Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Living Lean

Grad's rounding the bend...she's racing down the straight-away...toward the finish line. One week to go to prove a budgeted life is workable. Except for the mortgage (which has always been an automatic draft) all bills were paid (or scheduled on-line) on the first day of the month-regardless their due date. That one small change in habit has done wonders for sleep. No longer do I sit straight up in bed, in the middle of the night, in a panic that I've forgotten to pay the electric bill and am facing disconnection. All my monthly expenditures, fixed and discretionary, are now on a spreadsheet. Every dollar has a name. Every one. I love my spreadsheet. I pull it up on the computer and look at it, tweak it, gaze at it lovingly. "Who's the most adorable spreadsheet in the world? Hm?? Whooo? (tickle-tickle) That's wight. Widdle YOU." Well, maybe it hasn't come to that extreme, yet. But I ask myself, how did I manage all these decades without such an unflinching taskmaster? The answer is, not very well. The fixed stuff was easy, of course. But the discretionary spending has been the real challenge. It is much too difficult to say "no" to myself in a bookstore, so I spend a lot more time in the library.

I am staying far away from the kitchen-ware store. I've promised myself that for every gadget that comes to live in my kitchen, another must be banished. Since I can't abide waste, a replacement is allowed only upon something else's demise. That has been difficult. And sad...so sad. No more All-Clad cookware - not even the roaster I desperately desired. No more Lock 'n Lock storage containers, which already fill up an entire cabinet, even if they do make the pantry so neat. No cute rooster towel holders, no microfiber dish towels. No!

The third danger zone I face is the grocery store. I hate grocery shopping, and my modus operandi has always been to dash in, fill the cart up as quickly as I can with whatever looks good, and get out. This strategy does not work on a budget. I now take a more studied approach. Although I like to cook, I don't usually follow recipes. The paradox here: I own more cookbooks than any other type of book. I am shocked at the realization. Apparently, I horde them as well. What other explanation could there be for owning four copies of Joy? Actually, they are different editions, so that must be the answer. I have six books by Julia Child and only recently did I realize that two of them are identical (they only have different covers). I own every cookbook written by Ina Garten and Nigella Lawson, and several by Lidia Bastianich. But - with the exception of Julia, Joy and Ina - I seldom, if ever, cooked from them.

A written budget is a challenge. A test. Like trying to survive in the forest with nothing but a Boy Scout knife. It is a thing foreign to me. I am not saying I have heretofore been able to spend freely. Quite the opposite. I just never quite got around to putting it down - in figures I can look at. I simply came off the month with an incredulous look on my face. "Where had it gone?" But staring down the cold, hard reality of a spreadsheet brings it all into focus. So things have changed. As a result, faced with self-restriction of the most tangible sort, I now take out the aforementioned cookbooks and actually decide what I will prepare for lunches and dinners that week. I check what I already have in the pantry or freezer or fridge, and what needs to be used up.

Although I love nothing better than a rare bit of roast beef, or a Cornish game hen with wild rice stuffing, I am eating more vegetarian meals now. I found a lovely (and sometimes fearsome) recipe that combines bulgur and green lentils, and which embraces the odd, left-over bits of fresh broccoli rolling around in the vegetable bin, or a wayward spring onion, the tomato that didn't make the cut in yesterday's salad, the juice from the part of the lime left over from my gin and tonic (I am still debating whether alcohol should be included in the food budget, or is more the domain of the "miscellaneous" column of the spreadsheet.) It accepts all comers, that bulgur-lentil thing-y. Which is why it is lovely, of course. The fearsome part? Although bulgur and lentils together produce a complete protein, they also produce...how to put this delicately...flatulence. I suggest that if one embarks down the bulgur-lentil road, one does so gradually or one works Beano into one's food budget. (Forgive me for broaching the subject, but I wish someone had warned me.)

I have also discovered that I am willing to make concessions on some things - the store brand frozen veggies are just as good as the "Ho-Ho-Ho" brand with the picture of the green dude wearing a pea-pod suit for instance - but not on others. I'll pay the extra two bucks for the organic milk and cage-free, vegetarian-fed chicken eggs, as well as the organic limes and lemons if I'm using the zest. Oh, that reminds me...I always use the zest, it freezes wonderfully.

For years I only bought artisan breads...those hearty, hefty loaves with crusty crusts and dense yet yielding insides. I also love baking my own loaves and find the long process enormously gratifying when I have lots of time. But bread-baking isn't very practical as a daily office. I have a bread machine. A bread machine is one of those contraptions that I bought and then stuffed into the pantry after a try or two. I didn't like the texture of the bread baked in it. But I have since discovered that I can throw all the ingredients into the machine and simply run it through the dough cycle. All the real work having been done for me, once it has risen, I simply take it out of the machine, knead it a few seconds (more for my benefit that for its) and let it rise without any further help from me while the oven heats up. Bang it into the oven, and pull out a perfectly-textured artisan loaf - for less than half the price at the bakery.

I suppose I shouldn't get too puffed up yet. I still have a week to go - I could blow it with an ill-timed visit to Barnes and Noble, or a sojourn in the shoe department of Macys. And, although this whole thing has been a revelation to me, I wouldn't be a bit surprised to learn that I am the last person on the planet who hasn't followed a strict, written-down budget all along. I should have been the first. Certainly, no one has ever accused me of being financially solvent.

With luck, and some self-control, I just might be able to retire and, like Sherlock Holmes, keep bees - or something. Of course, there's always the possibility of Prince Charming coming to the rescue. In which case, it's caviar my dears!


  1. I really, really admire you. I could definitely manage the lentils instead of the cornish game hens, and I'm good with the bills. But honestly, to pass up the darling new kitchen gadgets--I know I must, and yet!

    Thanks for bringing humor to the budgeting process, Grad.

  2. Tinky, one of my favorite places on earth is the local kitchen-ware store. I could spend hours there - a little bit of heaven. I want the lemon squeezer, and the All Clad roasting pan, and a new food processor, and that extra large balloon wisk, and the bamboo cutting board, and...and...all the shiny "pretties." I'd better stop, my palms are getting clammy and I feel faint.

  3. Congrats on doing so well to make the budget work! When we first got married and had very little money my husband and I kept a budget but as we got more comfortable the budget disappeared and a few years ago when our finacial planner asked us to provide her with a budget all we could do was make guesses about everything. We were incorrigible in that respect until about six months ago when my husband changed jobs to one less stressful and less physically difficult for him and took a big cut in pay. Now we have a budget again and wished had had one all along. I hear you on the kitchen gadgets, though we are blessed with a tiny kitchen and our lack of storage space has saved us many times from making silly purchases. Books on the other hand are our downfall, but even there we have managed to do pretty well. I don't quite love my spreadsheet as much as you love yours though :)

  4. I love the way you make a budget sound fun. And I have an unwritten budget here but I'm fast approaching the time when I will need to budget in earnest. So thanks for showing me that it can be done. I would also choose the cornish game hens over the lentils I'm afraid. Perhaps I just need to be introduced to some lentils that I like.

  5. When moved to Georgia, although not extravagant, I didn't need to work or worry about money. About 5 yrs ago I went from two incomes to one - overnight. That I haven't gone under by now I owe to divine providence, or dumb luck. I had no clear idea of how I was spending what I was spending, I only knew that the bank was taking money from my savings account every month to cover my expenses, and hopes for retirement looked grim. I probably dodged disaster in the nick of time. I am a very organized thinker and a list maker,so I LOVE having a written budget. Oh, and I'm happy Bookman has a less stressful job - hang the extra money...your wealth is in each other.

    Pete, I wish I had started with a written budget decades ago. You have no idea what peace of mind it gives until you do it. And, yes, it actually is fun. Now, if I can only get past the grocery store today without thinking of a plumb roasted game hen, with crispy skin and succulent...okay, time to splash some water on my face.

  6. Pete is SO RIGHT, Graddikins - hpw on earth did you just make budgeting sound like a guaranteed good time?!

    Oh god, we really, really, really have to do this in our house too. We really must. We're hopeless, always leaning heavily on the pleasure principle. How many times can two people declare 'You only live once!' before the banks close in..?! I fear I need a spreadsheet... maybe one like yours (since gin still gets a run...!).

    Proud of you, inspired by you: stick with it.