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Frugal Living In The Heartland

Money Makeover — Grocery Mindset Shift

Five Changes That Will Save Your Grocery Budget

Life is about change.  The one constant is that nothing is constant — or something like that.

We certainly have had our share of change around here. This summer is a perpetual soiree of change.  And the issue du jour is our groceries.  Deja vous.

You spend nearly 20 years developing a system for feeding your family, then it all blows up.  The two of us are experiencing a partial empty nest this summer, with #1 away and #2 here just half the days. There are changes in diets, changes in weather, changes in eating schedules.  I normally take these things in stride, knowing that I can make little changes to my grocery/meal routine to accommodate.  This summer is more challenging, though.

We’ll be going on vacation soon, and I really don’t want to have anything in the downstairs upright freezer when we go.  Because you never know when the power will go out in summer in Omaha!  That means I have really had to change my grocery buying lately. First off, we’re eating less, and fresher, but I’m still learning to change my eye and buy less.  Instead of two medium crowns of broccoli for four, I need one small one for us (but sometimes a medium, depending).  Instead of eating through a 10# bag of potatoes at 10 cents/#, we’re barely getting through 5# at 25 cents/#.  It’s a frugalista’s dilemma.  I’ve restrained myself from buying some super meat and veggie deals I’ve found.

The good news is that I’m spending a little less because I’m buying less; but I’m also buying better quality and fancier varieties than I have been, so it’s not a terribly big savings. The bad news is that when we return from vacay, I’m going to have to build back up my supplies and refill the freezers.  The good news is that there will be harvests around then, and seasonal produce will be quite affordable.  The bad news is the price of chicken will be sky-high by then.

The good news is that with #2 here only half the time through July, I don’t have to have so much on-hand.  The bad news is that I don’t know how to plan for that!  The whole way I meal plan is in chaos.  Which means my shopping is crazy.

And that is the crux of the matter.  The fact is, our grocery needs are in flux.   There’s a required mindset change that just keeps shifting!  If I’m going to keep grocery spending low, I need to have a handle on the whole thing, and I’m trying to grab the handle.  Here are five strategies I’m implementing:

1. Portion packaging.  I got lightweight portion bags, which are awesome.  I can pull out just as many pieces as I need, and the bags help prevent freezer burn.  Because they keep the chicken from soiling the main bag, I can reuse freezer/Foodsaver bags.  (I suppose plastic wrap would work just as well, but I didn’t get that free with coupons.)  I’m also looking at my Foodsaver with a different eye, watching the infomercials and getting ideas that I can use when I start refilling the freezers.

2. Buying the right amount, which I’m still working on.  I don’t like prepackaged produce, but maybe I could take a clue from the weights on those packages. Maybe I need to start weighing more carefully to get the right amount of produce.  I really hate tossing food gone bad.

3. Simplifying our menus, which kind of goes hand in hand with summertime, anyway.  A little grilled protein goes a long way.  Fresher ingredients need less embellishment.  The leftovers can then be used creatively in lighter dishes.  Think wraps, salads, and the like.

4. Not chasing deals!  Finding bargains, planning them into the budget, using them, yes.  But I found that uber-shopping to “do super deals” at Target or Walmart or any grocery chain, had me spending more than I needed, for more product than I need, since our household requirements have changed.  One month I went overbudget to “do the deal.”  I stopped cold turkey when I realized what I had done.  There are ways to feed my family well that are easier, cheaper and faster.

5. Where am I shopping these days?  Mostly Baker’s, Aldi and Trader Joe.  Baker’s is good for pretty good sales and great short expire markdowns.  Aldi is my budget go-to, and is now on my semi-regular route again, at least for the summer.  Trader Joe has some consistently good products on my regular list that are cheaper than Whole Foods.

So I’m spending less now, but it could get better.  I’m buying produce, dairy, and replenishing (not stockpiling) pantry items till vacay, and my spending has gone down about 20%, which is good.  I’ve budgeted for it to increase after we return from vacation, to take advantage of the harvest deals, and to allow for items I can’t pull from the freezer.

It’s going to be an interesting summer for the grocery budget.  Hopefully my intuition is right and I’ve planned accurately.  Honestly, though, who really knows just how high groceries will go?

 

As a side note: a friend told me NoFrills/BagNSave is eliminating price matching.  As you know, I don’t shop there anymore, but I did briefly look into it.  And I found nothing official.  The ad match policy is off their site.  But with their switch to an upscale format and rebranding as Family Fare, this does not surprise me.

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Money Makeover — May Success!

Woo Hoo!  We did very, very well with our May progress along our financial journey.

Not every spending category was a complete success, but we cut back in other areas to make up for those that required a little more.  We came in under budget overall.  The biggest over-budget area (about $50) was for Scouting, because DS#2 needed some items for his job as a camp counselor this year (those items are Scout-specific, and he will use them after the summer).  But our gardening spending was well below budget because of a deferred tune-up on the mower (which rolls over to June).  It all worked out.

Monies were transferred to our new local savings account, bringing our total in just a month and a half to more than the highest balance last year in our previous emergency mutual fund elsewhere.  It really does make a difference when it is easy to transfer the funds, and when the incentive is there for interest earnings.  Sure, it’s not buckets, but the rate is much better than “elsewhere.”  Some of the funds have been earmarked for upcoming dental work, property taxes, and more home repairs.  It’s good to see that account grow regularly.

Our giving was higher in May, because there was a third paycheck in May (because of every two weeks pay periods).  Taxes also increased relative to that.  Personal expenses stayed pretty much the same, otherwise, and we budgeted accordingly.  Thus the savings transfer.

We did make a deposit on some services, which we cancelled, but not before that check was cashed.  So we’re in the process of requesting it back.  For budget purposes, it was recategorized under miscellaneous after the cancellation.  If we don’t get it back, we’ve learned our lesson, and have still come in under budget.

But let’s hope I don’t have to unleash the flying monkeys, because I could very easily do so.

Our June budget is unusual for us.  #2 will be here sporadically, and I’m trying to use up what’s in the freezer in advance of our vacation, so the grocery budget is very low.  We have a window to replace, and items to get for said vacation.  And I will be sending another care package overseas.  Other than that, the budgets are very bare-bones.

So HOORAY for budget success!

What’s your latest budget victory?

 

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Having A Ball

I’m bouncing as I write this.  Literally.

Two years ago-ish, I had a “frozen shoulder,” which required visits to a very mean doc (whom I don’t visit anymore), and three months of “immediate” physical therapy.  I also purchased a yoga ball and other small items to help with my home efforts on the therapy front.

Physically, it was painful.  While the therapy was helpful, it was the constant work at home that I think really made a difference in my getting my shoulder back in working order quickly.  I would not have known what to do and what not to do if I had not gone to PT, that’s for sure, so it was mostly a good decision.  But financially, it was painful, too.  It was very expensive, which prices they would not disclose, saying my insurance would cover it.  I stopped the twice a week visits to Uber Expensive PT when I got the first shocking bill three months in, and paid off the thousands I owed (that was after my insurance coverage).  Meanwhile, I used the equipment I had to continue to work out both shoulders.

After the yoga ball had served its purpose, it sat in the corner of my room, all alone, getting dusted occasionally. When my folding desk chair broke again recently, the duct tape solution was pretty much worn out, and I needed another idea.  The yoga ball to the rescue!!

I’ve read over the years that sitting on one results in a good core workout, and can help posture.  I could use both of those assists.  The ball is now my new chair, and I can attest that balancing on it does provide a good core workout and does help my posture.  Another bonus is that because it is more of an effort to sit here at my desk, I sit here less often.  I’m up and moving, doing other things that need doing.  The ball doesn’t fold up, and certainly doesn’t fit my decor.  It is an awesome solution, though, and I’m keeping it.

The yoga ball I have is from Target two years ago and was on sale.  I’ve been told any yoga ball will do (mine is just the right height), and it should be inflated with an enclosed pump according to directions included with the ball.

DS#2 was not helpful in my thought process for this solution.  When I told him my idea, he said with genuine concern, “I hope you don’t pop it.”  Great.  For the record, it has not popped.

I’m so happy when a solution works out so well.  This might mean I look into exercise yoga.

How have you repurposed lately?

 

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Thank You for Your Service

Shamelessly pilfered from Facebook:

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We love our sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters who serve selflessly.  We honor the fallen, who laid down their lives for their friends.  It’s not a “happy” Memorial Day.  It is a day to remember, solemnly, the cost of freedom.

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Money Makeover — All of the Savings

I have been saving like mad this month.  I have found small, fun, and/or easy things to make our financial life healthier.  Let’s start sharing.

Electric bill:  OPPD invited us to participate in its AC Management Program, which is designed to save energy.  It has already saved us money, too.  They send an electric contractor to install a device which controls the running of the air conditioner (not the temperature, just the on/off switch) outside at the unit.  It doesn’t affect our warranty on the unit.  On up to 12 days per year, the device will cycle the unit at approximately 15-minute intervals (on for 15, off for 15), for 2.5 hours.  Yeah, we can handle that.  They credited our account for $30 within days of the installation, and we’ll get an extra $20 per year for keeping it installed.  Check out the info on the program and see if it’s right for you.

Groceries:  I’ve continued to get what we need, and stock up on dry goods only with what I can pay from the budget.  No more chasing “huge deals” for our family.  Our needs have changed drastically, and will evolve erratically over the next three to four years, anyway, so my shopping habits are evolving.  Since we’ll be taking a week-long vacation this summer, I don’t want to stock the freezers.  In case of any failure, we won’t lose much, and the water jugs will be fine.

Auto maintenance:  We have not scrimped.  But when my warning lights flashed a few weeks ago, and I couldn’t get an appointment for the Subs for two weeks, I was able to drive our third vehicle (which we’ve been saving for #2) and not rush into an unfunded repair.  Turns out, there was no discernible cause for the issue, and the mechanics expect the system got wet.  I don’t know why — we only had torrential rains for three to four days, and the flooding was minor.  ;)  The issue got checked as part of a mileage-based checkup, which was budgeted, so no extra cost there.  And using the smaller, fuel-efficient sedan, while very uncomfortable for getting in and out, saved gas.

(Why did I get a Subs and not keep driving the sedan?  The sedan is as light as a feather, and it became dangerous for me to drive it around town in ice and snow.  That particular year, we had six months with snow and ice.  I developed arthritis, so crawling in and out, and shifting gears, became painful.  #1 needed transportation to work and school at odd hours.  This is a workable situation for us.  We take the sedan out and about in cases like these, and to save gas in weather when we don’t need AC or heat.  It’s a great little car, a 1998 with 120K miles, but my requirements in a vehicle have changed.  Yes, it is frugal, when you consider everything.  Don’t judge.)

Entertainment:  We were able to attend a Storm Chasers game recently, for only the cost of a cotton candy.  Through DH’s work, a vendor supplied tickets, food and drink, and a VIP suite above first base!  We used the free parking area (a very short walk).  It was a beautiful evening that included good fellowship, food, and fresh air.  We really had a blast, and it was free!  Except that #2 wanted a treat, which was not unreasonable.

In preparation for our Grand Canyon vacation, DH has been walking and hiking often.  He uses that time to practice his photography skills on wildlife at local preserves and parks.  He’s also going out with a friend who does the same, and enjoying that time.  I should increase my walking, too.

We did go to a movie this month, but we ate first so we didn’t buy concessions.  Usually our movies are from Netflix, which keeps our entertainment costs pretty low.  I did increase the entertainment budget, to allow for date nights more often, but we’ve had time at home without #2, so we’ve made our date nights on the patio.  I don’t know if that will change much this summer.

Gardening:  I guess this is just delayed spending.  While there have been beautiful afternoons and evenings, a recent stupid hand injury has kept me out of the yard.  So no hauling 40# bags of mulch for me.  And I’ve been unable to dig up the stepping stones and re-grade that flower bed for drainage yet.  It needs to be done, but since I’ve had more time to observe the situation, I’ve figured out a more frugal and easier way to get that done, I think.  The weather has been so rainy on the weekends, we were lucky to get the lawn cut and to trim the bushes one afternoon.  But that will change, too, as we’re expecting a super hot and dry summer.

Stamps and shipping:  I am loving the online bill payments!  This experiment has been successful, and I will continue to pay bills electronically when I can.  I like that most accounts give me the option to pay the total balance or just the last statement balance.  When we sent a package overseas, I expected it to cost a huge amount, but using a flat rate priority box allowed me to cram that care package full with goodies from us and a church group.  Unfortunately, there were four pages of customs forms, but I got through that pretty quickly since the postal clerk explained it to me beforehand (and there are plenty of Internet sites with tips and tricks for this).

 

Bottom Line:  We’re doing pretty well, financially.  We’ve been good about staying within our budget in most areas.  I check Quicken daily, getting charged up about this progress.  While we are now finally at 10% giving, we seem to have all our needs comfortably met, with more than enough extra.  We’ll be able to sock away this month’s third paycheck into our local savings account.  That account is growing wildly, and we will be able to comfortably handle some big expenses coming soon.

 

Where have you been saving this month?

 

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Home Repairs: The Contractors

I promised to tell you about the contractors I used on recent home projects.  It’s been a revolving door of workers here at Chez CT, and more will be here before summer.

Our siding replacement was done by Done Right Home Improvements.  I have a neighbor in commercial construction who stopped by and admired the work.  That’s huge. I still wish it had been scheduled for later in May, instead of late March, but it was actually a blessing to have the distraction during a week when something else was happening.  The siding project kept my mind off the other issue (totally out of my control, but major) most of the time.  I’ve already recommended Done Right to a neighbor who asked who did the work.  Reasonable cost.  Super nice contractor (Jared) who went above and beyond to fix a nagging issue.

The painting of the new siding was done by Omaha Painting Company.  Beautiful.  Awesome price. Done in one day.  Troy and his on-site guys were really easy to work with.

The mudjacking of the front steps was done by Mixan Mudjacking out of Springfield.  I would have gone with the (very intriguing) high-tech product of the other “basementy” guys, but they have a minimum dollar job cost to do the work, and I needed one thing done, not several projects.  (A for effort on the upsell, though.)  The Mixan mudjacking process was so cool to watch!  It didn’t make a mess, and it took about an hour.  The Mixan guys were fun and informative, too.  Next time I’ll have them do the filling of the gaps that remain after the jacking, because my arthritis was not kind.  (Look for a post on that fun project soon.)

And there were the mice.  I think we’ve finally addressed the mice.  Brad at Advanced Pest Management is awesome.  Has been since the day I called him in tears about the flying ants infesting my bathroom.  The mice are not so awesome.  Disgusting, actually.  We’ve found a few areas where they were likely coming in, nesting, and dying.  Last week I cleaned them up (Shop Vac has been properly disinfected), caulked, Great Stuff-ed, sealed, etc.  And tonight we set the traps, because every once in a while we find another one.  Anyway, Brad comes out twice a year and we see very few bugs, usually when it’s time for another spraying.

USA Hoich Irrigation got our sprinklers started, and this year there were only two broken sprinkler heads.  The guy came right on time, and was done in an hour, repairs, startup and all.  Only thing is, someone has to be here because the controller is in the garage.  Still, the timing worked out great, and we’re set for summer.

So there you go.  Lisa’s List.  HA!  I’m having a chimney cleaner come out soon, and I think there will be repairs involved.  We’ve used one company a few times, so we’ll see how it goes again.

Just a reminder: get your AC check up before it gets too hot outside.  I’m setting up that appointment, too.

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Money Makeover — A Tight Month

Squeeeeeeek!  That’s our budget.  After a few months of comfortable expenses within the budget, we find ourselves up against budget numbers.  The age-old struggle, as they say.

Aside from paying for the siding, and the paint, and the mudjacking (all of which were budgeted and covered comfortably), we’re finding it a challenge to keep within the other set budgets.  We have four more days of month and we’re past our limits in some areas.  Not by much, of course, but $10 here, $20 there.

How did this happen?  Oh, I know exactly how!  We were under budget in so many areas for a few months, we got a little too confident in our spending.  My big spending was with the groceries and paper products, and that’s mostly what I do buy.  It’s a case of falling prey to marketing, but it’s all on me.

At the beginning of the month, I started hitting those “savings” blogs again.  You know the ones, that list every deal at the big box store, with links to coupon matchups and stacks.  Every. Single. Deal!  And I got sucked in.  I thought I was okay, and got things that I knew we needed for the month in the way of groceries and non-groceries. I used the coupons, got the gift cards, and used them for the next purchase.

But here’s where I failed: I got caught up in doing “deals” throughout this month rather than staying focused on controlling purchases.  I have to remember that when I stick with the process that has worked (for staying on budget), I stay the course and meet my goals.  But when I “spend more to save more” I go over budget and don’t meet my goals.  The stockpiling, that lifestyle, worked when my boys were younger, when life was busier, and when we didn’t really stick to a budget.  And the lifestyle certainly works for many people — I’m certainly not knocking it generally.

Things are just different for us now.  My stockpile is much smaller and is getting used. I have one less person (with an appetite of two) to feed.  It’s amazing how one less household member affects dynamics.  And, perhaps most impactful, I’m on a mission to really save, not spend.  Save by saving, not save by spending.

While this commitment to stay within the budget is fresh for us, we are mature enough to realize there is a huge learning curve.  This month’s budget is a little in the red, but overall for the year we’re doing very, very well.  The picture for the coming months looks beautiful.

As long as we can squeek by this month, we will do better next month.  The budget rules!

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Growing the Savings

Our savings is growing!  In less than a month, we have saved up half the value of our other emergency fund!  And the interest rate is higher, so that will compound.  I’m giddy!

With the opening of our new savings account (which we are using as another emergency fund), we have the ease of transferring funds immediately from our checking account. This is important because the thought of pulling out papers, writing a check, mailing it, etc. turns me off.  This is why I rarely added extra money to our other emergency fund.  But since now I can transfer so easily, so quickly, and with so much gratification, our situation has already changed dramatically.

This week, we received a nice-sized additional income deposit. It’s already been transferred to our savings, and our financial situation is looking so promising.

We’re keeping much closer tabs on our spending and sticking to our budget, and the extra is going right over to that other account.  Out of sight (the checking account balance), out of mind (compounding unencumbered).  And I must say that having a local account just somehow makes me feel more secure.  And I can go in and sit down with a real person if there is any question or issue.

That other EF just sits there.  We really don’t want to shut the account down.  The minimum I can have auto-withdrawn each month is $50, so that’s happening, and it will be a “forget it” kind of thing.  The balance is okay, but not enough to pay our property taxes, or anything substantial, just a basic minimum emergency fund.

Now, with the better-managed money, we aren’t making extra payments on our auto loans just yet.  The reason is that there is automatic withdrawal for the payments (the loans are at the same institution as our other EF).  Doing anything out of the “norm” is a real chore: there is no way to make extra principle payments, one-time or otherwise, on the loans.  So, as soon as we have enough saved to cover the payoff balance on one, we’ll be doing that.  I can see the payoff balance daily, so I know the goal.  Each month the balance goes down, and our savings goes up, and as soon as we can cover it….bam!  My goal is to knock that out within a year.  Totally doable.  But that will come after a few more big expenses later this year.

Right now I’m just focusing on that growing balance!  Every penny counts, and I’m counting every penny.  Soon they’ll add up to dollars.  With interest.  Upon interest.  Giddy again!

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What I Got For Free This Week

Yippee!  I got free groceries this week!  Not all the groceries, but some of them, and some other really great deals, too.

I’ve recently had to totally revamp my grocery shopping strategy, since my store of choice closed.  It’s been a real learning experience, that’s for sure.  And I’m still refining my ways, but I’m very happy with what I’m saving.  Here’s what I got for free or super cheap, and how I got it:

Lipton sparkling iced tea (lemon), a pear, and cole slaw — I knew that Baker’s had digital coupons and the weekly freebie attached to my rewards card, but I could never get the darn thing to work.  I took some time this week to figure out the BakersPlus.com site, change my bar code, and load digital coupons.  The iced tea was the Free Friday deal, the pear used a .50 DC, and the cole slaw was marked to .99 with a DC for Dole (which had to be entered manually, but it worked).

Another thing I like about my Baker’s card is that I get extra rewards points when I buy gift cards, as well as the groceries.  That gives me about .10/gallon discount once a month, which is really nice.  The gift cards are for upcoming gifts, as well as to restaurants where we will go for birthday dinners this year.

Yoplait yogurt, a grapefruit, bananas, and bread — Have you heard about the Checkout51 app?!  Weekly deals load on Thursday mornings.  If you buy the items among their deals, and scan in your receipt, you earn dollars.  When you reach $20, they send you a check! You can combine any qualifying purchases with sales, coupons, etc., and can upload as many receipts as you want each week.  The Yoplait was .40 with a .50 C51, the grapefruit used a .25 C51, the marked-down bananas (for smoothies) used a .25 C51, and the bread was .49 with a .50 C51.

Another bread — I won the Free Bread Friday on Country Hearth’s Facebook page several weeks ago.  I waited till the bread in the freezer ran out, then snagged a nice loaf for the guys with the coupon they sent me.

Cereal, lemons — I discovered the Cartwheel app by/for Target! This app offers discounts from 5% to 25%. You add the deals to your account (there is a limit), then the cashier scans your smartphone barcode and applies the discounts.  But be careful, because the computer does not always recognize and apply the deal.  Customer Service will take care of you, though.  Sales – Target coupons – manuf coupons – Cartwheel – C51.  My head is spinning.  Cereal big boxes 1.14/box. 3# bag o lemons (I use them often) = .31 each lemon (cheaper than Aldi).

I found lots of hamburger buns for .49 (going to Project Hope), cans of RTE chunky soup for .79 (also going to Project Hope), and a nice loaf of French bread for .39 (in the freezer).

And that’s just the food!

Glade auto spray refill — At Walgreen’s I got the Glade 4.99 – $2 manuf coupon, with $1.50 C51 and a $1 Register Rewards, which is effectively .49.  I need to remember, though, that they will only apply your rewards points (for dollars off) when you ask them to.

Purex detergent — Target sale 3.99 – $2 manuf coupon – Cartwheel = 1.59.

As you can see, I’m venturing back to Target, even after “the incident” that upset me so. (Forgiveness.)

I’m heading to Walgreen’s, too, but I’m still finding that the shelves are bare of deal items, so I have to prepare myself to be disappointed each time I go.  For that reason, I only stop there when I’m passing by on other errands.

I even stepped into HyVee this week, for the yogurt and grapefruit.  I need to explore more deal-doing opportunities there.

However, I’m finding that now (as opposed to a handful of years ago when I did the deals routes regularly) the deal-gettin’ is rougher.  So many of us are savvy consumers, hitting the deal blogs, and snatching up the coupons (print and digital).  No matter how well I prepare, there is always a minor issue with missing stock, an unavailable coupon, a product limit or what have you.  Well, it’s only a grocery deal, not the end of the world!

I’m proud of me, too, with regard to my buying habits.  I’m only getting what I know we will use, turning down “deals” more regularly.  There was a time when I had waaaaay too much product in my house.  Then I would end up complaining and donating a bunch.  Well, I’m buying my donations separately these days, still getting great deals for that, and planning that into our budget.  So it doesn’t sit around here for more than a week, and it’s planned giving.

Through all of this shopping, deal-doing, and scooting around, I’m constantly reminded of the Daily Bread we receive.  Not only food for our bellies, but everything.  All that we have is not ours; we are only stewards.  This is why I’m so happy when the budget is met, and the dinners are fixed, and the donations are delivered — His Will is done. So the best free things I got this week were His continued grace, comfort, strength and guidance to do that Will.

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