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.

 

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 😉

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.

Beginner’s Guide to Aldi

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I’ve written before about how groceries and food were a major factor in why our budget was constantly out of control. Click here for my tips on surviving the grocery store.

A major breakthrough came a few years ago when I discovered the discount grocery store Aldi. Now I won’t shop anywhere else.

 The first time I went I was a little bit off put, if I’m being completely honest. I was so used to stores that put on heirs, spending tons of money making their store and products look extra special and appealing, of course with a price increase that effected my bottom line. So I decided a long time ago that if I ever started blogging, I would write a guide, so that first time shoppers would know what to expect.

First of all, keep an open mind. Aldi is a German owned company, so they don’t have a lot of the pit falls of American owned chains. Their workers rave about their pay and benefits and all say that it’s an amazing company to work for. Many say the had to apply multiple times to be hired. It’s that good.

That being said, they have to save money somewhere, so unlike American chains that dig into employees pay and benefits (::cough:: Walmart ::cough::), Aldi has very little marketing in the actual stores.

The products are in boxes on the shelves, the stores are light with natural light, and there are only a few varieties of each item they carry (who needs 50 kinds of sugary kids cereal anyway?). The labels aren’t fancy and eye grabbing and they don’t play music. Not that anyone listens to it anyway.

Bring your own bags! Aldi saves money by having you bag your own groceries.photo-1 Check out at Aldi is really something else. Theres usually only one cashier ringing out. She takes your items off the belt, scans them and places them into another cart.

I often hear a lot of people complaining in line about having only one lane open and I try to keep from rolling my eyes out loud. The checking and paying part of the trip goes by lightening fast! I’m usually only in line for a few minutes, and I always have an overflowing cart! After you pay, you have to bag your own, which is the part that takes a while. I don’t mind bagging my own stuff, considering how much I save versus having someone do it for me (and usually smashing my bread).

If you don’t have your own bags already, they have both paper and reusable bags in line for you to purchase, or if you’re only getting few things, you can take an empty box right off the shelf and put your stuff in it.

Bring a quarter. They also save you money by not paying someone to chase your carriage around the parking lot. The carriages are all hooked together at the front of the store, and you unlock one by putting a quarter in it. You get your quarter back after you’ve put your bags in the car and returned your cart to the line.

Veteran Tip: If someone offers you their cart in the parking lot, just give them a quarter, or accept theirs if they offer to take your cart back for you! OR, win a free quarter by returning abandoned carts to the line. 

There isn’t a deli counter or a butcher. Which is fine by me anyways. I feel like the cold cuts at the deli are so overpriced. And waiting in the lines are one of the great pains of adulthood. You can still get sliced sandwich meat and cheese in the refrigerated section with the rest of the meat.

Leave your coupons at home. Not that you would even need them, but Aldi mostly has it’s own brands. Theres a list of most of them here. You will see some familiar names, but even coupons for national brands (like Tide and some cereals they carry) aren’t accepted. However, even AFTER a coupon, the Aldi brand is still cheaper and the quality is just as good.

Misconceptions

Aldi has changed so much since I started shopping there in about 2009. Some things I would have written when I originally thought of writing my guide are no longer true.

You can’t find much gluten free or organic food. Wrong-o. They have a huge GF line, Live G Free, that was expanded a year or so ago, and the food is delicious. My household was gluten free for about 5 years (until Sam was tested by a pediatrician), and the kids preferred the GF food from Aldi over the name brands at other stores that costed me 2 or 3 times MORE.

There is also a selection of organic veggies, milk, grass fed beef, their food has no certified artificial colors, and last year they banned 8 harmful pesticides from all of their American products.

Their baby products are limited. Once I was a diaper snob. I remember lamenting to Jeff that even though I had a coupon and they were on sale, I didn’t want to buy a certain brand of diapers for Sam because I thought the design was ugly. He replied with something so obvious I’m embarrassed I didn’t think of it in the first place: “Babe. He’s gonna poop in ’em, and we’re going to throw them away.”

Duh.

That being said, Aldi always had a handful of ok baby supplies, but earlier this year (right around when Ben was born luckily) they introduced their Little Journey line and it’s awesome. The diapers are great. I can get a box of 96 size 3 diapers for about $12. Compare that to the almost $37 (!!!!) some other brands cost for the. Same. Exact. Product.

They also have a few different varieties of formula, wipes, puree food, pick up snacks and cereals, wash and lotion. I’m even starting to see toys, sleep sacks and liquid ibuprofen and acetaminophen.

They only accept cash and debit cards. This was actually true but not anymore; Aldi started accepting credit cards earlier last year.

You won’t be able to get everything on your list. This part is still partially true. Aldi is a great place to get all of your BASIC have-to-have items. That being said, you can still very easily feed your family just shopping at Aldi. They have house wears, personal care, pet supplies etc. But if you’re picky about flavors and needing a bunch of variety, you might still ned up going two places.

Still, they’re adding new items all the time. Every time I go I find something I hadn’t seen before, including this really cool line of international foods, including Chinese, Thai and Indian food.

The food just isn’t good and the produce isn’t fresh. So so wrong. The food is very very good. Like I said before, my kids preferred the Aldi GF food over familiar more expensive brands. About 95% of the food we eat comes from here and it’s always tasty and very good quality. The produce, though the selection may not be as wide as a “normal” supermarket, is just as fresh, if not fresher (I’ve always had problems with bringing spoiled or soft produce home from Walmart in particular).

My latest Aldi find has been their flavored coffees. Do they always have my absolute favorite one? No. But do they always have something good for $2 less per bag than even the cheapest brand I used to buy at a traditional store? Yes.

Continue reading “Beginner’s Guide to Aldi”

Surviving the Grocery Stores

survivingthegrocerystoreOnce upon a time we weren’t so smart with our money. Especially when it came to food shopping. I never made a list, ever. I bought food that I wanted at the time with no foresight into what we were actually going to eat. We spent a lot and threw away most of it.

Further on down the road, still no regard for expenses, I was buying whatever looked good at the store and still throwing out a ton of food that spoiled before we even ate it. Except this time it was for a family of four instead of just for a newly married couple. One day after doing the bills, Jeff said to me “we can’t do this anymore, we spend 1000 to 1200 dollars a month on food!” Talk about an aha moment. I felt so guilty since I was the one doing the food shopping.

I immediately started trying to figure out how to cut costs and get the food spending under control. I went through denial, “that’s just what food costs babe!” Then a weird coupon phase after watching that Extreme Couponing show on TLC. Followed by a whole bunch of things that were just time consuming and discouraging. I’ll spare you all my legwork and just talk about what finally actually worked.

Track It

Sit down and figure out exactly what you’re buying and what you’re using. What are you not using? What are you running out of? What do you need to have in your house all the time? This should take place over at least a month or two, so you can really get a good picture of where your money is going. Make sure to include household items like paper products, sponges, cleaning supplies, and personal items like soap, shampoo, diapers and wipes. Also keep your receipts for later.

Meal Plan

Honestly, I’m horrible at this. When Jeff first suggested it all I could think was “how on earth am I supposed to know on Saturday what I’m going to want for lunch next Thursday??” Some people are meal plan masters, and have their whole week (or two) planned out before they even go shopping.

I like a little spontaneity in my meals. When I meal plan, I figure out how many days I’m planning for (usually two weeks due to my work schedule) and then bang out one breakfast lunch and dinner for each day. Then I keep that list and cross off what I’ve made as we go through the week.

Its better to have a general idea of what you’re going to eat than to just buy what looks good in the store at the time, OR to be spending money a few times a week on ingredients for something that you thought you have but don’t. Because who buys JUST the one thing they go into a store for? That’s right, no one.

Master List

The best thing I’ve done is make one master grocery list.

After you’ve tracked what you’re buying and using, make a list of what you routinely use every single week. Type it up and save it in a document you can print for every trip. This is what mine looks like. Honestly it could use an edit because a lot of things on here we don’t use much anymore like hot dogs and chocolate syrup. Feel free to tweak it to for your own needs and print it out:

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This is where you fill out what you need for the meals you’ve planned, plus anything else you need for the household (duh right?). I print mine out and stick it right on the fridge so as we run out of something, I just hi-light the item on the list. Or, if I bought something that I’m not going to rebuy the next time I go shopping (like cleaning supplies, toothpaste, things that generally last a while), I can cross it off the next trip’s list to avoid buying multiples of things (like the month where we had three maple syrups in the pantry). This saves me a ton of time the day BEFORE grocery day too, because the list is usually half filled out.

Tweak It

This is where your saved receipts come in. On an otherwise blank list, write down the prices of the items you consistently buy and shop around. How much are the same items at another store. Is your usual grocery store the best value? If not, switch!

I was shopping at WalMart, thinking I was saving a ton of money over regular stores. Then I brought my list to the discount grocery store Aldi. I was shocked. Changing stores saved me HUNDREDS of dollars.

Check out the difference between the two stores on this simple shopping list:

WalMart:
12 Eggs $1.88
Gallon Milk 2.85
White Bread 2.78
Cereal 2.97
Peanut Butter 3.32
Jelly 2.50
Chips 2.48
Juice 2.98
Bag of Apples 2.94
4 Pack Toilet Paper 2.28

Total: $29.98

Aldi:
12 Eggs $ .59
Gallon Milk 2.29
White Bread 1.89
Cereal 1.29
Peanut Butter 1.49
Jelly 1.29
Chips 1.49
Juice 1.79
Bag of Apples 2.89
4 Pack Toilet Paper 1.99

Total: $17.00

Pretty significant difference.

The ‘Tweak It’ stage should be ongoing. Example: for a while, cheese was cheaper at Walmart than Aldi so I was buying it there (since I still go to two stores to get everything we need). Then this spring, I noticed it changed and the price of cheese at Aldi dropped significantly. Pay attention to the prices you pay for items you buy frequently because they do change.

So this is basically my process in taking charge of our monthly food budget. Currently with the 5 of us I keep it at $650. I’m pretty proud of this number since I wrestled it down from $1200. The food spending used to sink us, but now I plan for it and we have $550 extra every month!