January 31, 2012

Sharing the Wealth: Meal planning

Ever since Jameson started eating solids I have been writing menu plans. I just didn't feel that what we had been doing (eating whatever random "meals" we could throw together, involving a lot of canned soup and cereal) was going to work with a growing little boy. I wanted to make him a good meal every night but was growing tired of trying to scrounge things up at the last minute. So, I started making a menu plan.

Over time, I have really changed the kinds of meals I prepare. At this point, while I still have a lot of room for improvement, I have really figured out how to make menu plans for our family that are realistic, healthful, and budget friendly.

Make your menu plan work for you
When I making our menu plan, I start with considering a few key things:

First, I figure out exactly how many meals we are going to need. I take into consideration nights that we are going to be eating our for a special occasion or going to someone else's house for dinner. I also use this to determine what our budget is going to be for that week. I always start with the same number, but if I know that a meal is going to be eaten out, I know that I have less to spend in the grocery store since I will need to allow for the meal out.

Next, I figure out what kind of meals I need. For example, I know that there is one night a week that I am not home for dinner and Shaun is in charge of feeding the kiddos. Shaun is a little limited in the kinds of meals he can make (that are mom approved, anyway) so I always plan either a meal that he can do on his own or a freezer meal that he just has to heat up. After all, if I am just picking random meals and not truly planning for our needs, it is almost certain that we won't stick with the menu plan and set ourselves up for failure.

Determine what is important for you in your menu
Above all, if you menu plan isn't one that you feel good about and actually have the skills and time to stick to, it isn't going to be anything more than a list of food on your fridge. For us, our meals need to:

-Fit our time needs for that night
-Be healthy, mostly unprocessed foods that I feel good about my family eating
-Low cost
-Utilize what we already have on hand

If I am not incorporating these needs into our menus, I am simply not going to stick to them and they aren't going to do us a bit of good.

Start with a structure
In the two week span that I plan for, there are a few meal types that I know are always going to make an appearance:

Breakfast for dinner: We LOVE breakfast for dinner. Especially since we don't generally do more than cereal for breakfast, we like to have yummy breakfast foods at dinner time. And, you know what? Breakfast foods are cheap! Using pancakes made from scratch from the freezer, eggs (we get free, farm fresh eggs from Shaun's grandma- can't beat that!) and some fruit or another can make an inexpensive, balanced meal.

No meat meals: Now, don't be mistaken. WE LOVE MEAT. We are most certainly not a vegetarian family. However, you can definitely save a hunk of money in your budget by planning a couple meals that don't have meat in them. Our favorites are meatless pastas, beans and rice (I know that sounds cheap and yucky, but it is actually a quite tasty dish), and homemade cheese pizza.

Basic meat and veggie meals: We stock up on meat cuts when they are on sale. To stretch these savings further, we couple these with basic meals so that we can have "treats" without breaking the bank. For example, if I can pick up some porkchops on sale, I will use ingredients I have on hand to marinade or season them, and pair them with a bag of frozen veggies.

Pizza picnic night: Almost every Saturday night, we have a pizza picnic in the living room. I make the pizza crust from scratch (RIDICULOUSLY easy) and use whatever toppings we have on hand (last time was ham and pineapple- yum!!!) This has already become a tradition my kids really look forwards to, it is a great way to use up some stuff in the freezer that might otherwise go uneaten, and it makes meal planning much easier when I always know what one meal a week is. To make it even easier, I usually triple the crust recipe and freeze the rest so that most nights I don't even have to do much to put the pizza together.

Always, always "shop" your cupboards first
 Yes, I know that I talked about this in my last post about my grocery list. But, this is really the key to building a menu plan when you are stockpiling. It doesn't matter how many awesome grocery store deals I score if they go uneaten. When I am planning my menus, I always start with what I have. As previously mentioned, I am typically able to fill the majority of our meals using only what we have in our kitchen. I also generally have 2-3 meals sitting in the freezer, in addition to pancakes in the freezer that we always keep on hand.

Use your resources
This is where I have to confess that, well, I am a cheater. That's right- I steal a lot of my meal ideas from other people. And, well, I'm good with that. I usually try to add a new meal or two to each menu plan to keep things exciting and to use what I either have on hand or what is on sale. I rely heavily on my favorite blogs, especially Money Saving Mom's and Heavenly Homemakers , to give me ideas. The way I figure it, these women have had years of experience finding meals that are budget family and healthful, so why reinvent the wheel. While I certainly don't copy their meals exactly, and flat out am not on the same page with them on some of their food choices (raw milk- no thank you!!!) I will use their meal plans for ideas to keep our menus from being the same old thing every week.

Another resource I love is The Biggest Loser Family Cookbook. It has tasty, super healthy, easy to make, budget friendly recipes that our whole family really enjoys. I do have to pick around in it a bit since some of the "budget friendly" meals are not all that budget friendly, but overall it is great for ideas!

Above all, be flexible, but stick to it
 I can honestly say that I cannot remember single time when we have stuck to our menu plan exactly. We often move around meals because something comes up or we just plain don't feel like having that for dinner that particular night.

However, if you are going to make a menu plan and do your shopping around that menu plan, you need to try to stick with it in some form. If you find that you are struggling to stick with the menu plan, you may need to take a look at the kind of menu plan you are making. Are you adding foods your family doesn't really like? Do you really not enjoy cooking the meals you chose? Do the meals not work in with your family's needs?

Overall, I really feel that building menu plans can make a significant impact on your budget. It can make grocery shopping so much easier and, if you know that you have a pre-selected meal ready to assemble at home, I think you are much less likely to swing through the drive thru.

I talked a little bit about my freezer cooking in this post and the last one in the series. I promise, promise, PROMISE that I will put together a post about my freezer cooking soon! It is definitely my little secret to being able to provide meals from scratch even on the craziest of nights!

By the way- menus don't have to be fancy. Here is our super classy menu plan we are finishing up:

I love grocery store sales

I normally don't do a ton of grocery shopping the week in between Shaun's paychecks. However, I had a little wiggle room in the budget and there were some AMAZING deals this week.

Ray's Apple Market

Best choice coffee: 1 @ 3.79 (Not on sale but I ran out of coffee- it is best for my family that I am not out of coffee)

2 Pork roasts:
2.13 lb and 2.5 lb @ $.98/lb= $4.51

1 Bag of chicken breast @ $4.99

1 Gallon of milk:
Full milk punch card= FREE!!!!

6 Yoplait greek yogurt @$.98 ea.
Used 3 $.50/2 coupons, doubled to $1= $.48 ea

Now, I was looking at my receipt and noticed that there weren't enough coupons listed. When I gave him two of my Yoplait coupons he had to manually enter them. It seems that he entered them as store coupons, which don't double. So, I actually only took $2, not $3 off my price. I could go back and argue about the $1, but I didn't feel like it was worth the argument since I was on my way home when I figured it out. Oh well!.

Total with tax: $18.56

This trip, I think, is a good example of how I stock up on sales, not just coupons. Meat coupons are pretty rare, but by stocking up when it is at a good price, we can eat yummy meat without breaking the bank!


Now, some couponers don't find value in stores like Aldi. I completely disagree. I think that, because we try to cook from scratch and minimize processed foods as much as possible, I miss out on some of the coupon deals (which I'm okay with). I love Aldi for milk and produce! I do know that some think Aldis doesn't have great produce, but I am always pleased with ours. They usually put 3 or 4 produce items on sale every week and this helps us always have fresh fruit and veggies around without spending much at all.

2% milk (which, by the way, I bought full. Jameson couldn't wait for the picture to be taken to get his milk). $2.89

Skim milk $2.79

Pineapple $.99

3 Avacodoes: $.29 each

Bag of oranges: $1.49

Bag of baby carrots: $.49

Whole wheat bread: $.99 (I normally buy my bread at Dillons for $.88, but I forgot. Oh well!)

Graham crackers: $1.59

Granola bars: $1.49

Total with tax: $14.65

Dillons was having a Mega Event. This means that when you buy 10 participating items, you save $5.00, or $.50 off each item. My totals are with that $.50 off. Mega Events are my FAVORITE!!! I can always get lower prices at these sales than normal and will really use them to stock up!
6 Mom's Cereal @ $.99:
Used 2 $1.00/2 coupons (yeah, this means that I didn't have coupons for two of the boxes. I needed a few more items to get up to a group of 10. $1.00 is my buy at price, so I didn't mind getting a few, even without the coupons)
2 fr$.99, 4 @ $.49

3 Kleenex Cool touch @ $.99
Used 1 $.40 coupon, doubled to $.80 and 2 $.50 coupons doubled to $1.00.
1 @ $.19, 2 @ FREE!!!!

6 Kleenex with lotion @ $.99
Used 2 $1.00/3 coupons
$.66 each

1 Honey Bunches of Oats @$1.99
Used 1 $1.00/1 coupon

4 Sunny Ds @ $.99
Used 2 $.50/2 coupons, doubled to $1.00
$.49 each

1 Velveeta Shells and cheese @ $1.29
Used $.75 eCoupon

2 Cans Hormel chili @ $.78
Used $.50/2 coupon, doubled to $1.00

2 Daisy sour creams @ $1.99
Used 1 $.55 coupon, doubled to $1.00

16 Hunts tomatoes $.49
Used 2 $.40/2 coupons, double to $1.00, 2 $.60/3 coupons, 2 $1.00/3 coupons ($.40 and $.60 coupons doubled to $.80 and $1.00)
4 @ $.09, 8 @ $.19

2 Bar S Franks $.88 (not part of the Mega Event)
$1.00 off any Bar S purchase
$.38 ea

Now, for those of you math wizzes out there: you can probably see that I got 41 Mega Events items, which is not a multiple of 10. I apparently miscounted, so one of those items was actually $.50 more. But, that is better than have one too few and paying $5.00 more!

I also got back a $2.00 off my next order from Kleenex.

Total with tax: $20.02

And if you count the $2.00 off my next order, it is $18.02!

This was one of my better couponing trips. My total before coupons and sales was was $76.08. Going with the $20.02 total, my savings was 76%, so I paid about a quarter of retail!

An unexpected side perk of this shopping trip was that my receipt provided entertainment for Jameson. He loves receipts and calls them "tickets" (weird child). Because the coupons each take up a line- two when the double, and the mega event savings take up a line for each $.50 deduction, my receipt was ridiculously long! Jameson was thoroughly impressed by it:

And, by the way, mommy's old page reinforcements were discovered, if you can't tell by his shirt.


January 27, 2012

A peek into my stockpile

While I am working on my next Sharing the Wealth post, I thought I would do a quick post to show you all what my stockpile looks like since I am rather proud of it. All of these items were purchased for under full price. :)

The Laundry stuff

The pantry 
(the cereal is starting to get out of control)

The paper goods stash in the garage (please excuse the random items- this tends to be the catch all area)

My chicken stash in the deep freeze

The hygiene department

Cleaners and my basket full of razors and floss

We will never have snotty noses...
Toothpaste, shaving cream, contact solution, and hand soap

Thanks for letting my brag a bit. :)
By the way- I had an AWESOME shopping trip tonight. I will be sharing in the next couple days!

January 24, 2012

Sharing the Wealth: Getting control of grocery shopping

One significant change we have made is the difference to our grocery budget. I have always done my best to keep my grocery bill to a minimum, mostly by always trying to avoid buying unnecessary items and sticking to the store brand. And compared to many people, this is a decent effort. But, what I have learned in the past several months is that I can do much better than that! To demonstrate this, let me walk you through the ridiculousness that goes into planning my weekly menu and grocery list.

The Menu
Speaking of the menu, I think this is actually the key to my budget cutting success. I firmly believe that, if you do nothing else to lower your grocery budget, this is the one thing to do that can make a significant difference. Currently, we only menu plan for dinners. However, once I am staying at home, it is the plan that I will plan out lunches and breakfasts since we will be providing all of the meals.

First, planning your menu will help you avoid buying unnecessary items. Rather than looking in your cupboard and refrigerator to see what you are out of, you can figure out what you are actually going to need for the week. Yes, you are out of ground beef, but if you aren't planning to use ground beef in the next week, why buy more and risk it going bad? Instead, you can focus on just buying what you need.

Also, it will make it more likely that you will eat at home. If you have a plan for what you are going to eat every night and you know that what you need to make it is waiting for you at home, you will be much more likely to actually go home a make it. Just eating at home for most meals make a HUGE difference to a grocery budget.

The free grocery store- your cupboards
One thing I have learned that really helps in meal planning is attempting to make as many meals as possible based on what you already have. For example, when planning my last menu, I knew we already had chicken and noodles, ham and cheese pockets, lots of ham, chicken and pork chops that I got on sale awhile back, sloppy joes and pizza crust in the freezer. I also had sweet potatoes, rice, shredded cheese and eggs. Right there, I was able to put together all but about four meals (out of the 2 1/2 weeks that I was planning). Because I already had these items that I had purchased on sale (see below) or made in a previous week (watch for a future posting), I had the majority of my grocery list "bought" from my own kitchen without taking anything out of my grocery budget for the week.

The Buy Ahead Principle
Now, as much as I wish it were the case, those items wouldn't be in my cupboards and freezer if I didn't buy them in the first place. This leads me to the next step of my grocery list making- stocking up. This is all about using the Buy Ahead Principle (I am pretty sure I stole this term from www.moneysavingmom.com. You should really check out this link for a much better explanation than I can provide).

In simple terms, this means that I attempt to stock up enough when there is a good sale that I won't have to buy them again until the next sale. In a nutshell, I just don't ever pay full price if it can be avoided! To do this, I have "Buy at" prices. For example, I don't pay more that $1 a box for cereal. So, when I am able, between sales and coupons, to buy cereal for $1 or less, I buy as many as I can (based on store limits, the number of coupons I have, and the amount I can afford out of our budget). The goal is that we won't need cereal again until another deal is going on that allows me to stock up again.

Just to be clear, Buying ahead doesn't always involve coupons. This is especially true with meat and dairy. While I rarely have coupons for these items, I always buy ahead when there is a good sale. With meat especially, I rarely buy cuts of meat unless it is on clearance. Stores will clearance meat cuts a day or two before their expiration dates. When I find these deals, I buy as much as I can on my budget and stick them in the freezer. By doing this, I have a freezer full of porkchops that I paid a little over a $1 a pound for.

Planning produce purchases based on the weekly ads
As I said before, when something goes on sale, I typically buy enough to hold me to the next sale. However, when it comes to things like produce, this really isn't possible. Most produce doesn't really last much over a week, making stocking up something that doesn't work (unless it is something that I can freeze). To get around this problem, I plan what produce I am going to buy around the weekly ads. To sum it up- if it isn't a good deal that week we won't be buying that fruit or veggie.

Every week, I look at the ads, particularly from Aldi since their prices are so much lower (I know some have mixed feelings about produce quality from Aldi, but I generally find them to be just as good as other grocery stores) and determine what we are going to purchase based on this ad. This will not only determine which fruits and veggies we will have on hand for snacking that week, but it also may decide a meal or two. For example, Shaun generally knows that broccoli on sale when we have steak put away in the freezer means he will get his much loved meal of Beef and Broccoli.

Speaking of my favorite store in the world
Okay, so Aldi might not be my favorite store in the world, but it is up there. I love Aldi. Even though I can find some items for cheaper using coupons, Aldi is awesome for milk, ground turkey, produce and other items that tend to not go on awesome sales. I save a ton on my grocery list with this stop which makes it well worth my time.

The finished product
When it is all said and done, these are the items that get added to my grocery list:

1. The "staples".
     These are the small number of items that will be added to my list whether or not there is a good sale- milk, yogurt, frequently used spices that have run out, etc. These are the items that your family must not be without that generally don't go on sale and/or don't have a very long shelf life. Though I may try to stock up on these items when there is a sale, I know these are going to be on the grocery list regardless of any deals available because I consider them to be worth the purchase.

2. Stock up items
      With my weekly store ads, coupons, and favorite money saving blogs handy (see my list below), I come up with items that I need to stock up on for the week. So, if paper towels, dish soap, canned soup, and cheese are what is on an awesome sale that week, that will be what will fill up my cart that week!

3. The produce
      It is super important to me that we always have fresh fruits and veggies available in the house, so I am always very concerned about how to get the best deal on these. They are a MUST on our grocery list and the part that I am most willing to pay a little more for.

For an example, here is what the grocery list looked like last week (staples are green, stock up is blue, and produce is purple. The few items left were random items I needed for recipes.):

Aldi                                          Dillons                                               Hyvee
Vanilla extract                           Softsoap hand soap                          4 bags chicken 
Salt                                           3 Pasta                                             Sour cream
Pineapple                                  2 Aussie Shampoo                            5 boxes kleenex
Apples                                      2 Tide                                               
Garlic croutons                          Pop Secret (free)
Dried beans                               Powerade (free)
Tomato Paste                            Skinny cow candy bar (free)
Graham crackers
Granola bars
5 rolls ground turkey

So, as you can see, we end up with quite a random list. And although I bought a lot of  chicken none of the it is being used in meals this week (I am still using up what I have in the freezer from the last sale).

The cliffhanger
Now, it was my original intention to explain the details of how I use my coupons and how I choose meals that are easier on the budget. However, since this has turned into quite a lengthy post, I have decided to put these off until another post so that I can give them a fair amount of time. Sorry! :)

But, here are my fave money saving blogs:

January 19, 2012

Sharing the Wealth: Where to begin?

When I look back on what made this financial goal one we could achieve when others have failed, I realize that there is one thing that made this time different. It is the thing that made our goal something we worked for every day with very few setbacks. It is what we lacked in the past when we have tried to save money or pay off a bill.

It is a pretty big secret. You ready??? The big, amazing, highly sophisticated thing we finally got right waaaaaassssss (drumroll please)...

We actually set a goal. 

What, you thought it would be more exciting? Sorry! 

But, seriously. When I look back at what has made us so successful the past few months in our saving and bill paying mission, it is our goals that have made the difference.

And here is what I have learned:

Whoa, dream big! (and then find a way to make that your goal)

For Juno's stepmom, it was Weimaraners (If you don't get this reference, that makes me sad). For me, it was becoming a stay at home mom. I think that the fact that we were so passionate about this goal is what made it something for which we were willing to make significant lifestyle changes. Rather than just having something on paper that looked like a good financial decision, we had something with emotion attached to make sure it always stayed a priority. We never thought of what we were doing as "paying off bills and putting money in savings". We always thought of it as "making it so that Brandy can stay at home with the kids".

While not every necessary financial goal has emotion built-in to it like ours, I think you can find a way to put the emotion in it. For example, as we work to continue building our emergency fund after I am not longer working, I think I am going to make it our goal that we never again have to panic about a surprise expense. The finance based goal of a certain dollar amount that we want in the savings account is necessary and helpful. But, to actually imagine a world where a phone call from the mechanic telling us that our simple oil change is turning into a huge shop bill doesn't ignite a minor panic attack is what will really keep us motivated. Will I ever be excited about that phone call? Heh! Of course not! But, it will be nice for it to be an unfortunate check to write instead of something that we will lose sleep over.

Momma goals need baby goals

Throughout everything, we constantly have our main goal in mind. But, no matter how committed we were to those goals, we needed "baby goals" and milestones along the way to keep us encouraged.

There were times where we felt like it was going to be forever before the day would come where "going to work" meant getting up and planning my day with my kids. It were those little milestones that kept us going. For us, we had milestones each time we paid off a card. Another thing that we would achieve that would help keep us going were the little mini missions that we had. These were our mini goals for changes in our spending that needed to change to reach our ultimate goal.

One good example of this would be Christmas. We were absolutely determined to pay cash for Christmas this year. We have never put a crazy amount on credit for Christmas, but we usually have some bills looming over us come January. We knew that this is something that isn't going to be an option for us anymore when we go to one income. We broke down our budget and figured out exactly how much we needed to save and what we needed to do to save toward that goal. When our Christmas shopping was done and I knew that it had all been paid for, this was a huge accomplishment for us. We proved to ourselves that this is something we can handle. Not only Christmas, but we knew that we could identify a financial need and take the proper action and make the appropriate sacrifices to meet that need. This was a huge boost that really helped give us momentum to make it to the SAHM finish line!

You're always on my mind

Something that was instrumental to this goal actually making its way to reality was the fact that it was the center around every decision we made, big or little. When we decided we needed to buy a bigger vehicle, we thought "How does this purchase work into our long term goal?" This lead us to purchasing an older van that we knew we could afford on one income. Yes, it is obvious that a big purchase like this should take your goals into consideration. But those weren't the only times we would use these goals to make a decision.

I think what had the most impact was that we had our goals in mind when we made even the smallest purchases. When I would be a great kids clothing sale, I gave a lot more thought to what I was purchasing than I ever had. Yes, that shirt may be a great deal at $2, and it may be perfect for Jameson. But, does he need another shirt? No, he has plenty. Am I willing to put myself $2 further from staying at home for that shirt? No.

As simple as it sounds, we could not have made it this far if we hadn't sat down and decided what our goals were and how hard we were willing to work for them. This summer, my favorite money saving blog www.moneysavingmom.com, posted this quote. It is a quote that I constantly have on my mind and has truly made an impact on my daily decisions:

Pinned Image

Brandy :)

January 17, 2012

Our SAHM mission and the things we have learned

I have had several friends and family ask me about our finances preparing for me becoming a stay at home mom. These are very logical questions like how we are going to adjust to one income and what we are doing to prepare for said adjustment. These questions have lead me to discover that I have learned a LOT about budgeting through this journey to becoming a say at home mom...

But I am getting ahead of myself. First, what we are doing to prepare...

First off, we set down and decided where we wanted to be financially while I am staying at home. We considered things like how we want to be able to live during that time. Are we okay with the fact that our vacations during that time will be limited and on a tight budget? Are we cool with shopping garage sales and CraigsList when possible? Can we be content with the fact that we will have to give certain things up? Our answer to all of these questions was yes. However, we also didn't want to end up putting ourselves in a position of struggling financially for many years to come and we didn't want to stress about money every month. We wanted to have a sufficient emergency fund built up and be putting more into savings every month while I am at home.

After some discussion, we decided that we didn't want to have any consumer debt while I was staying at home. We didn't have a huge amount, but it was enough that it was taking a chunk of our monthly income and causing a fair amount of stress. We both agreed that we would be happier waiting till these debts were paid off to lose my income.

This "step" kind of went right into the next: learning to only have Shaun's income. In April 2011 when Shaun got his promotion, we sat down and figured out our budget. We really looked at what we were spending our money on and where we could make adjustments. We cancelled our cable and opted for Netflix and Hulu for our TV watching. I decided that with couponing, cooking more from scratch, and just spending more time planning our menu we could take our grocery budget down. We started getting more careful about how we were spending our daily money. After tweaking other little areas of our spending we were a little surprised to discover that we could already live on just his income once you took our our childcare costs (which we obviously won't have once I am staying at home). Which went back to the paying off debt thing...

We decided that we could achieve both goals, paying off our debt and learning to live on Shaun's income, at the same time. We would snowball our bills (pay just the minimum on all our bills putting all our extra money towards the smallest bill till it is paid off, then put all that money to the next highest bill, and so on) and put my entire paycheck, minus childcare, toward these bills. So, not only would we be paying off our bills, we would learn if we could actually make it on just his income. Our goal was that once these were paid off, the money that was going to that each month would start going into savings to build our emergency fund.

Now, here we are, 6 months later and 2 1/2 weeks from reaching our goal of paying off all our consumer debt. After those are paid off, we will be putting all that money each month into a savings account for our emergency fund. We have learned that we can live frugally, but confidently on just Shaun's income. We know that we are going to have to make sacrifices here and there, but we both feel that it is worth it for me to be at home with our kids.

Which leads me to digress to something that I want to make clear: this was a mutual decision. This is not some thing where Shaun is wanting a little wifey sitting at home cooking his dinner or where I want Shaun to work to pull in all the money while I sit at home a eat bon bons. This is a dream we have BOTH had since we had Jameson (really, even before that). We BOTH feel that this is the best decision for our family right now and BOTH feel very blessed that it's an option for us. (There had to get that out there- feel better now).

On to the what I have learned stuff: Well, I have really felt like I have learned a lot about finances, discipline, and goal setting that I really want to share with others. I am by no means an expert, but I do want to share what I've learned in case it would help others out. Soooo...

I decided that I am going to do my first "series" as a blogger over the things I have learned throughout this journey. Over the next few weeks, I will be putting up a post about a particular lesson learned! I am sure many of you will read it and think "Well, duh Brandy, I could have told you that". My hope is that if even one person can learn something from all of the posts, maybe they will be able to get a step closer to their goals! I have decided to call this "Share the Wealth" (yes, I know, I am amazingly clever). Stay tuned!