Tuesday, March 31, 2015

March 2015 Grocery Spending Journal

Our kitchen table for Easter week -- the rabbit is a garden ornament

Oh, I can feel it already. This is going to take discipline. I'm beginning the month with a deficit of $77.40 to subtract from our budget of $175. So, I have $97.60 for the month of March.

March 4. Cash and Carry has mozzarella and pizza blend cheese (mozza, provolone and cheddar), grated in 5-lb bags for $9.98. I buy 2 of each (4 bags total, 20 pounds). The expiry date is in August, so even if I don't freeze this, it will keep a long while. While I was in the deli walk-in fridge, I checked the prices of other cheeses, and it appears that cheese prices are falling. Grated cheddar was about $10.98 for 5-lb bags, down about $2.20 per pound. This is good news for shoppers. I also bought 2 10-lb bags of fresh carrots, at $3.48 each (works out to 35 cents per pound). They also had 25-lb bags of juicing carrots there, for $11.48. But at that price, those carrots were about 45 cents per pound. Always pays to compare unit prices. Total spent today, $46.88.

What I didn't buy, as you might be interested in what I resisted -- bananas at 49 cents/lb. I was hungry for fruit, so they were tempting. I still have about 15 pounds of oranges at home, and several frozen bananas. I'll survive. We'll be buying lots of bananas when the oranges run out in just 2-3 weeks. And I already posted, on March 5, on not choosing the frozen peas, split peas and soy milk.

March 6. At Fred Meyer to buy a couple of non-food items, also run by the dairy case looking for markdowns. I find gallons of milk marked down with about 8-10 days left before expiry, at $1.50/gallon. I buy 4 gallons skim milk and 1 gallon 1%. This milk is lower in fat than I prefer to buy, but we'll live. I'm still making yogurt at home with whole (4%) milk, so the overall dairy consumption is higher in fat (this is a concern for the one daughter who needs to constantly work at keeping weight up). I also buy onion powder (32 cents) and garlic powder (75 cents) from bulk section, for a couple of specific recipes.

And . . . this is where I'm human like the rest of us. I've been craving beef like crazy. Almost obsessed with beef, at times. I thought of running by a good hamburger joint and picking up lunch, but that would cost just over $5, for the quality of burger that I prefer. I checked every markdown package of beef. They were all about $11 to $15, and still the price per pound was so high. I went back and forth between the freezer section (with preformed burger patties), the regular meat section, the butcher counter, the markdown meat section. I think I spent a half hour ruminating on beef. I finally decided on going to the butcher counter and asking for 6 ounces of the super lean (7% fat) ground beef. I would split this in two portions, 1 for today's lunch, and freeze the other portion for a day in the future. I spent $2.03 cents on beef today. And that was for just 6 ounces -- that's how expensive beef is in our area. But in my mind, I rationalized it this way. I could have gone out for a $5 burger, and had a good quality meat patty, but with white flour bun (which I don't care for). Instead, I spent $2.03 for 2 patties of meat, cooked just the way I like them, and no white flour bun. (note: the meat was very good, I had the patties 2 days apart, and I felt satiated for beef for the time being. But as soon as this grocery spending freeze is over, I'm going to make beef a priority in our budget, once per week maybe, instead of once per month.)

Total spent at Fred Meyer $10.60

March 6. Dollar Tree -- I buy 2 quarts of soy milk to get through the month for my own use. Spent $2.00

March 14. It's felt weird not going to the grocery stores as much, but a nice kind of weirdness. I'm saving gas, money and time. But today I want to make my bi-monthly stop at Cash and Carry. I have to be in that area to get my daughters from the main transit station, as both had activities and work on campus, today (Saturday). Cash and Carry's ad's run every other week. There's not a whole lot that I want this time around, but they do have garbanzo beans and loaf sharp cheddar on sale. I buy a 25-lb bag of garbanzo beans ($19.29 -- that's about 77cents per pound) and a 5-lb block of sharp cheddar ($10.98 -- $2.20 per pound). We like garbanzo beans cooked, as is, in salads, in tabbouli, in hummus, and in garbanzo bean soup, both the pureed version and the tomato broth version. These will be a nice change from pinto beans. And the sharp cheddar is for sandwiches and homestyle macaroni and cheese. Spent $30.27, for a total month to date of $89.75.

I still need to pick up some heads of cabbage, and whatever other basic items that I find at their lowest price for the season, i.e. white sugar and white flour, as I'm very low on both, or eggs, but those will hopefully be on sale the week before Easter at Walgreen's. Fortunately, our freezer still has plums, strawberries, rhubarb and blackberries from last summer, and our garden is producing some greens (watercress, sorrel, kale, mustard greens, chives and parsley) for use now, and I just planted a new batch of kale and lettuce under a row cover. I'll get the spinach planted this week. And we still have canned pumpkin, canned tomato paste, canned stewed tomatoes and canned pineapple in the pantry, and plenty of fresh carrots, shallots, onions and potatoes in the fridge. For meat, I have 2 whole turkeys and 2 hams, still. I'll be roasting a turkey this week, to give us plenty of meat for several meals this month.

March 17. Dollar Tree for miscellaneous stuff. But I did pick up 1 quart of soy milk, as I used quite a lot of my stash of soy milk for cakes/frostings/homemade macaroni and cheese this month (so I can eat it too). Spent $1

March 17. Safeway had the lowest price on cabbage this week, for my stores. I bought 4 heads, at 49 cents per pound. Not a stellar price, but for fresh produce, 49 cents per pound beats most other vegetables, and gives us something to eat fresh, as in slaws. Spent $5.10.

Total spent month to date -- $95.85

It's March 28 today. I'm planning on swinging by QFC to pick up 1 ham, at $1.29/lb. This means I will go over our allotted amount, by about $10 for the month. I will go into April with a considerably smaller deficit than previous months, so I feel okay with going over.

March 28. I did go to QFC, bought 1 ham at $1.29/lb. Spent $11.52.

Also went to Fred Meyer, to use a coupon on eggs and redeem a courtesy voucher for $2. 18-count eggs were on sale for $2 (or $1.33/dozen), limit 2 with coupon. I thought I'd redeem my voucher from when I bought a box of rotten salad greens last month, so in that sense, the eggs worked out to be about 66 cents/dozen. Also found 2% milk in gallons marked down to $2.00/gallon. I picked up 4 gallons. Not a stellar price, so only bought enough for the next few weeks. (Earlier this month I found gallons of milk for $1.50/gallon.) Total spent $10.00

For the month of March, I spent a grand total of $117.37. That put me over budget by $19.77, which I can handle. This means that next month (April), I will have $155.23. One more month of working extra hard at keeping my grocery spending in line. I've already been making up a list of must-haves for next month, and will try to stick to that list, plus any stellar deals that I come across on essential foods (produce, meat, dairy, baking basics, beans and whole grains).

I will say this about my shopping this month. Although I went over budget, I didn't buy a single questionable nutrition-wise, food. I bought milk, eggs, cheese, meat, fresh carrots, fresh cabbage, dried garbanzo beans, onion and garlic powder, and soy milk. You cannot get much more basic than that.

And to prevent needing to do a humongous shopping once April 1st rolls around, I've been very careful to use our ingredients wisely, looking for ways to prepare favorites without eggs, using less sugar, looking to the garden first for our produce needs, and minimizing food waste. We're eating very well. I've started keeping a log of all of our dinners. It helps me to see what we're in fact eating. When I read our past menus, I can see for myself that no one is going hungry, being deprived of nutrients or missing anything special. I'll be happy to post some of those weekly dinner menus, if anyone is interested to know just how I use these very basic ingredients.

Until next month. . . can you believe tomorrow is April already?!


Monday, March 30, 2015

Comparing the price of cake to pie

We've had a run of cakes lately. I do love a good slice of cake. But, after totaling the cost to make a layer cake, it just seemed expensive. I also a big fan of a good slice of pie. So, I was thinking, just how do the two compare, price wise.

My layer cakes cost me about $2.75 per whole cake (if using cocoa powder, for chocolate buttercream frosting). One cake is enough for dessert for 5 of us, on 3 nights (slim slices of cake). That's about 92 cents per family-dessert.

I get 2 dinner's worth of dessert for 5 of us from a pie. (Again, slim slices of pie, drat those kids had to grow up and eat more! Now my slice of pie had to shrink!) But what does a typical pie cost me to bake?

My pie pastry recipe makes enough pie dough for 5 single crusts. The whole batch costs about $2.15, for my ingredients, so 43 cents per single crust.

If I make rhubarb custard crumb pie (garden rhubarb), my additional ingredients of eggs, sugar, flour and butter cost about 75-85 cents. So, my rhubarb-crumb pie costs as much as $1.30 per pie, or 65 cents per family-dessert.

If I make 2-crust blackberry pie (with free blackberries, they're everywhere, here), I double my cost on the crust to 86 cents, but only add 15 cents of additional ingredients (sugar, flour, salt), for a pie costing $1.01 total, or 51 cents per family-dessert. Apple pies, made with home-grown apples compare similarly to the blackberry.

Pies for which I have to buy filling ingredients (like lemon meringue, banana cream or chocolate cream) can be considerably more expensive to make. Of the store-bought filling choices, lemon meringue comes in at about 80 cents for the filling (using bottled lemon juice and skipping the lemon zest), or $1.23 for a whole pie. A banana cream pie costs about $1.10-1.20 for the banana, whip cream, and scratch-cooked vanilla pudding, or $1.65 to $1.75 including the crust, or almost 90 cents per family-dessert (close to the cost of scratch-baked cake with buttercream icing). And chocolate cream pie is a sheer indulgence, at over $3 per whole pie.

So, my conclusion with this analysis, if I'm counting pennies closely, then a simple pie made with home-grown fruit is most affordable, and more nutritious than cake.

This past week, I was wanting a frugal pie for dessert, meaning no eggs and less sugar. We are now entering rhubarb season. Rhubarb will be my most economical fruit for the next 2  1/2 months. But, "regular" two-crust rhubarb pie does not thrill me. So, I scrounged the freezer and found a few bags of frozen blackberries from last summer's harvest. I used half blackberries, half chopped rhubarb in this pie. I flavored the filling with some orange zest, and used about 2/3 cup sugar, and a pinch of baking soda (to reduce tartness, without adding more sugar), plus some flour for thickening, and a dash of salt. It was delicious, satisfied my hunger for pie, and only cost about $1 for the whole pie.

However,  there is 7-minute frosting, which brings the cost of layer cake way down . . .
Hmmm, I may need some more calculations, and a bit of baking and tasting :-) .


Friday, March 27, 2015

Comparing my "old" grocery shopping to my "new"

I was browsing my old grocery journals, looking to see which month I made the biggest changes. If you've been reading my blog for a while, then you might remember that my husband's work situation changed in July of 2013, reducing our income by 30%. I couldn't find a July grocery journal in my files. It was a crazy month of adjustments, so maybe I lost track that month. But I did find June's for 2013. (I accidentally re-posted it briefly the other day -- hit the wrong button, oops!)

My thinking on groceries has changed very significantly. Here, I'll let you read it, but I'll edit out some of the commentary, to shorten it, just so you can get an idea of what I used to buy.

"June 4. Dollar Tree, bag of corn chips (to go with chili) $1

June 5. Trader Joe's, rice cakes ($1.49), almond milk, 2 qts. (1.69 ea), 3 pack 72% dark chocolate bars ($1.79), 1/2 lb almond slices (2.99), brown rice tortillas (2.69), bananas, 7 (19 cents each)  total spent $13.67

Produce stand watermelon (29 cents/lb), yams (69 cents/lb), small avocados, 2 (25 cents ea), roma tomatoes (98 cents/lb), whole wheat tortillas ($2.49)  total spent $8.58

June 7. Albertson's eggs 88 cents/dozen, limit 2, corn tortillas (1.69)  total spent $3.45

QFC marked down bananas 39 cents/lb, whole milk, gallon (3) - $1.99 ea, skim milk, gallon (1) - $1.99  total spent $9.75

Manna Mills Natural Market brown rice flour (2.05/lb), millet flour (1.85/lb), buckwheat flour (3.59/lb), GF hot cereal blend (2.69/lb)  total spent $3.94

June 11. TOP Foods -- bought gummy bears and turkey bacon, spent $4.49

QFC for markdown milk (99c for a half gallon, bought 3), spent $2.97

Country Farms produce stand in the afternoon for 2 small avocados, 1 cantaloupe and 1 tomato, spent $1.47

June 12. bought slider beef patties and 7 gallons of markdown milk ($1.89 for 1%), spent $24.22

June 14. Country Farms produce stand, bought 1 watermelon, a bag of cauliflower and a tomato. spent $4.97

Manna Mills Natural Market Bought arrowroot, tapioca flour, sorghum flour and cream of tartar. spent $2.15

June 17. QFC, found 1 gallon milk ($2.99), and 15 lbs of baking bananas, another bag of beef slider patties. spent $19.61

June 20. Cash and Carry wholesaler. Bought boneless, skinless chicken breasts, almond milk, 5 lbs carrots and a 10. lb bag of potatoes. Spent $15.93

Trader Joe's is just down the street, so picked up more almond milk, vegan mozzarella, cashews, almonds, GF hamburger buns, tofu and corn pasta. spent $21.72

June 21. Fred Meyer, bought more turkey bacon, breakfast sausage, 2 packs chocolate chips, an oregano plant (mine didn't do well over winter this year, so it was cheaper to buy a new plant than have to buy oregano at the store) and a good bar of chocolate. Spent $13.01

June 25. Dollar Tree. Bought 1 bottle of cranberry juice, $1

Month to date spent -- $151.93

It's June 28. I've got to go to Trader Joe's for a couple of items to get through the weekend and next week. I'm doing much better than I thought with the budget. I've been very, very busy. Staying out of stores helps with the budget, that's for sure!"

That's where my online grocery journal ends. My on-paper accounting shows that I spent more, bringing up the total of grocery spending for June 2013 to abut $190 for the month. While $190 sounds like very little, look at the items that I bought. I was in no way stocking up on staples, to carry us through future months. I was buying a lot of convenience items, to get through 1 week at a time, such as tortilla chips, rice cakes, tortillas, chocolate bars (a lot of chocolate bars, apparently, and some gummy bears), buns, and some meat items that are now simply out of budget for me, like beef slider patties and boneless, skinless chicken breasts. I don't think I was caring as much about prices, back then.

To be fair to myself, however, this was the second month of trying to get my digestive issues under control. I had a cross-reaction to gluten in May, due to over-consumption of dairy. And so I was trying a GF lifestyle, which proved to be very expensive, and not wholly necessary for my body. I have since learned that if I limit my dairy, and use lactase enzyme tablets when I do consume dairy, I can have some high-gluten foods, like breads and pastas. I just have smaller portions of the wheat-based foods than the rest of the family, and I avoid barley, almost entirely (I have an intolerance to barley).

But, even taking this into consideration, my shopping had a different feel to it. I was buying impulsively, and not finding the biggest values. For instance, buying slider patties instead of markdown cuts of beef, or buying boneless, skinless chicken breasts, instead of whole chickens when on sale. I spent $2.69 per pound on a GF hot cereal blend. Meanwhile, brown rice is also GF, and I pay about 45 to 50 cents per pound for brown rice, bought in 50-lb sacks. Brown rice, either whole or roughly ground makes a nice GF hot breakfast cereal, at 1/5th the price of the special GF blend.

I had no idea that a major income reduction was coming. I was truly blind-sided by that one. So, I could afford to shop in a comparatively haphazard manner. Once the budget change took place, though, I was finding many, many alternatives to reduce our spending.

In place of a bag of corn chips to go with chili, I now always make cornbread. A pan of scratch cornbread cost about 60 cents, compared to $1 for the corn chips. Rice cakes are something of a "fun food". $1.49/ package at Trader Joe's, I have since seen them at Dollar Tree for $1 a package. But for me, now, I just don't buy them. If it's nutrition I'm after, a scoop of cooked brown rice has the same nutrients. A couple of mentions of buying nuts, then it was almonds and cashews. Now, I buy mixed nuts and peanuts, in large quantities, in November/December, and at the wholesaler in super large cans, when found on sale.

I'm satisfied with any of my produce purchases, as produce is definitely a dietary priority for our family. But even still, I could have found better deals by buying in bulk, such as larger bags of carrots and potatoes than what I did buy (5 and 10-lb bags).

Grocery prices began to sky-rocket, at about the same time that my budget was reduced, adding to my challenge. I think I was able to prove to myself that we can still eat great meals, have some treats, and continue with good nutrition even in such a financial squeeze. My grocery budget has been around $170-175 per month since August 1, 2013. I won't say it's easy. This is a difficult amount to keep to, even for me. But I'm glad to know that I can do it. If finances allow, I would like to increase this budget to about $210, where we had been for many years, but this time, spend that additional amount on more meat for our diet.

As a post script, the funniest line in the journal to me now is at the end, "I'm doing much better than I thought with the budget." My perspective has definitely changed, don't you think?!


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