Sunday, February 28, 2010

Disco fever!

So, last night our local Early Childhood Family Education PTA had its annual family dance fundraiser, and this year they went with a disco theme. Mouse and Jaybird danced, while Bear ran around with another boy his age. ("Why am I always the oldest kid at this thing?" he grouched. He is getting into his preteen persona, I guess.) There was a cupcake walk; each of the kids won a cupcake after a few tries. (Back when I was helping to organize this event, we rigged it so that it was easy to win.) Also, Starling regaled the kids with an interesting story about how she won seven cupcakes at a neighborhood block party in Panama, and sat down to eat them all at once, much to the horror of the adults on hand. (She only ended up eating four.) Then she had to explain to the kids why they couldn't also have four cupcakes in one sitting!
Here are some videos:

Grocery update

Well, since I started on my new strategic shopping program, people have been asking how it's going...and my sister and sister-in-law have hopped on the bandwagon. My sister called me from the parking lot of a store to check in on coupons.... So here's an update, for anyone who is interested.

I've been taking this "grocery shopping as a part-time job" thing pretty seriously. Starling has been raising her eyebrows at all the time I've been investing. One question I get all the time is whether the extra time is worth the effort. I've got the same concern, so last week I sat down and added up all our grocery spending for the months of August, October, and January. It's not completely straightforward, because we do a lot of grocery shopping at Target, and it's possible that there are some non-food/household items (e.g., clothes) in my Target totals. But we don't shop for extras, really, so I don't think that's a big factor. Anyway, our average grocery bill came out to $850, which was a real shocker. I knew we were spending about $120, on average, during our one big grocery shopping each week. I didn't realize how much all those small, in-between shopping trips were adding up, though. Anyway, knowing our average monthly grocery bill is helpful in two ways: first off, it gives me a baseline to start from, so I can measure how effective allour "strategic shopping" is. Second, it is a real motivator to cut down on our regular shopping expenses. Paying that much in groceries is like having a second mortgage.

So during the month of March I am going to keep a running total to see how much I can cut down on that bill. I know I am already saving money. For instance, last week I stocked up on whole wheat spaghetti -- I bought eight packages at 77 cents a package (regularly $1.59), which will save us about $6.40 over the next two months. Same with hot dogs: Julia eats Oscar Meyer turkey hot dogs about every other day for lunch, so I stocked up on them at 50 cents each (regularly $2.99). I also combined a buy one get one free coupon (they call it "BOGO" in strategic shopping circles) with a local store's sale on Purex laundry detergent to get two 50 ounce bottles for $2.88. And I have also begun buying groceries at three different stores, buying stuff at the lowest possible price at each store. I'm only saving a few bucks here, a few bucks there -- but then, "a few bucks here, a few bucks there" on several hundred items is how you end up with a colossal grocery bill. I figure the same principle should work in reverse.

What I don't know is how much all of this work is going to be worth, which is why I am tracking every grocery purchase for the month of March. Depending on how much I save (or, put another way, how much I "earn" per hour of work), I will either continue to invest a few hours a week in this or I will scale back. I will keep you posted.

I am still refining my approach, but here's what I've developed so far:
  • Keep a pricebook. My sister and I have both started to compile a price book. Essentially, you take your receipts and record the price of each item at each store on a chart. In my case, I am recording the prices of everything I buy at five different stores: HyVee, Midtown Foods, Target, Walgreens, and Rochester Wholesale Fruit. I am recording the highest and lowest price for each of the items at Target and HyVee (where most of our shopping happens), and the lowest price at the other stores. Recording the highest price at each of the first two stores will give me a sense of where I can consistently find an item at the lowest price, even if it's not on sale. Recording the lowest sale price (excluding coupons) gives me a sense of what's a really good bargain, so that I can stock up on something if I see it near or below that price. Keeping a pricebook helps me plan a shopping strategy -- but more importantly, it is helping me learn (by heart) what the price range is on every item that we buy regularly. Buying stuff at the lowest possible price and stocking up on stuff when it's fifty percent off or more is where I think we will find our greatest savings. I've already learned: 1) Never buy brand name cereal for more than $2; 2) Never buy meat for more than 99 cents a pound; 3) Never pay for toothpaste (it's "free" at Walgreens every few weeks when you combine sales with coupons and rebates).
  • Planning meals. According to CouponMom, the biggest expense in your grocery bill is impulse items. So I've started planning out every meal for ten days out. It's a hassle, but that makes it possible for me to buy only what we actually need -- plus any staple items that are on sale. I usually do this on Monday and Tuesday, before the grocery sale papers come out on Wednesday. I'll go back and modify the menu if something is deeply discounted, though.
  • Making a grocery list. Once we have a meal plan, I have to go around the house and figure out what we have and what we need. I make a list of everything we need to buy. Then I have to divide that list up across the three or four stores I am shopping at. I divide the list up partially based on the sale prices listed in each store's ads that week. This is where comes in handy. Rather than sorting through all of the sale papers, then checking the sales against coupons in the Sunday paper, then checking against all the online coupons, I just go to the website and pull up the weekly listings for HyVee and Target. She lists everything on sale that week -- including, crucially, the percentage you're saving off the regular price -- and then matches the sales up with any available coupons, either referring you to the relevant Sunday circular or the location of the online coupon. So part of my grocery list is divided up based on who has the better sale prices. No one store has the lowest price consistently (not even WalMart). The rest gets divided up based on the price book -- which store has the lowest regular price on a particular item.
  • Couponing. Even though most people focus on the couponing aspect of this, I don't think it's where the most savings will be. I estimate that we've only saved about $80 or so using coupons in the past two weeks (including store rebates at Target and Walgreens). Rather than cutting coupons every week, I save the sale circulars and then go back and clip the relevant coupons when they're matched by a sale in the database. I'm finding that it pays to save the Sunday circulars for several months in order to combine them with sales, so I now have a box for keeping them. I write the date on the front of each circular in order to find it quickly down the road.
  • Buy only what we need. I have some other "ground rules" in this project. First off, we're not buying anything that we don't normally buy or actually need, no matter how much we might "save" in the process. I'm talking in particular about snack items or discretionary non-food items (body wash, etc.). That's not to say we won't try a new kind of meat if it's on sale, or a different brand of something (bread or yogurt or cereal) -- just that we can't get sucked into buying stuff for the sake of "saving" lots of money.
  • Stay healthy. Second, nutrition and a healthy diet are priorities. We could save bundles by buying sugar cereal or white bread, or by skipping yogurt or fresh fruits and vegetables; we pay a premium for the healthier foods because it's worth it.
  • Stay sane. We could save a lot of money by cutting out discretionary food items, like soda and snacks. But this experiment wouldn't last longer than a week if we did that, so we're not going to go there.
Figuring all this out has been kind of exhausting -- both on the front end, with all the planning, and on the shopping side, since it's meant multiple trips. (It doesn't help that I am totally unfamiliar with our local HyVee and have to learn where everything is.) I'm counting on it getting easier once I have figured out the best use of my time and have a more intuitive sense for where to get the best prices. But if we're able to consistently cut, say, $300 off of that $850 grocery bill, it will be worth it. I'll keep you posted.

p.s. Starling just found a really good program (that my mom told us about) in the Twin Cities called Fare for All. It bills itself as a cooperative food purchasing program. Basically, they purchase groceries at wholesale prices; you buy a subscription to get a package of food every week at 30 - 40 percent off what you'd pay for it in the grocery stores.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Future Olympians

Starling here.

The kids (esp. Bear and Mouse) have really gotten into the Olympics. We got to watch some of it while visiting their grandparents, and we've looked at a few videos online since then. After much internal debate, Bear has decided to train for snowboard halfpipe (a la Shaun White). He was also thinking about speed skating, but we suggested qualifying for one sport was hard enough. To that end, he created a mini-halfpipe on the sidewalk between our snowbanks. It's certainly innovative and worth a few hours of practice (he did learn how to do a 180!).

Mouse initially wanted to do snowboard cross, now seemed interested in figure skating, and did I mention all of them, even Jaybird, were interested in the luge? I mean, where the heck do you find a luge track anyway? For days, they practiced sledding like lugers down the snowhill across the street (parking lot snow. It's a lot safer than it sounds. And once again--creative!).

And they thoughtfully included Mudpuppy in the action by announcing he's got the gold medal in nursing sewn up. Indeed he does. He's 17 lbs 2 oz, as of his four month checkup.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Skating Comes to an End

It's the last Sunday that the Lake Park warming house is open. It is getting to be late February, even if it still feels like January with a foot of snow on the ground and plenty of ice. The kids have all improved over the past few months:

The kids skated for about two hours, and then we went inside and roasted s'mores over the fire in the fireplace . . . a very nice end to the skating season.

Friday, February 12, 2010


Jaybird has taken to exclaiming, "Guacamole!" As in: "Hey. there's only one more day until we visit grandma's. Guacamole!" I think she means "Holy Guacamole," but this is much funnier.

Slideshow of the Kids

Here is the finished slideshow of the kids -- from literally hundreds of photos over several days. Click on a photo to go to a page where you can print it out.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Saving money the new old fashioned way

Between having a new baby, the ongoing salary freeze at Starling's school, and the many deferred maintenance projects around here, we've been racking our brains for ways to make/save money. One of the options on the table has been for one or both of us to get part-time jobs, not a prospect that either of us really relish.

Before we go that route, however, we're going to take a crack at saving money the old fashioned way -- couponing and strategic shopping -- with a new twist. This is something that we haven't really tried before because of the time commitment, but if the choice is between this or going out and finding a part-time job...well, strategic shopping may be time-consuming, but at least it has flexible hours.

This was sparked in part by a friend we know through church. Around these parts she's known as "the Coupon Lady." She's been giving classes on strategic shopping around town, so I asked her to come over to our house for a personal seminar, which she did on Saturday.

One of the things she brought with her was a Walgreen's receipt that she'd gotten the day before. It showed a total amount paid of $1.57. Underneath that, it said, "You saved $60.24." Wow. She also told us about walking out of Target with a cart full to overflowing with stuff that she paid a total of seven cents for. She says that she's reduced her household shopping budget from about $600 a month (for a family of five) to about $250. And she spends about an hour a week planning her shopping. Still, that's pretty good money -- something like four hours to make $350. It's even better when you consider that none of that "salary" is taxed.

She explained that she didn't come up with this stuff on her own -- she basically follows the program laid out by the author of "Top Secrets of the Coupon Mom." This is a former marketing professional turned stay-at-home mom who started a website called The book is full of lots of useful tips, but here's her basic method:
  • Never go shopping without a list, since impulse buying adds substantially to your grocery bill.
  • Keep track of the fluctuations in the prices of the most expensive items in your typical shopping basket (this is called creating a price book). Typically, grocery prices fluctuate. Also, many items go on sale at regular intervals -- typically about every three months. Stock up on items when they're at their lowest price or on sale.
  • Research your store's savings program and take advantage of it.
  • Use coupons to buy items when they're on sale.
  • Be flexible about where you shop and which brands you choose.
She says the typical family can cut their grocery bill in half using this method. (There's a lot more to it than this, but that's the bare outline.)

None of these methods are really "new" -- our parents and grandparents did a lot of this because they were forced to. Most of us don't do this sort of thing anymore because it's so time-consuming. But there's a new twist on all this that makes it easier to do. Basically, you take advantage of the many websites that track store prices and offer online coupons.

At, for instance, you look up the stores you typically shop at. For each store, there's a list of all of the items on sale -- along with information about coupons that can be combined with the sale prices. You put a checkmark in front of every item you want to buy on your next shopping trip, and it will print out a list of all of those sale items; you also get linked to any online coupons, or referred to the location of any print coupons. Since we shop at Target and HyVee for groceries, we'd just check the lists for those stores and be sure to stock up on any items that we normally buy that happen to be on sale.

Two other websites that she pointed out to us are (a community blog where people post the best sales in the Winona area) and (a blog that tracks sales and deals at Target).

Coupon Lady wanred us that it took her a lot longer to get started on all this than an hour a week, which I believe. And I don't expect to cut our shopping bill by as much as she did, in part because I think we're already pretty frugal -- but I'd settle for saving $200 a month (that would be $2,400 a year). That's a third of our grocery bill. Can we do it? I'll let you know. But this morning, I bought ten boxes of Life and Quaker Oatmeal Squares cereal at Target for $2.75 each, about 60 cents less than the normal price. And since Target had a deal where you'd get a $5 gift card for every five boxes you purchase, we got $10 back, effectively reducing the price to $1.75 per box. So we're going to feed our kids breakfast for $17.50 rather than $34 this month, which seems like a good start.

Now, I don't expect

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Jaybird slideshow

Jaybird has such funny and cute expressions (when she's not throwing a tantrum!) that I thought I would try to capture some of them this morning. Fortunately, Jaybird is a ham, so it was no problem doing a twenty-minute photo session. These are some of the better pictures. I hope to do the same with the other kids as well.