Archive for July, 2009

The Art of the Frugal Grocery List

Brief History


When I first started living out on my own, one of the things I enjoyed (and still do) doing was cooking my own meals. If you are taking on the frugal lifestyle as a newbie, this might be a whole skillset for you to learn. Cooking your own meals is not only fun and relaxing, you will soon find that the food you cook in your own kitchen can be much better than most anything you can find at most restaurants. If there is interest, I will start writing more articles about cooking and grocery shopping in general, but I thought this might be a good starting point.

I knew there was a problem with my methods when I started having to clean out my refrigerator every week or two when I went grocery shopping. I would throw out lots of extras that I bought, lots of extras I bought without a game plan, and lots I bought without any sort of thinking whatsoever.

I found that my major flaw was that I was shopping sometimes without a proper grocery list, and many times, I was shopping without a list at all.

So, a few years ago, I decided to fix this, and come up with a proper plan for grocery shopping. Hopefully, you can adapt this to your needs, and do the same thing.

Do NOT Shop without a List

This is probably the most important thing you can do. Countless times, I have decided to just go grocery shopping on the way home from work. I was a good cook, and could plan a menu in my head, so why should I bother making a list?

There were some very good reasons to do so, I found out.

When you make your list, you do this at home, when you can look into your pantry and refrigerator, and check for duplicates. There are several things that every kitchen should always have in stock. I will write more about this later in the week, but obviously, these are things that you probably don’t need to buy.

I found that without my list, I would buy these essentials over and over to the point where I had many duplicates of them in my kitchen. Sure, it’s okay to have them in stock, but i probably didn’t buy them at a sale price, so I had lost hard earned money to stock my shelves. I found that I had TONS of:

  • Crushed tomatoes
  • Potatoes
  • Carrots
  • Rice
  • Chicken Broth

All things that I could have saved money on by planning before I shopped.

I also found that if I wasn’t diligent in my planning, I would buy stupid things that didn’t make any sense while I was shopping. Cookies, ice cream, candy, and a whole list of things that I don’t even like to eat, but sound good when you are aimlessly strolling around in the grocery store.

So, rule 1. Make a list. But how do you make a list that makes sense?

Properly Planning a Grocery List

So, you realize your system is flawed. You start making a list, but you still have extras of everything at the end of the week that get thrown out. What you have to do is plan your menus that make sense.

Before I went with the high tech method, I was doing everything in my field notes . Here’s how I would break it down.

  1. On the left page, I would list the days of the week. Under each day of the week, I would list the menu items for the day. You should be specific, too. An entry like: Spaghetti with meat sauce, Garlic bread, Red Wine. This will give you a good starting point to plan that day’s meal.
  2. On the right page, start making a list of the things you need to make those dishes. This is where the art of the grocery list comes in. We will talk about this in a minute.
  3. On the right hand side, start making headings based on the departments in the grocery store. Things like: Dairy, Meat, Produce, Condiments, etc. You will have to do this a few times before it starts making sense. Although there is some grunt work here, this is a sure way to save time on your trips. You might even find that there are several specialty stores you need to visit. Put these items under an appropriate header.

Now, when you go to the grocery store, you can fly through the aisles, confidently buying all the things you need. That confidence in your planning skills will also go a long way in making sure you don’t buy extra bags of chips or cookies that sound like such a great idea.

Where is the art you promised?

Okay, grasshopper. Once you have gotten to this point, you will be saving a great deal of money on your food bill. This is where you might find that there is still one snag. On each grocery shopping adventure, you still have things to throw away: half a bag of carrots, half a head of lettuce, two tomatoes, and five nasty old potatoes. While you can compost this stuff, it would be better to be end up with none left at all.

Now, what you need to do is plan your meals strategically, so that there is as much overlap as you can muster in your list without having to buy extra that will spoil. Since there are no real rules to how to do this, and each family is different, I will demonstrate my line of thinking for a week. This week, in fact.

This week’s meal plan!

  • Sunday – We are having guests for a late lunch, so I decided to make barbecued chicken sandwiches. This means I will have grilled chicken leftover, and a few nice buns. I will also need to buy carrots for the sandwiches (let me know if you want the recipe and why I am adding carrots), cilantro, and jalapenos. The rest of the stuff, I have in my well stocked kitchen.
  • Monday – Since I have leftover chicken, and some nice buns, let’s do chicken salad for lunch. Oh! And I have some turmeric in my well stocked kitchen, it will be an interesting salad. For dinner, I will be in a rush, so I am gonna make spaghetti. I will need a green pepper. I have some cans of sauce, and cheese, so I need hamburger and italian sausage. I will buy extra hamburger to grill on wednesday, and since I will be buying sausage, let’s make pizzas on thursday!
  • Tuesday – That spaghetti was good. I have leftover sauce, so let’s have rigatoni with that leftover sauce for lunch. For dinner, let’s go crazy and make chile verde, a pot of beans, and a pot of rice. So I need pork steaks, ortegas, and crushed tomatoes (but I already have these). I can make tortillas from scratch with the flour I have, so I only need to buy two things. Wow! Cheap!
  • Wednesday – Wow. I made a pot of chile verde last night. less than ten bucks later, and I have enough to feed an army. Let’s make a burrito for lunch. The rest of the chile verde is going into the freezer. I can eat that for several sunday breakfasts. I bought hamburger earlier in the week, so I will grill those. I need to buy buns, a head of lettuce, and I got some tomatoes from the neighbor. I have cheese in my well stocked kitchen, so, I just need buns.
  • Thursday – I have a head of lettuce, so let’s make a salad. I might as well make a big one, and have it for dinner tonight, and maybe tomorrow’s lunch. Tonight, we will make pizzas. I only need a few things for pizza: provolone, mozarella, pepperoni, and olives. I have parmesan, sauce, flour and yeast for the dough already. I will serve salad with dinner.
  • Friday – You guessed it. Leftover pizza for lunch. For dinner, let’s go nuts and make a pot roast. I already have the carrots, onions, and potatoes. All I need is a roast, and a can of beef broth (I used my last one last week.) That salad is still good, so let’s have that. I also made bread on wednesday for 62 cents a loaf , so let’s warm some up, butter it, and serve that too! Man, we eat so good around here!
  • Saturday – I have some potatoes left, and a small pot of mashed potatoes is so easy to make. I will mash those, and make open faced pot roast sandwiches for lunch. Hmm.. while I have potatoes boiling, I will reserve some to make a potato salad, since I have everything i need already. For dinner, I am gonna gamble. I will go to the butcher shop, and see what cuts of meat are on sale, and whatever looks good, I will buy it, and cook it up. Whoa! Pork spare ribs for $1.19 a pound. yes! I have beans left over from that pot of beans the other day, so let’s make bbq beans. So, we’re eating bbq spareribs, potato salad, bbq beans, and fresh bread. Less than ten bucks to feed my family a killer dinner. This would cost me more than sixty bucks if we went out.

Okay, I realize that this line of thinking is very much geared towards my situation and my family, but with just a little bit of goofing around, you can easily own this line of thinking and your family can eat like kings, on the cheap, and end up throwing away a very minimal amount of stuff at the end of the week. And, you should be composting anyway, so you can just put it on the pile.

The High Tech Method

So, I grocery shopped this way for years. I used my handy field notes book (which goes everywhere with me) for such a purpose. At some point, I started pursuing developing software for the iPod Touch. The reason I picked up the device was to practice writing an app to automate my grocery shopping style. It turns out that someone else had tackled that problem with an app called Grocery Zen. I purchased this app for $1.99, and it was everything I hoped it would be, so I ended up cutting my development teeth on another project.

Conclusions already!

So, yes, over the years, I transformed my grocery shopping into yet another adventure in planning, frugality, and creativity. I realize that some of these ideas might be a little daunting to newcomers to frugality, and that many of you might not have the cooking skills to hit the ground running, but please stick with me.

In the next few weeks, I will be posting a few hours that will make your leftovers much more interesting, and the smells wafting from your kitchen making your neighbors’ stomachs rumble.

Until then, let me know if you have any questions on cooking in general. Thanks!

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Turn out (or replace?) that light!


Does it pay?

When I was a kid, my parents would follow us around the house shutting off lights and mumbling something about money growing on trees. Now that I am a parent, I find myself in that same role. While I have no aspirations of finding that tree money grows on, I have started to wonder if:

  1. My panic at seeing all the lights on is warranted.
  2. Keeping all these lights running is really costing me that much money.
  3. Since I have replaced my burned out lights with CFL (compact fluorescents), is this taking the edge off?

I started crunching the numbers, and this is what i found.

Determining usage

In thinking about leaving lights running, I started thinking about several other things that run in my house. Servers, refrigerators, wall wart charges, and the like. Unfortunately, in order to test those devices, I need another piece of gear. For those technically oriented, I thought about rigging my meter so that I can put it in series with any of my gadgets, but I found that my meter does not read true RMS.
It turns out that the Kill A Watt EZ Electricity Usage Monitor does just this, but without the dangerous wiring. It’s on my wishlist , so if anyone decides to buy it for me, I promise to test everything in my house, and post the results for all to see.
The gist is, you plug your item into this gizmo, and it calculates how much power is used. This can easily be converted to dollars.

How the electric company figures your bill

The electric company pretty much has a gizmo just like this (but more rugged, and more thoroughly calibrated.) Your bill is based on killowatt hours. This is wattage used by an appliance multiplied by the time that wattage is used. For example:

  • A 100 watt bulb, running for ten hours, uses 100 watts x 10 hours / 1000w/kw = 1 killowatt-hour.
  • If you look at your electric bill, you will see that they tell you how much you pay per killowatt-hour. First Energy charges me 7.36 cents. So the cost to me to run that 100 watt bulb is 7.36 cents.

Okay, so that number doesn’t seem to warrant too much freaking out.

Checking out my house

I did a quick check on my house, to see what lights get left on most often. Those are: The living room, the kitchen, basement. Just to be fair, I gave decided to estimate the hours that the lights were on when no one was using them. That time was about two hours per day.
This is how it worked out:

RoomTotal WattageCost Per Month
Living Room100W + 100W + 60W = 260W260W * 2hours * 30days * .0736 = $1.15
Kitchen60W total60W * 2hours * 30days * .0736 = 26 cents
Basement (all CFL)42w + 42w + 20w = 104w104w * 2hours * 30days * .0736 = 46 cents

So, this tells me that if I fret and run around the house turning off lights, I stand to save less than two bucks. If I relax about the lights, I get to settle down a bit, and it only costs me two bucks.

Replacing my lights with CFLs

Compact Flourescent Lights are dropping in price every day. Now, whenever a bulb burns out, I replace it with a CFL. I decided to do a little calculating to see how much this transition saved me over the course of a month.

My house is small. We only have about three rooms being lit at once, and then, only for an average of about 5 hours per day. That number will rise in the winter, but not much. So, let’s see how much it costs me to light my house, assuming those numbers, as opposed to incandescent lighting.

The trick with CFLs is they give you two wattage ratings. One, the wattage rating for the power they use, and the other, the equivalent incandescent wattage. In each room, we have two 26 watt bulbs (100 incandescent watts each) and one 15 watt (60 incandescent watts) bulb. This gives me 260 incandescent watts for the cost of 67 watts.

So, here’s how much it costs to light my house either way, assuming 3 rooms, 260 incandescent watts, 5 hours/day, and 30 days:

LightingKillowat-hours / monthCost/Month
Incandescent3 * 260W * 5hours * 30days = 117kwH$8.61
CFL3 * 67w * 5hours * 30 days = 30.15kwH2.21

So, the total savings for each month is $6.41.

Now, if you are in a similar situation, but have not made the transition to CFL yet, you can assume the lights will cost you about $3.20 each. In this case, each month, the cost of two bulbs will be saved. So, in my case, I recouped the cost of the bulbs in five months.

Is it worth it?

From what I understand, all bulbs will be switching to CFL soon, so we will not have a choice. But yes, it seems to be worth it. In order to get an equivalent light, you spend about a quarter of the cost in electricity.

As for shutting off every light in the house as and following people around to do so, no, it’s not worth it. Now that the usage has dropped by three fourths, it is really not worth it.

Now, my electric bill is still about $100 dollars a month. This might justify me buying the Kill A Watt EZ Electricity Usage Monitor to track down the culprit, but at this point, it’s not a good idea for me to be spending money. I have a suspicion it’s the cable box, the tivo, the tv, or some major appliance.
So, remember that wish list , and if I get one, I promise to teach you all how to find what is killing your electric bill.

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Shave Like your Grandpa Did

Vintage Shaving KitIn the interest of full disclosure, this story has links to a few products on Amazon. If you decide to buy these products from these links, I get a portion of the money. In the future, I may include such links to products, but do note that in all cases, these are products I have personally used and tested, and are products I believe in.
I will only include such ads when it facilitates the purchase of quality items.

An act of defiance.

A few years ago, I received a new razor blade in the mail. It came with two cartridges, and the handle. Just when I thought that three blades were enough to cope with any stubble i might have, the cartridge came with FOUR blades. I went through the two free blades in as many weeks, and since I had the handle, I thought i would just buy the blades for the handle.

I got to the store, and found that these blades cost $16 for three! I had never thought about how much i was spending on razor blades, so I looked at my old brand, and found that I was spending about $12 for a pack of four. I looked at the other brands, and this was about the standard pricing.

Then, scanning the racks, I found that I could pick up 10 old school safety razors for $5. I remembered that my grandpa gave me a safety razor about twenty years ago, and I still had it. In an act of technological defiance, I grabbed my old school razors at a fraction of the cost, and split.

Since I had my grandpa’s razor, the price of admission was free, but if you are a newcomer, you are going to have to get a handle. The most economical way to do it is to go to a second hand store. They usually have them lined up for five bucks a pop. In a lot of cases, they usually have new ones with cases for ten bucks. Until you know what you like, it really doesn’t matter which brand or style you get. Just get one that feels good in your hand. One of the brands that I have tried in the area of new razors is Merkur.

So, at this point, I had spend five bucks, for more than three times as many blades. But! Would one old school razor blade do the work of three modern blades?

But will it cut?

I ended up throwing a blade into my forty (at least) year old razor, and let it rip. To my surprise, I found that after I got used to how the razor worked (the angle and such) I was getting the best shave of my life. Over the years, I have found some tricks to getting an even better shave, and to my surprise, the best results were had with some of the most economical products.

Here are the things I learned. It took me awhile of wandering on my own. Armed with this info, you can have a barber shop quality shave every day, at a fraction of the super mega ultra blade cost:

  • You should always make two passes when you shave. The first pass goes WITH the grain, to knock your stubble down, the second pass goes AGAINST the grain. This will give you a baby butt smooth shave.
  • Take a look at your safety razor edgewise. You will see that it has an angle of about 30 degrees. This is the angle that you want to have flat on your face. Keep this angle as you move across your face, and you will keep that stubble in line.
  • Once you are comfortable, you might want to try a real shaving cream. The stuff they sell in the mega stores come in two styles. Cheap fluffy soap, and expensive but not so effective creams. None of these products are really suitable for shaving. Once you have tried a real cream, you will never got back. Some brands I have used: Proraso and Taylor of Old Bond Street. Although they are a bit more expensive than their discount store counterparts at first, I find that each product lasts several (four to six!) months.
  • If you venture out into using real shaving creams, you are going to need to pick up a brush. Brushes usually go from $15 – $40. My suggestion is to get a nice Badger Brush in the $25 neighborhood. Mine has lasted for years, and I have not thought it was worth my while to replace it for a bigger model.
  • If you decide to try other brands of razor blades (discount stores usually only carry their store brand), I have found that Merkur safety razor blades are considerably more robust than discount brands.

So, do you save money?

In retrospect, I was spending about $15 a month on shaving supplies. This has been cut to:

Razor Blades$2.40
Shave Cream$2
Total:$4.40 per month

So yes! Shaving like grandpa did saves a good deal of money, and works better than the latest blade technology.

How To

Okay, I found this video on youtube. While I think that all the information is valid, I found that since I shave in the shower, I can do it in five minutes, tops. So keep that in mind when they give you start hearing all the lengthy time estimates:

For a wealth of wet shaving information, and to learn to perfect your form, make sure to check Mark’s website and his youtube channel. Thanks, Mark for the excellent work.

So, if you decide to go this route, please let me know how it worked out for you. I would love to hear about your experiences.

Photo courtesy of Coffee Black and Egg White Photography

Addendum – 12/13/09

After using both Merkur blades and generic blades, I came to some conclusions. They are posted as a new entry on this blog.

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You’ve Been Laid Off – Inform your Creditors

800px-VISA_Logo_svg.png If you are currently buckling down in your spending and amping up your frugality due to a recent layoff, one of the first things that you should consider is that you probably owe money to a few people.

These people are not monsters, but they might get that way if you suddenly stop making payments to them. One of the best preemptive strikes you can make is to let them know your status as soon as possible.

Because you want to retain a record of your interactions with your creditors, you should always initiate your contact via a good old fashioned letter. Sure, it’s gonna cost you 44 cents, but at least you know that you got through to someone.

This will ensure that your creditors know your status, will work with you, and will come to know your name because your account is in arrears. Should your job hunting be less fruitful than you anticipated, your creditors will be much more happy to work with you.

Below is the letter that I sent to my creditors. Feel free to copy and past this into your word processor, and change any relevant information.

If you work for a lending company or have any inside information, I would love to collect stories on the effectiveness of this approach.

Dear Sirs:

Last week, I became another statistic.

As of this month, approximately 10% of the population of Ohio is unemployed. This number has now been raised by yet another person. Me.

As you have seen by my past record, I have every intention to keep my account up to date. I am currently seeking employment, but there are no guarantees as to who that will happen in today’s tough economy.

While my first priority is protecting my credit rating, I also want to keep our relationship friendly at all times.

I will keep in contact with you often, to let you know how things are going, but in the interim I would like to have someone from your office contact via telephone to discuss possible options, including temporarily reducing my interest rate.

You can reach me any time at:

(insert phone number)

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