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Saving on Wrapping Paper

December 17th, 2018 at 06:21 pm

I am baffled by wrapping paper.

Why do people fret over it, then literally throw it away? Talk about throwing away your money!

Why does it cost so much only to run out so fast?

How did our culture get to the point where we are praised for, and socially expected to buy these fancy paper shells to cover our gifts? Wouldn’t you rather the value of the present be put into the part you keep?

This is one cultural ritual that I’m just not into. If I buy wrapping paper, it will be to create a festive decoration, not to cover a present.

So what do I cover my gifts with?

Gifts at home

Well, for my kid’s birthday presents, I’ll sometimes just throw a blanket over it. I’m not super worried about appearances.

My husband grew up with the tradition of “Santa Sacks”. Instead of wrapping the presents, Santa just slides them in large drawstring sacks with the child’s name on them. This makes irregularly shaped gifts much easier, “wrapping” fast, and is reusable eliminating Santa’s wrapping paper year after year.

If you want, you could make up a bunch of little bags of various sizes and let everyone in the family use the reusable sacks.

A favorite blogger of mine, Sarah Titus, says that she will have her kids close their eyes and hand them the gift. They get to hold it and feel it to try and guess what it is. Not only is that cheap, but a fun tradition.

Unfortunately, none of these options work very well under a Christmas tree or for presents outside the house (with the exception of gifting the sack along with the present).

Here are some alternative present wrapping ideas that are free or nearly free, but won’t leave you feeling cheap.

Brown Paper Packages Tied up with String

Great news: vintage is classy.

Who wouldn’t want to open a present that looked like this one I gave out last year?

Elegant, classy, old fashioned, and so dang simple.

I bought the brown paper shipping on Amazon in 2013 on a 30 inch by 765 foot roll for $23.55 + tax. 765 feet was definitely over kill. Its 2018 and the roll is still very full and heavy.

I do recommend getting a 30” wide roll so you don’t end up having to put two pieces around a large box and have an unsightly seam or spend too much effort covering the seam with a ribbon in just the right spot. I just don’t think the 18” rolls will be versatile enough.

Don’t want to buy paper?

Often I don’t even have to use my brown paper because I get enough packing paper stuffed in Amazon boxes. It is wrinkled, but personally I think the wrinkles add a nice rustic touch. Sometimes, I even wrinkle my own paper to get the same effect.

You also might have some other type of traditional paper. If you live near a place that gives out newspapers or newsletters on similar paper, snatch up a stack of outdated ones (maybe ask if they could set some aside for you?).

As for the ribbon, I buy it at about $0.01/yard at thrift stores or yard sales, and save any ribbons I get elsewhere (such as last Christmas). Embroidery thread, twine, and lace all work well too.

Personalized Paper

If brown paper packages aren’t personal enough for you, you can touch it up with some artwork.
Usually this means I turn the toddlers loose with a bag of crayons, but I’ve also made some very classy presents with metallic poinsettias drawn in red and silver or snowflakes drawn in blue.

An alternate method is to cut up some junk mail or scrap decorative paper and add some texture to your present like the one above.

String Art

Probably the most time consuming, but receiver appreciated is when I get fancy with embroidery thread.

I lightly draw a word in cursive with an erasable pencil until I get the right shape. Then follow on top with a thin streak of school glue and lightly press the thread in working only a few letters at a time.

Always stop when you get to a hard angle change such as the 180 degree reversals at the top of the “d”. That way you can let it dry, then pull it snugly in a new direction getting crisp changes.

I’ve collected tons of embroidery thread over the years, mostly from other people’s unfinished cross-stitch projects or leftovers from my own projects. Even if you have to buy embroidery thread, it can be found for about $0.30 at Walmart and will cover quite a few presents.

Boxes and Bags

I also collect “wrapping paper” all year. I save gift bags from birthdays and cute boxes that some products come in.

Bottom line: my presents end up pretty for basically no money and you can do it too!

Have fun!

DIY Halloween Costumes for under $1

September 5th, 2018 at 01:31 am

Welcome Halloween!

For me, Halloween is all about the costumes. I love costumes so much that when my mom said I was too old to go out trick-or-treating and there were no Halloween activities for me to go to I got creative. I convinced my brothers and some friends to dress up and go Christmas caroling with me on October 31st. My mom gave us credit for creativity and let us go, so long as we weren’t accepting candy. It was such a good experience! We had 4 part harmonies and brightened quite a few doorsteps with “Joy to the World”, “Far Far Away on Judea’s Plains”, and other favorites.

Now that I have toddlers, I can resume trick-or-treating. For the last few years, I have done coordinated themes for the family and have made the costumes from scratch. I have a few strategies to making them super cheap. My family has been winning costume contests for less than $1 per costume (on average) every year with this 6 step process.

First: Choose mostly cartoon humanoids.
Humans are great because they don’t require huge construction pieces. For example, if you were to do an elephant, you'd need a trunk and huge ears. With humans, you are already the right shape.

Cartoons are even better because they usually have one or two iconic outfits making you easily recognizable without adding a ton of identifying accessories.

Second: Choose the idea you already have a base for.
Take a few ideas to your (and your kids) closet(s) to see if you already have the main pieces (a large red shirt, a bluish dress, black pants, or whatever). Choose whichever one is going to require the least scrounging so you can use what you already have.

Third: Plagiarize.
Do a Google Image search for costumes of your character. Think very carefully about your words before you hit "search". You don’t want to end up with a bunch of scantily clad ladies in your search results. Adding the words “baby”, “Toddler”, “Children’s”, or “Kids” at the beginning will usually pull up appropriate costumes. I even add those words when looking for my costume just to keep it clean.

My other favorite is to use Pinterest and search “DIY *CHARACTER NAME* Costume”. Both of these types of searches will show you what the costume looks like on actual people as well as different directions you can go with it. I would have never thought of the jacket I used for Captain Hook nor realized you could use red trimmings (instead of gold) on Prince Charming if it weren't for Pinterest!

Fourth: Plan it out.
Break each costume into its components and see what you need: Prince charming needs red pants (check), a white shirt (check), a belt (not check), and some fancy cords or something on his shoulders (not check). What can I use for the belt and cords?

Do some more searches for those specific parts if you're not sure what you can use (i.e. "DIY Pirate Hat). Then figure out specifically what plan you’ll use. Do you need fabric? Cardboard? String?

Don't stress out if it looks like a lot of sewing. Most of the "sewing" portions can actually be "hot glue" portions. All I was taught about sewing came from sewing pillow cases and pajama pants in Junior High, but I can sew a costume. Costumes don't need to look professionally done and, if you're careful, they might never even have to withstand a washing machine.

Fifth: Gather resources.
Almost any part of a costume can be broken down into cardboard and fabric. Cardboard shouldn't be hard to come by. I usually use cereal boxes for my cardboard because it isn't corrugated eliminating the rough edges, but I've also used junk mail and gift bags for my structures.

The first place I always look for fabric is the thrift store. The key is to see clothes as fabric. Turns out it is generally a lot cheaper to get fabric from rejected clothes than to buy fabric at a craft store. Just walk in looking for a specific color and find the best fabric at the best price you can get. I’ve bought pillow cases, t-shirts, sweaters, and a dress all for fabric.

Actually, even cheaper than the thrift store is if you throw your unwanted clothes in your fabric pile to begin with so you almost always have what you need.

If you get stumped, hit a store that sells fabric by the yard. Often, they will sell as small as 2 inch strips of fabric so the little trimmings can be done cheaply that way.

If you plan 2-3 months in advanced for shipping out of China, you can get some really cheap accessories (tiaras, formal gloves, etc) from Ebay. Otherwise, keep hitting Pinterest and Google for DIY options.

Sixth: Construction.
My biggest advice here is keep moving. As soon as you find the pieces, build what you can while you look for the other materials. I would get stumped on one costume or feature of a costume and move on to the next while my brain kept working out the first.

Now time for the results!
Seriously, I can’t get over how cute these kids are.
I wish I had better pictures, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to get my husband in his costume in time for a photo shoot.

Who Framed Rodger Rabbit (2014):

Eddie Valiant:
*Already had the suit/hat
*Handcuffs were borrowed, broken by a toddler, and replaced for $1.07

Jessica Rabbit:
*Already had the dress/make up
*Sewed the gloves from a skirt that was falling apart

Rodger Rabbit:
*Already had the onsie/pants
*Bow tie was made from the same skirt as the Jessica Rabbit gloves (yay matching!)
*Sewed scrap tulle in a ball for a tail
*Made the ears from a hat we already had and a paper plate
*Bought the suspender ribbons for $1.07

Barrel of DIP (wrapped in a blanket):
*Cut off the back of a black t-shirt that we had 3 of (from a career fair) and wrapped him up like a blanket
*Stitched on some thick paper (from junk mail) for lettering

Total 2014 cost: $2.14

Peter Pan (2015):

Captain Hook:
*Already had the pants/boots/belt
*Hat was made from a pair of pajama pants that were in my fabric pile, red spray paint ($2.68), and feathers from my neighbor’s bird
*Wig was borrowed from my parents
*Jacket was a red t-shirt from the thrift store ($0.25), black fabric from last year’s “DIP” and gold ribbon ($2.15)
*White shirt was free from the thrift store (bogo)
*Hook was a bike hook at Home Depot ($1.08).

*Already had the night gown/shoes
*Ribbon was saved from a present and used for the waist and a hair bow

*Already had the wings/tights/sandals
*Shirt/skirt were quickly sewn from an old girls camp t-shirt that was HUGE (in only one nap time)
*Puff balls on her shoes were from coffee filters

Peter Pan:
*Already had the belt/pants/shoes
*Shirt was made from a $0.25 thrift store pillowcase
*Hat was made from the same pillowcase wrapped around a gift bag core and a red feather given to me out of my mother’s craft box

Total 2015 cost: $6.41

Cinderella (2016):

Grand Duke:
*Already had the shirt/pants/belt/shoes
*Sash made from $0.50 thrift store pants
*Epaulets made from an old shirt stretched over cereal box cardboard. The trimmings are yarn and ribbon I’ve had for years.
*Monocle is two doughnut shaped pieces of cereal box with plastic wrap glued in between. The string is some old embroidery thread.

Fairy Godmother:
*Already had the dress/undershirt/shoes
*Hooded shawl made from a $0.25 thrift store dress
*Bow is from a thrift store sweater $0.50
*Wand is a small curtain rod we already had

*Already had the dress/shoes/tiara
*Necklace is a black elastic from a pirate patch (we have lots of them)
*Gloves are sewn from a white shirt in my fabric pile

Lucifer (the cat):
*Already had pants
*Ears are from a black baggie, felt from a creepy monkey stuffed animal (that I had already turned into an airplane pillow), and a broken tiara
*Shirt is a $0.25 thrift store sweater with a grey "fabric pile" shirt stitched on
*Tail is a black "fabric pile" shirt and the rest of the grey shirt
*Bought black eyeliner for $0.96

Prince Charming:
*Already had the pants/onsie
*Shoulder loops are leftover ribbon from the Rodger Rabbit suspenders
*Gold belt/armpit loop/pant stripes are leftover Captain Hook trimmings

Total 2016 cost: $2.46

The Wizard of Oz (2017):

*Already had the pants, shirt, belt, boots
*Hat is made from black worn out shorts and a ripped fitted sheet sewn into a braided cord
*False cloth neck is made from the same ripped sheet and a cord from stained pants
*Straw sticking out of the shirt sleeves and buttons are strips of the ripped sheet
*Scarecrow makeup is the black eyeliner I bought for the cat costume the year prior

Glinda (Good Witch of the North):
*Dress is an old prom dress modified with a corset back (so that I could fit into it again). We happened to have the fabric on hand from modifying the dress back in highschool
*Crown is made from a cereal box painted grey ($0.50 paint), glue and glitter, and an elastic from worn out pajamas
*Wand is a dowel that we use as a lock for our sliding door painted grey with a cereal box star painted grey and more glue/glitter

*Dress was given to us by a cousin who outgrew it
*Basket was found at a thrift store for $1
*Already had the sparkly shoes

Cowardly Lion:
*Lion costume was given to us by a cousin who outgrew it
*Makeup is black eyeliner from the year prior's cat costume
*red bow is from a present we received

*Shirt is my husband's worn out shirt sewn smaller and some white fabric from another old shirt
*Lollypop is another dowel used as a window lock with a cereal box circle painted like a lollypop
*Tights were his sister's when she was little

Total 2017 cost: $1.50

This brings my average cost to $0.66 per costume

Moral of the story: Halloween costumes can be cheap!
…or even profitable. See my other article on

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Self-Funding Halloween.

Happy costuming =)

Financial Benefits of Decluttering

February 26th, 2018 at 06:15 pm

When getting your act together financially, you probably wouldn't think to put decluttering on the list.  Sure, decluttering feels nice, but does it have anything to do with finances?  YES! There are so many benefits to clearing out your crap that it's worth going through the whole house.  I can think of 8 quite serious financial benefits:

1. Sell your Junk

The most obvious way to have a financial gain while decluttering is by selling your junk.  I use Facebook sale pages or Craigs List for any item that is either common or large (such as generic clothes or furniture).  I use Ebay for more unique items like homemade Halloween Costumes, vintage computer games, non-local college paraphernalia etc.

One thing to note is that many items are simply not worth your time.  It might take 3 hours to photograph the item, put together an advertisement, and answer endless questions for iffy buyers.  Then you might have to rearrange your schedule to be home for them to come get it or package it up and take it to the post office during their operating hours.  If the item was only $5, maybe you should just put it in a bag with other stuff and take it to a donation center.

Solution: I've never hosted a yard sale in my adult life because my city is a pain about it, but if you are doing a lot of items, yard sales are a great way to move smaller items that people might not drive out for.  Despite taking a lot of time and effort, it is still much easier that listing a bunch of small items separately.

2. Donate your Junk

Don't worry!  Even donating your items can directly return you money.  If you donate to a charity such as Goodwill, you can write off the items as tax deductions!

They say a penny saved is a penny earned, but I've calculated it out to

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1.57 pennies earned after tax savings.  If you jump through the hoops to deduct those items, you are saving about a third of the current value of the item.  Example: donating a blazer valued at $6 reduces your adjusting tax return income by $6, saving you $2 in taxes.  Pull a whole stack of clothes out of your closet and that could add up fast!  The Salvation Army put together a generic
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price guide that will help you determine the value of your donations.

Of course with anything government there's paperwork: If the year's cumulative donations are under $500 in value, than everything is simple (double check me, rules tend to change over time).  Just make sure to get a receipt when you drop the items off so you can have proof for audits.  Once it is over $500, you need to document more information such as how the value was determined (independent appraisal?, comparing to other prices in the thrift store?).  Make sure to get your paperwork done at the time of donation! (
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more info)

This is all only applicable if you are itemizing your deductions. With the new increased standard deduction, this will apply to many fewer people. Is anyone else bothered that the standard deduction is increasing? Sure it is extra money in my pocket, but for most people, it eliminates charitable incentives by just handing it out to everyone. Okay, my rant is over.

3. Eliminate future Junk

Once you've gone through and purged your belongings, you'll become much more picky about what you buy.  I've personally noticed that the more crap I throw away, the less crap I buy.  Now, when I see that fun, cheap, non-necessity in the store, I see myself throwing it away in my next purge.  No longer tempting.

The bonus benefit to this one is you'll also see an increase in the quality of your products.  Example: I used to feel like I needed a new wardrobe.  I had so many worn out clothes from high school and almost nothing without pit stains.  Once I started going through it and clearing things out, I realized that I have plenty enough good clothes, they were just hiding with the old ones.  It's a work in progress, but eventually I'll get rid of all my "meh" shirts and only have "yes" shirts.  Basically, I'll get a "new" wardrobe without spending a dime, or at least if I buy something I'll know what I actually need.  Moral of the story: if you purge your crap, all you'll have is quality and you won't feel like you need to buy.

4. Open up your space

How much does your home cost per square foot?  Mine is less than most because I live in the middle of nowhere, but even my house costs $72 per square foot BEFORE you add in all the interest payments and property taxes over the years.  Let's say you clean out 10% of your space.  You've effectively just saved tens of thousands of dollars on a larger house!

If you currently rent a storage unit, there are some obvious savings potential there. Even without a storage unit, if you clear out enough space, maybe you'll consider downsizing your home or monetizing some of the space by taking in a tenant.

5. Know what you already have

How many times have you bought something only to discover you already had what you needed?  How many opened bottles of the same type of glue do you have?  Ever buy something that you know you already have but couldn't find it? Decluttering gives you a chance go dig through all of those piles and know what you already have and where it is so you don't have to hit the stores as often.

6. Shopping in your Junk

The best place to shop is your closet.  This week, a friend asked me when I start my Christmas shopping.  I gave the quick answer of "last year", but the truth is I don't really shop.  I scrounge and squirrel away.

Most things I give away cost $0-1.  I am not above re-gifting items that would become clutter at my house and love re-purposing old things. For example, I made an old pajama shirt into a toddler apron for my niece and I made string art out of some scrap particle board covered by a poor fitting t-shirt with finishing nails and embroidery thread. Just this month I turned a polo shirt into a gym bag and some dog fencing into a tomato trellis.

7. Reduce country's consumption

When you give away or sell the decluttered items, you are redistributing items to people who want it more than you do. If all items were redistributed optimally, we would buy much less as a whole.  This leads to less consumerism, stronger savings, greater physical investment, and actual growth (despite flawed GDP theories).  In other words, this is how you make America great again.

8. What goes around comes around

When a friend thinks of me, I'm much more likely to think of them.  This isn't because I require other people to give me gifts before I'll return the favor, but because their action created an association between themselves and looking out for other people.  I bet as you find thoughtful items to pair your family, friends, and associates with, you'll inspire others to do the same.  Don't be surprised when you become the recipient.

Even more than just getting things from your associates in a circle of giving, donating actually boosts your income! It sounds backwards, but there is statistical evidence to back this up. Arther C. Brooks set out on a quest to prove that earning more leads to more giving, but kept getting what he believed to be erronious results:
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giving leads to more earning. My guess is this has something to do with the fact that giving makes you happy which leads to interview accpetances and boosts job performance. In any case, what a great excuse to donate!

Basically, as backwards as it sounds to the usual "frugal hoarders", decluttering is one of the best ways to get started on a frugal life!

Resources to Help You!
Not sure where to begin? Here's 
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Heasly's list of places to purge for her "40 bags in 40 days" callenge.

Having a hard time getting rid of "just in case" items?  You could try the 
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20/20 rule by "the minimalists" or your own modified version: If it costs less than $20 to replace and can be found within a 20 min drive, just replace it when you need it.

Don't know whether to trash, donate, or sell your finds? 
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Here's a guide by "clean and scentsible".

Also from clean and scentsible:
"If you do not love it, use it, and need it, it should probably be in the garbage or donate pile.  If you are having difficulties getting rid of things, you may want to read 
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this post for some helpful tips on 
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overcoming decluttering paralysis"

Good luck friends!

If what you found was useful or interesting, please comment, pass it on, and/or pin the image above!

Text is Follow Milly on Pinterest! and Link is
Follow Milly on Pinterest!

Note: Any financial choices you make are yours alone.  I cannot be held responsible for any results or legal implications of your choices.

A Penny Saved is 1.57 Pennies Earned

January 23rd, 2018 at 10:53 pm

There is a long standing understanding that a penny saved is a penny earned.  I submit that the statement is false.  Here's why:

When you save a penny by substituting out cheaper alternatives, using coupons, or other means, you become one penny richer.

When you earn a penny, it must enter a pool of tax piranhas before you can take a fraction of it home.

Let's start at the Federal Income Tax

When looking up my effective tax rate of 2% on my federal tax return, I really don't feel that bad about taxes.  To make me even happier, it has been going down every year since we were at 7% in 2013 (before we had 3 tax credits, I mean children).

Since we are talking about the marginal level, we will ignore the effective tax and look only at the tax on that last penny earned.  For most Americans, this is a 15% tax ($18,550-$75,300 taxable income for 2016).

Social Security & Medicare Tax
Also taxed at the federal level and collected by the IRA are the Social Security Tax (6.2%) and the Medicare Tax (1.45%).  This is a flat tax with no brackets or caps until $118,000.  These taxes are in addition to the federal income tax and neither one is deductible from the other.  The vast majority of Americans pay the sum total of a 7.65%  tax towards these funds.

State Income Taxes

Each state has its own income tax and tax brackets ranging from 0-13.3%.  I'm going to use California as an example.  The average Californian household income was about $64,500 in 2015 (

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source), If they don't have a $4,522 worth of deductions, that puts them in a 6% tax bracket ($59,978-$83,258).

Running Total: 28.65% tax

Unfortunately, that's not the end of the story...

Invisible Taxes
Yup, we have those too.  It turns out businesses must also pay additional Social Security and Medicare taxes when they pay you.  Your employer sends off both portions before you see any money.  Although one is "paid by company", the company sends both portions out of your wage by simply paying you less.  This adds another 7.65% tax, bringing you up to a running total of a 36.3% tax.

Corporations also pay an "income" tax.  Economists debate as to how much of that tax is actually transferred to the workers and how much is "paid" by the share holders, but 20% of the 15%-35% tax is a pretty good estimate (
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source).  Because I have no clue how to estimate how much earnings per employee is a good estimate, I'm going to leave off this tax in my numbers. Just know that your income is taxed even higher.

A Penny saved is 1.57 Pennies earned

With a tax of 36.3%, you would have to work the equivalent of a 1.57 cent wage to take home 1 penny.

$0.0157 * (1-0.363) = $0.01

There you have it, while earning extra money is really nice, much of it disappears long before you see it.  Dollar for dollar, saving is a more powerful tool.

Obviously, there are limits to this thinking.  There is only so much money you can save and infinite money you can earn.  It is also true that there is infinite money you can want to spend.  You can have a million dollar salary and still be broke.

It is also important to note that saving money isn't really saving money if it leads to a more costly alternative.  Ignoring the oil changes and being forced to buy a new engine, is obviously a bad idea.

Where to focus your efforts, depends on where you are on your financial journey.


Disclaimer: I am not a licensed or certified financial coach, planner or adviser, just an enthusiast.  Anything I recommend should be personally analyzed and discussed with your financial adviser.

Ultimate Anti-Take Out Plan

January 23rd, 2018 at 05:19 am

It's been a long day at work and an hour past your usual dinner time.  As you approach your home, you drive past your favorite Thai restaurant.  You had better have a equally tempting anti-take out plan.

You are pregnant and feel rotten.  The more you think about food, the more disgusting it sounds.  At the same time, you know if you don't eat something soon, you'll just be sicker and your family will be grumpier.  You had better have a simple anti-take out plan.

You just got back from an extended vacation.  Anything perishable in your fridge has perished.  You haven't done any meal planning and don't have time to hit the store anyways.  You had better have a robust anti-take out plan.

The window between helping someone move and your child's performance is closing rapidly.  You are going to have about 20 min total to cook, eat, and change clothes.  You had better have a lightning-fast anti-take out plan.

Want a 5% Raise? Get an Anti-Take Out Plan
According to the

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Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American household spends $3,008 on food away from home.  Zagat determined, that
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4.5 of meals are eaten out weekly.  That's 43% of their entire food budget on about a fifth of their meals!

Surprisingly, lowest 20% of income earners, the middle 20% of income earners, and the highest 20% of income earners all spend 5.1-5.4% of their total income on eating out.  With this plan, I've reduced my eating out to less than 1% of my annual spending and even less of my annual income!  In other words, rich or poor, we can all give ourselves about a 5% raise with a solid anti-take out plan.

What type of raise do you get annually?  1-2% to keep up with
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inflation?  3-8% in a developing career?  Imagine if you could tack on an extra 5% this year! Since that is a tax-free raise (see my post:
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A penny Saved is 1.57 pennies Earned!), it is probably actually closer to 7-8%.  That is the power of an anti-take out plan.

The Anti-Take Out Plan
Option #1: Lightning Fast Meals
My favorite is meals that I can make in a flash.  If you can have a fresh, tasty, home cooked, inexpensive meal in less time than driving to a restaurant, it makes it easy to follow through.  Make sure your anti-take out plan only uses ingredients that you pretty much always have on hand.  I can make a tortilla soup in 15 minutes (instructions below), but I don't usually have 4 tomatoes available to blend (canned tomatoes?).

The key is to have lots of ingredients ready to use in the freezer.  Pre-cooked meats and diced veggies are a life saver!  Every time I cook chicken breasts on our smoker, I throw in twice as many as we need, dice it, and freeze it in Ziplocks.  Make sure to lay them flat so they are easy to break off into smaller portions or thaw quickly.  Whenever I get a bag of onions, bell peppers or broccoli are on sale, or I pull beets out of the garden, I dice them all up and do the same thing.  I even do this after cooking a pot of beans to avoid the price of canned.

If you aren't going to do any of these, at least buy frozen cooked meatballs, diced grilled chicken, and frozen veggies.  It isn't quite as cheap, but it sure beats eating out!

Here are some of my lightning fast meals, make a list of your own and post it on your fridge.

Lightning Blender Tortilla Soup (adapted from
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Danica's Daily):

Stick the following ingredients in a blender: 4 tomatoes, 1 large carrot broken in half, 1/2 onion, 1/2 bell pepper, 1 clove garlic or 1 tsp minced garlic, 1 Tbsp Taco Seasoning, 2 chicken bouillon cubes, and up to 2 cups water depending on what blends nicely in your blender.  Sometimes I also add a handful of tortilla chips to make the broth thicker.

Blend until smooth

Pour into sauce pan with remaining water, add any other ingredients you want: a drained can of corn, a drained/rinsed can of black or pinto beans, and fully cooked diced or shredded chicken (if you happen to have it on hand).

Cook until it doesn't taste oniony (boil 5 min?)

Serve topped with tortilla chips, cheese, and sour cream (cilantro, avocados, and/or olives if you are feeling fancy and have the time to chop it while it cooks)

Spaghetti with meatballs

Boil water and prepare noodles according to package

Meanwhile, thaw pre-cooked frozen meatballs in microwave

Lightly grill the meatballs in a sauce pan or on a George Forman

Add a can of spaghetti sauce to the meatballs and cook till warm

If you have time while the rest cooks, butter up some bread, sprinkle with garlic salt, and broil for a couple minutes (check often!) for garlic toast.

Grilled Veggie Quesadillas

Grill all sorts of veggies, beans, and leftovers together with some garlic salt (favorites: onions, tomatoes, corn, spinach, beans)

Layer with cheese on a tortilla and top with another tortilla or fold in half

Grill in pan or on griddle, flipping once (unless you are using your $4 thrift store
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quesadilla maker woot!)

BBQ Ranch Chicken Quesadillas
This was our fall back meal in college, but it always felt like we were getting a special treat.

Thaw frozen cooked diced chicken

Put cheese and chicken on tortilla and smother in ranch and BBQ sauce, top with another tortilla or fold in half

Grill in pan or on griddle, flipping once

Chicken 'n Ranch Grilled Sandwiches (From
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Life in the Loft House

This is a brand new discovery I got from my "
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Monthly Meals" Pinterest Group Board.  I LOVE IT!
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Here's the recipe

Mexican Tuna Wraps (From
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Kim's Cravings)

The flavors sound weird, but it turns out SO GOOD!  I usually have my super easy homemade yogurt on hand, but if you don't have plain yogurt, you can just use all mayo.  Make sure to drain things very well it always goes a little runny the second day (still good, just pour it off... or drink it).  The only thing I change is I omit the olives and avocados (for time and cost) and use a little less tuna (a 7 oz can).  
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Here's the recipe

Microwave Baked Potatoes

Scrub a few potatoes

Stab them several times with a fork (to prevent explosions)

Double wrap them in tied grocery sacks

Nuke them in the microwave for a few minutes per potato (we do about 15 min for 4 potatoes)

Top with baked potato toppings (butter, cheese, sour cream, chives, peas, salt, pepper), or BBQ sauce and ranch, or warmed up chili and cheese.

Stir Fry Ramen
Break ramen noodles apart and boil for like 5 minutes

Drain most of the water

Add seasoning packet, 2 eggs, 1 Tbsp butter, any veggies you have on hand, any meats you have on hand, and optional seasonings (soy sauce, crushed red pepper, crushed peanuts, etc)

Stir Fry until desired consistency

Cheater Omelets

Fun fact: I was an omelet chef my freshman year in college.  I learned how to make a lot of omelets in a little amount of time.  I also learned how to flip spatulas, spin pans, and made stick figures out of omelet slices (the many adventures of Greg the Egg), but back to making omelets.

Put a little oil in the pan and get it medium hot

Throw in some onions, bell peppers, or whatever (zucchini tastes good too, get creative) and saute

Whisk 2 eggs together (or even use a blender because the more homogenized the easier it is)

Pour into pan with veggies

Work the edges of the egg with a high temperature spatula, tilting the pan to get the uncooked egg underneath the cooked layer.

Get the whole omelet loose so when you shake the pan, the omelet slides freely

Flip the omelet upside down to finish cooking the top side

Top with cheese

Optional: serve with salsa and sour cream or baked beans

Note: If you are making lots of omelets, it might be worth it to go the normal route and have a separate pan for sauted veggies.  In that case you would flip the omelet, top with veggies and cheese, and fold in half like a taco.  But then again, if you are making more than two of them, it isn't really a lightning meal.

Huevos Rancheros
Fry an egg
Place on lightly toasted corn tortilla
Top with cheese, refried beans,
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Mexican style rice, or whatever else you have and salsa

#2: Frozen Meals
Ever have leftovers?  Lots of the freezer meals you see online require planning ahead, setting something in a slow cooker at least 4 hours before consumption, and waiting.  That's great if you know you're going to be low on time (scheduled events with a small dinner window).  Most of the time, though, you'll need your anti-take out strategy last minute.  You need something that can heat up in a microwave and still taste great.

Whenever you finish a meal and there is enough leftovers for tomorrow's lunch and then some, think to yourself if you've ever seen something like it as a frozen entree (think Lean Cuisine and TV dinners).  Meats, cooked veggies, beans, cheese, breads, pastas, rice and broths all freeze very well.  Fresh veggies and milk based soups/sauces don't.

Whenever you make a classic freezer item, go ahead and make some extra and portion it out for your next anti-take out strike.  Whenever I make pizza, I make an extra pan, cut it into gallon-sized Ziplock squares and stack them in the freezer.  It can be thawed in the opened bag in the microwave, then popped onto a pan under the broiler to avoid the soggy microwave finish (or just use one method).

Option #3: Commercially Ready Dinners
These are generally more expensive than prepping your own meals, but they sure beat eating out!  Don't feel guilty if you have a bunch of commercial ready-made food in your freezer as long as you don't use it for normal dinners.  You are saving money and it probably isn't any worse than the fast food alternative.

Some frozen foods we like are: chicken nuggets, green chili steak burritos, orange chicken, pot pies, corn dogs, and steamer bags of veggies.

Some boxed/bagged foods we like are: Bear Creek Country Kitchen
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soup mixes, stuffing, instant potatoes, ramen noodles, and pancake mix.

Just because you are eating out of a box doesn't mean you have to feel like it.  You can make your own dip concoctions for your chicken nuggets or corn dogs while they cook.  Put shredded lettuce and salsa on top of your microwaved burrito.  Dress up a can of tomato soup with some grilled cheese for dipping.  Add a side of canned veggies or quick rice.  Top your main dish with cilantro, basil, cheese, sour cream or anything else you want.

Here's one complete meal that you can make as fast as you can boil a few pots of water:
Pot 1: Instant Mashed Potato Flakes (follow directions on box)

Pot 2: Stuffing Mix (follow directions on box, I throw in a hand full or two of Craisins for extra flavor)

Pot 3: Gravy= Put as much measured water as you want gravy in a pot.  Add 1.5 tsp chicken bouillon (
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this brand is preferred for both flavor and cost) for each cup water.  Bring to a boil.  Separately mix 1 Tbsp cold water and 1 Tbsp corn starch for each cup gravy.  Whisk corn starch slurry into boiling broth.  Cook until thickened.

Microwave (optional): Throw some frozen veggies in a bowl, add a little water, cover with a plate, and nuke it until heated through.

Option #4: Snacks
One final strategy is to buy yourself some time with filling snacks.

When we are out of town at the doctor's I would much rather bring some
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Trail Mix granola bars to keep my kids happy for an extra hour and warm up some leftover lunch when I get home.  I keep quite a few in my van's center console and at only $0.25/bar (Costco), it saves me quite a bit on fast food.

Find what snacks are convenient for your family and keep good in a hot car.

At home, if we get back late and need something to hold us over, smoothies are our go to "half-meal".  We keep
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Kirkland Signature 3-berry blend as well as
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Wawona festival blend in our freezer at all times.  Throw in some homemade yogurt if you have it, any near-date fruit you have, some fruit juice if able, and oats if you want it to be more filling.  Don't tell my husband, but I always throw in a carrot with the tropical smoothies or beets with the berries (color match).  Blend till smooth.  Once you've downed a full glass of real food like that, you can get away with something pretty small, simple, and late for dinner.

Which Anti-Take Out Plan is for You?
Probably all of them.  You need to have several options available to make the system robust.  You need fresh food when you feel like it, prepared food when you are out of ingredients, and sometimes you just need food NOW.  If you only have microwavable burritos in your arsenal you will get tired and hit that Thai restaurant.  Get stocked up on several strategies.

Just reading this blog post isn't going to change anything long-term.  You need to make a plan and get organized.  Spend the next few minutes with a piece of paper or at least a bulleted list on your mobile device.  List every lightning meal that you usually have the ingredients for.  List all of the commercially prepared meals you usually have on hand.  Put the paper on the fridge and add to it every time you remember another one or come up with a new concoction that is worth repeating. (Then pin this to help your friends too!)

Above all else, please don't be caught saying "I can't afford the down payment on a house", "I can't max out my IRA", or "I am one of the
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69% of Americans who have less than $1,000 in an emergency fund"... "because I'm too lazy for an anti-take out plan."


Disclaimer: I am not a licensed or certified financial coach, planner or adviser, just an enthusiast.  Anything I recommend should be personally analyzed and discussed with your financial adviser.