saving money

HOW TO: Stretch Your Groceries and Plan Family Meals

I don’t claim to be an expert who has “the” answers, as I recognize that there are many people out there with lots of great ideas.  Just check Pinterest to see all the crafty moms out there with beautifully decorated homes who still find time to make ornate food that looks like it should be on display somewhere versus being eaten by their families.  I am not that mom/wife.  Our baby’s room is a hodgepodge of themes, wall hangings, and furniture – all of them very practical, but not worthy of being posted on Pinterest.  The food I prepare tastes good (or so I am told), but is not Top Chef worthy, nor am I crafty enough to make cute displays that look like little animals or my daughter’s favorite Bubble Guppy.

What I can offer, however, is practicality and frugality.  My forte is organization that makes sense in a world that is busy.  I don’t have the time or energy to comb over coupons or sale ads for hours on end, nor am I crafty enough to make cute charts that look like that belong in a teacher’s elementary school classroom.  My husband and I are pretty simple people.  What I bring to you are tips from our simple, frugal life that I hope you will find helpful.

Today, I bring you tips on stretching your dollars in your family meals.  I do “big” grocery shopping twice per month, with some smaller trips in between to get fresh produce or other small items that may pop up.  We do have a monthly allotment budgeted for our grocery items, and I work very hard to stick to that.  If I happen to have coupons (and remember to take them), I will use them, but most of the time I do NOT have coupons.  If you have time and enjoy sifting through coupons, more power to you – extra savings, woohoo!  My version of couponing is checking my local grocer’s ad for the meat and produce specials and planning my meals around those.  I then get my other goods – boxed items, household goods, etc – from WalMart or Sam’s Club.  I know the average prices of my regular items, and I watch for them to be on sale.  When they are on a good special, I stock up.

Here are some of my little tricks for stretching our groceries:

1.  Based on the meat specials at the grocery store, make a list of what meals you will make with those meats.
I list out first which meats I will buy, and then think of what I can do with those meats.  For example, this week I may plan to get a roast, cubed steak, chicken breasts, ground beef, and pork chops.  From there, I may decide to do a roast with potatoes and carrots, cubed steak with mashed potatoes, chicken casserole with the chicken breasts, sloppy joes with tater tots with the ground beef, and BBQ baked pork chops with some veggies.

2.  Complete the grocery list with sides, other needed ingredients, snacks, and lunch and breakfast items.
It should be noted here that I keep a running grocery list on my fridge, where I list items that are running low (or in some cases, have run out) as I discover them.  I HATE to run completely out of anything, so I usually add it to my list when it gets low.  If it is an item that goes quickly, I add it when it gets about halfway used, but if it’s an item that goes more slowly, I wait until there is maybe a quarter of it left.  So when I get ready to do my grocery shopping, I already have a list started.  I add the meats on special, then the sides to go with those, and then any special ingredients I may need (e.g. cream of chicken soup, BBQ sauce, tortillas, etc).  I finish off my list with snacks, lunch items (e.g. lunch meat, cheese, bread, Hot Pockets, soups, salad stuff, etc), and breakfast items (we eat cereal or oatmeal most mornings during the week, but I prepare a big breakfast on the weekends).  The most important takeaway here is that EVERYTHING goes on the list.  Sure, there may be an item or two that you forgot about and remember it when you get to the store, but otherwise stick to the list.  NO IMPULSE PURCHASES.
SIDE NOTE:  Plan for the unexpected.  Have 2 or 3 meal options that are easy but flexible for those “just in case” nights.  One of our go-to meals is tuna salad with mac and cheese.  It’s quick and easy, but also keeps on the shelf, so we pull it out if we need something fast, or if other meals have run out.  It’s also a good go-to if you have a night where you maybe have plans to go out the next night, and therefore will not be eating leftovers (you can make just enough for that night’s dinner, or eat any leftover tuna for the next day’s lunch).

3.  Learn to love leftovers.
I love to cook, but I don’t love to cook everyday.  Our rules for meals are as follows: each meal lasts for two dinners, and after two days, you may then – and only then – eat those leftovers for a lunch.  When planning my meals, I keep this in mind, so I buy enough ingredients to make a large meal to last two days.  Sometimes that means doubling or even tripling a recipe.  It also means observing portion control (which will also be good for your waistline).  I always remember my mom saying things like, “It’s a shame that I spend all this time in the kitchen for everyone to eat and be done in 20 minutes”.  I guess I don’t feel it has to be that way.  If you really enjoy a meal, why not enjoy it two or three times?  To me, it makes it more worth my effort to be able to enjoy a meal for longer than 20 minutes.  It also gives me two or three nights a week where I don’t have to stress about cooking – winning!  Extra bonus: it’s typically cheaper to make a larger batch of one meal than to make two separate meals.

4.  Make a meals list, and cross them off as you make/use them.     015
Once home from the store, I make a list of all the meals I’ve acquired.  I don’t like to assign them to specific days.  I know some people do meal assignments for the week or even the month, and that’s cool.  I just personally prefer to have more flexibility in my choices.  Sometimes things come up and I need a quicker meal.  Other times I feel like being a gourmet chef and spending a couple of hours in the kitchen.  I like options.  So I make a list of what all I have – just go down and say “#1 – Roast with potatoes & carrots, #2 – Sloppy joes with tater tots” and so on.  At the bottom, I make another small list of all of the sides I have on hand – corn, broccoli, salad stuff, mixed vegetables, etc.  Again, I like options, so this allows me to see what all I have – at a glance, and without digging through the freezer – and I can just pick which sides/veggies I want to have with each meal.  I buy a variety of veggies when I do my grocery shopping – both fresh and frozen – and I try to have at least one vegetable with each meal, sometimes two.
RULE OF THUMB – When choosing which meal to make, choose the ones with fresher ingredients FIRST, so that you don’t get stuck with produce and such that is going bad.  Once you have worked through all the ones requiring fresh produce/ingredients, you can move onto your frozen or boxed options.

Using the tips above, I am usually able to make our groceries last for about 2-2 1/2 weeks.  Again, I may have to make a weekly quick run to refresh produce or grab an ingredient I forgot, but the bulk of our groceries lasts from major trip to major trip.  Not only does it save time not having to go to the store all the time, but it saves money because I am sticking to a plan versus making impulse purchases.

What tips/tricks have you found to help make your groceries stretch?


Negotiate Your Best Deal


As I have mentioned, I went through a bankruptcy a couple of years ago.  A couple of months after the bankruptcy was discharged, I had to take my car in for repairs.  The following article was written after that experience…

Today, I took my car in for an oil change.  I decided while I was there, I would have them check these pesky lights that kept lighting up on my dashboard – one for tire pressure, one for the vehicle stability assist system.  I had hoped both were covered under warranty.  Unfortunately, they were not covered.  Not only were these not covered under warranty, I was told of two other items I needed to have replaced.  

My first reaction was one of panic.  I just went through a bankruptcy and have just been getting back on my feet with a savings account cushion, and a sizeable chunk was about to be sucked away by numerous car repairs.  I then jumped to anger, because as reason set in, I suspected I might be taken for a bit of a ride.  And then my years of management experience kicked in, and I jumped into negotiation mode.  In hindsight reflection, I realized that not everyone (particularly women) would have been equipped with the skills, knowledge, and reason to negotiate with a service man at a dealership.

Please note here that I was dealing with a service associate – a middle man who relays information from the mechanics to the customer.  Their purpose is to make the customer experience more pleasant by presenting a professional demeanor and appear to be taking care of the customer with a one-on-one approach.  However, a service associate is also somewhat of a salesman, as he takes the mechanic’s suggestions for service and tries to “sell” these repairs to the customer by making the problems sound serious enough for immediate repair.

For me, negotiation has become a survival instinct – a fight-or-flight response that kicks in, particularly where money is involved.  As I mentioned, I just went through a bankruptcy.  I am slowly rebuilding my life on a very limited budget, and while I have a savings for emergencies, I have to ensure that every dollar spent is spent wisely.  But negotiation hasn’t always come so easily for me.  I have had a few wise mentors along the way, particularly in fitness sales (which, let’s face it, are equivalent to our stigma of the “used car salesman” – very aggressive and tell you what you want to hear).

Here’s what I’ve learned about the art of negotiation:   

1.  Identify your needs (versus your WANTS).
What do you absolutely need from this product (i.e. cannot live without)?  Now, what would you like to have from this product, but can ultimately do without if push comes to shove?  Be realistic.  For me, “needs” now equate to survival, and “wants” are things that can wait a while longer.  I need a car that runs well and keeps me safe.  Today, I needed an oil change.  The lights going off on my dash may simply be electrical, and may not be signaling an emergency situation.  I need a mechanic to tell me the difference.

2.  Ask the associate what options you have based on your requests.
Always present your “wants” to the associate as part of your “needs” package.  Go for the gold, as they say…but be willing to settle for the bronze.  But, as in poker, keep your cards hidden.  You have to play it cool and play the cards at the right moment to get the result that you want.  In my case, I requested a full service check, but wanted to know prices before any work was completed.  He came back with a list of prices for my requests, plus two more items that he claimed needed to be replaced.

3.  Be firm…and be willing to walk away.  For real.
I came in expecting to pay for an oil change.  I anticipated some fees for whatever else they may have found wrong, but planned to spend no more than about $100.  His total was $255 – and that was just for a new battery, new brake switch, oil change, and to run diagnostics on the warning lights (there would be additional fees depending on what was actually wrong).  While I have enough to cover all of that in my savings, it would be a substantial blow to me at this point in time.  I live my life on a very carefully planned and maintained budget right now, and that is a large, unplanned expense.  I asked very specific questions about his list of problems: 1) what is the expected life span of the battery (i.e. will it die tomorrow, or will it go for another 2-4 weeks)? 2) what does the brake switch do? 3) what problems absolutely need to be corrected today, and which ones can wait?  I even went so far as to ask if these parts I needed were special Honda parts, or if I could get, say, the battery somewhere else after I shopped around for a better price.

4.  Draw your bottom line.
I then informed the associate that I do not have a credit card, and that my budget for the day is $100.  I asked him to speak with the mechanics again to find out what was absolutely necessary to be safe in my car.  He was concerned that it would take a while longer.  I informed him that time was not important, but that money was important, and that I was willing to wait whatever time needed to find out which services I needed within my budget constraints.

5.  Be patient.
The associate was gone for quite some time, and came back to update me on the situation a handful of times.  My total wait time on the day was over 2 hrs, and the final result was an oil change and installation of a new battery.  I was told the other items weren’t critical and could, in fact, wait until the next time.  They reset one of the warning lights and took it for a test drive to ensure it didn’t come back on – for free.  Total spent today was around $150 – more than I had planned on, but far less than I was told in suggested repairs.

6.  Remember: YOU are in control.
Never lose sight of the fact that you are a paying customer who can (and will) go elsewhere if the associates in front of you aren’t meeting your needs.  As a retail manager, I know the importance of customer satisfaction and loyalty; those associates need your purchase, and they should do everything in their power to ensure you spend your money at their establishment.  Don’t be afraid of the word “no” – to hear it or to say it.  However, do be flexible enough to know when the associate in front of you has truly hit their bottom line.  And either that will be good enough, or it won’t – that is for you to decide (refer back to #1).  But chances are, you still win, because their bottom line is still going to be better than their first offer…and you have saved money.