Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Spectacular Spice Solution

When I first moved into my apartment, one aspect of my kitchen that I both loved and hated was the area above the sink. It is perfect for storing spices as it is the ideal distance from the stove (easy access while cooking). But - the space is quite small, so none of the traditional spice racks, like this or this, fit here.

Given these limitations, the space became an unorganized jumble of spices and other miscellany:

Last week I found a solution to this mess! I ordered these jars off of Amazon, along with a chalk pen and stick-on labels. They came in the mail on Friday, just in time for a spectacular weekend project!

I spent a good hour transferring the spices to the new jars, and then adhered the labels. Warning - turmeric leaves a stain. Use newspaper or paper towels to protect your table or counter! Part of my dining room table has a tint of yellow to it now due to spilling the turmeric. I've put in some elbow grease just to get the yellow color to calm down - it is almost out now.

Next, I put the jars in place and was surprised that I can actually see what spices I have! Before, I had to dig around the mess to find what I was looking for. Not anymore!

The jars were such a simple solution, I don't know why it didn't occur to me to do this before!

And here is the before and after of my kitchen:

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Adventures in Canning

I was MIA last week, meaning I should have a lot to report on this blog, right? Yes, in fact! I'm on may way to keeping one of my 2014 goals, which is to can/preserve seasonal vegetables once a month.

For the month of January I chose to make Spiced Apple Pear Butter. Apples and winter pears are in season here in DC, so I took a jaunt down to the farmer's market a few weekends ago and bought some:
I started peeling them before I remembered I was going to blog the canning process! At this point I grabbed the camera.

The recipe I chose is about as simple as you can get, which is a good thing since I am just starting out with this canning thing. To help me learn, I bought a book by Ball, the company that makes canning sets (I have a Ball canning set as well). You can find this recipe in Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. Before I started canning, I also took a look at the National Center for Home Preservation website. The website provides sanitation guidelines and tips.

Another reason I wanted to start canning is because I now have a food processor:

Once I peeled, seeded, and cored the fruit, I chopped them into cubes. I then cooked them for about 10 minutes, simmering on low heat:

Once I cooked the fruit, I blended the batch in the food processor:

This took literally 10 seconds - I love my food processor!
Once the fruit was mushy, I put the rest of the ingredients, including the all-important pectin (no pectin = no jelly-like substance), in a large bowl:
I mixed the fruit and dry mix together and prepared the cans (thoroughly wash before using the mason jars, by the way):
The funnel came with my canning set, and was essential in pouring the mixture into the jars. I ended up with almost three jars of Spiced Apple Pear Butter:

The final step was to put on the lids - sealed very tight - and let the jars sit at room temperature for about an hour.

After sitting for an hour, I put the the two full jars in the freezer, where they will keep up to a year. The almost-full jar is the one I'm going to eat now, so I put that in the refrigerator. I've had some on toast already and it is quite tasty! And those cute labels? They are also made by Ball, and happen to dissolve when you wash the jars. My plan for the two jars in the freezer are to either eat them myself or give them away as gifts.

Lessons learned:

  • Don't use as much pectin next time. This batch turned out a little too jellied.
  • Use smaller mason jars. That way, I'll have more to gift away! I can't possibly eat this much spread in one year.
Until next month! (Let's just hope I can keep this up once a month!)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Curbing Expenses in 2014

I love spreadsheets. I love personal finance. So I love keeping spreadsheets of all things related to my personal finance. One of them is a large Excel sheet with 12 tabs - one for each month. This is my yearly spending tracking document. I create categories and record what I spend each month in every category. At the end of the year, I go through and populate all the categories into one large spreadsheet that shows me what I spend the whole year in any given category.

This is an extremely powerful tool. Curious what I spent on travel? I can go look it up. Groceries? There’s a line for that too. Mint, the online budgeting software, has the ability to do this on its own, but I like the fun of creating my own categories and learning how to be a badass in Excel along the way. It doesn’t take more than a minute each day to log my spending. Some days I don’t spend anything, so I don’t need to update the sheet. For those of you who don’t want to be bothered with creating your own system, I definitely suggest Mint as a tool to help you understand your spending.

Having said all of that, what can you do with this information? Simple - use it to find areas where you can reduce your spending, thus increasing the amount you can save. I’ve looked at my 2013 spending and found the following areas that could use some reduction in spending.

Work - $83.74
Necessary - $204.07

2014 goal: $100 for only necessary items (like undergarments). I have plenty of clothes and don’t need any new items. If a shirt or pants fall apart, I’ll discard and not replace.

Rental Car

2014 goal: $200. This expense was for one particular trip last summer. I’m taking the same trip in 2014, but this time a friend of mine and I have decided to coordinate our airport arrivals and departures to coincide so we can share the rental car cost.

Apartment Decoration

2014 goal: $400. I made the majority of my big purchases early last year after the late 2012 move. I don’t expect needing to buy much more this year by way of furniture or decorative items. I won’t stop making fun adjustments to my apartment, but I don’t anticipate spending as much as last year.

Total spent in 2013 in these three areas: $1,595.17

Projected 2014 expenses in these three areas: $800

Projected savings: $795.17

That's almost $800 extra that I can put into savings! Are you tracking your spending and looking for areas of improvement? Share in the comments.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Best of the Blogosphere: 01/11/14 Edition

Every Saturday I feature a blog post in the following categories: Simple Living, Financial, DIY, Before & After, and Random. Here are this week's picks:

Best Simple Living: A good reminder from The Everyday Minimalist on setting goals for simplifying your life in 2014.

Best Financial: Now that I've kicked debt to the curb, what's next? Man vs. Debt answers that question.

Best DIY: Have you ever thought of painting your radiator? No? Me neither! Apartment Therapy has, of course.

Best Before & After: Take a fallen tree and turn it into a side table. Via Better After.

Best Random: Found this random site this week called White Wine. First world problems at its finest (or saddest?). Either way, it's hilarious.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Giving to Charity While in Debt

As you all know, I’ve been in pay-off-debt mode for almost two years. I put as much as possible towards my debt and as you know, I completed that journey last month. To do this, I gave up things, and for the most part I haven’t missed the things I gave up (i.e. new clothes, lots of dinners out, big cable package, etc). In fact, I find I’m happier without these things. But there is one thing I do miss spending money on: giving to charities that do good in the world.

In December, with my debt payments winding down. I decided to donate $100 to charities. I know that isn’t a ton of money, but I was thoughtful about where I wanted to donate and picked three charities that represented causes I feel strongly about. The charities were Heifer International, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and my alma mater’s international education fund.

When I sent the payments in, I felt very good about myself. But then I remembered something - I didn’t really investigate the first two, Heifer and PVA. I saw their missions and thought “great, I’ll donate!” What I should have done was check them out on Charity Navigator, which rates charities based on their finances, transparency, and accountability. I was happy to learn that both charities received high scores in the transparency and accountability, but was disappointed to see that their overall ratings weren’t that great. This is due to their financial state - both charities spend too much on non-program expenses. Heifer was better, spending 70% of their money on the actual programs they advertise. PVA was worse, spending only 33% on their programs for veterans. They spent the most on fundraising - 66%!

Given this information, I’ll likely donate to other organizations next year. If I want to stay with the same type of organizations, I’ll try Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which received a 4-star rating from Charity Navigator, and PATH, which also received a 4-star rating.

At any rate, I’m still glad I donated to charities this holiday season. I’ll use this as a learning experience and do more research before I donate next time. If you donate to any charities in the future, I urge you to do your research and make sure you are happy with how your money will be put to use. There are some organizations out there doing some really great work.

As a final note, I’ll just say the world leader I am completely impressed by right now is Pope Francis. His focus on charity and the less fortunate is so refreshing to see in a largely consumerist and “me-me” culture. I’m a big fan of this guy!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Hello Herbs!

Look what I bought last weekend:

Yay! Only one more and I'd have this:
Get it? 

But anyway…that means I finally have something to put in my wall herb garden:

Getting the herbs on the wall was pretty easy as I had the system in place (thanks to a lot of help from my dad!).

First step: Re-pot the herbs in the mason jars. 

I took the following terra cotta pot…

…and smashed it!

This will supposedly help with the moisture that drips down to the bottom of the mason jar. Terra cotta pots are naturally absorbent, so I'm told they'll ward off mold that could accumulate at the bottom of the jars. After smashing up the pot, I layered the bottom of each jar and transferred the herbs, using a bit of potting soil to help fill the jars.

Second step: Attach the jars to the boards.

My dad and I set this up so that the jars hang by 14" cable ties. 

We drilled small holes in the board to thread the cable ties through:

Make sure to fasten the tie tight. I tested it right-side-up before I clipped the tie.

Third step: Hang the boards and you are done!

The project took me no more than 30 minutes last weekend, but combined with the effort it took my dad and I to get the boards, cut and sand them, drill holes and fasten to the wall, I'd say the project took about 3-4 hours. Worth it, I think, to have fresh herbs growing in my apartment!

Now let's see if I can keep them alive! I also plan on adding more herbs later. There aren't too many in season this time of year!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

2014 Goals

It is time for me to set my yearly goals. I'm so excited this year to be setting goals that don't include paying off debt!

Financial Goals

1. Get my emergency fund up to 6 months worth of expenses. By my calculations, I need to save about $9,000 more than I currently have saved up.

2. Increase my 403b retirement contributions. I'm currently contributing 10% of my salary to this account (pre-tax) every month. My employer also contributes a very nice 12%! After I meet my first goal, I'm going to shoot for increasing my contribution to 15% by the end of 2014.  

3. Contribute to my Roth IRA or start saving for home down payment. I put these two together because I'm not sure if I'll get to them this year. If it looks like I will, then I'll start researching which is the best course of action.

Health Goals

1. Swim twice a week. Swimming is my new love. I've been good about swimming once a week, but would really like to get to the pool twice a week.

2. Do yoga twice a week. At least once a week at a yoga studio. I know, I know…I've touted the "you don't need to pay to do yoga" thing a lot on this blog. But I really have missed yoga classes with an instructor. Now that I'm out of debt, I've decided it is worth it to me to put some money into going to actual classes.

3. Learn to cook more veggie-based meals. I ate so much meat over the holidays that all I can think about is eating veggies for the rest of time! But seriously, I need to learn how to make more soups and veggie-based dishes. My rice-plus-veggie staple is getting a bit old.

Random Goals

1. Improve my guitar skills. Putting this on the list again for 2014 because I just really love playing the guitar!

2. Solve my closet problem. My closet isn't a mess, but it just looks so "ugh." Especially since you have to walk through it to get to the bathroom. Time to tackle this one. 

3. Can or preserve seasonal fruits or vegetables once a month. I recently got a canner and food processor. I'm ready to start making jams, salsa, and maybe even sauerkraut!

Let's hear your 2014 goals!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

2013 Goals: A Retrospective

One year ago, I set some pretty lofty goals for the new year. Now a year later, I'm looking back at what I achieved.

From this post last year:

Financial Goals
FYI: My debt was around $21,000.

1. Pay off remaining graduate school debt. The balance was just over $4,000. 

Result: Paid off!

2. Reduce my remaining undergraduate loan to $10,000 by year’s end. The balance was just short of $17,500. I thought I would be able to pay off the entire loan by the end of 2014
Result: I kicked major ass and paid off ALL OF MY DEBT by the end of 2013, a full year before I predicted. 

Health Goals

1. Run a Warrior Dash. 
Result: Fail. I had every intention of doing this, even signing up and training. But then I got hurt playing softball and couldn't run for a few weeks. 

2. Do yoga twice a week. 
Result: Success and fail. I kept this up until around September of this year. Not sure why it dropped off then!

3. Use the gym in my apartment building at least once a week. 
Result: Semi-fail. I traded running and working out indoors for hiking outside and swimming at the free indoor pool in my neighborhood. I just really hate gyms, even if there is a free one in my building!

Random Goals
1. Improve my guitar skills
Result: Success! I've taught myself around 10 songs this year and seen a steady improvement in my skills. That dreaded F chord is still my nemesis, though!

2. Continue to decorate and take on DIY projects for my apartment
Result: Success! I've made a ton of improvements since last year and I love my place!

3. Do not slack off on blogging!
Result: Success! I average two posts a week, with the occasional lapse when I am out of town or really busy with work/life.

2013 was a pretty great year. I accomplished almost all of my goals and credit this blog for keeping me on task! It is easier to stick to something when you put it out there for public consumption. How did everyone do with their 2013 resolutions and goals?