Goals

Finding Savings in the Fridge: Tokyo Here We Come

Last February, I wrote about how my family is saving up to spend a month in Tokyo next year. It’s been over three months since then, and the saving is still exhilarating. Any “found money” is going into the trip fund: random stuff I sell on eBay, birthday checks from aunts and uncles, the contents of the penny jar.

In addition, any money left over at the end of the week, the day before payday, goes into the Tokyo Fund. But I didn’t expect this to move the needle. I’ve been saying for years that there’s no such thing as leftover money, and that you have to (wait for it)pay yourself first if you want to have any hope of saving.

Yes, I am making the oldest argument in the history of personal finance: money not set aside in a hard-to-reach place gets spent. Stop the presses! I’m no better than you. Probably worse. Every week I pay myself an allowance for groceries, dining out, and entertainment. And every week, I spend it down to about 72 cents.

Look, I’ll prove it. Let’s fire up the time machine and set it for January 2011.

FUTURE MATTHEW: How much slack would you say there is in your weekly budget?

PAST MATTHEW: About 72 cents.

FUTURE MATTHEW: Come on, I printed a giant page of frugality tips for you.

PAST MATTHEW: Okay, maybe three bucks. Now get lost, old man.

Here’s how much I’ve actually scavenged from the weekly budget over the past 30 days: $195.72. We’re 37% of the way to our goal, according to Mint Goals.

Where did the money come from? Stay tuned.

Eat it

For years, my wife has suggested (gently and occasionally) that we finish eating what’s in the refrigerator before buying new stuff.

Perhaps you’ve heard this from someone in your family. Perhaps you read a book or article about how a huge proportion of food in the US is wasted. Perhaps you see yourself as a frugal person and experience nauseating waves of cognitive dissonance when you buy eight ingredients for a recipe from today’s paper even though three meals’ worth of food sits forlornly at home.

My sample may be biased, but it appears that roughly 100% of web pages are devoted to either cat photos or frugality tips. (I have SafeSearch turned on.) I like frugality tips, especially food-related ones, and am always keen to press them upon my long-suffering friends, but do they actually work?

They don’t work very well on me. If I have money to spend, and a new issue of Martha Stewart Everyday Food lands in the mailbox, I’m not going to reheat lasagna. I’m going to flip to the “Have You Tried?” section, and I am going to try it.

When it comes to food, I’m Barney Stinson. Yesterday’s ingredients are so yesterday. I want to cook a new recipe with whatever looks squeezably fresh at the market.

Thanks to my miserly vacation-addled brain, though, I’m a new man. Crisper drawer, look out: Daddy’s home.

Frugal? Make me

Yes, this is all so facile: pay yourself first and make no little plans. But I’m astounded at how much we’ve been able to wring out of the weekly budget. After our trip, presumably I will have used up my store of willpower and environmental virtue and I’ll go on a three-week bender of cooking a fancy new recipe every day and letting yesterday’s produce melt down into toxic sludge at the bottom of the refrigerator.

But that’s next year. For now, I’m like that guy on TV who will come over to your house, stick his head in the refrigerator, and whip up dinner. Okay, so far I’ve only done it at my house, but you’re next.

At the risk of stepping on Frugal Foodie‘s toes, I would like to offer a couple of tips for cooking from the fridge. You’re welcome to do what I do with frugality tips: print them out, nod sagely, and then recycle the paper.

1. Cabbage is cheap, durable, and crazy versatile. Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t have put cabbage first. But I bought a large head of cabbage for under $2 this week, and so far it’s turned into coleslaw, stir-fried cabbage with ginger, and sauteed cabbage as a base for a taco salad-like concoction with pork, lime juice, and hot sauce. More to the point, when I know there’s cabbage in the fridge, I won’t venture into the produce section and buy three new vegetables.

2. Pork shoulder is cheap and versatile, and unlike cabbage, it’s meat. You can slow-roast it, carve it flamboyantly at the table, and eat leftovers in sandwiches. You can stir-fry it. You can grind it for meatballs, either in the food processor or with a stand mixer grinder attachment. You can cut it into cubes and make carnitas. And, like cabbage, when there’s pork shoulder at home, it inoculates me against impulse meat purchases. (Eww, inoculated meat.)

3. Pizza dough. Whip some up, freeze it, and you will have the makings of homemade pizza any time. It defrosts quickly, and you always have some mozzarella and half a jar of spaghetti sauce on hand, right?

More to the point: no one ever says, “Pizza? Again?”

Matthew Amster-Burton is a personal finance columnist at Mint.com. Find him on Twitter @Mint_Mamster.