Thursday, October 1, 2020

Shelftember: Or How I shopped at Home and only Spent $104 (810 HKD) for Groceries Last Month.

I love a good challenge, and during this travel-less school year, I decided that I would make it a goal to save as much as possible, so when one of my favorite frugal bloggers (Jordan Page @ Fun, Cheap or Free) announced her Shelftember challenge for the month of September, I was all in. The basic premise is that you "shop" from your shelves first (pantry, freezer, fridge) to see what you have available before going to the grocery store. This ensures that items are not getting lost in the back/bottom and that you are actually using what you have on hand, before it expires or starts to mold. As a bonus challenge, you are only supposed to spend $25 USD a week on groceries, no matter the size of your family. Not gonna lie: it wasn't as easy as I thought it would be! Hong Kong groceries are quite a bit higher in general for items like meat, dairy and baking supplies. On the other hand, fresh fruits and vegetables can usually be found for less at the local markets. 

I began each week writing a menu (nothing new) based on what we had and then ONLY buying the few fresh things I needed. It was not a month to "stock up." I ended up baking more than normal-bread, bagels, muffins and cookies, to name a few. I'd never tried bagels before; it wasn't that difficult, but it was time consuming. I used sesame seeds and a Mideastern spice mix that I had on hand for toppings.

I also tried a couple of new recipes, including this Thai Pomelo Salad, which was delicious. Pomelos are like giant grapefruit. Check out the thickness of the skin!

I should also note that we did spend one night at the Conrad Hilton (on a free night voucher), and because of my Diamond status, a perk of my Amex credit card, we were upgraded to a large suite, which came with TWO fruit plates and a box of 12 handmade chocolates. NICE. That was 14 pieces of fruit that you can bet came home with me. 

During the month, the school provided breakfast, lunch and snacks for 2 Pro-D daysWe also didn't give up our Friday night date night, but we still ate the majority of our meals at home. We had people over for 3 different meals and I provided food for another family for one meal. We also ate at friends' houses for 3 meals. 

Will I participate next year? If I remember, I probably will. It was a worthy challenge and one I would recommend. I didn't quite make the $25 a week, but $26 wasn't too far off. 

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Masks, Germs and other Covid Thoughts from an American Nurse Living in Asia

Photo Op for the Ronald McDonald House of Hong Kong
This post is especially for my US friends who have messaged me with questions about masks, quarantines, and other Covid questions. I haven't been compelled to write a post about this because 1) who needs yet one more virus article? and 2) I am no more qualified to give an opinion than any other average Joe on the street. But here goes.

The main reason we are asked frequent questions is that we have been working from home since February 3, or "dealing with this virus mess" longer than most of the world, and we are in Hong Kong, which, as most of you know, has an amazing track record of dealing with the virus. Our first confirmed case was January 23, and as of today, there are just 1040 cases and only 4 deaths. This is a city of 7.5 million people that shares a border with mainland China.  To put this in perspective, New York City has 8.4 million people, 170,000 cases and 13,168 deaths. They are also 8000 miles away from China and didn't have their first confirmed case until March 1. (I realize it is likely both cities had unconfirmed cases before then.) In other words, NYC had a big "heads up" regarding this. So why the differences? Here are my observations.

Back around the end of December/ (beginning of January?), I was at work--I'm a school nurse at an International School--when I saw an article about a strange new virus in China. Back then, it was believed to only be connected to one market in Wuhan and wasn't thought to be spreading person to person. Didn't seem so serious to me, but guess what? Within a week, Hong Kongers were wearing masks even more than normal during flu season. My colleague in purchasing asked me about our mask supply. When my husband asked his students about it, mentioning that the new virus was not believed to spread person to person, the students all said, "Nobody trusts China."

We already had plans to fly home to Maine for Chinese New Year, and we left Hong Kong January 22, the day before Wuhan closed its borders. When we returned to Hong Kong a couple weeks later, the whole city was wearing masks and there was a major run on them, toilet paper, and cleaning supplies, even though at the time, the government here, trying to thwart panic buying, told us masks were not necessary unless we were symptomatic. Again, Hong Kongers said, "We don't trust the government," and they wore their masks anyway, lining up for hours to buy them.

You also need to realize that in 2002, SARS hit Hong Kong in a big way, and that is in the collective memory of most of the city. They don't mess around. As I mentioned, even during a normal year, you will see a good portion of the population wearing masks during flu season. They are diligent about using hand sanitizer (they have little bottles hooked to their bags) and they use a tissue or their keys to push the elevator buttons. (They don't, as a rule, wear disposable gloves though.) Public areas like escalators and bathrooms are sanitized every hour or two. Temperatures are checked upon entering buildings. When the city had only a handful of cases, the decision was made to close schools (they still haven't reopened). All non-essential government agencies closed, and private businesses were encouraged to allow employees to work from home. No one had to tell them twice. The streets were pretty much empty for a month or so. But here's an interesting bit: parks, beaches, restaurants, hair salons, grocers, retail shops and public transportation were never shut down. Granted, these places were pretty much empty, because even without a mandatory "shelter at home" order, hardly anyone went out. What I'm trying to get at is this: Hong Kongers did on their own what most governments had to force upon their people.

So what happened? Through mid March, our cases remained very, very low. People got out and about more, and perhaps became a little less careful. But then as city residents, especially students, who were living abroad started coming home because cases were getting worse around the world, they brought a lot of imported cases with them, and our numbers rose. This brought on stricter measures: restaurants are only allowed to operate at 50% capacity, nail salons and bars are closed and groups of 4 or more are not allowed in public. (This is a tricky one, because public places have way more than 4 people, but I guess they aren't technically "together?") Most shops remain open and only those coming from abroad are quarantined.

Finding someone without a mask it not easy. A street in Mong Kok last week.
So that leaves us where we are now. For the last two weeks or so, we've had many days of zero or single digit new cases. People once again are out and about more. There is talk of possibly allowing some students to return to school by the end of May. It's looking good.

So what's my biggest take away? Hands down, I believe the biggest difference here is that everyone wears masks. They wear them because they don't know if they are silent carriers and they don't want to infect you. They wear them because they don't know if you are a silent carrier and they don't want your germs. They wear them because it is now a cultural norm and it is considered rude if you don't--not to mention the risk you run of getting the major side-eye (or worse) from a Cantonese grannie half your size. Wearing a mask is not a moral issue, so even though I have mixed feelings on the efficacy of them, I wear one, because, well, it can't hurt. 

I know that you can find scientific studies that say that masks aren't 100% effective in viral spread, and that is absolutely true. Viruses are tiny, tiny, tiny, and they can get through all but the most industrial grade N95 respirator masks. Even these are ineffective unless they are worn properly. (We had to have special training on how to wear these at the hospital where I worked in the US before we could care for isolation patients.) But let's face it, masks at least help somewhat or doctors and nurses wouldn't wear them. And any type of material will minimize the spray of a cough or sneeze; this is what we are going for. Viruses can be airborne, but they also are in droplets when you cough. It's the reason we teach little kids to "cover your cough;" germs spread more easily if you don't. Looking at Hong Kong, I have to believe that the vast majority of the population wearing masks before the virus really took hold, along with early social distancing measures, played a major role in keeping the numbers down.

We are not mask Nazis. We wear them when around people, but not when walking in open spaces. 
So these are my thoughts at the moment. I reserve the right to change my opinion at any time (trust me, it happens often)...and if your opinion is different, I still like you!! 

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Frugal Living During the Covid-19 Outbreak

This has been quite a month! If you are reading this post, I can say with certainty that you are aware of the current virus outbreak, which has turned our little world upside down. The school where we work has not physically been in session since January 22; currently, the plan is that students will return March 16, but that is subject to change. Teachers are trying their best to keep students busy. Lessons are posted online daily, with weekly (at least) face to face sessions via the internet. 

While the teachers are having to get creative and totally change the way they teach classes, support staff like myself, while having to keep up with certain aspects of our given jobs, have more down time, and I am embracing the change of pace and seeing it as a gift. (My crazy will start when those kiddos come back to school all stressed out about every sneeze and cough!) But for now, with almost all outside activities cancelled (including church, volunteer work and planned travel) and trying to avoid crowded areas, my life is revolving around books, movies, cooking and extra time to pray and reflect. Call us naive, but we really aren't very concerned personally about catching the virus. At this point, there still aren't very many cases in Hong Kong and the city seems to have it under control. Please don't see this as my being dismissive of all the hurt, death and chaos that this virus has dumped on the's just that I need to deal with it in the best way I know how, for me, right now, and that means not worrying and daily rolling with what's right before me. 

Since we were here for Valentine's day, I made Shrimp Scampi (one of my 2020 goals is at least one new recipe a week) and had that with a side of baby green beans.

I also made these delicious Fully Loaded Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Bars, which I found on one of my favorite blogs. You can get the recipe here. Highly recommended. (I didn't add the raisins and they were still amazing). My husband gave them 2 thumbs up also. 

There are certain items that people seem to be "panic buying," among them, bread, toilet paper and rice. Thankfully, I had all the ingredients for yeast bread on hand and have been making my own. 

I also decided to use this time to finally schedule an appointment with a dermatologist to have a couple of questionable blemishes checked. She said neither were skin cancer (yeah!) and I used my time in the city to take advantage of a Starbucks gift card to get myself a croissant and a cappuccino.  The place was half empty, unheard of on a normal day in Hong Kong. It was nice to chill and people watch for awhile. 

 I remember when I was a kid, my mom collected S&H Green Stamps and redeemed them for various household goods. Always an exciting day when she had saved enough to get what she wanted!

Here in Hong Kong, the grocery store Wellcome (yes, it's spelled that way), has a similar program. I don't usually shop enough to get a "prize," but this time I succeeded. 

I turned in my 50 stickers for a nifty pair of new kitchen sheers and I'm pretty pumped about it! 

The same store also gave out coupon booklets over the Chinese New Year holiday, (coupons aren't much a of a thing here), and I was able to get 10 HKD ($1.30 US) off 50 HKD ($6.40 US) for fresh berries. It's the little wins. 

Today, I went for a walk and stopped at Park n Shop, another local grocer. They had this 6 pack of string cheese for 10 HKD ($1.30 USD). That's crazy super cheap here, so I bought the only 2 packs there. 

I'm also reading several books (I always have more than one going at a time) that were either from the free table at work or free on my kindle. And Mike and I are watching some episodes of Maine Cabin Masters. If you haven't watched it, you should. Well, if you like fixer-uppers, and Maine, and cabins...let's just say we like it!

Have a wonderful day, friends. Embrace whatever season you are in and find the gifts that are there, no matter how hard you have to look to find them. 

Saturday, January 18, 2020

10 Thankful, Thrifty Things: Cheap Tickets, Free Hotels, CNY and Saving Soap...

Chinese New Year is next week, and that means festivities are ramping up here in Hong Kong. I always look forward to this time of year. Firecrackers, orange trees, dragon dances, cherry blossoms, traditional much fun!

I'm also thankful for The Ronald McDonald House and all they do for families around the world. I was blessed to volunteer at the RMH here in Hong Kong today. One of the regular local volunteers, Candy, makes the most amazing homemade Hot Chili Sauce. Today, I mentioned how much I like it and she gave me a jar! Thank you, Candy!

I'm also thankful that it is raining in Australia. My friend and former coworker, Jane, posted this picture today. I think it is a touching shot. (PC Pamela Schramm.)

We are part of a wonderful international community. Last week, we had a little gathering of "awoks"(adults with out kids--(at home:)). Some were back visiting, some are getting ready to leave, and some of us still call this city home for right now. New Zealand, US, and Canada all represented here. Thankful for these people who love Jesus and love each other, and thankful for the Autys who hosted.

Our son needed to fly home earlier than he had originally thought because of some college issues. American Airlines wanted to charge us $3000.00 USD!!!! to change our ticket to an earlier day. That was NOT going to happen. I had some points with the same airline, but since it was a last minute flight, I was looking at 120K points for a one way economy ticket from HK to Philly. I didn't have or want to use that many points, but I kept checking several times a day, and sure enough, a business/first class ticket showed up for 70K points and $62, so I snagged it. My son got the enviable opportunity to fly in a sweet lay flat seat for his 13 hour flight, after his steak dinner. I have never been able to do that. And that, my friends, is nothing but mother love. Here he is back in Philly with his girlfriend. 

A few things on the thrifty front:

I have a pair of slippers that were wearing through on the the bottom. I found a child's fleece jacket on the free table at work, and it yielded enough material to add two extra layers to the bottom of my slippers. I cut them out and rough-stitched them in. Not only are they softer, they are much "cushier." 

How many small, almost used bars of soap can you add to a bigger bar? In this case, the answer is three.

I told my kids that the only thing I wanted for Christmas was cheese and coffee, and they delivered! This is only a portion, but today we enjoyed some Wisconsin Cheddar from Abby and some Starbucks from Lee, (who happens to work there). 

I know it's a little thing, but I get free trash bags every month from our apartment security guards. We get a receipt in our mailbox when our landlord pays the management fees, and our guards stamp it and give us our free trash bags. It makes me smile every time!

I needed to get in a free night at a hotel within the IHG group before my annual certificate expired, so last Friday, Mike and I spent the night at the Crowne Plaza in Causeway Bay. Had a little fruit platter waiting for us, and we had nice view. Room was comfy and we slept in. What more can you ask for?

In other news, we are trying to eat up all the leftovers before Chinese New Year break begins next week. Do you know where we are going? I'll let you guess!

Thanks for those who participated in my contest a week or so ago. The winner was Jon Seah, who correctly guessed 4 out of 5 of our favorite eats.

That's a wrap for this week. Tell me...what are you most grateful for this week?

Saturday, January 11, 2020

22 Ideas that are Helping Me Declutter My Life

We all know it. We are consumed by STUFF and it drives us crazy. And yet, somehow, we can never quite conquer the piles. Oh, sister (and brother) I am right there with you. Living in Hong Kong in 425+-sf, I sometimes start feeling smug. "Look at me," I tell myself," I have all I need right here in this tiny space. I am amazing! Who needs a McMansion?"

My tiny kitchen in Hong Kong. 
Then I remember that I have a 2700 sf home in the US that is full. (1800 sf of living space, plus a basement/attic that are jam packed.)
Our home in Maine. (PC the fantastic Morgan Wiley)
I am quite naturally a hoarder. I am sentimental. I love anything antique. Items received from any member of my family are precious to me and I feel like I am giving away a part of my soul when I part with them. OK...maybe a slight exaggeration, but still. I like to be be prepared. I hate to waste. These are just a few of the many reasons that is it difficult for me to part with...anything.

My grandson, Calvin, playing with a safe that belonged to his great, great, great, great grandfather. 
The last few years, I have been making a concerted effort to scale back, minimalize, it what you will, but here are some thoughts that have helped me. I am a work in in progress.

1) Only keep one or two items from a loved one. This is one idea that has helped me immensely. I remember when my Great Aunt Blanche died and my mom had me chose some items to keep. For some reason, I felt I could never part with any of those items since they came from her. Now I have narrowed down my selection and saved items that are actually useful, like her bread box, which sits on my counter in Maine and her picnic basket, which I actually use.
Aunt Blanche's picnic basket in our borrowed canoe.

The reality is, my attachment to those items will mean nothing to my kids, who don't even remember this aunt.
Lilacs from my Mom's bush. Everything in this photo has sentimental value.

2) Ask yourself if you've used it in the past year.  There will always be items that we keep that don't fit this category--certain tools, craft supplies, books-you get the idea, but for me it has been best applied to clothing and dishes. 
3) Is it a rarely used item that you could borrow and/or rent if needed? We borrow items like extension ladders, baby equipment, air mattresses and power tools. We are always happy to lend items also.
4) Do you want to leave this to your family to deal with? This thought is what keeps me motivated. I have heard so many nightmare stories about "cleaning out" Gramma's/Dad's/Uncle's house. All these "things" that represented a whole lifetime, and no one is interested. I'd like to save my family the hassle as much as possible.
5) Can something else you have do the job just as well? How many kitchen gadgets do you really need? Small appliances are a huge money drain and space saver. That fancy yogurt maker? You can probably use your crock pot. The new instapot you were gifted for Christmas? Time to hand off your slow cooker because now you have an appliance that does the same thing. 
6) Is it online and on paper? I save many of my tax receipts in a folder online now. No need to print them. Likewise with recipes and owner's manual, most can be found online these days. 
7) Clothing? Does it even look good on you anymore? Do you have 20 sweaters, 40 pairs of shoes? You know what to do.
8) Scale photos back to about 20 per trip. I try to delete photos from my phone at the end of everyday while we are travelling and only save the best shots of the day. I need to go through my boxes of printed photos. I know I have duplicates.
Every time I go to Macau, I take this photo. Seriously? How many do I need? 

9) Does it make sense to sell the item and invest the money? I have some jewelry that I never wear. I doubt that anyone in my family would wear it either. I am contemplating selling some of it and investing the money elsewhere.
10) If you had to move to 300 sf, would you take it with you? Pretty self explanatory.
11) Can it serve someone else better?  I have too many winter coats. I'm pretty sure there are people who need a warm coat. Time to pass some of them along.
12) How many of any particular item do you need? Random coffee mugs. Scarves. Half burned candles. Sample sizes from hotel stays. You know what I'm talking about. You know what to do.

13) Can you sell it and use the money for something that will make you happier? I use this as a challenge to myself sometimes. While I was planning one of our trips, I really wanted to stay in certain hotel that was out of my price range. I challenged myself to sell enough items to pay for the difference in room prices. Effective. 
14) Can you give it to a family member now rather than later? I had a ring that belonged to my Great Uncle. It was a simple gold wedding band. I decided to give it to another cousin who was closer to this uncle. He was happy; I was happy. The ring stayed in the family. 
15) Does it cost you more for upkeep than it is worth? Case in point: our 1991 Honda Accord. I love this car. I really do, and it has been a great vehicle up until the last few years when it started nickel and diming us like the old vintage car it is. It's time to let it go and quit paying the annual registration, insurance and inspection fees. Especially since we only use it for 7 weeks every summer. 
16) Seasonal decor is nice, but can you simplify? It's easy to let seasonal decor get out of hand. One year when we were first married, my husband was gifted a ceramic village house. I found another I liked at a yard sale. The collection kept growing. As pretty as it is when it's all set up, truth be told, I don't really enjoy it anymore. I need to pass it on or sell it.
17) For everything you bring in, send one out. Twice a year, the ladies at the school where I work have a clothing exchange. My goal is to never bring more home than I donate. 

An outfit from a few years back. 

18) A decluttered home looks cleaner. I read somewhere that a refrigerator with nothing on it looks much cleaner that one that is covered with magnets, pictures, coupons and takeout menus. It's true. Think about it. Both may be equally clean, but perception is reality. 
19) The bigger the space, the more you need to fill it. Downsize. Smaller home. Smaller vehicle. Less storage containers. Get. Rid. Of. Things. Don't give yourself more storage options, get rid of the stuff you were going to store.
20) Does it bring you joy? Marie Kondo made millions after her book "The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up" became an international best seller. Her key question? Does it spark joy? I read her books, and I did learn some very helpful tips. I changed the way I organize my closet and fold my clothes. I learned to work with the storage space I have rather than buy more shelves. I did actually get rid of some items that I really disliked, but kept because I thought I should.
21) Don't be afraid to ask for help. A few years ago, a younger colleague of mine was wanting to get rid of some of her clothing. She thought she had too much, but was afraid she would not be ruthless enough. I spent an afternoon with her and helped her evaluate. She got rid of several large bags of clothing.
22) Can you re-purpose something?  Several years ago, my cousin gave us a wooden boat that he had built in the 1960s. It has brought us lots of joy, but my husband has been having to repair leaks every summer lately. When the time comes, we are planning to turn the boat into a bookshelf in our cabin. 

These are few ideas that have been helping me. I'd love to hear what you would add to the list!

Sunday, January 5, 2020

How Well Do You Know Us??--Win $25 Gift Card

While our kids were all here with us, we told them they were responsible to provide one meal for the entire family. They could buy groceries and prepare the meal, or take everyone out to eat. Everyone chose going out to eat. I thought choices were interesting, so here's a fun little game for you: match the restaurant with the right Cliff for a chance to win a $25 Amazon gift card. First person to correctly guess all 6 on facebook or the blog wins! Contest will close on January 12, unless someone guesses correctly earlier. If no one guesses them all correctly, I will pick the person who gets the most right. (My can't vote!)

Although kids' spouses did help pick, for the sake of ease, just list a number with the following names: Mike, Trish, Abby, Will, Aaron, Lee---numbers below:

1) Paisano's Pizza

2) McDonalds: (Are Chicken Nuggets the Universal Kid Favorite?)

3) Bafang Dumplings with Bubble Milk Tea

4) Ichanzo Sushi

5) Hot Star Fried Chicken

6) Macanese Pork Buns