Countdown to the Penny Pinching Pantry Raid: my method behind the madness

Last year, I failed miserably at keeping my Pantry Raid budget. This year I am determined to redeem myself.

I’m a list maker by nature. I love making to-do lists and marking things off them. (I once heard someone say that when I was growing up and thought it was the dumbest thing ever. Funny how the shoe’s on the other foot now…) I love making grocery lists, lists of plants I wanted to grow this year, and of course the list of prioritized home improvement projects I keep in my head.

That, and I had a pretty slow weekend.

A few months ago, in an effort to cut down on my grocery spending, I tried making a list of meals (total shocker…) for the whole month and making my grocery list off that. I figured it would mean fewer trips to the store, thus fewer impluse buys. I always shopped from a list anyway, but I don’t care how many times I tell myself to stick to the list, I would get in the store and see an “amazing” deal on something, and buy it. Over and over again. Not that that is always a bad thing, since I was getting a really good deal in most cases, but that’s how I ended up with 4 bottles of wing sauce and 4 bottles of hot sauce. It’ll probably take me 2 years to use all that. If you’re not careful, you can end up with way too much of a good thing.

So, I eventually took it a step further, and started printing out a monthly calendar and penciling in the meals I picked out for the month. This helped hugely, because now, I can pretty much go the store once a month, save for a mid-month run for a few perishable items like milk and bread, AND now we’re eating out A LOT less since it’s pretty much scheduled. I always leave open either 1 or 2 days on the weekend because I know we will either go out to eat or visit our parents (where we usually mooch a meal). Plus, if you can look at what nights you’ll be busy, it makes it super-easy to plan to have leftovers, something quick or in the crockpot for those nights. It cuts down on my stress through the week since I already know what I’m going to be making every night.

This level of detail in meal planning isn’t for everyone. Though, if you do have a couple hours’ free time at the beginning of the month, it’ll more than pay off later on with the time you save–at least that’s been my experience.

For the Penny Pinching Pantry Raid, I did basically the same thing I always do, but I started out with my list of what I have in the freezer/pantry and wrote down a few meals based on what I have, that I won’t need to buy any items to make. Then, I went through my usual rotation of cookbooks and recipes, and found a few meals that I only needed to get maybe 1 item to make. I generally shoot for around 20 meals, but this month, because I know I’ll be throwing stuff together at the end of the month that I have on hand, I only wrote down 14. Some meals, I knew I wanted something specific, too. For example, our anniversary is the 15th, so I knew we wanted to grill steaks that day. Here’s my list:

biscuits and deer gravy (I have everything I need to make this)
steaks with balsalmic mushrooms – anniversary dinner
hamburgers, jambalaya, cupcakes, margaritas — Jeremy’s birthday dinner. More on that later.
squash casserole (need 1 item)
chili (need 1 item)
Ribs (I have everything)
zucchini carbonara (need 1 item)
bitokes a la russe — or french hamburgers (I have everything)
Wanchai Ferry dinner with egg drop soup
French onion soup
grilled pizza
fish poached in white wine
roast chicken with bacon and onions
tomato salad and grilled shrimp

Now, for Jeremy’s birthday, I’m having a cookout for the fam. This is part of the $25 for special occassions that I set aside in the first Penny Pinching Pantry Raid post. He picked out the menu, now the challenge is to get it in under $25. That should be interresting, and will take some savy shopping.

As I was putting together my store list for the menus I selected, I tried to estimate what I would expect to pay for each item. That way I could make sure I would come in under $100. If I spend less for an item than I estimated, I’ll consider that a windfall, and put it back in the budget. Here’s my grocery list:

mushrooms $3
pearl onions $3
fruit for lunch $5
onions $4
steaks $10
whole chicken $10
bacon $3.50
beef bones $2
eggs $6
mozzarella $4
provolone $3
yogart $7
Italian bread $2
bread for lunch sandwiches $2
frozen breakfast items $4
tuna $1
mayonaise $3
flour $3
stuffing mix $1.50
cereal $5
oats $2
yellow cake mix $1.50
Spicy V8 $3
drinks for lunch $4
granola bars for lunch $3
chips for lunch $3
peanut butter $3
TOTAL $96.50

Some of the prices might seem a bit high, like the steaks for $10 and whole chicken for $10. I buy all my meat from the farmer’s market. Sure, you pay more, but I’m my opinion, it’s worth it. But it’s a personal choice. I could buy my whole chicken for 69 or 99 cents a pound at the grocery store, or $3.00 a pound at the Monroe Farm Market. That’s a big difference, but I just have to cut back on something else. I’d rather skip meat this month than buy the cheap meat grocery store, but like I said, it’s my personal choice. 

That doesn’t leave much breathing room at all. And, that’s only 14 meals. Since the sales tax on food is 4% in West Virginia now, that puts me 50 cents over the limit. I’ll need some good deals and coupons to get me through a trip to the grocery store next month.

Speaking of coupons and deals, I rely heavily on sites like The Coupon Mom to help me find grocery deals. I especially like (and highly recommend) the link for “Grocery Deals By State.” It gives almost every item that is on sale at the particular store for the week, plus any promotions the store is running and any published coupons for the item. The other site I really like is The Krazy Koupon Lady.

This month I’m planning to do my major grocery shopping in two trips. I’ll buy what I need for the first two weeks of meals in one trip and then go back for the rest later on in the month. Hopefully, I’ll be able to get some rock-bottom prices for items that I might not have on my list with the money I hopefully save with deals and coupons below my estimated price. That is how I’ll come up with the rest of my meals, by adding a few items I buy to what I already have on hand. And, I am heavily relying on what is growing in my backyard or in my father-in-law’s garden to get my through the month. Anything could go wrong with that–rainy weather, deer and rabbits eating the garden, you name it. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed.

The other wrinkle with the Penny Pinching Pantry Raid is that I have a conference for work this month. I’ll get a per diem to cover meals, but Jeremy is going with me. So, we’ll both need to eat on my per diem (it’s not too shabby, actually). If we go over the per diem, it counts toward the $100. Thankfully, many of the breakfasts and lunches are provided by the conference. And, I paid extra to register Jeremy as a guest spouse for the conference, so he’ll have access to the meals the conference provides, too.

Having looked at my grocery list and thought this through, I know it is still going to be WAY harder than I expect, but it’s supposed to be a challenge, right? At the end of the month, we’ll have a big chunk of money (around $225) we would have spent on eating out and at the grocery store to put toward something… most likely the lengthy and expensive home improvement project I mentioned in the first Penny Pinching Pantry Raid post–new hardwood floors.

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