Wednesday, October 29th, 2008
My spouse has been following a meal plan for almost a year now. And through that, it has helped me understand a lot about myself as well and the art of overindulging. I have the direct monetary overindulging generally under control now, but my indirect overindulging could use some work. Especially in the arena of food.
My spouse eats a certain number of calories per day. He doesn’t strictly follow the meal plan any longer, but he keeps track of his overall calorie consumption, and limits himself to a specific amount. So I don’t have to worry about stocking up on items for him – because if I do, his calorie count keeps him from gorging on them and using them up faster just because I stocked up. So when there is a great sale on the cereal he eats or the protein bars he has for snacks, I can buy in bulk (within the expiration date) with no qualms, for I know that the calorie limit he has imposed upon himself will keep him from eating them faster just because they are there.
I wish the same could be said of everything else. I am not as good about controlling myself, and in some ways, neither are the kids. The kids do have a certain number of snacks per day, so that does control how much they eat. But if I buy a lot of a particular thing they really like, if they know about it they’ll request that for every snack. I’ve taken to “hiding” the stocked up snacks in a different closet and taking them out as needed on a weekly rotation.
But if I controlled my calories as well as my spouse does, I would be much more successful at stocking up on stuff I love. I have no problem with stocking up on many of the things we use on a daily or weekly basis and using them only as needed. But then there was a sale on lentil soup. And a week later, I am surprised I haven’t turned into a lentil. I ate that stuff all the time. Which negates the purpose of stocking up. It is not saving money if you consume more of it because its there.
Lentil soup is yummy. Especially if you boil a potato and cut it up into it, and eat it with a chunk of crusty bread. But I digress.
Overeating doesn’t just widen my waistline, it depletes my wallet. If I do better with portion control, it doesn’t matter if we have 2 cans of lentil soup or 20 on hand. If I only eat them when I would be normally consuming a meal, I’m not using anything up faster than I should. Even if I choose lentil soup for every meal – especially if it was cheap. If I eat it when I’d be eating something else if I didn’t eat it, that’s okay.
If I eat it when I normally wouldn’t be eating anything just because it is yummy – well that’s costing me money.
So no more eating yummy stuff just because it is there unless I should be eating something then anyway. My waistline will thank me in the end. I think.
Monday, October 13th, 2008
My goal in grocery shopping is to get to the point that the only things I am buying every week based on need are fresh items (fruits and dairy generally) and any item that can be stored (all cleaners, toiletries, pantry items, and all freezer items including meats) only when it is on sale. This means I have to know when things are a good price, and know when I should stock up. This is a different strategy than planning meals based on what is on sale – I buy a variety of items each week on sale and they are not necessarily for use that week.
A while back I wrote about how I compare costs of foods across different grocery stores based on keeping track of the unit pricing of items. This is one of the specific strategies (coupled with coupons) I use to buy items at as low cost as possible. It involves keeping track of what I pay for items, the size of the container of the items, and the final price of items after coupons. I was asked to expand on how I do this, so I thought I would explain in more detail with examples.
Keeping track of what is paid for a certain container works if that container is all you ever buy. However, with the onslaught of shrinking containers and different brands using different sizes, knowing the cost per container is not enough. I could buy three different boxes of Raisin Bran at three different stores for the same price, and each box is a different size. Which is where unit pricing comes in.
The setup is simple, but does take a bit of work. I started by putting my grocery receipts into a spreadsheet each week. Then I added in the sizes of the containers I bought. I used the unit that made sense for the items – I used ounces for things like cheese and pasta and number of individual items for things like diapers and tampons. Then I calculated what I paid per unit for each item. I then, over time, determined what a “normal” price was for the item (basing my prices on Aldi generally) and what a really good price was for the item (based on sales data of what the lowest prices I paid was).
- Item – Unit – Normal Unit Price (UP) – Good Buy UP – Buy Now UP
- Pampers Diapers – 1 diaper – $0.36 – $0.28 – $0.24
- Off-Brand Diapers – 1 diaper – $0.25 – $0.20 – $0.17
- Shredded Mozz. cheese – 1 oz – $0.24 – $0.21 – $0.19
- Boneless chicken breast – 1 lb – $1.99 – $1.89 – $1.79
- Fruit and Grain bars – 1 bar – $0.22 – $0.20 – $0.15
- Cereal – listed serving – $0.18 – $0.15 – $0.10
Some of these examples are lower than my original post (I have gotten better at couponing) and some are higher (because things just get more expensive by the day) but this is the general idea. These prices will vary wildly by region, I am sure. I live in the Midwest and many things are generally less expensive than the coasts. As for the two different types of diapers, my daughter generally does well in certain off-brand diapers, but then for a week or two every few months, she’ll leak out of everything but Pampers. Ah, growth spurts. I keep them on hand for those times. Oh, and my spouse likes them better.
I then go through circulars every week, and look at what is on sale. I compare the coupons I have to the circulars, and I make two lists for each store. One is a list of buy now items, and the other is a list of items to check out at the store and make a decision there. Sometimes the circular doesn’t have enough information in it for me to decide if it is a good deal or not. I have a separate list of fresh items that we make throughout the week, and I add those items to the store list that has the best price that week.
And then I shop, and there you have it. It takes more work than just shopping at one store, and it takes having a place to store items. For example, a few weeks ago I got fruit and grain bars for $1/box at Kroger, which is $0.125 per bar. I bought 15 boxes all told, and they are in my pantry closet. 15 boxes take up some room, but they don’t expire for many many months and we generally use 1 box per week. And now I can wait until they are $1/box again.
Friday, August 1st, 2008
One of my strategies for lowering my overall grocery bill is to shop at several stores. For many people, this would be a waste of gasoline, but I have access to 3 different chains simply driving to work and back, and if I drive to Aldi (my main shopping place, which is not on my route to work), I pass two other branches of those stores on the way there and home. So for me, it doesn’t cost me extra gasoline to go to a number of places. It does add a little more time, but I feel my time is worth it. Mileage may vary on that one.
The problem I’ve encountered is that keeping track of the normal prices at all these stores and then comparing them against each other on the fly becomes a little more than my brain can handle. I do use a price book – in that I record the prices of the things I buy every week and compare them to the prices I paid in the past. But when I look through the sale circulars it isn’t always apparent to me if something on sale is actually a good deal compared to what it might cost at other stores because of the different unit sizes and the myriad of different prices I might have paid for that item before.
To help figure this out, I’ve started a list of per unit “buy it now” prices. These are prices on items that if I see anything below that price (or can use coupons to get it there), it is a very good deal and I should stock up. For example, I frequently see boneless chicken breasts on sale in store circulars. I’ve done my research, and decided that $1.70 a lb or less is a price rarely seen for that item, so if I can get chicken for that price, I generally buy it. Keeping that one price on a single sheet, versus pages and pages of prices over time, helps me to streamline my shopping preparation. Yesterday at Walgreens, I used a combination of manufacturers coupons and a $5 off $20 one day only store coupon to get Pampers Crusiers diapers for about $0.22 per diaper. My buy it now price on those is $0.25/diaper (for those of you whom that seems way expensive, realize my daughter is in size 5′s, not size 1 or 2 where the cost per diaper is much lower). Knowing what I usually pay per diaper and what I consider a good bargain cut out a lot of the hassle of deciding if it was a good deal or not.
Creating the buy it now list did take some effort. I made a detailed list of everything I have bought in the past 6 months or so, and then looked at all the prices I have paid for those items and decided what the bargain threshold was for each item. The bargain threshold was usually close to but not the rock bottom price I have paid for the item in the past – because I may never see some of those prices again with the rising cost of food. Then I put that single price next to each item. In a few months, I will re-evaluate the list, comparing it to what I have been actually paying for items over that time period and decide if some of my buy it now prices are too high (I can always find that price) or too low (I never ever find that price any more). And I can adjust when needed. Maintaining the list should not take too much more effort than just keeping track of prices does – and for those who don’t want to keep track of prices formally, you can just save all your shopping receipts. that is how I started my price book in the first place, just saving my receipts.
For now, I will stop at Meijer on the way home from taekwondo tomorrow and pick up some organic milk for my kids. $2.50 for a half gallon is an unbeatable sale price for me.
Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008
The past two weeks, I’ve managed to come in significantly under budget on grocery shopping. Which is no big mystery – my parents visited for a week, so one of those two weeks, we ate dinner out a lot of the time courtesy of my parents. My parents like to treat us to dinners when they are here – we’ve tried to dissuade them but then they just get irritated so we’ve learned to defer. Not that I mind all that much. I was surprised that the second week came in under budget as well, for my parents had left and I was buying dinner food as well, but I think it is just a residual effect of less food being eaten from my pantry and fridge the week before. However, I have worked hard the past few weeks to make a specific and detailed list and stick to it completely, which has also helped. I have been looking through circulars, planning meals based on what’s available the cheapest, and also using a few coupons along the way.
My budget for each week is $80, which is my normal grocery budget of $85 minus $5 a week I subtracted when I bought several months of protein bars at a huge discount. I do buy protein bars when I have good coupons, but otherwise, those are absent from my grocery spending for another month or so. Two weeks ago, I spent $67.58, and last week I spent $59.35. I stuck to my list completely for both weeks, which helped keep my spending to a minimum. I now have about $130 left in my grocery budget for only one week left in July, so I am pretty hopeful that we will meet our grocery budget in July. Which is good, because June was kind of a disaster. Yay for grocery budget snowflakes!
Monday, July 7th, 2008
I’ve kind of fallen off the wagon as far as analyzing my grocery spending in detail and posting about it. I was kind of bored of having nothing interesting to say about it – I was behaving for the most part and limiting any impulse purchases. Then June came. Somehow, without noticing, I went more than 20% over my budget. There were reasons I can cite, and rising prices, but I do think part of it was not feeling quite as accountable for my grocery spending as I had the past year. Things are improving for us – we’re closer to being out of debt, both my spouse and I have increased our income, and there is a bit more wiggle room in our budget. But letting our spending creep up and up just because we can will put us in a similar place we started – spending all the money we have and not feeling like we can do anything more than get by.
So I’ve made some adjustments – first I took much of the wiggle room out of our budget by setting a very ambitious goal for getting out of debt. The goal I set on the blog was adjusted from December 2010 to December 2009, and for my budget sheet, I set the bar even higher – my snowflaking goal is based on getting out of debt by June 2009. This puts my budget back at a zero-dollar budget (or maybe even more) and puts me back into penny-pinching-counting mode, which is what works best for me. Because my income is variable we can’t draw up an exactly zero-dollar budget but we can approximate it as closely as possible, and I was erring too much on the side of minimum income vs maximum income.
The second thing I adjusted was how I look at groceries. I’ve gone back to analyzing my receipts and calculating my spending, and keeping myself to a stricter and accountable budget. Prices have indeed gone up, which makes things more difficult, but I have tried to be both realistic yet stringent. My grocery budget is $80 per week for my family of four, and I am sticking to that. It was $85/week but I reduced it by $5 when I bought a number of protein bars in bulk that will last until about October. This week, I adjusted my budget up $20 to $100 because we are having visitors all week and I needed to buy some items for their visit we don’t usually have around the house.
Overall, I spent $88.23 this week – $44.17 at Aldi, $18.56 at Walmart and $25.50 at Kroger, which was $11.77 under budget. I actually spent only $11.64 on items for my visitors, so I spent $76.59 on our normal groceries, which is $3.41 under budget for the week. I spent $1.79 on impulse items – a bottle of juice, which is 2.3% of my $76.59 grocery spending. I think knowing I was going to analyze and report helped keep me from putting random items in my cart. I have been trending towards spending more at Kroger and less at Walmart every week, and this week was no exception. Every week, it seems less and less things that I shop for and are not at Aldi’s are carried at Walmart, so I have to buy them at Kroger instead. Walmart is still less expensive at Kroger for non-sale items, but if Walmart doesn’t carry it at all, I have to get it somewhere else. I have actually been considering getting one of those $330 gift cards at Kroger for $300 since we have been spending more there lately. I have until July 31st to decide so I’ll be thinking on it some more.
So, July is off to a good start. Next week, we’ll see. Hopefully I can keep the trend going by being careful with my purchases and looking for sales every week.