Saturday, May 14, 2011

Groceries for the week of 05/14/2011

Not bad this week. We went to a different branch of our usual store due to an event in town between us and our usual store. I don't go to this one normally because this branch tends to have fewer of the lower priced brands in stock (oddly enough since it's actually in a lower-income area). Our total was $61.10.

Grains, pasta, and bread-$7.49
And the rest in odds and ends.

We brought home a lot of food for the money we spent. Pasta was still at $.38 for 12 ounces, so I bought up some of that plus brown rice at $.55 a pound. I decided to try some new ways to make pasta since the price is so good right now. We also stocked up on a favorite fruit juice that was on sale, one we particularly like to drink when we aren't feeling well. We'd probably have been at about $50, but this includes some food for a celebration.

One of my planned "tests" with the pasta: frying it. I've heard this described, and it sounds easy. Yes, it'll add calories and fat, but I'm going to experiment with the minimum amount to get successful results. I think fried pasta with mozarella melted over it could be a fun, quick, and cheap main dish. Perhaps add a little cooked ground turkey...

We're now between terms here, and while we'll be taking a class each over the summer, we won't be at a full time load. I'll be working full time, but we'll be able to use some of the extra time to work out some new cheap-and-fast meals by this fall. I looked at a list of meals we came up with about 10 years ago with estimated costs, and at least half the items are no longer included in our menus. Some of those were made with ingredients that are more expensive, or were dishes my oldest knew how to make, or ones we discovered were much higher calorie than we thought. That's part of the creativity of being frugal, you adapt to changes.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Education on a dime

There are ways to save money on school stuff, though there is sometimes only so much you can do. Some school systems are reasonable about school supplies while others are ridiculously rigid.

However, if you have the choice, look for spiral notebooks and binder paper in the late summer and early fall when they're drastically marked down and stock up with enough for the year. We often find the 70 page spiral note books at 7 to 10 for $1 at that time of year, and about the same deal on packages of 100 sheets of binder paper. Follow the prices over the summer on those things and pencils and pens so you know when you're getting a good deal.

You can also usually find binders at a good price, but these are usually the really cheap ones that don't hold up. I prefer the more durable ones because I generally save money on them, but if the person using them is rough on their stuff or loses things a lot, the cheap ones may be more worthwhile.

Avoid the character themed gear if you can. Or be creative. Get a binder with a clear plastic pocket on the front and slip in a picture of this week's "must have" favorite. The advantage to this is you can keep changing the notebook pictures as tastes change. You can also create a montage from cards or smaller pictures for more difficult or sophisticated tastes. This works to recover a lunchbox too. Cut out the picture to fit, glue it on, then cover with clear contact paper.

For the older student, make book bags in school colors using recycled material or my favorite, the recycled jeans bags. You can make notebook covers from fabric in the school colors too. Or a school color cover for a Kindle.

For college, buy second hand textbooks whenever possible, and if an item is optional, check to see if it's in the college's course reserves. Always try to sell back books unless they're basic references for your major. And check to see which books different profs are using. All things being equal, pick the prof whose books are less expensive (but don't let that convince you to pass up a good prof either). Check into computer lab useage and find out if your fees pay for a certain amount of printing, and take advantage of that to print out as many of your papers as possible. In general, the labs will have good quality printing.

That's enough for now, I'll try to post more ideas on another day.

Budget vacation

Last night, Blogger wasn't available, and because of finals, I didn't have a completed post queued. So you're getting a stream-of-consciousness kind of post for today...

It's the time of year most people think about vacations. With gas prices so high, the kind of vacations I remember as a kid where we drove half-way across the country with a tent isn't nearly as attractive as a budget vacation.

Actually, a better question is: what is a vacation? In almost every form, it means something of a break from ordinary work and some relaxation. It takes a lot of different forms to different people, but I honestly prefer an "at home" vacation most of the time. Yes, if I had unlimited funds, I'd travel a LOT (I have a dream of traveling slowly around Europe, for instance). But a couple of nights in a cheap motel while going to an amusement park or two is about what my budget would cover, and I'd rather put that money to other uses.

If your vacation budget is also fairly limited, consider a stay-at-home alternative. If you would have spent $500 for motel, amusement parks, and meals out, look around to see what's local that you haven't done or would really like to do again. If you like the outdoors, look for parks and hiking trails and swimming pools. If you like culture or history, what museums and historic sites are in your area?

Be creative in how you think too. If you like to read, how about a reading vacation? Start out with a trip to the best library in your area and then to a good bookstore. Take one of the books to a good coffee shop (or something similar) and relax with a good book and gourmet coffee. The idea is to RELAX. Pick a different bookstore or library as your "destination" for each day.

If movies are your thing, plan a movie vacation. This one has a lot more potential for socializing. During the day, go see one of the new releases at the theaters. Then visit the library or store to get videos around a different genre or theme, then plan a party for that evening around it. Pick up food that fits the theme. Invite friends for some nights that you know will enjoy the movies.

You can indulge yourself quite a bit like this, and have a lot of fun. Even better, you can probably do it for much less than traditional vacation travel, then take some of that extra to take care of something that will make your life easier. How about paying someone to come in and do a really thorough cleaning for you? Build a really organized entertainment center. Really child-proof your home. Replace that dreadful carpet that shows every footprint with something that is easier to care for. Get all those small home repair jobs done that you've been putting off (it's amazing how much stress those little things cause).

Don't give up traditional vacations entirely if you like them, but make that travel something special, not routine. This summer, we're traveling on vacation, but only about 2 hours, to stay with my daughter for a few days. No motels and my favorite people all in one place. And the rest of my week will be used to relax and catch up.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Tracking expenses

If you feel as is your expenses are out of control, or even if you're staying well within your income but still feel like you can't account for exactly where some of your money is going, you probably should consider tracking your expenses.

There are lots of approaches to this, but for those in real trouble, I recommend tracking your income and expenses precisely. This doesn't have to be permanent, but until you can actually account for exactly how you spend your money, how can you budget it?

When I say track it precisely, I mean just that. Carry a small notepad or even a couple of index cards and record everything you spend through the day: what you spend for lunch, the tip, gas for the car, the soda you buy when paying for the gas, the lottery ticket, plus all the bigger expenses like the utility bill. Also, record any income, down to the nickle you find in the parking lot.

At the end of the month, add up expenses and add up income. If income isn't more than expenses, you have a problem. Look over the records to see where you have unnecessary expenses and work on cutting those back. If you rebel at the idea of tracking every soda you buy, allow yourself to carry a special envelope with $10 or $20 in it that is used just for those odds and ends, and record each time you "refill" that envelope rather than each expenditure.

In the best form of this, you'd start at the beginning of the month (or whatever period you decide to track), list all of your money, including all bank accounts, down to the change you throw into a cup holder in the car. List all of the outstanding bills and debts. Then make a daily record of expenses. There's a lot of flexibility there, you can even just keep all the index cards in a folder. I created a spreadsheet that recorded daily expenses by category, with the advantage that it kept running totals for me.

At the end of the month, again list all of your money and debts and figure out the change from last month. Then add up all of your income for the month, including any interest on your bank accounts, and all of your expenses, and subtract the expenses from income. The change in your money/debts should be equal to the difference in your income and expenses. This sounds complicated, but it doesn't have to be. Because I had a credit card, I did find I had to keep up with which expenses were paid on the credit card to make this balance out correctly.

If your results are almost balanced, you probably have a fairly accurate record of your expenses. But if you're off by more than $10, you're not recording some things. Most people who try this are shocked at how much they're spending on little things.

With a little thought, you can actually make this something that can be done in very little time. I tracked very carefully for 5 or 6 years, and probably still should. However, I am very conscious now of where I spend my money. One of these days, I'll probably return to this method.

One of the most detailed descriptions of this sort of record keeping can be found in Joe Dominguez's Your Money or Your Life. You may have to plow through quite a lot of activism to get to the meat of his method, but it's a good method, although there is also some outdated material.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Being prepared

One area we aren't always too careful about is preparing for something as minor as a power outages. Frugal people often have a month or two worth of food stored and tend to feel well-prepared because of that, but forget to look at WHAT food they have stored.

If we lost power during the summer, our apartment would be almost unliveable without AC during the day. There are few windows or trees and our normal summer highs are in the upper 90s. If we had power, we could run a couple of fans to keep the temperature bearable, but if the power was out, it would quickly rise to well over 100F. In the winter, however, we rarely have lows below freezing, and we could get by with dressing warmly, pulling out the winter sleeping bags to add to the beds, and keeping faucets dripping to avoid frozen pipes.

Water is usually less of a concern. We keep several gallons of water in the house, and if we knew a hurricane was possibly heading for us (the likeliest major natural disaster for us), we'd put several large storage tubs in the bathtub (doubled in case of leaks) and fill them with water for washing, then fill every possible pot and container in the kitchen for drinking. The toilet would get flushed with wash and dish water.  My estimate is that we'd get by for at least 2 weeks.

We have half a dozen flashlights, two battery lanterns, and a number of batteries of all sizes, including rechargeable AAs and AAAs that we check regularly for charges.

The one thing we're guilty of is looking at the cabinets and thinking we have plenty of food to eat. The problem is, most of it is food that requires a lot of cooking time, and we have an electric stove. And some other foods aren't very edible without being warmed at least a little. Some people have grills or fireplaces or camp stoves, but don't always think about the fuel for these in advance.

With this in mind, we store several boxes of saltine-type crackers, granola bars, nuts, cans of mini-hot dogs, cans of fruit, and some things like soup that just need to be heated a little. At any time, we also have cheese, fruit, tortillas, bread, and peanut butter that don't necessarily have to be refrigerated, plus a couple of packages of hotdogs that only need minimum heating. Those things can be moved into the cooler with some ice to keep them fresh as long as possible.

We don't currently have a grill or camp stove, which is something I'm keeping an eye out for. What we do have are candles. With extreme caution, you can use a candle to do some minimal cooking. One way to do it is simply "toast" bread over the flame and "roast" hot dogs or the canned mini-hot dogs. 

A second method requires a tea candle, a clean, empty tomato sauce can, and a small metal cup or camping pot. Poke a hole or two in the can for air using the pointed end of a bottle opener and remove the label. Light the tea candle, put the open end of the can over it, then set the metal cup or pot on top of the can (make sure it's stable for safety). You now have a means to warm soup and other foods. I'm not sure you could get it hot enough to make coffee or tea, but it might be worth trying. WARNING: Be very careful with open flames to avoid catching anything on fire. Handle the can and the cooking cup/pot. Remember, the tomato sauce can will get VERY hot.

There are other variations on this, of course; refer to camping sources. In the girl scouts, we used to make buddy burners, but those seem like a lot of mess to me.

I'd love to hear from other people on their frugal ideas for storing foods that don't need cooking, or need very little...

Monday, May 9, 2011

Frugality and hunger

A short one today as we try to survive finals...

This Saturday, May 14, 2011, is a Letter Carriers' food drive that I assume is a national event. To participate, leave a bag of non-perishable food items at the mailbox, and the letter carriers will pick them up to deliver to local food banks. Don't include anything that needs refrigeration, has expired, or is in a glass container (a reasonable request as glass jars would require special handling).

This is a good time to donate food items that may be approaching the end of their safe shelf life. My guess is anything with at least a month left on it gives the food bank enough time to process and redistribute it with enough time for the recipient to use it. Be more cautious with foods that can be dangerous such as canned meats, vegetables, and fruits than with foods that may simply be stale after that date.

Even if you don't donate for this event, keep opportunities like this in mind to pass on a little of what you have to help those who need it. Remember, everyone has received help from someone at some point in their lives, even if it was nothing more than the loan of a pencil in class. Most of us have been helped at some moment of crisis by friends or family or even complete strangers (I have had flat tires changed by strangers passing by at least 3 times in the last 7 or 8 years alone). Pass that on. 

Donating food rather than letting it go to waste is one of the easiest forms of charity, and one of the most useful. I admit I have some reservations about many charities as I'm not always impressed with their priorities, but food and clothing and blankets can only be used to feed and clothe people and keep them warm.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Weekly groceries - 05/08/2011

Well, I was expecting a moderate week, around our average, but there were some good sales that pushed our total up to $79.98.

Dairy ran $18.74,  meat and eggs were $14.77, $13.99 in grains and breads, produce ran $11.14, coffee was $7.49,  with the remaining $13.85 divided between things like mayo, teriyaki sauce, and chocolate chips.

Our best deal was a good name brand of spaghetti at $.38 for a 12 oz package. If we weren't already stocked pretty thoroughly, I'd have bought a lot more of this since it's hard to beat $.50 a pound. Whole chickens were $.50 a pound, so we got two, plus a 10 pound bag of fryer leg quarters for $5.90. Almond milk, including the chocolate version, was $1.99 for half a gallon, a treat we love with an expiration date of as much as a month away. I got a loaf of bakery-made rye bread off the day-old rack for $1.19. Large packages of some very tasty organic lettuces were $1.50 each, and by weight probably cheaper than the regular lettuce is right now (it's worth checking the pricy/gourmet items for sales). The coffee price wasn't fantastic, but I haven't seen better in the last month, and we opened one canister this week, and I like to have two unopened in the cabinet.

The blueberries at $2.88 for 12 ounces were a little bit of a splurge, but they combine beautifully with the strawberries in smoothies, my request for Mother's Day breakfast...

A side note: we took in our own shopping bags this morning. Most of these are homemade so the sizes aren't exactly consistent, but most of the ones we had were equivalent to the small plastic bags they use. I've never seen a bagger and checker make it as difficult as possible for themselves. They took the largest bags, more than big enough to put in a carton of a dozen eggs and loaves of bread laid flat, and filled them with small items, then tried to get the eggs into bags that were too small and put the loaves of bread upright. Then the bagger kept trying to put both boxes of saltine crackers into a bag that was just slightly too small. Either they have an extraordinarily bad spatial sense for people whose jobs include bagging or they were intentionally making it harder than necessary (not impossible, this checker has acted disgusted on other visits when I pointed out something rang up incorrectly.) We'd really rather bag ourselves, so having them insist on bagging, then doing it so poorly is annoying...