It’s Time: The Grocery Price Book

I first read about grocery price books over at The Simple Dollar, years ago. Not being into spreadsheets… or math… or shopping, it didn’t seem to me to be a terribly sexy project. The other ways in which I managed to trim my expenses were successful enough that I usually had enough room in my food budget to buy whatever I wanted whenever I wanted without much thought. When Mr. Vega and I began to focus more on whole, real, organic foods, our grocery bills went up, and I just felt happy that we could afford to eat the way we wanted to. After all, we were debt-free, saving for a house, and even had money left over for travel and fun.

Since my husband traded his full-time sales job for life as a full-time student, however, we’ve had to tighten our belts a bit. In January, we managed to wrestle our food expenses down to just over half of what we’re accustomed to spending… mostly by eating out much less than we had been. Also, one of my favorite bloggers, Brandy over at The Prudent Homemaker, is diligent with her food expenses: She keeps a detailed price list of food she buys to feed her family of nine, and her monthly shopping lists are terrific guides to seasonal low grocery prices. Simply following along and stocking up on some things when she does has been tremendously helpful!

But each home is different, and no one solution works for everyone. Our household in Austin, Texas, comprised of two adults with full-time outside commitments, two cats, and a nascent garden, is quite different from hers in Las Vegas with seven children, a work-at-home spouse in addition to a full-time work-outside one, and an abundant home garden that is the result of several years’ worth of effort. And both her home and mine will be different from yours, with your brand-new baby, or giant dogs, or busy travel schedule.

And so the time has come for me to buckle down and invest a bit of time and energy into learning exactly what our most-purchased items usually cost, what a good deal really looks like (because fifty cents off sounds great, but what if it’s normally sixty cents cheaper at the store down the street?), and seeing how much more space we can get in this recently-contracted budget of ours.

I’ve sorted through our shopping lists, and created a spreadsheet on Google Drive listing sixty items we purchase regularly (conventional wisdom suggests starting with a list of 15-20 things, but once I started, I kept thinking of more!), and I’m actually looking forward to learning where the best prices are and seeing how much money we can save. Grocery store sales generally run in 8-12 week cycles, so I reckon it will be Spring by the time I have a good handle on this, but check back and I’ll share how it’s going!

How do you keep track of grocery prices in your area? What patterns have you noticed?

 

Advertisements

Can Two Live as Cheaply as One? We’re About to Find Out.

For several months, Mr. Vega has been in slow burnout mode at work. Telecom sales is a constant, high-pressure environment that has been fitting less and less with the person he is becoming. About a month ago, we spent five days camping off-grid, enjoying good food, the company of friends, and time spent in nature. His first day back at work, I got a text from him: I’m sitting here at my desk thinking that I’m wasting my time and my life here… This weekend really did me good.

We spent a week and a half talking about what he wants to do, how we want to live, and how to make that happen. We ran the numbers, and we ran them again. And a few more times, just to be sure.

Ten days later, he resigned.

The plan is for him to start school full-time in January, spending a couple of years training for a career in which he doesn’t have to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything. Or sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed, you know, as a career. *

For the next couple of months, he will be a full-time homemaker, quite literally: there are garden beds to be built, a porch to screen in, rain gutters to install, and a host of other home-improvement projects to tackle in our Little Hippie House. There is a lot that we’ve been wanting to do, but we haven’t had much time for it.

Building Raised Beds

We’ve spent the past few years ensuring that we could handle a shift like this: We are debt-free except for the house, and we made sure to buy a house that we could afford on one income, if it ever came to that. After we paid off all our consumer debt (and before we started saving for a down payment), we built an Emergency Fund that would allow us to continue our lifestyle unchanged for four months with zero income, or for much longer if we reduce our expenses and maintain some kind of income. Since purchasing the house, we have resumed our Emergency Fund contributions, with a long-term goal of saving a full year’s worth of expenses.

We believe that with the right cuts, we can live modestly on my freelance income, without tapping into our Emergency Fund, and maybe even continuing to grow it, little by little. Mr. Vega has committed to getting at least a part-time job if we find ourselves unable to manage, although we would both prefer that he didn’t have to.

There will be sacrifices, mostly involving entertainment and travel, but we’re excited to have the opportunity to walk our talk to live meaningfully, and happily. We’ll continue to work toward making our home as self-sustaining as possible, and welcome all the friends and family who have the means to visit us in Austin. And we’re grateful to be cultivating friendships here with folks who share our values, and who are just as happy as we are to spend a weekend camping or an afternoon playing board games, instead of doing spendier things.

At the end of his training, Mr. Vega will be eminently employable, with a starting income that will at the minimum match what he was earning at his high-stress job, and with the potential to double in a few years’ time. To our farway friends and family, you can expect a visit from us beginning in 2017, but in the meantime, y’all are welcome to come on down any time you like!

*with gratitude to Cameron Crowe, Say Anything (1989)

We Did it…

… We bought a house! Our first house. And we’re pretty excited.

Four years of hard work, paying off debt, saving money and one cross-country move later, and we have a house! Right now, I’m going to say that it has all been worth it. We made a 20% down payment and bought the house for exactly market value, which is kind of a bargain in the real estate frenzy that is Austin. So we’ve already got a good amount of equity, and our net worth hasn’t changed. Which is strange and wonderful, considering we just handed over almost all of our savings except for our Emergency Fund.

It’s small. As in 800 square feet, 2-bedroom/1-bath, single-car garage small. Buying a smaller, older house allowed us to stay within our budget, which was several thousand dollars less than the current median home price in Austin, but still stay close to downtown and some of our favorite South Austin neighborhoods. Having a smaller house also means, of course, that it will be less expensive to cool and heat as well as being easier to clean. We want to replace both the roof and the flooring at some point, and those things will also be cheaper because of the house’s smaller footprint.

The lot is a relatively large 1/4 acre, which gives us plenty of room for gardening and entertaining. And there is plenty of room for the house to grow, if we ever decide that a third bedroom or a second bathroom is a necessity. We’re planning to build a compost bin ASAP, planting a mini-orchard of fruit trees, and even considering getting a few chickens.

Built in 1968 and used as a rental property for the past decade, it’s going to need a fair amount of work. We see that as a benefit, though because it was another thing that kept the asking price low, and also because we can do most of the improvements ourselves, to get things exactly how we want them. Some of the first things on our list are high-efficiency appliances, double-paned windows, and a rainwater collection system.

There are train tracks just behind our back fence, but it’s in a “quiet zone,” which means the trains are not allowed to blow their horns except in emergencies. Houses that abut train tracks are generally considered less desirable, which helped with the affordability factor, and honestly, I find the sight and sound of freight trains nostalgic!

The neighborhood is funky and eclectic… No cookie-cutter houses, and most importantly to us, no HOA. Homes in our new neighborhood have interesting creative decor and landscaping: some of them even have their vegetable gardens in the front. We were also pleased to spot a few harbingers of creativity and a laid-back vibe in the area: free-range children!

This is the thing we’ve worked so hard to do, and we’ve been able to do it on our own terms, so we’re very happy. We’re looking forward to what lies ahead, as we continue our journey toward self-sufficiency and financial independence.

All About That Bocce

When Mr. Vega and I moved to Austin last Summer, building a strong social network was (and still is!) a very high priority for us. We’ve read that close friendships prevent depression, extend lifespans, and lessen the likelihood of long periods of unemployment. Oh, also, it’s fun to have friends! Fortunately, Austin has plenty of opportunities to socialize… outdoor films, free music, art walks, fun runs… you name it. One of the activities we happened across was Austin’s inaugural season of Major League Bocce— which sounds more advanced than it is, as beginners are welcome, too! We’d never played bocce before, and we didn’t have a team to join with, so we signed up to be placed with other random folks, and convened in a little park on a hot summer night to see what we’d gotten ourselves into. We were placed with two other couples and one single guy… all of whom had a fair amount of experience playing bocce, but fortunately for us, the learning curve is pretty shallow (mastering the game, however, is another story!). And while the learning curve isn’t steep, the park where we played is We spent the next six weeks chasing our balls as they rolled down the hill into other players’ courts, hollering “Sorry!” and learning how to roll the ball left to make it go to the right. Afterward, we repaired to the local pub for some adult refreshment and conversation. It was a great good time, and we ended up becoming close friends with one of the couples from our team.

We’re constantly looking for ways to be of service in our new community, so when I learned that Special Olympics Texas has a Bocce Competition, we were eager to help out. We had a great time escorting the athletes to their games, keeping score, and cheering them on. Because they had spent eight weeks training for the competition, they actually had more experience than we did, and we picked up a few tips! More than that, we got to see how truly accessible the sport is for people of all age ranges and with a wide range of physical abilities.

We returned to our second season with a renewed enthusiasm for the game, and when we were asked to help out again, we didn’t hesitate. This time it was a special event at a new apartment complex: They have a bocce court on the property, but none of the residents knew how to play, so we spent a pleasant couple of hours on a chilly Fall night showing them the ropes (at least as well as we know them). The neighbors got to know each other better, and we got to drink some free-to-us beer and play our new favorite game!

Season three will find us back on the bocce court, where we’ll team up with some new faces, and deepen our friendships with the folks we already know. I’m also volunteering with the league this season, so I’m looking forward to getting to know people from a different perspective.

Moving to a new city and creating friendships isn’t easy, but organized social events and sports teams provide an opportunity to get to know a group of people who share your interests, and the repeated exposure gives friendships a little time and space in which to grow. And sometimes it’s nice to mix things up a little, even if you’ve lived in the same place for years… you can never have too many friends in your life! Who knows? Trying something new just might open up a part of life you never knew you were missing!

Home (Away from Home)

Austin is finally starting to really feel like home. I’ve worked at my Dream Job twice now, so I’m finding myself in a familiar environment, and our social circle continues to grow. Our second-ever Bocce season began last Thursday, and it was a blast! We’re playing in a new, closer location with a reconfigured team, and one of our old teammates has become the Volunteer-in-Charge. I think relationships are strengthened when people get to experience each other in different ways, and because we’re new here, this is our first time doing that with our new friends.There’s something exciting about seeing them in slightly different roles (and new team colors!). The game was a lot of fun, we happened to win, and we all enjoyed spending some time together afterward at our new host bar.

The next morning, Mr. Vega and I volunteered to run a bocce court for our local Special Olympics Bocce Competition. We got to learn a little more about the game, and see what it looks like when the players aren’t drinking beer! As it happens, one of my interpreting colleagues was there, on duty… We’re starting to feel like real Austinites, running into people we know everywhere we go. Now I know why Texas ladies are always so put-together: you’re bound to be seen by someone you know anytime you leave your house! I, on the other hand, ran out of makeup two weeks ago, and haven’t bothered to buy any more. Whoops.

Saturday found us at  the Austin City Limits Music Festival, an event many locals avoid like the plague (“The traffic! The lines! The tourists!!). We got a ride from a neighbor– How nice is that?!– and had a wonderful day. The weather was perfect, and the lines for beer and bathrooms were short. We got to see some of our favorite bands, and get exposed to a few new ones. There were food carts galore, as well, so we tasted food from some local places we hadn’t gotten around to trying. All in all, it was a fabulous day. And of course, we ran into someone we knew!

7 Mistakes I Didn’t Make in My New City

1. Flying Solo

I’m quite comfortable in my own company: my idea of a restorative weekend involves not having to use my vocal cords for a full 48 hours! Long baths, good books, and going on my own to matinee movies suit me just fine. Back home, I have friends who get that, and who will happily spend an afternoon reading alongside me at a cafe or bookstore, or watching films next to me without commenting on every little thing. But building comfortable, intimate friendships requires meeting people and actually talking to them! So, I’m stepping out of my “comfort zone” by joining things like a local bocce league, which gets me out of the house and interacting with live– and very friendly– humans, on a regular basis.

2. Negatively Comparing Everything to Your Old City

If all I focused on was what I missed, I would be one unhappy transplant. I would also be missing out on all that my new city has to offer. Sure, Austin doesn’t have the Arclight Cinemas, but Los Angeles doesn’t have Alamo Drafthouse, where you can get full meals, snacks, and drinks from the bar delivered to your seat during the movie (well, not yet… but there’s one on the way!). And while I love me a good breakfast burrito, Austin has an entire sub-culture devoted to breakfast tacos, which come with the added benefit of not inducing a food coma before noon. Finally, though I have seen a couple of timid drivers sit through several rush-hour traffic light cycles because of some weird Fear of Left Turns that seems to happen here, not one person honked at them. Isn’t that nice? I’m happy to change my own ingrained L.A. driving habits if it means not hearing car horns blasting literally hundreds of times throughout my day.

(Although, it must be said, I truly believe I will never have another Good Hair Day as long as I live in the State of Texas. Southern California weather wins all contests, every time. Just saying.)

3. Only Going to Places that Remind You of Home

My heart lifted just a little in my first days here when I saw a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and an In-N-Out Burger here in Austin. Heck, there’s even a Frenchy’s Beauty Parlor here (okay, that one is a good thing)! But if I only chose to go to the same places I’ve always been, I’d be missing out on the awesome veggie burgers and fries at P. Terry’s, or the on-tap cold-brew coffee at Radio Coffee and Beer. Part of Keeping Austin Weird is supporting businesses that were created by and for the people that live here, and they’ve got a lot of interesting and wonderful things to offer… things we’ve never tried anywhere else!

4. Forgetting Your Old Friends

It’s been a little challenging being in different time zones, but if I didn’t have regular phone calls and video chats with some of my old friends, life would be a lot harder… especially during these first few months while I’m meeting and getting to know new people. In this new place where no one knows me well yet, it’s easy to feel a bit adrift, so I’ve set calendar reminders to call or text loved ones at regular intervals. They’ve been really lovely about reaching out to me, as well, and it’s making all the difference.

5. Thinking Only of Oneself

Mr. Vega and I spent a pleasantly exhausting Saturday morning a few weeks ago clearing brush at Community First! for Mobile Loaves and Fishes, a social outreach ministry that empowers communities into a lifestyle of service with the homeless. It was great to get out and work hard with other people, for other people, and doing something to help alleviate homelessness puts all our temporary moving discomfort into perspective.

We also attended an event at our local political party headquarters, to register to vote and get to know some of the candidates a little better. In Texas, unlike in California, voter registration must be done in the presence of someone who has been deputized to register them… We’re considering getting deputized, so we can help people get registered before the October deadline. It’s another good way to give back to our new community, and encourage others to do the same.

6. Shopping Only at the Grocery Store

We signed up for a weekly CSA box from Johnson’s Backyard Garden. Because we are not from the South, we’ve had the opportunity to get to know some new-to-us produce, like okra, sweet potato greens, and some kind of melon I’d never seen before… thank goodness for the Internet, and its endless supply of recipes! Every week is a new surprise, and we like knowing that it’s all organic and locally grown. If we only shopped at the grocery store, we’d most likely gravitate toward the things we know, and overlook some delicious opportunities!

7. Driving Aggressively

Our first week here, Mr. Vega noticed that, unlike in Los Angeles where drivers pull their cars out into the intesections in anticipation of their left turns, most folks in Austin tend to wait behind the limit lines for a break in traffic (see #2 for the problems that can cause!). Also,  perhaps because of the congestion in this rapidly-expanding city, people have a tendency to cut each other off a lot– or maybe it’s because so few of us know where we’re going! Taking our time, and allowing other drivers the right-of-way when we can has allowed us to become accustomed to the local style of driving, and hopefully, keep the roads just a little bit safer for everyone, here in our new city!

What are some of the mistakes you have made (or avoided) when relocating to a new city?

When Life Gives you Lemon-Face.

What stereotypes do you have when you think of Californians? What images come immediately to mind?

Perhaps you think of people that say “Dude” a lot, folks that eat organic food and put avocado on everything, or drivers that see stop signs mostly as suggestions. Do you imagine Californians to wear jackets only as fashion statements, vote Democrat, and talk to children as though they were already fully formed human beings?

Ok, then you’ve got a pretty accurate picture of us, as well as most of our friends and family. And if these descriptions don’t apply to you, then a lot of it might sound humorous, if not downright distasteful.

Now think about Texas.

Different, right?

We spent a lot of time sorting out where in these United States of America would be the best place for us to live. We took into account weather, culture, economy, demographics, geography, crime statistics, opportunities for career and education, and of course, the availability of organic food. We researched property values. We talked about how it might feel to move so far away from family and friends, and what cultural shifts we might end up making. A lot of time and effort went into this decision, and we believe it to be a good one (Still, though, we do have a backup plan, in case we’re wrong).

But occasionally the response we get from people with whom we share our choice is a face that looks like we popped a lemon wedge into their mouths when they weren’t looking: “You know that’s in Texas, don’t you?!” they sputter, “That is a Red State!”

Or they remind us that it’s so very very hot, or that it’s over a thousand miles away from our current home, or that the pollen count in Austin is off the charts. My favorite was the one who turned her nose up and the corners of her mouth downward; “My ex lives in Austin,” she sneered. The whole state of Texas, it seems, is therefore contaminated. Dude must have really done a number on her (Hilariously enough, one of our exes just moved there, too. Won’t it be jolly to bump into each other and say “Hello” over the organic avocados?).

As for the rest of their objections, well… We know all that stuff. We actually have a few friends that are Republicans, and most of them are all right (which is why we’re, you know… friends). And we have cars with air conditioning, and access to maps, and doctors who confirm that while we are allergic to grass, and sensitive to dust, and that one of us could die if shellfish is on the menu, neither of us is allergic to pollen. Also, it must be said, we’re excited to move from the highest-taxed State in the Union to one that has No. State. Income Tax (“But they have high property taxes!” Yes, yes, we know that, too).

We get that our people don’t want us to leave. We’re going to miss them, too. We’re also going to miss living near(ish) to the beach, and perfect weather, and having our favorite theme park an hour’s drive away. But we were hoping for a little more excitement and a little less… Sour Face. And certainly, as each person registers his or her response, they have no way of knowing that it’s our dozenth time sitting through some version of “Texas sucks, and you’re going to hate living there.” Which might be true, but on the day we move to Austin, we’ll be just two of over a hundred humans that day who move there. Unemployment is among the lowest in the nation, and rental occupancy among the highest. If we’re making a horrible mistake, at least it’s a popular one.

Maybe– hopefully– the people who love us will come to accept and support this move. Maybe they’ll even find their way clear to getting on an airplane sometime and seeing what this place we’ve chosen is all about, when you get past the stereotypes and into the reality of it. The way they did when they moved to Hollywood, and discovered that not everyone here has perfect teeth or drives a convertible (Although most of us do, so that’s probably a bad example. You get the point though, right?). And, in all fairness, people do seem to enjoy SXSW. As a matter of fact, they’ve all pledged to absolutely, positively visit us for a week next March.

In the meantime, we’ve got plenty of raw, organic agave to go with those lemons…