August 31, 2011

Day 31: $400/month budget project

So I didn't stay in my budget, but there are a few pros:

- This is the first time I have actually tracked my grocery spending for a whole month.
- Some of what I bought with my budget went to charity.
- Some of what I bought I am still going to be using a few days into September.
- Paying attention to what I spend has helped me recognize where I can improve.
- I did come pretty close to my budget.

On the flip side:

- I didn't take the time to plan shopping trips and coupon saving every time I went to the store.
- Some of my trips to the store were to the nearest or most convenient for my errands, though not the lowest-priced store.

So there is room for improvement, but I'm happy with the realization that I can at least come close to my budgeted amount. 

Next month, I will track my grocery spending again, but instead of blogging about every trip, I'll do a summary at the end of the month.  We'll see if I can actually improve on August's results.

August 24, 2011

Day 24: $400/month budget project

Yeah, back to the store again after 4 days.  Call it poor planning, busyness, or whatever.  I needed some ingredients to round out a couple meals based on what I want to use up in my freezer.  This time I got everything for the rest of the month, and probably a few days into September.  I also got a few impulse buys.  I saved a lousy $5.15 in coupons today.  Didn't have the time to search for more.

Total for today:  $123.28
Total for August:  $450.82

I went over my $400/month budget.  I think it is possible to do, though.  If I'd had time for better planning of meals, coupons and sales, and shopping at the store with the best prices over the few trips to the nearest store for convenience, it would have made a difference.

August 20, 2011

Day 20: $400/month budget project

Back to the store again for more food.  Not bad, going 8 days between grocery trips.  I saved $10.50 in coupons. 

My receipt also informs me that I saved $23.27 with club card savings.  Truthfully, I don't put much importance on that, because it just means some items I bought were on sale from the store's normally overly-jacked-up prices.  I probably would have saved even more if I had time to go to my usual store, but this time I went in favor of convenience for my schedule.

Total for today:  $87.30 
Total for August so far:  $327.54

I don't have much left for my $400/month budget, but we'll see how it goes!

August 15, 2011

E-mealz is one amazing tool!

I just have to rave about the E-mealz menu plan!  A few months ago I finally subscribed to it for 6 months after trying out the sample menus and discovering that their recipes were not only good, but also very simple to make!  My family (husband and three small girls) almost always likes every part of the meal.  The ingredients are often basic - not the ones that are hard to guess what part of the store they'll be in and what the package looks like. 

Now, I'm a good cook, and I like to try new things, and I sometimes like to make my own menu plan based around recipes I want to try, or old favorites our family enjoys.  But when life gets busy, we need groceries, and I don't have time to put a meal plan and grocery list together, it's great to have it all planned out for me.

The menu plans they have vary widely.  You can find plans to cook for 2, or for 4-6.  They can be plans to match the sales of a particular store for that particular week, or plans to fit any store.  They can be regular, low-fat, gluten-free, low-carb, portion control, or vegetarian.  All the menu plans keep your cost down by giving you everything you need for a week of dinners on one shopping list that is less than $90 (4-6 family) or $40 (2 family).  I have found that with our family of 5, three of which are young children, we often have leftovers to send with my husband for lunch the next day.

I highly recommend this for busy parents.  At only $5/month, E-mealz is a great bargain to save you money and time and provide your family with delicious home-cooked meals!

August 12, 2011

Day 12: $400/month budget project

Finally got to the commissary for all the stuff we were running out of, plus all my groceries for 7 E-mealz, and a bunch of deals I wanted to get with my coupons.

Total for today:  $157.73
Total from 8/10 to get a giant jug of OJ:  $5.94
Total for August so far:  $240.24

By the way, I saved $38.57 in coupons with this trip.  I expect I can get more than a week out of what I bought today, which will leave me with one more big trip to the store to finish out the month.

August 06, 2011

Day 6: $400/month budget project

Sent my husband on a quick trip to Safeway for a few staples and salad ingredients to take to a friend's house.  It's been a busy week, but not having to cook dinner M-F helped a lot.  Planning a big shopping trip for Tuesday to get all of what we need for a week's worth of groceries.

Today's expense: $9.34
Total August expense: $76.57

August 03, 2011

Couponing Resources: Part 5 - Plan Ahead to Max Your Savings

Now that you can start amassing large (or small, yet strategic) amounts of coupons, let's get really practical.  After years of couponing and going from one extreme to another, I now coupon with two basic principals.

1) The best way to save money is not to spend it.  My point?  Don't let coupons get you to buy stuff you don't need or really want.  Be careful the coupons and their accompanying ads don't just act as commercials do and urge you to get a product you don't really want.  Think carefully about whether it's something that fits your health, lifestyle, quality expectations, or even if you really need it, as the company would like to convince you that you do.  Don't get sucked in just because it's new or because there's a coupon for it.  Buy only what your family needs or what you can donate to charity.

2) The best way to shop is efficiently.  If I can get the groceries I need in one trip to last my family for a whole week, that saves me time and gas money in going again until next week.  So I do some planning ahead.  I plan my main meals and make my shopping list to be sure I have all the ingredients.  I think ahead to any breakfast or lunch ingredients we need.  I consider staples like bread, milk, cereal, etc. and add those to the list.

Also, in the area of efficiency, if you have one or two main stores you shop at regularly, it's worthwhile to make a shopping list customized for the floor plan of that store.  I have one for the military commissary that is categorized from Produce, to what's in aisle 1, 2, all the way to meat, dairy, frozen, etc.  Having a heading with blank space on your list makes it easy to add ingredients under the proper places, so when you get to the store, you can go efficiently through the store and get things in order, up and down the aisles, without having to wander back and forth (like I do when I'm not organized)!  So if you can type and save a template as I describe here, just print out one and have it on your fridge, and grab it when you get ready to meal plan.  It saves a lot of time and headache, (especially if you're bringing small children along.)

Now that you know what you need, it's time to go through your coupons.  Start by checking your coupon box for any coupons for items on your list.  Check a coupon database (Part 2 discussed this) next, for printable coupons, and for coupons in your collected inserts which you may not yet have clipped.  As I gather my coupons, I put them in an envelope labeled with the store's name (the envelope is re-usable for several weeks) and also mark a little "c", which I circle, to note that I have a coupon for that item.  That way, while shopping, I can double-check the requirements of the coupon and make sure I meet them (i.e. the coupon may require a certain size package, or more than one package).

Once I'm satisfied that I have checked for any available coupons, I usually have anywhere from 5-20 coupons ready to use that I didn't have before, and this can save me several dollars at the checkout.  This type of planning takes time, but the rewards are worth it - you're saving money and time at the store!

August 02, 2011

Day 2: $400/month budget project

Spent $61.27 at WalMart today on groceries, children's vitamins and paper towels.  We had run out of some staples, so the trip was a necessary stop on our way home from a playdate at the park.  I did save $14.62 in coupons today.  Two were for free items (one Herbal Essence product, one Pantene product) that I had mailed to me from those companies' promotions, either on Facebook or elsewhere online.  I forget.  The things I didn't have coupons for, I compared prices and mostly chose generic, except for paper towels.  I figure I could either buy the brand I know is good quality and pay a little more, or buy the generic, which, with past experience, I know I end up using more because of the poor quality.

August total: $67.23

Couponing Resources: Part 4 - How I organize my coupons

There are lots of ways to organize coupons that I've seen.  When I first started, I clipped every single coupon and organized it in a zippered, 3-ring binder, filled with empty clear, plastic baseball card holders.  Keeping up with it all was a full-time job, and not worth the effort.  Half or more of the coupons never were used, so my time clipping and organizing them was wasted.  Here is what works for me in my now balanced approach to couponing that works in my real life.

As I mentioned before, I leave Sunday inserts intact.  (The exceptions are when I see coupons for something I know we will use, or something particularly high in value, and I want to have it ready on my next trip to the store, or be sure I don't forget about.)  When I get the Sunday paper, I pull out all the coupon inserts, grab a pen, write the date clearly on the front of each insert, and file the inserts into my hanging file-folder case, where each folder is labeled for a month.
This makes it easy for me to pull an insert out and find the coupons I need for a particular sale or item on my list.  It also is easy for me to store in an out-of-the way place in my house, while still easily accessible.

My clipped coupons get organized in a 12-section organizer like this:
I think these are called "check organizers" or something.  And it used to have an elastic fastener to keep it closed, but that broke off awhile ago.  Anyway, my coupons are sorted in the following categories:

- The front section is where I put coupons I'm about to use on my next shopping trip.
- Produce
- Health/Beauty
- Paper/Cleaning
- Snacks, Crackers, Cookies, Candy
- Cereal, Breakfast
- Juice, Tea, Drinks
- Ethnic, Soup, Canned, Spices, Instant
- Baking, Condiments, PBJ
- Bread, Butter, Meat
- Dairy
- Frozen
- Restaurant

I came up with the categories, then put them in this order by the general layout of the store where I most frequently shop.  Any coupons I have clipped, printed, or gleaned from other sources go into this organizer.

About 1-2 times a month I go through and discard expired coupons.  Often, when doing that, I come across coupons I forgot I had, and make a plan to use them on my next shopping trip if it's something we want or need.  This is what I have found works well for me.  Feel free to use my ideas, or modify them to fit what works for you.

In my next post, I'll talk about how I plan to maximize my savings before going on a shopping trip.

Click here for Part 5 - "Plan Ahead to Max Your Savings"

August 01, 2011

Day 1: $400/month budget project

So it's August 1st, and I am beginning to track our spending to see if we actually spend $400 or less on groceries.

I am going to have an easy first week, because our church is having VBS, I'm volunteering, and therefore I am elgible for free dinner for my whole family!  I don't consider this cheating on my budget.  I consider it a reward for my time in volunteering.  Actually, getting involved in your church or community is a great way to save money.  Whether it's a free meal or a pot-luck, you have the chance to save money on groceries AND spend time getting to know people better.  That's what I call a 2-for-1 deal!

So I don't plan on cooking any dinners until Saturday, which means we won't need many groceries, if any.

Our breakfasts will come from what we already have on hand:  bagels, toast, oatmeal, cold cereal, milk, juice, jelly, honey, butter, fruit, eggs, bacon, sausage, waffle mix, pancake mix, and leftover waffles in the freezer from the last time I made them (which go in the toaster, and taste yummy with peanut butter).

Our lunches, also from what's on hand, will include Easy Mac (sometimes I add chopped lunchmeat or steamed veggies), carrots/celery with ranch dressing, hot dogs, PBJ sandwiches, deli meat sandwiches, leftover pizza, and maybe tuna salad sandwiches.  My husband willingly takes a packed lunch to work whenever it's feasible with his schedule.

We did make a trip into the store last night for a couple jugs of OJ, which I will count toward August's expenses, even though technically it was purchased in July, but we didn't start using it until August.  :)  So, my total expense so far is about $6.00.  (I'll get the exact figure later.)  (Update: it was $5.96.)  And no, I didn't have any coupon with me.  It happens!

Couponing Resources: Part 3 - Where Do I Get Coupons?

In order to use coupons, you obviously have to have coupons.  Well, there are dozens of ways to seek out the coupons you most want and need.

First of all, since many of the suggestions in this post involve signing up for a free membership to a website, I am going to recommend that you get yourself a "junk e-mail" account.  Get a free e-mail from Hotmail, Juno, Netzero, or something else that is different from your regular e-mail.  This keeps your regular e-mail inbox from getting cluttered with advertisements.  Some of the e-mails may be valuable in saving money, and might be worth your time reading when you want to, but you don't want or need this constant barrage interrupting your regular life.  

Here is my approach to getting coupons:

Subscribe to your local Sunday newspaper.
- I don't bother with the whole week subscription, as I don't read the paper anyway.  My paper offers Saturday and Sunday as it's smallest subscription, so that's what I get.
- If you can find a discounted deal on your subscription from a door-to-door salesman, or by phone, or at stores when they're handing out free papers, you're saving even more money.  I consider my payment for the newspaper an investment.  If the cost of the paper is less than the value of the coupons it contains, I am money ahead.
- If you have a larger metro area which has a newspaper delivery available (or purchase at a local store), I recommend getting that as well, because often, they will have more coupons in their inserts, and possibly higher value coupons on the same products.  When I lived in rural IL, I sometimes was able to find the Chicago Tribune's Sunday paper, which was always a great investment for the coupons it contained.
- Find a schedule online,like the one HERE, which tells you which Sundays will not have any inserts included.  Then, get online or on the phone and suspend your paper's subscription for that weekend.   You can usually choose to extend the length of your subscription one week longer in this case.  I'm grateful to Springsbargains for this tip, as well as for reminders that they put out as those "no inserts" weeks come along.

Visit online printable coupon sources.  Here are some major ones:
SmartSource - Type in your zip code; On the page it takes you to, click on "Coupon Gallery"
RedPlum - Click on "Grocery coupons" or "Drugstore coupons"
Betty Crocker
EatBetterAmerica - (This is also a great recipe source!)

Ask companies for coupons.  
- You can go to a product's website and find their contact info, let them know you like their product or would like to try it, and request coupons.  Include your mailing address and e-mail address, and they may e-mail or mail you coupons.  I did this with Quilted Northern, and they sent me 5 coupons for 50 cents each. 
- CouponMom has a list of companies to try here.  This could keep you busy for an afternoon, but net several dollars in savings 4-8 weeks from now.

Watch for free sample requests online:
- Often, if you get a free sample by mail, it includes coupons for that product also.  Some free samples come in the form of a coupon redeemable for a free item.
- Keeping up with some of the savings blogs mentioned in my previous post will alert you to available free sample.

- Many companies have their own Facebook pages.  Often, they'll offer coupons.  Brainstorm the products you use, you like, or you want to try.  Search for their Facebook page, "like" it, then see if they have printable coupons available.  Keeping up with savings blogs, as mentioned above, will also alert you to these Facebook coupons and free samples.

Peelies, Blinkies, Tearpads, In-Store Booklets:
Whenever you're shopping, keep your eyes open for coupons in the store:
- Peelies are stuck to the product.  If you're going to buy it, peel it off before putting it in your cart so you don't forget to use it at checkout.
- Blinkies are the ones that come out of "blinkie machines" that usually have one coupon sticking out for you to pull, then it spits another one out.
- Tearpads are usually attached to the shelf near the product it's for.
- In-Store Booklets could be near the entrance, in the produce section, in the dairy section, (in any section, really) or at customer service.  These may contain store coupons or manufacturer coupons, or a combination of both.

Store Ads (from your newspaper, or at the store):
Some grocery stores not only have sales, but store coupons as well.  Occasionally they will include manufacturer coupons.
Note:  If you recognize the difference between store coupons and manufacturer coupons (usually clearly indicated on the coupon) you can sometimes use one of each on the same product, depending on your store's policy.  For example, if you have a manufacturer's coupon for 25 cents off a bottle of Heinz ketchup, and your grocery store has a store coupon for $1.00 Heinz ketchup, you very likely can use both coupons and pay only 75 cents for your ketchup.  Pay attention to the size requirements, and limits on how many the store allows per coupon.

Electronic Coupons
These are coupons you can "load" to your store's preferred card, and if all works correctly, your savings will be automatically deducted at checkout.  It hasn't worked foolproof for me all the time, so I recommend paying attention.  I don't often use this because I have had spent a lot of time with customer service to retrieve the savings that didn't automatically come off when it should have, and because I can usually get the same savings more tangibly with a physical coupon.  This method may improve, however, with time.
Also, check your grocery store's website for it's own electronic coupons.

All of this can net you a bazillion coupons.  You probably don't need that many.  The more coupons you have, the more you have to organize.  So be choosey.  You don't want couponing or saving money to take over your life.  I recommend spending a minimal amount of time collecting coupons, and learn to get only what you will really use.  Start gradually, and find what works for your lifestyle without letting it become an obsession.

In my next post, I'll talk about how I organize my coupons.

Click here for Part 4 - "How I Organize My Coupons"