I have long been a fan of small actions that create multiple benefits. Things that are both frugal and healthy, for example, or that both save money and have less of an environmental burden. I have realized one of our daily habits has not one—not two—not even three benefits—This action has four amazing benefits and I’m going to tell uou about it right now.
Long story short: no it is not possible to spend just $400 per month on groceries. Not for a family of four. Not in Northern Ontario, in the winter. Not while eating a healthy diet. And certainly not while working full time.
I feel a bit bad about leaving you on that cliffhanger, as it became evident very quickly that my ambitious grocery savings goals were a bit over-the-top.
I think I can account for my bills being super low that month by the fact that the kids went away to camp for 4 days, and we also probably ate a lot out of our pantry. It was definitely not a “normal” month, and that record low grocery spending did not continue past September of last year.
One major thing that changed was that I started a full-time contract in November which goes till mid-May. Working full-time means having less time at home–especially less solo time–which means much less time for cooking and baking, especially time-consuming things like tortillas and crackers. Because of this, I’ve been buying a few more convenience foods, and the kids have been eating more cereal!
The up-side is that our overall income has gone up significantly for these few months! Because of our awesome financial skills, we’ve been able to save a good chunk of cash, and we are just days away from paying off our car in full! This will leave us debt-free apart from our mortgage, and we can start saving for a summer vacation, and for some upcoming house repairs.
This is a real dream come true, to pay off our car. Now we are looking at saving up an emergency fund, investing more in the kids’ education plans, and putting some money aside for a future car.
It is a complicated shift in mindset for me, to move from the urgent sense of paying off debt, into a perspective of saving for the future. I have never been very good at this side of things, and have relied in many ways, on the shame and stress of being in debt to kick me in the butt and provide me with the energy to meet my goals. It isn’t being very kind to myself, but it has worked!
Part of me is worried that switching the stick for a carrot will leave me short on motivation. I worry about my ability to keep reaching toward these more positive goals that are more than many people are within reach of.
I also realize–in terms of this blog–that the narrative of “I am saving up for a comfortable future” is much less appealing than “I am working hard to get out of debt”. I see the privilege that is behind that narrative and I wonder if the next part of this story really needs to be told.
I remember back when I lived in Ottawa, I had a very frugal friend. We shared many tips on frugal and eco-conscious living, trading cultures and shopping strategies. I felt a lot of kinship with her — until I visited her home. She not only owned her own home in an expensive part of town; she also owned a rental property! I felt my feelings of kinship diminish, and a sense of resentment creep in. Here I was busting my butt just to afford to feed my family, and she was using these frugal skills to build her investments?? What a betrayal! I soon got over my reaction to her apparent wealth (and reminded myself that one never knows what’s going on behind the surface) and our friendship continued for several years. She did have good frugal tips to share!
But I don’t want to do that to you, my readers! Lure you in with perceived struggling kinship only to reveal that I’m actually out of debt and slowly building my own wealth.
And yet, I do want to give anyone reading who is in that difficult place, that place of scraping by, a concrete sense of hope. Hope that if you keep going, if you keep saving and getting smarter and paying off debt, you have a good chance of reaching a place of stability. There are no guarantees in this life: health problems can drop in out of nowhere, moving to another city can erase years of progress, job losses and babies and investing in education, these can all set us back.
But the frugal skills we learn are a kind of insurance because they can help keep us stable through crises, changes and stages of life. And once we have weathered those storms, we will have the luxury of a bit of choice around what to reach for next.
I can hardly believe it, but our recent receipts show that I’ve been spending HALF of what I was usually spending every week at the grocery store. No kidding!
For the last year, our grocery bills have totalled over $800/month for our family of four, sometimes up to $900 or $1000. I could easily spend over $200 on just one trip to Superstore, and then hit Costco a couple of days later and drop no less than $100.
The last few shops I’ve done have been less than $100 a week! I haven’t had to shop more than once each week, and I haven’t had to grab milk at the corner store either.
So what the heck was I buying that was costing me DOUBLE what I’ve spent the last few weeks?
Thinking back, I was buying a lot of bread, cereal and crackers, bagels, gourmet organic chocolate bars, individually packaged granola bars, and yogurt cups. I often took my kids shopping with me, and rarely said no to their requests. I frequently bought sandwich meat, and sometimes also frozen casseroles or ribs when my defences were lowered.
The last few weeks I’ve been making a lot of the things I had gotten used to buying:
- I’ve been baking bread once or twice a week
- I’ve been making sourdough rye crackers regularly
- I’ve been packing my kids mason jar yogurt cups (plain yogurt, chopped cherries & a bit of maple syrup) (actually I’ve got a batch of yogurt going right now for this week’s snacks)
- I’ve limited my shopping to just one box of cereal per week
- The kids have been getting oatmeal for breakfast every day
- I made my own granola bars
- I also made flour tortillas, a few of which I turned into crackers
I’ve been sticking to shopping mostly at Food Basics. I find I can fill my cart and buy whatever I feel like, and it always costs around $100, whereas at Superstore I can easily go over $200 on a weekly shop.
I’m also getting more organized about planning my meals, and have really delved into the subject of Meal Planning which has taken me down a few interesting rabbit holes which I will write about in a future post. For now let me say that I BELIEVE advanced meal planning might be able to get my grocery bills down to $400 per month.
Can I spend just $400 per month on groceries?
I consider this a challenge for the months of October and November! Full disclosure, I will be starting the month of October off with a fairly well-stocked pantry and a couple of meals in the freezer, but I will try to end the same way to start November off right.
For these prices, I have not been buying much organic, except for some of our meat which I usually purchase from a local farmer on ClickFork, Sudbury’s new online Farmer’s Market. Dalew Farms has amazing grass-fed beef, and Three Forks Farms offers certified organic pastured chicken. I also sometimes splurge on organic berries from Costco for my smoothies.
These harvest months in Ontario are also the time for the best prices for local fruit & veggies, so it’s a good time to challenge myself like this.
My second part-time job
I have a wonderful friend who does mystery shopping as one of her main sources of income. Yes, it’s a legitimate way to make money, and there are definitely companies that won’t scam you–but that is a post for another day.
Basically, after working two part time jobs from January to April of this past year, I figured out that I really only want ONE job right now. I had to lose a twonie-sized patch of hair on the back of my head to show me how much stress I was under, to be convinced not to look for another opportunity to start raking in more cash.
But looking at how much I’m saving on groceries has shown me that I AM EARNING THE EQUIVALENT OF A little PART-TIME JOB just by getting smarter about my grocery shopping, and cooking everything from scratch.
The difference between this “job” and the other options? I LOVE THIS ONE!
This is very similar to where I was back when I was writing the most on this blog, at home with my two kids and trying to make our little one-income lifestyle work. Now I’ve got the hours when the kids are in school to focus on meal planning, baking and studying more ways to be frugal, and I couldn’t be happier!
So, what’s the plan?
- I will continue to shop at Food Basics, hitting up Costco and Superstore only once a month each
- I’m going to try a monthly meal plan to get my expenses evened out over more time
- Sunday Soup, and Meatless Monday
- continue to take advantage of sales, price matching at Superstore, and the Flipp app to find best prices on my preferred brands
- oatmeal or home-made bread for kids’ breakfasts
- keep on making from scratch everything I can possibly save money on
- Stay out of stores as much as possible!
October hasn’t started yet, so I will post my meal plan when I get it ready. We do have my son’s birthday in October, so that might increase food costs a little, but I will try to keep it reasonable, and may even earmark some funds for “party food” that will be separate from the main grocery budget.
I’m up for the challenge!
I’m back to making our family’s bread on a regular basis. It saves us at least $7 per week or more, and is much tastier than anything we can buy. On second thought, I think making good bread saves much more than the cost of bread, since my family is more likely to choose a fresh slice of yummy fresh bread than a more expensive snack like boxed cereal. Plus, my kids really love “Mommy Bread”, and it makes my heart swell to hear them say so!
With cooler Fall weather coming our way, making bread is also a lovely way to heat up the house and create that homey feeling that seems to define the season.
My current fave recipe is kinda healthy, and very easy. It’s the Good Whisk Bread recipe from Wildly Affordable Organic by Linda Watson (with only a couple of modifications that I’ll tell you about below!). Linda has made two videos (first part here, second part here) demonstrating the process for making and then shaping this bread, which really takes the guess-work out–especially for the shaping bit!
What I love about this recipe is that it gets great flavour with a super simple recipe that requires very little hands-on time. It makes two small loaves, which I have been slicing right after baking, and putting in the freezer to last the week. It makes very flavourful toast and cheese sandwiches. My daughter loves when I make her a toasted cheese sandwich in the morning for her lunch (she calls it a “Cheese-a-roo”), and I love having a tomato sandwich for lunch, with mayo, cheese, and a pickle!
The original recipe recommends white whole wheat flour, and 1/2 cup of untoasted wheat germ along with the first mix. I don’t have either of these things, so I have just been using the freshly ground Redeemer whole wheat flour that I have, and not bothering with the wheat germ, though I suppose I could add in 1/2 cup of home-ground oat flour or some other add-in. I have also reduced the salt from 1 tbsp to 2 1/2 tsp, as I found it a bit too salty at the higher amount.
(by Linda Watson, from Wildly Affordable Organic)
2 1/2 cups (300 g) whole wheat flour, sifted
2 1/4 tsp instant yeast (or one package)
2 1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp (21 g) honey or other sweetener (maple syrup or agavé for a vegan choice)
3 cups warm water
4 cups (480 g) all-purpose unbleached flour
Combine whole wheat flour, yeast, salt and sweetener. Add 2 cups of the water and whisk swiftly for one minute. This starts to develop the gluten to give a better rise in the final bread.
Add the last cup of water and the 4 cups of unbleached flour, and mix vigorously and thoroughly to combine. The dough will be sticky and quite wet.
Cover with a lid and let rise on a counter for 1 to 5 hours, then refrigerate overnight or longer (up to 2 weeks). I find a good flavour develops at 2 days).
On baking day, remove the dough from the fridge and divide and shape into two loaves. This video shows how to divide and shape the loaves. They will be quite wet, but still should form a nice shape in a loaf pan.
Whereas Linda uses a greased nonstick pan, I prefer to line my loaf pans with parchment paper which easily peels away from the finished loaves. I find mine need to rise for at least 3 hours. I prepare my oven with the loaves on the middle rack, and a pan of boiling water underneath for warmth and humidity.
I also find mine need a longer bake at a higher temperature (though maybe a longer rise would correct this somewhat). The last loaves I made baked for at least an hour at 400ºF. The internal temperature should reach 205ºF.
Allow to cool completely, and then either keep at room temperature or slice and place in the freezer to maintain freshness.
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We’ve launched our latest no-spend month in the 30 days between back-to-school season and birthday/Christmas season. It’s a well-timed effort, aiming to prep us for the gauntlet of birthdays that starts in October and runs all the way to early April (amidst which Christmas just happens to fall smack in the middle). What’s a frugal gal to do?
This being our third or so no-spend month, the rest of the family is well-trained now to know what to expect. No special treats at the grocery store. No runs to the corner store for chips or pop. No pizza lunches. We wait to get that movie at the library. I still buy groceries, pay for the kids’ lessons, and of course would fund any medical needs that arose, but we strictly limit “extras”.
From past no-spend months we have learned some skills and mindset hacks:
- we enjoy home-popped popcorn–and sometimes even buttered steamed rice–while watching movies instead of chips
- we make lemon-flavoured sweetened iced tea, or home squeezed lemon juice instead of pop
- we have lunch in the park or a walk with friends instead of grabbing a coffee together
- my partner started walking home on his lunch hour instead of buying lunch or snacks downtown
- we are generally all home-bodies, and the no-spend month is no different, but during the month we make an extra effort to do more special (free) things all together like family walks, family basketball, family disc golf, puzzles on the living room floor, and maybe learn a new card game
(Plus I am trying to generate joyful chore routines that teach the kids some skills while enjoying our time together. So far: it’s kindof a chore, maybe not so joyful . . . yet! But it sure is nice to walk into the dining room later in the evening and see a clean table, with the leftovers safely stored in the fridge instead of sitting out getting dodgy.)
The not-so-fun Money talk
When I first introduced this round of no-spending, my partner was bummed. We had a conversation, and it didn’t go so well, though he was still willing to see it through for the month. He said it made him feel really restricted and sad to not be able to just grab a coffee or something at the corner store when he wanted it. And when I thought about it, I could really understand where he was coming from. I mean, he’s not the one with the blog about frugal living. This is MY nerdy thing, not his–for him, it’s just restrictive.
I thought about what he said in our conversation, about how this kind of extreme cutting back made him feel, and slept on it. The next day something I was reading inspired me, and I introduced a second conversation. I really tried to see things from his perspective, and then I asked him what financial goals he could see for us in the next couple of years.
It’s all about goals
Despite all of my blogging about saving money and living frugally, we have had surprisingly few conversations about our financial goals. Maybe he’s been afraid our goals would not line up with each other; maybe I’ve been afraid our they would not line up with reality.
But despite our fears and our silence, I pointed out that so far, we have achieved every single financial goals we have set:
- we bought a house
- we paid off all our student loans
- we have set aside a growing chunk in our kids’ education savings plan
- we got out of consumer debt, and have managed to live consumer debt free (apart from our car & mortgage) for many years
- I was able to stay home with the kids and even homeschool them for six years
- we have weathered several bouts of unemployment
- I am now able to work part-time
Our incomes may seem meagre, but looking back, we have been able to achieve so much!
The best part of the conversation was when he told me he appreciated all of my work on the family finances. It’s not every day you get told you are appreciated! Believe me, it made me feel pretty good about all the work you see me post about, plus all that gets done behind the scenes.
Talking about goals can be a bit scary, but I think we were in a good place in our conversation because we were able to come to three goals for the next short term:
- save money to get our roof fixed (the shingles have seen better days)
- finish paying off our car (a 0% loan with just one more year left)
- save for a trip to New York City!
All of these are reasonable goals, and the vacation goal makes it a bit more fun and motivating for everyone. Who knows–maybe we can divert some of the birthday/Christmas money into that pot and move that goal to the top of the list!
I would love to hear how others talk money with their spouses and family members. Do you have any tips to share for keeping everyone on the same page financially?
I have yet to meet a parent who enjoys preparing school lunches. While there is a nurturing beauty to the idea that you are sending your kid off to enjoy their day with the very best nutrition and flavour that a parent’s hands can lovingly create . . . the tedium of it tends to creep in pretty quickly around mid-September.
There are also the sandwiches coming back with one bite out of the corner (“I didn’t have time to finish it!”); the organic apple sauce you thought was being eaten, only to find out it has been traded every day for a Froot-by-the-foot; and the blessing/curse of the weekly pizza day (Yay! Don’t have to send a sandwich! Boo–still have to prepare everything else . . .).
I just have to say: we need a nutritious school lunch program!
But I digress.
In doing my final prep before the first day of school, I’ve been scouring the hivemind for money saving school lunch ideas. I found a few cute recipes, but surprisingly not a whole lot of brilliant strategies for saving big-time on school lunches. But even without a list of 50 or even 20 amazing ways of saving money on lunch, I think the following list could certainly help keep costs down on what could otherwise be the most expensive meal of the day.
Here are the best of the suggestions I’ve found so far:
- Instead of buying pre-packaged food, buy in bulk and divide into your own smaller containers. CHECK! This year I vow to make my own yogurt cups using mason jars, and finally put to use the reusable pouches I bought a couple years ago for applesauce.
- Make it yourself: it’s cheaper to make bread, granola bars, hummus, and even crackers. CHECK! With the extra time I have coming up, I can spend more time DIYing my kids’ lunch menu. In fact, I just made a batch of granola bars (though with 3/4 cups of honey, I’m not sure how much cheaper they actually are).
- Opting for less expensive protein options, like sunflower and sesame seeds, hummus, lentil soup and eggs. CHECK! I am currently investigating seed-based recipes to incorporate protein into home-baked treats, and plan to focus also on sending frugal soups for lunch.
- Break up with disposable packaging. CHECK! Plastic zipper baggies may seem cheap, but the price adds up over the long run, and the plastic waste is awful to think about. While our purchase of Lunchbots for the whole family was not cheap, these stainless steel containers have lasted through three school (and work) years so far, and show no signs of slowing down.**this is not an affiliate link. I really love these boxes, and also the store I’ve linked to. I don’t profit in any way from clicks or sales from this link.** Additionally, I have started sending mason jars, which are inexpensive, dishwasher-safe, microwavable, and endlessly reusable. I also sometimes use very inexpensive waxed paper for wrapping sandwiches when I forget to wash our reusable sandwich bags. (Sandwiches don’t cram well into mason jars.)
- No more juice. CHECK! When the kids first started school I sent them juice every day. I don’t know why, I just thought that was the “normal” thing, which was weird because we hardly ever buy juice for home. Well, it was a real revelation when the school hosted a “Water Bottle Challenge” where kids were rewarded with a reusable water bottle after packing only water for 30 days. Once they went without juice for a month, I never looked back! Tap water is healthy, frugal and so much better for the environment.
- Bringing leftovers for lunch. NOT SURE. We actually love to eat leftovers for supper, and it saves so much time in the kitchen, which helps especially on the nights I work. It seems like a waste to send all the yummy leftovers for lunches. I am also not sure about the cost savings: a sandwich on homemade bread is probably cheaper than a serving from dinner. However, I’m willing to consider this and calculate the savings on a few of our supper favourites.
- Baked potatoes. WOW! This is a revelation for me! My kids LOVE baked potatoes, and actually just like to eat them plain with butter. I could cook them overnight and have them ready to pack in the morning. Wrapped in foil and then insulated in a cloth napkin, or even inside a thermos, I think my kids would really like this frugal lunch option.
- Soup for lunch. CHECK! I’m on a soup mission this year! More to come on this one.
- Cut waste. CHECK! There is nothing worse than going to wash out the kid’s lunch boxes and finding a load of uneaten food. Even worse if this happens on Sunday night, and things have started to ferment or turn blue & fuzzy . . . been there! My strategies for reducing waste include: explaining to the kids about eating the most perishable food first, and saving anything that will keep until later; not sending too much food, though finding the perfect amount can seem like a magic trick; giving them anything uneaten from their lunches before any other after-school snack options; serving a “lunchbot side dish” with their supper if they don’t finish their fruit & veggies; and maybe most important, sending food they actually like and will eat!
- Vegemite sandwiches . . . Um?? Just no.
I actually couldn’t find 10 really good ideas, even after much internet searching. If I find another one I’ll update this post, but for now you’ve got 9 really good ideas, and I’ll finish with a couple more bonus points.
A couple of bonus suggestions:
- stay away from cheap plastic reusables. It seems like a lot of blog posts about saving money on school lunches are just trying to get you to buy a lot of new products through their affiliate links. Try using mason jars, or consider investing in some high quality stainless steel–LABEL THEM WELL! ALL THE PARTS! They could last forever.
- kids don’t get a lot of time to eat (either that or they spend all of it talking to their friends), so making things really easy to eat is very important.
- instead of buying freezer packs, freeze kids’ water bottles to keep lunches chilled
What we won’t be skimping on this year:
- fresh fruits and veggies. In our “quad” lunchbot, we send a selection of four different fruits and veggies. We rotate through cucumber slices, apple slices, carrot sticks, cherry tomatoes, grapes, a peeled and quartered kiwi, orange slices, cherries in season, and sometimes as a treat, mango or ground cherries, or something else small or cut up into nice pieces. We try to keep a “lunchbot first” rule for eating lunch, or sometimes I end up putting the leftovers in an after- school smoothie for the kids. While we aren’t skimping on these servings, I always figure they will help save money in the long run by contributing to the kids’ health.
It’s been a wild ride over the last few years, and I have neglected my blog very badly. I’m so glad it is still here where I left it! Life has taken me in many different directions, down some fascinating paths, and I’ve ended up in a really wonderful place, for which I am so grateful.
I’m currently working part-time at the library, my partner is working at a non-profit within walking distance, the kids are happy at their school, and we are surrounded by family, friends and nature. And boy, have we summered hard this year! The kids agreed it has been the best summer in a long time, filled with swimming, camping, cousins, and even a quick trip to the water park!
Besides our great summer, I am also happy at work–happier than I have ever been in any other job, period. I love my job so much! It combines my life-long love affair with books, with my gifts of welcoming and service. Being part-time, it allows me to continue to spend a lot of time with the kids, and since they are in school, it means (at least from September to June) I can keep my house clean! That is something I still have not managed to figure out when the kids are home.
The other side of part-time work is the salary that goes with it. Work less -> earn less!
But I would rather this situation than a year ago when I was managing the Farmer’s Market, and then I got a full-time contract at Public Health, and THEN I got my part-time library gig! For a little while I did have three jobs, and while we pulled through, the stress took a toll on my health.
My Return to Frugal Living
One of my most useful skills has got to be my ability to “Buckle Down” when times get tough. When I am motivated–and when the need is there–I can cut spending down like no one’s business. My family kinda hates me for it, but I keep the bank accounts in the black, and I love learning more tips–for free of course!–for keeping our hard-earned money safe from overspending.
Unfortunately, to my eleven-year-old, there is nothing more eye-rollingly un-cool than a spending freeze.
Unfortunately for her, I find frugal living utterly fascinating–at least while I have to keep it up. The minute the need goes away, I usually collapse from the strain of it. But luckily while going through it, I am usually able to stay motivated to get through the tough time.
How Blogging Helps
When I first started this blog back in May, 2009, we were an apartment-living two-income family of three in Ottawa, Ontario. This blog helped me transition to the lower salary during my Maternity leave that October, and then it helped us move to living on just my partner’s salary. A couple of years later, I was able to carry out my dream of homeschooling my kids, and continuing as a one-income family.
Many pieces of luck came together, and we were able to move back to Sudbury (our hometown), and buy a house of our own. Here we have survived one-income living, job losses, appliance breakdown, as well as other transitions. While I haven’t been around much over the last few years, the skills I tested and honed on these pages have helped us achieve our dreams, and get the family through many financial ups and downs.
The Next Adventure
Right now I am days away from a really exciting time: getting to be a home-maker, and having time to write! If you read between the lines, you may understand that I am facing reduced hours at work, which requires us to tighten our belts once again.
But to be honest for a moment, beyond my current need to revisit my frugal ways, I have truly missed this space: for sharing ideas, inspiring others, and pushing my own skills and thinking beyond where they were before.
This Fall, I am planning to check in here more often, sharing my newest experiments in frugal living–bigger and weirder than ever before!–plus my insights into green and healthy living, parenting and being a person in this challenging and incredible world of ours.