What happens when you get too excited about paying off debt

I’m starting to get excited. Really excited.

We are getting close to paying off another debt, my husband’s last student loan. I can visualize the zero balance. I’m getting super intense.

Too intense.

Last week, I started looking at the budget. We had money left in some of the categories: pets, medical, cleaning supplies, toiletries. I thought about the declining loan balance and got intense. I transferred those extra dollars to the line item for the debt an made a large payment which included that extra money. I had a bit of blow money left over and sent that as well. It wasn’t a tremendous amount of money but all the extra money added together was a nice extra bonus on the debt snowball.

And I forgot to look at the grocery budget. We had $19 left in the grocery budget and it had to last a week. Did I mention I was planning to make my husband’s birthday dinner this week? And we were out of bread. And milk. Oh yeah and Splenda (which we use to make iced tea which we drink every day). And coffee creamer. This was shaping up to be a bad week, especially if I couldn’t have coffee!

I could transfer a few dollars from somewhere to get us through the week. Oh wait. I just sent all that extra money to the student loan servicer. Yup. Bad week.

I was so excited to pay down the loan that I forgot that we might need food. Food is kinda important, right? Nah, it’ll be good for the diet. Yeah, not so much.

Don’t worry. We are not going to starve. I made some bread because we did have flour, yeast and dry milk. I also made some Italian bread. Both recipes were from the The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook (which is my go to cookbook for just about everything). We had some chicken so I made grilled chicken and pasta.

My husband requested lasagna for his birthday dinner. My pantry is pretty low at the moment so the only thing I had on hand was jarred spaghetti sauce. No ground beef in the freezer. No lasagna noodles. I didn’t even have any mozzarella cheese (we almost always have mozzarella cheese in the house). I didn’t even have milk to make bechamel.

I went to Wal-Mart with my $19 to see if I could pull this together. The priority was coffee creamer, Splenda and lasagna ingredients. Of course, I walk through the door and see the most beautiful bananas that I’ve seen in months. I grab some hoping that there is some way on God’s green Earth that these will fit into my budget. I was fairly certain I was going to put them back. The grocery gods were with me on that trip. I got the last small bag of generic Splenda, which was the same unit price as the large bag but I didn’t have to spend almost half my budget. I also got the last marked down package of ground beef in the store.

With my bananas, the total was $18.68. I got everything on my list and got to take home my bananas. The lasagna was amazing. Husband was very happy about his birthday dinner. We had enough lasagna left over to make a second meal with it which we will probably eat on Tuesday (his actual birthday). I have some cheese left over so I’ll probably make chicken parmesan. We’ll also have breakfast for dinner and probably hot dogs. We certainly aren’t going to starve.

Seeing my grocery budget that low was a bit, no very unnerving. Before sending money to the debt snowball, I really need to slow down and make sure we’ve got enough money in the budget for everything we need. In the future, I’m going to make sure to wait until the last day of the budget before sending extra payments. Well, I’ll try my best.

Have you ever cut your budget so tight you were worried you wouldn’t make it? 

An easy way to immediately curb your spending

Curb your spending

 

There are two items that traditionally keep people from getting ahead financially: income and/or spending. While there are a number of things you can do to increase you income, generally those changes are not immediate. Spending is something you do have immediate control over. With debit cards and credit cards, it’s very easy to overspend. There is a very easy way to curb your spending.

Use cash.

Yup, that is the brilliance of the plan. Put cash in an envelope for the categories you tend to overspend on. One category that we had a lot of trouble with in the beginning was food. It is so easy to overspend on groceries and eating out. Once we started using cash and I had to stare down that envelope, we quickly got our spending under control.

Every two weeks when we got paid, we would take out enough cash for food for the next two weeks. Once that money was gone, we had to make due with whatever was left in the house. I remember one night, after we ran out of money before the next pay day, I made a box of mac and cheese, a box of stuffing and a can of peas for dinner. Did I mention we quickly learned to make that money last for the entire two weeks?

If you are worried about carrying a lot of cash, just carry the cash you need. Only carry your grocery money when you plan to go grocery shopping. This will also stop you from making unplanned trips, which generally lead to overspending. Need to pick up a few things after work? Just take $10 or $20 with you, again to limit impulse items.

What if you buy a lot online? Cash won’t work for that. Well, there are some alternatives.

  • Most sites accept Paypal. Transfer money to your Paypal account to limit your spending.
  • Purchase a prepaid debit card at Wal-Mart, Target or another local retailer. These are similar to gift cards but can be used anywhere Visa or Mastercard are accepted. Load your budget onto the card. You can reload it when you’ve got more money to budget for that category.
  • Use gift cards. If you shop at Amazon or another online retailer on a regular basis, purchase a gift card for that retailer to limit your spending.
  • If your bank allows you to have a free checking account, open another account for those spending items and use that account to limit your spending.

These methods to not require you to do extensive budget tracking, but can help you save a tremendous amount of money each month. Give it a try. You’ll be amazed how easy it can be to curb your spending.

The incredible shrinking product!

Here we go again. Last week I was looking through a Sunday circular. On the front page, sugar was shown on sale for $2 a bag. After getting over my initial shock that this was a sale price, I knew that in the current climate, 40 cents a pound was a good deal. Then I looked at the ad more closely and noticed that the package weight was four pounds, not five! A full 20% of the package was removed.

Food companies are smart. They know that most people who pay attention are price conscious, but may pay little attention to the weight of the packaging. Coffee companies started this trend many years ago, moving from 1lb of coffee to smaller quantities, 12 or 14oz. Ice cream companies followed and now we get 1.5 quarts instead of a half gallon. Dammit, I want my half quart of ice cream back! You may have noticed when opening a box of cereal or a bag of chips that you might feel deceived, as if someone had gotten to the box or bag before you, had their fill and then resealed it. I hate opening a large box of cereal only to find that it is only 50 or 60% full. It’s a waste of packaging, shelf space and hauling resources.

I don’t know which annoys me more, the fact that the product companies think we are too stupid to notice or the fact that the majority of consumers don’t notice.

Take notice! I’ve been watching the commodities markets for at least a year now. These are the markets where raw materials are traded and they provide a very good indication of what we will be paying for goods in the future. Most commodities prices rose dramatically in 2010, but cotton was chief with a price increase of over 90% (click the chart included in the link to enlarge). I’m not sure how clothing manufacturers are going to deal with this sharp increase. They can’t make the product size smaller to save raw materials like the food makers can, so watch for steep increases in clothing prices this year. You are also going more smaller packages, probably sold to you as better for your health. The restaurants have done it in recent years (you think the smaller portions were really about your health?), and I think we may very well see the same in the grocery store.

Changing the way I think about food

Over the past few months, I’ve changed the way I look at grocery shopping and how I spend my food budget.

Back in November, I started shopping at a different grocery chain. It’s close to the college I teach at. The store sells mostly fresh items. There is a large produce department, an extensive meat and seafood department and a large bakery. You can’t buy shampoo or cleaning supplies there. They don’t have many canned items either. The company owns most of the farms that their dairy and meat come from.

The first time I went, I picked up some chicken and a few other items that were on sale. When I made the chicken breasts I had purchased (hormone free, antibiotic free, free range), my husband remarked on the flavor of the chicken. Jeff is not a big fan of boneless chicken, so for him to remark on it was impressive.

The next time I went, I purchased more meat that was on sale. Again, the flavor was excellent. We purchased our Christmas turkey there and the flavor was amazing. I’ve also purchased Porterhouse steaks a few times (when they were on sale for 3.99/lb). Again, we were so pleased.

Since I started shopping there, our overall food budget has not changed. I have used less canned and boxed food. We are eating more fruit and veggies. We are enjoying our meals more. We are less likely to look at the meal plan and say “Wanna go out tonight instead?” I’ve noticed over the past few months that my freezer and refrigerator have more food in them and my pantry shelves have less.

While I was always happy with the food we were eating, I have been thrilled with that we’ve been eating for the past few months. I’ve decided to stop purchasing what’s cheap and have started purchasing what is good (but on sale, in the case of meat). I’ve also noticed that I’m not spending more money than I did before. If I purchase a large roast on sale, we’ll make 4 meals out. I’ll take the leftovers and freeze some of it  and use the rest in new food preparations.

I want you to take a look at what you are feeding your family and see if there is a better way. I know not everyone has access to the kind of grocery store I have here. We are very lucky to have such a store but there are things you can do locally. Look into community supported agriculture in your area. Half a share for a few hundred dollars can put produce on your table all summer for about $10 a week. Look into purchasing local meat from farms in your area. If you go in with some friends to purchase half a cow, it can be a very frugal way to stock your freezer. Most farms will cut and pack everything for you at your direction. There are lots of local options out there. It might take a bit of time to do research on your part but you might be surprised with the options in your area.

The electric bill is killing my food savings

Our electric bill has always been the bane of my existence. I run my business out of the house so our bill is higher than most. I have done everything I can think of to lower it. We have Smart Surges on all the computers and set the computers to hibernate after 20 minutes. We make sure all the lights are turned off when not in a room. I monitor the temperature of the fridge.

Last month I did two things that had a dramatic effect on our bill. First, I checked with our state’s department of public utilities to see how much 3rd party suppliers were charging for electricity. All the rates are listed on the site. Not only was the company I picked 2.5 cents less per kilowatt hour but the company provides 20% renewable energy, where CL&P only provides 12%. Plus, I didn’t have to sign a contract. This saved me over $13.oo last month.

I also did something else last month that saved me more than that. I unplugged the deep freezer. I’ve been trying to use up  food we have in the house and I finally got to the point where I could empty the freezer. This saved me $27.00 last month. I have a newer freezer, it’s only 3 or 4 years old, but it still uses a lot of juice.

So I started to think about how much I’m actually saving on my groceries by having the freezer. I generally buy meat on sale and freeze it but I don’t buy huge quantities. I try to keep a month’s worth of cooked ground beef on hand, plus a few roasts, some chicken breasts and pork chops. All of those things will fit in the upstairs side-by-side freezer. I would need to save $324 a year on frozen food just to break even. We don’t eat frozen dinners, so the only thing we keep in the freezer are frozen veggies and meat. I’m not saving enough to keep the freezer plugged in. Maybe if we had a larger family, but it’s just Jeff and I.

The deep freezer is going to stay unplugged for now. It might end up on craig’s list. For now, I’ll monitor the weekly sales at Stew Leonards and buy whatever meat is on sale that week. I’ll plan my meals accordingly. I’ve been doing this for the past month and I’ve been very pleased with the results. We are wasting less food since we don’t lose anything in the back of the freezer and I’m saving $27 a month. That’s a really nice dinner out (with a coupon of course!).

Is your deep freezer costing you more than you’re saving?

October budget

It’s a new month which means it’s time for a new budget. Before the month begins, you should make a budget where you spend all of you income on paper. Give every dollar a purpose before your money decides its own purpose.

Jeff and I just did our budget for October. It’s going to be a lean month. I’m trying to save up money for renewal fees for the firm which are due in December. So here are the cut backs:

  • I slashed the repairs and maintenance budget to zero. If something breaks, that’s what we have the emergency fund for.
  • I cut the eating out budget to zero. If we want to eat out, we have to agree to do it and use our blow money.
  • I cut the grocery budget to $225 (from $250). I think we can make that if I plan well. I’ll need to do a huge menu plan for the month.
  • The debt snowball is a bit smaller this month but we’ll catch up in December when I will be teaching an extra class.

Did you do a budget this month? Are there any great wins? Any disappointments?

When a sale is not a deal

Every week, I go through all the grocery sales to see which store I’m going to shop at this week. One store had a 5/$20 meat sale. As I started looking through the “sales” I noticed that this was a pretty crappy deal. One pound of boneless chicken or one pound of ground beef. At 5/$20, we are talking $4 per pound. I don’t know about you but I don’t spend more than $2.25 for chicken or ground beef, so the idea of paying $4 a pound makes my head hurt. This may be a sale but it’s not a deal.

Another example of this is Connecticut’s “Sales tax holiday week.” This sounds great right? Well, a bit of background… The sales tax holiday only applies to clothes. Connecticut currently has no sales tax on any piece of clothing $75 or less. The holiday increases this exemption to $300 per piece of clothing during the holiday week. What I want to know is who is buying $300 pieces of clothing? Remember, this is not per purchase, this is per PIECE of clothing. I don’t even pay more than $50 for a coat. My last jacket was a $225 Lane Bryant leather jacket which after sales, discounts and coupons, I paid about $47 for. Connecticut advertises this sales tax holiday like crazy as if we are all getting an awesome deal. Most people aren’t going to save a dime from this program. NO DEAL!

When shopping make sure things are actually a good deal. This is where one of those little price notebooks comes in handy. Write down the lowest normal price you find commonly used items for. That way when you find things on sale, you can refer to your little notebook to see if it’s actually a good deal.

This week the grocery store sales suck so I’ll being going down to the PriceRite to pick up some staples. I’m starting to run low on a few things.

Do you come across things like this in your travels? What crappy sales have you seen lately?

Quicktip: Hit the coupon sites at the beginning of the month

Here’s the deal with the coupons sites: Most of them refresh their coupons at the beginning of the month. Therefore, it is very important that you hit those sites on the first of the month to get all the new offers. Many of them are limited and as the month goes on, they drop off the site. Get them while you can.

Rumor had it that there will be 5 coupon flyers in tomorrow’s Sunday paper. Might be a good day to purchase an extra paper, especially with back to school quickly approaching. Generally, the summer is a terrible time for coupons and this summer was no exception. About a month before school starts, the coupons start getting better and seem to be pretty good until about January. At that point they slow down a bit before getting really crappy in the summer again.

Go mighty coupon clippers and slay the high cost of groceries!

You gotta fight for your right…

to use coupons! This is what I had to last night at the grocery store.

Last night, I went grocery shopping.  I had a meal plan in my head as well as a mental list (I know, bad frugal CPA). We actually did fairly well. I knew what the sales were and didn’t buy anything outside the meal plan. We bought a ton of meat, all on sale and some with coupons. I had a coupon for $3 off a $15 meat purchase from a competitor. I found the coupon after Michelle at Wicked Cool Deals posted about it. When I was checking out, he handed me back that coupon and stated that they do not accept competitor’s coupons. I told him I went to a blog post specifically about this store and was told I could use this coupon. Apparently, the cashier does not believe in the accuracy of my fellow bloggers and hands me back the coupon. I’m sure that Michelle would not steer me wrong. She got me free chocolate today (have I told you how much I love this woman?).

As I was walking out of the store, grumbling to my husband and checking my receipt, I looked up to see a huge sign by the door that read “This store will be accepting COMPETITOR’S COUPONS during the months of May and June”. My husband later told me that I got a crazy “puma ready to pounce” look in my eyes as I swiftly grabbed my coupon file and darted back into the store. My husband knows this look well. He’s sees it alot when I find an incorrect price on my receipt. I went back into the store and got my $3. I also went back to the cashier to let him know about the sign. The head cashier even came up to me to appologize. I asked if the store has a written copy of their coupon policy. I was told they would look into it. I explained to them that it is very difficult to keep up with their coupon policy because it keeps changing. The head cashier told me she would follow up with me. It appears she recognized me. Hopefully, I’m not the crazy woman with all the coupons. There must be someone at that store more savings driven that I am. I’ve never seen him or her when I’m at the store, but I don’t think the store could handle more than one of me at a time. I think we frugal types are genetically linked and know when the others are at the store so we can spare the employees.

Make sure you know the coupon policy at your local grocery store. Do not rely on your cashier to know it, especially if it changes a lot. As for me, I got my prey (my $3) and am one happy shopper. I’ll be looking for more competitor’s coupons. I hear Stop and Shop has double $1 coupons this week. I think the crazy look is returning.

Meal plan and groceries: Great week at the store

thor-groceries

Thor is inspecting the groceries to make sure everything is safe for human consumption. Good kitty!

I got caught up on some things over the weekend but didn’t have time for grocery shopping. Finally got that done today. I did really well at the store today. Some of my best deals:

  • Split chicken breast, regularly 2.99/lb was .99/lb. Savings:  $7.08
  • Eggs were only .99/dozen
  • 2 boxes of frozen pierogis, regularly 3.19 a box, with sale and coupons I paid $1 per box.
  • 4 boxes of coffee filters, regularly 2.29/box, with sale and coupons I paid .65/box.
  • BBQ sauce was only .49 a bottle after sales and coupons.
  • Chicken grill seasoning was 2.29 per bottle. It was B1G1, plus I had a 1.00 coupon and a .75 coupon. They tripled the .75 coupon, so I got 3.25 off which means they paid me .96 to take it home for them.
  • Carolina rice was 1.oo per bag. I bought four bags. I had two .75 coupons which they tripled. They paid me to take that home, too. I made .50 on that deal.

I love when the store pays me to take things off their hands. There were only two things I bought this week that weren’t on sale, the mushrooms and the peppers. Those are for salads and pizza. Everything else was on sale or I had a coupon, even the store brand stuff which worked out well since I had no idea the lasagna noodles and the stuff I needed for enchiladas would be on sale. Total before coupons and sales: 96.49. Cash paid: 45.43. Total saved: 51.06 or 53%. My coupons savings alone were $15.50 which is a good week for me.

This week’s menu:

Monday: Chicken enchiladas, yellow rice and corn

Tuesday: Crockpot swedish meatballs

Wednesday: Lasagna and salad

Thursday: BBQ chicken and stuffing

Friday: Deep dish pizza

Saturday: Hamburgers

Sunday: Pancakes and sausage