Thursday, September 30, 2010

Grocery Shopping on a Budget - Part 3

Tips for the Actual Shopping Part

1.)  Don't Go Shopping on an Empty Stomach. 

Most people already know this one, but it's #1 for a reason.  I don't care if you have to pick up a Dollar Value McChicken from McDonalds on the way to the store.  When you're hungry, everything looks good, and much more than the usual amount finds its way into your basket.

2.)  Buy Frozen Produce. 

Now, when something is in season, the prices come down and I try to buy fresh.  But if it's not in season, I don't bother.  I head straight to the frozen section. 

Menu Pages

Once upon a time, before people starting shipping their food from halfway around the world, people HAD to buy local and had to buy in season.  And we ate much better food.  Growing up, my family's diet was heavily influenced buy two major seasons in Louisiana - crawfish season and strawberry season.  Yes, you can get that stuff year-round, frozen and shipped from China, but nothing beats the real thing.

Frozen produce prices usually stay pretty level.  The nutrient value is almost as good as fresh because it is frozen at its peak of ripeness.  It tastes much better than canned, and doesn't have the added salt or sugar used to preserve canned fruits and vegetables..  And if you buy something like chopped green peppers, it actually saves you some time when it comes to cooking.

3.)  Generic vs. Brand. 

For years I've heard the "experts" say to buy the generic - you'll never know the difference.  "Oh, it's made at the same plant, the same recipe, blah, blah, blah."  Now, I'm no label whore, but I don't buy generic most of the time. 

Nutrition Know How

Here's my take on generic:  Don't assume that it is cheaper.  With coupons and sales, I can usually buy the real deal for less.  The boyfriend ALWAYS buys generic. The brand name could be on sale right next to it for half of what the generic costs, and he still buys the generic - because he thinks it is cheaper.

And if it is cheaper - is it worth it?  Some generic stuff, I can't tell the difference, so I have no problem buying it.  But some things I've noticed a huge difference.  Like grated cheese, tuna, macaroni and cheese, milk, etc.  I'm always willing to give generic a chance, but if it doesn't satisfy - that $0.03 difference isn't going to matter to me in the long run if it just sits on my pantry shelf.  Do taste tests at home and decide which you like better.  Then you'll know if you are buying something for quality or paying for a costly ad campaign featuring a loveable cartoon.

4.)  Compare Price By Quantity - Not by Tags. 

40% more free!  But 4 for $X.XX!  Buy one, get one free!

They're all tempting, but the truth is - manufacturers are trying to make money.  These are gimmicks.  You have to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges.

For example, around here we have a store called Randall's which offers cardmember only sales prices.  They do have some great deals, but more often than not I noticed that if they were doing a "Buy One, Get One Free" sale - their sale price on the one you had to buy was double what the going price was when it wasn't on sale.  So weren't actually saving any money (and sometimes you were paying more).  But people buy it because they like to think they are getting stuff for free!

I infuriate the boyfriend because I can stand in one spot in the grocery store for upwards of 5 minutes comparing the actual per oz. prices of items, then trying to do math in my head to figure out if a get one free deal is really worth it.  I think there is a law that grocery stores have to post the price by ounce - and it's a magical number.  Because what's the use of buying shampoo with 40% more free - when you're actually paying $0.05 more an ounce on the free part than if you had stuck with another shampoo?

And don't be fooled by "Buy 2 for $5" ads.  The boyfriend used to think this meant that you HAD to buy 2, but unless it specifically states that (which some stores do - so read), you can buy 1 for $2.50. 

Comparing by ounce/price is the best way to go, even when something isn't being advertised.  Look at the magically shrinking packaging.  To save money in the bad economy, a lot of items are getting smaller, but the price is still staying the same.

5.)  Stay Away from Prepared and Processed

It's a sad fact, and a leading cause of our obesity epidemic, that processed and prepared foods are cheaper than real food.  We're a culture that is over schedule and don't always have time to slow cook our meals.  I'm guilty.  When I first started cooking for the boyfriend, I thought Hamburger Helper (and its many varieties) was the best invention of all time.  It sells for $1/box, add some cheap hamburger meat, some frozen veggies, and you have a great meal for super cheap!  Only its super terrible for you.

I can't afford to feed my family purely organic food.  But I do try and stay away from prepared and processed foods as much as possible.  A good tip is to shop the perimeter of the grocery store.  Most of the processed food is in the middle.  Stay away from frozen entrees and just add water type of meals.  Not only will you be eating better food with less additives, but you can also save money on some options. 

Take frozen lasagne - it sells for like $10+ for a family size pack here.  For that price I can make two lasagnes and freeze one for later.


Unfortunately, I can't cook without processed food, be it a can of condensed mushroom soup, or dry bread crumbs.  But I do try and stay away from all-out junk food.  It's SO expensive.  If I'm craving something sweet, I try and bake cookies or a cake.  Yes, it's still bad for us, but at least I get more bang for my buck, and since I tend to cook sweets from scratch rather than a box, it has less preservatives.  I haven't quite figured out a way to get my salty snack cravings-fix yet, but I don't always keep it in the house.  Because I'm lazy, and if I have to go to the store to get something, I'll generally wait until I'm really in the mood for it.  But if it's in the house, I'm always in the mood for it.

6.)  Stock Up When It's a Good Deal

This is going to go back to knowing your staple items.  The more you buy certain items, the more you'll realize what the "regular" price is and what the "sale" price is.  This will let you take advantage of great sales.  I go through a lot of chicken stock, but I don't like making my own.  So when it is on sale I totally stock up.

Take advantage of sales, even if they are "limit 3 per customer" types.  If it's a great deal (like turkeys at Thanksgiving) I have been known to make the boyfriend get a shopping cart and check out separately.  And for the past couple of years, H.E.B. has been running a special around Earth Day where you can get free CFL bulbs with an in-store coupon, "limit 1."  So I'd stop every time I passed the store and get me a free lightbulb.  I don't do anything obnoxious like take all the on sale items off of the shelf and make the cashier check me out 4 separate times.  But I do try to take advantage.

8.)  Take Advantage of Coupons

I'm not a great coupon shopper.  Most of the food I buy, because it's not processed, doesn't have coupons.  If you want some great coupon tips, I suggest the site Hip2Save, where Collin is a coupon-clipping Queen.  For me, it's not really worth the hassle.  When I try to do couponing full-blown, I tend to spend more than I do without coupons because I'm buying items just because of the coupon deal.  And that doesn't really make sense.

But I do coupon some items - mostly household products like toilet paper, etc., and make-up.  It's really helpful to know your local stores' coupon policies.  For example, at H.E.B. they have in-store coupons taped up along the aisles - instant savings!  But you can also match these up with manufacturer coupons (that come in the Sunday paper, online, etc.) and get a really good deal.   Randall's doubles and triples coupons based on their face value.  At Walgreens, you can do a Buy One, Get One Free deal and use 2 coupons and get both items free.  Stuff like that.

7.)  Don't Be Distracted During Checkout

Cashiers make mistakes.  It's usually not even their fault - things don't ring up properly.  Those computer screens are there for a reason - read them.  If something doesn't ring up correctly, be polite but firm and you'll usually get it adjusted.  Once a long time ago, I was actually wrong about the price of some cheese.  It was a poorly marked endcap and the item on sale was actually chips, but they didn't have a price for the cheese listed - so I ended up getting the incorrect (lower) price because of their mistake.

And say you do miss something but notice it later when you're home.  Most stores know what their sales were - so there's no need to bring your food back to the store.  The next time you go, simply bring your receipt to customer service and they should be able to give you the difference.

8.)  Bulk Shopping

I don't have a Costco or Sam's Club membership.  My parents have Sam's Club, so I have shopped there.  They have good deals (we saved a bundle buying my son's birthday cake there vs. a regular grocery store), but not always.  Buying a year's worth of toothbrushes at one time might seem appealing, but look at the prices per item to determine if it really is a good deal or not.

Revive Your Life

And unless you are the Duggars (who don't buy in bulk - which I don't understand - why do you want to open up 10 regular-size cans of corn to make dinner?), you probably don't need to buy a gallon of mayonnaise at a time.  But it might make sense to buy a box of string cheese for your kid's school lunches. 
Always look at the quanity vs. price and ask yourself if you will use the item before its expiration date.  This goes for buying at regular stores too, which are offering large bulk sizes more and more.  It's only a good deal if you would have bought the exact same thing for more in regular size.

Bulk shopping can also come into play when you are purchasing small amounts.  A lot of stores have an area where you can buy unboxed items like flour, candy, coffee, etc.  I find this set-up really helpful when I'm cooking a recipe with an unusual item, or a small amount on it.  I want to try the recipe that calls for 1/4 cup of almonds, but don't want to shell out $8 for a bag of almonds.

9.)  Check out the Discount Meat Section

A lot of stores, including Wal-Mart, mark down their meat drastically when it gets very close to its sell-by date.  As long as you are going to cook it or freeze it by that date, it's perfectly safe to buy it. 

10.)  Grab the Smaller Shopping Cart

A lot of stores now offer different-sized shopping carts from the handheld basket to the double-wides.  For a while my son was obsessed with riding in the carts that look like racing cars, but I finally had to nix them unless we are at Lowe's (there were just a few too many casualties in the grocery store - I mean, those things are impossible to steer and he really only "drives" it for 2 minutes before losing interest).

But studies show that the bigger the cart - the more you feel like you need to buy.  Weird right?  A list will help with this impulse, but grabbing a smaller cart will give you a good excuse when it comes to buying something for a good deal.  This works wonders for me at non-grocery stores like T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, where I almost always find something I like for a good price.  If I just have a handheld basket, that means I'm carrying it through the store.  If the item is truly worth it, it'll make it to the front.  If not, I tend to rethink the decision and put it back.

Okay, that's all I can think of right now.  Anyone else like to chime in with their grocery shopping tips?  Next time I'll talk about food prep.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


I'm getting to the age where a lot of my friends are buying houses.  Oh, how I wish I was one of them.  Anyway, with new houses come housewarming presents.  People always enjoy gift cards, but I tend to find them fairly impersonal.  And there was the one time when I bought someone a $50 Pottery Barn card to be told that "I went to Pottery Barn to use your card, but everything is so expensive there."  Talk about a slap in the face - sorry I couldn't afford to get you a new living room chair.  I thought you could pick up some nice knick-knack.

I could just buy people a platter or something, but who knows what people need.  Gone are the days when people went from living at home to getting married and buying a house with no in-between steps.  By the time most of us buy houses these days, we have been renting for a while, and have a pile of stuff to shove in those brand new closets.  So if I do buy sheets or whatnot, I always make sure to add a gift receipt. 

But lately I've been trying to give out more personal presents.  My favorite of late are address stamps from Sugar Letter on Etsy.  She has a lot of great designs and quick turnaround.  I love that they are completely personalized, and have multiple uses - from stamping envelopes to stamping books.  They don't come with stamp pads, so I buy some pretty ones for cheap from Oriental Trading.  Here's a few of my favorites from Sugar Letter:

Beautiful, right?

Impulse Shopping on Craigslist (aka It's Not Pretty, But It Will Be)

Technically I'm still banned from Craigslist. 

You see, I'm a bit addicted. 

For a brief moment I thought I could bring in some extra money by buying furniture cheap off of Craigslist, giving it a quick redo, and then sending it on its way in exchange for a large wad of cash.  I'm really good at Step 1 (buying it cheap) - it's just the second two steps which are giving me problems.  And taking up a bit too much square footage in our small itsy bitsy house.

So the boyfriend put his foot down and banned me from buying anything else off of Craigslist until I actually finished some pieces.  Have a mentioned that the boyfriend can also be adorably naive?  Some days it's like he hardly knows me at all.  Me - finish projects?  Why ruin the streak?

Well, the ban on Craigslist lasted for a couple of weeks.  I still looked, mind you.  (Okay, I admit - I do at least half a dozen searched under "Furniture by Owner $1-50" a day.)  But I restrained myself. 

Instead, I started to go to garage sales.  Because they weren't banned.  Some days I really think I should have been a lawyer.  I love loopholes.

Then came the great $700 Land of Nod bed for free find.  Technically, I didn't BUY it.  So, the boyfriend didn't say anything.  But he might as well have been waving a white flag, because that's what it looked like from over here at the computer desk.

So, last Saturday I was doing a quick search and came across this dining set.


Wait, what?  $50!!!!

I just had to have it.  The boyfriend was less than thrilled.  Mostly because we already have  a very nice dining set that my mom gifted us.  It's modern and has leather Parson chairs and has served us well.  We didn't need  a new table.

So I had to make a case, and a really good one because I needed the boyfriend on board.  (Admittedly, part of the reason that I was originally banned from Craigslist was the fact that I repeatedly snuck off to buy something without alerting Mr. Purse Strings.)  But there was no way I could get this set home in our little car, which meant that the boyfriend needed to borrow a van from his job (i.e. - he had to know about it and go along for the ride).

The picture didn't do much to help my cause.  The table was taken apart for storage so those are the legs to the left and the leaf is on top.  But it has 6 chairs - which a family of 6 needs (because, surprisingly, no one seems to enjoy eating dinner while sitting in a rocking chair).  And a leaf for even more flexible seating arrangements!  And the backs - they look like quatrefoil - which is huge right now (technically, they are not quatrefoil, but they are close enough for me).  And it's solid oak.

The boyfriend wasn't budging.  So I went for the heartstrings.

"It can be my birthday present.  You won't have to get me anything else!" 

See what a great negotiator I am?  I'm not only volunteering to pay for my own birthday present - but also letting him off the hook completely.  Sensing a trick, the boyfriend was still non-committal.

"I'll list the set we have on Craigslist and sell it for at least $100.  So we'll be making money."

Bingo.  I should just start with the money every time. 

So, friends, guess what's sitting in my dining room now?  Right next to the old dining room set that I haven't even listed yet ("We have to have a place to eat while I'm refinishing the new set.")  That's right, Project #1,083.

Does anyone else see a diamond in the rough - or is it just me?
(If you ever want a break from reading about my gazillion of  unfinished, half-started, never get past the idea stage, projects, may I suggest a visit at Design Intervention.  The author finished 200 projects while her husband was deployed - and we're not talking about painted cookie tins, but full on reupholstery and everything. A-frickin-mazing!)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Love Affair Continues, one of my favorite sources, added a bunch of new choices.  Here are a few of my favorites:

Waverly has a bunch of cute new options, but this has to be my favorite.  Perfect for curtains in a girls' room.  So sweet.  It's part of the April in Paris line, colorway is Sugarplum.  $9.98/yard

Waverly also offers two options in the French handwriting on fabric which is sweeping the blog world by storm.  It's called Pen Pal and is available in Blackbird:

Or Ivory.  

Both are $15.98/yard.

And I'm not crazy about the bird phenomenon sweeping through home decor, but I love this fabric.  It's so dramatic.  Richloom Lucy for $17.98/yard.  I like it in Licorice, but they have a couple of options.

I'm looking for fabric to recover my dining room chair cushions.  I like the above option and this one, Cat Island Coal,  from Tommy Bahama.  It's Indoor/Outdoor - so perfect for a dining room because it'll repel food, water, etc.  It's not as luxe looking as the Richloom, but much cheaper at $10.98/yard.  I'll definitely be ordering some samples soon.

Okay, this one isn't new, but I had forgotten about it and got to re-discover it.  I want this bad - but where?  It's Premier Prints Lulu Slub Texture in Yellow/Taupe for $6.98/yard.

Have you spotted any new favorites lately?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Grocery Shopping on a Budget - Part 2

Menu Planning

If you want to save money in the grocery store, you have to menu plan.  I don't see any way around it.  It doesn't matter where you shop, what kind of food you buy, or how many you are feeding, if you menu plan you will save money.  Here's how:

  • You save money buy using what you have on hand,
  • Buying things when they are on sale,
  • Avoiding waste,
  • And  cuttting down on impromptu shopping 

1.)  What are your grocery staples?

There are the obvious basics that most kitchens need to operate, such as flour, sugar, rice, spices, etc.  Because they are common, they are fairly inexpensive at all times.  If you find yourself going through a lot of staples (for example, if you bake a lot) - check out buying them in bulk or online (or both).  But make sure that you only buy what you will use before it expires and what you have enough room to properly store.  A good online store for spices is Penzeys Spices - they get rave reviews for quality and you can choose the quantity you would like to buy.

Then determine your specific cooking staples.  This varies by cook, so I can't give you an exact list.  Look at what items you like to eat as a starter.  I'm originally from Louisiana, so I always have the "holy trinity" on hand - onions, celery, and green peppers.  I cook a lot of pasta, so try to keep that on hand, as well as canned tomato sauce, diced tomatoes and tomato paste.  And chicken stock - I buy it in the can or box (whichever is cheaper) and freeze the extra.

With your staples on hand, you will be able to whip up impromptu meals without going shopping.  And when it is time to go shopping, you should only have to buy a few supplemental items to make a meal.

I don't suggest keeping a ton of your staples in your pantry supermarket style.  Just a few backups are sufficient.  Group them together so it is easy to see what is low.

2.)  Shop at home

This is the most important step to menu planning.  My goal with grocery shopping isn't to simply buy stuff cheap; it's to not waste what I do buy.  Yes, there are leftovers that get tossed out occassionally, and produce that spoils.  But most waste in the kitchen comes from buying items and then not using them - which aggravates me to no end.

So, before I do anything else, I take a notepad and go through my pantry, refrigerator, and freezer.  I do not make a detailed inventory - I'm looking for 3 things:

  • Food I have on hand that will spoil
  • Food I have in the freezer
  • Staples we are running low on

3.)  Sales Flyers

Take a quick look at your supermarket flyer.  Don't study them in detail, instead focus on the meat and produce.  Other things will attract my attention, but I find that if I actually read a sales flyer front to back I am more likely to buy things because they are on sale and a good deal, not because I really need them.  Make a note of the items on sale.

4.)  Menu Planning

Now that you know what you have on hand, what you need to use, and what is on sale, it is time to make a menu list and a shopping list.

Take my example list (which is just a mock-up - my real handwriting is atrocious and the real deal is usually longer).  There was obviously a good sale on hamburger meat and I have nine pounds of it in the freezer.  Obviously my family isn't going to eat a week of hamburger-based dishes, but they can eat two.  I always buy extra meat when it is on sale.  I have been known to have up to 3 frozen turkeys in my freezer (and I just have the refrigerator-attached kind, not a stand alone deep freezer). 

I'm not a great cook, but I am a great recipe follower.  I can freely admit that because the end product is the same - great tasting food.  So when I am menu planning, I look through my cookbooks and find the recipes that I want to use based on items for sale and items on hand.  If you are talented enough to not follow recipes, you can still use this same system.

One of the main things I look at when evaluating a recipe is if it wasteful or not.  I have a lot of fancier cookbooks which call for buying a jar of some strange pickled pepper that I will never use again, but not using the entire jar.  I don't cook like that anymore.  I've gotten to the point that if a recipe calls for 4 oz. of cream cheese, and I know you can only buy it in 3 oz. or 8 oz., then I put the 8 oz. on my shopping list and then find another recipe to cook that week that will utilize the other 4 oz.  The goal is to eat your fridge down each and every week (or two weeks, depending on how frequently you go shopping).  There is nothing I hate more than throwing away half a bag of moldy cheese - you might as well be throwing away money.

Pretend Menu List - Please don't think I cook THAT much pasta
 When I like a recipe, the name of it goes on the menu list (along with the cookbook I got it out of and page number for quick reference) and the ingredients I need to buy go on the shopping list.  I immediately post the menu list on the fridge so I don't lose it and spend a week trying to remember why I bought 3 cans of broccoli cheese soup.  On the menu list I also make notes of any substitutions I'm doing, or if I have already prepped any of the ingredients.  When I'm really organized, I specify which day to make each dish so I don't forget to defrost the meat the day before, but not always.  One day I will get a real menu board and make it look all fancy - but right now the notebook paper and magnet system is working just fine.

I don't have a picture of my shopping list, but I usually make two.  The first one is made as I make my menu list.  Then I recopy it, only this time I organize it by grocery section:

  • Dry Goods
  • Canned
  • Bread
  • Produce
  • Meat
  • Dairy
  • Frozen
I group the shopping list like this for two reasons.  First, it's in the order that will allow me to kind of make a circle around the store as I shop.  No backtracking.  No going down random aisles.  A lot of days it takes me longer to check out than it did to shop.  Secondly, it keeps me focused on the list.  I'm less susceptible to impulse shopping.  It's a lot easier to not buy the chips that weren't on your list if you never go down the chip aisle.

Okay, so that's my short (and hopefully understandable) guide to menu planning.  It's not difficult, it doesn't take very long, and it will save you money. 

Next part of the series will deal with tips for the actual grocery shopping experience.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Pardon the Disruption

Sorry everyone who was waiting on the next installment of the "Grocery Shopping on a Budget" series.  (Bueller? Bueller?  Whatever.  I like being delusional, okay?)  Unfortunately Blogger is giving me a really hard time today and I've wasted a bit too much time trying to work through its kinks.  So I'll just walk away and hope that when I come back, things will be behaving normally.

But just so it's not a complete waste, I'd like to brag about share my latest Craigslist deal. 

I'd also like to apologize for the continual parade of crappy photos.  I've tried everything to take a picture inside without a flash, but it just doesn't work in my dark house.  So until I get desperate enough to start schlepping furniture outside to photograph it, I hope you forgive me. 

See, I even tried to change the background.  A for effort, right?

Anyway, it's a twin iron bed.  Got it for free.  It's from Land of Nod.  Original cost $700.  I love rich people.  They throw away the nicest things.

I haven't yet decided if it's staying the current color (technically an antiqued green) or getting spray painted.  I'm not crazy about the amount of black showing through.  Maybe all white?  Is that classic or boring?  What do you think?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Grocery Shopping on a Budget - Part 1

Many people would like to save money on their grocery bill, but have a hard time figuring out exactly how to do that.  There is a developing industry out there of websites which promise to save you hundreds while they do all the planning and tell you when to buy (ex. The Grocery Game).  Other people swear by coupons.  Others buy in bulk.

I've tried a couple of different strategies to grocery shopping before I finally settled on what works best for my family.  I like to spend around $50-75 a week on groceries and I do it without spending hours cutting out coupons or paying for a subscription service.  So I thought I would do a series that featured some tips that I've picked up along the way.  Please feel free to chime in with your own tips in the comments section.

First let me go back to how it used to be when I went grocery shopping.  I'd basically notice that we didn't have any food and go to the store and pick out stuff.  I didn't consider myself that great of a cook, so a lot of it was prepared, frozen and quick meals.  It was costing us a fortune.  So I decided to try menu planning.  I would go through my cookbooks and come up with a menu for the week and then use that to shop from.  I was doing a lot more cooking and felt better about what I was feeding my family, but the cost kept going up.

The first thing you have to re-evaluate is whether or not you are shopping for convenience of shopping to save.  Whatever grocery store I lived by was the one that I went to (I live in Texas so it's always been H.E.B., despite moving 3 times).  Every once in a while, I might have branched out to a Wal-Mart if I needed to pick up non-grocery items as well.  And I was paying dearly for the convenience.

Living in a city has its perks - there are plenty of grocery stores to choose from.  But even if you live in a smaller town, there are usually several options if you're willing to go to the next small town.  A lot of websites recommend that you come up with a price journal - visit several stores and price items that you usually buy over the course of a couple of weeks.  Then compare and you'll figure out which one is usually cheaper (this is also a way to get a good idea of the going price vs the sale price so you know when to buy).  But who has the time?

Instead, compare the sales flyers.  I get these in the mail now, but when I first did this I didn't.  Almost all big stores have their sale flyers online.  Ignore everything but meat and produce.  These are the big ticket items.  After a couple of weeks it will become obvious to you which store has the better, and more consistent deals.  I recommend comparing a couple of weeks because every store will have a great sale, but you want a store that will have good sales all of the time.

Austinites are lucky because there are a plethora of cheap Whole Foods knock-off stores popping up around town.  My favorite is Newflower Farmer's Market, which is known outside of Texas as Sunflower Farmers Market.  I like these stores because they feature a lot of local produce (like you would find at a farmer's market - only without getting up at 8 a.m. on a Saturday) and additive-free meats.  And they're cheap.  Cheap!  Last week the deal was whole chicken fryers for 67 cents/lb. and this week they have 93% lean ground meat for $1.97/lb.

How do you know if it's a good deal or not?  My formula is that I like to keep it $2/lb. and under for chicken and ground meat.  $3-4/lb. for steaks and seafood.   $1/lb. or less for fresh produce.  This will vary by region (oh, how I miss living in Louisiana with the cheap seafood!).

Now, once you've found a place to buy your meat and produce, it might not be the same place to buy the rest of your groceries.  Most people do better by going to 2 or 3 different stores.  I know that sounds like a lot - but you don't have to do it all in one day or even in one week.  For example, the cheapest place to buy milk near my house is a gas station.  That sounds weird, but it's $1 less a gallon than at H.E.B. - and we go through 4 gallons of milk a week - so that's $16 a month in savings.  And it's a gas station, so I can actually run in and run out, which you can't do at a grocery store since the milk is in the back.

I also get most of our toiletries at CVS.  There are plenty of places online to learn about using CVS Extra Care Bucks (or Walgreen's and Rite Aid's programs), so I won't be going into those right now.  There are people out there making $2800 a year from garage sales where they sale the extra toiletries they get for free from CVS.  This sounds nice, but I don't like having stockpiles of stuff that my family won't use.  Instead, I CVS for a couple of weeks once a year and get all of our stuff for the rest of the year.  I spent about $50 back in February and haven't spent a dime since on toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, floss, mouthwash, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, etc. 

The rest of our groceries are still purchased at H.E.B.  They have good deals, in-store coupons, and are open 24 hours a day.  I will pick up meat and produce there if it is on sale, but most of the stuff I buy there are dry goods, so I only have to go there twice a month.  This is key when you shop at multiple stores.  Even if you are great at staying on a list, chances are if you go in a store you're going to spend a couple of dollars more than planned.  So it's much better to limit your visits.

So the main thing to take from today (if you haven't already stopped reading from utter and complete boredom), is to re-evaluate where you shop.  You want to buy your meat and produce at the store that consistently has the best sales on those items.  Be open to go to multiple stores to get the best combination of deals.

Tomorrow I'll talk about menu planning.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Last week I bought a sewing machine at a garage sale for $5.  You might remember me posting this picture of the beauty:

Beauty is definitely in the eyes of the beholder because I think she's gorgeous!  Mostly because everytime I look at her, my creative nerves get tingly with the fact that I can now start doing sewing projects.  Like finally hem the curtains in the living room.  And once I've figured that out - maybe do some reupholstery, make some halloween costumes, sew a duvet cover....

But first I had to figure out if I had bought a dud or not.  So I plugged it in and.... nothing.  Hmmmm.

Luckly, it turned out that the pedal cord was just a little loose.  So I fixed that.  Yay!  It worked!

Now that I knew it wasn't a dud, I decided to practice a little on a piece of sample fabric.  Let me remind you here that I have absolutely no sewing machine experience whatsoever.  Foolishly I thought that if I just tinkered about I would figure it out as I went along.  So, when I couldn't figure out how to thread the stupid needle, it was a bit of a letdown.

My sewing machine did not come with a manual.  However, if you stumble upon a (working) older electronic at a thrift store or garage sale, there's no reason to turn your nose up at it if it doesn't have a manual with it.  I learned this years ago when my aunt gave me an old Sears SLR camera that I had no idea how to use.  My dad found a copy of the user's manual online and printed it out for me.  Lovely!

So I jotted down the model number of my Singer sewing machine and did a quick Swagbucks search.  I came up with a couple of options.  I think you can contact Singer directly and buy a copy, but I like free stuff.  There are lots of different repositories online of downloadable manuals.  I find mine at Manuals Online.  It was a free PDF file that you can save to your computer and print out.  Handy dandy!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Industrial Light

The overhead light in my son's room is in a bizarre place.

Who puts a light right up against a wall?    The room luckily has some pretty decent natural light, but this placement means at night it's a fairly dark room.  The light is also pretty ugly.  And since I'm going to repaint the lime green ceiling anyway, I decided it would be a good time to get a new light as well.

I knew right away that I didn't want to have the boyfriend (my go-to electrical guy) go through the trouble of moving the light box.  Instead I decided to look for a pendant light that could be swagged out to the center of the room.  I also knew that I wanted to go for an industrial look for a more masculine feel.

Shades of Light had some great options, but they were either too small or too expensive.

Outdoor Bulb Glass Nautical Pendant, $99

Nantucket Pendant, $105

Fresnel Glass Pendant, $189

First Class Period Pendant, $349 (on sale)

I found some cool cage ones on Etsy.

Old Wire Cage Hanging Light, $48

Wire Cage Light, $175
But I really liked these two options from Pottery Barn Kids.

Fisherman Ceiling Lamp, $69

Depot Ceiling Lamp, $89

If you are looking for lights, a good tip is to always check out kids' stores.  They usually have much better prices than regular home stores.

I really loved the last one.  But I'm cheap.  Frugal.  Whatever.  And although that's a good price if it was for a house I owned - the chance of us taking it down and moving it with us to the next house are slim to none.  So, that makes $89 (which is a good price) something to reconsider.  So, wanting to pull the trigger but not quite being able to, I looked at one more place.  My go-to cheap home store - Ikea.

My family and friends in Louisiana don't have an Ikea.  The closest one is Houston's (with which I have a love-hate relationship).  I'm not sure why a company with such brilliant ideas can't understand that they would make a fortune in Louisiana.  Just the amount they would have sold post-Katrina would have been enormous.  I know, because my mom had an antique store that after Katrina was turned into a resale shop - people needed everything.  Everyday my mom had customers who would come in saying things like, "I went to make pancakes and I realized I don't have a spatula."  Anyway, Louisiana needs an Ikea - I'm just putting that out into the internet universe and hopefully someone will hear it.

Back on topic, I found this light that not only fit my criteria, it was cheap as well.


$29.99 baby!  I'm not sure if I'm going to keep it that same color - I'm leaning towards not but I want to get the room painted first.  So right now it's still in the box (big surprise).

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Chalkboard Cookie Tin

I found this cookie tin at a garage sale a couple of months ago.  Only it had a big, peeling sticker on the front of it.  50 cents!

So I brought it home, washed it up and removed the sticker.  Unfortunately, the sticker left a slight color discoloration on the metal beneath it.  So I went bigger than originally planned for the chalkboard surface.

I like how it turned out, though.  Especially since I discovered that the only chalk in the house is my son's  huge preschool sidewalk variety - which makes writing kind of difficult.

I didn't take any in-progress shots because I honestly had to wait to do the spray paint until midnight because of the heat and humidity this week.  But if you'd like to replicate the look at home here are the steps:

1.)  Find a cookie tin!  They're everywhere - garage sales and thrift stores especially.  Or wait until the after Christmas sales and scoop up one with actual cookies inside.  If you wanted to make a bunch for cheap office presents, you can also buy them new here.

2.)  If it has stickers like mine did - let it soak for a bit in some water with dishwashing liquid.  Then the sticker will peel off easily rather than trying to scratch it off with your fingernails.  Then clean the entire thing thoroughly.

3.)  Tape off the section that you'd like to be painted with painter's tape.  I did not use an exact science with this.  I first made a rectangle on the tin using the old sticker residue as a guide.  I created rounded corners by using a cup and pencil to mark an arc on the painter's tape.  Then I just cut the painter's tape and used the arc to make the rounded corners.  After you've got the shape you want, go around again and use newspaper and painter's tape to cover the area you don't want painted.

4.)  I didn't do this step and turned out fine, but the chalkboard paint and all tutorials I've found on the subject suggest using sand paper (or a sanding block) to rough up the area where you want to be painted.  Especially if it's super glossy.  Mine, however, has held up fine without this step.

5.  Paint!  I used Krylon's Chalkboard spray paint (bought at Michael's with a 40% off coupon).  It gave a nice finish, but there were two things I didn't like.  First, wear gloves.  They didn't stress that on the can and it doesn't come off easily.  That's probably a no-brainer for people who spray paint a lot, but I don't.  Secondly, it doesn't say how long to wait between coats.  I just waited until it was dry to the touch (about 30 minutes).  Make sure to do several thin coats instead of a thick one (you need 2 coats to make it chalkboard paint anyway).  I did 3 coats, alternating between horizontal and vertical strokes.

6.)  Remove painter's tape.  I removed mine as soon as I did the third coat because I hear that makes a smoother line.  Although mine didn't bleed very much, I did get wet paint on one side.  I was able to scrape it off pretty easily with my fingernail after it had dried.  So if you choose to remove it while the paint is still wet, I suggest being more careful than this klutz.

7.)  Let it dry for 24 hours and then rub chalk all over the painted surface to season it.  (The timing may vary between different brands.)

8.)  Lastly, fill will cookies and enjoy!  I haven't gotten to this step yet.  Does anyone else have people in their house that eat the chocolate chips right out of the bag instead of waiting for them to be baked?

That seems like a lot of steps, but it's really a simple project.  Because I did it and I'm not at all crafty.

I'm linking this at:

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Nate Berkus Show

I missed the first episode of The Nate Berkus Show which premiered on Monday.  However, I remembered to DVR yesterday's episode.

Nate featured a woman who he had seen in a New York Times interview.  Left with a budget of $2500 she decorated her entire house from Craigslist.  (Or so we were told on the show.  In fact it was a mixture of Craiglist, garage sales, and family leftovers.)  I really liked her couch, but they didn't give any details about it.

She then helped a woman decorate her dining room on $650 - all from Craigslist.  This woman said she had never even considered buying "second hand furniture."  It would have never occurred to her to shop for "used furniture online."

It was killing me.  I mean - really?  Is this such a novel idea?  Enough to warrant both a NY Times interview and an appearance on a national TV show?  Because I've been doing it for years.  There is barely a stick of furniture in my house that I bought new from a store.  In fact, I had to do a walkthrough of my house to come up with a list:

1.  Side table in girls' room ($12 on clearance at Target)
2.  Bookshelf that was relocated today from son's playroom to bathroom ($10 on clearance at Big Lots)
3.  Bed in master bedroom ($100 at Garden Ridge - but really free as it was a gift from Mom)
4.  Queen mattress on master bed (if mattresses are furniture? $375 including delivery)
5.  Bookshelf in master bedroom ($15 - Ikea)

That's it.  And we have a TON of furniture.  Everything else is either a hand-me-down, garage sale purchase, found item (the majority really - my boyfriend gets a lot of free furniture from his job), or a Craigslist find. 

Now, we can't afford to go to Pottery Barn and buy a house full of furniture (and wouldn't anyway because I have Knock-Off Wood.)  So maybe that has something to do with the utter lack of storebought in my house.  But I think pretty much everyone starting off has this same approach.  Otherwise you're eating dinner on the floor and sitting on cardboard boxes to watch TV.

Anyway, his guest did offer some good Craigslist shopping advice here.  I agree with her about Saturday being the best day to shop Craigslist because of new postings and the fact that people are home so you can go pick it up right away.  I need to take her advice on not getting guilted into buying a piece you don't like (I've never felt pressure from someone I'm buying from, but I do have the feeling that if I said no it would be just a big waste of time, so I usually just buy it anyway), and going with a friend.  Unfortunately, I almost always go places on my own and thankfully haven't had any even remotely scary encounters.  But it's always better to be safe than sorry.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Mirrored Side Tables

I'm leaning towards a mirrored table in my girls' room for a nightstand.  Target has two versions that are very reasonable compared to everywhere else.

I like this one because it has a drawer, so very good for a nightstand.

But I like this one more because of the tapered legs.

Both are $89.99.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Garage Sales

The boyfriend wanted to have a garage sale this weekend.  I must admit I was not in favor.  Not that I don't want to get rid of the piles of (nice) junk that seem to be reproducing all over our house.  But we live in a less-than-ideal spot for a garage sale.  We had one about a year ago and made a whopping $20.  Depressing.  We used to live in the best place ever for a garage sale - a fairly busy street in a not-so-affluent neighborhood.  We couldn't even get stuff out the front door before people were handing us money and carting it off.  We've been spoiled.

I'm happy to report that the boyfriend's garage sale (technically yard sale since we don't have a garage) was a success.  Finally.  Like in its fourth hour.  Once I had given up completely and went inside to take a nap.  We made 80% of our money from one customer - but sometimes that is all it takes.  Especially when only 5 people decide to stop, despite having two really popular sales going on to either side of us so I know there was a lot more shopping traffic in the area.  I think we just live too far off the road.  Garage sale shoppers hate getting out of their car and wasting time for a table of 1970s Christmas memorabilia - and only second to that do they hate driving down a long driveway where they can't see what's for sale (our case).

I was curious to see how our much bigger and more popular rivals were doing.  First I visited a much-advertised multi-family garage sale.  It was open both Friday and Saturday, so by the time I got there around eleven on Saturday they were looking pretty picked over.  They had some beautiful silverware - the real stuff - that I would have loved to been able to afford.  I managed to control my classic-movie-loving self and pass on the small porcelain replicas of Gone With the Wind's Tara and Twelve Oaks.  In the end I picked up two things:

                           (Here is supposed to be a picture of a white wooden T - the kind
                           that goes on a wall.  Only I forgot to take a picture of it and I don't
                           feel like going through the whole take a picture/upload it mess again. 
                           So use your imagination, please.) 

Could be seen as a totally random purchase since no one's name starts with "T" but I've been very inspired by Blogland to create an alphabet wall somewhere in my house.  25 cents.

And this!  $5!  Of course, I haven't checked it out yet so it might be $5 worth of non-working mechanical parts, but I'm an optimist and the people at the sale assured me that it worked.  Can you believe that the only two classes I regret not taking in high school are Home Economics and Shop?  I never learned to use a sewing machine and I'm constantly wishing I knew how to weld.  Okay, not constantly, but it's a super handy skill to be able to pull out of your bag of tricks.  Anyway, she looks a little rough, but I'm hoping to do great things with her.

Next I headed to the other rival garage sale.  It was in the parking lot of a local church and I arrived at the very end of their sale day.  A woman practically ran to meet me at my car and hand me plastic bags because they were selling everything for $1 a bag.  My kind of sale!  In fact, I should just start only shopping at garage sales from about 11-1.  Yes, most of the good stuff is gone, but everyone hates carting their junk home again, so you can always get what you like for a song.

I picked up this beauty.  Since I have no plans of going Tiki in my home decor, it will eventually get painted.

And these.  They are the exact same lamp, only different colors.  I've been wanting a matched pair for our bedroom so I grabbed them.  One still had a $60 price tag on it.  The golf balls on top will definitely be nixed.

This blue lamp thrown in for free (despite me trying to nicely turn the seller down since I have no place for it). 

Total cost = $3.  They were a little miffed that I didn't take them up on the offer and completely load up my plastic bags.  But I didn't feel right bringing home a new load of junk when the boyfriend had worked so hard all morning to clean out the junk we already own.

Anyone else score big this weekend?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Super Ugly Bedding

Sometimes I'm happily surprised to find something cute at Wal-Mart.  They seem to be making a conscious effort to step up their Home department in the past couple of years - probably because they were losing a lot of business to Target.

And then sometimes I see this:

Speechless.  You can buy it here for $99.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Perfect Entryway

I adore Craftsman-style homes.  They're so charming.  I love that the style has come back in a big way with new construction homes.  Only, most of the ones we can afford are very plain Jane on the inside (they're cheap for a reason).  We took a home tour a couple of months back in my dream neighborhood and I was a little bummed that from the inside it looked like any other suburban home.  What I want is this:

Hello, Gorgeous!

I dream of finding a home with an awkward hallway or just a huge empty room when you first walk in so that I can one day recreate this look. 

It's pictures like this that make me want to build my own house.  My parents built my childhood home themselves and they still live in it.  The funny thing is that my mom went through a phase where she hated the fact that they built their own house.  She said that about 5 years into it you start wishing that you had done everything differently.  Which is a statement that makes me realize I am fulfilling the adage of turning into my mother.  I can't even decide on a color palette for a room without wanting to change it the next time I see a pretty picture.  But this entryway - I don't know who could regret something that beautiful.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Faux Roman Shade

As promised - a finished project, with lots o' pics and even a sad attempt at a tutorial!

A couple of months ago I purchased some curtain rods and curtains for my girls' room.  Because the windows looked like this:

Just kind of sad and dirty.  (By the way, that's a horse pasture outside the window.  It's actually kind of relaxing view - except when you wake up to find a horse 3 inches from being inside your house.)

The curtains are Vivan from Ikea - you get a pair for $12.99.  They're nothing fancy, but I like the pocket tops and they are super long so you can hem them to whatever length fits your room the best.  I got the curtain rods at Tuesday Morning after shopping everywhere - when did curtain rods become so expensive?  Mine were $9.99 a pop, and they're oil rubbed bronze - love.

I hung them up (no pic - sorry), and the billowy curtains instantly calmed down the bright coral walls.  But they looked unfinished.  Taking a cue from super-bloggers Young House Love, I decided what was needed were bamboo blinds.  Despite the fact that the nearest neighbors are horses, I figured my stepdaughters (and potential guests) would like a little more privacy, and the bamboo would look gorgeous.  Except I can't find the kind that I like for anything less than $25 each.  That's $50 for stupid blinds in a rarely used room.  Nope.  Can't do it.

However, I do have an old pair of vinyl blinds that used to be in our dining room.  Only I wanted a way to hide them.  Like a faux roman shade.

So, a couple of weeks ago the wonderfully skilled and irreverent blogger Allison at House of Hepworths posted a couple of pictures of window treatments she liked from a model home.  These grabbed my attention:


Bingo!  Not only did they look super easy to make, but I liked how they were hung so close to the ceiling.  This is a designer trick to extend the height of the window.  I usually leave a little gap - I like that look better.  However, in the girls' room (after a ridiculous number holes) I found out that right up by the ceiling was the only place where I could hang the curtain rods.  Everywhere else, even with drywall anchors, the weight would pull the rod off the wall.  Let's just say the drywall isn't in the best condition, but that can of worms is going to stay unopened.

I ordered three yards of this fabric, Waverly Cross Section in Charcoal ($8.98/yd)  from

I didn't have any gray in the room before, but I like how the print is modern and geometric, but still subtle.  And I think it'll look good with the black and white Audrey picture and maybe a mirrored side table.  I probably could have gotten away with only 2 yards, but I knew I wanted some for a throw pillow as well.  My mom, the super shopper, found some near-perfect match coral pink ribbon on a 50 yard spool for about $1.  I probably used about 8 yards.

I had two long pieces of scrap wood.  They weren't the same height, but since they were both from 3/4 plywood, they had the same depth.  I figured that as long as the depth was the same on both, it would be fine because that would be how far the shade was from the wall.  I cut them down to 39 inches, which is the outside measurement of the windows including the trim.

I measured my windows and decided how long I wanted the faux shades to hang.  If you only have one window, there's no need to be very exact.  I was very concerned with mine matching up because the windows are so close to each other.  Since I already had my curtain rods in place, I used a towel to figure out the best length - 18 inches.

Then I cut my fabric.  I added 2 inches to the width (41 inches).  I turned the fabric so that the print was railroaded to save fabric.  With this print it didn't matter which direction it was facing.  That made it 58 long.

I folded the fabric over 1 inch on each side and ironed it.  I cut some no-sew hem tape to length and slipped it inside the fold.  I ironed it to create a finished edge.  I don't have a sewing machine, but it would definitely have been faster.

Next, I folded the fabric almost in half.  On the top, I left one side two inches longer so that I could attach the wood for hanging. 

Then I flipped it over on its front and played with the folds.  I thought I would come up with an exact measurement to use, but basically I just used to rulers on either side and made sure the folds were at 6 inches, 12 inches and the bottom was at 18.  I pinned them all in place and picked it up to make sure it would hold.  Then I used a needle and thread to stitch where the pins were attached.  I made sure to limit how many places I had to stitch through the front of the shade, so most of the stitches are hidden by the folds or by the ribbon.  (This was another part that a sewing machine would have been useful, but I got by.)  I ended up having a lot more than 2 inches on the top, but that was okay.

I added the ribbon 10 inches in on both sides.  When I laid the ribbon on the fabric I could see the print through it, so I double-layered it on the front and then attached it on the back.  I wanted it to look like the ribbon was holding the shade up, like in the inspiration pic.  Then I used a staple gun to attach the fabric to the wood scraps.  I attached the shades to the wood before hanging so the wood would be hidden.  I then attached the shade to the wall right under the trim.

Cute, right?  (Oh, and I painted the trim cream while I had the curtains down.  Big difference!)

I decided not to use rods or wrapping paper tubes like the original.  It made mine too full, and I liked it being flat.  But the pockets are there if you make it the same way I did, so you could easily achieve the exact same look as the inspiration pic.

The ugly, recycled vinyl blinds are easily hidden behind the faux shade.

I re-hung the curtains and called it a day (or a week, since I worked on it a little bit each day).

From Before:

To After:

To be honest, I'm not sure if I'm loving the ribbon detail.  Without the curtains I liked it - but with the curtains it seems too much.  So that might change.  But right now it's staying as is because I'm happy to say I finished a project!  Sort of....  I made two shades, but haven't even started painting the other window because it involves removing the window air conditioner.  But this window - this window is done.