Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Frugal holiday ideas

In the past we've gone on holiday when we have felt like it with no thought to the overall cost incurred. In this new world of ours we've had to re-think our holiday strategy. Instead of simply booking some flights, checking into whatever accommodation we feel like and eating wherever suited us we've had to find cheaper options.

Rent a house : Here in New Zealand there are a few websites with reasonably priced houses and holiday homes for rent (e.g., and are some examples). This option is great for family holidays (lots of room for kids to run around), romantic getaways (nice and private) and for group holidays (grab another couple or two and have a grownup break away). Properties through these sites range from basic, cheap dwellings through to luxurious, more expensive places. Sharing with another family or friends can bring the cost down to a more reasonable level.

Camping : I have to admit I am not a fan of camping. I am used to my creature comforts (bed, shower, toilet, chairs) but for a cheap trip away this would be a good option. Of course we don't have all the camping gear for this type of holiday but I know we could borrow what we need from friends and family. Here in New Zealand there are plenty of options for camping sites from proper camping grounds / holiday parks with full facilities through to camping out on someone's farm or booking into a DoC (Department of Conservation) camping site (they have over 250 vehicle-accessible sites with a range of facilities from none to full-on). See for details. DoC also have cabins and lodges available at reasonable prices.

Home swap : This idea appeals to me. You may decide to swap houses with friends or family living in a different area - this could be at no cost apart from transport. There are also some sites to help with this option - and are a couple of examples. I haven't tried a home swap before but would be keen to try it at some stage.

Food : To save money self-catering is the way to go. I know this may seem like it's not much of a holiday for the cook of the family but this is an opportunity for everyone to pitch in and do their bit. If you stick to simple meals, salads, picnics and barbeques this doesn't need to be so onerous. You could also cook some meals ahead and take them with you - a big pot of soup or a casserole would be fantastic for dinner on a winter holiday.

Activities : I am a fan of relaxing holidays, spending time with the family and generally chilling out. My perfect holidays are those where walking, swimming and lazing in the sun feature predominantly. Personally I am not into rushing around, going to all the tourist attractions, etc. We spent time on our family holiday last year playing cards and board games - there was no television which was fantastic.

In this crazy, busy world we live in, holidaying simply becomes more important. Holidays that give your mind and body time to relax help bring sanity back into your life. Mmmmmm, must start planning our next break away.

Friday, May 22, 2009

A new approach to gifts

Just before Christmas last year, when I was worrying about the state of our finances but hadn't put a plan in place, I was considering what we would do about Christmas. We don't have a lot of extended family around so Christmas is a fairly low-key affair - except for the expectations about presents. This is the first time that I looked consumerism square in the eye and realised I didn't want to go down the track of buying loads of expensive gifts (not that we could afford to anyway). I am totally over buying "stuff" that doesn't last well or is played with for a short time before being discarded to gather dust in a corner. I also had a long think about those less fortunate than us. It doesn't seem right that we can splurge money on frivolous gifts without making an effort to help less fortunate people.

I had a talk to the Optimist, my sons and their girlfriends and asked them to nominate a charity they would like to support. I made a $50 donation for each person to the charity of their choice and bought each person a gift for around $50 each. I enjoyed being able to focus on something for each person that I thought they would really appreciate and they seemed more than happy with their gifts. The Optimist still went and did the usual level of shopping for his children.

I would like to think we can do even better this year. Id like each gift for birthdays and Christmas to be carefully considered so that the gift is something that would be really appreciated and be something that lasts well or provides a lasting experience. Plus, of course, these special occasions will be in the budget so there will be no nasty experience of opening credit card bills after the event. That's a bonus!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Grow your own and save

We are lucky where we live as we have a good sized section giving us plenty of room for vegetable gardens. I've been in this house for about 8 years and my original attempts at growing vegetables were not that successful. Over the past couple of years we've built four raised gardens and that has seen a lot more success in the quality and quantity of vegetables grown. Also, last winter we put in a greenhouse for raising seeds and for growing tomatoes. chillies and cucumbers. The greenhouse has been wonderful as we have been able to grow a lot more from seed making considerable savings.

Our garden over summer kept us well-supplied in many of our basic vegetables. We produced tomatoes, cucumbers, chillies, sweetcorn, garlic, cabbages, broccoli, peas, zucchinis, celery and potatoes. In addition, our herb garden produces mint, oregano, rosemary and parsley. We're now entering the winter months so the garden isn't looking as luxuriant and is certainly not as productive. But we do have some cabbages and silver beet nearing harvest and have onions, carrots and parsnips doing well.

We struggle with keeping the garden organic (and have failed miserably so far) and I am researching this subject all the time. We've been inundated with caterpillars and slugs. I think, in the future, we will cover the gardens with netting to reduce the damage these pests cause.

In addition to the vegetables we grow we have started to work towards producing more fruit. Currently we have lemon and lime trees in pots, a cherry tree, a grape vine, strawberries, a passionfruit vine, rhubarb and a blackberry. Apart from the grape and strawberries, all the other plants are quite new and not yet producing. Next spring I plan to expand further and would like to plant blackcurrent bushes and raspberries.

I have never calculated how much our garden costs us but, since we have started raising the majority of our vegetables from seed, I know we're saving money every week. We are lucky to have plenty of space for our gardens but, even if we were constrained by space, I would find a way of growing as much as we can. I've heard a lot of good things about square-foot gardening and also container gardening. Both these methods could be used if you have limited space.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

More ideas for reducing outgoings

In our day to day lives there are several areas we can look at to reduce our costs. Here are some changes we have made.

Use the library - I read voraciously. When I was at school someone came in one day and taught the class how to speed read. I caught on to that and now can't read any other way. The negative side of this is that I race through books very quickly. One example is a 10 day holiday we had a year ago where I took 6 books to read. Within the first few days I zoomed through those and went and bought another 6 books. That was only just enough! In the past I bought lots of books (I really don't want to add up how many books or how much they cost me!) to feed my habit. I did try to pick up books on special when I could and bought second hand sometimes too. But, still, it was an expensive habit. With our new budget in place I knew that couldn't continue so now I utilise our local library. I go every week or two and check out a stack of books. I never get the bestsellers as they cost a couple of dollars - eventually they turn up in the main library collection. Using the library saves us hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars every year.

Take your lunch to work - I used to buy my lunch every day at work. I would easily drop up to $10 a day on lunch, often more. Now I take my lunch 99.9% of the time and it saves me lots. Sunday is my baking and cooking day so you will find me in my kitchen making soup, risotto, curry and other dishes for tasty lunches. I freeze meal size portions and then the Optimist and I can take whichever meal we feel like having that day for lunch. At other times I have made up sandwiches and either eaten them as is or toasted them at work. All of this saves us money but also results in us eating healthier meals than a lot of the food that we would have purchased in the past.

Home baking - As mentioned above, Sunday is my baking day. I calculated the cost of making a batch of biscuits one day and figured out that a batch of Anzac biscuits (usually around 40 biscuits) cost me under $3 to make. This didn't include the cost of using the oven. I would struggle to find yummy biscuits that could compete with that amount of money. There are lots of recipes out there that are really easy to follow. If anyone would like my Anzac biscuit recipe let me know and I will post the recipe.

Transportation - This was a biggie for me. I live 32 kilometres from work and used to drive every day. Parking in Wellington was costing me $12 a day and petrol worked out, as a minimum, at $10 a day. I never know how to work out the cost of wear and tear and subsequently maintenance on a car but I know there is a cost associated with that. So, in a nutshell it was costing me over $100 a week to drive to and from work. When I sat down and worked it out I realised it was a no-brainer to ditch using the car and get onto the train. It's a 15 minute brisk walk to get to the station which is a fantastic way to start the day and also a nice amount of time to unwind at the end of the day. A 10-trip ticket costs $64, a monthly pass $192 and a quarterly pass $547. What a huge saving! Additionally in the summer months I started cycling into work 2 or 3 times a week. This takes about an hour - it's flat the whole way. I would take in food and clothes on the train so on cycling days I wouldn't have to carry too much on my back. The added benefit of cycling in was the sense of well-being from having done some exercise and the subsequent increase in fitness and decrease in weight.

I guess one thing I have done is to be very focussed on reducing what we spend so I don't make excuses and just get on with implementing the change. If it is something that is hard I stick with it for 30 days then reassess how I feel about it. I can't think of any instances where I have reverted to the old (more expensive) way of doing things.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mother's Day

Today, in New Zealand, we are celebrating Mother's Day. This got me to thinking about my Mum and how I should show her my appreciation and love. In the past I've sent gifts, flowers and cards and I'm sure Mum appreciated those. This year I've decided to do something different by posting this entry to my blog.

Here's a photo of Mum and I taken last year at my wedding. Isn't she beautiful?

My Mum was born in England but moved to New Zealand when she was in her teens. She married my Dad and had three children - I'm the dreaded middle child! I caused my parents quite a bit of grief through the teenage years but, at no time, did my mother give up on me. She has been there in my darkest hours but also in those times of celebration.

In many ways I am similar to my Mum - very practical, a straight talker, caring and honest. My parents are frugal by nature and I am surprised I didn't "get frugality" earlier than I have. Their basic belief is that you don't buy something unless it is both needed and you have the money for it. If only I have stuck to that over the years. Never mind, now I get it.

Anyway, back to my Mum. She has always supported me in my decisions and been there to provide advice and, at times, a shoulder to lean on.

Mum was the first person I discussed the idea of this blog with. I was quite nervous at the idea of getting this blog off the ground and Mum was the person I went to to discuss the idea, toss up ideas for names and decide on some of the initial topics.

So, Mum, this blog entry is for you - I love you and thank you for all your support and love over the years.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Quick after-work meals

I don't know about anyone else but I find it can be a bit of a challenge to get a healthy home-cooked meal on the table for the family during the working week. Over time this is something I have got better at so today's blog entry is all about some of the quick meals I cook.

We do have a couple of limitations in what we cook. The Optimist (my darling husband) can only have red meat once a week due to a cholestoral problem. The result of that is that we eat a lot of chicken. On top of that, I don't eat tomato (makes me ill) so that limits a lot of our choices. I'd like to move to more vegetarian meals but that is something the menfolk of the house struggle with. So here goes with some meal ideas!

Chicken kebabs - before I leave for work in the morning I cube the chicken (usually use chicken breast) and then marinate in a mix of soy sauce, peanut butter and chilli. When I get home it;s just a matter of putting the chicken onto kebabs, grilling them in the oven, getting some rice going in the rice cooker and getting some vegetables steaming.

Chicken burgers - Again I use chicken breasts for our chicken burgers. I slice them through so the fillets are thinner (and this also stretches the meat a bit further) and coat them in satay sauce. I grill the fillets while getting the salad ingredients ready and the bread sliced. The family loves this one, especially when I have bought mini-focaccia breads instead of plain burger buns. If I have enough time sometimes I will cut up some potatoes into generous chips and oven bake them with olive oil and fresh herbs.

Chicken curry - This isn't the healthiest of meals but a real favourite so this one gets on the menu every couple of weeks. I use a curry paste mix for the base of this dish. In New Zealand we have a range called Asian Home Gourmet and our standard is the Chicken Madras (sometimes we will have the Butter Chicken one for a change). To prepare this dish I simply cube the chicken, heat the paste in a non-stick pan, add the chicken and cook for a few minutes before adding coconut milk. I let the curry simmer for 20 minutes or so, cook the rice while that's simmering and then heat some roti bread in the oven. A tip I learnt recently about the coconut milk was to not buy the "lite" version which I tended to do to cut the fat content down. Now I buy the normal version (at the same price as the "lite" one), pour it into a bowl, whisk it up, freeze half of it, add water to the other half and use that. Twice the coconut milk for the same price!

Crumbed chicken - Yet another way of cooking chicken! You can use any type of chicken pieces for this recipe. My family prefers boned chicken breasts but drumsticks and any other portions work just as well. Using my food processor I make a mix of breadcrumbs and dried herbs (could use fresh herbs and I am not sure why I don't do this). Beat an egg in a small bowl and dip each chicken piece in the egg and then the breadcrumb mix. Place on an oven tray. Crush a clove of garlic into quarter of a cup of olive oil and stir. Drizzle the oil over the chicken pieces and bake until cooked. Usually 20 - 25 minutes works for me. I usually serve this with mashed potatoes (or sometimes fresh pasta) and vegetables.

Crumbed fish - this isn't really a recipe! Dip fresh fish fillets in egg and then fresh breadcrumbs and cook in non-stick pan with a little bit of oil (I usually use olive oil but sometimes rice bran oil depending on what I have at the time).

Roast beef - I know, this isn't a quick and easy meal but I am lucky enough to have an automatic oven. This allows me to set the oven to start at a specified time through the day so I can get home from work to find a cooked piece of roast beef in the oven. Fantastic in the wintertime! I buy a cheap cut of beef (usually blade), season it with salt and pepper, place in roasting dish and cover with foil. I set the oven so that it cooks long and slow which results in a lovely tender piece of meat. I wouldn't usually try and have roast vegetables with this as they take time to cook. But sometimes I do my "cheat" roast potatoes - boil potatoes for about 8 minutes, drain, put lid on pot and shake for a few seconds. This roughens up the outside of the potatoes. Put the potatoes into the roasting dish with the meat and cook for half an hour or so. The par-boiling will have partially cooking the potatoes and therefore they won't take as long to roast. The roughened outsides go nice and crispy.

These ideas are all stock standard for our winter menus (in New Zealand we are heading into winter now) but a lot of these are dishes I use in the summer too. Instead of grilling in the oven many of these dishes can be grilled on the barbeque and salads made instead of steamed vegetables. I do have a slow cooker but it doesn't currently get a lot of use. That is something I hope to change this winter.

I will post other ideas / recipes from time to time as I know there are plenty of other busy people out there who are looking for quick meal ideas.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Menu planning and grocery shopping

Our grocery bill has always seemed outrageously high so we decided to sit down once a week and plan the menu for the following week.

Each week I ask people in our household to put forward suggestions for the meals they would like. They're used to the rules of the house (no takeaways, no junky meals, etc) so the suggestions are usually pretty good. I weed through them and decide which meals make it to the menu for the week. I base this on the mid-week meals needing to be quick to prepare and cook so that dinner can be on the table fairly quickly once we're all home from work. Weekend meals are generally those that require more preparation time or longer cooking times.

Once the menu has been set I check what we've got in the cupboards and freezer and draw up the shopping list on my computer. I started keeping a price book a while back so enter the prices into the spreadsheet so we have a good idea of how much the groceries are going to cost us. Of course this does vary a bit as prices rise unexpectedly and when items are on special. Also, through the week I will have put other items on the list that aren't part of the menu plan - such as toilet paper, flour, sugar.

Having a list makes the shopping itself a quick and easy task as there is no wandering around figuring out what to buy.

The only items I may buy between the weekly shopping trips are fish and sometimes fruit and vegetables. Most of the time I don't even need to top up the fruit and vegetables.

I am currently looking at changing our shopping cycle to a fortnightly cycle and later may attempt to make it monthly. For now the weekly cycle is working and we are spending significantly less these days.

Also, I buy a 1 litre bottle of milk each week. When it runs out I mix up more using milk powder and pour it into the bottle. I've been doing this for the past month or so and no-one in the house has noticed or made comment. That's another cost saving for us.

Since I started this mission I've also stopped buying some items, including paper towels, serviettes, breadcrumbs and liquid hand soap. Instead of using paper towels I use old rags and wash them. Same thing for serviettes. I refuse to buy breadcrumbs when it is really easy to make my own using old crusts of bread (stored in the freezer until I need them) in the food processor. I've replaced the liquid soap with small bars of soap that I've collected over the years from various hotels, etc.

My next post will talk about some ideas around simple, quick meals that I make during the week. I hope there was something here you found useful.