Cast Iron Cookware

cast_ironFor most stove-top cooking, nothing cooks better and more economically than good cast-iron cookware.  Anyone trying to save money should have a lot of cast iron in the kitchen.

I rarely pass up a chance to purchase a good piece of cast iron at a thrift store or yard sale.  I sometimes buy pieces that duplicate what I already have — I’ll leave them to my children someday.  (One my my daughters even said she’d like to have some of my cast iron.)  Old made-in-U.S.A. pieces are especially desirable.  Look for very smooth cooking surfaces that are typical of well-made older skillets and griddles.  Once at the local thrift shop I found a 13-inch frying pan in wonderful condition.  Inside, it was almost as smooth as glass.  Not one, but two people (an older man who looked like someone from Duck Dynasty and a black woman who clearly appeared as if she knew how to cook any southern dish) followed me, eying my find, from the time I picked it up until I paid for it and left the premises.  They might have considered what degree of bodily harm they were ready to inflict on me if doing so would gain the prize, but after all, I was a man openly carrying a 13-inch cast-iron frying pan.

Cast iron is tough.  Durable enough to last pretty-much forever.  With proper care it develops a natural nonstick surface that gets better the more you use it.  If the surface is ruined through careless use, it can be restored.  The basics of caring for cast iron is to clean it no more than necessary.  For light cleaning, just wiping it with a clean, dry paper towel may be all that’s necessary.  For medium jobs, scrub it with a clean dish brush and hot water (no soap or detergent).  Only rarely, for the heaviest cleaning, should you use a small amount of dish detergent with hot water and a brush, and only for a short time.  Never allow cast iron to soak in water, especially not soapy water.  Dry well, perhaps heating for a minute on the stove, before putting it away.  It’s also good to melt a small amount of vegetable shortening and use a clean paper towel to wipe the cast iron inside and out with it before storing.

Almost every day, I use cast iron pots, skillets, and griddles that belonged to my grandmother.  Others belonged to my grandmother-in-law.  I also have pieces that I purchased at a church yard sale years ago, and they are in better shape now than when I got them.  They have outlasted almost every piece of nonstick cookware I have ever owned.  In my experience, moderately-priced nonstick cookware always starts to lose its nonstick surface after a few years; it actually peels off into the food that’s being cooked.  Yuck.  Super-expensive nonstick cookware may last longer, but its price is a big downside.  In my house, the few expensive nonstick cookware skillets I own get used only for cooking eggs … scrambled, fried, sunny-side up, over-easy or omelets.  (Scrambled eggs made with a double-boiler are the best.  But that’s a story for another post.)

Be on the lookout for old cast iron and you will eat well and save money for the rest of your life.

Stay Cool With Window Fans

window_fanDuring summer, when the days are the hottest and most humid, you need air-conditioning in your home.  But what about when it’s merely warm during the day, yet cool after the sun sets?  During the temperate seasons, usually in spring and fall, your house can be uncomfortably warm inside even when the air outside is cool and comfortable.  Lots of cool air outside, free for the taking.  But inside your house is too warm.  You might open the windows, but what if the air isn’t moving?  If only there was a breeze to move the cool air in and the warm air out!

If nature doesn’t provide a breeze, make your own with window fans.  All fans make you feel cooler by moving air over your body — as long as the air is cooler than body temperature, moving air will make you feel cooler.  Window fans not only move the air, they exchange the air inside for air from outside.  Whenever the air outside is cooler than the air inside, window fans can cool your house for much less than the cost of air-conditioning.  Air-conditioners use a lot of electrical power (i.e., money) to cool the air.  Window fans don’t cool the air, they merely move cool air from outside to inside.

You can choose which direction you want the air to move through a window fan: from outside to inside, or vice-versa.  You might experiment with two window fans in the same room or opposite rooms, one fan set to intake, the other to exhaust.  Another possibility is a window fan in an upstairs room set to exhaust and another one downstairs set to intake.  This takes advantage of the fact that warm air naturally rises.

Use window fans to keep comfortable without air conditioning for as long as possible and you will see the difference in your electric bills, and your bank account.

Convert Coins to Dollars

coinsWhat do you do with coins you get in change from cash purchases?  Do you just put them down here or there, letting them accumulate in various drawers or wherever?  You shouldn’t be careless with your coins.  If you consistently put them into a piggy bank or coin jar, you’ll be surprised how quickly they grow into dollars.

When your coin jar is too full, ask your bank or credit union if they accept loose coins.  Some might have a coin counting machine.  If they require coins to be rolled, get some coin wrappers (if you ask nicely at a bank they might give you some for free or you can try a dollar store) and spend some time counting and wrapping.  Beware of coin-counting machines in grocery stores.  Don’t use a commercial coin-counting machine unless it’s completely free, which usually means you need to make a purchase of some sort and you shouldn’t do that unless you really need the required purchase.  Coin-counting machines in grocery stores typically charge a 9% fee.  Think about that: paying 9 cents to count a coins worth a dollar, maybe just 4 quarters.  Better to count them yourself and take them your bank or credit union.

coin_wrappersI had a gallon pickle jar with a slot in the lid that I kept on the floor next to the couch.*  Every time I had any coins at the end of the day I’d put them into the jar.  When the jar was about 2/3 full, it broke when someone moved it.  (So be careful!)  When counted, the coins added up to a few hundred dollars.

Another idea:  Something else you can do with coins is make an effort to spend your coins, especially pennies.  Instead of accumulating them, make it a point to carry them and use them whenever you make a cash purchase.  Using a few pennies on a small cash purchase, say something that costs a dollar or two, is like getting a discount of a few percent, compared with stashing the pennies somewhere and never using them.  I try to carry an assortment of coins and will often pay the odd cents portion of what I owe with coins.  For example, my purchases total $15 and 63¢.  I pay the 63 cents with coins and put the even 15 dollars on my credit card (which I pay off in full more than once per month).  Do that a few times, and I have a dollar or two in my checking account that wouldn’t be there if I hadn’t made an effort to spend those cents.


* It was an experiment.  I had heard that a large dollar coin, an Eisenhower dollar for example, would rise to the top in a jar full of coins due to its larger size relative to the other coins.  An example of the scientific principle of granular convection, which explains how rocks come up from deeper in the ground, as happens in farmers’ fields.  The experiment with the Eisenhower dollar didn’t work the way I thought it would.  But cashing in the coins for large deposit to my checking account sure was nice.

Do You Really Need a Smartphone?

cell_phoneI’ll admit it’s really cool to have a phone that you can use to play games, look at the Internet, watch movies, chat, and … make phone calls.  But is it worth a thousand dollars a year?  If you’re reading a blog like this, I would suggest that the answer might be no.  I haven’t yet made the transition to a smartphone.  I have a dumbphone.  A basic cellphone.  A basic model from Tracfone, to be specific.  I can use it for telephone calls.  I can send text messages.  I can take photos.  I especially like that it takes a 32 GB micro SD card that can hold many hours of music, podcasts, and old radio shows.   It has a something called a “browser”, but whatever that is, it’s completely useless.  It cost about $30 when it was new.  If you want to get one, it’s less than half that now.  It has already lasted almost 3 years — so that comes to about $10 per year for the phone.  I buy a prepaid service card that keeps the phone working for a year and gives me more minutes of service than I use in a year.  These cards have a face value of $100, but they can be had for less than than on eBay or when Tracfone has a promotion.  Three years of phone service for less than $300, plus $30 for the phone itself.  That’s about $9 per month.

So tell me, what does a smartphone cost per month?

Maybe you could replace the smartphone with a dumbphone, er, a basic cellpone, and if you need diversion, instead texting and playing, you could just listen to MP3s and read actual books made of paper and ink.

If you decide that you absolutely must have a smartphone, you can still save quite a bit of money by getting one that works with prepaid service.  If you buy one separately from the phone service, you’ll probably pay less.  Getting a cellphone for “free” while paying $$$ per month on a long term contract is usually the most expensive way to get a smartphone.  You can find good phones on eBay and then use a bring-your-own phone service.  You won’t get the latest greatest smartphone, but you will pay a lot less.

One more tip:  Keep your phone in a case when you’re not using it and it will last much longer.

Use Spray Bottles for Dishwashing Liquid

capDid you ever notice that it’s not easy to get just a small amount of dishwashing liquid from the bottle it’s sold in?  Dishwashing liquid generally comes in bottles with spouts in the bottle caps.  If you want to squeeze out enough to make a sink full of suds and wash a lot of dishes, fine.  But it’s quite difficult to squeeze out only a small amount, like you might need for washing just a plate and a glass.  Maybe the makers of dish detergent are aware of this?  Would they have any reason to make it likely that you’ll use more of their product than needed?

sprayerOne way to easily get just the amount you need for small jobs is to use a bottle with a trigger sprayer (e.g., an empty Windex bottle.)  Depending what kind of bottle you have, you might be able to take the spray top off the bottle it came with and use it to replace the original dishwashing liquid bottle cap — or you may need to transfer the liquid into the spray bottle.  Either way, you’ll be able to use the spray trigger to get just the right amount for any job, small or large.  One additional tip:  you may need to dilute the dishwashing liquid with some water to make it spray more easily.  Try it, and see how little dishwashing liquid you need to make those dishes sparkle and shine!

Re-Use Cereal Bags

cereal_bagDo you throw away cereal bags, a.k.a dry food inner liners, the bags inside boxes in which corn flakes and other breakfast cereals and crackers are packaged?  Those are high-quality bags.  No reason to throw them away after just one use.  When the cereal is gone, rinse the bag and place it somewhere to dry, making sure it’s wide open.  Next time you need a bag for food storage, you’ve got one.  I use them for storing bakery goods that come packed in flimsy cellophane.  (I’m looking at you, Costco muffins.)

If you want to re-use a cereal bag you need to do some work the first time you open the bag, which is this: You need to open it carefully, just breaking the seal at the top.  I do this by grasping the bag on each side in the middle between the ends of the bag just below the seal and then I gently pull the seal apart from inside.  This is a technique that needs to be taught to younger members of your household.  In my house, if I don’t open them before my kids do, cereal bags usually look like they’ve been opened by bears during a campground raid.

If you try, you can find lots of ways to re-use plastic bags and other packaging, thus cutting down on the number of store-bought bags you use.  Of course, grocery-store bags make good liners for small bathroom trash cans.  The plastic that wraps a large pack of paper towels or toilet paper can also be fashioned into a liner for a small trash can.

Cut Your Hair Yourself

bakerRussell Baker cuts his own hair … and he hosted Masterpiece Theater for 12 years.  I read Mr Baker’s column about cutting his own hair many years ago, and thought, if Russell Baker can do it, I can do it too, though I didn’t start doing it until many years after I read about Mr Baker’s tonsorial accomplishments.  This advice might make sense only for men.  Not being a woman, I don’t know how easily women can cut their own hair, unless they are happy with a regular haircut.  But speaking as a man, I can say it’s pretty easy to give myself a basic haircut.  I use a Wahl haircutting set that I bought at a local department store and includes an electric clippers and the usual #1 through #8 guide combs.  It came with a plastic case, which is very handy for storage between uses.  If I want short hair, which I like during the summer, I use the #1 on the back and sides, #2 on the top, and #3 on the front.  If I want longer hair, I use the #6, #7, and #8.  It takes some practice to learn to cut your own hair, just like any other skill.  And, like anything else, there are videos on Youtube that provide helpful hints and tips.  Here’s one:

My 2¢: When I do the back of my neck, I stand between two parallel mirrors (one on the medicine cabinet and one on the bathroom door) arranged so I can see the back of my own neck (not to mention, infinity).  I carefully place the edge of the clippers at the hairline and then move it down — not up!

wahlA set of clippers and everything else you need costs maybe $30 to $40  Let’s assume a haircut costs at least $15, plus a tip, and maybe some gas and wear-and-tear on a car.  Suppose you normally get a haircut every 2 months.  If you buy a clippers set and start doing it yourself, then after a year, you will save $60. (The first two uses pay for the clippers, the rest is your earnings for employing yourself to cut your hair.)  The second year, you get $90.  If you get haircuts more often or pay more for them, then you’ll save more.

Cutting your hair yourself at home not only saves money, it also saves time.  You don’t need to transport your hair to the barber shop (hair salon, whatever).  You don’t have to sit and wait your turn.  You can cut your own hair anytime you want, like late at night when the shops are closed.  Less expensive and more convenient.  Why not?

Get a VHS Player

diaboliqueIf you have memories from before the 2000s,  you might remember when “videos” meant “videotapes”, usually in VHS format.  (“Betamax” was the other format, but it was the loser in the videotape format war.)  Despite being replaced by the DVD, there are still huge numbers of movies and other forms of fine video entertainment available on VHS tape.  Today they are available at bargain prices.  You can find them at Goodwill stores and other thrift shops, library book sales, yard sales, and the like.  Ebay and Craigslist also.  Many of these tapes have never been viewed and are still in their original shrink wrap.  Others, though unwrapped, are in perfect or near-perfect condition.  Look at the the plastic cassette and label.  The less worn and handled they look, the more likely the tape is in good-or-better condition and will play perfectly.  If the exterior of the cassette is very worn, scratched, or dirty, then it’s probably seen better days, and there’s a good chance the tape has been played many times and may be worn out to the point of being unwatchable.

Many manufacturers make DVD-VHS combo players that can play both DVDs and VHS tapes.  I find it’s worth having one so I can take advantage of the current buyer’s market in VHS tapes.  They often sell for $1 each or even less.  I can’t count how many movies I have watched and enjoyed on VHS.  In retail stores, there might be a few DVDs that cost $1, but they are old out-of-copyright second- and third-rate movies and television shows of the lowest quality.  Or they might be good movies that are out of copyright, but the DVD has been produced from an inferior copy of the original, maybe a tape that was created for television 30 years ago, badly cropped and edited for commercials.  The VHS tapes of yesteryear, on the other hand, are major motion pictures, Academy-award winners, things a movie-buff would really want to see.  Sure, a DVD will produce a better picture, but there a lots of movies I’m just not willing to spend $15 or more to see.  Pre-recorded VHS tapes are a very affordable alternative to DVDs.

$30 For Carrying a Box to Work

mottsI like a snack after lunch.  Snacks from the vending machines cost between $1 and $2 each.  So this past weekend at Costco I bought a box of 36 snack-sized packs of applesauce.  The box weighed about 9 pounds and cost about $10.  I think it was on sale, so, thanks to that I’ll save a bit more than I otherwise would have.  I can substitute a serving of applesauce for whatever I might buy from the vending machine.   At one snack per day, 36 snacks from the vending machine would cost $45 over the course of about seven weeks  With my applesauce, I can snack for about $10 over that period.  Thus, a savings of over $30.

I’ve done the same thing the large bags of dried apricots, figs, prunes, and Craisins.  I could also do the same with a box of single-serving bags of potato chips or microwave popcorn.  The principle is the same: instead of paying the guy that stocks the vending machine to bring snacks to your workplace, bring the snacks yourself and pocket the delivery fee. Thing about the delivery fee:  A large part of retail prices, especially for food in serving-size packages, is the cost of convenience: the cost of delivery and stocking in convenience stores and vending machines.  Do the inconvenient thing, get these food items from a superstore and do the delivery yourself.  Your bank account will thank you.


* I’ll save, or I’ll or earn, depending how you look at it; a penny saved is a penny earned. In a sense, I’ve earned that $30 by doing the delivery and stocking work myself.

Pay Attention to Expiration Dates

I was really peeved yesterday to find that there were two large containers of yogurt in my refrigerator.  This table shows the state they were in when I found them.

Two Yogurt Containers In My Refrigerator
Container Contents Expiration Date
A Open, nearly empty Still in future
B Full, unopened Already past

Arrrrgh!  At some point a week or two ago someone did not look at the expiration dates and opened and started eating the yogurt from the container with the expiration date furthest in the future (A) instead of the one with the nearest expiration date (B).  Now enough time has passed so that the yogurt with the expiration date furthest in the future was mostly already eaten, while the yogurt that had the nearest expiration date, which should have been eaten first, was well past its expiration date but was still unopened.  I opened it this morning and took a bite.  There wasn’t any mold growing on it and it still looked good. It didn’t taste completely spoiled, but it did have a overly-sour taste.  Too bad.  I had to throw it away.  A few dollars gone.  Lesson learned.  Rotate stock.  Check dates.