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  • The Benefits of Menu Planning: Save Money, Reduce Stress, Raise Healthy Children & More

    I seem to write this very same post once or twice a year, and it always follows the same pattern: Something causes me to stop planning my weekly dinner menu, and after a while I reach a point where I really want to save money. That means any kind of eating out really stresses me out, because cooking at home is so much cheaper, but then figuring out what to make for dinner really stresses me out, too. And that’s when I realize that I really need to get back on the wagon and start planning my menus again.

    In this case, the whole hospital crisis last month and its aftermath really shook up our routine. It was all about survival, and as Marc and I always do when there’s a crisis, we spent for survival. Which isn’t to say that we spent frivolously – rather, we made a conscious decision to spend money in order to reduce the stress of our situation. In this case, it meant a lot of spending on fast food, take out, and toys. Plus, we have all of those medical bills to pay.

    But it’s pretty much all behind us, and I have no excuse not to be menu planning now.

    So to help motivate myself (and maybe you too), here’s a list of the tremendous benefits of menu planning:

    Reduce the temptation to just grab fast food or takeout. It’s easy enough to plan my menu so that on those days when I arrive home from work after a long day, dinner is something that takes less than 30 minutes to get on the table.

    More time. Because I can plan for quick and easy meals, I can spend less time in the kitchen, and more time on other things (like blogging!).

    Save money on lunch by taking leftovers. Leftovers make a great brown-bag lunch, but there usually aren’t any if we’re picking up fast food or sandwiches on the way home. And since lunch is usually at least $5 each, we’re talking big savings here.

    Reduce the stress of deciding what to make for dinner. Normally this doesn’t stress me out so much, but it’s increased since I really want to make food that’s inexpensive and makes enough for leftovers. If I’m planning ahead, I can plan for leftovers. Leftovers = less stress.

    Waste less food. When I don’t plan ahead, I inevitably end up buying food that I don’t use before it goes bad. That’s bad for our bottom line, and bad for the environment too.

    Eat healthier. It’s no surprise that we eat much healthier when I’m cooking than when we’re picking up food on the way home. My family – including me – deserves to eat healthy.

    More variety. Without a plan, I tend to fall back on the same meals over and over again. But when I’m thinking ahead, I can pull out new recipes, or old favorites that I’ve forgotten about.

    The kids are more adventurous. This goes hand in hand with the last point – when I’m regularly serving new dishes, the kids get used to it and are more willing to try new foods. It’s so exciting to watch their palates develop and their sense of adventurousness come alive.

    Be a better mother. After the last point, I had to say it – it’s awesome motivation! 😀

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    My best grocery shopping trip ever: How I got $130 worth of groceries for FREE & how you can do the same

    As you might have seen over on Twitter yesterday, I got $130 worth of groceries for FREE at Ralphs. It’s the perfect transaction to help illustrate in practical terms what I explained more abstractly in my post on how to start using coupons, so I’m going to break it down in detail. (Sorry there aren’t any pictures – I’d put everything away before I realized I should have taken a photo!)

    I did my transaction at Ralphs, which has some great deals this week. For non-local readers, Ralphs is the Kroger chain out here in Southern California. Based on what I’ve read in the coupon forums, we get the same promotions as other Kroger stores, but at higher prices.

    If I’d paid full price for everything, my total would have been $129.11. However, almost everything I bought was on sale, and I had a lot of coupons and discounts so in the end, I didn’t pay a penny out of pocket. Here’s how you can do the same:

    1. The very first thing you’ll need to do is sign up for a Ralphs Rewards card if you haven’t already. Pretty much every major grocery store chain has a store club card that gets you lower prices when it’s scanned. They do track your purchases, so if you’re particularly protective of your privacy, this method of saving is not for you. However, you don’t have to disclose that much information when you get your card – you don’t even have to give an address, although that will limit your savings.

    In addition to getting sale prices, your Ralphs Rewards card earns points on each purchase – 1 point per dollar spent. Each quarter, you’ll get a check based on your points ($1 per 100 points). You have to have a minimum of 500 points to receive a check, and they’ll carry over to the next quarter if you don’t reach the threshold, but each cycle runs the calendar year (i.e., any points you have left on 12/31 vanish).

    2. Make a list. When you’re new to couponing, this is the part that takes a lot of time. It’s just a skill that you’ll develop with practice, and if you’re committed to spending less and saving money, then you’re just going to have to be patient with yourself. I took the list of deals that I wrote up earlier this week, the weekly ad circular, and my coupons, and made my shopping list based on all of that information.

    This week, Ralphs is having their Mega Savings Event, where you get $5 off when you buy any 10 qualifying items. You can do multiples of 10 in a single transaction, i.e., I bought 20 qualifying items and got $10 off. (See below for my MSE transactions.)

    I get the majority of my coupons from the newspaper (specifically, the LA Times). My mother-in-law is not a big couponer, so I usually have two copies of every newspaper coupon. Newspaper coupon inserts include Smart Source (SS), Red Plum (RP) and P&G Saver (P&G). Depending on how you organize your coupons, the date can be important. (See my previous post on getting started with coupons.)

    Another great source for coupons is All You magazine.Right now it’s $19.95 for 12 issues at Amazon. We’ve seen better prices, but this really is one magazine that pays for itself with the coupons you’ll find inside.

    And of course, you can print coupons. A great source is Coupons.com. You’ll also see links to hot printable coupons on blogs like Chief Family Officer and Common Sense with Money, among many others.

    3. Take advantage of any store discounts that might be available to you. Ralphs sends me both paper coupons and electronic coupons. An electronic coupon is a discount that’s attached to your store rewards card. It’s automatically applied when you scan your rewards card at checkout if you’ve bought the appropriate items. Ralphs sends me emails with offers that I activate by clicking through from the email. If you’re comfortable using and possibly stacking electronic coupons (an issue we’ve discussed here and here), go to Shortcuts.com, Cellfire.com, P&G eSaver, and Upromise.com and load them up.

    Ralphs Pharmacy takes competitor coupons, so before I went to the store, I loaded bonus rewards points onto my card for purchasing a frozen pizza and a half gallon of ice cream (50 bonus points each). I also transferred a prescription to their pharmacy because I had a coupon for it.

    4. Know the store’s coupon policy. Ralphs is pretty good about taking any coupon that scans. My biggest gripe is that they only double one like coupon per transaction, and only up to $1. You can find Ralphs’ official coupon policy in teeny tiny print at the bottom of the last page of the weekly circular.

    5. Go shopping with a calculator and bring your own bags. My first stop in the store was at the pharmacy, where I used a coupon for a $25 gift card with a transferred prescription that I got from last week’s Rite Aid circular. Instead of giving me a gift card, the pharmacist loaded a $25 credit to my Ralphs Rewards card.

    Then I went to pick up all of the items on my list. I had a $5 off $75 purchase coupon that I found in a local mailer called Clipper Magazine. It comes quarterly (I think) and always has this coupon in it. I only use it about twice a year, because I rarely reach the $75 minimum, which is after sale prices but before coupons. The prices at Ralphs, even after sales and coupons, are usually higher than what I’d pay elsewhere. But the lesson here is to always keep your eye out for coupons. You never know where you’ll find them.

    The 20 qualifying items on my list totaled $33.49 after the Mega Savings Event discounts. There were non-qualifying items that were good deals, and they added another $15.02 to my total. I also picked up some items that I prefer to get at Ralphs, i.e., Boar’s Head cold cuts – they’re our preferred brand because of taste and quality, and Ralphs is the most convenient place to get them. Those “necessities” added $14.89 to my total.

    All of the above items totaled $63.38, so to get to the $75 minimum so I could use the $5 off $75 purchase coupon, I used some free item coupons I had for refrigerated cookie dough, cereal, and ice cream. (Two of the three coupons were sent to me by giveaway sponsors. I received the third coupon as compensation for a product that had defective packaging.) After sale prices and store discounts, my total was $77.85. You can see why I recommend bringing a calculator (I use the calculator function on my cell phone) – there’s no way I would have been able to keep track of my total as I shopped without a calculator.

    I used $37.28 in paper coupons and $1 in electronic coupons. That brought my total down to $39.57. I paid the remainder using the $25 pharmacy credit and a gift card that I’d gotten from Kroger and MyBlogSpark for promoting last month’s Mega Savings Event (which turned out to be not nearly as good as this one). The end result was $130 worth of free groceries. Plus, I got 214 bonus points, which is an extra $2 on my quarterly Ralphs Rewards coupon. 25 of those bonus points were for bringing my own bags. Ralphs give you 5 points per bag, which is the number of points you get if you spend $5. It works out to a 5 cent credit toward your quarterly rewards check.

    Here’s a list of the deals I got, with the coupons I used, and the end total price that I paid:
    Mega Savings Event items (price reflects MSE savings of 50 cents per item):
    2 24-packs of Nestle bottled water – $3.50 + $1.20 CRV each; used 2 50-cents off coupons from 8/16 RP, one doubled; paid $3.45 each, which is a great price for a case of water considering $1.20 of that was CRV
    4 Kraft Easy Mac bowls – $1 each; paid $2 total after MSE (these are not my favorite things to serve but I have to confess I send them with the boys to preschool for lunch about once a month when I need something incredibly easy)
    2 boxes Jello – $1.49 each; used 50 cents/2 coupon from 7/26 SS, doubled; paid 98 cents for 2
    2 boxes Ritz crackers – $2.69 each; paid $4.38 (see below for coupon deal)
    1 Capri Sun – $1.49; paid 99 cents after MSE
    2 Philadelphia cream cheese – $2 each; used $1/2 coupon, not sure where it came from; paid $2 for 2
    2 boxes Nabisco Wheat Thins – $1.99 each; used 2 $1 printable coupons; paid 98 cents for 2
    3 Lean Cuisine entrees – $2 each; used $2/3 coupon from September All You; paid $2.50 for 3
    1 DiGiorno Pizza – $4.47; used $1 coupon (there are some in the 6/14, 8/16, or 8/23 SS); paid $2.97 & got 50 bonus reward points
    1 Breyers Half Gallon ice cream – $2.79; paid $2.29 after MSE & got 50 bonus reward points

    Other Coupon Deals:
    2 loaves Sara Lee bread – $4.19, Buy 1 Get 1 Free; used 2 55-cents coupons from 9/13 RP, one doubled; paid $2.64 for 2
    2 boxes Ritz Crackerfuls – $3.50 each; used 2 Buy Ritz Crackers, get Crackerfuls free coupons from 8/23 SS (the max value for the coupon is $3.49, so I paid 1 cent each for these)

    For more coupon match ups and non-coupon deals at Ralphs this week, go here.

    Are you still confused? Not to worry – I’ll be posting a “how to save on groceries” series that starts with the very basics this coming week.

    Previously: Contacting customer service for free coupons

    Changing the way I grocery shop AGAIN

    A few months ago, I shared how I was changing my grocery shopping habits by shopping at multiple stores. In the months since, I’ve gradually reduced my grocery spending, even as I continue to buy organic or “almost” organic dairy, produce, and meat. (“Almost” meaning, for example, items that don’t have added hormones or are grown without pesticides.)

    The biggest key to my success has been my willingness to shop at new stores, and stop at different stores each week. I’ve discovered that what I thought was a great price is actually not the lowest price I can find on a regular basis. For example, Vons/Pavilions (part of the Safeway family of stores) has cut the club price on their gallons of organic milk to $5.49. The regular price at Trader Joe’s is $5.99, and that had been the sale price I’d see at the mainstream markets until just a few weeks ago. (It’s worth noting here that a year ago, I’d only been in Vons or Pavilions maybe twice in the last ten years. Now I go nearly every week.)

    I keep my sanity by not going to every store every week, and I’ve even skipped Trader Joe’s on occasion. I let some deals pass me by every week, and sometimes I consciously decide to pay a slightly higher price to save myself time, stress and gas money.

    I have to admit that menu planning has sort of fallen by the wayside, but I’ve gotten better at stocking foods that I can easily turn into quick meals. Thus, we’ve been wasting less food and eating more at home. My system is definitely not perfect, and if there was some sort of financial crisis where every penny suddenly became critical, I know there’d be a lot of room to cut back in our grocery budget.

    I plan on reducing our grocery budget even more by incorporating trips to a Farmers Market once or twice a week. In the past, I was always put off by farmers market produce because the listed price weren’t any lower than the grocery store’s. But I recently discovered that I get more produce at the farmers market for the same amount of money, and it’s of noticeably higher quality. I also find that I naturally tend to buy less at farmers markets because I’m not just throwing things into my cart and instead paying for a little here and a little there, so I’m more mindful of what I’m buying. And that’s definitely a big key, too!

    CSAs: Are they worth it?

    Meredith’s post at Like Merchant Ships about using up their box of CSA produce reminded me that I’ve been meaning to look into CSAs myself.

    “CSA” stands for “Community Supported Agriculture.” In essence, it’s a way of buying produce directly from farmers. You pay a set amount, and receive a box of fresh produce in return. LocalHarvest.org has a more detailed explanation.

    They also have the best CSA locator that I could find. (It’s right on their homepage.) There are a fair number of choices for the LA area, but they all require that you pick up your delivery at a farmer’s market. I’ve found one that might work for me, so I’m thinking about it. It would be $25 per week, and all of the produce is certified organic. I’m going to visit the delivery site and if I like what I see, I’ll probably sign up. I like the idea of supporting a local farm, getting super fresh produce, and having the chance to try new fruit and vegetables.

    If you’re a CSA member, what’s your experience been?

    Safeway Stores Mix & Match Event: Some great deals (Updated)

    There’s a new promotion at the Safeway family of stores, which out here in Southern California includes Vons and Pavilions. It’s the Mix & Match Event, which gives you $5 off whenever you buy 10 qualifying products in a single transaction. And you’ll get $5 off per 10 items, no matter how many you buy at once (i.e., you can buy 30 items at once and get $15 off).

    The weekly ad only lists selected items, and at least where I shop, the shelves aren’t always tagged properly. I can’t guarantee anything, but this is how I plan my shopping trips:

    I go to Safeway’s Home Delivery site, and find an item that’s included in the promo – for example, Kraft BBQ sauce. Then I click on the link at the bottom of the listing that says “Special Online Offer.” A new window will open and all of the qualifying items that are sold online will appear (it may take a while for the window to load). I don’t know if the list includes all of the qualifying products, but it gives me a good idea of what to look for in the store so I’m not wasting a ton of time wandering around and studying the shelves.

    I found some good deals, too. The aforementioned Kraft BBQ sauce is on sale for $1.25. There was a 75-cents off coupon in the 5/3 inserts that will double to $1. I calculate my promo savings at 50 cents per item, which means the BBQ sauce will be a 25-cent moneymaker after coupons.

    Also, if you sign up for the Cheerios 10% in 1 month program, you’ll receive four weekly $1 off printable coupons. The 8.9-ounce box is part of the promotion at $2, so with the coupon and promo savings, it’ll be only 50 cents per box. (Thanks to CouponGeek for the link.)

    Finally, Joint Juice is 99 cents during the promo (I’m not sure if it’s only one flavor so you should definitely check tags – hopefully they’re up). There was a $1 off coupon in the 4/26 newspaper, making this a 51-cent moneymaker after coupon and promo savings. But keep in mind that the coupon will probably beep because the sale price is less than the value of the coupon. The cashier may adjust it down to 99 cents. Alternatively, you can buy more than one item because as long as the total value for that item is greater than the value of the coupon, the register won’t beep. (For example, if you have an item that’s on sale for 50 cents but have a coupon for 75 cents off, if you buy two for $1, the coupon won’t beep and if it doubles, you still get both for free.)

    Update: If you still have the $2 South Beach Diet coupons that were printable a couple of months ago, this is a good time to use them since they expire at the end of the month. The Fiber Fit Smores variety is $2.49, so it’ll be free after the coupon and promo.

    Changing my shopping habits: Am I now spending less on groceries?

    A few months ago, I mentioned that I had started shopping at multiple stores in order to get the best deals on groceries. I was asked if my spending had declined, but at the time, it was too soon to tell. Now, I have a pretty good idea of where we stand.

    The bottom line is, my grocery spending remains about the same. But, we are eating out a lot less, so our overall spending has gone down. Since I started cooking again shortly after changing my shopping routine, I’m spending the same amount of money but buying more groceries. I’m also wasting less, and we’re eating healthier.

    I could spend a lot less if I was willing to buy more conventionally grown produce, and conventional dairy and meat products. These items account for about a third to a half of my weekly grocery bill, and I could probably spend half that amount by buying conventional products. But I can afford to buy organic produce, dairy and meat, so I do. It may not have much effect in the long run, but I like the idea of keeping my boys’ bodies as chemical-free as reasonably possible.

    I’ve pretty much eliminated Costco from my list of grocery stores. I’m sticking to going there just for gas and birthday parties because it’s too inconvenient and the savings aren’t worth it – especially compared to the risk of impulse buys.

    I continue to do the bulk of my shopping at Trader Joe’s. I wish it was publicly owned so that I could buy stock. They consistently have the best prices on organic and antibiotic/hormone-free products, and the relatively new store in Woodland Hills actually has decent parking. (Every other TJ’s that I’ve been to has a horrific parking lot.)

    I also shop at Ralphs (Kroger affiliate) and Pavilions (Safeway affiliate) on an almost-weekly basis to pick up loss leaders. The SoCal grocery thread at SlickDeals is my best source on these deals, and this is where the “more stuff for the same amount of money” part of my shopping really comes into play. I routinely get things for free at these stores, and the amount of savings at the bottom of my receipt is almost always over 50%. Granted, the savings amount is calculated based on regular prices, which at these stores is usually absurdly high, but the point is that I walk out of there with a lot of great deals. Last week, I bought three boxes of Wheat Thins for 69 cents each, and they’ll make inexpensive contributions to our pot-luck playdates.

    The last store I regularly buy groceries at is Whole Foods. Bargain Briana recently started listing the weekly deals there, which has inspired me to check the deals for my local stores on the web site (locate your store, then click for a pdf flyer for specials). Yesterday, I bought 3 pounds of hormone and antibiotic free ground beef for $1.99 per pound, the best price I’ve ever gotten. It’s 22% fat, which is a higher fat content than I’d like, but I always drain my ground beef anyway, so it’ll be fine. I actually wish I’d bought more, so I might be heading back today if it’s not too inconvenient.

    The bottom line here is that there are many ways to save money on food, and that you have to do what works for you. I’ll be the first to admit that shopping at multiple stores and organizing my coupons takes a fair amount of time. But for me, it’s worth it.

    Previously: Costco vs. Trader Joe’s vs. Ralphs