Save A Penny

This page has three (3) post-like sections:

  1. 14 Thoughts on Saving Money;
  2. Finding Low-Cost Recipes; and
  3. Picking Low-Cost Recipes.

Australian Flowers

1. 14 Thoughts on Saving Money

Most of my social set are much more frugal than me. Some have larger incomes than others, but all of them get excellent value for price. Mostly, they NEVER, ever, ever, PAY RETAIL. Sure, sometimes going out to eat for a special event is OK. Or, a higher price is necessary to maintain sanity – a lot of families with children shop at Costco, for example, and avoid other stores just for the sake of streamlining an otherwise overwhelming list of weekend chores.

Here are a few ideas (mostly posed as questions) I’ve picked up from my frugal circle about shopping.

1.Is this a NEED or a WANT?

Ah yes, seems like a matter of philosophy, but, I think this is the most important thing imparted to me – dollars spent on “wants” won’t be there for dollars spent on “needs.” A penny saved has the same value as a penny earned. Yes, cliché but true!

2.Is this on my shopping list?

Shop from a LIST. No money can leave the wallet unless planned. An extremely self-disciplined friend of mine even plans each and every single meal for the week – uh, for her household of ONE person, herself! I thought she was nuts when she told me that she schedules tea, coffee, and milk tea for the mornings…and so on – and that’s just the beverage portion of her breakfast! This menu plan of hers then becomes a strict shopping list, from which she will not deviate. I try to do this, but, invariably, I succumb to chocolate and/or cookies…you see why I need those shoes (in #4 below). This is really an extension of #1 – if it’s a true need, you’ll eventually put it on the list.

3.To rephrase Churchill: Never, never, never, never pay retail.

Just don’t do it! I’m trying to follow this maxim. One of my friends always, always, always gets some kind of discount. Considering we actually spend thousands of dollars each year to get our needs met, 5% here and there truly adds up (especially since most of the time, we are spending hundreds of dollars on food per month). That extra could mean anything from a really nice dinner to a small vacation!

4.How long is this supposed to last me? Is this a high-quality item?

Identify the price “per use” – take the total price, and divide it by the length of time you expect to use it. For example, I just paid $70.00 for some athletic shores – they are supposed to last the average user six months. The last pair I bought from the manufacturer lasted me two (admittedly, very sedentary) years. If they last 12 months, I’m paying about $5.83/month for these shoes. Not great, but, I am OK with paying that price if I’m actually going to the gym! (which I am).

Do not buy low quality. Instead, buy high quality – less frequently of course – when it’s on SALE / clearance / coupon, etc. Low-cost goods often end up being more expensive on a “per use” basis, since they just fall apart – meaning that they have an extremely high “per use” price!

It truly surprises me to learn that it does make sense sometimes to spend a little bit more, to have a magnitude of greater quality and therefore longer product lifespan.

5.Know thy prices! What is the going price?

What is the going price? This is why people make price books – so that they know the price of the item at different stores. I don’t do this (yet) but I do know weekly prices for grocery staples.

6. What assumptions am I making about prices?

I visited the local farmer’s market one weekend, and I expected to find fou-fou prices to match the fou-fou crowd (yes, I realize, I just called myself fou-fou too). I passed up the opportunity to pay $.80/lb for cabbage, only to find it later for $.99/lb at the supermarket (19 divided by 80 = 23.75% higher). Lesson learned!

7.What is on sale this week at the grocery stores?

I now ALWAYS read the flyers and see if a store is selling one of my basic ingredients (chicken, pork, leafy greens, tofu, etc.) as a matter of habit. Now I actually look forward to seeing the flyers in the mail. The flyers usually come out a day or two in advanced, so, a skilled frugalista would take advantage of the advance warning to do menu-planning. See example of friend in #2. OK, oftentimes, I do it too!

8.What are the “extreme value” grocery stores in the area – for non-perishables?

California has Grocery Outlet. Minnesota and other places have ALDI. Some dollar stores carry dry/canned foods for very good prices. Gnivas has a state-by-state listing of food liquidators. I won’t make a special trip for Grocery Outlet, but, I always visit if I’m in the area to pick up good deals. It’s a great place to get really inexpensive onions, potatoes, and other staples. OK, so I notice that most of the money I spend there is for cookies, chocolate, fancy shampoo, etc. but I can’t exactly blame the store.

9.What are the loss leaders for the stores around me?

I almost made the mistake of buying cheap white wine, at the low-ish loyalty card price from a supermarket. In the very same strip mall, a drugstore offered the identical wine brand for less! Sometimes, things that are expensive for one store are loss leaders for others.

10. What stores carry what I want, and when do those things go on sale?

All of the tech-savvy guys I know will compile a list of potential electronic purchases for “Black Friday” – the Friday after Thanksgiving, when electronics retailers are almost throwing goods out the window to entice shoppers.

Another example of this is setting up an email account to participate in various “affinity” programs for my favorite stores to get news on special sales. One online retailer I use had a 50% off of clearance sale – which I used to get excellent, excellent bargains for things I was planning on buying. (My proudest find is a $78.00 item that I got for $10.00 – and free shipping!!!)

So many things are seasonal in nature – frozen turkeys, clothes, gardening supplies, BBQ-related, etc. which also creates great sales opportunities.

11.What is the return or refund policy?

A lot of stores will let you return items well past the refund date for store credit. That is OK if it’s a store you use a lot – not so great if your purchases are rare. Piggybacking on that concept – certain credit cards may extend the life of a warranty for all products purchased through the card, which essentially is a means to a refund – becoming money in the pocket.

12.What are the special events / store openings /closings in the area?

These usually mean extraordinary prices and coupons. There are some new supermarkets my area, and they are fiercely fighting for the consumer dollar. Because of this competition, I’ve enjoyed coupons for FREE frozen salmon, ½ deli meat, and other goods amounting to $40.00 worth of free groceries.

13. Retirement accounts are nearly sacrosanct forms of money! DO NOT TOUCH!!!

Even if only a little bit, put it AWAY!  They enjoy all kinds of protections that your mattress and the like cannot offer. Suze Orman recently said:

But everybody, please remember this: Money that is in a retirement account is protected against bankruptcy. If you think that you are heading towards bankruptcy, do not touch your money in your retirement accounts. Claim bankruptcy and then after bankruptcy you still have all that money in your retirement accounts.

14.Is there a way to strike a good deal between yourself and someone else?

This is not a shopping-related issue, but it’s definitely a moneysaver. Sometimes there are ways to get money more conveniently by delegating/collaborating with someone else. When I was in school, I spent hundreds upon hundreds of dollars on books each school term. When a term ended, they were useless to me. I wanted to resell the books, but I didn’t want the hassle of packing and shipping books in possibly inclement weather without a car. I approached an Ebay seller of stamps and persuaded him to consider selling books on for me. I figured if he was selling stamps, he would need to preserve his business reputation and would need to conduct himself scrupulously with me. He agreed to sell my books, and we split the proceeds 65% for me, 35% for him. It was a great arrangement! He would send me checks, and emails identifying the books he sold, and he agreed to donate the surplus. (yes, this is before the advent of and the like – otherwise, I’m sure I would have tried to use them!)

2. Finding Low-Cost Recipes

Sites with Low-Cost Recipes / Food information

(I haven’t tried all of these blogs personally, but I think they will have decent, cost-sensitive recipes)

  • Hillbilly Housewife Read the $45 Emergency Menu, for feeding a family of 4~6 during a week, including instructions for the cooking and prep. Even if you don’t like the dishes themselves, you will learn something from this menu – time management, how to shop – from the sheer amount of information.
  • AskMetafilter AskMeFi has some excellent threads with dozens of suggestions for low-cost cooking. This thread was about mastering cooking genres, while staying within a tight budget. Another thread focuses on frugal meal planning for a single person. Yet another thread ponders the secrets of saving money at the grocery store. Just goes to show that two heads, or rather, thousands of heads, are better than one.
  • Frugal Cuisine The name says it all. The recipes are always brilliant, clear, and unfailingly INSPIRING. She really focuses on nutrient-dense foods, tending to avoid empty calories. I have blog-envied this blog for YEARS!
  • Consumer Reports CR has a short list of foods, and their nutritional value and cost per serving. Very helpful! It’s quite shocking to see that black beans, which are a nutritional powerhouse, are only $.07 per serving!! I would dispute the cost of the egg (I know for me they cost more than $.09 each) but it’s nice to have comparative data.
  • Could I live on a dollar a day? Hm…well, some other people have done it! Andrew Hyde, (not a foodie blogger) post on how to live comfortably on $36/month impressed me! The bloggers doing the One Dollar A Day Diet Project also impressed me!
  • I love comfy, homey recipes! Heritage Recipes has time-tested, old-fashioned recipes. Low cost is not the focus, but I notice that many of these recipes are very SIMPLE, which tends to run towards frugality. Frugal Recipes is something of a bulletin board with utterly charming recipes, with an eye towards frugality. CHOW has a series on basic recipes . these have pretty illustrations and very simple instructions. Most of them look totally delectable.
  • Cheap Eats documents the blogger’s food choices (there are are a lot of product reviews) and very, very low-cost recipes, including some $3.00 recipes with very explicit cost break downs.
  • $5 Dollar Dinners focuses on meals for 2 persons, and 2 small children for under $5.00. I like the fact that she breaks down the prices for each of the ingredients in the posts.
  • Cheap, Healthy, Good has big, big recipe lists. The one for frugal party foods looks so interesting!
  • Simply Frugal This Southeast Michigan blogger spends $15/per person each week, for 2 people. Her recipes look great! And she has great tips on how to shop for groceries more frugally – to get your cost per serving down to 45 cents. Really wonderful blog!
  • Poor Girl Eats Well The PGEW blogger creates definitely gorgeous, gourmet foods, averaging around $2.00 per serving. This blog is justifiably famous.
  • Casual Kitchen has 25 “laughably cheap” recipes. I also really like his application of the Pareto Rule, or the 80/20 rule, to cooking (as in, 20% of your effort yields 80% of your desired results). The concept of “heavy rotation” – getting your top ten favorite dishes over and over again – holds true with me.
  • Food is always an important expense, and personal finance bloggers always write about food. Frugal Upstate , The Simple Dollar, and Get Rich Slowly, The Frugal Girl, have good, appetizing recipes in the context of frugal living in general. GRS’s post compiling 3 years’ worth of food tips is excellent! Another truly great GRS post, How to Feed Yourself for $15 a Week, is very, very accessible. My Open Wallet has a great page on frugal recipes, collected from frugal foodies/personal finance bloggers. Frugal Abundance (the blogger is the original creator of the Hillbilly Housewife!) has a great post on addressing the rising cost of meat. The costs in that post are very different from those I experience in California, but the relative prices (whole chicken v. breast filets, etc.) are still applicable and therefore helpful in determing what to buy.

Plugging my own blog

Dude, where’s the Stove? Hey, of course I have to plug my own blog! Here are some of my posts with price breakdowns, that yield meals that cost less than one dollar per serving.

Here are some of my blog posts that may/may not contain price break downs for the recipes (but are very inexpensive to prepare):


3. Picking Low-Cost Recipes

Casual Kitchen’s  How to Tell if a Recipe is Worth Cooking With Five Easy Questions is really useful. CK answers this question:

So how can you tell, in advance, if a recipe will be any good? Will it be interesting and original? Will it ever make it into your heavy rotation?

Here are his five easy questions:

1) Does it sound good?
2) Does it contain any bizarre or impossible-to-find ingredients?
3) How much prep work am I gonna have to do? Will this be a pain in the ass and take forever?
4) Can the dish be doubled easily?
5) Will this dish be cheap to make?

I suggest reading that post first, and if you want more details on Question 5 (frugality), come back here (or just keep reading).

My Recipe Nerdism

What me, use recipes verbatim? Oh no, they are just starting points for me to learn something about the ingredients, be inspired by flavor combinations, that sort of thing. Because then I apply…my deluxe recipe equation:

Recipe = Ingredients + Hassle (“Work”)

Very scientific, I know. So, either the cost of the recipe will be sunk into ingredients, or hassle, or both (worst case scenario).

Ingredients Have Jobs. Some are peasants. Others, kings.

Most frugal recipes go something like this – take something humble, like beans, add them in a large quantity to something else in a small quantity, such as bacon, then simmer the combo forever. The job of the beans is to absorb the bacon awesomeness, and distribute it in a high-fiber and economical way.

Usually something is “awesome” because of the umami factor, for savory dishes.* The non-umami ingredients work to carry the deliciousness, like beasts of burden for the umami gentry. I don’t think that there are many shortcuts around this umami/non-umami distinction. Sweets breakdown the same way – there’s some kind of foundation (dough, cream cheese, kanten, etc.) + sweetener + fruit/other flavor.

Smell Test
If an ingredient is expensive, there MUST be a good reason why. It better have huge umami-ness. Maybe it’s a convenience food, such as pre-cut, etc. Or, it is a preserved food, (jams, pickles, dried veggies/mushrooms). Or, it is fancy. Or, just a very expensive cut of meat.

Hassle is Priceless
Hassle, also known as “work” = anything you do to the ingredients. Baking, freezing, braising, steaming, boiling, frying, etc. all taste different all affect my energy bill differently. They also have high and low hassle factors too. As do chopping or scouring three pots and pans. I avoid deep-frying, just because of the mess factor. I bake pretty rarely. Mostly I stir-fry, boil, and braise. I wish I did more steaming and grilling.

Is the hassle worth it?
Well, it depends on what the recipe is supposed to accomplish. Hassle and texture go hand in hand frequently. Texture can make or break a dish, can give a sense of luxuriousness. (see a very lazy, low-hassle poached eggs recipe). A slowly stirred risotto = you are not going anywhere.

A Fable: My Friend Does Not Want Hassle from Her Chicken Pot Pie
The other day, I decided against buying chicken pot pie while grocery shopping with a buddy. She asked me why I didn’t buy it. I told her that I could probably make it better, and it would be far, far cheaper. Could I really justify paying almost three dollars for a little bit of chicken and pastry, when I could buy an entire chicken for just four dollars? You see, in my dreams, I am the type of person who will make it from scratch. Surely making my own dough, chicken stock, veggies and such for many hours is worth the delight of such a pie. I think we had a multi-minute conversation about this. Then, she did the sane person thing and just bought one. She did not want the hassle factor.**  OK, that’s the harsh reality. Of course, I still believe that I will be making my very own.

Oh, all this talk of recipes makes me feel quite pompous! If it’s been helpful to you in some way, I’ll be thrilled!

* Kenneth C. Lo , prolific cookbook author and culinary authority, considered Chinese cuisine to be “the art of exploding savoriness.” I didn’t realize until I had read his book that I had received this idea by osmosis.

** She works outside of the home (she wanted me to add that!).

P.S. Much love to Wikimedia Commons, for use of the dollar image above.

Keywords: cheap recipes; low-cost recipes; frugal recipes; cost per serving; price breakdown.


One response to “Save A Penny

  1. Pingback: 100 Awesome Blog Posts for Eating Healthy on a Budget

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