admin / November 19, 2009

Holiday Entertaining on a Budget

Who isn’t watching their money these days? I’ve overheard people saying they’re buying gifts and that’s it, no holiday entertaining this year. But that’s not what being a Budget Smart Girl is about. It’s living the good life, yes, even throwing a party while not breaking the bank. Whether you’ve been asked to take an appetizer or side dish to someone else’s party or feel like throwing one of your own, you can serve guests foods that are pleasing to the eye and stomach and still stay within your budget.
Here are some of my ideas-

Cheeses and Meats

Not just a cheese and cracker platter, although it doesn’t take long to create one, but this is something that my mother used to put together for my birthday parties when I was a child. I’m not sure if she came up with the idea herself, but I’ll let her take the credit anyway. Mom would buy a couple of large baguettes to use as the centerpiece for the table. She’d then buy packages of cocktail sausages, put them on cocktail sticks and put them into the baguette. Another thing she used to do was put cheese and fruit together on the sticks. I like to put pineapple chunks with a reddish orange cheese and mandarin orange segments with varieties like Swiss cheese. (Cans of both pineapple chunks and mandarin oranges are on sale now) The best thing about using a loaf of bread as the centerpiece is nothing goes to waste. During the meal you can break it up and eat it with the cheese or even dip. And it doesn’t take much effort to slice it, toast it and serve it with things like meat and salsas.

If you’re serving turkey and ham, take a note from most caterers and roll the meat up and then serve it on platters. One trick that does make deli cuts go further is to layer the meat with a mixture of cream cheese and herb like dill. Spread it on top of the meat, top this with another slice and continue until you’ve got a stack and then cut them into bite size wedges.

And speaking of meats, how about serving mini-burgers. They seem to be very popular appetizers in restaurants these days. Mini hamburgers, turkey burgers and even things like black bean burgers.

And I know cheese balls seem to be out of vogue right now, but they really are a great budget stretcher when you’re entertaining a crowd. How about disguising it? Roll the mixture into a log shape and cut it into medallion style pieces and place each one on a cracker or piece of toasted bread ready for your guests to sample.

Whether it’s filo, puff or short crust, pastry is a bargain buy. Short crust pastry can be turned into mini quiches, puff pastry can be made into cheese straws, and filo can be used for sweet and savory fillings things like tuna salad, chopped chicken, cheese and spinach.

Yes, Cream Cheese Comes to the Rescue Again
Remember the edible gift article I wrote the other week? About how you can turn cream cheese into a gourmet treat? Here’s another idea I came with. I bought a package of Starkist Salmon Creations. When I opened it, I thought it would make a great appetizer if it was combined with cream cheese. And I was right.

Here you can see I piped it onto cucumber slices. Salmon and cucumber make a great combination. And if you use low fat cream cheese, it’s an appetizer, even those watching their weight can enjoy at your party. Total cost, well, here’s where using coupons on double coupon day pays off. The salmon was $1.85, I had a coupon for 50 cents so that was just 85 cents for the salmon. I had a $1 coupon for the cream cheese, no they didn’t owe me a dollar but the cream cheese ended up being free. The cucumber was 69 cents. So for $1.54 you have an appetizer.

Desserts are probably the cheapest thing to serve guests, well, at least this time of the year. Who says they have to be cakes and dishes you’ve cooked all afternoon. The stores have sales on top of the line chocolates. So how about a chocolate and fruit platter. Cakes and cookies are also on sale. I’ve sometimes bought brownies and cheesecakes and used holiday themed cookie cutters on them. One year I had brownies in the shape of Christmas trees, topped with cherries and whipped cream. And for the cheesecake I’ve used round cookie cutters and drizzled melted dark chocolate each mini cheesecake.

admin / November 16, 2009

The Blog-Get There Early for the Deals

Seems like we’re all looking for great deals these days. My local DIY store started selling things like foods, body lotions, DVDs a few years ago. In fact, it’s one of the best places to get deals…and holiday gifts. This week they were advertising St. Ives body lotion for $3.49 with a mail in rebate of $3. I use that brand and for a final price of just 49 cents, what a deal. The sale started Sunday, I headed in there today (Monday) and the shelves were empty. A clerk told me they sold out within the first hour but will be having another shipment in today or tomorrow. I asked for a raincheck and realized I hadn’t needed one those in many years because they’re now called ‘sorry slips’. Another sign of the times!

While I was running errands I decided to do some holiday shopping. The stores were empty but the sales were everywhere. I wonder just how low prices will go on Black Friday. This is my favorite time of the year to stock the freezer. I’ve been combining sales at the supermarkets with coupons I’ve been finding at various sites…and shopping on double coupon day. Last week I saved $24 and the freezer is filling up.

And I’d like give another mention to Fantastic Sams. Remember the great haircut I got there for just $9.99? Last week I had my hair highlighted there for $64.99. I have two colors put in my hair and every place else charges me an extra $15 for the second color and it’s rare that I pay under $100 for highlights. I not only saved some money but once again my hair looks great.

This week on Budget Smart Girl…I go looking for some deals and free stuff on the Web. And some ideas for budget friendly entertaining.

Have a good week.

admin / November 12, 2009

Saving Money with Edible Gifts

The holiday season is a time of entertaining, shopping and gift giving…and trying to keep your budget under control. Sometimes the best gifts are the homemade ones that someone knows you’ve put time and effort into making just for them.

If you’re short on cash this year, how about giving an edible gift to the hairdresser, the newspaper delivery guy, or the mailman? They also make ideal gifts to keep in the freezer or the pantry for those moments… and I know we’ve all had them, when someone out of the blue knocks on your door and gives you a gift. They’re also ideal take home gifts for dinner guests.

So what kind of foods can you make other than the dreaded fruitcake? Here are my top picks.

Cookies, Brownie and Loaves
You can rely on your own favorite recipe or try something new. You also have the option of making up the dough and not baking it so the recipient can use it when they’re looking for a quick snack, or you can make up a batch and tie them together with red or green raffia.
Loaves are another idea to try. Once again you can opt to bake them yourself, or put them in foil pans and give as is. One of my favorite ways to present this type of gift is to bake about four varieties, slice them and give each person about two or three slices of each variety. That way everyone’s sure to get something they really like. Some of my favorites for the holidays are chocolate chip/pumpkin and a ginger, pear and chocolate combination.
There’s one more option when it comes to things like cookies and brownies and that’s to layer all the dry ingredients in a decorate jar. Put the instructions for baking on the outside and let the recipient add their own ingredients like eggs, milk, etc. Another idea, and this one is going to cost a bit more, is to take a muffin mix, put it in a red or green bag and then attach it to a muffin pan.

Sweet Treats
If you’ve ever stopped by a gourmet chocolate shop you’ll know just how much they charge for things like truffles and they’re one of these easiest and usually most inexpensive treats to make. Most of the chocolate companies have recipes on their Web sites, companies like Hershey’s and Nestle. You’d be surprised just how close to the real thing these recipes can be and for pennies less. I usually put mine in a box that I’ve found sitting around the house. I wrap them in tissue paper, place them in the box and they look exactly like the ones at the store.

With all the various beans and dried vegetables and spices you can get these days, you can easily make a dried version of just about any type of soup. One of my favorites is dried cheese filled tortellini with split peas and dried red peppers. Try visiting a local co-op in your area and stop by their bulk food section. You’ll find just about everything you need for these types of recipes and at bargain prices. Just like the cookie mixes you can layer the ingredients in a jar. I use Mason jars for soups and write the instructions on a tag and tie it around the neck of the jar.

Okay, this one might sound a little strange to give as a holiday gift, but it’s a really thoughtful gesture for maybe a neighbor who’s a senior and all alone for the holidays, or maybe a family who’s having a hard time making ends meet.

And don’t just think about making gifts to give away. Keep some in reserve for yourself and use them all year round. Whether it’s frozen cookie dough or brownies, or a whole shelf of dried soup mixes, stores have bargain prices on lots of baking supplies this time of the year, so what better time to stock up.

admin / November 9, 2009

The Blog-Holiday Deals and More

The other day I was looking at the coupons sitting on my kitchen table and not to mention all the $5 or $10 gift cards the stores are sending through the mail and thought now’s a great time to be a Budget Smart Girl. Seems everyone wants our holiday money and they’re willing to give us bigger incentives than ever before to get us into the stores. Last week one of the local supermarkets had a dollar sale. I stocked up on packages of fish, shrimp…okay the packages weren’t huge but combined they make a great meal. I also stocked the freezer with $1 loaves of bread, $2 blocks of cheese and Pillsbury pie crusts. I’m buying more this week because the packages had $1 coupons on them. This week they’re 2 for $5. Wednesday is double coupon day which means I’ll get two packages (four pie crusts) for $3. At less than a dollar a piece, if I factor in my time and ingredients, I’m not sure I can beat that price.

You know how much I love the Internet for finding the best deals. A few weeks ago I went searching for some essential oils to use in my homemade cleaning products. I found a company called Vitacost They had some of the best prices, the service was fast and best of all I’ve found a wonderful source for healthy snacks. With my order they included a flyer for items like dried organic fruits, nuts, trail mix, all at unbelievable prices. For example, trail mix 12 ounces, regularly $11.50, their price $5.75. With the holidays around the corner I’m always buying fruits and nuts for cooking so I know where I’ll be shopping this year. They offer a free catalog so it’s worth checking out.

This week on Budget Smart Girl…it’s time to start thinking about holiday gifts and while the annual Budget Smart Girl’s Holiday Gift Guide is still a few weeks away, this week I’m focusing on ways to save more money by making homemade gifts.

And this week is your last opportunity to leave a money saving tip in the comment section or if you prefer e-mail the tip to me and it will be featured in the November Budget Smart Girl newsletter. Best tip wins the cereal giveaway.

Have a good week.

admin / November 5, 2009

How to Have a Fuss Free Thanksgiving

Whether it’s your first time making the Thanksgiving meal or your 21st, the big day can be tough on your nerves and your budget. I’ve found the key to any successful holiday meal is lots of preplanning.

The first step is to think about what you want to serve. Are you going to stick with traditional recipes everyone enjoys or try something new? One word of caution here, and I speak from past experience, if you’re opting for the something new, give it a test run a couple of days before the big day. There’s nothing worse than having a major cooking disaster when you’re in the middle of putting together a big meal. Or even worse, finding out it tastes awful and you’re stuck with leftovers not even the dog will try to steal from the plates.

Plan Now
I usually plan out the menu and start to make my grocery list a couple of weeks before the day. It not only gives me plenty of time for last minute changes, but I can keep my eye on the supermarket flyers for sales on items I’m looking for.

Sales are Everywhere
And speaking of sales, this time of the year is ideal for finding bargains. All supermarkets discount certain items to encourage us to spend our holiday dollars at their store. The other great thing is you can buy lots of non-perishable items at bargain prices and store them in the pantry or freezer for use in the New Year.

My favorite buys during the holidays are cans of mandarin oranges, pineapple, pumpkin and mushroom soup. I’ll even buy a couple extra bags of flour, nuts and cranberries and freeze them. I also stock up on packages of stuffing, which I make up, divide it into up into several containers and freeze. And if you’re not already tired of turkey, this is a great time to stock up. You can even ask the meat department to ground some up for meatloaves and meatballs.

Do the Work The Day Before
I’ve found what works for me is to prepare as much as I can ahead of the day. I always add onions and celery to the stuffing. I’ll sauté these the day before, pop the mix in the fridge and add it to the stuffing the next day. I also clean and prepare vegetables like carrots and green beans the day before.

Don’t Forget Dessert
Desserts are always something I make ahead of time too. I never want to tie up valuable oven space. I normally make a couple of desserts a few days before the holiday meal and select something that can be just reheated in the microwave or even the oven while we eat our main meal.

A Way to Save Money
Preplanning also saves you money. Most retailers know we’re pushed for time at this time of the year and stores are brimming with convenience foods like prewashed and cut vegetables and fruits. If you don’t have to make a mad dash to the store a couple of hours before they close, you can avoid the added temptation and cost.

The Perfect Turkey
And one thing that panics most people is cooking the turkey. Over the years I’ve found two things that really help make the turkey taste great. One is I never put the stuffing into the cavity of the turkey, instead I opt for chopped onions, celery and carrots. The vegetables steam while the turkey cooks which gives the turkey a more intense flavor. Another tip is to keep the turkey moist at all times, nothing spoils the meal more than dried out turkey. I usually add a couple of cans of chicken stock to the roasting pan as soon as the turkey starts cooking and continue to add a can or two throughout the cooking process.

And don’t worry about leftovers; my philosophy is it’s not a holiday meal without lots of leftovers. One thing I love about the time between Christmas and New Year is the leftovers; not only do I get to eat some of my favorite foods every day but I also get to take a mini-break from the kitchen.

Thanksgiving Web Sites
Here are some sites I bookmark and visit during the holidays-

admin / November 5, 2009

Easy Solutions for Staying on Budget during the Holidays

If you’re on a budget, November and December can be your downfall. There are the gifts to buy, the office party, the dinners, the parties to host. If you haven’t already locked yourself in the closet waiting for January 1st to roll around, sit down, take a deep breath and hopefully these tips will make it all a breeze.

Dilemma #1 Too Many Leftovers

Leftovers are Good
I wouldn’t consider any holiday meal a success without leftovers. So don’t think of them as money wasters. Consider them your answer to a quick and easy meal. Two words we all want to hear post Thanksgiving Day.
Turkey-apart from turkey sandwiches, you can make turkey burritos, tacos. Turkey shepherd’s pie (also ideal for using up those mashed potatoes).
Or a turkey wrap…but don’t use a tortilla, instead use an actual slice of turkey as the wrap. Layer with mayo, mustard, lettuce and roll. And here’s a way to use up the leftover stuffing, pile it on a slice of turkey, roll, pour leftover gravy on top and heat through.
Stuffing- In my house the stuffing doesn’t stay around that long. And yes, I’ll make my confession here; I’m the person who takes a nibble or two every time I stop by the fridge. If you should find yourself with lots of it, buy some portabella mushrooms and fill them with the stuffing. And you can even use it to fill chicken breasts and pork chops.
Veggies-Mash together and roll into patties, then roll in egg wash, coat with seasoned breadcrumbs and sauté until golden brown. Children love these especially if you serve them with ‘special holiday sauce’ aka ketchup.

Dilemma #2 Hosting a Holiday Party
If you’re neither a gourmet cook or have a huge budget, here are some ideas-

Host a Wine and Cheese Party
There’s only one place I ever buy cheese in bulk and that’s a warehouse store. I’ve done some comparison-shopping and you can’t beat them for both selection and prices when it comes to cheese. If you don’t have a membership, maybe a family member, friend, or co-worker does and will let you shop with them. Pick out three or maybe four varieties. Make sure there is something for everyone’s taste. Sharp and mild cheddar, Gouda, even a mozzarella.

Have a Brunch- Brunch, or basically jazzed up breakfast items don’t cost as much as those needed for a formal sit down dinner. Fruit juice, muffins, cheeses, sausages, eggs, a couple of casseroles, maybe a cake, pie, or just a fruit platter.

Have a Progressive Dinner- I remember back to my days at university when I lived in an apartment with three other roommates. It was a popular spot for students and the owners held lots of social events so we all got to know one another. One event was a progressive dinner. Three apartments were matched up and had to arrange a progressive dinner party. The first one would host the appetizer, the next one the main entrée, the next the dessert and drinks. We went from one apartment to the next eating our way through the evening. You can do the same thing with your friends or family. It’s also the ideal time of the year for this type of dinner because you get to see how everyone’s decorated his or her house. And the bottom line…you don’t have to pay for the whole fun evening.

Dilemma #3-Contributing to the Office Party
I know lots of people just stop by their local store and pick up a meat or cheese platter, but they can be pricey. They’re easy to put together yourself and this is where the trick of knowing how to present foods can really save you a penny or two. When I took cooking classes half of the grade was decided by how I presented the food at the end of the lesson. And you don’t have to be a gourmet cook to make food look great. Cheese and meats can be given a holiday look by using holiday cookie cutters can be used on cheeses and cold cuts. Another idea is to put a few sprigs of herbs on the platter; rosemary and thyme look very festive. Remember when everyone used to bring a cheese ball to a party? They’re back in fashion, but during the holidays they can be rolled in parsley and paprika to give them the look of the season. Even brownie and cakes that have originated in a box can look really fancy if you use some imagination. Maybe make appetizer sized pieces, or once again cut them out with holiday themed cutters. And how about a fruit platter with a dip. However, don’t serve it in a bowl, but try a scooped out orange or a pomegranate.

admin / November 2, 2009

The Blog-Even Cheaper Than the Dollar Aisle

You might remember the dollar aisle at the supermarket became one of the favorite and first places to head. I’ve found some really good buys with everything from roasted red peppers to potato chips. However, it seems that’s not the only way to find a bargain these days. The supermarket has added products manufactured by a company called Clear Value. They produce everything from toilet paper to canned products, cereal, bacon, you name it. I’ve been buying their diced tomatoes for 45 cents a can and using them in chilli and soups. I also bought a can of refried beans for just 35 cents. The other day I picked up a package of the laundry detergent in the dollar aisle, thinking what a great deal it was, turned the corner into the next aisle and saw the Clear Value brand for 99 cents and almost twice as much detergent.

I’m always thinking about DIY home improvement projects that one, don’t cost a fortune and two, add value to your house. Here’s an interesting article I found yesterday about low cost home renovations that pay off.

Hope you signed up for the Dinner Made Easy newsletter because this week’s newsletter had recipes for 10 must try dinners for $10 or less.

This week on Budget Smart Girl…Staying on budget during the holidays and ways to enjoy a fuss free Thanksgiving.

Don’t forget to add your best money saving tip in the comment section for a chance to win the Mom’s Best Naturals cereal giveaway.

Have a good week.

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