April 13, 2011

Planning to Plan

The worst thing about grocery shopping with a budget is not - as you may suspect - shopping with a toddler. As long as Miss gets to gaze in adoration at the lobsters in the tank, she's fine. Mostly. And Jr just wants to pick up girls, so he doesn't care what we're doing.

No, the worst part is when the flyers come, when there are things you need, when you have a week of meals to plan, a shopping trip the next morning and what feels like a fistful of coupons about to expire.

And - now bear with me, I'm going somewhere - and you just read on a frugal living or couponing blog that someone just bought two weeks worth of groceries for seventy-six cents.


So in my ongoing effort to hoard time when I go back to work and keep trying to save money on groceries - call it my Cheap Life Made Easy Project - I spent some time planning to plan.

And no, I haven't gotten around to unit pricing Cheerios. Mostly because Rhonda is right, and it doesn't matter how much they cost. They. Must. Be. Purchased.

Planning the Menu

I have a two page menu of about forty things that we eat pretty often. Some of them are things Mr cooks (Paella, Shrimp Scampi, and Chicken Corn Soup), and some of them are things that I cook (like Hard Bean Curry and Bland Chicken Soup). Kidding. I kid. My meals are things like Chicken Pot Pie, Pea Soup, and Roasted Red Pepper Pasta.

The menu took me a few minutes over a few days to compile - whenever we thought of anything, really. Kind of like a really big menu for a really big shopping trip. And then it took me another hour to sort by main ingredient, and list any other ingredients that aren't something we'd always have around.

We have pages and pages of recipes we want to try, too. It's not like we're limiting ourselves to only these forty or so things. But at least I won't be wracking my brain for menu items in the car on the way to the store. Otherwise our menu would be:

Saturday: Hot Dogs. Sunday: Hot Dogs. Monday: Hot Dogs...

Organizing the Coupons

My (few) coupons are sorted by category (Food, Baby, Household, and Toiletries), and then by expiry date in a teeny-tiny plastic coupon box that fits nicely in my purse. The box is so small that you might be excused for thinking the "Toiletries" label says "Toilet". Because it does.

I also have a master list of the coupons - on a spreadsheet, natch - that I keep in the front of the box so I have something other than forty-two tiny pieces of loose paper to refer to when I see something on sale at the store. I update it by hand when I use or get a new coupon, and then when I get tired of the messiness I update the spreadsheet and print out a fresh copy.

Organizing the coupons took maybe a half an hour. Finding them is just a matter of subscribing to a few site feeds (Mrs January, Canadian Coupon Mom, Simply Frugal) and checking a few websites (Smart Canucks, webSaver, P&G brandSAVER, GoCoupons) every once in a while for new posts.

Making the List

So now I've got all the back work done, and when the flyers come on Friday I'm prepared.

Obviously, I wait until the kids are in bed before I crack open the newspaper. Or else those flyers are everywhere. Immediately. Especially in Jr's mouth.

And then I go through and circle what I think looks interesting. We make up a menu for the week. I compare the coupon list to what's on sale and what I know we're running low on.

I've even started writing down the sale price next to the list item, since we go to at least two different stores, and I can never remember what the flyer for the other store said. Last week I planned to buy peppers that were on sale for $1.99 each, and found them somewhere else for $1.47 each. They were individually packaged, mind you, and looked like something from Firefly, but they were $0.52 cheaper.

In total, I spent maybe three hours planning to plan, spread out over a couple of days, and a couple of (bad) episodes of The Tudors (seriously, what's with that show? How does pantaloon-wearing translate into sex?)

Maintaining my coupon list might take me five minutes a week. Making my weekly grocery list takes me half an hour a week. More time to spend on important things. (Like experimenting with a different Naan recipe. Or, you know, playing with the kids. Or Mr. Whatever.)

And the best part (other than more time with my kids and husband) is that we'll be eating stuff we like. Not that I don't like hot dogs, mind you. Just maybe not every day.