Top Money-Saving Tips of 2009

Check out Good Morning America Food Editor Sarah Moulton’s Best Cookbooks of 2009 (video!) Notice a certain orange-covered book on that list?   To celebrate, I’m giving away 5 copies of  Family Feasts for $75 a Week.  To enter, comment and share a money saving tip of your own.

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You know the drill. You walk into the grocery store with a long list and a finite budget. The last thing you want to do is spend two weeks’ worth of grocery money on one week of food. But prices these days make it ever more challenging to stay within a budget. What’s a smart shopper to do?

1. Make a list and check it twice

Lists are tremendous money savers. Begin by thinking in terms of meals. Before I head to the store, I scribble out ideas for two weeks of dinners. Half the meals are family favorites: cheesy chicken enchiladas, creamy potato soup, and pasta carbonera are regulars. I then thumb through cookbooks and fill the rest of the two weeks with new and interesting-sounding recipes.

Once I’ve decided what we’ll be eating for the next couple weeks, next I write down the ingredients that I lack for those recipes. I skim recipes, check the pantry, dig through the freezer, and check my cupboards, making sure that everything I’ll need is either in my kitchen or on my grocery list.   Once I have all the dinner ingredients written down, I add the items we typically use for breakfast and lunch, as well as goodies to make baking possible.

2. Go to the store less often

When you run out of something, write it on your grocery list.   But don’t race to the store the instant your list gets an item or two on it.  Every trip to the store is a  temptation to impulse-buy. So I challenge myself to go just a day or two longer between shopping trips. We live 20 minutes from the store.  The other day when I didn’t want to run to the store just for hamburger buns, I made my own fresh homemade rolls.

3. Expand the list of things you can make yourself

Did you know that you can easily make your own granola? Homemade white sauce takes 5 minutes to make and costs a fraction of a can of cream soup.  Homemade salad dressing is equally fast and will save you a cool $2. Not bad for a 5 minute time investment.  Even better if it saves you a trip to the store where you would potentially spend much more on impulse buys.  Learning to make just one item per week will consistently give you more money in your pocket.  Remember, it’s not only this week’s new recipe that will save you money.  Gradually learning to make a variety of things for yourself will make your savings snowball.

4. Stock up when prices hit rock bottom

And I mean REALLY stock up.  In October I bought enough ground beef on sale to last til February, which effectively extended that October sale for months, for me anyway.  This month I put lots of $1.50/lb butter in the freezer, enough to make baking more affordable all winter for us.

5. Don’t be afraid to try new recipes

To earn a repeat appearance in my kitchen, a recipe needs to be tasty, easy to cook, and have ingredients that are affordable and easy to find.  Don’t overlook ethnic food. I’ve found Chinese, Mexican and Ethiopian food to be both affordable and delicious. This West African Peanut Chicken is a good example. And here’s another bonus:  ethnic grocery stores often have great prices on things like spices, sesame oil, coconut milk, and specialty pasta.

6. Remember WHY you want to save money

I developed my money-saving strategies so that I could stay home with my kids.   You may be dreaming  of finding enough extra cash to pay off a car or take a cruise or have another baby.   Keeping your goals clearly in mind will make it easier to do the little daily things that will move you towards that goal!

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Living where grocery costs are high

As I shared the prices I paid for various items in September, often people would say, “_________ is never that cheap in my area.”   For example, apples for 33 cents a pound.  Well, ten months out of the year, I can’t find apples that cheap either.  Most of the time I pay at least 89 cents a pound for apples.

During apple harvest, I can find better prices.  But 33 cents a pound is an exceptionally good price for apples, even in my area.  It was available at only one store, and was advertised on the front of that store’s sales flyer for the week.  That leads me to guess it was probably a ‘loss leader’ for the store– an item that wasn’t actually making the store a profit, but that they were selling at that cost to bring buyers into the stores to hopefully also buy more expensive items.

My 33 cents/pound pears were the same story, at a different store.  If I’d done all my grocery shopping for the week at that one store, my grocery bill would have been much higher.   But by knowing my prices and cherry-picking the best sales at various stores, I am able to keep my costs as low as possible.

BUY SINGLE-INGREDIENT FOOD

If you happen to live in an expensive area of the country, you can still save money on groceries.  A big key is to buy as much single-ingredient food at the store as possible. For example, instead of buying canned chili, buy dry beans along with beef. Make a double or triple batch and freeze some for later. Instead of buying Eggo waffles, buy flour and eggs and milk, have a waffle-cooking morning, and stick a bunch in the freezer for busy days.

COOK

Obviously this ‘single-ingredient’ approach means being willing to cook, either a little every day, or by doubling a few recipes each weekend and sticking extra food in the freezer. Some people love to cook.  Others don’t.   But even resistant cooks often feel better about cooking when they realize cooking can reduce expenses so much that they can afford to work less outside the home, pay off debt faster, or afford that vacation they’ve been dreaming about.

MEAL PLAN

Cherry-picking sales and shopping at a variety of stores is also going to be an important key to success. I know — you don’t have time to go to 5 stores a week.  Neither do I.   But think about how often you go to the store right now. Many people do a big shopping trip every weekend, then still find themselves running to the store 2 or 3 nights a week after supper, for a total of 3-4 trips per week.

I average 2 trips to the store each week.  By planning two weeks of dinners ahead of time,  I can usually get by on 2 ‘big’ shopping trips each month.   On a big trip I will stop at CostCo for milk, cheese, butter, flour, rice, and sugar. Then I drive a mile or two to WinCo and get the rest of the food.  (I love it that those two stores are so close together now!) 

CHERRY PICK

In between those big trips, I keep my eyes open for good sales at other stores.  In my area, it is most often meat and produce at Paul’s, and various random things at Albertsons. These smaller trips are almost always paired with other errands– doctor’s appointments, or soccer games, or church. I run into the store with a very short list, and only buy on-sale items. An average ‘small’ trip takes 10 minutes in the store, and happens once or twice a week.

These tips will work no matter where you live. If you live in an expensive area of the country, your total costs may not be quite as low as in farm country. But you’ll still save money. I’d love to hear from readers who are saving money while living in big cities. What do you do that helps you save money?

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$200 at the grocery store all month? (I might be insane)

Two years ago when we did 30 Days of Nothing, we spent $318 the whole month on food. Of course besides that we had our regular bills for utilities, gas, housing, etc. But we cut out all non-essentials. No clothes, books, eating out, or other extras. I felt good about what we saved that month, especially considering that at that time we usually spent $600-$700 a month on groceries, and another $100 or more on books.

These days I usually spend $900 a month on groceries. I’ve been hoping that in September I could get by on $400 for the month. Only problem is, I just tallied up our groceries for August. I spent $1100, $200 more than usual. It’s the stock-up urge: grab more of this, get another one of that — I don’t want to spend money in September. Problem is, the challenge is meaningless if I just shift all our expenses to August or October.

I decided I’ll just consider $200 already spent for September. That’ll leave us $200 to spend in the month. Yeah. $200 for the whole month. Fifty measly bucks a week. I usually spend that much before I walk 50 feet in WalMart, let alone all the way to the back of the store to grab eggs. I may be insane.

But here’s the thing: even though I spent a bit more than usual in August, I bought with economy in mind. I bought good, healthy, versatile, long-lasting items. Our cupboards are bulging with food — it’ll be at least 2 weeks before we run out of much of anything. (Oops, except I already ran out of powdered sugar making cocoa mix today to take camping, and my son just informed me we’re also out of plastic wrap. Eeek). But the point is, we have a ton of food and a huge garden. Even if we only spend $200, we won’t be starving anyone. And — don’t worry — if we truly need to spend more, I will. I may go waaaaaay over my measly little budget.

But I’m gonna aim for $200, and I’m stoked. I’ve got the start of a meal plan for the month-I am planning a bunch of new recipes to try to keep things interesting. (Frugal food does NOT have to be boring, after all.) I am excited that so many of you have mentioned that you’ll be playing along too. feel free to grab the button to mention on your blog. First thing Monday morning I’ll be putting Mr. Linky up at the top of my blog so that everyone who is playing along can link up. And of course everyone can visit around and see what other people are doing with the challenge. Remember, the rules are up to you. You decide what’s ‘essential’ to your family. Decide what to give up. Decide what to keep. You can even decide to do the challenge for a shorter or longer period of time if you’d like. It’s up to you. So come on– take the challenge!

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Doesn’t work for me: Walgreen’s

When Shannon turned Works for Me Wednesday on its head this week, asking us instead to tell about something that doesn’t work, I instantly knew my topic.

Walgreen’s.

More specifically the deal-hunting at Walgreens that involves many flapping coupons, spending much good money on fancy name brands, and waiting for rebates that come many weeks later and sometimes are disallowed entirely.

I know that many frugal blogs talk about the wonderful deals that are to be had at Walgreens. But after trying this for three months in a row, I have to admit that this particular money saving strategy is doing nothing but frustrating me.

Yes, I’ve saved some money. But I’ve also been coaxed to buy name brand products that I would never waste spend my money on otherwise. I’ve spent literally hours cruising the aisles with fists full of coupons. My little girls are starting to whimper when we even drive past Walgreens. And the stuff I end up buying is so….small. Call me strange, but when I walk out of a store having just spent $50, I want to be holding more than one bag. I hate the sinking feeling that I would have been much much better off having bought my Colgate, Prell, and toothbrushes at the dollar store, coupons be hanged. And I would have gotten done much sooner.

I WANT Walgreens coupon-stacking/rebates to work for me, I really do.

But after my latest shopping fiasco, I’ve got to face the facts.

It all started last week when I realized the soccer field was only two blocks from Walgreens. I decided that my little girls would be much happier playing on the swings and watching big sister’s soccer practice than cruising endless aisles at Walgreens. So I handed my teenaged sons a cell phone and asked them to play with the little girls while I zipped over to make the most of the May rebates at Walgreens.

Around and around I went, matching coupons and reading fine print and trying to make sure I got the maximum money back. Besides about $10 worth of rebate items, I was also hoping to get a $10 ‘register reward’ for buying 4 Colgate products. I was especially pleased about this deal because I also had coupons for Colgate to jack up my savings. I only had a few more things to find when my cell rang. It was my son.

“Hey!” he said. And then he called the name of my 3 year old and I heard odd screaming fading in and out. He called her again, sounding distracted. More odd wavery screaming.

I called his name, starting to panic, trying to get him to talk to me. But he didn’t seem to be listening to me. I called his name louder. Panic was rising in my throat. Was she hurt? I knew it wasn’t irresponsible to leave my 3 and 5 year olds at the park with their 13 and 16 year old brothers, but the mom guilt kicked in…

When still he didn’t answer me, I left my cart in the corner and jetted out of the store and hopped into the van, trying to fight back the fear that the three year old was really seriously hurt. A minute later I was pulling into the parking lot. To see my little girls swinging, screaming happily as they went back and forth. The big boys were protectively in position behind them.

Augh.

I called out to my son to hang up the phone. He looked at me, puzzled, utterly oblivious to the fact that he’d called me.

Relieved but still rattled, I jetted back to the store to gather up my coupons and my last couple items. At the checkout, the cash register accepted all my coupons (yeah!) but then refused to spit out my coveted $10 register reward. ?? The teenaged clerk sighed and called his boss, who arrive by turtle 20 years 6 minutes later. It was then that I learned you aren’t allowed to combine coupons and register rewards. I’d saved $3 with coupons only to lose my $10 reward. Not only that, but on closer examination, it turned out I’d bought the wrong Colgate products, so wasn’t eligible for the reward anyway.

I was now 10 minutes late to pick up the kids, so instead of arguing, I scooped my bounty one teeny $40 bag up and hurried off to get the kids, who were thankfully still happy and well.

On the way home I consoled myself with the fact that at least I still had about $10 of rebate money coming …eventually.

Except when I got home, I discovered that somewhere in all of that hassle, I’d lost my receipt.

Bye-bye rebates.

I am, however, the proud owner of a bottle of plaque-revealing mouth rinse, which I never in a million years would have bought without the promise of a rebate. Oh, and some lightbulbs–only a buck, and yes, we do use those. And more toothpaste. Toothpaste that cost 3x as much as I would have spent at the dollar store.

Yes, I realize that with a little better concentration and a firm grip on my receipt, I would have saved a bit of money. But I am left with the overwhelming feeling that really, sadly, Walgreens rebate/couponing does not work for me.

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3 ways to save money on food

I’m still trying to get over the whole CNN interview thing. It was surreal to be sitting there in the van at a soccer game clutching my cell phone to my hot cheek answering questions live on CNN. I was prepared for the time to be brief– I think it was all over in 4 or 5 minutes. But when the anchor lady wrapped it up and said goodbye, I still was left with my mouth open, clutching a page containing some key points that I had REALLY labored over. I thought I might as well put them up here. Many people are sure to already know this stuff. But when I was early on my journey towards frugal living, I appreciated hints from more experienced folks. So, for those of you who are new to frugal shopping, I offer:

3 First Steps Towards Saving Money on Food

1.) Clarify your own ‘big picture’. What are your goals? If you had $100 or $200 or $400 more each month, what would you do with it?
–Pay down the credit card?
–Sign your daughter up for music lessons?
–Save for a family vacation?
–Buy a new minivan?
–Save money towards becoming a one-income family?
If you have your goals clearly in mind, it is so much easier to avoid the ‘poor me’ feeling when it is time to skip pizza delivery and instead crank up your oven and pull out your own flour, yeast, and pepperoni. It’s about much more than an easy meal– it’s about giving yourself the ability to reach long term goals that are more important.

2.) Tally your actual food expenses. Most people have a general idea, but the exact figures may surprise you. Don’t forget to add in your restaurant meals. Even if you can look at your previous month’s records, I’d encourage you to save your receipts for the coming month as well. It will make step 3 easier.

3.) Chop at your top 10 list. Obviously it would be ideal if you could buy everything at the lowest possible price. But when you are just beginning to try to save money, keeping track of a million prices can be overwhelming. It is much more doable to begin by picking the 10 categories on which you personally spend the most money. Common ‘big’ categories include meals out, convenience food, snacks, meat, milk, cheese, fruit, and diapers. Whatever your Top 10’s happen to be, add up those totals for a month or two. (Look at last month’s receipts if you can.) Then focus on those ten areas. There are two ways that you can save money. Either you can buy less of the item, or you can spend less per piece ON the item.

Use Less
For example, in the restaurant category you could decide to go out to eat once a week instead of three times. In the snack category you could limit your family to a bag of chips a week and cut your cola consumption in half. If disposable diapers are draining your budget, you may decide it is worthwhile to invest in cloth diapers, which will pay for themselves in just a few months.

Spend Less
Obviously there are some categories that you don’t want to cut back on, such as the food your family needs to stay healthy. To save money on fruit, good options include limiting your purchases only to in-season fruit, which is more affordable. You can also aim to buy fruit where it is cheapest.

Currently we are eating lots of oranges, because one store in town is selling them for $0.48/lb. Yesterday I found Braeburn apples for $0.98/lb and bought a bunch. On the other hand, most likely we won’t buy watermelon til June, and it has been awhile since I’ve seen grapes at a low enough price that I’ll buy them.

In some cases you can use both these strategies. To save money on meat, serve smaller portions and incorporate a vegetarian meal into your rotation each week. Also make sure to buy the meat for as low a price as possible. Currently I have about 15 lbs of hamburger and 25 lbs of chicken in my freezer, all bought on sale for less than $1/lb.

Once you have gotten your personal top-10’s chopped down to size, pick another 10, check prices, and start chopping away on those.

Chances are, doing only these first three steps will allow you to save some money, which will give you the momentum and encouragement you’ll need to gradually make even more changes in your budget.

Click here for the Frugal Cookin’ Carnival.

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Frugal Cooking Carnival (updated)

Welcome to the Frugal Cooking Carnival! I hope you’re all set to share three days worth of menus, costs, pictures, and recipes. Guidelines can be found here. But even the recipes from one or two meals will be helpful, so please participate at whatever level you feel able. Before I share my own three days worth of food, I want to get Mr. Linky up so that those of you who are raring to share can get your own link posted first. Once you’ve signed in with the EXACT link to your post, you can scroll on down and see how the three days of cooking went at my house. And just a note– you have to actually CLICK on the Mr. Linky to see the links that people have posted.

(Update: Here are the actual links of the people who participated, since it seems Mr. Linkie is not showing up in some browsers)

1. Keren ($20 Menu, Shopping List, and Recipes)
2. Untraditional home
3. Linds
4. Anne (vegetarian)
5. Stephanie @ Keeper of the Home
6. daycare girl
7. Amy@Experience Imagination
8. Joanne
9. Tina
10. Carrien@She Laughs at the Days
11. Melissa Darling (A Darling Life)
12. Shana
13. Sonya
14. Another Oatmeal Idea
15. Ali BG (vegetarian)

(Lynn, diane, and Suzyq: Please resubmit your links– they didn’t show up on Mr. Linkie)

3 Days of Food
This first picture shows most of what I bought to use over the three days. A few odds and ends are missing, and there are a few things there that I didn’t end up using. But the picture gives you a pretty decent idea of what I used over those days. I will be adding recipes in the next day or two. This post has taken a ridiculous amount of time to write– I want to thank all of you who decided to join me in this effort, because it really has been a lot of work.

Breakfast on day one was migas, toast, orange juice and coffee. I used 18 eggs, but since I found eggs for $1.50 a dozen, it wasn’t too expensive. I only give the kids coffee once a week or so, in tiny Ethiopian cups, and when I do, they really enjoy the treat. The whole meal with juice and toast cost about $6.50, which came out to about $0.65/person. This is a favorite breakfast at our house.

Beef stew with dumplings
Tuesday for lunch we had a nice vegetable beef stew with dumplings. The stew was very hearty– I could have used a bit more liquid, I think. It contained hamburger, carrots, potatoes, cabbage, onions, and canned tomatoes. The thing the kids liked best was the big dumplings on top.Next time I’ll make more stew, since the stew ran out while there were still plenty of dumplings. I served this with orange halves and a slice of banana bread for dessert. This meal came out to about $6.00 or $0.55 per person.

Peanut chicken and rice

Tuesday’s dinner was another favorite. West African Peanut Chicken is a dish that we discovered a year or so ago, and now make a couple times a month. I used the meat from 3 chicken breasts that I’d bought for $0.98/lb, so this also was a fairly affordable dish. I made the sauce with plenty of homegrown pureed tomato and pureed onion (the kids like onions just fine when I puree them) and served it over rice with fresh broccoli and orange slices. Total cost for the meal was $6.25, which came to about $0.57/person.

cold cereal
Wednesday’s breakfast was as easy as you can get– cereal, milk, juice and fruit. I generally don’t pay more than $1.50 a box for cereal, but Albertsons had a great deal a few weeks ago. A sale combined with ‘preferred customer rewards’, store coupons and manufacturers coupons brought the cereal down to $0.60 a box. I bought 10 boxes. With half a gallon of milk, half a gallon of juice, and a couple pounds of bananas, the total cost of the breakfast was about $4.60, which is about $0.42/person.

Fried rice and egg rolls
This lunch was particularly yummy: fried rice, egg rolls, apples, and peanut butter cookies for dessert. I made the fried rice using leftover rice from yesterday’s dinner and leftover migas from yesterday’s breakfast. I also added a bit of chopped-up pepperoni, onion, garlic and carrot. I fried it all in a few tablespoons of sesame/canola oil. Near the end of cooking, I added about 1/4 cup of soy sauce. The egg rolls were filled with cabbage, grated carrot, fresh ginger, minced onion and garlic, then fried in oil– ya know, you can’t beat deep fried food for taste! With that fat content it was a good thing the meal was practically vegetarian! We rounded out the meal with apple slices and homemade peanut butter cookies for dessert. Total estimated cost for this meal was $7.50, or about $0.68/person.

Beef Stroganoff
Wednesday’s dinner was an old standby at our house: beef stroganoff. Usually I make it with egg noodles, but tonight I just had macaroni and that was fine. I served it with mushrooms on the side since many of the kids aren’t thrilled with mushrooms. For side dishes we did some frozen corn from last year’s garden, fresh broccoli with salad dressing, and a cookie for dessert. (Cookies don’t last long at our house!) This meal cost about $7.50, which was about $0.68/person.

Oatmeal and ice cream
Thursday morning’s breakfast idea came from some friends of ours. Oatmeal is the ultimate in affordable breakfasts, but it can be a little dull taste-wise. Unless you top it with ice cream, that is. Even kids who aren’t in love with oatmeal will eat it happily if you top it with a scoop of strawberry ripple ice cream. One other tip: we cook our oatmeal in our rice cooker, which totally avoids the ol’ boil-over problem we always used to have with oatmeal. It requires absolutely no watching, which is a plus on busy mornings. Just pop in your regular amount of oats along with twice that amount of water, turn the cooker on, and walk away. The rice cooker turns off automatically, and keeps it warm til you get to the table. We served this breakfast with a link of sausage, toast, and orange juice, for a cost of about $6.00 altogether, or $0.55/person.

Our third lunch was another easy meal: leftovers from previous days. At least once a week we have a leftovers meal at our house, which consists of pulling everything from the last few days out of the fridge and letting kids go through picking what they want then microwaving it. This time around we have leftover peanut chicken, dumplings from the beef stew, and fried rice. Since I already added the costs of those items into the previous meals, the only ‘new’ costs were for the oranges and carrot sticks we served on the side, which cost about $1.25.

Chicken enchiladasOur final meal for the three days was chicken enchilada casserole. While I was making one casserole, I went ahead and doubled the amounts so I could have another casserole to stick in the freezer for a different day. Along with the enchiladas, we had a green salad made with swiss chard from my husband’s greenhouse, and the last bit of cabbage. The younger kids turned their noses up at the chard– it does have a slightly sharp taste– but I really liked it, and so did most of the bigger kids. The enchiladas turned out great and were met with rave reviews. I’m really glad I made two! For dessert we had more cookies– I’m afraid this batch is almost gone. The total on this meal was a little higher than some: meat AND cheese, you know! It was around $11.50 for everything, which comes out to about $1.05/person, and we even had some leftovers for my husband to pack next time he goes to work.

The grand total, for 9 meals for 11 people? $57.10. That’s 99 meals for about 58 cents a meal.

I am so glad I’m done with this post. I am now going to bed as my hubby is literally tugging me by the hand. I’ll be back with more recipes tomorrow, people! So come back, OK? Welcome to the people visiting after seeing the mention here and then on CNN this morning. If you look in my sidebar under ‘Techie Stuff’ you’ll see several different ways to subscribe to this blog. I hope you’ll all be back and please feel free to leave a comment!

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