The Grocery Store Game

Nothing gives me a bigger adrenaline rush than to look at the “Your Savings This Trip” line at the bottom of my grocery receipt. I review each line of my receipt and bask in the glory of getting a box of pasta for $0.10. I think I have a large enough addiction to saving money to become an extreme couponer, but my practical side doesn’t see the need to have 14 bottles of mustard in my pantry when I know my family will only use one every 6 months.

There are a couple of tips I’ve picked up to help me use coupons effectively, without starting a hoard of BBQ sauce that will expire before I use it.

1. Only clip the coupons for the products you use.  It is tempting to clip every coupon, but you end up buying products you don’t use, and even if you only paid $0.60 for it, you just wasted $0.60. Occasionally I’ll try a different brand because it is on sale and I have a coupon, but I don’t clip coupons for products I wouldn’t normally buy.

2. Coupon swap. In Step 1 I said don’t clip the coupons for things you don’t normally buy. Don’t just throw away the coupons, swap your unused coupons with a friend. Chances are they have coupons they don’t need for products you buy every week.

3. Make a List and Stick to It! We’ve already established I am a list-a-holic, but to keep your grocery budget in tact, a list is a MUST. I go as far as to put my list in the order I’ll come across the products in the grocery store to minimize my time in the store and the likelihood to add additional items to my cart. My children have it drilled into their heads that if it is not on the list, it doesn’t go in the cart. They don’t even ask anymore.

4. Read the Sale papers. Use the local sale papers to create your list. We eat healthy at our house, and often coupons are only for pantry items. It is rare to see a coupon for fresh fruit or meat. I shop at two different grocery stores each week. One store I can normally snag marked down meat and sometimes fruit and vegetables early in the morning so we are able to eat great meals (ribs, pork chops, organic chicken) for about 50% of the normal cost (you just have to use it or freeze it the day you buy it). I use the sale paper to also add any BOGO free items I need that week. The other store has the majority of the BOGO free items that keep my pantry stocked. I normally hit both stores on the same morning and because of my superior list-making skills (ha-ha!), can be back home within 1 1/2 hours.

5. Know the Coupon Policy for Each Store. I found out about a year ago that one of the two stores I shop in will allow a manufacturer coupon and a store coupon on the same product. Even more, the store will accept competitor store coupons as their own. You also do not have to buy two of a product to take advantage of their BOGO free offers. You just pay 1/2 price. What does this mean? Let’s say boxes of pasta are normally $1.20, but are BOGO free. I have a manufacturer coupon for $.25 off one box. I also print a competitor store coupon off the internet for $.25 off one box. I buy one box at $.60, then use both the manufacturer coupon and the store coupon, and only pay $.10 for the box of pasta. In the words of my 4 year old, “TaDa”!!

Some stores will accept competitor coupons and some don’t. Also, not all stores will give you the same price on a BOGO free offer if you only buy one. Sometimes, you have to get both to get the deal. Know what you are spending before you make your list. Most stores make their coupon policies available online, but it never hurts to ask if you have any questions.

6. Take Advantage of the “Extras.” Signing up for a frequent shopper card can be a hassle, but now I feel naked if I leave home without mine. One of the two grocery stores I frequent gives you a $.10/gallon discount at the gas pump for each $100 spent in groceries. I end up with one, sometimes two fill-ups per month at a discount, which helps out on my gas budget. You also have pharmacy stores, like CVS, which offers savings and discounts if you use your frequent shopper card. You can use these discounts on top of manufacturer coupons (and competitor store coupons). This process is how you can end up buying 4 bottles of shampoo for $0.15 per bottle.

So, you must suppress your inner desire to grab “as many” deals as you can, but strategize to spend the least amount of money for the things your family needs (and maybe a few wants). Reduce the amount of money you would have spent ANYWAY had you not looked for good deals or clipped coupons. Happy Shopping!

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Finding Extra Cash to Pay Off Debt

Sometimes it seems impossible to come up with extra cash to pay off debt. If you’re stuck in the cycle of only paying the minimum credit card payment, try some of the tips to jump start your debt-reduction!

1. Yard Sale. Yard sales no longer mean spending an entire Saturday in your driveway waiting for people to stop. Most communities have a Yard Sale page on Facebook or even on a local news or community website. A few weeks ago, I cleaned up the kids’  playroom, snapped a few pictures, and posted items on my communities cyber yard sale site. Within 2 days, I had made $110 for doing little to no work. Hmmmm . . . . makes me want to go clean out a few more closets!

2. Coupons. I am not an extreme couponer. I only buy what I need for the near future that I know will not go out of date, but I tend to save approximately $10-$30 from coupons each week on my grocery bill. When I first started using coupons, we were trying to pay off debt. I would take the total saved from coupons at the bottom of my grocery bill, minus the cost of my weekly newspaper, and immediately pay the savings towards the debt I was working to pay off. For instance, if my grocery receipt showed $22 in savings, I would subtract $2 for the Sunday paper, and immediately pay $20 towards the credit card bill I was currently working to pay down. These small extra amounts added up over time.

3. Increase Your Income. The idea of a part-time job can seem daunting for some, especially if you are already working a full-time job. If you have cut your expenses to a minimum and still don’t have enough, the only other option is to increase your income. Think outside the box for additional income. Use your talents, interests, or hobbies and turn it into extra cash. For instance, while I was in college, I loved taking fitness classes at the local gym. I found out I could spend one weekend and $200 to become a certified instructor. Once I became certified, my gym membership was free (which saved me $25 per month) and I made an extra $160-$320 per month teaching 2-4 classes a week. I would have been at the gym anyway, and I was doing something I loved! I continued to teach classes even after I got  a “real job” because I enjoyed it, and I still have my certifications today so I can sub classes at my gym if needed.

Advertise babysitting services to your neighbors and friends, yard work, sign up to referee local sports games . . . find a job that doesn’t feel like a job.

4. Never Have “Extra” Money. Getting out of debt is not easy. Don’t get too confident too quickly. . . stay on course! Once you pay off one debt, don’t consider the monthly payment you just eliminated as “extra” money. The amount of the monthly payment should be transferred IN FULL over to another debt. This is how debt is paid off. It takes discipline and determination to stay on track.

For instance, you have 2 credit cards (Card A has a $1,500 balance, Card B has a $2,200 balance), and a car loan with a $6,000 balance. You are currently paying $250 per month on Card A, the minimum payment of $40 on Card B, and your car loan payment of $300 per month.  Once Card A is paid off, take the full $250 payment and add it to the Card B payment (now you are paying $290 a month toward Card B). Once Card B is paid off, add the $290 to the current car payment of $300. This is a total payment of $590 per month toward the car loan, which will cut your payoff time in half.

Keeping a Vacation Within Your Budget

I came across an article listing cities for a “cheap” vacation. The ideas in the article listed cities with inexpensive site-seeing options, but really you can go almost anywhere and make the vacation affordable if you plan ahead.

A few tips to keep the vacation within your budget:

1. Drive if possible. Of course, its a no-brainer that airline tickets can be the largest expense of a vacation. Try to plan a trip within driving distance. Even if you have to stop at a hotel overnight and make it a two-day drive (we often do that since we have little ones), it is still less expensive than the plane tickets and a rental car once you get to your destination. Also, when you drive, you have more room to pack more stuff, thus spending less money once you get there.

2. Be strategic when you book your accommodations. There are several ways to save extra money by thinking ahead. First, if you can book a room with a kitchen and eat in as opposed to out, you can save a significant amount of money.

If you are taking a city trip where a condo isn’t conducive, look for a hotel with free food. For instance, my family took a trip to San Antonio a few years ago. We booked a great room right on the Riverwalk at a hotel with a full free breakfast (I’m not talking about muffins and coffee). They also had a happy hour from 5-7 p.m. where they served free appetizers and drinks. This was a great afternoon snack after a day of sight-seeing and held us over until we were ready to go out to dinner. Our kids pretty much used the happy hour as dinner (since the food was similar to what would have been on a kids menu anyway) so when we went to dinner, they were happy with splitting a small order together and we saved more money!!

Something else to consider when booking your hotel is to find out if it is within walking distance or provides shuttle service to any attractions you plan to visit. Public city lots or theme park parking can cost around $20 per day. Booking your hotel strategically can save you this expense.

3. Use a blind booking site, like hotwire.com if you are okay with staying in a general location or are only looking for the lowest-cost room. I was scared to use sites like this at first, always thinking about getting a bad hotel, but after a little research, I realized you can narrow down the blind hotels to two or three and have a pretty good idea of where you are going to stay before you book it. These sites allow you to choose the area and the hotel rating. I’ve booked with them now several times, for business and family trips, and each time ended up with a great room at up to 50% less than what I would have paid to book direct.

4. Plan ahead for theme parks. Find out before you go if coolers, food, or bottled water are allowed. If so, take your own and save big bucks. For a family of four, you can save $20-$50 by packing your own drinks, snacks, and/or lunch. Also, take your own souvenirs. Sound crazy? My family took a trip to Disney World and I knew my girls would want a t-shirt once we got there. A few weeks before we went, I came across Disney t-shirts at a local store for $5 each. I bought one for each child (a total of $10) and packed them away without the kids seeing them. Once we got to Disney, similar shirts were $25 each, but I pulled their shirts out of the suitcase for a great surprise, and saved $40!

5. Low cost or free site-seeing. Almost all travel destinations will have some free or cheap entertainment, you just have to find it. Research ahead of time to have these options ready to stay within your vacation budget. Washington D.C. has the Smithsonian Museums, San Antonio has the Alamo and the Mexican Market, Atlanta has the fountains at Centennial Park, San Francisco has Fisherman’s Wharf, the list goes on. Mix in some local culture or a day outdoors at no extra cost to your trip. Also, check online for discount days or coupons for any paid attractions.

6. Make a packing list. I know, I know, some of you are reading this and rolling your eyes . . . including my husband, but it is a good way to save money. A few weeks before a trip, I start a quick list and add to it every time I think of something we need to take. Packing your own sunscreen, a small medicine bag with aspirin and bandaids, phone charger, and all the other little things will save you time and money from buying these items once you get to your destination. If you are going to a touristy spot, these items will also be double what you would have paid for them at home.

So, it all boils down to planning. If you are not a planner, start trying. Its not that hard, and before you know it, planning will be second nature. You can save money on any trip with a little planning. We had an unexpected trip to St. Augustine last month to attend a family event. Of course, this was an unforeseen expense so we had to keep costs to a minimum. I booked through Hotwire and ended up paying half the price that several other family members paid to stay at the same hotel. AND the hotel had free continental breakfast. Yea for me! We drove, and took a cooler with sandwich fixings for lunch each day. I packed our sunscreen, beach chairs (no need to rent them at the beach), and pool toys. We turned the three night stay into a great mini-vacation at the beach for our family of 4 and spent less than $350 total for hotel, food, and gas. You can’t beat that! You just have to plan.

Focus Your Budgeting Efforts!

We have talked about writing down your goals for your budget, and most of the time the list gets longer and longer . . . pay off car, pay off credit card(s), save for kids college, save for retirement, pay off mortgage . . . this list goes on and on. One problem I had early in my budget was trying to accomplish everything at once. As humans, we are impatient and want quick results. So it becomes extremely frustrating when you don’t see a finished product after months of cutting expenses and saving.

For this reason alone, I suggest you focus on one goal at a time. Let’s say your #1 goal is to pay off a $6,000 credit card balance. If you are currently putting $20 a month into the kids savings account, paying and extra $50 on your car payment, and putting $100 a month into a savings/retirement account, Stop! Combine all the extra payments and pay an extra $170 towards the monthly credit card payment. You will see results faster, which will keep you motivated to move on to goal #2 and stay on track! One exception to this is if you have an employer match on a retirement plan. Continue contributing up to their match. This is FREE money!

Constantly check your progress of your written budget. You may be surprised at how motivated you become when you see on paper a car loan balance go from $7,000 down to $5,000 down to $3,000 to $0! Making a concentrated effort and tracking your process will get you to the finish line.

Date Night Tips for a Strict Budget

What defines a great date? Good food, entertainment, romance? For couples with children, it is usually defined as at least 2 hours alone with no children, no other parameters necessary. Whether you are a poor college student or a married couple with a tight budget, a great night out is at your fingertips, with a little planning.

1. Babysitters. For those with kids, babysitting can often be the most expensive part of date night. Of course, if you have a  close family network, babysitting can often come for free (a night at Grandma’s house!), but when you do not have this option, another great option is to swap babysitting with a close friend or neighbor.

We are very close to our neighbors down the street who have 2 children close in age to our kids. We swap babysitting with them once a month (one Saturday night a month they watch our kids and one Saturday night a month we watch their kids) for each of us to have a free evening of babysitting for date night. The kids have a blast, pick-up and drop-off are easy, and I have the comfort of knowing responsible adults who have experience with kids will be watching my babies (any parent of small children will appreciate this).

2. The Whole Restaurant to Yourself. My husband and I love date nights at home. It may sound unexciting or cheesy to have a romantic dinner at home, but here are a few tips to make it a wonderful date night.

  • You are not required to eat at your kitchen table. Seeing the messy kitchen, dirty dishes, or stack of work sitting at my desk does not exactly spell out romance. BUT, when I dress up the table on my screened porch with a table cloth, use nice dinner ware (the good stuff I got as a wedding gift and only used 6 times), add a small candle and turn on Pandora, the atmosphere changes to one of a restaurant patio. We can sit, eat, and enjoy ourselves without realizing we are still at home.
  • Plan the menu and cook together. Cooking together is a great date night in itself. You can attend cooking classes together for a pretty hefty price as date night, but why not pick a menu and use the cookbook as your guide? Even if you splurge on more expensive ingredients, you still will not spend as much as you would by going out. Plus, some of the best conversations I have had with my husband have been over a glass of wine as we try to determine if our cherry sauce has thickened enough to pour over our seared duck.
  • Dress up for the occasion. Just because you are at home does not mean it is not a real date. Wear the same outfit you would have if you had gone out to an expensive restaurant. Part of the fun of date night is the anticipation.  This also adds to the atmosphere at dinner.

3. Groupon (Yep, I love it). Ok, so I’ve mentioned Groupon, LivingSocial, and other savings sites before, but you can catch some really great deals that would make a great date night. You can find deals for museums, professional sporting events, concerts and restaurants for 50% of the retail cost.

4. Mailing Lists. Similar to using Groupon-type sites, you can often snag great deals by being on mailing lists. I know, I hate getting 20 emails each morning that I don’t care about, BUT it only takes 5 seconds to scan through the subject list and delete them if nothing interests me. I will on occasion, however, come across a great find. For instance, just this past week, I received an email from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra advertising a free outdoor concert in a few weeks. I had the opportunity to reserve up to 6 free tickets for the concert since I was on their mailing list. Jackpot!

There are many date ideas that don’t cost much. The idea here is to incorporate some of these tips to come up with your own perfect night that fits within your budget. We are working on a list of great dates for under $50, but in the meantime, feel free to comment on any ideas you have of a great date that doesn’t break the bank!

The Third Step to Creating a Budget . . . Time to Adjust!

If money is a tool to help you through life, your budget is the instruction guide on how to use it. You know what you spend per month (thanks to your three month expense worksheet) and you have your current short-term goals and long-term goals laid out (don’t worry, these can change as you go along). It is now time to put it all together and create your budget going forward.

First, pinpoint areas where you can make adjustments.  Use your spreadsheet to adjust the monthly numbers until you find the savings needed to reach your short-term financial goals.  You may find the only way to meet your goals will be to reduce debt (i.e. monthly credit card payments, small loan payments, and car loans). If this is the case, can you cut down on your grocery bills, eating out, entertainment, phone bill? Perhaps there are some monthly expenses you can cut out all together. We’ll address strategies to reduce debt in separate blogs.

Most important is to actually follow through with sticking to your new budget. Continue to monitor your spending on your budget worksheet. It takes a few minutes each week to enter all of your expenses, then evaluate where you are versus what you have allotted on your budget. YES, I said weekly, not monthly. Being pro-active with your budget will help you stay on track, and catch over-spending before its too late.

Keeping your budget worksheet up-to-date will also make it a breeze to make a quick adjustment for unexpected expenses. For instance, your daughter asks about attending a summer sports camp that will cost $150. You can quickly check your budget, make a few adjustments for the next month, and figure out how to make the camp happen without just charging it on a credit card.

Constant evaluation and adjustments will soon become an easy task, and take less time to manage. Before you know it, taking a quick glance at your weekly budget will be as routine and checking Facebook updates on your iPhone. As time goes by, and short-term goals are met, immediately make adjustments to allocate extra money to the next short-term goal on your list. This will cause your efforts to multiply as bills are caught up, debt is paid off, and additional disposable income begins to increase.

Kitchen in your Condo? An Easy Way to Save on a Vacation

A summer vacation is calling your name . . . but oh, so much money. An average beach vacation can be costly when you add up room, food, and gas. One way to really save is to get a room with a kitchen . .  and actually use it!

Many hotel rooms have at least a kitchenette which gives you the ability to eat breakfast, lunch, and possibly dinner in-house and not at a restaurant.

Now, I know part of the fun of a vacation is eating out, but consider this: how about going to the local seafood market and getting your own fresh shrimp to grill out by the pool? The kids can stay in their bathing suits, no one is crying because they’re hungry (they are too occupied still playing in the sand), and you spend less than half of what you would in a seafood restaurant. Average cost for my family of four to each fresh grilled shrimp with baked potatoes and salad at a seafood restaurant (let’s even add a glass of wine for Mom and Dad) is $66, plus tax and tip. We are looking at about $80 for the meal. The same meal grilled by the pool (potatoes in the oven at the condo), and a whole bottle of wine is . . . $32. How about that?!

At a minimum, a room with at least a microwave and small fridge will allow you to eat in for breakfast and lunch. Keep drinks, cereal, milk, sandwich fixings, hotdogs, and snacks in the room to cover most of these meals. The average cost for my family to get sub sandwiches, chips, and drinks at the sandwich chain across from our condo at the beach last year was $24. Multiply this by 6 days at the beach and you have $144 for sandwiches. Instead, we made sandwiches in the room. I bought all the same toppings, and our total for the week was roughly $22. We spent less for the whole week than we would have for one lunch!

Sometimes trips are not conducive to eating meals in the room, but another way to still save on food is to find a hotel with free breakfast. Many hotel chains now offer free HOT breakfast. Do a little research before booking. You may pay $5 more a night for the room than one right next door, but that means only $5 for your family to eat breakfast each day.

Happy Travels!