Sunday, April 18, 2010

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

My Shopping List Can Beat Up Your Shopping List!

Over the last few years I've had the same request from friends and coworkers as soon as they hear my grocery shopping weekly budget is only $60.  They all want to see my reciepts.  Well, reciepts are one thing but I think the far more important piece of paper I can show you is the list I make. 

Big Daddy and I had an (almost) teenaged wedding, and after awhile the old folks did indeed wish us well.  Young as we were, we made a lot of mistakes.  The first was putting Palmolive in the dishwasher the very first night we moved into our first apartment after our honeyoon.  (Side note: bubbles and Little Mama do not mix well.  I have filled MANY rooms thanks to my habit of abusing Mr Bubble.)  That mistake was bad, but one of the most harmful to our newly-joined checking account was this item:

Now, the list items are CLEARLY all essentials, there's no problem there.  The real issue is the lack of forethought into the shopping venture.  This isn't even the shopping list of a woman with a meal plan, it certainly isn't the list of a woman with a shopping budget!

THIS is the list of a woman with a shopping budget!

Behold, my actual, honest-to-God shopping list for this very week.  Every single penny of my budget is accounted for.  Inlaid formulas calculate every item's tax, coupon savings, everything.  The budget is split into my 5 main food categories so that I am sure I am buying balanced.  As you can see, I will be getting approximately 32 pounds of produce, 6 pounds of meat, 4 gallons of milk, a pound of natural cheese, a dozen eggs, 2 loaves of bread, a pound of honey, a pound of butter, and 4 pounds of rice for just shy of $60.  That includes tax, and a whopping 5 coupons.  Not bad, eh?

Every single Wednesday when the loss leaders arrive in my mailbox I clear out the spreadsheet from last week, get out my lovely pink coupon folio and sit down at the kitchen table to plan my budget.  I go through and find all the items in every loss leader that is tasty-looking and under my budget limits ($2/pound for meats, $1/pound for produce, a minimum of 50% off any non-essential processed items, cheapest available for staples like milk, flour, honey, etc.) and load them into the spreadsheet.  Once they are in I am able to delete and add as needed, change quantities to take full advantage of sales, and add coupons in.  

A bonus to the spreadsheet is the ability to price-match in the stores  For example, if I go to Aldi first to picck up the milk advertised in the loss-leader and notice a non-advertised price on strawberries that beats the advertised Kroger price, I will buy those strawberries right there in the Aldi.  Often I have come home having spent less that I originally budgeted this way. 

I still use the old piece of paper on the fridge to list staples we are out of and a few special requests from Big Daddy, but they get transferred onto the spreadsheet come Wednesday. 

Is the spreadsheet more work than slapping a quickie list on a cutie-pie paper list?  Yes indeedy.  Will you ever leave the grocery store having gone over budget or without an essential? NO YOU WILL NOT!  This spreadsheet took some time to set up, but it has saved me SO much money and time!  Give it a try for a month and see if you ever go back!

Happy penny pinching!

Monday, April 5, 2010

This Must Be the Introduction to the Opposite Sketches!*

How many of you heard that story about the woman who planned her family's meals a year in advance as a way to take control of her family's finances?  Well, if you haven't, then here is the story.  Basically, this woman started planning every meal for every day of the year as a way to save money.  It's the old "make a shopping list based on what you will cook this week" theory, only on crack.  People assumed I loved this story.  It flooded my email inbox and my Facebook wall. 

Watch out now, cause Little Mama is about to BLOW YOUR MINDS!
Are you ready?


The exception of course is holiday meals, 'cause if I ever set a Thanksgiving table without turkey, stuffing, cranberry relish and fried apples, Big Daddy would consider it grounds for divorce.

Here's the thing, I tried that "shop to cook" theory years ago, but it simply is too constricting.  I like to cook on a whim, I want to open the pantry and be creative.  I want to be able to change plans when Big Daddy comes home late or that dead mouse the dog dragged in after lunch killed my appetite for meat.  I found that what looked good on paper on Sunday very, very often did not feel good on Thursday.  I felt like I was trapped.  I can't imagine that what looked good on paper in January will still feel great in sun-soaked July.

Far-planning meals deprives you the opportunity to try new dishes out, or new ingredients you find on a shelf at a rock-bottom price.  In order to stay frugal, you stick with the few ingredients you know will be cost-effective.  Basically, you are eating the same boring stuff all the time. 
The year-long meal plan lady said that she used to do a lot of compulsive shopping and wasting of food, and that they ate out a lot.  Certainly, making a meal plan is a good way to get some control, I'm just saying, it shouldn't end there.  Shopping to the meal-plan is a lot like hard-core dieting, for most people it works only until the novelty wears off, then you fall off he wagon.

So what do I do?  I shop to stock rather than shop to cook.  I buy balanced, a fifth of my budget in the dairy, a fifth on meats, a fifth on vegetables, a fifth on fruit, and a fifth on staples and convienience foods.  I buy what's in season, what I can get on deep sale using coupons and loss-leaders, and what is unexpectedly at a discount in the store.  I stock up on whatever is cheapest that week, and keep my mind open.  MOST IMPORTANTLY, I KEEP MY PANTRY, FRIDGE, AND FREEZER STOCKED AT ALL TIMES!  A couple of times a week I will poke around and see what's there, and I come up with meals.  It also ensures that I use up all the leftovers.  After all, the second rule fo tightwadery is

Thou Shalt Not Waste Anything, EVER!

After shopping to stock for awhile, you start realizing that you don't need meal plans, you have complete control of your kitchen and you already know what is in there!  You don't need a piece of paper to tell you what to cook, because you have enough practice cooking you can just go in there and whip something up.

This is not a new concept, it is what our foremothers did when they came across this country!  Trips to town for staples were few and far between, milk and eggs depended on who was having babies, and meat depended on what got shot on the way home.  You kept the larder and the pantry stocked because it was senseless not to (what if a blizzard hit?  Can't run out for that one can of cream of mushroom you forgot to pick up!) and you cooked what you had.  Creativity and practice saved the day adn fed our families. 

Reclaim your heritage!  Shop to Stock and throw away all the meal-plans!  You'll thank me, I promise!

Lord, I'm getting all worked up over here!  Time for a White Russian and a nap!

*you 80's babies know what I'm talking about, but for those poor souls unfamiliar with Moose, Alasdair and Alannis before she was ironic, check this out, ay?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

My Mama Told Me, You'd Better Shop Around!

Well, Momma was right.  Call her up, tell her she was right and you should have listened.  It'll make her day.  If y'all get nothing else from this blog, get this

The First Rule of Tightwadery:


Focus on what I said now, you need to actually KNOW for actual FACT how much that kumquat costs at at least one other store if you want to get the best deal.  Don't assume that just because you're buying a kumquat at Walmart you are getting the best deal.  Also don't assume that because the store is having a GIANT KUMQUAT SALE! that you are getting the best deal in town.  In both of these cases, you probably are not.

I know what you're thinking, "Little Mama, does that mean I have to go drive all over creation checking prices?  Cause I just don't need to save a few cents on a kumquat that bad!"  Well, let me reassure you.  Yes, you DO need to save a few cents on a kumquat if you can, that is the whole point of tightwadery, and no, you do not need to drive all over creation.  Let me introduce you to the LOSS LEADER!


I will almost bet you have one of these in your house right now.  Probably in a BIG stack of newspapers and junkmail.  Haven't ever looked at one? Here's why you should.

"Loss Leader": Sale ads sent out weekly by most grocery stores in junk mail packets and/or newspapers advertising weekly specials, including DEEPLY DISCOUNTED PRODUCT THE STORE IS OFFERING AT A LOSS TO LEAD YOU INTO THE STORE!!!!

That's right, the grocery stores sell a few things every single week at such a discount they lose money on it just to tempt you into the store.  And they advertise them.  And send the ads, with prices, straight to your house.  For free.  They are also available online at the grocery store websites! Comparison shopping on your couch, in your jammies with a White Russian.  HOORAY for technology!

How to save money on your groceries?

ONLY BUY LOSS LEADERS!  Stock up when it's on sale, never pay full price again.  But more on that later.

***CAUTION!*** not all loss leaders are alike!  Also, not all products in the loss leader are great deals!  Case in point, this week's best seasonal Loss Leader


My city happens to bless me with six (6!) major grocery stores within a few miles.  Every one of them is offering srrawberries as a front-page deal on their loss-leaders. I only pay $1 per pound for any produce. Strawberries are a good deal for about two weeks a year where I live.  Let's see if I can buy some this week:
Fiesta -                                                                  Kroger -
DOUBLE my budget!                                            Better, but not really.
Albertsons:                                                              Aldi:
2lbs for $3=1lb for $1.50 NOPE!                           $1.49 a pound.  Nyet.

Tom Thumb:                                                       Sprouts:
$1.47/pound.  NO NO NO!!                             $.99lb.  DING DING DING!!!

Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a winner! 

Important to note here, the "value" store here is actually charging the most, and the "Boutique" stores are offering the lowest prices!  This proves my point:

Never ever assume you know the price based on a store's reputation!

So go grab that pile of junkmail and filter through it, you might just be surprised.

More loss-leader treasures later!  Until then, happy penny-pinching!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

I Coupon Clipped Your Way Through Law School So You Could Make a Difference, Not So You Could Be Neffler the Muffler Man!*

Nearly every day I have someone ask me if I think using coupons is actually worth it, to which I respond, usually. Coupons are a fickle friend, used correctly they are as cash, used incorrectly they are as good as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

From a manufacturer’s point of view, a coupon is simply a tiny advertisement you can carry around in your purse. If Kellogs has a new product, a coupon for it is released as an incentive to buy and try it, they hope you will love it so much you’ll pay full price from now on. Some products sell better at certain times of the year, and they want to remind you that they are still here, same as always, hence the surge of coupons for Campbells Cream of Mushroom Soup and Pillsbury Crescent Rolls around holiday time. It is not the goal of the manufacturer to save you money. If Campbells had their druthers you’d use a single Cream of Mushroom Soup coupon as a newlywed, love their soup and never buy any other kind of soup for the rest of your natural life.

The reality of the grocery coupon is that the products they advertise are rarely things you actually *need*. The manufacturers want you to believe that you cannot live without what they are selling to you. Coupons for things like milk, flour, and fresh produce and meats are few and far between, and when they do show up are typically for overpriced name-brands or store coupons, good for their generic version. We’ve all seen the television shows presenting a woman who feeds her family for free using thousands of coupons she carries around in a baseball card folio, but few people ever think what must be in her pantry. If processed foods make up 90% (my estimate) of the coupons out there and she is paying for groceries with coupons, her family’s diet must be made up almost entirely of canned produce, Chef Boyardee, and Hamburger Helper. It is possible to live off of that much high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oil, fat, salt, and sugar, but it is not a healthy life.

Buying balanced is the best way to ensure you are not choking your family’s diet with processed foods, and when used correctly grocery coupons are the absolute best way to supplement your budget. Healthy food is best, but sometimes free has to trump healthy.

Here are some Furiously Frugal tips for better coupon use:

1. Never use a coupon unless the item advertised is also on sale. If your going to spend any money at all on something that is not essential, make sure you are spending as little as possible. Using a coupon just to try something new is just playing into the manufacturer’s games!

2. Be flexible! Clip coupons for types of food you like, not specific brands! There are many different brands of every kind of processed food imaginable and all of them offer coupons. Don’t be afraid to try a new kind, to mix and match them, or to use them in as an ingredient in something else. A good example is pasta sauce. I currently have coupons for Ragu, Prego, Newman’s Own, Classico and Bertolli! If I can work my coupons to get a jar of this or that for less than a dollar, I throw it in the cart. I have been known to mix them together for better flavor, add a jar to some leftover homemade to stretch it, use it as pizza, ziti, or lasagna sauce, or as a dipping sauce for homemade cheese sticks.

3. Keep on the lookout for store coupons offering discounts on actually needed items like fresh fruits and vegetables, butcher meats (not deli or processed meats), and milk. These coupled with a store sale are the holy grail of coupons, because they happen so rarely.

4. ALMOST WITHOUT EXCEPTION, STORE COUPONS AND MANUFACTURERS COUPONS CAN BE USED FOR THE SAME ITEM AT THE SAME TIME! This is because a *store* coupon is essentially the same as a sale, the management has decided to offer a discount at their own loss to the consumer. A manufacturer’s coupon, however, is a discount offered by the manufacturer (duh), and the store management will bundle all of those coupons up at the end of the month and send them back to said manufacturer, who will then REIMBURSE the store management for the discounted price AND the cost of mailing the coupons to them. The store looses no money on manufacturer’s coupons!

5. Shop at stores that multiply coupons!  This depends on where you live, and my experience is that the more expensive the market (New York, Chicago, etc.) OR the less competitive the market, the fewer stores who multiply coupons. Call the stores in your area and ask if any of them multiply coupons, it can be worth it!

Let’s get a real-life example. Two weeks ago, one of my local grocery stores offered Classico pasta sauce as a loss-leader for $1.99 a jar. This is not an item I would normally buy as I can make a mean pasta sauce myself, but if I can get a good deal on it, a jar of pasta sauce and some generic dry pasta make a super fast and dirt cheap meal for Big Daddy to “cook” if I am out of pocket one evening. I had a manufacturer’s coupon for $.35 off one jar of Classico sauce. This particular store tripled coupons up to $.39, so my paltry coupon suddenly went from $.35 to $.1.05, bringing the price down to $.94. Even better, the store was offering its own coupon for $.50 of one jar of the same sauce, bringing my net price down to $.44 before tax.

Add a box of generic dried pasta for $1 and a head of lettuce for $1, and we have a quick and easy meal for 4 that even Big Daddy can handle that cost us a whopping $2.64. Even cheaper than Taco Bell!

*And if you’re wondering about that quote, you were clearly not a Girl Scout in the 80’s and missed out the single best piece of cinematic genius ever to be written about Scouts! Shelley Long, Craig T. Nelson, Carla Gugino, Tori Spelling, Kelly Martin, Cheech and Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley) at their best after the jump. You’re welcome!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Excuse Me, Your Kitchen Seems to be Hemorrhaging Money

Did you go grocery shopping last week? How much did you spend, $100, $150, maybe even more? How did you feel when you paid the clerk? Did you think the price was fair? Did you swipe that debit card and feel good about it? Or did your heart beat a little harder for a second? Were you surprised by the total on the little screen? Does thinking about that total spark a little fury in your heart? It should. Would you like to know how much I spend per week on groceries?

$60. For a family of 5. Really.

Let’s do some math. $60 a week / 7 days = $8.57 a day. You know those television shows and cookbooks that market $10 meals? They got NOTHING on me. Try $2.85 a meal average. You’re reading that right, folks.

Now are you feeling a little furious over your grocery bill?

You’re probably asking yourself, HOW?? HOW DOES SHE DO THAT?? It’s quite simple really, I work at it. For seven years I have cut back and made changes and tried new techniques until I found what worked for my family. It took me about five years to figure out what works, but it’s been working for two years now.

I live by simple guidelines, which have allowed me to slash our weekly grocery budget from $100 a week for 2 people to $60 a week for 5 people, and we actually eat healthier and tastier foods
 than we did when we were first married.

1. PICK A BUDGET. Either pick a percentage of your take-home pay or 90% of the amount you spent last week. Each week, drop the budget by 10% until you reach a point where you really feel you can’t go any lower. I go further and split my total budget into different categories, but that is fodder for another posting.

2. SHOP TO STOCK YOUR KITCHEN, NOT TO COOK SPECIFIC MEALS! Almost every budgeting book I have ever read has advised you to plan your meals, then purchase only what you need to make those meals. That is utter nonsense. If you do that, you will not be able to take full advantage of sales or clearance items, you will eating very monotonous meals, and you will not be eating in season food. Which brings me to the next tip

3. BUY LOSS LEADERS ONLY! Every week, the local grocery stores send out ads, called loss-leaders by those in the know. These are full of items, especially meats and produce, that are in-season (and therefore plentiful) which the grocery store is selling at a DEEP discount as an incentive to get you in then door and waste money on the rest of the store, which is either regular price or in some cases, marked up. Stocking up on loss-leaders ensures a constant supply of quality food at low prices.

4. SHOP BALANCED: In another posting, I will go over my very scientific shopping list, but it is important to know now that if you buy balanced, you will eat balanced. Split your total budget into 5 catagories, MEAT, FRUIT, VEGETABLES, DAIRY, and PROCESSED or HALLS (the food on the shelves in the center of the store). Spend an equal amount of money in each category and you will find yourself always able to make balanced meals.

5. LEARN TO COOK: This should go without saying, but if you can cook things from scratch, you can spend less on processed foods and more effectively shop your pantry. It isn’t hard. The internet and the library both have wonderful tutorials and recipes available 24 hours a day for free. Utilize them.

6. STOP WASTING FOOD! You’d be surprised to find how much food is getting wasted in your kitchen. We’ll go over that more in detail later but for now, just make sure to use your freezer and move those leftovers to the front of the fridge so they don’t get overlooked.

Give these tips a try on your next shopping trip, and watch your bill drop. It just takes practice!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Dracula, Chris Isaac, the Devil Machine, and Our First Moment of Fury

Seven years ago my young husband and my even younger self spent all of a lovely Saturday afternoon watching a “Best of” video countdown marathon on VH1. As is wont to occur during TV marathons, the day slipped by us and we soon found ourselves still watching said marathon at 9pm. A nagging feeling came over me as I contemplated the late hour and eventually I turned to my dear husband to wonder aloud, “Hey, are we supposed to be doing something right now?” to which he replied “Yeah, I was thinking that too!”. Tensions mounted as I grabbed my day planner from the corner where I had carelessly tossed it the night before, jerked it open and prepared myself for the worst. As I turned the page to the month of February the reality of our error hit like the proverbial Mack truck. There, pinned to the page with a small yellow paperclip, were ballet tickets. Two, front-row 1st balcony ballet tickets to the local big-deal dance company’s presentation of Dracula. They had cost a small fortune for a young secretary and warehouse dock worker such as ourselves, and the show ended at 9:30. I looked up right as the clock struck 9:08. We had missed it. Two hundred dollars and a Saturday night in a little black dress downtown wasted, just to find which video the top-brass at VH1 believed to be the sexiest (it was Chris Isaac’s “Wicked Game). I almost threw up. Big Daddy turned whiter than normal when I showed him the tickets.

We sat quietly for a minute, and then the fury set it. Not at ourselves, but at the TV. How dare that stupid machine steal our evening! It was theft, plain and simple. We had been robbed of our evening out, two-hundred dollars, and our dignity if the chip dust on our shirts and the black circles under our eyes from sitting in front of a flickering light for nine hours was any indication, by a machine. We went to bed shame-faced and disappointed with TV headaches and heavy hearts.

The next morning I ran some numbers. That devil-machine (as it was now known) had cable, for which we were paying a “special” rate of $50 a month, but the reality was $75 a month with fees and taxes, something the cable companies like to hide. The extra hidden charges made up 33% of the total bill, it equated to a 50% increase that we were just supposed to take! I was furious. Not only did the devil machine rob us, it charged us its daily fee of $2.67 to do it! ($75 divided by 28 days). I called right then and there and cancelled the cable, and we haven’t looked back. Seven years and three kids later, we are still rocking the rabbit ears, with no regrets. The savings paid for our trip to Disney World last November. For reals. Do the math, $75 a month for 7 years = $4500.

The very moment in which we decided to go against convention was the moment we became Furiously Frugal. No more throwing our money away on crap just because it’s what everyone else does. No more wasting money on things we don’t need, won’t use, or are not good for us. Most importantly, no more missing out on things we really do want because we wasted our money on something we don’t. It’s been a long road with a lot of lessons and a LOT of people calling us crazy, literally, but it’s been worth it. We are healthy, we are well-provided for, and we are tremendously happy, all because we were strong enough to become Furiously Frugal.