Stretching Your Budget Part 2: What to Buy

This is part 2 in a series. Start here: Stretching your Budget Part 1: How to Shop

Now that you’re thinking about the way to shop, let’s talk about what goes in your cart.

When you’re reining in your budget, the things you purchase are dictated by what you are actually planning on eating. We’ve all stood in front of a refrigerator and pantry stuffed full of food and bemoaned that there is “nothing to eat”. And sometimes, if what you have is a haphazard melange of unplanned ingredients, you’re kind of right!

Colourful shopping carts

I know that the words “Meal Plan” might make you cringe in horror, but it’s been transformative to our budget, our dining, and our time. Start by making a list of meals for a week…if trying to plan all 21 meals at once feels too overwhelming, begin with just dinners. Seven entrees, sides, and starches (and a few desserts!) are much more manageable, especially if you’re new to planning your meals out ahead of time.

We have three small children who can sometimes be rather picky about what they eat, so here’s a sample of what we might have in our meal plan on any given week: teriyaki chicken & rice with zucchini, spaghetti & meat sauce with peas and homemade rolls, homemade minestrone soup & grilled cheese, leftover day!, grilled chicken & pasta with steamed carrots, chicken burritos (using leftover chicken from the day before) & refried beans and salad, breaded white fish & rice with asparagus. We make sure to pair every meal with some sort of seasonal veggie and if you have everything on hand, you can mix it up throughout the week. Decide you’d rather have chicken tonight and you’re scheduled for soup? No problem! Just swap them in your schedule, but be sure that you stick with your overall plan. The worst thing you can do to your budget is throw away good food that has spoiled because you didn’t get around to eating it.

Crockpot
If time constraints are a problem for you, slow cookers are a godsend. We will often cook a roast in our Crock-Pot and use it for several meals. We’ll have it the first night with homemade gravy and stewed vegetables, then slice some of it for sandwiches the following day for lunch, then finally we cube the leftovers into small pieces and, with the addition of stock and vegetables, we make soup. We’ve also learned to make simple, filling soups like butternut squash or pumpkin soup using sauteed onions, chicken stock, cream and spices. Another time saver is to think about cooking not just one meal at a time but plan for later meals as you prep ingredients. For example, if you have to chop half an onion for tonight’s dinner, chop the whole thing, use what you need and either refrigerate the rest for use later in the week or freeze the rest to use in a soup.

Now that you have a meal plan, it’s time to make a shopping list. I always start by reviewing what I already have in the pantry and fridge so I know if I’m missing ingredients before heading to the store. Since we’ve been using Cozi, we seldom discover that we’re out of main ingredients, but there have been a few times that the kids have polished off something (like all the milk!) without letting us know so it’s just better to check quickly.

Here’s an example of what is usually on My Weekly List:

  • Milk – our store has a lower price if you buy two, so we always buy in quantities of two
  • Eggs – check the price between 12 and 18…18 is usually cheaper and you can boil them to add as a protein to salads and more. We use a lot of eggs in our house, so we buy the larger box of 5 dozen eggs as the price savings is huge…it works out to around $1.60 a dozen.
  • Bread – during the winter, I’ll make it, but definitely not during the summer and it can take quite a lot of time the first few times. Sometimes it’s just worth it to buy it. Be sure to price shop as I’ve found the same gourmet brands of bread at multiple stores in our little town for $1.50 and nearly $6 with the same sell by dates.
  • Meat/Fish/Poultry – in season fish is always less expensive and if you have a freezer, take advantage of sales and bulk pricing to freeze extra chicken, ground beef, pork chops, roasts, etc. It will get you through times when cash is tight. Don’t be afraid of a red meat with a little fat. It will be more flavorful, most of the fat will cook out and you’ll actually end up eating less other junk. If you buy things in bulk to freeze, it’s easiest to put portions on a cookie sheet on waxed paper, freeze for a few hours and then put it all in a good ziploc. This keeps it from making one big mass of meat that you have to thaw and use all at once.
  • Vegetables – stay in season if possible as in season veggies are cheaper and usually have more flavor. In our house we eat a lot of broccoli, cauliflower, celery, carrots, potatoes, mushrooms, lettuce, spinach and squash.
  • Fruit – Again, stay in season if possible. Local is even better. We eat a lot of apples, oranges, grapes, melons, bananas, and strawberries. We get a lot of peaches, plums and cherries in the summer from local farm stands.
  • Staples – Whatever staples we are low on or have run out of

In Part 3, I’ll give you a rundown on staples you can always find in my pantry as well as an itemized list of what I bought on a recent grocery trip!

Free Knife Skills Class from Craftsy

We love it when we find awesome foodie things and it’s even better when they are absolutely free!

New York born Chef Brendan McDermott sharpened his own skills cooking at several acclaimed restaurants including Todd English’s Olives, Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill, Rick Moonen’s RM among others. In 2010, New York Magazine named his Knife Skills Class at Brooklyn Kitchen “Best Cooking Class” and his knife skills and techniques have been featured on episodes of “Working Class Foodies“.

And now, he’s brought his knife skills class to Craftsy and the class is currently free! Enroll now!

Stretching your Budget Part 1: How to Shop

With the economy still sluggish, rising prices and uncertainty running rampant through everyone’s finances, it’s becoming more and more common for me to receive the following question from friends and acquaintances: “How do I stretch my grocery shopping budget?”

It’s a great question and unfortunately, most people don’t like to admit that their budget is tighter than they hoped and they just don’t know how to get around that grocery bill hurdle. The first step is changing how you think about your grocery shopping altogether. Most people I’ve had this conversation with tend to shop at just a single store, are brand conscious, rarely comparison shop or pay attention to deals and sales, eat out more often than they really think that they do, and usually don’t buy in bulk. Depending upon what you’re accustomed to, this series of posts might be a bit of a shock to your system, but I guarantee that it’s worth the work. I’m self employed so our financial pendulum has a tendency to swing a lot as our budget is dependent on clients paying their bills on time. As a result, I’ve had to become quite good at stretching our budget to feed a family of five (plus a dog) and I do it on only about $200-$250 a month. (For comparison, an eligible family of 5 can receive $750 in SNAP food stamp benefits. I can’t even begin to imagine what I would do with a budget that large!)

Now keep in mind that the method I’m outlining here is what works where we live in Northern California. You may need to modify it based upon where you live, but for the most part, this should work just about anywhere.

Fruit and vegetables basketIn a traditional grocery store, shop only the edges of the store. It’s where the fresh things are usually located…fruits/veggies, dairy, meat, bakery. For the most part, we avoid eating processed and pre-made foods though I’ll admit we occasionally splurge on favored snacks and treats. There are some things I keep on hand that are canned and frozen, but we skip the crackers, frozen meals, etc. I -never- buy cleaning supplies or food storage (ziplocs etc) at the grocery store.
I get many of our canned goods at a local grocery outlet and their prices are usually 40-60% less than the same size & brand at the traditional grocery store. I also look at other household staples there like shampoo and soap as -sometimes- they are cheaper there.

Big box stores such as Target and WalMart are another great resource if you’re looking to tighten your belt. Now, I hate going to our Walmart. A lot. In our tiny town, it can often be a frustrating and stress-inducing trip and the store always seems slightly in shambles, however when we visit my family near Boise, we go to the Walmart all the time because it’s a really nice place to shop. If you haven’t been in awhile, check yours out and you might be surprised. Luckily, their prices on staples are usually pretty similar to our grocery outlet and the Target, so I minimize my trips there, but depending on where you live, it may be a different situation so check the prices at yours. Additionally, both stores offer coupons which sometimes stack with manufacturer coupons and the Target Cartwheel phone app has saved me quite a bit in the last few months on items I was buying anyway.

One of my favorite places to shop is the local farmer’s markets and fruit stands. I stick to in season fruits and veggies which I can usually get at a lower price from the farmers than the store, but BE AWARE of your store prices. Sometimes things aren’t cheaper at the farmer’s market.

There has been a ton of press about coupons the past few years and they can be a great source of savings but they can be a time suck if you’re not committed. If you get the paper, go through the coupons and cut out ONLY WHAT YOU WOULD NORMALLY BUY. Everything else is trash. I get coupons from Smartsource, Coupons.com and Target and print them out once a week. Many stores accept mobile coupons now which cuts way down on printing and the associated costs in both paper and time. I also set up a junk gmail account to sign up to get other coupons from manufacturers that I like as well as our local grocery stores. Also keep an eye out for coupons at the store as you shop and pick them up for the next time the item is on sale, just keep an eye on the expiration dates. There are many online resources, such as Stephanie Nelson’s Coupon Mom that can help you if you’re interested in getting deeper into couponing.

Finally, never ever shop hungry and just totally avoid the aisles with your temptations. Make a list and stick to it. We use an app called Cozi. It’s free and the list shows up on both our phones so whomever is at the store automatically has the list and we can also easily split up in the store and get it done faster.

In Part 2, we’ll talk about what to buy!

Hurry! This Starbucks deal at Groupon will be gone FAST

It’s not often that I come across a deal that is just so good that I have to get out of bed at midnight in order to get it for myself, and I’ve certainly never done it to actually write up a post about it. There’s a first time for everything though, right?

If you are a Starbucks fan, just love their cheery Christmas cups, or just know someone who is a die hard fan, stop what you’re doing and click here.

For those of you who need a little more info, here’s the deal:

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  • DID I MENTION, IT’S ONLY FIVE BUCKS?

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Also, their new Salted Caramel Mocha is simply amazing and with this deal, you can give it a whirl AND still have enough left for your regular holiday cup of joy.

How to open a Pomegranate

Pomegranates and their cargo of delicious little arils are now in season and you can find them just about anywhere from the local grocers to roadside farm stands for a great price. The problem though has always been getting those scrumptious seeds out of their packaging. This usually involves a ridiculous amount of time and a bowl of water. Here’s an amazing video showing you a much better and, more importantly, faster way of doing it: