Coffee heat rising

The Weirdness That Is Walmart

So I’m on the way home from the Depot, thereinat to purchase another two gallons of liquid chlorine to dump into the re-hazed pool water. Traffic is its usual demented self.

I decide to stop at the Walmart up on Gangbanger’s way, thereinat to purchase…what? Some fruit to eat for breakfast…some cheap pasta, having run out of the fancy stuff from AJ’$; and a few other small things.

This place never ceases to amaze me. What do I find in  it?

  • Pasta, all right. Are you ready? REAL made-in-Italy-with-Italian-ingredients (altogether RoundUp-free) pasta! Yes. Just like the stuff at AJ’$, only marginally affordable.
  • A bottle of 14 Hands Cabernet, one of my favorite cheapo wines…two bucks less than I paid four days ago at Fry’s, which was already pretty cheap.
  • A ripe watermelon, truly ripe to my now very practiced eye: no doubt imported from Argentina.
  • Passels of ebony-haired brown-skinned mothers with beautiful little Hispanic children, so adorable as to die for. Long may they thrive!
  • A tired bum making his way through the aisles, searching out something decent to eat and to pay for with his food-stamp card.
  • An extraordinarily stupid woman standing near the front door hollering at the cashier, “What time does the pharmacy close?” (Walmart pharmacies, interestingly enough, shut down over the lunch hour.)
  • A weary-looking, worn cashier who replies (hang onto your hat), “There’s a sign at the pharmacy counter that says when they close.” 😀
  • A weary-looking, worn cashier who manages to perk up when I say to her, “How’re you doin’ today? You look like you’re workin’ too hard…bad for your health, don’tcha know?” We laugh. We comment on the weather. Her day improves, maybe…if only for a moment.

Ah, Walmart. Ah, humanity…

Amazon the Addictive

Returning home from an aborted trip to the westside (wherever you’re going in lovely Phoenix, ya can’t get there from here!), I found the door to the front courtyard standing wide open.

Gerardo and his crew were here early in the day, but if they’d left it open, I would’ve noticed it on the way out. Park the tank. Walk into the courtyard, check the front door and windows. No sign of breaking and entering. If anyone tried to get in, that hardened drill-proof lock stopped them. Enter through the garage, call the dogs, check the house: no burglars.

Drat! Never any fun around this place! Oh well.

I figured Amazon must have delivered the RV hose I ordered (the Depot has quit carrying them) and a porch pirate probably lifted it. Once ensconced indoors, called up Amazon’s “orders” menu and found the thing is not supposed to arrive before tomorrow.

When I looked at the list of things I’ve ordered from that place, I was amazed at the number of items!

It is just too damn easy to buy stuff on Amazon.

Or…is it?

Most of this stuff is “need it” items, not “want it” impulse buys. The hose in the backyard, for example, really needed to be replaced. Then: Birthday present for my son…very convenient not to have to drive across the damn city to get it. Crystal deodorant sticks: can’t buy them locally here anymore, not at Walgreen’s, not at Walmart, not at Target, not at Safeway, not at Costco. Bought enough to last the rest of my lifetime, with any luck. Le Creuset teakettle to replace one whose whistle gave up: no doubt one could get it at Williams-Sonoma, but again: wonderful not to have to do battle with traffic to get it. Three hard-copy books: there are no bookstores here anymore, except for one that sells nothing but detective stories. Bottle of bubble-wrap-free loperamide: not available here at all, anywhere.

True, I did NOT need a lifetime supply of diarrhea pills. But what the heck. Now I can give them away to friends. Or go to Mexico once a week from now until I croak over.

The prices seem to be within reason, and with Prime, Amazon sends them “free” (har har!).

When Amazon announced it was going to jack up the price for Amazon Prime, I was given pause. IMHO a hundred bucks a year is probably too much, since their video offerings can’t hold a proverbial candle to Netflix. Another $20 may be more than I want to pay. On the other hand, if you order a steady stream of stuff that you either can’t buy locally or can’t get without driving to Hell & gone and back again, over the course of a year you probably save that much in postage.

I’ll bet I’ve saved at least $20 in Amazon shipping fees since the first of the year. Probably more than that. But add to that the cost of gasoline, wear & tear on the vehicle, and wasted time driving from pillar to post: then you can be pretty sure that “membership” fee is paying for itself.

What think you? Is Amazon Prime worth the up-front cost?

Costco and the Single Girl

Yesterday I spent half the day running around reprovisioning, a new paycheck having landed in my checking account at the start of business. A large part of that trek was devoted to the big once-a-month Costco run. Often when you see blog discussions of Sam’s Club and Costco, you’ll find one or more commenters remarking that they can’t cope with the lifetime supplies of this, that, or the other arcane product. And I have to allow, when you’re single and none of your friends want to split up bulk purchases with you, taking advantage of the quality and price available at these outfits can be a challenge.

Over time, I’ve developed two strategies:
1. Divide and conquer the perishables
2. Convert every nook and cranny into storage

dcp_2221Conveniently, my house has a large garage with a door, and it also has a spare bedroom. A few months after I moved in, I’d squirreled away enough cash to have a guy come in and build some inexpensive garage cabinets. They don’t look bad, and they hold several lifetime supplies of Costco merchandise. The house’s previous owner also had bolted one of the old kitchen cabinets over the washer & dryer at the time he changed out the kitchen; that holds a fair amount of junk, too. One shelf in the new cabinets will hold an entire gargantuan package of toilet paper, about half a giant package of paper towels, a huge box of kitchen trashcan bags, and enough food storage bags to last me upwards of a year. The paper goods represent several months’ supply.

The rest of the paper towels end up over the washer. That industrial-sized bag of Arm & Hammer baking soda, a substance I use for cleaning, laundry, odor control, and fire extinguishing as well as in cooking, will dcp_2222not go bad and so lives in the garage for two or three years. Part of it has been dcp_2223transferred to a more convenient glass jar on the kitchen counter, where I can easily grab a fistful if a grease fire starts on the stove (note the actual fire extinguisher next to it, though—in behind the vinegar bottle).

The spare bedroom serves as a gigantic storage closet. Instead of yard-saling the extra bookcases that had been serving as garage shelves before the particleboard cabinets were installed, I cleaned the old things up and moved them into that room. dcp_2220They serve conveniently not only for craft supplies and books that won’t fit in the front room but for a month’s supply of Corona. We’re thinkin’ outside the box here…

All well and good, say you, but what about food items? How can you eat 30 bushels of green beans before they turn to a pile of mush and mildew?

And the answer is…the freezer! After hauling the loot inside yesterday afternoon, I spent another hour or so preparing, packaging, and storing fresh foods in the freezer. No law says you have to eat all those steaks as they are cut, for example. For one little old lady, about a third of a strip sirloin will serve for a dinner. So, I cut the steaks into serving size pieces, wrapped them individually in plastic wrap, and stashed them all inside a large Ziplock freezer bag. A single package of four steaks morphs into 12 meals for me. Ditto things like shrimp and scallops.

dcp_2206Yesterday I found some nice brussels sprouts, perfect for the holidays but in an amount meant to serve all the guests at a big fat Greek wedding. Costco also sells tasty little French green beans in massive quantity, and I also picked up some very nice sweet corn on the cob.

It’s easy to freeze fresh produce, and the result is much better than the frozen veggies you buy in bags from the grocery store. Flavor is better, and you know what’s in the stuff. The trick is to blanch the dcp_2207vegetables briefly before you put them into the freezer. “Blanching” means dropping them into boiling water briefly, until their color brightens or deepens, and then immediately transferring them to ice-cold water. So, I brought a stockpot full of water to a rolling boil and started with the beans.

As soon as they turned bright green, I dumped them into a mixing bowl full of ice and water. This stops the cooking—your goal is to blanch, not to cook, the produce. Slosh them around in the cold water to be sure the entire batch is thoroughly chilled. After they’re all cold, drain them and then spread them on a clean kitchen towel in a single layer, cover with a second towel, and pat and roll them dry. They need to be pretty dry before you can package them.

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After the produce is dried off, wrap it into serving-size packets made of wax paper. This is cheaper and greener than using sandwich-sized plastic bags, as the wax paper is biodegradable. Also, you can microwave the frozen veggies inside the wax paper, whereas it would be inadvisable to cook them (and probably even to defrost them) in plastic. Once they’re all packaged, place them inside a large Ziplock bag, press the air out of the bag, and seal it tightly shut. Now you’re ready to freeze them. They’ll keep for quite some time, and whenever you need a serving of vegetables, all you have to do is pull it out and microwave, stir-fry, or sautéto your heart’s content.

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I repeated the blanch-dry-and-wrap process with the brussels sprouts and the corn. Since I’ve never tried this with corn on the cob, I decided to test only two cobs. I’d already raided the package and gobbled two of them for lunch, and so freezing two left only four pieces to eat within the next few days, a challenge to which I believe I can rise.

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After this project was finished, I held out a handful of brussels sprouts to eat with a piece of ribeye that evening. Brussels sprouts are particularly delicious when they’re fresh and braised in butter with the tarragon that grows in the backyard. You can, though, use dried tarragon to excellent effect.

Butter-Braised Brussels Sprouts

You need:

dcp_2216-trimmed brussels sprouts, blanched
-a chunk of unsalted butter (but salted will do)
-a tablespoon or so of fresh tarragon or a teaspoon or so of dried
-a little ground nutmeg
-a saucepan with a lid

Melt the butter in the pan over medium heat. There should be enough to coat the vegetables and also leave a shallow layer of melted butter in the bottom of the pan. Add the sprouts and tarragon, and season with a pinch or two of nutmeg; stir to coat well in butter.

Turn the heat to low and cover the pan. Allow to cook slowly until the sprouts are done to your taste. Season with salt and pepper.

And so that was my day. Not bad, all things considered.
🙂

No-shop days boost frugality

Despite an extravagance (bought some dishes at Pier One), it looks like I’m going to end this month’s budget cycle in the black, for the first time since the memory of Person runneth not to the contrary. All I have to do is make it to Sunday without spending any more money.

This accomplishment came about simply by staying out of stores. Every day you can stay away from a store (or a gas station) is a dollar saved. With the week-to-week budget, I’ve found that if I can avoid laying out cash in, say, week 2, there’s enough in week 3 to cover the deferred spending. Or if I overspend in week 2, I can catch up by pinching pennies in week 3.

A day or two, or even three, is not an unreasonable length of time to hold off buying most necessities. I’m completely out of onions, for example, but so far the deprivation hasn’t killed me. I’ve evaded emptying the gas tank by telecommuting a day this week; I’d planned to telecommute again today, but in fact there’s enough gas in the tank to get me to campus and back, and so I’ll probably go out there this morning. If the gauge were closer to empty, though, I could make the round trip on two gallons. Six dollars would not push me into the red this week; though in past weeks it would have.

Before the run-up in gas prices, I had to make a conscious effort to stay out of the stores where I routinely buy supplies: I’d work “no-shop days” into my schedule. But thanks to the exuberant increase in the price of gasoline, no-shop days have become habitual. Not only that, but because I now shop exclusively in stores along my commute, I no longer shop at Home Depot.

And that, my friends, generates a surprising savings.

Last weekend I needed a few things I didn’t think I could find at the Ace Hardware, plus some potting soil, which is overpriced at Ace and at the nursery. So I made a special trip up to the Depot, several miles from my house.

One bag of potting soil, three timer gadgets for the garden hoses, three $1.37 bags of plastic plugs to cut off the irrigation lines, two cheesy plastic cord reels (last time I was in there, they hadn’t had the kind of reels I needed for months—grab it while you can get it), a bag of palm tree fertilizer, and a six-pack of tiny bedding plants came to $107.

I couldn’t believe it!

The largest single expense was the hose timers: about $20 apiece. Coincidentally, the style I wanted (a thing that resembles a kitchen timer) was the cheapest available. So that accounts for $60 + 8.3% tax: $65. With any luck, that cost eventually that will pay for itself in water savings—if the plastic junk doesn’t fall apart before the timers have recovered that much from the water bill. But forty-two bucksfor a bag of dirt, a bag of nitrogen, a few pieces of plastic, and some seedlings?

Apparently I’m not the only one who’s concluded that Home Depot cuts too much out of the budget. At 1:00 on Sunday afternoon, the parking lot was half empty. Without using my disabled sticker, I got a space right in front of the door. I’ve neverbeen able to park in front of the store; not ever. On weekends especially, the place was jammed.

No more.

The weird thing is, I’m not missing Home Depot. Its bazaar-like layout leads you to spend more than you have to on things you don’t really need. The flimsy cord reels, for example: I needed them last Christmas. Somehow I’ve struggled through nine months without them. Clearly I could have lived the rest of my life unburdened by cord reels. And had I been in Ace Hardware, I would have gone directly to the shelves that stocked what I needed and, not wandering through the electric department in search of irrigation plumbing, I probably wouldn’t have been reminded that I “needed” cord reels. Nor would I have purchased the plants, since Ace doesn’t carry them: that impulse buy would have been deferred until I could make a special trip to the nursery, at which time I’d have a list of the specific plants I needed and so would not have picked up just anything that struck my fancy.

After the $107 hit at Home Depot, I made a run on Costco for food and gas ($111), stopping by Fabric Depot along the way to pick up some yardage to make the coveted placemats ($32). This left $125 in the week’s budget—the final week in the August-September budget cycle. I did spend nine bucks on a miserable little lunch on the campus one day this week, only because I was so hungry I couldn’t go without some food, and another twenty on a few groceries. After subtracting last week’s $77 overrun, I’m still $17.51 in the black. And for the whole month: $151.99!

w00t!

Shopping: Saved from myself

A friend and I shopped the sales at an upscale Scottsdale mall last week. I was saved from spending much by the fact that in all those acres and acres and acres of women’s clothes, there wasn’t a darn thing worth buying.

I’ve never loved shopping. But now that I’m a grown woman and, as one over the age of 50, a stranger in a strange land, I hate, loathe, and despise shopping. Mass-produced clothing is not made for adult women.

Understand, I am not overweight. My weight and BMI are comfortably in the ideal range for a woman my height and age. But nevertheless, if I find something that’s not ugly or trampy-looking, it doesn’t fit. If it fits, it’s plug-hideous. If it fits and it’s not ghastly, then it has to be dry-cleaned.

We live in a place where temperatures range upwards of 100 degrees for five months a year; the rest of the time, the weather is comparable to what most people think of as spring and summer. I am not going to be made to dry-clean something that fits up beneath my underarms or that looks like you’ve slept in it the minute you strap yourself into a seat-belt. Nor, thank you, do I care to bathe myself in dry-cleaning chemicals even if an item doesn’t have to be cleaned every single time it’s worn. If an item can’t be washed, I don’t buy it.

So. During the winter, Talbot’s carries good-looking tailored clothing, much of it washable, that actually fits. In the summer…ah, the summer: Talbot’s buyers go stark raving mad. For the past three years, every summer outfit in that store has been freaking bizarre! Purple polka-dots, flounces, and silly-looking patterns that belong on an eight-year-old. One whose parents have no taste. They still have pants that fit, and my friend bought a couple pair. But I don’t need pants. I need a summer dress or skirt that’s easy to get into and easy to launder, and I need some shirts that will dress up the Costco jeans I habitually wear to work.

Neither of those resided at the Scottsdale Fashion Square Talbot’s.

Ann Taylor had some dresses in the style I coveted: all dry-clean only.

Bloomingdale’s had a perfect outfit from Eileen Fisher. The price would have consumed my entire clothing budget, and I needed more than one item.

Macy’s: an ocean of clothing, all of it hideous. Macy’s assaults you with loud, annoying Muzak that hurts your ears and distracts you from the job of sorting through rack after rack after endless rack of clothing in search of something that will fit and not make you look stupid. Salespeople are unhappy at best, unpleasant at worst. Not a place where one wants to spend much time.

We went into J. Jill’s. The J. Jill’s catalogue usually has several attractive outfits designed for grown women, but for some reason the store has next to nothing. I picked up a couple of long, swirly skirts. As I was standing there trying to get a saleslady’s attention to let me into a dressing room, another customer walked by, stared at the choices I had in hand, and pulled a horrified sour face.

That really made me feel like trying on clothes.

I did buy a shirt to go with the jeans there, though. It’s just O.K., nothing special.

At Banana Republic we found tons of cute clothes, all of them designed to fit anorexic 18-year-olds. But bought another shirt, not very different from the J. Jill shirt, except for the bracing price tag. Just O.K.

So I didn’t spend much money, which was just as well. But my wardrobe is still threadbare and dominated by twenty-dollar dungarees. Frustrating.

Five ways to fight inflation at the grocery store

With real inflation at around 12 percent (more about which later, when I feel like thinking), we’ve all noticed grocery prices have reached orbit somewhere close to the moon. Here are a few ways, beyond the obvious advice to use coupons and shop for sales, to save money on real food (as opposed to packaged stuff containing artificial chemicals, stabilizers, flavors, and various “enhancers” whose names you can’t pronounce).

  • Serve smaller portions of meat. A porterhouse steak, for example, contains three servings: the tenderloin equals one serving, and the sirloin strip side can be cut into two pieces. A ribeye steak similarly can be cut into three smaller servings. Make a full dinner by adding a serving of rice, pasta, or beans; a serving of green, yellow, or orange vegetable; and a serving of salad. All these items taken together are enough to satisfy any appetite.
  • Learn to butcher meat yourself. Some years ago I stumbled upon Merle Ellis’s Cutting Up in the Kitchen, a user-friendly guide to DIY butchering large pieces of meat and fowl. A whole chicken, a whole turkey, or an entire set of beef ribs is invariably cheaper than neat packages of prepared servings. Turns out that it’s pretty easy to reduce a large chunk of meat or fowl to meal-sized portions, given a sharp knife and a few minutes of your time. This saves a surprising amount on your meat bill.
  • Plan one or two vegetarian days into your weekly menu. Most people enjoy beans, which are easy to fix and incredibly cheap. A dish of polenta or pasta topped with tomatoes, garlic, herbs, and parmesan cheese is satisfying and cheap. Got a half a loaf of French bread that’s starting to go a bit stale? Run it under the tap, wet it with cold water, wring it out, cut it into cubes, add some cut-up tomatoes, garlic, little green onions, a few herbs, a bit of olive oil, and a dash of lemon juice or vinegar and voila! Italian soul food.
  • Use your slow cooker to make a stew or roast that will last for several meals. Pot roast, chicken, or beans cook wonderfully in a slow cooker. The key to making meat or chicken taste like stovetop is to brown it before putting it into the cooker.
  • Buy veggies and fruits at ethnic markets or farmer’s markets. In my part of the country, farmer’s markets are no bargain, but bloggers in other regions report they find good buys at these outdoor events. However, even though prices at ethnic markets have shot up, they’re still cheaper than mainstream supermarkets. Check out these stores for good buys on basic vegetables and fruits, and while you’re there, explore the offerings in herbs and spices.