Friday, December 30, 2016

How To Get The Most Out Of Your SNAP Food Benefits

Vegetables 0006
By Biswarup Ganguly (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Popularly known as 'food stamps,' the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program services 21,372,935 households in the United States as of May 2016 (source). If you are a member of one of those households (as I am at the time of this writing), using these benefits in lieu of cash presents unique challenges. These benefits generally only apply to groceries that are not sold hot and don't come from the deli section of a grocer. Further limiting the usefulness of SNAP is the fact that not every grocery store accepts it. That said, food stamps are still a wonderful resource for low-income individuals and families and can be stretched nearly as far as cash with some smart planning. Below are some tips on how to make the most of your benefits.

  1. Make a tiered list of your grocery needs, and apply your benefits in order. First tier is staples to build meals around (starches like rice, pasta, potatoes, cereal, corn or cornmeal, oats, and flour; cheap protein like beans, lentils, eggs, chicken, and pork). Second tier is cheap vegetables and fruit to fill out meals with. (Often, frozen or canned vegetables are much cheaper than fresh, but this depends on the vegetable. Salsa provides a serving of vegetables and can be bought or made cheaply. Bananas, oranges, and apples are usually the cheapest fruits.) Third tier is cheap dairy (cheese and milk are great sources of calcium, and yogurt and cottage cheese are relatively cheap protein sources). Fourth tier is accents like spices/herbs and oil to make meals more palatable as well as 'meal accompaniments' like juice, sugar, and butter. Fifth tier is luxury foods like chips, soda, and desserts. The fifth tier could also be replaced with good pantry-building foods that will last long-term in case your household loses benefits. Fifth tier foods should ideally be purchased at the end of the month to make sure there are enough of the first four tiers to last all month.
  2. Eat simple, cheap meals until the end of the month. Generally, it is better to save special meals for the end of the month to make sure your money stretches throughout the month. When my family first entered a financial situation where applying for food assistance became necessary, a total mental shift was required. Rather than eating our favorite meals throughout the month, we tend to subsist mostly on cheap meals like beans and rice with vegetables and a small amount of shredded chicken. The last week of the month, we'll get the ingredients for 'special' meals like spaghetti and meatballs with parmesan or ravioli and pesto. Breakfast the first three weeks of the month is usually eggs and fruit or vegetables with a cheap starch (like fried potatoes or oatmeal), and the last week we'll have biscuits with jam or breakfast casseroles a couple of times.
  3. Even if you don't have time to cook entirely from scratch, try to make the things that are low-effort instead of buying them. A few examples of this are roast chicken if you have a crockpot (a whole chicken or chicken pieces can roast during the day or overnight with very little prep time), soda bread if you don't have a bread maker or sandwich bread if you do, and self-mixed spice blends instead of preblended (like taco or fajita seasoning). Cooking beans from dry in a crockpot is also very low in effort and prep time, and saves a bit of money over canned.
  4. Make larger portions than you need to have leftovers on hand instead of buying cold prepared food. When there's nothing in the fridge, the premade sandwiches, salads, and wraps available at most grocery stores are tempting. They're less so when there's food in the fridge that can quickly be warmed and eaten or packed along to work or on outings.
Although these tips may seem obvious, they're things that my family had to learn the hard way. Hopefully they can help another household get through their season of scarcity as they have helped me.

Cheapskate Gourmet: Eating Like Royalty On A Peasant's Budget

Chocolate Truffle Cake (5354498813)
By Dennis Wong from Hong Kong, Hong Kong (Chocolate Truffle Cake) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


A few years ago, I found myself facing a dilemma. I love good food... but I also love keeping money in my bank account where it belongs. I wanted to find a way to eat luxuriously on the cheap. After a period of trial and error, I've come up with a system that works for me (and hopefully it works for you, too!).

  • Plan ahead. It's possible to eat luxuriously on a limited budget, but it requires foresight. I have a monthly food budget ($300 or so per month for my family of four).To ensure that my money stretches all month, I plan my food purchases and menu carefully. I build my food budget around the meals I want, picking high quality ingredients and then filling in what I can afford around that. What works for me is shopping every two weeks, so I split my budget in half, pick my 'special' meals, fill in my staples, and check prices ahead of time to see where I can save money.
  • Build a well-stocked pantry. I set aside a certain amount every month (anywhere from $10-50) for building my pantry. I base my purchases around sales so that I have high quality ingredients on hand that I paid well below normal price for. If good olive oil or coconut oil is on sale one week, I pick up enough for 2-3 months. If there's a sale on expensive fish, I'll buy several servings and freeze a few of them. In this way, I don't have to shell out for all of the ingredients for a gourmet meal at once.
  • Be open to substitutions. Sometimes, subbing cheaper ingredients in for the more expensive ones is barely noticeable and will save you quite a bit of money. Many recipes that call for heavy cream would be just as good with half and half (which is quite a bit cheaper). If a recipe calls for salmon, I often substitute steelhead trout (which has a lighter flavor, is much cheaper, and carries similar flavor combinations very well). If you do a bit of research into food substitutions, you can find several excellent lists of substitutions to try that will save you cash.
  • Experiment with making your own gourmet ingredients. Roasted garlic, roasted red peppers, cooking wine, crema, infused oils, flavored vinegars, pickled vegetables, stocks and broths, nut butters, yogurt, fresh cheeses, and a multitude of other ingredients are surprisingly easy and cheap to manufacture at home. If there is an ingredient that seems too expensive to pay regular price for, do a quick internet search for ways to make it at home. You'd be surprised how many things you can create for a fraction of the price!
  • Moderation is key. Unfortunately, being a cheapskate means some amount of sacrifice is necessary. While you can enjoy the finer things in life on a budget, you may not be able to do so every day. I generally pick 4-8 'special' meals to make every month, and eat simple wholesome food the rest of the month. Honestly, I've found that giving my palette a break from rich and complex flavors makes me appreciate them more when I do have them.
  • Consider cutting down on meat consumption to afford better cuts. It's very possible to eat shrimp, lobster, and steak on a budget, but it requires careful planning and sacrifice. In order to afford the better meat and seafood that my family enjoys, we eat vegetarian 4-6 days every week. When we do eat animal protein, we have room in the budget for the high-quality cuts and varieties that we enjoy the most. I find we all enjoy it more this way, both because of the novelty and the higher quality ingredients.
I live by these tips, and it has allowed me to expose my kids to a huge variety of foods without breaking the bank. Do you have any tips of your own? Drop a comment below!

Signing off now -- the eggplant parmigiana is just about ready, and it smells divine.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Three Tips For Making Money On Clickworker When Work Is Slow


 
Dollar symbol
By Svilen.milev (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
 
Clickworker can be a great source of income from home. When work is good, it’s really good -- I’ve made around $25/hour some days. However, work can also slow down to a crawl -- especially at the end of the year and beginning of January! I thought I’d put together a few tips to help my fellow Clickworkers (or those thinking about joining!) keep profiting through the off-season.


Refresh often.
New jobs pop up every few minutes (even this time of year, there are new jobs available at least two or three times an hour). If there’s nothing available, refresh every few seconds until something is! It may feel like wasted time, but a little bit of piecework is better than nothing!


Don’t get hung up on UHRS.
If there’s nothing available on UHRS, check on the jobs available on the main workplace! No, they don’t always pay as well, but there’s usually something to do when you’ve exhausted your higher-paying options on UHRS.


Consider having Clickworker as your backup to other money-makers.
When work is extremely slow, it might be a good idea to switch back and forth between Clickworker and other survey or microwork sites. Work is often slow across ALL of these sites during this season, so leveraging a few at once will help make sure you’re not staring at a screen all day waiting for something to do.


At the end of the day, know that Clickworker will not always be able to provide you a liveable wage. During busy times, it’s possible to make well over minimum wage -- but when things are slow, I’m lucky to make $3/hour. While this is nowhere close to ideal, it can fill in the gaps when work is slow elsewhere online as well. Clickworker isn’t a site that can put a full-time income in your pocket year-round, but even in the offseason it can be worth your time if you don’t rely on it too heavily and you’re smart about finding work.

*This is an affiliate link. If you sign up for Clickworker through my link, I will be paid $5 after you make your first $10 through the site.