How to afford fruits and vegetables

Frugal Grocery Guide Part 6: Making Produce Affordable

How to afford fruits and vegetables

I use to buy into a myth. Maybe you have too, or still do.

The myth is that you have to be wealthy to afford fruits and vegetables in your diet, or to eat healthily in general.  Every time I hear someone claim that they can’t afford produce, it’s backed by a ridiculous example—”that little box of blueberries costs $6 and a package of noodles only costs $1. How can anyone afford to eat fruits and vegetables?”

It is possible to fill your diet with fruits and vegetables on a low income. Our family’s income is defined by the state as “very low” for our county, and we spend almost half of our take-home pay on our rent (which incidentally, is on the low end for our area). And yet, we still eat a satisfying diet with plenty of whole grains, and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Of course, if you have a restrictive grocery budget, keeping produce in your diet (like any quality food) will take greater effort than if you have abundant funds to use on groceries. I’m going to give you some ideas on how to start exerting your efforts to make produce more affordable. Even if you don’t need to spend less but simply want to be smarter with your shopping, these basic principles will help immensely!

Buy only in season.

This is part of the absurdity of the blueberry “evidence” I mentioned above.

Buying produce out of its growing (and selling) season will decimate your budget. Produce is at its cheapest when it is in season, but just as importantly, this is when it tastes good. If you live in North America and you buy fresh peaches in December, then eat them and conclude that you don’t like peaches, there is a reason. Peaches shipped to the USA in December have to be shipped from so far away that it means they never had a chance to ripen naturally. They won’t taste anything like a peach should. I attempted to make a December peach pie as a high school student. I did not realize my folly until I tasted that pie–it wasn’t even recognizable as peach!

If you have no clue when produce is in season, start by looking at your grocer’s ads. The price is your guide. If it’s on sale, it is most likely in season. You could also ask someone from the produce department at the store to point out what is in season. And of course, the internet has many resources to guide you in the seasonality of produce and how to look for quality when purchasing. Here is one good reference from the USDA.

Some produce is in season year round. However, if really want something that is out of season, you need to consider other forms than fresh…

Consider all your options—fresh, frozen, and canned.

People often assume that canned produce is the cheapest, but this is not always the case. If there’s anything we’ve learned in the Frugal Grocery Guide, it’s not to make assumptions!

Fresh produce that is on-sale and in-season will often be the same price or less expensive than its canned or frozen counterparts. For example, a 15 ounce can of corn has about 1 ½ cups of corn and costs me $0.50 on sale. An ear of fresh corn yields about ¾ cups of kernels. When fresh corn is in season, I buy it for $0.20 per ear. Considering both cost and taste, it makes more sense to buy the corn fresh at this point. However in the winter, fresh corn is much more expensive, if available at all, so canned corn wins out. Another example is carrots. A 16 ounce can of sliced carrots holds about 1 ¾ to 2 cups of carrots and costs me $0.50 on sale. I purchase fresh carrots (year round) for $0.79 for 2 pounds, which yields about 5 cups of sliced, cooked carrots. Fresh is the obvious winner in this case, at less than half the price-per-cup of canned. In other instances frozen will offer the best price.

Some fruits and vegetables are consistently low-cost. I typically see carrots, potatoes, onions, celery, cucumbers, and apples for less than a dollar per pound. That’s far less expensive than most meat or cheese, and usually less expensive than grains such as pasta or bread. In addition, a pound of fruit or veggies usually divides into more servings (as defined by the USDA) than meat.

If you really want produce that is out of season, see what frozen or canned options there are. I regularly buy bags of frozen blueberries that equate to $0.17 per ounce. That is equivalent to buying a 6 ounce clamshell of fresh blueberries for only $1. Frozen produce tends to stay about the same price year-round.

The Nutrition Factor

Is fresh, frozen, or canned produce the most nutritious?

Well, it depends. Frozen produce is consistently equivalent to fresh. The nutritional content of canned produce varies depending on what it is. Many fruits and vegetables lose nutrients during the heat and pressure of the canning process. There are a few, however, that are actually enhanced. Tomatoes and pumpkin have higher nutrient counts after being canned, and they also retain a good flavor, unlike most canned veggies. Most canned fruits and vegetables do retain their fiber even though their nutrients are diminished, which does makes them better than having no produce in your diet.

In addition, frozen fruit and veggies are usually comparable or even less expensive than canned goods, as well as claiming superior taste and texture. Don’t neglect the freezer aisle if you want your diet to be produce-rich year round! I typically find a variety of vegetables here for less than $1 per pound.

Keep your produce in fresh condition.

If you buy frozen produce, keep it in the freezer, obviously. If you buy canned, stack it in your pantry, under the bed, in the garage…anywhere in normal living conditions.

If you buy fresh, however, you need to invest a little Google time (or talk-to-your-produce-man-time) into learning how to keep those fruits and veggies fresh and tasty until you’re ready to use them. When you buy some lettuce and don’t know how to keep it fresh, search “how to keep lettuce fresh” on the web. You’ll get answers quickly, and it will be worth your time to have fresh, crisp lettuce when you need it later on this week instead of limp, moldy lettuce. In short, acquire the knowledge you need to actually use what you buy instead of letting it go to waste. Likewise, don’t buy more than you are able to use or preserve.

Buy produce in bulk and preserve it.

If you have the luxury of a deep freezer, it’s easy to stock up on quality fruits and veggies when they are on sale. Most fruits need only be peeled, sliced, and placed in freezer bags. Berries don’t even require peeling. Some vegetables, such as onions and carrots, can be frozen after peeling and slicing, while others like broccoli and green beans require blanching (a brief bath in boiling water) before they are frozen. By stocking up on on-sale produce and freezing it, you can have fresh-tasting produce any time of the year. Here is a nice starting guide to give you ideas about freezing food. If you are in doubt about whether you can freeze something, there are many resources online to help you.

If you have some basic canning equipment, you can choose to can your fruits. Canning acidic fruits and veggies requires only a large pot and rack for water bathing the jars, while canning non-acidic foods like beans and meats requires a pressure canner. Canned foods can obviously be stored more easily than frozen, however, keep in mind that home canning still depletes the nutrients in some vegetables, as compared to freezing them.

The USDA link I mentioned above has great, quick information about selecting and storing many different types of produce.

Buy locally and think outside the box.

Your grocery store is likely not the only place to get fresh produce. During the summer and fall, many areas have a variety of farmer’s markets and fruit and vegetable stands. These are great places to find bargains and grab up the freshest, sweetest produce.

Many places also have access to food co-ops. I buy most of my produce through this one, which serves several of the western states. Buying through a co-op eliminates many of the “middle-man” fees associated with grocery store produce. It is simply a group of people pooling their money to buy fresh produce (or other food) directly from farmers, so the co-op isn’t marking up the food for a profit.

Don’t forget the smaller stores. Even if you do most of your shopping at big chain supermarkets, don’t forget about smaller local or ethnic stores. They can have some great prices and fresher produce—if you’re serious about working produce into your budget, they are worth exploring.

In addition to famer’s markets, many farms offer “pick your own” deals. If you are willing to do the work of harvesting yourself, you can get fresh produce for less.

Grow your own.

Ah, I saved my favorite for last. Growing your own food, even a little, is something that I love to encourage. If you have a yard with some open space you can really go gangbusters, but there are many other ways to grow a little food even without acres of land. Depending on your produce preferences, you can save a pretty penny by growing your own, especially if you know how to preserve your harvest for later. Even a small pot of fresh herbs in your windowsill will save you quite a bit of money over buying fresh every time you want them!

You Can Make Produce Affordable!

Even on a low income, fruits and vegetables can be part of your diet. It requires effort on your part, but it is possible. Eating well is easier when money is abundant. But by investing the principles above, you can absolutely afford produce without breaking the bank. Even if you are already buying plenty of produce, utilizing these strategies will help you spend less on that great colorful food. Give it a shot and tell me what you think!

 

 

 

 

 

meat in grocery budget

Frugal Grocery Guide Part 5: Managing the Meat

meat in grocery budget

Pound for pound, meat is one of the priciest food groups we purchase. To keep your grocery budget trim, you need to know your way around the meat aisle, and of course your own kitchen. Here are some great ways to save money on meat:

Use less meat in your meals.

I don’t plan on ever becoming a through-and-through vegetarian, and you don’t need to either (if you want to, I won’t stop you.) You can still stretch your grocery dollars by simply reducing the amount of meat in your family’s diet. You’ll notice that in most of the recipes on this blog, I use a smaller amount of meat than would traditionally be called for. I compensate by adding more of another ingredient, usually and inexpensive vegetable, grain, or legume in the recipe. This strategy is easiest when you serve soups, casseroles, salads or stir-fries, or any dish with multiple ingredients. The idea is to utilize meat as an accent to the meal rather than making it the star performer. If you do want to serve meat as an independent item, be sure to feature it next to delicious, frugal and healthy sides so you can serve smaller portions.

Start by playing with your favorite recipes. Replace each pound of meat in the dish with either ¾ or ½ pound of meat. Replace the remaining ¼ or ½ pound of meat in the recipe with another ingredient like veggies, beans, pasta, or rice to make the recipe produce the same amount of food.

Flavored or cured meats like bacon, sausage, and ham can be used in smaller amounts while still lending their flavor to the dish you are cooking, so don’t be afraid to use them sparingly.

Eat meatless on occasion.

Try making meals that don’t require any meat at all. If you’re used to eating meat with all your meals, you’ll probably need to start slowly and build up a repertoire of meatless recipes. I’m working on this one. I try to feed our family at least one meatless meal each week, occasionally two. It’s important to concoct meals that have plenty of protein and fiber so that you will feel satiated. Otherwise, if you’re like me, you’ll just fill in the “meat-shelf” with ice cream an hour later.

Beans, milk, yogurt and eggs are good inexpensive sources of protein. Protein powder, besides tasting nothing like real food, is expensive and therefore not a good option if you’re focus is on stretching the budget. Cheese can be a good protein source, but may or may not be less expensive than meat, so use caution. The same tends to be true of tofu. Some vegetables also contain decent amounts of protein, such as edamame, peas, mushrooms, spinach, and broccoli.

Fiber and healthy fats are also important elements in making a filling meal. Whole grains are less caloric but keep you full longer than refined grains, so try using whole grain pasta and replacing some of the flour in your baking with whole wheat or your favorite whole grain flour. Oats are a great, inexpensive source of whole grain and fiber, as is corn and cornmeal, and rice.

There seems to be a great divergence on the web (and even among health professionals) about what constitutes healthy fat, so I dare not make any authoritative statements…for our family, I try to use more unsaturated fats and less saturated or animal fats. Avocados are probably our family’s food of choice when it comes to a fatty, filling vegetable. Unfortunately it isn’t always budget-friendly, and the same is true for nuts, which I dearly love. In any case, consult your doctor/health specialist about which sources of fat are most appropriate in your diet and make sure they have a presence when you are omitting meat from your meals.

Use the whole animal.

I don’t mean you need to buy an entire animal, although if you have the freezer space and either hunt or can buy a fresh butchered animal locally, those are great options.

What I do mean is that you don’t want to waste any part of what you purchased at the store. First of all, when you are selecting cuts of meat, look for cuts that have less visible fat, because chances are you will want to discard that. You generally pay by the pound for meat, so you don’t want to pay for fat just to throw it away if you can help it.

Second, if you buy bone-in meat, don’t throw out the bones! You can make your own broth or stock from leftover meat bones, be they from chicken, pork, or beef. Collect bones in a bag in the freezer until you have what you need. Homemade broth is tastier and far more nutritious than bouillon or canned broth, in addition to costing pennies. You can have broth simmering in the slow cooker while you go about your day, then strain out the vegetable pieces and bones, skim the fat, and either freeze or can your broth for later. To pinch even more pennies with homemade broth, I flavor it using (washed) ends, pieces, and peelings from my onions, celery, and carrots that I collect in a freezer bag just like the meat bones.

Substitute less expensive meat.

A recipe may call for a specific cut of meat, but you can almost always get away with using something else. Some of the cheapest cuts of meat are chicken breasts, lean pork chops and country ribs, pork roasts, and whole chickens (particularly if you plan to use the bones). If you are making a slow-simmering pot roast, stew, or soup, don’t waste an expensive cut of steak or high end roast! Tougher, cheaper meats are often sublime after a few hours in a slow cooker or oven. Don’t ever let recipes bind you when you are trying to eat frugally! They are more like guidelines than rules 😉

Be cautious of lunchmeats. Processed deli meats are often comparable to steak (in price, not taste!) if you actually calculate the price per pound. I usually see packages of cheap lunchmeats priced in the region of $2 for a 9 ounce container. That is close to $4/pound, and you’re not paying for pure meat but alsofor the water, additives and preservatives. Not to mention…have you ever sampled inexpensive lunchmeat that actually tastes like, well, meat?

I almost never buy deli meats. Instead, when we eat sandwiches, we use either peanut butter, tuna fish, or chicken salad to fill them. We think it’s hard to beat a sandwich made simply with garden tomatoes, avocado, cilantro and a little salt and pepper. All-veggie sandwiches can be ridiculously flavorful. And yes, my husband agrees.

Buy discount meat.

Many stores will have a place where you can find meat near its “sell-by” date, and the prices may be significantly discounted for quick sale. Of course, I don’t advocate buying that ribeye because just because it is now $12 instead of $14. But if you see discounted meats that fit within the price range and diet you want, grab them up, then use them right away or package them away into your freezer immediately. Some stores will put out there discounted meats either at the end of the business day or first thing in the morning, so try some early morning or late night shopping to see if you can snatch a deal.

Handle your meat correctly.

Don’t pay for meat just to let it spoil in the fridge. I’ve learned this painful and stinky lesson too many times, folks. Even if the “sell-by” date on the wrapping is still a few days out, my rule is to use it or freeze it the same day I buy it. I’ve seen, er, smelled too many cuts of meat that went bad in my fridge just a day or two after purchase. Be smart, not only after you get home, but while you’re shopping. Place fresh meat in your cart last, and plan your shopping so you aren’t letting the meat sit in the car for a great length of time while you cruise other stores. The FDA guideline is that meat should not sit at room temperature for more than 2 hours, 1 hour in temperatures above 90*F. Incidentally, I learned this lesson as a child by consuming a (cooked) Jimmy Dean sandwich that had been in our passenger van in South Florida all day. I need not recount the unpleasant details. In short: don’t eat meat that has been in a van all day.

 

What strategies do you use to make meat affordable?

Eat from home

Frugal Grocery Guide Part 4: Eat From Home

Eat from home

We pay for convenience. Whether it’s reheating a frozen dinner, grabbing a burger in the drive through, or sitting down for a meal created by a professional chef, eating food prepared by someone else will almost always cost you more than making it yourself. Whether the convenience is worth the price to you is of course your call. But if your primary goal is to eat for less, you need a strategy that will keep you eating from home.

Avoid eating out.

It’s not hard to see how eating out will rapidly erode your food budget. If I spend $3 for breakfast at a fast food joint, I’ve already spent as much money on breakfast as I normally would spend on an entire day’s worth of meals and snacks for one person. Not cool. If our family went out for dinner just once a week, our food spending would increase by 40-45%. Takeout falls into the same category. A medium pizza for about $12 would feed our family dinner. Or, I could make a fresh pizza at home for less than $4.

Of course I’m not saying that eating out is bad. I love eating out with my family. But since keeping our food budget tight is a priority, we reserve eating out for special occasions, and budget it as special occasion spending.

Packing lunches also falls into this category. If my husband and I bought $5 sandwiches every day when we were in school instead of packing leftovers or sandwiches, we would have spent $200 per month just on weekday lunches–that’s well more than we used to spend on all of our food for a month.

Would it be worth it to you to cut back on habitual dining-out if you could divert that money toward other goals?

Avoid packaged and processed foods.

Cooking from scratch with whole food ingredients is almost always less expensive than buying something that was prepared and packaged for someone else. You’re paying for another person’s labor. A $3 smallish frozen dinner or pizza for each person would, once again, decimate an entire day’s food budget for us. A quart of (house brand) yogurt from the store would cost me $2.50, whereas it sets me back only $0.50 to make a quart of yogurt at home.

Another item that really makes you bleed cash for convenience is pre-cut fruits and vegetables. I’ve seen small cups of pre-cut fruit cost more than a 10 lb watermelon. (I did in fact buy one of these exorbitantly priced fruit cups once. I was at school, and pregnant, and I wanted fresh fruit so bad…it was totally worth it). Yes, buying those pre-cut stir-fry veggie packs will save you 10 minutes of your time, but is it worth it to you to pay three (or more) times the price?

Of course, there are more benefits to cooking from scratch than just price. Number one in my book: it tastes WAY better. I wouldn’t buy most pre-made foods even if I could afford them, for that reason alone. This is also why when I do eat out, I want to choose a dish that I couldn’t easily make at home. Number two, you have control over your health needs. Unless you pay a pretty penny for high-end specialty products, most pre-packaged foods will contain higher amounts of sugar, fat, and non-nutritious additives, fillers, and preservatives than your made-at-home version.

Make your own snacks.

Groceries almost always cost more when they are packaged and “individually wrapped” into small portions. Instead of buying cheese sticks, buy the block of cheese that’s likely around the same price but twice the quantity. Then grab a large knife and slice it into sticks yourself, and throw your fresh cheese sticks into a container in the fridge or freezer. If you want them wrapped on the go, wrap them in plastic wrap or baggies, both of which are inexpensive. Making your own “snack packs” can be done with just about anything—dried fruit, crackers, cut veggies. You can even make your own granola bars for a fraction of the cost. Don’t believe me? Spend a few minutes on Pinterest. If you have kids like mine, packing little baggies of their favorite on-the-go foods will likely be an exciting activity, so get them involved too. I’m not always this prepared, and I know from experience how much money I shell out for snack foods when I haven’t planned ahead and packed my own snacks!

Have a quick-meal backup plan.

No matter how dedicated you are to cooking every meal from scratch, there will be days that don’t go according to plan. If you always have a pantry or freezer meal stocked that you know will come together very quickly, you’ll be far less tempted to order take out or run to the nearest drive through. A couple of my favorite “back-up” meals are spaghetti (the boring kind from a can that I can whip out of my pantry) or tuna salad. I also try to make extras of meals now and then to put in the freezer for thaw-and-eat dinners on busy days. Some folks are really hard-core about stocking their freezers with ready-made meals, and you can find lots of ideas if you search the web! A few meals from Raspberries in the Rough that freeze well are Beef & Bacon Smoky Beans, Winter Squash and Ham Bisque, Chipotle-Lime Chicken, Blackened Chicken Alfredo (minus the noodles), and Slow Cooker Refried Beans.

Don’t shop hungry.

This can be hard advice to keep. I know I’m usually thinking of everything except my stomach when I’m planning a shopping trip—how to keep the kids entertained, making lists, my husband’s schedule, the best route to get to the store while avoiding traffic and not getting lost…BUT if you remember to at least grab a snack (you know, one of those snacks you prepped in advance :)) it will be much easier to pass up all those goodies and hot foods at the grocery store. I notice all sorts of enticing foods at the store when I’m hungry that normally wouldn’t catch my eye at all.

The bottom line is that preparing food at home will help trim your budget, keep you healthier, and best of all, it will taste superior!

What are your favorite ways to make sure you eat from home?

More from the Frugal Grocery Guide:

Part 1: Don’t Buy at the Regular Price

Part 2: Stock Up to Save

Part 3: Meal Planning

Part 5: Managing the Meat

save on groceries with meal planning

Frugal Grocery Guide Part 3: Meal Planning

GroceryGuide3

 

To cut down your grocery spending, you’ll want to utilize a flexible meal plan. Not only does this help prevent unplanned eating-out, it helps prevent impulse buys and makes the most of what you have. Avoid entering a store without a plan (unless you’re really awesome at buying only what’s on sale and making whatever it is into fab meals at home, and you know by heart what’s in your pantry, and you aren’t hungry when you enter said store…) Here’s the strategy:

Plan around your pantry.

First, take a look in your pantry (including the freezer), and your fridge. Plan the week’s meals based on what you already have. Presumably you bought these items at a great sale price and stocked up. Centering your meals around groceries you already have minimizes waste and keeps you using items you intentionally bought at a low price instead of buying more expensive food to match an extravagant or out-of-season meal plan.

Scour the weekly ads at your local stores.

Fill out your menu with the fresh foods that are on sale. For example, I might have potatoes in the pantry and ham in the freezer. I see that butternut squash is on sale at store A, so I figure on some bisque this week. I know that I have plenty of oats in the pantry and eggs in the fridge, and I see that apples are on sale at store B. So I plan some baked oatmeal for a breakfast. With my freezer stocked with chicken breasts and a can of chipotle peppers in the pantry, I decide to grab some of those on-sale limes and avocados and make chipotle-lime chicken with this dressing.

Here’s the trap to watch out for when you’re creating your menu plan and you want to stretch your grocery dollars as far as possible. I speak from experience because it is a trap I often step into. It sounds delicious and enticing to pick out all your favorite meals from your cookbook and try a few of those recipes you’ve collected on Pinterest too. So you write them on your meal plan, create a list of all the ingredients you’ll need, and set out to buy them. Buying everything you want for your meal plan regardless of whether it is on sale, combined with not using groceries you already have, is a sure way to send your spending through the roof!

Use discipline and flexibility.

Be willing to change your plans while you’re shopping. If it turns out the cheese you wanted to go with your tacos is twice the price it usually is, replace it with something else (a different kind of cheese for example) or change the meal plan on the go. (This is a tough one for me!) Store ads likely won’t reveal the prices for everything you need, and sometimes prices will be different than what you usually see. Roll with the punches.

Being flexible at the store requires being flexible in the kitchen. Be willing to experiment and substitute. Oftentimes meats and cheeses can be swapped out for something less expensive than the recipe calls for. White or brown rice can be swapped for wild rice, white mushrooms for those portabellas, swiss cheese instead of Gruyere, lean roast instead of steak, and so on. Just because an ingredient isn’t the finest and most expensive, doesn’t mean it can’t taste dang good.

Be smart about brand loyalty. Are your meal plans dependent on certain brand products?

I’m not going to pretend that name brand foods are all identical to their house-brand counterparts. Most of us have our favorites that we only like in a certain brand. Our family is hooked on this ice cream and I rarely buy other brands.

You can still have the brands you like and shop within your budget if you are careful. Here are a few keys to accomplishing this:

  • Know which items really matter to you in terms of brand name, and which don’t. I could care less about the brand when I buy many basic goods like canned tomatoes, corn, pumpkin, tuna and beans. Fresh milk is all the same to me. I’ve never detected a difference in baking powder or salt (referring to brand differences here and not to different types of product, such as sea salt vs. table). On the other hand, the differences in mayonnaise, flour, ice cream, and crackers give me reason to buy certain brands almost exclusively.
  • How will the brand affect the end product (the dish you are creating)? Some foods, like cheese for instance, have a slightly different taste or quality by brand. But will it significantly affect the overall dish you are creating enough to justify the cost? In many cases, using house brand ingredients will still produce a recipe that is very good, even without the finest, most expensive ingredients. It’s all about your priorities—do you want good food purchased for less, or do you consider top-tier ingredients worth the cost? Sometimes you might even find you prefer a less-expensive brand. Name brand doesn’t always ensure the highest quality–read the ingredient list for clues!
  • Buy your favorites only at great sale prices. We’ve hit on this topic before, but it is especially true when you insist on name brand items. Sometimes name-brand goods that are normally way more pricey than the house brand will be featured in promotions that make them a great deal. Stock up on your favorites when that happens!
  • Don’t make assumptions. The house brand won’t always be the cheapest, so always look at all the price tags before you make your choice.

Give the leftovers some love.

When you take a look at what’s in your pantry, don’t forget those containers in the fridge. Leftovers make great hot lunches or sack lunches. Look for ways to incorporate odds and ends into the weeks meals. Can you use that portion of leftover meat in a soup or casserole? Can that cup of refried beans make a few breakfast burritos when combined with eggs and cheese? Would the random leftover noodles that lingered longer than the spaghetti sauce be used to fill out a stir-fry?

According to the Natural Resources Defensive Council, the average American family throws out about 25% of the food they purchase. Yikes! Don’t let that be you—that’s a whole quarter of your grocery budget going in the garbage!

How to actually plan your meals:

There are dozens of apps and printouts floating around cyberspace to help you fill in meals for each day and create shopping lists based on those meals.

I don’t use any fancy planning system. I prefer a plain old spiral bound notebook where I can scribble down my ideas. This is my basic process.

  • Recall what’s in my fridge/freezer/pantry.
  • Read the grocery ads and jot down the best sales at each store I like to shop.
  • Brainstorm some meals that will utilize what I have and what’s on sale.
  • Browse my Pinterest boards to see if any of those tasty things I pinned align with my pantry and shopping plans.
  • Add the ingredients that I need to purchase to my master list along with anything I know I need to replenish in my pantry so I can watch for sale prices on those things at the store.

The biggest reason I like the scribble-in-a-notebook style of meal and grocery planning is that it feels like an open slate. I don’t feel like I have to stick to a set schedule. Honestly, I don’t plan every meal of every day. Since I keep a stocked pantry, I just create a lot of simple meals on the fly based on the staple goods I keep on hand. I find this less stressful and it promotes creativity in my meal planning and less spending for me in the long run. Plus, I get to look old-fashioned and nerdy at the grocery store with my lined paper and pen instead of a smartphone.

If the structure of an electronic or printout meal-planner helps you and helps you save on groceries, stick with it. Let us know in the comments which ones are your favorite!

More from the Frugal Grocery Guide:

Part 1: Don’t Buy at the Regular Price

Part 2: Stock Up to Save

Part 4: Eat From Home

Part 5: Managing the Meat

Save on groceries by stocking your pantry

Frugal Grocery Guide Part 2: Stock Up to Save

Save on groceries by stocking your pantry

If you’re new to the Frugal Grocery Guide, read this first.

Once you have a handle on the sale prices at a few stores in your area, you need a shopping strategy that increases your buying power. To take make sale and promotional prices save you the most money, you need to load up on those goods when they are at their rock-bottom price, so that you don’t have to buy them when they’re more expensive. Here’s the strategy:

Inventory your pantry.

What pantry items do you know you’ll use? Pantry items include frozen foods, shelf-stable foods, and household and hygiene items such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, toilet paper, and paper towels. Anything that you can make last from one sale cycle to the next is a pantry item. Foods that spoil quickly and can’t (reasonably) be preserved are non-pantry items, such as fresh milk and non-freezable fruits and vegetables. It’s important to know what you will use on a regular basis. Buying twenty bags of brown rice because it’s on sale at a crazy-low price won’t do you any good if your family won’t eat brown it rice. It will just go to waste in your pantry while you spend on the things you do eat!

Buy in bulk when a pantry item is on sale, enough to last until the next sale cycle (typically 6-8 weeks).

This can really take a leap of faith, at least, it did for me. In the beginning you may have to make sacrifices in the way you eat so that you can allot more money toward bulk purchases. Over time, the more items you are able to buy at rock-bottom price, the more groceries you will be able to buy within your budget. The goal is to increase your buying power—to buy more groceries with the same amount of money.

For example, let’s assume that I typically use 8 boxes of pasta each month. If I normally buy a couple boxes each week at the regular price of $1.25 each, I will spend about $20 on pasta over the course of 2 months (or 8 weeks). If instead I buy two months supply of pasta when it’s featured as a loss leader at only $0.69, I will spend only $11.04 on pasta over that 8 weeks. That leaves the other $8.96 that I normally spend on pasta, to spend elsewhere (or to buy almost double the amount of pasta). If I notice that my store is having a case lot sale and selling canned beans for only $0.50 each (a case of 12 for $6, for instance) and I buy them knowing this will last me 6 weeks, then I will spend only $6 for a 6 week supply of beans rather than $12 for the same amount of beans at the usual price of $1 per can. And I still have almost $3 left from my savings on bulk pasta to direct elsewhere without exceeding what I would normally spend on pasta in two months.

Start as Small as Necessary

When you plan your budget, estimate what you will have to spend on groceries just to survive for the month, the minimum you need to spend on essentials this month or week. Can you make any sacrifices in your food budget and spend that money on stocking up instead when you see items you know you’ll use come on sale? Perhaps instead of buying the monthly tub of ice cream, you could spend that $4 on a frew extra bags of frozen veggies that are on sale. Perhaps you could replace the meat in a couple meals each week with a cheaper protein like beans or eggs. Then put the money you would have spent on that meat toward an on-sale pantry item that you know you will use when you see it at a really low price at the store.

Even if you can only find $5 to spend on a bulk purchase, your buying power will gradually increase. Let’s say I spend that $5 to buy 5 extra bags of frozen veggies on sale at $0.90 each and an extra can of on-sale corn at $0.50. The regular price is $1.20 each for the frozen veggies and $0.69 for the corn. This means that next month I won’t have to budget for any frozen veggies at their non-sale price, and one less can of corn, leaving me with $6.69 to spend on a different sale item. Because I have a bit more food than I immediately need, I have the flexibility to wait until the next sale to re-stock. In this way, your money to spend on sale items will gradually increase even if you start small!

If you’re wondering how you can track all those budget categories and rollover each month, check out this post.

Be flexible.

There are some foods that you can’t buy in bulk, like fresh milk and eggs. Have alternative forms of these foods in your pantry. Dry milk and canned milk are good alternatives for cooking and baking (or drinking, if you don’t mind the taste). Eggs can be purchased in powdered form or frozen. Potatoes don’t last long in warm humid climates, but you can stock them in flaked or powdered form. While you wouldn’t throw them on a salad, canned tomatoes are packed with nutrition for soups, chilies, sauces and salsas. If you need a fresh fruit that isn’t on sale, consider using the frozen, canned, or dried version. Adjust your meal plan and even your recipes based on what’s in your pantry and on-sale.

Eat from your pantry first.

Base your meal plans around those low-price pantry items you stocked up on. Augment those items with on-sale fresh goods from the store. We’ll talk more about meal-planning later.

Know shelf-life and storage, and learn how to preserve fresh foods.

Many foods can be frozen without much effort, particularly meat, cheese, butter, and fresh fruit and veggies. You can even make extras of some dishes to freeze for a ready-made meal on a busy day. Most veggies can also be frozen after blanching. Many fruits can be dried as well for extended shelf-life.

Know how to keep foods fresh in the fridge or pantry, and whether your food needs dry conditions or an airtight container in the fridge. Recognize which expiration dates are significant for safety reasons, like those for fresh meat, and which are guidelines for taste, like those on most canned or boxed goods. For instance, eggs typically stay fresh for a couple weeks past the date on the carton. Hint: The internet is a great place to learn how to keep food properly and to know how long it lasts. But try to use more reputable sources like university extensions, food producers, and the USDA for best accuracy.

Security and Stability

There are more benefits to building up a solid pantry than a more powerful grocery budget. If you have more food than you need for a few days or a week, you’ll make fewer “emergency” trips to the grocery store. (And fewer visits to the store almost always means less money spent.) This saves you time, energy, and stress. If you’re sick, you can rest easy knowing you can survive at home for a while. If grocery stores become inaccessible for a time (this does happen during natural disasters or other major economic disturbance), you’ll still eat. You’ll also be in a better position to help your friends and family. Food storage is also insurance against financial hardship. Stocking up while you can afford food will lessen the stress should financial crisis occur.

What strategies do you use to build a dependable supply of food? How has stocking up stretched your budget or given you relief?

More from the Frugal Grocery Guide:

Part 1: Don’t Buy at the Regular Price

Part 3: Meal Planning

Part 4: Eat From Home

Part 5: Managing the Meat

Spend Less on Groceries Don't Pay Regular Price

Frugal Grocery Guide Part 1: Don’t Buy at the Regular Price

Spend Less on Groceries Don't Pay Regular Price

What is the Frugal Grocery Guide?

As a newly married college student, I was baffled by the concept of the grocery budget. I wasn’t completely clueless about buying groceries; I’d learned a few things at home about which foods were more economical, and how to cook from scratch. But I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to stay within an allotted grocery budget. For years my family’s grocery budget varied substantially from month to month, and it always seemed to be increasing.

Finally I reached a crisis point. Our family usually lived on our previous month’s income (thank you scholarships and grants), but after graduating from college and experiencing a series of life transitions, our one-month buffer was gone. We truly were living paycheck to paycheck for the first time, and it’s not something I would ever choose to go back to! I added up the numbers and knew that unless I could cut back significantly from the grocery budget, we couldn’t pay our bills. Resignedly, I filled the slow cooker with dry beans, then sat on the floor and cried. (I really like good food, okay?)

I knew that I needed to finally wrap my head around grocery shopping so that I could keep making nutritious, tasty meals for my family, but spend less. (For the record, we didn’t live off of rice and beans those months. I don’t remember precisely how things worked out, but they did.) I read this book, put its principles into action, and continued to glean advice from online sources and more seasoned shoppers.

While I certainly haven’t perfected my grocery shopping and frugal food fixing, I am much more in control, and spending substantially less than I was two years ago. We even eat a greater portion of fresh fruits and vegetables than we used to. Now I’m going to share everything I’ve learned with you, in the sincere hope that you need never shed tears over a pot of beans. I don’t know every trick or strategy out there by any stretch of the imagination, but I hope this quick guide will help you if you need a place to start like I did. Look for a new installment each week in the Frugal Grocery Guide! Happy shopping, and more importantly, happy eating! And please, share your own grocery shopping knowledge and experience in the comment section!

Frugal Grocery Guide Part 1: Don’t Pay the Regular Price.

If you want to slash your grocery bill, resolve not to pay the regular price for food. Buy only when it is on sale. This requires the following:

Know your prices.

If you don’t know a sale price for eggs from a regular or high price, you have no buying power. You need to create a catalog, in your mind or on paper, of the prices you see each week. I know that this sounds really tedious, but it forms the foundation for smart shopping. I’m going through this process again because we just moved to a new city in a new state, with new stores. Make a list of the most common items you buy and start tracking the prices you see each time you shop. But first, look at the weekly ad and see who’s got the best price this week…

Shop a variety of stores.

No one store will have all the lowest prices, despite claims to the contrary. Often a store will have consistently low prices on certain goods—for example, I buy almost all of my spices at a store that specializes in bulk dry goods. But the meat there rarely features low prices. Even stores that are typically more expensive or present themselves as “high-end” will run loss leaders or special promotions. Loss leaders are items sold at such a low price that the store isn’t making a profit on them. They’re hoping to bring you through the doors so you’ll be tempted to buy more marked-up groceries. Case lot sales are another opportunity to buy in bulk for extra savings.

You’ll want to familiarize yourself with the common prices and marketing styles of your local stores. Know who usually has the best prices on canned goods, pantry items, meat, and produce, who runs great promotions and case lot sales, and who advertises the sharpest loss leaders.

Stores draw on our love of convenience, and they want you to buy everything you need in one trip. Don’t be fooled by the “it’s not worth the gasoline” myth. While in some cases this may be true, don’t make assumptions. I used to make a 42-mile round trip to a larger city in order to access a wider variety of grocery stores and their lower prices. Each trip cost roughly $7 in gasoline, and I would travel there twice per month for a total of $14. The amount I spent in gasoline was less than I saved on milk and cheese alone over buying from the nearest grocery store! Planning ahead and combining errands in the same area into one trip also minimizes the gasoline impact.

Read the Ads.

You can save yourself a lot of time and trouble by reading the weekly ads before setting on your grocery store safari. Most stores have their ads online now. Loss leaders are advertised as well as promotions, seasonal items, and case lot sales. The purpose of the ad is to get you through the door, so the ad will display the best sales of the week. Plan your meals and list around these sale items (more on this topic to come.)

If you want to shop a store that doesn’t run ads, try this strategy. Write down the sale items you are interested in from other stores’ ads. Then go to the ad-less store first and see if it has lower prices on those items. If it does, great, get those groceries there. While you’re there, see if the store has great prices on other items you regularly use. If it doesn’t, move on to the stores you have listed. Loss leaders are advertised as well as promotional or seasonal items.

Become familiar with sales cycles and promotions.

Grocery items tend to be “on sale” every 6-8 weeks. Once you have a grasp of what is a regular versus a sale price, you’ll be able to plan your purchasing around these sale cycles. You’ll want to buy enough of shelf-stable or preserve-able groceries to last until the next sale price. This is called stocking up, and we’ll talk more about that later.

Promotions are typically related to holidays and seasonal events. Groceries that are commonly used during these events will be sold at especially low prices, often even lower than regular sale-cycle prices. For example, baking goods such as pumpkin, canned milk, flour, oil, sugar, and baking chips are typically sold at for the lowest prices of the year around Thanksgiving and Christmas. The week before St. Patrick’s day you’ll find corned beef briskets for far less than their typical price, and Mexican-style foods will be advertised around Cinco de Mayo. In addition to holidays, promotions will center around big game days in the football and basketball seasons. Be aware of grand openings and store-specific promotions as well, which also feature special deals.

Don’t Be Discouraged

If spending less on groceries seems like a lot of work, you are right. It is. Give yourself time. It takes time, preparation, and energy to explore new stores and to learn what prices to expect for different foods. And of course, you have to experience seasonal sales and cycles to know what prices will be, a process of months. Don’t expect yourself to master these skills overnight (I certainly haven’t mastered them)! However, as you make efforts to follow the principles in the Frugal Grocery Guide, you will start to see your grocery bill drop, even if it happens slowly. You can do it!

More from the Frugal Grocery Guide:

Part 2: Stock Up to Save

Part 3: Meal Planning

Part 4: Eat From Home

Part 5: Managing the Meat

powerful effective budgeting

How to Make Your Budget Give You the Power (Instead of Grief)

powerful effective budgeting

Answer: Become super rich in a jiffy. Just kidding.

I love budgeting. No, really. I love working the budget when the purse is fat, and even when it’s thin. Well, let’s be honest, when is the student family budget not thin?

I have not always enjoyed budgeting. I used to avoid this particular task like I avoided doing the dishes. Okay, more than I avoided washing the dishes, and almost as much as I avoided ironing clothes. Then, a little over a year ago my budgeting perspective changed dramatically. How could the drudgery of budgeting become one of my favorite chores? Let’s start with a little story.

The people and places in this work of fiction have no connection to actual people or events. Oh wait, they do. Moving on…

Jack and Jill were young, newly married college students. Determined to start their finances off on the right foot, they opened up a little pamphlet they’d been given. It laid out the basics of budgeting with a simple little chart something like this:

basic budget chart

So, at the beginning of each month Jack and Jill would sit down and make clever guesses at what they would spend in each category before the next moon. At the end of the month, they would open their spreadsheet again and copy in their expenditures from their bank account records. Did their actual expenses match what they had “budgeted?” Drum roll…nope. Their spending pretty much almost never matched what they had expected. So they would scratch their heads, speculate about what went wrong in each category, and begin the process anew.

If (or rather when) unexpected expenses arose during the month, Jack would ask Jill, “can we afford this?” And Jill would recall, as best she could, the sum of money in their bank account. “Sure, we’re halfway through the month. There seems to be plenty of money left. Let’s go ahead and buy it.” (To avoid portraying Jack as a spendthrift, it should be noted that the roles were often reversed.)

After several months, Jack and Jill began to wonder what the whole point was behind guessing what they would spend each month and dutifully recording the ever-present disparities. They gradually abandoned this painstaking process and just made sure they never spent more than was in their bank account each month. This method was less work, and avoided the frustrating speculations on why they could never manage to spend according to the precise amounts laid out in the budget each month.

Gradually life became more complicated. The car broke down more often, a baby came along, Jack and Jill graduated from college, and there were student debts to pay. Jill renewed the careful budgeting process but found that it solved few problems. She was plagued with questions.

How could they tell if they really could afford something?

How could she ensure, during the month, that her money was going where it was needed before being spent on less important things?

How could she set aside money each month toward specific goals, or in preparation for unforeseen circumstances (like car failures)? Should she open multiple savings accounts to make sure the money wouldn’t be spent on the wrong purposes?

How could she track the money that always seemed to be “on the lam”—the money that just seemed to disappear each month?

I am happy to report that Jill found a solution to all of her problems. Well, her money management problems anyway. And I’m going to share it with you. It’s a budgeting program by the name of YNAB. This stands for “You Need A Budget.” More important than the software component is the financial philosophy behind it.

Jill was using a traditional budgeting method. This traditional method, as we’ve seen, is very limited. Here’s how YNAB makes beats the traditional method and makes budgeting effective and rewarding instead of lame and depressing.

How YNAB Fixes Traditional Budgeting Problems

  1. You budget money you actually have.You aren’t budgeting your “expected” income. You budget the income you’ve already earned. Your budget provides a plan for how you’ll spend. And since you’re going to spend based solely on your budget, you’ll never be spending money you don’t have.
  1. No money goes un-accounted for. You budget down to the dollar. Literally, you give every penny you’ve earned a designated purpose. It doesn’t just hang out as part of your bank account balance, ready to depart on a whim and leaving no footprints behind it. You first assign money to your most urgent needs and priorities, and then those that are less important, until every dollar has a job.

budget to zero

  1. You record transactions frequently and spend based on your category balances, never your bank account balance. You can record your transactions immediately with YNAB’s app on your phone or tablet, or if you’re still in the dumb phone camp with me, you can go home and enter them on your PC. Then you continue to based on what’s in your budget. For example, on Friday night you open up YNAB, see that you only have $5 left in the entertainment budget, and decide to read a book instead of see that movie, even though your bank account still has $500 left in it. If the movie turns out to be really important, you can move some money from a different category, because your budget allows you to adjust (see point 5).

what can I spend budget category

record transactions

  1. You can build and track savings easily. YNAB calls these the “rainy day” categories in your budget, and as you assign a little money here each month, YNAB adds each contribution to the balance, which is carried forward each month and waiting for you when you need it. It doesn’t accidentally get spent on something else, because once again, you spend based on your budget, not your bank account. The savings are there for you, without any need to open separate savings accounts to protect your money from being spent on the wrong thing.

rainy day funds

  1. You know when you’ve overspent a category, and you can adjust for it. It shows up in red, with a negative sign, in the balance for that category. And it’s fixable and flexible. You scour the other budget categories that still have positive balances, and pull money from one category to fix the one in the red. This is called “rolling with the punches.” There’s no punishment at the end of the month for not spending that exact number you put down in the beginning, because you adjust as you go according to your needs.

overspent category

  1. You live on last month’s income.This is one of the best parts of the YNAB method. You may not be here yet, but there are ways to get there, and it is completely worth the effort. Living on the previous month’s income eliminates the need to carefully time your bill payments based on your paycheck dates, and allows you more freedom to roll with the punches. If you go over your budget in August, the amount you overspent will be deducted from what you budget in September. It doesn’t become a problem unless it happens every month, in which case you will eventually you eat up that one-month “buffer” money.

So how does YNAB make budgeting awesome?

I love budgeting now because I am 100% in control of my money (I mean, we are in control of our money…) As my children and husband will assure you, I love control. The YNAB method gives me the power. And oh, I feel it. YNAB helps me stay in control by:

* Tracking every penny, every day.

* Allowing the budget to be flexible to meet the needs of life.

* Letting me save for rainy days with accuracy and accountability.

* Only letting me spend money I actually have.

* Removing the stress of living paycheck to paycheck by instead living on last month’s income.

The YNAB method can put you in control of your finances too. You can try it for 34 days for free (for real, you don’t put in any payment info to try the demo. There’s no commitment if you don’t want to continue. It simply stops working unless you choose to go buy the program.)

If the whole idea of a new budgeting system is overwhelming, fear not. The folks at YNAB have a slew of resources to help you not only learn the ins and outs of the software, but also to master the YNAB money management method. You don’t even need to buy the program to utilize their free email courses and online classes. They changed the way I thought about money!

After trying and loving the YNAB demo, I bought the program. It’s normally $60, but if you buy it using the referral link from Stephanie at Six Figures Under, you’ll get it for $54 (scroll to the bottom of her post). If you are a college student, you can get YNAB for free! I am telling you with complete honesty that my budget has never regretted that purchase. YNAB allows me–and my husband, lest you think I do all the spending–to have confidence in managing the family finances. And you can do the same. I realize that some of you out there could create a super-power spreadsheet that does everything that the YNAB software does. I do not fall into this camp, and therefore highly recommend the YNAB software.

With the New Year coming up, many of us will be making financial resolutions. If you give yourself YNAB for a Christmas present (exciting gift, I know) you’ll be perfectly equipped to give your money management a makeover. According to YNAB, the median net worth increase of their users after one month is $200. After nine months, the median net increase for a YNAB user is $3,300. I can confirm that our family’s net worth has increased since we began using YNAB.

Try YNAB

YNAB logo

Give the YNAB demo (and method) a try and let me know what you think! For those of you who already have your budgets serving you well, what program/method do you like and why? Please share your experiences in the comments.

cloth-diaper-simple

Cloth Diapering Simplified

Cloth diapering can be simple cloth-diaper-easy and straightforward. Or it can be really, really complicated and not worth the trouble! I think most of the potential difficulty comes from all the conflicting information on the web (so here I am adding to it, hehehe). Kept simple, cloth diapering is a fun and effective way to care for your baby with some great benefits (click here to read my post on why I love cloth diapering). Here a few suggestions based on my own experiences with cloth diapering to help keep it a simple, likeable experience.

1. You don’t need to try every cloth diaper out there. When I first got online and Googled “cloth diapers” I was expecting plastic pants, flats, and pins, like my mom was using 20+ years ago. What I found was an overwhelming barrage of cloth diaper lingo–prefolds, covers, pockets, AIOs, 2IOs, fitteds, wool, PUL, etc. I’ve often seen the advice “try one of everything to figure out what you like.” I disagree. Educate yourself on the basics of how each type of diaper works, the cost, and how to care for them, and then choose just one or two types that appeal the most to you. You don’t need the adventure of figuring out 5 different kinds of diapers while trying to take care of a newborn. If you are new to cloth diapering, I suggest trying a trial program from a cloth diaper retailer, such as Diaper Junction, Jillian’s Drawers, Kelly’s Closet, or Nicki’s Diapers . If you don’t like the system you choose, you can return the diapers and try a different kind.

2. Keep your wash routine simple. Your wash routine needs to be sustainable (you’ll be doing it often)! Having to walk to the washing machine 10 times and add 10 different chemicals is a good way to get burned out on cloth diapering. Don’t plan for washing problems, just start simply and adjust what you’re doing if issues arise. I’ll have a post up soon on my washing recommendations. It’s a good idea to start with your manufacturer’s recommendations and go from there. Here’s a hint: You’ll find lists and ratings for “cloth-diaper safe” detergents. Beware! These almost ended cloth diapering for me. Use whatever detergent gets your diapers CLEAN and doesn’t give your baby a rash. Tide, Tide, Tide…oh did I mention that I like Tide?

3. Buy enough diapers. If you have a big enough stash of diapers, you won’t stress about doing laundry to keep baby from running out. Having a generous supply will also prolong the life of the diapers because each diaper won’t be washed as frequently.

4. Don’t get bogged down in the quest for the “perfect” diaper (unless you find this truly entertaining and enjoyable). You can spend hours upon hours searching reviews and trying to determine what the very best diaper is. The reality is that every baby is built differently, and what some love others despise. I recommend choosing something that is generally liked (maybe through a trial program) and see how it works. If it doesn’t suit your fancy, try something else. You just can’t know for sure how a diaper will work for your baby by reading other people’s reviews. I picked prefolds and covers when I first started cloth diapering (prefolds and covers are still my favorite, by the way) and even though I chose some cheap covers that fit my son poorly, they still out-performed disposables 100 to 1.

5. Use disposables when necessary (or when it just makes your life less stressful). For us, this means putting the toddler in a disposable at night. Nighttime cloth diapering can be a different animal from daytime diapering, and it isn’t always worth the trouble to find a solution in cloth. For me, the hardest part is getting an overnight toddler diaper clean. It’s too hard to be worth it, so I fork out the 33 cents a night for disposables. If you are determined to find a cloth nighttime solution, here is one from Rainshine Designs that I love using on my younger baby (currently 9 months old). Other situations in which you might consider disposables would be for traveling or when baby has a yeast rash. Keep in mind that it is possible to CD in all of these situations, but if it makes life easier, you can use a disposable now and then and still enjoy the benefits of cloth diapering!

cloth-diaper-simple