Click on the image for more information.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Tally Sheet: Maria Comes Clean

Back in January, I mentioned that Greg rigged up a spreadsheet for our expenses. Now that we were on a fixed income, I wanted to make sure there'd be no surprises.

We had asked our money manager for a reasonable stipend out of our savings--well above what I estimated we'd need on a normal monthly basis. 

This does two things: It allows us to have ready cash for emergencies. And if nothing happens, it builds up a nice nest egg--already earmarked for a future trip.

The good news: We came in under budget on gasoline, groceries, and dining out. 

Promising news: If we ever sell Casa South, it'll be enough to pay off the balance on Casa North, giving us back a big chunk of change every month. 

The bad news: It's VERY EASY to spend thoughtlessly. December taught us that. It was a lesson that haunted us throughout January.

Counting every expense is the key, especially the small cash trifles. It's the candy bar, lottery ticket, and the tips we leave that add up.

Dining out has always been our Achilles heel. We were a two-income couple with no children, save the dogs. We ate out almost every day while we were working for the man.

What helped us make the transition was our willingness to cook at home and only dining out when we had coupons or eating off the 'lunch menu'. 

As some of you know, cooking is not my favorite activity, but Greg has made it fun. He's found some great recipes and we cook together. We're eating better at home than we ever did eating out. 

The other thing that helped greatly is long-range planning. For the last couple of years, I've been slowly stocking up (particularly on non-perishables) but also staples we regularly use.

Budgeting is a big subject so I'll touch on different facets from time to time. Today, I'll list the tips I use to save money on groceries.

• Go meatless. Pasta dinners go far, and they're very cheap. Try different pasta sauces besides tomato. We do pesto, spinach and Parmesan, and just plain olive oil and garlic. And don't forget mac and cheese. Very filling and satisfying.

• Use less meat. Chinese stir-fry is a great way to eat meat without using a lot of it. Big salads are also go-to meals for us. Sometimes I just fix a dinner plate of salad greens and veggies with homemade dressing, then I'll top it with thin strips of steak or chicken.

• Make your own snack foods. I'm no saint. I like sweets on occasion. Rather than buy cookies or pastries, make your own. The basic cookie recipe is stupid-easy. You can even make extra and freeze the rest for next time.

• Speaking of sweets, always buy chocolate after Valentine's Day, Halloween, and Christmas. I freeze those mega-bags of single-serving chocolates and pull them out whenever I have a sweet tooth.

• Buy produce in season. I'll admit, I'm bad at this, but I'm getting better. Recently my local store put cauliflower at a ridiculously low price and I bought several heads. Cauliflower freezes well and keeps well in the fridge too. It's a veggie I can't grow easily where I live because it stays hot for too many months.

• Meal plan. This is another one of my weaknesses but cooking with Greg has made me a better meal planner. I find if I can plan a week ahead, my grocery bill is smaller because I buy foods I can use for more than one meal. 

For example: I might buy a pot roast. A big hunk of it will go in the crock pot as a traditional pot roast. Another piece I'll save for fajitas later that week, and a few strips I'll save as a topping for our full meal salads.

• Use your freezer. Taking that pot roast example, I might opt to make a giant slow-cooked pot roast complete with veggies. We'll eat one meal and then freeze the rest in meal sized containers. Now I have 2-3 future meals already made. All I have to do is put them in the oven to reheat.

• Stockpile: I cannot stress this enough. A lot of my success comes from small but continuous efforts to add to the larder. If something I use regularly is on sale, I buy in bulk. It will save you money in the long run. I guarantee it.

Our monthly grocery budget is $300. This isn't just food for us, but for the dogs too--who eat pretty darn good, let me tell you. From this money, I buy fresh produce, food for stockpile (on sale, of course), dog food, food I can't grow/raise like fish and shrimp, and indulgences, like sweets and savories. And although it's not food, nonperishables like paper, plastics, foil, and cleaning supplies also go on the grocery budget.

We listed every expense on our spreadsheet, no matter how small. It kept us honest. If you know it's going on the spreadsheet, you're less likely to fudge because it makes you accountable.

There are some big expenses coming up later in the year, so it'll be interesting to see how we do as the year progresses. So far, so good, but the fat lady hasn't sung yet. The real result comes at the end of the year.

Do you use a budget? Out of curiosity, and if you care to share, what's your monthly grocery budget? I know food is a lot cheaper where I live than some place like Chicago, so that's something to take into account too.

Is there anything you try to do to keep your bottom line down?


Mike Keyton said...

We are not as rigorous as you, our budget for four coming in at £120 a month - but that includes. Wine and beer. Ref tipping, I read an article about tipping in America and couldn't believe that the new norm was 20 %. Some paying more. One man wondering why he was paying a dollar tip on a 3 dollar coffee. I think I'm going to have to have a personality transplant before my next visit 😀

LD Masterson said...

I hate to admit this but Stan does the grocery shopping and I have no idea when we spend. Ignorance is bliss?

Maria Zannini said...

Mike: Tipping is crazy sometimes. My dad was a waiter all his life so I can speak with some authority on tipping. His tips supported a family of 8, but he also worked at 5 star hotels, serving a very fussy clientel.

The kind of service he provided is unheard of at regular restaurants. Not only was he tipped well but guests asked for him by name. How often does that happen?

Tipping is a touchy situation, much of it brought about by too many ''cooks' salting the pot.

Maria Zannini said...

Linda: How in the world did you ever train him to do that? Mine would come home with every sweet and trendy food.

Rebekah Loper said...

One thing I forgot to mention in my huge budget post was definitely noticing a different trend in WHAT we're eating.

I am making a lot more from scratch - like breads, snacks, etc.

We're eating significantly less meat, and I'm eating more eggs (though that's really a side effect of the hens finally laying again after their molt and all our cold snaps). But... we're eating meat maybe 2-3 nights, vs every night. And I'm stretching it as far as possible - which also means we're eating a lot more roast chicken, since I can get a 6 lb fryer at Aldi for 98 cents/lb. And then I turn around and make soup from the carcass. Or broth, depending on what other meat was on sale that week. And I can usually get enough soup out of one chicken for 3-4 meals.

This week we get a 'treat' - homemade sesame chicken. Because chicken thighs were on sale, whoo!

Maria Zannini said...

Rebekah: You're definitely on the right track.

It's important too not to deny ourselves the occasional treat. We want to be frugal--not desperate. :D

Sandra Almazan said...

If you want to go meatless, don't forget beans and lentils. Soups work well for lunch and can be paired with salad and toast for a satisfying dinner.

Maria Zannini said...

Sandra: Excellent suggestion. Soups are especially good on cold days.

This winter, we did French onion, chili, and cabbage soup. Fills you up fast.

Jenny Schwartz said...

It is easy to spend thoughtlessly. You know one of the biggest encouragers of thoughtless spending for me is buying an Amazon giftcard so that I can buy books simply. Rather than saving me money, I tend to think "it's there" and buy books more freely. Dangerous.

Maria Zannini said...

Jenny: I think I become more miserly with a gift card. I want to be sure it's something I really want.

But...leave me with a credit on my account and I'm like a giddy schoolgirl. I can't wait to buy something.

Anonymous said...

I just looked at last year's budget and nearly gave myself a heart attack - I thought it said I spent $530 a week on groceries! No, no, no... that was $530 a month! Does not include beer/wine, but it does include CSA and any meat I buy from a local rancher.

I can live with that.

Lynn Viehl said...

We do a breakfast-for-dinner one night a week, which we all enjoy and is cheap since I make pancakes from scratch and use up leftovers in my omelets. I also try to use up everything we have on hand before it spoils; veggies into salads or soup, leftover meats in casseroles, etc. If I have bread going stale I'll make open-faced sandwiches on toast, or grilled bacon and cheese, or roast beef and swiss sandwiches (the latter is great with a little horseradish spread.) I also make my own croutons and bread pudding from stale bread.

We're trying to cut down on meat portions for health reason, but also because meat has gotten so expensive lately. When it's just my guy and I we'll split a small ham steak between us with a green salad and baked potato or some rice. I also buy meat on sale and freeze it for future dinners.

Angela Brown said...

Very interesting results, Maria.

When Chipmunk and I entered this transition period, things got wonky with the spending. But now that things are starting to settle, we're doing weekly menus to help direct our grocery spending on things we definitely plan to use and keep a weekly running grocery list for weekend shopping. My desire, my goal, is to get us to the point where our grocery spending is between $200 - $250 a month.

Shelley Munro said...

We don't budget as such, but we do live frugally since we're always saving for our next holiday. We seldom go out for meals but we do eat well and fairly healthily. We both love to cook, and I swear hubby knows every bargain place in the Auckland area.

It's the small things that add up in a budget. The odd coffee or small impulse buy add up over a year.

Anonymous said...

Angela: I'd be very interested in how that goes for you. $250 a month is not very much for two people. If you get it down to that, please share what you're eating/doing. Fascinating!

Maria Zannini said...

Marlene: $530 per week would give me a heart attack too. LOL.

We don't drink much but when we do we buy the good stuff so we save no money there. :)

Maria Zannini said...

Lynn: When I lived alone I liked eating breakfast for lunch, but I've never tried it with the husband. I ought to see how he feels about it.

Aside from beef, we raise other meat animals so we get our protein from them, but that's still money I put into livestock feed.

Raelyn Barclay said...

$300 a month :cough: that's my weekly budget and I'm in hog heaven if I come in under $250. Of course, there are more of us.

I just spent a part of today utilizing a tool our CFP offers, and it makes lovely pie charts with all our spending data vs. our income and investments. Now to get That Man on board.

I'm already doing a lot of what you've highlighted here. What I need, and is a goal, is consistently doing them.

Maria Zannini said...

Angela/Marlene: I think $250 is doable, especially since one of you is a child and doesn't take in as many calories. Now if you had a teenage boy your budget would probably be double.

I can do $250 if I give up shrimp and salmon. (I just don't want to. LOL)

Now where I got into trouble earlier was not counting dining out because every meal deducts from the grocery budget. The bad part was it greatly elevated my dining out budget.

Maria Zannini said...

Raelyn: I was thinking of you when I mentioned to Angela about feeding a boy--and you have several!

I don't doubt $300 is your weekly budget. I imagine it'll get quite a bit higher when they're all teenagers. Feeding teenage boys is like feeding a bottomless pit. They're always hungry.

Fortunately, you're a good cook and more creative than I am. I struggle with finding interesting recipes for two picky people. It's important to me to not just be frugal but not to live in sacrifice mode. I might tolerate it but the husband would never stand for it.

Maria Zannini said...

Shelley: And here I thought you were independently wealthy because you go on so many trips. :D

I promised Greg that if we started traveling again, I was going to save enough so we don't have to scrimp while we're on the road.

Kevin Graves said...

I shop at Aldi. Big savings. My friend who at 75 is Richer than Roosevelt, took me there. She also took me to DollarTree. I bought shaving cream, razors, toothpaste, shampoo and 5 pair of readers for $9.00! Cleaners, spices, staples. All $1. Our store is spotless. Went in the other one where NOTHING is a dollar...nasty store, nasty people. I buy marinades and bbq sauces, oil and vinegar dressings, buy my meat at Costco or Aldi divide it up, put in freezer bag, pour a different marinade in, put in fridge overnight, then freeze them. I have free electric from 9 to six am. I don't get into spa till after 9, and I wash clothes and delay dishwasher till late hours. Mostly, I wash dishes by hand as I use them. Got rid of cable and yes Netflix, Acorn TV. I'm just doing it as a challenge, but it adds up quick.

Maria Zannini said...

Kevin: You gave up cable? I'm impressed. I thought Greg would fight me to get cable but he hasn't complained.

Re: Aldi
I love Aldi. Once I brought back a bag of baby carrots that didn't look that good to me when I opened them. Not only did they refund my money, but they gave me back double the amount. That's their freshness guarantee.

PS I don't care if I win the lottery, I still wouldn't be frivolous with money. It's been ingrained in me since childhood.

B.E. Sanderson said...

I'm probably spending about double to triple what you do a month on groceries (including cat food, non-perishables, and anything else I buy at Walmart). I spent years living tight so we could pay off all our debt and we could save a boatload of money to retire on. I used to be the queen of the bargain bin. Now we're not so worried, but I still cut costs where I can - buying meat when it's marked down and then freezing it, surfing for sale items, buying off-brand when I can.

Adding to your large roast comments, I buy both beef and pork roasts larger than the two of us need, crockpot them with veggies, and then use the leftovers to make soup, or pulled pork, or whatever. Buying whole chickens and roasting them, then using the carcass for soup is also another way to save money. As is buying a bone-in ham instead of ham slices or chunks. You roast it for one meal and then slice it and bag it for many future meals. Saves a ton per pound, and the bone is great for soup.

We eat a lot of soup. ;o)

Maria Zannini said...

BE: I grew up poor. Even when we were making money hand over fist I still pinched pennies. I can't help it. It's one of the reasons we were able to retire early.

Re: carcasses
LOL! I hear you! I use up (almost) everything. If I were truly frugal I'd grind up the bones when I was done with them and spread the bone meal in the garden, but it's more work than I'd like to do.