Monday, February 27, 2012

The Best of Birthdays

I was lucky this year (as in some other years), my birthday happened to fall on a long weekend - Family Day in Ontario. I can honestly say that this was my best birthday yet. It didn't cost a ton of money and there was nothing particularly extravagant about it, just a bunch of little things that made it perfect. Looking back at my daily highlights journal, here is what transpired:

The weekend before my birthday, I was able to go out to a nice restaurant for a celebratory dinner with one of my girlfriends' from university who has a birthday close to mine. It was so nice to have adult conversation.

The day before my birthday I went begrudgingly to renew my drivers licence ($75), vehicle registration ($74), and health card (free!). As a birthday gift the Ontario government likes to make you fork over money - only once every so many years for the licence renewal but every year on your birthday for the vehicle registration and since we drive older vehicles once every other year we have to get an emissions test. As if paying the money isn't enough, usually you have to endure long line ups. Although I still had to pay this year, I went at 9am on a Friday morning and surprisingly didn't have to wait and got all three things done in under 10 minutes. This put me in a good mood for the rest of the day. I know when I'll be going next year!

On my actual birthday, R was home which was a treat. He has been working over-time most Saturdays. N slept through the night (very rare) so I woke up at 7am to a big happy birthday from B and a morning cuddle. B even said "can we cuddle a little while longer before we go downstairs" (an even rarer occurrence). Then, R rounded up the kiddos and took them out so I had the house to myself to enjoy some quiet time. This also doesn't happen often so after about an hour had passed I got bored and started waiting for them to come home. They came back baring gifts. A $10 Starbucks gift card from the boys and a $30 Chapters gift card from R. Both gifts were perfect.

Later on, I took B out for lunch and skating. This was our third time going and he was able to skate half the length of the rink on his own. While B and I were out, we picked up some board games on sale - Trouble, Checkers/Chess, and Connect 4. While the boys were napping in the afternoon, R and I played a game of checkers which was a lot of fun. My sister had originally offered to come watch the boys so we could go out that night but ended up being quite sick so we changed our plans and opted for BBQ dinner.There's nothing like BBQ in the middle of winter. Makes is taste even better. R took the boys out to get propane and groceries so I was left alone again for an hour or so. When he got back, he made dinner for us. It was delicious. Then we put the boys to bed and enjoyed dinner and a pay per view movie.

The next day, R took B to the ski hill to teach him how to ski and I spent the morning with N. In the afternoon I went out to the mall on my own and got a much over due eyebrow wax. For whatever reason just this little thing makes me feel so much better. I also did a bit of Easter shopping and enjoyed a tea at Starbucks and did some readings for school. When I got home, my sister was there and R was making dinner. All of us ate dinner and then R and I went off to the movies to see This Means War which we both enjoyed.

Now I have to start thinking about R's birthday in March and then B's in April and N's in May!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Cutting the grocery bill without cutting healthy choices and variety

Below are some of the methods that we have adopted over the past few years to save money on our grocery bill without giving up variety and healthy choices. No two families are alike in preferences or dynamics. In many families, those who do the cooking may not have time to cook complex meals and therefore may resort to far more convenience foods out of necessity. All of these methods fit in with our lifestyle.

Meal planning – basing meals around ingredients in the cupboard well as meals with complimentary ingredients and items that are on sale. However, I don’t get too specific with my meals. Instead of specifying the exact meal, I might say poultry, starch, green veggie. This means that when I get to the grocery store I can select the green vegetable that is on sale and/or in season. Same with the cut of meat.   

Batch cooking – for freezing and leftovers. I always plan at least one meal each week to be a meal that I can freeze for a future date. Freezer meals usually work well for nights where DH prepares dinner. Lunches are usually left overs. We like to get creative with left overs such as using leftover chicken for salads or in another meal. One night/week we also have simple dinners like soup or spaghetti.

Shopping alone. I realize this is not always possible – thankfully it usually is for me. My kids can be distracting which means I may or may not be referring to my list and the toddler can sometimes be pushy. I also try to avoid shopping when I am hungry – for me, this leads to major impulse buys like an overabundance of beverages when I’m thirsty.

Do away with convenience and processed foods. This is win-win because it saves on money and health but can be a hard one with busy schedules and kids. Every family has their exceptions. Ours is pop. DH enjoys pop. For this, I buy name brand when it is on sale. Otherwise, he is okay with generic. If you have dietary constraints, this can be especially difficult. In these cases you can save by opting for items that are naturally allergen-free as opposed to their pricy alternatives.

Making variety trade-offs for..variety. One type of crackers will suffice. As will one type of cereal, juice, salad dressing, and cheese. I like to optimize by choosing products that are versatile. I usually won’t buy things like goldfish crackers except on the rare occasion where they are on sale, I’m shopping with the pushy toddler, and we already have crackers, since they aren’t very versatile. Same with condiments like barbeque sauce – we don’t buy it. If we use it, we make it homemade. I am quite sensitive to caffeine but instead of buying two different kinds of coffee – I pour myself half a cup and add some boiling water. Sticking to this rule, we have also been able to splurge on some items like Heinz ketchup and Kicking Horse Coffee.

Price matching. I look at all the flyers ahead of time. The trick to this is that I only look for items on sale that I usually buy. I will then circle the items on the flyer to save time at the cash register. I also save all the price match items until the end so that they don’t accidentally get rung through before I get my flyers out.

Reduced portions. With regard to meat, I try to do some meatless meals. I buy all my meat from a local butcher which allows us to buy lesser quantities and therefore have more variety. We also don’t eat large portions of meat. Standard cuts are usually far larger than a healthy portion. Therefore, we usually opt for smaller cuts or larger cuts which we then split. Bone-in is usually cheapest so we tend to get these cuts and de-bone them ourselves – easy and not too time consuming. Since B is only 3, we often just get two portions and give him some of ours. (Sidenote: we save a lot of money by doing this on rare occasions where we eat out). I’ve also found that if I am making things like casseroles, stews, or sauces, I can get away with using less meat and substituting with more veggies, grains etc. On the same note, I try to buy smaller items in general. This goes hand in hand with portion control. If you are buying by weight for things like fruit and veggies, I like to buy smaller items like apples, cabbages, etc. Same goes for eggs. Small or medium-sized eggs are often cheaper than the standard large eggs.   

On the other side, things like dog food, ketchup, or toilet paper I buy in large quantities and when they are on sale. For personal hygiene items, DH and I share things like shampoo and toothpaste so I buy one brand and usually in large quantities.

Leaving some room in our grocery budget has also been essential for us. This means that we can take advantage of unadvertised sales or minimal indulgent purchases without blowing the budget. Making compromises where you might be relatively indifferent such as generic applesauce over name brand allows for the ability to allocate more money to the things that do matter to you such as fair-trade organic coffee. Since we don’t eat out a lot, we usually allow for one “extravagant” meal/week where we may pay a little more. Another alternative we’ve discovered is the prepared food section of the grocery store. If you’re in a crunch you can often pick up a pizza or family dinner at a fraction of the price of a restaurant! 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Goal Love

I am determined to stick to the goals I set for myself for this year. Several other bloggers I follow do a monthly check-in with what they have accomplished over the month and what they hope to accomplish in the coming month. I thought I'd do a one and a half month check in and just focus on the progress I have made toward my goals. We don't really celebrate V-Day around these parts since we try to love and show appreciation all 365 days (and buying more stuff isn't in the budget) so I apologize for the unrelated post. 

  • Continue to eliminate clutter from our lives and improve our financial security.
    • 3 bags of clothes donated!
    • Recovered from the Christmas financial slump - besides all the costs associated with the holiday, DH also had an unpaid week off work
    • Applied for a sweet job (fingers crossed) timing would be perfect and it is in my field!

  • Continue to find meaningful ways to give back to my community. 
    • From the above clothing, I did set aside a bag of more current/good condition clothing for the local women's shelter. Although donation is always seen as good, I think it is important to ensure that donations are going to those who need them most.  
    • As I mentioned in the previous post, I did take that lactation consultant course (at a student rate), I also went for an interview and will start volunteering in March with a local organization that supports young parents. 

  • Immerse myself in my thesis research and give it my all. 
    • I have really starting to narrow down my research proposal. It has been difficult since I have such a heavy course load for grad school this semester. 

  • Cherish the little things 
    • I am still keeping my daily highlights journal. I don't write every day (maybe every 2-3) but I do have an entry for each day and therefore also reflect back on highlights when I have to retroactively fill in dates. I find this therapeutic. 

  • Act on the fact that "life is short". 
    • My best friend K moved last year to Edmonton, Alberta to be closer to her boyfriend who is working out there. Usually she is surrounded by many friends to celebrate her birthdays but since most of her friends are back here, I figured she'd be missing the usual festivities. I scrounged up some photos from birthday parties past, got B to make her a card complete with stickers and scribbles, and we strung her name onto a string with a bead kit I had kicking around. It was fun and she had no idea since we asked her boyfriend for her address.
    • One of my girlfriends sent out an invite to a ladies only better sex workshop. Usually I say no to these kind of outings... you know.. kids... family, life. But after looking through old photos for my project above and realizing how much fun I used to be, I committed to go. Besides.. it will be fun to meet new people. Ladies night here I come!

Someone else in this house is also working hard at something: