Grocery Strategy: Making Food Budgets Stick

Tyler and I have often said that if we didn’t like to cook so much, we probably wouldn’t have made it together. He likes death metal, I like folk music. He likes skate boarding, I like bicycling. He wants to go fishing, I’d rather read a book. We worked around all these things. I don’t listen to death metal but I will listen to punk. I spare him from my guilty pleasure country pop tunes (most of the time) and he’s open to hearing talented musicians of any genre that’s not jazz. Tyler used to take his skate board when I wanted to go for a walk (much harder to do with a baby and a dog) but will gladly ride bikes. I’ll happily go along fishing as long as I can bring my book. This may sound lacking in romance but what I think we really enjoy is each other’s company and we can do that outside over food then all the better.

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Hiking!

One of the downsides though of life with a tiny baby is cooking has been more functional than fun. We’ve struggled to be prepared at come meal time with ideas, food and the energy to accomplish actually making a meal. We’ve gone to bed without dinner in the last 9 months more than we have in our 7 years together. And yet our refrigerator is never bare. Between the downtown farmer’s market, our weekly Produce Box and general grocery shopping, we are much more likely to let food spoil and go over our food budget while we fall asleep at the dinner table. Our stomachs may be big (I blame baby- how long can I do that for?) but our eyes are bigger, at least when it comes to shopping.

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I’m not giving up our trips to the farmers’ market (mainly because it gets me out of the house) or our Produce Box (because local and love it- use my referral code to check it out!) Finally we’ve started to use meal planning to help us get things on track. We don’t use an app at this point (although I’d love some recommendations!), because Tyler is fairly anti-technology. This is our kitchen board with our meals for the week, our grocery store and Costco lists. I’ve also started putting what’s left in our grocery budget and alcohol budget (priorities!) on the board to help keep us in line. We’re about 3 months in and we’ve yet to make our budget.

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All the Stores

We utilize Costco primarily to stock up on organic meats, drinks and paper products as well as dog food. We bought a chest freezer from Better Than Never and use that to always keep meat on hand. If it came in jumbo packs, we use our vacuum sealer to keep it fresh and in reasonable quantities. Harris Teeter is our go-to for almost everything else. Like everyone else I, too, love Trader’s Joe’s but it drives me nuts that all their produce seems to be wrapped in plastic and there’s always something you can’t get there. Same with Aldi (although the cost savings is worth the extra trip). Tyler has been doing a lot of off-shore fishing and crabbing so we’ve been able to have a fish or crab night almost every week. In the colder months we’ll swap in oysters for crabs. Beach living has some serious food perks!

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Holding Ourselves Accountable

So basically every month I set what should be a realistic budget that we won’t possibly meet, even though we rarely eat out. What does this mean? We’re not actually using our budget. The very last thing I want to do is make us miserable or feel like a budget nag so instead I’m creating more touch points throughout the month. I tend to be in charge when it comes to money but if Tyler doesn’t know where we are, then it doesn’t help either of us. Basically, he just needs to be using our YNAB account more (YNAB is my the answer to everything.Use my referral code to see for yourself!) so he can see where we are in real time. (Okay, also sometimes I shop hungry and ruin this all on my own.)

When in doubt, freeze it.

There is always a point each week where I start sizing up the likelihood that our leftovers, produce, etc is going to make it much longer. Instead of shutting the fridge door, I’ve started to drop it in the freezer. Most items freeze well, even if you do need to repurpose them. Frozen tomatoes- great for cooking pasta or pizza sauce! Frozen leftover herbs- freeze in water or oil and drop in soup or sauce! Equally important is remembering to use said items. Checking the freezer before I start meal planning isn’t my strong suit but I’m working on it!

Make a plan, Stan.

We’ve made great strides in creating a meal plan each week. Before Tyler goes to work on Saturdays we hash out ideas while taking turns checking the fridge for needed items and running to stop Haines from pulling down the floor lamp. (Anyone else battling how to have light in your house without a baby knocking themselves unconscious?) Tyler wasn’t wild about meal planning initially but now we each pick a couple meals to organize so that it’s not one-sided towards one person’s preferences. Now we always go to the store with not only our grocery list but the meal list as well. The next step will be better incorporating ingredients across the week so we don’t end up with extra random items like cabbage, which we never know what to do with. (FYI green cabbage in your smoothie- no. Purple cabbage, yes.)

With our powers combined we’ll eat healthy, delicious meals every day and stay on budget. Next up, world domination!

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Saving Money the Hard Way: 6 Things That Are Worth the Extra Cash

I’m notoriously cheap. I will save money wherever possible. My family regularly tries to convince me I’m extreme (which could be accurate). My mother has kicked me out of her dressing room before for scoffing at a price tag. I come by it honestly though! My PopPop signed all his cards from “Cheapo J” which was no exaggeration. At his recent memorial service, someone mentioned how he would take the rubber bands from the newspaper and put them on his wrist to save for later. He would save them until they fell apart. (I’m not nearly this bad. I keep my rubber bands in a drawer.)

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My handsome PopPop!

There are times in your life when the cheapest option is the only option. You just deal with it. You stay in the 16 (or 32) bed dorm when you travel. You eat Oodles of Noodles every night and you sleep on the world’s oldest mattress…possibly on the floor. Then there are times when you get to choose. You choose where to spend and where to save. Sometimes you have a lot of choice and sometimes only a little, but still the choice is yours.

For  my life, saving is key. Having a focus on saving is what allows us to create an emergency fund, pay off our credit card and put a few dollars in to HEB’s college fund every month. Despite that, there are things that are typically worth the extra money.  All of this I’ve learned the hard way:

Flights:

Flights can get expensive fast BUT purchasing the cheapest flight can often mean driving to a bigger airport, leaving or arriving obscenely early or having multiple layovers. It’s not always worth it. I’ve slept in airports, arrived in my destination (or home) at all hours of the night and taken flights with 3 layovers. Sometimes I’ve done this to save just a few dollars. If the difference is the only the price of a dinner out or less, just cheapen up somewhere else. It’s not worth it on travel.

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I’ve slept in many dorms and airports with my ultimate travel companion, Anita. 

Clothing:

I am not in favor of purchasing name brand or designer clothes. I don’t see the point, but then again it’s not my thing. It is; however, worth it to buy clothes that will last. Time and time again I’ve skimped on clothes just to have the hem immediately unravel, the cloth start to pill, or a hole develop. I always mend what I can but I will also either continue to wear it way past appropriate or put it away without replacing it. I can’t buy it again! (Also, I rarely return anything but that’s just a personal flaw I’m working on.) Now, I’m trying to focus on buying higher quality clothing during sales or at outlets so I can get more bang for my buck. I have unreasonable expectations on the number of years clothes should last which means I have to invest!

Dining Out:

I love eating but often times when I go out to eat I start to nickel and dime things. $2 extra for shrimp? Nope. $1 more for the wine I want? Nope. This is often the biggest problem when I travel. The airport isn’t a great place to find good eats but you can feel satisfied (most of the time) if you spend an extra few bucks. Since everything is ridiculously priced, this like physically hurts me. Regardless I always regret buying the crappy sandwich instead of a decent salad or whatnot. I end up pissed off and still hungry. Just pay up!

Pet Care:

There are several times we’ve had to reevaluate being cheap on dog costs. The cheap dog food gave her the itchies. The cheap flea collar gave her… fleas! Deciding not to do dog training classes made me want to lose my mind. In the end we bought better dog food, bought new flea medicine and invested in dog training. All good decisions. Never again will we go the cheap route on these (just kidding, I learn these lessons over and over again).

Home & Garden:

Our somewhat trained dog is a digger. She digs holes in various shady areas to take cool, dirt naps. Then sometimes she also digs in nice soft dirt to bathe in the sunlight. You know where there is nice, soft dirt? My garden’s raised beds. Quickly we determined our garden needed a fence. Despite knowing that Clara is really good at getting into everything we put a welded wire fence with rebar “fence posts”. We used bungee-cords to close our garden fence which Clara has gotten through time and time again. I’d like to say I’ve learned my lesson but we still haven’t fixed it.

I also refuse to let Tyler buy a weed whacker so there’s 3-foot grass surrounding my beds. It makes me not want to go into the garden and weed. Will I never learn?

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Before the weeds took over. 

Budgeting Help:

I’ve tried to manage our budget a couple ways. The simplest is using Excel spreadsheets. Tyler and I kept all receipts for several months and once a week I entered them manually. It was hard to keep up with and I ended up dreading money management time. I also used Mint for a while but it wasn’t user friendly. It always read my purchases incorrectly and put them into the wrong categories. I also had trouble figuring out my budget history. Better Than Never blogger Chrissy talked me into trying YNAB, even though it isn’t free, and I’ve been using it for over a year now. I feel like I have more control over my spending and that I know what’s going on without a pocketbook full of paper receipts. It’s worth doing their 34 day free trial. Use my referral link to give us both a free month!

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Sometimes it takes money to save money!

Some things are just worth the extra money, when and if you can. Good food and good booze are hard to give up so my spending is always high in both of those arenas. WE primarily eat at home which helps balance that out. Location is also key so I’ve always been willing to spend more and/or live with less to live where I want. In Austin my apartments were older but never farther than 5 miles from work. Who needs fancy appliances? For a year I lived within walking distance. This is perfection in my eyes. Forget driving. Screw bike riding. Walking for your commute is by far the most cathartic. Road rage be gone! In Wilmington I maintained the same rule. I wanted to live within bike riding distance from work. Of course, now that we have a baby we don’t ride to work. (Bicycle, I miss you so.)

One day I’ll learn to invest where it’s worth it without wasting money on cheap options ahead of time…

 

The Best Things in Life Are Free. But You Can Give Them to the Birds and Bees.

This is not true. Do not give the best things to the birds and bees. I don’t want money. Well, I mean I do (employer, don’t keep my paycheck!) but I’m not looking for more exactly. I’m looking to be smarter with my money.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m obsessed but I do go through phases where I am particularly…intense about our finances. It starts the same way every time. I start wondering how we could be more engaged and aware of our financial choices. Are we making the best choices? Are we saving enough? How’s that 401K looking?

Then I start asking everyone I know how they do their finances. How do you budget? What resources do you use to guide your choices? How do you and your partner discuss and make these decisions? When you’re looking at debt versus savings how do you prioritize?

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I don’t have ideas of retiring at 35 or paying off our mortgage next year or something else lofty and outrageous. I don’t want to us to sacrifice having fun and living comfortably. With my recent”obsession” into finance I’ve checked out some rather extreme financial lifestyles, particularly Mr. Money Mustache and The Frugalwoods. I also recently peeked at The Power of Thrift, the blog of a lawyer who retired in mid-thirties. These are not our destiny. Even if I was on this path, I think I’d be very much on my own! They do; however, provide some inspiration and helpful tips.

The most practical thing to do when thinking financially is obviously a budget. I’ve recently started using You Need a Budget (YNAB) at the suggestion of my friend Chrissy (check out her blog post on YNAB and finances). I can’t say it’s changed my life yet (although I’ve been told repeatedly that it will) but I did spend a few hours yesterday crunching numbers and creating some goals for our household which left me feeling pretty empowered. I’ve tried using the traditional excel spreadsheet and other websites like Mint.com but never felt like I had a very good handle on things. I’m hopeful YNAB will be a good tool to be more engaged with our money as well as more proactive about our goals.

I feel strongly that Tyler and I are doing well for ourselves BUT I have also learned from both life and my parents that financial stability is something you work for. You cannot be a  passive spectator and expect things to work out the way you want. It takes planning and a awareness. I don’t want to wonder whether or not we can retire when we approach that stage. Ideally, we will never be in the situation where we are left wondering how we are going to pay for an emergency. We will be prepared for rainy days. This isn’t something we can really guarantee but it is something we can strive for.

So here’s to adulting and financial preparedness! Oh, dirty thirty- you are so damn practical.

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