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Try to contain your excitement, people, for today is the day I reveal the super secret and fantastic menu planning methodology I’ve been hinting at for a while, but never explained, and also that I filched off of Simple Mom. If you don’t know about Simple Mom already, I highly recommend her site for the home organizational stuff she has in her archives. She’s got a bunch of stuff that will help you run your house like Martha Stewart on crank. I digress.

Anyway, I read about how Simple Mom does her menu planning months and months ago, and though I thought it was a fantastic idea I was way too lazy to implement it for, like six months. Then, about a month ago I finally did it, and though it was kind of time consuming to do, I’m glad now that I did it because everything’s all organized for like the next year and all I have to do is look at the plan each week to see what I need to get at the store(s). I should note that Simple Mom shows you how to plan for every meal, but I only do dinner because everybody is in different places for the other meals, so it’s not worth it for me to cook.

OK, so here’s what you do:

  1. If you are not already a member, sign up for delicious and create an online cookbook. Delicious is a bookmarking site that you can use to keep track of recipes you find online, as well as tag them by ingredient. Why does this matter? Well, say you need to make dinner and you have only a few ingredients in your refrigerator–all you have to do is input those ingredients and delicious will find recipes that use them together (provided your recipe collection is extensive enough). Simple Mom talks about how she created her online cookbook here if you’d like to have more explanation.
  2. [singlepic=19,320,240,,right]

  3. If you don’t have a google account, reasess your life open one and get into Google Calendar. If you don’t already use Google Calendar, you should note that you can create as many calendars as you want: I’ve got one for me, one for Mini, and one labelled “Menu Plan.” A way to keep track of how many meals you have to plan is to look at your calendar for events and cross-check it for days you will be out (or whatever) and don’t need to make a menu plan.
  4. Open your delicious cookbook. Locate the recipes you want to use and click on the link to the recipe. Copy the URL.
  5. Open Google Calendar and in another tab and set it to monthly view. Now that you have a recipe you want to use, click on the day you want to make it. After clicking, you can enter the name of the meal, tell Google Calendar it’s for the “Menu Plan” calendar, and then go to “edit event View definition in a new window details.” Paste the URL to the recipe in the notes box, in case you need to refer to it later.
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  7. Under “repeats” on the “edit event details” window, choose “monthly.” Actually, you can choose whatever time increment you want, but I use monthly because I don’t want to repeat recipes more than once a month. You can do it every two weeks or whatever works for your family and your cooking expertise.
  8. Under “reminder” choose to have reminders sent as needed. Generally, I don’t have reminders sent to me unless there is something special I need to do ahead of time for a particular dish. For example, there is a dish that requires me to soak beans for 12 hours before I cook them, so I send a reminder to myself about this the day before cooking Italian White Beans With Pancetta.

And that, my friends, is basically it! I repeat once a month, so there’s no more planning involved unless we decide to rotate a recipe in or out of the plan, which can be done by hand. Also, if you want to change what you’re having one night, but not permanently, then you can “edit event” and choose “this instance only” so that the rest of the calendar is not affected. The best part, though, of this plan is that I sent the link to Mr. Right-Click, so he can look each day to see what’s on the menu. That way, if there’s an objection or he just doesn’t feel like eating whatever is on the menu that day, he can let me know ahead of time.

Grocery Budget Confessional

by anna on April 14, 2009

People, I have a dirty secret to share. I can only hope that you won’t look at me differently after this. So, here it is: my grocery budget, for a family of 3, is over $1000 a month.

I KNOW! I KNOW! Does it make it any better if I tell you that things like soap, shampoo, conditioner, baby stuff (diapers, etc.) are included in this figure?

I read that people on the Dave Ramsey forums advocate budgeting $100/month for each person in the family. Using this theory, I should be spending $300/month on groceries, which I find laughable. Laughable, I say. Now, it is possible that the cost of living is not the same, but one big grocery trip for me is over $300 sometimes. One trip! And I’ve already explained that I cannot get everything we need at one store. So obviously, I’m not only not meeting that goal, I’m going way, way over it. Even if we adjust for California/Los Angeles prices, I would guess they’d say no more than $500/month, right?

The truth is that I’ve gotten lazy, and this is a big part of why we spend so much. I did start menu planning, by the way, and this is cutting down on how much waste we have in our refrigerator, which makes me very proud. I feel like a grownup whenever I crack open a leftovers container for lunch. And I should say that Mr. Right-Click’s affection for red meat probably makes our grocery bill slightly higher–I don’t think this is something that is negotiable, so I’ve accepted it and moved on.

But what about the rest? Where is the money going? Well, I’ve noted a few things, and I thought we’d go through them and see where I can change and where I’m going to have to just accept things as they are.

Where Does My Grocery Budget Go?

  1. Bristol Farms trips on weekends. If you are not familiar with Bristol Farms, good. Don’t ever go there. Since we’ve had Mini, Mr. Right-Click and I don’t go out to eat as much as we used to. On Saturday nights, a lot of times we will go to Bristol Farms and get some kind of ready-made dinner that’s not quite restaurant quality, but probably better than you’d get through delivery. Bristol Farms is ridiculously expensive. With the exception of some spicy tuna salad bowls we get there, I could probably cut them out for everything except meat if I just menu planned for the weekend, but I never feel like cooking on the weekend. This is another one of my lazy issues.
  2. Mini’s food. I try to get Mini to eat whatever I’ve made for dinner each night. Most of the food I make is stuff that’s not totally out of the realm of reason for him to eat, but he rarely eats it. As a result, I end up making him a grilled cheese sandwich, or a mac and cheese dinner (frozen or otherwise ready-made), sometimes a quesadilla. Yes, I’m aware my son should eat more than bread products mixed with cheese. I invite you to suggest that to him next time you see him, and see how it goes over. Anyway, we have a bunch of ready made foods for Mini because he just doesn’t eat the stuff I make. He also gets stuff like goldfish and snack foods that probably frugality people and/or hardcore whole food people would be aghast at. We don’t give him cookies or sweets on a regular basis, but he’s a kid with a crazy metabolism, so I feel like (within reason) now is his time to enjoy the occasional treat. Unfortunately, treats are expensive. And if I make them myself, Mr. Right-Click and I will eat them, which is BAD NEWS.
  3. Juice and Milk. Mini loves juice. During the day, he drinks mostly water, but at night and in the morning he will have milk and juice. And he drinks a lot. I think the only way to cut down on this budget would be to switch to non-organic milk (not a great idea) and maybe mix frozen juice instead of buying big bottles and juice boxes?
  4. Drinks for Me and Mr. Right-Click. I am sad to say this is where a lot of our grocery money goes these days. I have a ridiculous diet coke habit, and it “has” to be diet coke. Mr. Right-Click drinks diet sprite and these new drinks by Sobe that are sweetened with Stevia, so perhaps slightly healthier, but also more expensive. If we would both drink water, I think we could cut out like $40 per trip to Pavillions. But the prospect of that depresses me beyond belief.
  5. Other processed foods. We also get things like Weight Watchers Ice Cream bars, which are not prohibitively expensive, but which definitely run up the bill quite a bit when you consider they are not a necessity. Other things include: South Beach Diet Bars, Slim Fast Shakes, Nutri-Grain bars, etc. These items fluctuate from week-to-week, but they always end up in the cart.

Now, what do you guys think? Where should I cut? To a certain degree, I do feel my hands are tied with some of these things, since it’s not just me who has to make changes. I’m not sure I can demand that Mr. Right-Click and Mini give up what they like just because I feel like we’re spending too much at the grocery store. On the other hand, we have a lot of things we buy that are more expensive than they need to be. What is a reasonable amount to spend on groceries, per person? Do you think it matters where in the country you live?

I read somewhere that Suze Orman is the blue state version of Dave Ramsey–I’m pretty sure I read that and didn’t make it up myself, I should say. And I do think this is superficially true: Suze is a woman, she’s self-made, she’s a lesbian, and is presumably more liberal in a social sense than is Dave Ramsey, who is an evangelical Christian from Tennessee.

So why is it, I wonder, that I like and respect Dave Ramsey and cannot stand Suze? I think it has something to do with this: Suze’s message seems to be always in flux, and negotiable based upon her own best interest. There is something about her that does not ring true to me. This is all on an unconscious level, mind you: I have no real proof that she’s disingenuous. Well, unless you count her claim that she has always “encouraged people to get out of credit card debt” and its contrast to the promotional deals with various credit card companies that she has signed. Which, by the way? Sucks. But that’s just the thing–she says that she’s been encouraging people to get out of credit card debt, but really what she has been doing for as long as I can remember is to encourage people “use credit responsibly.” Maybe this is hairsplitting, but I don’t consider this to be the same thing. It’s like telling an alcoholic to just try to start drinking responsibly–if people who have credit card debt could do that, let me assure you they would already be doing this!

Yes, I am starting to ramble about this, and where’s the damn list, anyway? Look, the bottom line is: Dave Ramsey stands for a lot of things that I don’t like. He voted for Bush, probably would a million more times if he could. He says things like “don’t you mean Social InSecurity?” and “Certificates of Depression.” He once had to have it explained to him why a caller using the phrase “Jew you down” might be considered offensive. But, with Dave Ramsey, I get the feeling that these things have more to do with being sheltered than true bigotry, or willful ignorance. There is always a sense with him, that whatever the topic, he is willing to hear the other side, and that he is true to his own beliefs. Somehow, that rings more true to me, even if I don’t agree with the beliefs themselves.

So, Suze has become Oprah’s go-to financial person of late, and last week she was on the show pushing her “new” five reseccion rescue rules. As usual, the rules are stupid and should be pretty intuitive to anyone with their head out of the sand. But let’s go over them anyway:

  1. Live on half. To illustrate this point, Suze told the audience they needed to start living on half their income and banking the other half. For people with two incomes, this hardly news. It was hardly news six years ago when Elizabeth Warren published The Two-Income Trap. I think it is about two decades too late for this advice, by the way, because if you have been living on two incomes for any amount of time, chances are that you have a mortgage that reflects this. Cutting down to one income can be done in some cases, but it is tricky. The people who need a rescue from the recession are probably well beyond this point. What about the people who keep losing their jobs? Should they bank half of their (already halved) unemployment checks? What about food stamps? Bank half?

  2. Stash your cash. This point had the unique effect of being both too literal and too vague. Suze never explained if by “stash your cash” she meant to literally stash it–like put it in my mattress, or if keeping it in my (hopefully not going to fail) bank is OK. Among the other things mentioned on this topic was Suze’s revolutionary “new advice” on handling credit card debt (only make minimum payments) so you can bank a larger emergency fund. Hmm. Where have I heard that before? Oh yeah, Dave Ramsey. Huh.

  3. Make the Stimulus Package Work For You. This part was more useful than most of the rest of the show, as Suze explained the benefits available for COBRA reimbursements, tax credits for homebuyers, and tax credit for buyers of new cars. None of the information was new, but putting it on Oprah ensures that more people will take advantage of it. So I liked this section.

  4. Make your home affordable. Here, Suze goes over the loan modification programs offered for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgage holders. This is not earth shaking news, but I suppose it’s good to get the word out for those few people who might be able to avoid foreclosure through these programs and have been living under a rock for the last four months.

  5. Look at What You Have, Not What You Had Of all the recycled and appropriated advice on the show, I have to say this was my favorite section by far. During this section, Suze admonished us for not wanting what we have and focusing on what we have lost in the stock market crash. OK fine, a little trite but OK. I’ll accept Suze telling me, poster child for agnosticism, to “have faith” that “God does things for a reason,” even if it all feels a little contrived. But the best part was when they featured a little video segment on a pastor and his wife who had lived beneath their means for years, and lost so much in the stock market crash that they now fear that they will outlive their savings. Instead of giving valuable advice to the next generation–like, say, you shouldn’t have more than like 5% of your assets in the market if you’re in retirement or very close to it, for example–Suze busts out with the “God doesn’t give us anything we cannot handle,” crap *to a pastor* who has *not been living above his means* and enumerates his “mistakes” in not having faith. RICH. Even the poor pastor was like, “Uh, yeah, my faith is fine, I’m more worried about outliving my savings . . .” If it had been me, I would have said, “you smug dumbass” to the end of that sentence.

To be perfectly honest, I think I would like Suze Orman better if she didn’t make these crazy overarching claims for herself, like when she appears on the cover of Time saying, “I told you so” about the financial meltdown. Oh really? Nobody else realized that living on credit cards was a bad plan, Suze? Nobody else predicted that housing prices were inflated beyond any kind of market supportability? That was all you, huh? I just don’t like smug attitude.

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