Coupons. I recently saw this video that was posted on young New York interior designer Lisa Beye’s blog Penny Rounds about a Massachusetts mom who is so adept at collecting coupons and rebates and finding ‘free stuff’ that she can feed her family of six for practically less money than it costs for the paper they’re printed on. I’m a little bit older than Lisa, so I’m probably a little more familiar with this concept and a little more skeptical. I’ve seen this sort of program on and off over the several years that I’ve been running my own household. (I’ve been a mom for more than 33 years… but who’s counting!) They always make it look so easy… and for just spending a couple of hours a day, you too can feed your family for practically nothing…
Things have changed a bit since I first came across the idea that clipping newspaper and magazine coupons could really save you money. Back then you could apply for mail-in rebates that were worthwhile because stamps were way cheaper. We were accustomed to having to wait a couple of weeks for stuff to arrive via snail mail because that’s all there was. We also didn’t have computers with coupon sites and printers with which to print them off. So the expense of coupon supplies was simply a pair of scissors and a box or envelope system for filing them. Nowadays. if you print coupons off the internet, you need to factor in your cost of paper and ink. (I set my printer to draft and only use gray scale printing so I don’t use up colored ink as my printer uses individual ink cartridges. I also buy those in bulk on eBay. Refilling was not successful for me, but could be cheaper for you. The coupons only need to be legible enough for you to read what they are for and the store to scan the bar code.) There are also coupon sites that find you coupons and charge a small percentage of their value “for postage and handling” and send them to you. There are online membership coupon clubs like A Full Cup http://www.afullcup.com and The Grocery Game http://www.thegrocerygame.com that help you find coupon resources and organize your system so you can use your coupons most effectively. I’ve even found one site that you can sign up with that allows you to enjoy coupon savings for some stores without clipping a thing called Cellfire. “With Cellfire, you can save coupons to your grocery store savings card. To redeem, just swipe your card at checkout!”
Well, if you’re a busy mom like me (or dad) who also has a career to manage, then you probably don’t have two hours a day to devote to ‘couponing’ to be able to reap the benefits as dearly as the mom in the video. I’ve found that I can spend far less time (less than I allow for this blog weekly that pays me nothing) and save significant amounts. I’ve set up a few rules for myself so that my time is well spent:
1. Never buy anything with a coupon that is not already on sale. (Sometimes store brands are cheaper that are not on sale and taste/work just as well.)
2. Never buy anything I won’t use or am not sure I’ll like.
3. Go through the weekly supermarket ads that fill my mail box for the coupons and see what is on sale that week. Use it to (roughly) plan the weeks menu and make a list.
3. Prepare a list ahead of time and follow the list. (Impulse buying is a budget killer.)
4. Allow several hours to shop because it takes a long time with coupons. Be prepared to go to more than one store to find the best deals on the list.
5. Do the week’s shopping as soon after the weekly ads come out as possible, because the shelves will be empty of the ‘hot’ coupon items very quickly.
So you are probably wondering how someone can actually use significant amounts of coupons and still eat healthy. It does seem that many coupons are for foods that are already prepared, prepackaged, and full of preservatives and not-so-healthy ingredients. This is where making a list and sticking to it comes into play. You would be surprised at how many manufacturer’s and store’s coupons are for items that are ingredients for things you can prepare yourself. I have to admit that I do buy some ‘snacky’ premade things like frozen pizzas and ice cream that I keep in the freezer for my teenager and his friends (yeah right!). But the bulk of what I buy are ingredient type foods.
Saturday I was looking at Angelo Surmelis’ “Daily Tip” video blog on Facebook. He was talking about making your own hot cocoa mix, which reminded me of my old Make-A-Mix cookbooks. The first book is actually called "Make-A-Mix Cookery" and was published by Bantam Books in 1978. The authors are Karine Eliason, Nevada Harward and Madeline Westover. There is a second book by these creative ladies called "More Make-A-Mix Cookery" that came out in 1980 published by H. P. Books. There are recipes for hot chocolate mixes in both books. I was surprised to find that they can still be purchased on Amazon, although for about three times more than I paid for them originally. Make-A-Mix Cookery on Amazon
The Make-A-Mix concept is that you can create all kinds of foods that we’ve grown used to purchasing prepackaged off the shelf. We can make our own healthier versions because they are made with basic ingredients that have far less ‘harmful’ preservatives used in the process. Many of the recipes require that they be frozen and they always tell you what the expected shelf life is. For instance, there are recipes that mimic name brand items you’re sure to be familiar with like Hidden Valley Ranch, Shake ‘N Bake, Bisquick, Good Seasons Italian Dressing, Stove-Top Stuffing and any variety brand-name muffin and cake mixes. They don’t name them specifically in the books, but it’s easy to tell what they are supposed to be like when you read about what they can be made into. I’ve tried several over the years and they are surprisingly excellent. My favorite is their “Home Style Dressing” (a.k.a. Ranch). Another recipe I like is for White Sauce Butter Balls – handy because they are prepared ahead of time and save a lot of steps and time for recipes that require a white sauce.
Another source of recipes for making your own mixes is http://allrecipes.com/. There are other ‘recipe’ sites on the web, but this one I’ve found the easiest to navigate and I can (usually) find what I’m looking for there. I also like reading the comments about recipes before I try them. I rarely if ever follow a recipe to the letter and it’s interesting to find others who have tweaked them differently too. My favorite mix recipe I’ve found here is for taco mix. There’s several to pick from.
This weekend, after creating a list of ingredients for mix recipes for meals that will be consumed mostly within the next month, I went through my pantry and identified the items on the list that I needed to purchase. I then went through my collection of coupons (about a hundred I’ve collected over the past couple of weeks) to ferret out any coupons for ingredients on the list. Looked at the supermarket ads to see what was on sale. Then dragged my all-suffering spouse with me to power shop the supermarkets.
The first place we went to is the 99 Cent Store (not to be confused with Dollar Tree which also has good buys too). Of the items our 99 Cent Store sells, what I like to buy the most there is produce, canned goods and a nice selection of spices. You have to look over things pretty thoroughly, but there are good buys to be had there. It also has a lot of crap… so you have to spend some time digging though it and have an idea what things retail for in the supermarket. For instance, a can of soup may cost 99 cents but the on-sale price for the same brand and can of soup at a supermarket may actually be less. We walked out of the store with a full cart and spent $74 dollars—thought the clerk was going to pass out. I estimate that I saved half over what I would have spent at a supermarket. They don’t take coupons for their already extremely discounted products (so they say). Much of what I purchased were containers to store my mixes in, so I would not normally spend that kind of money there.
We then proceeded to our local supermarket. After several hours, we spent a grand total of $340. With coupons and store discounts, we saved $74. The clerk sighed and rolled his eyes as he scanned my pile of coupons and it took two carts to haul it all out of the market. All-in-all we spent about half our month’s allowance for our family of four (3 adults and one hungry teenager). I’m expecting to have to pick up a couple of things at the store over the proceeding month, but this will be the bulk of our grocery expense. My expected result is that I will have spent a little more than half of what my normal grocery budget is. I also expect that we will be eating a little healthier as well.
So now, I’ve got to get cracking putting those mixes together. I’ll let you know how it turns out.