Roman Adventures

Ali Bar

In less than three weeks, I will start my journey to Rome.  And I do mean journey. My Aer Lingus flight leaves from Miami, goes to Boston, then Dublin and finally arrives in Rome. It was the most inexpensive fare I could find when I booked, and now at least I can say I've been to Dublin. Still, at $450 one-way, I wouldn’t call the fare cheap. Once I'm in Europe, traveling should be a little easier to handle financially.  First off, there is Ryanair Airlines. Browsing their website, I found that I can fly from Rome to Paris for 10 euros or around $13.  Because Ryanair offers such inexpensive tickets, it means that weekend trips to other countries should be feasible and that makes me quite happy.  Another place to look for inexpensive flights is easyjet.com. I also just got the news that I landed a job as a library assistant at Cornell University’s facility in Rome, so that means there will be some income available for short side trips – as well as food and other necessities.  Still, I have no doubt this will be my most expensive semester ever. It also will probably be the one I never forget. I will really need to watch my euros. If anyone has any tips about traveling in Europe on a budget or buying food, send them my way. It'll be great to start 2011 in a different country.  Hope everyone has a great New Year's. Ciao (practicing the Italian).

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King Mango Strut

Ali Bar

For anyone looking for something enjoyable to do on the day after Christmas that will put an end to the streak of spending, I’d recommend heading over to the 29th King Mango Strut parade in Coconut Grove. The festivities start at 2 p.m. The King Mango Strut, which now has outlived the Orange Bowl parade, is all about humor – humor taken from the year’s top headlines. One year the high school girls behind the viral Chongalicious video on YouTube rode a float and performed. So sad to think that when I was in New York, no one seemed to know what I was talking about when I said chonga. The parade begins at the corner of Commodore Plaza and Main Highway. This joyful afternoon of satire is absolutely free. The only thing you might end up paying for is parking. My family and I usually head over to Scotty's Landing for lunch or dinner before or after the parade. It’s a little difficult to find since it’s tucked behind a boatyard, but it’s right on the water and offers a variety of reasonably priced burgers, sandwiches, and salads and, of course, there’s seafood. It’s nice to get together with your family one more time before everyone returns to work on Monday. Hope everyone had a very enjoyable Christmas. We ordered a ham and turkey breast, but my mom and I opted out of buying pre-made sides and made everything else from scratch from the sweet potato cheese cake to the corn bread – and even had homemade salad dressing. There are tons of leftovers and, in retrospect, we may have gotten a bit carried away with the menu but we had an excellent dinner and probably won’t have to cook for the next week.

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Finishing Up School on a Budget

Ali Bar

Amid final exams and projects and the stresses that go along with it, watching my spending was, well, let's just say I'm a little less frugal during those times. My time becomes more important than my finances. Case in point: Spending on food during finals week got out of control. Since this happens every finals week, you'd think by now I'd have some clever way of handling working really hard and eating on a budget. But no. I will also throw out there that I was plagued by the flu during finals week. While it felt like pure death at the time, I actually saved money due to my nonexistent appetite. I realize that sounds like kind of a pathetic rationalization. Hey guys, get sick. You won't want to eat, save money. Uhh, NO!

Let me tell you what I would recommend. First off when you are stressed out and feel as though you have no time and you just want to go to the super expensive French bakery downstairs, HALT. Do it once and you will eat there not just for breakfast but also for lunch and dinner. I’m sure you students and former students know exactly what I’m talking about. Just because you're super busy, doesn't mean you can totally throw your budget out the window – especially if you check your accounts as I did after the frenzy of late nights in the studio and realized my next credit card bill will be something I can’t pay in full. I’m particularly paranoid about paying off my credit card bill entirely each month. So slipping up a little here and owing a little more there is definitely a habit I want to avoid.

But back on topic, what to do when you are stressed, busy, and don't have time to make lunch. Go to grocery stores for sandwiches and subs. They are most often cheaper than restaurants or cafes. And if you really are in a bind, go to the $1 a slice pizza joint, not the healthiest, but definitely the most budget friendly. Or find a place with good prices and big portions to extend a meal's life by having it for lunch and dinner. That way you also save time. I found a little Thai restaurant near my studio that had $7 lunch specials. I got the Pad Thai with four small egg rolls. That was good for both lunch and dinner
and at $3.50 per meal was definitely better than the $11 I would have spent at the French bakery.

Here’s another option: Work really hard, and then take a longer break that allows time to go home and eat dinner. Or try to plan the day so you begin your studies early, eat breakfast at home and then manage to get home for a late dinner. Hopefully this coming finals week, I'll follow my own advice. Of course, this will be easier said than done, considering I'll be in Rome for a semester abroad and will want to try every restaurant that I come across. But I'll restrain myself.

Despite my money woes, this semester ended very well. Now I'm back in Miami to revitalize and there couldn't be a better place. Oh, 74° how I missed you.

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On my own for Thanksgiving

Ali Bar

Meal I really wanted to spend Thanksgiving with my grandparents in Buffalo, but after some of my transportation plans fell through and the alternatives kept getting more expensive or complicated, I ended up staying in New York for the holiday. I was very sad but was willing to make the best of it. After all, spending Thanksgiving in New York should be fun. On Wednesday a friend and I traveled to our nearby supermarket and purchased all the provisions for our Thanksgiving feast. Since I don't eat much meat, all of the dishes were vegetarian. I know, I know – a turkeyless Thanksgiving. But just let me share the menu: baked, buttered Brussels sprouts with walnuts; Portobello mushrooms stuffed with brown rice, lentils, onions, bread cubes and spices, and gnocchi with red onions and radicchio sauteed in balsamic vinegar. For two people, it was a ton of food and there were lots of leftovers. I’ll eat one of those leftover mushrooms today and figure I’ll use the rice and lentils that didn’t make it into the mushroom stuffing for some sort of soup. I had planned on making pumpkin dumplings to go with the red onions and radicchio but they failed. The gnocchi was a last-minute replacement. The grocery bill for the Thanksgiving meal – plus food for the next week -- was $80.

For entertainment I went to see the inflation of the balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade in a staging area at W 79th and Columbus Drive.  Apparently 6 p.m. was prime time for viewing the balloons. There were so many strollers rolling over me and kids riding on their parents’ shoulders and tugging my hair that I didn't have the best time. Since the balloons were open until 10 p.m., I should have reversed my plan of going to see the balloons and then a movie. That way I would have arrived at the balloon staging area later when all the sweet children were blissfully asleep.

I hope everyone had a glorious and stuffed Thanksgiving. One friend of mine bought a pre-made Thanksgiving dinner for 8 to 10 people at Target for $60. The Target dinner included an Archer Farms turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, green bean casserole, cranberry relish, rolls, a 9-inch pie and a coffee sampler. It seems like a pretty good deal if you aren’t into serious holiday cooking but still want the comfort of a holiday meal.

For future reference, let me hear how you spent the holiday. I’m always on the lookout for ways to celebrate without spending lots of money.

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Soups for the Nearing Winter

Ali Bar

Being too lazy to prepare lunch for myself in the mornings before I head to class has threatened to turn into a bad habit lately. Of course, when I’m thinking more clearly at lunch-time, I kick myself for doling out $10 for a meal. It doesn’t happen too often, but enough so I regret it. And when it does, a better option would be picking up lunch at the grocery store instead of a café or some other little lunch joint. At the grocery I can buy crackers for around $2, and while that might not be the healthiest meal, it will usually tide me over until I get home. If I know I’m going to be really late, I can pick up a pre-made sandwich at Whole Foods for about $5. The most fantastic things I've found so far for curing a hunger attack are dehydrated Trader Joe's brand rice noodle soups sold at Trader Joe's for 99 cents. They’re surprisingly filling and a cut above your average noodles in a cup.  While I don’t think I should make these noodles my steady diet, they’re fine every now and then when I don’t bring my lunch. The best option, of course, is to just do a little advance planning and bring my lunch from home. Recently I did just that. A housemate and I decided to make up a soup. Using just miscellaneous ingredients we already had in the kitchen we crafted a very tasty soup. What was in that soup you ask? Well, a can of cream of mushroom soup, a can of black beans, potatoes, carrots, garlic, ginger and a dash of salt and pepper. It was very thrifty and lasted the two of us for three days. It was also easy to take to school: open refrigerator, heat up soup, pour in thermos, place in school bag. I estimate the total cost of the soup was around $10, making the per-serving cost around $1.70. As the snow nears, I expect to be making many more soups since they’re so easy and my laziness factor only increases when the weather outside is freezing.

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Out and About in the New Decade

Ali Bar

I literally haven't gone out to dinner since I arrived in New York. Well, I was treated to dinner a couple times but dining out – other than an occasional take-out sandwich or soup – doesn’t happen if I’m paying for myself. It doesn’t fit in my budget, and let’s face it, buying groceries and preparing a meal is much cheaper. But I deviated from my normal eat-in habit the other night and went out to dinner in Chinatown with friends. I guess I can chalk it up to a once a month entertainment cost.  Plus it would be pathetic to live in New York and not take advantage – at least on a limited scale – of the culinary scene.

My friends and I went to Teariffic Cafe. (51 Mott St.) I got vegetarian dumpling soup, passion fruit bubble tea and appetizers – all for the low cost of $10. And it was too much to eat. I couldn't even finish my soup. If I were to return again and could curb mycraving for bubble tea, I would only get the soup, which cost just under $5. Appetizers run from $3 to $6. Drinks are in the same price range. If I get the urge to go out again, I'll definitely stop here.  

L

Extra tip: If you like bubble tea, go to Ten Ren -- absolutely the best bubble tea in New York.

As far as economical, healthy and plentiful food in South Florida, I would recommend Harvest Moon Bistro at 102 Curtiss Pkwy. (on the circle) in Miami Springs. The portions on the wraps, salads, sandwiches and melts are generous, and the most expensive item on the menu is only $8.25. If you order the Mediterranean salad, for example, you’ll get a mountain of greens topped with couscous, feta cheese, garbanzos, tomatoes and black olives and accompanied by hummus, grape leaves and pita bread. I guarantee you’ll have plenty to take home. It’s pretty much a lunch-only place and it’s closed on Sundays.

Also note, they only take cash. The same goes for Teariffic Café and Ten Ren in New York. There is an ATM by the cash register at Harvest Moon and ATMs near the two New York restaurants, but chances are you’ll have to pay those pesky ATM fees if the nearest ATM isn’t one for the financial institution where you bank. So come with cash in your wallet and avoid the ATM fees that will just eat up your savings at these restaurants.

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A Tip for Free Food

Ali Bar

Who doesn’t like free food? I’m about to share a technique that has provided me with plenty of carbs -- gratis. When I worked as a receptionist at the Cornell Store, which also has a small convenience store, I’d hit the jackpot on certain Fridays. If the store planned to be closed over the weekend, it meant the food would not be fresh enough to sell on Mondays and I could take home the remaining bagels, croissants, and pre-made sandwiches. It was a pretty good deal.

The reason I'm bringing this up now is that I've found another such gem. There's a small cafe next to my studio in New York, and on Fridays if I go in to buy something right before closing time, I end up with a ton of free bagels and rolls. Super nice guy at this cafe. He even provides tips: cut the bagels in half, freeze them, and then when you want one, pop it in the toaster. Let's just say I won’t need to buy bread products for quite a long time.

A friend of mine used to work at a bakery here in the city and although her pay was, well, not the best, she often got at least two free meals a day and plenty to take home when her shift ended. She spent almost nothing on groceries, making the job much more worthwhile. Right now I need a job where I can also squeeze in a bit of school work while I’m on the clock. But if that’s not your situation, I’d recommend looking for a job where pay isn’ t the only perk. Food doesn’t necessarily have to be the fringe benefit, but make sure to look for other perks that might stretch your wallet a little further.

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Brooklyn Flea

Ali Bar

A couple weekends ago I went to the Brooklyn Flea Market, which I highly recommend. I wasn't all that thrifty, dropping $20 for a pair of earrings and $4 for a milkshake, but all in all, it was worth it. I met up with friends, and we just wandered around, looking, touching, picking up all the little antiques and handmade goods. I liked so many things. Some of them were pricey but I found lots of reasonably priced stuff too.  We went around lunch time and hopping to save a few bucks, I grabbed some food from home. But my friends didn’t bring such provisions. They had a choice of food stands selling everything from gourmet pizzas to grilled cheese sandwiches. I couldn’t resist a chocolate milkshake that turned out to be so rich it was an effort to finish it. On a side-note: Nate from "The Nate Berkus Show" was at the flea market filming a segment. He does a good job of showing off the place’ s charms and gives some good design advice too. Watch the segment here.

Brooklyn Flea Address:
Saturday
Fort Greene
176 Lafayette Avenue (between Clermont + Vanderbilt Avenue)

Sunday
The Flea at One Hanson (aka Williamsburg Savings Bank)
1 Hanson Place (at Flatbush Avenue)

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Food for thought

I am not above slashing a hole in the top of the orange juice or soy milk carton to drain the last few drops of liquid. I pull the plastic bag out of the cereal box to make sure stray O's, flakes or squares haven't gone astray. I will cut away the overripe or slightly rotted portions of a tomato/banana/avocado/you-name-it and eat the rest.

In other words, I'm pretty unlikely to throw away food unless I think it will guarantee me a visit to a hospital.

My mother thinks one day this habit is going to kill me. But if something is truly rotten, mold-covered or no longer it's natural color, out it goes. And with dairy products, I'm super strict. If it is remotely questionable, I won't take a chance.

(Granted, there is some spinach rotting in my fridge right now, a relic of my significant other's, who is out of town. I took it out of his fridge, where it would have certainly spoiled, but only managed to use about half of it before it began to smell. I generally try to avoid buying that prewashed stuff. It's expensive and seems to spoil at light speed.)

Apparently, my food-saving ways are a little too rare. Researchers say we throw away as much as 50 percent of our food purchases. Maybe we are a little too worried we are going to poison ourselves (and bad at managing our refrigerators). Are you a compulsive food trasher? Or are you a hoarder like me?

I found a guide that explains sell-by dates, best-by dates and that food companies don't actually have to put a date on their products at all. I hope it will save me some money in the long run, since now I'm skeptical of those dates altogether.

But I am don't think I'll ever be as bold as a Dumpster-diving friend Kris, who doesn't hesitate to reclaim meat and milk products that have been sitting in metal trash bins. In the sun. For hours. On my single excursion with him, I admit I ate a doughnut out of the trash. It was in a bag filled with nothing but doughnuts, perhaps too stale to be served. Kris's rationale is that one's tongue will keep the rest of the body safe from something truly past its prime.

Um, yeah.

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Free for all!

Name barA long while ago, I pledged to try to spend a whole day doing only free stuff (that involved not sitting on my own sofa and watching my already-paid-for basic cable).

I never quite got around to that. But that's what friends are for. 

In celebration of her boyfriend's recent birthday, one of my astute friends ferreted out a least a half-dozen deals linked to the special day. They scored a free Grand Slam at Denny's, a free sub from Firehouse Subs and a free entree at Moe's. There are deals waiting to be cashed in -- some good for the rest of the month; some just a few days after the big day, including a free handcrafted burger at Ruby Tuesday, treats from Baskin Robbins, Cold Stone Creamery and Starbucks. The big cahuna of birthday meal deals: a coupon for $30 off a dinner check at Benihana. Discovery Cruise Lines offers a free cruise to the Bahamas during your birth month. (My sister and I once joined forces on this deal, snagging my dad and my brother-in-law, who share a birth month, free cruises.) And thanks to Real Simple magazine, I just learned about a host of other birthday treats, including from Aveda and IHOP. You can find more deals in their October issue along with tips on saving money every day, including taking your own cup to the coffee shop (Einstein Bros. will give you coffee for $1 if you bring in your own mug -- but I can't tell if it must be one of theirs in the first place) and taking your own bags at Target and Whole Foods, which can save you five to 10 cents per bag. Birthday money 2

Some of these deals require signing up online, getting an e-mail and printing out a coupon (all of which may be followed by all sorts of offers, deals and ads.) Denny's and Firehouse simply wanted to see an ID on the big day.

Whether or not it's your birthday, free stuff awaits us all, apparently. Every year, Kiplinger puts out its list of best freebies. This year, while there are some things you're likely to think of on your own -- including getting free books at the library, if only for a short while -- there are some truly innovative suggestions, including a tip on getting free (and not fugly) passport photos. Check out item 14 on this year's list. They also suggest visiting freeshipping.org for deals on shipping when you're buying online, offer links to free deals for kids and free help with completing and filing your tax returns.

So whether it's a birthday or another occasion that sends you out eating or shopping, I'm guessing it's one you can save money on. Please let me know about other deals you know of -- birthday or otherwise.

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