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.