Lowering the grocery bill

Some line items in our monthly budget are non-negotiable: mortgage, child care, insurance, among others. We have little to no control over these costs, as they are fixed, or we have done everything we could to minimize payments (ie, refinancing, raising deductibles on insurance).

One area where we have almost full control on how much we spend is food. Last year we overspent on groceries, restaurants and coffee shops. We used 2012 as a learning experience, as we tried to find the perfect way to save money on food, that was also the least impactful on our time.

$450 was our total grocery bill for January. This is for two adults and one 18 month old. Our other daughter is under 6 months old and doesn’t affect our monthly food budget. We also spent about $100 at restaurants, most of which was before I started this blog.

The following are the rules we follow to save money at the grocery store.

  1. Eat a lot of fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood and dairy.
  2. Avoid the “middle-aisles” of the grocery store (basically avoid the cracker, chip, soda, cookie aisles).
  3. Only drink milk, water and coffee. No sodas, no juices.
  4. Compare similar items by unit cost, cost per ounce, per pound, etc. This is huge, because sale items aren’t always your cheapest option.
  5. Rice or pasta go with almost every meal. They’re cheap. Avoid “minute rice” as a huge bag of enriched or thai jasmine rice is super easy to make and will last a month or two.
  6. DON’T buy any personal hygiene items at the grocery store. Buy them at Rite Aid (or whatever pharmacy you prefer). This will also help you categorize your transactions easier with Mint.com.
  7. Buy store brand items if available, they’re pretty much the same thing (if not better) and usually cost way less. We shop exclusively at Safeway, and we love their store brand equivalents.
  8. Utilize a grocery store cash back card (American Express Blue Cash will earn you 3% cash back on groceries, or 6% cash back with the preferred version of the card). I don’t get paid to push this card, but we use it and it’s amazing!
  9. At the beginning of the month we purchase a grocery store gift card for the amount we intend to spend on groceries for the month. Typically for us it’s $500. Our store rewards us with gas points for every $100 we spend, so we are able to save at the gas pump as well. Plus we earn $30 cash back by using our AmEx Blue Cash.
  10. Always make a list and EAT before shopping, this will prevent impulse buying.
  11. Add digital coupons to your store card after you make your list (if your store has a program like this). This is as far as we go in terms of “couponing”. We tried the whole coupon thing, and it was a bigger pain in the ass than it was a money saver.
  12. Cook bigger dinners, and pack leftovers as the next day’s lunch!
  13. If you have a family member that is a picky eater try to have them help cook dinner. They may be more inclined to eat it if they had something to do with it’s creation. This will prevent having to cook separate meals for everyone.
  14. Just remember brand names almost never matter (besides Coke or Pepsi), but if you avoid soft drinks then you don’t have to worry about that either.
  15. Stock up on the things you use most often. Buying things when you run out, or when you need them will put you at a disadvantage because you may have to settle for a higher price than you could have paid.

Reddit user LibertyVanguard had these tips to help save even more money while grocery shopping:

  1. Potatoes, Rice, Beans, Onions, Carrots, Mushrooms (non-exotic) are good cheap staple foods.
  2. For fresh fruit, buy what is seasonal. Certain fruits can be frozen well, so stock up when in season. Frozen fruit is good in smoothies. Bananas and melons provided a lot of food for their price.
  3. Meat, Seafood, and Dairy are actually quite expensive when compared to fruits and vegetables. Buy what is on special and take advantage of good prices that you can store in the freezer. I cut dairy out of my diet and I save quite a bit of money. Consider buying meat on the last sale date (usually stickered) and freeze it.
  4. Consider alternatives to your more expensive purchases. Instead of dairy milk, try making your own rice or almond milk with a blender and strainer.
  5. Grocery stores like Aldi or ethnic markets can be half as expensive as big brand name stores. Ethnic markets are good places for cheap spices.
  6. If you live in a climate that is good for growing and you have access to a place to garden, try growing green onions, peppers, and tomatoes.
  7. Make your own snacks like popcorn, chips, and cookies.
  8. For baking mixes, nuts, and other dry, non-perishable goods, try buying online from Amazon. From experience, I can usually find most items cheaper and with free shipping.
  9. Try cooking a meal that will store for 3-4 days after, so you don’t have to cook each day and less food is wasted.
  10. Have a plan. Make a budget, analyze what you buy each month, identify expensive culprits, and identify methods for lowering cost. Focus on coupons, alternative foods, or bulk buying ahead of time for expensive culprits.

What tips do you use to help save on your grocery bill? I’d love to hear some other methods that you use to keep your grocery bill down. Our method works pretty well for us, but we are by no means perfect shoppers.

Living on less: Cutting the cord

It’s time to get serious about spending less, and saving more. Take a look at your monthly expenses. Hopefully, you have less money going out than coming in, but for now it’s okay if you’re not quite there yet. There is one item in particular that can drain your bank account, $100 at a time, and the funny thing is: you don’t need it.

I’m referring to cable, of course. If you live in America, odds are you have some form of network television being broadcast into your house. 90% of all U.S. households subscribe to either cable or a dish equivalent. This is because of two reasons: 1. We’ve been conditioned to believe that we need it and 2. Bundling cable/internet services makes each individual service cost less.

We currently have Verizon FioS as our Internet Service Provider. Until recently, we were also receiving cable television service through them as well. When we moved into our house in November of 2011, the first thing we did was call Verizon to have these services installed.

$100 a month! Hey, that’s not bad at all, we thought. That included a free DVR, 200+ channels and 25up/25down internet speeds. With all of this great news, and shiny new services, we tuned out the part of the conversation with the Verizon rep when they said “2 year contract” and “introductory price”.

Our bill was steadily around $100 for the first entire year of our cable/internet subscription, so it never really occurred to us that we were wasting money, since internet alone through Verizon would run us about $80/month without the bundle.

But then, our November 2012 bill came in the mail: $134.88. This price increase was attributed to one simple fact, which was that we were no longer “new customers”. The DVR went from free to $14.99/month, and our new customer discount ($15/month) expired.

I called Verizon immediately and pleaded with them to lower our bill, because it was out of the range that I was willing to pay. They told me to call back in January, as this is the month they receive incentives to pass out to customers in need.

Long story short, I called back in January and they still couldn’t do anything to reduce my bill. After a heated conversation I told them I wanted to drop my cable service altogether, all I wanted was internet. They tried to keep us from dropping cable by saying, “Internet alone is $74.99/month, if you keep your cable service it’s only $84.99*/month”.

Why then was I paying almost $135 for an $85 service? I told the guy to screw, and shortly thereafter we returned our $15/month set top box to the Verizon store. The shitty part is that we had to pay an early termination fee of $120, but it was worth it and we would make that money back within 2 months.

I realize that $75/month for internet isn’t stellar, but this area is duopolized by Comcast and Verizon, and a lower price can’t be obtained without a new contract. Either way, without our cable service, we’re currently saving $60.00 every month. Or $720.00 a year. Or $9,153.82 compounded over a 10-year period.

While cable added $60 to our utility bill every month, alternative media sources that provide nearly the same exact content are available at significantly lower costs (and without contracts!) Three simple and cost effective additions to your TV can make it a media powerhouse: HD antenna, DVD or Blu-Ray player, and a streaming-media box.

We already had an Xbox 360 to play DVDs, so all we had to do was purchase a Roku streaming-media player and an antenna (starting at $10). Installing the Roku was extremely simple. Plug it into the wired network or connect to the wireless network. Open an account at roku.com. Authorize the device.

Then pick the channels you want (Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, Vudu, Pandora, Spotify, etc) and add them to your device. Some of these require paid subscriptions, others like Pandora only require you to have a free account.

There are a ton of options if you choose not to use Roku: Boxee, AppleTV, and Slingbox are some of the other big names. You might also choose to set up a Home Theater PC instead, which is an all-in-one solution.

We have a subscription to Neflix ($8/month), Hulu Plus ($8/month), and free access to Amazon Instant Video with our Amazon Prime subscription. If you’re a sports fan, you aren’t going to have very much luck with these subscription-based services. That’s where the HD antenna comes into play. These aren’t the same crappy antennas from years past. New HD antennas produce crystal clear images and are extremely reliable. They give you free access to NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX and PBS among others (list of channels for your area).

You don’t have to be embarrassed about having a Super Bowl party at your house, because no one will know that they aren’t watching cable (unless you tell them).

With our optional services we pay $75 (for internet) + $16 (Netflix/Hulu) for a total of $91/month. This is at least satisfactory, and the service so far has been terrific. I would highly recommend switching away from cable, even if you have to pay a termination fee you will make your money back tenfold in the long run.

The Moneyseed 7 year plan

The current situation

My wife and I currently work in an industry foreign to most: the military. It’s a completely different type of work environment than most people would expect. The military, in essence, is just a business, just one that doesn’t produce anything for retail purposes. But other than that, it’s just like a normal job. We have bosses, meetings, coffee breaks, drama, and everything else that normal jobs have. Through our employer we have a few awesome benefits including:

  • Tuition Assistance (to help pay for college)
  • Healthcare (medical/dental)
  • Housing allowance (adjusted for physical location)
  • Job security (renewable contracts every 4ish years)
  • Retirement (for those willing to stay in for at least 20 years)

The 7 year plan

Mrs. Moneyseed’s contract runs out at the end of 2015. Mine is up almost exactly one year later. From that point, we either decide to renew our contracts, or seek employment elsewhere. We’ve planned our life to include both paths, but we’re on the optimistic side and planning to separate from the military after this tour. I will run through a year-by-year future-casting of our “7 years till retirement” plan. I’ll use round numbers, and a lot of estimations. So hopefully I’m as confident after I write this as I am right now. The plan has already begun. It started when this site started, January 2013. We aren’t starting from scratch, though, as we’ve spent a few years paying off debts and starting to save vigorously. We will assume a 3% growth in both income and expenses, 7% growth in savings annually, and starting with $70,000 already in savings/investments.

Year 1

  • Income: $125,000 (Joint, post-tax)
  • Expenses: $46,000 (Mortgage, child care, utilities)
  • Consumables: $16,500 (Food, gas, misc. spending)
  • Savings: $62,500
  • Total Saved: $139,000

Year 2

  • Income: $128,500 (Joint, post-tax)
  • Expenses: $47,500 (Mortgage, child care, utilities)
  • Consumables: $17,000 (Food, gas, misc. spending)
  • Savings: $64,000
  • Total Saved: $217,000

Year 3

  • Income: $132,500 (Joint, post-tax)
  • Expenses: $49,000 (Mortgage, child care, utilities)
  • Consumables: $17,500 (Food, gas, misc. spending)
  • Savings: $66,000
  • Total Saved: $303,000

Year 4

  • Income: $136,500 (Joint, post-tax)
  • Expenses: $52,000 (Mortgage, child care, utilities)
  • Consumables: $18,000 (Food, gas, misc. spending)
  • Savings: $66,500
  • Total Saved: $392,000

Year 5

  • Income: $140,500 (Joint, post-tax)
  • Expenses: $52,000 (Mortgage, child care, utilities)
  • Consumables: $18,500 (Food, gas, misc. spending)
  • Savings: $70,000
  • Total Saved: $494,000

Year 6

  • Income: $145,000 (Joint, post-tax)
  • Expenses: $40,000 (Mortgage, utilities)
  • Consumables: $19,000 (Food, gas, misc. spending)
  • Savings: $86,000
  • Total Saved: $620,000

Year 7

  • Income: $149,000 (Joint, post-tax)
  • Expenses: $41,500 (Mortgage, utilities)
  • Consumables: $19,500 (Food, gas, misc. spending)
  • Savings: $88,000
  • Sell house and downsize: $0
  • Total Saved: $758,000

Conclusion

$750,000 may not seem like enough money to retire on, especially when you’re only 35. Shenanigans I say! Without a mortgage, and having the children all in elementary school, our monthly expenditures will drop significantly. Plus, we now have the next 7 years to learn how to live on less. The next 7 years will also give me a better idea about what I want to do when I grow up. Maybe I will stick to writing, or maybe we will just become professional travelers. Maybe both. The good thing about this public forum is that it is not only a place for me to talk about my family and our finances, it’s a place for me to challenge myself. Every January from now on I will create a post to show our progress (and hopefully achievements).

Destroy your debt by selling your crap

I’m the kind of person that hates having any kind of debt. I actually hate the idea of wasting money in general. And having “things” has never been a priority for me.

We’ve been a debt-free family for over two years now. Not having debt may sound pretty awesome, but it occasionally makes it harder to justify NOT buying stuff. Even for someone who is morally opposed to waste and general consumerism.

When you’re broke, you might honestly not be able to afford the things you want, or even need for that matter. Then there are those of us who DO have the money and can easily buy the crap we want. So, why not just buy the $200 pair of shoes? The $70,000 Escalade with 24″ rims? The newest, biggest, cell phone data plan?

Flagrant spending is flagrant spending no matter if you have serious debt or Millions invested!

You’re ready to open your eyes to see what the American Middle Class has become. Instead of seeing Fancy, expensive things, you’ll start seeing Waste. A leisurely walk through the mall will become one of the most grueling activities imaginable. And when your friend shows you their sweet new car you’ll actually feel bad for them!

What do you do when you realize that you want to pay down debt, while at the same time feel nauseous when you look at all the precious stuff you own?

You get rid of it! Getting rid of Wasteful stuff can provide financial relief as well as help clear out overloaded living spaces. Fortunately for us, it’s 2013, and you don’t need to spend an entire Saturday having a yard sale.

One alternative to face-to-face selling is ebay. ebay will help you sell your items to people all over the world through an online auction (they also charge a small commission). Although they’ve streamlined their services, I’ve been scammed quite a number of times. Luckily, I’m up to date on my annual Phishing training (thanks employer!).

Scamming is overly apparent when you’re trying to sell an in demand electronic item (ie, iPhone, Galaxy S4). “Fake bidders” may bid on your product within the last 5 minutes of an auction, successfully winning the item, but with no intention of ever paying you. This is a family past time in Nigeria.

I tried to sell an iPhone through ebay once! The Nigerians “bought” it within the last 5 minutes of the auction. 5 times in a row. ebay is used to this type of behavior. They reimbursed me of all seller fees, and I moved on to another sale’s medium.

Craigslist!

I’m a huge fan of Craigslist. Yeah. Yeah. It’s sketchy too. But, on Craigslist I get to choose who I sell my stuff to. AND I can choose where to meet the buyers.

What if someone doesn’t want to give you your full asking price? You move on to the next potential buyer. What happens if they want to come to your house to pick up the item? Fuck that! Let’s meet at Starbucks! At least I know there will be security cameras there and maybe even police officers.

If you’re keen to the idea of hanging out in your front lawn for an entire day then yard sales could be a great way for you to sell a bunch of stuff at once, and a quick way to generate a few hundred dollars, or more. Try setting up a neighborhood-wide yard sale. By doing this you could attract more people and from all over. Clear out your attic. Load up your wallet.

Selling stuff is a great way to get extra money to put towards debt, or savings. Essentially you’re earning your Wastefully spent money back!

Every successful sale will help you chip away at your debt, or add to your savings. You may not be able to pay off all of your debt in this fashion, but it could potentially provide relief for times that debt seems like it might go unpaid.

Be vigilant with your debt! Having cash can burn a hole in your pocket if you aren’t careful. After selling items, head to the bank. Apply the money to any existing loans. Your future self will thank you!

Mrs. Moneyseed and I have been trying to sell pretty much everything we own that we don’t use or need on a regular basis. We’ve also been focusing on only buying things that we really need. It’s so important to us that any future purchases we make must pass an efficiency test: It must be high-quality, It must have the right price, It must stand the test of time.

We have two things that we’re going to put up for sale now: An e-reader and the most obnoxious, Wasteful coffee pot ever created (The Keurig). These are two items I just can’t justify keeping around. Since we are debt-free we can use the proceeds buy some Freedom.

You don’t have to be extreme and sell everything you own, but find the crap you honestly don’t need and turn it into cash.

I sold both items for the full asking price within two days of their listing. Just two days of e-mailing people back and forth just made us $130.00 and helped us get rid of items that were collecting dust.Update: I posted the Keurig and Kindle on Craiglist for $80 and $50 respectively.