Budgeting: Savings on Groceries and Entertainment

I mentioned that I helped teach a Budgeting 101 class a few weeks ago. My part of the class was focused on groceries and entertainment. The class enjoyed the materials and I thought you might, as well, so I am sharing them with you:

Saving Money on Groceries and Entertainment

After figuring their “fixed expenses,” (such as utilities, mortgages, car loans, etc.) most people will notice that two categories take up quite a chunk of the rest of the budget. These things are groceries and entertainment costs. With a little help and planning you can reduce these things so that you can have leftover money each month to pay off bills or begin building up a savings account.

Let’s start with Groceries.

Say you budgeted $100 for groceries each week. Let’s see if we can find some ways to reduce it down to $75 and then slowly cut it back just a little bit more over time. Always remind yourself that for every $5 a week in savings you find, you’ll save $260 at the end of the year. That money can add up to things such as making an extra car payment, reducing credit card debt, paying on a student loan, etc. Just keep reminding yourself that $5 can add up to a lot over time!

The first place to start overall is to never shop without a grocery list. By planning ahead you’ll have a better idea of how much you are spending and if you are overspending before you even shop. Alter your meal plan if you are trying to make too many meals that require too many ingredients that you don’t already have on hand.

Next, begin by taking one month to keep ALL of your grocery receipts. Each time you come home from the store, pull out three highlighters and “judge” how well your shopping trip went in this manner:

~Green: These are things that were on your shopping list and you needed.
~Yellow: These are things that weren’t on your shopping list but you truly did need. Key word = Need, not want!
~Red (or Pink): These are things that weren’t on your shopping list and you probably didn’t need them but it sounded like a good purchase in the store.

By highlighting your receipts each week, you’ll start to see just how much “impulse” buying you might be doing. The best tip I can share to try to eliminate too many impulse buys is to put any item that’s not on your shopping list in one part of your cart. Before you check out, evaluate each item and determine if it’s something you truly need (if not, go put it back!)

At the end of the month, take a look at all your receipts. Think of a stoplight when you view your colors:
~Green means Go/Good
~Yellow means Slow Down! (these can add up to a lot over time)
~Red/Pink means STOP (as they are usually impulse buys you need to learn to avoid.)

Are you seeing a lot of yellow highlighted items? Could you have avoided those by planning better and not paying a higher price? Are you seeing a lot of red highlighted items? Could you have avoided those by being a “better shopper” (not shopping when tired/hungry or with the kids, as they are adding items to your cart?)

Don’t forget that you can also save money by using coupons. Most grocery stores offer their own coupons that you can stack with a manufacturer coupon and pair with a sale to get great savings.

Hopefully combining these items, along with my list from “31 Ways to Save On Your Grocery Budget Without Coupons,” will help you save money each month on groceries.

How to Cut Entertainment Costs

The next part of your budget to try to start cutting back on might be Entertainment Costs. These would be outings such as dining out, movies, sporting events, vacations, hobby expenses (books, crafts, scrapbooking) and yes, even shopping trips!

The first thing to remind yourself is that having fun does not have to cost a lot of money. You can even find a lot of things to do for free! And there are several ways to save money on the things you do decide to take part in.

~Crafts: Always look for store coupons before shopping. Places such as Michaels, Hobby Lobby and JoAnn Fabrics regularly have discount coupons. Check your local thrift stores for items as they can be donated. Garage sales are often great sources for materials, as well.

~Shopping Trips: Always look for store coupons before shopping. Most stores will offer discounts during various times of the year. Keep a list of things you’ll need over the next few months and watch for big discount days to take advantage of extra savings. Check clearance spots/racks as you might find things of value there. Never leave on a shopping trip without a list. Use cash and only bring with you what you can truly afford to spend.

~Dining out: Limit yourself to only so much money a month for this and when it’s gone, it’s gone. This will also teach you to appreciate the outings even more and they will become a special event and not just a drive-thru experience. Check for restaurant coupons before dining out. Sign up for birthday clubs as most places often offer discounts. Go on “lunch dates” rather than “dinner dates” as they are often cheaper. Find legitimate sites to take surveys where they offer to pay you in restaurant gift card options. Find restaurants that offer “Kids Eat Free” nights to save more. If you are online a lot, join Swagbucks and work on earning gift cards that way.

~Movies: Go to a matinee, as the prices are cheaper. Follow sites like Living Social and Groupon as they often offer discounted movie tickets. Take advantage of store deals on gift cards such as “Spend $100 in giftcards, get $20 off your next grocery purchase.” (They sometimes include gift cards for theaters.) Rather than go to the theater, wait and rent it on Redbox or Blockbuster Express.

And here are just some of the options you might have for cheap/free entertainment:

1. Full-Moon Walks
2. Library Trips – You can get books, movies and games for free
3. Picnics – Find a new park you’ve never been to
4. Family Game Night –Find board games at thrift stores and/or garage sales
5. Check online for Free Museum Days
6. Find a dog park and watch the puppies play
7. Bike Rides
8. Free Entertainment at Farmer’s Markets, etc.
9. Free craft days at craft stores, libraries, churches, etc.
10. Letterboxing & Geocaching
11. Watch local sports teams and cheer them on
12. Watch a parade – they often have free items to give away
13. Enjoy a snowball fight or making a snowman in the winter
14. Bake cookies and bring to the less fortunate
15. Swap babysitting with friends so you can go out for the evening
16. Visit family nearby
17. Find a “pick-your-own” farm and pick fruit/veggies
18. Find forest preserves and go hiking
19. Take advantage of “free fishing days” where you don’t need a license to fish
20. Take a trip to the Zoo. Watch for discounted tickets or try to find free zoos.
21. Watch your paper for inexpensive classes, such as cooking, crafts, gardening, sewing, etc.
22. Sign-up for free classes offered at hardware stores, such as Lowe’s or Home Depot
23. Swap “free time” with spouse so you can each have a fun day to yourself without needing a babysitter
24. Set up potluck BBQs with friends, switching houses each time
25. Watch Groupon, Family Finds and Living Social for discounted deals in your area
26. Have a scrapbooking night with friends
27. Watch for town-wide garage sales to save on clothing, toys, kitchenware, etc.
28. Watch for discounted days at your town swimming pool.
29. Check to see if your town offers free movie nights or other park events.
30. Have a “backyard camping” adventure putting up a tent in your own yard
31. Have a “something different” day once a month where you do one thing you’ve never done before
32. Play “flashlight tag” at night and catch fireflies while you are out there.

Over time, you’ll start to find more and more ways to save money on outings and still have fun. Take any extra money you would have spent on those outings and put it towards your bills or into a savings account.

By having a budget, creating meal plans, shopping with a list, taking advantage of inexpensive entertainment and planning ahead for purchases and gifts, you can save a lot of money over time. Use Dave Ramsey’s “snowball” approach to paying off debt and take that money and pay off your smallest bill. When that bill is paid off, work on the next one, etc. It may take time and patience but you’ll eventually get your bills paid off and start to build up a savings account. Budgeting can lead to a more secure future for yourself and your family.

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How to Freeze Green Beans

One of the things in season right now, or soon to be for your area, are green beans. I had a plethora of them in my garden this week so I thought I’d take some and freeze them for when prices on green beans go up.

Freezing green beans is fairly easy. You need to cook them in a process called “blanching” and then put them in ice cold water afterwards to stop them from cooking more. The times cooking and soaking in the water should be equal. Green beans should take about 3 minutes for each step. (Information according to pickyourown.org)

If you don’t grow your own, several farmer’s markets will sell them, typically in large quantities for a good price. I didn’t grow any last year but bought a bunch at the markets and had farm-fresh tasting green beans during the winter months. While you might be able to get regular frozen vegetables in the store fairly cheap, there’s nothing quite like ones straight from a farm or your garden.

1) The first thing you need to do is wash your green beans and then pick over the green beans and pull out any that are blemished. Some of those you might be able to cut off parts to still keep. Cut the ends off your green beans. Next you cut them in 1″ pieces or you can keep them longer for things such as stir-fry recipes.

2) You’ll need a big pot of water to boil. Be sure you have enough water for the green beans to cook easily. Once it gets to a rolling boil, carefully place the green beans in, put the lid on and bring it back to a boil. Begin the timer for the blanching time as soon as you drop them in. Green beans should take about 3 minutes of blanching time.

3) As soon as the time is up, carefully drain the green beans and then submerge them in a bowl of ice cold water. Let them cool for 3 minutes.

4) Once the time is up, you’ll drain them and put them in Ziploc bags. I usually try to dry them off with a clean towel first, as I’ve found it helps them from clumping together or getting freezer burn.

5) Don’t forget to label your bag. It may seem obvious what’s in there but you want to keep track of the date so you know when to use them by.

This entire process is fairly simple. A lot of times, I blanch vegetables when I’m already in the kitchen getting supper ready and waiting on our dinner to cook.

I hope that you try to take advantage of Seasonal Savings and get some farm/garden fresh green beans in your freezer for when prices go up. It’s a great way to save on your grocery budget–and get some Organic veggies on your table.

My Savings on August 1, 2011

Here are a few ways that I worked on saving money for us on 8/1/11. While I won’t be able to post these daily, I will add a round-up when I can this month:

~I took the kids blueberry picking as a fun outing and froze the blueberries to save us money later when they aren’t in-season. We had a great time as a family and it will save us on our grocery budget later.

~On the way home from our outing, the kids wanted to cool off with some ice cream. Back in 2009, I picked up several McDonald’s coupon booklets for $1 each and they came with 12 coupons–3 sets of four freebies. One of them was a free small ice cream cone. These booklets usually come out around holidays such as Halloween or Valentine’s Day or even when school begins. So call over around that time and see if your local McDonald’s has them. They are are a great way to save on “treats” and they make nice additions to birthday presents for parties.

~My husband’s company took the employees and their families on a summer outing, which included a show and a meal out. The food portions at the restaurant we went to were incredible and we both ended up taking half our meals home. I used these for our dinner the next night. Portions are incredibly over-sized at most restaurants. When your meal comes, cut them down to a reasonable size and take the rest home. This is a great way to save on your grocery budget, while still enjoying a meal out, as you can turn it into a lunch or dinner later. If you are going to a dinner and a movie outing, see if you can catch the movie first for two reasons: 1) You’ll have great mealtime conversation about the movie you just saw and 2) You don’t need to worry about leftovers going to waste.

~It’s the beginning of a new month, which means coupons flip. I made sure my paper and ink levels were fully stocked beforehand and I made sure to take time to check out all the major coupon sites, such as Coupons.com, RedPlum, Coupon Network and Smart Source, to see if there were any great savings there. Also, typically the first Sunday closest to a new month tends to have a lot of coupon inserts in the Sunday paper. So never forget to check as you might miss out on the big insert weekend. Coupons = Big Savings!

~I received a Free Redbox Rental Code via text on my cell phone, as they always send one out on the first Monday of the month. While I didn’t get to use it, I wanted to share that with you in case you weren’t signed-up and wanted the freebie.

Just a few ways I saved a little money on 8/1/11. It all adds up!

Turning a Fun Outing into Savings

One of the things in our budget is a little category called, “Entertainment.” If we let it, it could become quite a big chunk of our money, right? But how about if you paired a fun family outing with a savings in your grocery budget later on?

Yesterday, I took our kids out on our annual blueberry picking outing. I’m so happy to see that the pick-your-own type farm that we go to still charges the same price as when we began doing this 3 years ago. It’s hard to find that with anything these days, isn’t it? But they are holding steady at $1.98 lb.

The kids look forward to the tractor ride out to the blueberry bushes, we pick for as long as we can stand the heat that day and then we take a little time to enjoy some fun doing the free activities they have there, which is kept simple with sandboxes, slides, swings, etc. I like that they don’t sell food there but offer a couple picnic tables for a fun picnic lunch together.

The kids always have such fond memories of doing this together and even ask when we are going at the beginning of summer. Since it’s free to get in, we just pay for the blueberries. I’ll keep some for us to enjoy for a few days and then I freeze the rest. A few months from now, blueberry prices are going to soar back up in the grocery stores and that’s when I start dipping into our stash. It’s nice to still have blueberries for waffles/pancakes, smoothies or for yogurt toppings without breaking my grocery budget.

How did our day end? We picked 4.84 lbs in the maybe hour we were there, which turned into: the bags below, several stolen handfuls by the kids while I was freezing them and a big bowl that I saved for us to enjoy this week. I’ll probably pick up a few more blueberries at the farmer’s markets to add to our supply, as well. I’ve found that I’ve had better luck with my blueberries if I “flash-freeze” them on cookie sheets before I put them into the Ziploc bags. This seems to help them from becoming one big clump later on.

As you can see, I took some strawberries that I froze earlier this year (again, just by flash-freezing on a cookie sheet after de-coring them) and threw them in the bag with the blueberries so I have a ready-made “smoothie mix” for later. They end up being a lot cheaper than the store-bought ones–and you can’t beat farm-fresh flavor!

Check out the pick-your-own places near you and see if you can’t find one that still has reasonable prices and turn it into a fun outing along with some savings! You might find that your kids have just as fond memories over this as they would an expensive trip to the theater.

Getting Back on Track in August

If you were to ask me what my favorite month blogging is, I’d have to say August. While I love finding holiday deals for everyone in December, August has a special place in my heart and that is because it’s the month I created Coupon Geek. And this year, it’s extra special as it’s a “golden birthday” year as Coupon Geek turns 3 on August 3rd.

While coupons are a big part of saving money, I often wonder how long coupons will continue to go on, especially with the latest craze in popularity. We are already seeing several stores changing coupon policies, manufacturers are switching $ amounts so they don’t double as easy, some places are rejecting coupons altogether and with increased demand, printables are starting to become harder to get ahold of before the limits are met. These things paired with finding the store shelves wiped out are making it harder to save money with coupons. (Though I’m going to continue to keep trying forever!)

But coupons are just one way to save money. There are other ways to save money and I’d really love to put a little focus on those things so that we can all learn to shop and live smarter to help our money stretch farther.

So over the next month, I’m going to be “Getting Back on Track” and share little ways that I find to save money or make the most of what we have. I’m hoping that you’ll find that some of them help you save money long-term, as well!

And since it’s a big birthday year I think we need to celebrate, don’t you agree? So that means—-more giveaways! I’ll be mixing them up between giveaways from sponsors along with a few of my favorite findings and giveaways that relate to my favorite activities/hobbies. So don’t miss out on those.

And here’s your first money-saving tip….several of my readers sign-up for giveaways on a lot of sites and use their winnings to help pay for gifts during the holidays or special occasions. It might be something to add to your daily routine–sign-up for a few and you never know, you might win some! Several blogs giveaway gift cards so keep your eyes open for those.

Hoping that you all find August to be a great month as a Coupon Geek Reader. Thank you to all of you for being so great and for helping me stick around for 3 years! It’s been a fun ride and I’m hoping it continues for a long time to come.

How About a Wii Bowling Night?

The weather is still very cold here in the Chicagoland area. It doesn’t make it very fun to venture out with two little kids. So I suggested to my hubby that maybe we have a Wii Bowling night with them. It will be some great family fun and…it’s free for us since we already have the right equipment.

For those of you that own a Wii , you should have the Wii Sports game, which is pretty standard for coming with the system. There’s a bowling game on the Wii Sports so you can have your own bowling night, too. You can use your regular Wii remotes but if you want to add a little bit more fun to it, they do sell a Wii Bowling Ball, too. We picked up two of these last year as we thought it might make it easier for the kids to play.

And why not add a little competition to your fun? My hubby and I have agreed that whoever has the higher score at the end of the month gets to grab the next Free Redbox or Blockbuster Express rental for a night of a movie of their choice and the guarantee of being able to watch it uninterrupted by the kids.

Hoping you all are finding great inexpensive ways to add a little fun into your family nights together!

Getting Back on Track: January Update

One of my goals for this year was to get us back on track towards paying off the very last of debt which is our house. We decided we would take a little break and ease up after we had paid off our vehicles and credit card debt. While I was still focusing on making the most of our hard-earned money and always looking for the best prices and deals we did allow ourselves a few luxuries that we had been wanting. Perhaps a little reward for going without for so long?

I have to be honest that when we were on a strict budget and watching our pennies very closely, things were ironically more fun. I know, most of you are like, “Did she just say that?” But after time, you come to realize that stuff is just stuff and family is the core of happiness. We started looking for creative ways to still go out and do things but to spend as little as possible. And by continually asking ourselves if our purchases were truly needs and not more of a want our house became less cluttered and easier to maintain.

So what did we do go “Get Back on Track” in January? Here’s a few of the things:

1) Beginning January 1, we started to keep receipts so we could validate that our current budget wasn’t outdated–or perhaps inflated to a point where we could make more cutbacks.

2) In our spare time over the holidays, we each went through our current stock of DVDs, CDs, Games, etc. and loaded up what we didn’t want and sold them to a local store that will give you cash for them. I also sold a piece of exercise equipment that was just collecting dust. What did we make? $150. We still have some to try to sell at a later date as they were pretty fully-stocked at the time. Crazy to think that we got that much just for stuff we weren’t using.

3) Despite knowing how to run an immense number of deals with my coupons, I dialed back my shopping and worked my current stockpile into more meal plans. I always try to do this during the cold months as I hate to take two kids out into the weather elements just for a deal. You honestly almost have to do this every now and then or your stockpile will begin to take over causing you unnecessary stress.

4) We did have one restaurant outing. I had found an Olive Garden gift card that I had earned through Surveys about 4 years ago (yes…four years!) and I paired it with a current coupon to get our meal for four of us, including tip, for under $30. It was my son’s choice to go there for his birthday so it worked out great. There are several companies that offer surveys for gift cards and it’s a great way to still be able to go out without breaking the bank. I’ll share more on these later.

5) For a girl’s day outing with my friends, we took advantage of a Groupon and a free coupon we had received in a catalog to make for a very inexpensive outing. We were able to enjoy a relaxing morning session in a salt cave, picked up some spices we needed at my favorite spice store called Penzey’s and had lunch for about $25. I strongly recommend Groupon to my readers to help you plan some fun and inexpensive outings. For those of you with a Penzey’s nearby, you may want to sign up for their catalog. I was able to get a Free Bottle of Minced Garlic with a coupon from it. They randomly offer these kinds of deals.

6) For our family days, we stayed home this month. I had watched for deals on board games and some kids’ DVDs over the holidays so we took advantage of those. My kids had a blast playing Cookin’ Cookies Lunchbox Game and The Ladybug Game. Who says you need to leave home to have fun?

7) One of the big things that we did in January was that we both sat down and individually made our own lists of both what we wanted to do this year and the purchases that we’d like to make. It was kind of fun to see that our lists were very similar. It’s good to have a plan in place for larger purchases that you need to save up for, whether it’s home furnishings, vacations, etc.

So these are just a few of the things we’ve done this month to watch our spending and keep ourselves on track with our money. I’d love to hear how your month went and what you’ve been doing, as well.