A Thrifty Challenge

As a foodie… and as someone who loves fresh produce… my grocery bills can get pretty high.  Between the piles of fruits and veg, the nice cheeses that we bring home, and treats like fun spices that somehow find their way into the cart, I often find myself with teeth on edge, wondering how I managed to spend so much money at the grocery store checkout on any given completely normal week.  It also doesn’t help that hubby and I shop at Whole Foods (for the time being, but we’re anxiously awaiting that blessed day when Wegmans opens its next northern Virginia store, which will be tantalizingly close to our house).  All of this combines for some unacceptably high grocery bills.

 I’m not going to give exact numbers, because I prefer to keep financial information off the blog.  Just take it from me when I say that for quite some time now, I’ve been unhappy with my inability to economize at the market.  That’s why I’m getting serious about cutting back.  My lofty goal is to cut my grocery spending IN HALF for the remainder of the year.  (What I mean by that is this: I naturally spend somewhere within a range, say between $A and $B, on a weekly basis.  Each week until December 31st, I am setting a goal to spend within a range of between half $A and half $B.)  I started this goal a few weeks before we left for our vacation and I’m glad to say that so far, so good.  In fact, I’m pleased to report that on our big “return from vacation stock-up” trip, while I was fully expecting to blow the budget, I still came in $25 under my upper range.  Woo to tha hoo!

 This could get interesting.  Here’s what I’m going to do:

  •  Keep the pantry clean, organized, and clutter-free.  I am usually good about keeping an organized pantry, but lately I’ve let it get a bit out of hand.  The first step in cutting back on grocery bills is going to be cleaning out the pantry.  There’s no better way to figure out exactly what I already have!  I’m usually pretty well-stocked on canned and dried beans, brown rice, vegetable stock and soup in cartons, and oats (both old-fashioned and steel-cut).  Part of my money-saving strategy involves using those staples more.
  • Use coupons!  Whole Foods has a page of current coupons – and they’re coupons for things I already buy on a regular basis, like plain Greek yogurt.  Every so often, in a burst of thrifty inspiration, I print a page of coupons (and you can select only those ones that you want to print – so cool) and then promptly lose them.  Not anymore, though.  I’m going to go to the grocery store armed with coupons.  But – and this is a major but – I’m ONLY planning to use coupons for items that I would have bought anyway.  Coupons can cost you more money (and extra pounds on the tush) if you use them for overly-processed foods, like chips, that you wouldn’t have bought without the coupon.  I’m not into buying things just because I have a coupon – but if it’s an item that I buy anyway and I can save a dollar, I’m going for it.
  • Stock up on staples when they’re on sale.  I used to do this all the time when I ate chicken – I would only buy it when the organic chicken was on sale.  If we ran out between sales, we didn’t eat chicken again until the next sale.  But as a vegetarian, I find I’m terrible about this.  I buy the staples I need instead of waiting for sales and then stocking up.  If I need tofu, I buy tofu – even if it’s not on sale.  Same goes for beans.  Last week at the market I started to put this idea into practice – I bought three cans of lentils because they were on sale.  Now I’ve got them in my pantry and I can use them in meals anytime – and the next time I need lentils, I won’t have to buy them full price.  I need to be better about stocking up on staples when they’re on sale, and not buying them when they’re full price.
  • Control myself in the produce department.  My biggest money drain at the market comes from getting too excited about all of the pretty fruits and vegetables and buying way more than hubby and I can eat in a week.  I invariably end up throwing stuff away and it just kills me.  I need to either learn to preserve, or I need to be better about not throwing stuff into the grocery cart just because it looks good.  I have to get real about exactly how much veg two people can actually eat in seven days.
  • Get back in the menu-planning habit.  I used to do this and it did save me some money – although not as much as I’m aiming to save here.  I’ve fallen out of the habit and just gotten into whipping up whatever interests me in the moment, which is fun and all, but it’s an expensive habit that I need to kick.

 So there you have it – my strategy for saving some major cash at the grocery store.  I’ve exempted one item from my money-saving strategy: beer.  I personally don’t drink beer, with the exception of the occasional Blue Moon – the only beer I like.  (I’m such a girl.)  But hubby is into artisan beers, especially IPAs, and they add up.  I’ve spent a lot of time gritting my teeth over the grocery receipt, looking at how much money goes to expensive beers.  But you know what?  It makes him happy.  I could say “no” or tell him he has to reign it in, but I’d be a nag, and I’d be taking away something that he enjoys.  I’m just not willing to do that.  So for purposes of this money-saving challenge, I’m considering beer as a separate item that I won’t count toward the “grocery costs.”

 So there you have it: I’m challenging myself to chop my grocery costs in half for the rest of the year – through December 31st.  And I’m hoping that when I get into 2012, my thrifty strategies will become habits that will continue to save us money.  I’ll report back regularly to let you know how it goes!

The Dining Room, Before and After-ish

There were no Labor Day picnics or barbeques in this household this year.  No, we decided that the best way to celebrate Labor Day weekend was with some good, old-fashioned hard labor.  Isn’t that right, Comrades?  (Just kidding… about the Comrades thing, anyway.  I took enough college economics classes to know what doesn’t work.)  But, unfortunately, we’re not kidding about the hard labor thing.  We designated Labor Day weekend for some badly-needed house maintenance, including assembling a bookshelf (hubby) and a wine rack (hubby) and painting the dining room (together).  The dining room is just about done now – all that’s left to do is replace the chandelier, although we might wait until 2012 for that one, since the house has been pretty spoiled lately.

Here she is, all taped up and ready to go:

And mid-paint job:

And here are the after-ish pictures (feel free to ignore the chandelier, and imagine something like this in its place instead).  The actual color is more subdued and muted, with faint grey undertones, than the yippee-skippee-sky blue that it reads on the screen.  So if you’re questioning my sanity, please know that it’s a lot less bright in person!  It’s actually closest to the area next to the window in the pic above.

Next up to get the blues: the living room!

Organizing the Junk Drawer

Ah, the dreaded junk drawer.  We all have one.  (At least, I think we all do.  If you’ve managed to de-junkify your life… please teach me.)  Mine was getting out of hand – even more so than junk drawers usually are – so I decided to do something about it.

Here’s the scary before:

Eek!  I can’t believe I actually put that picture on the internet.  Anywho, this is clearly a desperate situation, so I did what I always do in desperate situations.  I went to Target.  Here’s my white knight, the savior of the junk drawer:

That would be a set of interlocking trays from the Room Essentials brand.  So, who’s ready to clean out a junk drawer? 

Step one: empty everything out and sort it into piles by category.  Including a throw-away pile.  This is not the time to get precious about your nametag and lanyard from your most recent legal conference, trust me.

Step two: assign categories to each of the little compartments, then fill them up.  (This is the fun part.)

Step three: Put everything back in your newly organized junk drawer.  Get mad when you realize your organizer doesn’t totally fit.  Admire your work and start looking for other stuff to organize.

All in a day’s work.

TBYT: An Organized Pantry

This post is part of a series on Taking Back Your Time.  TBYT focuses on the little habits we all can cultivate to spare those extra minutes, seconds, and hours in each day, so that we have more time to do the things we really enjoy… like blogging!

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”
~Mary Poppins

Call me weird, but few things give me more joy than an organized pantry.

And it’s not just that it gives me joy… keeping an organized pantry really does save time.  And money.  Hear me out.  Knowing exactly what is in your pantry means you can open the door and quickly have dinner options laid out for you on a busy weeknight.  It means you won’t waste money buying eight cans of chickpeas when you already have twelve cans at home (I’ve been there).  It means you have the tools in your arsenal to make a fast lunch for yourself or the kids in the morning without digging around looking for the sandwich baggies.  It means you’ll never be surprised by moldy bread (ew).

Trust me, if you put an hour or so into organizing your pantry (and if you commit to putting things back where you found them!), it will pay you back in minutes saved every day.  And those minutes really do add up.

So, wanna know what’s in my pantry?  Okay, here you go…

Top shelf (L to R): My cereals and oats, dried fruit, whole grains (millet, barley, farro), rice and quinoa.

Upper middle shelf (L to R): Whole grain pastas, sauces, mustards, nut butters, sliced bread, nuts.

Lower middle shelf: seasonings, salts, bread crumbs, oils and vinegars.

Bottom shelf (L to R): Dried beans and legumes, sea vegetables and Asian specialty ingredients, canned beans, canned veg (and some meringue cookies thrown in there for good measure).

And here’s the floor:

Winter squash and potatoes, snacks, hubby’s cereals (yes, we shop at Costco… why do you ask?).

I organize like items with like and group things together in baskets or bowls, or on trays.  For instance, I keep winter squash in a basket from Target, seasonings are in a wooden salad bowl I got for my bridal shower (I like keeping it in the pantry because I get to admire it every day!), and oils and vinegars are on a tray with a picture of Switzerland, which I pilfered from my grandmother’s house (okay, she gave it to me).  Having nice baskets and bowls to keep things in makes it easier for me to remember to put things back where they belong.  But if you’re more mature than me (ha!) then don’t bother.  See if I care.

Now, because I know you all want to see it (is that crickets I hear?), here’s my baking pantry:

There’s a method to this madness, too.  From the bottom to the top, the shelves are organized as follows:

Bottom shelf: sugars (granulated, brown, sucanat, confectioner’s, honey, flavored).

Lower middle: flours.

Middle: baking essentials (extracts, liquers, baking powder/soda, salt, measuring cups, etc.)

Upper middle: mixing bowls.

Top: holiday items and cake/cookie decorating.

Keeping these pantries organized saves me hours in the long run, because I know exactly where to find what I’m looking for.  So call me a dork… whatever, I don’t care.  I know where my lentils are.  Do you?

Take Back Your Time!

Serenity now!

You may have noticed that my blog posts have been somewhat sporadic recently.  Actually, that may be an understatement.  A couple of people have asked me what’s going on, and to put any lingering doubts to rest: I’m alive, I’m not in jail, and I haven’t run off to join a hippie commune.  (Yes, if you’re wondering, they still have those.  I swear I haven’t done that much research.)

The truth is, I’ve just been busy.  Crazy, over-the-top, spinning-around-until-I-fall-down busy.  I’ve had to focus on the most pressing things, like My Job and My Marriage, and things like Returning Phone Calls, Vaccuuming, and unfortunately, Taking Pictures Of My Food And Posting Them On The Internet, have taken a backseat for awhile now.  In addition to work being busy (which is a great thing in my industry, and I’m certainly not complaining!) I’ve had some travel on the agenda, mostly related to my high school BFF’s wedding last month, in which I was thrilled to be a bridesmaid.  (Congratulations again, girlfriend!  Luv you!)  And ultimately, moving to a new town and changing switching from the subway to a driving commute required more of an adjustment than I expected.  It seems I’ve had less time recently, and this blog has suffered for it.  For that, I am truly sorry.  Not only does this blog enrich my life, but I flatter myself that somewhere out there, someone might be trying some of my recipes and getting some joy out of them.  And I haven’t posted much recently, and I hate that.  To those of you who’ve stuck with me, thank you for giving me the time I needed to sort my routine out.

Anyway, from this moment forward, I’m starting a blog challenge to TAKE BACK MY TIME.  No, work isn’t going to get any less busy, anytime soon.  No, my commute isn’t going to change.  And yes, I’m still going to have competing priorities.  But I’ve always believed that there are ways to fit in everything you want to do, if indeed you really do want to do it.  And one of those ways is to find smart little time savers, put them into practice, and make them habits.  I’ve got a number of these time saving tips stored up in my dusty attic of a brain.  Some are kitchen-related, and some aren’t.  Some of them, I use regularly.  Some, I know I should.  Some simply intrigue me.  I’m going to be experimenting with them all and taking you along for the ride.  I hope that, somewhere along the line, this will bring me some sanity and free me up to post more regularly.  And I hope it does the same for some of you out there, too.

So there you have it: something to look forward to.  I’ll be sprinkling in these time-saving techniques along with my usual recipes.  I’m aiming to make this a weekly feature, for as long as that seems reasonable.  And hey, if you have any ideas for me on how you take back your own time, give me a shout in the comments or on Twitter.  I’ll give you a blog shout-out!

How do you save time?