Today will begin a series on simplifying life. I want to share with others the many ways that I have learned to simplify life and live off of one income. Even if you choose to maintain two incomes, these tips will make the most of your incomes in order to maximize the amount you can save and give to others. I will cover areas such as food, wardrobe, household supplies, transportation, housing, and becoming debt-free. Today's focus will be on food.
The greatest spending category in most familes is food! Would you believe that our grocery bill had gone up to $400 a month for a family of two? Phew! We certainly weren't creating a lifestyle that permitted us maximum savings account deposits, nor sustainablity for additions to the family in the future. Little by little I'm learning a whole new way of living, which interestingly isn't new at all. In fact, it is in ways a back to basics by creating meals which are from the source as much as possible. As a result, we have decreased our wasteful spending and increased nutritional value of the foods we buy. It is possible to eat for less without resorting to prepackaged products or couponing! You can even afford organic produce and meats! The following is how I make it all work:
1) Begin to meal plan breakfasts, lunches and dinners for each day. I only do a weekly meal plan since our meals are based upon seasonal produce, and shop once a week for everything. However, a meal plan can be created up to a month or season, which will reduce shopping trips even more. Meal planning saves so much time and stress in deciding what to cook and then the task of preparing it. While I was still working outside the home, I discovered that having a designated meal for the day and all the ingredients at hand was a life saver after a long day at work. A meal plan will not only save you money by limiting exraneous purchases at the store, but will also insure the week is balanced nutritionally.
2) Create your own cookbook. One key to menu planning is to stick to what you know. Sure new recipes are fun to collect and occasionally try, but they can also be costly. Type and print your favorite tried-and-true recipes. Slide them into sheet protectors and then into a 3-ring binder. This allows you to simply snap out the one recipe sheet when needed instead of carrying the whole book into the kitchen. When you're finished with that recipe snap it back into the book, but in the back of the section. The next time you're looking for a chicken recipe, for example, a new one is on top. This little trick will keep you out of a rut of cooking the same dish all the time. For all those new recipes just stashed away, pick one day every week or every two weeks for them. If they're adored by everyone, then into the book it goes! The book really makes meal planning so quick and easy. Plus, you can highlight the produce ingredients to keep yourself cooking in season. (I'll talk more about that in a bit).
3) Create meals based on whole grains, beans and fresh fruits & vegetables. Trust me, if you have a meat & potato loving kind of man then you will want to ease into this change! Meats are expensive and often one of those areas in which cheaper may mean sub-standard quality. I try to keep our meat meals to one or two a week. Moreover, buy larger quantities and learn to cut it yourself into smaller portions. I used to buy packages of chicken breasts or tenderloins, but now can cut apart a whole chicken to last for many meals (and delicious stock!). By decreasing the amount of meals centralized around meat and using more grains, beans and vegetables we can actually afford the better quality meats!
4) Purchase produce in season. Not only are non-seasonal produce expensive but they are also lacking that farm fresh taste. Blah! If you aren't familiar with what is in season when in your area, then do a little internet search for a calendar. Then, learn to shop based on it as a guide. If you have the space then grow your own! There are incredible savings in having a garden! There are still means to garden if you only have a small space. For example, many plants can be grown in pots. We have our entire apartment balcony lined with planters. Herbs can be grown in pots outside and then maintained inside during the winter. You can even use a glass aquarium to grow then indoors year-round! You will have to do some research as to which plants can withstand container gardening and what their requirements are. It is a joy to watch and nuture those little green bits of life, and then reap the reward of the harvest! (Did I mention super cost effective?) If you can't grow plants in your home, then definitely partake of local farmers markets or CSA farms. Not only are you securing your family, but also that of the local farmer. Now, go back to your cookbook and highlight the produce components of the ingredients with a different color for each season. This will keep you cooking the recipes with the freshest of ingredients!
5) Learn those long forgotten kitchen skills of homemade. Would you believe that when we purchase prepackaged items at the grocery store we are paying more for the preservatives, additives and packages than the product itself? Ridiculous! Creating homemade foods drastically decreases your expenditures and increases the nutrient content. We try to make as much as possible from scratch such as sauces (marinara), breads (hoagie rolls, hot dog buns, pizza crusts, sandwich loaf, breadsticks, muffins, biscuits etc), salad dressings etc. It is also nice to be in the kitchen working together to make things for the week. I suggest having a baking session once or twice a week. The time of meal prep is not the time to begin what can be a 3hr process to some breads. Planning ahead is key to making more homemade. Plus, I've always thought of homemade as being made from the heart.
6) Double meal portions for planned leftovers. We actually only cook three meals a week. We make double portions of each meal and use the meal later in the week for lunches or dinners. This is a great savings considering you don't have to buy as large of a variety of products at the store as you would if you cooked many more different meals. (Who wants to shop and cook for 6-7 different meals?!). Keep it simple! Some meals freeze well which is nice for weeks you want to come under budget.
7) Set a budget and stick to it. We may say we have a budgeted amount for food, but as long as we're able to swip that checkcard for payment, we know that there is money there to catch us if we go over the allotted amount. Determine the amount you can eat on for a week and then take that money out in cash. I know it's a pain to have to run to the atm with every payday when paychecks go in automatically, but it's also a pain to come up short or not save as much as desired at the end of the month. Play with your menus to come out under budget some weeks, so that you can withstand a "splurge" another week while still meeting the same designated amount at the end of the month. Want lobster tails or other higher meats? Then, create a menu this week that will come under budget and create an excess, which can then be used next week for those crustatians. It's a give and take balance.
8) Lastly, shop sales ads. The greatest "bang for your buck" may seem like those prepackaged shelf items, but once you account for the lessened nutrition and added ingredients you'll find that these one time use products aren't that great of a deal afterall. You don't have to sacrifice quality for price! Plan your meals based on what meat or produce is on sale. You may not be able to stock up on produce for the coming weeks, but you certainly can for meats. When whole chickens go on sale, pick up a couple (depending on your freezer space). Those couple of chickens can last for numerous meals and purposes! We're fortunate to have two grocery stores one street apart. We can usually buy what we need for the week without going too far into the non-sale items.
These steps may seem like a lot, but I promise it isn't hard to adopt and adapt them to your life. It is possible to live in such a way of having quality foods each month while still working to get out of debt, add to the savings account, and give to others. Up next will be Simplifying: Wardrobe.