Mealtime Struggles Part I – How Coupons and Meal Planning Can Help
So…there once was this girl who was not skilled at cooking, did not know how to save, use coupons or meal plan and as a result the grocery budget just never seemed to go far enough. Can you relate?
During my years as a single mom, mealtime was a source of frustration, disappointment and stress for me. Maybe you can relate. My number one goal was to ensure my kids had food to eat, especially when a few of those years it was an extremely difficult goal to meet.
About six months of my son and I eating nothing but peanut butter sandwiches (my daughter was still on formula) a friend from work stopped by to give us a bed so we no longer had to sleep on the floor. As emotional as I was over the bed, I lost all control when she handed my son a Happy Meal with a cheeseburger in it. His eyes widened in shock and excitement and then I watched him carefully eat every last bite as if he was eating the top filet mignon in town. There was such conflict in wanting the happy meal to last as long as possible while trying to control his desire to eat it as quickly as possible.
But there were huge obstacles in my way. Things like not enough money to make it through the month, not knowing how to budget for meals, not knowing how to cook, use coupons and meal plan. As my income grew slightly over the years, I resorted to fast food or ordering a pizza because it was quick and easy. There was no way I could ruin a fast food dinner and it would allow me to get my kids to their dance or soccer practice and still have time to play with them once we made it back home.
But the downside was that none of us was getting quality, nutritional food and it was seriously wiping out my paycheck. It is certainly convenient but it is so very costly. Just a $20.00 pizza once a week for a month is $80.00 per month! $80 can buy you a good amount of groceries…especially so if you know how to use coupons and utilize the grocery store sales.
Since I never learned the skills I needed to make our lives easier and reduce our stress, I just continued along on this path of uncertainty. Uncertainty of what collection calls I would get tonight, will the water be on, will be playing by candlelight tonight, how will I pay for next month’s dance lessons or birthday party?
Knowing what I know now, there are so many things I could have done differently to drastically improve our lives. I had no one to help me or show me another way. I just thought I could pray to God and if He wanted to help me then He would. And if He did not help me, then this was obviously the punishment I deserved for all the things I had done in my past.
If you feel the same way at times, please understand that God does not work that way. Our God is full of unexpected and undeserving grace and mercy, He forgives and He forgets, He saves….but He does not save you from the consequences of your own actions and choices. He has given us free will so that we will willingly follow Him, willingly have faith in Him, willingly give to others but when we deviate from God’s plan for us and we make our own path full of our own choices then we must accept the consequences for our decisions. Just like we teach our children to accept responsibility for their actions and face the consequences, we must also do the same.
Coupons can be a busy mom or a busy single mom’s best friend. I’m not kidding! To most, coupons appear to be the tedious act of cutting out squares, filing them away and then trying to figure out where it’s at when you need it. I would like to offer you a different way to look at coupons. Let’s say a very generous person gave you $20, $40 or maybe even $100 and told you it is yours to buy groceries with. You would use this free gift, right? This is essentially what coupons are…FREE money to use on groceries and to stretch our grocery budget. Coupons allow you to:
- Save money
- Cut your food budget
- Increase the amount of food you can purchase per pay period.
- And it is not as timing consuming as you would imagine.
- It can be a great family project to do together while instilling some incredible life lessons in your children.
Still think you have not got the time to become a Coupon Queen? Say you spent one hour, with your kiddos I might add, clipping coupons, sorting them, filing and then comparing shopping ads to the coupons you have and developing a weekly menu off of that…one hour, ok? You check out at the grocery store the next day and because of your coupons and utilizing the stores sales with coupons, your total was reduced by $43.00. You basically just made $43 for one hour of work.
That is pretty darn awesome and don’t you think you’re worth $43 an hour? I think you’re totally worth it, my coupon saving mama! Now that was just one week of grocery shopping, save the same amount or more for the next three weeks and you are looking at $172 to use towards additional groceries or to add to your savings account.
Depending on your children’s age, will determine how much help they will be able to offer you. That will be up to you and their skill level but even if they are not quite ready for any of it, at least give them a pair of safety scissors and the coupon inserts you are NOT going to use and allow them to practice cutting them out. They don’t have to know that you’re not going to use those coupons. Maybe you could save those for another mom. It is just important to ensure they feel like they are a helpful contributor to this family and talk with them on the importance of saving, budgeting and the value in using coupons.
And while you’re at it, start asking them what kinds of foods would they like to see on this week’s menu. Or, you can tell them that you have a coupon for hamburger and it also happens to be on sale at the store and then ask them what types of recipes could they come up with for hamburger. Pears are on sale too, can you think of some yummy desserts we could make with pears? Oh, if they could only realize the gift you are giving them at this age! There are many opportunities to get your kids involved. And it allows you to spend time together while making a significant impact on their futures. It can be very, very rewarding!
You do not have to be one of those “extreme coupon ladies”. You can start out by deciding that your goal is just to save on every shopping trip by only shopping for groceries with coupons, dining out with coupons and shopping at stores with coupons. I keep a gallon sized plastic bag in my purse at all times. In it, I keep department store coupons, paper clipped together and restaurant coupons clipped together as well as my purse size coupon organizer, full of grocery coupons. Then I am always prepared for last minute decisions to dine out or run into a store to buy something.
There are many places to find FREE coupons. Your FREE neighborhood newspaper usually has coupon inserts at least once a week. Ask your neighbors, friends and family to save the coupons for you if they are not planning to use them. Print FREE coupons from coupon websites like www.coupon.com. Load digital coupons to your store shoppers cards. Check the backs of your saved receipts for coupons. Request a FREE sample from a company and more then likely you will receive a coupon as well. Check the back of your phone books for store coupons.
Check out the following websites for FREE coupons:
*Many of these sites allow you to print each coupon twice.
Decide on an organization system. I have done the big binder system before…you know you have seen those ladies in the stores and wondered what are they doing? The binder system may work best for you but it was just difficult for me to keep up with. I am all about saving time plus I like to keep it with me in my purse at all times. So I have a small purse size accordion file that I have labeled with the different sections of the grocery store.
While the kids and I are cutting the coupons out, we make a point to immediately sort it a corresponding pile. For example, I have a section labeled “Freezer Foods” so every time we cut out a frozen food coupon we put in a pile with other frozen items. This saves you time from cutting all your coupons, then sorting and then filing. Since you are already sorting, once you clip your last coupon you can immediately grab each pile and file it under the correct tab. We do this very quickly each time the paper arrives so as not to let the coupon inserts build up and to ensure we stay within the expiration dates.
Find your favorite brands online and sign up for their coupons and newsletter which often includes coupons as well. If you do this, I highly recommend creating an email address just for coupons. Look for the grocery stores that will double or triple their coupons. You can also email or write to your favorite companies asking them to please mail you coupons for the products you desire.
Coupons for organic groceries are difficult to find but the following organic foods companies will provide coupons usually by signing up on their website or signing up for their free newsletter:
- Cascadian Farms
- Country Choice
- Dreamfields Pasta
- Earthbound Farm
- Earth Fare
- Earth’s Best
- Horizon Organic
- Imagine Foods
- Kiss My Face
- Organic Valley
- Mambo Sprouts
- Mrs. Meyers
- Seventh Generation
- Simply Organic
- Stonyfield Farms
- Whole Foods
Sign up for the following companies newsletters to receive coupons for FRESH PRODUCE:
- Driscoll’s Berries – has a reward program with something for you on your birthday
- Fresh Express
- Earthbound Farm
STACKING COUPONS: this means using manufacturer coupons with in store coupons. This is a great way to get products for FREE! CVS and Walgreens often have really fantastic coupons on their register receipts. Use these in combination with the manufacturer coupons and your savings really increases! Stack your coupons with a grocery store sale or rebates to save more. Combine a buy-one-get-one free coupon with a buy-one-get-one free sale to get both items for FREE! Many stores will also accept competitors coupons.
There are also websites available that match the coupons that have been mailed out, to the grocery store sale flyers. You pay a small fee each month but it basically does the work for you…the same work I am showing you how to do. I always prefer to do this activity with my children so they are learning while we are spending time together and I am not paying for an extra monthly service. But if you would like to check out a few…
Amazon’s Subscribe & Save: this online service allows you to save between 5-15% on groceries, pet supplies, baby items, household supplies, etc. All shipping is free. By signing up, you agree to an auto delivery program every 1-6 months. You can cancel or skip incoming shipments if you need to but another way to save. Please ensure you read the fine print before signing up just so you know the policies for canceling and skipping shipments.
If you take on this service, it is wise to note in your planner when shipments will be billed to your debit/credit card and when the products are expected to arrive. I would hate for you to experience an overdraft because you forgot the payment was coming out or you just purchased the same products at the grocery store not realizing your shipment would arrive soon.
Saving when dining out: Check your mail. Several times a week we receive free advertisement magazines and envelopes full of coupons to store and restaurants. Once you get them in the mail, immediately sort through them so you can toss the rest in the recycle bin alleviating your clutter. Look for restaurants that offer Kids Eat Free promotions.
Restaurant.com, Groupon, Living Social are all great ways to save when dining out. It takes a little bit of planning first because you must look to see which restaurants in your area are participating, then purchase your certificate. Some restaurants will require a print out of the certificate to hand to your server whereas others will accept the certificate on your smart phone.
Get in the habit of not dining at a restaurant UNLESS you have a coupon or certificate.
Labeling Your Coupon Filing System:
You can label each category as you see fit for you and your family’s needs but this is what I have:
Meats & Produce
Boxed & Canned
Dairy & Refrigerated
Baking & Paper Goods
Cleaning & Household
Health & Beauty
Pets & Baby
Target, Walgreens or other store specific coupons
Then keep all of your restaurant, store and event coupons in a separate envelope within your gallon size baggie. This keeps everything in one place for you for easy access. Or you may prefer keeping your grocery coupons in a binder system. Those are easy to create but just a little bulky. You just need a large sized binder, baseball card holders, sheet protector pages for larger restaurant coupons and tabs you can write on and attach to each section.
So let’s review the initial steps to SUPER easy couponing and then we will add on the rest:
- Decide on an organization system to store your coupons. Label it by sections found in most grocery stores.
- Clip the coupons with the kids help and sort them into piles as you cut each coupon.
- File each pile into its corresponding label.
- Determine which day your grocery store sales flyers arrive and plan to do your menu planning that day or the day after.
- Look through the each store’s sales flyers and circle the foods you are interested in purchasing.
- Check through your file for matching coupons. And as you locate them set them off to the side, in their own special pile. As you go through the coupons in your organization system, look for expired coupons and set the expired coupons in a separate pile to throw away. Your savings is always greater when you are able to match big sale discounts with additional coupon discounts. Some items you can get for FREE this way or next to nothing. If you have multiple of the same coupon, then this would be the time to stock up on that item based on your budget and especially if they are on sale. As you develop more of a stock pile of foods, you can then turn your dollars towards other items each month.
- Use the Menu Planning and Shopping List Worksheet below.
** If you sign up for my newsletter I can email you this spreadsheet to print and use.
Menu Planning and Shopping List Worksheet instructions:
- I created the Menu Planning and Shopping List worksheet to make the process as simple as possible for busy moms and busy single moms. Fill in the blanks with the items you plan to purchase under each category and check the box next to it if you have a coupon for that particular food. If it is an electronic coupon, then put the letter “E” in the box labeled Elect. or Paper? If it is a paper coupon put a “P” in the box.
- In the bottom left corner labeled “Budget”, enter the amount budgeted for groceries this week. ONLY bring that amount in cash, in an envelope labeled “Grocery”.
- Use the products you will be purchasing through the store sales and coupons to build up your menu for the next two weeks. Search cookbooks and online recipes for foods with those ingredients; write them into the corresponding day on the far left side of the worksheet. From those recipes add any additional ingredients you may need to the “Shopping List” section. For example, say there is a big sale on pasta noodles and shredded cheese. You have circled them in the grocery store’s flyer and then searched your coupons for a match. A match was found so you definitely want to purchase these items and use them to build your menu. You decide that Monday night’s dinner will be homemade mac n’ cheese. You cook extra for lunch the next day at work and while you’re at it you cook extra noodles for another dish the next night…maybe spaghetti casserole? Canned tomatoes, beans and hamburger meat are all on sale. Plus you have coupons for both of the canned goods. All three products are added to your grocery list and from those items you decide on chili one night this week with the leftover chili used the next day on some bake potatoes and then create creamy tomato soup for the weekend with the additional canned tomatoes you purchased. It will get so easy and fun for the kids to be able to see what is planned for the night and it can spark their creativity by asking them what new and exciting meals can be made with our leftovers?
- It is also wise to keep your Menu Planning and Shopping List near or attached to the pantry or refrigerator, so as you run out of a necessity you can immediately write it on the list.
- As you grocery shop, check off each box to the left of the item as you place it in the cart. Before moving on, round up the price of the item and write it in the “Price” box. I prefer not to calculate the coupon savings into my rounded up price for each food item, just in case a certain coupon does not work. This way I always stay within my budget, I have the cash to pay for it and I am left with extra money that week for additional groceries because of my coupon and store sale savings. You can also keep a running tally of your cost to the side of the worksheet and bring a calculator if that helps as well. Or you can take the left over cash you saved from your coupons and store sale savings and put it straight into your savings account.
- Before you check out, ensure you have your electronic coupons uploaded to your store shopper cards. Count your paper coupons and enter that number in the section labeled “Total # of Paper Coupons” at the bottom right side of the worksheet. Then tally up your prices and enter that dollar amount in the bottom right sections labeled “Estimated Price Total”. There have been many times when I check out and hand the clerk my coupons and it does not match the number of coupons on the receipt. This usually means one was stuck to another or the clerk just overlooked it. By knowing how many coupons you have, you can simply inform the clerk that he/she is missing one or two and to please check.
This seems a bit time consuming at first but it will get easier and faster each time you do it. Coupons really can have a significant impact on your grocery budget. Be proud of being a frugal shopper – you are stretching those dollars and you will start to see that it is fun to see your savings (FREE money) on your receipt! Shopping frugally can take some time at first but it is one of the best and easiest ways to save money and cut costs. And that is what we are looking for, right?
PART II will cover additional points to remember at the grocery store to save money.
If you found this helpful, would you mind sharing with other moms who could benefit from it? I would be so grateful! I would also love to hear from you! What are your mealtime struggles? Do you have any questions about couponing and menu planning?