Saturday, July 21, 2012

Seven Hints for Grocery Shopping on a Budget

Nate went grocery shopping with me at Aldi's a few months ago, when we started working on our food budget. I told him to pick out a few snacks. He came back dangling Benton's Chocolate Sandwich Cookies, like a dead animal between his fingers.

"These are NOT Oreos," he said. I just looked at him. "Your dad would be so sad if he knew these were going in our cupboard... but proud too, I guess."

To back track, most of you know that I'm kind of a budget Nazi. Until a couple months ago, we would do really well on our budget... except on food. And no, not because we eat a lot. We would spend HUNDREDS of dollars on food... groceries, going out, gas station snacks, etc. And just so you know, you probably do too. Especially if you're not tracking that spending. When Nate and I made a decision to give more of our income to the church, we knew we had to cut, cut, cut... and the one area that was really left to do that was food. I'm still in the process of refining it to an art, but I wanted to share some tips with everyone that I've learned along the way!

1. Don't waste your time with grocery coupons.
I know this seems weird, but don't bother with coupons, especially if you're short on time. Tip #2 will save you significantly more money than cutting coupons. There are a few exceptions for this one. For example, if you are die hard about getting a specific brand of product, then cut coupons for it. But overall, unless you are an extreme coupon-er with lots of time and an eye on coupon doubling deals, etc. just buy generic stuff. Like Benton's chocolate Sandwich cookies.

2. Meal plan and prepare... Stay realistic!
Sometimes I convince myself that I am going to make a really great meal that take a lot of time and energy. And I'm ALWAYS lying to myself. So if I buy things for this one, amazing meal, it's money down the drain. I'm not Martha Stewart. I suck at cooking, and I don't enjoy it at all. BUT. I'm kind of a crockpot wizard. The word "crockpot" makes real cooks/bakers/chefs cringe, but it makes my life wonderfully easy and cheap. I wake up about 20 mins. earlier, and prepare something to throw in the crockpot on low for 8 hours. Most of these meals you literally throw a bunch of crap in a pot, and that's it. My husband thinks that I've developed a modicum of cooking skill... Nope, just turned on my crockpot! But, to make sure I have the crockpot crap in my pantry, I meal plan. Usually on Sundays I'll find a week or two worth of recipes online, and then make a grocery list from that. Depending on how much I have left over and how well I plan, two weeks of groceries have cost me anywhere from $50 to $80. I copy all the links of the recipes into a calendar and then hop on my laptop every morning that week to see what I need to make and how. It's a glorious thing.

3. Pick your favorites.
So you don't become resentful of your budget shopping, pick a few favorites that you won't skimp on. I buy pretty much everything generic. However, I like name-brand toilet paper and I'm a sucker for Biore facewash. If I can have those two things, I'll put up with Benton's chocolate sandwich cookies. Maybe you like a certain name brand cereal or type of shampoo. Pick your favorites, then buy everything else generic.

4. Have back-ups.
Nate and I still like to go out to dinner, but I hate when it's only because I look through our pantry and declare that we have nothing to eat. So I always buy a few staples, like canned soup, bread, cheese, meat, condiments, and mac n' cheese. Even the best laid meal planning plans can fall through, so I keep back-ups on hand, so we're not running to McDonald's twice a week.

5. Take coupons as your date.
I know I said that grocery coupons aren't worth it... but restaurant coupons definitely are. Sign up for EVERYONE's email list. Cut coupons out of the newspaper or those coupon mailers. If you don't want/need anything for a holiday or birthday, ask for restaurant gift cards. Nate's pretty much trained to ask, "What do we have coupons/gift cards for?" when I ask him where he wants to eat. Also, if you're going out on a weekend, hit the place up before the lights dim and the prices double.

6. Try meatless.
Meat is always the most expensive thing on my grocery list. I try to add a meal or two a week that doesn't have meat. Soups, pastas, etc. will always be less if they are vegetarian.

7. Be resourceful.
I almost always substitute something in my recipes. Why? Because I don't want to pay an arm and a leg for ginger root when I need a teaspoon of it, nor do I want to find a month's worth of recipes that use ginger root. There's lots of websites that say what you can/cannot substitute in recipes. I try to keep staples around that seem to be in a lot of my crockpot recipes... canned corn, canned mushrooms, condensed soups, bread crumbs, vinegar, sour cream, cream cheese, etc. If the recipe calls for something wild, I see if one of these staples might be able to take it's place. If not, and the item is pricey, I skip that recipe.

Hope these hints were helpful! Let me know if you have any tips of your own on this!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

I'm so old

Some days, I feel really old. And I'm only 23. That's not old. But that's my number age. You know that awful show where they make ugly, frumpy-dressed people stand in a glass box and people say how old they look? And it's a 30-year old and everyone is like, "I'd say at least 47..." and then they take them out of the box, tell them how old everyone thinks they look, they weep, and then they get a new haircut and veneers on their teeth?

I feel like that. But there's not a haircut or any amount of cosmetic dentistry that could make me feel younger.

Yesterday was kind of like some weird time warp situation. It was awesome, because we got to hang out with some old friends, but it was pretty odd too. Nate and I had lunch with a friend of his, who Nate hadn't seen in a while, but they used to be BEST friends and hang out all the time. We sat down at the table, and Nate pulled his phone out of his pocket.

"Did you get a new phone?" his friend asked.
"Oh," Nate said looking over it. "Not exactly. We downgraded."
"Why?!" his friend asked.

Apparently (I was looking down at my menu), Nate made a motion for money by rubbing his fingers together... but all I saw were fingers waving in my general direction, so I yelled, "It's not just me!!" So that's a good way to start a meal.

Andi told us about how he's dealing poker and playing video games and watching TV... and that's it. And that he's considering trying to get on as a dealer on the World Series of poker tour. And that he has about 5x our mortgage payment saved up to go to gamble in Vegas. I kiiiiiiind of wanted to put my hands over Nate's ears and say, "Andi! Stop talking about your bachelor's paradise life!" But I'd never do that, and Andi's a sweetheart.

BUT... as soon as we got in the car, I jumped Nate with questions. "So do you want to go be a dealer on the World Series of Poker tour?"

"Um... we're having a baby?" Nate said. "So no..." (He seems to operate much better in the literal or the extremely abstract like 'what if you were Spiderman' but not so well in the in-between.

So then we went a did old people things, like looking at carpet and blinds.

THEN, time warp part two. We went to a baseball game with a bunch of our friends from high school to celebrate one of them being back from the Navy. It was so awesome to see everyone, but it was also really weird. The sister of the guy who was coming back went with Nate to prom the year before we started dating, and the brother of the guy I totally had a thing for around the same time, so that's a good, awkward start. Plus when we actually used to hang out with them, Nate and I were both SUCH different people. Nate was carefree and irresponsible, and I was the "let's go do something crazy" girl. Now as everyone is deciding if they want to start the game with a beer or margarita, I'm trying to decide if it would be more polite to hit people with my butt or my baby belly as I wedge myself down the aisle.

As I did wedge myself down the aisle, I thought about saying to the cute girls in the tube dresses, "I used to wear dresses like that." I'm not sure why I was obsessed with how cute they looked, because surely they were not obsessing over my two-in-one khaki mom shorts/tent combo, but I was.

For some reason, the part that made me feel most old is when the guy that I used to have a thing for showed Nate and I a picture of his latest purchase: an over-sized shower head that strobes nine different colors of light. NINE DIFFERENT COLORS. And as Nate laughed and kept talking to him, I thought to myself, I will never have a strobe light shower head. I'm an old woman, and even if I had a strobe shower head it would just mean Nate yelling to me in the morning, "Hey! You left the strobe on in the bathroom again!" Plus our house has a really small bathroom and it would probably only increase risk of seizure or injury.

As we left, Nate held my hand.

"Did today make you feel old?" I asked.
"Everyone grows up at different times," he said.

Indeed. Indeed they do.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Only God Can Judge Me? Aw, You're Funny.

A few of my Facebook friends... generally the younger male variety... often get stuff on my newsfeed that I'm like, "Ew, get that off." My younger brother-in-law floods my newsfeed with pictures of scantily clad young women's photos that he's commented "Looking good, cutie! ;-)" on and the like. I particularly gagged over one the other day. It was pretty standard: duck face, seductive(?) eyes, limited clothing, taken via bathroom mirror. And the caption was... wait for it... "Only God can judge me." Hahahaha!

Now, before you think I'm a totally terrible person (if you don't already think that), let me explain. I agree that God is the only one worthy of judging us, and he will do so for each of us. I also agree that it is not our job to judge each other, but instead to love and support each other and hold each other accountable. But seriously?

Everyone's going to judge that picture. Guys are going to make a judgment that she's hot (maybe) and probably easy. Girls might judge her as cool because she's a rule breaker or dislike her for being promiscuous or even for seeming like competition. And parents might declare her a bad influence or think she's stupid.

That caption should have said, "I know that some people are probably going to say mean things about this picture, but I really just want someone to tell me I'm pretty." Because, guess what? We're all getting judged, all the time. Not by God. By everyone around us. And kudos to the person who says they don't care what others think of them... You're lying, but kudos.

If people didn't judge each other, we'd all wear jeans to our job interviews. The truth is, perception can be wrong, but it's still perception. If people THINK you're cheating on your spouse... to those people, you might as well be. And it's ugly and it's unfair, but especially if you call yourself a Christian, you need to be aware of how your actions are perceived by others. I'll give you an example, which is totally unnecessary and only semi-related, but I hope you'll enjoy it.

In college, Nate's freshman year he was on a floor with mostly upperclassmen. One baseball player on his floor, who I'll call Craps McGee, one Saturday night became incredibly intoxicated. Sunday morning he woke the entire floor up with his screams.

"Guys! Guys! I'm pretty sure I took a dump in my closet last night!" And indeed he had. He was so drunk that as a 20 year old man, he pooped in his closet like a disoriented boxer puppy. Well, fast forward a year. My parents joined a Eureka parents organization and at some event introduced me to a couple of parents, telling me that their son was a couple years older and played baseball. Immediately, I know that it's Mr. and Mrs. McGee, mother and father of Craps. And I can't think about anything else.

Now say... say that Craps wanted to share his faith with me. He came up to me and said, "Hey, if you're free this weekend, I'd love if you came to my church."

I'd probably say, "Oh, I'd love to, but unfortunately, I'm pooping in my closet this weekend." Because I judged him for his insane level of intoxication. And that's not right of me, but it's how the world works.

So yes, I whole-heartedly agree that God's judgement is ultimately all that matters, but if we ever want to be a leader or a role model, we need to guard or behavior and attitudes so that we are able to effectively reach the people that God calls us to reach.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

How to Be Rich - Part Two

By popular demand (okay - actually Holly Kidle just wanted to read it), I am continuing my "How to Be Rich" series with part two. As a recap, your first three steps were:

STEP #1 - Appreciate all of the things you have
STEP #2 - Realize that you "need" very little
STEP #3 - If you're on a payment plan, you can't afford it (exception - mortgage)

Check them out here. Okay, let's move on!

STEP #4 - Make a list of your debt. It should be real, and it should be scary.

Debt is relatively easy to forget about. Most people don't walk around stressing about the balance on their car loan or student loan or even their Old Navy credit card. But I would challenge you to make your debt visible. Make a list on your refrigerator of who you owe, how much, and the interest rate. Pay the minimum on all of them, except the one with the highest interest rate, and throw all of your extra money at that one. SAVOR crossing them off as you pay them off. No extra money to throw at debt, you say? On to number five.

STEP #5 - Create a budget. And follow it.

Budgets scare people. I'm not sure why. You're spending money whether you keep track of it or not. Right? There are four gazillion tools out there for budgeting. I love (love, love, love) It's amazing. Do it. Right now. Or, there's Google doc templates for budgets and tons of other resources. Get something down on paper. Start with charitable giving and your monthly bills that can't change (electric, water, sewer. debts). Then start throwing other bills and expenses in there. As you add an item to your budget, challenge it. I switch auto insurance companies (or at least compare) every 6 month pay period. I just switched from Allstate to Progressive, and I switch my homeowners insurance to get the discount as well. You all know about our agonizing sacrifice of smart phones, but now we have $70 freed up each month. And please stop saying, "But I work so hard, I deserve it." or "Even that lady on welfare has an iPhone!" Um, why are you trying to compete with a lady on welfare? If she's on welfare and has an iPhone, she's obviously not a financial wizard or someone to benchmark your budget on. Anyway, as you add each item to your list, assess it's usefulness versus cost and try to cut. At the end, you should have money left. This is your money to pay off debt. Not to go on a cruise. Not to go to the movies. To pay for things you already have, but have not yet paid for. Does this suck? Yes, very much. But you're the one who had to have that iPad.

STEP #6 - Invest your money, beyond your savings account.

My savings account has the minimum $5 in it. Pretty much always. That's because savings accounts are kind of the greatest sham ever. How much interest do you make on your savings account? I bet you don't know. I make 0.15% on money in my savings account. So if I keep $1,000 in my savings account for a year, I earn $1.50. Hence why it is empty. I keep my liquid money (that might need to be spent, transferred, etc. in a relatively short time frame) in my credit union (always better than a bank) checking account. Any "savings" I put into an relatively liquid investment account. I use a Cat Power Account. It's return rate is almost 10x a credit union savings account, with no management fees. And here's the kicker... free checks...BUT... they are invalid if written for less than $250. So that helps keep their use to emergencies, as I have intended. When I stumble across a large pile of money (or get a tax refund) and my emergency fund is well stocked, I invest. I'm not a pro at this, but mutual funds are always good. Sites like Fidelity and the like are pretty good/easy. I also have a 401K that I contribute to regularly and a 429 college fund started for Blakely.

So here are the next three steps on living rich! Go forth and prosper.