How to start cooking for yourself

I’ve often mentioned that being able to prepare your own food is a key financial skill. I’m finally going to put my money where my mouth is– or my mouth where my money is?– and offer some super easy, basic recipe ideas to inspire those who almost never cook to start making a few more meals at home.

I’ll break these down by meal times, but there’s nothing wrong with breakfast food for dinner or vice versa!

selective focus photography of pasta with tomato and basil
Mmmm… a home-cooked meal!

Dinner

Dinner is probably the meal that most people go out for or get takeout. You’re tired, you don’t want to think, and you’re hangry after a long day of work. Pasta is a great answer here.

Spaghetti

The sauce

Get a jarred pasta sauce, or plain tomato sauce (29 oz can per 1 lb dried pasta), 1 lb of dried pasta, 1 lb ground meat, and any fresh veggies or spices that you feel like adding. Fry the sliced veggies (diced onion, say) in oil on medium/med-high, then add the ground meat. Cook the meat until no longer pink, then add 1-2 minced/pressed garlic cloves and your spices (dried basil, oregano, or garlic powder if you didn’t add any fresh garlic), fry another couple minutes, add a splash of red wine if you have it open, then dump in the pasta sauce. Simmer for at least 10 minutes on low.

The noodles

While you’re frying the sauce, boil a few quarts of water in a large pot and dump in the dry pasta when it comes to a boil, boiling it per the package instructions. Taste a noodle to make sure it’s the doneness you like, then drain it in a colander or strainer.

Serving the pasta

Either plate the noodles individually and ladle the sauce on top, or if your frying pan/Dutch oven is big enough, toss the cooked pasta in the sauce and service it on a hot pad on the table and let guests grab their own with tongs or a large fork and spoon. If you wanna get fancy, serve with grated Parmesan or pecorino romano cheese. I get these in whole wedges from Costco and then grate them finely with a food processor, cheese grater, or microplane zester. You can use the pre-grated stuff found in the grocery store, but it’s pretty tasteless.

That’s it! Package the leftovers into individual serving size tupperware for lunches at work or home the next day. The sauce will taste even better the next day, so feel free to make it in advance. It also freezes very well, so make a bunch and save yourself some future effort!

Tacos

Tacos are a staple at our house. You can combine virtually any meat or veggies you have on hand with a starch like rice or tortillas, and make tons of different Mexican-inspired combos to suit everyone’s tastes. I recommend soft corn tortillas like these, but use flour if you prefer.

Pre-cooked grocery store/Costo chickens are really convenient for tacos. Just slice or tear off the meat and serve. You can spice it up with some garlic, powder, chili powder and ground cumin. Diced a white onion, then rinse it, and dice some cilantro for the traditional topping. Top with shredded cheddar cheese and sour cream as well for that extra gringo flavor :). Diced tomato or thinly sliced cabbage or lettuce also makes a great topping.

Lunch

Easiest, no-cook options – Sandwiches and salads

Bread, sliced up meat or lunchmeat, mayo, mustard, lettuce/tomato/cucumber, BOOM = Sandwich! Just omit the bread and add more lettuce and some dressing to make it a salad :). Costco chicken is again a great choice for salads or sandwiches.

Suzanne’s Thyme Salad Dressing

Store-bought salad dressings are universally awful, so make your own in 5 minutes:

  • Blend together either 3 large OR 5-6 small/medium garlic cloves with
  • 1/4 cup bottled mustard (country dijon is my favorite),
  • 3/4 cup vinegar of any kind (I use plain white vinegar; the original recipe called for white wine vinegar)
  • 2 cups vegetable/Canola oil (don’t use all olive oil because it will be bitter)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon (tsp) salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground pepper
  • 1 Tablespoon (Tbsp) dried thyme (or rosemary, or the herb of your choice– triple the amount for fresh herbs)

Leftovers make a great lunch

Leftovers packed into individual tupperware are my go-to when taking lunch to the office. Tacos work too, especially if you just microwave some cubed up meat from a prior dinner and serve with any of the fixings described above. Or, sub rice for the tortilla to make an easy-to-eat-at-work taco bowl.

Breakfast

Easiest, no-cook options – Cereal and smoothies

Some milk and a bowl of cold cereal is easiest. Looks for store brands and sales of your favorite boxes. Quick-cooking hot cereals like quick cooking oats or cream of wheat are also easy to do in the microwave or on the stovetop. Add cinnamon and brown/white sugar as you like. Dried fruit like raisins or apples are nice additions, or sliced or chopped nuts.

Plain yogurt with fruit or made into a blended smoothie with banana and other fresh or frozen fruits of your choice (plus a couple ice cubes if using fresh fruit and you want it colder) is a good grab-and-go option.

Breakfast cookin’ – Eggs, bacon, and more!

For the weekends, buy some eggs and fry them over-easy, adding a little oil to a non-stick pan, gently cracking the egg into the pan so as not to break the yoke, frying for a minute or two on medium-high heat until you can flip it over and fry the other side. Serve with fried bacon, sausages, or vegan ‘sausage’ patties like from Morningstar (available at Costco.) I like to slice a tomato or two in half and fry it in the bacon fat, or fry some thinly-sliced cabbage in it as a veggie side.

Fried eggs go great with rice too if you want a Filipino-style breakfast like we often make. (Bonus points if you use longganisa sausage as your meat of choice, available at many Asian supermarkets. Spam is also great.)

There you have it, a couple menu ideas for every meal of the day. Get cooking and save big!

Do this to stop junk mail, spam email, AND telemarketer calls

Take 10 minutes now to remove yourself from junk (e)mail and telemarketing lists using the links below and you’ll get more time back, spend less on things you didn’t want in the first place, and cut down on wasted resources.

pile of covered books
Does this look like the inside of your mailbox?

1) To get off ~80% of direct mail marketing lists, go to https://www.dmachoice.org/ and register for an account.  Then, go through the 4 categories of direct mail and request that all mail be STOPPED. 

Follow the link on DMA Choice to a separate site (OptOutPreScreen.com) to stop those annoying credit card offers. You can electronically remove yourself for 5 years, or (my recommendation) print out and mail in the paper form to be removed PERMANENTLY.)

2) From the same folks that brought you the above link, go to http://www.ims-dm.com/cgi/optoutemps.php to remove up to 3 emails at a time from commercial emailing lists.  (You’ll still get spam email from other sources outside of the DMA’s control, but this should help reduce the total burden.)

3) Go to www.donotcall.gov/register to register up to 3 phone numbers at a time (including cell phones) with the federal governments National Do Not Call list.

4) (optional) For getting off specific catalog mailings (such as ones from companies that you had bought from in the past), go to http://www.catalogchoice.org and they will submit an email on your behalf to remove you from whichever companies’ catalogs you select.

5) To get off Red Plum/Retail Me Not, go here. For Valpak, here. (Props to Seattle.gov for those links!)

6) For miscellaneous promo mailings, try this tip from the helpful bureaucrats in Yamhill County Oregon.

First, look for any of the following phrases: return service requested, forwarding service requested, address service requested, or change service requested. If you find any of these phrases, write "refused, returned to sender" on the unopened envelope. Mail sent to "Resident," "Current Resident," or "Current Occupant" can be refused if it contains one of the above endorsements, or is sent First Class. When you receive unsolicited promo products, you can mark the envelope “Return to Sender” and put it back in the mail.

If one of the links above is no longer valid, please let me know in the comments, and check the FTC’s site here: http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0262-stopping-unsolicited-mail-phone-calls-and-email

Each of these registrations is free, and with the exception of the mail-in credit offer removal in step 1, can be done in about 5 minutes online with a valid email account.  If at any time you decide you actually WANT to receive junk mail/telemarketing calls etc, you can change your preferences with each organization.

Less time filtering junk mail and spam calls = More time to relax and enjoy life!

Here’s the easiest way to know if you are actually beating the stock market

I do NOT recommend picking individual stocks. However, if you are going to ignore my advice– I admit I do for a small portion of my portfolio– then I want you to at least think about investing in individual companies correctly. You also need to track your performance against an appropriate benchmark like the total stock market. This can actually be pretty easy with this simple trick.

Make a ‘benchmark’ account

First, keep your stock-picking account separate from your other investments in its own separate account. Next, open another brokerage account of the same type as your ‘benchmark’ account.

Use a reputable brokerage like Vanguard— not scammy garbage like Robinhood– for God’s sake. Most people do and should use taxable (non-retirement) investment accounts for both your individual stocks and benchmark accounts. This keeps you from monkeying around with your retirement money.

A tip on avoiding taxes while owning stocks

I use a portion of my Roth IRA for my individual stock investing to avoid paying dividend or capital gains taxes when I trade. This also makes it easier to compare performance since I don’t have to subtract taxes from my investing results. Keep in mind that you can’t touch your Roth earnings until you’re 59.5 if you choose to go this route. Make sure you mentally separate this money from what you actually need to retire.

Keep the money flows in and out of both accounts equal

Now, fund each of these accounts equally. If you start out with $10,000 in one, put $10,000 in the other at the same time. With the benchmark account, put all of the money into whatever the appropriate benchmark is for comparing to the types of companies you’ll be investing in. If you are going to be picking mostly US stocks, then invest your benchmark money in a broad US index like the Vanguard Total Stock Market index fund (ticker: VTSAX), or its ETF (ticker: VTI.) Make sure you automatically reinvest dividends & capital gains into your benchmark fund (another reason to use Vanguard since they let you do this.) Your two accounts will look like this at the beginning:

In your stock-picking account, start buying and selling or holding cash as you like. Over time, your benchmark account will grow with the market, and your stock-picking account will grow (or shrink!) depending on your results. Whenever you want to compare your relative performance, just look at the two balances and see which is higher.

Let’s pretend that after two years, your stock-picking account has grown to $15,000, and your benchmark to $12,000:

50% absolute gain vs 20% VTI gain means you beat the market by 1.5/1.2 = 25% over two years, before subtracting taxes.

Make sure that whenever you add or remove money from one account in the future you do the same with the other at the same time. Ideally you would also log these money moves in or out of your accounts in a spreadsheet so that you can compute fancier comparisons like your average annualized percentage returns (using the XIRR formula.)

Even if you can’t be bothered to compute annualized gains, you can at least say whether or not you’re beating the market and by how much in absolute dollars and as an absolute percentage difference.

Using less money for your benchmark

You don’t technically have to use equal dollar figures in your benchmark, although it’s the easiest way. Instead, you might do 1/10th the amount in your benchmark. E.g.: $10 K in your stocks account and only $1,000 in your benchmark fund. However, you’ll need to remember to multiply your benchmark fund by ten to compare the two balances, and doing the same math for any money that goes in our out, including for taxes.

Accounting for taxes

If you use an individual account, you should try to account for taxes. The best way to do this is to just estimate your tax burden from the investments each year when you file your taxes. Use your 1099-B and 1099-DIV forms to see how much of your capital gains and dividends are attributable to your benchmark and your stock-picking accounts, then subtract the respective tax burden from each account at tax time.

Lazy tax accounting

Of course, if you use your Roth IRA like I do, you don’t have to do this because you don’t owe taxes on that money. If you’re using a taxable account and are lazy, you can just pretend that the dividends from your benchmark fund roughly cancel out your dividends from your stock-picking fund, and just focus on subtracting any capital gains taxes you generate from selling your stocks.

Keeping yourself honest

Comparing your investment results to what you could have received from a low-fee index fund is an essential step in picking stocks so that you can tell how you’re doing vs the market.

I hope the trick above makes it easy and convenient for you to keep tabs on your performance over time. Many happy (investment) returns!

Why aren’t you auto-paying all of your bills?

Quick read bullets:

  • Set up autopay AND paperless billing for all of your recurring bills, directing them to be paid in full by your credit card. Do this from the website of each individual company, and not your bank account’s bill pay software (unless that’s the only way you can do it.)
  • Pro tip: as you go, save the logins & passwords from each company’s site to Google Chrome or LastPass to avoid having to remember them, saving you time & avoiding frustration.
  • Next, set your credit card to autopay (and paperless billing) on the due date for the full balance. (Bonus points if you also change your credit card due date to the 4th or 5th of the month so that you can pay it right after your rent/mortgage. See my easy no-budget budgeting system for why this is a good idea.) If you are carrying a credit card balance and can’t pay it off in full yet, set your autopay to the minimum balance instead, and make extra payments on an ad hoc basis to pay down your balance ASAP.
  • You’ll still receive your bills via email (or paper, if you prefer) so you have plenty of time to check them and make sure they’re correct before the payments get made in case this worries you. You can cancel the autopay at any time, so there’s no risk of paying something you shouldn’t so long as you’re still checking your statements. (I don’t think I’ve ever once found an incorrect charge on my credit card, except once when my account info was stolen, but it doesn’t hurt to be vigilant!)

Why autopay everything?

Automation frees up your time and more importantly, your mental energy. You never have to worry about missing a bill or getting a late fee again. It keeps your financial system humming along, even while you’re on vacation or off the grid.

Does this look like your finances?

Why doesn’t everyone do this?

Some people are resistant to embracing autopay, so there’s definitely some psychology to overcome if you’re one of them. The resistance I get is usually something like: “I want to be in control/I don’t trust the autopay!”

My answer? You are still in control, and even more so since you’ll never miss a payment or get charged a late fee again now! You’ll see every bill show up in your email well before it gets paid, so you can still go through everything line by line to make sure the charges are legit if you want to. (I still do with my credit card statements.)

In the same amount of time it would have taken to pay the bill, you can easily login and cancel the autopay one time or permanently if you ever needed to. Autopay isn’t set in stone: it just changes your default behavior to paying all your bills in full and on time, and that is very good default behavior to have!

The most impactful financial advice I give is about setting up systems to make good financial things happen by default. Take advantage of this powerful technique wherever you can, and make life easier on yourself in the process.

How to set up autopay on everything

I start by putting all of my recurring bills like internet, phone, utilities, digital subscriptions, gym membership, car payment, auto insurance etc on my credit card using the autopay on the billing company’s site.

I use the company sites instead of my bank’s bill pay because

1) I want to use my credit card and

2) I think it’s more direct to pay straight to the billing company (no middle man to screw things up) and

3) it forces me to make sure I have online access and a remembered password to all of my financial sites, which is very important.

Once I’m done with setting everything to autopay with my credit card, I only have one bill per month hitting my checking account, which simplifies things when I glance at my checking account statements to see what I’m spending on a monthly basis.

If there are any bills that don’t let me, or would charge me extra to, use a credit card (public utilities, for example), I set up automatic ACH checking account withdrawals instead.

Setting up autopay on my internet bill

I log in to Comcast/Xfinity, then navigate to the billing area, and click the autopay link at the bottom left of the screenshot. For your bills, try googling ‘[company name] set up autopay’.

Then I add my credit card info (this is all perfectly safe; don’t worry!), and just follow the prompts to turn it on:

All set up! Now all I do is double-check the bill notification emails (which I set to paperless) to make sure I’m only paying my $35 and no more.

I do the same thing for all my other bills. Then I set up autopay on my credit card to pay the full bill each month on the due date.

If you have a balance you can’t pay off in full yet, set up autopay for the minimum balance to avoid any late fees on missed payments, and then make manual payments to pay down the balance ASAP.

From this screen I click ‘I want to’ and then look for the word ‘autopay’ to set it up

Once you’re done, you’ll have autopay set up looking something like this:

If my landlord or mortgage company offers electronic autopay, I set that up too, which will usually come straight from your checking account instead of your credit card. Every one I’ve dealt with over the past 5 or 6 years has had an autopay option, so yours probably does too.

If you use Capital One 360, you can even schedule a physical check to be mailed to any landlords that force you to use paper checks. Just log into your bank’s bill pay service to see what your options are. Zelle is another popular option for electronic bill pay that many banks use, including Capital One.

Your turn!

Take 30 minutes to do this yourself for all your bills, credit card, and then rent/mortgage. Afterward, you’ll have just a few monthly bills hitting your checking: 1) rent/mortgage, 2) credit card(s), maybe 3) a utility bill that you couldn’t use your credit card to pay, and 4) any cash or debit card transactions you have.

This makes it a lot easier to see your monthly spending.

*Boom!* You just saved yourself a ton of repetitive work logging into sites and making bill payments each month. You can check your emailed statements monthly to keep any eye on things, and then kick back and have a coffee or a whiskey (or a homebrewed cider!) while the machines do all the work!

Welcome to the 21st century! 🙂

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