tips from Miserly Moms

I’ve been reading Miserly Moms by Jonni McCoy this month. It’s one of the better practical finance books that I have read, and although it’s not my very favorite, I do recommend it.

One key point of this book is that being a stay-at-home mom (rather than working outside the home) may save more money than you would ever guess. I agree with this. It’s not the first time we’ve heard it or crunched the numbers, of course, but I would just add my voice to the testimonies of this book: In our experience, there is a tremendous amount of money saved by me being able to be home. Beyond the most important benefit of being able to raise our children how we want to, having extra time saves a tremendous amount on food, vehicle expenses, clothing, and all kinds of other variable costs. Even little things like having time to return unnecessary purchases or call a credit card company to question a fee can add up to quite a lot of extra money.

Here are three other principles from Miserly Moms that I found particularly helpful:

1. Chart Grocery Prices. I’ve been wanting to do this for a while but hadn’t figured out a good system. Jonni uses a chart with sections for each food item, and then next to that has columns for Average Price, A Good Sale, and Once in A Blue Moon. I haven’t done it yet… ugh, the work involved to do it the first time!… but I know it’s going to be really useful. For example, I know that 99 cents a pound is a great price for organic apples, but does Costco really have the best price per ounce for extra virgin olive oil, or would that be cheaper to buy through Amazon when they have a sale combined with Subscribe & Save on a certain brand? That kind of thing. Knowing for sure what the best price is in every situation would be a tremendous help to saving money.

2. Take Good Care of Your Teeth. As the author noted, this might be kind of an odd thing to put in a finance book. But it was a good reminder for me. I haven’t been taking the best care of my teeth since having children… it’s kind of easy to forget about things like showers and flossing when you reach a certain level of exhaustion… and the reminder of the costs of root canals (not to mention the long-term effect of bad teeth on a person’s health) really sobered me and gave me a renewed vigor for careful brushing and flossing.

3. Have Good Medical Insurance. I know that some people view this as a no-brainer, but we have never had medical insurance unless it was covered by work (so, for like six months out of almost seven years of marriage). Keith has been unemployed for the last three months, so now is not exactly the best time to add on a new expense, but I think that we will join up with Samaritan Ministries healthshare program in the next year or so. In general we are careful to seek out healthy food, avoid chemicals, take supplements, and use alternative remedies, but we are beginning to feel that it’s time for us to have a better safety net in case of big unexpected medical needs.

One last thing that I appreciated about this book… I can’t find the quote now, unfortunately, because I just returned the book to the library… was that Jonni clearly differentiated between frugality and being miserly. The point of being frugal is to live a better life. We still spend money on things that matter. It’s just that once you start being more careful in your spending, you realize quickly how very many things don’t matter.

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Published in: on March 29, 2011 at 12:40 pm  Comments (1)  

thoughts on groceries: buying in bulk

We are big fans of buying in bulk.

I lived half an hour from the nearest grocery store during my teenage years, and my parents bought nearly everything in bulk. We had two or three freezers full of meat, bread, and milk. The pantry was full of canned goods bought by the caseload during good sales. We even had a root cellar laden with six months’ or a year’s supplies of onions, potatoes, and carrots.

The benefits of having a lot of food on hand are far-reaching. Lots of ingredients means lots of supplies available for many types of meals. Having enough food to last a family for a month or two means that groceries take care of themselves if there is an unexpected shortage of time or money to buy more food. And perhaps most importantly, it means having the freedom to buy in bulk when the price is right.

Keith and I have used this same mentality in our years of marriage. In the college years, it meant something more akin to buying Mountain Dew and Shin Ramen in bulk. (Seriously!) Now that we live more than an hour from our grocery stores of choice, it means buying most of our nonperishables in bulk, and even some perishables as our family grows in size and in appetite. There are some extra considerations, though, and I’m going to delve into those a little bit here.

Costco is a fantastic source for cheap prices on many bulk items. Salsa, toilet paper, sundried tomatoes, hummus, onions, pesto, dried cranberries, frozen chicken, fruit leather, almonds, yeast, tomato sauce, dry noodles, spices, salmon patties, and plain yogurt are some of our favorite things to get from Costco. I think the savings in toilet paper alone probably makes our yearly membership worth the cost. The trick, though, is that not everything is cheaper at Costco. The salad mixes are a great deal, and so are a few other vegetables, but most of the fresh produce can be found elsewhere for a lot less. Lesson #1: Just because a store has a lot of cheap bulk items doesn’t mean that all of their bulk items are cheap.

Another consideration for us in our current living quarters is that we just don’t have that much space. This makes buying in bulk a lot more tricky. A two-month’s supply of feta cheese can fit easily in our freezer, but a three-month’s supply of chicken broth requires a bit more planning. We have to make sure that the amount we save on the items bought in bulk will make up for the fact that it will take up a large segment of our storage space. Otherwise, we would either end up with groceries spilling into our living space, or we would have to cut back on buying something else in bulk which would actually save us more money. Lesson #2: Don’t buy in bulk just to save a few cents, unless you have a lot of room for it.

A third consideration is whether having a certain item in bulk is a good idea. We can buy pesto in large containers, freeze it, and have it last a while because we only have pesto noodles once every other week or so. But what about something like ice cream? The last time I went to Costco (on a hot August day!), I very nearly bought a case full of delicious-looking chocolate-and-almond-coated ice cream bars. My rationale at the moment was that it would save us money on ice cream. But we usually only buy one quart of ice cream every few weeks. Had I brought home ice cream in bulk, we would have gone through it much more quickly, rather than reserving it for a special treat, thus costing us more. It is for this same reason that I don’t buy chocolate chips in bulk. I adore chocolate chips, and I will quickly eat through a ten-pound bag of them all by myself in one month. Tasty, but a big extra expense. And that’s not even to mention what it does to my waistline. Lesson #3: If buying an item in bulk causes you to consume it more quickly, it may not be worth buying in bulk.

There are exceptions to this, of course. When we buy broccoli or snap peas in bulk, we go through them more quickly than we would otherwise, because we want to eat them all before they go bad. This just means that we rotate these foods in and out of our diet. When we get sick of broccoli because we had to consume a bunch of it just before it went bad, then we don’t buy broccoli next time. I think it works out. The important thing with buying fresh stuff in bulk, though, is making sure we do consume it all before it goes bad; otherwise, it wasn’t worth the extra cost. Lesson #4: Don’t buy in bulk unless you will use all of the item before it is no longer useable.

I’ve mentioned Costco several times in this post, but only because it is our bulk store of choice. You can always buy in bulk at other stores when they have good sales. I tend to buy several pounds worth of items like tomatoes and avocados from Fred Meyer, because their daily low prices are lower than the daily low prices of Costco. Combining coupons with sales at Fred Meyer often results in much lower prices than I have found anywhere else. I have raised more than a few eyebrows by piling dozens of cartons of Pacific Foods soups in my cart when they are on sale, but the long-lasting value of great deals is well worth it. Lesson #5: When something you need is on sale, consider getting a lot more of it!

Some of our favorite things to buy in bulk are listed in this post, as well as some things which we purposefully choose not to buy in bulk. What about you? What are some of your favorite things to buy in bulk? What are some things which you have regretted buying in bulk?

Published in: on August 23, 2010 at 2:16 pm  Comments (2)  
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thoughts on groceries: using coupons

I still haven’t totally worked out my opinion about using coupons at the grocery store, but I am greatly inclined to agree with Trent at The Simple Dollar: using coupons often ends up costing you more money. If you base your grocery shopping around your coupons, you end up buying name-brand stuff that you didn’t really want that’s not on sale just to get $1 off, when really you could have bought the generic brand, a brand on sale, or something healthier for the same price.

I would absolutely love to be proven wrong on this, but thus far I have not been able to see a huge value in using a lot of grocery coupons. I followed one blog for about a year in which the author chronicled her weekly grocery shopping trips and how much she saved at the store. The reason I have not been inspired to follow suit is that the foods she ended up with were things like soda, chips, hot dogs, and lots of other stuff that really lacks in nutrition. She saves a ton of money every month, probably spending less than $50 total on groceries, and yet I can’t bring myself to feed my family that way. Like I’ve said before, we try to eat primarily organic foods, and our meals are usually based around fruits and vegetables. I find it more useful to buy cheap organic produce from Fred Meyer, cheap healthy chicken from Costco, cheap organic beef from independent farmers, and cheap organic grain foods (pasta, bread, rice) from Costco than to hunt down coupons for the less-healthy, higher-priced equivalents of these items at other stores.

That said, I do use coupons whenever they are applicable to me. Costco doesn’t accept manufacturer’s coupons, but they do have coupon books that come out every few months and I make it a point to use those. Parents magazine has coupons now and then for 20% off diaper orders on Amazon, so I am able to stack the subscribe-and-save with the 20% off to get Seventh Generation diapers for cheap. Fred Meyer often has in-store coupons as well as stackable brand coupons for things like organic cereals and pasta sauce, so I use those when available. Usually though, I just buy according to the sales, and I think that is working out pretty well for the kinds of foods we want to eat.

The one area in which I need to start seeking out printable online grocery coupons is dairy. I would really like to begin getting raw milk, but I have been meaning to do that for a while and for now we are still just buying expensive organic grocery store milk. I know there are $1 off coupons for that if only I could remember to find them. I get cheap healthy-ish yogurt and cheese from Costco, and pasture butter from Pilgrim’s or Azure Standard, but we haven’t been eating other dairy because I haven’t been able to find good prices for it yet. Maybe I should get going on that.

To differentiate grocery coupons from all other coupons, though, I should add that I absolutely love to use coupons in other areas. We use an Entertainment book or Restaurant.com coupons whenever we go out. I have begun using Groupon – carefully, though, to make sure that I don’t buy something I wasn’t already planning to buy. I click on eBates before buying things at most online sites; so far that has given us $49.90 in cash back rewards. I click on His Place Church before buying on Amazon, as a small fraction of what I spend then goes back to the church.

But back to the subject. That’s where I am at with grocery coupons. What about you? Have you found that using grocery coupons has saved you money without compromising your nutrition?

Published in: on August 20, 2010 at 11:37 am  Comments (4)  

thoughts on groceries: shopping every day

I’ve been rather slow in getting out my thoughts about shopping with coupons, so although I’m still meaning to get to that, today I’m going to share this article that I just read about buying your groceries European-style: www.wisebread.com/buy-your-groceries-european-style.

I used to shop much more frequently (and thus get more deals) before Rilla was born, but even with our favorite grocery stores being so nearby, it is utterly impractical to go shopping every day. Because most grocery sales last at least a week, I think once a week is an excellent way to ensure hitting most of the bargains, even if it means missing the most temporary of individual markdowns. If you know your local grocery store well enough and are really into finding the very best of deals, though, you may know what days and times are best for hitting marked-down bread, produce, meat and dairy products. You can always ask a grocer the best days to find these markdowns and plan accordingly.

I haven’t sought out the bargain fruits and vegetables for a while, mainly because of my pickiness in the area of buying organic, but in college we used to ask for the bargains in the back and could get a bag of use-me-right-away vegetables for a dollar or two. I still peruse the discounted bread rack, although it’s usually just to find something unhealthy for Keith as a treat.

Published in: on March 22, 2010 at 8:37 am  Comments (3)  

thoughts on groceries: buying organic

I first began buying organic food about four years ago. I had read enough about pesticides at that point to be convinced that there were a few produce items we really should be purchasing sans pesticides. At that time, Keith and I were college students who spent about $125 a month on groceries, and it was only with Keith’s encouragement that it was okay to go ahead and spend a little more to buy organic apples that I was able to begin making the switch.

As I have continued to do more research, it has become more and more worth it to us to buy more items organic. Today, I’d say about 70-80% of our food is certified organic. For the most part, each item has been a specific choice, and many are now a matter of conscience. The hormones injected into commercially produced livestock, not to mention the many tumors that must be cut from beef in order to make it fit for consumption, are something we feel are hazardous to our health and to that of our developing children, so we buy beef that has been raised without hormones and preferably pasture-fed. The hormones given to dairy cows are similarly frightening, so we opt for organic yogurt, cheese, and milk whenever possible. Free-range eggs have been shown to be far more nutritious than those laid by constantly-caged chickens who are fed only grain, so we feel the additional nutritional value more than makes up for the extra cost.

Genetically modified foods are not good for the human body, so we buy organic corn and soy products. Commercially-grown fruits and vegetables have been doused in varying amounts of chemical-laden pesticides, so we buy most of these organic. The list goes on. Some products, like bananas and avocados, have very low amounts of pesticides and thus we buy the standard varieties unless the organic ones are on sale.

I mentioned that our standard grocery bill during college, before we began to buy organic food, was about $125 per month. We had shot an elk, been given half a cow, and received bread products for free, so those factors contributed a lot to keeping our costs low. Today, we spend about $270 per month on groceries, not including vitamins. Obviously, our costs have gone up a bit, but we are ingesting a much better quality of food.

Although our food bill has increased, there aren’t a lot of items that we spend more money on than we would if we bought the regular version. It’s taken a while to work out a good system, but I have found that our local Fred Meyer has a great organic section, and unlike the organic section in many other stores or even the local organic foods store, there are truly cost-saving bargains to be found in the organic section. Organic cereal is normally $4.50/box, and organic soup is normally $4.00/box, but because of sales, I always get the cereal for $2.50/box and the soup for $2.00/box, sometimes less. I spend the same price – or less! – on organic oranges, apples, carrots, and so on as a person would spend buying the standard variety. I buy sprouted grain bread for $2.25/loaf, and although I can’t get it on sale, I feel that the quality of the bread and the additional nutrition it provides more than makes up for the extra price.

I toss these numbers out there not because I want to bore you to death, but because I am trying to get across the point that it really is possible to buy organic food without doubling your food bill. Sales, coupons, hitting the right stores, and knowing which items are most important to buy organic are all part of this. Organic dairy will probably always cost a bit more, but hitting it on sale can bring it a lot closer to the range of normal dairy products. Organic meat is priced astronomically if you buy it from a grocery store, but arranging a deal through a source like eatwild.com can bring the prices as low or lower than grocery store costs.

One of the best resources I have found in my quest to lower my family’s exposure to harmful pesticides is the pocket guide provided by the Environmental Working Group: www.foodnews.org/walletguide.php. This group has done a tremendous amount of testing on fruits and vegetables, and it gives me great peace of mind to know which produce is imperative to buy organic and which foods I can get away with buying in the regular produce section.

Another reference, one that I believe is crucial for anyone interested in buying safer seafood, is the pocket guide provided by the Monterey Bay Aquarium: www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/cr_seafoodwatch/download.aspx. I’ve read a good bit of solid research about why our seafood is so contaminated with mercury, and as a pregnant and nursing mother, it’s a matter of conscience for me to avoid contaminating my children with mercury as much as I can. This guide also shows which waters are overfished, and thus it is a small but important way for me to vote with my dollars and support ethical fishing practices only.

Although the information in this blog post certainly doesn’t fall under the “save as much money as possible” category, I share it because there are things that are far more important than money. I feel that it is foolish to pursue any sort of material goods if we aren’t first taking care of the most important material good that has been entrusted to each one of us – our bodies! I believe that it is worth the time and effort to consider the ways in which we care for ourselves, and that in turn has led Keith and me to the conclusion that it is also worthwhile to avoid genetically modified foods and pesticide chemicals whenever possible.

Published in: on March 2, 2010 at 11:25 am  Comments (3)  

thoughts on groceries: getting started

After Keith and I got married, my first job was working at a grocery store for six months. It was quite humbling to me at the time, as I felt that I was qualified for several better jobs in our small town. As it turned out, though, working in the Customer Service department at IGA was one of the most mentally challenging positions that I could have taken, as well as one of the most informative.

Looking back on it now, I am convinced that despite the low pay, working at that job has turned out to be a financial asset for us. Tasks like balancing the till sheets for the cashiers, forking out petty cash in return for small wins on lottery tickets, and processing UPS orders taught me quite a few small lessons. These included the futility of buying lottery cards unless you are quite lucky and have a well-tested method, the large profits made from superfluous grocery store items like flowers, and the benefit of sending many packages with UPS rather than the Post Office.

The most useful knowledge, though, came from just being in the grocery store on a daily basis. I suppose this is information that I would have learned eventually, but I’m glad I learned it early on in our married life. Simple as these points may be, just knowing them has made a huge difference in how I shop.

  • Sale flyers come out weekly. Thus, every Wednesday, I learned to check the flyers at both stores in town and compare prices to find the best deals. I usually purchased food from each grocery store once per week.
  • Most items are on a sale rotation. It is typical for items like spaghetti sauce to be on sale every 4-6 weeks. Instead of buying nonperishable items of that sort whenever I felt like it, I learned to wait until it was on sale and then stock up.
  • On the flip side, it’s important to know the standard price of an item. Buying something just because it’s on sale doesn’t necessarily mean getting a good deal. I occasionally discovered the hard way that the sale price at one store may be higher than the normal price at another store.
  • Saving money on one item doesn’t justify spending extra money on another item. I still have to fight the mindset that says “I saved $4 over here, so it’s okay to spend $2 extra over there.” If you want to save money, it’s crucial to view each item as an individual purchase. Doorbuster sales, the types that advertise $2 boxes of cereal for 12 hours only, are specifically designed to get the consumer to spend more on other items – like milk – which may be marked up. Resist the urge to spend more by just getting the good deals and leaving the rest.
  • Buying from discount stores, the kinds that advertise “always low prices” and few sales, may not save a person as much money as would buying only the sale items at certain higher-end stores. The ones with always low prices may have a section in the front with items sold at very low prices, which causes the consumer to assume that the rest of the store will follow suit. Usually, the rest of the store will be normal in pricing, but the very low prices at the front make a person want to stock up on everything else, too.
  • Although it’s great to buy what I want while it’s on sale, it’s not so great to buy something only because it’s on sale. I often refer back to common-sense questions like, “Do I want this? Did I want it before I came in the store? Would I spend this money on it if there weren’t a sale sign in my face telling me what a great deal it is?” If I’m not sure, I can always wait and come back later. If it’s still on my mind when I get to the checkout line or when I go home, it may be worth going back.
  • Knowing the prices of the items I put in my cart can save quite a lot at the cashier’s register. I have made it a habit to watch each item ring up, as it is not infrequent for them to ring up incorrectly. If I don’t get the chance to see each item ring up, I check the register tape and take it to Customer Service if there is a need to point out errors. Some stores are better than others when it comes to having items ring up correctly. The store where I worked typically had a pricing error every time I went through the checkout line.

It’s kind of silly, but something I started in my IGA days and still often do as I leave a grocery store is check to see how many bags I’ve received for the amount I’ve spent. My goal is always to have averaged less than $10 per full grocery bag. So if there are seven bags in my cart and I’ve spent $65, I consider it a successful trip and assume that I have shopped fairly frugally.

These are some of the foundational principles that I bring along on every grocery shopping trip. What about you? What do you bring along?

I’ll start digging into other thoughts on groceries in my next post.

Published in: on February 24, 2010 at 11:53 pm  Comments (6)