What I do with Coupons

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Once upon a time there was a girl obsessed with coupons. She had a binder she brought to the stores with her and everything.

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One of my couponing hauls c. 2011.

You see, she had just had a baby and felt like she was floundering at being a parent, and buying trunkfuls of diapers at bargain prices made her feel like a success at something. And she really needed that.

Plus the TV show about extreme couponing made it look so easy to fill a million carts with noodles and soda and only pay 34 cents for the whole thing.

Later, she realized how much time she spent researching, cutting and organizing coupons. This was probably around the same time maternity leave ended.

Surprise! The girl in the story is me! So yeah I went through this big couponing phase when Sam was a brand new baby. I watched the Extreme Couponing show, I studied flyers, I had a binder and a calculator that I brought to the store.

And the honest truth now? I’m not even sure I really saved all that much money. I remember one check out I had paid over $70 in coupons, but I was still paying more per month than I do now. And that’s even considering that I had two less kids at the time.

So what do I do with coupons now? We’re a family on a budget, I must be all over them still right?

Not really.

The big secrets to keeping within our $650/ month food and household supplies budget (including personal care items, diapers, wipes, everything I buy at the grocery store), are 1. Shopping at Aldi and 2. Meal planning. 

Even though I try every week to get the wide majority of the things we need at Aldi, there are a few things I go to another store to get.

Aldi does not accept coupons. Not that you even need them. Most of the brands they carry are house brands, so there aren’t any coupons in existence for them (except some fake ones that circulate around the internet intermittently). There are some national brands there, but leave your coupons home because they won’t be accepted.

Every week in the mail we get sent a P&G flyer. This is the. Best. Mail. Day. I go through it looking for the (very few) brand name items I get still. Then I peruse coupons.com and see if they have anything going on. I will jump brands and styles or whatever if I find a coupon that makes it worth while.

I usually clip 3-4 a week for a couple dollars in savings. I also pick up any dog related ones and mail them to my friend. Last week we found one that was BUY ONE GET ONE FREE 15LB BAG OF DOG FOOD. Win! I was so excited, and I don’t even have a dog.

Coupon Did You Know?: You can help military families stationed over seas by donating your expired coupons? Coupons up to six months old can be mailed to military bases all over the world. Find out how to help by clicking here!

My Coupon Do’s and Don’t’s

DO look at quantities and product size. Take the ones that say “When You Buy 4!” and throw them immediately in the recycle bin UNLESS you honest to goodness, completely and absolutely are going to use all of those items. Also, some coupons specify what size of product they’re applicable for. Pay close attention to this when you’re shopping or you won’t get your discount.

DON’T forget to compare the after-coupon price to the price of the equivalent store brand item. Don’t trick yourself into thinking that you’re saving at the register when you still pay more after coupons on the exact same item.

DO know the store’s coupon policy. Some have limits on how many of the same coupon you can use, or if you can stack manufacturer coupons on top of store deals. Don’t wreck your whole budget plan because of some ridiculous rules you didn’t know about. Other stores will double your coupon if they meet certain criteria. Get to know which day is Double Coupon Day and what amount is doubled and save even bigger!

DON’T forget to check expiration dates and get a total bum out at the register.

DO realize that your time is valuable. I got a little obsessed and went down the rabbit hole of coupon-dom the first time. To me, coupons are a tool to nip away at your grocery bill, not a life style. I know that there are people who are coupon scientists, and can leave a store with car loads of free products. And even some who make almost a salary selling their stockpiles, or even donate their haul to women’s shelters and other organizations. These people are amazing and get all the kudos. But other people who don’t have that talent (like me), need to realize its ok to skim the newspaper and save a couple bucks a week, and not really shoot for the carts of free product.

DON’T forget to keep your eyes peeled for peel off and sticker coupons, and discounted produce and meat. When I shopped at another major grocery store chain, I would always  get organic salad boxes for next to nothing because some of the packages were close to date and were up to $2 off per box.

Coupons are also available for non grocery things. Every year we go to the same restaurant for our anniversary and I always bring a 2 for 1 coupon I cut out of the local penny saver. I still love coupons, its just that now, coupons are a small part of my bigger money saving plan, not the whole thing.

 

Adventures in Resale

IMG_2745When I was in high school I never felt that pull to conform to what other people were doing, wearing or listening to. I went to a rural area public school, and we basically all had the same background. For me that came later, my third year of college.

I started nursing school at a small private college, smack dab in the middle of a good sized city. Suddenly I felt like my rural, poverty line upbringing was something to be ashamed of, and I started shopping to fit in. To make a long story short, it ended badly. I specifically remember one day when I was handed back not one, but two maxed out credit cards. I’d like to say I stopped there but I didn’t. After the two maxed out cards, I opened a card I forgot about which ended up going to collections and I later settled.

My dysfunctional relationship with credit was short and I’m glad I stopped when I did. But it’s something I frequently think about and regret. I have a jewelry box full of costume jewelry, bins of shoes and clothes, all we’ve moved three times and have been storing, and none of which I wear. My own personal tell-tale heart, reminding me of the havoc I wrought upon my finances.

But I think I finally figured a remedy; resale.

I frequently consign the kid’s old clothes and toys for either cash or store credit. I wish selling adult clothing was that easy.  So this is a run-down of all the different ways I’ve used/ am using to try to sell some of the stuff I sunk myself on, and hopefully make some money back.

IMG_2717Children’s Orchard- My weakness is always buying things for the kids, and apparently this is the same for other people too. Every birthday and holiday (even minor ones) my kids get toys, heaps of gifts and new clothes. While we’re blessed to have so many people who love our kids, we need to be able to put clothes in drawers and toys in toy boxes.
Before we moved into this house, we lived pretty close to a kid’s consignment shop called the Children’s Orchard. I went in to shop one day soon after we resolved to cut back on spending (but kids still need clothes). The woman at the register said they were looking for toys and clothes to buy, so I made an appointment and brought a few things in. I dropped them off and a buyer went through everything and offered me a price for cash payout, and then 20% more if I took the payout as store credit. Of course I took store credit since the kids needed a few things.
IMG_2718So basically I shopped for free after trading in some old stuff, AND the drawers and closets were cleaned out!
Earlier this month I did my spring drawer clean out, and a basement cleanup of some toys the kids had gotten for Christmas that literally could not fit in the house. Most of them were new in boxes. The plan was to donate them to Toys for Tots, which is something we’ve been doing for years. I was going to bring in some clothes anyways so I though I’d try selling some toys too, and then what didn’t sell would be saved to donate this year. Well. They took everything and offered me over $80 in store credit!! Plus I found some adorable summer dresses for Abby, a pair of shoes for Sam and a playsuit for Ben. So from just bringing a couple of things to the consignment shop I got:

  1. Cleaned out and organized dressers,
  2. Closer to having the clean and organized basement that I’ve been dreaming about,
  3. Two dresses, Converse summer sneakers and a baby playsuit that costed nothing!

This is why I call it “shopping for free.” Always so much win.

Ebay- Judging by my Instagram feed, there are a lot of people who do extremely well reselling things on Ebay. I’m not one of those people. Ebay was the first platform I tried and I haven’t sold a single thing. Not only that, but I’m pretty sure I sent someone foot fetish porn. For free.
Back story- I listed two pairs of platform heels that I spent way too much money on and never wore. I was so excited when I got a message asking me to send “a few pictures with the shoes on” so the buyer can see them better. And I fell for it. Needless to say I didn’t sell the shoes. Nor did I sell them the second time when the original listing expired and I resisted them, only to be met with THE EXACT SAME MESSAGE. Nice try buddy.

I still haven’t sold either pair, if you’re interested.

Brick and Mortar Consignment Store- A flower shop in my town closed and all the women were very excited when an upscale consignment shop opened in it’s place. I brought a small box of shoes, handbags and accessories down, and they actually sold quite a bit of it. However, I still wouldn’t say this is my most successful method of selling things.
First of all, the shop takes a huge bite of what they sell the item for. Their cut is usually 40-60%, and they set the price. Secondly, you don’t get any money upfront, and you have to wait until after the item sells to get paid out. Lastly, the shop starts reducing the price of the item if it doesn’t sell after 30 days, then again after 60 days, and finally after 90 days, you can either come get your things or they are donated. Of course all of this depends on your shop’s policies. But at least I sold some things, and made a couple of bucks.

IMG_2723Poshmark- This is the most recent thing I’ve been doing and it’s going really well. Postmark is like a big yard sale app. Its actually fancier than that but we established before that I’m a little country so my mind goes right to the swap meet. Its actually pretty funny to me that I’m even on it, considering there has never been a moment in my entire life when I felt “posh.”
You make a profile and add your listings and people can buy them at price, make you an offer or bundle your items together for a discount if you chose to have that. Everything is high end brand names or designer and is in excellent condition. I do everything with my phone and after an item sells, you print out a shipping label directly from the app, and you don’t pay a thing. Postmark takes (I think) 20% of what you sell the item for (unlike Etsy that charges you to list an item and takes a portion when you sell it). I really like this platform. I have all my jewelry, shoes and a few other things up there and I’ve made around $60 just in these past few weeks.

ThredUp- I didn’t try ThredUp myself; I was all ready to until I saw some negative reviews online and then found out a friend had just sent in two huge bags stuffed with her things and stuff from her two daughters. I held off to see what her experience was. And I’m glad I did because it wasn’t good. She pretty much reiterated what the people in the reviews were saying. Processing time takes forever and they pay out pennies for the clothing they keep. Not only that but they charge $9 for the bags they send you to submit your items in, and then deduct your earnings from that. So my friend from her two huge stuffed bags was paid $2.30. …
That’s ridiculous. Its less than pennies per item. After that they ended up keeping the measly $2 because she still owed $18 for the two bags. In my opinion, not worth it. I would rather donate my items and feel like maybe I was helping someone, rather than feeling swindled by a big company that is still going to profit of of my things somehow, whether its selling them for a small profit or writing off a huge amount of donated items at the end of the year as a tax deduction.

Facebook Yard Sale Groups- I know a lot of people who have sold things on these usually closed and regional Facebook groups. Right now I have those two same pairs of shoes listed that I attempted to sell on Ebay. Fingers crossed.
The process is fairly simple, you just add a few pictures and your price and then arrange to meet the person once you have a seller. You don’t have to pay to list and Facebook doesn’t take any commission. This is good news, but there are definitely drawbacks. Dealing with strangers in person can be a little scary, especially when there’s money involved. The same friend from the ThredUp story has told me that she has had many people want to meet her at their address, and then when she suggests meeting in a common place, like the police station, they will agree and then never show up. Jeff’s uncle had attempted to sell his ATV in a group like this and was robbed! If you try to sell things in groups like this, please please please, always think of your safety over making the sale.

LetGo and Offer Up– These are both apps that are similar to Facebook groups. I had a few things listed and then ended up taking them off after I was majorly creeped out by some messages I received from a person on LetGo who initially said he was interested in my items and then proceeded to talk about “how we could meet up and talk about them since we didn’t live far.” No thanks buddy. Luckily other people can leave comments and reviews of their interactions with other users under their profiles, and another woman wrote that she had a similar experience with this same person. Final verdict: a little creepy and not worth it.

IMG_2724Decluttr- I had some pretty good success with this platform a few weeks ago. Decluttr has an app but you can also use the website, which is what I used. They buy DVD’s, CD’s, books and tech, like phones and game systems. You make your account, enter the barcode of what you’re trying to sell and they give you a price for the item. Then when you’re done you print a packing slip and a prepaid shipping label and send it in. Then a few days later, you get your pay out, either via check or PayPal.
Years ago (probably pre-kids) I mentioned to Jeff that I kind of liked a show on TV and for my birthday he bought me like six seasons of it on DVD because he couldn’t think of anything else to get me. Flash forward to now they’re still in the shrink wrap, and taking up room on the DVD shelf. I wanted to get rid of them for a while, but short of having a real yard sale at our house, I didn’t know how to do it. So there they sat.
I found Decluttr and thought it was at least worth a shot. I got a quote for those DVDs, plus a few others and a couple of books. I put them in an old Amazon box with the packing list, printed out my shipping label and dropped it off at a shipping center. About a week later I had $16 in my PayPal.  It was so easy I’m planning (hopefully this week) to make another box with some more DVD’s and the Wii that me and Jeff bought when we first moved in together in like 2008, and has been sitting in the basement since probably 2011.
The amount they offer isn’t a ton, some DVD’s were only a few cents. But I didn’t know what else to do with these, I didn’t want to put too much effort into selling them and I didn’t want them cluttering up my living room anymore, so having a couple dollars was much better than throwing them out in the garbage.

The goal in resale is obviously to make money, but know that your time, effort and safety are also valuable, not to mention the state of your living space. Always consider these when selling your items, and know when its time to let go and donate, or trash.

Amazon- It’s been a while since I sold anything on Amazon so the process and policies may be a little different now. I posted the other day on my Instagram about a baby blanket that I had bought for Abby when I was still pregnant with her. This was just the tip of the over spending iceberg I struck during that pregnancy.
I was following this woman’s blog who had been recently pregnant and would talk almost weekly about how certain products were “can’t live without must have to die for!!” and I totally fell for it. I craved that light and bright, glittery fabulous mom lifestyle she as portraying. At one point I had like four different types of bottles, a diaper sprayer, wet bag, all types of things that cost a fortune and I never was going to use. Luckily I realized this pretty soon after buying them and was able to sell them new in package on Amazon. I actually ended up selling everything that I put on there, plus some old text books from nursing school that were still relatively current.

Barnes and Noble- I thought I would mention Barnes and Noble here since it was the very first experience I had with resale when I was still in college. Instead of stashing my textbooks in the basement, I found out you could sell them back to B&N even if you didn’t buy them there. I thought I was a financial whizz at the time.
Anyways, looking at the site I see that you can still do this and I definitely recommend trying by any means for college students to make back some money they spend on astronomically priced text books.

You are allowed to make mistakes sometimes. Someone once told me something that I still have to remind myself of every day: Just because you bought it, does’t mean you have to keep it forever. Don’t be discouraged by past mistakes with money, and try to recover and grow from them. Back when I was growing up buying second hand was something poor people did and was “embarrassing.” Now its a trend. Who knew? Millennials are learning to be smarter with our money, and scoring a nice quality item at a resale price is something to be proud of, and making money back from inappropriate spending is just as awesome.

Take Out Night on a Budget: Chinese

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It’s take out night with Aldi!

I love Chinese food so much. I could eat crab rangoon until I’m sick, and if I’m being honest. I probably have.

We used to spend upwards of $70 on one night of Chinese take out. That’s insane. I knew that’s way too much, but I was’t sure I could give up Chinese food for good. Not to mention that I’ve been on a mission to lose some baby weight, and gorging myself on Szechuan chicken isn’t in the plan.

IMG_2196That’s why I was so excited when I could the Fusia line at Aldi. We’ve tried other at home Asian foods from other stores and they (somehow) were both expensive and kind of ‘meh’ in taste.

This is a shot of the Fusia products at Aldi. I’ve tried the chicken lo mein, General Tso chicken and Szechuan vegetable stir fry. I also keep a bottle of Duck sauce in the fridge.

IMG_2262For our “home Chinese night,” I usually make Earthly Grains white rice, ($1.99) with vegetable stir fry ($2.69) and either chicken lo mein ($3.99) or General Tso’s ($3.99). A bottle of duck sauce is $1.99, and considering the 2lb bag of white rice lasts forever, our whole night of take-in is less than one entree used to cost when we had it delivered.

And I don’t even charge a delivery fee 😉

Easter

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Easter has always been a special time of the year for me. I remember being a little girl and being so excited for being with family and having a big family meal and being all together.

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As Christians, this is when we celebrate the resurrection of our savior Jesus Christ, and I’ve always felt very close to Him this time of year. The first time as an adult (I think I was like 20) I felt a pull towards dedicating my life for God was around this time.

I was driving to my job at a laser manufacturing plant (for real) and the sun was shining and the weather was finally warm that day. I was flipping through the radio and for the first time ever I heard a Christian radio station. I started listening to it every day on my way to work and reading random passages in the Bible I had gotten in chatechism in like elementary school. Of course I’ve drawn closer and strayed many times over the past 10 years since then, but Easter is always a time when I feel particularly close to God.

This year I’vIMG_2605e been doing the Gospel of Mark Bible Study by Lisa Harper and I really love it.

 

Winters are always long and hard here in New England, so the warm days go spring time are definitely welcome. This year it was over 80 degrees! Including step siblings there are 6 of us, plus significant others and I had everyone over for a buffet style brunch.

Like a good Italian girl I made braciole, a delicious stuffed beef slow cooked thing. Also two breakfast casseroles, Belgian waffles with all types of toppings, we had ham, candied carrots, and so many things I can’t remember.

IMG_2542I love my decorations this year, especially these carrot things I got from clearance (plus a coupon!) at Michael’s. I also used one of our old wedding centerpieces to make the canister of blue eggs (which I also got from clearance), and wrapped some garden twine around it. I use the old centerpieces a lot and even though I’m the Queen of the Purge, I’m really glad I kept a few. And yes, there are always toys on my floors 🙂

Anyways, as far as budget friendly tips for family gatherings, keep your decorations minimal. Reuse what you already have and shop the clearance sections. Make sure you have a plan and stick to it, including an accurate head count and what you plan to serve. I always do smaller portions of more types of things and go buffet style vs a sit down plated dinner. Lastly, keep a little list off to the side of things you don’t buy right away, so that when people offer to bring something you can let them! Most people who offer to bring a dish really want to help, and you can make sure it fits into your vision if you plan ahead. I had my brother bring all the drinks, my step sister-in-law brought a fruit salad, and my mom and step dad brought some sides. The is all stuff I wanted to have, but I knew someone would offer to help so I didn’t get myself.

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One more thing to go along with this adorable picture of the kids; I got Abby’s dress on Carter’s for $2!! There was clearance, free shipping and I had a $10 brand loyalty voucher. It was awesome. And she obviously looked adorable. Ben is in pajamas because he grabbed a cup of juice off the table and spilled it all over himself, but I think he still looks pretty cute.

Happy Easter!

Meal Planning, Even When You Hate It

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I hate meal planning.

For years I railed against it. “How am I supposed to know what I’m going to want to eat on Friday when I’m shopping on Sunday?!” I would proclaim (I’ve written about it before in my Surviving the Grocery Stores post).

But I knew in the back of my mind that meal planning was critical in keeping within my grocery budget. One of my personal New Year’s Resolutions this year was to meal plan more often and I’ve been pretty much sticking to it. January I was $20 under our budget of $650/month, $196 under budget if you consider that I used some gift cards we had gotten for Christmas. In February I was $7 over, but this also included everything I spent for Ben’s birthday.

I think I’m more successful this time around because I’ve kind of put my own spin on the idea of meal planning. I’ve changed my perspective on it from being this super rigid Type A kind of activity, to a more flexible and workable guide for the week.

More of a tool to use to bring home the supplies I need than an iron clad law. Meal planning got so much easier for me when I realized:

  1. There’s nothing wrong with putting chicken nuggets on a meal plan. It’s a plan, and its yours. Put things on it that you actually will eat, that your kids will actually eat. I used to look to Pinterest for my meal planning ideas and I think thats partly where I started to get overwhelmed. In my world of 3 kids under 6, grilled Ahi tuna and asparagus spears do not exist.
  2. Since its your plan, you can change it. Your meal plan can be a loose idea of what you’re going to eat. Show me the law that says if you write Crock Pot Burritos on Monday, you’ll be hauled off to jail for having soup and sandwich instead. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

After those two things clicked in my brain, this whole thing got so much easier.

What I do now:

I shop for groceries every other weekend because of my limited work schedule. So when I plan I do it for 2 weeks.

IMG_2434I’m a very visual person and I need to have everything laid out in front of me, so I got this nice little planner off of Amazon.

Then I get out my favorite cookbook, Skinny Taste Fast and Slow, and my iPad and pick out about 5 or 6 what recipes I want to make. I also add in quick and simple things, like frozen pizzas, soup and sandwich night or pasta with butter (an old favorite from my childhood). I plan for all three meals, but breakfast and lunch are always super simple; cereal, Pop Tarts, frozen waffles, sandwiches, mac and cheese (from a box, not homemade bacon asiago). And yes, chicken nuggets.

I make sure I have enough ideas for each day on the plan, accounting for leftovers and any kind of function we’ll be attending like birthday parties or holidays that will substitute as a meal.

Then I write all of the ingredients and items I’ll need to buy in the margin of the planner as I add them to the weekly plan. If I’m going to use something I think I might have, I just write a little question mark next to it so I don’t rebuy something I already have. Like the time I got maple syrup three trips in a row.

We still have some.

Last year when we were redoing the kitchen (wow I can’t believe it was already a yearIMG_2432 ago) I bought this little chalkboard standing sign. It’s still on the counter and went unused for months, but now I use it to plan suppers.

Usually I write out four nights at a time because that’s as far into the future I can plan my life (and that’s as much as I can fit on the sign). And its chalk… very easy to erase and change 😉

To keep track, I leave the meal planner accessible and cross out the meals I’ve used, so I can easily see what’s left.

This system has really been working out so far. I like the flexibility and I love that it’s been keeping me on budget. Seeing what we’ve had and what we’re going to have has really helped me provide better meals. No more “have we already had pasta like three times this week or is it just me?” More like “if we have pasta tonight we should have baked chicken and some veggies tomorrow.”

The best part though… We. Have not. Ordered. Take out. In months. We used to spend upwards of $50 on take out in a whack between meals, sides, drink and a tip. And we also would order out a few times a month (despite the monthly takeout magnet on the fridge that is supposed to keep us on track). So this is huge.

The thing is, we weren’t ordering out because we were craving it. It was more because I was too stressed or busy to plan anything, and by the time dinner snuck up on me, it was way too late to defrost any meat or do any type of meal prep other than opening a menu.

So there you have it. My brand new mindset for meal planning thats working for us right now.