Saturday, March 29, 2014

Surviving on Less Income After a Job Loss (Part 1)

Have you ever heard the saying,"I don't have 2 nickels to rub together"? It is a sad state of affairs when a person literally has no money. Oh I know, there are people who willingly forgo the use of currency, embracing an extreme minimalist lifestyle--and kudos to those who can!  I, however; am not one of those people.

As most of you know, I have been unemployed for slightly over 2 years, after my previous employer restructured, closing the facility and outsourced the jobs. I was lucky because we had 3 years notice in which to plan for this transition. On a professional level it was incredibly painful to go to work everyday, as friends and colleagues you had worked shoulder to shoulder with, packed up and walked through the doors knowing they wouldn't be back. On a personal level, it was an opportunity for me to re-evaluate my goals and objectives for my life. Which was how I came to be a college student AGAIN for the second time in 25 years.

The hubbs and I worked diligently over the 3 years to plan for the impact of me being unemployed.  We paid off debt, built up a savings, modified our lifestyle immediately and began to make do with less. At the end of the 3 years, we had a savings that was infused with money from my severance package and there was unemployment payments for a while. It hasn't been easy because for nearly 17 of the 22 years the hubbs and I had been together (at that time), I was the primary income provider.  

I qualified for funding for school based on when I graduated college previously (guess that is a nice way of saying I am old) and because my job was outsourced off-shore (a nice way of saying the jobs went to foreign countries). And NO--before any hate mongering starts--I do not feel guilty for accepting the unemployment or the school funding because I worked my ass of everyday since I was 15 years old-working 2 or 3 jobs if needed. I put myself through school the first time, which took 6 years total because I never had enough money to pay for school, live and raise my daughter. I ended up thousands of dollars in debt with student loans--which took me over a decade to pay off. So after being downsized several times, from a career that I thought was stable, I decided I needed something else. I gladly accepted the help because I was tired and I desperately needed a change.

 Reality has been a harsh mistress. As good as everything looked on paper, there were many contingencies for which we did not plan. I am grateful we made it this far.  We are fortunate, because my husband is employed and makes a decent wage. The savings is gone. I have 4 weeks remaining until I graduate and  I have 2 weeks remaining on my internship. I am carrying 5 classes on top of this. Getting a job IMMEDIATELY (like yesterday)  isn't feasible even though I am itching to do so. My preservation instincts are screaming because the safety net is gone.

I have been actively looking for a job, though. I have applied for 32 jobs in  the last 2 weeks. I truly hope it doesn't take longer than a month to find employment. The good news is I went on my very first interview for my new field. It seems promising and I should hear something by Monday. I have already decided if they offer, I am taking it! I need some security, it will get my "foot in the door" so to speak for the much needed experience and it is so much easier to negotiate for a new job when you are currently employed. The way I look at it, even if it turns out to be a hellish kind of job, I can suck it up for 6 months to a year, until it is time to move on.

I am NOT a financial advisor. I can only tell you what has worked for me and my family. Every one's circumstances--and  finances-- are different. Here are some of my tactics for budget stretching:

1. Downsize services- eliminate what isn't absolutely critical. Necessity takes precedence over luxury. Reduce or eliminate cable/ satellite. Eliminate your home phone and use your cell phone. Sometimes the pay as you go phones are cheaper than the cell phone plans. Videos can be checked out from the library, which is usually free. If you decide to maintain Internet services you can often use a phone app through the Internet, as well as, watch movies and TV series for free via YouTube, Hulu, etc...If things are truly dire, eliminate Internet service and use free WIFI found at most businesses and the library. Another option is to ask a neighbor to use their wifi and by paying them an agreed upon cost each month, which will undoubtedly be cheaper than individual service.

2. Watch your utilities usage! Turn the thermostat down in winter and up a few degrees in summer. Turn your hot water tank down a few degrees. Close off rooms not in use in your house. For a reasonable cost, some extra insulation in the attic and expandable foam to fill cracks or crevices goes a long way to making your house retain heat or cool air. I used plastic on my windows in the winter and made the investment to use thermal lined curtains. All of the light bulbs have been changed over to CFL's versus incandescent. Invest in a programmable thermostat.

3. Remember to turn off lights when you leave a room and  unplug vampire energy appliances (cell phone chargers, DVD players, gaming systems, etc...) Anything that has that little red/ green power dot is still using electric even in the power off stage. You can plug multiple electronics such as, the TV, DVD, cable box, etc... into a multi-outlet surge power strip and turn them off at the same. Yes it may take a few minutes for everything to come online, but the cost of the surge protector will pay for itself within the first year of savings.

4. Comparison shopping- Check all the circulars for the best deals to stretch a dollar. Use coupons when grocery shopping and stick to a list. Ask yourself before buying ANYTHING-do I want it or do I need it? If it is a want, keep on walking.

5. Buy in bulk. Buying in bulk makes sense ONLY if you will use the product. This is great for items without shelf life expiry limits or those with long shelf lives. For instance, I buy paper goods, rice, beans and pasta in bulk.

6. Meal plans- I try to plan meals where we get at least 2 meals from everything I cook. For instance  if I have a pork loin defrosted, I will cut it in half. Make part as roast and slice the rest into chops. If I make sloppy joes or tacos, I will save part of the cooked and seasoned meat, to flip into chili or spaghetti.  If I make chicken, I save a portion for stir fry or to make chicken salad.

7. Grow a garden.  Not only is gardening healthy in terms of food, it is good exercise and for a small investment you reap a bountiful harvest.

8. Reduce, reuse, recycle-Not only is it good for your pocketbook it is good for the planet. Reuse plastic containers for seedlings. Recycle aluminum cans to cash in for scrap. Reduce food waste by cooking only what you will eat and avoid spoilage. Compost fruits and vegetable scraps for your garden. Turn ratty towels and t-shirts into cleaning cloths and ditch the paper towels.

9. Food preservation-freezing, dehydration and canning. I use them all. It was a minimal investment up front that has more than paid for itself. Not only that but you control the quality of ingredients.

10. DIY! Do it yourself. Learn to change the oil on your car, fix a leak, tune up your furnace. You would be amazed at what you can learn and how much money you can save by simply following manufacturer recommendations on appliances and equipment. If you don't have an owner's manual, call the manufacturer, go to their website or try an online search. I lucked out in the arena because the hubbs is a maintenance man (Go hubbs!)

11. Stay away from prepackaged and convenience foods. Not only are they costly they are often loaded with sodium, artificial flavors, colors and a host of other ingredients which only a chemist can pronounce or explain their use...Ummm wait a second...I'm a chemist! So trust me on this, heh... You can save time and spend money or you can save money and spend time making it from scratch!

12. Barter goods and services! This was such a common practice 2 generations ago. For instance, we have a friend is a good mechanic who needed plumbing work. So the hubbs did the plumbing repairs and he had some engine work done on even trade. I have traded home canned goods, baked goods, and housekeeping services for food/ sundries trade, hair cuts and transportation.

13. Put away the credit cards. Don't get me wrong...I love magic plastic! Except when the bill comes due with all the interest charges added on..not so much! Save the credit cards for true emergencies or necessities, not whims and frivolity.

14. Reduce transportation costs. I avoid unnecessary trips by combining errands, ride sharing, asking neighbors friends or family to help with errands as long as it isn't an inconvenience (offer to reciprocate), bicycle or walk (weather permitting, health and distance feasible) or use public transit if available. I don't recommend hitchhiking!

15. Ditch the brand names. Don't get sucked into the name game. Everything from clothes, shoes, personal toiletries and all sorts of gadgets. A brand name doesn't always mean better.

16. DIY dry...aka a clothesline. For a few bucks you can buy a clothesline and some clothespins.  Although some thrifty-cheapy-deepy person may have absconded with a ginourmous plastic bag of  extra large binder clips from a their former employer as they shut down the facility...ahem..cough...cough...What? They were gonna throw them out! Err... I have no idea who would do that!

17. Brown bag it! You have food at your house. Pack your lunch and eat it. Stop wasting food. Don't you know there are poor starving kids around the world that would love to have what you are wasting...Whoa, Sorry I just channeled every female in my family for the last 5 generations...

18. Don't be a meathead. Even if you are a card carrying carnivore, you REALLY don't need meat at every meal. Protein comes in a lot of other forms-legumes, nut, seeds, certain whole grains, dairy and eggs.

19. Switch pharmacies. If you are on any kind of maintenance medication check to see which pharmacy offers the best deal. Often new prescription can net you a gift card or coupon. Look into mail order refills. And if possible request generic to save even more $$$.

12. Mooove over milk and just add water. Use powdered milk for cooking and baking, no one can tell the difference. You use 1/3 c powdered milk for every cup of milk. Powdered milk has a long shelf life and no worrying about refrigeration.

21. And the biggest tip I have for cost reduction is PAY YOUR BILLS ON TIME! Late fees hurt your bank account and your credit rating. Not to mention securing a job could depend on your credit rating.

What are your best budget savings and debt busting tips?

03/29/2014 Updated due to correct errors.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Crockpot Smothered Cube Steaks

Not exactly  the most health conscious or diet friendly but oh so delicious when you just gotta have comfort food!

Here's what you need

Ingredients and supplies
4-6 cube steaks
3/4 cup AP flour
1 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 tsp garlic powder
1/8 tsp dry mustard powder
1/8 tsp paprika
1/8 tsp ground red pepper
meat tenderizer
ground black pepper
10 ounces of water
1pkg of brown, mushroom or onion gravy mix (I used brown)
1 can cream of onion soup
large plastic bag
plastic wrap
meat mallet
crock pot ( I used a crock pot liner also)
small amount of vegetable or canola oil
electric skillet (or frying pan and burner)
spatula or tongs

Lightly sprinkle the cube steaks with the meat tenderizer. Add all the spices and flour to a large plastic bag. Shake to mix well. Dredge the cube steaks one at a time in flour mixture, gently shake to remove excess flour. Place the cube steak between a folded piece of plastic wrap and GENTLY  use the flat side of the meat mallet to pound the flour mixture into the cube steak. I can not stress the gently aspect enough. You don't want to obliterate the meat. It will be tender enough when it is finished cooking.

Repeat the flour dredge  one more time, shaking off the excess and let set to finish the other pieces of cube steak.

Once all the pieces have been dredged, add a small amount of oil to the electric skillet, heat to 400°F  (or below the smoke point of the oil you are using). Add the cube steak to hot oil to quick sear each side. No more than minute on each side. You just want to brown the meat, not cook it--the crock pot will take care of the rest. Preheat crock pot--I set mine to low and put a teaspoon of water in the bottom and cover until I am ready to add stuff.

While the meat is browning, combine the water and gravy mix. Whisk until smooth. Add the cream of onion soup. Mix well. Pour half into the crock pot. Place the browned cube steaks in the crock pot and sprinkle in black pepper.

When you are finished adding all of the cube steaks pour in the remaining gravy/ soup sauce. can see the minced onion from the soup
Cover and let cook undisturbed for 2 hours. Flip the cube steaks and spoon sauce over as needed. Recover and let cook another 2 hours. By now the sauce has thickened and started to brown. The steaks will be fork tender.

Now, I admit this isn't the most photogenic meal, but it is damn good! This cooking technique works well for all sorts of cheap and tough cuts of meat. Thicker cuts of meat will require adjusted cooking times. I don't know about you but cooking in the crock pot is one of my favorite cooking methods for busy days. Nothing like fix it and forget it!