Monday, November 7, 2011

Banton food budget secrets revealed!

So, a few people have asked me to share my coupon techniques. The sad part is that in light of the recent extreme couponing tv shows, I run from advertising my strong satisfaction of couponing. I have watched one episode and felt torn. On one hand, I am amazed at the time, calculator punching, and down-to-the-dollar shopping they do. On the other hand, I am saddened by their need to get so much for free. 
But this post isn’t about the show. It’s about how I make our food budget work. 
My numbers will reflect Virginia prices, since I haven’t fully stocked a pantry, fridge and freezer in Connecticut yet. I also haven’t been cooking like I normally do because of our temporary living situation. I hope to kick this back into high gear once we get settled into our own place. Eventually, I will update on the changes CT has brought our grocery strategy.
My family of four (plus one dog and whomever walks through my front door any given month) currently eat on $275/month. I used to clip and clip coupons. Eventually, I found that I only used a few of them because they expired or the generic item was cheaper than the other brand even with the savings. I will admit to creating and using a coupon notebook to keep things organized, but even that is much slimmer than anything you see on tv. 
My shopping needed to change from a reaction to prices to proactive planning and cooking. I can’t make the stores sell things for what I need them to, but I can do what I can and adjust accordingly. 
Here’s a rundown on my rules for grocery shopping:
  • Prepare to shop once for the month, plus one or two other small trips for more milk, fruit, etc. I know ahead of time what I will make for the month, so I purchase the necessary ingredients for those meals. This shopping trip usually takes about 1 hour of walking fast through a familiar store, selecting almost exactly the same items each month. 
  • I pray before I go. We live off of money that churches and individuals have given, so I filter my purchases through this self-imposed accountability system. Before I leave my car, I pray that God will extend my dollars and make it stretch for the month. He hasn’t left me hangin’ so far. 
  • I don’t browse- except clearance/dent&ding racks. I know what I need in the store, so I go in and get it. I do leave a few things open ended. For instance, I will purchase whatever fresh fruit and vegetables are the cheapest- this typically means apples and grapes, but sometimes I can find others that are similarly priced. For the clearance racks, if I find something that I normally use, don’t normally use but can think of use for it, or have wanted to try, I will grab that too. Sometimes this puts me over budget by a few dollars, but over the course of several months, I think it evens out. 
  • I buy generic almost all the time. Most stores offer a 100% money back guarantee if you aren’t satisfied with their version of the product. In most cases, I find that the generic works just as well. Once, I found a small piece of metal in Walmart’s Great Value macaroni noodles. I called the number on the box to report it and was sent a check for the number of boxes I purchased that day and a load of coupons for free macaroni from another brand. For the few items I really enjoy having another brand, I do search for coupons- such a Yoplait yogurt, Breyers ice cream, the brand of agave I like, Pillsbury cake mixes and Betty Crocker brownie mix. I also buy the cereal in the bags, but will clip a coupon for the mainline brands then watch for a sale. 
  • I hate to pay full price for anything, so I wait for sales if I can. 
  • If I can make it, I do. Almost every time, I have found that homemade goods are cheaper and SO MUCH HEALTHIER than the store bought versions. Example: granola and granola bars. For under $2.00, I can make 24 granola bars! At the store, the nice brand of bars are more than $2.00 for 8 bars. Can’t beat that and my husband and kids prefer the homemade ones, hands down. I make my own cake icing (most of the time), corn bread, scalloped potatoes, cookie dough, yogurt, cold pasta salads, desserts, and most of our snacks. I have never purchased chicken or vegetable stock from a store, since I make it from home. I love knowing what’s in my food and getting it cheaper! This means that a bulk of my dry goods money is spent on things like a variety of flours, sugars, yeast, corn meal, dried beans, rice, oats, dried fruits and nuts, etc. Another way this “if I can make it, I do” theory applies is to vegetables- I don’t buy anything already prepared, so I peel and slice my own carrot sticks (imagine that!) and chop my own celery. The savings is huge. If there is something I don’t know how to make, I figure it out. It took me a solid month of daily biscuit making to figure out how to turn my hockey pucks into something edible. Youtube is an amazing cooking well as having some pretty rockin’ mennonites nearby to teach me the old tricks of the trade. 
  • I cook strategically. When I plan out my meals (which are pretty much the same every month now), I try to think about what could have or was made 100 years ago. Most likely, the meals were healthier (no preservatives, chemicals, etc.) and the ingredients are almost always cheaper. (I know many people are strapped for time after a long workday, so they need quick meals. However, I think, with some creativity, it can be done. This is how we’ve figured it out to work for us.) In addition to the better quality meals and savings, the older recipes seem to be easier to beef up for more mouths to feed. For instance, it easy to add more of a few raw vegetables to the sides of the big pot of roasted chicken before you throw it in the oven and an extra cup of rice to the bowl when you find out unexpected guests are on their way. 
  • I cook strategically, part 2. We don’t eat expensive foods. I have a hard time cooking a meal that costs me more than $2/person to prepare. My goal is to keep dinners to under $10, with leftovers for lunch the next day for (at least) my husband. On special occasions, such as birthday dinners or holidays, I will splurge a little more and enjoy the fancier things...think Little House on the Prairie style. Let me give you a real-life scenario that I do every month. With the whole chicken I purchased, I will get 3 meals+ by using it well. Meal #1 is roasted chicken with veg&rice. In the roasting pan with the whole chicken, I will fill the sides with carrots, celery, potatoes and onions. The four of us will eat about 2/3 of the meat and almost all of the veggies for that meal. After the chicken cools, I pick the remaining meat from the bones and use it for a casserole, chicken salad, tacos, soup, or something similar that leaves leftovers again.  Lastly, I will either use the juices (AKA stock) from around the roasted chicken for a meal or freeze it in a ziplock for a later soup, delicious rice, etc. Out of a $4 chicken, plus some other ingredients, I served a family a four at least 3 times. Pretty good, eh?
  • I cook strategically, part 3. I find many recipes call for arm loads of expensive ingredients that I’m not willing to part with for that meal or pay for to begin with. I will either replace it with something cheaper, but similar or ignore it altogether. One example of this is a taco casserole (sometimes called a Chuckwagon Casserole). This might sound obsessively cheap to some, but I can’t handle using an entire pound of ground beef for a chuckwagon casserole. If I’m going to use a whole pound of beef, it better be for something I can sink my teeth into- like an awesome hamburger! So, for the chuckwagon, I use a half pound of ground beef and add extra beans + a beef bouillon for filler. There is one place in which I will not use the cheaper version- BUTTER. I will never substitute margarine when the recipe calls for butter. #1, margarine is gross and fake. #2, it probably won’t work in the recipe anyway. I would rather not make the cookies than cheat there. 
  • Buy in bulk.....but only if it’s cheaper. I found stores like Sam’s sometimes hope we aren’t looking and hike the price on an item that Walmart sells cheaper. Personally, the things I buy in bulk are: dog food, laundry soap, dishwasher soap, apple juice, boneless/skinless chicken breasts, 2 pound blocks of cheese, rice, milk, eggs, printer paper (I like their quality!), whole/fresh chickens, and (sometimes) their cheapest fruit. 
  • I became a student of the stores. I pay attention to how stores price their items. However, most of the time, I just grab the store flyers and head to Walmart to price match. In my town in VA, we only had 2 grocery stores other than wally-world, but if I found a Target ad....or ANY store that had an ad with something cheaper, I saved it and brought it to Walmart with me. If it was still “good” or within the dates written on the ad, Walmart honored it (except on buy one, get one free sales). 
  • When it's gone, it's gone. When we run out of something before the pay period ends, most of the time we just wait. Since I have usually spent our entire food budget by that point, there is nothing left in the "envelope" and I fight the urge to go get more. This is when it gets really tough to tell my girls that we will just have to wait for more ______ and that we'll be ok with it. Heading back to the store to get more of something slowly increases the food spending. If I notice that we are lacking that item at the end of the month for a few months, I will make space in the food budget to buy more and accommodate. It may not be a big deal in the long run, but this is a discipleship issue and (I feel) it teaches my girls to get over their human need to satisfy their want immediately. This rule gets hard when I have unexpected guests coming and I want to prepare a huge meal with all the fancy sides or desserts. My internal battle becomes a pride issue and I usually end up asking myself a few questions...."before I knew I was having guests, I was willing to serve my family our planned meal. And if I'm ok with them eating this, why wouldn't I be ok with serving it to someone else?" Then I realized that the people coming over are usually in one of two catagories: Either they are coming over because they like us despite what we are eating, or they are coming over to eat (our college students) and don't care what it is other than it being safely consumable.  
  • I have a Master Shopping List and Monthly Meal Plan tailored to us. There are several examples online. 
  • Lastly, I don’t typically buy cleaners like windex, specialty floor cleaners or bathroom cleaners. Armed with bleach, baking soda and vinegar, I can clean almost any surface in my house. Google the uses of baking soda and you’ll be amazed at the savings your 75 cent box of baking soda can provide. One of my splurges is for the dish washing liquid that is easier on my hands! I do buy disposable things like ziplock bags, but not too frequently. I try to save those for freezing messy foods (like chicken stock or meats) and use my good supply of tupperware bowls for food storage and transport. 

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