"Goals are dreams with deadlines" -- Diana Scharf

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Frugal Foods: Cocoa Crunch Granola

We eat a lot of granola in our household: granola as an after-workout snack, granola with yogurt, granola because it's Saturday night and we're watching 30 Rock on Netflix.  There were times when Mr. W. would buy these small, fancy pouches of granola that were $5.99 each.  The flavors had clever, crunchy names and the granola was delicious.  But they only contained about 3-3.5 cups so we would finish a bag of granola every few days.  It's amazing that something so inexpensive to make (it's mostly oats, after all), could be sold for so much.

But the man wants granola.  He should have granola, right?  It's not like he's asking for heroin.

One of my coworkers, who also loves to cook, mentioned how much she loves Ellie Krieger's Nutty Granola.  Hmm...if I could make granola myself, that would substantially lower the cost of Mr. W's granola addiction, right?  I tried the recipe and was glad I did. 

Ellie's recipe is quick, simple, and virtually foolproof.  It's also easy to modify if you want to experiment or have different ingredients on hand.  Her version uses lots of nuts and maple syrup...delicious, but pricey.  To keep the ingredients cost down and stretch the recipe further, I made a few modifications to her original recipe:
  • Added more oats
  • Used cashews rather than pecans (slightly cheaper)
  • Used a combination of honey and maple syrup

I also added cocoa powder, just for good measure.  Here's my recipe:

Cocoa Crunch Granola
  • 4 1/2  cups old-fashioned oats
  • 1/2 cup raw, unsalted walnuts
  • 1/2 cup raw, slivered almonds
  • 1/2 cup raw, unsalted cashews
  • 1/2 cup maple syrup
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Spray two large baking sheets with cooking spray.  If desired, use a food processor to chop the nuts to uniform size.  In a medium bowl combine the oats, nuts, maple syrup, honey, cocoa powder, and salt. Spread the mixture evenly onto the baking sheets and bake, stirring occasionally, about 20-25 minutes. Allow to cool completely on a cooling rack, then store in an airtight container.  Yield: appx 7 cups, or 14  1/2 cup servings.

More money-saving tips: When shopping for these ingredients, I bought the nuts and oats from the bulk section at Whole Foods.  Also, this isn't a recipe where you need whole walnuts or whole almonds.  It's much less expensive, and a time-saver, to buy nut pieces.  Maple syrup is always pricey, but we purchased it from BJ's (it's a discount membership club, like Costco or Sam's Club). 

All told, this recipe costs about $6 to make.  Since it yields about 7 cups, it's half the price of fancy store-bought granola.  This savings seem well worth the minimal time and effort.  Plus, the kitchen smells wonderful while it bakes.  Yum! 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Let's do the numbers (2/17-2/23)

When driving home from work, I sometimes tune in to "Marketplace" on NPR.  I know what you're thinking: admitting you listen to NPR is kind of like admitting that you actually floss your teeth daily or change your motor oil every 3,000 miles.  Neither of which I do, much to the chagrin of both my dentist and my mechanic  (C'mon...you don't do those things either, do you?)

But, I do occassionally listen to "Marketplace."  One of my favorite parts is when Kai Ryssdal opens the segment by saying, "Let's do the numbers."  So, let's do the numbers, shall we?

Last week (2/17-2/23), Mr. W and I:   

  • Took the train to work zero times. I really need to improve this, since I pay for a monthly parking pass at the train station (this goal really only applies to me, since it would be nearly impossible for Mr. W to take public transit to work).

  • Ate once at a restaurant, on Presidents' Day. $29 including tax and tip.   

  • Hosted one dinner party.  Big success!
    • Sidebar: Does it count as a dinner party if you only host four people, and they're all your husband's immediate family members?  Probably not.  In any case, we had Mr. W.'s family over for dinner on Saturday evening.  This shouldn't make me nervous, because we only live a mile away and have a very close relationship with them.  In fact, we see them on a weekly basis.  But usually, we go to their house.  Whenever we invite people to our apartment, even if it's just a small crowd, I feel intense pressure that everything must be absolutely perfect.  Despite my nervousness, it went off quite well.

  • Baked two loaves of bread, 18 scones, 36ish English muffins, one batch of cornbread, five dozen homemade Cheez-its, and one chocolate cake.  (Some other time, I'll explain why we bake so much). 

  • Then, in order to burn off the calories, attended a total of nine fitness classes (four for me, five for Mr. W.).  We both buy unlimited monthly passes to our respective fitness classes, so we like to attend as many classes as we can.

  • Did seven loads of laundry since we had so much sweaty workout gear.

  • Completed five --yes, five! -- craft projects.  Here's a picture of my favorite project: a handmade sign for some friends who recently welcomed a baby girl into their family.  I sort of wish we knew more folks with kids so I could keep making these signs!   

    All in all, I'd say it was a pretty productive week!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Reality Check

After working at my computer screen for the better part of an hour, I looked up with a feeling of anxiety, confusion, and dread.  Most of all, I felt a dangerous cloud of anger forming.  “Holy shit” I swore under my breath.   

My husband walked into the kitchen, where I was staring at the computer in horror.  He’d heard me from the living room, which wasn’t unusual in our small-for-the-suburbs apartment. The foul language was unusual...hence his concern.    

I glared at him as I demanded “Guess how much we spent last month?” in the same sarcastic, accusatory tone I always use when I start to feel stressed about finances.  As if this were somehow his fault, and his fault alone. (By the way, this reaction was completely unfair and unwarranted.  He always spends less than I do.  I'm a jerk, I know...). 

He paused for a moment, before venturing a guess: “I don’t know…four thousand?”  It wasn’t a bad guess.  In the three months that we had been married, we usually spent $4,000-$5,000 on a monthly basis. 

But not in December. No, in December we had spent a whopping $10,000.  Ten thousand dollars.  And this did not include the $1,500 holiday travel we had booked in November. 

For the sake of context, let me explain that we do not have kids and we do not own a home.  There are no piano or ballet lessons, no tuition installments, no mortgage payments, and no pricey home improvements.  We are both fortunate to have well-paying jobs, but we certainly cannot sustain a $10,000/month lifestyle.    

Holy shit, indeed.        

In retrospect, I probably overreacted that evening.  Yes, we had spent $10,000 in a single month.  Yes, there were some expenses that were admittedly extravagant – such as my $100 shopping spree at Ulta and eating at our favorite sushi restaurant twice in one month.  However, our December expenditures were largely planned and within budget.  Approximately $5,000 had been spent on periodic and/or non-recurring items, such as gifts, insurance payments, and the remaining balance for my car loan.  We paid our credit card balances in full at the end of the month, as we do every month.  Even though these expenses were planned, the experience was a wake-up call: we needed to have a clearer idea of how much money was coming in and going out.   And, most importantly, what we were spending it on.      

The next day I hammered out a month-by-month budget for the coming year.  Since graduating college, I had always sketched out monthly and annual household budgets.  Planning for the future is fun, right?  However, I have never consistently analyzed my spending to ensure that I remained on track.  This is the part that can feel tedious. Even so, I've decided it is high time to start recording our spending on a monthly basis to keep us on track to realize our financial goals.  On a separate post, I'll share the annual household budget I worked up.  On a monthly basis, I’ll also be accounting for our spending and sharing it here.  I'm hoping that, with diligent monthly tracking, there won't be too many more "Holy Shit" moments. 

Thanks for reading my perspectives on setting and reaching our financial goals.