Friday, March 26, 2010

How to Save Money on Groceries, part 5

I think this will be my last post on this series.  There are more ways to save, for sure.  But there's gotta be an end, and this seems like a good place for me.

Learn from others

Don't try to do it yourself.  One of my favorite sayings is, "Learn from others' mistakes.  You can't possibly live long enough to make them all yourself."  I think you can flip that around, too.  "Learn from others' successes.  You can't possibly live long enough to excel in everything yourself."

There are lots of other websites out there that will help you save a buck or two in your grocery bill.  Here are some of my favorites:

  • Let Me Plan Dinner - She plans a weekly menu, grocery list (usually including the actual price she spent), and all of the recipes (including tips).  (Prices are specific to Utah Valley.)
  • 5 Dollar Dinners - Just like it sounds.  She has a recipe book, too.  (Though, that means she doesn't post all of her recipes.  She wants her book to sell, too.)
  • Budget Bytes - a bunch of recipes, price broken down by ingredient and per serving so you can see exactly how much everything costs.
Good luck with your grocery bill!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Mortgage Payoff

**Editor's Note: I originally published this on my personal blog.  It was found by Holly at Frugal Living Now.  She asked me if she could interview me for her site.  I agreed.  (Honestly, how could you turn that down?  I was flattered.)  Now that the interview has posted, and has been linked back to this blog, I felt it was high time to move this post over here.  I mean, it is exactly what this blog is about.  So, here you have it.  And you can read the ensuing interview here.**

BJ and I have a lofty goal.  We want to pay off our 30-year mortgage in 7 years*.  Sounds ridiculous, right?  How do we plan on doing that?  By simply doubling our mortgage payment every month**.  Well, the idea is simple in theory.  Much more difficult in practice.

Our first challenge was to figure out how our bank works.  We knew it would be much easier for us if we could just pull out one mortgage payment every paycheck, instead of trying to pull out a double payment once a month.  So at first we just started sending in a payment every paycheck, figuring the extra would just go to principle.  (That's how it has worked with my previous car and student loans anyway.)  Alas, I was wrong.  They just started crediting the extra payments to future months.  So right now our next loan payment is technically due, I think, in May or June.  3 or 4 months ahead.  I called to see if we could just put our extra payments to principle or set up a bi-weekly payment plan, but they said to do that we'd have to go through a 3rd party, which we didn't really want to do.  So instead we just started putting one mortgage payment into savings, then the next paycheck we'd pull it out and make one double payment.  Then our loan got sold.  So I went through the whole thing again with our new bank.  (Well, except I called first instead of just sending in the extra payments to see what would happen.)  Same story.  Except with them I could set up a bi-weekly plan.  But they wanted to automatically pull it from my account.  I'm funny this way, but I don't like other companies to pull money out of my account.  I like to pay my bills.  I have bill pay set up with my bank to make payments for me.  But if I want to change a date or amount, I have the power to do so without having to call up someone else.  So we're still doing the savings account method.

The next step was to cut unnecessary expenses.  We went through all of our bills to see what was necessary and what we could live without.  We've done this in many stages.  Every few months we reevaluate.  Especially when BJ was in school and we thought he was doing grad school, it was amazing how much more we could cut each time.  We'd think we were living on bare bones, but then I'd do our budget and realize how much money we didn't have, and we'd find somewhere else we could save.  Sometimes you just have to be creative.

For example, we're currently feeding 3 of us on $100 per paycheck (every 2 weeks). We don't eat out often; we use cloth diapers; we make our own baby food; I breastfeed; we drive an old car; we only have one car (that is paid for); we get the cheap/free phones when we "upgrade" our phones. (We would gladly cut our cable, but it's part of our HOA fees. [sigh])  Basically, we have cut every corner we possibly can to save.

We realize, though, that if we make paying off our mortgage our life, we're going to get really discouraged really fast.  So that's not the only place we put our savings.  For one, we also have various ING savings accounts (a 6-month emergency expense fund, a new car fund***, etc.) that we contribute to monthly.  But we go a step further.  We still enjoy life while living frugally.

We keep up morale while making these sacrifices in three ways:
  1. We have a goal. We're trying to pay off our mortgage ASAP so that we can save ourselves the interest we would have paid. Also, we will have our monthly mortgage payment to ourselves instead of sending it off to someone else 23 years sooner, simply by doubling our mortgage payment every month. So whenever I'm eying that new (fill in the blank) I remind myself that I can have that and more in just 6 more years (and a few months).
  2. We have a wish list that we add to whenever we think of things that we really want to buy, but can't justify right now. Not only does it make a great list for birthdays and Christmas, but we also allow ourselves to splurge here and there by buying something off that list. We don't do it often, but knowing that we don't have to do without everything for 7 years makes it a whole lot easier to say no to the little things along the way. 
  3. BJ and I each have a separate ING checking account (as well as a joint checking account). Each paycheck we pay ourselves a little something and we can do anything we want with that money. If I want to splurge on a box of chocolates or buy an album on iTunes, I can. If he wants to buy new software for his computer or go rock climbing, he can. We are not held accountable to each other for what we buy with that money. It's a lot easier to save "our" money when I know I have a little bit of my own to do anything I want with.
It's still really hard, I won't lie. I do grow tired of having to pay such close attention to the cost of everything at the grocery store. And waiting for months for things I really want can be discouraging and hard. But it makes me feel good to watch my mortgage drop so much faster (and even more so to see my interest payment get a little bit smaller every month), and to simply know that I will have saved so much more money over the years. I like to dream of what I could do with just our mortgage payment when I get to keep it.  We could go on a cruise every month!  I could have a greenhouse!  Oh the library we would have.  (Now, what we would actually do with that money is a different story.  There would be a lot more charity-giving and saving for retirement going on.  But dreaming is really fun, especially when a wee bit absurd.)  Being self-reliant, I think, is one of the biggest confidence boosters you can get.  There's just nothing like seeing the money you saved and knowing that you did that.

*Of course, this is largely dependent upon if we're still living in our condo in 7 years, if we've sold it, are renting it, and if we have moved, how much our new mortgage is.  But since we don't know that, we are just going to try to pay off as much as we can now so that we have more equity for a new home, or have enough paid off so that we can afford a second home while renting out this one.
**I'm not saying that everyone can do this.  Even if you have the money to pay double, the amount of time it will take off your original loan depends greatly upon how much money your loan is, how much you have left on it, how much your payment is, and most importantly, your interest rate.
***I read a blog recently that suggested that you buy a car you can afford with cash.  Even if you have to downgrade.  (Luckily, we already own our car, so this step was easy.)  Then for a year, continue to make car payments into a savings account.  At the end of the year, sell your car, take that amount plus what you have in savings and upgrade.  Repeat until you have a good, reliable car that will last you for many years to come.  Then continue to make car payments to yourself, but put them into CDs or mutual funds.  Instead of having an eternal car loan where you always have a nice car, but you're paying a lot into interest and never own your cars, you live with less-than-perfect cars for a few years before you get a nice car, but you're never, ever paying interest.  In fact, you're earning it.

How to Save Money on Groceries, part 4

Eat simply

No, I don't mean you should eat Mac and Cheese or Ramen for every meal.  Or for any meal, for that matter.  But if you're like me, you can easily get caught up in trying new foods, or using a lot of expensive ingredients in your food.  Even if it's only for a few meals a week, those add up fast.  Instead, go back to the basics.  A friend of mine told me that if you want to eat frugally, think like a peasant.  Soups, for example, are quite cheap and can make a ton.  Make a big batch, keep a few servings out to eat, then freeze the rest to pull out for an easy meal later.  (Having meals in the freezer is a great way to stretch a future dollar when money is even more tight than it is now.)

Don't shop for convenience.  Instead of buying boneless, skinless chicken breasts for $2/lb (or less if you're watching for deals), buy a whole chicken for $1/lb.  (These go on sale quite frequently.)  You can roast a whole chicken, eat it in various ways for 2-3 meals (chicken breasts for one, fried legs or wings for another, shredded chicken in enchiladas for another), then use the leftover bones to make a chicken soup, or chicken stock for another meal.  And that soup can last for several meals.  Besides, cooking chicken with the bones and skin on will keep it more moist and more flavorful.  (If you don't want to eat the skin, that's fine.  Just pull it off after it's cooked.)

Eat more produce.  Not only is it healthier, but it's cheaper than buying processed foods.  It can also keep you from snacking on unhealthy foods throughout the day.  Trust me.  A bag of carrot sticks is much cheaper than a box of Ding Dongs.  And you get more.  A quick salad is a cheap and healthy side dish for any meal.  (A head of romaine lettuce for $0.88, a bag of carrots for $1 or less, and a couple of tomatoes for less than $1, makes enough salad for several servings.  Just go light on the dressing if you're doing it for health reasons.)

Rotate through your top 7-14 favorite meals.  It's ok to have some repetition in life.  You don't need to make a new dish for every night in the month.  Make a shopping list for each meal, then when you see things on that list go on sale, stock up.  This is especially helpful if your favorite meals use similar ingredients.  So when you find hamburger on sale, you can stock up for chili, stroganoff, and Shepherd's Pie.

Do some vegetarian meals.  Pasta, veggies and a simple sauce can be a good, filling meal.  Especially if you have side dishes.  Salad, vegetables, fruit, bread, can all make a less-filling main dish into a well-rounded, satisfying meal.  Meat can be expensive.  So if you can cut meat out of your diet for a few nights every week, you'll save a lot of money in the long run.  (This is a hard one for me.  Born and raised on a cattle ranch, when I plan dinner I typically pick a meat and build a meal around it.  Take out the meat and, well, what's left?  I'm getting better, though.)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

How to Save Money on Groceries, part 3

Sorry for my absence.  I'm on day 5 of constant headache, so I've been limiting my computer time.  (Staring at screens with my out-of-date glasses prescription aggravates the problem.  Don't worry!  New glasses are on their way.)  So if you continue to not hear a lot from me this week, that's why.  But hopefully this'll go away.  5 days is already way too long.

Price Matching
Many grocery stores will match any advertised price.  If you want to get all of the great prices from all of the different store ads you've been rifling through, but don't want to actually go to five different stores, this is the best way to go.  You'll have to do your own research as to what stores price match in your area and their policies, but I promise, it's worth it.

I typically go to Walmart when I price match.  (Go ahead, Walmart haters, boo and hiss.  Right now, frugality prevails for me.)  Because almost everyone has a Walmart nearby, I'll use them as a guide for this blog.

So, you've made your menu for the week.  You've listed out your grocery list on the side, complete with prices and the store, right?  Perfect!  Now grab all of those grocery ads and head to Walmart.  You'll be glad for that list.

Go ahead and start doing your shopping.  Whenever you find something on your list you were going to buy somewhere else, check your list.  If the price is cheaper at Walmart, great.  Carry on.  If your list is sporting a lower price, great!  Put that item in a separate corner in your cart.  Keeping all of your price matching items together will make your check out experience much more pleasant.

Some items Walmart simply won't have.  Like, the other day I wanted to buy Bosc pears and price match them.  Walmart didn't have Bosc pears.  They had a bunch of other brands, but not the ones I wanted.  I decided that I didn't really care about the type of pear I got, and the ones they had were similar in price, so I went ahead and got them.  Other times the similar item I find is way different in price.  You have three options.  1) Go ahead and get it and see if the cashier will let you substitute the similar item for the same price.  If they won't, you can always leave them at the register or go ahead and buy them anyway.  2) Buy them anyway.  You've gotta decide if the price difference is worth the gas and time it'd take you to go to the other store.  3) Go to the other store and buy the other item.

Store brands.  Sorry, but as great as the price for Kroger spaghetti sauce is, you won't find Kroger products at Walmart.  Happily, Walmart will price match store brands, too.  Just substitute with the same product (size and everything) with the Great Value brand.

Meat.  What do you do about meat?  Most of your grocery stores have a butcher shop.  Their advertised price for boneless, skinless chicken breasts are for the butcher shop.  Walmart doesn't have a butcher shop.  This is where price matching is great.  I'll be honest, Walmart has horrible prices for meat.  Because it's packaged elsewhere and shipped in, the prices just can't match a butcher shop price.  This ordinary flaw is your lucky break.  Would you rather have Tyson chicken than butcher shop chicken?  Go to Walmart!  That's their only chicken.  They will honor your price matching.  So Smith's chicken breast sale becomes Walmart's Tyson chicken sale.  Same goes with all of their other meat.  You just have to match the same type of meat.  So if your sale is for 70/30 ground beef, you still have to get 70/30 ground beef.  You can't try to up it to get really cheap 90/10 ground beef.

Check out.  This is the part that is the scariest and keeps most people from trying it.  If you're nervous, just do a couple of items your first time, and go at a less-busy time of day.  (Not Saturday, evenings, or Wednesdays (or whenever the first day of the majority of your stores' sales start.))  Cashiers are typically helpful if you tell them you're new at price matching.  Make sure you have the ads from the other stores.  Most of the time, the cashiers won't even look at the ads.  They go by the honor system (at least in Provo/Orem).  But you have to have them in case they ask.  (I also suspect that if they see them, they're less likely to ask about specifics.)  I have had cashiers ask what stores certain items are on sale at, typically the higher ticket items, like meat.  So it's always a good idea to write what store had that price on your list so you don't waste precious time at the checkout looking through ads to figure it out.  Having the price written on your list is even more important.  As the cashier goes through your price-matching pile (all put together for ease), have your list handy so that you can tell him/her the price quickly.  If you're really nice, figure out the price of the meat before-hand.  (Having a calculator in your purse (on your phone, iPod, etc.) is a good idea anyway.)  Otherwise they'll have to spend time figuring out what 4.7 lbs at $1.49/lb equals.

Then you're done!  I promise, the first couple of times are the scariest.  After that, it's a breeze.

A few other things to keep in mind:

  1. Sometimes Walmart won't price match specific stores.  For example, there is an ethnic market called Tenochtitlan that my Walmart won't price match.  I would recommend calling your Walmart before you start to see what local markets they won't price match.
  2. I usually end up with one or two items that don't price match for whatever reason and end up going to another grocery store anyway.  But I spend a lot less time hopping from store to store.  Whether or not you do this, however, is completely dependent upon your view of how much a dollar is worth.
  3. Walmart will not match percent off or store coupons.  The stores around here have been on a kick of having coupons in their ads for "Buy 4 of these cereals and get $6 off" making a box of cereal often around $1-$1.50.  You cannot get that same deal at Walmart.  They will not honor those coupons.  So if you want to do that deal, you'll still have to go to that specific store.  Same with percent off.  If there is a Buy One, Get One Half off sale, you're outta luck at Walmart.
  4. Not all grocery stores that price match will have the same rules as Walmart.  It's always a good idea to check with your specific store to see what their fine print is.  (It's not even a bad idea to check with your local Walmart, in case they have special rules for their specific store.)

Friday, February 26, 2010

How to Save Money on Groceries, part 2

Look through Store Ads

I know I briefly covered this in my last post, but I thought it deserved its own post.  Grocery ads usually come in the mail on Saturday and Wednesday (those days may vary depending on your location).  The day they come is typically indicative of when their sales last.  Typically the ads that come on Saturday are good from Saturday-Friday where the ones that come on Wednesday are good, you guessed it, Wednesday-Tuesday.  That is just a generality, however.  Always check the advertisement itself to see what days those prices are good for.

For example, Sunflower Market in Orem is good Wednesday-Wednesday.  That means every Wednesday you get double the deals.  (In fact, they list both weeks' ads on their website, putting the new one up on Tuesday, so that you can plan your shopping for Wednesday and get twice as many good deals.)

Some stores offer certain deals only on certain days.  For example, Buy Low in Provo offers amazing deals on produce on Wednesday and meats on Friday.  Yesterday, for example, they sold cabbage heads at 6 lbs. for $1.00  That's just less than 17 cents per pound.  That's a great deal.

You'll notice that the various stores usually seem to be offering the same things for sale for almost exactly the same price.  Just because you see a great deal on your favorite ice cream at one store doesn't mean you need to buy it there.  Make sure you look for that specific item in the other ads as well.

Use the ads to see what is on sale.  Specifically look at meats, if you like to use meat in your cooking, as those are typically the most expensive things you will buy.  Build your menu around what is on sale that week.  In fact, if something is on an awesome sale, stock up in your freezer.  Sure, you'll spend more this week, but you'll save a lot more in the long run.

Lastly, don't be afraid to go to different grocery stores.  You don't have to do all of your shopping at one store.  Especially if all of the stores are close.  If one store is significantly further than the others, then the $1 you'd save on bread might not be worth the trip.  But if they're all relatively close together (like most of mine are) then the money you'd save by going to 2-3 stores is worth it.

When I make my weekly menu, I list the menu on the left and the ingredients I'll need to buy on the right.  Next to the ingredient I write what store I want to buy it at and at what price.  (If I've seen a good deal in an ad.)  That way I know at a glance what I need to buy at each store, and if I happen to spot a better deal at a different store, I can buy it there and cross it off my list.  If I'm really feeling organized, I'll actually organize my ingredient list by store to begin with.

Lastly, don't be scared to price match.  I'll get more into that tomorrow.  This post is long enough as is.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

How to Save Money on Groceries, part 1

Almost every time I redo our budget and realize that we need to save more money, it's the grocery budget that gets cut a little.  Currently I am feeding our little family of three on $100 per paycheck.  (That is approximately $200 per month.  Or $50 per week.)  But how do we do that?  I'd like to start a little series that will help you cut back on your grocery budget as well.

Tip #1: Make a Menu

I know this can be difficult for some people.  Many people like to cook whatever sounds good that night or don't like the idea of having to think up 7 meals at one time.  But I promise you, the simple act of writing out a weekly menu before you go grocery shopping will significantly cut your grocery budget.  Why?

Less wasted food
I can't tell you how many times I used to go to the grocery store and just buy whatever looked good at the time.  And then later in the week I'd be looking in my vegetable drawer and say, "Ewww. Why did I buy so many peppers and tomatoes?  Now they're all moldy and gross."  And then, without another thought, I'd throw them in the trash.  Now, I can't say that I don't still wind up throwing out bad produce here and there (I'm not perfect) but it is certainly less.  I only buy the produce I plan on using.  (Usually waste comes when I have to buy a whole bunch of green onions and end up only using half for my recipe.  But I'll talk about that more below.)

Controlled spending
When you don't have a plan, it's easy to just grab whatever looks good off of the shelves at the grocery store.  When you walk into the grocery store with a list, it is much easier to just walk to the aisles that you need, grab the stuff off your list, then check out.

Save time
Not only will you save time at the grocery store when you can walk to each aisle with purpose instead of wandering aimlessly down every aisle, but you will also save time every night when it comes time to make dinner.  No more staring blankly into your fridge, hoping something will look good enough to eat.  No more asking, "Well, what do you wanna eat?"  Instead you can simply look up at your menu and start cooking.  In fact, for nights you know are going to be busy, you can plan for slow cooked meals.  Those require planning ahead.  You can't open the fridge at six o'clock and start a crockpot meal.  However, if you know that your husband is only going to be home from work for an hour before running off again, or if your kids are bouncing between soccer and flute lessons, crock pots can be your best friend.  Just stick a handful of ingredients into the crockpot in the morning, then come home that evening to dinner all ready to eat.  Mmmm.

Buy what's on sale
I wouldn't suggest doing this right away, but once you get comfortable making a weekly menu, you can start skimming through grocery ads and planning your menu based on what is on sale.  And trust me, once you get in the mindset of saving on groceries and have some practice under your belt, you will know what is actually a sale and what is the store just advertising their normal price, to make you think you're getting a good deal.

Utilize everything you buy
As I mentioned above, I'm not very good at this yet.  So perhaps we should mark this is as a more advanced step.  When you plan your menu, you can plan for all of your ingredients.  If you're making a recipe that calls for 3 green onions, but you know you have to buy an entire bunch, plan another meal that uses green onions.  If you buy a head of lettuce for a salad one night, keep making salads for other nights to use the entire head.  Every bit of produce you throw out because you never used it is money you are just throwing in the trash.

Save time part 2
If chicken is on sale, plan on multiple chicken dishes.  Cook all of the chicken at the beginning of the week.  Then when you need chicken later that week, it's all prepared and ready for you, saving you time in prep.  Also, if you buy your chicken fresh and cook it immediately, you've just saved defrosting time for future meals.  (Just make sure you use it soon enough that it doesn't go bad.  Freeze the cook meat if you need to.)

When you first start cutting on your grocery budget, start small.  Plan a menu for a few weeks before you start worrying about skimming the grocery ads or planning for every last ounce of food you will buy.  If you start all gung ho from the start, chances are great that you will burn out quickly.  Baby steps.  Get used to one part before you move on to the next.  But watch excitedly as your grocery spending slowly starts to decrease.  Get excited over every dollar.  Let that small success spur you on to do a little bit more.

I'm back!

So, I've taken a bit of a hiatus on this blog.  I apologize.  I mostly started this blog to document my couponing, but after having a baby I had to cut some things from my life and couponing was one of them.  Now, that doesn't mean that I've stopped being frugal, just that I've stopped reading couponing blogs and cutting coupons every week and rushing to Walgreens to get a bottle of free nasal spray that I'll never use.  I think my timing was quite unfortunate.  I stopped couponing just after I moved within walking distance of a Walgreens.  Alas.

However, I decided recently that this blog need not be solely about couponing.  Rather, it can be about frugal living in general.  I have been reading frugality blogs recently and have been loving them.  BJ and I have been living quite frugally for some time now.  I've had several people ask me how I do various things that I do, so I've decided to turn back to this blog.

Here we go!