Cutting Costs

[I got this gazillion word opus on frugality to within a paragraph of completion and then sat on it for months. Why did I do this? I think it’s because I feel a bit like a hypocrite; I love to dream up the perfect way to do things, but my execution inevitably falls short. I preach frugality, and yet when I get an extra $30, I spend it frivolously. I sing the praises of home-cooked meals, and yet last month I bought two weeks of fully prepped meals from Costco when my son got lice and I couldn’t cope. I talk up farmers’ markets, and yet just this past weekend we went through the McDonald’s drive-through (worst of the worst!). I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t always live up to my own expectations. So that’s my disclaimer. With that in mind, I am going to hit “publish” with the hope that you still might find a helpful tip or two here. One thing I’ve learned is that if you never open yourself up to advice from non-perfect people, you’re not going to get too much guidance from the universe! So here you go, ways to save money from one non-perfect person to another.]

Lately I’ve been finding myself in the same conversation over and over again—kind of like a bizarre recurring dream—except these conversations don’t feature trips down rabbit holes or bald men carrying plates of cheese, but perhaps something even stranger: the monthly household budget. As my Scooby Doo-loving kids would say, Yikes! These days, it seems, everyone is interested in ways to reduce spending, with budgets being called upon as the most obvious solution.

As a person who rediscovered her thrifty roots in the past decade, I actually appreciate this trend toward budget-consciousness. Just a few years ago, I would sneak out for guilty-pleasure shopping trips to Goodwill, embarrassed that I considered wandering through a bunch of (mostly) trash to be entertaining. But these days shopping at Goodwill seems like a smart idea, and a craigslist shopping habit is suddenly prudent. By these new standards, my tendencies toward “cheap” have been transformed into “wise”!

Unfortunately for my credit score, I came about this wisdom the hard way. I’ve always had a running mental list of Things I Want But Cannot Afford Right Now, ever since I can remember. Despite the helpful penny-pinching DNA I inherited from my depression-era grandparents, shopping in all of its forms just came way too naturally for me. Then came my twenties, easy credit cards, and a marriage that ended with a boom. After the dust cleared, I realized I needed to reform myself in many ways, spending habits being one of them.

When I married my current, fabulous husband, I committed myself to approaching money differently, and for the most part, I have. I would like to take credit for the improvements I’ve made (you know, strength of character and all that), but I think the vast majority of the props go to that most wise teacher, Lack of Funds. (Oh wise teacher, won’t you go away now?) In the four years my husband and I have been together, we’ve had two children (to add to the one from my previous marriage)—both without health insurance—and my husband has been laid off twice. Oh yes, and I quit working. That sounds worse than it actually was, but it did teach me ways to stretch a dollar, particularly at the grocery store.

My monthly grocery budget (food only, no alcohol) is now $450. I don’t know where this ranks in terms of other people’s spending—probably somewhere in the middle. I do know this is much more than many people have to spend, and with that in mind I am grateful. A few years back, there were months when I had much less to make do with, and those months were definitely less fun. I remember one (very abnormal) week when I had $22 to spend, and we had to eat off this for a week. I remember I bought a bag of frozen store-brand chicken for $3, and it felt so gross the whole time I was preparing it. I just kept thinking about where this chicken lived and what motley brew of chemicals it had coursing through its veins. Meat is not my favorite food group, and I tend to have squeamish thoughts when preparing it anyway. (It popped into my head one day that the raw, whole chicken I was rinsing in the sink felt very similar to holding my baby in my hands at bath time.) So I love that my new monthly budget allows me to buy some high-quality meat that has been humanely raised.

Back when my budget was closer to $300 per month, there were certain decisions that were made for me. I stopped buying pre-made anything. Gone was the concept of a big hunk of meat at every meal. Snacks were a waste of money. And eventually, I realized that beverages were too. Although we have always eaten out some, it was obvious from the beginning that I would need to learn to cook. And so, over the years, I have been learning. We still eat out more than I would like (I’m talking about the yucky fast food variety, not romantic candlelit dinners for two), but fast food is now the exception, and I cook our breakfasts, lunches, and dinners more often than not.

One positive thing about having less money is that it forces you to make big changes in how you operate—beneficial changes that can, if you let them, stay with you even when money returns to your life. Now that my grocery budget has risen, I still make most things from scratch because I’ve learned that it’s not that hard to do. Plus, it’s a lot cheaper, and the food is better. The other day, my husband returned home with a Philly cheesesteak for me from a local restaurant, but no ranch dressing. No ranch dressing?! This would not do. Because salad dressing is one of the many items I no longer buy, we didn’t have any bottled dressing to come to the rescue. Suddenly it occurred to me that I might be able to make the ranch dressing. I never would have thought of this before, although I have no idea why. Anyway, it turns out ranch dressing is little more than buttermilk mixed with mayonnaise, with a few spices mixed in. We didn’t have buttermilk, but we did have plain yogurt, so a few minutes later . . . delicious! A revelation! Easy, cheap, and much better than anything from the store.

So it is with all this in mind that I thought I would share some of the things I’ve learned along the way in my quest to make our monthly grocery budget go a little farther. Of course, I come at this from the stay-at-home-mom angle, which usually (though not always!) means more time but less money. If the person in charge of making the food is also holding down a full time job, well, that’s an entirely different set of tips—one I’m not qualified to write. I’m also new to this whole queen of the castle role, so I’m sure that to the experienced reader, a great many of these are obvious. If there are any of you experienced types out there (Mom!), perhaps you can weigh in with your own favorite tips.

  • Budgets are your friend. Coming up with a budget is great, but you have to stick to it. In my former life, I had a “budget” but then continually ignored it, spending hundreds of dollars more every month without giving it a second thought. If you’re dirt poor, you don’t have this problem. You’ve got your $20 and that’s it. But if you’re trying to carve a tinier portion out of your checking account each month, you need a budget that’s enforceable. We have a separate checking account, with its own check and cash card,  just for grocery spending. Every month my husband puts money into it. Usually he’ll put the $450 into it at the beginning of the month, but if we don’t have enough for some reason, he’ll add it in parts as the month goes on. Then I just keep my eye on the balance. (If I go over, we’ll accrue a fee, and then I’ll have to endure his ire—motivation enough!) I’ve also heard of people using a cash system successfully; you have an envelope marked “groceries,” and all you can spend is the cash that is in that envelope. Either way, if you have a way to restrict yourself, it will force you to make the cuts from somewhere.
  • Become price conscious. Sign up for emails from your favorite grocery stores, so that way what’s on sale can inform your shopping list and meal plans. Certain items, such as meats and produce, vary widely in price. Take advantage of a big sale on a particular cut of meat that you like; even if you don’t have a man-sized freezer in your garage, I’d bet you can handle an extra pound or two of ground beef. As for produce, my poor kids don’t get grapes all winter. Sorry, kids, they’re $3.99 a pound, I say as we whiz past. Of course, this does make for the occasional embarrassing night out, such as last night at a neighbor’s house, when my kids elbowed out the competition so they could wolf down the huge community bowl of grapes all by themselves. But a little deprivation never killed anyone, and eating apples, oranges, and the occasional blackberry through the winter is no great hardship. Plus, when summertime rolls around, those strawberries taste all the sweeter!
  • Plan your meals. I could be better about this one. My friend Brooke told me about a woman who planned her meals out a year in advance! I usually look at the week and figure out which nights I’ll need to make dinner, then I’ll plan out that many meals, taking into account what’s on sale and what I already have in my fridge and freezer. I’ve also started keeping a running list of things I want to make sometime, to act as a sort of inspiration list.
  • Make a shopping list. My husband loves to mock my shopping lists. What good is a list if you don’t use it, he laughs as I inevitably come home frustrated about forgetting one item or another. But the point of a list is not so much to make sure you don’t forget anything, it’s to make sure you don’t buy everything. Without a list, a person tends to just grab whatever looks good, which is usually quite a bit.
  • Don’t go to the store hungry. This is an obvious one, but hugely important nonetheless. If you are hungry when you get to the store, do what I do and eat a doughnut! When else do you get to eat a doughnut? Not so ladylike, I grant you, to be constantly wiping all that sugar off your chin, but still better than a shopping cart stuffed with every kind of snack.
  • Beverages are bad. Back in the day, I wasted all sorts of money each week on bottled green tea (which I could have made! I didn’t even have kids back then and only worked part time—what was my excuse?), tons of Coke, and giant bottles of Evian. All we humans need to survive is water, which is free and unquestionably healthy. Our Brita filter makes our water taste great, and there are no bottled-water BPA worries. I do buy milk for our kids, although no juice apart from the occasional bottle of the good orange juice when it goes on sale, or that yummy organic apple juice when my daughter asks me to make “juicy popsicles.” Most of the time, the kids drink water. My oldest son protested a bit when I first switched away from juice, but he got used to it. If this seems a bit harsh, remember that it’s healthier to eat the fruit than drink the juice, since when you eat the fruit you also eat all the nutritious fiber. The last bad beverage to go was Coke. As much as my husband and I love it, it’s an unnecessary expense for empty calories, and to make matters worse, it’s made with high fructose corn syrup. All that being said, I still buy beer. Yes, a very strong argument could be made that, like Coke, beer is an unnecessary expense for empty calories, but that argument wouldn’t be winning over any judges or juries around here. I do buy our beer at Costco now, however, which is a great savings as long as you can avoid drinking it more quickly (difficult). And in lean months, we don’t get our beer. Come to think of it, perhaps that’s the true reason why my husband hates the holidays.
  • Snacks, sadly, are also off the list. I love Cheetos and Doritos and Oreos and Milanos (what’s up with all the o’s?) as much as the next person, but they’re all expensive, and they’re all completely worthless in terms of nutrition. Now I don’t even go down those aisles (unless to buy a bag of popcorn kernels—I do make popcorn from time to time), but when I first implemented this rule, I found it a little difficult to pass up all that sugar. I would just tell myself that I would make cookies when I got home (which I did sometimes). I don’t know if homemade cookies are any cheaper, but they are if I don’t make them every time I go to the store. Regardless, homemade cookies are made with better ingredients. I make mine with free-range eggs, evaporated cane juice sugar that I buy in bulk at Costco, and my favorite chocolate chips—Guittard, who now makes a fair trade version. On days when I am really craving chocolate, I buy a bar of high quality dark chocolate. Cheaper than a bag of cookies, and now they’re saying dark chocolate is good for you. Hooray! I will admit, though, that there is one tricky part in this whole no-snacks rule: kids! Specifically, their lunches. My eternal question: what do I put in those damn lunches? Last week at Costco I caved from the guilt over packing the same boring lunch for my first-grader (pb&j, apple slices, Cheerios, and water—at his request) since he’s started school. I bought a healthy version of peanut butter–stuffed pretzels, Ritz crackers, and some pistachios, but I am paying for it now. My budget does not accommodate $30 worth of snacks easily, and so now I’m wondering how I’m going to make the $26 left in my grocery account last for the next week. It’s time to eat the freezer!
  • Eat your freezer. This is my affectionately named solution to those times when you have $0 (or close to it) and yet still need to eat. Dig through your freezer (and fridge and pantry) and figure out how you can eat all of the random, mismatched bounty that you uncover. If it’s been in there a while, perhaps it’s because you aren’t thrilled about eating it. Well, no time like the present! Sometimes you need to experience the rain to appreciate the sunshine. One good thing about eating the freezer is that regular rules don’t apply. For example, things don’t have to match to make up a meal. Once we wanted to have our friends Karen and Tim over for dinner, but we didn’t have a lot of money to spend that week. We had one steak in the freezer, but that wasn’t enough to serve four adults. We did have a pack of hot dogs though! And so it was, a fine dinner of steak and hot dogs.
  • Make stuff from scratch, a.k.a., skip the center of the grocery store. You’ve probably heard this before, but it bears repeating. The center of the grocery store tends to be filled with pre-made foods. Of course, you have to pay for that labor. Plus, just think about the chemicals they have to put in those foods to allow them to sit at room temperature for who knows how long. (When you put leftovers in your refrigerator, which is chilled, they have whole mini-civilizations sprouting up in a matter of days!) Yuck. You don’t need that in your body. And now we have to worry about chemicals that aren’t even on the ingredient list; Consumer Reports just found bad levels of BPA in all sorts of canned foods—apparently it’s in the lining of the cans. This is unfortunate, because canned tomatoes sure are handy. But it all adds up to a general lesson: when you can, start with the real food and prepare it yourself. It’s cheaper and healthier.
  • Don’t fear the farmers’ market. I actually avoided going to the farmers’ market for quite some time, even though the biggest one in Austin is just minutes from my house. I told myself it was because I figured everything would be a gazillion dollars, but mostly, I just don’t like talking to people I don’t know, and I figured you’d be required to be all chatty with the farmers at the farmers’ market. But happily, it turns out, nope and nope! At the market I go to, the veggies can be a bit pricey, but the meat is less expensive than the stuff at our fancy grocery store, where things are “air chilled” and “all natural” and everything is laid out beautifully. Best of all though, the meat from the farmers’ market, unlike the air chilled stuff, comes from animals who were wandering around in a field somewhere the day before.
  • Organic or conventional—that is the question. More and more organic options are available now, which is great, but they’re also more expensive. When my husband first raised my budget from $400 to $450, I went crazy buying organic everything. Then I realized I was out of money, and there were still 10 days left in the month. Oops, I guess $50 doesn’t buy that much. Since then I’ve enacted more of a bipartisan approach to produce: some from the left side of the aisle and some from the right. Luckily, there is a nonprofit group, the Environmental Working Group, that helps us decide which fruits and veggies to buy organic, and when you can get away with the regular ones, since apparently some produce absorbs more pesticides than others. (You can even download their list to your iPhone.)
  • Be the annoying person who stands in the grocery store aisle reading all the labels. It’s amazing how in almost every food category, there is a product that has the healthy/humane/organic characteristics I’m looking for, but is priced significantly lower than its peers. Yes, this might mean a few late night grocery trips after the kids go to bed, but once you’ve figured out which items have that magic combination of healthy ingredients and low price, you can go back to shopping on autopilot.
  • One word: legumes! So tasty, and super cheap. Not to mention enough protein and other nutritional goodness to stand alone as the main course. Now, I know they aren’t for everyone, but I’m also fairly certain that the majority of people who turn up their noses at lentils have probably never tried them. If you have a carnivore husband like I do (who requests that his birthday candles be stuck in a filet mignon) and don’t think a pointed reading of Green Eggs and Ham would help, perhaps you can get your inspiration from the people behind Food, Inc. They advocate Meatless Mondays, one day a week without, you guessed it, meat. I used to add beans to recipes in place of half the meat, so you could use half a pound of ground beef, for example, instead of one. I thought was a fabulous idea. My husband, however, disagreed. So I’ve stopped that. But I still cook pinto and black beans in a big batch and freeze 2-3 cup portions to make bean and cheese tacos. Less than a dollar makes enough for three meals!
  • Buy in bulk at a warehouse store like Costco. I recognize that not everyone can take advantage of this tip , either because of a small family or a small house. But if you do have several kids and a few extra nooks and crannies throughout your house to stash stuff, then I highly recommend a membership. I figured out that I am saving $150 a year just from buying my sandwich bread from Costco! If you can’t go through two jumbo sized bags of bread a week like we do, you can just freeze one for later use. My other favorite super-cheap Costco items include the afore mentioned beer, flour and sugar, and paper products like toilet paper and paper towels. Do make sure you calculate costs when you join, however. Some things are not cheaper, oddly enough.
  • Buy from the bulk section of a natural foods store. Check to make sure you’re getting a better deal, but I have generally found that buying oatmeal, nuts, dried fruits, legumes, and spices here saves money—perhaps not as much as buying something at Costco, but sometimes you just don’t want a giant bucket of roasted edamame (one of my Costco mistakes—and don’t ask about the brown sugar, unless you want a bag to take home that is). My favorite thing to buy here is spices. I am continually delighted to pay 50¢, 25¢, or even 9¢ for a spice, enough to last quite a while. I use washed out baby food jars to store the spices, although their lids do tend to drive me mad.
  • One final tip, which is perhaps the most important: think creative restraint. This can manifest itself in many ways. If there is something that you love but that you know costs more than you want to spend, find a way to make it cost less. Maybe you might decide to continue buying what you love, but only when the price falls below a certain amount, or only as a special treat every so often. Or instead you might decide to research ways to make it yourself at home. Or perhaps there is a less expensive version of your favorite that you haven’t yet tried. The idea is to recognize that you have options when you shop, and cutting back doesn’t mean completely doing without. There is a benefit to restraining yourself too: if you eliminate the Blue Bell from your weekly list and switch to a pint of really good Häagen Dazs once a month, you will save money and enjoy that pint so much more!

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