Just pushing a car down the highway…don’t mind me

Heidi's 16th Birthday

Friday night we threw a little skating party to help our oldest daughter turn 16.  It was so much fun to pick out the playlist for the event.  I’m keeping the list for when the skies have been too gray for too long.  How can you go wrong when Van Halen’s Jump; Ray Steven’s Mississippi Squirrel Revival; Piano Guys’ Cello Song; and Taio Cruz’s Dynamite all made the cut?  It was a great mix of all the things Heidi loves including a few bits of soundtrack from her favorite movies. Our only sadness was the private school held a basketball game that night so not many of her friends from her old school could come.  We had a lot of family and just enough friends to make it a lot of fun.  Here’s the best part–everyone gave skating a try, even the grandparents, which was unexpected and delightful.

Heidi's 16th birthday 2

The next day her youth group was going ice skating.  We picked up her friend, Brandon on the way and partway down the highway, ran out of gas.  This is my first experience with running out of gas.  We’ve only had this car a couple of months and I haven’t figured out all it’s quirks yet.  Our old car had about 20 miles to go when the warning light comes on.  This car has about 2.

I couldn’t coast to the left because that was a highway entrance ramp.  I couldn’t coast to the right, because there were 2 lanes of fast moving traffic over there.  I put on my hazard lights and thought for a bit.  I had successfully pushed my car up an icy driveway twice that week to get to school on time, and  I had two permitted drivers in the car…what could go wrong?

I told the kids my plan, moved Heidi into the driver’s seat and Brandon volunteered to help push.  We pushed that thing at least half a mile to Costco to buy gas, laughing all the way.  A really nice stranger jumped out of his car when he saw us and helped us push.  His wife drove past cheering us on :).   A 2nd stranger helped us the last few hundred feet when we were the most cold and tired.  That’s one for the memory books.

When I got to school this morning, one of my students said, “I saw you Saturday, pushing your car down the road.” Yep–that was me.

Have you ever run out of gas?  I hope not, but if you have I’d love to hear about it.

Frugal Friday #7

If you’re new here:  On Fridays I share a few frugal things I did during the week.  Then in the comments you to share a frugal thing or two you did during the week.  If you are a blogger feel free to link to your Frugal Friday post in the comments and we’ll come check it out.

Frugal Friday

  1.  I made soup, 3 days in a row.  They were different soups: tortilla soup, beef and vegetable (to use up leftover veggies) and chicken with homemade noodles.  I love soup because it’s a one pot meal, fast, nutritious and filling.  Hot leftovers pack well in a thermos so my kids can have a warm lunch at school.  The third night Dub said, “Oh!  Soup again!”  He tried to make it sound cheerful, but I could tell I was pushing it, lol.  Since soup is mostly water, it saves on the grocery bill and just feels right with the snowy weather we’ve been having.
  2. I used swagbucks gift cards to amazon to buy art for Darren’s office. It was mostly free and every little bit helps to bring this project under budget.

blue map

4.  I built a huge picture frame from an inspiration photo.  I did buy the wood, but even so the project was around $30.   Buying one custom sized from hobby lobby would be more than $100. I haven’t learned to use a router yet (still a beginner wood worker), so I just duct taped the picture to the back.

Shared boy room after 3

Here’s the inspiration. Scale is hard for me to estimate in before photos, but the more afters I do, the easier it is.

Brandon and Grant's Room Gray rugby stripe

I’ll give the details about the room next month :).

It’s your turn. Inspire us with some of your frugal activities this week.

Homemade Chicken Noodle Soup

chicken soup with homemade noodles

One of the lowest cost food categories is soup.  Soup is mostly water but still filling and comforting.  I love that soup is a meal in one, saving prep time and money on side dishes.  I usually add a hearty bread for the men, but skip it myself to stay on track with my fitness plan.

Recently the weather has turned super cold and white, so we’ve been enjoying night after night of various soups.  Is there a limit on how many days in a row one can serve soup?  I don’t think so–that would be like saying there was a limit on the number of days in a row you could eat pizza.  Crazy.

chicken noodle soup 1

I posted this photo on instagram and got a couple of requests for the recipe.  My husband’s sisters made this soup for the family when they were growing up and the first time I tasted it, I begged the recipe from them.  It’s the perfect thing for a crowd or when someone isn’t feeling well.  Full of rich bone broth, it’s soothing and healing.  When someone is suffering and I feel powerless to help, I make soup!

My pot is still cooking so I’ll update with finished pictures later.  I didn’t want my friends to wait for the recipe :).

Chicken Noodle Soup 2

Homemade Chicken Noodle Soup

1 whole roasting chicken (4-5 lbs)

12 cups water

5 tsp mineral sea salt (you can use less, but we go for 1 tsp per quart of food/liquid)

1 tsp garlic powder

1 tsp fresh black pepper

6 carrots, peeled and sliced

4 stalks of celery, chopped

1 onion chopped (I had red on hand, but any kind will work)

Combine everything in a large pot and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to a simmer and simmer for about an hour or until the chicken is falling apart.  If your chicken was frozen, allow 2.5-3 hours to cook.

Remove chicken and bones to a bowl to cool enough to touch. Skim any foam off the top of the broth and discard.

chicken and Vegetables

Use a slotted spoon or spider to remove vegetables to a second bowl.

Remove meat from bones and chop.  Store meat with the vegetables in the bowl.

Homemade noodles 1

Hand kneading noodle dough

The left hand was wet the right hand wasn’t.  Keep a bowl of water close for re-wetting your hands.




homemade noodles 2


For noodles combine:

2 cups of unbleached flour

1 tsp salt

2 tsp olive oil

2 eggs

4 Tbs water

Knead everything with damp hands then roll out 1/4 inch thick.  Dough should be dry and barely hold together. Cut with a pizza cutter into strips about 3/8 inch wide and 2-3 inches long.  Bring the chicken broth to a full rolling boil and drop the noodles in.  Separate with a spoon when they first go in.  Boil for 15 minutes then turn off the heat.  Return vegetables and chicken back to the soup and sprinkle the top with dried parsley.  Don’t skimp on the parsley–it makes it so pretty and appetizing.

chicken noodle soup 3




How to Shrink Spending with a Grocery Ad

how to shrink spending with a grocery ad

Every week on Tuesday or Wednesday I get a mail bundle of the grocery ads from my local stores. They come to everyone for free and if somehow we get missed we can go to the store website and sign up for them.

When the ads come, I take 5 minutes to look through them and write down on my shopping list the store name and the awesome deals I want to buy there. I spend the most time on the front and back pages of the ads, because these are where the loss leaders are posted. Loss leaders are items sold below profit level in hopes to lure people in the store and spend a bunch of money on profitable items.  If they have a limit beside the price, you can be sure it’s a loss leader.  When I shop for those items, I usually only buy those items, but I also look  in the meat and dairy sections for manager specials.  These are items that are close to their sale by date and need to be frozen or used up right away.  I have purchased meat for $.50 a pound this way to store in my pantry freezer.

When I’m looking for good sales, I keep in the back of my mind the regular prices of these items at Aldi.  If I can’t remember, I make my Aldi run on the way to the conventional grocery store and double check the price.

Some weeks the ads aren’t worth getting out for and we just eat from our pantry.

Random Stuff:

  1.  The grocery stores are paid by the brands to feature their products in the ad. The most prominent the item, the more they paid.
  2. Brand names also pay the store for prime shelf locations (eye level stuff) which makes those items cost more.  Look high and low on the shelves for the best values.
  3. Each store pays around $40,000 per week to put their ad in your home.  If it didn’t increase their profits, they wouldn’t do it.
  4. Brand name items often have a coupon available to match with the sale price. Sometimes this makes the item cost less than the private label, sometimes not.  Always do the math.  (I rarely mess with coupons.)
  5. Most families buy a lot more than the sale items, keeping the grocery stores profitable. I’m one of the few exceptions.
  6. The majority of my shopping list is the DEALS I can get, not a list based on recipes I’m planning for the week.  Then I plan meals from the low cost foods I have to work with,  sometimes grabbing a special item or fresh produce to bring it all together.

What do you think?  Is this the way you’ve been doing it all along?

How the Pantry Method Saved Me Thousands

how the pantry method saved me thousandsThe average family of 8 spends between $1200-$1600 a month on food.  We spend $620 ($550 for groceries, $40 for eating out and $30 for lunch allowance for my husband.) A difference of $580-$980 a month.  That means over a year we are saving $6,960-$11,760.  We have been living this way for more than 10 years for a cumulative savings of $69,600-$117,600.  Around here, that’s enough to pay cash for a modest house.

The pantry method allows us to spend less.  I buy food at the lowest prices possible and enough that I don’t have to buy that item again until it’s at the lowest price again.  Then…listen up this is KEY…I meal plan based on what I already have on hand.  I’m using that sale stuff up, not hoarding it.  I’m only buying the stuff we eat, not crazy stuff or junk food just because it’s on sale. (Though sometimes we’ll grab a rare treat when the price drops.)

I do have a meal plan service complete with shopping list.  The services is usable with the pantry method also because I base all the recipes off the healthy low cost foods in most American Pantries.  The cool thing is if you buy ingredients for a recipe and end up not cooking it, you’ll use them next week in something else.  Nothing is wasted.

Sometimes there are weeks when I don’t buy anything.  Either because the sales weren’t worth it or we were just to busy to go out.  That’s when I’m especially thankful for a well-stocked pantry to cook from.

I love to shop at Aldi, because I know their house brand prices will beat most sale prices at the regular store. Since I shop Aldi frequently I have a lot of their prices memorized. Then on the rare occasion the conventional store advertises a lower one I recognize it and can stock up.

I’ll also occasionally shop at salvage food stores like Dirty Don’s or Cargo Largo.  Those are local non-chain stores, but I’ve found every urban area has something similar.  Do a yellow page internet search for salvage grocery stores in your area.  It’s really important to know prices when you go into these places.  Some of them will be good deals but a lot of it will be retail or higher.

Tomorrow I’ll show you how I find the deals I’m going to take advantage of for the week.

How to Shrink Your Bills and GROW Your Pantry at the same time

how to shrink your bills and grow your pantry at the same time

I’m so excited about today’s post!  It covers the theme of this whole blog AND is
the concept that makes living with a smaller grocery budget possible.  I only recommend drastically reducing a grocery budget in an emergency, like we did when Darren suddenly lost his job.  Otherwise it’s so much better to do it gradually.  Like weight loss, when you reduce the grocery budget gradually, you are more likely to be successful and actually keep the spending down.

  1.  The first month, keep your spending the same. Spend 80% on food to eat now and 20% to stock up your pantry with the rock bottom sales you find.
  2. The next month reduce your budget by 20%.  Spend 80% of the new budget on food to eat now and 20% to stock your pantry.
  3. Continue the process reducing your budget by 20% each month and following the 80/20 rule until you have reduced the budget to as low as you need it to go.  From here on the 80% of your spending will be to re-stock the pantry with awesome deals.  You will eat primarily out of the pantry and use 20% of your budget for fresh stuff like produce and dairy products.  Keep in mind the 80/20 percentages are flexible approximations.

Price Chopper Haul

Here’s a real life example with numbers.  Joselle has 3 children and they currently spend $1200 a month on groceries.  They have trouble coming up with money when something extra like a birthday party or school fundraiser pops up.  If she could reduce her budget to $500 a month it would change their WORLD but even a little reduction would help.  Her first goal is to beef up their emergency fund.

Month 1 she budgets $1200.  She spends $960 on food to eat now and $240 on food for the pantry, stocking up on the items she notices to be particularly good deals.

Month 2 she budgets $960, spending $768 on food to eat now and $192 on really good deals for the pantry. She saves the extra $240 to beef up their emergency fund.

Month 3 she budgets $768.  She spends $615 on food to eat now and $153 on really good deals for the pantry.  She saves the extra $432 to beef up their emergency fund.

Month 4 she budgets $615. She spends $500 on food to eat now and $115 on really good deals for the pantry.  She saves the extra $585 to beef up their emergency fund.

Month 5 she budgets $500 (Goal!)  She spends $100 on food to eat now and $400 on really good deals for the pantry.  She saves the extra $700 to beef up her emergency fund. She plans her meals based on the food she has in her pantry and restocks when she finds the right deal.

In 5 months Joselle has built up a nice pantry for her family, plus added $1,957 to their emergency fund.  She now has an extra $700 a month that she can plan into her budget where it’s needed most.

What do you think?  Would this method work for you?

How to Shop Online with Cash Envelopes

How to Shop Online with Cash Envelopes

Last week Ann asked a question that deserves it’s own post: “The envelope system wasn’t realistic for us. We do a lot of our household purchasing online, not at a ‘brick and mortar’ store. Also, paying utilities and rent with cash would be extremely inconvenient as opposed to writing a check or paying online. I actually tried a system like your sister’s once (it was on a whim and just an idea I had) but it got to complicated and tedious to stick with and became so it wasn’t worth it to me. Would you share your thoughts on online and utility transactions with the envelope system? Thanks!”

I do a majority of my shopping online too, especially when things are really busy.  We still use the cash system to keep ourselves accountable with the budget.  When I purchase with a debit card or online, I immediately take the cash out of the corresponding budge envelope and put it in an envelope to take back to the bank.  If we are low on funds, I take the money back right away.  If not, we save the cash to fund part of our envelopes with the next month.

There are several things we budget for only virtually and don’t carry an envelope for.  This includes our utilities which are auto drafted from our checking account and gas which we use our debit card for.  These are things that budgeting a different amount for won’t change the reality.  Unlike food or clothing that we could make different choices to drastically reduce spending.

How to Properly Use a Red Card

I use the same cash back to the bank method for my Target Red Card.  It’s a debit card and using it saves me an extra 5% plus offers perks like free shipping online.  Since I have to move the cash right away that keeps me from overspending just because there are perks to the card.  I wrote more about Target Red Cards here.

Frugal Friday #6

If you’re new here:  On Fridays I share a few frugal things I did during the week.  Then in the comments you to share a frugal thing or two you did during the week.  If you are a blogger feel free to link to your Frugal Friday post in the comments and we’ll come check it out.

  1.  Remember that office plan for Darren?  To make that work for him I need to buy a leather chair ($1,500), an oak executive desk ($900), an 8×10 rug ($700), 2 locking lateral filing cabinets ($600), a 42 by 36 picture frame with glass ($65), and a royal blue velvet moroccan pouf ($200), for a grand total of $3,965. There are a few other expenses too (like wood for the build in bookcases, flooring and the optional tv and tv cabinet.)

Darren's office before fireplace view leather chair

Darren's office blue desk

I’m not in a hurry to start this project since I have a few other rooms I’m working on.  On the other hand, Darren really needs a space to be organized in.  So I started looking around the web on craigslist for affordable options.  You’ll never guess what I found?!!!!

There was an office having a business closing auction.  I got those locking filing cabinets for $16 each or $32 instead of $600.  All they need is a new coat of spray paint (since they are putty colored now, and I have my heart set on white.)

The executive desk was $60 instead of $900.  It just needs a coat of blue with black glaze in the details.

The giant picture frame for the dry erase board was only $6.

Then Craigslist had a leather chair for a mere $50.  It just needs a coat of leather stain to nudge it a little more golden brown instead of reddish brown (for $6.)

leather chair

The area rug was on sale 80% off for $156!

I found a sewing pattern for the moroccan pouf on Better Homes and Gardens.  I haven’t settled on fabric for it yet, but my mom is looking in her stash for something that might work and I have old towels and batting on hand to fill it.

My grand total:  $304 for a savings of $3,361

It’s your turn. Inspire us with some of your frugal activities this week.

How to Use Your Debit Card Like a Cash Envelope System

How to Use your Debit Card Like a Cash Envelope System

I am personally convinced that cash envelopes are the best way to stay on budget, but I also know that this method doesn’t appeal to everyone.


I’ve talked to people who won’t shop with cash. It makes them nervous to carry it around.  They don’t like making change between budget categories or the fact that cash leaves no trail. Then there’s that nervous feeling they get that they might not have enough to pay for their stuff (which is kind of a bonus, because it is what ultimately curbs overspending.)

There are several apps that allow you to track debit card spending as if it were in an envelope. Dave Ramsey has one called Every Dollar. The basic version is free with a paid version available if you want it to automatically sink with your bank account.  You enter your budget into the app, then record your purchases as you make them.  The app subtracts and lets you know what you have left in the categories.  Below are similar apps that are also initially free.

  1. Good Budget
  2. Mvelopes
  3. Expense Keep
  4. Simple Track
  5. Budget Ease
  6. Envelope+ Kid–for kids to track their spending

I like that debit cards come out of the bank account right away, so there’s no accumulation of debt.  The danger is the card will scan as long as there is money in the account even if that money was budgeted for something else.  If you are spending cash and spend another category’s money—you KNOW it right away, because you had to take it out of the envelope for that other category.  It’s a conscious decision.  Going over budget with a debit card is less clear cut until you write it down.

When you are scanning a debit card, the only way to keep on budget is to record the purchase BEFORE it’s made. Then you can see ahead of time if there is enough money in that category.  I intend to record my purchases, but I DON’T, this is why I can’t see myself giving up cash any time soon.  Using a debt card requires more organization and discipline—character qualities that aren’t yet well developed in my repertoire.

If you aren’t a smart phone fan, my sister-in-law showed me a paper and pencil method to using your debit card like envelopes.  Get a small notebook that will fit in your purse.

Small notebook

Give each budget category it’s own page and write the amount you’ve budgeted for that category at the top next to the title. Then as you shop, write down what you spent in each category on the appropriate page and SUBTRACT so you can see what’s left.

envelope system record

If you need to move money from one category to another record it in the book.  In this example I moved $50 from clothing to food.

moving money from one category to another

At the end of the month, create new pages for each of your categories.  Clip the front pages together so you can access your new pages easily.  Add post-it tabs with labels to help you find your categories easily.  You can reuse the tabs by moving them to the new sets of pages each month.

Do you think any of these methods would work better for you than cash?

How to never go over your food budget again….ever

How to never go over your food budget again....ever

I’ve been having trouble focusing on work the last few days, because I’ve been dreaming about our basement.  It’s supposed to be Darren’s office, but right now it looks like this:

Darren's office before

Yes I’m embarrassed, and yes this will eventually circle back around to the food budget.  He can’t work down here because it’s too cold (there’s a crack in the exterior door) and it’s an organizational disaster….so he’s in my office.  I don’t mind sharing my office with him (you believe me, right?), but I want him to have his own space that has organizational systems that work for him.

I love how photoshop, even poorly done, can create visions from daydreams.

Darren's office blue desk

I did a craigslist search for the office items that were sure to blow our budget and I found a business closing auction a few cities over.   I bid on the essentials and have been sitting at my computer hitting refresh ever since.  Right now a brown version of the above desk has my name on it for 5 cents and is begging me to paint and glaze him a pretty blue.  The auction is over in 9 hours and 12 minutes…..excuse me while I hit refresh.

The other side of the room currently looks like this:

Darren's office before fireplace view

But would prefer to look like this:

Darren's office before fireplace view leather chair

Except that Darren thought the space needed a TV….so I made a tiny tweak….

Darren's office fireplace view tvThen I got lost on pinterest searching for tutorials on sewing Moroccan poufs after I saw the prices of ready made ones.  Who knew this was the perfect use for my stacks of worn out towels? Of course I had to research the best value on navy velvet (ooh, maybe my Mom has some in her stash!) and find free building plans for bookcases and buffets…..and refresh.

Cash envelopes

Budgeting is like making these concept pictures in photoshop.  It’s dreaming and planning without ever touching a paint brush or saw.  Eventually that plan needs to come to life, and it doesn’t always turn out like the picture said it would.  I can’t tell you how many money fights Darren and I have had when we were using credit cards for all our expenses.  We figured we would pay them off at the end of the month and earn the 1% back.  When we compared our credit card bill to our budget we were over EVERY TIME.  We could barely pay it off and made no traction towards our financial goals.  He would ask, “What did you BUY?”  (insert accusing voice inflections here.) I’d swear it was all necessities: food, clothing, toilet paper…..

Then we switched to cash.  I put my food money for the month in an envelope and when it was gone we had to eat what was already in the house.   I made decisions differently when I could see clearly the plan and the goal (the cash that’s left.)   That first cash envelope happened 11 years ago and the system is still the best one for us.  Here are my tips from years of experience:

  1.  Only budget for people FOOD in your grocery budget.  Have a separate category for pets, cleaning supplies, paper products etc.
  2. Take 1/4th of the budget and save it in a separate envelope for the last week of the month.  If you don’t, you’ll learn to be VERY creative with your cooking that last week.
  3. If you shop at stores for food where you also might buy items from other budget categories (such as clothing or cleaning supplies) be sure to get enough small bills when you pick up your cash so you can make change for yourself between the categories.
  4. If you are scared of carrying cash (because you know every criminal in town will pick up the scent and try to rob you) try just using cash for food.  If it works out you can add other categories later.
  5. If you hate it, you can always go back to your old method :).

Do you currently use cash? What are your tips for making it work?

This is Day 3 of our Series: Shrink Your Food Budget