Monday, October 28, 2013

Moderate Couponing

In an earlier post, I mentioned that I coupon to save money on purchases. And if you can believe it, couponing is quite controversial. A lot of people poo-poo it because they believe couponing makes you buy things you don't need. To them I say: nobody makes me buy anything. Another group of people don't want to take the time; and they can pay for the convenience of not cutting coupons if they choose. Yet another group says it's not worth it to spend the time to get $0.25 off a $5.00 item. To them I say: you're doing it wrong. If you're willing to spend a little time (by a little, I mean half an hour or so a week once you have the hang of it), then you can save some serious moolah. This is not Extreme Couponing. It's more like... Moderate Couponing.

Before I get into nitty gritty analytical (nerdy) part of this post, I want to first address your emotions. Yes, food is emotional. It's a huge part of why you're still alive right now, and we Americans associate food with family time and celebrations. Food is important on many different levels. Don't diminish its importance...but don't give too much importance to silly things. Yes, organic is good. Yes, some brands are better than others. However, sometimes these loyalties need to be set aside for a bigger purpose. If you have the choice between eating $5.00/lb butter and all organic, grass fed beef or moving out of your crappy basement apartment into your own house, which would you choose? Which is more important to your family? Keep your priorities in line. I feed my family well; we eat healthy and often organic. But not always. Because when it comes down to it, I'd rather save the money for the betterment of my family.

Another thought: be content with what you need to survive and be intentional when you shop. Be content to not need Febreeze, but instead open a window or sprinkle your carpets with baking soda. Or make your own. Be intentional when you go to the supermarket to avoid falling into marketing traps. Walmart now has flat screen tvs with ads playing around the clock. I'm sure it was a huge investment for them to put so many TVs in so many stores, and I bet they didn’t do it just to entertain you for free. No, they’re making buckets of money off you. Do you know where they put them? In the place they thought they’d get the most return on investment: the cleaning aisle. Women are suckers for cleaners. These things are sold to us like we need them, but really we don't. In the near future I'll show you how to replace heavily marketed, toxic manufactured products with homemade alternatives. It's waaaaay easier than you think and cheaper than dirt.

To begin the couponing process, start with one item at a time. A good one to start with is breakfast cereal. General Mills and Kellogg almost always have coupons available. I never pay full price for Cheerios anymore. We go through a lot of them, but at less than $2 a box, it’s a lot easier on my budget. If you don't eat cereal very much, pick another common item like laundry detergent or toilet paper to focus on. Once you get the system down for one item, it'll be a lot easier to start applying it to multiple items all at once.

The secret to worthwhile couponing is to match up coupons with in store markdowns. Keeping that in mind, you'll be looking at two or three different pieces of information for each store.

1) Manufacturer coupons. These can be found at, in the newspaper, on company websites, on packaging or sometimes at the store. They will be labeled clearly as a manufacturer coupon. It is important to know the difference between manufacturer coupons and in store coupons because you can often stack one of each on the same item. Nearly every store accepts manufacturer coupons.

2) In store coupons are coupons that can be redeemed only at certain stores. They are often the ones printed out with your receipt as you leave the store. Sometimes they come in the form of a survey, but they always have the store's logo or name on the coupon somewhere. Not all stores have these (Walmart doesn't).

3) Weekly ads. Check your store's weekly ads for markdowns on items on your list. When something is on sale in the store and has a coupon, that's when you're really saving.

So now that you have the gist of it, here's what my couponing looks like:

FIRST, I make my grocery list. This is important. If you look at coupons first, you'll add things to your list you don't really need. I have two lists, one of things I need today and one of things I don't need today, but am waiting for a good deal so I can buy them at discount. Now I’m ready to look up manufacturer coupons on the items on my list. I check and the newspaper if I have one. I'll sometimes go into Starbucks at the end of the day on Sunday and ask if I can have their Sunday papers for free.

Once all my manufacturer coupons are in order, I cross check them with the weekly ads for my stores. I have a bookmark folder with all the weekly ads for the stores I patron (Target, CVS and Walmart). As you're looking for the items you have manufacturer coupons for, also be looking for all the other things on your list to see if one store has a better markdown than the other. Since all three stores I shop at sell Dawn dish soap, I look to see which has the best markdown and I buy at that store, even if I don't have a coupon. This is where you'll want to do some tracking. If CVS has a coupon for Dawn, but Target is having a sale with no coupon, which is a better deal? How low of a price have you paid in the past? Track prices by the ounce, since sometimes buying two 10 oz containers is cheaper than buying one 20 oz. Silly, but true.

Finally, I look up store coupons. I do this last because once I’ve checked the weekly ads, I know where I’m buying certain items. This is where you’ll need a little deeper understanding of store coupon policies. Target lets you stack 4 different discounts on one item, not including the store markdown. You can use a manufacturer coupon, a store coupon, any discounts in their Cartwheel app, and the 5% discount for using their Red Card (I have the debit card). CVS has an Extra Care Bucks program where you get store dollars when you buy certain items on sale. Using this system, I can often get things for free. Whatever I can't get on sale and with a coupon at Target or CVS, I buy at Walmart because they have the lowest prices. Eventually I want to get away from shopping at Walmart and keep my dollars local instead, but for now I have to make that sacrifice for my budget. I figure if shopping at Walmart for a little while allows me to save enough to buy a house, I'm actually helping the local economy more in the end.

Now, I go shopping! Which isn't nearly as fun as it sounds... but it is challenging and I like that. Take your lists and coupons with you. By now you'll have notes in the margins about which item has a coupon, which store has the best deal, etc. If you want, you can transcribe your chicken scratch mess onto a fresh sheet and categorize by store. And aisle. And stack your coupons in the same order as the aisles in the store. Or you could not be a crazy OCD nerd and just pay attention to your list so you don't forget anything. When you're at the store, be sure to cast a glance at the store brand, sometimes even with a markdown and a coupon, the name brand price is still higher. One store brand I don't buy a lot of is the Walmart store brand. I have tried it and nearly every time found the quality lacking. Don't let my bad review turn you off, though. Try it because the prices are usually way lower than even heavily discounted name brand stuff. If the quality doesn't bother you, by all means buy it and claim the savings.

Remember, your couponing is ultimately driven by what you actually need. Don't print coupons for things not on your lists or you're not saving money; you're wasting it.

There are tons of other ways to save money with coupons. Keep track of when things go on sale throughout the year, keep a price list, and understand stores' sales codes. Check out my Pinterest board or do an internet search for more in depth information and I promise you will find more info than your brain will know what to do with.

Happy couponing!

*Disclaimer: This is not a sponsored post, none of the links are ads, they're just put there for your convenience. All reviews of stores or products are merely my opinion*

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Food Banks and Pantries

Photo source
A lot of people don't realize their local food banks aren't only for homeless people or really poor people. They're for everyone. My local food bank and toiletries pantry have no income restrictions. We make the median income for our town, which is higher than the country's average. We aren't poor. We aren't starving. What we are is living paycheck to paycheck and we need help getting out of our rut so we can quit this crisis living. So, I am going to start patronizing our local food share programs. In return, I'm going to volunteer 4-6 hours a month and when we're financially stable again, I'm going to give food back.
My system will look like this:
Volunteer 2 days a month for several hours. I'll be stocking shelves, unloading trucks, soliciting donations,  or serving other patrons.
In return, I'll get 9-12 meals worth of food, a monthly savings of approximately $50. In our current budget, that's a whole week of food money.
If you haven't done the math already, that's about $10 per hour of volunteering, which is well above my state's minimum wage.
Instead of relying on credit cards to feed your family in a time of crisis or at the end of the month when you're out of money, use your community's resources to help stay on track or get ahead. But remember them when you're done using their services as they rely on donations to continue helping people. 

Cost Benefit Analysis of Home Preserving vs. Store Bought Foods

One of the best ways to save money on food is to produce and preserve your own. For pennies on the dollar, you can stock up your pantry. And every year it gets cheaper as your equipment and jars depreciate. Get a friend in on it with you and it can even be fun. :) Canning is really hard work, but the savings are astounding.

**As a disclaimer, this post is written with the assumption you have some basic canning knowledge. I'm not going to show you how to can tomatoes, I'm just going to show you the cost benefit analysis of canning your own versus buying from the store. Ready for some serious nerdy talk?

I'll do the math from my first year of canning. This is assuming you have very basic things like salt and a few spices on hand. 

Canner with implements: $5 (found at garage sale) (retail: $35)
Jars: $3.50 ($0.25 each at thrift store) (retail: $10/doz)
Box of lids and rings: $5 (bought new on amazon)
Tomatoes: Free or minimal cost (harvested from garden) (from local producer: $13/25lbs)
Total: $13.50

The only thing you do need to buy new every time are lids. The rings you can reuse, but you have to use new lids every time to ensure an uncompromised seal. You can recycle the lids on jars for storing dry goods, but every time you pop a lid off a freshly canned jar, it's no good for canning again.

Yesterday I canned 25 lbs of tomatoes, the prep was about half an hour, the actual work took about 2 hours, the canning portion another 2 hours. Cleanup was about half an hour. Compared to how long it would have taken me to go to Costco and buy canned tomatoes, the time isn't that much. Plus I got to stay home with my kid while he was napping instead of wrangling him in the cart for an hour.

My work yielded 4 quarts and 12 pints, or 380 ounces. Add up all the expense ($13.50), divide by the ounces (380) and you get $0.035 per ounce. Approximately $0.52 per pint.

So, saying I go to Costco and buy flats of tomatoes, at $6 per 8 cans, I'll spend $18 to buy 3 flats, or 384 ounces. Divide the cost ($18) by the volume (384) and you get  $0.046 per ounce, or $0.74 per pint. That's a 44% increase in cost. Add to that the gas to get to the store, the increased waste and unknown ingredients and processing.

Next year, you won't have to buy a canner, jars or rings, since you already own these things. All you have to buy is lids, a cost of about $3.

So, if I yield 380 ounces again, using the same jars, canner and implements, the cost is less than a penny per ounce! To be exact, it's $0.007 per ounce or $0.13 per pint.

Keep in mind these calculations are done assuming the only thing you made was some tomatoes. You can also make other tomato products (pizza sauce, spaghetti sauce, tomato paste, etc.), canned fruit, jams, jellies and tons of other preserved foods. If you add a pressure canner into the mix, your options are really endless. And the cost keeps plummeting.

If you're interested (I hope you are!) I plan on doing posts both on how to preserve garden produce and how to grow it.

Happy canning!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Negative Income

As a stay-at-home-mom, I have the best job in the world. I mean, really, how can you not love this face???
I get to spend all day, every day, with this little bundle of joy.

However, no one pays me to do this job so I have to pay myself. With what money, you own money. How can you pay yourself with your own money, you say? I’m glad you asked!

See, I spend my time making what I call 'negative income.' This is money not spent because I spent the time to keep it in my pocketses. Hence, because I'm intentionally saving money, I essentially make an hourly wage. Sometimes it's $0.50/hour; sometimes it's $10/hour. Recently, I spent an hour to plan out my trip which allowed me to save over 50% off my purchase at CVS, about $60. That's $60 for one hour of work! That's also $60 I would have spent if I just walked in the doors and bought what I needed.

What’s the secret? (You’re so inquisitive! I like that…)

I generate this ‘negative income’ by spending time clipping coupons, using apps and visiting websites to get free or discounted stuff. (Get a few ideas here.)

I spend time making homemade alternatives so I'm not spending exorbitant prices on fancy smelly products to keep my house, clothes and self clean. (Check out my obsession here.)

I changed my habits so I’m using less electricity in my daily life and less products as I do chores, etc. You would be amazed how little dish soap it takes to wash a whole sink full of dishes.

I go all nerd-tastic on CVS's Extra Bucks program and get tons of stuff at extreme discounts.

I seek out people who want to trade for things.

I go to clothing swaps. Reduce, reuse, recycle!

I sell stuff on eBay, craigslist and Facebook.

I find creative ways to feed my family and I don’t buy convenience foods.

I do all this to keep money in the bank, making 'negative income'. Is the hourly rate worth it? Well, not always. But considering the benefits and flexibility of my job, I'm ok with making $0.50/hour sometimes.

I know you're dying to know the ins and outs of all those things I mentioned. Don't worry, I'll tell you all my secrets and how I do everything in detail. But not today. That would be a reeeeeeeeeaaaaaaallllllllly long post, and I wouldn't want to bore you. :)

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Hello world!

I started this blog on a whim. About 10 minutes ago.
That's the wonderful thing about the internet, isn't it? Ten minutes of research and filling forms and voila! You're speaking to the whole world!
So, world, here I am.

This is a place for me to talk about what I'm doing to save pennies and nickels and dimes to help my family continue to live with plumbing indoors and clothes on our backs. I'm a stay at home mom, my amazing husband works to bring home the bacon and my son (ten months old tomorrow) is the light of my life and mostly the reason I do the things I do. Though not always for the reasons you're probably thinking.
This is also a place for me to talk about my contentment and intention. I believe time is too often wasted and minutes are more precious than gold. Sowing time and effort into intentional and simple living reaps time and memories often lost in the hustle of the American Dream. I also believe in being debt free and living within your means. I believe contentment is the best exit from over-consumerism and financial crises. I believe in God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit. I know He gives me the strength to face any hardship and I praise him for that. I could not exist on this planet except for the grace and love He showers on me every day.

I am going to post a few times a week. I'll post homemade recipes I've concocted or tested, thoughts I've had on homemaking, processes I've developed to help me manage life's details, pictures if I feel like it and really anything I want because this is my blog.

Welcome. I can't wait to do this again. :)