Thursday, April 29, 2010

Mother's Day Gifts

The Topic: Money-Saving Gifts for Mom

The Dish: Mother's Day is almost a week away, meaning there's no time like the present to pick out the perfect gift to show you care—seriously, there's no time! I've rounded up a few ideas to get you started, whether your budget is $2 or $200.
  • What do many moms want more than anything on their special day? My guess: you! If you can't afford to fly in for a face-to-face visit, make some time for a video chat (Skype is free and fantastic). She'll get to see your glowing face, and you can spend some quality time catching up. Word of warning: Video chats are even harder to end than phone calls. Schedule post-chat events accordingly.
  • If you can make it home, there's always the classic gift of your chef-ly talents. Preparing a meal from scratch is always sweet, and plenty of delicious recipes are easy on the wallet, too. VegWeb has an amazing Mother's Day page full of ideas. I recommend the Best Ever French Toast.
  • Cater to Mom's sweet tooth with the ridiculously decadent Sweet & Sara Marshmallow Variety Sampler. These aren't just vegan marshmallows—they're a party in your mouth. A gourmet treat, the sampler is also a steal at $6.25, and right now S&S is offering a 10-percent discount with the code "spring." You can also buy slightly imperfect sweets—but still highly tasty—at an even deeper discount.
  • Vegan Etsy is a wonderful, time-sucking marketplace that's damn near guaranteed to have something Mom would like. With more than 2,000 vintage and handmade gifts, you can sort by price and keywords, making it a cinch to find the best buy. Whether it's these cute heart-shaped turquoise earrings ($5.25) or a Sailor Jerry-inspired soy wax candle ($6), you can score a one-of-a-kind bargain.
  • If you want to splurge on your saintly mother but can't ignore your bargain-hunting nature, Vaute Couture is having an amazing sale right now. Its eco-friendly, high-quality, vegan winter coats are selling for 35–70 percent off the original prices. Sure, it's almost summer, but how impressed will Mom be that you're planning ahead? How grown up! And seriously, these coats are gorgeous and will last many winters, reminding her of your stylish and thoughtful self every time she wears it.
  • Shameless promotion here, but did you know the VN store sells tons of delicious treats—including vegan peanut butter cups and candy bars—as well as our favorite veg books and merch? Oh, and shipping is always free, which is a big money-saver.
  • I love Lush and all of its handmade, cruelty-free cosmetics. There are always new, fun products, and it has a laundry list of animal- and planet-friendly initiatives to its name. The latest offering includes the abolishment of paper gift-wrap in favor of its new Knot-Wrap. Using scarves made from either recycled materials or vintage fabric, all Lush stores will offer Knot-Wraps to secure purchases for pretty presentation. Reusable as everything from a jaunty ascot to a grocery bag, these scarves are pretty and functional, and can easily conceal the perfect Mother's Day gifts.
The Final Word: Guess what? I have one adorable Knot-Wrap filled with seven brand-new Lush products to give away, including Mint Julips Lip Scrub and Creme Anglaise Hand and Body Cream. Valued at more than $100, it's the ideal Mother's Day gift package, and one lucky commenter will win the whole shebang, because the cheapest gift is the one you get for free. Just leave a comment and let me know: What are your plans for Mother's Day? Let me know by noon on Monday for your chance to win. Go!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Discount Groceries

The Topic: Smart Shoppers Go Salvaging

The Dish: What if I told you about a magical place where you can buy entire boxes of Luna bars for $1, snag fruit leather for a dime, and stock up on Cherrybrook Kitchen baking mixes for a couple bucks? Would you go there and buy up all of the amazing vegan products before my next trip? Because if so, forget it.

Just kidding! These wonderful places are discount and salvage grocery stores, hiding in a town near you. My particular secret shack is tucked away on a remote road in Southeast Missouri, and it's a must-stop every time I visit my hometown. Luckily, there are similar stores spread across the US, waiting for the savviest of shoppers to discover them. In my lexicon, they're referred to as "dented-can stores," mainly due to the dirt-cheap prices I pay for slight cosmetic flaws. Let's say you come across a slightly crushed box of your favorite cereal. Guess what? Take the cereal bag out of the box and voila, no more ugly dent. While some products may be a few weeks (or months) expired, you'd be surprised how amazing a Lemon Zest Luna Bar tastes when it costs 17¢ and you're hungry for something other than cheap rice and beans.

While this is completely anecdotal and not conclusive, the word is that many of these goldmine salvage stores are located in sketchy-ish neighborhoods, but don't let that scare you off—looks can be deceiving. My dive at home may appear abandoned, but once you're inside, there's shelves upon shelves of cheap goods to dig through. It's like a treasure hunt trying to find your favorite veg-friendly brands, and I've scored some great deals. My mom and I figured out the savings of one of our visits, and we managed to buy $150 of non-perishables for $40.

The Final Word: Many discount grocers don't advertise, so try asking around your community to see if there's a popular local spot. And of course, Google proves incredibly useful for perusing the underground rumblings of cheap consumers. Now go! I have a 50-cent dark chocolate bar to eat.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Veg-friendly Hair Color

The Topic: Go Henna or Go Home

The Dish: To answer the question no one is asking themselves: No, I'm not a natural redhead. Dishwater blonde was my genetic disposition, but after years of experimenting in chemical dye territory (gross), I have discovered that redheads have more fun—and by fun, I mean trouble with clothes colors clashing.

Before going veg, I didn't give much thought to the chemicals I slathered on my head or the animals on whom they were cruelly tested. Once I wised up and read about the nasty ingredients in over-the-counter formulas, I stumbled upon something even worse—photos of allergic reactions to the dyes. I claim zero responsibility for your personal reaction or retinal scarring if you choose to Google that.

But with my chronic case of beauty boredom, I still wanted a change of hair-color scenery. Enter: henna. Yes, it sounds a bit hippy, and yes, it can involve essentially covering your head in mud, but there are so many pros that make it worth the effort. It's completely plant-based and vegan-friendly, and because it lacks unpronounceable chemicals, I have fewer panic attacks thinking my face is going to swell to the size of a basketball. Also, it covers and colors beautifully.

Light Mountain was my first foray into at-home dyeing, and while the color was fantastic, it required a three- to five-hour adventure (a few of those spent waiting for the mixture to "cure," aka sit on the counter). Surya in red is my current brand and shade of choice and has changed my henna life. Premixed in a bottle applicator similar to mainstream brands, this color cream works in only 30 minutes, rinses out easily, and doesn't dry out strands as much as the mud mixture. Oh, and it's only $10 at my local co-op, which is a helluvah lot cheaper than going to a salon.

The Final Word: Henna only deposits color, so take your starting shade into consideration, and always do a test strand before attempting a whole-head makeover. I can't speak to the success of the other shades sold, but as for being an honorary ginger, henna is the way to go.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Cheap Eats: Tortillas!

The Topic: Flat-Out Fab Food

The Dish: Besides biscuits, there's one other recipe I rely on regularly when I'm in need of cheap food and/or the illusion of a fancy (read: homemade) meal: motherflippin' tortillas. And by that, I mean my Mother taught me how to flip them—her recipe and tortilla expertise has guided me to where I am today.

Using dirt-cheap ingredients, similar to their quick-bread counterpart, these tortillas are easy peasy and turn taco night into a high-class affair. If you're not in the mood for a rice-and-beans burrito, that's okay—Mom has a ton of delicious suggestions for this flat-bread base, including cheesy garlic, sweet saffron, and even chocolate dessert variations. For now, I'll share two secret recipes with you: The Original, and Classic PB&J.

"The Original" Tortilla

What You Need:
1 cup flour
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/4 cup water, plus 1 tablespoon
1/2 teaspoon baking powder

What You Do:
1. In a large bowl, combine all ingredients and let stand for 20 minutes.
2. Form dough into a ball, then place onto lightly floured countertop. Divide into 1-inch balls. Flatten each ball into a round, and, with a rolling pin, roll out lightly on one side.
3. Over high heat, place cast-iron skillet. Cook tortillas in ungreased skillet for 2 to 3 minutes, then flip and cook other side until lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Serve warm.

Classic PB&J

What You Need:
1 cup flour
Dash sea salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 cup peanut butter
1/3 cup water
1 tablespoon agave syrup

What You Do:
Same as The Original! Except when these are finished, smother with your favorite jam, maybe some more peanut butter, and devour the best PB&J ever.

A few tips from Mom aka the Tortilla Queen:
  • When rolling out tortillas, only roll on one side—no flipping!
  • Don't be afraid to sprinkle the PB 'tillas with a little more flour when rolling. These will have a slightly different texture than The Original.
  • You'll probably just want to make a double batch, because these will be gone in no time.
The Final Word: Sure, you could just buy a pack of tortillas at the store, but that isn't fun, and it's more expensive (unless you're buying those mega-packs of corn tortillas for like 50 cents or something insane, but do those have peanut butter in them?). Don't be afraid to experiment with add-ins—these are really hard to screw up. And if you try out a really awesome (or awful, god forbid) let me know!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Vegan Makeup: Urban Decay

The Topic: Invest in the Best

The Dish: I love Urban Decay. I know it is an obvious choice for vegan makeup, but seriously—have you tried the products? None of their sparkly, shiny goods are tested on animals, and many are vegan, denoted by a cute little paw-print icon. A lot of companies can give you the runaround when it comes to the veg status of their lines, from vague statements about “finished products” to the indecipherable ingredients lists (look for a more in-depth post in the future about veg-friendly drugstore brands!). Urban is straight up, “Hey vegans, we love you.”

Because these products are a bigger investment than the $1 eyeliner of my early teens, there are a couple of considerations to get the most for your money. Urban’s online store features a special R.I.P. section, featuring discontinued items at discount prices. Currently, you can snag a snazzy lip pencil for $9 ($14 value). Sound like a lot? Sometimes price really does reflect quality, and my Urban goods, including a collection of beloved, shimmery, versatile eyeshadows, last months and months. They also don’t pull the midday disappearing act of their cheaper counterparts.

If you have other skincare shopping to do, Sephora stocks Urban Decay along with other vegan brands (such as Pacifica, whose Blood Orange Body Butter is only $5 right now!). Shopping online promises free product samples, but in store, you have the luxury of a makeover—depending on how you feel about sharing germs. Nearly every cosmetic in the store is available for testing (including Urban) either by your own hand or with the help of a sales associate. Grab a cotton swab, pick your favorite products, and get fancy before dinner and a movie—for free.

The Final Word: If Urban’s prices still seems too steep, don’t worry—the company has a 45-day money-back guarantee. Wear it a few days, see how you like it, and if you’re not wowed, return it. Sephora operates a similar policy, upholding a very pleasant, 30-day no-questions-asked rule. Opened or not, they’ll take care of you (speaking from personal experience). Goodbye, buyer’s remorse!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Designer Looks for Less

The Topic: Poor Couture—Cruelty-free and a Fraction of the Cost

The Dish: While the fashion world is already focusing on fall, I'm finally ready to embrace spring and update my wardrobe. After revisiting a few designers' spring collections, I came to the conclusion that spending upwards of a grand—one thousand dollars—on a casual outfit was, to put it gently, freaking insane. The problem? One look at the Marc by Marc Jacobs spring collection. Hey clothes, why are you so pretty and expensive? Hey Mr. Jacobs, why do you use leather and other animal-unfriendly goods?

To remedy the situation, VN Editorial Assistant Liz Miller led the way through one of her favorite pastimes: Bastardize the Designer Duds. The mission: Snag a photo of your favorite designer outfit, set a budget, and hit the (affordable) stores.

Obviously, we weren't looking for exact replicas of high-priced items, but runway fashion has a convenient way of trickling down the retail line, sneaking into the majority of items for sale at our store of choice—Forever 21. With the exception of the belt and purse, we managed to find everything at San Francisco's three-story location. Here's the financial breakdown:

Item: Designer / Deal
Plaid Top: $168 / $19.90
Blazer: $228 / $24.90
Shorts: $158 / $17.80
Belt: $110 / $20.00
Shoes: $463 / $14.80
Bracelets: $84 / $5.80
Headband: N/A / $4.80
Total Cost: $1,211 / $108

Total Savings: $1,103

That is a lot of biscuits, ladies and gentlemen.

The goal was to find pieces that 1) replicated the outfit's overall tone rather than serve as a carbon copy, and 2) more importantly to me, were wearable and versatile. Take the jacket, for example—I found a style that was more similar to the original, but I never would have worn it again. I remember hearing a shopping tip years ago, claiming that in order to get your money's worth out of an item, you should wear it once for every dollar spent. The likelihood that I'll wear this blazer 25 times versus its counterpart's requisite 228 times is pretty good.

The purse was a previous investment, designed by the certified-vegan Urban Expressions. It was a bit of a bullet for me at $49.95, but it's the perfect size and style for everyday use, especially for carrying around multiple layers for unpredictable spring weather (or, you know, every day in San Francisco). And while affordable, accidentally vegan clothing can be great, it's always nice to support all-vegan, eco-friendly companies, too.

The Final Word: Of course, $108 is still a lot to drop at one time, and I don't often buy complete outfits. It's a smart idea to use what you have, building a look around one or two pieces already hiding in your closet. At the very least, checking out designer collections can help fire up some cheapskate creativity to put some spring in your style.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Cheap Eats: The Biscuit Edition

The Topic
: The Art of Biscuitry

The Dish: The general equation for eating on the cheap is simple: groceries plus kitchen equals affordable food. Due to my inherently lazy nature and string of excuses—

"It's too early to cook. I'm tired."
"It's too late to cook. I'm tired."
"It's the weekend! I want a burrito."

—sometimes it can be difficult for me to motivate and make the most of my dollars and pantry. Enter: The Biscuit. This five-ingredient beauty has gotten me through some tough times, including a post-college stint in Arkansas in which my sister and I subsisted mainly on their floury goodness.

They make regular appearances during my lunch shifts at the VNHQ, and for a few good reasons:
  1. They’re cheap. Using the most basic baking ingredients, a double-batch helps feed a famished staff and is super affordable, clocking in at a couple bucks.
  2. They’re easy, using only five common pantry ingredients. If you never bake and don’t buy flour on the regular, stocking up won’t set you back much, and it promises future batches.
  3. They’re customizable. From the basic recipe, you can go anywhere with add-ins—sweet, savory, spiced—and it’s incredibly friendly to ingredient substitutions.
These have impressed everyone from homemade-bread aficionados to biscuits ‘n’ gravy-loving omnivores, and they take literally minutes to make from mixing bowl to mouth. The recipe is so simple that I have it committed to memory, and it’ll be no time before you do, too. If you’re baking for a crowd or planning for the week ahead, I recommend doubling the recipe.

Abby's Cheap-Ass Biscuits
Makes 9 small or 6 medium biscuits

What You Need:
1-2/3 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup non-dairy milk
1/3 cup oil

What You Do:
  1. Preheat oven to 475 degrees. In a large bowl, mix together flour, baking powder, and salt. Add milk and oil, and mix until just combined.
  2. With a 1/4-cup measuring cup, ice-cream scoop, or your clean hands, drop dough onto an ungreased baking sheet. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes until bottoms are golden brown.
  3. Top with non-hydrogenated margarine, syrup, jam, peanut butter, gravy, or anything else that you could possibly put on bread. Devour!
The Final Word: Like I said, this recipe can be taken in many directions. Feel free to experiment with different kinds of flours, oils, and milks (I love olive oil and almond milk), and add-ins are the best: garlic, fresh herbs, vegan cheese (1 cup of shredded cheese and a few cloves of garlic make the best cheese biscuits ever!), oats and raisins, etc. You can even skip the oven and throw spoonfuls in the skillet if you don’t want to heat up the house. I could go on forever. Can you tell how much I love these freaking biscuits? Go crazy with your imagination—or whatever you have on hand—and enjoy!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Mission District Deals

The Topic: Don’t Fear the Cheaper: A Mission Adventure

The Dish: When the weekend arrives, I’m usually simultaneously caught by surprise and excited—Party! Shopping! Let’s do this, San Francisco! About four minutes pass before I realize that I have neither bank funds nor credit limit to live out my luxurious lifestyle—or do I? For just $25, a jam-packed day in the City by the Bay is not only possible, but it’s fun in a guilt-free sort of way. Here’s how the low-budget lifestyle played out in the city’s Mission District.

9am: With empty cabinets and a growling stomach, I went for the quickest, cheapest, and most filling meal I know—a Super Veggie Burrito from my local taqueria. Filled with black beans, rice, guacamole, lettuce, and salsa, all wrapped up in a whole-wheat tortilla, this $5.40 investment is equivalent to at least two meals, filling me up for the majority of the day. Oh, and it also comes with chips and salsa. I brought my own bottle of Tapatio, the world’s best and surprisingly cheap hot sauce, to add a little spice. No, 9am is not too early for a burrito—they open at 8am, after all. (Remaining budget: $19.60)

10am: Finally ready to move after my monster morning meal, it’s time to hop on the Muni train ($2) and head out to enjoy the sunshine. It might sound lame, but when the weather is gorgeous, just getting in some exercise walking and people watching is delightful—and free. I usually pass at least three buskers on my journey, from bucket-drumming percussionists to blues-playing guitarists. Or, you know, a man standing on his head on top of a pint glass, singing. The city has talent, that’s all I’m saying.

I headed toward the Mission, where a slew of second-hand stores were calling my name. While many stores use the moniker “vintage” instead of “thrift,” enabling them to charge $15 for a t-shirt that would be about $2.50 at an actual thrift store, there is a secret weapon: The sale rack. Yes, even in second-hand stores. Generally, there is a $1 or $5 rack, and a little digging can lead to treasure. A cute blazer, comfy tee, and $6 later, my inner consumerist felt satisfied. ($11.60)

2pm: I need hydration. Having already emptied my water bottle brought from home, I seek out the next best thing: coconut water. At a small stand on an unassuming street corner, I score a fresh young coconut for only $2.50, cracked open on the spot. Customers get to not only drink the super delicious water, but then have the coconut chopped open, enabling them to devour the coconut inside for the best afternoon pick-me-up ever. I’ve developed a serious addiction to this stuff, be it fresh or from a can. ($9.10)

2:30pm: A girl cannot live on coconut water and clothes alone. My true obsession lies in the smell of paper, binding, and dust—better known as used bookstores. (Are you sensing a trend in my cheap ways? Peruse the used!) I spent way too long in Dog Eared Books, and while I didn’t buy anything, reading from their eclectic collection might be my favorite way to spend an afternoon.

4:30pm: Ok, I’m bored with myself. By this time of the day, it’s socially acceptable to grab a happy-hour special with friends. I met up with good friend and VegWebmistress Laura Beck at The Attic to share a round of $3 Manhattans (don’t forget to tip, even on a budget!) and a little gossip. And being a dog-friendly establishment, I also got to enjoy the company of her rescued pit bull, Hazel. ($5.10)

6:30pm: With only a few dollars to my name and tired feet, it’s time to head home. Another $2 train ride gets me to my neighborhood, and I have just enough cash left for an order of brown rice ($1.50) from my local Chinese joint. Hey, it might not be the healthiest dinner, but I’m sure there are a few kale leaves somewhere in the fridge I can throw in. ($1.60)

The Final Word: With a dollar and some change to spare, I’m ready for an evening at home with my puppy and some Netflix (already paid for, WIN!). Thanks to cheap eats, used goods, great weather, and a little homework on the destination neighborhood, a day out doesn’t have to break the bank.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

21st Century Coupons

The Topic: Living the good life, half price

The Dish: When I was little, my mom used to cut me a deal when it came to cutting coupons: For every penny-saver I snipped that was used, I pocketed the difference. Sure, it didn’t really save us any money on groceries, but Mom broke even and I walked away with a few dollars to my name (you can get a lot of banana Laffy Taffy for $5.) Today, I never manage to clip coupons, partly because I’m pressed for time and partly because finding relevant products is a rarity.

While I recommend keeping your eyes open while flipping through the Sunday paper (assuming, of course, you still read the paper), there’s another option for the city-bound and tech-inclined—Groupon, a website focused on daily deals offering around 50 percent off a huge range of goods and services, from restaurant gift certificates to discounted dance classes. San Francisco even had a deal recently where buyers received $50 worth of organic groceries for $25. If we were playing NBA Jam right now, that would certainly get a “Boomshakalaka!”

Currently, Groupon operates in 52 cities across the US and offers a handy request form to get your city on the map. There’s one deal a day, and a certain number of people have to buy in before it’s finalized, so passing the word along to your cash-strapped friends is encouraged. If you manage to wrangle some referrals, you can even earn account credit—real-live spendable dollars—and score more savings.

The Final Word: Registration is free, and it's a simple way to score a great bargain with minimal effort. Get registered, sign up for daily e-mail alerts, and embrace all that is Groupon.