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, 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:

  • $5 for a $10 Starbucks Card eGift
  • You can only buy one and they’re going fast

Get Your Starbucks Groupon

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:

Larimer Square’s little French secret: Vendôme

We had the pleasure of spending time in Denver, Colorado this past week for a conference and though we were technically in town on business, we managed to head to dinner one evening with friends. Unfortunately, sometimes when you get a group of foodies together, there isn’t consensus on where to eat and the six of us headed to nearby Larimer Square while still trying to decide where and what the collective group was in the mood to nosh on that evening. As Lucretia just started listing off restaurants and cuisines in an attempt to get someone (anyone) to pick a destination, a random man who was walking down the crowded sidewalk near us piped up “Oh, that French place is amazing.”

Sold, to the random businessman.

We walked a bit further and then turned off the street into a little hidden alcove and in the falling dusk, I was instantly back in Montparnasse. Bistro Vendôme is secreted away and could be easily overlooked if you didn’t know where to look, but oh what a meal you would be missing!

They sat us quickly in the atrium which was a lovely little spot and in no time at all, I was tucking into a savory cup of soupe à l’Oignon which was fabulous. I also tried one of their cocktails, Frais du Jardin, which consists of a cucumber infused gin, lemon, lime, simple syrup and basil leaves topped off with soda. It was alright, however about halfway through the glass, I was wishing I had picked something a bit sweeter for my palate as the basil started to overpower the other flavors in the glass. I suppose I should have sipped it faster!

For our entrees, Joel and I both chose items from their specials of the day. I had a simply delightful quail on a bed of braised greens and potato-less gnocchi that was dressed in an insanely rich sauce. The quail was de-boned perfectly and oh-so tender that it nearly melted in my mouth. I really appreciated that the dish was lightly seasoned as it didn’t hide the flavor of the quail or the greens and I was astonished (and grateful due to allergies) that the gnocchi had no potato as they honestly couldn’t have been made any better. Joel had the Bouillabaisse which he said was excellent, but since he didn’t share before he finished it all off, I can’t confirm. It did look very tasty though.

Sadly, I must admit that I only managed one photo of another dish from our party as we were all ravenous and tucked into our meals rather quickly. Wade inhaled his steak au poivre and Cynthia had the Noix de St. Jacques, Panisse a la Pomme et Thym, which is pan roasted scallops and apple-thyme panisse on a bed of red cabbage and persimmon puree. Her dish was beautiful and judging from the empty plate the waiter whisked away, delightful as well.

I capped off my meal with a cup of french press coffee (which I willingly shared with Dave) and the sinful indulgence of their Chocolate Pot de Crème Brioche Bread Pudding which was served with a dollop of marshmallow ice cream and a hazelnut tuile. Somehow I was actually convinced to share a few spoonfuls, though I’m going to chalk that up to the beginnings of a serious food coma and will assuredly guard my dessert more carefully in the future.

The service was excellent, our waitress was incredibly patient with our table’s vast storytelling capabilities, and the staff was very careful to assure me that each item they set in front of me avoided my walnut allergy. Absolutely above and beyond. We never felt rushed and, despite what you may have experienced at other French restaurants, the atmosphere was 100% warm, welcoming and unpretentious. I would eat here again in a heartbeat and it’s fabulous to know that I don’t need to head all the way to Paris for my gourmet fix. I just have to find more reasons to travel to Denver.

The (Not So) Happy Viking

Here in the small town of Yuba City we live in, there aren’t many places to ‘eat’. Sure, there is a dearth of fast food and plenty of crummy chains, but a place to sit down and enjoy something delicious that wasn’t delivered to the kitchen pre-frozen from a corporate distribution center? Those are few and far between.

One of my MOST favorite places in town is a little sports pub called “The Happy Viking” on Plumas Street. Their wings are great, their burgers are tasty, they have cider on tap (apple AND pear), and they have exquisite Guinness Onion Rings. I like that they have multiple sports on the myriad of screens around the place and they have a great happy hour menu.

Herein lies my quandary…The Happy Viking has also screwed up our order the past several times we’ve gone there.

Joel likes the place too, but is usually unwilling to go because of the constant mistakes and after this last time, I’m finally leaning his direction. I’m so frustrated that this place where I love to eat has such a lackluster kitchen and a wait staff who takes the concept of “waiting” to all time high.

Here’s what happened this afternoon…
It’s been quite awhile since I was able to convince Joel to go to The Happy Viking, but today I was finally able to do it. (He agreed I think mostly because he had a coding project that took a long time today and because of that, we missed the lunch hour at the sushi joint we were planning on going to instead.) We ordered right before 4pm and didn’t get our appetizers or wings until after 4:30 and both came at once. We each noticed that we only had 5 wings apiece, which was odd since we thought the order was for 6, but figured that it had been awhile, so perhaps we were mistaken, especially since we each had 5.

The bill comes and lo and behold, we’re charged for 6 wings apiece. Now, this isn’t a huge deal financially. It’s happy hour and wings are $0.55 each, so we’re only talking about $1.10 plus tax, but it’s the principal of the thing.

We pointed out the mistake to the waitress who was reluctant to do anything about it until I also pointed out the counted bones on our plates. At first she offered to have the kitchen make us two wings…which was kind of a ridiculous offer since we were ready to leave and wings take 20 minutes. Then she went to talk to the manager and a few minutes later, she returned and told us that the manager had taken $1.00 off our bill.

Not $1.10 plus tax. Just $1.00.

You know sometimes when you know you’re right, but there’s just no point in continuing to push the point? That’s what I felt as I just took the bill from her and filled out the tip and total. It was pointless and futile for me to dicker over the proper cost.

So I did the only thing I could…I took it out of her tip and I hope she does what she said she was going to do and yells at the kitchen.

We’ll probably never know since sadly, we won’t be going back.