Re-Post about Christmas Gift Giving…

Christmas has been on my mind a lot again…so has our lack of blogging.  So I was browsing old posts and came up with this one…it was interesting, because I don’t think I ever did blog about how we did in 2009…but I know I did for 2010.  I know that we found last year’s gift giving successful (from our perspective) as we managed to be frugal (if I recall about $80 for 12 baskets) and most of the gifts were re-used (baskets), food (homebaked bread) and original (our famous peppermint chocolate bark).  It will be interesting to re-evaluate them this  year in light of our focus on less waster. I will dig up last year’s post tomorrow. In the meantime here is the one from 2009!

May I have a receipt, please??

I find myself asking for proof of payment a lot this month. After tracking our personal finances for years, Chris and I have slacked off in the last year or so. Quicken stopped supporting automatic downloads in its 2007 version and let’s face it, when implementing austerity measures, does one really have to track anything?

We’ve never regretted tracking our expenses and income so in February we looked around for free accounting software…which was a little silly since we own Simply Accounting (me being a bookkeeper, you know). But after our Quicken experience and knowing that we may not always want to keep purchasing Simply Accounting updates, we decided to look around.

There’s lots out there, but we finally settled on GNUcash. It’s very Quickenish-like, which depending on how you approach numbers, may or may not be a good thing.  But, we were used to the look and Chris was going to have to use it, too, so being “free” cinched it.

It took me a few days to set up, mostly because I was trying to fit in work around it.  Chris spent several hours figuring out how to download our transactions from the bank.  Canada is far behind in this technology and it seems to be a two-step process.  I seem to recal it being much more seamless back in 2007…

We started tracking on March 1st and as always, keeping track of money in and out of wallets is the trickiest part.  It’s why we’ve always used our credit cards and then paid them off each month.  It’s tempting not to ask for a receipt when paying cash, but that’s where the tracking will fall down. I’m currently $40 out on my wallet! 

Another reason we wanted to track was to start to research how we may approach our second vehicle.  Traditionally, this is the time of year we start thinking about putting the truck back on the road, and that comes with the costs of insurance and fuel.  I’m working two days a week in Kamloops and already our fuel costs have increased.

We have been thinking about putting the motorcycle on the road.  It’s much more fuel efficient, costs less to licence and insure and would definitely keep the cost of working in Kamloops down.  We’re also seriously looking into selling one of our vehicles for a small, fuel efficient diesel that could run on used cooking oil.  After spending the better part of two days picking Ed Beggs brain about cars fueled on used cooking oil, we really see the potential for savings on the wallet, and on the environment.

We’re also doing it because it’s been enough months feeling like we just don’t have a clear picture anymore.  Feeling in control of what’s coming in and going out has been our method of making important decisions.

What do you do to track your personal finances?

Cutting the grocery bill

When we lived in San Francisco in 1997/98 I read a book by Jonni McCoy, called Miserly Moms.  This book is all about how a family can live on one income by cutting expenses. In Ms. McCoy’s book, the emphasis is on reducing the weekly grocery bill.

I thought it was interesting to read at the time, but with a combined income well into six digits, I wasn’t too concerned about reducing grocery costs at the time.

Fast forward to 2002 when times were pretty tough for us and I was looking for any way possible to save money and stay afloat without dipping into our retirement savings.  With three toddlers I found the frugal recipes the most helpful, but did not have the energy to follow her shopping strategy as I was often shopping with three toddlers in tow. (She stipulates that for her strategy to work, the kids must not accompany the shopper!)

Essentially by following the loss leaders (the reduced price items designed to suck you into the store), shopping at three or four stores, and planning your meals around those loss leaders, Ms. McCoy maintains a reduction of 40-50 percent in one’s grocery bill can be achieved.

I saw a recent update to the book (2009) so I borrowed it from the library.  I figured every penny we saved is that much more to put toward the house.  So I spent a few days reading it again.

I found it intriguing and decided to give her theory a try.  Here’s what I found:

Loss leaders are often on items I don’t buy.  For example, packages of processed meats, like stuffed chicken breast.   I generally avoid them, not just because of the cost, but because of what’s added to them.  So stuffed chicken breasts on sale for a really great price are usually still more expensive than plain chicken breasts and the ingredients to stuff into it AND there are all sorts of additives, never mind how they are raised.

There aren’t enough loss leader items at the three stores I chose to shop at in Kamloops–The Superstore, Safeway and Save On– to actually plan a menu around.

Ms. McCoy also advocates keeping price lists so one is able to spot really great prices and buy in bulk. I already do this so I was pleased I was ahead on that score.

She’s not a big fan of coupons, although she admits combined with loss leaders, they can be really important in reducing costs. However, in Canada, we do not have the coupon system that exists in the states.  Most coupons in Canada are on items that are newly introduced by brand name companies…and I don’t often buy brand names.

Last week I went into Kamloops on errands and prepared my shopping list ahead of time, with the loss leaders duly noted on my list.  I found Royal Gala apples for $0.80 per pound, parsley for $0.49 a bunch, tomatoes (our crop was pitiful this year) for $1.00 per pound and hearty whole wheat bread for $1.25 per loaf.  These items (along with a few others), I purchased at Safeway.

At the Superstore I purchased a few of the loss leaders they had listed in their online flyer but the only thing at Save On that I was remotely interested in was pickles and it didn’t seem worth it to drive to the store for one item.  I ended up buying the rest of my shopping items from the Superstore.

My feeling was that I did well at Safeway. I went in with just the loss leader items on my list and felt for the $60 I spent I came out with more than I thought usual.  I spent another $299 (and received a $25 gift card) at Superstore, but my cart felt the same as usual…this probably isn’t surprising since I had to buy all my remaining items there.

Complicating matters is that we buy our meat locally at about the same price as we’d get it in the store. According to Ms. McCoy, one should never buy meat (or any item) at full price.  We’ll continue to buy meat locally so I’m not sure I will ever be able to reduce our grocery cost by the range she claims. 

Buying whole wheat bread on sale for $1.25 a loaf is pretty good…for store bought bread.  But when I make home made bread I know I’m ahead of that.  I bought all my yeast vacuum packed several years for about $1.89 a kilo. (O.K. that was a great deal, but I thought I was buying a 2 kg package and I ended up with 48 kilos..I’m still working down the yeast, despite having given some away).  I look for pretty sharp prices on flour and buy specialty grains in bulk.  Even if my bread is on par in terms of price with store bought bread, I believe mine is simply better.  The wrinkle in this, is that now that I’m busier with work, and continuing with working on the house, it’s harder and harder to find the time to bake…

Most weeks when I buy more than $250 at the Superstore, they “give” me a gift card for $25.  This is an automatic 10% savings, which is nothing to sneeze at, in my opinion. At Christmas, the store often gives a $50 gift card if you spend $400, making the return even better.  Aiming for fewer, big shops, makes shopping the loss leaders more difficult.  Ms. McCoy’s stretegy hinges on shopping weekly, to get a variety of loss leader savings.

I find that the more whole foods we stick too, the less her strategy comes into play.  Granted, starting with whole foods reduces your grocery bill enormously anyway.  The answer, of course, is to grow and raise your own food (which is always less expensive) and not depend on grocery store shopping.  The busier a person is, however, the less time to devote to this.   Everything’s a trade-off. 

I’ve often wondered how our grocery bill compares to other people’s monthly expenditure.  I usually stock up every two weeks and can spend $300 each time.  I do spend slightly less in summer.  Our food bill has ranged from $450-$650 each month. 

I’m going to continue to be aware of the loss leaders and examine my grocery shopping habits for the next several weeks to see if anything changes.

How much do you spend a month on food?