How to Save on Groceries: Meal Planning

Well, we left off last week with a little bit of homework: make a monthly budget for groceries. If you were surprised at how much you’ve been spending on groceries, it’s okay. Through this series we will learn how to reduce that monthly amount. Some of you may even cut it in half! Now that you have a number to work with, let’s talk about practical ways we can lower that number. The first place to start is meal planning.

Meal planning sounds scary. When I say “meal planning,” what comes to mind? Does it sound a little scary? Time consuming? What if I said that meal planning could save you tons of time and money? Not only could it save you, it will. How often each week are you running to the grocery store to grab ingredients for dinner? How often do you give up on dinner because you didn’t have time to cook/plan and grab fast food or take out? With a little planning, you could save numerous trips to the store and take the stress out of meal time.

What is meal planning? Meal planning is simply sitting down at the beginning of the week/every other week/month (depends on how often you would like to go shopping) with your calendar and recipes and making a plan. In our family, I know that I have a set amount of cash for the month. When it’s gone, it’s gone. We divide the cash in half, and refill our money envelops on the 1st and 15th each month, so I plan on two main grocery trips per month (each time the envelops are refilled). I sit down with our family calendar (so I know when a family member will be gone and can plan accordingly) and recipes and a notepad. I plan every meal (three meals a day for two weeks…even plan nights for eating out or eating leftovers…it’s better to plan than not to plan). I make the grocery list from the recipes I planned. Then I go through the list to see what I already have on hand and cross that off the list. Then, I’m ready to shop!

What if our plans change? A meal plan should be flexible! If you planned to cook spaghetti tonight, and your husband calls and asks if the family can go to the in-laws to eat dinner, go! Put your spaghetti in the freezer and save it for another time (that’s one less meal that you have to plan in the future).

Do I really have to plan every single meal? Yes. Planning everything ensures that all of the ingredients for every meal are purchased. Even if you plan to have cereal every single morning for two weeks, if you plan for it, you know it will be there and won’t run out. I plan cereal for breakfast on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays every single week.

Can you give me an example? Yep. I love examples. Here’s our meal plan for this week…

  • Monday: B- cereal and fruit, L-PB&J, D- @parents because husband was working
  • Tuesday: B- bagels and fruit, L- Salad/chicken nuggets, D- date night out
  • Wednesday: B- cereal and fruit, L- PB&J, D- Burrito bowls with chips and salsa
  • Thursday: B- bagels and fruit, L- out, D- I have bookclub, so the family is eating frozen pizza while I’m gone.
  • Friday: B- cereal and fruit, L- deli sandwich, D- out
  • Saturday: B- pancakes, L- salad/chicken nuggets, D- Swedish Meatballs and veggies
  • Sunday: B- bagels and fruit, L- leftovers, D- Grilled pork chops and baked potatoes

Are there any tools that can simplify the process? Yes! I have used two tools that I particularly love. The first one is called Emeals. I discovered Emeals after I have my second daughter and was in the newborn-no-sleep-phase. Emeals made meal planning so easy. Basically, you pick one of their numerous plans (i.e. family plan for Aldi/Kroger/Wal-Mart or plan for 2 people) and they generate a meal plan and grocery list for you every week. The plans are super affordable (around $5/month) and it will save you so much time and money. The recipes are very family friendly (for those of you that cater to picky eaters). I used Emeals for about a year, and then missed some of my favorite recipes that I hadn’t made in a while. So I switched to Plan to Eat. To use Plan to Eat (also $5/month), you load in all of your favorite recipes, or clip them from websites (so convenient!), and simply drag them into your meal plan (calendar). Plan to Eat automatically generates your grocery list. You can visit these sites to learn more about them, but I have used them both and they are both fantastic and well worth the $5/month.

Convinced yet? Do you think that meal planning could save you a little time, money and sanity? Please, leave comments with any questions you may have! For next week, try meal planning! See how you like it. I’ll meet you back here next week to talk about more ways to save on groceries.

 

from the archives

Creating a Budget on an Irregular Income

Maybe you are someone that works on commission, or maybe your work is seasonal. Whatever the case may be, you’re income is irregular. When I say irregular, I mean that monthly, the amount varies as opposed to a salaried employee where income is generally divided evenly over the course of a year. Irregular income can make budgeting tricky. Budgeting is still of vital importance, because if you do not have a plan for the money you bring in, it is more likely to be spent in other ways. One of the biggest temptations for people on variable budgets is to overspend in prosperous months. A little bit of planning can help you prepare for the times of plenty and the lean times.

The first step to creating a budget on an irregular income is to list all of the expenses required for you to live each month (i.e. mortgage, food, clothing, utilities, gas, insurance, etc.).

Next, go through each category you listed and rank them in order of importance. Typically, the four most important expenses are food, housing, clothing and transportation. After everything is ranked, you have a working budget.

When you receive a paycheck, simply pay from the top down of your budget. If not everything is covered in one check, just pick up where you left off with the next paycheck. It can be tricky, and take some time to keep track of, but managing your money, no matter how irregular, is a sure way to build financial health.

Here are some other helpful articles for budgeting on an irregular income:

How to Save on Groceries: Couponing Lite

“Extreme couponer” I am not, but I do practice a few simple things that can add up to savings. There are a lot of people who know a lot more about couponing than I do. It can take a lot of time to get the best deals, and it might even require a little space in your house for stockpiling and bulk shopping. But, the savings is enormous. Here are some resources if you are interested in getting started couponing:

I call my version of couponing, “Couponing Lite.” I spend about 15 minutes per week and spend $0 on coupons (yes, some couponers pay for their coupons). My routine is simple, every week when the coupon mailer comes in my mailbox, I scan through it, keeping in mind what stores double coupons, as well as what products we actually use. If anything looks appealing, I’ll clip it. I also look through the stores weekly ads. I shop at three stores: a large chain, a discount store, and a bulk big box store. I stop at the large chain about once a week, the discount store twice a month, and the big box store once a month. After looking through all the mailers, I visit the stores websites to see if there are any online coupons. Some stores will load the cards directly to your store-specific benefit card…no printing required. When I know what all is on special, and know what coupons I have, I make our meal plan according to what is on sale. I rarely buy anything that isn’t on sale, or that I have a coupon for.

That’s my routine. It’s pretty simple and doesn’t take a lot of time. I’ve been able to cut down on my monthly grocery spending quite a bit using this method. Anyone else have any tips?

How to Save on Groceries: Meal Planning

Well, we left off last week with a little bit of homework: make a monthly budget for groceries. If you were surprised at how much you’ve been spending on groceries, it’s okay. Through this series we will learn how to reduce that monthly amount. Some of you may even cut it in half! Now that you have a number to work with, let’s talk about practical ways we can lower that number. The first place to start is meal planning.

Meal planning sounds scary. When I say “meal planning,” what comes to mind? Does it sound a little scary? Time consuming? What if I said that meal planning could save you tons of time and money? Not only could it save you, it will. How often each week are you running to the grocery store to grab ingredients for dinner? How often do you give up on dinner because you didn’t have time to cook/plan and grab fast food or take out? With a little planning, you could save numerous trips to the store and take the stress out of meal time.

What is meal planning? Meal planning is simply sitting down at the beginning of the week/every other week/month (depends on how often you would like to go shopping) with your calendar and recipes and making a plan. In our family, I know that I have a set amount of cash for the month. When it’s gone, it’s gone. We divide the cash in half, and refill our money envelops on the 1st and 15th each month, so I plan on two main grocery trips per month (each time the envelops are refilled). I sit down with our family calendar (so I know when a family member will be gone and can plan accordingly) and recipes and a notepad. I plan every meal (three meals a day for two weeks…even plan nights for eating out or eating leftovers…it’s better to plan than not to plan). I make the grocery list from the recipes I planned. Then I go through the list to see what I already have on hand and cross that off the list. Then, I’m ready to shop!

What if our plans change? A meal plan should be flexible! If you planned to cook spaghetti tonight, and your husband calls and asks if the family can go to the in-laws to eat dinner, go! Put your spaghetti in the freezer and save it for another time (that’s one less meal that you have to plan in the future).

Do I really have to plan every single meal? Yes. Planning everything ensures that all of the ingredients for every meal are purchased. Even if you plan to have cereal every single morning for two weeks, if you plan for it, you know it will be there and won’t run out. I plan cereal for breakfast on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays every single week.

Can you give me an example? Yep. I love examples. Here’s our meal plan for this week…

  • Monday: B- cereal and fruit, L-PB&J, D- @parents because husband was working
  • Tuesday: B- bagels and fruit, L- Salad/chicken nuggets, D- date night out
  • Wednesday: B- cereal and fruit, L- PB&J, D- Burrito bowls with chips and salsa
  • Thursday: B- bagels and fruit, L- out, D- I have bookclub, so the family is eating frozen pizza while I’m gone.
  • Friday: B- cereal and fruit, L- deli sandwich, D- out
  • Saturday: B- pancakes, L- salad/chicken nuggets, D- Swedish Meatballs and veggies
  • Sunday: B- bagels and fruit, L- leftovers, D- Grilled pork chops and baked potatoes

Are there any tools that can simplify the process? Yes! I have used two tools that I particularly love. The first one is called Emeals. I discovered Emeals after I have my second daughter and was in the newborn-no-sleep-phase. Emeals made meal planning so easy. Basically, you pick one of their numerous plans (i.e. family plan for Aldi/Kroger/Wal-Mart or plan for 2 people) and they generate a meal plan and grocery list for you every week. The plans are super affordable (around $5/month) and it will save you so much time and money. The recipes are very family friendly (for those of you that cater to picky eaters). I used Emeals for about a year, and then missed some of my favorite recipes that I hadn’t made in a while. So I switched to Plan to Eat. To use Plan to Eat (also $5/month), you load in all of your favorite recipes, or clip them from websites (so convenient!), and simply drag them into your meal plan (calendar). Plan to Eat automatically generates your grocery list. You can visit these sites to learn more about them, but I have used them both and they are both fantastic and well worth the $5/month.

Convinced yet? Do you think that meal planning could save you a little time, money and sanity? Please, leave comments with any questions you may have! For next week, try meal planning! See how you like it. I’ll meet you back here next week to talk about more ways to save on groceries.

What To Do About Credit Card Debt

There is no dignity quite so impressive, and no independence so important, as living within your means.

-Calvin Coolidge

We’ve all done it. We approach the check out line with three gorgeous pairs of shoes (insert your weakness here…tractors, electronics, etc. Pick your poison.) and the cashier offers us a deal we can’t refuse…10% off if we open a credit card. Not only do we save 10%, but we don’t actually have to pay for it yet. And with one little signature, we have entered into the world of credit card debt, a dark, scary place that most of us find ourselves trapped in for quite some time. Hook. Line. Sinker.

In March of 2011, the average credit card debt per household reached a staggering $14,743. Cardholders have on average more than 3 credit cards with average interest rates of 14.83%. We start our relationship with the credit cards in college, and unfortunately do not break up with them for years. It’s so easy to make the minimum payment every month, not touching the principle owed, while sky-high interest compounds daily. We’ve all heard Dave Ramsey and Suze Orman yell at us about the desperate need for everyone to cut up their cards and get rid of their debt, but it’s much easier said than done. So how do you stop the vicious cycle?

We spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to make impressions that don’t last, on people we don’t care about.

-Tim Jackson

 

  1. Stop Spending. Again, easier said than done. If you do not have money set aside in an emergency fund, you might be turning to the card for every out of the ordinary expense. It’s time to put the brakes on spending and get rid of the card. The first step to paying off credit card debt, is to stop increasing credit card debt. Debt is just a symptom of the underlying problem of overspending and undersaving. Peace of mind and financial freedom comes when we learn to live within our means, and that begins with a step back to consider how we spend the money we have.
  2. Consider Your Options. When it comes to paying off debt, you have to know exactly how much you owe first. Make a list of all of your cards, along with the balance and interest rate. After you know what you are dealing with, you have a few options.
    • Borrow money from savings. This is a controversial way to pay off credit card debt depending on your investment philosophy. The plus side is that the gain is higher using the money to pay off debt than it will earn sitting in a savings account. For example, if you have $1000 on a credit card at 18% interest and $1000 in a savings account earning 4%. To pay off the credit card balance plus one month of interest would be an extra $180, versus the $40 you would earn on the money sitting in a savings account. That’s a savings of $140 in interest! The bad side of paying with savings is that it depletes your savings account. Without money in your savings account/emergency fund, you are more likely to turn to a credit card when an unexpected expense comes up (i.e. air conditioning goes out in the car).
    • Negotiate with the credit card company. A simple phone call to the credit card company could save you several interest points. Call and ask for a better interest rate and they will most likely work with you.
    • Balance transfer offers. This is another controversial way to pay off credit card debt. Several credit card companies will offer a special introductory offer to new card members in which you can transfer balances from other cards at 0% for a certain time period. This could be a reasonable offer if you have good credit and you are absolutely positive that the balance will be paid by the time the offer ends (i.e. You have a balance of $2000 and you are planning to pay it off with your annual $5000 year end bonus). Beware of transfer fees (usually anywhere from 3-5%), annual card fees and the end of the promotional period.
    • Debt consolidation loan from your local bank. If you have good credit and a good relationship with your local bank, you might be eligible for an unsecured loan to consolidate and pay off your credit. The benefits are a lower interest rate than the credit card company, and a fixed monthly payment. Beware of the term. If the term is too long, you might pay more in interest than you would have if you would have left the debt with the credit card company.
  1. Make a plan. To get out of debt and stay out of debt, you have to have a plan. Not only do you have to have a plan, you have to be committed to the plan and stick to it.
    • Make a budget. How much do you make each month? How much do you spend? There are several tools available to help you with budgeting, my favorite being pearbudget.com. After you know what you make and what you spend, examine what you can cut out. Any extra money can go toward…
    • Debt snowball. Factored into your monthly budget should be your debt snowball. Snowballing is a simple way to paying off debt, starting with the debt with the highest interest rate. For example, you have three cards, A, B and C. A has an interest rate of 20%, B of 18% and C of 14%. According to your budget, you can afford to put $150 toward your debt snowball and the minimum payments on B and C are $50. Your snowball amount would go toward card A, while you would pay the minimum on B and C. Once card A is paid, you would move onto card B, paying the minimum $50 plus the $150 debt snowball you were paying on card A. Once card B is paid off, move onto card C paying the debt snowball amount of $150, plus the minimum on card B, $50, plus the minimum of $50 that you were paying on card C. By the time card C is paid off, your snowball would have reached $250. After all your credit card debt is paid off, you can use the debt snowball you created to put toward your…
    • Emergency Fund. It’s recommended that you have 3-6 months of expenses set aside in an emergency fund to cover unexpected expenses and emergencies. Having this fund eliminates the temptation to use credit cards, thus wiping out credit card debt for good.

Credit card debt is not easy to conquer, but with a plan and some motivation, you can conquer it for good.

Holiday Shopping on a Budget

It’s that time of year again! Christmas decorations are popping up everywhere, there’s a chill in the air, and you can already imagine your credit card balance increasing over the next few weeks. With the busiest shopping day of the year quickly approaching, you can keep your gift spending under control with a little planning. Ideally, setting aside a set amount monthly throughout the year is the best way to provide a stress-free gift shopping experience, but if you didn’t think that far ahead (like me), here are some tips to help your shopping not to get out of hand.

  • Make a list. If you are like me, this step sounds really exciting. I love to make a list. On this list, write down every person that you would like to give a gift. After each person is listed, put the gift that you would like to get them by their name.
  • Do your research. After you know what you are looking for, shop around online to price the items at different retailers. Write down the best price you can find by each gift. After you have all of your prices, add them together. This number is your total shopping budget. 
  • Evaluate. If your total budget is more than you wanted to spend, reevaluate the list and make the necessary changes.
  • Shop. Watch newspaper ads and commercials for promotional events. Take advantage of any coupons available. Your goal should be to buy each gift on or below the amount you budgeted.
  • Cash if you can. When shopping, take your budgeted shopping amount in cash. When it’s gone, it’s gone. If you have cash, you are more likely to spend less and plan more. If you are shopping online, try to use a debit card instead of a credit card. Divide your shopping according to your pay schedule so you won’t be tempted to use a credit card. There’s nothing worse than a huge credit card bill in January.
  • Save on wrapping. When you shop, make sure you ask for boxes or any kind of gift wrap they offer complementary. Save money on wrapping paper by using newspaper or a large roll of butcher paper. Let the kids decorate it!

So let’s all get to planning and have a wonderful, stress-free holiday season!

Budgeting 102: More Tips

If you are still working out the kinks in your budget, these tips may help…

1) Give yourself some time. After creating your initial list of income and expenses, monitor your spending for at least a few more weeks to catch the things you forgot. Little things really do add up and if they are not taken into account, your budget may not hold up under the pressure.

2) Prioritize your list. Once you do have a complete list of expenses, put them in your own order of importance. You may find that you were not spending in line with your values. If you have a goal of early retirement, or paying for your kids college, it should be reflected in your spending. Are you planning for your goals, or spending it on other stuff…like lattes?

3) Don’t beat yourself up. If you get too hard on yourself for past mistakes, you will fail at creating a new working system. Accept that mistakes happen and try to work up some excitement for creating a new financial future for yourself.

4) Give yourself some fun money.  We all need a little money for the stuff we just want to buy. My husband and I allocate allowance for each of us, and we get it in cash at the beginning of every month. We can spend our money on whatever we want, and can’t comment on how the other spends their allowance. If you don’t have any spending money, you will feel deprived. Completely depriving ourselves can lead to huge splurges in the future that may derail a budget altogether. Do not set yourself up to fail.

5) Remember the “Miscellaneous”. Every budget needs a small amount dedicated to stuff that happens. Tires pop. Kids get sick. Dogs hurt themselves. Stuff just happens. If you don’t have money in your budget set aside for the “darn its”, you’ll find another category taking the hit.

6) Automate as much as possible. I love automating my savings so I don’t even see the money before we squirrel it away. It’s much harder to spend something you never really felt like you had. Why do you think the government takes their cut out before you even see your paycheck? If you automatically fund a Roth IRA or whatever, you’ll be truly surprised how much you can save up with just a little time.

Hope these tips help keep you on track. Good luck!

*Some of these tips are from www.budgetingthefunstuff.com. 

Budgeting 101

“I spent how much at Starbucks this month?!”

“Where did all my money go?!”

“I thought I already paid that bill.”

Are these questions that you find yourself saying often? I have been round and round the budgeting game for most of my adult life. Bottom line is, I stink at planning how to spend our income without it written on paper (or entered on a spreadsheet), and then keeping up with it. I would check our bank account everyday online, but the money still seemed to vanish as quickly as it came. Does this strange phenomenon happen with your money as well?

You gotta do it

The answer that no one wants to hear is budgeting. If you want to stop the financial headache, you must budget. Dave Ramsey says to “spend everything on paper before the month even starts” meaning that every single penny of your budget should be allocated to a particular category of spending, or you will wander and waste your money.

How do I get started?

So how does budgeting work? If you know how to add and subtract, or have access to a computer that knows how to add and subtract, you can budget. Start by writing down all of your monthly income. Make sure you include everything that you normally receive within a month’s time (include things like dividends, interest income, salary, side jobs, etc.). Once you have all of your income totaled, you have a starting point for your expenses.

Begin writing down your expenses, starting with the fixed ones, or the ones that don’t change month to month (i.e. your mortgage is $1000 every single month). After you have those written down, write down the expenses that vary by month (i.e. utilities, gas, groceries, etc.). Based on your previous spending in these categories, estimate a monthly amount to plan for. Don’t worry if you aren’t sure, it will take a few months to get your budget to where it is truly accurate.

After you’ve entered your regular income and expenses, think about your irregular spending that should be planned for (i.e. Christmas spending, doctor visits, haircuts, birthday gifts, etc.). Try to plan an annual amount that is spent, divide it by 12, and set aside that much each month for that category. For example, our family pays car insurance every six months because we get a discount for paying that way. I divide our semi-annual payment amount by six and put that much in a savings account each month. When the bill is due, I just pay it out of savings.

After you’ve put everything you can think of into the budget, review it and see how it looks. Did you plan for savings? Retirement? College? Paying off debt?

Subtract all of your expenses from your income. How much is left over? The goal is to have $0 left over. Every single penny needs to be allocated somewhere. Add in some spending money or simply a miscellaneous category. Review each category until you get to $0 left over.

Practice makes perfect

Now, start entering your receipts. Record everything that you spend. Everything. Put it in the correct category and keep up with it. I made this part of my morning routine so I don’t get behind on recording receipts.

The first month will likely be pretty off. You might have over-funded one category, and under-funded another. Don’t get frustrated and stop budgeting, just adjust your categories and keep moving along. By the third or fourth month, it should be pretty accurate.

Tips and tricks

If you are married, try to budget with your spouse. You could have weekly “budget meetings” after the kids are in bed (romantic, huh?). You are more likely to stick to your financial goals if you work on them together. Plus, it alleviates the temptation to hide spending, or blame your spouse for your financial stress.

Over-fund the grocery category. This seems to be the category that is the bane of my budget’s existence. Unless you have a couponing binder, you probably spend a lot on groceries.

Try software! I asked around for some online tools that help with budgeting. Here were the most popular:

  • Mint.com- The best thing about Mint? It’s free. Not only does it help you create and maintain a budget, but you can also integrate all of your online accounts. This means instead of checking a different website for each checking account, loan, credit card, etc., you can simply log on to mint.com for view every one of them.
  • PearBudget.com- Pear Budget is the simplest budgeting tool I have come across. At $5/month, it’s affordable for any budget. It is so easy to set up your budget, enter receipts and review your spending. Personally, it’s my tool of choice for budgeting.
There you have it. Budgeting 101.