Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Extreme(ly Annoying) Couponing

I've watched maybe one full episode of Extreme Couponing, and caught snippets of various episodes. One of the many things that stuck with me is how very stressed the couponers are when they get to the checkout line, because transactions have to happen in just the right order and amount and coupons have to be perfectly organized, in order for them to meet their spending needs/goals. They get stressed, nervous, cranky... it's not pretty.

Irrational Ranting

I used to get stressed out if I had five coupons when I got to the register. So. Very. Stressed.

I also didn't know how in the life of me to keep my dang coupons organized. I tried putting them in baseball card holders which was incredibly annoying. Then I had them in categorized paper envelopes in a small Rubbermaid container.

And then there are the digital coupons... so many web sites where you can scroll through pages and pages and... then more pages of coupons. And Target.com has coupons, many companies' web sites have places where you can download coupons, and........ there is just not enough time for all the flipping coupons.

Time to Get Rational

So what's a girl to do, in order to stay sane in the face of all this coupon pressure? Well, here's what's keeping me mildly sane:

1 - Treat coupons like a bonus, and not as a crutch
I focus on weekly sales, then if I happen to have a coupon that stacks on top of a sale item, then woohoo: bonus! More money is freed up for other purposes. If I don't have a coupon for an item I need/want to buy, I try not to kick myself. As long as the sum total of all purchases meets my budgeted amount for groceries, then no biggie. This helps lower the stress of coupons a bit.

I know this isn't possible for everyone, as some families rely on coupons to make ends meet.

2 - Find useful online sources that direct you to good coupons based on weekly deals
I kept getting sick of looking through weekly ads and then trolling through all my coupons to see if there were matches. Turns out, there are many hard-working folks out there already doing this for us, and providing the info in easy-to-digest formats!! Get excited. And stop trying to do all the work yourself! It's amazing how much time you'll save.

Ok, I know this sounds weird. But hear me out: the aforementioned web sites tell you where to get a physical coupon from. So on Sunday when you get your weekly booklets of coupons with your newspaper, write the date on each coupon booklet. If you get a Smart Source ad booklet on November 11, then write 11/11 at the top. Put it in a folder. Repeat for remaining coupon booklets. THEN, refer to the web sites I shall send you to. They will say: "hey, if you want this deal, then go get the Smart Source from 11/11 and cut out X coupon." Or something along those lines. That's it! No more clipping hundreds of coupons and sorting them in ways that will force you to hang onto expired coupons and make you so mad that you give up on coupons. This was a big change for me since I used to clip out coupons and sort them into envelopes... this new method was a change for the better.

And then you say: "But what if I want to look through all the coupons to find one that I need? I don't want to rely only on these supposed useful web sites' lists of weekly deals. Gr." Point noted. And so I respond: "Well these useful websites ALSO allow you to search a big database for a product and then it will tell you if a coupon is available for that product and from where! So nyah." More details in #2 below.

My Favorite Online Sources for Help

These sites have made it fun for me to look through and take advantage of sale+coupon combos at MANY stores: Target, Walmart, Walgreens, etc. Even better, #2 & #3 are based in the Midwest (where I live) and also provide deal info for my local grocery stores!

1 - Money Saving Mom
This is a site I often reference, and the first one to introduce me to the amazing concept of telling ME what great deals you can get each week! She posts weekly deals for most major stores like Target, and she links you directly to relevant printable coupons, and/or guides you to a physical coupon based on the method I described above (coupon booklet name + date). Only downside here is that she lives in the South, so her grocery store deals are for Kroger and other stores that I don't have near me.

2 - Pocket Your Dollars
So far, this is my most favoritest site for coupon help. She lists deals per store in a way that allows you to check a checkbox for a specific deal, and then (once you've checked all the checkboxes you want) print out a list of every deal that you checked! Including the relevant coupon info! For a nerd who likes to check stuff off a checklist, this is heaven. Even better, the woman who runs this site lives in the Twin Cities and lists deals for grocery stores in our area (Cub, Menards, Rainbow, etc). Such a time saver!!

ALSO - Pocket Your Dollars has a Coupon Database (go to use the Toolbox > Grocery coupon database). So as for the previous question about how to find a coupon in your huge folder-o-coupon booklets, use this database!! Search for a keyword (like Hormel) and it will list all Hormel coupons, both physical and digital.

3 - Creative Couponing
A friend just told me about this one, so I'm still feeling it out. It is very similar to Pocket Your Dollars, so PYD is my go-to, with Creative Couponing as a backup if I have time to use it. But maybe you'll like it better, so check it out!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Aaaaand yep, still alive

I really don't know how the good blogs do it, writing posts often and even more importantly, keeping them interesting to read!

I'm back from my last Summer vacation, and feeling ready to tackle my poor blog again. So stay tuned, because I swear I have more coming soon!!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Reforming the Queen of Snooze

I loooove sleeping. I try to get at least 7 hours of sleep per night, 8 if possible. When I left my job, I was getting pretty good at waking up early so I could get stuff done AND enjoy some peace and quiet, all before humans and animals woke up.

A couple months into it, I started slacking and "sleeping in". With a toddler, sleeping in really isn't as fabulous as it sounds. :) Regardless, I was hitting snooze so often that it's a good thing my husband is a deep sleeper otherwise he would have been pretty annoyed with my phone's rooster noises. Every 5 minutes. for 30 - 45 minutes. Oopsy.

I could not get myself to stop with the snooze button!! Even though it didn't make me feel more rested and in the end made me feel more stressed. I wasn't getting my quiet time and I wasn't getting a jump on anything, so I felt so behind in my day by 7 AM! Worst of all, sometimes coffee didn't get made. I know.

And then along comes MoneySavingMom.com, who announces over the weekend that she'll be starting a new three-week challenge: Make the Most Out of Your Mornings. It's like she's a mind reader.

Like all her challenges, she gives you daily motivation, tips, and then "homework". It's all meant to help you work on meeting the challenge goals. It's a great way to take baby steps towards, uhh, making the most of your mornings. :)

Yesterday was Day 3 of the challenge, so here's a quick recap:

Day 1: The challenge kick-off and introduction. Get excited to wake up early, people!

Day 2: I call this one Getting Your Beep Together the Night Before. Which seems like an obvious thing to do, but during my "sleeping in" days I was usually leaving things in disorder at night. I wasn't giving my morning self a jump on the day, which was making my mornings even more hectic and stressful. Blech. So Day 2 walks you through choosing a bed time for yourself, and creating a list of five things to do every night before bed. And making a commitment to stick to the bed time and 5-things for the next three weeks. So here are mine:

Bed time: 10:00 (trying to be in bed by 9:30 to read)
5 To-dos before bed: Prep Zach's lunch, Put kitchen in order, Tidy up living room, Kitty litter, Read

Day 3: "Getting Out of Bed On the Right Foot". Get out of bed at the same time every day, and don't hit snooze. Gulp. Being the queen of the snooze button, this is a toughie for me. BUT, this is a challenge and I can't fail! So I pledge to wake up at 6 AM for the next three weeks. I'm going to try some 5:45 AM test runs to start with because in the end I'd like to wake up even earlier. I'm going to put my alarm clock (aka my phone) far enough away from me that I have to get up to turn it off. Gulp again. I'm going to do this so I can make coffee asap and enjoy some peace and quiet. That is my motivation!

Today is Day 4 of the challenge, and I'm excited to see what it brings! Crystal at MoneySavingMom.com posts her challenge updates at 1 PM Eastern, and I look forward to each new post. It's so nice to have a sort of "coach" help me improve something that I truly want to improve!

So far the most difficult part of the challenge has been my daughter. She has also signed up for this challenge, because this week she's been waking up much earlier than normal! Today I heard her wake up at 6:15 and had to get her at 6:45. I feel like my early-morning challenge is being thwarted by this little stinker. I'm hoping this is a temporary trend and that she eventually goes back to her 7:30 (on average) wake-up time. Pleeeeeeeeease go back to your 7:30 wake-up time, Annabel!!!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Aaaaand.... break!!! After 48 minutes.

My almost 20-month old takes one nap per day: two hours on average, sometimes three if I'm lucky.

It's my only "quiet time" during the day during which I can cram in as much as I want to do! Aka, watch soaps. Orrrrr, not.

More like, clean and organize like crazy, and maybe get some cooking crammed in there too!

I have a tough time making room for any kind of down time / things I would enjoy doing (scrap booking, sewing, surfing the Internets, attempting a blog post, etc).

At the same time, I tend to let my cleaning/organizing/cooking get randomly distracted by quick email/Twitter/Facebook checks, which ultimately prolongs the boring must-dos.

This morning during one of those quick twitter checks, I encountered a link to this article: The Power of 48 Minutes

In a nutshell, the goal is to work with NO DISTRACTIONS for 48 minutes, then relax for 12. Set a timer to ensure you stay dedicated for that amount of time, and so that you can see how much time you have left.

Intrigued, I attempted this during the first hour of my daughter's nap. And, it worked! And, I liked it! It made me not check my phone, which is kind of a miracle in and of itself, especially for an entire 48-minute time period. And then I made myself a tasty coffee beverage and settled down into my computer chair for some blog posting and then.... Annabel woke up crying and couldn't get herself back to sleep. D'oh.

But I like this approach, and I plan to try this again tomorrow during Annabel's nap time. And methinks I will be more productive than normal.

So if you're like me and need a new way to stay on target when you're trying to get something done (be it housework or office work), then try out the 48-minute technique. Even better, let me know if it works for you!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Creating a Budget. Gulp.

When both my husband and I were working, we didn't make a budget to follow. We had a very casual "let's not spend more than we make" approach, which was working in the sense that we were indeed not overspending... usually! But other than a set monthly amount for our daughter's college fund, we weren't saving much. I reeeeeally wish we had created a budget for ourselves, because we could have saved so much more money, but, alas! Stupid hindsight.

As the hubs and I discussed whether or not we could make it on a single salary, we crunched the numbers and found that we could definitely live on a single salary... but that we couldn't have the same lifestyle. And that I'd have to create and make us stick to a strict budget. It was a bit intimidating for me, but at the same time I saw it as a fun challenge and part of my new job as a homemaker. So we bit the bullet and I've been a homemaker for almost four months, and the budget is working! Don't get me wrong, I'm no pro, and I'm constantly refining the budget and trying new ways of saving money. But so far, so good! So I'd like to share my approach to the undertaking and what I've learned to date, all in the hopes that it maybe helps someone else or offers some ideas and/or inspiration!

Spreadsheet = Sanity

I strongly recommend going digital with your budget. It's so much easier to manipulate a spreadsheet; even the simplest of spreadsheet shortcuts can save you loads of manual work! If you don't want to drop lots o money on fancy programs, just install OpenOffice, and use the OpenOffice Calc program. It's a lot like Microsoft's Excel program: less bells and whistles, but it's free. And free is good.

There are many budget templates out there, and after trying a few I decided that I just needed to start my own from scratch. I wanted something really flexible, and I also wanted spending categories that were more granular. So even though my end result isn't as pretty, it does the job for me!

Within the spreadsheet, I have multiple "worksheets". Think of these as separate pages all within the same spreadsheet. I won't prattle on about those details in this post, but maybe in a future post??

Understanding Your Expected Spends

Regardless of whether you go spreadsheet or hand written, you need to be able to understand your "expected spends". Aka recurring costs like energy bills, garbage bills, mortgage, rent, etc. In my spreadsheet, I created a worksheet to capture these costs.

Put simply, just start listing out all items that you know you're going to pay every month. My list looks like this:

  • Home/car/life insurance
  • Energy bill
  • TV+Internet bill
  • Garbage bill
  • Utilities bill (Gas, water)
  • Cell phone bill
  • YMCA bill
  • Public Radio donation
  • Loan payment (for a home project we did)
  • Mortgage payment
  • Gas (For our cars: this is an estimated amount)
  • Annabel savings transfer (to our daughter's savings account)
  • Vacation savings transfer (to a savings account to be used for vacations)

How do you account for bills like energy, gas, and water, that change per month? That's a tough one, and I waffled on what amounts to put down. In the end, I decided to be safe and use the highest bill amount I've seen in the past six months (or so). I rounded up the number just to have something nice and even. This way, if the bill is lower for that month, then yay, we get a windfall of extra money! Well maybe not a windfall, but you know what I mean. It puts you in a much better place than underestimating, because underestimating could put you in the red for the month. Also, some of my bills (utilities and garbage) aren't monthly. Regardless, I include them in the total costs for the same reason: to be safe!

Math Skillz

Next up, total up those expected monthly costs into a single "total expected spend per month" amount! 

And temporarily move on to creating a list of the amounts that you plan to make in a month. If you are salaried, then this part is easy. If you're hourly, then estimate the minimal amount you could make per month. If the amount will vary greatly per month, then you'll need to take the time to estimate this per month.

Next, subtract the total expected spend from the total amount of money you will make per month. The end result is... your discretionary money!

(Total amount made per month) - (Total expected spend per month) = Discretionary $!

Err, what's discretionary money? That's all the money you have left after all the bills are paid off... aka the money you can use for other stuff like food, toiletries, unforeseen medical needs, clothes, etc. Discretionary money is what you'll be using to keep your family fed, healthy, and as happy as possible. So knowing this number will help you understand how much you should be spending per month in order to NOT overspend, and better yet, in order to save money!!

Discretionary Money... Now What?

There are maaaany different ways to proceed. I'll tell you what I did, from a high level:

1 - Out of curiosity, I divided my total discretionary amount by 4, to see roughly how much discretionary money I could technically have per week. This was enlightening, to say the least.

2 - I decided to NOT spend that actual amount per week. I wanted to make sure I left myself with a "discretionary amount cushion" per month to account for unexpected spend (hospital trips, prescriptions, house needs...).

3 - I decided to use a very light version of the "envelope system" to help keep me on track per month. The simple definition of an envelope system is "a popular method for visualizing and maintaining a budget. The key idea is to store the cash to meet separate categories of household expenses in physically separate envelopes.". 

I say I'm using the light version, because I simply decided to choose an amount that I want to spend per week, TOTAL. This amount is for groceries, toiletries, house goods, and pet supplies. And I make myself stick to that amount. More on that in another post, methinks.

Back to the Spreadsheet

I haven't mentioned the spreadsheet for a while, so time to get back to that! In a nutshell, I use the spreadsheet to track literally EVERYTHING that we spend money on per month. I track the when, where, total amount, and cash/credit card/bill pay category. I even created different categories to use, so I can see totals per category (auto gas, utilities, restaurant, food, etc). 

I even have a spreadsheet cell that lets me track my discretionary amount per month, so I can literally see the total number decrease as the month goes on, as a constant reminder to stay on target with my discretionary spending! 

It all sounds nerdy, but whooooo boy does it save me time. And WHOO BOY does it keep me honest.

Sometimes I want to slack on the spreadsheet, but that directly correlates to bad spending behavior, for reals. So I keep at it, and it has been the key to success thus far. A spreadsheet, or some other way of tracking ALL spend, is the only way to keep yourself honest and on track. In my opinion, it is a necessity.

Finis... for Now!

I better stop typing for now, as this is getting lengthy and I think I accomplished my goal of explaining the basics of how I tackled the budget creation process. I'll try to create more posts to go into more detail about some of the topics I touched on, like the envelope system and more spreadsheet details that I've found helpful! For now, let your brains rest. And then... to the spreadsheets!!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Experiments with "Homemade" Cleaners

Being a person who greatly enjoys Pinterest, I've seen many a homemade cleaner recipe get pinned. They always catch my eye, and I've pinned a few promising, er, recipes, to try out as time goes on.

Toilet Bowl Cleaner

When I ran low on toilet bowl cleaner, I decided to try out one of the recipes! Yeah, combining "toilet bowl" and "recipe" together sounds gross. I shall discontinue that combo.

Anyway, the... steps for making homemade toilet bowl cleaner are very simple. It involves combining baking  soda, water, castile soap, and tea tree oil. I've been subbing dish soap for the castile soap. I strongly recommend sticking to the listed amounts, otherwise your solution will be too runny or way too chunky!

Long story short, you combine the ingredients together and put them in a container that allows you to get it into the toilet. I simply saved one of my last toilet bowl cleaner containers, took off the lid, and used a funnel to add the ingredients. Then use like you would regular ole toilet bowl cleaner... and it works! It does indeed clean out a gross toilet, and it smells very clean afterward. And it seems less chemical-ly than your usual toilet bowl cleaner.

It is indeed a lot of baking soda to use consistently, but did you know that you can get a 13.5 lb. bag of it from Sam's Club for $6.68? Well they do, and you too could feel really proud that you have an abnormal amount of baking soda in your closet! Because I sure do.

Where do you buy tea tree oil? My Target had it in the pharmacy section, hidden in a weird spot. It was about $7, which seems kinda pricey. But you only use a teensy bit, so it goes a long way. I didn't do a massive tea tree oil hunt, so there may be cheaper options out there! If you find one, do tell.

Dusting Spray

I was a little more wary about trying this out, but I wouldn't let myself buy Pledge until I tried it, so it finally happened! I found this blog post that touts a solution of water, vinegar and olive oil. I know... olive oil?!? Hence the wariness.

But my stubborn side prevailed, and I tried it today. Survey says... not too bad. It did indeed allow me to dust, didn't leave a residue behind, and left surfaces shiny and streak-free. My main beef with this solution is that you have to shake it... a lot. Because, well, oil and water, people!! And I assume it won't last long with the olive oil. So... we'll see how I proceed. I may search around for some other ideas, or I may just be cheap and stick with this one, or maybe some Pledge coupons will come along and I'll give in. Suspense!!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Meal Planning Newb

I still don't know how I was in the dark about meal planning, but boy am I glad it's now in my life! There are varying degrees of meal planning: the simpler end of the meal planning spectrum is to plan out meals one week at a time. The more complicated end of the meal planning spectrum belongs to those folks who plan out an entire month of meals. It boggles the mind, right? I don't think I'll ever get to the latter, so for now I'm sticking to the weekly meal planning level.

I prefer weekly meal planning because:
a) It's been a very easy transition from absolutely NO meal planning to weekly meal planning
b) I like anticipating the Sunday grocery deals, and using those as my inspiration
c) I like going to the grocery store(s) in general, so I like being able to go every week
d) I have visions of me and a grocery cart full of a month's supply of food and other stuffs, and it scares me

So how do I form a plan of attack? Thought you'd never ask!

Analyzing Sunday Deals
I now get reeeeeally excited for the Sunday paper. My husband now also gets excited for it, and we usually "fight" over the ads. He wants to quickly get his foods added to my list for consideration (usually items like Pop Tarts, pizza rolls, and Coca Cola :) ). I read through all the grocery ads and start writing up a list of stuff per store by hand, including the prices. At this point I usually don't know what I want to make for the week, but the deals serve as my inspiration later on.

Getting Nerdy With a Spreadsheet
Once I have all the items written down that piqued by interest (due to good prices and/or something seasonal that looks great), I turn to le computer. I created a very simple spreadsheet (thanks, Open Office!) that I use to keep track of the week's meals, and it includes a section where I list out all items per store and their prices. This lets me see the potential grand total, and tweak items if they don't work with the desired total. Let me emphasize that this spreadsheet is SUPER simple. It's just meant to help me develop and stick to my "food schedule". It keeps me sane, for reals. Want to see it? Mk, here's a simple template version!

Fun research, I swear! After starting to add to my simple spreadsheet, I give my pantry, freezer, and fridge a once-over to figure out what I already have. Then with that knowledge, and the deals I've written down, I go to the internets to look up recipe inspiration. That lets me finish my list of items that I want to buy for the week, and it lets me fill out my meal schedule for the week!

Money Cap
I mentioned desired total. This is obviously going to be very different for me. Regardless of your financial situation, setting an amount you will spend (whether it's a total per week, per month, total per category - food, gas, etc....) really holds you to a number, and helps you save so much more money. I really wish we had been doing this even when I was working and our combined salaries were very comfortable. We would have a lot more money in the bank! Alas, hindsight. Aaaaanyway, the way I have set my desired total is a more complicated explanation than I'll go into at this time, so I will simply say that I have decided how much I want to spend TOTAL per week. This includes food and other household stuffs.

Making a Shopping Date
I henceforth declare Monday as: The Day to Shop. Well, for me anyway! :) I just decided that I'd make Monday the day to haul my daughter off to a few stores in the morning after breakfast, and we get 'er done for the week. It feels great to get it all done in one day! Every now and then, I have to run out later in the week to get a few supplementary items, but I try to avoid that as much as possible.

Coupons. Argh.
I should also mention the coupons. I love coupons, and hate them. They honestly stress me out a little bit, which I think is partly to due with the fact that I can't figure out a good way to organize them so that it's easy to go through them on demand. I don't rely on coupons to make the weekly meal plan; for now, I see them as a bonus. After I have my list of things to buy, I go through the coupons to see if anything matches up to my list. Or if I have time, I'll see if any of my coupons match up to anything in the weekly ads. But I don't spend loads of time on this, because it's pretty darn time consuming, and there's lots to do, y'all!! If anyone has any good couponing tips, please share!! I don't know how those Extreme Couponers do it. :S

That's what I feel like sharing for now... I hope this is inspirational / useful for at least one person. :D