Retirement Remedies: Budget Battles
It's been two years of struggling and trimming and cutting back, but it finally paid off. The past two months I've spent less than $300 on groceries for each month. Honestly, now that I can see I've made headway, I'm more than ready to hit it all a little harder. I don't know about you but I'm about tired of being bossed around by my budget. I want some wiggle room!
I sat down this weekend and wrote a long list of steps to implement (some of which I've recently started doing and want to continue). I thought perhaps some of you might be interested to see where I'm planning to try to cut back a little more. There's nothing really new or earth shattering here, but perhaps it will be a good reminder of things you might do, can change, can adjust to suit your needs, etc. And for anyone new to trimming the budget, perhaps it will truly be a revelation and a help!
I'll start with grocery savings because that is the biggest variable area of our budget. There are other places to trim and cut and a few places to earn, and I'll share those with you as well over the next couple of weeks. In my home, the grocery budget includes food, pet foods, paper products, cleaning products and personal care items. It all falls into the area of spending that I am solely responsible for so I'll break the grocery category down into those areas.
The More Frugal Kitchen
#1. Give. I'm going to share this first because I truly believe it's made the biggest impact of all on my budget. Back in the spring of the year, I decided to consistently give a small amount to a food bank or soup kitchen each month. I set aside a little money from my grocery funds and send that off to a favorite soup kitchen. I've watched in amazement as our foods have lasted longer, we've had less waste overall and our food supply often seems to multiply.
#2. Buy Whole Poultry. Given the choice, I would much rather have chicken breasts or chicken wings. I've come up against two things of late: breasts and wings are mighty high in price ($3.79 a pound for wings when I priced them this week!). Bone in breasts are as much when not on sale and we won't even discuss the boneless breasts costs. Chicken leg quarters are mighty cheap because breast and wings are more in demand. That has two drawbacks for me: I don't want to eat dark meat only. Nine times out of ten I must buy ten pounds of leg quarters in order to get the best sale price. I either don't have room or we're back to number one: I don't want to eat dark meat only. So my next best option is to buy whole chickens. I have two sources for whole chickens that are reasonably priced and carageenan free.
I learned in my early years how to cut up whole chicken into parts. There are dozens of videos on Youtube.com to watch and see how to do this if you'd like to learn. Most store butchers will do it for you too, but I prefer my own way of cutting them up, as I get two extras from the chicken: the wishbone and the back. Too often the butcher quarters a chicken. The few who cut pulley bones from the breasts generally do what is called 'restaurant' cut on the rest of the chicken which means there is no back. It's split and becomes part of the thigh and breasts. I prefer to have my backbone separate from those pieces. Believe it or not the back has more meat than you might think and the meat is neither white or dark. That's where all that good tender meat comes from when you boil the carcass of a whole chicken.
4 whole chickens, cut into parts will net me: 8 wings (enough for a meal of wings for the two of us), 8 legs (2 meals), 8 thighs (4 meals if decent sized, 2 if chickens are smaller), 8 breast halves (4 meals), 4 pulley bones (1 meal or 2 cups of cooked meat for casseroles) and 4 backs (at least 1 - 1 1/2 cups of cooked chicken meat). That's between 12 and 15 meals for us from 4 whole chickens depending on which recipes I choose to use. And while I might not particularly like dark meat, I have found a few recipes that I prefer dark meat when I prepare them, so I'm learning to like it a little more and will not completely ignore the cost effectiveness of leg quarters if found in smaller than 10 pound packages.
I like to buy a turkey breast rather than a whole turkey but I'm going to seriously reconsider this and look at purchasing whole turkeys, too. A few months back I found a great bargain on turkey thighs (turkey dark meat is far more tasty in my opinion than chicken) and used them to make turkey and dressing. At holiday I often boil legs to make soup meat. Even in non-holiday season whole turkey are less per pound than most meats. In autumn/winter whole turkeys are the best buy around and may be purchased fresh and unfrozen. I guess if I can cut up a whole chicken I can cut up a whole turkey just as well.
#3. Eat Less Meat. I've been practicing this one for a number of years and I still find it worth repeating: reduce the meat in recipes.
I made a pasta dish this weekend that we really like. It calls for 1 1/2 pounds of ground beef. I make it exactly as the recipe states but I've never used more than 1/2 pound of meat in the recipe. It was a mistake the first time. I simply forgot that when we buy our ground beef we have it packaged in half pound portions. I realized when I was sharing the recipe that I'd cut the meat by 2/3...and we all loved the recipe as I'd made it. I do the same with many other recipes that call for ground beef, even when making meatloaf. I make an awesome meatloaf from one pound of ground beef. We typically get two or three meals from it.
Poultry also can be reduced as long as a recipe calls for diced cooked poultry. I seldom put four cups of chicken in a recipe where three or even two will do as well.
#4. Eat Less Meat, II. I want to make more meatless meals. I'm going to comb my recipe books and Pinterest and then test run meatless recipes. I'd like the option of doing one or two meatless meals each week of good tasting foods that we enjoy. John doesn't mind a meatless meal as long as it doesn't look meatless. If I serve a vegetable plate for dinner his first response is always, "Soooo...we are eating vegetarian now?" whereas if I serve a casserole or burritos or enchiladas that are vegetable based he eats happily and never comments on the meatless state. I am often fumbling for ideas of meatless meals once a week and sometimes I just rely on leftovers of meat meals and skip the meatless option because it's hard to think of good options. I cannot deny the savings in skipping just one meal with meat. I'm going to create a list of options to choose from.
#5. Get Creative with Salads. I want to build a repertoire of salads that aren't lettuce based. I have a few, a very few, ideas that we use now and then but I'd like more. Lettuce gets kind of high cost when it's not in season. I've discovered two things over this past year: a raw vegetable or fruit (usually in salad form in our house) helps make you feel full, is good for your digestion, teeth and gums. I've had a struggle lately with John's desire for bagged salads and my aversion to them. I really don't want to see even a portion of them go to waste since they cost as much or more than a head of lettuce, but I really find the aroma and taste just off somehow. It's gotten so I dread eating salad. It oughtn't be that way! I've also continued to buy the same amount of lettuce (2 heads per week) despite the fact that he has leftover salad each week to use up. Last week I tossed one head of iceberg and two hearts of romaine that had spoiled. That's when I realized that I need to change tactics slightly. HE can have his leftover salad, I'll have fresh. I'll buy less lettuce so there's little chance of spoilage. But I'm going to look for recipes that use other vegetables and fruits to compose a salad, too, because I don't always want to feel I must run to the store and buy more lettuce when we have other foods that might make an excellent salad.
#6. Eat Raw. I want to up our raw food quotient to twice a day. Again, it's filling, it's good for digestion, teeth and gums. I don't care if we eat a second salad or a piece of fruit in it's natural state, anything that fills us up and isn't meat/fat/dairy based is a good buy! Remember we're only talking half an apple or 20 grapes or 1 cup of salad (could also be vegetables on our supper sandwich).
#7. Cut out Luncheon Meats. I've been using this one for the past 8 months and it's been a huge help to lowering our grocery budget. It also allows me to control salt and fat content. And honestly when you consider the costs of luncheon meats over all (and we're not even talking the much better tasting deli meats!), it costs far more per pound than roast or turkey breast. I'd rather cook a beef roast or turkey breast and make my own sliced meats. I find they taste so much better. But I can do better. I want to work on being a little more creative with sandwich fillings. When John wanted only sandwiches in his lunch I figured out pretty much our current core of sandwich fillings: pimento and cheese, peanut butter (with a variety of toppings), turkey, chicken salad, egg salad. These are fine but I can get a few ideas reading my vintage Womans Day magazines and the cookbooks. We can test a few new fillers and hopefully add to our menu. I might indulge in the occasional purchase of beef bologna from a deli but it will be rare thing and well enjoyed when we do.
#8.Use it ALL. I've dabbled in this area and then I ease off. Reading the book An Everlasting Meal is a great reminder that we truly can use all of our foodstuffs. I've saved onion tops and bottoms, the ends of celery stalks, tops and tails of carrots for making broth and I save bread end pieces...But as Adler points out, we can use the liquid we steamed or boiled vegetables in, save the shells of beans and peas to boil for a delicious vegetable broth, eat them raw as part of a salad, etc. Potato peels would make delicious snacks. How silly is it we'll pay a premium price for potato skins at a restaurant but turn up our nose at them and toss in the trash at home? I mean seriously to think hard about what I'm throwing out. At the very least, I should be able to compost the truly inedible things and that will still be netting me a benefit! Just think of all the healthy plants I can grow with the addition of good compost.
#9. Ask the Right Questions:
Is the store brand comparable?
Can I make it myself?
Is it made from basic ingredients I already have on hand?
Will I need a pricey item that can be used in more than one way?
Will it cost less?
Will the flavor difference make it worth the extra cost?
Is it labor intensive?
Will the flavor difference be worth the extra effort?
Can I substitute something else for this item?
Does John (and do I) prefer the bought or homemade version?
I've been asking these questions a lot over the past few months. It was really a purchase of bread that led to the gist of this for us. We bought bread at our Publix store. 5 loaves. We paid $22. I told John then 'We have to do better than this. That's $44 a month!" I can make acceptable bread at home but it takes time. John asked that I continue to buy bread because he felt it was just one more thing for me to do. I don't mind making bread but you must stay with it when it's rising and ready to bake. There are no spontaneous trips away from home that take hours upon hours. I also had not found a bread recipe that held up well to sandwiches, so there was that to consider as well.
About four months ago, John pointed out some new loaves of bread at Aldi. They are artisan breads and have all the flavor of homemade with a texture that is a little more suited to sandwiches. I love the better flavor and texture compared to commercial loaf bread. These artisan loaves stretch to about two commercial loaves worth of bread and cost the same as one loaf, so well worth the exchange. We've lowered our bread costs to $22 a month. Huge savings. I make Challah for Shabat evenings now and then because I can make it once a month in smaller loaves that are better suited to our small household. I store it in the freezer. One recipe will make 3-4 small loaves. It's an additional small savings of about $3 a month. Not huge but it decreases our bread cost.
Here of late I've made cream of tomato soup substitute by combining a small can of tomato sauce with 1 tbsp of flour which thickens the sauce nicely. Add in a 1/2 tsp of sugar and it tastes like condensed cream of tomato soup and suits any casserole that calls for a can of tomato soup! The cost of a can of Campbell's tomato soup is $1on sale, store brand is $.69 on sale. One can of tomato sauce is $.39 at Aldi. I haven't tried eating it as a soup yet but just as an ingredient substitute.
The last question is really important. I can make homemade yogurt and I really like it. BUT...John prefers blueberry yogurt and I've yet to find a recipe that suits his taste buds. I learned to reduce the yogurt recipe so that it makes 1 quart and not 4 which means it's more viable now as an option for me. I just find it easier and as cost effective to buy the yogurt he prefers. By the same token there are some things he likes and I don't. Life is too short to choke down foods you just don't care for so learning to strike the balance is the best and most cost effective way to go.
#10. Homemade Snacks. I have a doughnut pan that I've used once. Doughnuts are one of John's favorite snack items. You'd think I'd use that pan more often, wouldn't you? Well I'm going to! Homemade cakes and cookies are tastier. I've made it my habit to make two cake layers and freeze one, rather than make a big 9X13 size pan. I will say this has been one of the areas where I'm about 75% happy with where I am. I just need to make that push to 100%.
And let's go back to those potato skins...why not make them for a snack. I recently purchased a jar of regular popcorn. No more microwave bags. It pops on stove top in the same amount of time, costs less and allows me to determine how much butter (or not) that I want on it.
Back in the summer, I re-introduced Koolaid to our household. It's less costly than soda and just as refreshing on a hot day. I've always made it with less than half the sugar called for on the packet. Iced tea is refreshing, too and can be enhanced with ginger root, orange, lemon or peach slices, or with mint leaves.
I'm not saying we'll stop buying soda...nor are we likely to give up potato chips or pretzels, but we can certainly stretch those things out with homemade snack foods that fill, taste good and satisfy cravings as well or better than bought snack foods.
#11. Reduce the sausage. I like sausage meat and while we now eat exclusively turkey sausage, it's much, much more pricey than pork sausage ever was. I spend about $.50 per patty for the best tasting turkey sausage we've found. Yep, pricey. I'm going to change my thinking. I'm going to only have turkey sausage once a week and we'll eat a smaller portion (1 patty instead of 2). It's one of those blind spots in my budget. I just never stopped until this week to figure out the real cost of the stuff and now I have.
I have tried making my own sausage, but it's none of it been very satisfactory. I will continue to try recipes for homemade sausage. There are less expensive options but it's not very good. I'd rather have the good stuff in lesser quantity until I find my homemade recipe that suits us perfectly.
#12. Shop at Aldi. Aldi has been the boon that my grocery budget most needed. I can't tell you how awesome a place it is. I bought a huge bag of grapes the other day for $2.49. We'd just been to Publix minutes before and the grapes were $2.99 a pound. I am sure there were three pounds in the bag I bought at Aldi. I have reduced the number of stores I visit and consistently come in around $100 every two weeks at the store. There are only a few items we can't buy there or that we don't like. I've learned to follow their sales cycles and stock up on those items they deem seasonal (baking powder and corn syrup, for instance). We do perhaps 85% of our shopping there and I think it's the best move we've ever made.
#13. Better Pantry Control. I need to have a monthly inventory of my pantry items. I've opted to do quarterly inventories up until now. Every quarter I find a few items that are expired, and that's not a great thing, although most are canned items and I feel perfectly safe using them right away. Now and then something is long expired and I end up tossing it. This is easily remedied by doing inventory more frequently, making it a point to use those items that are due to expire and just being more consistent in tracking usage of items and not over purchasing those we are slower to use.
#14. Have a 6-12 months pantry. I've let our pantry get lower than I'd like. I think there's a two months supply of food (including freezer contents) but it's not where I want to be. I've said before that in my book, there's an emergency fund and there's an extension emergency fund: a full pantry. It's like the difference between $200 and $2000 to cover an emergency. 2 months or 12 months? Many and many a friend has weathered a storm of illness or unemployment and relied on their food stores to see them through and seldom was it a short period but a much longer one. This of course means I need to be especially careful to follow #13.
I think I'll stop here this week. I'll post part II, which mostly deals with the non-food portions of my grocery funds next. In the meantime I hope I've given you 'food' for thought!