Thursday, November 21, 2013

Giveaway: Old El Paso Frozen Meals

Through the My Blog Spark program, I was recently given the chance to try one of the new Old El Paso frozen entrees.

(SIDENOTE: I took pictures for this post.  Awesome pictures.  Lots of them. Before I ate the quesadillas. And then I LOST THE CAMERA WITH THE PICTURES ON IT somewhere in my house.  Ahem.  If I find it, I'll add them.. Because they were awesome.  Sigh.)

I got a package in the mail with a coupon for a free Old El Paso frozen product, a $10 Visa gift card, and a beautiful chips and dip platter.  (Remember this, it will be important later.)

At the store, I looked at the products available and decided to get steak quesadillas because my somewhat picky 3 year old kinda loves quesadillas.

They were really easy to make, they only took a few minutes in the microwave to come out melty and perfect.  I momentarily doubted my decision because quesadillas are pretty easy to make anyway, so I wasn't sure I needed a frozen product.

The Old El Paso steak quesadillas, though, were nothing like the quesadillas I make at home.  They had A LOT of steak, red and green bell peppers, and salsa verde.  They were DELICIOUS.  And even though Miss Three saw the peppers, said she didn't like green things, and made me pick them all off before she would eat, she enjoyed them too.

The package said it was a meal for 2, so I paired it with some rice and leftover beans for me and the husband and an apple for the kiddo to stretch it a little.  The package contained 4 quesadillas, and we were each satisfied with one.  That meant I had one left to eat for lunch the next day.  SCORE.

So if you're looking for a quick, easy meal (and I usually am), the Old El Paso frozen meals get my thumbs up.

Still reading?  Good!  Go to the Old El Paso website and check out the selection of frozen meals.  Come back here and tell me in a comment which one you'd like to try, and you will get a chance to win a prize pack identical to the one I got (see why that was important??).   

Disclosure: I was sent a prize package in exchange for my review of this product.  My opinion can't be bought, though.  Not even with delicious, delicious quesadillas.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Good deal on Gevalia coffee

Right now, you can get 2 boxes of Gevalia coffee for $9.95 and free shipping if you buy through my referral link.  The deal is good on 8 ounce boxes of coffee (regularly priced between $6.99 and $9.99) and 12 count boxes of k-cups.  My buy price for k-cups is 50 cents a cup or less, so this is a great deal for me.  Plus, after getting so many free samples, Gevalia is one of my favorite brands of coffee.

Disclaimer: If you buy coffee through my referral link, I also qualify for a free box of coffee.  No pressure though.  Ahem.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Spring Clean your finances: Budgeting for recurring expenses

Once you have your monthly budget set up and working, the next step is to plan for your periodic expenses, things like your insurance premiums, taxes, or any other budget item that comes up less often than every month.

There's a reason why I think this is the most important next step in getting your finances in order, before you even think about emergency cash reserves or debt reduction: You've ALREADY spent this money.  You don't have it anymore.

Let me say that again, in case it wasn't clear.

You don't have this money anymore.  It's already spent.  You may see it in your checking account and think, Hey, look at all this money I have to buy pretty things for my house, save for my kids' college, or pay off my student loans.  You're wrong.  It's an illusion.  It's not there anymore.  It's already spent.

Do you need to re-read that a few times in order to internalize it?  It's okay.  I'll wait.  Let me know when you're ready.

So.  Now that we have that clear, let's talk about what to do about it.

If you're making a new, specific budget every month (which you should be) and you have a ton of discretionary cash (which you probably don't if you're reading this), then you can just adjust the specific month's budget by decreasing other spending to make up for the big payment you have that month.

If you don't have the cash, no matter how much you cut down on movies out, then you need to think about those expenses before the month when they're due.  This should not be money that comes out of your emergency fund or causes you to go into credit card debt because it isn't an emergency.  It isn't a surprise.  You know exactly when it's coming.

So, what to do.

I recommend setting up a separate savings account, with instant cash transfer privileges, just for your recurring expenses.  I call mine my "Freedom account" - I'm pretty sure I stole that from Suze Orman - and it's separate from my emergency fund.  (If you're extremely disciplined, you can do this as an entirely paper and pencil exercise and just keep the money in your main checking account, but you have to remember when you see the money that it ISN'T REALLY THERE.)

Then, make a list of all the expenses you have that come up a few times a year. I include Christmas on this list now, but I didn't when I was first starting out (we just had some arts and crafts Christmases for a few years).  Figure out how much you need, how often for each one.  Then, you have to fund this account.  There are two main ways to do this.

Monthly Deposits

I divide my recurring expenses by 12 (or by 6, for the ones that come up twice a year) and figure out how much they are actually costing me per month.  Then, I have my savings account set up to automatically transfer that much money out of my main checking account every month.  For each of my recurring expenses.   Then when I get a bill in the mail, I just log on and transfer the money back to my checking account.  No worries, no stress.  I know the money is there, I know that's what it's there for.

This puts a huge dent in my monthly cash flow because all of these items are line items on my budget every month.  When I think about how much money I have available to spend, I always take this out first.  This is annoying, but in the long run it's really a good thing.

Lump sum deposits

If, right now, you don't have enough money in your monthly budget to add line items for each of your recurring expenses, you need to be a little more creative about how you fund them.  Here's how I recommend doing this with lump sum deposits:

Make a list of all your recurring expenses.   List them in order of when they come due, and if you have more than one due in the same month, list them in order of importance (as in, if you run out of money and can't pay one, which one will hurt you and your family less).  Then, every time you get an extra influx of cash - some extra income, a tax return, a gift, a three pay check month - fund those expenses in the order they are on your list.  So, if you get $400 from doing an odd job for your neighbor, the first $300 might go to your life insurance premium, and the next $100 would go to your real estate taxes.  Transfer that money to your freedom account, and check off on your list what you have funded.  Continue to do this until all your expenses for the year are covered.

Again, I really recommend you do this BEFORE you do anything else with your money.  Before your emergency fund, before your debt reduction.  It will give you peace of mind because a bill will never take you by surprise and ruin you again.

(I think, ideally, your goal will be to adjust your cash flow so that you can eventually do monthly deposits.  This gives you even more peace of mind than the lump sum method, which still relies a little bit on "magic money.")

I keep my freedom fund in an ING Direct account (which isn't called that anymore.  I think it's Capital One 360 now).  When I started doing this, it was one of the highest interest accounts you could find.  It really isn't anymore, but because it's so easy to use I have kept my money there.  If you are interested, I can send you a referral link which will give you an extra $25 when you open your account (and give me a little money too).  You can also search BankRate to find which banks have the highest interest and find an account that way.  I do recommend you put this money in an account that makes you at least a little interest.  If it's just going to sit there, it might as well work for you.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

In which I get free Tasty Kake Kandy Bar Kakes

Let's talk about Tastykakes.

When we lived in Texas, we suffered from severe Tastykake withdrawal.  Every time we went to visit our family in New Jersey, we would come back with boxes of Kandykakes stuffed in our suitcases.  My Mother in Law used to mail them to us.  It's possible we have a problem.

Now that we live on the east coast again and can regularly get them in our grocery store, we don't hoard them anymore, but we do always have a box in our refrigerator.  Right now, I think it's coconut cakes.

So, imagine how excited I was Influenster sent me a free Kandy Bar Kake  try.  Free.  Kandy Kake.  Some of my favorite words right there.

I promised my two year old that we could share it after dinner, but I forgot about it until after she went to bed, which meant I had to wait another day.  (Insert impatient foot tap here.)

We finally ate my Tasty Kake Kandy Bar Kake tonight, split three ways (yeah, yeah, I let my husband have some too).  It was as good as I'd imagined!  It was like a regular peanut butter Kandy Kake but in bar form.  It had a nice creamy center and was much more compact and portable than the traditional two cake package.

I will probably buy these again because, y'know, we have a Tasty Kake problem.  Mmmm, cake.  They regularly sell for $4.49 per family pack, but I am pretty good at spotting sales on them.

I was given this product for free to try from Influenster.  Influenster is a great way to get free products to try if you are a social media maven. If you're not a member, leave your email address and let me refer you!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

100 ways to save on groceries, part 2

11. Know your prices.  At first, you may actually want to keep a price book where you keep track of both the regular price and the best sale price at each of your favorite stores for each of your favorite items.  It's a lot of information to keep track of, but if you don't know the  prices, you won't know whether you're saving. After a while, you will just *know* which sales are rock bottom sales and which aren't.

12.  When something is on "sale," but isn't a rock bottom sale, buy a few of them if you need them, so that you won't have to pay full price, but don't go crazy.  When it is at its lowest price, buy enough to get you through to the next sale this good . . . which could be six months to a year away. (Within reason.  If you have the money and storage space to do this.)

13.  Learn the sales cycles.  Certain items are on sale at certain times of year.  Barbecue items, for example, tend to go on sale at the beginning of the summer and cereal in the fall.  If you can buy enough during these sales periods to get you through the year, you will save a ton.  Most stores also have a 12 week sale cycle.  There will be some kind of sale on a particular item every 3 months or so.

14. Consider shopping at more than one store if you have time.  Most areas have a cheaper and a more expensive grocery store.  The more expensive store will tend to have better loss leaders and promotions, while the other store will have cheaper everyday prices.  If you just buy the sale items at the expensive store, and everything else at the cheaper store, you will save a lot of money.

15.  Try a discount store. Stores like Aldi, Bottom Dollar, or Save-a-lot can save you a bunch of money, particularly on items that don't tend to have coupons, like produce and milk.

16.  Try a warehouse store.  Some items are considerably cheaper at a warehouse store, like Sam's Club or Costco.  Yeast, spices, meat, and bread products come to mind.  Just make sure you know your prices (see above) because not everything is cheaper.  And consider whether you're saving enough to cover your membership costs.

17.  Try the drugstore game.  Rite Aid, Walgreens, and CVS typically have some of the best sale/coupon deals.  Sign up for a membership card at each of them, read a good deal blog (like Money  Saving Mom), and pick up these free or nearly free items every week.

18. Check out Amazon.  With free shipping for subscribe and save products, often you can get a better deal on paper products and certain bulk food items by buying online.

19. Consider buying your cleaning supplies and beauty products at a big box store like Target, but be careful of groceries which are often more expensive, at least than sale prices.

20. Be aware of the coupon policy for each store.  Do they double coupons?  How many of each coupon will they accept?  Can you stack a manufacturer coupon with a store coupon?  (More on coupons next week.)

Monday, April 8, 2013

Spring Clean your Finances: You need a budget

I decided that for spring, I would start a new Monday series on some of the basic truths that I have found about personal finance.  So, I'm starting with what I think to be the core of everything: a budget.

You need  a budget.  In some way, shape, or form.  If you want to make any changes or progress to your current financial situation, you need a budget.

Your budget can take a variety of forms, and I've done many (a book, a sheet of paper, a spreadsheet, Quicken), but at it's most essential it is this:

You need to know how much you intend to spend on each of a variety of categories.  Then you need to spend that much, and only that much.

That's it.  There's no other magic than that.  But if you want any control over where your money is going, if you want to have more left at the end of the month, if you want to have more to save or to spend on areas that are important, you need to sit down and pay attention to it.

So, here's the most basic form of a budget.

Make a list of everything you spend money on in a month.  Do this with your bank statement or credit cards if you want.  Make a list of how much you want to spend on each of those categories.  For non-fixed expenses, this can be based on how much you were previously spending, or it can be an adjustment or goal. Make sure this doesn't add up to more than you make in a month.  If it does, adjust something.  If you have money left over, assign it to something (a saving goal, a loan repayment, a service you'd like to add on).

Then, during the month, you have to check in.  Keep a total of how much you've spent in each category.  You can do this every time you spend, or you can update it weekly.   If you overspend a category (which  you really should only do in an emergency!), adjust something else to make up for it.  The money has to come from somewhere.

That's it. That's the whole budget.  There are software solutions that will do some of the heavy lifting for you (Mint, for instance, is free), but you can do the whole thing yourself with a sheet of notebook paper.

Just do it.

Do you have a budget?  How do you keep track of it?  What strategies do you use for budgeting?

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

100 Ways to Save Money on Groceries, Part 1

When I ask people what they would like to know about money and saving money, the number one response I get every time is, "How can I save money on groceries?"

The thing about groceries is, they are a variable budget item, and for many people they are the only one.  So, if you can't see a way to save on your fixed expenses and bills (and you can, but I'll save that for another day), you can at least see that you can save on your grocery bill.

I'm not an extreme couponer.  I don't feed my family on $10 a week, like some people do.  I am very conscious of what comes into my house and at what price, though, and so I've started to put together a list of ways that you can save money on groceries, even with rising food prices.

  1. Use a list.  Grocery stores are designed to see you things, and if you don't know what you need before you go, you are likely to impulse buy a lot of things that you definitely don't need.
  2. Shop less often.  Along the same lines as above, the less time you spend in the grocery store, the less money you are likely to spend. Try stretching your weekly grocery trips to 10 days, and eventually to 2 weeks sometimes.
  3. Eat less meat.  Perhaps the most expensive items in most weekly grocery trips is meat, moreso if you are committed to buying good, unprocessed meat.  Try to cut back on the amount of meat that you and your family eat.  You can do this by instituting one meatless night a week, or by cutting back on the meat you use in all your recipes. 
  4. Institute a cheap/easy dinner night.  Consider a weekly sandwich night, breakfast for dinner night, or pasta night (or all of the above).  
  5. Plan your meals around the sales.  While I know it's tempting to plan your meals around whatever your friends just posted to Pinterest, it is much more practical to plan your meals around your grocery store's sale cycle, particularly the meat and produce items.
  6. Stockpile pantry and freezer items.  Get in the habit of buying extra of pantry items when they are on sale.  If you buy two jars of mayonnaise or peanut butter when they are $2 each, you can avoid spending $4 on one  later.  If you stay ahead of your pantry stock, you will eventually get to the point where you are never paying full price for any of these things.
  7. Plan meals from your pantry and freezer.  Before you go to the store, always look at what you have first, and plan your meals around that.  This keeps you from buying ingredients, using them in one recipe, and then letting the rest languish for months or years.
  8. Try to avoid brand loyalty.  Particularly for health and beauty items, if you have at least a few different brands you are willing to use, it's much easier to avoid paying full price.  If you are a dedicated stockpiler (see above), this can be temporary until you have enough of your preferred brand saved to get you to the next sale.
  9. Reconsider convenience items.  I'm not telling you to eliminate them completely.  If they keep you from eating out, they are totally worth it.  But think about how much convenience they offer.  For example, instant oatmeal doesn't cook any quicker than regular quick oats in the microwave, and costs more for way fewer servings.
  10. Avoid food waste.  What are you throwing away every week?  Leftovers?  Rotten produce?  Find a way to repurpose these things or stop buying them.  I buy frozen vegetables now because it's cheaper than throwing fresh produce away.