Friday, October 31, 2014

You Eat for $100 a Month?!

This is often the reaction we get from friends when we tell them our grocery budget.  Their next comment or question is either, "We could never do that!" or "How do you do it?!"  Since we're all about the can do attitude here, I'll address the second question today with a few simple strategies.

Meal Planning

There is never a week that we don't know what we'll eat.  We may not plan the exact day of each meal, but we always know what we'll have throughout the week.  This plan is built around what we have in the pantry and fridge/freezer, what's on sale, and what we're in the mood for.  Meal planning helps us save money by being aware of what we need to use up (dairy, produce, etc.) and not letting things go to waste.  It also means we don't buy things that we don't have a use for.  Keeping popping corn and ingredients for homemade cookies on hand helps us control the snack/junk food budget significantly.

Using Coupons

We used to use the Grocery Game for our couponing matchups.  When we went to a single income family, we decided to skip the subscription and find another source.  We found Southern Savers, which is almost as good and has served us well for the last year and a half.  The great thing about both of these is that they match up coupons and store sales for you, so all you have to do is choose what you want from the list and print your list.  We use either printable coupons, ecoupons loaded to the store card, or Sunday paper coupons that my grandmother gives us.  (We used to purchase a Sunday paper, but that got cut too when we went to one income.)  Any given month, we figure we save at least $50, and often more, by matching coupons and store sales.

Buy 'Real' Food

Buying real food means 10 pounds of potatoes, not frozen or refrigerated pre-cut ones.  Buying real food means buying a peach we peel instead of one packed in a can with syrup.  It means buying flour and sugar to make our own muffins, bread, crackers, etc. instead of paying a premium for some commercial bakery to do that work for us.  Buying real food means making our own salad dressing with oil, vinegar, and spices instead of buying one with an unlimited shelf life due to the number of preservatives.  Does it often take a little more time?  Yes.  Is it healthier and cheaper?  Absolutely!  I figure we save at least $50 a month by buying the real stuff.

If you're just getting into saving on groceries, employ this one strategy.  It will save you money and it will be far healthier for your family.  A few easy places to start are with salad dressings and condiments, cooking your own rice (instead of boil in a bag or quick cooking), making homemade pizza dough, or homemade popsicles.

Buy in Bulk

You have to be smart about buying in bulk.  Take a realistic look at what you use and how often, and gauge your bulk purchases from that.  If you're not into baking, a 25 pound bag of flour will go buggy before you use it, and will be a waste of money.

Some things we regularly buy in bulk are:  flour (bread and all purpose), rolled oats, sugar, rice, dried beans, Hershey's syrup, butter, vegetable oil, in season produce, spices and nuts (store in the freezer for the longest shelf life).  Since we bake a lot, and enjoy it, we use the flour pretty quickly.  We get our rice at Walmart sometimes, though I've though about buying Basmati rice at the Indian store in Durham when we visit next (it's generally cheaper at ethnic stores).  I did stock up on brown rice at HT when it went on sale 10/$10 a while back.  We use Hershey's syrup in coffee drinks, so we go through it pretty quickly.  Dried beans are purchased at Walmart, Costco, or another wholesaler.  Butter and oil are purchased at Costco, as are spices and nuts.  Produce we buy in bulk to dry or freeze, often bell peppers, peaches, and strawberries top our list.  It's cheaper to buy them in bulk when they're in season and fresh, and it's so nice to have them for cooking and baking in the winter months.

Eat Less Meat

I know for some it's tough to believe, but we've really embraced the weekday veg routine and really only eat meat once or twice a week.  Even then, it's usually a small portion, like in a stir fry or on a pizza.  Eating less meat has really freed up our budget to buy more dairy and fresh produce, including fruit, which is key now that we have a little one who begs for fruit.  (His favorite is bananas, which he's mastered the ASL sign for!)  We've found some creative recipes for lentil sloppy joes, black bean enchiladas, and bean burgers, which we really like.  Since we love stir fry and pizzas, it's easy to add a little meat or do without.

Soup Once a Week

Unless it's high summer and Benny can't stomach the thought of soup after a long work day, But otherwise, we do soup once a week.  It's easy to do in the crock pot on busy nights, which conserves energy too.  We have a ton of great recipes.  There are always leftovers for another dinner or a few lunches.  The broth, noodles, or rice stretch the other veggies and any meat, so it's really budget friendly.  With crackers, toast, or cornbread, you've got a complete meal, especially if you add a side salad or a little dessert.  What's not to love?

So, there are our "secrets" to sticking to our $100 grocery budget.  Do you employ all of these?  Some?  Only one?  I'd love to hear from you!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Gleaning to Keep the Budget on Track

We've always enjoyed gleaning and foraging for food.  I suppose it comes from liking the outdoors and enjoying the time outside in the sunshine.  It's only become more fun now that we have a little one to share this with (though sometimes he eats more of the harvest than we come home with!).

A few of the things we consistently forage or glean are blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, apples, and sometimes peppers or zucchini from a friend's garden.  We can consistently count on gleaning blackberries from the roadside in our neighborhood.  We seem to be the only ones who pick them, aside from the wildlife, so we can generally harvest several gallons over the growing season.  We also glean blueberries from my aunt's property (they no longer live here full time), and raspberries from friends who are overrun with them.  We put these in the freezer or use them to make jam for gifting and for winter enjoyment.

We gather apples from friends' trees for apple pie filling, apple crisp, and applesauce.  We generally freeze the applesauce, though you can also can it in mason jars.  There are also many local apple trees along public sidewalks, so gleaning would be an option there as well.  This year, we put several gallons of applesauce in the freezer to use for winter fruit and for baking.

Sometimes, we have friends who ask us to "garden sit" for them while they're gone on vacation over the summer.  This leads to all sorts of wonderful bounty, mostly squash, zucchini, and peppers.  We've also "chicken sat" for friends, which means that we collect several dozen eggs over the course of a week or so (they have 14 hens).

Recently, I've begun expanding the idea of gleaning to other areas.  I realized that we're always the ones to ask for the turkey carcass after holiday meals, which yields a lot of yummy stock and enough meat for a batch or two of soup.  Last year, we were gifted with four turkey carcasses after the Thanksgiving pot luck at church, which was a wonderful gift when we were just getting used to a much stricter budget.

When we have Sunday dinners at Mom's house, I will often save veggie scraps and bring them home to make veggie stock.  She will sometimes splurge on mushrooms or other veggies that are typically more expensive and out of our budget, so it's nice to use the trimmings for a savory stock.  I'll also save the broccoli and cauliflower stems from her house to add to our freezer bag for soup.  Broccoli and cheese soup is just as tasty with the "trunks", and broccoli isn't always a cheap veggie, so it's not something we make often, though we love it.

At school, kids often throw away unopened milk cartons.  They're required to take the milk as a part of a "healthy, balanced meal," but it amazes me how many of them eat very little of what is actually on their tray.  I volunteer to take any unopened milk to use at the house, or if I have an abundance, I will take it by the food pantry at church.

The same gleaning principle can be applied to bread.  I have a freezer bag I keep in the freezer with the ends of loaves of bread, cracker crumbs, etc.  When the bag is full, I buzz the whole contents through the food processor to make bread crumbs for a variety of meals (pecan crusted chicken is probably our favorite, but you could top any casserole).  By keeping it in the freezer, it means the bread won't go stale or moldy while I'm waiting to collect enough to do something with.

It always pains me to see people just throw away these remnants, since they can yield such tasty meals.  I know it's from ages gone by, but saving these things isn't a skill that we should lose just because it's convenient to pick up something at the store.  Often, gleaned produce is more nutritious (because it's fresher) and/or organic, which makes me feel better about feeding it to my family.

Gleaning can also go beyond food into the realm of clothing.  I've learned to just ask friends for hand-me-downs for the little guy.  Often, they're more than willing to clean out their closets and unload the "junk" on us.  I've also used this strategy for maternity clothes in the past, which are often worn only a few times.  I have a few friends whom I love their style, both for themselves and their kids, and just being willing to ask means that I have cute clothes for myself and little man.  I don't mind trading some baked goodies or homemade applesauce for clothes, and often this is for a busy mom who really appreciates something homemade and wholesome for her family.

These basic principles really allow us to stretch our food and clothing budgets.  I know there are others in other parts of the country who can glean other foods (I saw on The Prudent Homemaker how she had recently gleaned olives).  Do you ever go gleaning?  If not for yourself, maybe for Second Harvest?  I'd love to hear from you!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Last Week's Frugal Accomplishments

Frugal living has become a lifestyle for us, often with things we don't even think about anymore.  Here's a list of last week's frugal accomplishments, most of which are second nature now.


We didn't run the heat or AC.  We put an extra blanket on the bed when we needed it at night.

Our tenant paid her rent for her upstairs room on time and cleaned her space prior to leaving for fall break, so we didn't need to clean upstairs.

I found a few clothes in storage that little man can still wear from last year.  He poked a hole in the toe of some pjs that I need to add to the mending pile, along with a pair of jeans he's worn a hole in the knee that need a patch.

I carpooled to work a few days last week to save on gas.  This also meant I could plan with her during the drive, saving on time too.

We used some evening time to work on projects downstairs so we didn't have to pay someone else to do these small tasks (cleaning, installing door hardware, spackling, etc.).  We're in the last 5% stretch to getting it done, so we should be renting that space out by the end of the month (know anyone interested?)!

We took walks for after dinner entertainment, when the weather allowed.  When it didn't, we worked downstairs or played upstairs with the little one.


We washed our cloth diapers and wipes and hung them to dry on the drying rack or outside on the line.

We washed all other laundry in one large load in cold water and hung it to dry inside or on the line.

Groceries and Cooking:

We prepared all meals at home and took advantage of three community meals at church.

Sunday dinner was with my mom, as usual, so she paid for most things, and I cooked while she played with the little one.

We ate mostly meatless meals, except for BLTs one night, which were made with all local ingredients.

We made bread in the bread machine.

Breakfast for the week was 13 bagels from Panera, which we purchased with a gift card we had.  We bought cream cheese at the grocery store for cheaper than we could have included it as a "bagel pack."

We cooked acorn squash in the crockpot and processed it for the freezer (just mashed it up and put it in a freezer bag).  We used this to make "pumpkin" muffins Sunday morning.

It was super doubles at Harris Teeter, so we participated and purchased some things for free with coupons and some discounted diapers and wipes for a baby shower gift.  We got some peanut butter for 50 cents, which was a steal, and a boon to our pantry since little man is loving peanut butter right now.  We spent about $30 and saved over $50, so pretty good considering the bulk of that was disposable diapers and wipes we don't usually buy.

We cooked chick peas in the crock pot for a soup and a warm squash salad.

We "gleaned" extra apples from the food pantry at church, which got too many for clients to take.

I harvested a few herbs from the garden to season meals.

I planned out our bulk spice/baking order for next month, which will save us on these items in the long run.  We order from San Francisco Herb Company, and have been pleased with the quality.  We plan to order more sesame seeds, poppy seeds, pumpkin seeds, loose tea, and a few herbs.

We purchased some vodka to make vanilla for Christmas presents.  We'll use vanilla beans we purchase in bulk to make this.  I'll make vanilla sugar with the old beans from our vanilla jar.

I picked up our last week of CSA share on the way home from work (saving on gas and another trip out).  We were able to process some of this for the freezer to use later this winter when we don't have these fresh veggies coming in on a weekly basis.

We had free eggs from a friend, which we brought them some winter squash in trade for.  We used the eggs in baking and for egg and cheese breakfast bagel sandwiches.

What about you?  What did you do last week to meet your goals?  I'd love to hear from you!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Minimizing stuff to maximize family time

We've really been working over the past year to minimize the amount of stuff (junk, nicknacks, etc.) in our house to be able to ultimately maximize our family time.  Doing this has definitely simplified our lives in so many ways, sometimes more than we imagined.

Finishing out our basement has forced us to go through a lot of stuff.  We even found boxes we'd moved in several years ago and had never unpacked!  Needless to say, most of that stuff went to Goodwill for a nice tax deduction.  And it's so freeing to not have all that stuff hanging around in the basement.  I also unearthed several picture frames that I've repurposed around the house for cork boards (using recycled wine corks), hanging pictures in little man's room, and I'm thinking of using one or two more for homemade chalk boards since he's in a chalk loving stage right now.

The craft room downstairs is now dedicated to all things crafty, with lots of shelving that will soon be painted and put to use holding craft supplies.  I also plan to mount a decorative shelf to hold some family china, etc. to pretty up the space some.  It will be nice to unpack those boxes of china that were in the basement and really be able to look at all those nice pieces.  There's extra space under the sink down there for many of my canning supplies, which is a nice bonus.  And I'm going to use some old fabric to make some curtains for some of the shelving to be able to hide pantry staples, painting supplies, and sewing projects.  (That old fabric was in another basement box.)

Cleaning out has also allowed us to make a bundle selling stuff on eBay.  We've sold some handmade items I had stashed away, electronics, gaming stuff, Mary Kay supplies, some collectible items, and a bunch of other random things.  Whatever we weren't successful at selling after a few auction postings went to Goodwill for another tax deduction.  We did find that selling things in lots helped with the smaller stuff, if you're thinking you might try your hand at it.

We've worked on cleaning out our closets too, both little man's and our own.  This has freed up space, which is a huge blessing in our house where closet space is at a premium.  (How did we build a house with no linen closet?!)  Since we anticipate Wubby sharing a closet with a one-day sibling, we want to get that closet as functional as possible for two kiddos now.  We're hoping next summer to tackle building some open shelving in one end of that closet, and adding another hanging bar on one side to double the hanging space.  Cleaning out ours has been a slow process, at least for me.  I have to look long and hard at some things and be realistic with myself about how often I wear something and if I'll really miss it.  It would be great to sell some of my clothes at the next consignment sale, especially the nicer ones.

The ultimate goal with all of this cleaning out has been to make it easier to find what we need when we need it.  This has definitely been true with the tools dept. in our basement.  It's also make it easier to find our holiday decorations, clothing items for little man as we rotate into new sizes, etc.  By finding things sooner and knowing exactly where stuff is, we end up saving time and having more time as a family.  Renting out the basement means that we'll also be able to free up more time to spend together as a family, rather than committing to working more than we'd like.

We know we're frugal beyond many of our peers (paying extra on our mortgage, keeping to $100ish for groceries a month, making our own cleaners, bread, etc., not eating out, eating little meat), but it allows us to worry less about our debts.  We know that by doing this, we're giving a huge gift to our child by modeling good financial (and environmental) stewardship for him, and it ultimately will probably allow us to retire earlier than some peers, meaning more family time overall.

How are your decluttering efforts helping your family?  I'd love to hear from you!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

October Menu Plan and a No-Spend Grocery Month

I'm finally getting back to posting here!  I kind of got off track with being home for the summer, taking on more professional responsibilities, and learning to navigate life with a toddler who's into everything.  I've missed this blog!

For our October menu, we'll be basing it around the last of our CSA subscription (I think we have three more weeks left) and our pantry, fridge, and freezer stash.  Since it's the fall, we know we can count on potatoes, winter squash, winter greens, and root veggies like beets and carrots in our CSA. (If you're local, we love Creeksong Farms!  Jeff has been awesome!)  We're trying to spend as little of our grocery budget as possible this month so we can stock up on holiday sales for things like baking items, cranberries, and meat.

So, here's the plan for the month, making the best use of what we have.

Breakfasts:  baked oatmeal using homemade applesauce and dried fruit, lemon poppyseed muffins, whole wheat banana muffins (using bananas we got for free over the summer that are now in the freezer from a food pantry surplus), egg and cheese sandwiches (yay for free eggs from friends!), grits with cheese and roasted tomatoes (using the last of the CSA tomatoes), and toast and jam using this French bread

Dinners:  swiss chard soup with grilled cheese or garlic toast, winter squash and chick pea salad, veggie stir fry, black bean tacos or quesadillas, vegetable soup with garlic or cheese toast, pasta with pesto and salad, fried rice with egg and sesame seeds, chili and cheesy corn bread, loaded baked potatoes, rice pilaf with herb butter and roasted veggies and applesauce, potato soup with cheese and bacon, winter squash chili with black beans, breakfast for dinner (eggs, bacon, grits, applesauce), pumpkin pancakes and fruit from the freezer and applesauce, corn chowder and corn bread

Lunches will of course be leftovers, though sometimes on the weekend we do have breakfast for lunch.  Sometimes we add in yogurt or cottage cheese and fruit as fillers.  Since we won't be purchasing these this month, we'll fill in with applesauce that we've put up in the freezer.

Snacks will be roasted squash seeds (like pumpkin seeds), homemade cookies, toast and jam, and applesauce.

The only thing we'll need to purchase at the grocery store will be milk, some fruit for little man, and any freebies we find with coupons.  We're pretty well stocked on cheese, flour (yay, Costco), oil, rice and beans.  We try to buy all of these at their rock bottom prices.  The lowest price I've seen for an 8 oz block of cheese locally has been about $1.80.  We may buy some Halloween candy on sale at the end of the month to fill out stockings for Christmas.

I'm looking forward to the challenge of a no-spend month again, and it'll help free up a few hours over the month to finish up some house and yard projects before winter sets in (and it's looking like it'll be a big one around here).

What about you?  Are you spending less this month in preparation for holiday sales?  Are you trying to reign in your grocery spending by buying in bulk?  I'd love to hear from you!