Monday, August 30, 2010

The Blessing of Unmet Needs

Lately I have been struggling with having many things that I feel like I need and want and not having the means to get them. The tight budget can be so exhausting at times. If I am honest, I have to admit that I get so tired of worrying about every dime that gets spent and feeling guilty for spending a few dollars to grab a cup of coffee with my hubby or going over my grocery budget. When I see a need, I want to be able to fill that need and the simplest way to do that is to purchase something to meet that need. I can't do that at this point in my life; my budget will not allow it. I cannot even tell you how many times I have questioned God about why He is bringing us through this financial valley. I know in my heart that it is for His good purpose and I cannot deny how much this process of struggle has grown me.

Lately one of my struggles has been in the area of curriculum for homeschooling my children. I basically have nothing in the budget for it right now. If I buy something, I will have to steal money from another area of my budget. Since most of my budget expenses are fixed bills, I don't really have many areas with any play. I doubt that I can convince my hubby to eat beans and rice for a week so that I can buy a couple of books for school. So, I have been seeking God in this. He is the one who has given me this high calling to educate my children and He is also the one in control of our finances (or lack of them). Every day I have been seeking His wisdom in this area. God is so good and gracious. He is teaching me about what is really important and about how we learn. He has reminded me of what He taught me many many years ago when I first started on this adventure of homeschooling. I was struggling then, too, with how to teach my child. She was having some difficulties and not picking up on things, reading in particular, very well. I tried several curriculums and techniques, beat my head against the wall, and cried out to God. His answer to me was to back off on trying to make her read. So for nearly two years, I rarely forced her to read anything. I read aloud to her, she listened to scads of audio books and learning continued in other areas. Oh, I encouraged reading, but I just didn't push it. This process forced me to constantly seek God and think a lot about my goals in homeschooling. I came to the conclusion that even if my children grew up illiterate, but they loved the Lord with all their heart, soul and mind, I would have to say that I had succeeded. God can accomplish anything with a yielded heart, even one with zero academic knowledge.

Now, just to clarify, my goals are not to have my children grow up illiterate, [wink] but having this idea in mind, puts things in perspective. It is important to remember what is the most important. It is so easy with homeschooling to get wrapped up in the curriculum and worrying about the body of knowledge that you are trying to cram into their little minds. But, because I can't just run out and purchase a curriculum, I am forced to stop and really think through what is important in the education of my children. Because I have to be more creative and thoughtful in finding resources to teach them, I am seeking God for His wisdom. If I had plenty of money right now, I would have picked out curriculum and we would be going along our merry way working on them. I would have looked at a some government educational standards list and said we need this subject and that, forced my children to do those subjects and checked it off my list. Yay, job done. But what if that is merely the education that society says they should have and not even remotely close to what the Lord deems important for their specific lives?

So, as painful as it is, I have to say that I am thankful for our financial strife. It has forced me to look at what is really important and see that God has a better way for us. This applies to all of our areas of life, not just homeschooling. These unmet needs and wants have driven me to my knees to seek God's Wisdom – what a blessing that is!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

It's Fair Time! (Kettle Corn Recipe!)

I know that it has been fair time all summer, but Fall is when the really good fairs happen.  In my neck of the woods, Fall is the time for the country fairs.  They are full of real artisans and craftsmen selling their wares.  My all-time favorite is the Johnny Appleseed Festival.  They have strict requirements that don't allow anything modern in appearance.  There are wood carvers, blacksmiths, civil war era reenactors, along with every kind of traditional craft you can imagine.  Then there is the FOOD:  fresh apple cider, caramel apples, corn on the cob, ham & beans, apple dumplings, funnel cakes, sausage burgers, and one of my favorites, caramel/kettle corn.  Around here, there is a church that does caramel corn in a big copper kettle over an open fire at all the fairs.  It is not the heavily coated traditional caramel corn, but it more closely resembles the lighter coated kettle corn.  It is so yummy to get fresh while it is still hot!  If you have never tried kettle corn, you need to.  Put that on your bucket list.

Did you know that making your own kettle corn is a piece of cake and you can do it right on your stove-top at home?  Once you try this, you will wonder why you never did it before.  The other bonus, is that it is a Cheap Eat.  I mentioned it before when I was talking about Cheap Eats: Popcorn a while back.  Since then I have made it quite a few more times and tweaked the recipe a bit.  I make mine in a Whirley Popper.Wabash Valley Farms 25008 Whirley-Pop Stovetop Popcorn PopperIt has a stirrer inside that keeps the popcorn from burning or sticking.  I just throw 3 simple ingredients in the pot, turn the heat on high, and turn the crank.  Now, I have never tried it, but I don't see any reason why you could not just do this in a big pot.  I would probably keep a wooden spoon or spatula handy to stir it at least until the kernels start popping.  At the fairs, all they have is a big copper pot and a big wooden paddle to do just that.

Kettle Corn
1/4 cup oil (vegetable, corn, canola)
1/4 cup sugar
Scant 1/2 cup unpopped popcorn

Throw all of this in a stovetop popcorn popper or big pot.  Place over high heat and stir until popcorn pops.  As soon as the popping slows, remove from the heat.  Otherwise, the sugar will burn.  Dump it in a big bowl and lightly salt with regular table salt.  Don't forget this step; this is what makes it magical!  Salt it while it is still hot and sticky.  The combination of the sweet and salty together is pure bliss.  I will warn you, though, don't sit with a big bowl of this in your lap - you will regret it because before you know it, you will have consumed way more than you intended and will feel helpless to put the bowl down.  (Please, don't ask me how I know this.)
Go forth and enjoy this fun time of year at the fairs.  Then let the fair food live on in your kitchen making many, many bowls of yummy kettle corn. 

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Time Management

It's that time of year again...back to school time.  So, you're like, "Don't you homeschool?  Don't you even homeschool year round?"  Yup, yes I do.  But there is nothing like sales for school supplies and hearing all my friends preparations to send their children back to school to make me feel the need for some planning and regrouping.

First, I always have to ask myself "why?"  Why in the world don't I send my children to school and take this enormous burden to educating them off of myself?  That's a whole other topic that I am not going to go into right now, but suffice to say, I know that this is God's calling for me and the right thing to do for my family.  It is good to think about that and remind myself why I go to this effort.

Next, I feel the need to plan things out and make sure we are on course.  Although we school year round, I find that I get a bit slack in the summer.  By the end of the summer the lessons are getting very relaxed.  This year I even feel like I have let our tried and true routines slide quite a bit, too.  It is time give our little homeschool a kick in the pants.

So, I am thinking a lot about our daily schedule and how to make it all fit.  There is so much that I need to squeeze into a day.  Without careful planning, it is just not all going to happen.  I realize that I can't figure this out on my own; I need help.  So, I have been seeking God's Wisdom during my morning quiet time.  I'll share a bit of what I have discovered:

"So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air." 1 Corinthians 9:26

"But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you." Matthew 6:33

"Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time." Colossians 4:5 (Emphasis mine)

"For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?"  Luke 14:28

"Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil." Ephesians 5:15-16

"O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am! Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath!"  Psalm 39:4-5

"Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin." James 4:13-17

"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:"  Ecclesiastes 3:1

"Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise,"  Ephesians 5:15

"And Jesus said to her, 'Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.'"John 2:4

"And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed." Mark 1:35

"So as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God." 1 Peter 4:2

There is much that God has to say about time management.  Lessons that I learn from this are:
  • God desires us to use our time wisely.
  • God wants us to plan ahead.
  • When God causes circumstances to change, we need to roll with it.
  • We are to put God first in our priorities.
  • There are "seasons" for everything. Blocks of time for each purpose we have.
  • Jesus had His time planned out.
  • Jesus got up early to pray to God.
I am really trying to think this through and apply it to my life.  I am in the process of mapping out my days into blocks of time (seasons) so that it is possible to get all I need to do done.  But as I type this, I realize that I am out of time. (How ironic!) So, I will have to share that in more detail on another day.  Until then, God's speed to you!

Photo:  My Regulator Clock that hangs in my living room

Monday, August 16, 2010

Oh, the futility of it all...

I am having a down day. I look around my home and am overwhelmed with how many messes and how much work surrounds me.  It takes SO MUCH effort just to keep things with some slight semblance of order.  I feel like I have to be constantly picking up, cleaning, instructing the kids, cooking, doing laundry...did I say picking up?  I feel like I can just ignore the clutter that accumulates for a few hours and it is overwhelming.  Why are we all so messy?  Some days it all seems so futile.  I know that everything that I clean right now will probably be just as dirty again in a matter of hours (if not minutes!)  As soon as I am done with one meal, I am on to planning the next.  I can work diligently getting all the clothes in the laundry room washed and put away, but as soon as I turn around, there is a new pile of dirty clothes awaiting me.  It never ends; I can never get ahead.  I have things I would love to accomplish - great ambitions, but I feel like I am too busy doing the mundane over and over and over to even think about doing more.

I don't always feel this way.  There are days when I feel like I could take on the world.  I have been trying to figure out he secret to those days because feeling like I do now is no fun.  I think much of it has to do with how I am physically feeling.  I mentioned last week that I have been fighting a cold and allergies. I am tired and my head and body ache.  I feel like I don't have the luxury of just being sick and resting.  So, how does one get past this feeling and drive through it?  This truly forces me to rely on God's strength because I truly don't have much on my own.. 
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.  Philippians 4:13

I pray for God to show me the eternal camouflaged in the mundane, the purpose in the redundant.  I know in my heart that it exists.  Sometimes it is just so hard to see it.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Stretching the Food Dollars: Simplify

My last and final word on stretching your grocery dollar is to train yourself to eat more simply. We don't have to eat elaborate restaurant type food in big portions for every meal. This is an easy trap to get in the habit of setting our food expectations high, especially if you are used to eat out often. There is nothing wrong with a simple meal of beans and rice with a piece of fruit. It is healthy and cheap. The other day I cooked up some rice and melted some cheddar cheese over it to serve to the kids for lunch. They loved it! It was a simple and healthy meal paired with carrot sticks and canned fruit. Think about what simple foods your family loves. Make a meal out of this. Yes, we have the big meals, too, but keeping it simple is a very good thing, too.

Other tips for stretching the food dollar:
Eat less food. Don't wait until you feel full to stop eating. Put your fork down when you no longer feel hungry. It takes time for that food to hit your stomach and give you the feeling of being full, but once your brain realizes it has some good food in your stomach, it will turn off the hunger signals. You will eat less food, thus saving money, and perhaps loose a couple pounds in the process.
Avoid processed foods. Although that convenience food made look delightful on the box, it is full of extra fat, flavorings, fillers and chemicals that you don't really want. You are paying for the convenience of the quick, no-brainer prep, but if you learn some basic cooking skills, you will realize that you can make something from scratch in about the same amount of time. It just takes a bit of planning ahead to have the right ingredients on hand.
Set daily food budget challenges for yourself. I do this often, especially when the finances are extra tight. I will set a goal to feed our family of 8 for only $10 per day. I have to tell you that this is a bit challenging and takes some creativity. I set a goal of $5 for dinner, $2 or less each for breakfast and lunch which leaves $1 for snacks. Unfortunately, my children can blow the snack budget with just a piece of fruit each.
If you want to try this, here are some blogs with budget conscious recipes:
This wraps up this series on stretching the food dollars. I hope you have enjoyed it and gleaned some ideas from it.
I would love to hear from you. What are some of your ways to stretch your food dollars? I'm certain that there are many great ideas that I haven't even begun to touch upon. Leave a comment and share your stories.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Stretching the Food Dollars: Menu Planning

What is menu planning? It is planning out your meals in advance to avoid standing in front of the open refrigerator at 5pm like a deer in headlights struggling to figure out what to cook for dinner. That is a terrible feeling and will often incite a budget-blowing fast food grab or restaurant expedition. At the very least, lack of menu planning will require a quick run to the grocery store for that one item that you need for the dinner you just figured out. I know for myself that there is no such thing as a quick run into a grocery store for just one thing. I always end up picking up several other items along the way. Next thing you know, I have wasted over half an hour in the store and have dumped over $40.  So, menu planning can save you a bit of money because it eliminates the temptation to eat out and it saves you money at the store by eliminating extra trips and helping you buy just what you really need.

I have to confess. Although I think meal planning is an awesome thing to do, I am not as disciplined in this area as I would like to be. In my mind, I would love to have several monthly meal plans that I could rotate through. Each would be filled with breakfasts, lunches and dinners that my family loves complete with grocery lists. I have really tried to accomplish this, but I end up not sticking to it. I think there is something rebellious in me that doesn't like to be boxed in by what a menu plan says that we should eat. I do better with a loose weekly menu plan to aid in the making of my grocery list. You have to figure out what works best for you. If you are a very disciplined person who requires organization, detailed monthly meal plans may be the perfect fit for you. If you are a person who craves a bit of spontaneity, you may enjoy a looser weekly plan like I use. The key is finding a what you are comfortable because you will stick with it.

Let's discuss some different ways to go about menu planning:
Just plan dinner meals. In our house, we try to keep breakfast and lunch on auto-pilot. We have a list of basic breakfasts that we rotate through. (oatmeal, cereal/granola, eggs, toast, breakfast burritos, and Saturday is usually pancake day) Lunch is typically leftovers from last night's dinner. If we don't have any, or there is not enough, we will eat usually sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, or ramen noodles.

Make a meal list. I have made and regularly update a list of tried and true meals that I know how to make with ease and my family enjoys. I like to group them by main ingredients, usually type of meat used, so if I get a great deal on chicken breasts, I can go to my list of chicken meals for inspiration. I also group them by type of food (i.e. Italian, oriental, etc.) I posted a list a couple of years ago that seems pitifully meager compared to the variety of foods that I make. One of these days I am going to make a great master meal list that I can keep updating, but at this time I usually just start from scratch listing meals that are fairly current for us.

Fill in the calendar. The simplest way to create a meal plan is to take a calendar and start filling in the blanks. You can do a month at a time, 2 weeks or even just one. That depends on how much variety you need. The Simple Mom has a great idea of using Google Calendar for this purpose. She creates a separate calendar just for menu planning and adds her meals for each day. She sets them up to repeat every two weeks (which is a fairly simple thing to do with most calendar programs). If you can come up with two weeks worth of meals, you are instantly done for the month this way. Sometimes it is nice to menu plan right on your regular calendar so you can see what you have going on. That way if you have something going on right up until the dinner hour, you will know that this is a good day for a crockpot meal that will be ready for you as soon as you arrive home.

Use a premade menu plan. There are cookbooks or even subscriptions to menu plans that have already been set up for you with grocery lists you can take to the store. I discovered this several years ago and subscribed to a weekly menu plan service. Most are fairly inexpensive and the cost is readily made up by visiting the grocery store with a shopping list and avoiding eating out because you know what you are cooking each night and have all of the supplies already. This is an easy way to jump into the meal planning arena.
Here are just a few of the menu plans available online:

  • Saving Dinner – I have also used this menu plan and have enjoyed it. Then I discovered that you can buy their cookbooks that each have a year's worth of their meal plans and I did that.

Do some once-a-month or mega cooking.
The original book, Once-a-Month Cooking discusses this concept which is basically shopping and preparing a month's dinner entrees in one day and having them in the freezer to use all month. It is economical because you can buy things is bulk quantities, you save time because you do all of your chopping, etc., at one time. The book maps out how to shop and prepare 30 meals all in one day.  I find this to a bit overwhelming and exhausting with small children underfoot.  I remember that the very first time I tried this, I had a restless 18 month old and no other adult support.  It was a very LONG day. 

I have decided that I prefer mega-cooking.  That is doubling, tripling or quadrupling a meal as I am cooking it for dinner and freezing the excess.  I like to do this with meatloaf, lasagna, casseroles, and homemade enchiladas.  I doesn't take much more time and is an easy way to stock up the freezer.  Another good resource for freezing meals ahead is Dinner's in the Freezer.

Plan by the week.  Even if you don't feel like you can pull off a monthly meal plan, working out a weekly one will help considerably.  It can help you stick to a weekly grocery trip and save you money if you have the discipline to stick to your list.

Meal plan according to the sales.  Often I go to the store for my staple and basic items and fill in with meats that I can find for a good deal.  This is when your list of meals (above) can come in handy.  If I got a great deal on chicken breasts, I will pick out various chicken meals.  If you can scour your local grocery store adds before you shop, you can make a meal plan so you know exactly what else you will need to complete your meals.
At the very least, meal plan by the day.  Often I am not organized enough to have a meal plan.  I usually have a good supply of basic foods that I use often and some sort of meat that I have found for a good price in the freezer.  So, during my morning quiet time, I will decide what I will make and pull anything that I will need out of the freezer.  Anything that I can prep early, I will do while I am in the kitchen at breakfast or lunch.  Often I will put something together after lunch and place it right in the oven and set the delay start.  Then I can blissfully go about my afternoon without having to stop and think about dinner.  

Whether you plan out meals a month at a time, a week at a time or even a day at a time, planning can save you a lot of time and money.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Oh, how I love summertime...

...but I am NOT a fan of summertime colds.  August starts heavy allergy season for me.  I was fighting the sinus headaches already when things kicked in full force.  It took me a full day to figure out that it was a cold on top of the allergies.  So, I am just functioning with Tylenol, Zyrtec and this.  So, I apologize for the delay on the next post in the Stretching the Food Dollars series.  I had the next one done, but somehow managed to delete it. [sigh]  I blame the extra ten pounds of snot gumming up the works in my brain.  That and the antihistamines - they will make one quite loopy.  I will have the new one posted first thing in the morning, I promise!

Monday, August 09, 2010

Stretching the Food Dollars: Eating Out

It is inevitable, even with a commitment to cooking, you will eat out. We rarely go out as a family because it can easily run us over $50. Even fast food is around $35-$40 for all of us. My oldest two children eat adult meals so , for us, we basically are feeding 4 adults and 4 children. Our best bang for the buck is a local oriental place were we can get three quart sized entrees and a quart of soup for about $25 and it feeds us all.

When we do eat out, here are some of my ways to stretch our dollars:

  • Coupons: I watch for local coupons on places we like and keep them in a handy file. Nothing complicated here. Look for them in the paper and in the junk mail. In the past when we ate out more frequently, we have invested in an Entertainment Book.

  • Kids Eat Free: Often restaurants will have a day of the week where kids eat free with the purchase of an adult entree. Kids Meal Deals is a site where you can search for restaurants in your area. Restaurant rules may vary, but this can save a ton.

  • Groupons: Many cities now offer groupon deals. What is a Groupon? It is a daily deal on something local. It could be a spa treatment, or a restaurant gift certificate. Usually they are around half off. If they sell enough of them, the deal goes through. You print out your voucher and use it to make your purchase. I have got a $25 meal voucher to a local restaurant we love for only $10. Sign up to get daily e-mails or "like" them on Facebook to see what they are offering in your area.

  • Drink Water: I know - not real exciting. With non-alcoholic beverage prices sometimes passing the $2 mark, you can save a ton of money by drinking water which is FREE. For our family that would be $16 shaved off of our bill. As a bonus, you will be saving calories and be healthier, too. Train your children to order water at a meal. We tell the kids before we ever enter a restaurant that if a drink is not included in the price of a meal they will drink water. That is what they are accustomed to at home anyway.

  • Split Meals: Most restaurant portions are enormous! Plan to share a meal with someone. Say something to your waitress and make sure that this is not a problem. Some restaurants will charge you extra to share a meal or are not willing to split it for you and will just bring an extra plate so you can do it yourself. However, we have been places that are very nice about splitting a meal for us and even adding some of the extra sides to both plates. Not only will you save money by doing this, but you will have a healthier sized meal portion.

  • Buffets: We have found that buffets are often cost effective for us. Usually the younger children eat for free or for a very reduced rate. One place charges 10 cents per year of age. The added benefit with small children is there is no long wait time for food and everyone can usually find something they really like.

Eating out can be a special treat that doesn't have to destroy your budget if done with a bit of planning and care.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Stretching the Food Dollars: Finding Food Bargains

Good morning friends! This has been a great week for bargains at the store. Not on food, but on school supplies. Even the homeschooling moms are out buying supplies now because this is when stores sell a few items dirt cheap to get you in the door to buy the stuff on the rest of your school supply list. I was probably the customer they hate. I bought the bargains and left, feeling a bit sorry for all those moms with their long required school supply lists. I manged to get a big stack of spiral notebooks and pronged folders for $0.15 each, composition notebooks and Crayola crayons for a quarter. Hopefully, I bought enough to last us through the school year.

But, I am getting sidetracked about what I came here to talk about, stretching your food dollars and finding bargains on food. There are lots more places to shop than grocery stores.

So where can you find bargains on food?

  • Clearance Aisle: I never leave a grocery store without checking out the clearance or reduced for quick sale areas. Some stores have one that is just for produce, or one specifically for bakery goods, as well as an are for general grocery items. Make sure you find them all. When I find a good deal, I snatch it up. The key is checking to make sure the condition of the item is still good and buying only things that you will really use.

    I have gotten baked treats 60% off, red, yellow and orange peppers for only 20 cents each that were still beautiful. One day I found jalapeños for literally pennies each. I bought a bunch, chopped them up fine and put them in ziplocks. I didn't fill the bags too full and pressed them very flat and put them in the freezer. Now whenever I want to give a dish a little kick, I can go into the freezer, break off a hunk of chopped jalapeños and add them in. I have even found big bags of expensive sushi rice half price. I bought several and all ready for our family sushi making that I mentioned the other day.

  • Scratch and Dent Store: Check your local area to see if you have one of these stores. Here, I find, you really need to know your prices, though. Some things are all beat up and the price is no better than the regular store. I have also found things like Starbucks coffee for $3 a pound which is a steal. Just know your prices and check expiration dates.

  • Aldi: I have found that Aldi has the best prices around for canned goods, pasta, and many other pantry staples and you don't have to wait for a sale. Check and see if you have one in your area. I go there every few months to stock my pantry. I buy pretty much all of my canned fruit, canned vegetables, cream soups, noodles, spaghetti, cereal, and tomato sauce. I don't, however buy their spaghetti sauce. That is one of the few things of theirs that I do not like. It is easy shopping because because I just go in and buy a flat (12 or 24 cans) of everything we use. It is, however, heavy shopping. Its nice to have another pair of hands to help, especially when it is time to unload at home because my extra pantry is in the basement. It is very nice to have my own little “store” at home stocked with these items. I don't have to worry about them on my regular grocery trips.

  • Warehouse Store: If you like buying in larger quantities, a warehouse store like Sam's Club is great. It helps to know your prices because not everything is cheaper than the grocery, just bigger. Because of the size of our family, I like buying big containers of things. I buy most of my paper products there as well as fresh fruit, frozen vegetables, baking staples, and dairy. I find on the fruit, especially, that it may not be a whole lot cheaper than the grocery store, but the quality is consistently better. I am not sure how they pull that off, but it is uncommon that I get a bag of bland mealy apples, or package of sour grapes. Actually, out of all the bags of fruit that I have purchased from them (which is A LOT) I think there have been only one or two times that I have been disappointed. Be warned, though, your bill at one of these stores will be high even if it is just for a few items because of the bigger sizes. I rarely, if ever, get out of there for under $100. Still, I am getting good prices.

  • Food Auction: I discovered a few months ago that every couple of weeks at the local auction house, there is a food auction. They sell a whole variety of things. There are canned goods, boxed convenience foods, candy, snack foods, drinks, toiletries, cleaning products, frozen meat and more. Depending on who is there and what their interests are, I have gotten some amazing deals. I have found that many who attend are mostly interested in junk food and convenience foods and don't really bid on the basic cooking staples. I have gotten whole cases of evaporated milk for a quarter a can (they go in the store for over a buck), 20# of potatoes for $1.50, boxes of granola bars for 85 cents, and a 15# ham for $8.00. Some of my best deals are at the end when they throw a bunch of odds and ends into a box. I have gotten a box like that for as low as a quarter! You should check your local auction place and see if they ever do this. Expect to spend an entire afternoon there, but it is a fun adventure bidding and trying to get some good deals. It kind of makes saving money a sport!

  • Angel Food Ministries: This is a program that began local in a town that was suffering economically after several local factories closed down. A couple of pastors began distributing food. Soon, more local churches got involved and eventually it spread throughout the whole United States. Through Angel Food Ministries, anyone can purchase a box of food designed to feed a family of four for about a week for $30. It will include a variety of frozen foods, pantry items, and fresh produce. The boxes are distributed through local churches once a month. We started purchasing Angel Food last year. Since we have 8 in our family, we buy two boxes. We get a lot of food for $60! The quality has been good and this is a great supplement to our groceries. This month there was meatloaf, lasagna, mashed potatoes, a whole chicken, ground beef, cheese-stuffed hamburgers, eggs, milk, cabbage, cinnamon rolls, carrots, cereal, and probably more that I am forgetting. Click the link above and see if you have this in your area. We have many local churches that distribute this in our area.

  • Outlets: Check to see if you have any food outlet stores in your area. I know we have a couple of bakery outlets where you can get loaves of bread and buns for a very good price. I have friends who go there every couple of months, stock up on bread and freeze it. I personally have not done this because my hubby doesn't care for bread that has been frozen and I bake my own most of the time.

  • Off the beaten path: I am always on the look out for off the beaten path places that I can find a good food deal. These are the type of places you hear about through word of mouth and it takes time to discover them. I'll give you some examples of places that I have found.
    There is a local meat processing place that marks things down well once they hit a certain age. It is only a couple of miles from home and I will regularly stop to check for deals.
    I live in Indiana Amish country and there are some great deals to be found at Amish stores. Not only can you buy an authentic bonnet, they have great deals on spices and other items that they buy in bulk and repackage in smaller quantities. There is a huge Amish store about an hour north of us that my parents periodically trek up to. They have tons of items like this. Many of them are hard to find things like dehydrated vegetables and real tapioca for great prices.
    Farmers markets and farm stands are good, too, in the summer. We have several in the area. Even if the prices don't beat the grocery stores, the quality is usually far better and you have the added benefit of supporting your local farmers which is a good thing.

  • Garden: This may not be for everyone because is does require some time and effort. But for the price of a packet of seeds, you can have bushels of vegetables. When you grow your own, you control what gets put on them, too.

So, start thinking outside the box when it comes to finding bargains on food. Hopefully, I got your wheels turning and you are ready to find those great deals.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Stretching the Food Dollars: Coupons

Yesterday, I talked about learning to cook from scratch as my #1 way to stretch my food dollars. So, hopefully I have convinced you all to cook now. However, you can still spend a ton at the grocery if you are not careful. One way to cut that is expense it to use coupons. Using coupons effectively to save a lot is a bit of a game. The goal of the game is to “play” your coupon when the item is on sale at it lowest. Sometimes this even gets you the item for free or just pennies. It is a bit time consuming as you need to search out the coupons, know your local stores' coupon and price matching policies (which regularly change) and scour each store's weekly sales flyer. Then you compile a list and coupon envelope for each store you plan to go to. To learn how to do this in more detail, Google "how to use coupons." There are many helpful sites. Many want you to buy their system or subscribe to their service that tells you what coupons to use where and when. One of these is The Grocery Game. They watch the sale cycles and give you a list of items that are on sale and which exact coupons to us on them. I did subscribe to this for about 6 months. I followed it diligently and got some great bargains. It was well worth the price to subscribe to the service. Another site that has much of the same information for free is the Deal Seeking Mom blog.

For me, I have found that coupons save me the most money on toiletries and beauty products. As far as food, coupons save the most on convenience foods which, even with coupons, usually cost more than cooking from scratch. There are rarely coupons for pantry staples. Clipping and sorting coupons and tracking store sales takes tons of time. It can save you quite a bit, but I feel like I save just as much or more money cooking from scratch and just skipping the convenience foods. I think cooking from scratch takes less time, too, than couponing. It is good to try, though, and see for yourself if the coupons are worth your effort for your family. You may find that you can save a huge chunk of money on the things you buy. Even though I don't do this on a weekly basis anymore, I still periodically coupon and deal hunt at CVS and Walgreens to stock up on toiletries. The savings are too good to pass up.

Tomorrow, I will discuss some of the places I have found to get food at a bargain price.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Stretching the Food Dollars: Cooking

This week, I am talking about how to stretch our food dollars. Everyone has to eat, but how we go about doing that can have a huge impact on your budget. I think most of us would love make our money go further. So, let's just jump right in.
My #1 way to stretch my food dollar is to....

I have a confession to make. During the first decade of my marriage, I was pretty lazy in the area of cooking. I did cook regularly, but because we lived in town less than 2 minutes away from a plethora of yummy restaurants, it was very tempting to get lazy about cooking. Often, I would find myself at dinnertime with no meal planned, nothing thawed, and no ambition to cook. And, I sheepishly admit, I knew that if I just told my husband that I could whip up some creamed tuna over toast, he would run to grab some take out. That being said, my husband and I look back on those years, remembering how good our income was and how low our expenses were and wonder where all the money went. Our income isn't really any higher now than it was back then when we were living on two good paychecks. However our mortgage payment is about five times higher and our number of mouths to feed has quadrupled. So what did we do with that cash? I think much of it went to frivolous eating out.

Cooking is a skill that will reward you financially for the rest of your life. Do what it takes to acquire that skill. Find a good cook who will mentor you, read books, watch cooking shows, take classes, and practice. Do whatever it takes to learn how to cook decently. It will be worth every penny you spend and every minute you invest. You will have to eat for the rest of your life. You can pay someone else to prepare your food by eating out or purchasing convenience heat-and-eat foods at the store or you can cook for yourself from scratch and learn the creative joy of making a meal and save yourself a ton of money, too.

There are lots of good resources available to learn to cook from scratch. A couple of books that I would recommend are How to Cook Without a Book: Recipes and Techniques Every Cook Should Know by Heart and Miserly Meals: Healthy, Tasty Recipes Under 75¢ per Serving. Both are good because they are not so much about the specific recipes and ingredients, but the techniques. If you know how to make a basic white sauce, you can do a multitude of things with it. Knowing the techniques is important for freeing yourself from recipes. That is key in utilizing what you have in your pantry, saving trips to the grocery store and ultimately saving money. Also, a search on the subject of "Low Budget Cookery" on my local library's website yielded 91 titles. There are a lot of free resources out there!

Make cooking fun. Think of a meal that you love and crave. Maybe it is something from your favorite restaurant or a memorable dish your grandma used to make. Do a little research and figure out how to make it yourself. Search the internet. AllRecipes is my personal favorite, but there are many great recipe sites.

This past weekend, we got fresh cabbage in our Angel Food box (We'll talk more about that later). My husband saw it and instantly got a craving for cabbage rolls. Although I have eaten them and loved them, I had never made them before. I found a well reviewed recipe and decided to go for it. When I had a bit of trouble forming the rolls, I called my mother-in-law for tips because I knew she had made them before. I also found a step by step video on You Tube that showed me the technique. It did take a bit of time, but they were absolutely delicious. When I do them again, they will be much easier and faster to make.

Something we love is sushi. There is a local place that makes wonderful sushi, but we just can't afford to go out to eat there. So, we found a recipe for the sushi rice, watched some videos online to learn the rolling technique and now we make our own. It has become a fun family project and we can make it just the way we like it and in abundant quantities. Simple maki rolls are actually quite inexpensive to make. If you would have told me that I would be making sushi 5 years ago, I would have laughed at you, but now that we have done it on several occasions, it doesn't intimidate me at all.

So my point is practice. Just get in your kitchen and do it. You will never regret learning to cook the foods you and your family love. It can become a joy to you and it is a tremendous way to stretch your food dollar.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Stretching the Food Dollars

Stretching my food dollars is a constant area of concern for me. With a good-sized, growing family, our budget is considerably tight. Unfortunately, most of our expenses are set in place without much play. Our mortgage is a constant and our utilities do not vary by much from month to month. One area of our budget where I find that I have the most control over is food. Obviously, 8 people in a household require quite a bit of food. But how you feed those 8 mouths can make a huge difference on the budget. If we consistently dined on steak and lobster tail, my bills would be ridiculously high and we would probably be homeless right now because of that. It is my duty as the manager of my household to figure out how to make our food dollar stretch as far as it can. Over the next few days, I will be discussing some of my tricks.