Passionately Pursuing the Good Life

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Mighty Life List #8 - Budgeting: Month Four and Still Figuring it Out

Budgeting. Does it suck? Yeah. Is it hard? Yeah. But like taking vitamins and flossing, you kinda need to do it.

There are several different ways of putting a budget together. My own approach to it was to use large percentages (i.e., 60% of your income toward life expenses, 20% Savings, 20% Fun Money), and then break each one down into subcategories. If you’re looking for help and some solid advice, I highly recommend They will literally walk you through the process of putting a budget together.

Here are some things I’ve learned so far:

Take Advice but Modify Accordingly If you live in a big city, just be aware that some financial advice out there may need to be tweaked for your own living situation. Some suggested goals for rent and transportation can in no way be met if you live in LA or New York, especially if your job title doesn’t involve the letters “V” or “P.” So don’t give up. Just modify as much as you can.

Mini Monthly Goals Having a budget is like having mini-monthly goals. And that’s just what they are. Goals. So if you don’t quite meet your expectations for saving on your first (or second, or third) month, cut yourself some slack. Even if you only manage to stick $20 into that savings account, it’s better than nothing, and certainly better than being in the red.

Track Every Penny Tracking your expenses is a lot like counting calories. The effect of which can be extremely enlightening (har har no pun intended). You’ve probably heard of the “latte factor,” but it’s true that those little $2 to $3 expenditures can add up to a good chunk o’ cash over a month’s time. By writing down each and every penny you spend, you will become acutely aware of anything you’re spending money on. If you have a habit of looking back on your monthly statement and thinking “Oh, yeah, I forgot about that” (ahem), then tracking your spending will definitely take care of your financial amnesia.

Get Creative and Assertive Budgeting is a perfect opportunity to get creative, to become an active consumer, and to not let companies bully you. I went through a couple different phone calls with a spawn-of-the-devil cable company which shall not be named, eventually having to play the “I’m gonna have to cancel my cable because I can’t afford it” routine before they lowered my monthly cost to something halfway acceptable. Nearly everything is negotiable.

Your Personal Trouble Zones If anything, budgeting will help you zero in on your trouble areas. For me, it’s definitely food. If I cooked at home every single night, then it would make sense to spend lots of cash at the grocery store, and those random bits of parsley and wedges of onion in the fridge that were used for one home cooked meal wouldn’t get tossed out. But cooking every night isn’t really feasible (I have some semblance of a social life and a Mighty Life List to conquer!). So I’m still figuring out the tricky balance of spending just enough money on food, without going over budget and without wasting. Point being, budgeting is and should be viewed as a constant work in progress. Challenge yourself to meet and exceed the goals in your budget!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Book Review: The Book Thief

The Book Thief The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a stand-out novel in the World War II genre, Young Adult or not. The story is not something we haven’t heard (many times) before, but the presentation is truly unique and I dare you not to fall in love with each and every character. If I had one criticism, it might be that Zusak attempts to employ one too many creative devices, which occasionally distracts from the beautifully crafted storylines and the people in them. But for such a delicate yet heavy subject, Zusak artfully balances sensitivity and reality, creating a beautiful, haunting, and deeply moving story.

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Alton Brown’s “The Chewy” Chocolate Chip Cookie: Get off your butt and make these NOW

  • In pursuit of my “ultimate” recipes a la Mighty Life item #92, I’ve been perusing the interwebs for some time in search of the best chocolate chip cookie. And I mean, not just a good cookie, but the kind where you take a bite and you get a little weak in the knees. This, my friends, is that cookie.

    I’ve done the tried and true Nestle back-of-the-bag recipe a number of times. And it’s good, to be sure, but a little flat and a little greasy in my opinion. I’ve tackled the
    NY Times famed chocolate chip cookie recipe a few times, which includes the rather unorthodox use of a cake/bread flour combination, in addition to a minimum 48 hour rest time in the refrigerator. I really liked the texture of this cookie, but I found the recipe to be somewhat inconsistent, not to mention the annoyance of having to plan your cookie baking two to three days out. Who does that?

    Enter the lovely and talented
    Joy the Baker, who pointed me to the path of chocolate chip cookie enlightenment. Alton Brown’s “The Chewy” chocolate chip cookie (he has “The Thin” and “The Puffy” alternatives in case you were wondering). These cookies are damn good.

    A couple of notes regarding the recipe:

     Because you begin the recipe with melted butter, it’s important to let the dough chill for a couple of hours. So watch a movie, go for a walk, or work on that novel you’re writing. But don’t rush this process.

     Don’t be afraid to pull them out when they look slightly undercooked. The time frame between perfect and over-cooked in this recipe is pretty slim. You can always pop them back in for a few seconds. The saying goes, if they look cooked when you take them out, they will be overcooked.

     These cookies are EVEN BETTER THEN NEXT DAY. I love the taste of warm, fresh cookies but something about the texture and flavor really shines after these have sat overnight.

    Next time…I’ll get all crazy and add some nuts.

    The Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookie

    Recipe by
    Alton Brown

    2 sticks unsalted butter
    2 1/4 cups bread flour
    1 teaspoon kosher salt
    1 teaspoon baking soda
    1/4 cup sugar
    1 1/4 cups brown sugar
    1 egg
    1 egg yolk
    2 tablespoons milk
    1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
    2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

    Melt the butter in a heavy-bottom medium saucepan over low heat.
    (I actually did this in the microwave…just don’t overheat it)
    Sift together the flour, salt, and baking soda and set aside.
    Pour the melted butter in the mixer’s work bowl. Add the sugar and brown sugar. Cream the butter and sugars on medium speed. Add the egg, yolk, 2 tablespoons milk and vanilla extract and mix until well combined. Slowly incorporate the flour mixture until thoroughly combined. Stir in the chocolate chips.
    Chill the dough for a few hours, then scoop onto parchment-lined baking sheets, 6 cookies per sheet. Bake at 375 F for 14 minutes or until golden brown
    (mine took about 10 minutes), checking the cookies after 5 minutes. Rotate the baking sheet for even browning. Cool completely and store in an airtight container.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Book Review: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Speak Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Subject matter aside, I thought this was a very enjoyable book. Anderson's depiction of the hellish world of high school with its amusing teacher and student players was honest and entertaining without being too much a caricature of itself. The "secret" wasn't a surprise, but I don't think that's the point. The story has more to do with her journey back from silence and shame and finding her voice again. The parents drove me crazy. It seems absurd that any parent could be so completely clueless, but I know in reality it does happen. An easy read, with a very unique style of narration and an overall uplifting story. I highly recommend it.

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