People often think that because I'm cheap, I don't really enjoy life. In fact, it's just the opposite. Because I don't need to spend a lot of money to enjoy life, I don't need to spend a lot of time getting a lot of money. But, you do need to know how to get the most enjoyment with the fewest bucks, and that's what this section is about.
How to Eat Your Jack-O'-Lantern
Monday, September 24, 2007
"Wow! That's the biggest one I've ever seen!" The twenty-something cashier at Costco seemed genuinely impressed.
She was referring to the 21-pound pumpkin that was testing the
tensile strength of my plastic shopping cart as I stood in her checkout line. At $4.29 a piece, I'd been cliff diving in the gigantic cardboard vat of pumpkins for nearly half an hour to find this big daddy.
An older guy in the line behind me laughed a little nervously. I glanced over at the downsized pumpkin in his cart, maybe 20% of the size of my beefy specimen.
"That's going to make a helluva jack-o'-lantern," he said rather assertively as he gestured at my plump fellow in a transparent attempt to draw the cashier's attention away from his own puny gourd.
"And," I added, "It'll feed me for half the winter."
"What? You're gonna eat it?" said the cashier. "Yuck! I thought the only pumpkin you could eat was the stuff in the can!"
Yes, madam, I will have my jack-o'-lantern and eat it too - every bit of it.
You see, cheapskates like to celebrate the holidays just like everyone else. But we grimace at wasteful rituals like throwing away a perfectly good pumpkin after using it for only a few days as a decoration. While some particularly meaty varieties of pumpkins are specifically grown to be eaten (including Sweet Jack-be-Littles, Cheese Pumpkins, Sugar Pumpkins and some delicious heirloom varieties), any commonly available pumpkin is perfectly edible.
Pumpkins are a true American vegetable, a favorite of the Aztec, Inca and Mayan people before becoming a staple of early European explorers and settlers in the New World. Pumpkins belong to the same family (Cucurbitacae) as gourds, melons and cucumbers. And, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research, pumpkins are packed with beta carotene, a powerful antioxidant that fights cancer. Me, I like them because they taste good, and, did I mention, they're cheap?
If you're buying a pumpkin specifically for eating, the smaller ones are usually the best. If you're going to use it as a jack-o'-lantern as well, you can eat or freeze some of the pumpkin when you carve it, and then pickle the remaining rind when Halloween is over, provided that it's still in good shape. So, here's exactly how to Eat Your Jack-O'-Lantern:
Toasted pumpkin seeds are a healthy snack filled with zinc, magnesium, manganese, iron, copper and protein. They're also great in salads, muffins, bread, and in other recipes as a nut-substitute.
Remove the seeds, rinse them in water to get rid of the stringy inner membrane, and dry them out a little on a towel. Flavor with coarse salt for a traditional flavor, or let your imagination and spice rack run wild. Some options for flavoring designer-seeds include: pumpkin pie spice; Cajun seasonings; ginger powder; garlic salt; curry powder; Tabasco; cinnamon; vinegar and salt. Once seasoned, bake the seeds on a lightly oiled cookie sheet (single layer thick) in a 250 degree oven for about an hour, stirring every 20 minutes. Or, my preferred method is to cook them in a spray-oiled skillet over medium heat on the stove top, stirring and shaking (the skillet, not your booty) constantly. On the stove top, they'll be toasted nicely brown in only about five minutes. Store in air-tight containers.
The Meat of the Matter:
The thick, bright orange pulp lining the inside of the pumpkin is the
real meat of the matter when it comes to making pies, cakes, bread, soups and most other pumpkin delicacies. Using a large spoon or other sharp-edged instrument, scrape and scoop the pulp from inside the pumpkin, working it down about an inch or so, to the whitish-colored layer beneath the skin. This will leave you with the outer shell to carve as a jack-o'-lantern. If you're not going to get double duty out of your pumpkin as a lantern, then it's easier to slice it as you would a melon and use a knife to peal away the out skin and white layer. Once you've extracted the pulp, steam it over a pot of water until it's very tender (about 30 minutes or more). Run it through a food processor to puree or mash by hand (add a dash of lemon juice to prevent freezer burn), and freeze it in plastic bags or containers to use later in your favorite recipes. You can also eat the cooked pulp just like squash, but it's even better than squash. Here are some of my favorite pumpkin recipes:
Pumpkin Cider Bisque:
Make a cream soup by melting two tablespoons butter and mixing in 2 tablespoon flour, and then slowly stir in 2 cups of whole milk. Stir constantly over medium heat until thickened. Add one cup pumpkin puree (see above), and heat through. Slowly add 2 cups cider. Correct seasonings with salt and pepper. Serve hot, with a dollop of sour cream, or cold with apple slices to garnish. (4 servings / approx. cost per serving = .30cents)
Pumpkin Milk Shake:
Try this one as soon as the pulp cools. In a blender, mix 1 cup vanilla ice cream, 1/4 cup milk, 4 tablespoons pumpkin puree, and a dash of any or all of the following: pumpkin pie spice, vanilla, nutmeg, rum extract. (1 serving / approx. cost per serving =.35 cents)
Michael-Jacko-Lantern Casserole - A New Holiday Tradition:
The Ultimate Cheapskate's salute to cosmetic surgery - truly tongue AND cheek, but pretty tasty. Save the cut out nose, mouth, eyes, etc. from your jack-o'-lantern carving to decorate this face-shaped casserole. Fry one pound of sausage and one cup of chopped onion on the stove top until brown. Add two cups of cubed, raw pumpkin pulp (you can get about that much by cutting the pulp off from the bottom of your jack-o'-lantern lid). Cook it for about 5 minutes, until the pumpkin starts to soften. Stir in one can of condensed Cheddar cheese soup and 1/4 cup milk, and remove from heat.
Grease a round or oval casserole baking dish (about face size). In the empty dish, mix two cups Bisquick mix with 3/4 cup water, spreading the dough evenly on the bottom of the dish. Pour meat mixture on top of dough. Sprinkle one cup shredded Cheddar cheese on top of casserole. Spray "face parts" lightly with spray oil, and arrange on top of casserole. Bake in a preheated 400 degree oven, uncovered, for about 30 minutes, until face parts are lightly brown and the dough has cooked through. (6 servings / approx. cost per serving = .60 cents)
Smashing Pickled Pumpkin Rinds:
If your lantern survives the night of hell-raising by neighborhood teens and shows no signs of worrisome rot, inordinate candle scorching, or excessive wax buildup, real cheapskates separate themselves from the rest by pickling the rind of their jack-o'-lanterns the day after Halloween. I'm told by Miser Adviser Doris Sharp that this dish is particularly popular in Northern Germany. Here's how:
Peel off the outer skin and cut the white colored rind (about 1 inch thick) into two inch squares. For each pound of pumpkin, use 3/4 lb sugar, 2 cups vinegar and a piece of fresh ginger.Use a stick of cinnamon for the whole batch of several pounds. Put pumpkin in vinegar and let it soak overnight. Remove the pumpkin from vinegar (discard*)and let it dry on a towel. Bring fresh vinegar to a boil with sugar, ginger and a stick of cinnamon. Add pumpkin and simmer until pieces are translucent and golden yellow, about 3 hours on low heat. Never stir with a spoon; just shake the pot occasionally so the pumpkin doesn't fall apart. Can and seal, or store in the refrigerator for up to a few weeks.
(*Doris is uncomfortable with the thought of discarding anything, let alone spent vinegar, and wonders if it couldn't instead be used clean some windows.)
Pork Chops and Men's Slacks: The Male Appeal of Big Box Stores
I decided some time ago that I'll only buy my clothes at stores that also sell pork chops, in bulk. After years of poking fun at my wife for frequenting Sam's Club, Price Costco, and other "big box" membership warehouse stores, I finally gave them a try for myself. What I discovered is that these stores are in fact built of equal parts sheet metal, cement block, and testosterone. Big box stores were created for men, and specifically for male cheapskates like me.
Sam's Club, the nation's largest members-only warehouse club, racks up more than $29 billion in annual sales and claims more than 46 million members, each paying a minimum annual membership fee of $30. With more than 500 stores nationwide, each at 110,000-130,000 square feet, sixteen Pentagons could be housed neatly beneath the behemoth corrugated shell of this combined enterprise. But then Sam's Club is just a little tyke compared to its parent, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., with combined annual sales of nearly eight times those of Sam's Club alone. It's not clear to me whether Sam's draws a different crowd than Wal-Mart, but as a guy I know that Wal-Mart doesn't charge my battery like shopping at a big box store.
At the risk of sounding sexist, most men unlike women really don't like to shop, and that's the male-appeal of big box stores. Big box stores are really less about shopping than they are about avoiding shopping. To begin with, everything you buy is jumbo-sized, so it lasts that much longer and prolongs the period between shopping trips. There's something terribly reassuring when you have to wheel your groceries and other purchases out to the car on a flatbed hand truck; you can't imagine that you'll need to go shopping again anytime soon, at least during the rest of the Bush administration.
And of course big box stores are ingeniously designed to sprinkle just enough guy-stuff among the groceries and house wares to hold a man's (limited) attention. Hydraulic jacks, big screen TV's, power tools, sports equipment, and lawn tractors are strategically placed among the piles of bath towels, gigantic scented candles, oversized food items, and shrink wrapped kitchen wares. Just about the time you loose interest in waiting for the kids to pick out their triple-pak boxes of breakfast cereal, you round the corner of the next aisle and find a display of fishing gear for the bass season that's just beginning. Now when was the last time that happened when you were shopping at Safeway?
Best of all - and the reason I'm absolutely serious about the correlation between pork chops and men's clothing - big box stores feature a total lack of selection. Especially when it comes to shopping for clothes, there's nothing I hate more than being confronted with the endless array of styles, colors, brands, and fabrics found in most men's clothing stores, and I know full well that whatever I finally settle on will never be available in my size.
At a big box store, there's usually just one or two brands and styles of each apparel item - pants, shirts, underwear - in maybe four different colors. Hardly any decisions to make and stacks of each size as high as the stacks of spare ribs in the meat department. When I find what I want, I buy one in each of the four colors and have the comfort of knowing that my clothes shopping is done for the year.
Last but not least, various consumer reports have repeatedly confirmed that shopping at big box stores is indeed a very good value, an appealing feature for any cheapskate, regardless of sex. While you might save over big box stores if you selectively shop sale items in regular grocery and department stores, for one-stop shopping big box stores consistently beat out the others. Also, the quality of many productssold atwarehousestores(including food items like meat and vegetables) tends to be of a higher restaurant/industrial grade than found in most regular stores.
Of course you need to make sure you have the capacity to avoid spoilage of perishable items, since package sizes are generally 20% to 200% larger than found in typical grocery stores. But if you need a 19 cubic foot chest-style freezer or some industrial steel shelving for your pantry, you'll findthose near the rear of most big box stores, behind the frozen food aisle.
I can't leave the topic ofwarehouse stores, nor such a store itself, without sampling some big box lunch counter cuisine, a culinary
school that is best described as fusion - a fusion of new car tire smell and grilling hot dogs. To cap off the big box experience, you must enter the pen of shopping carts and flatbedhaulers, each overflowing like a cornucopia of bulk-buy items, and brave your wayto the head of the line waiting for $1.50 hot dogs and two buck pizza slices. Self-serve soda dispensers fizz with over use, and soft-serve ice cream awaits you for dessert. The guy at the standup table next to you is eyeing the new multi-setting lawn sprinkler piled on top of your cart."How did I miss those?" he thinks to himself.
So, if you're a guywho hates to shop, give big box stores a try. If you're like me, you'll come away with some flannel work shirts and a bulging celo-wrapped package of pork chops, both in size XL.
Fun Factories - Free Tours for the Whole Family
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
When I was growing up in the Midwest, our family vacations and weekend outings invariably included show and tell stops at factories that manufactured everything from cookies and candy to light bulbs and model rockets. In retrospect I realize that my parents undoubtedly loved the price tag of admission - almost always free - and the fact that we usually walked away with free samples to further augment our limited family budget. That we were also getting a painless (if sometimes rather superfluous) educational experience was icing on the cakes coming off the conveyor belt.
As kids all we knew was that these tours were the best part of almost any trip. Still to this day at family gatherings we fondly recall our tour guide "Three Fingers Fred" at the meat packing plant we toured in Chicago, and we laugh at the dog-eared snapshot taken of our family at a pickle factory in Indiana, with each of us proudly sporting the pickle shaped paper hats like those worn by the plant's workers. We never got to a single Disney park when I was growing up, but when it comes to good times with family, I'll take our dream factories over the Magic Kingdom any day.
Unfortunately, fewer factories today open their doors to visitors. I suspect that's because of increased liability concerns, and, sadder still, the growing belief among Americans that if something doesn't cost a lot of money, it can't be fun or worthwhile. Nonetheless, many factories still do offer tours, and most of them are still free.
For only the cost of a smile, you can see dolls being made at the Turner Doll factory in Heltonville, Indiana, sample other-worldly teas at the Celestial Seasonings plant in Boulder, Colorado, and see Harley-Davidson Motorcycles roar off the assembly line at the factory in York, Pennsylvania. The tour of Ben and Jerry's ice cream factory in Waterbury, Vermont is a hit with more than a quarter of a million visitors each year, particularly the sampling stop in the FlavoRoom (adults $3 / kids under 12 are free). You can even take a virtual tour of the Spam Factory at the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota.
Check out www.factorytoursusa.com for a comprehensive list of tours by state, and see www.bygpub.com for tours that specifically appeal to kids. And, my upbringing on factory tours has carried over to adulthood. Here's where to look for info on brewery and winery tours: www.ratebeer.com, www.allamericanwineries.com, and www.wineamerica.org (become a WineAmerica Trailblazer for $25 a year and get access to special VIP tours and tastings).
Youth Hostels: Not So Young, Not So Hostile (So Much Anymore)
Like more than 100,000 college kids and other young Americans each year, when I was in my teens and early 20's I used to travel in the U.S. and abroad and stay at youth hostels. At that time, they were an inexpensive place to sleep for the night, cook a warm meal, and do a load of laundry. In fact, at that point in my life an overnight at a youth hostel was luxury accommodations compared to the type of roadside camping that was typically my bed for the night when traveling.
While most people have heard of "hostels" or "youth hostels," what they don't realize is that these facilities are open to people of all ages, and they offer not just an inexpensive but an incredibly genuine travel opportunity. Today many hostels even have special rooms for families, and an increasing number provide business-traveler-friendly amenities like Internet access.
Having spent part of my career working for the youth hostel movement and being a diehard proponent of "real travel," I am, admittedly, biased when it comes to hostels. But then again, this is my website.
I've always believed that if most Americans spent a single night at a hostel, they would eagerly go back again and again. The problem is, most folks are scared of the whole idea of being around people they don't know, let alone (at some hostels) sleeping in the same dorm room with them and (at some hostels) sharing the same bathroom. But, it's like so many things that seem scary and undesirable on the surface; after you've tried it, you think it's one of the best things you've ever done.
Hostels are like that. While Holiday Inns used to promote themselves as promising "no surprises" (Don't you hope to have some surprises when you travel?), hostels are all about the life-changing, spontaneous experience of travel. I've always felt, too, that if hostels weren't so inexpensive, ironically they'd be more popular. If these same facilities charged top dollar and were promoted as "centers for meeting other galactic travelers and your inner-self," the hostel movement would probably be light years ahead of where it is today.
Regardless, hostels are still one of the great undiscovered resources for travelers of all ages. In big cities like New York, Washington, Chicago and LA, you'll pay $25-$30 for an overnight stay, and in smaller cities and rural areas you can expect to pay about half that. There are over 100 hostels in the U.S. and more than 4,000 hostels in 60 other countries round the globe. And one of the other great things about hostels is that many are in unique, sometimes historic buildings, like lighthouses, castles, and former mansions.
You have to be a member to stay at hostels, but membership is free for those under 18, and only $28/year for adults ($18 for those over 55). You can check out the details on hostels in the U.S. and overseas at www.hiusa.org and become a member there as well. Also, it's worth noting that facilities NOT approved by the organization Hostelling International are free to call themselves "hostels"/"youth hostels," but unless they are affiliated with Hostelling International there's no guarantee of cleanliness, safety, rates and other uniform standards - BEWARE!
Houses That Earn A Living: A Beautiful Thing
For most people, their home is their biggest expense, both in terms of mortgage payments and the cost of upkeep. But what if your home actually made money? I'm not talking about the likely appreciation of your property's value over time. I'm talking about homes that produce their own cash flow, homes that earn a living of their own.
When my wife and I purchased our first (and only) home almost twenty years ago, as a young couple just starting out the house we fell in love with was a real stretch for us financially. But, as the real estate agent eagerly pointed out, this particular property had a small, one bedroom guest apartment attached to the main house, a unit that could be rented out to help cover the ominous monthly mortgage payments.
At first this proposition really turned us off. We had no experience managing a rental property, and we had nightmarish thoughts of ill-mannered tenants destroying our home and then sticking us for the rent. We loved the privacy and solitude of our dream house, qualities that we imagined being ruined by boisterous tenants living only a wall away.
Nonetheless, our adoration for this special home got the best of us, and we decided to do whatever was necessary to swing the mortgage payments, including using the guest apartment as a rental unit. We reassured ourselves that we would get out of the landlord business the minute our incomes allowed us to cover the mortgage without relying on a monthly rent check.
But nearly two decades later, with our house now entirely paid off, we're still happily renting out our little guest apartment, and we have every intention of continuing to do so forever more. Rather than being a pox upon our home ownership experience, we have found that our rental unit has not only steadily augmented our income, but it has been a net-positive in terms of creating lasting friendships with the like-minded tenants who have shared our back wall over the years.
The financial beauty of such an arrangement cannot be overstated, if you're fortunate enough to find a home that will accommodate it. First, of course, is the monthly rental check, which in our case covered roughly one-third of our monthly mortgage payment, month in and month out. That's not bad when you consider that our rental unit is only about 20% of the total square footage of our property. In nearly 20 years of renting, the unit has sat empty for a total of only three months between various tenants.
Thankfully, after closing on our dream house our incomes did indeed continue to rise over the years as we had hoped. But, because we continued to rent out the guest apartment, we were able to apply that additional income toward paying off our house early, retiring the original 30-year mortgage in just over 15 years, all thanks to the folks living in our guest apartment during that period!
But the financial benefits of such an arrangement don't end with the monthly rent checks. While that rental income is taxable, you are able to deduct a variety of expenses against that income, including mortgage and other interest expenses associated with the property, depreciation, and a host of maintenance, repair and upkeep costs. While in most years we have in fact had a net increase in our taxable income because of this rental property, by keeping careful track of our offsetting expenses the year-end tax liability has been minimal.
Most surprising though to us have been the non-financial rewards of this arrangement, which are largely why we have continued to be landlords long after we could have afforded otherwise. Through careful interviewing of applicants, we have been most fortunate to find tenants who share our love of our special home and its solitude. While I'm sure that it's possible to have the type of tenants-from-hell that at first we imagined would be the norm, our experience has been just the opposite. And, since our home is rather secluded, having an extra set of eyes and ears on the property has also been a plus from a security point of view.
Now, as we grow ever nearer to retirement, it's comforting to know that our retirement income can be augmented by this rental income, an amount that neatly covers our monthly groceries and other incidentals. And unlike other retirement investments, this one is inherently hedged against inflation, since what we charge for rent steadily increases, along with the cost of bread and milk. On the other hand, should we require on-site health care or other living assistance as we grow older, or should an aging family member need our close-by care, our guest apartment could always be converted for those purposes as well.
I recognize that not every house has the potential to generate income like ours does, and renting out a room in your house, while an option worth considering, might well cramp your style more than our rental unit with its separate entrance. But more home buyers should consider searching out homes that offer potential for this type of income generation, which opens your search up to include properties that might otherwise seem out of your price range or homes that require some remodeling in order to create a hassle-free rental unit (or two).
And, although it's not the subject of this article, there are other ways your home can earn a living of its own. When canvassing properties, consider possibilities for using a house for a home office or other home-based business, hosting weddings, retreats, meetings, or other events, or even the potential for renting storage space on your property. Obviously with every special use, check with your insurance agent to make sure you're properly insured, and consult your local zoning authorities regarding allowable uses.
Homes that earn a living of their own are beautiful homes indeed.
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