February 29, 2012

Once a Week Cooking in 2 Hours

If you read about my once a week cooking experiment last year and wondered if I've kept up with it, well, I haven't. I never tried it again after that one time. It would be rough for me to do that much cooking on a weekday (I work full time), and my weekends have been fairly busy with other things. But a couple weeks ago, I decided to try it again.

This was my dinner menu plan for the week:
Chocolate pancakes with strawberry topping (for Valentine's Day)
Salmon patties, macaroni and cheese
Dinner with friends

I didn't make every dinner ahead of time since the others were quick ones anyway, but I was able to get two main dishes ready to bake and two others ready to assemble. Before I started, I listed all the tasks I would need to complete and then ordered them in a way that would keep things moving. I forgot a few things initially, so this probably would have taken much less than 2 hours if I'd been more efficient. I also didn't menu plan based on the idea that I would be cooking ahead of time. Next time, I would choose more meals that are easy to prepare ahead of time and that share common ingredients (two dishes with pasta, two with beef, etc.).

12:50 - I start cooking the rice and heating up the skillet for the bacon.

12:58 - Cover rice to simmer; still cooking bacon

"Can I have some?"

I start putting together the enchiladas (with chicken I had cooked previously). Then I remember I need to be cooking hamburger and pasta for the pizza casserole and get that started.

1:44 - Enchiladas are ready, except for the sauce. The tortillas are falling apart (they were a little old), so I switch them to a smaller dish to keep them together a little better.

1:56 - I remember I have laundry that needs switched to the dryer.
Nathan steps in to work on browning the hamburger.

After the hamburger is done cooking, I make the sauce for the enchiladas.

2:22 - Enchiladas are done and I start assembling the pizza casserole.

2:33 - Pizza casserole is done!

2:34 - Oops! I forgot I needed to cook onion for the chowder.
I chop one up (sniff, sniff) and cook that.

2:49 - And we're done! Chicken enchiladas, pizza casserole,
rice for fried rice, and bacon and onion for chowder.

I try to pretend the kitchen doesn't exist for a while,
but Nenya is happy to begin cleanup for me.

February 6, 2012

Back to a Monthly Budget and Other Budget Changes

One of my most popular blog posts and the oldest one still currently in the top ten most read is No More Monthly Budget. I'm sure we scared a lot of people with that title. What? No budget? If you haven't read the post, what we did for 2011 was track our budget in periods based not on calendar months but on thirteen periods of four weeks. Since I'm paid weekly and Nathan is paid every two weeks, there can be quite a variation in income from month to month. With four week periods we would have consistent income (two of Nathan's paychecks, four of mine). It sounded good in theory, but it only took a few months to realize how inconsistent income really is. Although we kept with it for all of 2011, for 2012 we're going back to monthly budget periods. We've also made a few other changes to the way we budget that should work better for us.

A monthly allowance
A new budget category is an allowance for each of us. For the first year and a half of our marriage, we basically had to discuss every purchase with each other. And if one of us made a big purchase, that meant the other had to curb his/her spending for that budget period. To help eliminate some of this, we've now budgeted a small amount of money for each of us to spend each month however we choose. If Nathan wants to eat out for lunch, I can still buy shoes. We still have a "General Spending" category for purchases that we agree to make.

A dates category
Last year, we lumped all eating out (lunches during work and dates) into one category. We also had a separate entertainment category. We've now eliminated "Eating Out" as a separate budget category and made it a sub-category under our allowances and under a new "Dates" category. We've also made "Entertainment" a sub-category under "Dates."

Adding "rollover" money
What we did last year if we had money left over in different categories, was put the leftover money into paying off debt or our emergency fund. Now, if we have $7 left in the date category at the end of the month, for example, that's money we can still use for dates next month.

A new budget system
We track all of our spending, income, and bank accounts in an Excel program Nathan made. Last year we had a separate spreadsheet for each budget period, but this year Nathan made one Excel file that we can use for all our financial tracking for the entire year. If anyone would like to know more about our system and how Nathan programmed it, I'm sure he'd be happy to explain it.

Here's what the big picture looks like for February. That big chunk we're putting towards student loan payments still isn't enough to keep us on track with our goal of paying them off in two years, but it's close and there's not much else we can cut. I said it was an ambitous goal!

What changes have you made to your budget to make it work better for you?