Counting My Pennies :: The Recap

February was the month we kept the debit cards tucked nicely in our wallets and spent quite a bit of time wielding Santoku knives in the kitchen. It required a little additional work each week and getting creative in order to stay under budget, but last month’s No Spend Challenge was a huge success.

I discovered Cooking Light’s Weeknight Meal Planner and it was the perfect tool to get back in the swing of cooking every night.

Cooking Light Weeknight Meal PlannerYou drag each image into the appropriate day of the week and then print out the recipe/ingredient list. It’s seriously idiot-proof and the recipes are super easy. Here’s a few of the winners and what I’d recommend tweaking:

Filet Bourguignonne with Mashed Potatoes Probably the best dish from the planner. You can’t really go wrong with steak in a wine sauce and velvety mashed potatoes. Double the sauce – it’s rich and fantastic.

Sausage, Tomato, and Arugula Fettuccine This one fell pretty short. It came together quickly but the flavor wasn’t impressive and the fettuccine overpowered the dish. For light ingredients like cherry tomatoes and arugula, angel hair or thin spaghetti would be a much better choice.

White Pizza with Tomato & Basil One of the quickest meals of the bunch and while it was good, it definitely could have used something else to take it up a notch. Prosciutto would have been a nice addition.

Maple-Mustard Glazed Chicken This prompted me to finally invest in something I’ve been putting off for a couple years: a cast iron skillet. It’s not 100% necessary for this recipe but considering it’s been used three times a week since it came home with me from Target, I’d say it was worth every penny. It cooks food evenly and being able to go from a burner straight into the oven is a huge perk. Anyway, back to the recipe. This one is a keeper. I doubled the sauce and went a little heavy on the stone ground mustard so it wouldn’t end up too sweet. Skip the starch and serve this with crisp haricot verts.

Chicken Orzo Salad with Goat Cheese If you want to know what summer tastes like, it’s this. I’m ready to make this salad again already, it was that good. The flavors intensified as time went on and made it perfect for leftovers.

After the first week I got back into the swing of things and switched back into recipe development mode. Something about coming up with a dish on my own is so satisfying and I’d much rather start from scratch than follow a recipe line-by-line out of a cookbook. One thing I was worried would be an issue last month was lunch at the office. If I didn’t have time to throw something together in the morning before heading out the door, I’d grab lunch next door at Whole Foods. It’s a healthy and convenient choice. Obviously with the challenge in place, I wouldn’t have this option to fall back on. But since I was cooking dinner every night and most recipes served 4-6, there were plenty of leftovers to have for lunch. Crisis averted.

Overall, it wasn’t as difficult as expected and the month flew by. The extra time spent in the kitchen was enjoyable and we definitely appreciated the money saved by eliminating meals out. The hardest part was figuring out what to have for dinner on Friday nights. After working all day and grocery shopping immediately after, the last thing I want to do at 8pm on Friday is cook. I tried to plan ahead so there would be leftovers from Thursday night, but a couple times we ended up having either cereal or eggs for dinner.

cookbooks and spices

The purpose of this challenge was to save money and to get back on track after several months of excessive dining out. But in the process my passion for cooking was reignited and I’m looking forward to spending more time in the kitchen for the remainder of 2014.

How often do you go out to eat each week? Do you follow recipes or create your own?

How to Plan a Vacation That Won’t Break the Bank

Over the past few years, Brad and I have been trying to take advantage of every opportunity we can to travel. Maybe it’s a few hours away to Dallas for a concert or across the country to visit friends in San Diego. Either way, we’ve grown accustomed to building a few vacations into our schedule each year. Neither of us bring home a huge salary and I can almost guarantee that you on your own make as much or more than both of us combined. So it’s not like we can wake up one day and book a trip with little to no planning. Last summer I did a boatload of research, created a savings spreadsheet to track our finances and booked us a vacation to Mexico for the end of summer 2014. Unfortunately, a few things came up and we had to postpone the trip until next year. But I thought I’d share a few of my tips and tricks to help you plan your best vacation yet.

How to Plan a Vacation

1. Decide where & when you want to go. Whether you’re planning a week-long tropical getaway or 3-day trip to run a marathon, you should have a pretty solid idea [especially if you’ve already registered for said marathon] of where you’d like to stay. Negril boasts beautiful beaches in Jamaica but it’s several hours from the airport, while Montego Bay is less than twenty minutes away. If you want to squeeze every single minute out of your vacation, a location closer to the airport would probably be best. If your mind is set on a quiet relaxing week of doing absolutely nothing in Mexico, you should avoid the Hotel Zone in Cancun and research resorts in Playa Mujeres or Riviera Maya. A cruise might be more affordable in winter months but it might be due to lower temperatures. Make sure you review the average highs and lows [as well as historical precipitation totals] for your destination so you don’t end up spending that beach vacation playing board games in the room.

2. Set a savings goal. After preliminary research you’ll probably have a rough idea of how much this vacation will cost you. Do you want to sacrifice a little quality to spend $1500 at an all-inclusive or are you willing to buckle down to spend $2500 at a nicer resort with more perks? It all depends on how much wiggle room your budget has. Can you save $50 or $150 a paycheck? Also, does the resort require only a deposit to secure your reservation and the balance is due at check-in or do they need the entire stay paid for when you book? Sandals charges a $400 deposit [unless booking a package with airfare, in which case it will run you $1,000+] while Excellence Resorts collect the cost of the vacation a week prior to check-in. The latter may be a better option if you don’t have the money to shell out up front. Make sure you count meals, souvenirs, parking at the airport, baggage fees, etc. They may seem like small insignificant charges but they’ll add up and should definitely be accounted for.

Savings Goals 3. Do your research and read the fine print. Become best friends with Trip Advisor and other similar sites. Take all reviews with a grain of salt. If you’re staying in a city with public transit and want to avoid renting a car, look at hotels close to rail stations. In both Philly and DC I was able to take the rail from the airport to my hotel and also to travel around the city. Rail passes are much cheaper than renting a car AND you won’t have to pay for parking at your hotel, which averages $20/night in bigger cities where parking is at a premium. Find out if your hotel charges incidental fees and how much they are per night. In Vegas we were hit with $750 in incidental fees at check-in and it put a significant dent in our vacation fund. Lesson learned. Use a credit [not debit, unless you have unlimited funds in your checking … in which case, I’m super jealous] card for incidentals. The charges usually don’t drop off for 3-4 days after you check out. Are there additional resort fees? Some charge an additional 15-18% per night to cover things like WiFi and Fitness Center access. It’s best if you do a little research beforehand so you know exactly how much you’re looking at spending on accommodations and can include them in your budget.

Excellence Playa Mujeres on Trip Advisor

4. Book far in advance – and shop around. When planning my race weekend in Philly, I started looking at hotels and airfare in June for the November trip. This resulted in roundtrip airfare for two + 3 nights in a 5-star hotel for only $1,000. For Marine Corps I started even earlier, researching [and booking] in February for the October trip. This landed us a hotel less than a 1/4 mile from the marathon finish line and a one-bedroom suite with a full kitchen for less than $200/night. I started planning an August 2014 vacation in August 2013. Planning that far in advance gave us a reservation for a two-story rooftop terrace with a private plunge pool for the exact same price as a standard room without a view in April or May. If you have to book last minute, use either Priceline’s Express Deals or Name Your Own Price tool. It gives you control over the price and star-rating of hotels, while allowing access to exclusive deals to hotels trying to fill their vacancies. Hotwire is another excellent resource.

Priceline Express Deals and Name Your Own Price 
5. Put on the finishing touches. Book your airport transfers, buy tickets to that show you’re dying to see, crowd source for must-try restaurants in the area you’re visiting. If you’ve been on a vacation with me, you’ve probably caught a glimpse of my trip itinerary in Google Drive. Prior to departure, I get a spreadsheet together with an hour-by-hour schedule. It’s not an ‘end all be all’ plan, but having some general direction gives me peace of mind. It avoids the “what do you want for dinner?” “oh I don’t care, what do you want?” “eh, I’m not really in the mood for anything in particular. what’s around here?” “I have no idea” conversation. Then it turns into a big clusterfuck because no one can agree on anything. Yeah, no thanks. Restaurant reservations, museum tours, excursions, pool time, after dinner drinks, shopping, etc. It’s all plugged into the spreadsheet. Even if things aren’t done in the exact order, at least there’s an idea bank to work from and everyone on the trip has access to it so there’s no surprises. Maybe I sound crazy [I call it organized] but if you ever come with me on vacation I can promise you won’t have to worry about a thing.

And while we’re on the subject, here’s a list of my Top 10 Travel Tips.

What’s your best vacation planning tip? What mistake have you made on a previous trip that you learned a lesson from?

The Comeback Kid … Maybe

The Marine Corps Marathon in 2011 was my first marathon and probably my absolute favorite race to date. I had no expectations for a finish time so it was simply about finishing the race and having fun out on the course. My DNF at the NJ Marathon in 2012 was humbling and downright depressing. Torn between swearing off the 26.2 distance and pulling the trigger on a redemption race, the registration bug got me and I was in for Philly that fall. Training started off really well but halfway through I was feeling burnt out and even the thought of running long was daunting. I half-assed training in the back half and it showed one million percent in miles 13-26 along Kelly Drive. And that was it, I swore off marathons until I got my shit together. I even went and put this bold statement out there: I would like my half PR to be under 2 hours before registering for another full marathon. Yeah, I’m not there yet. Might have even backpedaled and became slower in the process. [<--- that takes talent] But I did follow it up with this: I’m shelving the 26.2 distance until 2014. Technically I left myself a loophole to make my comeback this year.

Not exactly sure what to do at this point. Do I continue focusing on getting faster for 13.1 or do I go for the gold by registering for a fall marathon? To make the decision more painful [and annoying] all of my top options are lotteries:

    • I’d love to run Chicago in October with these two and maybe this girl, but I recently [ahem, yesterday] committed to Ragnar Trail Relay Hill Country the following weekend so that’s probably not a good idea.
    • Marine Corps Marathon would be fantastic to experience again but after reviewing my budget for that trip in 2011, it doesn’t seem financially feasible.
    • And finally, the New York City Marathon, which is astronomically priced but has been on my bucket list pretty much since I started running. Although this would probably be the easiest on the wallet as a whole AND I’d be able to spend some time with my family in November.

Okay, it basically boils down to me entering the lottery for NYCM. But … what if I don’t get in? Do I say screw it, I wasn’t meant to run a marathon this year? Do I then enter the lottery for Houston in January 2015? (If I could get into Houston outright this would undoubtedly be my #1 choice for the full.) Or do I resolve to only run half marathons this year?

I don’t know what to do. Please help.

Not Enough Time in the Day

I need help. And suggestions. And if it’s possible for you to insert an extra day into my week, that would probably be the best course of action. After Houston, my training came to a screeching halt. The arch issues I encountered on race day tapered off after a few days but the pain migrated over to the side of my right foot and made itself comfortable there. Grocery shopping required a cart to lean on and even just walking from my desk to the kitchen was sometimes painful. I RICE’d the crap out of that thing, with a major emphasis on the rest. I haven’t run a single step since the half last month and my first pain-free day was Saturday. With Austin just around the corner [this weekend, yikes – snuck up on me] I knew a decision would have to be made and I wasn’t going to like it. Nope, I wasn’t going to like it one bit.

I’ll be inking a big fat red DNS next to the 2014 Austin Half Marathon. It’s really for the best because I want to be 100% healthy to run Ragnar Cape Cod in May. But that doesn’t mean I’m not disappointed skipping this race. Deferring my entry would cost a pricey $60 [$120 for both Brad & I] and that unfortunately isn’t in the budget right now. Hopefully I’ll score an early-bird discount for the 2015 race when registration opens later this year.

finding the time to workout

Okay, so back to the part I need help with. I’m basically starting from scratch with a workout/running plan because my schedule has been out of whack since mid-December and being out of commission the past few weeks didn’t help either. This is the perfect time [hi, 12 weeks til Ragnar] to get a plan in place and work some classes into the mix. Here’s where I’m running into an issue: there aren’t enough hours in the day.

Morning: My gym opens at 5am so morning workouts are basically limited to anything I can squeeze in between 5 & 6. I need to be home by 6:10 to let Sox out of her crate and get ready for work. This scenario requires leaving the house with wet hair by 6:45, which could possibly suck if it’s cold outside. I can’t take any classes because they start at 5:30 and end at 6:30, leaving hardly any time to shower and drive to work – let alone going home to free Sox from her crate one last time.

Lunch: A Gold’s Gym just opened across the street from my office, which is awesome but ideally I’d need more than an hour. A run could definitely be squeezed in but taking Body Pump or RPM would be out of the question. I suppose an option would be to stay at the office 30 minutes later in order to justify a long lunch, but since I usually leave work around 5:15 or 5:30, I’m already pushing my ETA at home pretty far out. That 75-90 minute commute ruins everything…

Evening: All of the classes I’m interested in across the street don’t start until 6pm, so there’d be some time to kill after work. With classes running from 6-7 and at least an hour drive home, that puts me walking through the front door around 8pm. Brad is in bed by 8:30 at the latest and passed out cold by 9, so the amount of time we’d see each other during the week would be pretty scarce. I guess there’s always the option to go to the gym after he goes to bed, but let’s be honest: it probably won’t happen. The chance of me leaving the house again after getting home from work is slim.

I can fit running in pretty much anywhere, but structured classes are harder to schedule. Let’s recap: Sox the Pillow Eater cramps my style in the morning, midday classes are too long to fit into my lunch break, and evening gym sessions cut into time spent [which is already pretty short] with my other half. On Wednesdays I work from home, so taking a class that morning is definitely doable. The thought of waking up early on a day I usually look forward to sleeping in isn’t exactly appealing but sacrifices must be made. Here is the [tentative] plan:

Mon: RPM // Tues: run // Wed: BodyPump // Thurs: run // Fri: rest // Sat: run // Sun: rest/yoga

Monday I’ll try to get into work a little early and stay a little later to account for the lunchtime RPM class. On Tuesday and Thursday I have the option of running before work or at lunch. Wednesday morning I’ll reluctantly drag myself out of bed at the crack of down to get my ass kicked at BodyPump. And the remaining days are a non-issue.

Since this plan is just tentative, I’m looking for some tips & tricks to squeeze workouts into a busy schedule. Are you a morning, noon, or night runner/gym-goer?

How to Spend a Weekend in Austin

One of my favorite things to do when I have friends visiting from out of town is showcase the best food in Austin. Last year when my best friend Jackie visited, we had fantastic burgers at Javelina on Rainey Street, saw a movie at the Alamo Drafthouse, enjoyed a bacon Bloody Mary brunch at Frank, and explored downtown restaurants on the Austin Eats Food Tour. After packing our schedule pretty full in 2013, I knew I’d have my work cut out for me while she was in town this year.

Torchy’s Tacos

Torchy’s sets the bar pretty damn high when it comes to tacos. I’ve talked about their Secret Menu before, but the regular menu has a ton of great options as well. If spicy food is your cup of tea, you’ll love the Brushfire. Or go for the Independent if you’re a vegetarian. There’s really something for everyone. In my book, their Green Chile Queso is tied with Kerbey Lane’s for the best in town. Their guac is pretty killer too. They opened a new location just around the corner from my house so we had lunch there on Friday.

Torchy's Tacos are Damn Good

Torchy's Tacos

Roaring Fork

Brad and I hit up up the happy hour here fairly regularly. They have a solid beer list for a high-end restaurant, delicious apps, and it’s one of the only places I know that has HH on the weekend. If you’re stuck on what to order, the Kettle of Green Chile Pork is a great choice.  Since it’s only one block from 6th Street, it works as the perfect spot to stop before a night out. I didn’t take a single picture because my other best friend from NJ, Ashley, happened to be in town for a conference and joined us for the night. We were too busy downing dirty martinis and catching up to pull out a phone or camera. There was a quick stop at Maggie Mae’s for a drink before our reservation at the next bar and the three of us jumped in a photo together for the first time since 2010.

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Midnight Cowboy

This is the first bar I’ve ever been to where reservations are encouraged. It’s hidden on 6th Street and you need to use an apartment-style buzzer for Harry Craddock at the door to be let in. The host will ask for your name and then usher you quickly inside. The bar is dark and lined with plush leather booths, definitely a change of pace from the normal bars on 6th. There’s a two-drink minimum per person, so you’ll be feeling nice and toasty when you head out of there. Our favorites of the night were the Rusty Peach and Byrrh Cocktail: both whiskey drinks, both strong and perfectly balanced. They discourage pretty much all photography in there but I snuck a shot of the bar cart while our server made our drinks tableside. And one of our first round of drinks. [with a flash. pretty sure I got yelled at for that. can’t take me anywhere!]

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Turkey Creek Trail

The next morning required a fair amount of coffee before we made our way out to Turkey Creek for a hike. The trail isn’t as lush and green as usual since it’s “winter” here in Austin, but it’s still one of our favorite spots to escape the city and get a few miles in. The dogs love the 3 mile loop too since it’s off-leash and they have free reign of the area.

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Chuy’s

After dropping Ashley off at the airport to head back to snow-covered NJ, we had an early dinner at Chuy’s. The North Austin location has horrible parking, which keeps us from eating there as often as we’d like – and at Brick House next door. Having dinner at 4:30 meant up front parking and actually sitting down without a wait. Pretty sure that’s never happened to us. Chips & salsa [request the creamy jalapeno – necessity!] hit the table and we ordered beer, margaritas, burritos, fajitas. You know, all the basics.

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Texas Stars Game

Fun fact: we’ve never been at a game that ended in a win for the Stars. The venue is less than five minutes from our house and the tickets are really cheap, so we try to make it to a few games every season. But seriously, it would be awesome if they could come out on top for once. For the record, they’re currently in first place. Obviously we’re just bad luck. Brad sprung for center ice seats and we had a great view!

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I bought us each two hockey pucks for the “Chuck a Puck” contest. Sadly we didn’t come even remotely close to hitting the target. Another fun fact: this was my first hockey game sans beer. The margaritas from dinner held me over and I didn’t want to be too hungover to drink at brunch the next morning. <— LOL

Taverna

This restaurant has been on my Explore Austin list for awhile and I was excited to finally check it out. We arrived a little late [their brunch is known for long waits] but managed to snag the last table inside. Gah, this menu. Man, I could probably eat brunch for every single meal of the day. Especially if it meant each meal came with $2 mimosas… We went back and forth on so many items and eventually decided on three dishes to share. Except we ended up keeping our own meals, so that didn’t exactly work out. The food was fantastic! Jackie ordered a pork belly and butternut squash frittata, Brad had banana-stuffed french toast with blackberry compote, and I went with the brisket hash with poached eggs and hollandaise. And then we ordered dessert, beignets with cappuccino sauce.

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Austin Beer Works

We could hardly breathe after brunch so we did a few laps around the Domain in attempt to burn some calories before hitting the brewery. Austin Beer Works does tours every Saturday & Sunday from 1-6pm and for $10 they give you a pint glass to keep + 3 full-sized samples. We chatted with the bartender, who was super knowledgeable and helped us decide on what brews to try. They weren’t stingy with samples so you had the opportunity to try a few before committing to the full pint.

Austin Beer Works Beer List

I’ve always been a big stout lover [my fave is Independence Brewery’s Convict Hill] so the three beers I chose were a bit on the darker side: Black IPA, Black Thunder, and Sputnik. My favorite sips stolen from Jackie and Brad were Fire Eagle and Battle Axe. They even had a beer with glitter in it, Mr. Sparkle. Austin Beer Works had a more personal vibe to it than Independence and I loved being able to learn so much about the different beers they offer.

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How Do You Roll?

And last but not least, HDYR. They’ve been around for several years and were recently featured on Shark Tank. They’re a fast-casual sushi restaurant known for their made-to-order custom rolls. I’m one of those pain in the ass people that changes every sushi roll because there’s something in it I don’t like, so this place is basically made for me. We’re definitely going back in March after the dining-out ban has been lifted.

How Do You Roll

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We started with dumplings and then ordered the Funky Fresh Chicken Roll, Crazy Cajun Roll, and 3 Alarm Spicy Tuna Bowl. The wait was a little longer than expected, especially since we were one of two tables in the entire place but the food was well worth it. Everything was fresh and delicious.

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So yeah, if you have any vacation days you need to burn, come visit me in Austin. And bring your best spandex pants – you’re gonna need ‘em.

Tuesday Things

1. My ‘Explore Austin’ project has been getting some love. While friends were in town a couple weeks ago, we hit some of the bars and restaurants I’ve been dying to try over the past few years. I don’t want to go into too much detail since the post tomorrow covers all the good stuff, but my new favorite thing to do is visit breweries. Definitely need to add a few to the list, like Adelbert’s, 512, and Circle Brewing. And after Cely’s review of the Austin Brew Bus, let’s go ahead and put that on the list too. For March, obviously – my wallet is zipped tight this month.

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2. In my opinion, iceberg lettuce is the worst lettuce ever. My go-to greens are either romaine or a spinach-arugula mix. Iceberg only appears in the house when there’s a BBQ and I need some cheap toppings for burgers. After having people over for the Super Bowl, I had a giant chunk of the ‘berg leftover and no idea what to do with it except throw it away. Then the light bulb came on: wedge salads. I’ll rant and rave about iceberg being a sad excuse for ‘greens’ but put a wedge salad in front of me and I’ll eat my words. And that salad. If you’re good at drawing conclusions, I bet you can guess what was for dinner last night.

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3. Speaking of Super Bowl Sunday, Jeanette came by and brought Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate PB Cups with her. She very quickly became everyone’s favorite person. Brad wanted to know why we never have them in the house. I wasted no time letting him know it was because he can’t be trusted around anything dessert-related. Then I felt bad [even though my statement was true – he agreed!] and headed to TJ’s yesterday to pick up some PB cups for him.

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And the Cocoa Swirl Cookie Butter. And managed to grab one of the last two containers of Coconut Body Butter, which they are alwayyyys out of. Also, a few other unpictured purchases were the Roasted Tomato & Red Pepper soup, aged gorgonzola, and a bag of blood oranges. Typical TJ’s story: go in for one thing, walk out with 12. TJ’s & Target are basically the same.

4. Our adorable little puppy has been more of a little menace than usual lately. After our Houston trip [where she was crated for most of the weekend] she went on a destructive tear throughout the house, leaving a softball-sized hole in our comforter and an even bigger hole in another quilt that we ended up tossing. She’s a nightmare while unsupervised during the 2 hour period between when Brad leaves for work and I get up, so we started crating her again until she can be trusted. She sleeps in bed with us every night from 10pm – 4am and never budges. So when I woke up at 2am early this morning and didn’t see her curled up at my feet, I knew we were in trouble.

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RIP pillow, you will be missed.

5. This is probably counterproductive, but at the end of January I ordered a bunch of new kitchen toys to help make cooking more fun throughout the month of February. I replaced quite a few of my spoons/spatulas with Tovolo utensils – and I am in LOVE. They’re much easier to clean than the normal plastic ones and they’re super pretty too (<— important) I also bought these soup bowls, giant coffee mugs [100% against Brad’s will “we already have enough mugs!”], and a pizza wheel. Joseph Joseph has the coolest stuff: this spatula is ginormous & perfect for flippin’ pancakes and this scoop colander is great to use instead of your giant colander when cooking a smaller portion of shells or elbows. I own both of them but purchased awhile back. Big ol’ stamp of approval from this girl. OH! And a new knife block because half of our knives are missing and/or need serious sharpening. 10 years and many a dishwasher cycle put some serious wear on them.

Chicago Cutlery Knife Block

So yes, I spent money to save money. They’re INVESTMENTS. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.

Counting My Pennies

In the fall of last year, Brad and I were saving for our road trip to Florida and on a serious mission to keep our spending limited. Only the necessities were purchased and we ate A LOT of chili and spaghetti. Like, A LOT. It was cheap and large batches lasted us for several days. Between the cross-country trip and the week following it, I spent more time in restaurants than I did in my own kitchen. Shortly after that was our visit to Houston and then a 3-day weekend spent dining in fantastic restaurants all around Austin. Mint was pinging my email incessantly, sending warnings that I had exceeded my Food & Dining budget for January. 

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I’ve been loosely participating in this 12×30 challenge, ie. photos were taken every day in January, but not all made it on social media. February is a “No Spend Challenge” but I’m modifying it to only apply to food. This month will be sans happy hours, coffee runs, and lunches at Whole Foods Express next to the office. No ordering a pizza when I’m not in the mood to cook. Hopefully this will help get us back on track money-wise and eliminate the dependency on restaurants. It should also help me feel really sad about missing out on Dunkin’ Donuts for an entire month.

I’m also thinking of jumping on Mint’s #28DaysofSaving challenge on Instagram because hey, who doesn’t love free money? Probably won’t post every.single.day on Insta because I don’t do that anyway – not planning on spamming people. But there’s a handful of days I have ideas for so it’s time to get creative and try to win $50!

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Suppose I should go ahead and throw the disclaimer out there: NO, I am not partnered with Mint on this promotion or affiliated with them in any way, shape or form. I use their site to track spending on food, gas, and running crap. It’s a nice eye-opening experience at the end of each month [and year] to see how much you’re really shelling out on running shoes and “quick & cheap” lunches out. Anyway, Feedly recently recommended their blog to me [probably because I subscribe to And Then We Saved + Our Freaking Budget] and it’s full of helpful money saving tips. This post is where I learned about #28DaysofSaving.

Now, who wants to volunteer to buy me Dunkin’ Donuts this month?

2014 Aramco Houston Half Marathon Race Recap

I’ll start with this: going forward, it’ll be tough deciding whether to run 3M or Houston every January. 3M has always been one of my favorites: a net-downhill course, comfortable field size (6-7K), perfect weather, affordable registration fee, and a start line less than 20 minutes from my house. Living in Austin, running 3M is a no-brainer – especially if you’re interested in a PR.

Then Houston happened and I’m not sure I can put into words how awesome this race was. From the beginning it seemed like your standard “big box” race in a busy city, complete with the pricey registration fee and a lottery for runners not meeting the qualifying times. But “big-box” race it was not. It was the complete opposite of what I expected.

Aramco Houston Half Marathon

Pre-Race: Our original plan was to take the rail into downtown on race morning. Then the Pats/Broncos were announced as the early game on Sunday and we wanted to be on the road back to Austin ASAP post-race. We ended up parking in a garage near the GRB / finish area. I used the distance to the start as a warm-up jog and settled into Corral B just before it closed.

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Race: Well, this was certainly the most painful race I’ve ever run. My arches were killing me pretty much from the get-go, an issue I haven’t run into since last March. I’ve been running/training in the same shoe model (Brooks Ravenna) since April and my current pair has ~100 miles on it, so they should have been fine. No idea what the problem was on race day. I saw Brad (and Luke!) cheering on the side of the course in the first mile or so and somewhere during mile 2 heard a familiar voice yelling my name. I turned to see Courtney on the right side of the course running with her friend Cateline. Seeing her smiling face was just what I needed at that moment because I was super pissed about my arches ruining the race for me. We chatted excitedly for a couple minutes before wishing one other good luck and heading our separate ways. Wish I could have stuck with them for the rest of the race!

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Despite the fact I was hating life, I fell in love with this race. It was flat, shaded with beautiful trees, and the spectators were packed deep along both sides of the course. I truly believe the friendly & enthusiastic spectators are what kept me moving forward in the race. My arch pain resulted in the internal “do you want to run this race or do you want to run forever?” debate. I REALLY did not want to end up injured. Around mile 7, I stopped attempting to run (which was more like a shuffle at that point anyway) and worked on perfecting my power-walking skills. And took the opportunity to pet every.single.dog I came across. And cheered on the marathoners hauling ass to the finish, trying to qualify for Boston. If I couldn’t run, I was going to enjoy the final miles and race experience in Houston. And it was in those final miles where I decided I’ll be entering the lottery for 2015.

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Crossing the finish line was bittersweet because while I was super happy to be done, I was also disappointed in my finish time. But it is what it is.

Post-Race: Immediately after the finish line, you’re ushered into the GRB where you can grab food, collect medals, pick up your finisher shirt, etc. Everything was really spread out and not congested at all, which was great.

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After receiving the medal for the half, I grabbed a bottle of water and an ice cream sandwich <—- weird, but it tasted amazing that morning. Then I waited in line to pick up my second medal for running both the half and the 5K on Saturday. The booth behind it was for the finisher shirt so I picked that up and made my way to the HEB Food Court for the free hot breakfast. Eggs & Sausage > Doritos & Granola Bars

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Overall: I’m struggling to come up with anything negative about this race. For such a large event, they seem to have all of logistics nailed down. I’ve run comparable sized races which have fallen short in countless departments so I went into Houston with low expectations and ended up very impressed. The Houston Marathon and Half Marathon is everything the Rock n Roll races should be but can’t figure out how to execute.

The lottery opens on June 4th for the 2015 race … who wants to head to Houston with me?

Weekend in Houston & the ABB 5K

On Friday afternoon we headed down south to Houston for the weekend. We should have been pulling into the race expo around 4pm but due to congested highways and the population of Houston being incapable of operating a vehicle correctly, it ended up being just after 5. When traveling somewhere new, you should definitely experiment with using the maps app on your phone without turning the GPS on. Turns out all of the GPS usage and iHeart radio streaming on our road trip to/from Florida in December drained the crap out of our data for the month and we had to navigate downtown Houston GPS-less. It was REALLY fun.

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The expo was massive and super organized. I loved how a volunteer could scan the barcode from my confirmation email on my phone rather than having to print out a hard copy. We picked up our 3 (5K x2 & the half for me) race packets in less than five minutes and were released out into the sea of vendors. I chatted all things Oiselle with Sara at the Fleet Feet booth, browsed the USTAF merchandise, and pretty much breezed through the rest. Skechers, a new sponsor for this year, provided all of the official race merchandise. The LE shoes created specifically for Houston were pretty cool and a lot of the apparel looked great too, but I wish there would have been other items like pint glasses or magnets. Something cheap that wasn’t clothing-related. A Skechers employee working the area said they’d keep it in mind for next year. Luckily on our way out I saw Chevron putting free magnets out on their table so I snagged a couple.

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I saw the Nuun booth but it was pretty busy so I skipped over it, only to realize later that night they were giving out Texas-specific water bottles with the purchase of two tubes. Now I need another water bottle like I need a hole in the head, but guys: this one said Texas on it. Somehow this justified the purchase and we went back the next morning to grab one.

Nuun Hydration - Run Texas

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After the expo we made our way to the hotel. Initially I booked the Residence Inn downtown so we wouldn’t really have to drive at all and could walk to the race start both mornings. After a little research, I realized I could move us out to a SpringHill Suites near Reliant Park and save $300 on the hotel/parking. It was about 10-15 minutes away and only two blocks from the rail station. I don’t regret this decision at all – $300 is $300.

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The next morning was the ABB 5K, which was by no means a goal race for either of us since Brad was coming off a sprained ankle and I had the half the next day. We grabbed coffee in the lobby and took the rail downtown.

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The race was a super flat out-and-back and the weather was perfect. Beautiful morning for a run! We were pretty surprised with how many spectators were out cheering but it got me excited for crowds the next day. The National Guard handed out medals at the finish, which I thought was pretty cool.

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We had lunch at Freebirds and then went to see Lone Survivor. Okay, so I had heard this movie was pretty intense. I imagined intense like Act of Valor. Definitely teared up at the end and it was sad, but I was able to compose myself in less than five minutes. Let me just say that “pretty intense” does not even begin to describe Lone Survivor. I don’t cry at anything (owner of a black heart) and no amount of sniffling or deep breaths could get me back to normal before the lights came on. It was heart wrenching. Incredible movie, but heart wrenching.

For dinner I had my heart set on Italian and luckily there was a Carrabba’s only a few blocks from the movie theater. Once we cracked open the menus I realized we were at the most expensive Carrabba’s in all the land. Had I done a little research I might have noticed that this was the original restaurant and not under the same management as the chain. But since we were already there and every other Italian restaurant in town was probably swarming with runners, we stayed. At a normal Carrabba’s our exact dinner would have cost us $54 plus tip but at the original we were hit with an $85 bill. Good thing I saved a few bucks on the hotel.

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After dinner we returned back to the hotel so I could buy more songs on iTunes, tweak my playlist for the billionth time and try to get to bed early. Pretty sure Brad fell asleep before I did, but what else is new?

Next up, the Aramco Houston Half Marathon Race Recap

That Trip to Dallas

Yes, I’m well aware I was in Houston this weekend. And no, the post title does not have a typo in it. While I was cleaning up the photos in G+ (I was almost out of space in Google Drive – did you know that’s a thing? Apparently I take a lot of photos…), a few popped up from our trip to Dallas back in October. That trip where I flew my father out to Texas to take him to a Jason Aldean concert and then an obnoxious thunderstorm blew in, forcing Jason Aldean to cancel. Yes, that trip. Please step into my time machine…

On Friday afternoon we scooped my father up from DFW and made our way to downtown Dallas. I had booked us a room at a Springhill Suites which was only a couple blocks from the West End DART station. This worked out perfectly since we’d be drinking most of the weekend and could leave the driving up to the public transit operators. Austin, take note. Get us a legit rail system. We opted to check out Pat Green’s new restaurant, The Rustic, in Uptown. The beer selection is pretty stellar (and local!) so make sure to sample a few brews from their lengthy list of pints and bottles.

Beer at the Rustic

If you don’t mind smelling like a campfire when you leave the restaurant, then you definitely need to enjoy their outdoor patio. It’s first come, first serve so that made snagging a seat a little difficult at 7:30 on Friday night, especially with a 2-hour wait inside. Brad was on top of his game though and after circling the patio 3 times or so, we were able to find a seat in about 15 minutes. The band was great and not too loud, so we were still able to chit-chat at the table without yelling.

The Rustic - Backyard

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Obviously it was pretty dark outside so I’ll spare you the sub-par food photos. My recommendation: order a Lakewood Rock Ryder and the Rustic Burger (hello, it has brisket & green chiles on it), you won’t be disappointed with either.

Saturday morning we took advantage of the free hot breakfast the hotel provided and then relaxed in the room for a bit. We hit Hopdoddy for lunch and then spent a couple hours at Targetmaster in Garland. Nothing screams father-daughter bonding experience more than unloading a few rounds at the shooting range. Afterwards we made our way back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. I was in full-on weather stalking mode because there was a giant patch of thunderstorms just west of Dallas making its way towards us and the concert was at an outdoor venue.

Dinner was at Cane Rosso in Deep Ellum. This is where I fell in love with burrata for the first time and now can’t leave Trader Joe’s without buying a package of it. I initially ordered the regular caprese, but it was seasonal and just my luck – not available. It was obviously fate for burrata and I to meet that night. None of us were really starving so we shared a couple appetizers and then a pizza: the Delia. It had house-made mozzarella, roasted grape tomatoes, arugula, and spicy bacon marmalade. And it was delicious.

Cane Rosso - Delia

I was still monitoring the radar and it looked like the storm had somehow went around Dallas and it was showing up on the east side of the city. Knowing it was probably too good to be true, we didn’t get our hopes up. But the sun was still shining so we hopped on the DART train and headed to Fair Park for the concert.

In fall 2012 I had signed up for Jason Aldean’s fan club to get pre-sale tickets for a show in San Diego. Luckily my membership was still active when it came time to buy tickets for the Dallas show and pre-sale access landed us PIT TICKETS. As in, so close to the stage that you could touch the performer if you wanted to (and weren’t concerned about getting arrested).

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Thomas Rhett was the opener and surprisingly put on a great performance. He played a handful of songs from his upcoming album and this one made its way on to my current running playlist. He had a short set but got everyone really pumped up for the rest of the show.

Thomas Rhett - Gexa Energy Pavilion

Jake Owen played next and he bounced around, covering every single inch of the stage. That man was full of energy! I wasn’t expecting to like him live as much as I did. His set was a bit longer than Thomas Rhett’s and had everyone singing along at the top of their lungs. Eight Second Ride is my favorite song from him and I was stoked he closed with it.

Jake Owen - Gexa Energy Pavilion

Jake Owen - Gexa Energy Pavilion 2

At some point during his set, it started raining. The people on the lawn didn’t seem to be fazed one bit because it was still jam packed out there. Towards the end of the set, I caught a few glimpses of lightning. And then once the music went away, we heard the thunder. After about 20 minutes there was an announcement over the loudspeaker saying Jason Aldean would be delayed and those on the lawn were encouraged to head back to their cars until the storm passed.

Except that storm was so huge, it wasn’t going anywhere. After another 20 minutes, the show was cancelled. I know it was a safety issue and the right decision, but it was still disappointing. Those are the risks you take with buying tickets to a concert at an outdoor venue. The next morning I had an email from Ticketmaster letting me know I’d be receiving a full refund for the tickets since the show was cancelled, which was definitely an unexpected surprise.

Our final meal came Sunday morning at Smoke and I cannot explain to you how damn delicious it was. I declared the pancakes were life-changing and absolutely meant it. Heavy handed blueberry pancakes with vanilla poached apricots – you complete me.

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The bloody mary I ordered wasn’t nearly as amazing as Frank’s (hard to top a drink made with bacon-infused vodka) but the real star of the photo below was the bacon. More specifically, pork belly bacon. We were so full from each of our own meals that the three of us were struggling to finish the two thick-cut slabs of bacon. Brad carried the rest of it out of the restaurant with him because he refused to waste it. Something about starving children in Africa.

Smoke - Pork Belly Bacon

After brunch we killed some time perusing the CD sale racks (scored a few albums for $4.99!) in Best Buy and then headed back to DFW to drop my dad off for his flight. Sad face.

Despite the concert cancellation, it was a super fun weekend! We had a great time showing my dad around Dallas and doing Texas-y things like drinkin’ beer, shootin’ guns and rockin’ out to country music.

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Oh, and eating Texas-shaped waffles. That happened too.