Showing posts with label Dollar Stretching. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dollar Stretching. Show all posts

Apr 28, 2015

Saving Money on Garbage Fees

Although many news sources keep insisting the economy is improving, most of the people I know are struggling financially. The cost of everything is going up, and most people aren't getting wage increases - some are even taking hour or pay cuts. When times are like this, it's important for the Proverbs 31 Woman to look closely at her family's finances and cut expenses wherever possible.

One way my family did that recently was by getting rid of our garbage service.

First, we priced the cost of taking garbage to our local dump. (Actually, in our case, it's a transfer station.) We learned that we could take four average-sized garbage cans there for just $10.

Then we considered how much it would cost in time and money to drive the cans to the station. Our transfer station is about 5 minutes away, so it doesn't cost much to get there.

Then we told our garbage company to take a hike.

The garbage company was charging us $37.15 a month ($445.80 a year) to take away our garbage. After an investment of about $80 for our own curbside garbage cans, we now only pay $10 every month-and-a-half to dump our garbage. That means it costs us approximately $70 a year...which is a savings of about $375 a year!

Also note that because, Lord willing, we'll be moving soon, I'm not currently composting. (There's not much of a garden to put compost in, and the composters would be too heavy to move while full.) If I were still composting, we might only dump our garbage every two months, making the savings even greater.

Another bonus: We can take recyclables to the dump and get reduced rates for dumping our garbage.

And by owning our own cans, we avoid the problems many people who make dump runs have. We don't have our garbage sitting around in bags that cats, dogs, and other critters get into, spilling the contents. And our stored garbage doesn't smell because the plastic garbage cans we use are well sealed. Plus, the cans look neat and tidy tucked into an out of the way spot.

It's a win-win for our family. Check out your local dump or transfer station rates. You might be able to save hundreds, too.

Apr 17, 2015

The Easy Way We Save Thousands Each Year


I admit it. I'm shocked and amazed to hear what most people spend on television. We're often talking hundreds of dollar per month - thousands per year. For television, people.

How much do we spend on TV at my house? $7.99 a month.



That's because we long ago ditched cable or satellite and bought a Roku device. The Roku is a small box (about 3.5 in. square) that connects your television to internet TV. The Roku itself costs about $60 - $100 (depending upon which version you get; we have Roku 3, which Amazon sells for about $85)...and almost all of the channels we have are free. Yes, free! Some of our favorite free channels include The History Channel, A&E, The Smithsonian Channel, and PBS Kids.

In addition, there are many Roku channels available for purchase. A great many are under $5. We only have one paid channel: Netflix. It costs $7.99 a month. But there are hundreds more channels to choose from, many of which are only available through a streaming service. There are channels just for those who love to cook, or love to hunt, or want to learn to garden. There are Christian channels, classic tv channels, classic movie channels, and radio channels. A friend of mine has a child who wants to learn French. She found a Roku channel that teaches French for only 99 cents a year. You can bet she was more than happy to pay it!

True, streaming is bit different from regular television. For one, there are often no commercials! For another, there isn't quite the selection you get through cable or satellite. (Although more channels are added regularly.) Many of the free channels are the same as the websites cable channels have. For example, The History Channel website is essentially the same as The History Channel on Roku. So some episodes are free to watch right away, while others you might have to wait weeks (sometimes months) to watch. No matter; we can always manage to find something decent to watch through our Roku.

Pros to Streaming with a Roku:

* Commercials are rare. (We only have them on free channels, and even then, usually only during peak hours. Also, there's typically only one commercial during a commercial break. There are no commercials on Netflix.)

* You can watch whenever you like; you don't have to wait a certain hour for a show to air.

* You can binge watch. Love a show? You can watch as many episodes as are available, all at once. Ha!

* There's lots of content. Through the Roku, you can get Netflix, Hulu Plus, NBA, NHL Game Center, EPIX, Amazon Instant Video,Vudu, CNBC, The Blaze, FOX News, NBC News, and so, so much more.

* It's so inexpensive!

* Did I mention how cheap it is??


Cons to Streaming with Roku:

* Streaming is not a good choice if you have a very slow internet connection.

* If your internet service has limits on bandwidth, watch out! Streaming takes a lot of bandwidth.

* If your internet connection goes out, so does your tv.

* You may not be able to watch all the shows you want; you may have to wait for the latest episodes of TV shows.


But, for us, the cost difference is so HUGE it utterly and completely outweighs any cons. What about you?


 

Mar 4, 2015

Storing Food Without Plastic

I've not been quick to jump on the anti-BPA bandwagon, but it does seem more and more damning evidence is linked not just to BPA, but to other chemicals in plastic (including those touted as safe alternatives to BPA). One of the more interesting observations is that males seem more susceptible to hormone disruption caused by plastic than females; since boys are far more likely to develop autism than girls, researchers wonder if plastic could be a reason for autism. And did I mention that plastics - which are found not just in plastic bags, bottles, and boxes, but also in the lining for commercially canned foods - are also linked to hyperactivity in children?

So I've been thinking a lot about just how much plastic our food is exposed to. A mother could drive herself crazy trying to rid her family's exposure to plastic, pesticides, and other chemicals. (As a wise friend of mine says, there is no perfect food in a fallen world.) But here are some easy ways to avoid plastic - and save some money, too.

In the Refrigerator:

* Use canning jars. These work really well for stock, soup, stew, salads, etc. Short, fat jars work for storing partially used fruits and veggies. (I keep a few used canning jar lids around to use for purposes such as this, but you could buy new ones if you don't can. It's also fine to reuse glass jars from store bought food.) (UPDATE 02/05/2015: My husband read this post and said, "But there's plastic in canning jar lids." I replied that while this is true, I'm assuming the food won't touch the plastic on the lid. He pointed out that offgassing of plastics is a concern. He's right. See, a Mom could go crazy!)

A plate set over a plate or bowl protects food in the fridge.
* Put leftovers in non-plastic bowls (or the platters or dishes that they were served on) and cover them with a plate, instead of plastic wrap. This works best if the bowl or other container has raised sides. You can also put one plate on top of another plate. And yes, the food keeps just as long in the fridge as it would in a container with an air tight lid.

* Invest in some casserole dishes with glass lids. Use these instead of Tupperware. Bonus: You can cook with them, too.
Casserole dishes with glass lids are excellent for storing leftovers.
* Keep foods in non-plastic bowls, and use homemade fabric covers. Here's a nice example of using cotton covered in beeswax. You could also add elastic to the edges, to make round, shower cap style coverings, like this. If you're not the crafty type, similar items are available on Etsy.

* Notice I didn't mention glass refrigerator containers? They have plastic lids. Plus, they tend to be pricey. And as you can see, they aren't necessary.


In the Freezer:

Liquids store exceptionally well in glass jars.
 * Use canning jars for storing liquids or partial liquid foods. However, ONLY use canning lids without shoulders; they should be straight from the opening all the way to the bottom. Be sure to leave room for the contents to expand during freezing, also. (If you leave about 1 inch of space from the opening of the jar to the food, you should be fine.)

* Use cleaned milk or juice cartons for freezing liquids. You'll need freezer tape to seal the containers. (Yes, there is some plastic in these containers, but they are lined so the plastic doesn't come into contact with contents of the carton.)

* Wrap foods in heavy duty foil. A double layer works best. Or first wrap in foil, then in butcher paper.

* Use butcher paper. In the old days, butcher paper wrapped items weren't first wrapped in plastic or foil. This method works best, however, if the food is already frozen, so consider placing whatever you're freezing on a rimmed baking sheet in the freezer; when it's hard, wrap it in the paper.
When freezing food in glass jars, be sure to choose jars without a shoulder.

Jan 12, 2015

11 Ways to Stretch Your Meat Budget

A few days ago, while I was grocery shopping with my family, I asked my husband to fetch some ground
beef. A few minutes later he returned...without the meat. "I didn't know what to choose," he said. Truthfully, I was a little annoyed, but when I headed over to the meat department and looked at the offerings, I, too, ended up walking away without the ground beef. It was just too darn expensive - about $6 a pound...and I was at a discount grocery store!

And it's not just beef. The frozen chicken breasts that for years have been a staple of my cooking and canning have become painful to purchase. Even pork, which has been among the less expensive meats the past several years, has increased in price.

According to American Live Wire, beef is at it's highest price in three decades - supposedly because we are exporting tons of beef to China and Japan. Crazy, right? Slate adds that cattle herds are at 1951 levels, and, of course, our population is considerably bigger now. Drought made feed more scarce - and expensive. Costly feed also explains the increase in the cost of buying chicken and pork. Oh, and did I mention there was an epidemic that killed tons of piglets? And when you consider that food costs in general are on the rise - well, it's enough to make you think you may soon need to feed your family Top Ramen for every meal.

But thinking specifically of meat prices, what's a Proverbs 31 Woman to do? Assuming you don't want to become vegetarians, that you want to avoid more meatless meals, and you can't raise your own meat?


1. Buy a local steer and freeze it.
Yes, this does take some planning, because it will cost several hundred dollars. But it should be much cheaper. (Ours was $2.50 a pound, which is an incredible bargain right now!) It will also be healthier, assuming it's antibiotic- and hormone-free, and possibly grass fed.

2. Look for clearance meat. Not all grocery stores have a clearance section for meat, but check those that do. Frequently. Sometimes this takes a willingness to sort through less than appetizing, gray and old-looking meat, but I can often find something worth buying - and at a greatly reduced price. Just be sure to either eat the meat that same day, or freeze it as soon as you get home.

3. Watch for sales. Look at local store's sales fliers and watch for good deals. When you find an exceptional deal, buy extra and freeze it. Don't fall into the old trap of only buying enough meat for that week; you need to stock up to keep things affordable.

4. When buying larger cuts, like a roast beef, ham, or whole bird, cook it all, but slice off servings and put them on each family member's plate. Don't put the larger cut on the table; in fact, tuck it away in the back of the fridge as soon as possible.

5. Never, ever let a larger cut only suffice for one meal (unless you have a very large family). Make that roast last for several meals. (This doesn't mean you must have the same meal each night. For example, the first night, you could have sliced roast beef. The next night, a stir fry. The following night, a soup. And so on. For ideas on getting many meals out of a ham, click here. For chicken or other foul, click here.)

6. Choose less expensive cuts of meat. Gone are the days when that was ground beef! Instead, look for tough cuts of meat, then cook them "low and slow" - on lower heat for a longer period of time.

7. Make the meat part of the meal smaller, and be sure to include other filling items in the meal, like high fiber veggies or bread.

8. With ground beef, use fillers to make it go farther. Cooked rice, uncooked oatmeal, and cooked lentils are classic choices that blend in easily. (Start with small amounts of filler, for less objection from your family. As time goes on, you can try adding more.) Other good filler choices include barley (cooked); beans (cooked and pureed); bread crumbs (Store bought bread crumbs are full of unhealthy soy; save your health and your wallet by saving stale bread or crumbs in the freezer.); grated veggies (especially zucchini, carrots, and potatoes); pureed veggies (most work fine, but carrots, onions, and  celery are classic; mushrooms are also an excellent choice). For meatloaf, burgers, meatballs, and the like, add an egg or two, along with another filler, like oatmeal.

9. If ground turkey or chicken is less expensive, use a mix of ground beef and ground poultry.

10. Choose dishes where a little meat can go a long way, like stir frys, stews, and soups.

11. Consider bartering with a neighbor who hunts. (Or learn to hunt yourself.)


But in your quest to make meat more affordable, avoid a few things, too:

1. Avoid processed meats. Some discount grocery stores, for example, sell meat that's already marinated or injected. This is a way of charging more for inferior meat - and it's not healthy, either. Usually, those marinades and injections are full of salt, corn syrup, and other unhealthy ingredients. In addition, things like SPAM, or even canned tuna, are usually not a good deal per serving.

2. Avoid Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) as a filler, even though many websites recommend using it as a filler. TVP is made from soy, and soy affects estrogen levels in the body, which is linked to cancer. In addition, unless it's labeled "certified organic," it's a GMO product.


What do you think? Is your family struggling to keep meat on the menu? How do you make your meat budget stretch?

Dec 31, 2014

Most Popular Posts - for 2014, and for all time!

The most popular post!
It's always fun for me to see which posts are most popular on this blog. (They are never - never! - the posts I imagine will most interest readers!) Oddly, what shows up as popular depends upon what source I look at; but studying stats from Blogger, Pinterest, and other top sources, it's easy to see which posts are all time favorites and favorites for the year. And since recent months have brought a great many more readers to Proverbs 31 Woman, I thought it would be fun to share these lists with you - especially since many of the posts are from years' past. It's a pretty eclectic list; enjoy!

(P.S. Want to see more popular posts from Proverbs 31 Woman? Check out the Pinterest page "Most Popular Posts at Proverbs 31 Woman.")

Top 5 Posts for 2014:

1. 52 Simple Sewing Projects for Kids

2. 10 Things I Learned During Our Tiny House Test Run

3. The Letter of the Week Series, especially Letter R

4. Free Art History Curriculum: Claude Monet

5. Walmart Savings Catcher: Hit or Miss?


Top 10 Most Popular Posts of All Time:

 1. How to Train Chickens  (it completely cracks me up that this is the most popular post among readers!)

2. 6 Ways to Teach Kids the Books of the Bible

3. Best Free Apron Patterns on the Net

4. How to Clean a REALLY Dirty Stove

5. Best Ideas for Upcycling Jeans

6. Canning Pickled Green Beans (Dilly Beans)

7. Harvesting and Making Your Own Chamomile Tea

8. How Much Money Can You Save Gardening & Homesteading

9. 52 Simple Sewing Projects for Kids

10. Easiest Fruits & Vegetables to Grow

Nov 24, 2014

What Groceries to Buy When You're Broke

"Too Tired to Cook" is frugal, especially if you omit the ground beef.
Sometimes, no matter how close you stick to your budget, you end up with too little money at the end of the month. If you keep a well stocked pantry, this usually isn't the end of the world - but, if money has been tight for a while, you might find your pantry lacking, too. This can make it difficult to find cash to feed your family. But if you shop carefully, you'll find some items are definitely more affordable - and stretch further - than others. Here's what I buy when money is tight:

* Brown rice. Unlike white rice, brown rice gives you a good dose of nutrients. It's also fairly cheap and can really stretch a meal. Saute up some veggies, season them, and serve them on a bed of rice. Or serve plain rice as a filling side dish. Or add it (cooked) to a soup. If you're really struggling, go ahead and serve it all by itself. (Been there, done that!) But don't go in for minute-style rice; it's more expensive and most of the nutrients have been removed.

* Dry beans. Not only are dry beans cheap, but they are packed with nutrients, are a decent protein, and are quite filling. Some beans - like lentils - are great "fillers" for other foods, too. For example, you can use lentils with just a little ground beef (or entirely in place of ground beef) in things like enchiladas and casseroles. Other bean ideas include adding them to soups and stews, my "dump it" meal, lentil soup, and my  too tired to cook bean dish. Incidentally, don't be put off beans because they cause - ahem - flatulence. This is easy to combat with dry beans; just change the water frequently when you are rehydrating them. Also, make life a little easier for yourself by soaking at least one package of beans at a time, then freezing the leftovers. For more on using dried beans, click here.

* Flour. If you know how to cook from scratch, you can make all kinds of things with flour - including pancakes, waffles (learn how to freeze them here), bread, biscuits, tortillas, pizza crust, and pasta. I recommend whole wheat flour because, while it's more expensive than white flour, it's also more nutrient dense - and more filling. However, unless you're used to 100% whole wheat products, you'll want to use some white flour mixed into your recipes. I recommend using half - or a wee bit less - of whole wheat flour.

* Pasta. Pasta is relatively cheap and filling. You can make it yourself, but if you're new to from-scratch cooking, you'll probably want to buy it. I recommend whole grain pasta  because it's more filling and nutrient dense - although, granted, more expensive.

* In season vegetables. They are cheaper than veggies that aren't in season. You can learn when veggies are in season from my ebook A Vegetable for Every Season ($2.99), or here. Also consider frozen vegetables.

* Popcorn. The cheapest snack food around is probably popcorn - but only if you don't buy it in microwave bags. Either pop it in a pan on the stove, or use a paper lunch bag to pop it in the microwave.

What groceries do you buy when money is tight?

Nov 10, 2014

The Tiny House Movement Comes to...Our Motorhome

I have big, scary (to me) news: We're moving into a "tiny house."

You may have heard about tiny houses before; they've been the topic of many magazine articles, books, and documentaries - all of which seem to feature absolutely gorgeous houses of about 400 sq. ft. or less, with cute little lofts and really clever pull out tables and hidden drawers. Yeah, they are cool. But our tiny house won't be like that. Our tiny house is...a motorhome. This one, in fact.


When my husband first proposed the idea of living full time in a motorhome, I admit it - I cried and said, "I don't want to talk to you about this right now. I need to go talk to Jesus!" For years, I've thought the tiny house movement was interesting. But I also always thought, "Maybe when the kids grow up. I can't imagine living in a tiny house with two young children."

But my husband's thoughts were persuasive. If we could move into a motor home - at least for a little while - our living expenses would drop dramatically. And that would let us save more money for our dreamed-for homestead. Which we could then possibly pay for in cash.

Even so, it's tough for me to think of moving into about180 sq. ft. when my current home's kitchen is already frustratingly small. Still, millions of humans live in places at least as small as a motorhome. But after years of living in a house that's been in disrepair, I want to live someplace reasonably pretty. Motor homes are many things, but most are definitely not pretty.

Nonetheless, I told my hubby to go ahead and look at some motorhomes on Craigslist, and I'd pray and think on it some more. Almost instantly, he found a deal that seemed to come from God. It was a high end motorhome - albeit from the 1980s - at a ridiculously low price. (Much lower than any tiny house I've seen. Did you know tiny houses generally cost $200 - $400 per sq. ft., or $23,000 on average?) Why was this motorhome priced so low? Turned out, the engine wasn't working right. We actually think the seller believed the motorhome required a new engine, though he never came out and said that. But my husband is an extremely talented mechanic, and he knew the fix was an easy one - no new engine required. We bought the motorhome, even though I hadn't seen the inside.

The day my husband showed me the inside of the motor home, I cried again. I hated it. Really hated it. It was so ugly. And there was no place for the children! There was only one bed - and not even a kitchenette for eating or doing schoolwork. And did I mention that the one thing I'd told my husband the motor home had to have was permanent bedding for the kids? Sigh.

But I continued praying, and kept hearing, "Be anxious for nothing." So I tried to breathe. And I remembered that if I wanted to, I could tell my husband, "No way. We aren't doing this and that's that," and he would  acquiesce.

But instead, I started looking for ideas on how to cram our family of four into a 180 sq. ft. motorhome. Accidentally, I ran into RV makeovers on Pinterest. Amazing RV makeovers. This made me feel better. Although I didn't want to throw a bunch of money into our motorhome, I was beginning to see that, with a lot of work, I could make the thing more homey, bright, and cheery. Others live with so much less. Surely this is do-able.

So now the motorhome is working well, and I'm scheming about how to put beds and an eating area into it. I've figured out a way I think I can live with the strange lavender/powder blue tile, tub, and bathroom sink. And last weekend, I started cleaning the filthy cabinetry in preparation for painting them. (I spent 3 1/2 hours cleaning the cabinetry on just one side of the bedroom.)

Yes, I'm concerned about privacy. Not just about the type you're thinking about, but also the type that introverts require (there are three of them in our family). I'm concerned about the fact that anyone who stirs early in the morning is going to wake us all up...and I'm already so sleep deprived. BUT God is working on me. Stretching me. This is do-able. Sometimes I can even laugh about this; I'm starting to call it my mid-life crisis.

It's not what I dreamed of. But it will certainly be an adventure.

And as we prepare the motorhome for full time living, and as we learn to live there, you can be sure I'll keep you updated. This tiny house thing. It's more than a trend.

Nov 3, 2014

Toys That Have Endured

Are you thinking about Christmas gifts yet? I am...and as I look around our house, I realize that even though most of the things my children have received as gifts haven't endured, some gifts certainly have. My children play with them over and over again.And I'm betting yours will, too.

Geotrax

I don't think I've ever met a kid who doesn't like train sets. But by far the best train set for children is, in my opinion, Geotrax. Why? It's easy to put together, the tracks don't fall apart easily (yet they are still not hard to take the tracks apart), it's durable, the remote controls are simple to use - and it's just plain fun! We started out with a basic set purchased at a toy store, then added additional tracks that I found used on Ebay. All the Geotrax stuff is interchangeable, which is another excellent feature.

Pattern Blocks Puzzle

At my house, puzzles generally get put together once or twice, and then my kids aren't interested in them any more. But this puzzle set is something both my children continue to use. When young, my kids use the picture boards that come with the set. Later, they use the blocks to create their own designs. I've even used this set for homeschooling - to teach geometric shapes and for symmetry lessons.


Wooden Blocks

If my kids could only have one toy, I'd make it a set of blocks. Toddlers love them. Gradeschoolers love them. Even tweens love them!

Legos

This classic building toy is a must have for any child who likes to build and create. At this point, we've stuck mainly to the larger style Duplo blocks (the ones just one size down from "regular" Legos); this seems a bit more manageable when pick-up time comes along.

Magna Doodle

My kids love Magna Doodles, even though they have plenty of access to paper, pencils, crayons, and pens. The cool thing is, Magna Doodles require none of these, and are perfect for taking in the car, to doctor's offices, or on road trips. My kids have literally worn theirs out after years and years of use!

Felt Calendar

Both my kids learned their days of the week, months of the year, seasons, years, and more about numbers by using a felt "calendar." There's something about the set up of this thing that kids love! (TIP: I used simple songs to teach the days of the week and the months of the year alongside our felt calendar. My preference is "There are Seven Days a Week" sung to the tune of  "Clementine" and "These are Twelve Months of the Year" sung to the tune of "Ten Little Indians.")

Puppets

Of all the toys my kids use for pretend play, puppets are the most enduring. We have finger puppets, hand puppets, and even a simple marionette we found in a thrift store. They get used nearly every day, by both children.





Be sure to also check out our family's favorite board and card games.
 

Sep 10, 2014

Walmart's Savings Catcher: Hit or Miss?

Perhaps a month ago, my local Walmart began touting what they call "Savings Catcher:" a website or app customers can use to automatically check for lower prices at mother grocery stores. If the Savings Catcher finds a lower price, Walmart gives the customer the difference. So, if for example, you purchased a certain brand and size of cheese at Walmart, but store #2 has the exact item on sale for a buck less, Walmart will give you that dollar. Sounds great, right?
Well, the first time I tried Savings Catcher, I had zero savings. The second time, after a large shopping trip that would feed us for at least two weeks, I received a whopping $1.62 in savings. Hmmm...

How Walmart's Savings Catcher Works

After you shop at Walmart, you can either scan a smart phone QR on the bottom of the Walmart receipt (after downloading the Savings Catcher app), or you can use your computer or other online device to go to Savings Catcher online. (I don't have a smart phone, so I can only give details about what it's like to use Saving's Catcher on my computer.)

Once at the Savings Catcher website, you'll need to set up a password, then enter a 21 digit number off your receipt, plus the date of purchase. That's it; the website does the rest. You'll receive an email that your info was received by the site and then, within a handful of days, you'll get another email explaining whether Savings Catcher found any better deals at other grocery stores. If it did, the email tells you how much money is going back into your pocket.

According to the Savings Catcher FAQ, each customer may enter up to seven receipts per week, and there is no minimum number of items that must be on the receipt. However, receipts can be no more than seven days old.

The Good

* Savings Catcher online is very easy to use, taking no longer than two minutes, tops, to enter your password and receipt information. Presumably, using a smart phone scan is even easier.

* Any money that comes back to you can be saved up - or turned into a gift card right away.

* According to a news release, Savings Catcher will soon include produce and general merchandise.


UPDATE 10/7/14: Click here to learn how to double your Savings Catcher funds.

The Not So Good

* Not too surprisingly, there are a number of items Savings Catcher does not consider. It doesn't compare prices on advertised sales that offer a percentage off, that require a separate purchase to get the advertised price, BOGO deals where no price is listed, online purchases, store brand items, deli, bakery, weighed items (like meat), consumables (like toilet paper), health and beauty items, and "select general merchandise items...including, but not limited to, electronics, media and gaming, toys, sporting goods, housewares, small appliances, home d├ęcor, bedding, books and magazines, apparel and shoes, jewelry, furniture and seasonal products...tobacco, firearms, gasoline, tires, prescription drugs, optical and photo products and services, or products that require a service agreement such as wireless, automotive or financial products."

* If Savings Catcher finds an item at a lower price, you can only get the savings in the form of a Walmart gift card.

* Each customer can earn a maximum of $599.99 Reward Dollars per year.

The Bad

* The Savings Catcher website says they "compare advertised prices from the top retailers located nearby the Walmart store where you shopped." The list of stores they compared prices with is available once your receipt has been processed and you've received information on what (if anything) you saved. In my case, none of the stores were what I'd consider comparable to Walmart; they were stores that very, very rarely have prices lower than Walmart. Worse, we have at least two grocery stores - closer than some of the stores Walmart used as comparables - that are what might be called "discount" grocery stores, with prices more in line with Walmart, that the Savings Catcher did not include. I hate to say it, but this seems pretty disingenuous; if Walmart really wants to make comparison shopping unnecessary - if they really want to "offer customers yet another reason to trust us when it comes to helping them save" -  then they need to compare prices with ALL the grocery stores in a given area - even those that may have lower prices than Walmart.

* Savings Catcher appears to work best if you buy a lot of processed food. The only items I saved money on were two processed food items my husband likes to eat once in a while. I suppose this shouldn't be a surprise since the Savings Catcher FAQ says they don't compare prices on anything weighed - which is a good portion of what we buy when we cook from scratch. (That said, Walmart is promising to soon include produce in the Savings Catcher; that could make Savings Catcher more worthwhile.)

Conclusion

While I'm not very excited about how Savings Catcher currently works, I do think it has potential. If Walmart will compare prices with all grocery stores in a given area, and if they will include produce and meat, Walmart will really have a competitive edge. In the meantime, I will probably continue adding my receipt information into Savings Catcher - at least for a time - in the hopes that it will improve.



Jul 28, 2014

Why Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables are Important

Not long ago, I was on a gardening forum where someone asked if it was okay to eat produce with holes in
it. "My family says no, because bugs have been eating it," the man typed. This received a variety of replies, but only one respondent typed what I was thinking: "Well, if you don't want to eat veggies with holes nibbled in them, you can go and buy some poison, sprinkle it on your food, kill all those nasty bugs, and you'll have 'perfect' little veggies to eat."


* * *

Last year, my mom- and sister-in-law attended a class on orchard keeping. At the beginning of the class, the teacher asked everyone to come forward and choose an apple from a box on his desk. When every student had done so, all the perfect-looking apples were gone, and all the imperfect apples - those that were misshaped or had worm holes - were left in the box. "Until this changes - until people start choosing and buying produce that's less than perfect, organic food will not become the norm," the teacher said.

* * *

Did you know that in the U.S., 40 - 50% of all food that's ready for commercial harvest never gets eaten? Some of this is due to modern methods of harvesting - machines that don't take corners well, for example. (Which, incidentally has lead to a rise in the biblical practice of gleaning - not a bad thing!) But a good portion of that is food that's misshapen or otherwise considered imperfect - for example, carrots with two or more roots - and are just thrown away.

* * *

Last week, I saw an encouraging news story. In France, one supermarket chain is putting an end to this kind of food waste - and helping consumers reduce their food bills, too. They are taking all that imperfect produce ("inglorious fruits and vegetables," they call them) and putting them on their shelves at reduced prices. And the French are eating them up! So much so, the chain is having trouble keeping enough "inglorious" produce in stock.

And while the news story doesn't mention it, the acceptance of less than perfect produce opens the door wide to more - and more affordable - organic produce. Why? Because organic practices lead to more bug nibbles - and because an item like a perfect-looking organic apple takes many more man hours to produce, and therefore costs much more than conventionally grown apples.


What do you think? Are you willing to eat imperfect food in order to end food waste and make organic more affordable?

Jul 21, 2014

Make Your Produce Last Longer

"My produce always goes bad before we can eat it all," I overheard a woman complain to her friend. "I spend all this money on healthy food, and most of it gets wasted!" She's not alone. Experts estimate Americans throw away 14 - 25% of their food, costing the average family $1,365 - $2,275. This is tragic, considering an estimated 842 million people worldwide don't have enough to eat.

What can you do to end food waste in your household? Check out the tips below. (And be sure to see the other articles I've written about food waste, too.)

"And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples,
'Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.'” 

* Buy only what you can reasonably expect to eat before it goes bad. Even if it means extra trips to the farmer's market or grocery store.

* Keep one drawer in the fridge for fruits, and another for veggies. Never store them together because many fruits release ethylene gas - —a ripening agent that makes veggies rot faster.

* Don't refrigerate bananas, garlic, apples, winter squash, potatoes, or onions. Tomatoes tend to turn mealy in the fridge, too. (Be careful to keep onions and potatoes apart, since onions hasten the demise of taters.)

* Freeze certain veggies. On shopping day - or perhaps the day after shopping - chop up produce you'll use for cooking, like onion, green onions, herbs, and sweet peppers. Pop them in a freezer bag, and you won't have to worry about them going bad.

* Use up the most perishable items first. For example, snack on bananas before you start in on the apples. You'll also want to plan your meals so the most perishable foods get used up first.

* Learn to use up just-about-to-spoil produce. You can make smoothies with them. Or freeze them. Or dehydrate them.

* Don't store countertop produce in a hot or sunny location. Keep them in a cool, dark location and they will remain fresh longer.

* Immediately remove produce that's overripe or spoiling. For example, if you keep an apple that has a spoiled spot in with the other apples, it will hasten the spoiling of them all.
I wouldn't want to have to do without my Progressive Keepers.

* Use Progressive International Keeper containers. They really work! There is a water reservoir at the bottom of the containers, plus adjustable venting - and all the information you need for correctly storing produce is right on the container itself. (Some people also swear by Tupperware Fridgesmart containers.)

* Don't wash fruits until you're ready to eat them; experts say water decreases fruit's life by 40%. Some people swear by rinsing them in vinegar and water; I've never tried this becauee I find fruits and berries last a long time in my Progressive containers.

* Remove ties and rubber bands before storing.

* Don't stuff fridge drawers. If you let produce have a little room to breathe, the food will last longer.

* Place plastic wrap over the stem end of bananas. Some people claim separating them makes them last longer, too, but I haven't found this to be the case. And while you're at it, buy green bananas and let them ripen on the counter. They'll last many more days this way.

* Consider whether it needs ripening. Avocados, tomatoes, stone fruits, mangoes, melons, pears, bananas, and apples, will continue to ripen if you leave them on the counter. Citrus, berries, grapes, and bell peppers will not ripen on the counter and will spoil quickly there.

* Buy from local farmers. The food is fresher than what you buy at te grocery store; therefore, it stores longer at home.

* Don't toss it just because it looks bad. With heads of lettuce or cabbage, remove the outer leaves and you'll find fresher leaves inside. Cut away bad spots in fruit, eat the rest.

* Compost! If all else fails, compost spoiled produce to feed the soil in your yard! Also, if you have critters (like chickens and rabbits) that can eat produce, it's fine to give them wilty, dry, or otherwise unpalatable produce - but never give them anything that's rotten.

 

Jul 2, 2014

How to Get the Most From Your Freezer

Want to be frugal and cut down on your grocery bill? You need a freezer - and not just the one attached to your fridge. Having a dedicated freezer allows you to save money by stocking up on food when it's on sale, preserving your home grown foods (if you don't can or you don't like certain foods in canned form), and freeze extras for quick, easy meals later (a much cheaper - and healthier - alternative to pizza or fast food).
But many of us don't use our freezers to their greatest advantage. If you want to save money, energy, and time using your freezer, keep in mind these things:

* Upright vs. Chest Freezers. Yes, upright freezers save space, but chest freezers are far and away more efficient. So if you're thinking about buying a freezer, you definitely want to go with a chest style.

* Temperature. Keep it at 0 degrees F. or below. This will preserve the food best.

* Keep it Full. A full freezer is a more efficient freezer. And if the power goes out, the food will stay frozen longer. Don't have enough food to fill the freezer? Fill empty milk and juice containers with water and pop them in the fridge.
* Maintenance Matters. Once every year or so, defrost the freezer to keep it running efficiently. That's also a great time to clean the freezer (it's amazing how dirty it can get!). I like to use Windex for this job; it's easy to use and the ammonia in it kills any bad germs. If you prefer, ordinary soap and water works, too. In addition, you should vacuum the freezer coils about once a year. Dust and grime on the coils makes the freezer work harder, making it use more energy and wear out more quickly.

* Stock It. Freezers make it possible to never pay retail on food. Why pay full price for meat, for example, when you can stock up when it's on sale? Freezers also prevent waste by making it easy to preserve leftovers - including things like enchilada or pizza sauce. Some people also keep a special freezer container where they put extra, leftover veggies; I recommend putting the extras on a baking sheet, then popping that into the freezer; once the veggies are frozen, add them to the container. When the container is full, it's perfect for pot pie, shepherd's pie, or soup. If you really have your act together, you can also stock your freezer with complete meals. There are two ways to to do this. The easiest is to cook double; for example, if you make lasagna, make two: One to eat that night and one to freeze. If you're really ambitious, you can plan out a lot of meals and spend a day cooking and freezing them.

* Keep Inventory. It is way too easy to loose track of what's in the freezer - and if it gets left in there long enough, it will become unappetizing. Truly the best way to keep track of what you have is to write or type up a list, like this:
Then keep this list someplace handy. You could tape it on the outside of the freezer itself, or on the inside of the pantry door, or on the front of the fridge. (I've seen some blogs suggest keeping your inventory on the freezer itself, written with dry erase pen. The problem with this is the ink can wipe away with one careless finger - and over time, the ink is difficult to remove.)

To make this list really work, though, every time you remove or add something to the freezer, you must mark it on your list.

* Organize It. Even if you keep an inventory, it helps tremendously if you organize your freezer in a logical way. That is, instead of just cramming stuff in wherever there is a hole, assign each area a type of food. For example, you might have one area that is beef, another that's chicken, another that's herbs, and another that's vegetables. Some people like to use plastic bins to keep everything neat and tidy. Others find plastic bins get too brittle and hard to handle, and use fabric bins or bags instead.
Canning jars without shoulders are suitable as freezer containers.
* Contain It. I like freezer bags better than containers, mostly because I don't have any space for storing extra freezer containers. Bags also take up a lot less space in the freezer if you fill them, seal them, then lay them flat until they are frozen. Additionally, it's easier to remove excess air from bags, which makes the food last longer. Just seal the bag most of the way, leaving enough room for a straw to fit in one corner. Put your mouth on the other end of the straw and inhale the excess air. If you do prefer to use containers, though, you can save space by using square and rectangular ones only. For liquid items like soup or stock, canning jars (real ones - not just ordinary glass jars) are a handy freezer container. Be sure to avoid jars that have "shoulders;" jars that are straight at the neck are much less likely to crack or break in the freezer. Also, be sure to leave an inch of "headspace" (empty, unfilled space) in the jar.

* Label It! Never, never, never, ever put a container or bag in the freezer without labeling it clearly! Trust me; later you will have no idea what it is or when you put it in there. Be sure to write the contents and the date on every package.


* Portion It. A huge container of food is usually harder to use than smaller containers of that same food. It usually makes sense, then, to freeze food in portion-sized amounts. That could mean freezing enough soup for the whole family, or it could mean freezing just enough for one person. If you want to freeze a larger bag of anything, use this little trick to keep the food from becoming a solid, frozen-together mass: Lay the individual pieces (whether berries or chicken legs) on a baking sheet and pop it into the freezer. When the food is frozen, transfer it to a bag.

* Prevent Freezer Burn. Using freezer bags (and getting the excess air out) really helps here. If you have things that won't fit in a bag, double wrap them in heavy foil or butcher's paper that's well sealed.

* Use It! Aside from having an inventory that you look at when planning meals, it helps to place newer foods in the back of the freezer and reach for the things in the front first. Rotating food ensures nothing will be forgotten and wasted.

Jun 30, 2014

How to Buy Half a Beef (or a Quarter, or a Whole!)

Once you realize grass fed beef is better for you, it's not long before you understand you need to find a more affordable source for it than the grocery store. I think it's fantastic our two local grocery stores carry grass fed beef - but it's pricey! (An example: Our Walmart sells wee packs of grass fed ground beef - enough for maybe two tiny hamburgers - for $9.)

In the past, we'd often thought about saving money by buying beef from a local farmer. Now that we've made the commitment to eat grass fed for our health, we knew we needed to stop thinking about it and just do it. But if you've never bought a quarter, a half, or a whole beef before, it can be a little intimidating. So let me walk you through the process. (Incidentally, the process is the same for grass fed bison, which is becoming more and more common for farmer's to raise.)

How Much Do I Need?

First things first; you need to consider just how much meat you want to buy. This really depends upon your family's eating habits. Some people eat very little meat - and some eat meat every day. Also, if you can buy meat in bulk and save money doing so, consider that you might eat more beef than you currently do.

For an idea of how much beef you eat in a year, approximate how much meat you consume each week, then multiply the number of pounds by 52 (the approximate number of weeks in a year).

Finding the Beef

Now to find beef! Sometimes a local, old fashioned butcher shop (not attached to a grocery store) can help you with this. Either the butcher can connect you directly with a farmer, or he can act as a go-between. I recommend dealing directly with the farmer, as the cost is likely to be lower. (Although the butcher will come into play later, as I'll detail in a moment.)

Other places to connect with farmers selling beef include:

* Craigslist
* A local farmer's market (Ask around!)
* The county fair (Again, you'll have to ask around.)
* The Local Harvest website
* Or, if you have a friend who raises cows, ask them to raise a cow just for you

Questions to Ask Before Buying
Butcher paper wrapped (left) vs. plastic wrapped (right)


If you're fortunate, you'll have more than one farmer to contact. Give him or her a call and ask:

* Is the beef entirely grass fed, or has it been given grains at any time? (Some cattle are entirely grain fed, which you should avoid; others are fed grain most of their life, then allowed to graze on grass before being butchered; again - avoid that. What you want is cattle that's grazed on grass all its life.)

* Is the beef hormone and anti-biotic free?

* What breed does the beef come from? (It should be from a meat breed or a dual purpose breed, like a Holstein.)

* How is the beef available? (Usually you can buy a quarter, a half, or a whole cow. Don't panic if only whole cows are available; you may be able to find a few other families who are willing to buy the cow with you.)

* Approximately how many pounds is each quarter, half, or whole? (The number varies a lot, so this is a vital question! Be sure to find out the hanging weight, not the live weight of the animal.)

* Exactly what are all the costs? (Typically, there is a kill fee, which varies according to how much of the cow you a buying. There is also a price per pound of hanging weight, which should pay both the farmer and the butcher - or there may be a price per pound of hanging weight, plus a butcher's fee per pound.)

* When will you butcher? (Often butchering happens in late summer or early fall.)

* How will the meat be packaged? (Usually the choice is between butcher paper - which does, indeed, prevent freezer burn - and shrink wrapped in plastic, like a FoodSaver does.)

* At pick up, is the meat frozen or fresh?

* How does payment work? Will I have to pay in full up front? Part up front? Or can you pay in full upon pick up?

Grass fed eye fillets.
Storing the Beef

Before you commit to buying beef in bulk, you need to consider how you're going to store it. Most people freeze their beef. But how much freezer space will you need? 1 cubit feet of freezer space hold approximately 35-40 lbs. of wrapped beef.

Of course, the amount of space needed also varies according to what types of cuts you decide to buy. (More on that in a moment.) For example, ground beef takes up less space than, say, roasts. Remember, too, that you won't want to keep the beef frozen for more than about a year, or there will be some quality loss.

Another option is to can some or all of the beef - but you will still need freezer or refrigerator space to store the beef while you're working on the canning.

Comitting to Buy

Once you've figured out how much beef you want and who to buy it from, call the farmer and commit to buy. It's best not to wait too long to do this, because farmers usually only raise as many cows as they feel sure they have customer's for. So if you wait too long there might not be enough beef to go around.

Deciding What to Buy

Once you've comitted, you can expect to hear from the farmer's butcher shortly before butchering day. He will want to know how you want your beef packaged and what type of cuts you want.

This last part can seem pretty intimidating; most of us have no idea how many cuts we can get from a steer. To help, look at a cut chart, like this one. Bare in mind, too, that you can make your own ground beef with an inexpensive meat grinder. (If you have a KitchenAid mixer, you can also buy a meat grinder attachment for it.) That said, the butcher will probably recommend grinding the tougher cuts into ground beef.

Other Considerations

* If you're ordering steaks, be sure to specify the thickness you desire.

* Consider how much meat you want per package. For example, do you want ground beef in 1 lb. or 5 lb. packs? What about stew meat?

* On average, butchers usually age the cow for 7 to 14 days. You can request a longer aging, although it might not be available. Experts often recommend 10 - 20 days. (Aging gives the beef more tenderness and flavor.)

* Be sure to ask for the bones! It's very easy to make your own beef stock for freezing or canning. If you have dogs, you might want the bones for them, too.

* Think about any organs you'd like to have, also. If you're not buying a whole cow, not all organs may be available (if the person buying another part of the cow wants them). Some organs to consider: shanks and oxtail (for stews and soups), liver, tongue, heart, and cheek. You can even ask for the suet (fat) for rendering tallow (lard) or making soap; the butcher might even grate it for soapmaking, if you ask.

Bringing it Home

When your beef is cut and packaged by the butcher, you will receive a call to come pick it up. Be sure you have your freezer all ready to go! You may also want to bring a few coolers for transporting the beef.

And How Much Does it All Cost?

I have yet to find a farmer who is selling bulk beef for more than the grocery store - especially if we're talking grass fed beef. To give you an idea of the savings, below I've detailed the costs of the half beef we are purchasing this year. These prices are VERY competitive because we're buying from a family who raises beef for themselves, plus a few extras to pay for the cost of raising their own meat. Expect to pay at least a dollar more if your purchase from a professional farmer.

Weight for half beef (Holstein): about 270 lbs.

Kill fee: $27

Price per pound: $1.90, hanging weight

Butcher's fee: $.50/lb., hanging weight

Total cost of half beef: $675

Total price per pound: $2.50

And this is for grass fed beef! What a deal!

May 9, 2014

Switching to Grass Fed Beef: Why & How to Do it Affordably

Maybe you've seen a "grass fed" label at the grocery store and wondered what it was all about. Maybe you've heard something about grass fed meat being healthier or more sustainable. Maybe you've even decided to switch to grass fed meat...but aren't sure how to make it happen. Not long ago, I began the switch to grass fed meat. Here's what I've learned.

Why Switch to Grass Fed?

Because, well, it's natural. It wasn't until the 20th century that cows and other farm animals were fed a diet consisting mostly of grain. (And then only because of an over-abundance of corn, followed by the realization that corn fed animals gained weight very quickly.) Cows are designed to eat grass. They are designed to spend their days grazing. And when we eat grass fed beef, our health benefits.

For one thing, grass fed beef is higher in Omega-3s that help keep us happy and make our bodies work better. Plus, grass fed beef has less fat, is lower in calories, has more vitamin A, E and beta-carotene, and is higher in antioxidants. (Source.) Better still, grass fed meat is usually also free of hormones and antibiotics that can reduce our health. (Read labels to be sure.)

But Not All Meat!

If you're buying beef, bison, venison, or lamb, by all means look for grass fed. But grass fed chickens and pigs? Nope. Both chickens and pigs naturally eat meat - and depriving them of their natural diet isn't healthy for them. (We don't really know for sure how it affects humans who eat them.) The good news is, in the U.S. it's illegal to sell chickens that have received hormones. Hormones are illegal for pork, too.

Grass Fed vs. Grass Finished

Read labels carefully! There is a big difference between "grass fed" and "grass finished." "Grass finished" means the animal was fed grain in a stall most of it's life, but then was allowed to graze or eat grass shortly before butching. "Grass fed" means the animal grazed all it's life.

But It's Expensive!

Yes, grass fed beef is more expensive than conventionally raised beef. But that's changing. More and more people are interested in eating grass fed meat, which should bring prices down. But there are at least four ways I've found to reduce the cost of grass fed meat right now.

#1: Look for sales. My local grocery store frequently has grass fed meat on sale. Better yet, they often put it in their clearance section where I can buy it for the same price (and sometimes less!) than coventially grown meat. (Just know that clearance meat has been sitting around a bit; it should be eaten that day, or frozen for later use.)
Grass fed beef has less fat, but it's easy to make it tender.

#2. Buy it from a farmer. Many local farmers raise grass fed animals and will sell you a whole, half, or quarter of a cow. This requires a large freezer and a chunk of money to buy your meat in bulk, but it is generally cheaper in the long run. (Bear in mind that most farmers butcher sometime in the late summer or fall.)

#3. Choose a different meat. Many of us love our beef, but there are definitely cheaper meats out there. One that might surprise you is lamb. I've found that I can often buy grass fed lamb at the grocery store for much less than any other type of meat.

#4. Check local butchers. Sometimes - but not always - it's cheaper to buy grass fed meat from a good old butcher shop, rather than a grocery store. Especially if you look for sales. For example, one of my local butchers recently announced they had more than the usual amount of grass fed bison, so they were selling it cheap, first come, first serve.

But it Tastes Different!

I've not found this to be true at all. In fact, when I switched to grass fed, I was surprised by how much fat there was in my beef; I'd always read that grass fed beef was super-lean, and expected it to taste differently because of this. That said, the leanness of grass fed can make the meat is a bit tougher. It's pretty easy to work around that, though. Just use a meat tenderizer; or put salt on the cut overnight, then wash it off; or use a cooking method (like braising or stewing) that's often used for tougher cuts.

Have you switched to grass fed meat?