Frugal Tuesday: Check Unit Pricing!

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Bigger packages are often labeled as “Economy Size,” and while that’s usually true, it isn’t always the case. Around here, we’ve gotten very comfortable standing in the aisle at the grocery store, calculating prices per unit on our mobile phone calculators, to see that our hard-earned money is going as far as it possibly can. Sometimes, as in the photo above, the store is kind enough to do the math for us, but if they hadn’t, I would have been happy to take an extra moment to do it myself. By choosing the larger bottle of raw agave, I would have saved 41 cents over the same amount of product in two smaller bottles. And I could have kept another nickel in my pocket by choosing the lighter syrup. That might not seem like much, but we go through one large bottle a month at our house (What can I say? We like our coffee sweet!), so over the course of a year, that single choice would save us around five bucks. Multiply that sort of tiny savings by the number of items in your grocery cart each week (10? 25? 50?), and you might start to understand why small economies can matter so much. Simply paying attention to the unit price could save you hundreds of dollars a year!

I’ve recently started a grocery price book — actually a Google Drive spreadsheet– which helped me to recognize that the prices above, while better than our regular grocery store, are still much higher than what Costco charges for the same product under a different brand (Truthfully, I wasn’t even grocery shopping when I took the picture… I was picking up something else at a store we don’t frequent, so I snapped a couple pics of items we commonly purchase to compare prices later).

Finally, be careful to not be lulled into a false sense of security because you’re shopping at a “discount”or “dollar” store: Many years ago, my roommate at the time came home with a box of plain white envelopes from the dollar store, and I had coincidentally picked up the same exact box at the office supply for fifty cents. She was a much more careful shopper than I was back then, so we were both surprised at my accidental savings!

Does price per unit factor into your shopping practices? What surprises have you found?

 

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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?

 

Frugal Tuesday: Freeze it!

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Years ago, Nigella Lawson blew my mind when she suggested freezing the rest of any wine still left in the bottle, to use for cooking later. Poured into a freezer bag and tossed in the freezer, it makes a sort of slush that is easily measured for use in recipes. I tried it, and I haven’t looked back! You can freeze all sorts of things: bread, milk, grated cheese, casseroles, Chinese take-out… even fresh herbs in olive oil or broth, poured into ice cube trays. Do you like iced coffee? Coffee ice cubes are a game-changer!

Frugalista extraordinaire Donna Freedman has mastered the art of freezing food scraps in a “boiling bag “to be reincarnated as broth later. If you like soup even a little bit, this practice will ruin you for canned soup forever. Luckily, soup freezes well, too.

If you’re not freezing your leftovers, or your little bits of ingredients that are left after using what you need for a recipe, not only are you wasting food and money, but you are depriving yourself of the enormous convenience of having just-enough tomato paste, pesto, or other fantastic things to take your weeknight cooking from adequate to awesome.

What’s in your freezer?

 

 

Battening Down the Hatches, Y’all

We received a letter this week from Mr. Vega’s employer, regarding medical benefit options in light of their upcoming corporate merger. There is quite a bit of uncertainty regarding how coverage will be handled, and they’ve made it clear that there will be employment redundancies. The bottom of the letter contained this lovely tidbit:

* If you are terminated, you may have rights to continue your FSA through “COBRA” (which we’ll explain more about if that becomes necessary), but you’ll do that on an after-tax basis, which is not advantageous for most.

This is the point in our program where we prepare for the worst, while continuing to hope for the best. All expenses must be questioned, and all unnecessary spending gets put on “pause” until our financial skies are clear again. Waiting to make changes until after a job loss could be devastating for us, both financially and emotionally: we could weather a transition much more gracefully if we were already prepared for it, rather than trying to make drastic lifestyle changes while also dealing with the psychological trauma that can accompany the loss of a job.

Fortuitously, I spent some time the other day creating a menu plan for November. I took my inspiration from The Prudent Homemaker, a full-time wife and homeschooling mother of seven children, who used their food storage as the basis for keeping her family cared-for during her husband’s eight-month period of unemployment. Using her seasonal menu as a template, and making adjustments for our smaller household, dietary preferences, and busy schedules, I put together a month-long plan for eating delicious and healthy meals that are also lower-cost. An unexpected benefit of meal planning is that it gets us out of our ruts, and reminds us to eat a greater variety of food. Left to my own devices, I’d eat Trader Joe’s whole wheat cinnamon rolls and a latte every. single. morning. But there’s a whole world of breakfast food out there, and writing it all down helps me remember how much I also love fresh fruit and Greek yogurt, oatmeal pancakes, and eggs scrambled ever so slowly.

As timing would have it, Mr. Vega’s 1991 Honda CR-X has reached the point where the annual repair costs are more than the value of the car itself. After running the numbers and weighing the pros and cons, we’ve decided to purchase a newer used vehicle. Counterintuitive as it may seem, we have enough in savings, and we’d rather buy a reliable car now than continue to pay for unforeseen repairs during a potential period of unemployment. And let’s face it, job interviews are stressful enough without worrying about whether your car will start to get you there, or having your air conditioning give up the ghost when it’s 90 degrees out!

Ironically, we do most of our shopping in anticipation of lean times, as that’s when we feel the need to stock up, in case we won’t be able to later. I dislike shopping so much that I generally don’t replace my clothes until they are threadbare, but I may look to upgrade my wardrobe a bit in the light of this merger uncertainty. I currently have just one pair of shoes that I wear for work, and I’d prefer to shop the sales now, rather than scrambling to get something cheap-but-appropriate if these give out during a time of hardship. This is also as good a time as any to start planning our spring garden so that we’ll be ready to plant our balcony container garden when the time comes. Fresh, homegrown food is lovely whatever one’s circumstances, but it’s especially wonderful to be able to get food from your garden instead of the market when money’s tight.

Because the merger threatens to leave us with reduced benefits even if we do keep the job, we’ll be sure to attend to our medical needs before the end of the year. We want to have healthy bodies, strong teeth, and brand-new pairs of eyeglasses that have been covered by insurance. One of us could use a new set of orthotics, as well. These are the sorts of things we should be doing anyway, but this new sense of urgency will make sure that we do.

Mr. Vega will indeed be updating his resume and LinkedIn profile and seeing what his options are, sooner rather than later. If his company’s merger results in widespread layoffs, the market will be flooded with folks looking for work, and we want to get the jump on the rest of the talent pool.  And because our household functions as a cooperative whole, it’s job-search time for everybody around here. So, while I do enjoy my part-time and freelance work, I also have two interviews scheduled this month for full-time positions that come with the all-important Benefits Package. Landing one of those would allow my husband to widen his job search to include less traditional opportunities, without worrying that we’d be left without medical coverage.

We’ll also be making a greater effort to keep up with our still-forming social and professional networks. We view “networking” as a way to cultivate and deepen authentic relationships, rather than as strictly transactional contact, and so it’s important to us that we spend some time with folks now, and not wait until we’re in need. Whether those connections result in professional opportunities or not, a robust social life will go a long way toward easing the stress of unemployment, if it happens.

We are very lucky to have moved to a city with so much free and inexpensive fun. There’s almost never a cover charge for live music (and when there is, it is oh-so-worth-it), there are plenty of festivals and activities happening all the time everywhere around here, so it will be easy to keep our spirits up and hang out with our new friends at bargain basement prices. We’ve got a couple of social buying vouchers hanging around for inexpensive dinners and movie nights, and we’re looking forward to hosting some game nights at home, as well. It’s good to have a little fun once in a while, especially during periods of increased stress or uncertainty.

We were already planning on keeping things low-key this year, but we’re still going to need to rethink the holidays. We generally do home-made, consumable gifts for everyone in our fairly large family and closest circle of friends, but this year’s gift idea is a bit pricier than usual. Not crazy expensive, but when you’re giving to a couple dozen people, it adds up quickly! We’re going to have to reconsider our gifting, and perhaps just send cards to everyone but family. We do feel blessed to have people around us who aren’t likely to feel slighted, though… material things mean much less to our loved ones– and to us!– than the actual relationships. A card means as much to all of us as a gift… especially if the giver is on a budget!

Closer to home, our own first holiday season in Austin will be spent exploring the city’s decorations, giving some of our time to help people who are currently less fortunate than we are, enjoying homemade seasonal goodies and free holiday movies, and video chatting with our faraway loved ones.

Once the merger has come and gone, we’ll be able to breathe our sighs of relief, and return to business as usual around here. If the layoffs don’t come, we might find ourselves on the other side of this with more stable, higher-paying jobs, closer relationships within our community, in better health, and with some more money in the bank. Sacrificing just a little comfort and convenience now, when we can afford to, seems like a small price to pay in exchange for the security of knowing that we could take care of ourselves in the event of a job loss.

How have you “battened down the hatches” when faced with uncertainty in the workplace or periods of unemployment? 

How to Start Living Below Your Means

I’m sick today. If I didn’t speak for a living, I could probably still go to work, but I’ve got laryngitis, so I am out of commission. Trouble is, as an hourly employee and freelancer, “no work” means “no pay.” The good news is, Mr. Vega and I have the great good fortune of a fully funded (3-6 months of living expenses) emergency fund, and have gotten the hang of living below our means, so we probably won’t need to dip into savings to cover a few days of lost work.

But it wasn’t always like this. Most of my work has come without paid sick time or vacation days, and before I learned to live modestly, even one sick day could create a financial crisis. Never mind “paycheck-to-paycheck,” I lived “credit card bill-to-credit card bill” for a decade, and viewed due dates as mere suggestions, racking up late fees and ruining my credit, while still getting $100 spa treatments on a regular basis. If I heard the suggestion during those years to live within or below my means, it didn’t register, because I wouldn’t have even known where to start.

It’s been eight years since I found myself living in a small, sad apartment, staring at thousands of dollars in credit card and tax debt, alongside statements for hefty paychecks, wondering how I could have earned such a high hourly rate for so long and have nothing to show for it. Less than nothing, actually, because I had a negative net worth!

Something happened in that lonely apartment, and before I knew it, I was canceling credit cards, filing amended tax returns in search of deductions that had been overlooked in my sloppy record-keeping, and trying out slow-cooker recipes to lower my food costs. I ignored my health and my relationships in order to work as much as I possibly could to get the debt paid. My intense focus got me debt-free within a year, but two years after that, I found myself with a $6,000 credit card bill, and a $20,000 car loan. I had learned how to pay off debt, but not how to avoid it in the first place. I hadn’t learned to budget, and I not learned to live below my means.

My first attempts at budgeting failed miserably, because I based them on templates that had little to do with my actual spending habits. As a single woman living in Los Angeles, I spent more than the national average on rent and transportation, but nothing on child care. Grocery expenses were low, restaurant spending was high, and visits to the hair salon were (and still are) non-negotiable. I came to understand that each of us is unique, and our earning, spending and savings will reflect that. What’s more, even one’s own budget will not remain a perfect fit year in and year out, or from one month to the next. Life changes quickly, and we have to change with it. I learned that if you’re ever going to get a handle on this money thing, you have to write down everything you spend. This is a requirement for success, but I struggled with it terribly until I discovered Mint (with whom I am not affiliated, and from whom I have received no compensation), which made it easy for me to see where the money was coming from and where it was going, so that I could begin to make changes based on what was actually happening.

With the whole ugly truth laid out in front of me, the first thing I did was to stop the most obvious money leaks. These are the areas where economizing is relatively painless: I started buying six-packs of soda at the grocery store and taking drinks to work instead of dropping $1.50 a day into the vending machine. I’d drive around the block looking for street parking instead of mindlessly pulling into the pay lot. My lifestyle didn’t change much, and I was still spending too much money, but I was beginning to wake up to the possibility of doing things differently. Things got much more refined later, but at this early stage, every time I didn’t super-size my order was a win for me.

After I got the hang of easier things, I began to get creative with the less-obvious opportunities for savings. I scoured my auto insurance policy for coverage I didn’t need, checked that my cell phone plan wasn’t more than I needed, and scheduled coffee dates with friends instead of dinners out. It became a game for me, and no savings was too small: the double-loader washing laundromat machine that cost a quarter less than two separate loads, the ten-cent savings at the coffee shop for bringing your own cup (later, of course, I switched to brewing my own coffee), the grocery store that offered a nickel credit for bringing your own bag…. I began to enjoy finding some sort of savings everywhere I went. After all, pennies add up to dollars, eventually.

Another major step in my financial awakening was beginning to declutter. I thought selling some of my no-longer-used things might be a good way to create more space in my home and in my budget. It was quite a shock to learn that I couldn’t expect to receive even half of what I had paid for most things, even if they had never been used! The exercise of decluttering and downsizing my possessions made me keenly aware of the purchases I made going forward. I have since cultivated a practice of buying less, buying for life when I can, and doing my level best to avoid retail prices everywhere else.

When I had just about reached the limits of minimizing my expenses within the life I was living, it became time for me to make a big move. For me, this first meant cutting cable and killing my TV, and later, moving in with a roommate to reduce my rent by $400 a month. And while it seems counterintuitive to not have begun with these things, baby-stepping my way up the ladder of frugality allowed me to garner small wins and develop an experiential conviction that larger sacrifices would be worth the effort. And they definitely were.

With my expenses cut as deeply as I could manage, my next task was to learn to earn more, which was by far the riskiest thing I did, as it involved working less, and taking a few chances with my schedule of part-time jobs and freelance work. But because I had finally paid off all my debt (again!), and brought my expenses more in line with my earnings, I could afford the gamble. The graphs and trends on Mint helped me realize that the job I deemed most stable, but that also caused me the most stress, accounted for only 10% of my annual income. With some trepidation, I left that job and increased my availability with the employer who was less stable, but paid much more. As last-minute freelance assignments come with a 20% premium, I held off on booking lower-paying work in advance, in the hopes that the higher-paying, same-day assignments would be plentiful enough to meet my needs. And I spoke up: when a new manager came on board at the freelance agency, I told him honestly that although the agency was one of my favorite employers, I frequently declined work there in favor of higher-paying jobs. Within the month, I was offered a rate commensurate with what I earned elsewhere. By choosing my assignments carefully, and giving highest priority to the highest-paying jobs, I was able to increase my income and reduce my workload.

Rinse and Repeat. By the time I had found so many ways to reduce my daily expenses, had brought down a few of the big ones, and learned to make more money in less time, life had changed enough that going back to the beginning seemed like a good idea. I had met and married my husband, and we began budgeting together early on in our dating relationship. “My goals” had been modified and expanded to become “Our goals,” which included saving for a house, and while the household income had doubled, regular expenses had not (two may not live quite as cheaply as one, but happily, the cost of running a household doesn’t double when its occupancy does). Eating a nearly meat- and alcohol-free diet didn’t work so well for my husband, so grocery expenses were higher, but cooking and eating at home was more fun with a companion, and so the restaurant budget shrank. And since we moved from California to Texas, we’re spending less on gasoline, but more on mosquito repellant!

Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned on the path to living below our means is that you’ve got to have fun doing it. Brown-bagging my lunch means I get to eat healthier, more interesting meals every day, and still have enough money to get my hair done every other month, without having a minor panic attack when it comes time to pay. Losing my loyalty to name-brand products made by companies who aren’t concerned with my well-being means that I can fill our fridge without draining our bank accounts. Finding free fun on weekends lets us enjoy life while saving for a house. And taking a few calculated risks in order to earn more money allows me to stay home and write when I’m sick without fear that the lights will get turned off next month because of it.

Is living within or below your means important to you? What changes have you made, or would you consider making, to do it?

Our Grocery Budget

I was halfway through Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University personal finance course when Mr. Vega and I started dating, and he was nearing the end of a period of unemployment he had navigated more deftly than most. Because neither of us had any money when we found each other, we enjoyed mainly home-cooked meals on our early dates. And because neither of us had any money, that became a topic of conversation very early in our courtship. We began doing our individual budgets side-by-side while we were still dating, and have continued to create a budget every month since we’ve been married.

While we do enjoy cooking together at home, I confess that our food and grocery budget remains the biggest area in which we still have plenty of room for improvement. We generally pack and bring our lunches to work, do our best to minimize food waste, and have dinner at home most weeknights, but we are not immune to the siren song of takeout on the days we find ourselves exhausted, and I am very guilty of impulse buys at the grocery store. Menu planning is also challenging, because sometimes we just don’t want what we had planned to make, and we haven’t got ingredients in the house to make what we do want.

We’re still working on finding ways of planning, spending and eating that blend our desire to eat a frugal, organic, real-food diet that is also delicious and interesting. So we overspend. On a regular basis.

But we haven’t given up: we set up a balcony garden almost as soon as we got settled in Austin, and are hoping to have a quick learning curve about container gardening in this hot-humid climate. We signed up for a weekly CSA box from Johnson’s Backyard Garden, and are enjoying learning to cook new-to-us veggies like sweet potato greens and okra.

What are some of the challenges you face in keeping your food costs low? Where have you succeeded?