Tag Archives: grocery shopping

Weekly Eating – 1/29/18

 

Hey y’all! Welcome to the series Weekly Eating.

Here is where I’ll talk about the week’s meal plan versus reality, what we ate for the week, and how we did budget-wise. I hope it gives readers a behind-the-scenes look into our life through the lens of food, and it’s also a way to keep us on track with meal planning and grocery budgeting.

Feel free to share your wins and lessons in the comments below!

 

February 2nd was #WearRedDay for heart health. Cardiovascular disease is the #1 killer, ahead of car wrecks, diabetes, cancer, and many other seemingly more deadly diseases. More than 600,000  people every year are being killed by their own heart.

And the honest truth that the food and drug industry doesn’t want you to know?

#WearRedDay for heart health

Want in on what many call “the best kept secret in medicine”?

Given the right conditions and fuel, the body can heal itself of almost anything. Seriously.

Don’t believe me? The Cleveland Clinic has an actual “Heart Disease Reversal Program“, which has been proven to take some heart patients from death’s door to healthy and fit in mere months. You can literally reverse heart disease and prevent it from worsening based on what you put in your mouth three times per day.

 

On a less serious note, here was the popcorn situation last weekend:

popcorn kernels in a glass jar

Now, if that seems like plenty to you, YOU DON’T KNOW ME. This is a shortage. This is near-panic-level popcorn status.

fifty pound bag of popcorn kernels

And then this showed up on our doorstep on Monday. And all was well in the world again.

Monday:

Breakfast – tropical smoothie. I’d gotten a frozen bag of mixed tropical fruit, and it has chunks of coconut in it. I’m weirded out by coconut, and do not like the chewy-ness. But I will soldier through until it’s gone in the name of not wasting food…

tropical fruit with coconut

Lunch – I meal-prepped a 3-day batch of my famous salmon and couscous salad to have for lunch at work this week. I also repurposed the old “Green Goddess” container to hold my healthier and more delicious recipe 😉

salmon and couscous salad prep

Dinner – Bitter melon & potato curry. Have you heard of bitter melon? Unless you’re Asian or a foodie, probably not. It is a tropical vine fruit, grown throughout Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. And it totally lives up to the name; raw it tastes horrid.

cut up bitter melon

However, despite it’s off-putting taste, it has many redeeming health qualities. “The fruit contains at least three active substances with anti-diabetic properties, including charantin, which has been confirmed to have a blood glucose-lowering effect, vicine and an insulin-like compound known as polypeptide-p.” (source) It also has been shown to have beneficial or reversal effects on obesity and metabolic syndrome. (source)

bitter melon and potato curry

By generously salting it prior to cooking with it, and then rinsing the salt off, you can remove much of the bitter taste. And it blends right into strongly-flavored dishes like curries. The boy said that in this dish, the bitter melon was actually great and the green beans were the worst part!

Snack – Grapes & 2 cuties

grapes and cuties

Tuesday:

Breakfast – Over the weekend we went to the thrift store, where I snagged a sweet a$s deal: $0.99 for a waffle maker!! It was pretty dirty, but still worked. It didn’t have a tag, so I took it to the counter and asked the lady what it would cost.

dirty waffle maker

When she quoted me that price, I couldn’t hand over a dollar fast enough! So with it all nice and cleaned up, I made some yummy fresh waffles with a quick (from frozen) blueberry sauce.

waffles with blueberry sauce

Lunch – Salmon & Couscous Salad with Green Goddess

salmon and couscous salad monday

Snack – I’m glad I packed an “extra” lunch today, because I was starving yesterday afternoon. I brought the tiny bit of leftover red lentil dal and rice from last week and nommed it around 2pm.

dal and rice

Dinner – I tried a new recipe for vegan tempeh ‘meatballs’, and they were dang tasty! I absolutely love them.

tempeh meatballs

The boy even said it was good, and I’m allowed to add it to the list of “vegan meals that don’t suck” so that’s a huge win.

spaghetti and vegan tempeh "meat"balls

Wednesday:

Breakfast – Wheat Sandwich Thin with pears and peanut butter

sandwich thins with peanut butter and pear

Lunch – Salmon & Couscous salad, and a bowl of leftover pork & rice soup with collard greens

salmon and couscous salad and pork and rice soup

Dinner – I went out and met a new friend from the Bull City Food Swap at a local Indian restaurant called Sitar. She’s vegetarian, so I was super excited to split the “vegetarian for 2” dinner. It came with 2 appetizers, 3 main courses, and 2 desserts!

leftover indian food from Sitar

It was so much food, and it was all SO GOOD! We both ate our fill, and had enough left over for us both to take home 2 more meals’ worth. I’d say that’s a pretty great value.

Snack – rice cakes & an orange

rice cakes and an orange

Thursday:

Breakfast – tropical smoothie

tropical smoothie

Lunch – leftover Sitar part 1 – naan, basmati rice, vegetable vindaloo and chickpea saag

leftover Sitar 1

Snack 1 – trail mix still leftover from our Texas trip (I paid the ridiculous airport prices of 2/$20 because I was dying of starvation and the mix actually was pretty nutritionally sound)

goji berry trail mix

Dinner – After a brutal HIIT workout, I was ravenous and grabbed the first thing I saw in the fridge: leftover bitter melon curry

bitter melon curry

Snack 2 – later that night after dinner, I was still hungry and desperately needed a post-workout snack, and nommed a few handfuls of Chocolate Peanut Butter Protein Puppy Chow

protein puppy chow and popcorn

Annnndddd then I made stovetop popcorn, which I sprinkled with nutritional yeast 🙂

Friday:

Breakfast – another smoothie! I’m bad at remembering to take pictures of smoothies… maybe breakfast is too early, or smoothies just don’t feel like ‘real’ food?

Lunch – the last of the leftover Sitar. Not gonna lie, I was sad that it was all gone now…

leftover Sitar 2

Snack – my coworker had been at a conference all week, and brought back some strange chocolates. They were good though.

weird candy

Dinner – The boy had to fend for himself in the wilderness of the fridge, because Erin from ReachingForFI was in town! And when she’s here, we go ALL IN on AYCE sushi.

all you can eat sushi: before

This was the appetizer round. In case you haven’t read it yet, here is my review of Rock’n’Rolls sushi in Durham for your enjoyment.

Unfortunately, it seems too many people HAVE read it, because there was a line out the door! Good thing there was only 2 of us and we were more than happy to sit at the bar. After a little less than an hour, this was the aftermath.

all you can eat sushi: after

They now have a bunch of fried options, including spring rolls, crab rangoon (mostly cream cheese, let’s be real), and gyoza dumplings, as well as a few more specialty rolls.

 

The Weekend

This weekend is the “Big Game”, I guess, but we couldn’t care less. If you want ideas, though, I’ve written plenty about it:

Our plans include reading, writing, and video games. With a chance of brunch on Sunday 🙂

Food Total: $140.54

Ugh, I broke two of my own cardinal rules: never shop while hungry, and never shop without a list!

I did great at the Spice Bazaar, picking up only some fresh produce staples and a few things I wanted to try (looking at you, bitter melon) and the only impulse was a 10lb bag of basmati rice that was on sale.

Staples $10.48 Fruit/Veg $10.36
10lb basmati rice 7.99 Frozen bitter melon 2.99
tamarind paste 2.49 cauliflower head 2.99
ginger root 0.5
turmeric root 0.6
fresh bitter melon 1 0.79
3lb red onions 2.49

But, I went to ALDI right after, and it was past lunch time for me by then. I’m a sucker for ALDI on my best day, and I hadn’t been since the store had evidently been remodeled! It was huge, and bright, and packed with great deals. Y’all, I lost my mind a little bit. I admit it.

Dairy $5.57 Staples $38.00 Fruit/Veg $40.52 Extras $35.19
organic soymilk 2.19 olive oil mayonnaise 3.45 tomato juice 1.39 seltzer 1L x2 1.18
cage free eggs 12 2.29 coconut water 2.89 frozen berries/mango 4.18 frozen pizzas 2 3.98
1/2 gal whole milk 1.09 plum cherry juice 2.69 frozen edamame 2 3.38
org blue corn tortilla chips 1.89 1lb green beans 0.99 Winking owl syrah 2.89
org wheat spaghetti 2.18 bix box org spring mix 3.79 Winking owl red 3L 10.89
olive oil cooking spray 2.98 celery 0.95 German lager 5.99
green enchilada sauce 1.89 cara cara oranges 6 3.95 Amber ale 6pk 6.49
Coffee 4.79 Avocado 4 1.96
spinach wraps 8 1.99 Org Pears 8 3.49 tax 3.77
shelled pistachios 7oz 4.49 Pineapple 1.29
fresh pico de gallo 4.79 Sweet potatoes 1.29
Pasta sauce 1.98 Bananas 11 1.95
2lb dry northern beans 1.99 Broccoli crowns 3 1.49
green grapes 2lb 2.61
greens trio 1.99
cranberries 0.99
Artichoke hearts 2.49
Cucumber 0.45
mission figs 1.89

I also let myself restock on wine & beer, which I had been trying to go all of January without buying more alcohol. But COME ON, their 3L box of “house red” for under eleven bucks?!? And the specials this month were a German lager and an amber ale, my two favorite beer types. Sigh…

Lessons Learned

My only defense is that at least I bought a sh&t-ton of produce, and we should be able to make it through at least 2 weeks in a row of not buying groceries now. The majority of the spending was on super healthy stuff, which we should be eating anyhow (please ignore the frozen pizzas. The boy needs ’emergency foods’ for when he has no leftovers left).

 

How about you guys? Did you have a learning week or an awesome week of wins?

My Top 10 Money Saving Strategies

If you read enough personal finance and frugality articles, you will see a definite theme. Spend Less. Save More. (Next level? Pay off debt, start investing).

There are thousands of ways to save tiny amounts of money by shopping less and shopping strategically, making and doing things yourself, and getting creative. You can also really slash your money needs if you focus on reigning in your biggest expenses: housing, transportation, and food.

I can’t really talk about saving money on housing (can I say how good it feels to finally own a house and NOT be paying someone else’s mortgage?), but I can tell you about my transportation tips, and as the Budget Epicurean I hope I know a thing or two about saving money on food! Food spending is in fact one of the lowest hanging fruits when first looking to trim the budget, as I will show you below.

Over the past decade or so, I have read and learned a LOT, and built upon my semi-frugal upbringing. We had leftover nights and no exotic weeks long overseas vacations, but we also ate out on occasion and never had to scrimp for new school clothes. I’ve tried out several hundreds of frugal strategies and tips, and kept the ones that work for me. You should do exactly the same!

All advice does not work for all people. Some people have a one-person household in a small apartment to care for, while others may have multiple children and pets, a blended or extended family, or you may be elderly and living alone without a next generation to be concerned about. Take this advice with a grain of salt, and look at it through the lens of your own situation. I hope you find it helpful!

And now, on to my top ten money-saving tips:

1. Meal Planning

In my 2014 article about meal planning, I explained how simple it can truly be to plan your meals, and not much has changed over the years. Sure, now I write mine out on a fancy whiteboard, but that’s just because I got tired of wasting so much paper!

Creating a meal plan each week (or each month, if you’re really ambitious!) is a top ten frugal strategy because it keeps your grocery bill low in many ways.

You can plan meals around what is on sale this week, lowering your total at the cash register. You can take stock of your pantry and freezer, using up food items you’ve already paid for. And you can plan for batch cooking and using leftovers, keeping you from throwing hard-earned money right into the trash because you forgot to eat it before it spoiled.

Start slowly. Maybe just write a list of things you know how to cook or enjoy cooking, and make one of those meals this week, plus a little extra, and freeze it. Then write in that leftover meal for one night next week.

Try to creatively use ingredients in multiple meals in one week, like my multiple uses for a pork roast, or a cook a whole chicken and use the meat all week. Plain cooked grains (rice, quinoa, couscous, barley) or cooked beans can be mixed and matched endlessly, and they also freeze well for later.

A word of caution: don’t try to become someone you’re not.

Make sure to add in meals you know you and your family will like, and write in “dinner out” or “order pizza” or “leftover buffet” occasionally to keep your plan in line with your lifestyle. If you eat a “flexitarian” diet now with occasional meat, you may have a riot on your hands if you try to plan vegetarian only meals for a month. Similarly if no one likes soup and you make ten gallons, the odds of food waste are high, and that’s what we are trying to avoid!

2. Cooking at Home

To go along with tip #1 to plan your meals, also try to cook at home as much as possible. When you order food outside the house or go to a restaurant, you are paying for the food in addition to the time for someone else to make it, package it, and clean up after it. You are paying for the convenience. You may also be paying taxes and tip on top of all that.

When you make your food at home, you pay for the food.

Cooking is a skill, and it is one that must be learned and practiced over time. If you have never so much as scrambled an egg, don’t panic. Just start small, have fun with it, and accept that every meal doesn’t have to be a four-course five-star success.

Breakfast is a simple meal to start cooking at home. Try make-ahead egg muffins, breakfast burritos, orange-cranberry muffins, or make your own granola or granola bars. Then work your way up to making lunches like tuna salad, grilled cheese, salmon-couscous salad, or a big batch of chili or minestrone soup.

Pack your own snacks, like hard boiled eggs, peanut butter and apples, turkey cheese roll-ups, or trail mix. Before you know it, you won’t even have to think about it, and will be cooking up whole food healthy meals for pennies on the dollar.

This goes for drinks too!

Soda, teas, fruit juice, energy drinks, and sports drinks are not only sugar and calorie bombs, but come at a premium price outside the house. If you must have your Gatorade or Diet Coke, at least save yourself several hundred dollars over the years by buying a 12-pack at the store and bringing it from home rather than paying $2 per day at a vending machine.

3. Eating Leftovers

When I got to college, and even more so when I moved off campus to an apartment, one of the biggest surprises for me wasn’t how much laundry I can produce in one month, how little sleep I can function with, or even how often people fall asleep in lecture halls.

It was how many people hate leftovers.

I met so many people who wouldn’t even take leftovers home from a restaurant meal, or would put boxes in the fridge to be ignored and then eventually thrown out weeks later.

You are literally throwing your money in the trash! I wanted to yell.

When you buy a meal out and eat half of it, then bring the other half home, that is like $5 of the $10 total sitting in your refrigerator. If you eat that meal, you’ve now had two $5 meals. If you throw it away, you have had one $10 meal, wasted perfectly edible food, and contributed to our growing food shortage crisis and landfills.

Why??

I grew up with the concept of a leftover buffet almost every week. On a busy weeknight, mom would just pull out all the containers in the refrigerator, spread them out on the kitchen table, and we got to pick and choose and put together a meal. Sure, maybe it was meatloaf and stir-fried rice and a bowl of wedding soup, but it was an already-made meal that we were not going to waste.

Weekly Eating 8/7/17

In my series “weekly eating” I try to showcase how I use leftovers creatively to become new meals, and even plan for it on purpose. This enables me to buy in bulk and on sale, to use freezer meal cooking, and to make “free meals” where I use scraps that could be tossed and instead turn them into soup or casserole or stir fry.

All these tactics together can save you thousands of dollars!

So suck it up, buttercup, and have the other half of that chicken pesto panini or leftover Pad Thai for lunch today. Is it as good as it was fresh? Probably not. Is it cheap and a hell of a lot better than ramen or cereal? Probably yes. You may find it tastes even better after sitting overnight.

4. Buy & Try Generics

So you’re at the store, auto-piloting through your grocery list, with some other household items in mind as well. You cruise up and down the aisles, grabbing your Tostitos chips and Pace salsa, Oreos as a treat, a refill on Bounce dryer sheets, and some Dawn. A case of Diet Coke and a box of Frosted Flakes get thrown in the cart too.

If you grew up eating, drinking, or using a certain brand, you may have an emotional attachment to it. You truly believe that brand of product is the best one at what it does. Or you’ve seen enough commercials for it you can quote them word for word. Or there is one type of snack that you just have to have in the house at all times.

What you don’t realize is how those nickles, dimes, and dollars are bleeding your bank account dry year after year.

The difference between a name-brand product and a similar (or nearly exact) generic or “store brand” item may be just a few cents, or it may be $5. The point is, it all adds up over time. For example, if you just tried one new item in the generic form rather than the name brand each week, you could save yourself maybe $4 per month.

The items that you find taste or work the exact same way as the brand you like? Keep using them! Automatic savings. The ones where there is a noticeable difference in taste or outcome? Switch back! It really is that simple.

In my house, we will only use Dawn dish soap for greasy pots and pans, because I really think it works better, faster, and more completely than other store brand soaps I’ve tried. I save the dollar store soap for washing the car or the floor.

But when it comes to paper towels, I have yet to find a $3 per roll brand that can’t do the same job as a $0.50 roll of “Thrifty”, or whatever is on sale. I also can’t tell the difference between $1/jar Kroger brand pasta sauce and $3/jar Bertolli. The line of where it becomes worth it is different for everyone, but you owe it to yourself and your bank account to find that line.

5. In-sourcing

As a semi-famous mustachioed genius once said, “Muscle over Motor” is a great way to save money.

By that I mean, do physical chores with the type of tools your grandparents would have used rather than buying a gas- or electric-powered version to do it faster (and more expensively). Use a rake to rake leaves rather than a leaf blower. Shovel show with an actual shovel. Mop the floors with a mop, or even better, a washcloth and a bucket of hot soapy water.

Household tasks like lawn care, landscaping, gardening, pet maintenance, personal grooming, cooking, and cleaning, are all things that we have varying degrees of love, hate, or tolerance for. And we could easily fork over a few hours’ of our labor in the form of cash to outsource these tasks to someone else.

Or, you could learn and practice useful life skills, and keep your money for yourself!

For example, we bought a $20 electric razor kit, and now my husband never has to go pay for a haircut the rest of his life. I trim my own hair between (every other year) cuts too. We mow our own lawn, rake our never-ending leaves, clean our gutters, snake our own drains, fill the cars’ wiper fluid and check oil levels, change our own wiper blades, trim our own trees, bathe and anti-tick and clip the dogs’ nails and fur, and more.

These small tasks may be annoying, or tedious, or an interruption to an otherwise Netflix-and-video-games filled weekend. They may also be a little scary because you’ve never done it before. That’s what YouTube, or your dad or neighbor are for.

The time spent insourcing our own tasks is time well spent because we did not have to pay someone with time spent at our day jobs to get it done. Many small, regular preventive maintenance tasks also keep your home/appliances/car/self running better longer, keeping you from having to pay for a more  expensive repair or replacement later down the road.

6. Frugal Hobbies

We all have the same number of hours and minutes in each day. And we all get to choose how we spend those hours and minutes.

A few of these hours have required items, they are spoken for. We must eat, and we must sleep. That is basically it. We do need to house and clothe ourselves, we almost all have relationships we participate in, and we must find ways to pay for our necessary expenses (if you don’t already have passive income taking care of that for you). How we do these things is up to us.  We also get large sections of “Free Time” which is not yet spoken for.

Even if you have an expensive commute, eat all organic and expensive foods, have a large family, and wear the nicest name-brand work clothes, you can still cut corners in your personal time.

There are many “toys”, sources of entertainment, hobbies, and past times that are just huge money-sucks.

For example: boats, jet skis, skiing, golfing, shopping, having to play the newest video games, frequent movie-going, concerts, or nightly partying at the bars downtown. It is so easy to blow $50 on one night of drinking and dancing, or $500 on a weekend at the lake, or $5000 on a ski trip to Breckenridge twice per season.

I definitely think it is important to be social, to find like-minded friends and nurture those relationships. But you don’t have to blow your whole paycheck every weekend to do so!

By cultivating frugal hobbies, you can entertain yourself and possibly others, while doing small or no damage to your bank account and future financial goals. There are plenty of hobbies which may even further enrich you!

Some ideas might include: bird watching, baking, board games or card games, reading books, drawing, knitting, dog walking, nature hikes, blogging, cycling, or geocaching.

These types of hobbies and entertainment can provide the same kinds of enjoyment and escape from the mundane and from work or home life, but without causing you to have to work more to support paying for them.

Use your ‘free time’ to free yourself from having to trade your time for dollars.

7. Ignoring “the Joneses”

As you cultivate these new frugal hobbies and pastimes, and begin cooking at home more and cutting your own lawn, you may feel some judgment from those around you. Your friends, neighbors, coworkers, or even your family may discourage your new habits.

Ignore them.

How you live your life only impacts you and your immediate family. If your neighbor buys  a new Bentley, you don’t feel the weight of that car loan, he does. And if your aunt tells stories about her latest and greatest European vacation, you can enjoy the photos but not the credit card bill that comes due every month.

In the same way, if you are making good choices like cooking at home twice a week and taking your lunch to work, your coworkers might miss you at Chilis but you won’t miss that missing $50 every week. Instead you can transfer it into your savings account, pay down your student loans or mortgage faster, or buy some stocks.

And the best part is, as you are ignoring those who choose to be spendier than you, you will also be putting yourself in good places and a good mindset to start meeting people with similar goals and lifestyles. Maybe your neighbor asks to borrow your ladder rather than buy one too, or your coworker starts chatting with you about that delicious looking chicken salad sandwich you brought, and you discover a mutual love of Go Fish. You never know.

8. Driving an Older, Paid-off Vehicle

I wish I could also say that I save money by having a small commute or being able to walk or bike, but I did make a bit of a commuting mistake, as I wrote about here. If you are able to telecommute (work from home), or live close enough to your place of business to walk and/or bike or take public transit, I highly recommend that.

However, if as I do, you have a long commute every day, you can still make frugal choices to slash the amount of stress that commute puts on your yearly and life-long cash-flow.

In 2017, we have set a new record: the average new car loan has topped $30,000 for the first time ever. A record 17 million Americans have a car loan, and we are taking out bigger and bigger amounts to be paid back over longer and longer periods of time.

Average loan: $30,032
Average monthly payment: $503
Average payback length: 68 months

That is FIVE AND 2/3 YEARS. To pay off a car, that you will be tired of after three, and continue driving for what, maybe 8?

Rather than take on that crazy payment for a depreciating item, why not save up over time. Keep your crap car, or walk, and pay yourself what you would have taken out for a car loan, by putting it aside in a savings account. Then, after 2 or 3 or 5 years, you have a few grand saved up and can buy an older used car outright!

Of course, this in itself is a balancing act.

All cars, no matter how well built or maintained, do have a finite lifespan. Unless you have access to new parts and a ton of machine know-how, there comes a time when maintaining an older vehicle is more costly than replacing it.

If your beater car is worth $500, starts making weird noises and/or shaking weirdly and you find out there is a minimum $3000 you have to put in to get it running again, I’d say cut your losses and start looking for your next ride.

9. Recycling, Creative Re-Purposing, & DIY

My grandma used to have a phrase that I assume was learned from living through the Great Depression:

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without”*

I LOVE that saying. Because it strikes at the heart of much of what frugality is. (It does kind of tap dance on the line between frugal and cheap, but that’s a whole other discussion). One of the greatest destroyers of wealth is shopping, plain and simple.

We live in such a throw-away culture, where devices are purposefully built to last only a few years or less, people are wasting up to 40% of all the food that enters the house (see the leftovers rant above), and if something gets a scratch or even slightly malfunctions we simply chuck it in the bin and buy a new one to have delivered in two days.

Wasting and re-buying these things, or even buying in the first place, is also chucking your hard-earned cash money in the trash bin.

Why not try to imagine a creative way to turn something you no longer like/use/works into something else? Maybe someone else  has a vase you can borrow (or keep) rather than buy a new one with each bouquet, you can turn wooden pallets into all kinds of creative decor and projects, a broken picture frame plus wire can become an earring holder, a burnt out lightbulb can become an oil lamp, there are literally infinite ideas online.

Sometimes all you need is a new perspective, a fresh coat of paint, and a free afternoon to create something functional, interesting, beautiful, or useful, and also save yourself some serious cash. You might be surprised at all the ways you can turn trash into treasure.

*Qualifier: This isn’t the Depression, of course. There are obviously products you should spend some money on, like good shoes or a set of quality pans. I’m saying be mindful of your purchases and think about the long-term cost per use rather than whip out the credit card just because you like that shade of blue on that pillow.

Quality over quantity, folks.

10. Planning Purchases & Avoiding CC Debt

Ah, delayed gratification. That beautiful, crucial life skill which makes you much more likely to be successful, and yet so many people lack these days.

In the era of exponential technological advances where nearly anything can be learned, watched, bought, or done with the swipe of a finger, the art of waiting is something which we should all try to cultivate.

We have tons of data on past sales and price fluctuations, use that knowledge to plan when is the best time to purchase anything. For example, do you want to remodel your living room? Maybe wait until April for discounts on carpet, and May for cheap paint. Whether you have kids or not, you know August is the time to stock up on cheap school & office supplies. And go figure, November & December are the best times to invest in a new gas grill. When no one is grilling.

Almost all of our purchases can and should be anticipated and planned for. We know how long phones tend to last, we know we will need furniture, lawn equipment, when family and friends’ birthdays are (well… maybe not those of us with horrible memories), the dates of anniversaries and national holidays. There is no excuse to not have a plan for these events.

As for regular, everyday purchases like paper towels, Windex, dish soap, diapers, deodorant… you can keep a running list on the refrigerator, in a Google doc, or on your phone. Then you can order it all at once, or make one large trip, saving yourself the temptation from multiple store runs. Simply avoiding impulse buys ever can save you hundreds, even thousands of dollars each year.

A handy rule I used before I had my iron will fully developed is to wait 7 days per $50. So if there was something I wanted because I saw it in an ad or someone told me about it, I put it on a list.

And then I waited, researched it, and comparison shopped. If, after a week, you still want the item, it is something you legitimately need and or will use regularly, you know which place has it for the best price, and assumedly have read reviews saying it is a worthwhile thing to have, go ahead and purchase it.

If you find yourself hardly remembering what it was you wanted last Tuesday? Not a thing you need in your life.

Before long, this process becomes second nature, and you find your life much less stressed from lack of money, because now you have more, and lack of space to put all your stuff, because there is less stuff!

 

 

What are your best frugal tips? Do you already do any or all of these?

Meal Planning: What it is, why you should, and how to do it

 

A very popular topic in food and cooking related blogs and forums is meal planning. What is it, how can you do it, is it worth the time? I’ll start by saying that this article is going to be just full of suggestions, tips and tools. Everyone’s situation is different, so I cannot write an article that will work for every single person who might read it. I don’t know if you’re single, vegetarian, diabetic, have three kids, on food stamps, or a combination of all those things. I will however try my best to give you general tips with more specific scnearios as we go along.

Feel free to email me at BudgetEpicurean (at) gmail (dot) com if you have a specific question, or any question really.

As featured on Stacking Benjamin’s podcast:
Meal Planning Made Easy

What is Meal Planning?


Meal planning is simply that: planning your meals in advance. The period of planning time may vary, for some you don’t plan dinner until it is 7pm and you’re starving. Some people plan per week, others plan per month. It is up to you how frequently you can and want to think about your upcoming meals.

The most common way to go about planning meals is to use a spreadsheet or pre-made printout. If you are an experienced cook or have adequate food in your home already, you could simply list the day and the meal(s) you intend to make. There are abundant options of formats available for free online, and there are also yearly or monthly services which will plan your meals for you. Most paid services will also create a grocery shopping list to go with the meal plan.

But why pay for a service you can do for yourself in 20 minutes on one weeknight? I am after all, the Budget Epicurean!

Why should I bother?


Well, if it really seems like too much trouble, you don’t need to read any further. Or pay for someone to do it for you. But meal planning can save you the loss of significant money in the form of food waste.

Americans waste billions of pounds of food per year, up to 40% of the food that households purchase!! This is due mostly to bad planning. You make too much and no one likes the leftovers. Or you cook, then go out, then cook again, and it goes bad before you can rotate the leftovers. Or you miss an expiration date and the goods expire. 

By planning your meals in advance, you are creating several opportunities to save money. You are also bettering your health. This is what planning meals and cooking at home does for you:

  • You can feature weekly sale items in your meals, saving you $$
  • You can buy in bulk for similar meals, saving you $$
  • You cut down on food waste, saving $$ and landfill space
  • You control portion sizes, helping your health
  • You control what ingredients go in it, meaning you can ‘have it your way’
  • You determine what meals to make, avoiding boredom
  • No preservatives or extra chemicals are added, boosting your health

How to make a meal plan

A typical week’s meal plan for me.

As stated above, there are plenty of free and paid templates online. But the simplest way to do it is make it on your own. If you are super new to cooking in general, take a gander at Real Simple’s “Cooking Basics” checklist. Then follow these steps:

Step 1: Make a list of meals you/your family likes to eat, and meals you know how to make.

Step 2: Draw out a grid for the week. Seven columns, and 3-5 rows for individual meals and snacks.

Step 3: Start filling in spaces you know. For example, if you have kids, you can fill in the “lunch” squares with “school” if they buy a lunch, or “PB&J + apple + string cheese + juice” if you make their lunches. Feel free to add in things like “Eat out” or “Leftovers buffet” for nights you know will be busy.

Step 4: Check your local grocery ads. Figure out what is on sale that could go into meals you would like to make. For example, if romaine, tomatoes, chicken, and salad dressings are on sale, you should schedule in a grilled chicken salad for dinner and/or lunch a few days this week.

Step 5: Once you have figured out what meals you are making, do a quick check of your cupboards and refrigerator. Write down any items you need to buy at the store. This is your week’s grocery list.

Step 6: Take your list to the store, and buy only what is on the list. Don’t let yourself be lured by that juicy looking steak or the whole rotisserie chicken, unless it was on your list. This will take willpower and practice, but will be a huge money-saver.

Step 7: Post your week’s (or month’s) meal plan where you will see it, maybe on the refrigerator door. Then simply follow it each day. 

Grocery cart

The planning process should take you only 20-30 minutes on a weekend or weeknight, and a 30 minute trip to the store. Once you get the hang of a basic meal plan, you can get much more detailed. For example, you can plan to make large amounts of a basic ingredient, like beans or rice, on the weekend. Then throughout the week take the portion you need for that day’s dinner out. Or have notes to yourself to defrost the pork chops you will cook Wednesday on Tuesday night.

Don’t forget to add in little things like snacks, desserts, and occasional days out so you don’t get ‘frugal fatigue’. 

For more information & ideas:
The CDC has a great article on cutting costs and calories by planning meals at home as well as one the go.
EatThisMuch has an awesome calorie calculator/meal planner that allows you to input a calorie amount, and it automatically gives you three meals (or more depending on what you choose) with that amount. You can change out meals you don’t like, or add more.
Cooking Light also has a weekly meal planner which allows you to choose recipes from their archives and drag & drop to create your week.



Do you plan meals in advance?

 

How to: Save money on your grocery bill

.
Groceries are a fact of life. Unless you are one of a VERY small minority, you do not raise and/or grow all the food you eat. Also I’m sure there are people out there who never cook their own food, but rely on take-out and fast food for daily nutrition. That blows my mind of course, because I find such joy in cooking, creating, and enjoying homemade meals.
There aren’t many things more exciting to me than to bring home a big load of groceries for less than I intended to spend. Every time I go grocery shopping, I have a certain number in my head that I am allowing myself to spend. If I get everything I need for the week for less than that number, I am excited. If I go over that number, I just know I need to plan better, or have better impulse control, next time. 
 
My plan of attack when it comes to grocery shopping is always the same. It comes down to:
1. Knowing what you use most often
2. Paying attention to sales & in-season produce
3. Price comparing between a few stores
4. Buying generic or store brands
5. Making a budget and sticking to it

Know what you use most often

To know what you use most often, simply pay attention to what you run out of the most. What types of foods do you and/or your family want to eat often? Do you make a lot of pasta? Maybe cereal disappears within a day. Is there a tradition in the family like Taco Tuesdays? Noticing what you use often will help you plan around sales and stock up on staples. What I use most hasn’t changed much over the past few years: rice, canned diced tomatoes, canned beans, frozen mixed vegetables. These things make up the bulk of my weekly diet. I don’t know that I’ve ever gone a week without eating each of those things somehow.

Pay attention to sales & in-season produce

Sprouts Farmers Market is a place I go often because of their amazingly cheap produce. I get weekly salad greens, fresh fruits and vegetables there. Most staple items like bread, tortillas, canned goods, etc, comes from King Sooper or somewhere else. Which reminds me, if there is something or certain kinds of food you need a specialty store for, keep them in your rotation of ads to watch.

All this produce was under $30! And most of that is just their everyday low prices, not bargain sales. However, most grocery stores will greatly discount whatever produce is in season, because they have a lot of it and it needs to sell before it goes bad. Pay attention to what is in season, and maybe try a new fruit or vegetable you’ve never had that’s on sale. You may have found a cheap new favorite!

Price compare between stores

Every week I get ads from at least seven different stores. I have a few favorites that I pick out, the others I discard because they are too far from me or for some other reason I don’t shop there. Typically Sprouts Farmers Market, King Soopers, and Albertson’s ads get saved and looked through.

I will sit down and look through each ad quickly, circling items which I know are a good deal, or which I use often and are on sale. Then I compare amongst the three which has more deals that week. Sometimes I will go to all three if the deals are worth it, usually I end up going to only one or two with the most things I want to buy. 

When there is a really good sale, I mean one that you only see once or twice a year, I will stock up. For example Albertson’s sometimes has “buy one get two free” sales on meats, or King Soopers often has 10 for $10 sales. I know how quickly I go through my pantry items, so if kidney beans are 50 cents, I will be bringing at least a dozen home. Because they usually are 69 cents, which saves me 19 cents per can. That may not sound like much, but it’s little things like that, added up over years, that makes a big difference in bank account balances. 

Buy generic or store brands

If you are a loyal brand-centric consumer and you don’t trust generics, start small. Try the store brand of flour, or salt, and cook with it. When you can’t tell the difference, try some granola bars or oatmeal. Pretty soon you will see what items you can’t tell the brand name from generic and which items are really different in quality. By this point, the things I refuse to buy generic I could probably count on one hand, because there just isn’t enough of a difference in quality for me to justify the price difference. And that saves me hundreds every year!

Make a budget & stick to it

As mentioned earlier, I look at a budget as a game. It is a number I set in my head, based on how much I think I’ll buy, that I try to beat. If I find some deal or coupon that brings down my total, I have a better chance of winning. If I plan and price compare, I have a better chance of winning. The lower the total at the register, the higher the total in my checking account!

You can read more in my earlier article on making a budget & sticking to it, which includes how to add in all the things you spend money on monthly, not just food.


I have read tons of articles that advocate for making a weekly or monthly meal plan, stressing those items on sale that week, and then buying only those things you need to complete the plan. I am not quite that organized to pull that off yet. Instead, I have a rotation of meals that I know I love and can make quickly, which all use the same basic ingredients. Then I add in a few meals I’ve found recently that I want to try making, or if there is an event coming up, I’ll add any items I need for those things to the list. 

If I’m feeling extra over-achieving, I will even split the list into types, like “dairy”, “carbs”, “produce”, etc.  to make navigating the store easier. But if I don’t get around to it, I don’t beat myself up. And almost every week for several months, I get more than enough groceries for under $100. I’m sure I could pare that down to half or less, but I also enjoy cooking new and more expensive foods now and then, and experimenting with things for this blog. 

Anyhow, if you normally only grocery shop when there’s nothing left in the house but a can of spaghetti-os and some green sour cream, try these simple steps. Check around and price compare, make a list before you go, then pick up only those things on the list. Short, sweet, and you can be sure you’re saving yourself some cash. You can look over those grocery receipts and smile.


How often do you shop for food?