Betting on Love, Leveling Up and Leaving Atlanta (Part V)

December—the end of the year, encroaching darkness. Adam and I worked a lot and nestled when we could. Blustery winds rushed around the nooks and crannies of our little top-floor apartment, moaning softly. Long sleeps were lulled by this noise. We had a small Christmas tree-juniper bush squatting happily to one side of our couch, decked out in lights and baubles. On Christmas Eve impenetrable gray fog banks invaded the Georgia Piedmont, resulting in a strange and deadly Christmas Day thunderstorm.

I meant to have a simple Christmas and in some respects I did. Adam and I focused on our families and sharing the good fortune that we had in 2012 with them. We may not be in the ideal place in our lives and maybe we are frustrated with our jobs and the place we live, but we are doing better this year than last year, and we are thankful for what we do have.

We didn’t save any money in December, but we didn’t go into debt or anything either (total savings still $1,900), so I am mostly okay with that. We used what we would have saved to share with our family and to buy gifts for each other. I continued to plan out our meals (why didn’t I do this sooner?) and we have been eating very well because of it. In December we spent $616.79 on groceries, on target for my goal amount! I only ate out twice the entire month—two under-$10 work lunches—and there were zero dinners out. On nights when Adam worked the closing shift, instead of feeling somewhat lonely and morose as I sometimes do, I tried new recipes in the kitchen and filled our tiny apartment with the most savory smells.

It makes me feel good to make something that is equally good to eat as it is good for our budget. There is no joy in nasty TV dinners reheated in the microwave or ramen every night or peanut butter sandwiches all day, every day. All that food is super cheap but also super depressing. I have been choosing moderately-priced dishes that fulfill what I want out of food (that it be delicious and nourishing). I’m not any kind of an expert on cooking and budgeting (obviously, but maybe someday), but I made some good things this month that I would like to highly recommend and encourage you to make, and also some bad things this month that I would like to discourage you from ever attempting. Hopefully my experiments will encourage you, if you are in a similar position as me, to pick up a knife and set a pot to boil in the name of cash conservation and learning useful skills.




The Best of December

Jamie Oliver’s Perfect Roast Beef $/Serving
Halfway devoured before I thought to take a picture.



This is so easy to make and so ridiculously delicious. The cut of meat is on the pricier side, but there aren’t any other fancy ingredients that drive the cost up. It’s just meat, potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, thyme, salt, pepper, olive oil & done! Make this! You will not regret it!


• Serves 6

• $23.53 total for me

• $14.33 for roast, easy to adjust this cheaper or more expensive depending on cut of meat




Azizeh Koshki’s Chickpea and Chicken Dumplings $/Serving



These Iranian-Jewish versions of matzo balls taste like the most satisfying, belly-warming chicken soup you have ever had and then some. My fledgling writer skills are unable to fully explain how good these were and how often I will be making them again. The recipe has some unusual ingredients (chickpea flour?) but do not be deterred! This is pretty easy to make.

• Serves 8

• $28.65 total for me

• I had to buy turmeric and cardamom, so that drove the cost up. Once you have chickpea flour and spices, you can roll that cost into future repetitions.

$3.58/serving for the first time.

$2.21/serving for next x times you make this (until you run out of flour/spices)


Lynn Rossetto Kasper’s Rice Noodle Salad $/Serving


Perfect for when you’re tired of heavy winter soups or when the long nights start getting to you. This salad has a lot of ingredients and requires a lot of chopping, but the end result is a gigantic yield of crunchy, spicy, tangy, noodle-y goodness. Each bite has so many textures and flavors that it is impossible to stop eating it.

• Serves 8+ (recipe says 4 but who only uses “6-8 cabbage leaves”?? not me)

• $25.55 total for me

• I had to buy fish sauce and rice vinegar, but that can be rolled into future iterations.

$3.19/serving for the first time.

$2.48/serving for next x times (until you run out of fish sauce/rice vinegar)


Muffins $/Serving




If you are a late sleeper and have to rush out the door every morning and wind up buying your breakfast or starving until lunch, make a batch of muffins for the week! I make mine with bananas, blueberries, or pumpkin, and with walnuts, chocolate, and/or crushed bran flakes thrown in for extra nutrition/energy. ½ cup sugar per batch at most so they aren’t too sweet. Very grab & go.


• Serves 12

• If you have zero baking ingredients, all of the things you need will probably cost ~$15.00 total, which is $1.25/muffin. For every batch you make after that, you just have to buy whatever you’re missing (can of pumpkin puree, chopped walnuts, etc.), which brings the cost/muffin down to a few cents/muffin. Value!

& More: Sliced ham & onion pizza topped with arugula that I would have wasted otherwise, amazing chicken noodle soup made with lots of onions, miso broth, and soba noodles, two more batches of the meatballs from last month, cilantro lime rice & beans with charred lime chicken, more basil pesto pasta, spinach and arugula salad mixed with homemade guacamole and pan frito.

Tip: It turns out that most everyday meat goes on deep discount right after Christmas, even at fancy grocery stores! This is because most people buy special cuts of meat to celebrate the holidays with and there are a lot of beef scraps and chicken breasts that are passed over. I know this because I went shopping the Friday after Christmas and that is what the guy at the meat counter told me after I inquired why the grass-fed ground beef was marked down to $2/lb.


The Worst of December

Nigella Lawson’s Beet and Ginger Soup $ Wasted


This was gross. The recipe looked intriguing and I followed the instructions scrupulously, but the end result is unavoidably disgusting. Extremely tart, bitter, grainy, and watery. I gamely tried to eat it but wound up having to throw it all away which was frustrating. This is what I get for thinking I could totally compete on Chopped and be a cool avant-garde chef. • Happily, not too much: $6.78
&More: I made two recipes from Smitten Kitchen: Deb’s Three-Bean Chili and Squash and Chickpea Moroccan Stew. Both were disappointingly mediocre. Not sure if I did something wrong? The chili was just an enormous quantity of beans and tomato puree. Bland, simple, and very filling. Too filling? Filling in only the way beans can be? Not lip-smacking good and very beany, is what I mean. The soup was very bland as well and it turns out I don’t like eating chunks of boiled squash. I salvaged this by adding a bunch of garlic and cayenne, pureeing the mixture, then putting it back in the pot and adding in chopped poached chicken with its water and chopped kale.

Last month I talked about a business idea I had, and I planned to try to launch it. This didn’t happen, but I still want to do it! I’m giving myself another chance since I am confident that if I put in the effort, I would start pulling in money pretty easily. It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme, more of a pad-the-wallet-a-little scheme, and since it is Internet-based I could take a tiny income stream with me wherever I go. I will keep updating as I proceed.

I made five goals last month and didn’t obtain any of them except #4 sort of, which was to keep my grocery spending down. I’m a little frustrated with my progress but I’m feeling peaceful and confident and excited mostly. I can do it! So can you! We can conquer our weaknesses! I have thought up a few obtainable goals for January that will help Adam and I greatly:

Goal 1: Immediately deposit a chunk of Adam’s pay into savings when he gets paid. I have learned that if we procrastinate on this, nothing gets saved.

Goal 2: Continue shaving away grocery costs and keep up the good progress in the kitchen.

Goal 3: Set alarms on our phones or get a marker board with a calendar so we know when to pay our bills!

Goal 4: Follow through on my business idea, or at least get started on it.

Goal 5: Find some free or cheap activities in Atlanta so we get out more often and our lives aren’t just work-home-work-home-park-home-etc. Suggestions welcome.


Previously: See Amanda’s “Betting on Love” series here.

Amanda Tomas is feeling cautiously optimistic about the New Year.


30 Comments / Post A Comment

I was super excited about this series when it started because my boyfriend and I have a pretty similar predicament. Though we both love our jobs, we hate the town we live in and want to leave. I was really looking forward to a huge success story here. But I’m starting to feel a little concerned for you guys! $1,900 is a good amount in savings, but May will be here before you know it. You can do it- save, save, save!! Give the rest of us some hope and show me it can be done :)

Amanda T (#1,842)

@langedangereux I know!!! January will be a month of asceticism! Thanks for the encouragement, hopefully my next update will include a giant step in the right direction.

Heckyes (#1,162)

Great work so far!

As a fellow Atlantan looking to save money, I offer my suggestions for free/cheap entertainment:
- Hiking! Sweetwater park, Kennesaw mountain, and Stone Mountain are all lovely places to spend a day.
- Festivals! This may be more applicable to spring/summer, when it seems like there is another festival going on every weekend. The Dogwood festival, Chomp’n’stomp, Stone Mountain chili festival, and the Decatur and Midtown arts festivals are some of my favorites. For the winter, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival is coming up and offers obscure indie movies for like $8.
- Volunteering! Free, potentially fun, and you can feel smug about it afterward if you want. I volunteer at the Atlanta Humane Society and it’s definitely a highlight of my week.
-Cheap food! I am a connoisseur of cheap food in Atlanta. Check out the restaurants on Buford Highway/Sublime Donuts/a random Ethiopian restaurant/whatever. Atlanta is a big city, there’s lots to eat, and a lot of it is not too expensive if you stay away from fancier places.
-Museums! Lots have free admission at least once in awhile.

Heckyes (#1,162)

@Heckyes Oh! and as for cheap home eating, I like Budget Bytes ( She gives cost breakdowns for each meal, which I find helpful. Also, almost everything I’ve made off that site is delicious.

@Heckyes Yes! Budget Bytes is great. Her recipes are also usually fairly quick and easy which I like a lot because when you get home for work there is not a ton of time for cooking. I have definitely made some tasty recipes from that site though. I do tend to mildly adjust recipes to my personal tastes, but I do that to basically every recipe I use.

orangezest (#317)

Just a thought on the recipes — how new are your spices? This is another “spend money to save money,” but based on the quantity of spices in those recipes they shouldn’t have been bland. Try Penzey’s, where you can get tiny jars for cheaper than at the grocery store. You shouldn’t keep spices more than 2 years at the absolute most.

RachelG8489 (#1,297)

@Emma Peel Agreed! I make that chili recipe pretty regularly (with some variations) and would never call it “bland.” It has tons of spices! And chipotle in adobo!

By the way, my recommendations on the Smitten Kitchen recipe front: the mushroom bourguignon, which is delicious and perfectly winter-y and makes your kitchen smell wonderful, and the chana masala, which is so easy and so tasty and so much better than a lot of Indian take out or buffets. Also, shakshuka, which is eggs poached in spicy tomato sauce. Ooh, and in summer? Cantaloupe salsa, and carrot salad with harissa, feta and mint.

I spend a lot of time on that website.

Amanda T (#1,842)

@Emma Peel My spices are all new but I didn’t put in chili adobo,so that might be where my problem lay.

@RachelG8489 Thanks for the recommendations! Looking through the gigantic recipe index on SK is pretty overwhelming, so knowing that certain recipes worked for you makes me feel more confident about trying them out.

Ti:Sapph (#2,050)

@Emma Peel If she’s in Atlanta, don’t bother with that Penzey’s nonsense. Go to the Dekalb Farmer’s Market. They have a 30′ wall of spices so cheap you will honest-to-God repeatedly say, “Holy Shit! These are so cheap!” Think a 4 oz-sized plastic container of parsley for a quarter. Cinnamon for 70 cents. None of this $3.50 for an ounce of something at the grocery store crap.

The turnover there is fast enough that everything is fresh. The other acre or two worth of groceries they have is also all fresh and cheap. I moved away from Atlanta 3 years ago but man, I miss that place.

@RachelG8489 Mmmmmm I can also recommend the Chana Masala recipe from Smitten Kitchen. Super tasty and super easy.

orejitasmiamor (#2,678)

@Emma Peel I love love love YDFM! The spices cost very little for the amount and quality. The produce is pretty good, and they have a lot of variety.

If you need cheap food go there or to one of the Asian marts ( H mart, Great Wall) that are North. I’m new to the area and can’t quite remember where they are, one is in Duluth I think?

RocketSurgeon (#747)

I’m a pretty proficient home cook, and don’t normally produce total disasters. I’ve tried several Nigella recipes over the years, and they’ve never turned out. Not even close. Even though there’s a yearly subscription cost, I recommend Cooks Illustrated online as a good source for a variety of tasty, easy to moderate difficulty dishes that are fairly budget-friendly.

Fig. 1 (#632)

@RocketSurgeon +1 for the Cook’s Illustrated, I have the New Best Recipe and Best Vegetable cookbooks and I love love love them. Follow the instructions, it turns out. Period. Plus hot tips on how and why to do certain things. Have not opened the Nigella book in five years.

Sloane (#675)

Fellow Atlantan here – that Christmas fog was eerily beautiful. I loved it.

Cheap entertainment ideas:
- Ride your bikes out to Stone Mountain or on any of the Paths around the city. The east-side Beltline gets busy on the weekend, but it’s a pretty nice little ride or walk.
- Land of a Thousand Hills coffee shop on the Chattahoochee. Good coffee, beautiful spot to sit and relax.
- I second the recommendation for Buford Highway adventures. Try Lee’s Bakery on Buford Highway – damn good bonh mi. Chef Liu has delicious dumplings and steamed snow pea sprouts. There are eally good spots for pho and Korean all along the highway.
- This may be a little unusual, but you might find the Hindu temple in Lilburn and the Catholic monastery in Conyers interesting and/or relaxing.
- DeKalb Farmer’s Market – Lots of hustle and bustle to watch, cheap and fresh produce to buy, and fun new foods to try. I love their baked goods too – try their cream cheese chocolate croissants, any of the breads, and the homemade granola. So delicious.

Amanda T (#1,842)

@Sloane I’ve seen the Beltline driving by but haven’t been out on it yet, so that might be fun. Hopefully someday they’ll actually go through with the MARTA extension that is supposed to follow the Beltline around ATL – have you heard about that?

I haven’t heard of Land of a Thousand Hills – that sounds intriguing!

deepomega (#22)

Cooks Illustrated is the best way to shift to home-cooking in my experience. It is RELIABLE AS HELL. Never had a recipe go wrong. 25 dollars buys you a year’s subscription, although I got it as a gift for my first time. They don’t give you cost breakdowns, sadly, but my experience has been that once you are cooking you’ll start to figure out which meals are gonna be cheaper. (E.g. slow cooker shit that uses chicken thighs will be way better than boneless skinless breasts, or whatever)

Bonnie St. Clair (#2,949)

I’m really enjoying this series, especially with the emphasis on meal planning! I feel like I spend both too much a) money and b) time on meals for myself, and although I find food/cooking/nutrition interesting, meal planning still feels like a chore that I haven’t been able to get a handle on yet.

Also, a lot of online meal planning resources seem to be geared toward feeding bigger families, and often with a focus on foods that kids will eat. I live alone, so I wish there were more readily available sources of simple/but satisfying/but nutritious/but budget-friendly meals. Is there a simple way to crowdsource that kind of thing among people who might be interested here? Like a Google group or something like that, akin to some of the Hairpin groups? I think pooling mental energy and time among young professionals/students who are budget-conscious who might have similar meal planning needs would be great.

Amanda T (#1,842)

@Bonnie St. Clair I would be interested in that – I’ll look into it? A lot of meal planning sites are pretty disappointing.

terrific (#1,532)

@Bonnie St. Clair Word. I always try to meal-plan, but whenever I look at those websites where, ostensibly, it helps you plan your groceries and meals, they tell you to have something different EVERY DAY. for EVERY MEAL! whereas I really make 1 or 2 things a week and freeze and refrigerate.

@Bonnie St. Clair It was mentioned up-thread, but I find Budget Bytes ( pretty handy for recipe ideas. It is recipes and not meal planning, but I find it has some tasty recipes and useful suggestions. I like to make the black bean quesadillas and freeze most of them so there is something handy to eat when you don’t have the time/energy to cook.

Bonnie St. Clair (#2,949)

@Amanda T Awesome! Brainstorming: if we get something started, maybe it’d be good to post about it on the Hairpin’s Friday Open Thread to get some more involvement, since the Billfold doesn’t have an open thread currently (and I feel like there’s a lot of overlap in readership/demographics between here and there). I’d be all about sharing some successful recipes and meal plans.

Bonnie St. Clair (#2,949)

@terrific Yep! In a way, I can appreciate it just in terms of the sheer amount of recipes that those kinds of meal planning sites offer, but the quantity of food, and the focus on couponing for processed foods that’s often included, and discussions of what foods the children and/or husband of the writer (who’s usually a woman/a mom) will/will not eat aren’t really helpful.

Bonnie St. Clair (#2,949)

@This is my new user name Thanks! I’ve tried out a few Budget Bytes recipes and definitely want to try more. I wish I liked spicy food as much as she does, because the spicier recipes always sound good, but I get heartburn easily, boo. Anyway, of the stuff I’ve tried, I especially like her baked oatmeal recipes.

orangezest (#317)

@Bonnie St. Clair I LOVE the idea of a Google group to share delicious, healthy-ish, budget-ish recipes!

As for meal planning, I agree that so many sites and apps are disappointing and not geared toward people who are cooking for one or two. I make a three-column spreadsheet for nine days or so in Google Docs, and put every meal in it. Then off in another column I write whatever I’m going to need to buy at the grocery store. Usually the recipes I make will create a couple of days of leftovers, so really I only cook something for dinner 2-3 times per week.

For lunch, I either bring in frozen soup/stew and a grain, or grab sandwich ingredients and assemble them at the office.

I also use Evernote to organize recipes from the Internet (and sometimes, if I’m really good, take photos of recipes from cookbooks) and tag them with any ingredient that isn’t something I usually have in my pantry. So if I have leftover leeks, say, I find another recipe that will use them right away. This helps a lot when you like farmers’ markets but are only cooking for one.

Bonnie St. Clair (#2,949)

@Emma Peel Cool, and thanks for sharing your ideas! I aspire to having meals written down ahead of time, ha. And that’s a really good idea about Evernote; I’ve heard of it but never used it and wouldn’t have thought of it for meal-planning!

Bonnie St. Clair (#2,949)

@Emma Peel @Amanda T @anyone else who wants to join:
I created a Google meal-planning group to get something started; if something better gets set up, we could just migrate anything that’s posted to there (or maybe I should say, *if* something is posted, ha; hopefully this group will get some activity):!forum/the-billfold-meal-planning-group

Come share recipes or talk about food or money or whatever – I’m excited!

Amanda T (#1,842)

@Bonnie St. Clair Just saw this! Thanks for going ahead with it, I was all aflutter with ideas about making some sort of a group tumblr but that would probably be waaay too much work. I’ll definitely contribute to the Google group as I plan out grocery trips and my weekly menus! I’m excited to see what (and if) people post…

Bonnie St. Clair (#2,949)

@Amanda T Ooh, a group Tumblr sounds cool – I don’t actually know that much about Tumblr, so I hadn’t thought of that as a possibility. If you end up feeling like trying that out and it seems like it would work well, I’d be down for switching to that. But yeah, I’m looking forward to seeing how/if this starts shaping up!

Trilby (#191)

That’s great that you are getting a handle on your food budget and making good food at home! I am also trying to reign in expenses so I’m trying something new– Starting with my paycheck on Friday, I’m going to put $200 cash in an envelope and use only that money for my food shopping for the next two weeks. I have a well-stocked pantry and mad skillz, so it shouldn’t be hard, even though I have one other person to feed at my house.

Cindy C (#3,066)

Oh my goodness I wish I found this site sooner! I too, am saving up to move out of Atlanta :) I’m aiming for San Fran though my boyfriend lives in NY. I read through your whole betting on love, leveling up, and leaving Atl series and I feel like I’ve met a kindred spirit!! Moving somewhere new and not knowing anyone is a really scary thought but I plan to be moved out after Marchish of this year. I have similar plans and goals as you :) I hope to read more of your posts as I cheer you on!

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