Saturday, April 9, 2011

Weekly groceries---4/9/11

This was a "payoff" week, with a grocery total of about $40 ($39.99 actually, to be exact), and a lot of that total was taking advantage of some sales. 

The necessities---about $6.74 in produce and juices, $1.39 for bread, and $9.70 in dairy. We went to our secondary store to pick up frozen ground turkey, where the bad news is that it has gone up by $.09 a pound, and at $1.48, we'll probably start using some other meats more often. So $10.36 for the ground turkey and $9.34 for other meats that were on sale. Our only other purchase was a 4 pound bag of pinto beans for $2.46, which is $.61 1/2 a pound, to go into the pantry. 

We could easily have pushed this week's total for two people down to about $10 for a gallon of milk, bread, and a couple of pounds of ground turkey, and our freezer was really too full to buy as much more meat as we did. I expect the next week or two to be other payoff weeks, possibly bigger ones, unless there are deals too good to pass up (and that we have room for). Hams often go on sale about this time...

Doing a quick survey of the pantry, we have at least 25 pounds of flour, around 20 pounds of rice, around 20 pounds of legumes, at least 10 pounds of sugar, at least 15 pounds of pasta, a freezer stuffed full of meats, a couple of gallons of cooking oil, and a variety of canned foods and other non-perishables. We could easily go a couple of months without buying anything except milk and a little produce and possibly bread (summer is arriving early here and I hate to turn the oven on). 

I really wish we had room for a small freezer, we could take real advantage of some great deals then (and some things like flour and beans can be stored in the freezer to last even longer.) But even with all of this food, we COULD store more food that doesn't need refrigeration. However my experience is that we wouldn't use it before it was too old. I already expect that some of the pasta and beans will have to be donated to a food bank, but that's all to the good as far as I'm concerned.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Light frugal lunch

Just a quick recipe for tonight, my version of waldorf salad for lunch, makes enough for two people (or two meals for one). This is quick, light, nutritious, and cheap.

I start with two apples, usually one granny smith and one fuji or pink lady, pick whatever you prefer (about $.66). Wash them, then core and chop them up into bite-sized pieces (I leave the peels on). Crush and add about 1/4 cup of chopped or broken walnuts (about $.35), mix together. Then mix about 1/2 a tablespoon of mayo and 1 tablespoon plain yogurt, a little more if you used big apples (about $.05). Stir the apple and walnut mix into the yogurt/mayo dressing. I usually chop up and add about 2 to 3 ounces of white chicken meat as well to add protein (about $.31). Serve on slices of whole wheat bread (about $.41).

Total cost, including chicken and 4 slices of whole wheat bread is about $1.78 for two meals, or about $.89 per person/meal. It has a full serving of a fruit, contains around 350 calories per person/meal, about 20 grams of protein each, and can be relatively low in the bad fats (this depends on the exact brands you use).

Leave out the chicken, and you cut the cost to less than $.75 per person/meal. The calories will drop to about 260 per person, but this also cuts the protein to less than 10 grams per person. You could also skip the whole wheat bread, but this would probably only be enough for one person (and you'd lose the fiber, protein, and b vitamins in the whole wheat bread).

The plain yogurt can do a lot to reduce the amount of fat when you substitute it for most of the mayo, and I think it adds a nice tang to the dressing. I do find it needs a little mayo still, to have the right flavor. The walnuts account for a lot of the fat and calories, but nuts are supposed to be especially good nutritionally, and it wouldn't be a waldorf salad without some. I do serve this open faced. If you made the filling into regular sandwiches, you could get four full sandwiches from this amount (double the bread).

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Creative thinking

Sometimes, you have to look in interesting sources to find new things to help you, and then adapt them. For instance, I have a copy of a cookbook of Pennsylvania Dutch cooking, around 60 years old. It has a lot of good farm-style recipes, including things which you may find hard to get recipes for anymore. There are great soup and bread recipes, in particular.

But it also reminds me of how much some things have changed. The very first recipe under "Poor Man's Soups" is one that calls for 4 cups of milk and 2 eggs. And while it could still be made relatively cheaply, probably about $.75, I could make a more filling bean stew for less these days.

Of course, a poor man in farm country then would still have at least a little milk and eggs from his own farm animals, and the only other things needed for this soup are flour, salt, and pepper. The poor man soups are mostly these things, plus  potatoes and onions. A couple of soups use broth instead of milk, and one includes tomatoes (specifying home-grown). Almost any farm would have these things available, and only the flour, salt, and pepper would have to be bought.

Bean soups and stews aren't included in the Poor Man's Soups, and I'm not entirely certain why. Dry beans were somewhat labor intensive in those days, but they were still considered a cheap, filling food. Oh, and there are virtually no pasta recipes in the book (a few with German style noodles), this was transplanted Northern European cooking.

Where I'm going with this is the idea that what was once cheap isn't always and vice versa, so it pays to look at all the recipes and if one sounds good, consider whether there are substitutions that could be made to make it cheaper. Some of the recipes under "Rich Soups" in this book would be a lot more modest now, for instance, and the amount of meat can usually be reduced. Some items in the book are much less practical now than they were in rural PA 60 years ago (imagine substituting beef roast for turkey...)

My cheapest, best tasting recipes often started by playing with this book. For instance, trying 3 or 4 recipes for potato soup, comparing them, then working out my own soup recipe. I used to make a holiday bread that people loved that I worked out after trying several recipes, but replacing most of the expensive ingredients with cheaper ones. Sometimes, the trick is knowing what can be substituted and what proportions aren't important on their own.

You probably can't find a copy of this particular cookbook; I've had this one so long I don't remember where I got it. But there are lots of other old cookbooks out there, and many of those may offer up gems of frugal, and delicious, cooking.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Debt and the frugal family 2

To control debt, you have to understand how much it costs you. For instance, last month, my total credit card bill was just under $600. The minimum payment, had I chosen that route, was $15. At that rate, it would have taken 5 years to pay off at 14.65% interest, and I would have paid $824 total. So, $15 a month isn't bad looked at monthly, but think about the fact I would have spent over $225 to "borrow" not quite $600 for 5 years. Paid off at just $21 a month, it could have been paid off in 3 years, for $743, "saving" $81, but still costing about $145 for less than $600. (I chose the most economical route, I paid the full balance---which included all my groceries, gas, utilities, and once-every-two-month trip to a department store---and paid $0 interest or fees).

A lot of people will think, OK, so it's a few dollars. Multiply that by 10 (much closer to the balance people carry), and it starts sounding grimmer. If the balance was almost $6000, the monthly payment would, I assume, be $150, and over 5 years, you'd pay $2250 to borrow that $6000. And that's IF you don't take a cash advance (those are at an even higher interest rate) or make a late payment, which will add late payment charges and probably trigger an interest rate increase. Dunno about you, but I can think of lots of things I could do with an extra $2250, and also keep in mind that if you keep using the credit card for those 5 years, the payoff date never gets any closer.

So, how to get out of debt. First, cut expenses to come up with a little extra money every month (see previous posts for suggestions), and make a list of your debts---total owed, monthly payment, and interest rate. Sort them into two lists, one by total owed, one by interest rate. In general, paying off the highest interest debts first makes the most financial sense, then car, college, and mortgage debts. But if you have several high interest consumer debts, another approach is to pay off the debt with the smallest balance first. 

I thought this was counter-intuitive, but I did some calculations, and this actually works too in the right circumstances, mostly because you eliminate one of the minimum payments more quickly. And people are often inspired by being able to mark one of those debts off their list too. Whichever approach you take, target consumer debt before anything else because those are almost always at rates at least twice that of car or house loans with pretty stiff penalties if you make a mistake.

By the way, I consider mortgages to be fishy in how they work, and I won't even touch the balloon or adjustable rate mortgages. Those look great on paper when you're buying, but seem to be a disaster in real life for people. But a fixed rate mortgage apparently has the interest somehow redistributed so you pay 75% of the interest by the time you're halfway through the mortgage. To me, that seems...fishy because that means the effective interest charge early in the mortgage is higher than what you agreed to, and lower later, and you effectively build equity much more slowly. And, in most cases, if you don't specify clearly in writing (and crossing all the t's and dotting all the i's) that any extra payment you make is for the principal, they apply it to the next payments due, so they get their interest anyway. But a fixed rate mortgage is the best option for most people who don't have the capital to buy a home outright.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Debt and the frugal family

I've mentioned before that I'm not a trained professional tax preparer or financial planner or anything of the sort. I'm just someone with good practical experience (and a certain amount of self-education) on how ordinary people can manage better. So take what I say with a grain of salt if you prefer professional advice, just evaluate anything they tell you in light of their own possible interests. My only interest is a wish that families and individuals have their finances in control so they can really enjoy life and each other.

Debt is a sticky question for a lot of people, especially now. Most sources, at least a few years ago, divided debt into categories that can roughly be summarized as "consumer" (credit cards, cars) and "investment" (mortgage, business) debts. The difference was supposed to be that consumer debt was for consumables or possessions that lost value while the healthy investment debt was in things that grew in value, so were an investment. 

About 7 or 8 years ago, in an online group for thrifty living, I tried to suggest to people in shaky financials situations that they should look for the cheapest house that they could afford, preferably one with a payment they could afford on one income. I was loudly denounced, particularly by a couple of Realtors (their use of the capital R). Real estate always appreciated in value and people should always buy the most house that they could, and I was essentially called a liar when I tried to point out cases of real estate "bubbles" that I personally knew about. Of course, their argument also ignored the main point I made: keep your expenses low enough to survive personal catastrophes. I let their shouts silence me, something I've regretted as I proved all too right.

However, in a general way, a mortgage can be healthy debt. Credit card debt rarely is and is usually VERY expensive. Car loans are somewhere in between, but cars depreciate and have to be replaced. College loans are generally considered investment a reasonable point (I know a couple whose undergraduate degrees left them in so much debt that they'll be paying it off still when their oldest child starts college). But best of all is to owe nothing and have savings. Keep that in mind. Paying interest on money leeches it out of your pocket and into someone else's. If you're paying even $50 a month in interest on car and consumer debt, that's $50 you don't have to spend because you wanted something NOW.

Continued tomorrow...

Monday, April 4, 2011

Smart pricing

When I went to the store this week, I found that flour had increased in price by almost $.08 a pound over 2 weeks ago, but it's still a good deal. Most of the beans and pasta are up by quite a bit, however. Now, you may question, how do I know this?

I keep a price book. It's an idea that my mother used somewhat, but I first read about a really organized version in the Tightwad Gazette in the 90s. I take my receipt each week and check the prices of things I buy frequently against what I already have listed in the book. If there's a significant change, I record it. This is particularly helpful in deciding which stores have the best prices on which things.

For instance, on March 18, I bought the exact same brand of flour at the same store for $1.29. Today, it was $1.68, a $.39 change, but on the 18th, the flour was on sale. When I make an entry, I record the item (flour, unbleached white), the store name, the brand, the date, the price, the size, and the price per unit (in this case, $.258 per pound on the 18th, and $.336 per pound today). This may sound like a lot, but it doesn't have to be. Most people have 3 or 4 real options for groceries, and you can create a 2 or 3 letter abreviation for each store. I label all generic-type brands as "store". The only two items that take any work, really, other than typing in from my receipt is item size and price per unit. If you really hate math, record the price per unit from the in-store labels.

Now,  I actually include additional information like servings per container and price per serving, but that is much more obsessive than most people want to get, and I'm mostly doing it to analyze which food choices are the best buys for price per serving and nutrition and to make calculating costs of meals for this blog as easy as possible. Done as simply as possible, this could be done in just a few minutes. Then, when you go to the store, take the list (organized in some way that makes it easy to locate items on the list) and compare. That's how I knew that one store in our area, quite high priced on most items, had dry powdered milk at the best price, and another store consistently has frozen ground turkey and bags of corn tortillas at a much lower price. And how I know that today, navy beans were $.29 a pound higher than they were 3 weeks ago.

If you hate computers, get a looseleaf notebook and create a page for each item you want to track, drawing columns with a ruler. If you prefer a computer but are easily intimidated, use a word processing program and tab to create columns*. If you like playing with computers, this is a snap to create in a spreadsheet, (then use filters to look at just the prices for a single item at a time). I love playing in Excel, so my version is more complicated than necessary, but this can be as simple or as complex as you want. But once you have this established, you can buy up items when they're on sale, confident that you're getting a good deal. Or avoid getting burned by sales that aren't.

And don't limit this to groceries. It works for almost anything you buy regularly, like toilet paper and paper towels. You'll probably be surprised at the best sources for some things once you have actual numbers on paper.

*(if that sounds Greek to you, look at the left side of the keyboard. There should be a big key called tab. In a WP program, hit that key a couple of times and watch the cursor jump across the page. This lets you line up things, like columned paper.) 

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Weekly groceries-April 3, 2011

This week's groceries includes about $14 spent at the meat outlet on campus, $6.50 at the produce market, and $55.06 at the grocery store, partly buying things for the last few weeks of the term when exams and projects due tend to make shopping and cooking unappealing. We'll be cooking up a lot of what we bought to freeze for quick meals which will help us resist the temptation to call for take out, which pushed the total up to $75.56.

We spent about $11.75 total on produce, $4.31 on canned vegetables and fruits, $5.67 on about 5 pounds of various beans and 5 pounds of flour, 3 boxes of saltine-type crackers for $2.82, $28.87 for meat (including almost 6 pounds of boneless chicken, 2 pounds of ground sausage, a package of brats, 2 pounds of italian sausage, and 3 1/2 pounds of 80% lean ground chuck), and 2 pounds of cheese for $5.88, with a couple of odds and ends like margarine, plus $4.40 for my sausage wraps. No really exceptional buys, though the meats were at a good price, and our brand of granola bars (kept in our book bags for days when we forgot our lunches) were $1.67 a box.

However, to continue yesterday's topic a little, I peeked at actual prices on some things for the non-cook. They had large cans of a generic pasta sauce for $1.06 a can that would just need a bit of oregano to be perfect as pizza sauce (and you could make several french bread pizzas with a jar that big). Precooked 100% beef patties were $7.50 for 3 pounds, which isn't bad at all (about $.63 per 1/4 pound burger, $.83 per 1/3 pound burger). Bags of frozen vegetables were $.88. A two-pound bag of shoestring french fries were $1.09, I think. Raw broccoli (for a fresh food snack) was $.91 for a large head (eat with a "dip" of salad dressing). A good brand of English muffins was $1.99 for 6, and you can use English muffins to make mini pizzas just like the french bread pizza.

In the heat-and-eat category, several types of ravioli were less than $1 for a large can. So were a couple of types of frozen dinner, though I admit I'd have to be desperate to eat most of those. Some of the "family" entrees are worthwhile. There are lasagnes that are less than $5 for a large pan in the frozen section, enough for 3 or 4 meals for one person with some bread and a salad. Generic mac and cheese was $.40 a box, plus $.08 for the margarine and a bit of milk (this is a good place to substitute milk made from powdered) gets a hot meal for around $.60. Thaw and add a cut up precooked hamburger patty, and you have a more substantial meal for about $1.25.

Now, to make a "real" meal out of these convenience foods...
Start by thawing 1/3 to 1/2 pound of precooked burger. Grease a casserole dish, crumble or cut up the burger and put it in the bottom. Cover with a layer of frozen chopped onions (or whatever veggies appeal to you). Add about 1/2 a cup to a cup of liquid (broth or other soup is preferable, but you can also use water) and season with salt and pepper. Cover with frozen shredded hash browns and top those with about 1/2 a cup of shredded cheese. Bake in a preheated 350F oven until the hashbrowns are browned (might be anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes). Easy and yummy casserole, probably for less than $2.50 total, enough food with a salad or fresh fruit for at least 3 meals.

Oh, I should add that my portions are ordinary meal portions, not the ginormous amounts teens, particularly male teens, can sometimes put away. However, in that case, you really have to calculate that they're eating twice as much fast food as well, which make these potential savings even bigger...