July 30, 2011

Couponing Resources: Part 2 - What is a coupon database?

In my last post on couponing resources, I mentioned how couponing has come a long way in the 12 years since I started.  One of those ways is by the availability of online coupon databases!  There are people out there who apparently sit down and input all the available coupons, from Sunday newspaper inserts, online printables, and other sources, into a searchable format for your free use!

First, let me point you to the ones I use, and then I'll explain a few scenarios in which you can benefit from them.

Coupon Mom Database - you have to log in, then choose your state or region (because different regions get different coupons) and you're ready to start searching!

Springs Bargains Database - not all coupons may be available in your region, but I sometimes find more printable coupons listed here than on the Coupon Mom one.

Scenario 1: You have made your grocery list for the week, and you want to save some money.  Go through your list one item at a time, and start searching.  If you need ketchup, you can either search for "ketchup" in general, or if you prefer only one brand, like "Heinz", search for that.  Once it brings up results, you will see either a link to a printable coupon website, or a description of where to find that coupon.  For example, it may tell you "7/31 RP".  That means you'll find your coupon in the July 31st coupon insert from the Red Plum company.  "4/17 SS" means it's in April 17th's SmartSource insert, and "11/6 PG" means it's in the November 6th Proctor & Gamble insert.

Now, I don't go clipping coupons until I need them.  Instead, like CouponMom suggests, I keep my inserts in order of date for reference when I need them.  For me, this saves time, and saves me sorting through a bunch of coupons I may never use when I need something.

Scenario 2: You saw in your store ad that yogurt is on sale, and your family uses a lot of, so you want to get a good deal on as much as possible.  You search for that yogurt brand's coupons, clip as many as you have, print some more available online, and you are ready to stock up!

Scenario 3: Your husband just ran out of shaving cream, and mentions he's going to stop by the store for more on his way home.  You don't want him to pay full price if he doesn't have to, so you do a quick search, clip the coupon, and hand it to him to stick in his wallet.  Voila!  (This actually happened to me recently.  I gave him a coupon, and he saw that the military Exchange was having a closeout on his brand of shaving cream, simply because, it appeared, they were repackaging the product.  Between the closeout price and the coupon, each can cost 65 cents!  Therefore, I clipped 4 more coupons for the product, sent him back for more, then asked my sister to mail me any she had, and sent him for still more.  He is well-supplied for shaving cream until the end of 2012!)

As you can see, having coupon databases available are a valuable resource in saving us money.  Without it in the past, I'd spend a lot of extra time going through all the inserts individually, or clipping all the coupons and organizing them in a categorized binder.  But this easier method and free resource really works for my life.  Hope it helps you too!

Click here for Part 3 - "Where Do I Get Coupons?"

July 29, 2011

Couponing Resources: Part 1 - Getting Started

I have been couponing a long time - about 12 years.  In that time, I've learned a lot, and a lot has improved.  I'm not an extreme couponer, though, and I don't want to be.  My goal is to buy what my family will use, and some extra for my church's food pantry.  Any more than that takes up more storage than I care to use, and also takes too much time out of my week to plan for/shop for.  That said, here are the resources I use most to find the deals I get.

If you are a beginner to couponing, I recommend CouponMom.com's tutorials here.  She has two video tutorials, and three printable tutorials, all for free.  Once you understand these basics, you will benefit from her list of deals for national chain stores like WalMart, Target, KMart, Family Dollar and Dollar General, as well as drugstore deals at Walgreens, CVS, and Rite-Aid.  She also has deals for some area grocery stores, listed by state or region. 

Next, you should check to see if there are people in your area who blog about coupon match-ups (when coupons that are available match with what stores have on sale, which means, sometimes, a great deal!)  I do that by going to becentsible.net's Store Deals page, where you can find bloggers for certain chain stores, or certain stores by your state.  Following these types of blogs will help you familiarize yourself with special coupon policies your local stores have, and restaurant and other store deals and events.  And because it's a blog, you can read other people's comments which include suggestions, questions, answers, and even sometimes when a store runs out of something.  My favorite local blog is http://springsbargains.com/ (the Colorado Springs, CO area).  It is truly the best I have ever seen.

Then, consider some of the national blogs for the scoop on free samples, rebates, printable coupons, facebook page deals, and more.  My favorites include:

Each one of these has a wealth of insider information, such as what coupons are coming in your next Sunday paper, giveaways and contests, recipes, and more.  One could spend a lot of time trying to go about getting every deal that is on these blogs, so it's easy to get sucked in.  I prefer to follow them on facebook, and when they post a new entry that I happen to see, I click on it if I'm interested.  Otherwise, I skim over it.

In my next article, I'll talk about coupon databases and how to use them.

Click here for "Part 2 - What Is a Coupon Database?"

July 28, 2011

Cleaning out the pantry cooking

Before I launch into a month of tracking how much I spend on a month's worth of groceries, I am getting a head-start now at cooking from my pantry.  Yesterday, I took inventory of what I have in our pantry, freezer and fridge, and typed all the ingredients into supercook.com.  I love that website!  Once all my ingredients are on the list, it searches recipes all over the internet and tells me all the stuff I can make.  So easy to use, and it saves me money by delaying my trips to the grocery store.  It also came in handy when we were planning to leave town on vacation, and will be very helpful when we prepare to move at the end of this year.

Our pantry has a hodge podge of ingredients, because since May 29, we've either been traveling (total days gone this summer = 31) or cooking theme weeks!  In between our three family trips, we chose a different cuisine and planned our entire menu that week around it.  One was Mexican, the next was Asian, and the latest was Italian.  There were a few special ingredients purchased for each one which weren't all used up.  Also, I've made at least two trips in the last 2 months to take advantage of combined sales with coupons.

From all that, I came up with a list of 8 things I can make from what we have on hand, so I have a week's worth of dinners planned already.  Those ideas go on a list on a piece of scratch paper onto my fridge.  My first shopping trip in August will probably be small, just milk and fresh fruit.  I have plenty of breakfast cereal and bagels on hand, and some waffle mix.  I have two loaves of bread in the freezer for sandwiches for lunch, although we sometimes have leftovers from the last night's dinner.  My garden is currently producing onions, green beans, swiss chard and zucchini plus basil, oregano, cilantro and parsley.  Our pantry/fridge/freezer includes:

alfredo sauce
american cheese
baking powder
baking soda
balsamic vinegar
barbecue sauce
bay leaf
beef steak
beef stock
brown sugar
brussel sprout
canned tuna
canola oil
cayenne pepper
chicken soup
chicken stock
chili beans
chili flake
chili pepper
chipotle chiles
chow mein noodles
coconut oil
cooking spray
cooking wine
corn syrup
cream cheese
dijon mustard
Dream Whip mix
Easy Mac
frozen pizza
fruit juice
garlic powder
graham cracker
green beans
hot dog
italian seasoning
maple syrup
mozzarella cheese
olive oil
onion powder
onion soup
Parmesan cheese
peanut bars (Nature Valley)
peanut butter
Philidelphia cooking cream (2 pkgs)
pie filling(cherry)
powdered sugar
ranch dressing
red pepper flake
red wine
refried beans
rice vinegar
roasted red peppers
sesame oil
sour cream
soy sauce
suddenly salad mix
sunflower seed
taco sauce
taco seasoning
tomato paste
tomato sauce
tuna helper
Uncle Ben's rice pouch
vegetable oil
vegetable shortening
wine vinegar

A week from now, we'll see what's left!

July 27, 2011

$400 a month for groceries? Let's find out.

    One morning, awhile back, we had a visit from a rep from a company that delivers various meats, vegetables, and other foods to your home.  They claim that they are much more affordable for the average American family than shopping at the grocery stores, and of course, they claim their quality is much better.  I don't doubt their quality.  It appears (from the samples he gave us for our time) that quality is very good.  However, it's the amount I would "save" by going with their plan over my current shopping habits I don't see.

    I would be paying about $285 dollars a month for 6 months in order to receive about 480 servings of main dishes, consisting of fancy cuts of steak, various entrees with chicken, pork, seafood, sausages, and pastas with sauce.  Also included are 52 packages of vegetables, 8 oz each.   Sounds yummy, doesn't it?  I'm sure it is.  However, there are several reasons why I don't think this would replace my grocery shopping or save me any money over my current spending.

    1.  Their menu does not include staples like milk, cheese, eggs and other dairy, breads or crackers, breakfast items (except sausage and bacon), beverages, condiments, any lunch foods (like peanut butter and jelly, lunchmeat, etc.)

2.  I would use all of their veggies up in 7 1/2 weeks.  I would have to add vegetables to my shopping list after that.  The other meals, if only used for dinners, would be gone in about 4 months.

3.  I currently spend about $400 a month on groceries to feed our family of five.  The salesman didn't believe me.  He calculated that it would mean my family eats for $3.33 per person per day.  He even made me doubt that I was telling the truth.

So, in August, I'm going to start keeping track.  We'll see how much I really spend on a month's worth of groceries, and how it really stacks up.  Now, I am a simple person, and I don't need fancy steak or special foods to satisfy me.  I can make a lot of things with ground beef and chicken and other basic ingredients.  Still, I'm interested to see, and to share, how I can stay within this budget and feed my family of 5.

July 23, 2011

Traveling Food

This summer, our family has been on three long trips.  The first trip was a family vacation to Southwest Colorado to explore parts we hadn't seen yet.  The other two trips involved catching up with our family and friends at our respective hometowns.  We knew this was going to cost a lot of bucks, between gas, hotels, and food.  So we did what we could to reduce our food cost by eating from groceries instead of at restaurants.  Here is what I learned:

1) Most Hampton Inns don't provide a microwave or fridge in the room.  Only a few provided a fridge.  The few microwaveable meals we brought along didn't get used.
- I had hoped we could check in to our hotel at each place, scope out what amenities the room had, then hit the local grocery, coupons in hand, to let everyone pick their food for their dinner.  This only worked the first night on the first trip.

2) Having picnics at town parks with playgrounds or at rest areas can be fun, as well as save a lot of money.
- This is the plan we executed most often, always at lunch.  I think there's something mentally acceptable to us all about having picnic-type food for the noon meal.
- There are several things I am glad we brought along for these picnics:  a picnic table cloth, clips to keep it attached to the table, disposable plates, zoopals and re-usable picnic utensils, napkins, ziploc bags, water bottles, bottle of dish soap, dish pan, scotch brite sponge, kitchen scissors, rubbermaid and ziploc containers, chip clips, wet wipes, and of course a cooler, armed with gallon-size ziploc bags to hold ice.  Most of this fit in a couple of cloth shopping bags which rode in the back of our van.
- Some of the food we bought or brought along and used included:  water-flavor packets (like Crystal Light), fresh fruit, yogurt, flavored rice snacks, chips, peanut butter, jelly in a squeeze container, mayo in a squeeze container, mustard, bread, deli meat and cheese, ranch dressing, carrots, green pepper strips, crackers, cream cheese, granola bars, bottled teas and juices.
- There are a few things I brought but didn't use:  small Tupperware microsteamer, spatula, can opener, small cutting board and a sharp knife.  

3) Clipping coupons and taking them along saved us some bucks.  Before we left, I clipped coupons for everything I thought we might possibly buy, including paper plates, dishsoap, napkins, chips, etc.  I had also stocked up on some of the above food we brought along using coupons at our local grocery when they were on sale.

4) At some point, you just get tired of eating picnic food and saving money.  One day we just gave up and hit a fast food restaurant, but the next day we were back to feeling able to eat from our stores.

5) The less junk food we pack, the less we eat, which makes us feel better as we travel.  I tried to pack lots of tasty fruit and veggies and healthy options, and avoided buying packages of cookies.  The fact that I had crystal light flavors we all like kept us from purchasing or drinking as much pop or other sugary convenience store foods.  There were a couple of times I really craved ice cream though.  :)

6) Downtown hotels don't tend to have free continental breakfast, but they do have a mini coffee pot, which means we can have hot tea and oatmeal made from the hot water.  We bought some tea, splenda, and instant oatmeal packets, and voila!  (Our downtown hotel was charging $10/day for wireless internet as well.  We enjoyed a sabbatical from internet access those days.)  Thankfully most of our hotel stays were ones that included continental breakfasts.  We really like Hampton Inn's with hot options, including Belgian waffles!

7) Some other ideas I discovered in internet searches that I want to try next time are:
- Take a can opener, a can of tuna, and mix together with mayo, mustard and relish for a refreshing tuna salad sandwich.
- Pita bread or tortillas filled with hummus and veggies, or meat and cheese.
- Potato salad or pasta salad purchased from local grocery as a side dish.
- Eating an entire meal at the grocery store deli or kitchen.  We did this when I was a kid on some vacations.  It's like a buffet, and can be less expensive than a sit-down restaurant, and has more healthy options than a fast-food restaurant.
- Buy a fully cooked rotisserie chicken and a loaf of french bread for dinner.

8) With daily availability of a microwave, we could have had so much more.  These ideas are great for extended-stay rooms or suites, or military families like me who will, in the near future, find themselves in the middle of a PCS move and who are getting tired of eating out:
- Steamfresh veggies from the freezer section
- Easy Mac (We did this one evening, but the hotel water we used made the pasta taste weird.  I should have used bottled water.)
- Pre-made BBQ pulled pork on buns.
- Pre-made taco meat on tortillas with cheese, tomatoes, lettuce.  (Kinda messy, but really good!)
- Tortillas, can of black beans, cheese = bean and cheese burritos!
- Microwaved baked potatoes.
- Canned soups (need to take along containers for heating)

So, overall, we did pretty well saving money on vacation food where we could stand to do so.  Maybe you've got some ideas for your next trip that can keep some of your cash where it belongs - in your bank account!