This week's personal finance real life story is from Sue. When she and her partner were BOTH laid off at the same time, they faced years of difficult financial struggles. Now they are making ends meet through frugal living including scratch cooking and couponing. Sue has even shared some of her delicious recipes with us!
With the unemployment rate in NC at 9.4 percent for May, there are hundreds of thousands of people feeling the pain of this difficult economy. Many of our Smart Shopper readers live with unemployment and underemployment every day and some of them have generously offered to share their stories with us.
For the next few weeks, you will see how the economy has changed the way they live, eat, play and make ends meet. Some of them are successfully digging out after long-term job loss and some are smack dab in the middle of the black hole, struggling to pay bills every month. These are their real life stories and I thank them all for sharing their experiences.
My hope in running this series is that their suggestions and tips will be helpful to others who are also struggling. The creativity and determination these folks have shown is very impressive and I hope you are able to take away some helpful information from each situation.
Sue’s story: Both laid off at the same time!
Sue’s story began with the dot com bust. Both Sue and her partner were laid off at the same time.
Obviously nobody was hiring so they sold and moved to Boston, where she has family. But still, no jobs. They planned to buy in Boston but it was just too expensive and too cold. Then they moved to Arizona for a year, but it was too hot! In addition, Sue had some medical issues and the desert climate made them worse. Then they moved to North Carolina in 2004 and found contract work here and there but no long-term employment.
In 2008, Sue was laid off and in December her partner was also laid off. Once again, they were both unemployed at the same time.
Sue’s health issues got worse. In 2010, her unemployment ran out, but luckily she found a new job. Four days into the new job, she had a serious (non-work related) injury and had no health insurance. Because of the accident they lost almost everything.
They sold the car, sold the house, sold personal belongings to meet basic needs like food and shelter. Her partner’s unemployment also ran out at about the same time. They actually considered living in the car. Thankfully, they had some equity in their house when they sold it and they started over.
They are now renting. Sue is on Social Security disability and her partner is receiving retirement benefits.
When they were in California, their lifestyle was “money was no object." They bought what they wanted and traveled where they wanted to go. Now their lifestyle is totally different. They are very careful. No new clothes, no entertainment budget. She has grown her hair out longer so she doesn’t need haircuts as often. They live in the country so they don’t make frequent trips to town. When they do go into town, they combine trips to save gas. The rule is that they wait 24 hours before making purchases to make sure they really need to spend the money. Their home is much smaller, which saves in many ways because expenses are less for heating and you don’t have space to buy more stuff. They take advantage of prescription transfer coupons through Walgreens, Kroger and others. They just don’t spend money anymore unless it is critical. Sue said that compared to where they were in 2010 they are living well.
Here are some tips Sue offered for saving on food costs:
- Something out of nothing meals – always keep eggs, pasta, cheese, bread, ground beef on hand.
- Planned leftovers – cook a little extra to turn into something else. Like leftover plain rice becomes rice pudding. Leftover bits of veggies turn into soup. Leftover meat (steak, chicken) turns into dinner salad.
- Whole chickens are your friend. Meal one – roast chicken, meal two – chicken incorporated into something like pot pie, a pasta dish, chicken salad; meal three – homemade chicken stock with the addition of onion, carrot, celery, garlic, parsley, a few peppercorns.
- Try to avoid food waste. Turn small amounts of leftovers into someone’s lunch if a main dish. Try to use up produce before it goes bad. If it seems like you won’t be able to, blanch and freeze it.
- Get a bread machine that makes a two pound loaf (Panasonic). Invest in a food-safe, large plastic container to keep dough in the fridge overnight. Bread can be baked in a loaf pan or free form in the oven. Same with hamburger and hot dog rolls. If the dough is kept in the fridge, it can be baked on your schedule. Recommended Books – “Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day” by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois.Recommended website: King Arthur Flour HERE.
- Breakfast for dinner and meatless meals.
- Learn to cook and bake. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
- Build a stockpile to a point where you don’t have to buy anything if it isn’t on sale.
- Watch for sales on produce – Kroger has good prices, Aldi too if you use it right away, and sometimes Food Lion, Trader Joes, and the farmers markets. Buy more ingredients vs. premade items = more versatile, better quality, better value.
- Invest in a freezer to take advantage of sales: meat ,vegetables, ice cream. Also, cook for the freezer – meatloaf, meatballs, lasagna, soup, bread. When buying a large package of boneless chicken breasts, wrap each one in plastic then put in a Ziploc bag. Divide large meat purchases into individual meal sizes. Divide ground meat into individual size patties. They can always be put back together if a larger amount is needed.
- Grow herbs . They can be transplanted into pots and brought inside during the winter.
- Grow a vegetable garden, even if it is a container garden with a few tomato plants.
Sue offered another tip for those of you who have to dress up for work: She said that when they were working, they used to spend a small fortune every week on dry cleaning work clothes, and having shirts pressed and starched. They were expected to dress a certain way, but could have saved a lot of money had they bought clothes that were machine washable! She added that in those days, they were working 12 - 16 hours a day and had no time for laundry anyway!
Here are three of Sue’s frugal recipes:
Put the carcass and any leftover meat and skin of a chicken in a large stock pot or a pot you would cook pasta in. You can also use inexpensive cuts of chicken such as drumsticks or wings. They can be raw, but add another level of flavor if roasted first. Add a stalk or two of celery, cut in half to fit, one or two carrots, a whole yellow onion -- skin on and quartered, a whole head of garlic sliced horizontally in half, a handful of fresh parsley, a teaspoon of peppercorns, and one chicken bouillon cube (optional)**.
Fill the pot with water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer and let cook uncovered for a couple of hours. If you used whole pieces of chicken and want to save the meat, pull them out before they fall of the bone. Remove the meat and refrigerate, and return bones and skin to stock. When the stock is done, remove and discard the solids (bones/veg). When the stock has cooled enough to be manageable, strain it through a sieve into a large bowl. You can then transfer the stock into individual freezer containers to use for future recipes. I love to use the Ziploc screw-top 2 cup and 4 cup containers for just about everything!
**Money saving tip: Knorr makes bouillon cubes marketed to the Hispanic community (package written in Spanish in the International aisle) that are the same as the package written in English, but at half the price. Pollo is chicken in Spanish.
Basically, a delicious cold potato soup that is wonderful when the weather is hot. Add a salad on the side, and you've got dinner!
Sauté a chopped onion in a little butter in a large pot. Peel and cube starchy potatoes such as russet or Yukon gold. Add to onion in large pot, and cover with a 50/50 mixture of water and chicken broth/stock, or all chicken broth if you prefer. Season with a little S&P. Bring to boil, then simmer uncovered until potatoes are very soft.
At this point, you want to puree the potatoes with the cooking liquid. The easy way to do this is with an immersion blender right in the cooking pot (Kitchen Aid makes a great one, not too much $$, and worth its weight in gold).
The more difficult way is to use a traditional blender. If you go this route, don't overfill the blender, and make sure you hold the top of the blender down with thick folded towel. You need to do this in batches, and pour the pureed part into another bowl. Be very careful, because hot liquids can explode in the blender if overfilled. At the end, return all pureed mixture into the cooking pot.
Once the mixture is pureed, add about one cup of half & half or heavy cream. Stir to combine. It should be like a thick soup consistency. If too thick, add more stock and/or cream. Chill the soup in the refrigerator until cold.
To serve, top with fresh chopped chives, parsley, cooked bacon, or any combination of the three. Enjoy!
Variation: For cream of asparagus or cream of broccoli soup (both delicious cold), use only one potato and substitute the rest of the potatoes with chopped asparagus (save tips for garnish when serving) or broccoli. Omit chives, parsley, and bacon.
I am a pasta sauce snob. Basically, I think this is because a good sauce is simple and minimalist, and premade sauces have way too many ingredients. Homemade pasta sauce freezes beautifully. Leave an inch of air space at the top of the container for expansion, or freeze flat in Ziploc bags covered with a second "insurance bag". Trust me on this one :) You can reuse your insurance bag as an insurance bag for other things.
Good quality tomatoes are important. Cento,Dei Fratelli, Muir Glen, and Tuttorosso are all good, but DO NOT use canned tomatoes containing basil for this recipe.
One 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
One 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
One head fresh garlic
Extra virgin olive oil
Kosher or sea salt
A small (2 x 2 ") piece of Parmigiano reggiano rind, optional
Peel about 8 large cloves of garlic and mince finely. (Peel cloves by smashing under the side of a large knife with the heel of your hand, fingers up and out of the way.) In a large heavy pot (but NOT cast iron), sauté the garlic in a couple of tablespoons of the olive oil and a good pinch (1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon) of kosher or sea salt. Cook on low heat until very fragrant. You do NOT want to brown the garlic. If it browns too much, start over with new garlic and a clean pot.
Once the garlic is soft and fragrant and NOT brown, add the two cans of tomatoes, and about 1/2 can of water (which you can use to help get out any remaining tomatoes) to the large pot. Add the cheese rind if using. Stir well, turn heat to low/medium-low and simmer gently for about an hour. Stir occasionally, scraping down the sides of the pot into the sauce. Lots of flavor there!
And there you have it. This sauce is awesome as is. You can use it as a stepping stone for other things. You can add cooked meatballs, cooked sausage, cooked chicken, or leftover cooked pork (like a chop or a bit of tenderloin or loin) chopped small. You can add fresh minced Italian parsley at the end. You can add sautéed mushrooms and onions. It works as sauced for baked ziti, lasagna, or any number of dishes. Yum!
A BIG thanks to Sue for sharing her story as well as her very helpful tips and delicious recipes! I can’t wait to try her pasta sauce recipe. I’ll definitely take her advice and add some sautéed mushrooms, onions and green peppers. Stay tuned next week for another real life financial story about a fellow blog reader coping with this difficult economy. As I always say, it’s your money, spend it wisely!