-clipping as a massive waste of time, must be turning in her grave.) But this week, the paper featured an interesting story on getting the most from e-coupons. (Read the whole story, “A new generation of penny pinchers” by Carolyn Bigda, online at www.themorningcall.com.)

According to the article, the two big online coupon sites are Coupons.com and Shortcut.com. In order to print the e-coupons, you have to download free software from each site. (Gads.) But apparently plenty of people are: In the first five months of 2009, consumers saved $300 million using Coupons.com coupons.

Now, however, Coupons.com has launched a user-friendly feature that is sensible to the point of being awesome. I quote: “There’s nothing worse than clipping coupons and later forgetting to use them at the store. [Well, I could think of a few worse things.—Silence] So Coupons.com has recently launched a feature allowing you to load coupons from its site onto your store loyalty card. At checkout, simply swipe the card and the coupons automatically get deducted from your bill.” The bad news is that, at this point, only Safeway-owned stores are honoring the card coupons, and not all brands are included. (Besides Safeway, stores accepting the card coupons include Dominick’s and Tom Thumb, none of which are in our area.) The good news is that Coupons.com expects other chains and manufacturers to jump on the bandwagon.

Given the price of printer ink, I think this is a great innovation. No printouts, no downloaded software, no hassle. But I ask myself, how do you remember which coupons you’ve put on your card? Back to the good old grocery list. And yes, of course I hand-write mine.

But you can always create a custom printout grocery list like my friend Delilah does. She lists all the staples she and Chaz (and their dog Dukie) eat each week and puts check boxes next to each item, then adds blank lines at the end of the list for non-standard items. By grouping a bunch of these lists on a standard 8-by-10-inch grid, she can print out a page of them, cut them apart, and then check off the items she needs that week and add any extras, keeping the additional lists to use later. Great idea!

However you make up your list, if you’re lucky enough to be able to use the card-coupon option, I’d suggest putting an asterisk next to any items you’re planning to use the invisible coupons for. Then you won’t forget to pick up the items and also won’t forget what coupons you’ve put on the card. (Make sure you note next to the item if you have to buy a certain number or size for the coupon to be valid.)

The article listed another resource I’d never heard of. If you use coupons, you probably try, as I do, to combine them with store sales for maximum savings. But if you’re not sure what’s going to be on sale, apparently there are online sites that actually list coupon/sales matches at specific stores. Check out CommonsenseWithMoney.com, DealSeekingMom.com, and Hip2Save.com. Whoa, who’d’a thunk?! I guess you really can find practically everything on the internet if you just know where to look.

One last piece of advice. The article quoted an “expert” as saying that you’ll get the most from your coupons if you buy in advance, i.e., before you’re desperate for something and have to rush out and buy it no matter how much it costs. So true. Last week, I was frantic. I’d run out of soy and tamari sauce and was planning to make my marvelous, rich Mushroom-Cashew Stroganoff, which calls for one or the other, for guests. Yikes!!! I wasn’t looking forward to paying full price for what was probably an inferior soy sauce because I lacked the time and money to buy high-end tamari or a superior aged soy sauce. Fortunately, my next-door neighbor came to my rescue and leant me her soy sauce. And then this morning I found a bottle of extremely high-quality soy sauce lurking in my liquor cabinet. Whew! But yes, buying before the need arises is a great money-saving strategy that lets you combine coupons and sales and buy at your convenience, when the price is right.

If, like my mama, you feel that clipping and using coupons is a ridiculous waste of time in comparison to the money saved, I’d like to end with a quote from our hero and blog mentor, Benjamin Franklin: “A penny saved is a penny earned.”  Combining coupons and store sales, it always cheers me up at checkout to hear the cashier tell me I’ve saved a fourth, a third, or even a half of my grocery bill. That’s one pretty penny!

            ‘Til next time,


Thanksgiving: Luscious leftovers. (Aka frugal living tip #47.) November 28, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Every week in 2009, we here at Poor Richard’s Almanac have provided a Frugal Living Tip to help all of us get through these hard economic times. Today’s post is Frugal Living Tip #47, which I’ve tied into our Thanksgiving week theme. Leftovers are a fact of Thanksgiving life. And of course they’re delicious. Reheated turkey and dressing with cranberry sauce, or delicious turkey sandwiches with mayo: Yum!

But you can do a lot more with the leftovers from your Thanksgiving feast. Admittedly, my taste in food is simple: As long as it’s delicious, it never bores me. Back in the day when I still ate meat, I could have eaten turkey sandwiches or reheated turkey ’til the end of time. But as it happened, my Mama had a leftover turkey specialty that I loved best of all: creamed turkey. After all the big slices had been cut off the turkey and used to make hot turkey or turkey sandwiches, she’d carefully cut off the remaining shreds and put them in a pot with plenty of butter, salt and white pepper, turkey drippings, and cream, and cook them until the turkey was heated through and the sauce had cooked down thick. Then she’d make toast and serve the creamed turkey over that. To me, this was heaven on earth: the creamy turkey and the crunchy toast. You could, of course, serve creamed turkey over biscuits, rice, pasta, or even cornbread, and I’m sure it would be delicious. But there was something about the crunchiness of the toast that made it really special.

Turns out, creamed turkey isn’t the only thing you can do with leftover turkey. In our paper, the Allentown PA Morning Call, food editor Diane Stoneback interviewed the local matriarch of all things turkey, Anne Jaindl, who at age 80 is still cooking turkeys several times a week and making the most of the leftovers. Here are three of her favorite recipes for leftovers:

               Anne Jaindl’s Turkey Tetrazzini

8 oz. spaghetti (cooked according to package instructions)

6 Tbsps. butter

3 Tbsps. flour

1 1/2 cups turkey stock

1/2 cup heavy cream

3 Tbsps. dry sherry

1/4 tsp. nutmeg

salt and pepper to taste

1/2 lb. mushrooms, sliced

1 lb. cooked turkey cut into bite-size pieces (about 3-4 cups)

2 Tbsps. grated Parmesan cheese

Melt half the butter in a heavy saucepan. Sprinkle in flour. Stir over gentle heat for 2 minutes. Stir in hot stock and bring to a boil. Simmer until thick. Cool for 5 minutes, then add cream, sherry, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Melt remaining butter in separate pan. Add mushrooms and fry gently. Arrange cooked spaghetti, turkey and mushrooms in baking dish; cover with sauce. Sprinkle with Parmesan and bake at 375 degrees F. for 30 minutes.

               Anne Jaindl’s Turkey Barbecue

1 onion, chopped

4 stalks celery, chopped  

1 clove garlic, crushed

1/2 cup catsup

1/4 cup vinegar

1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce

1 Tbsp. brown sugar

1 tsp. dry mustard

1 lb. cooked, cubed turkey (about 3-4 cups)

Combine all ingredients and simmer about 15 minutes.

                 Anne Jaindl’s Cranberry Turkey Stir-Fry

1 cup cranberry sauce

1/3 cup dry sherry

1/4 cup water

1/4 cup soy sauce

1/4 cup vinegar

2 Tbsps. cornstarch

2 Tbsps. cooking oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 cups carrots, sliced

2 cups zucchini, cut in strips

2 cups cooked turkey, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

4 cups bean sprouts

Combine cranberry sauce, sherry, water, soy sauce, vinegar, and cornstarch. Mix until smooth. Set aside. Stir-fry garlic in hot oil for 30 seconds. Add carrots: stir-fry for 3 minutes. Add zucchini and turkey and stir-fry 1 minute. Add cranberry mixture; cook until bubbly (about 2  minutes). Serve over sprouts. [Or pasta or rice.—Silence]

These recipes certainly help you think of good things to do with turkey, or even turkey and cranberry sauce. And speaking of cranberry sauce, if you have a lot of leftover sauce, you probably can’t face eating all of it with your turkey leftovers. So consider using some of it as a luscious topping for ice cream or sherbet. Vanilla, peach, and mango ice cream strike me as especially good choices, or you can bring out the orange in your cranberry sauce by using it as a topping for orange, lemon, or lime sherbet. (Bet it would taste great over pineapple sherbet, too.)

Which reminds me, you might consider trying cranberry sauce as a substitute for the usual pineapple in an upside-down cake. It could be delicious! If you enjoy a cherry or strawberry topping on your cheesecake, I’ll bet you’d enjoy a cranberry-sauce topping, too. It would also layer beautifully in a trifle. Or try this super-simple dessert: Slice a storebought angelfood cake into three sections crosswise. Whip a pint of heavy cream with sugar. Spread cranberry sauce over the top of each layer, followed by whipped cream, then gently put the layers together and serve.

Needless to say, if you bought an extra bag or two of fresh or frozen cranberries and didn’t end up using them, your options are almost unlimited. Cranberry bread or muffins would be fantastic. But how about cranberry chutney? Here are a couple of recipes from a classic cookbook in my collection, The Cranberry Connection, published in 1977 and written by Beatrice Ross Buszek of Cranberrie Cottage, Nova Scotia: 

          Cranberry Orange Muffins

1 3/4 cups sifted flour

2 1/2 tsp. baking powder

2 Tbsp. sugar

3/4 tsp. salt

1 well-beaten egg

3/4 cup milk

1/4 cup sugar

1/3 cup cooking oil

4 Tbsp. butter, melted

1/3 cup homemade cranberry-orange relish

To make the relish: Put 4 cups of fresh cranberries and 2 oranges, quartered, through a grinder. [Er, a food processor?—Silence] Stir in 1 1/2 cups sugar. Chill or freeze and use as needed. [You could also halve the recipe.—Silence]  

To make the muffins: Sift together flour, 2 T sugar, baking powder and salt. Mix well. Combine egg, milk and oil. Add to dry mix and stir until moistened. Spoon half the batter into 12 2 1/2-inch greased muffin cups. Top each with 1 teaspoon cranberry-orange relish. Then fill with batter mix. Bake 25 minutes at 400 degrees F. While still warm, dips tops in melted butter, then in the 1/4 cup sugar.

           Refrigerated Cranberry Chutney

4 cups cranberries

2 oranges

1 lemon

2 apples

1 cup raisins

1 cup brown sugar

1/2 tsp. powdered ginger

2 Tbsps. candied ginger [Crystallized ginger?—Silence]

2 Tbsps. grated onion

6 Tbsps. minced green bell pepper

Core apple and put fruit through chopper. [Food processor?—Silence]Add remaining ingredients. Mix well. Cover and refrigerate. Makes 3 pints.

Okay, now you’ve got the turkey and cranberries covered. What about the dressing? Well, if it’s that soft, gooey dressing that’s cooked inside the turkey, aka stuffing, you’re on your own. But if it’s the savory, crunchy dressing that’s cooked separately, and if you also have leftover mashed or whipped potatoes or mashed sweet potatoes, you’re in luck. Spread the potatoes in a buttered casserole dish or pie pan and top with a layer of dressing. Dot the top with butter and heat in the oven at 300 until hot through. Yum!!! (Naturally, you can always make a fresh batch of mashed potatoes if you don’t have potato leftovers. It’s worth it!)

What about those sweet potatoes? If you have leftover baked or mashed sweet potatoes, you might consider making Landis Store’s Sweet Potato Souffle. It’s the best! (See my earlier post, “Thanksgiving: Those sweet potatoes” for the recipe.) Or how about adding them to baked goods, like Sweet Potato Biscuits or Sweet Potato Corn Cake (a type of cornbread)? Here are recipes for both from Bill Neal’s classic Southern cookbook, Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie

          Sweet Potato Biscuits

2 cups all-purpose flour

heaping 1/2 tsp. salt

3 1/4 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. sugar, if desired

1/2 tsp. baking soda

5 Tbsps. cold shortening, butter, or a combination

7/8 cup buttermilk

1/2 cup mashed or pureed cold cooked sweet potato

Sift the dry ingredients together into a large bowl. Add the cold shortening and/or butter and work all through the flour with your fingertips. Every bit of flour should be combined with a bit of fat. Add the buttermilk and sweet potato and stir vigorously until the dough forms a ball. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead lightly for 10 strokes. Stop just as soon as the dough begins to look smooth. Pat the dough out to approximately an 8 x 8 x 1/2-inch-thick square. Cut into 2-inch rounds. Place on an ungreased sheet and bake in an oven preheated to 500 degrees F for 8 minutes, until lightly browned. Biscuits will be a lovely apricot color. Serve hot with lots of butter. [And slices of aged Cheddar or maple syrup or apricot jam!—Silence] Makes 12-14 biscuits.

              Sweet Potato Corn Cake

2 cups cornmeal [White cornmeal is traditional.—Silence]

1 tsp. salt

1 1/8 cup water

2 Tbsps. butter

2/3 to 1 cup mashed sweet potato

1 1/4 cups buttermilk

1 egg

2/3 cup all-purpose flour

2 1/2 tsps. baking powder

1 tsp. baking soda

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Sift flour with baking powder and baking soda into a large bowl; add cornmeal and salt and mix thoroughly. Beat egg with buttermilk. Bring the water and butter to a boil. When the butter has melted and the water is boiling, pour over the cornmeal-flour mixture and stir thoroughly. Add the buttermilk mixture and sweet potatoes and stir again to blend. Bake in a buttered 9-inch tin in the preheated 375-degree oven for 30 minutes or until golden brown on top. This is delicious split and buttered with honey or molasses. Makes 6 servings.  

Moving on, what if you have a can (or part of a can) of leftover pumpkin? (We’re talking about 100% pumpkin here, not pie filling.) I, of course, enthusiastically recommend my Curried Pumpkin Soup and Pumpkin Chili (search for my earlier posts, “Curried pumpkin soup” and “Silence’s Chili Surprise,” for the recipes.) And I suspect you could substitute equal amounts of pumpkin for the sweet potato in the biscuit and corn cake recipes. But here are two other intriguing options, from Pumpkin Lovers Cookbook:

             Pumpkin Spaghetti

1 cup canned 100% pumpkin

1 cup heavy cream

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg

1/4 cup softened butter

12 oz. thin spaghetti

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Bring water to a boil and cook the pasta. When it’s nearly done, mix the pumpkin, cream, nutmeg, and 1/2 cup Parmesan in a small pan. Bring just to a simmer over low heat, stirring once or twice. Remove from heat. Drain spaghetti and pour into a large bowl. Add butter to spaghetti and toss ’til butter is melted. Pour pumpkin mixture over pasta. Toss. Serve with additional Parmesan, salt and pepper.

           Pumpkin Custard

1 1/2 cups canned 100% pumpkin

2/3 cup brown sugar

3 beaten eggs

1 1/2 cups scalded milk

1 Tbsp. cornstarch

1 tsp. cinnamon

1/2 tsp. powdered ginger

1/4 tsp. each powdered cloves and nutmeg

Mix all ingredients thoroughly and pour into a buttered baking dish. Bake in a preheated 350 degree F. over for 45 minutes. Serves 4 to 6.

Sometimes you end up with leftovers you don’t expect. Our neighbors sent us home from Thanksgiving dinner with an entire container of cooked corn, for example. I had made the Gourmet magazine recipe for corn pudding using John Cope’s Dried Sweet Corn and substituting half-and-half for the milk (we were out of milk, gasp), and it was delicious. (See my post “Thanksgiving, PA Dutch style: Dried corn” for the recipe.) Alas, no trace of this delicious corn pudding remains, so I’m tempted to try it with the fresh corn and see how it is. I might also add some of the corn to my own standard cornbread recipe, or toss some into sauteed sweet onions and mushrooms to serve over pasta or rice, or…

Anyway. Making the best use of leftovers, so you eat every last bite with as much delight as the first, is frugality at its best. Let us hear from you if you have favorite ways to use leftovers! 

           ‘Til next time,


Frugal living tip #46. November 21, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. In 2009, we’re committed to bringing you a Frugal Living Tip every week to help people like us survive these tough economic times. This week’s is about not losing what little money you may have.

I’ll get to that in a minute. But first, a couple of statistics I read in the local paper that struck me as ironic. Savvy gardeners and homesteaders won’t be surprised to hear that, thanks to the recession, home canning is up. Sales of canning equipment were up 30% this year. That’s the good. Unfortunately, hard times also make us crave cheap indulgences—something we can still do to make ourselves feel better. So another sign of bad times is the skyrocketing sale of potato chips (up 22% this year) and other fatty, salty comfort-food snacks, rising dramatically after years of stagnant sales. Sansabelt, here we come. That’s the bad.

Now for the ugly, the point of this post: It’s bad enough when you don’t have much money sitting in the bank. But it’s a lot worse when what little you do have is siphoned off through overdraft fees. Here’s some scary data and excellent advice from Humberto Cruz in his article “Invest time to avoid fees.” (To read the entire article, go to www.themorningcall.com.)

First, the scary stats: 51 million American adults overdraw their checking accounts once a year; 27 million, five or more times a year; and 18 million, ten or more times each year. Those overdrafts come at the cost of $26.6 billion in hard-earned money, at an average of $29.58 per bounced check. Many banks charge fees if your checking balance falls below a minum each month as well. And late fees on credit cards are supposedly rising into the high 20s—in other words, heading towards a third of the bill.

The bad news doesn’t end there. Not only are fees for using debit cards at banks not affiliated with your own rising steeply—the average is now $2.22 per transaction plus a $1.32 fee levied by your own bank—$3.54 each time you use another bank’s ATM. (I’ve also read that some banks organize debit charges from highest to lowest amount rather than by transaction date, so unless you record each and every transaction as you make it in your checkbook and balance the total immediately, you may think you have more money than you actually do at any given time and overdraw inadvertently as a result.)

Yikes! How can you avoid this mess? Mr. Cruz offers some good advice from a consumer-oriented website, Bankrate.com: “Match your accounts to your needs. If it’s just simple checking, bill pay, ATM or debit card transactions, a non-interest-paying but free checking account with no minimum balance or per-check charge is best.” He also advises you to keep track of all your transactions and balances, including ATM and debit transactions and your credit cards. He checks his accounts online daily, and swears he can do this in under a minute. You may not want to check every single day, but if you have the uneasy feeling that your balance is bottoming out, it would be well worth it. After all, the last thing you need when money is already tight is to be handing what little there is over to the bank!

            ‘Til next time,


Frugal living tip #45. November 12, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. At Poor Richard’s Almanac, we’ve been giving you a Frugal Living Tip every week in 2009 to try to help us all get through a very tough economic year. This week, our tip is for the birds.

Many of us love to invite the wild birds to our backyards by setting out seed and treats. But as you know if you maintain birdfeeders, those costs can mount up fast! We’ve seen seed wreaths and other treats offered for $18.95 each. And even if you skip the fancy stuff, it’s amazing how fast birds (especially when assisted by squirrels) can polish off a feeder full of seed. So here are some tips to help you enjoy your birds without going broke:

* Buy the basics. Black oil sunflower seed and white millet attract the widest species of birds, so buy them separately and skip the fancy mixtures. Use black oil sunflower straight in your tube feeders, and mix it half-and-half with millet in your cabin (hopper) feeder.

* Skip the nyjer. Nyger thistle (also called niger) is a high-priced seed that’s supposed to be irresistible to goldfinches, and you have to buy a special feeder to contain the tiny seeds. Well, guess what? Our goldfinches prefer plain old black oil sunflower seed to nyjer. Save your money.

* Forget the pricey feeders. You can buy plastic tube feeders from Droll Yankees (who make the the best feeders on the market) for $7.95. We were dubious, but wanted to try one of these affordable feeders to see how it held up. Our backyard birds prefer this feeder to any of our more expensive ones, and not only has it held up perfectly for three years now, but it’s the one we keep going year-round (two, actually, we just had to buy another one). We got ours at our local Agway, but I’m sure they’re available wherever backyard birdfeeders are sold. If spending even $8 on a birdfeeder is too much, you can buy a little kit that will convert an empty 2-litre soda bottle into a tube feeder for $2.95. It looks as good as any tube feeder and holds a ton of seed so you won’t have to refill it as often as a standard tube feeder. And why buy a ground (tray) feeder when you can simply scatter seed on the ground? Our birds love foraging in the leaves beneath our tube and cabin feeders.

* Buy suet, not suet cakes. Every winter, our local grocery offers bags of suet for a fraction the cost of suet cakes. If you save the mesh bags you buy onions in, you can put chunks of suet in the empty bags and hang them out for woodpeckers, chickadees, hawks, and other suet-lovers.

* Or make your own suet cakes. Melt chunks of suet over low heat, stir in peanut butter, bacon fat, and/or lard if desired, add birdseed (you can of course add nuts and/or raisins, too, if you want), then pour the mixture into empty tuna or cat-food cans and freeze it. Once they’ve solidified, remove your homemade suet cakes from the cans and store them in a plastic freezer bag until you’re ready to set them out in your suet cages.

* Make peanut butter pinecones. Buy a big jar of store-brand peanut butter on sale. Wrap yarn around the top ring of scales on each pinecone and tie it to make a loop for hanging. Using a knife or spoon, press peanut butter into the scales, then roll each pinecone in birdseed. Hang them from a tree or bush where you can watch the action from a convenient window.

* Make bagel wreaths. One bagel can go a long way when it comes to making seed wreaths for your backyard birds, and a stale one works even better than a fresh one. Slice your bagel into 1/4-inch-thick slices, and string a yarn loop for hanging through the hole in each slice. Coat one side of each slice with peanut butter, press it into birdseed, and hang.

* Offer stale baked goods. Any leftovers are welcome treats for your flying friends, as long as they don’t contain chocolate, which is toxic to birds as it is to pets. Bread, muffins, biscuits, crackers, cornbread, doughnuts, pizza crust, croutons—if you have leftovers that have been sitting a little too long, this is a great way to use them.

* Grow your own. If you’re a gardener, choose landscape plants that offer seeds or fruit for birds as well as delight to you. Roses with big hips, crabapples, coneflowers, viburnums, sunflowers—the list is endless. You can even grow a garden especially for the birds, with ornamental corn, millet, sorghum, sunflowers, safflower, and other treats. But there’s no reason to go to this extreme (unless you’d find it a fun family project) when you can fill your yard with plants that do double duty as ornamentals (for you) and edibles (for your birds).

* Just add water. Remember that water attracts more species of birds than any type of seed, and it’s the cheapest way to attract backyard birds to your yard.

* Make a mess. Well, maybe this is really the cheapest way to attract birds, if you have a discreet place to make one: a stick pile. A pile of small branches and twigs will give birds shelter and protection from predators. And gardeners, leaving your dead grasses and perennials up until spring will shelter and feed birds, too!

If you all have great frugal birdfeeding tips to share, we’d love to hear them!

           ‘Til next time,


Frugal living tip #44. November 6, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here, with another Frugal Living Tip from Poor Richard’s Almanac. This one’s about getting your home ready for winter, and it’s courtesy of the newsletter in our monthly bill from our electric utility company. They suggest removing any cracked caulking around doors and windows and recaulking to keep frigid drafts out. Makes sense, right?

Then they add: “The same is true for worn weatherstripping, and gaps and holes around vents and pipes that lead into your home or attic. Seal large gaps around pipes with expanding foam.” Great advice, but hardly rocket science.

But they go on to say: “While you’re at it, add foam gaskets behind outlet covers and switchplates, and use safety plugs in unused outlets. These are prime spots for letting cold air in.” Foam gaskets. Wazzat?!!!

Hmmm. Guess you really do learn something new every day. Thanks, PPL!

Meanwhile, we’re getting insulated curtains for the home office and tacking up bubble wrap “curtains” over every leaky window, putting draft stoppers at every outdoor door and any inside doors (such as the door to our mudroom and one door to a very drafty closet) that could let in cold air, and adding enough layers to the bed to make a cozy nest even if we turn the thermostat down to 55 at night. We try to open our curtains early enough to let in maximum light and heat and close them early enough to keep out cold. We have fleece-lined slippers to wear indoors and numerous layers to keep us “just right” however cold it gets. We haven’t gotten to the point of wearing nightcaps, but it could happen yet!

You probably recall that in Mediaeval times, people kept warm by hanging tapestries on the walls and piling furs on the floors and beds. It’s still a smart idea (especially now when you won’t be sharing them with fleas, lice, and God knows what else!). Carpets and rugs keep your feet from cold floors, and contrasting rugs on carpets add another layer of insulation while providing a decorative touch. Hanging a decorative textile like a quilt or antique coverlet, Navajo rug, or weaving on a wall not only warms your space visually but also helps conserve heat literally. Insulated curtains keep heat from being lost through window glass. You may not want to pile bear or wolf skins on your bed, but you can put on flannel sheets, down comforters, wool blankets, and duvets until your bed is warm in even the coldest room. Cats tend to be only too happy to pre-warm the bed for you, too. We have an outside cover for our air conditioner (we also cover the inside with bubble wrap, then conceal the whole thing behind half-window shutters) and a foam cover for our one outdoor faucet.

Then there’s my favorite winter warming technique, using the oven as often as possible to warm us inside and out. It’s great to feel the heat radiating from the oven (something I try to avoid all summer) and smell the wonderful aromas of supper cooking at the same time. Yum!!!

But hmmm, we never thought of foam gaskets for our outlets. How do you winterize your house? 

         ‘Til next time,


Frugal living tip #40. October 6, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, homesteading, recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I can’t believe we have just 12 more weeks of Frugal Living Tips to go in 2009! You all will have to let us know if you want us to continue with a Frugal Living Tip each week in 2010.

Anyway, this week’s tip is about dessert. In my family, desserts were reserved for birthdays and holidays, and then they were amazing things. The concept of eating dessert every night is astounding to me. (For one thing, how could anybody have room?!) But now that our friend Ben and I live in Pennsylvania, we’re surrounded by the dessert-loving Pennsylvania Dutch, who traditionally might have dessert with every meal, including breakfast. (The infamous shoo-fly pie was apparently a breakfast tradition back when the area was mostly agrarian and hearty meals were the order of the day.)

In today’s more sedentary society, desserts tend to be costly, both in terms of calories and ingredients, even if you forego the ready-made option and make them yourself. So how can you satisfy that sweet tooth without blowing your grocery budget and/or gaining 10,000 pounds?

My first thought was to suggest ending your supper with fresh fruit—grapes, cherries, melon slices, mango, a ripe peach, what have you, perhaps with cheese in the Continental tradition. But decadent as this sounds to me, it’s hardly Moose Tracks ice cream and/or brownies.

My next thought was to recommend the Wise Dieter Way: Make or buy the most decadent dessert imaginable, the dessert of your dreams, then eat one—count it, one—bite. But guess what, talk about a self-indulgent waste of money! Yow. It’s one thing if you’re all splitting a dessert and you take exactly one bite and let everyone else finish it off. But if you have an entire helping and eat one bite, then what? Unless you eat one bite every night for the next two weeks, you’re still wasting money. And let’s just say that I’d be willing to bet that by the second night that luscious dessert will already be losing most if not all of its charm. Yuck!

Then there’s the “have one tiny square of dark chocolate after your meal because it’s good for you” school. Just this morning, I read yet another endorsement of the “one tiny square of dark chocolate” as a health promoter. Okay, fine. But we’re talking about one tiny square, folks, the size of one of those chocolate mints they bring you in restaurants to send you into sugar shock so you won’t go into sticker shock when you see the size of the bill. Is that going to be enough? What happened to that big, fat slice of red velvet cake or that handful of double chocolate-chip cookies?!

So okay, let’s tackle dessert head-on here. What’s really satisfying and economical? (And please don’t anybody even think about mentioning those horrid Rice Krispy squares. God help us!) Here are some options:

* Baked apples. You’re right, I’m back to the fruit thing. But baking an apple turns it into a luscious, caramel-drenched, decadent treat that would satisfy anybody’s sweet tooth. To make them, core tart apples like Granny Smiths. Pour about 1/2 inch of cider, apple juice, or water in the bottom of a baking dish and set the apples in the dish. Fill the cored part of each apple with a pat of salted butter and a teaspoon of brown sugar. Add more butter and brown sugar to the cider/apple juice/water around the apples. Sprinkle ground cinnamon over the apples, then bake them for an hour at 350 degrees F. They will be unbelievably rich and decadent!

* Grilled or baked peaches. When peaches are cheap and in season, you can bake them or simply halve, pit and grill them just long enough to heat them and produce grill marks on the underside. You can serve them as is or brush them with marmalade, red currant jelly, or Balsamic vinegar. (If you bake them, you can brush the marmalade, jelly, or balsamic vinegar over each cut-side-up half before running the baking dish in the oven. Again, bake just long enough to heat through; check at 20 and then 30 minutes at 350 degrees.)

* Grilled grapes. My friend Delilah turned me on to this delicious way to prepare grapes. Grill seedless grapes—preferably red or purple—just five minutes, which caramelizes the flesh. Serve warm with Brie. Yum! 

* Grilled bananas. Okay, okay, this is the last fruit dessert… I think. Halve bananas lengthwise, still in their skins, and grill face down just long enough to heat and produce grill marks. (The skins keep the bananas from falling apart during grilling.) Remove the skins and serve two halves per person with a sprinkling of almond or pecan pieces and a splash of maple syrup. Or go for it and add a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

* Rice pudding. Rice pudding has two things going for it: It’s cheap, and it’s classic comfort food, especially when served warm. See our earlier post, “A rice pudding roundup,” for six diverse recipes for both white and brown rice pudding.

* Bread pudding. Made from leftover stale bread, bread pudding may have been the original frugal dessert. Some people love it, some people (including yours truly) hate it, but it’s definitely worth checking out.     

* Cinnamon toast. Don’t diss the potential of beloved childhood favorites to transform themselves into frugal but delicious desserts. Suppose, for example, you take slices of bread and cut them into fun shapes with cookie cutters. Then you smear them with salted butter, sugar, and cinnamon, and run them under the broiler just long enough to melt the topping. Fabulous! Ditto for dessert waffles. Top them with cherry preserves, seedless black raspberry or blackberry jam, or maple syrup, and a dab of whipped cream, and you have a dessert fit for any family meal.

* Angel food cake. Our family always got to pick their own cakes for their birthdays, and I always chose angel food cake. These days, the idea od beating 9 to 16 egg whites (depending on your recipe) and going on from there is a bit much.  But ready-made angel food cakes are one of the most affordable (and low-cal) desserts in any grocery store. When I want something luscious but trouble-free, I’ll often slice up an angel food cake and top it with some combination of seasonal fruits: strawberries, for example, or peaches and blueberries or red raspberries. Then I’ll top each fruit-covered slice with whipped cream. Mmmmmm!!!    

* Pound cake. A delicious slice of my coffee pound cake would satisfy anybody’s dessert cravings. (See my post “The best coffee pound cake” for the recipe.) It’s not only easy and affordable to make, it keeps well, so you can enjoy a slice every day until you’ve eaten it all without fear of its going stale on you.

* Milkshakes. If you simply must have ice cream, mixing it with milk makes it (and your budget) stretch further. But only if you serve up those milkshakes in normal-sized glasses rather than huge fountain-size vases, I mean, glasses.

* Meringues. Made with egg whites, sugar, and a dash of vanilla, meringues are both decadent and cheap. And they’re so easy to make! Whip 7 egg whites stiff, adding 1 1/2 cups sugar a teaspoon at a time as you’re whipping the whites. Finally fold in a teaspoon (or two) of vanilla and 3/4 cup sugar. Spoon cream-puff-sized blobs onto an aluminum-foil-lined baking sheet and bake in a slow oven (225 degrees F) for 45 to 60 minutes, or until the outside turns a lovely light pinkish-tan. Unlike storebought meringues, these will be crunchy on the outside and soft and succulent on the inside. I love to eat them as is, but you can also bash in the tops and fill them with fruit and/or whipped cream or ice cream. And please, don’t waste the yolks! Give some to your dog as a special, coat-glossing treat, and add the rest to your next batch of scrambled eggs or French toast batter.   

* Berries. You’re right, I’m back to fruit. But I don’t know of a single dessert more delicious than ripe berries in season. My all-time fave is black raspberries, but black cherries, red raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries are also in the running. The key to both savoring them and getting them affordably is to buy them in season (assuming you don’t grow your own; then they’re free!), and only then. It makes them so special you’ll find yourself longing for that fragrance, taste and texture all year. Then, once you have them, enjoy them in a bowl with a little milk or cream, or display them on a salad plate with a handful or almonds or pecans and that famous little square of dark chocolate. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and enjoy!

What are your favorite frugal desserts? I think confirmed chocoholics could especially use a few good suggestions here!

          ‘Til next time,


Frugal living tip #39. September 28, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. It’s Monday, and that means it’s time for another Frugal Living Tip here at Poor Richard’s Almanac. This one’s about food.

Our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call, runs a classic column every Sunday called “On the Cheap” by Spencer Soper. Spencer’s tongue-in-cheek commentary on the lengths people will go to in the name of cheapness—from saving the salt at the bottom of pretzel bags to holding on to used paper napkins in case the cat vomits and they need to clean it up—is priceless. Thanks, Spencer! You cheer us up. Somebody’s got to take a funny view of cheapness in these tough times.

Sometimes, however, these cheapsters go over our own personal moral line in the sand. As in this past Sunday, when a guy told Spencer how he has mastered reusing fast-food coupons. The article, which you can read in its entirety at www.themorningcall.com, shares quite a few nuances on how to finesse this, but in essence, the guy tells the drive-up clerk he has a coupon when he places his order. Then, when he picks up and pays for the food, if the person taking his money doesn’t ask for the coupon, he saves it to use another time. If they do remember to ask for it, he hands it over. In either case, he gets the discount.

Spencer went to the trouble to ask an ethics professor what he thought of this from a moral standpoint, and the professor placed the onus squarely on the clerks who fail to demand the coupons rather than on the jerk who’s ripping them off. But it’s our view that at the end of the day, it’s not about what you can get away with but how you can bear to live with yourself. Rather than double-dipping, how about thinking about the poor sod who’s making minimum wage or less behind that window and giving him or her the money your coupon saved you as a tip?!

But let’s get back to spending less on food. Another article in the paper’s finance section noted that people are changing their grocery shopping habits now that money is tight. Sales of canned goods and staples like dried pasta and rice are up; people have forsaken the outside aisles of grocery stores in favor of the center aisles where they can find cheap, durable staples.

This makes a lot of sense to us, even as we silently scream over people abandoning the fresh produce and dairy aisles. (NOOOOO!!!!) I depend on a certain number of canned or boxed goods—all sorts of canned beans, tomato sauce and paste, crushed tomatoes, veggie stock, pumpkin puree, black olives, coconut milk—and try to keep others (beets, artichokes, unsweetened condensed milk, roasted red peppers, and so on) on hand in case of need. And I would be dead on the ground without all my dried staples—rices, flours, cornmeal, pastas, lentils, popcorn, etc.—in plentiful and frequently renewed supply. Those center aisles are central to my own grocery shopping, but looking in my basket every week, it’s the fresh veggies and shredded cheeses and so on that predominate, unless there’s a great sale on canned beans.

But to bring this post full circle: You can save a lot more money by buying canned and dried food at the grocery store than by ripping off folks at the fast-food drive-through. And it will be a lot better for you. You can even use the money you save by not buying fast food to buy fresh salad mixes and other veggies to liven up your meals. Now that’s what we call a deal!

            ‘Til next time,


Frugal living tip #38. September 25, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. If you’ve been following our weekly Frugal Living Tips in 2009, you probably thought we were about to miss a week. Whew! This week has really gotten away from us, but here we are with this week’s tip, which I’d be tempted to call “when enough is enough.”

I’d been reading an article about America’s ongoing financial difficulties that basically said that people had become more cautious about spending, and that frugality might be good for a family’s budget but it was bad for the economy. I don’t know about you, but when I read a comment like that, and then think about the massive debt load many Americans are carrying and the enormous number of families whose stuff has literally overflowed their houses, forcing them to rent storage space, it strikes me that it’s the system itself that’s broken, not the people who are trying to break away from it. There must be a way for our country to become financially healthy that’s not dependent on conspicuous consumption.

I’m using that word “conspicuous” because of what the article said next. It inserted a comment by a legal secretary to show how people were still watching their pennies. She said that yes, she and her spouse were still employed, but that they’d begun rethinking their spending habits. For example, they’d opted to forgo a new flat-screen TV. “We already have six televisions,” she said. “Why do we need a flat-screen TV?”

The more relevant question, at least in my mind, is “Why do you need six televisions?!!” I love that they chose this woman to use as an example of frugal living. But I also find it distressing. Have we really come so far from a sense of scale that giving up a seventh television is considered a frugal sacrifice, a lessening of our standard of living?

It reminds me of how the press is constantly lamenting the decline of haute couture, now that many wealthy women simply aren’t spending $25,000-$100,000 on a dress they’re likely to wear once. Gee, whatever happened to the good old days?

It also brings to mind America’s obsession with how people in other countries manage to remain thin. Well, how’s this for a theory: They don’t each get in their huge gas-guzzling SUV all by themselves and drive it up to a fast-food place (drive-through, of course, God forbid that someone should actually park the car and walk in) to load up on so-called food that’s deep-fat-fried and laden with high-fructose corn syrup, then drive back home, collapse in front of the TV, and use an army of remotes because it’s too much effort to walk over to the TV to change a channel. In most countries—shock surprise!—people walk or bike everywhere. They eat real food. They don’t have six TVs, or often, even one TV, and if they do, they don’t spend their lives parked in front of it. Could this possibly be the secret of their comparative thinness?!!

Mercy. Please, can’t we ever say “enough is enough.” Could we think of walking away from that seventh television not as a sacrifice but as a disgraceful instance of overconsumption? Could we, perhaps, think of better ways to spend our evenings than watching television from the time we get home from work until we fall asleep?

We may be Luddites here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, but we’re not Puritans. We love watching a good movie or eating a hot pizza as much as anyone. If we got cable, we’d set time aside to watch history and archaeology and science and nature shows. I would love it if now and then I could catch a ballet or a cooking program, and our friend Ben would relish the chance to watch live sports. We’re definitely not telling you to throw out your TV, or even a second TV for the kids.

But we would choose what we watched with care, as we do our movies, and we would limit the time spent watching. We could use that time for reading, writing, thinking, knitting, beading, gardening, birdwatching, walking, playing with our puppy Shiloh, singing, listening to music, cooking, talking, sharing. Experiencing, learning, growing, interacting. So many, many other things than being force-fed an unending stream of violence and frivolity interspersed with screaming messages to buy, buy, buy.

So ultimately, today’s Frugal Living Tip is about improving your quality of life by thinking not about what you don’t have, but what you already have that you could give away to benefit the less fortunate. Think of the space that this could open in your home and mind and heart. Think of the joy, the sense of purpose and accomplishment and connection and relaxation, that could flow in to fill the space where all that stuff had been. Then look around you and get started. There’s not a moment to lose, and everything to gain.

         ‘Til next time,