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5 Mar 2010   ·   37

31 Days to a Better Grocery Budget: Menu Planning on a Budget (Part 1)

Missed the first posts this series? Read them here.

So now that you know some of the benefits of menu-planning, I thought it’d be helpful to share some suggestions for planning a budget-friendly menu. However, please remember that there is no right or wrong way to plan a menu. These are just suggestions–take what works for your family, and leave the rest!

1) “Shop” Your Cupboards

I always start menu-planning by looking in my freezer, refrigerator, and cupboards. This simple exercise often yields a great deal of inspiration.

For instance, last week I discovered that I had cream cheese, canned tomatoes, and noodles on hand. So I made this lasagna as part of Freezer Cooking Day.

Maybe you open up your freezer and find chicken and frozen broccoli and you open up your cupboard and see a bag of rice. Well, you have the beginnings of Chicken Broccoli Rice Casserole. Just add cheese and cream of chicken soup  to your grocery list (or make your own Homemade Cream Soup) and you have everything you need for one dinner that week.

One great resource for coming up with recipes based upon what you already have on hand is by using the Ingredient Search feature from AllRecipes. Type in the ingredients you have and those you don’t have, and it will pull up a list of recipes you can make.

Two other websites you can consult for recipes based upon ingredients you have on hand are SuperCook and Recipe Matcher.

2) Consult the Sales Fliers

Once you feel like you’re getting the hang of planning your menu based upon what you have on hand, you’re ready to move onto the next level of menu-planning–planning your menu based upon what’s on sale at your local store(s). This is where you really start to see the savings happening!

Most grocery store chains have their weekly sale fliers available online. If not, you will often receive a copy in the mail. Or, you could even pick one up at the store if you’re going to be driving right by it.

When you’re in the middle of planning your menu and grocery list, quickly browse through these sale fliers and see if there are any exceptional deals on things you need or things you will use in the next few months. Most of the time, the hottest deals of the week are listed predominantly in the front page of the flier. Oftentimes, these front-page deals are “loss-leaders”. (“Loss-leaders” are deals which the store is actually breaking even– or losing money on! They are designed to be good enough to “bait” you into shopping at that store.)

Don’t neglect to look through the full flier, though. Sometimes there are great deals which are hidden on the middle pages. However, remember that just because something is listed in the sales flier it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a great deal. Over time, you’ll start learning what are the “rock-bottom” prices for items you buy and how often they go on sale in your area.

3) Survey Your Coupons

Once I’ve gotten a good idea of what I have on hand and what’s on sale at my nearby stores, I pull out my coupon box to match up coupons with the sales and see if I have any other coupons I want to be sure and use (such as high-value coupons or coupons for free items). I put these coupons  in a stack and then it’s time to make my menu plan–which we’ll talk about in more detail in the next post in this series.

What are your best tips for menu-planning on a budget? Comment and tell us!

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5 Mar 2010   ·   55
Money Saving Mom

The Myth of Monthly Payments

Guest Post by Amber from The Hormonal Housewife

My husband and I were looking for a larger home for our growing family. We crunched the numbers and knew exactly how much our mortgage could be without piling on more debt. We spent time looking at homes in our area and were even considering building if we could do so on our budget.

This quest is how we ended up at a regional builder’s model home display. After explaining the building process to us, the agent told us that the overall price of the home wasn’t important; the only thing that mattered is the monthly payment. That’s when we knew we were in the wrong place.

You see, my husband and I have $35,000 in debt. How did we accumulate so much? The answer is simple: one payment at a time.

The scary truth is that the last time we financed a car, we weren’t even sure afterward how much the car itself cost us; we only knew how much we were paying for it each month. Scarier still—we don’t even own that car anymore.

We have three children now and the car couldn’t hold three car seats. We sold the car and used that money to buy a semi-dependable van. Unfortunately, we’re still making payments on a car we no longer have and we don’t even know how much it really cost in the first place.

All of our debt happened in a similar way: we financed something because even though we couldn’t afford to purchase the item, we could afford the monthly payments. My family could never file for bankruptcy even if we wanted to because we can still make every payment.

We struggle to buy clothing and pay for haircuts but we can still make all those payments for so many things we no longer have or are unable to use. Isn’t that sad?

As a couple, my husband and I are determined from now on that we will only buy things we can completely afford instead of making payments we think we can afford. Admitting to the world that we have so much debt because we made poor decisions is embarrassing. The reason we do tell others is because we are passionate about spreading the truth that monthly payments led us deep into debt.

We are working hard to become good stewards of the money with which we’ve been blessed by doing things like using cash and searching for deals on sites like Money Saving Mom. We hope to help others do the same.

Amber Clark is a former English teacher who is now the proud mother of three beautiful children. She is the author of The Hormonal Housewife and hopes to use her blog to encourage women to be better wives, mothers, and home managers.

photo credit: LemonJenny

4 Mar 2010   ·   54

31 Days to a Better Grocery Budget: Menu Planning Saves Your Sanity–and Your Budget!

Missed the first posts this series? Read them here.

Not only do I believe having a set amount to spend at the grocery store is imperative for lowering your grocery budget, but I also believe menu-planning is a must.

Menu Planning Saves You Stress and Frustration

Do you dread 5 p.m. because it’s when you have to try to pull something together for dinner or feel guilty about ordering takeout yet again? Do you often find yourself running to the store at the last-minute in a frazzled state rushing through the aisles and throwing random things into your cart in hopes it will magically create a five-course dinner?

The truth is, you could throw away the 5 p.m. dread and almost completely eradicate the frazzled last-minute grocery store trips if you sat down at the beginning of the week and made a menu plan.

Menu Planning Saves You Money

I can’t even begin to calculate how much we’ve saved over the years through the simple act of menu planning.

By planning ahead and buying all the groceries we’ll need for the week in one shopping trip, we save numerous trips to the store throughout the week. In addition, when you have a plan in place for what you’re supposed to be eating each meal and you’ve already purchased the ingredients for those recipes, it’s a lot harder to justify chucking the plan for takeout.

Menu planning is not rocket science and it only has to take a few minutes each week, but it can really make a difference in your life.

If you’re new to menu planning and wondering where to start or how to plan a menu on a budget, stay tuned for tomorrow’s post where I’ll share what works for our family when it comes to menu-planning.

Be sure to check out our brand-new Printable Menu Forms Pack which you can download here for free!

How does menu-planning benefit your family and life? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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4 Mar 2010   ·   56
Money Saving Mom

Free Pack of 11 Different Printable Menu Planning Forms

I don’t know about you, but menu-planning is a whole lot more enjoyable when you have a pretty and organized page to write on. So I asked Joy from FiveJs if she could whip up a few downloadable pages I could offer on my blog.

Well, after it was all said and done, she ended up doing 11 different menu-planning forms! There’s a one-week, two-week, and four-week form and different variations of each.

Download the free Menu Planning Forms Pack here and choose which form works best for you–or try them all!

2 Mar 2010   ·   114

31 Days to a Better Grocery Budget: Yes, You Need a Budget

“A budget??”

I can hear the groans right now. You were all pumped about these great new money-saving ideas you were going to learn and implement from this series; the last thing you wanted to hear about was a boring topic like budgets.

Remember how you promised me yesterday that you were going to stop making excuses and commit to change? Well, setting up a budget is your first opportunity!

Why You Need a Budget

Without a budget in place, all the money you save is pretty superficial. I’d go so far as to say that without a budget in place, bargain-shopping, coupon-clipping and deal-hunting are likely not going to save you any money. In fact, you might be spending more money in an effort to save money–which totally negates the savings, right?

A budget gives you the ability to track your spending and saving–and hopefully to see an increase in savings and a decrease in spending. Without a budget in place, your money will just be running through your fingers with no set objectives. A budget gives you parameters and purpose, it gives you boundaries and it gives you freedom to live creatively within those boundaries.

How to Set Up a Workable Grocery Budget

1) Average Your Grocery Spending From the Last 4-8 Weeks

How much have you spent at the grocery store over the last 4-8 weeks? Average that amount out and use it as a basis for your initial grocery budget. Ultimately, you’re likely going to want to whittle it down quite a bit–since saving money is one of the big purposes of having a grocery budget!–but now is not the time to worry about that. It’s a huge step just to start with a concrete budget in place.

2) Be Realistic

Don’t put undo pressure on yourself to come up with some crazily-low and impossible-to-stick-with figure for your grocery budget. This is not a contest or a competition and if you want to persevere and see long-lasting benefits, you’ll want to give yourself some breathing room.

3) Challenge Yourself to Slowly Lower Your Budget

Over time and with practice, you’ll likely be able to reduce your original grocery budget figure fairly significantly. But just remember: it takes time. You’re not going to cut your grocery bill in half this month. However, if you slowly shave off 5% here and 5% there, within 6-10 months, it’s very possible you can have it lowered by 30-50% or even more.

Always give yourself grace, though. If you’re ever feeling frustrated or stressed about it, step back and remind yourself that it’s just a grocery budget. The world’s not going to come to an end if it’s $5 or $10–or even $30 or $50!–more than you’d like it to be.

What benefits have you found from sticking with a grocery budget? What advice would you have for someone who is brand-new to the idea of budgeting? Tell us in the comments!

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2 Mar 2010   ·   63
Money Saving Mom

Freezer Cooking Day: The Final Tally

After about four hours of work, here’s what my sister and I had to show for our efforts:

FishMama’s Lasagna x 4

Brown Bag Burritos x 2

Cheeseburger Meatloaf x 3

Chicken and Red Bean Burritos (recipe from The $5 Dinner Mom Cookbook)

Lemon Chicken x 3 (recipe from The $5 Dinner Mom Cookbook)

White Bean and Chicken Chili (recipe from Eat Well, Save Big Cookbook)

Taco Meat

Make Ahead Butterhorns x 2

Blueberry Pancakes

Chopped onions

2 bags of cooked brown rice

1 bag of cooked Great Northern beans

All totaled, the above should make enough for about 25 dinners for our family–plus some breakfasts and lots of Butterhorns! I sent 8 of the meals home with my sister as a thank you for all her help.

The rest of the meals should last us almost an entire month since we eat an average of 16-20 home-cooked dinners per month. (We go out to eat once a week and usually have dinner at our parents’ homes 1-2 times per week, plus we also eat leftovers or a really simple dinner of sandwiches or cereal a few times a month, too!)

It feels so nice to have the freezer all stocked up again!

Did you have a chance to do any baking or cooking this week? If so, post about it on your blog and leave your link below to your direct blo g post. I’d love it especially if you could share pictures and recipes so we can get ideas for our next Freezer Cooking Day! And I’m guessing many others would be inspired as well.

2 Mar 2010   ·   64
Money Saving Mom

How I Freeze Onions

While the thought of making up casseroles and freezing them might not be appealing to your family, there are many ways that you can use your freezer to speed up cooking preparations. Here’s one example:

I really do not enjoy chopping up onions (does anyone?), but I do love how they taste in recipes, so I’ve found that my best options are to buy bags of frozen already-chopped onions at the store (which I have done when I’ve found a good sale on them!) or to chop them in bulk and freeze them. I usually opt for the latter since it just seems fresher to me, for some reason.

I did a big batch of onions on Freezer Cooking Day and thought I’d share what works for me:

1) Cut off the ends, peel, and cut in fourths.

2) Stick in the food processor and chop. If you don’t have a food processor, you can also use a blender, though it will chop the onion pretty fine.

3) Measure 1/2 cup of chopped onions into small sandwich baggies and then stick these into a freezer bag (as shown above). Freeze.

You can then just pull out a bag of chopped onions and use them in recipes whenever they call for chopped onion. Doing them in bulk like this saves a lot of time and effort–and tears! However, if I had followed the advice from Meal Planning Mommies here, I wouldn’t have had to worry about the tears!

1 Mar 2010   ·   113

31 Days to a Better Grocery Budget: Stop Making Excuses and Commit to Change

“You can’t change anything when your ‘want-to’ is broken.” -Kevin Catalyst

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received emails which say something like, “I really wish we could lower our grocery budget, but…”

You know what? If you start with that attitude, you’ll likely never succeed at having a better grocery budget. Sure, you might not be able to get your grocery budget down as low as someone else–maybe your family eats gluten-free, or maybe you eat all organic, or maybe you live in a rural area with only one over-priced store–but the truth is: you can lower your grocery budget.

But it will never happen until you stop making excuses and commit to change.

So I’m starting out this series by challenging you to set aside the negativity and commit to wholehearted willingness to change your mindset, your shopping habits, and quite possibly even your life.

Your grocery budget is likely never going to change until you are also willing to.

Has changing the way you think or shop changed your grocery bill? Tell us about it!

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1 Mar 2010   ·   76

Make-Ahead Butterhorn Rolls

These are pretty much hands-down the most-delicious dinner rolls you’ll ever eat. And best of all? You can make up a batch or a double-batch ahead of time and then just pull out, thaw, and bake as many as you need for dinner. (They can be baked right away too if you prefer!) This is one of our family’s very favorite recipes and these are served at least a few times per month at our family gatherings.

1 Mar 2010   ·   29
Money Saving Mom

Freezer Cooking Day: Taco Meat, Lasagna, Lemon Chicken, and White Bean Chili

Gretchen added spices and onions to the already-browned ground beef for Taco Meat and then she took on that task of making all the Butterhorn rolls (a rather tedious task that I was completely happy having her volunteer for!).

While she was busy with that, I put together four pans of FishMama’s Lasagna, the marinade for the lemon chicken (I took this recipe times three and divided frozen chicken breasts into three bags and poured a third of the marinade into each), and the White Bean and Chicken Chili.

Whew! What a great feeling to be done–and it was only 1:15 p.m.! I’m so very, very glad my sister said she’d help. Without her, I would still be back on the second recipe, I’m pretty sure. But instead, in four hours, we whipped out 25 dinners plus 64 Butterhorns and a batch of Blueberry Pancakes! Plus, we had leftover cooked brown rice and beans to freeze and chopped onions, too.

Our little kitchen “helper” (ahem, he enjoyed pulling out all the contents from under the kitchen sink!)

And the girls–with make-up on! (Auntie Gretchen had fun playing “beauty shop” with them while she was here!)

Stay tuned tomorrow for the final picture of everything we made ready to go in the freezer. I’ll post a link-up post at 12 p.m. CST for you to come and share your Freezer Cooking Day accomplishments, too. I can’t wait to see what you made!

1 Mar 2010   ·   48
Money Saving Mom

Freezer Cooking Day: Oven-Baked Chicken and Burritos coming out our ears!

Someone had left a tip on a recent Freezer Cooking Day suggesting that I try baking the chicken instead of boiling it. I’m not sure who left that tip, but it’s a good one. I just stuck the frozen chicken breasts straight onto a baking sheet and cooked them at 350 degrees for around 45 minutes, turning them once while they were cooking (not exactly sure on how long I ended up cooking them because I just checked them every 10 minutes or so to see if they were done).

Wow! The chicken breasts came out so much more tender and juicy than they do when I boil them. Plus, it freed up some stove-top space, too! So a big thanks to whomever suggested that (I couldn’t seem to find the original comment to specifically thank the individual!).

After the Cheeseburger Meatloaf was in the oven and the Blueberry Pancakes were cooking, we moved on to the burritos. Gretchen made the Brown Bag Burritos and I made the Chicken and Red Bean Burrito recipe. We love Brown Bag Burritos–especially the guys in our family. I’m so thankful to Amy for sharing this winner recipe. We doubled it and should have enough burritos to keep our husbands happy for the next few weeks!

I wasn’t thrilled with how the Chicken and Red Bean Burritos turned out and ended up adding some salt to the recipe as I thought the filling seemed a little bland. That seemed to do the trick.

Next up: Taco Meat, Lasagna, Lemon Chicken, & White Bean Chili

1 Mar 2010   ·   43
Money Saving Mom

Cheeseburger Meatloaf Recipe

1 Mar 2010   ·   36
Money Saving Mom

Freezer Cooking Day: Prep Work, Blueberry Pancakes, and oops, we ran out of bowls!

How’s the Freezer Cooking Day going at your house? My sister Gretchen, came to help me and we began our cooking around 9:15 a.m.

(After I made out my plan, I started panicking a little because I wasn’t sure how I could pull off making 25 meals in five hours with three little children underfoot. So I “bribed” my sister to come by telling her I’d send some of the food home with her so she wouldn’t have to cook as much in March! I’m sure she would have come without the bribe–because she’s nice like that–but I’m sure the bribe didn’t hurt anything!)

I got started on the Prep Work list while Gretchen started in on making the Butterhorns since those are a little more time-intensive.

We decided to double the Butterhorn recipe, which probably wasn’t the best idea seeing as it made a massive amount of dough and was a little hard to knead and work with. But she managed to pull it off.

While the dough was rising, Gretchen finished mixing up the Blueberry Pancakes. I already had the dry ingredients mixed up for her, so she just had to add in the wet ingredients. I told her to let me know how many eggs the recipe took since we were running short on eggs and I wanted to make sure we had enough to go around. That’s when we both realized the recipe didn’t list eggs as one of the ingredients (Do you see eggs listed here? Are we going blind?)

I finished up all the Prep Work and then got ready to make the Cheeseburger Meatloaf. Only there was one big problem: we realized that my two big bowls were up on top of the refrigerator with dough rising in them. So there was nothing for me to mix up the meatloaf in. Oops. I guess that I’m not really set up for this two-people-working-in-the-kitchen thing. Maybe I should look for some more big bowls the next time I’m at the thrift store?

Since I couldn’t sit around and wait for the dough to finish rising, I finally opted to mix up the meatloaf in a 9×13 pan. It worked, albeit not quite as great as a bowl would.

Next up: Brown-Bag Burritos and Chicken and Red Bean Burritos

1 Mar 2010   ·   21
Money Saving Mom

Freezer Cooking Day: Grocery Shopping

I’m so excited about Freezer Cooking Day! I’m ready to fill up our getting-close-to-empty freezer again!

To start things off, here’s a picture of all the groceries we bought for Freezer Cooking Day. All totaled, we spent $64.61. It seems a little high but considering about $20 of that was spent on meat and $12 on tortillas, I’m happy with it. And I felt even better when I realized that all of that coupled with the food we already have on hand should make about 25 dinners for our family.

However, next time around, I’m going to try and do a better job of buying more groceries ahead of time because I hated paying full price for a few of these items that I know I can often get for pennies on the dollar if I plan ahead. I haven’t done a good enough job recently of following my own advice to Buy Ahead, I guess!

I’ll be back later with an update on our progress.