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Archive for the ‘Budget’ Category

Online retail coupons

It was not too long ago that I never used coupons. Now I’m a giddy couponing fool. For the most part my coupon use has been confined to grocery stores and drugstores (which I wrote about here and here). I do use coupons for Bed Bath & Beyond and occasionally for Kohl’s, but that’s mostly because they just show up in our mailbox and I don’t actually have to do anything to get them. Also, despite having expiration dates printed on them, Bed Bath & Beyond coupons don’t expire so I just put them in a drawer and grab them when I’m heading over to the store.

This weekend, Mark and I decided to buy some new clothes for Charlie. In theory the weather around here will start getting cooler soon (although you’d scarcely know it by the never-ending summer we’re having) and Charlie has outgrown most of his pants and long sleeve shirts from last season. We decided go to Old Navy to see what they had to offer in Charlie’s size. Inspired by a recent Kohl’s trip where I saved a ton of money on clothes using a coupon they’d sent in the mail, I did a quick Internet search for “Old Navy coupons” and found several options. The first was $10 off a purchase of $50 or more that I found here. The second was for 30% off a single item that I discovered here at retailmenot.com. I printed both and off we went. Old Navy had great options for clothes for Charlie and we ended up with about 7 or 8 items. The two coupons I printed couldn’t be used in the same transaction, so I took one of our more expensive items and bought it with the 30% off coupon, and Mark bought all the other items with the $10 off coupon. We ended up spending $56 and saved $14.50.

In addition to retailmenot.com, there are lots of different sites that offer printable retail coupons as well as discount promotions that you can use when ordering online. Here are just a few I found recently (as well one site I just happen to be aware of since I know the guy who runs the site): ultimatecoupons.com, couponclock.com, myretailcodes.com, and fatwallet.com.

Do you have any recommendations for how to get retail coupons? If so, do tell!

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The All You grocery challenge ended this past weekend. As you probably remember, the challenge for contestants was to spend just $25 per family member per week on groceries for a total of four weeks. The winner will be given a $1000 grocery gift card. Since we’re a family of three, we had just $75 per week to spend over the past four weeks (you can read about our experiences with weeks one through three here, here, and here). This past week, the fourth week, we spent $73.93.

The next step for the contest is to fill out their “exit form” and submit it for my chance to win the grocery gift card. The exit form actually asks some interesting questions, so I thought I’d share with you my answers (some of which I’ve expanded further for this post). Even if you don’t wish to subject yourself or your family to a strict weekly food budget, maybe you’ll find some of what I’ve learned over the past four weeks useful for your shopping. So here are the All You exit form questions along with my answers:

Question 1: How much money did you spend each week?

Week 1: $71.58

Week 2: $71.71

Week 3: $73.89

Week 4: $73.93

Question 2: What creative strategies did you use to save money?

1) I shopped at different grocery stores based on what was on sale at each. I regularly check this site called Madame Deals where, from the home page, you can click on the icon of your favorite grocery store and/or drugstore and they will show you all of the items on sale at that store for that week (there are lots of other websites like this if Madame Deals doesn’t follow the sales of a grocery chain near you). They even tell you when a sale item can be combined with a coupon either from a recent newspaper insert or from an online source (and they provide a corresponding link to the online source). Last week I checked out Madame Deals for Kroger sales. Kroger is a grocery store in my area but I don’t normally shop there (another chain, Harris Teeter, is more conveniently located for me). I thought it might be worthwhile just to see what Kroger had on sale. Well, Kroger was having a fantastic sale on a bunch of items we normally buy so I made a shopping list based on their sale items, gathered my corresponding coupons, and went over to Kroger and instantly joined their frequent buyer program. I saved a ton of money on groceries during that trip (my receipt said I saved a total of 55% off the regular, retail price). In addition to checking weekly sales at large chain grocery stores, I also subscribed to an email newsletter from our local co-op. Each week they send me a list of their sale items. They also recently sent me an invitation to take a 15 minute online survey for which they gave me a coupon for 10% off my entire purchase of items at their store.

2) I shopped for some groceries at drugstores. Buy watching for sale items at drugstores, I discovered that I could sometimes get food items there for less money than what I’d pay at the grocery store — snack items and cereal are often less expensive at the drugstore, especially if I use the drugstore’s rewards program combined with manufacturers’ coupons. I also used CVS ExtraCare Bucks and Walgreens Register Rewards that I earned through toiletry purchases to buy groceries for very little money.

3) As much as possible, I prepared dishes based on items we had on hand, making substitutions in recipes when necessary. Allrecipes.com has a great tool at the top of their home page that allows you to search for recipes based on ingredients you already have (it even lets you input ingredients you DON’T want included in the recipe search). Allyou.com (the sponsors of this grocery contest) have a convenient list of recipe ingredient substitutions. For example, if you’re out of half-and-half, they tell you how to use milk plus unsalted butter instead.

4) I used a lot of manufacturers’ coupons and tried to maximize my coupon savings by combining coupons with store sales as well as using coupons at the grocery stores that offer to double the face value of each coupon.

5) I made some dishes in bulk so that I could bring them to work for lunch during the week. The first two weeks of the contest I made huge pots of soup and the second two weeks of the contest I made hummus using an inexpensive package of dried garbanzo beans.

6) I froze some leftovers instead of putting them in the refrigerator. Freezing leftovers means that when I don’t feel like cooking and there isn’t much to eat in the fridge, I have a meal ready to go in the freezer. Freezing leftovers also means that I don’t have to have the same meal more than one day in a row – I can space out when I eat the meals so as not to grow tired of them.

Question 3: What healthy strategies did you use?

1) I gave a lot of consideration to when it was worth the extra money to buy organic foods versus when I could save money by not purchasing organic. When we started this contest, my friend Trish asked if having a limited food budget meant, for example, “no organic milk.” Well, the answer is sort of. Using organic milk as an example, I bought organic milk the weeks it was on sale and didn’t the weeks it wasn’t. The sale price of organic milk was still always more than the regular price of non-organic milk. However, spending a little bit more on organic milk (on sale) was worth it to me, especially when I knew I could save money on other food items that didn’t matter as much to me whether they were organic (like cereal).

2) We ate less meat than usual and more vegetables, beans, and whole grains. This was a natural switch since we had pre-paid for our CSA vegetables and we had 11 pounds of whole wheat fusilli pasta on hand before the contest began.

3) A hard-boiled egg (or two) made for an inexpensive, protein-rich snack at work.

4) Water substituted for a lot of other beverages.

Question 4: What did you learn from this challenge?

1) We can eat for $75 a week which is quite a bit less than what I had become accustomed to spending at the grocery store.

2) Having a well-stocked pantry is essential to staying within a weekly food budget. When we ran out of common pantry items and had little money left in the weekly food budget, it felt disheartening.

3) The occasional splurge on a really coveted food item makes it a lot easier, psychologically, to eat inexpensively at other times (it’s sort of like dieting in that way).

4) In order to be really successful at staying within a food budget all members of the family have to be supportive of the budget. (Uh, have I thanked you for the past four weeks yet, Mark?)

5) For us, it makes more sense to make several smaller trips to the grocery store during the week than to do one large shopping trip per week. When we try to do one big shop, we tend to overestimate how much food we’ll need for the week. If we make smaller trips every 2-3 days, we only buy what we know we will want to eat over the next couple of days.

6) In order to take full advantage of sales, it may be easier for us to keep a monthly food budget rather than a weekly food budget. Having a weekly budget isn’t as conducive to “stockpiling” items as is a monthly budget. So, for example, if cheese is heavily on sale at the grocery store, on a monthly food budget I’d be inclined to use the sale to my advantage by buying enough cheese to get us through the month (or until cheese is on sale again). On a weekly budget however, I may not have enough money to buy several packages of cheese and still buy the other groceries I need for the week. This realization about implementing a monthly budget rather than a weekly one is probably the most useful thing I learned by doing this contest.

7) I don’t think I’ll put this one on my All You exit form, but something else I learned by participating in this contest is that sometimes it’s better for family harmony to ignore the budget. I’d like to say that Mark and I just sailed right through the four weeks of this contest. We didn’t. By having a firm $75 weekly limit on our spending, we felt at times like we were really constrained. We had some tense moments regarding decisions about food purchases and, frankly, it’s pretty toxic to a relationship to argue about how to spend a few dollars.

So that’s it. Do you have any good tips to pass along to keep grocery bills in check? Are any of you inclined to try spending just $25 per week per person on groceries? Do tell.

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The contest continues

Saturday ended the third week of the four-week grocery contest sponsored by All You. As you may remember, the challenge is to spend just $25 per person per week in groceries for those in your household, all for a chance to win a $1000 grocery gift card. Weeks one and two passed by without too much trouble and I even figured out some tips to help keep our grocery bills down. This third week we spent $73.89, which is basically in line with the $71.58 and $71.71 we spent in the first two weeks. However, this week seemed a lot tougher to stay in our budget. In fact, due to a last-minute impulsive snack purchase, we actually went over our limit. As soon as I realized it, Mark was kind enough to take the snack back to the store thus bringing us back down below the $75 limit. But considering that the snack was frozen mango chunks, a healthy treat that Charlie adores, it felt somehow wrong to be returning it to the store just to make sure we were below the imposed $75. If we hadn’t already had a package of unopened mango in the freezer, I probably would have just quit the contest then and there.

I’ve been thinking about why this week was so much more difficult than the previous two.

1. Toward the end of the week we ran out of some basic stock items like rice and butter which then limited even more what we could make at home for meals.

2. The veggies in our CSA box were uncharacteristically few this past week. We’ve really come to rely on incorporating those vegetables into meals throughout the week and we just didn’t have as many to use so we had to purchase more vegetables.

3. I felt tired. With less food in the house I had to be even more creative about what meals I prepared which left me, well, let’s just say uninspired to cook (and a little bit hungry).

Fortunately, this week is going a bit better than last and, even more fortunately, the week is almost over which means that the contest is almost over. I’ve learned some good tips to lower our grocery bill, but I’m looking forward to not keeping quite such a careful eye on our food budget.

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Yes, we’re still in the running to win the $1000 grocery gift card courtesy of the All You contest. As you may recall, the grocery challenge is to spend just $25 per person in the household per week (that means $75 a week for our family of three) for four consecutive weeks. Week two ended on Saturday and we spent a grand total of $71.71 on groceries.

There were several things I did this week to keep the grocery bill down. In addition to the tricks I used during week one of the contest, I added a few more this past week:

1. I took full advantage of coupons. Harris Teeter, our local grocery store, was doubling their coupons up to $1.99 (they normally double coupons, but only up to $.99). So I culled through my coupons for all the ones offering between $1 and $1.99 off of products knowing those coupons would yield especially big savings this past week (between $2 and $3.99, to be precise). Then I based meals around items I could get for good prices based on my high value coupons. And, it paid off (pun definitely intended). In all, I was able to save over $18 just using manufacturers’ coupons. Several times I was able to combine these coupons with Harris Teeter specials for some really good deals (I even got two items completely free).

2. I bought groceries at the drugstore. I had $6.50 in “Register Rewards” from a recent trip to Walgreens where I purchased some toiletries (Register Rewards work like Extra Care Bucks at CVS — they essentially represent store credit for purchasing certain items). I used the Register Rewards to buy some snack items. Snacks represent a pretty decent percentage of our weekly food purchases, so the more I can save on them the better. I even picked some snacks that were on sale for extra savings. All told, I bought two big containers of ice cream and a large bag of tortilla chips that, after using the Register Rewards, cost me only $1.74.

3. I let the traditional July 4th holiday cuisine work to my benefit. Who doesn’t like hot dogs on July 4th, right? We don’t typically eat hot dogs but I’ve found that every so often they taste really good. They’re also really inexpensive. I actually bought the highest quality hot dog sold at the grocery store — organic, all beef — with good quality hot dog buns, and each hot dog was still less than $1. Another cool thing about hot dogs: Charlie will occasionally eat them. That’s a pretty big deal since our picky eater almost never eats meat. I paired the hot dogs with some homemade cole slaw made with CSA veggies and some chips with salsa (the tortilla chips were the ones from the Walgreens visit). So not only did we save some money by celebrating July 4th in traditional culinary fashion, we also had a pretty good meal.

4. Just as I did last week, I made a huge pot of soup at the beginning of the week and brought bowls of it to work each day for lunch. Although unlike last week I didn’t use CSA veggies, I did choose the soup based on items I had on hand or were on sale at the grocery store. I made carrot ginger soup which tasted equally yummy hot or cold (making it extra convenient to bring to work). My recipe was based on the one found here.

Carrot Ginger Soup
Makes about 6 generous servings
Adapted from the recipe for Simple Carrot Ginger Soup found on Whippedtheblog

  • 1 lb carrots (I used a small bag of the mini carrots)
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 1 Yukon gold potato, cubed
  • 2 tablespoons ginger, peeled and minced
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 6 cups chicken or vegetable broth
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Directions

In a saucepan, place the potatoes, carrots, and broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onions and ginger and saute until onions are translucent (about 5 minutes). Add the garlic and saute another minute. Pour the potato, carrots, and broth mixture into the large pot with the onions, ginger, and garlic. Simmer until potatoes and carrots are very tender, about 20 additional minutes. Remove from heat and puree the soup until smooth using an immersion blender, food processor, or upright blender.

The tally for the soup:

carrots: $1.50
yellow onion, potato, garlic, ginger: $1.00 (this is just a guess since I essentially bought each of these items in bulk and the potato was part of our CSA box)
chicken broth: $1.17 (I made the broth; you can find the recipe and my calculations for the cost here)
olive oil, salt, and pepper: $.50 (again, this is a guess and a pretty generous one since I doubt they were really this expensive)

Grand total: $4.70
Cost per serving: $.78

When I ate this soup at work, I usually brought a hard boiled egg, a piece of fruit, and some yogurt to go with it which all made for some inexpensive, yet tasty, eats.

We’re in good shape to remain in this contest for the third week. We’ve spent about $50 in groceries this week so far which leaves us $25 for the rest of the week. No problem (I think; I might be getting cocky).

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Over six months ago Mark and I started our new budget, and it’s been harder than I’d hoped to live within it. We had some unexpected, and therefore unbudgeted, expenses and we’ve cheated a fair amount on our $150 a week kitty money. But, on a positive note, everything we’ve charged with our credit cards we have immediately paid off.

I’ve found that the biggest obstacle to living within our budget is that, other than going broke at the end of the month, we don’t have a huge incentive to save money. Don’t get me wrong, not going broke is a pretty big incentive in and of itself, but it’s a fear-based incentive rather than a reward incentive. When we created our budget in January, we didn’t budget for anything fun — no trips, no big purchases, nothing — because after looking closely at our finances, we felt like it would be financially irresponsible to include these things in our budget. Consequently, sometimes it feels like we’re trying hard to save money without a little carrot at the end of the stick to keep us going.

Early last week Mark suggested that we go to a baseball game — Charlie’s first. Ordinarily, I would have flinched thinking of the cost, but we had some unseasonably cool weather (which for North Carolina means that the weather was tolerable as opposed to hideous). I knew that if we didn’t go then, we wouldn’t go all summer. So I agreed and Mark went out with Charlie and bought the tickets for a game a couple of nights later. I didn’t ask Mark how much the tickets cost, and when we got to the ballpark we spent a fair amount on food, drinks, and some over-priced games for Charlie. The truth is, I didn’t want to know how much it all cost. I just wanted to have a good time and create some memories. I felt like we needed it.

So the biggest lesson I’ve learned over the past six months of living with our budget is that we need to revise the budget to accommodate fun activities, including a vacation. These things don’t have to be hugely expensive, but they need to exist in order to make budget living a lot more palatable.

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This past weekend marked the end of the first of four weeks of the All You grocery contest. As you may recall, the gist of the contest is that you spend $25 per family member per week on groceries for a chance to win a $1000 grocery card.

So how did we do? Drumroll, please: we spent $71.58. For those of you not speedy with math, that makes us $3.42 under our limit.

Here’s how we stayed within our $75 budget:

1. We made several small trips to the grocery store during the week rather than one big shop meant to last the whole week. We only bought the food we knew we wanted to eat over the next couple of days and limited ourselves to those purchases. Typically, I like to do one big shop but it turns out that we’re then prone to some strange hoarding mentality and we often over-shop. By spreading out our shopping over several trips to the grocery store, we actually reduced the amount of food we bought. We were also able to visit two different grocery stores, buying the items we knew to be cheaper at each store.

2. I tried to prepare meals based on items we already had. Needless to say, we had lots of fusilli. On another night we had some bean burritos because, other than a jar of salsa, we had everything on hand. I also specifically shopped for sales, creating other meals based on items that were on sale.

3. Our pre-paid CSA veggies took center stage. I let kale and carrots star in a big pot of soup. I brought the soup and a hard-boiled egg to work for lunch several days in a row. We ate our CSA kohlrabi in different ways. I brought whole cucumbers to work to snack on. By stretching the CSA veggies, we bought very few other vegetables or fruits.

4. We went hungry. Ok, I’m kidding. Sort of. Mark would probably tell you that he had less to eat this past week than usual, but he always gets slightly annoyed when I mess with the quantity or variety of his food.

Though we stayed within our $75 budget, we could have done better. I don’t like grocery shopping with Charlie because we end up buying more snack foods when he says he wants them and we don’t pay as much attention to the sales. Last week, for instance, Harris Teeter offered rainbow trout on sale for $3.99 per pound. I asked Mark to go get some. He took Charlie and went off to buy the fish (he even specified to the guy behind the counter that he wanted the trout that was on sale). When he got home though, I noticed that the trout was priced at $9.99 per pound. I went online to the Harris Teeter weekly specials website and saw that the $3.99 sale was for whole trout whereas we bought the fillets. Fortunately for us, this wasn’t an expensive mistake since two fillets were only just over half a pound. But I certainly wouldn’t have asked Mark to buy the trout had I known it was going to be $9.99 a pound. That said, I used the fillets to try out this very yummy and inexpensive recipe for Asian trout that we paired with roasted beets and kohlrabi from the pre-paid CSA veggies.

Now week two of the contest is firmly underway. We’ve spent about $55 so far this week. We’ll make at least one more trip to the grocery store in the next few days, but it will be for smaller items like apples and bananas since we’ve already bought all the food we need for our main meals. We should have no problem sailing through to week three of the contest. I know Mark is thrilled.

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Several weeks ago I signed up for a contest for a chance to win a $1000 grocery card. Here’s how it works: for four weeks, you spend $25 per week per person in your household for groceries. At the end of the contest, you submit your grocery receipts and you’re judged on how creative and healthy you managed to be with your enforced budget. I sort of forgot I entered until I got an email from the contest sponsors reminding me that the contest begins today. These are the rules (sorry, I’m sure you’ll be disappointed to learn it’s too late for you to sign up).

To participate in the contest, the three of us can spend a maximum of $75 a week in groceries. To put this challenge in perspective, it is very easy for us to spend about $125 a week in groceries. I’ve been trying to spend less money at the grocery store for the past six months, but it’s been hard. It’s helped that I’ve started clipping coupons and paying more attention to sales, but we’ve never come close to $75 a week for groceries.

It turns out that $25 a week per person comes to $1.19 a meal (assuming three meals a day and no between meal snacks, which is a pretty big assumption). And to put that in perspective, $1.19 is less money than I spend on a cup of coffee at work. Well, shoot. Am I doomed to fail? Is it wrong to feel really hungry just at the thought of participating in this contest?

So how about you? Do you know how much money you spend on groceries per week? Do you think you could spend just $25? If so, please tell me how!

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