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  • 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!

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    Guest Post: The Drugstore Game vs. The Warehouse Club: The Hard Numbers

    This is a guest post from Mercedes of Common Sense with Money, which is one of my daily reads. Check out her post on how to make money on air fresheners at Walgreens this week. If you like what you see, why not subscribe to her RSS feed?

    When I first started watching the household spending, I turned to warehouse clubs to cut back on the cost of every day items. During the last 10 years I have been a member of BJ’s, Costco and Sam’s. At first I was very excited about the savings, but eventually I started noticing that every time we went shopping to those stores we never left with a bill lower than $125.

    Then at the beginning of this year I decided to give using coupons an honest try. When I first started doing this, I kept finding stories of people saving a lot of money by shopping at Walgreens and CVS. At first, I didn’t want to believe it since I always thought that buying in bulk was the cheapest way to get certain household items.

    But I am a convert and today I want to show you the hard numbers. First, I want to show you some of the things I would have bought at Costco at the end of July and how much I would have spent. Then I want to show you how much I paid for those same things at either Walgreens or CVS.

    Costco Purchases:
    Charmin toilet paper $19.17 big pack less $2 in store coupon = 17.17 or 23 cents per regular roll
    Cascade Advanced Gel $7.99 less $1.50 in store coupons = 6.49 or 5 cents an ounce
    Colgate 360 Toothbrushes $11.99 8pk less $5 in store coupon = 6.99 or 87 cents a brush
    Colgate Toothpaste $9.88 less $2 in store coupon = 7.88 or 1.97 a tube
    Pantene Shampoo $7.99 less $2 in store coupon = 5.99 or 15 cents an ounce
    Total Spent: $44.52

    But instead I bought these products at either Walgreens or CVS and paid:
    Charmin toilet paper (on sale at the end of June): 10 cents per regular roll after ECBs and coupons
    Cascade Gel: less than one cent per ounce after Register Rewards
    Colgate Toothbrushes: free after ECBs during May
    Toothpaste: free every month after coupons, RR and/or ECBs
    Two bottles of Pantene shampoo: were free after rebate and coupons at Walgreens
    Total spent: $7.30

    Sure, playing The Drugstore Game may not offer the convenience of doing your shopping all at once the same way the warehouse clubs do. But at the same time, your wallet doesn’t take one big hit every time you shop there. I have also never heard anyone talked about getting paid for shopping at Costco, or making money while shopping there. You also don’t have to pay a yearly fee to shop at CVS or Walgreens.

    Playing The Drugstore Game also gives you the opportunity to stockpile items for less money spent out of pocket than buying at the warehouse clubs. The best thing about this is that you don’t have to play the game forever or with the same intensity. Once you build up a stockpile of the items you need, you can sit back and take a break. During these past eight months, I have been able to save thousands of dollars by shopping at these stores. That has allowed us to maintain not only our standard of living but also increase the amount of money we save for our and our children’s future. To me, that is a great achievement considering the current state of our economy.

    When is it worth hunting for cheaper gas?

    It’s no secret that gas is cheaper at Costco than it is anywhere else. So earlier this year, when gas hit the $4 mark (gosh, was it really only a few months ago?), we got in the habit of filling up at Costco every week. We’d go early in the morning and there would rarely be a line.

    But for the last month or so, as gas prices went over the $5 mark at some stations here in Los Angeles, we would arrive at Costco and find the line unacceptably long. For some reason, a line that’s just two cars deep at Costco means a solid 20-minute wait. With two kids in the car, a wait that long simply isn’t an option. So we bit the bullet and filled up at a nearby gas station for 10 to 15 cents more per gallon.

    You’ve probably noticed, though, that gas prices have come down some. It would seem that many of Costco’s patrons have noticed too. This week, there was no line when we went to fill up. Even though Costco’s price for premium is now 20 to 30 cents less than other gas stations.

    It made me wonder at what point do people think the trip to Costco isn’t worth it. Whether it’s waking up early to beat the crowd or driving out of their way to get to Costco, I wonder at what price point do people decide it’s not worth the savings.*

    As for us, now that we’re in the habit of getting gas at Costco, we’ll keep it up. Regardless of what the price of gas is, we’ll always be saving money by buying our gas there than somewhere else.

    What do you think?

    *On a related note, check out One Caveman’s Financial Journey‘s article about continuing to save money on gas even as prices fall.

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    The Fine Line Between Frugal, Green, and Clutter-free

    I’ve actually been thinking about this topic for a while now. Most of the time, being frugal and being green go together. If you’re frugal, you generally buy fewer items, you drive less often, you reduce, reuse and recycle. Because of this, your home is also generally less cluttered.

    But as I declutter my home, I find that the line between these areas becomes very fine. There are many things that I might need someday. It wouldn’t be frugal or good for the environment to have to buy them new all over again. But keeping these things around makes my home more cluttered. It also increases the possibility that I’ll forget I have these items and buy new ones anyway.

    I’m still finding a balance that works for me. But I would love any tips you have to share, because this is definitely an area that I struggle with.

    Persistent frugality

    So what got me thinking about persistence and frugality was a tube of moisturizer. I use a moisturizer recommended by my dermatologist called DML Forte. (Yes, that’s really what it’s called.) At $12.99 for four ounces at the medical building pharmacy, it’s more expensive than most over the counter moisturizers, but it’s worth every penny because it’s the only thing that keeps my rosacea in check.

    It comes in a rather hard, not very pliable tube, which makes it extremely difficult to push the dregs out (the way you can with toothpaste, for example). Last night, I was hitting the open tube into my palm to use gravity to force the last of the moisturizer out. After a couple of small dollops flew out, I was ready to give up, throw the tube out, and open up a new one. But then I thought about the cost per ounce and kept pounding.

    But I wondered:

    How hard do most people work to get the last of something out of a container?

    How many people actually think about the pennies they’re saving as they scrape the bottom of a jar or squish a tube?

    And is the manufacturer counting on people not being able to get the last half-ounce of moisturizer out, thereby maximizing their profits?

    I have to admit that I’ll work hard to get the very last of something that’s not perishable, but when it comes to food, I rarely scrape a jar until it’s totally empty – I can’t help but feel that the residue just isn’t fresh!

    What about you?