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  • Costco vs Trader Joe’s vs Ralphs

    We’ve been having connectivity issues this week, so I’ll be back sometime this weekend with regular posts (I hope!).

    In the meantime, I’ve been revisiting the issue of how prices at warehouse stores compare to other stores. (Mercedes of Common Sense with Money wrote a great post showing how buying in bulk is not cheaper last summer.) The specific stores I’ve been thinking about are Costco, Trader Joe’s and Ralphs.

    I shop at Trader Joe’s and Ralphs weekly. And even after reading Mercedes’s post, I’ve maintained my Costco membership, after calculating that the membership is worth it for the savings on gas and birthday cakes alone. That’s right, I said birthday cakes. A half sheet cake at Costco is $16.99 – $2 more than a year ago, by the way. A half sheet cake at Ralphs is about $30, depending on the design. And gas is an average of 10 to 20 cents per gallon cheaper, which works out to a savings of $1 to $2 per week.

    I go to Costco very infrequently, but I went recently and confirmed that sale prices at Ralphs and Pavilions are better than Costco’s every day prices. And Trader Joe’s low every day price is often better than Costco’s, but not for everything. Bananas are cheaper at Costco by about 10 cents per pound, organic ground beef is cheaper by 66 cents per pound, and organic low fat milk is cheaper by 6 cents per half gallon. It’s not much of a difference on a weekly basis, but I can freeze the meat and the milk is ultra pasteurized, so the expiration date is pretty far off. So I might make a run to Costco every two to three months to stock up on those items.

    Works for Me Wednesday: Make sandwiches at the office

    We all know that a major money-saving tip is to brown bag your lunch, saving $5 or more every day. And sandwiches are maybe the main staple of a brown bag lunch.

    But a pre-made sandwich simply can’t compare with a freshly made one, so I tote all of the components to the office and assemble my lunch when it’s time to eat. If the bread needs to be toasted, I’ll toast it in the morning and cool it completely before packing to eliminate condensation and its resultant sogginess. I also pack condiments (this is when those condiment packets come in handy) along with the filling, so the end result is a very tasty sandwich. The freshness makes all the difference in appeal, and I’ve been the envy of more than one colleague who’s seen me put together a sandwich right in front of them.

    If you have access to a fridge at the office and don’t mind having the same thing multiple times during the week, you could take a week’s worth of sandwich components in on Monday and just make yourself a fresh sandwich every day. At $5 per day, that’s a savings of $25 per week!

    Find more Works for me Wednesday tips at Rocks in my Dryer.

    A great example of the power of couponing

    I don’t mean to keep talking about couponing but I couldn’t pass up the example below. (That’s right. I used “coupon” as a verb. It may not be proper grammar, but it’s appropriate. Trust me.)

    I came across a thread at SlickDeals started by Norgechica, whose husband is competing in a “food bank donation contest.” Whoever buys the most non-perishables by weight for $15 or less wins. After I read her post, I could only imagine her husband blowing the competition away and having to prove that his wife had stayed within the $15 spending limit.

    Here’s what she has already gotten for free:

    Muir Glen tomatoes – 8 cans
    Powerade – 10
    Sobe Life Water – 15
    Joint Juice – 8
    Baking powder – 6
    Corn Starch – 4
    Chex Mix – 2
    Celestial Seasonings Tea – 4

    Her post includes notes on where and when she obtained these items, combining coupons and sale prices.

    And here are the items she is planning to buy (Q=coupon; IPQ=internet printable coupon; WAGS=Walgreens, SS=Smart Source newspaper coupon insert):

    Joint Juice – $0.99 – $1 Q = free (Target)
    Baking Soda – $0.46 – $1/2 Q = free (Walmart)
    Chex Mix – $0.99 – $1 IPQ = free (WAGS)
    Duncan Hines Carrot Cake Mix – $1 – $1Q (SS 11/9) = free (starting tomorrow at Kroger)
    Vlassic Pickle Relish – $1 – $1 IPQ = free (Walmart)
    Muir Glen – $1.19 – $1 IPQ = $0.19 (Target)
    Progresso Soup – $1.30 – $1.10 IPQ = $0.20 (Walmart)
    Kroger Broth – $0.33 (reg price at Kroger)

    She asked for help coming up with more coupon match-ups for free or nearly free items, and SlickDeals members obliged.

    There a few things worth noting about this example:

    Use coupons and combine them with sale prices. This is the obvious lesson here, of course.

    Shop with a list. You have to go into the store already knowing the sale and coupon match-ups, or you’ll be there forever.

    Shop at multiple stores. This will allow you to take advantage of each store’s sales. This is a tough one for me, though, because I get tired after two or three stops. It helps if you can plan ahead so that you’re only making one trip to each store every one or two weeks. Walmart and Target deals are tough to find out about ahead of time, but previews of the drugstore deals are available weeks in advance.

    Buying things for free or almost free takes time and effort. But it can be done! For some people, time is really worth paying for. But many of us have more time than money, especially in these rough economic times. And couponing gets easier and takes a lot less time once you’ve been doing it for a while.

    Guest Post & Giveaway: The Frugal Duchess Book Tour comes to Chief Family Officer

    One of my favorite bloggers published a book earlier this year, and I’m delighted to host a stop along her online book tour. Sharon Harvey Rosenberg is known as The Frugal Duchess and has written a book by the same name. The following guest post is by her, and will give you a taste of what her book has to offer:

    The Brady Bunch versus The Cosby Family

    My book — a memoir with money-saving tips — is really a green book and I’m not talking about recycled paper. The Frugal Duchess: How to Live Well and Save Money is a green book because it’s filled with recycled memories and borrowed material from my parents. You see, my parents were children during the Depression, and I have borrowed a lot of their frugal memories and money-saving tips to write this book.

    My folks were born in the 1930s, attended college in the 1950s, and they raised four children during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. As such, my parents have witnessed a lot of change in this country.

    For example, hunting for a house — one of the major themes of my book — was a challenge for my parents.

    During the 1960s, when I was a little girl, my parents wanted to raise a family in an upscale suburb. As part of the process, my parents would speak to real estate agents on the phone and would receive hearty long-distance welcomes from brokers. But houses would suddenly be taken off the market when the Harveys (my family) arrived. At least once or twice when we got out of the family car to look at a home that was for sale, we quickly piled back in.

    Over the phone, real estate agents assumed we were the Brady Bunch, but when we arrived at curbside, we looked like the Cosby Family. And in the 1960s, the Cosby Family was not always welcome in a Brady Bunch-era neighborhood.

    I was about six or seven at the time, so I was clueless and didn’t understand why we were locked out of some Open House tours in suburban neighborhoods. My parents provided details and insights when I spent time interviewing them for my book.

    Here’s a sample of the frugal tips that I picked up from my parents: On many Saturday mornings, my mother and her brother — as children — walked four miles to attend free art classes at the Philadelphia Art Museum. Decades later, as a mom and a writer, I have followed in their footsteps and have used my phone, feet and keyboard to find low-cost programs for my family.

    For instance, from tutoring services to Internet access, public libraries offer a wealth of free programs. With a library card you can rent movies, CDs and DVDs for free. The branch near my home has an ample supply of movies for children, tweens and teens. My sons and daughter are happy with the selection and their contentment means that we spend less at the video store. As a source of entertainment, libraries provide a long list of cultural programs, lectures and performances. I’ve spotted free music classes, bike and backpack safety courses for school-age children. Other activities include storytelling sessions for toddlers — complete with songs, stories, finger play and crafts. Other free programs include “Live Homework Help,” in which students (grades 4 through 12) receive free and individualized tutoring in science, math, English and social studies. The pool of tutors includes college professors, graduate students and certified teachers. Each public library has its own menu of community programs. The free services are worth checking out.

    Thank you, Sharon! You can find The Frugal Duchess: How to Live Well and Save Money at Amazon. And, you can win your very own copy of Sharon’s book by filling out the form below. (If you’re reading this in a feed aggregator or email, you’ll need to click through to the post to reach the form.)

    For an additional entry, subscribe to CFO via RSS or email and fill out the form again to let me know you’ve done so.

    For a third entry, spread the word about this contest – tell a friend or write about it on your own blog. Then let me know about it by filling out the form again.

    You can enter up to three times (one for each type), and you must submit separate entries for each type. I’ll select the winner using Random.org and announce them here on CFO as well as contact them by email. The winner will have 48 hours to send me their address, otherwise their prize will be forfeited and a new winner will be selected.

    The giveaway ends at 6:00 p.m. PST on Tuesday, November 18. Sorry, this giveaway is open only to residents of the U.S. and Canada.

    Good luck!

    Buying gas at Costco: a sign of the times

    A few months ago, when gas prices crossed over the $5 mark at some stations here in Los Angeles, the gas station at Costco became incredibly busy. But when prices started to fall, the lines became noticeably shorter.

    I’ve noticed another trend in the last couple of weeks, however. I’m sure you’ve noticed that gas prices have come down even more – in fact, we paid $2.85 per gallon of premium at Costco over the weekend.

    Which brings me to my point: the gas station at Costco has been busier in the last couple weeks than it had been just a couple of months ago, when gas prices were significantly higher. And the savings haven’t changed, since Costco’s prices have always been lower.

    I think what’s changed is that people are keeping a tighter rein on their spending. The last couple months have been filled with bad economic news – the plunging stock market, job loss, etc. So either people are really feeling the pinch or they’re preparing to feel it, and so they’re finally doing what many (most?) of us been doing all along: cutting costs.

    In fact, earlier this week, a colleague came into my office and asked for some cost-cutting suggestions. She said that she’s started meal planning and she and her husband are bringing lunch from home at least some of the time now, but she wanted ideas for trimming expenses further. So I introduced her to The Drugstore Game, and hopefully she’ll be able to save as much money as I do on basics like toiletries and paper goods.

    It’s all a sign of the times, but I’m confident the economy will eventually turn around. And when it does, I hope these newly developed frugal habits stick around.

    Image credit: Amazon.com.

    Our biggest spending pitfall: Eating out

    I’ve mentioned previously that after dinner is our daily witching hour, when the boys are bundles of energy and emotion. (They’re like that before dinner too, but it’s even harder after dinner.) Although Marc didn’t complain much, I could see that taking care of the boys while I made dinner and then cleaned up afterward was taking its toll. So for the last couple of months, I’ve mostly stopped cooking and we’ve been buying a lot of takeout and fast food.

    The financial impact has been noticeable. It’s been worth it, because I have my usual chipper husband back. And in some ways, the whole point of having money is to make life easier. Buying pre-made food definitely makes a big difference in our quality of life.

    However, it hasn’t been entirely easy for me to watch our spending go up and our saving go down, especially when our net worth is simultaneously heading south due to the stock market. So I’m ready to try making a few adjustments.

    The main adjustment is going to be buying more convenience foods at the market. As we’ve noted in the past, pre-made convenience foods from the grocery store are still cheaper than fast food or takeout. But this adjustment to our eating patterns requires me to make a mental adjustment and forego the “all or nothing” approach that tends to come naturally to me.

    For example, I’m very fond of my macaroni and cheese recipe. I can make it from memory, and it’s really delicious. It’s also, as far as macaroni and cheese goes, quite healthy. I use Barilla Plus elbow macaroni (because I’ve yet to find whole wheat elbows), add chopped spinach or grated carrot and lean ground beef, and use organic milk, RBST-free cheese and butter, and whole wheat flour. So the thought of serving a boxed macaroni and cheese to my kids, instead of this delicious wholesome meal, was downright repellent. And it pained me all the more because I knew they’d love the boxed mac and cheese and probably even prefer it over my from-scratch version.

    But I used the $5 off $25 Whole Foods purchase coupon over the weekend to buy a few boxes of their store brand organic mac and cheese. The kids devoured it when I made it. And having made it once, I’ve realized that I can pretty easily add a few things to it to make it a little healthier.

    The next time, I’m going to add a half pound of cooked lean ground beef and a jar of winter squash baby food. I bought some jarred organic baby food, and cooked up a pound of ground beef when I had ten minutes to spare. I froze the ground beef in two half-pound portions, so all I have to do is take it out of the freezer, put it in a colander, and drain the cooked macaroni over it. The hot pasta water will help defrost the meat. Then I’ll make the sauce in the pan, stir in the baby food, and add the ground beef and macaroni. If I could just find a boxed mac and cheese that comes with whole wheat pasta, I’d actually be pretty satisfied with the nutritional content of this meal. And it’ll take only a fraction of the time it would take me to make my from-scratch version, plus I can get most of the kitchen cleaned up and start prepping the next day’s lunches while the macaroni is cooking.

    I’m hopeful that adjustments like this will reduce the amount of money we spend on eating out, and on food overall. If you have any quick and easy meals that your kids love, please share them in the comments so we can all benefit!

    Image credit: Amazon.com.