Bringing Spending Down to a Low Boil

I spend a lot of time talking about the importance of paying off debt and investing for long-term goals. I preach it to my high school personal finance class every day. However, the real struggle for most Americans is making room in their monthly budget to pay for it. The “pay yourself first” strategy is helpful, but still involves making room for saving or paying off debt in your budget. In the end, it always seems to come back to earning more money and spending less of it.

Both are easier said than done. Asking for a raise is a joke in many industries, and there are only so many hours in a week that you can spend laboring. When it comes to spending, almost everyone could read off a list of things he or she would like to have or even need to have but sacrifice to keep the budget in line.

For me, I don’t pay for television. I mooch off a family member’s account for one subscription service, and I buy an occasional DVD. That’s it. I have never paid for live or on-demand video entertainment of any kind. I watch an occasional sporting event or PBS series, and the rest of the time I spend reading. This is one of many things I do to keep excess expenses down.

sisyphus (titian painting)Despite that and many other efforts I make to save money, I still feel like Sisyphus pushing student loan payments up the hill, only to have the next statement roll down over me, showing that at age 32 I’m nowhere near done paying for the college degree I finished at age 22. And I still feel like I need to save more for retirement and for a downpayment on a house.

If you feel that way too, here are 2 easy tips that have helped me recently:

  1. If you can’t make a huge increase in debt repayment, at least round up what you pay on your higher-interest debt payments. Within a few months, you will notice improvement in your statements and even see the minimum statement payments decrease. It gets quick results, and that feels good.
  2. Track your spending by recording it, using your bank’s expense-tracker for your debit card, or using an app like Mint, Personal Capital, Tiller, or Wally.

Consumer sector corporations are brilliant at getting you to develop bad spending habits: café coffee, gas station soda and candy, eating out too much, not sticking to your grocery list, or impulse-buying at discount stores, department stores, or online. You can probably relate to more than one of those. I certainly can.

For my wife and I, the biggest spending problem right now is food. We are both teachers, and we both have some health problems that rob us of energy. At the end of the school day, we often feel too tired to cook, and are tempted to eat an easy processed meal, grab a pizza, or stop at a quick service restaurant, all of which are usually more expensive than a home-cooked meal, and not great for your health either. To make matters worse, I have a gluten allergy. Those easy processed meals like mac-n-cheese, TV dinners, or frozen pizza cost about 3 times as much when you have to get them gluten free. Putting together 5 gluten-free sack lunches per week is not cheap or easy for me either.

This summer, we came up with a plan to solve our food spending issues, and we were able to get most of it done in one weekend.

We found 6 recipes for meals that we can prepare now, freeze for weeks-to-months, and then cook in a slow-cooker later. Some of them can go straight from freezer to slow cooker to plate, while a few just need to have stock added or be put over rice at the end. We have an amazing little rice cooker that makes that very easy. Today, we prepared 10 meal bags from those 6 recipes, and packed them into our freezer, 1 for each of the 10 weeks of the 1st quarter of the school year. We will make 10 more at fall break for the 2nd quarter.

IMG_3503

Each meal bag is sized for a standard slow-cooker and serve 4-6 people. Since there are 2 of us, that means 1 meal bag will serve us 1 dinner for each of us, then 1-2 left-over lunches for each of us. That is a total of about 50 meals over 10 weeks.

All 6 recipes are gluten-free for me, and they are actually vegan as well (we are not vegan and will probably put cheese and sour cream on 2 of the recipes). We had some of the products we needed, but we had to make a pretty big shopping list to cover all the recipes.

aldiWe received coupons for $10 off $40 for our local Aldi grocery store, which was recently renovated, so we started shopping there. If you haven’t been to Aldi lately, you need to go see what you are missing. The quality and selection of foods keeps getting better. They have a huge selection of organic and gluten-free products now, and they are much more affordable than almost anywhere else. We were able to find most of what we needed at Aldi, then went to Patel Brothers, an international market focusing on South Asian foods, for a few specialty items. We only spent about $50.

That’s 50 meals for $50! That’s 50 meals that are gluten-free, vegan, mostly organic, and 100% natural for about $1 each.

That’s a cost of about $5 per week to replace about $25 that we might have spent on a combination of groceries and takeout or fast food for the same amount of lunches and dinners per week. That net savings of $20 per week or $80 per month is going to make it easier to pay down debt and save for our goals.

We got some other ideas while planning, shopping, and cooking as well that we think can save us more money on groceries. I am confident we will be able to reduce our weekly budget for groceries and essentials from about $115 to under $100 with the frozen meal system. It took almost 2 full days of planning, shopping, preparing food, and cleaning up the kitchen, but I estimate that this 1 weekend of work will save us about $400 over the next 3 months.

If you want to try this too, there are 10 recipes at Super Healthy Kids and many more at New Leaf Wellness. Some Google searching will probably get you even more.

Update – July 16, 2017

Jocelynn Smith of Sovereign Investor Daily wrote a great article the other day called “Home-Cooked Meals Are A Hot Investment.” She talks about how grocery prices declined by 1.3% in 2016 while restaurant prices increased 2.6%. The savings of preparing meals at home instead of going out just keep getting better.

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