Cutting My Grocery Bill in Half

receipts
“receipts” by josephbergen on flickr

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!

Advertisements

No-Spend Month: September 2018

8662522948_8cc97e5c6a_m
“2013_04_18” by Dennis S. Hurd on Flickr

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?

10 Frugal School Lunch Tips

Herb Chicken and Potatoes LunchBots Quad Bento by sheri chen on Flickr
No, this cute LunchBot isn’t mine. It’s a creative commons image called “Herb Chicken and Potatoes LunchBots Quad Bento” by sheri chen on Flickr. I have never made anything this cute in my life.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.)
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Soup for lunch. CHECK! I’m on a soup mission this year! More to come on this one.
  9. 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!
  10. 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.

5 Frugal tips for eating organic


Many people struggle to add more organic foods to their diet, and do it in an affordable way. I have been working on this like crazy the last couple of months, ever since checking out Linda Watson‘s book, Wildly Affordable Organic, from the library. It is a wonderful resource, full of simple yet delicious recipes, and a big plan for cooking your meals from scratch, seasonally.

The author offers ways to do a little or a lot, but all will help you find ways to save money and add organic food to your diet in a frugal manner. Actually, the techniques and strategies in the book will help you save money on food whether you choose to buy organic or not!

Here are some pointers I picked up from reading. This is not a list copied directly from the book, but rather some general ideas that I have found useful.

1. Eat more beans! This is probably the most important strategy in the book. Beans are cheap, nutritious, versatile, protein rich, and filling. And did I mention they are cheap? By preparing my own beans, I have found a way to make the equivalent to a can of organic beans for under a dollar–that’s less than conventional beans on sale! I’m taking the time to cook them mind you, but using the crock pot makes it easy.

2. Cook from scratch. It’s amazing what a loaf of bread costs these days. I mean a high quality loaf of healthy organic whole-grain bread. Baking your own bread is just one example of how making it yourself from scratch can save you a lot of money, and give you a higher quality option. I probably pay less than a third of what a good loaf costs in many stores, for my delicious home made bread. And the same goes for casseroles, pasta sauces, pizza, etc., just to name a few possibilities.

3. Do the bulk of your cooking on the weekend. In the book she offers seasonal meal plans and prep lists for doing the majority of the work on the weekend. I’m not following her plans closely, but this strategy of doing what I can on the weekend has helped to make many things possible, such as making my own yogurt. By planning and taking the time on the weekend, it is easier to do more from scratch. Of course many things can’t be done this way, but giving myself a head start on whatever I can saves me time, and reduces the chance that we’ll have to run out for a pizza during the week.

4. Buy in bulk when you can. In the introduction, Linda talks about shopping on a food stamp budget. She tells of  how much more costly things like sugar and flour are in small packages compared to the prices she is used to with getting things in bulk. I find that even buying smaller quantities from a bulk food store can be cost-effective. But not always! Keeping track of prices and trying different stores certainly help me to decide where to buy, but buying in bulk doesn’t always mean storing sacks of food around the house.

5. Go plant-strong. Even if you don’t decide to eat as many beans as Linda Watson proposes, you can certainly reduce your grocery budget by choosing more grains and veggies, and less meat. I can buy a lot more plant food–even organic food–when I choose veggies, grains and beans over meat. We still do eat meat, but I get more value when I use meat as an addition to the meal, not as the main event.

I highly recommend this book! I checked it out from the library, but then ended up buying it because it was so useful. While I don’t follow her meal plans or cooking plans to a T, I have still found the book incredibly useful, and am trying more of her strategies each week. All of which is motivating me to save more money while eating more organic food.

Real Food Standby #4: Stove-top Popcorn

You put the oil in the pot

And you let it get hot

You put the popcorn in

And you start to grin

Sizzle-sizzle, sizzle-sizzle, sizzle-sizzle, sizzle-sizzle

Sizzle-sizzle, sizzle-sizzle . . . . POP!!

That’s really all you need for a recipe! This snack can be salty or sweet, cheesy or plain, but it’s always easy and low-cost.

Popcorn has long been the go-to late-night snack for our family. For years my partner and I have been driving various neighbours crazy with the aroma filtering through to their apartments late in the evenings. Lately I”ve been throwing it in our snack bag. The kids see this as a real treat!

It’s very frugal–even if you factor in buying non-GMO organic popcorn and coconut oil–and just about as quick as microwave popcorn. But when you make it yourself, the ingredients are much healthier. We usually buy ours in the bulk aisle of the health food store, or occasionally through the ONFC food co-op. Either way, it’s a fraction of the price of any store-bought snack, and also much better for you.

Simple Stovetop Popcorn

coconut oil or palm oil

popping corn

Optional toppings: sea salt, melted butter, parmesan cheese, nutritional yeast

Spoon a large gob of coconut oil into the bottom of a large cold lidded saucepan. Turn the heat to max. As soon as the oil has liquefied, add popcorn to cover the bottom of the pot. We don’t measure quantities, but rather aim for the oil to be level with the kernels, and the whole mass covering the bottom of the pot. Too little oil and you will end up with lots of unpopped kernels. Too much, and the popcorn will be soggy or oily. Feel this out and you will have a skill for life 🙂

Put the lid on the pot and listen for the popping to start. Have a large bowl or two ready to receive your popcorn.  If the popcorn starts to fill up the pot and lift the lid, dump some of it out into the bowl. In this way you can easily make large quantities even in a relatively small pot. Throw some salt on it immediately, as it sticks better when it’s hot. Return pot to heat and give it a good shake every few seconds so any kernels get shifted to the bottom of the pot for a chance to pop.

Once the popping almost stops, dump the whole into the bowl(s) and salt to taste. Add your optional toppings and enjoy!

How do you like your popcorn?

Kefir-licious?

I recently acquired some kefir grains, after reading about its magical health properties. Very exciting! These grains can culture milk at room temperature, making a yogurt-like substance, only much thinner than yogurt. (They’re  not actually grain like cereal grain, but a symbiotic yeast-bacteria colony that forms gel-like curds called grains. Yum!)

I actually don’t like the taste of it plain, but I’ve used it successfully in smoothies, and in bread-making. It is much cheaper than buying yogurt, so I’m going to try using it as a substitute for yogurt, and for buttermilk, in recipes.

If you’re in the Ottawa area and want to try it yourself, let me know and I can give you some of the grains once mine have multiplied enough to share. Any other kefir suggestions?

One chicken: three dinners

I’ve been doing a lot of roast chicken lately, mostly because I can get three dinners from one chicken. The first night we eat it as-is, with a side veggie. Day two we either have chicken sandwiches or the pasta below. And on the third day I usually make chicken soup. It’s simple and good and pretty frugal, even when we buy the hormone-and-antibiotic-free ones.

One of the best parts is the second day pasta sauce. It’s very simple, and makes good use of the breast meat (we’re dark-meat folks for just plain eating).

Leftover Chicken-Cream Pasta

1 onion, minced

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 tbsp olive oil

1 can of tomatoes

fresh or dried thyme

1 cup diced chicken meat

1/4 to 1/3 cup heavy cream

Heat oil in pan on medium-low heat. Add onion and saute until soft and fragrant. Add garlic and cook for 30 seconds or so, being careful not to let it burn. If you have a lot of time, you can cook the onion and garlic very slowly so they get sweet and saucy, but you can do it more quickly if you are pressed for time.

Add can of tomatoes. Again you have two options. If you have a lot of time, drain the tomatoes, reserving the liquid. Add just the tomatoes to the pan and cook them over medium heat so they caramelize and sweeten. Once they are quite broken down, add the tomato juice and stir. If you don’t have extra time, just add the whole can at once and simmer.

Add the thyme and cook until it is thickened. Then take off heat and stir in the cream, adding more or less according to your taste. Heavy cream will not curdle in the acidity of the tomato sauce.

Serve over penne or rigatoni.