Dining Out = Cost Savings?

Posted on April 15, 2008 by Melissa 
Filed Under Food, Frugality | 21 Comments

This just can’t be my cheapest optionLast week was my first week in culinary school . Yea!

Right now I’m taking sanitation and soon I’ll be starting basic cookery classes. Sanitation isn’t the most interesting subject (even though it’s important) so the chef instructor likes to interject stories and commentary along the way.

He stressed the importance of dining out several times a week to gain experience and exposure to new ways of cooking. He wants us to try at least one new restaurant a week and even asks us every morning who went out to dinner. I understand why he gave us that advice; you won’t grow as much as a cook if you stick with cooking at home and never try other people’s versions.

One of the students in the back of the class said he would need to get a second job in order to afford eating out all the time. The chef smiled and remarked that eating out was actually cheaper than cooking at home.

Half the class looked confused (myself included) and he was asked to explain. He said that if you eat cheap fast food, take out, or at hole-in-the-wall dives you can spend less on food than if you cooked that meal for yourself at home. He used a hamburger as an example.

He reasoned that in order to make a hamburger at home he would need to buy more product than he needed. He couldn’t buy just one meat patty, one slice tomato, and one bun. He would need to buy a pound of hamburger, a whole tomato, and a pack of buns, all to get just one hamburger. Those minimum purchases result in excess and makes it more expensive than buying a $1.09 hamburger from a value menu.

This was an intriguing argument and it reminded me of the first time I made lasagna at home. I remember laughing when the bill for the ingredients came out to $30 when I could get a frozen pan of prepared lasagna for only $10. Mine may have tasted a ton better but it certainly wasn’t cheaper.

I see his point and agree that it is valid, assuming several things:

I fully agree that if I wanted to make dinners in single portion sizes that there would be waste and higher costs involved to cook at home. My single homemade hamburger would end up costing me over $5. That $1 fast food burger looks pretty good by comparison.

However, if you are cooking for more than 2 people or don’t mind leftovers, I feel cooking at home almost always wins out. I know that my food bill decreased dramatically when we started packing lunches, eating leftovers, and cooking at home almost exclusively.

After class I went up to him and said that although I understood the point he was trying to make I disagreed that eating out was always cheaper. I argued that buying/cooking in bulk, eating leftovers, and forgoing some variety actually made for a cheaper food bill.

If cooking large quantities of food from a planned menu wasn’t cost effective, restaurants wouldn’t be making huge sums of money. Right?

He agreed that economies of scale can be an “equalizer” and under those circumstances eating at home can be cheaper. He didn’t really seem convinced though. He said we would discuss it more towards the end of the course.

I guess I should start detailing real life examples for when we discuss it again. I want to be prepared to show the other side of the story if I get the opportunity.

A lot of the students in my class seem to be pretty young, maybe even fresh out of high school. I would hate to see any of them start picking up fast food everyday thinking it was the most cost-effective option for them.

Image Source: ebruli

Reducipe: Mexican Ham & Bean Soup

Posted on April 6, 2008 by Melissa 
Filed Under Reducipes | 10 Comments

Mexican Ham & Bean SoupWith food prices still going up I wanted to post another bean recipe that we enjoy. Bean soups are a filling and hearty way to satisfy your family and keep food costs down. This one isn’t vegetarian and incorporates a little bit of ham.

This recipe is a spiced up version of ham and bean soup. It brings in a lot of the flavors of my region and is anything but bland. The ham and chipotle chilies add a smoky note to the soup and really compliments the other flavors.

If you can’t find whole chipotles where you live you can also use ground chipotle. Just be careful not to be too heavy handed with the ground stuff. It’s smoked jalapeno and it can get spicy! If you have to leave it out entirely I would consider adding a ham hock to boost up the smoky goodness.

The Manchego cheese and cilantro toppings bring coolness to the soup and offer a wonderful contrast to the highly flavored broth.

Mexican Ham & Bean Soup

1 lb dried pinto beans
10-12 cups chicken broth
2-3 cups onions, chopped
2 cups smoked ham, cubed
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 14.5oz cans diced tomatoes, undrained
2 chipotle chilies
2 tablespoons chili powder
4 teaspoons ground cumin
4 teaspoons oregano
3 bay leaves
Dash cayenne
Kosher salt, to taste
Manchego cheese, finely shredded
Cilantro, chopped

Pick through beans for pebbles and wash thoroughly. Place beans in large dutch oven. Cover with water to 2 inches above beans and bring to a boil. Cook 2 minutes, remove from heat, cover, and let stand 1 hour. Drain.

Combine beans, broth, onions, ham, garlic, and spices in a dutch oven. Bring to a boil. Partially cover, reduce heat to medium low, and simmer for 1 1/2 hours or until beans are tender. Stir in tomatoes and chilies and simmer another 30-45 minutes. Discard the chilies and bay leaves and adjust the seasonings if necessary. Serve hot with cheese and cilantro sprinkled on top. Serves 6-8.

I actually put the chipotles in the soup at the time I mix all the other ingredients. I tend to like my soups spicy and the added time steeping really amps up the heat factor. If you don’t like too much spice be sure to add the chipotles when you add the tomatoes.

The soup is awesome when it is brothy so don’t skim on the liquids. If you can’t find low sodium chicken broth cut it with some water. Otherwise the soup can turn out a little salty after it condenses. Save your salting for after the simmering on this recipe.

Ingredients for Mexican Ham & Bean Soup

I like to buy the prepackaged slice of center cut ham for this recipe. I find it gives just enough and keeps the price low. Make sure to go for smoked ham, or if you want you can also add a ham hock for added smokiness.

I really like Manchego cheese for the topping on this dish. It’s a feisty cheese that can hold it’s own to the spiciness of this soup. I like it so much that I’ll try to bargain for it! If Manchego just isn’t in the budget you can replace it with Monterrey Jack.

I think this is great with a little cheese quesadilla on the side. I used fresh tortilla, Manchego, sautéed onions, and a little garlic powder for mine. Yum!


Ingredient Cost Ingredient Cost
Pinto Beans $0.57 Canned Tomatoes $1.36
Chicken Broth $3.00 Chipotles $0.11
Onion $0.79 Spices $0.10
Ham $2.99 Cheese $2.00
Garlic $0.04 Cilantro $0.33
  Total $11.29 or $1.41 a serving

This soups sure packs a lot of flavor for such a small price tag! You can cut down the cost even further by substituting a cheaper cheese for the Manchego, using your own chicken broth (or buying it in bulk), and getting a deal on the canned tomatoes. Enjoy!

Debt Becomes Her: The Decision

Posted on April 3, 2008 by Melissa 
Filed Under Debt, Education | 26 Comments

As a chef I guess I’ll need to pimp my ovenYep, that’s right. We have decided to take on debt.

A large amount of debt.

I know what you’re probably thinking. Why on earth would you take on debt in this economy? Let me explain.

One of my biggest dreams has been to go to culinary school. In fact, whenever people would ask me what I’d do if I won the lottery, my first response is always that I’d finally enroll. The other day Eric asked me why I felt I needed to win the lottery to pursue a dream like that. Good question.

I guess I felt it was too expensive, especially since I already have a bachelor’s degree. The tuition for this 15-month culinary school costs more than the tuition for my 4-year degree. It’s been hard for me to justify spending that amount on an associate’s degree, even if it is a dream of mine.

Five years ago, before I met Eric, I applied to the culinary school and got all the way through financing. When I realized I wouldn’t be eligible for any grants because of my BBA and that I’d owe the entire sum in unsubsidized student loans I just couldn’t do it. I was too afraid to be saddled with that kind of debt and it’s been one of those “what ifs” in my life ever since. You know, the kind that make you sigh out loud when ever you think about it.

So what has changed that makes me think I can do it now?

We are in a much better place financially. Eric and I have learned how to budget and have reached several financial goals together (paying off our cars, buying a new home, saving for an emergency fund). We feel that as a team we can handle taking on “good debt” in order to fulfill a dream and enrich our family.

I have the emotional support now. The first time I looked into culinary school I was on my own. My parents didn’t think it was the greatest idea and I didn’t know if such a drastic career change was the right thing for me. Now, everyone is behind the idea and supportive my decision to go. Especially Eric. I think Eric is more excited about me going to culinary school than I am. It has been a long time since I’ve been in school and I’m a little scared. It’s natural to be nervous, though, and I’m sure it will pass.

With Eric’s encouragement and reassurance (not to mention the fresh dose of confidence from my recent catering gig) I took a chance and enrolled. I’m going through with it this time.

I start next week and my estimated graduation date is June 2009. Tonight is orientation and I will be making the first tuition payment. It marks the beginning of the new debt. More on the financials soon…

Why not just save up the money and go when you can pay in cash?

Sure, I guess I could have done that. If we saved $1,000 a month (lofty goal) I would be able to enroll in 3 years, assuming no increase in tuition (yeah right). The tuition has risen about $5,000 since I first applied in 2003.

Unfortunately, I think if I wait I will end up missing out. We both have a sense of “it’s now or never” and that I might not have as good of an opportunity in the future.

Right now, we don’t have kids or any other debt (besides a mortgage). That means now is the right time. In a few years we might want children and with that comes a big change in priorities. Financing additional school for us would be unlikely to be high on that list.

We also think now is the time because of the sour economy. I’ve been thinking of starting a small catering company but with a possible recession starting a small business in a “luxury” industry might not be the best idea. I might as well ride out the bear economy with schooling and start the business when there is enough discretionary spending power out there to support it.

I still can’t believe I’m actually going to culinary school. It’s been a dream for so long it doesn’t seem real. No more “what if’s”.

I have chosen the early morning schedule so most of my classes will be held before noon. After I complete my classroom credits I’ll be working in the onsite fine dining restaurant followed by a few months of a real-world “externship”.

Eric says he can’t wait for me to start the hands-on labwork so he can benefit from all the new techniques I’ll be learning. He says he fully supports me practicing a lot at home. I think I just figured out why he is so excited…

Image Source: mccheek

Paperwork: A Blessing And A Curse

Posted on March 24, 2008 by Melissa 
Filed Under Organizing, Taxes | 9 Comments

Paperwork…arghI have been under the pressure of a deadline lately. One of the most important deadlines, in fact: filing my taxes.

Normally I’d have my taxes done by now but this year is different.

In the old house I had a desk and an office area where I kept most of our recent paperwork organized. As we approached the move, I let my paperwork build up and bills ended up in “to be filed” grocery bags.

All that paperwork (in addition to the older stuff) ended up in multiple boxes, which then ended up in multiple rooms of the new house. I’m finding myself pretty disorganized when it comes to paperwork right now and with taxes due, I have to kick it into high gear.

To make matters worse, all the old paperwork (2005 and earlier) that hadn’t been filed properly to begin with got thrown the mix. I’ve been avoiding that mess since before we got married but it appears I can avoid it no longer.

My original plan of attack involved organizing only 2008 and 2007 paperwork then putting the older paperwork in bags separated by year. I figured the only reason I’d have to access the old stuff would be for an audit or to dispute a bill. Why waste my time organizing ancient bills for something as unlikely as an audit? If it happens I’ll just sort through the bags then.

On the other hand, why not just file that old paperwork into general categories (utilities, credit cards) while I’m already sorting it? It’s going to have to pass through my hands to be examined for date anyway; I might as well put it in some sort of order, right?

Good thinking, but that could lead to a slippery slope where I find myself wasting time and resources on paperwork that I’ll never need to look at again.

So, my plan is this:

I will properly file the 2007 and 2008 paperwork in the file cabinet. Those years are the most relevant and I need the 2007s accessible right now for taxes.

I will “lightly” organize the paperwork from 2006 and 2005. I bought accordion-style organizer boxes for the task. The boxes already have general categories labeled on the dividers so it should be easy to lightly organize those years as I sort them. I can also store the paperwork in those boxes for easy access.

Paperwork from 2001-2004 will be placed into bags labeled with the year. I didn’t want to give up on those years but I have to draw the line somewhere or I’ll be at this for weeks. It’s like I’m declaring paperwork bankruptcy for those years. I think the best plan at this point is to make a clean start going forward.

I have also made a promise that, from now on, all new paperwork will be organized into folders in the file cabinet, then stored in file boxes until shredder time.

I know paperwork isn’t fun but its life. Now I’m off to tackle some serious filing.

Do you have a method for organizing old paperwork? How far back to do you keep records?

Image Source: Librarian Avenger

Maybe Gift Cards Aren’t So Great

Posted on March 17, 2008 by Melissa 
Filed Under Shopping | 13 Comments

Gift cards a plenty!Gifts cards are a hot gift item these days. I think part of the reason they have grown in popularity is because it relieves the gift buyer from having to guess what the recipient wants. It’s an easy option that guarantees that the recipient will like what they get, mainly because they get to choose the gift themselves. What a great gift idea; especially if you don’t know the person well.

However, those little gift cards aren’t without their faults.

You would think gift cards can be used just like cash, and for the most part they can. But unlike actual cash, gift cards can lose their monetary amount over time or even immediately in certain situations.

Eric and I found a gift card from the wedding that we forgot to use. Stuck in the depths his wallet was an American Express gift card that was worth $100. But when the cashier ran the card it only had $94 on it.

$6 had magically disappeared in the 15 months we had the card in our possession. How could that be? How could this gift of “cash” devalue?

Fees, starting on the 366th day after the card was purchased for us, ate into the amount of the gift card.

If you don’t spend the entire balance within a year, it can lose a set amount (often $2 or $3 a month) until the balance is $0. They call these penalties “maintenance” or “dormancy” fees. You tend to see them more on “open loop” cards (cards that can be used anywhere that credit card is accepted, like Visa or Mastercard gift cards) but they can also be found on some store-specific gift cards.

Some cards can even expire, meaning you can lose the entire value of the card if you don’t use it by a certain time. Many retailers have dropped their expiration date policies to be more customer-friendly, but not all of them have.

Many states have passed laws preventing gift cards from expiring but it usually only applies to local retailers rather than national chains. I guess if your gift card has an expiration date and you fail to use it in time, that well intentioned gift turns into a donation to that store on your behalf. Lovely.

What if you have gift cards from a company that runs into financial trouble? Unfortunately, they have the potential to become worthless. That is exactly what happened to people holding Sharper Image gift cards recently.

CNN picked up on this story from the Associated Press:

The Sharper Image announced late last month that it was suspending the acceptance of gift cards, at least temporarily. It urged shoppers to check the company Web site later this month for an update. That is typical of businesses that reorganize under Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which treats gift cards as a loan to the company, not as cash.

Refusing to honor gift cards is a public relations nightmare, because people will feel like their money was stolen from them, and rightfully so. Both the buyers and recipients of gift cards are hurt when the cards become worthless pieces of plastic. I can’t imagine any company that refuses to honor gift cards would ever regain consumer confidence, and without a customer base the company has no real future.

According to the article, consumers should never assume that if a company files for bankruptcy but continues to do business that they have to keep taking the gifts cards. That’s scary, especially in our economic climate, where the number of retail bankruptcies this year is expected to reach levels not seen since the 1991 recession.

Overall, I still think gift cards are good gifts as long as everyone is aware of the fine print and potential risks associated with them.

Recommendations for gift card buyers:

Recommendations for gift card recipients:

Image Source: buba69

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