Friday, April 5, 2013

Saving at the Grocery--Cooking

This may seem elementary to some of you, but for others, it's new, so here goes: If you want to save on your grocery bill, learn to cook from scratch. I'm talking everything. If you add up your baking mixes, granola bars, prepared meals, soups, etc, you'd be surprised what you're paying to have someone else do that work for you. Some tips to help:
1. Cook in batches. When I make things that can be frozen, I make multiple batches, cook one and then freeze the rest. Meatloaf, taco meat, pasta sauce, muffins, breads, pasta dishes, casseroles can all be frozen uncooked and then popped in the oven/crock pot later for a quick meal.
2. Plan a menu. Even if you only plan a day or two in advance, or only plan the main dish, this will take away most of the 4 o'clock crisis when you realize you have no idea what's for dinner. You'll be much less inclined to order out or pop in a meal-in-a-bag when you have something planned. This means cheaper, and often healthier meals for you family.
3. Have emergency go-to meals. I have two skillet meals a month (we need two to feed everyone, so this is just one meal). I try not to use it, but if something happens (I find out what I've defrosted is freezer burnt or I burn the stew), then I still have something quick, even if it is a little more expensive. I also keep hot dogs in the freezer (which I stock only when on sale) and boxed mac and cheese for quick lunches.
4. Eat leftovers. Our family has at least one night a week that's leftover night. This means that everyone (even my husband, who really doesn't like it) chooses a leftover and heats it themselves. It's like a buffet, or at least that's what I tell my family *grin*. It cuts down on food waste, plus it gives me a night that I don't have to cook.
5. Only cook what you'll eat. If you don't do leftovers, then cook to your family size. If this means halving a recipe, do that and call it math practice. Sometimes you can make an entire recipe and package it so you have more later. Put your lasagne in loaf pans instead of a 9x13. It will feed an average family of four and you'll have more later. If you need more than that, you can always bake two pans, but you'll still decrease the chance that your leftover food will hide in the fridge and grow a new mold colony. On that note, I find that it helps to have a specific place for leftovers. That way, you always know where things are that need to be eaten and you can hopefully catch things before they go bad.
6. Get to know soups. These are the king of leftover cooking!! They use meat as a condiment, so you use less, and you can toss almost anything into them. I keep a large plastic yogurt container in my freezer labeled 'beef soup bits' and the same for chicken. That way when the roast is nearing it's end and no one has eaten it, I can chuck it in the freezer and still use it. The same goes for the little bits of veggies that are never quite enough for a serving.
7. Use whole cuts of meat. You get a lot of meat on a whole chicken. If you want, you can cut the breasts off yourself, or just roast the entire thing. We eat that once for dinner, then stick the carcass (meant still attached) in the crockpot for 24 hours, with a little vinegar (it sucks the calcium out of the bones and adds it to your stock) and enough water to cover it. Once this is done, I pick the meat off the bones, pour the liquid through a strainer, package the stock and put it in the fridge, once it's cooled, I take the fat off the top and freeze it. Voila! Salt free, fat free chicken broth that came from parts most people throw away! Plus the extra meat, which can be used for tacos, soup, chicken a noodles, or chicken salad. I usually chop it up and freeze it, so I can grab it when needed.
8. Do you own chopping. Veggies, fruit and cheese are all things that you can buy ready-made at the store and are significantly cheaper when you buy the whole product and dice it yourself. Especially party trays!
9. If you really don't have time to cook, consider having someone else do it for you. When we bought our new house we spent all day working on it, and I had neither time nor energy to cook. Paying my uncle to make (and deliver) dinner, was still cheaper than going out or having pizza delivered, plus it gave them some extra income!

I grew up in a home where we cooked from scratch all the time (even though my single mom worked full time) because of food allergies. I know that not everyone's background is like mine, though, and we've become accustomed to having things partially prepared when they come home from the store. We pay a premium for this though, that a lot of us aren't even aware of. Pay attention to where your money goes! Granola bars and chicken nuggets are not difficult to make at home, and are costly when you choose to have someone else make them for you. If you're not used to cooking from scratch, though, don't get discouraged when you try and it's not perfect. Even though my mom cooked from scratch, it took me years to figure out how to cook like I do now, and I'm still learning! I spend a lot of time in college experimenting on room mates and calling Mom to ask her how to make things. It takes time and patience (and sometimes an iron stomach), but you wallet will thank you in the end.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Saving at the Grocery-- Aldi's

First, I am not affiliated with the Aldi's chain in any way, nor do I work for them. If I were looking for a job, however, I would seriously consider Aldi. They treat their employees well, offer good benefits and great wages and run a tight, efficient ship. Their prices are 40%-50% less than what you'll find at the average grocery store, and the quality is just plain good. Having said that, they do not have everything. You will only find one brand of ketchup, and only a few different types of canned vegetables. Our Aldi has four aisles, only four! This makes things easier to find, harder for my kids to get lost and makes my shopping trip take much less time, since I don't have to cross the entire store to pick up my vitamins after I've chosen my milk. It also leaves me less frazzled, as a smaller, better organized store leaves me much less anxious than a SuperMart. Did I mention it saves me money? There is a much smaller selection of "impulse buys" available there, so even if I slip up and shop without a list, shop when I'm hungry, or give in to the kids' desires to grab a treat, it's much less likely to break my budget. Also, since it's only a grocery store, I don't get bogged down checking the clearance aisles in shoes, housewares, or crafts (not that I would EVER do that *grin*). Aldi has made it possible for me to pare my family's grocery budget down to under $75 a week, including snacks and already prepared foods.
Aldi Etiquette:  
In case I haven't told you already, Aldi isn't like other grocery stores. Part of this is because of what my Dad calls "Aldi etiquette." You see, you pay for things at other grocery stores that you may not use, because their costs are built in to the price of your food. The plastic and paper bags that stores give out for "free" aren't really. They're just part of the operating costs. The same goes with the shopping cart corrals and nice people who come out to the parking lot, load them all up and push them back to the store. Stocking specialty or holiday items year-round requires more space and more employees, which also costs money. So does having someone bag your groceries for you. Aldi saves themselves the cost of that overhead, thus making the prices cheaper inside. Here are some of the things that are different at Aldi:

When you shop Aldi, you bring your own bags. I have reusable ones, but you can bring bags from another store if you'd like. You have to pay for bags at Aldi, between .6-1.50, depending on the type of bag. You can also take boxes from the store to stack your groceries in, as Aldi packages their stock to be displayed in boxes, saving them the time and energy of having someone shelve product all day. You also bag your own groceries. They have a long counter at the end of the checkout and once you've paid, you roll your cart over, but your bags on the counter and move groceries from cart to bag there.

You have to pay for your shopping cart. Oh, you get the money back, don't worry. All Aldi carts have a lock on them, which opens for a quarter. When you take the cart back, you lock the cart back into the others and your quarter pops back out. See, efficiency on their part means less money on yours. They don't pay anyone to play cart round-up.

You may not be able to find everything there. Baking cocoa, for example, is only stocked during the holidays, so don't despair if you don't find everything on your list. Also, there may be some things that are better deals elsewhere, though those are few. I find, for example, that I can buy white vinegar (which I use for cleaning) cheaper in a gallon jug, a size that they don't carry at our Aldi.

Their prices can change. While milk at other groceries generally stays the same price (and I haven't bought milk at anywhere but Aldi in so long I don't even know what the regular price is, but since I saw it on sale in the ads for 2/$5, I imagine it's around 3$ regularly), two weeks ago, I bought a gallon of milk for $2.79 and this week it's down to $1.79. By allowing their prices to fluctuate with the market, they protect you from artificial inflation. If their milk is cheaper, so is yours. The converse is also true, though.

When I first started shopping at Aldi, before I was familiar with what they did and did not carry, I would make a list, get what I could there and then go to a larger store and get the few things I hadn't found at Aldi. Now, I just make two shopping lists, one for Aldi and one for everything else. I might go to a "regular grocery" once a month. Might. I am one of those people who will go in for one thing and come out with a full cart ( I get it from my mom, honestly). I hate that. Aldi makes that much harder. There simply isn't as much stuff there as there are at other grocery stores. And honestly, even if I had a recipe that called for truffle oil (and I found two types in three different brands at one store when I went out to look for this example), I don't think my husband would eat it.

I know that Aldi is different than your usual store. But when we look for ketchup and are offered a squillion options (all natural, sugar-free, with or without high fructose corn syrup, just tomato, not to mention different sizes and brands), it is important to remember that we pay for the privilege of having all those options. If that is important to you, that's fine. I choose to buy my apple sauce at a regular store because Aldi does not offer a sugar-free option, and I try to limit my kids' sugar intake as much as possible, even though Aldi's applesauce (they have regular and cinnamon) is cheaper.
It is also important to remember that money talks. Where your money is, so there is your heart. In other words, you spend your money on what's important to you. With so many large companies using profits they earn from my patronage to do things I'd rather not support, Aldi is a place I can shop without worry. Sometimes being frugal pays in more ways than one. 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Frugal at the Grocery -- Beverages

For a lot of us, beverages can take a chunk out of our grocery budget. Milk, juice, pop, coffee, bottled water, sports drinks -- it all costs, and is usually overpriced. *grin* Let's see if we can't fix that.

Pop and Energy Drinks:
First of all, the best thing you can do for your beverage budget is to cut out this category completely. It's not good for you, and you can get caffeine cheaper from coffee and tea. If you simply must have your daily dose, then here are some tips: buy generic, buy in bulk, or buy mixes (these work especially well for drinks like Gatorade and Propel).

Ah juice. It's delicious, and much better for you than artificially sugared drinks. Unfortunately, it's also more expensive than it's flavored-sugar-water counterpart. You can cut that cost, however, by buying concentrates. Most of the juice you buy in the store is made from concentrate already, if you look at the label. You can also make what you buy last longer if you cut the juice with water. This is actually better for kids as it decrease the amount of sugar they get in each glass (that Mots for Tots juice with 40% less sugar and the high price tag? It's just watered-down juice!). Also, encourage your kids to drink more water. The recommended service of juice is just four ounces a day.

Coffee and Tea:
Making these drinks at home can significantly decrease your spending. Coffee grounds keep fresh longer if you store them in the freezer, so you can confidentially stock up when your favorite brand is on sale. A home grinder and french-drip can also help the quality, if you're a coffee snob like me.

The easiest way to save on milk is to drink less of it. I know that's fighting a losing battle, since our medical professionals have been touting the benefits of three glasses a day for years, but you can get your calcium and vitamin D in other ways, and some of them actually easier for your body to adsorb than your regular ounces of moo juice. Actually making breakfast can help with this as well. The milk for everyone's cereal can add up quickly, so making pancakes or eggs will decrease your milk use. Cost per serving, this is generally cheaper than cereal as well. You can also use powdered milk in cooking, coffee and tea, etc.

Tap water doesn't just taste different, it's actually safer for you. Tap water is more highly regulated than bottled water because it's regulated by different agencies. The best way to save on water is to stop buying it in bottles. Invest in a filter pitcher, or even better, a whole-house filter, and just use the tap water you already pay for. Also, drink more of it!! Water is the best liquid for you, and it's also the cheapest. Hands down, the best and simplest way to save on the beverage section of your budget is to increase your water consumption. It will replace the other, more costly beverages, or at least relegate them to special-occasion status. Keeping better hydrated also helps keep you healthier, which can decrease the need for things like lotion and lip balm. It seems like a stretch, I know, but when you're well-hydrated, your body just works better.

If you're still buying more beverage than you want to, don't despair! Some of the things I'm suggesting may take a while to implement; they are, after all, changes in your lifestyle. Remember that changes take time, take it one grocery trip at a time, and recycle your bottles and cans when you're done.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Frugal at the Grocery -- Cleaning Products

As I've said before, one of the first things you realize when you're frugalizing (new word creation... *now*) is that there is a direct correlation between money and convenience. The more convenient it is, and the less of your own time it takes,  the more you pay for it. Conversely, the more time it costs you, the less money you spend. There are obviously exceptions to this (great sales coupled with coupons comes to mind), but my goal here is to teach you how to live another way. Frugality is not just about saving money, though that is one of its many benefits. Frugality is about spending less because you're using less, of everything really. It's about recognizing the limits of our resources, whatever those may be, and the need to responsibly steward those resources so that everyone might have an acceptable standard of living. With that small bit of introduction, on to savings in the cleaning aisle.

Cleaning Products: Making your own cleaning products is as easy as it is inexpensive. You can save spray bottles from old cleaning products (making sure to wash them thoroughly and label them clearly first), or you can put your homemade washing aids in new containers if you prefer. Vinegar and water replaces your window cleaner, baking powder makes a great scouring powder and odor absorber, lemon juice cuts grease and there are any number of recipes for all-purpose cleaners that are easy to make and earth friendly. Salt can also be a cheap, if harsher than baking powder, scouring agent.  If you don't have the time or inclination to make your own products, look for concentrates that will reduce you need to buy new cleaners as often and remember to recycle your bottles when you're done or save them for other uses (my kids enjoy using spray bottles in outdoor play and shakers make wonderful sandbox toys).

Floor Care: I know it's easier to take the pad off your Swiffer-type mop and toss it when you're done, but that's just one more thing to add to your list when you run out. If you don't like the old-fashion mop and bucket routine, Rubbermaid has a new Reveal mop that has a washable scrubbing/mopping pad, as well as a container designed for you to make and use your own floor cleaning solution. There may be others, but the Reveal is the one I use. You can also go with an electric steam mop, which, thought using energy with the electricity, is still less wasteful as it doesn't have disposable pads to throw out every time. I also prefer using straw brooms as opposed to synthetic ones, since those are biodegradable and seem to work better to catch things like dust bunnies and spider webs (though none of us have those, do we?) :-) These kind of mops are also more likely to be found at farmer's markets and the like, keeping your money more local and supporting small businesses, both things which bring down prices on a gradual economic scale.

A note on savings: if you still would rather buy your cleaning products, get to know your local Big Lots. This store has great deals on everything, including name brands and their own store brand, which I've used and found to be effective. Make sure you sign up for their loyalty card. You get credit for every $20 purchase you make, and once you get to ten qualifying purchase, you automatically receive a 20% off coupon on your card. I make sure that each time I go, I purchase as close to $20 as I can (making sure to get an atcual $20 worth first), and then save the stocking up for when I get the coupon. They also send occasional coupons to your e-mail when you haven't earned one yet, and those can also be used to stock up on things. 

My post on paper products detailed ways to get out of buying paper towels, but for cleaning windows, there's nothing better than crumpled newspaper.

Remember, the slogan "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" isn't just for so-called tree huggers. Reducing the amount of waste you produce decreases your cost and prices for everyone else in the long term. Reusing old containers and cloth does the same thing and recycling is giving life to something you no longer use.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Frugal at the Grocery -- Paper Products

My lovely sister-in-law has asked for some fresh ideas on cutting her grocery budget, so I thought I would try my best to help. The next few posts will focus on cutting some out of that portion of your budget.
Paper Products
This is one of the first places you can cut from your grocery budget. Not only are paper products expensive, but they're disposable as well, which puts them in the wasteful category, for me anyway. Here are some frugal substitutions to the most frequently used paper products:

Paper towels: any rag can be used for the purpose of cleaning up messes. Old t-shirts, socks (these make great dust rags, as you can just slip them  over your hands, dampen them slightly and go), and towels that are fraying or holey work great. I keep mine in the bottom kitchen drawer and a bag upstairs so that they're easily accessible, which makes them more likely to be used.

Paper Napkins: you can buy reusable cloth napkins at Target or, for a super-frugal option, repurpose something you already have and make your own. They're very simple and can be made with old sheets, baby blankets, or even random scraps. If you don't have any around your house, consider asking on FreeCycle or visiting your local Goodwill or Salvation Army.

Paper Tableware: The big deal here is not to buy this at all. If you must have "disposable tableware," buy the plastic type and then wash and reuse them. Also consider saving the plastic utensils you get in your fast food or take out containers. They make great utensils to send in lunches, so you don't panic if they accidentally get thrown away. Otherwise, use your regular, reusable dishes. I know it seems like a hassle, but being frugal is a lifestyle remember? Usually, it's a choice between money and convenience. In the long run, using your regular dishes or buying plastic tableware and washing them to reuse (if your get together is too big for your regular dishes to suffice) will save you a decent amount of money, keep a large deal of trash out of the landfill, and help your family learn what it means to be responsible consumers.

Disposable Diapers: Cloth diapers can be a big investment initially, but they pay for themselves in months. There are many types to choose from, but they're all reusable, earth-friendly, and a one-time expense that will keep you from spending so much of your monthly grocery budget on diapers.

Baby Wipes: These are super easy, especially if you're already using cloth diapers. You can make them yourself (receiving blankets work great for this) or just use the small baby washcloths. I keep a wet one in a plastic bag in the diaper bag for travel too.  

There are many other ways to replace disposable with reusable (old t-shirts into cotton squares to remove make-up, handkerchiefs instead of tissues). There are even reusable options for feminine hygiene.

I hope these are helpful! The next post will focus on being frugal with your cleaning budget, which may overlap with this post a bit, since it will cover things like disposable cleaning pads and wipes.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Saving while driving

Biggest saver here is don't do it. Walk, bike or take public transportation if it's available. It may take longer, but walking and biking have added health benefits and using public transportation options (buses, Metro, etc) will not only decrease your carbon footprint but can also gradually decrease our dependence on oil, as a lot of buses now run on natural gas. Remember, the point of being mindfully frugal is to make choices that can eventually change your lifestyle and lead to long-term changes and savings. In the short term however:
1. Make sure you maintain your vehicle. Clogged oil, air and gas filters can all decrease your mileage, as well as improperly balanced tires.
2. Use your cruise control whenever possible. You get the worst gas usage when you're constantly switching between the gas and brake petal. I have seen my dad make a trip to the grocery across town using only his cruise control -- no joke! It may seem a bit strange, but as his gas budget is only $70/mo, I'm willing to give it a shot.
3. Don't turn your A/C on unless you're going above 45 mph. It significantly decrease your mileage. Above 45 mph though, the drag from having your windows down evens it out, so feel free to crank the A/C at that point. Also, use a windshield visor to keep your car cooler when you're parked anywhere (don't forget your own driveway). Often I want to turn my A/C on not because it's really hot outside but because my car has became a greenhouse overnight!
4. Keep your tire pressure where it needs to be (the average is 32 psi). Low tire pressure can decrease your mileage by as much as 30%! I just keep a pressure gauge in my glove box and check each tire when I fill up. 
5. Don't use your trunk for storage. Lugging around that extra box you just forgot to unload will also decrease your mileage.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Save while handwashing dishes

When hand washing dishes, put a dishpan in the sink you're washing in. You do not need to fill it (or your sink) all the way when washing; 1/3 or halfway should do. Also, you need just a little soap. Stack all the dishes on one side of the sink and wash them one at a time. This uses less water than putting all your dishes in the sink at ones, and also gives you cleaner water, making it less likely you'll have yuck left on your dishes afterward. Do anything glass first, and your most cruddy ones at the end. Put them in the other side of the sink and rinse them in cold water. There's no need to rinse in hot, since you're only rinsing off soap bubbles. Do not leave the rinse water running, and if you really want to save water, use your sprayer instead of the actual faucet. In the winter leave the dirty water in the dish pan until it cools; it will release heat and moisture into the air (you can do the same with the kids bath water and your showers). Take the pan outside and use it to water your garden or lawn year round. The bits of food make great fertilizer.

The basic concept behind frugality is to waste as little as possible. Using the heated water (which you paid to heat) to heat the air a bit (which you also pay to heat) and reusing the water instead of sending it down the drain are both examples that don't take much extra effort