Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Save Money By Challenging Yourself

The biggest monthly expense in our household is our mortgage payment. This is probably true for most working families. Our second biggest expense is food. Even if you only include the money you spend at the grocery store and exclude what you spend at restaurants, if you track your spending for a month, you'll most likely find the same thing. If you are on a budget and trying to save some extra money, it make sense to look at your biggest expenses and see if you can reduce them. Now refinancing your mortgage is probably not something you can do to reduce your expenses that often. And if you rent, you probably won't have a ton of luck asking your landlord for a reduction each month (although you can and should try to negotiate a lower payment each year when your lease is up, especially if you are a good tenant with a history of good payments).

That leaves food as your next biggest expense to tackle. You can go the coupon route and try to save money that way, but those savings are usually small. (Extreme couponing not withstanding - I'm not one to work that hard at couponing though.) Cutting back on eating out at restaurants is another way to cut your monthly food expense, although, as I mentioned earlier, even excluding this cost, you'll food bill is still likely high.
So what is another way to save money at the grocery store? First, stop buying prepared or boxed food. Try buying most of your groceries from the edges of the store - the produce department, the butcher department, the dairy department, etc. Buy food, not boxes. Yes, you'll have to spend more time making each meal, so if you don't have that time, this might be a difficult change to make. You also might not have much skill cooking. Experience is the best teacher. Just start doing it. You can't surf the internet for more than ten minutes without coming across some website about food and cooking. Find one that has recipes that sound interesting to you. If you don't have much experience cooking, start with recipes that are fairly simple. Over time, your skills will increase. You'll not only get better at cooking, but you'll get quicker at it and you'll start to look at ingredients and think "What can I make with that?"

I have always liked to cook. I remember making scrambled eggs for myself for breakfast when I was 12 years old. When I lived in a dorm as a college freshman, I snuck a gas camping stove into my room and cooked breakfast on it on the weekends. (This was probably not the safest thing in the world and I don't recommend it. I will say I did at least pry open the window for some ventilation.)  For most of my married life, I've been the first one home from work, so I became the one who cooks dinner most nights. I know that doing that five nights a week has definitely has improved my cooking prowess.

OK, but what does this have to do with saving money? Let me tell you.

No New Food Challenge

A couple weeks ago, my wife and I were looking at our budget seeing where we could come up with some extra money to put towards a vacation we are saving for next year. She saw our grocery budget and couldn't believe it was that high, so we tried to come up with a way to cut back a bit. She came up with a good idea: One week, make our dinners out of stuff we have in the house. For one week, don't buy any new food at the grocery store for use in dinners for that week.
I immediately saw the challenge in this and my mind started racing with possibilities. We always have a core group of staples in our pantry - rice, beans, pasta, etc. I buy meat when it is on sale and freeze it, so we had some frozen meat I could use. I always have homemade vegetable stock frozen and we had some frozen vegetables - not as good as fresh, but for one week, they would do. So we tried it. And I'm pleased to say, we did it! We still did buy groceries that week because the challenge only applied to dinner and we had to buy food for our lunches (my daughter, my wife, and I all bring our lunches to work / school), but dinner that week was made solely from stuff we already had in the house. And our grocery bill for that week was just 15% of what it normally was.

And you know what? It was fun! I have enough experience with cooking to be able to look at what I had on hand and figure out how to make meals out of it. We'll probably do this once a month now. And since I know I'll be doing this, I keep my eye out for special deals. Last week, my grocery store had a sale on both chicken and beef. Chicken is normally $3/pound and it was on sale for $0.99/pound. I picked up a couple packages. I found two large roasts that were more than 50% off. I bought those and cut them in half when I got home (because a whole roast is too big for my family). I threw both the chicken and beef in the freezer and I'm now stocked up for the next challenge week.

Because meat is usually pretty expensive (when it's not on sale), another possible challenge is to go a week eating all vegetarian meals.

If you are looking for food or recipes sites, these are some of the ones I follow:


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