(Photos credit – nbc news and midwestcommunity.org)
In line with my renewed commitment to saving money (for things that really matter), I have re-read and re-familiarized myself with different ideas and strategies for saving money on something that we have to spend money on – food. Obviously food is not something you can go without, but it is something you can and should be smart about when you are shopping and making your choices. In no certain order below are my thoughts about spending your hard earned money on something that is absolutely necessary.
First of all, food choices are just that – choices. You have to determine where your dollars go. Are you satisfied with cheap white bread, or do you like (or require) more of a specialty kind? Either way, whatever you decide – you should be smart about it. If you know you’ll need some fresh bread for sandwiches, but maybe not the whole loaf – freeze what you won’t need. Bread frozen in the freezer can be defrosted slice by slice – it does not have to be defrosted by the whole or even half loaf. You can extend the life of your loaves this way. You can put two slices in a ziploc bag and they’ll be ready for toast at your office. And at home, you can toast frozen bread slices. It works. I’ve done it. A reasonable breakfast that even includes a bit of protein is toast with peanut butter, a cup of coffee (or whatever you drink in the morning) and a piece of fruit. Not too bad for the supposed most important meal of the day. Eggs are not too shabby either, and they are economical – they are protein, and aren’t as restricted as they were years ago. Scramble or fry one or two, pair them with some toast and your drink, have some fruit – and there you go, another reasonably priced and reasonably healthy breakfast. The same can be done with instant oatmeal – make it to your specifications, grab a piece of fruit and your drink and you’ve got another choice. If you want more choices, make some pancakes and some French toast – freeze them in separate ziploc bags. For work breakfasts, have small size containers that you can put syrup in for taking with you. Having frozen “go to’s” are good for home too, on the weekends – when the lure of donuts and coffee at your local favorite place is calling you. Have fresh fruit (or even canned, which in many ways is just fine) on hand to pair with these choices and your morning drinks will always ensure a good way to start your day.
Lunches can be costly too – if you spend in your cafeteria at work, it can add up to a high amount before you even realize it. If you have a refrigerator and a microwave at your job, that means no excuses as to why you can’t bring lunch from home. Even if you don’t have these things, you can get freezer cold packs, and pack items that don’t have to be heated up or take things that are good at room temperature. An obvious choice for lunches would be leftovers – either what is actually left over, or leftovers that are purposely made for having extras for other meals. You can make sandwiches with your bread (frozen as stated above) or you can get wraps (of course, watching for sales). Sandwich fillings do not have to be costly lunch meat purchased from a deli. You can make egg salad with the above-mentioned reasonably priced eggs, or you can make tuna salad (watching for sales, I have gotten tuna for 67 cents a can). You can put refried beans and shredded cheese in the wraps for Mexican Bean Rollups, which travel very well. Pre-made grilled cheese sandwiches can be cut into strips and made into a fun lunch. With all the cooking I do at home, in our freezer there are always a few portions of soup that can be a good lunch meal. And the standard peanut butter and jelly sandwich plus an apple (and your drink) is the perfect lunch – I was told this by my kids’ pediatrician many years ago.
Dinner can be more of a challenge, a more costly one – mainly because the meal tends to be bigger. I have always shopped and bought what is on sale. It always made sense to me unless we were in dire need of something for whatever dire reason – what that could be, I don’t know really – that is why planning ahead is so important. Given the way I shop, I usually always have a decent variety of meats in the freezer. I plan dinners more than I plan the other two meals (or snacks). I always (if possible) try to buy meat for less than $1.99 per pound. I can usually accomplish this with chicken legs, drumsticks and thighs, certain kinds of pork and on the rare occasion, ground beef. Walmart has great little frozen “chubs” of frozen turkey, frozen turkey sausage and frozen Mexican turkey for $1.50 a pound. I have gotten frozen tilapia for $5 a bag, and making that for some reason always feels like a sort-of gourmet meal to me. For a treat once, we bought a box of New York Strip Steaks at Walmart. Now we didn’t have great expectations, because they were $9.97 for a box of five. They were surprisingly good! They will be our food splurge, and once in a while we splurge on a bag of frozen shrimp for $5. I stock up on pasta and sauce when other stores have them on sale, but you really can’t beat the 82 cents for pasta and 88 cents for sauce at Walmart. I always have them on hand, and shredded mozzarella cheese as well. I’m a pasta type person. I enjoy it very much. Recently I have started adding canned spinach to my pasta – not a whole lot, just enough to boost up the iron and vitamins, and to give the meal a different taste. You can further add to a pasta dinner by putting in a chunk of cream cheese as the sauce and spinach cooks. The key is to be creative. Be creative with the lesser priced ingredients. When you do this, you can turn these meals into something kind of special.
The way to really save money on food is to eat it at home. Not out in restaurants. That being said, sometimes it IS nice to go out and splurge. If you value this, do not let others make you feel wrong for enjoying it. You can have a nice romantic dinner at home, but to me – once in a while, if you’re not drowning in debt, and it’s worth it to you – go out. Go out but be smart about it. Go to your favorite restaurant on an off night, where they might be having specials. Find coupons to different restaurants – maybe ones you have been to, maybe ones you would like to try. Go earlier in the day, say…for lunch maybe. Have drinks and appetizers at the bar area of a restaurant. Sometimes it is nice to go out with your significant other. Dress up and show each other off. If this is something you enjoy, do it. Go for it. This is the point of being frugal and being smart with your money.
Yes, you want to be free from debt but you also need to enjoy life. And enjoying life means doing the things you like. It’s just all about planning. That’s really the key in all of this – you have to be smart, you have to plan – and if you do, and you’re really honest about it all – you should start seeing success. Remember, this is your life, your money, your debt or lack thereof – and let no one dictate how you need to handle things. Again, though, be honest with yourself. As they say, get real. Get real with yourself and with what matters.