To Buy In Bulk: Long-Term Meal Planning

Yesterday, I announced my newest plan: to create and rely on a frugal pantry. Now, I realize that I need to get serious about this and figure out how to put it all into action. Loosely, here are my “rules” for the project:

  1. Shop for non-perishable food once every three months.
  2. Rely on fresh, local produce as much as possible.
  3. Can and preserve as much as possible to use when fresh produce is not available (typically late November through early April for us).
  4. Shop bi-weekly for milk, cheese, meat, and tolietries, stockpiling on sales and using coupons.

I’m excited about this approach because I think it will simplify my life.  I’ll rely on the farmer’s market for fresh produce while it’s open.  Then, we’ll use what we’ve stored when the markets are closed.  Instead of doing a whole big trip to the grocery store once a week, I can narrow it down to a few aisles every other week.  Also, once I get a list going, I think the bulk shop will be easy as well.  I may even try do to some of it online.  I’ve decided to do my first major bulk shop in a couple of weeks, so I’m planning for food to last us through October, November, and December.  I realize that this will include the holidays, so I may have to break some of my rules in December.  I’ll try not to be too rigid, but I’m hoping that by setting some limits about when I can go to the store, we can be more creative about using what we have at home. 

The first challenge is to figure out what I actually need to buy to last us three months.  We’ll start with dinners.  I plan meals fairly loosely by “night.”  Here’s the whole list of possiblities:

  1. Soup night 
  2. Salad night 
  3. Meat, starch, and side night
  4. Pasta or stir-fry night
  5. Mexican or cheese night (crepes or souffle, for example)
  6. Pizza night or night out
  7. Leftover/wild card night
by f10n4

by f10n4

As you can see, this gets me through the week.  What I like about the system is that it is easy to rotate without getting boring.  At first, I made Monday night soup night, etc.  Now, I find it easier to just keep tabs in my head.  By Thursday, if we haven’t had soup, that will be soup night.  That said, we do keep Friday as pizza or going-out night.  By the end of the week, I’m too tired to do much else!  As for the rest, one week, we’ll have something Mexican.  The next week, it’s a cheese-based dish.  One week, we’ll have pasta and the next week we have stir-fry.  By sticking to type, it’s also much easier to eat seasonally.  For example, the salads change from spring greens and asparagus to tomatoes, feta, and basil, to spinach, apples, goat cheese and nuts.  (We do “cheat” and buy organic spinach in the winter so that the husband can gets the greens he loves.  I know, I’m lucky to have a husband who loves greens!)

For other meals, it is pretty easy.  The husband skips breakfast, but has cereal for a late-night snack, so I’ll need a supply of that.  I eat yogurt, cereal, oatmeal, or granola bars.  We have the kids every other weekend, and they like cereal, oatmeal, eggs, or pancakes.  For lunch, we often eat leftovers or sandwiches.  For snacks, we have string cheese, tortilla chips, crackers and cheese, and nuts.  So, all of the non-perishables for those things will need to go into the bulk shop.  We try to keep “junk food” out of the house.  If I really crave potato chips, I have to buy a small bag out of my cash allowance.

Now, I’m hoping to make as much as I can from scratch.  Ideally, espcecially as we move into the fall, I can have a baking day to do bread, crackers, and maybe granola bars.  I’d really like to whittle down the processed food that we buy.  Some weeks, I’m too busy for a baking day, but that’s what I’m going to aim for. 

For my bulk shop, I know that I need the staples for 6 pasta meals, 6 sir-frys, 12 salads, 12 soups, 12 “meat/fish+starch” meals, 6 Mexican meals, 6 cheesey dinners, and 6 pizzas.  I’ll also need a supply of oatmeal, nuts, and baking ingredients.  Now, I feel like I can start pulling together a shopping list!


My Frugal Pantry

Now that the wedding is over, I need a new project!  I’ve decided to research, design, and create the perfect frugal pantry for my family.  Over the summer, some of my “fun” reading including re-visiting the Little House on the Prairie series.  Now, as a child of the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was immersed in all things Laura Ingalls.  I read the books repeatedly and watched the TV series after school.  I even had my own sunbonnet and apron and was known to cover the swing set with my  mom’s sheets to simulate a covered wagon.  Not to mention that growing up in Missouri meant we were near her “Rocky Ridge” farm and a theme park that cashed in on nineteenth-century nostalgia.  On more than one occasion, I cursed my fate that I hadn’t been born a hundred years before.  

by combusean

by combusean

Now with the whole “urban homesteading” movement, I can live out my fantasies through my pantry.  I hope to revive the lost art of storing and wisely managing food over a long period of time.  Reading the Little House books again, I found Farmer Boy to be one of my favorites.  I forgot that part of what made those books so compelling was the level of detail Wilder includes about process.  It was easy to track what the family grew, stored, and ate throughout the year.  One of my favorite scenes was when the parents went to town for a week and left the kids to fend for themselves.  Of course, they binged on ice cream and sweets and were embarrassed by all the sugar they used by the week’s end.  In some ways, I feel like we’ve gone through a similar binge.  Now that I realize that local, honestly grown food makes me happiest, I’m pleased to put aside all the processed, manufactured food, just as the kids were happy to go back to healthy food after a week of ice cream.



I think this is a great season to start my frugal pantry because there’s so much to harvest and put up. I’ll track what I’m canning and freezing and hope that it will last us through the winter.  I plan to still use my own variation of the “Grocery Game” to stockpile toiletries, but I want to start buying beans, rice, grains, flour, baking supplies, and soup supplies in bulk.  My goal is to have a three-months supply of healthy food on hand that my family would actually eat.  Ideally, I’ll shop for bulk supplies four times each year.  Then, at bi-weekly trips to the grocery store, I’ll stock up on meat and cheese that’s on sale, get toiletries on sale, and buy the few perishables that I can’t get in bulk, like milk and spinach.  In the summers, I’ll buy extra produce to preserve so that I don’t need as much in the winter.  I also plan to build a nice repertoire of easy-to-cook meals that we can eat out of our pantry.  I like the self-sufficiency of the whole project, but I also like several bloggers’ suggestions that this contributes to the emergency fund.

Over the course of the year, we’ll track how much I spend and save on groceries.  Right now, I budget $100 a month for a case of wine and $400 a month for groceries, plus I spend a little extra at the farmers’ market in the summer, maybe $80 a month.  So, that gives me $5040 a year.  I’m going to plan $300 a quarter for bulk supplies and reduce my bi-weekly budget to $125, plus more in the summer for the farmers’ market. 

Now, my goal will be to at least stay on budget, but of course, I really hope that this will actually save us money.  I plan to use the old snowflaking approach here.  This time, though, I’ll decide what to do with the saved money next October.  Perhaps we can use it for gourmet foods during the upcoming year?  Or a foodie vacation?  Or monthly meals in new restaurants?  Since we can already afford our food budget, I don’t want this money to get lost in general savings.  Instead, it should definitely go to food-related treats!  What do you think?  Do any of you buy in bulk now?

Back to Basics: Renew Your Intentions

This is the final post in a series on the three R’s of debt reduction. Read the introduction here. Learn how reflection can help here.  Read about replacing bad habits here.  Today, I examine how success stems from a constant process of renewal.

Renew Your Enthusiasim

Unlike running up charges on your credit cards, paying down your debt is a lot longer process and can be a lot less fun.  There are no wild shoppping sprees, no extravagent feelings of glee at buying something “forbidden.”  Instead, day after day, you have to tell yourself, “I won’t go into debt.”  “I will stick to my budget.”  “I will make do with less.” 

by Petteri Sulonen

by Petteri Sulonen

All that resolve can make for some tough going. So many times in the past, I’d set a goal and make a plan to pay off my cards.  Then something would come up; I’d give in to the impulse to charge, and I’d be back at square one.  When I moved from DC to Ohio, I totally planned to pay off my cards and start my new job free of credit-card debt.  However, I spent a couple of lonely weeks trying to make my new apartment feel cozy.  That involved almost-daily trips to Target for a shower curtain, or a new rug, or a new lamp.  Still, I thought I could make a few charges and still keep things under control.  Then, I discoverd that we wouldn’t get paid for another month due to how the university constructed our contracts.  Suddenly, the savings that I planned to use to pay off my debt had to go toward living expenses, and I had all these silly charges racked up as well.  So much for that plan!

by Joe Shlabotnik

by Joe Shlabotnik

In March, I started a new plan, and this time, I WAS able to stick to my plan, and even paid off my debt six months earlier than I had planned.  Partly, this was because I moved in with my fiance and was able to put a lot more money toward my debt.  Partly, it was because I made paying down my cards a public act, so I was too embarassed to make too many dumb charges.


Mostly, renewing my enthusiasm for my new goal helped me along.  Every day, I reminded myself about that debt.  Every month, I had to account for my success or failure.  Often, I’d wake up in the night, calculating payments and “snowflakes.”  The process of paying off my debt really was that: a process.  Setting a goal once and then moving on is not enough.  I discovered that I had to renew my commitment to that goal every day!  Some days it was really fun, like when I could send a big payment to my card.  Other days, it was no fun at all.  However, following my other “R’s” of debt-reduction: reflecting on my emotional habits and replacing bad habits with good, new ones helped me along.  Here’s hoping it helps you as well!

Weekly Roundup

This week, I participated in three top-notch carnivals.  Here are the highlights from the week:

Carnival of Money Stories

This week, Funny About Money did a fun Labor Day roundup of money stories.  I liked Free From Broke‘s reminder to always call the police in an auto accident.  Fortunately, no one was hurt in his recent accident!  Mighty Bargain Hunter reflects on the best time to save.  I know that I wish I had done the same thing.  I was reminded of my recent day of ironing while reading The Personal Financier’s post on outsourcing chores.  I contributed my thoughts on how to be patient while reducing your debt.

Festival of Frugality

As always, I love the wide array of frugal tips at the Festival of Frugality (not to mention the alliteration!).  This week, Almost Frugal helped us brush up on our French verbs while hosting the carnival.  I always like a reflective post on frugal fashion, like the one Frugal Fu contributed.  Another post chock full of frugal fashion tips came from The Art of Frugality.  The most surprising frugal tip came from Miss Thrifty regarding travel agents.  Looks like they still may be worthwhile after all!  For this carnival, I submitted my yummy minestrone.

Carnival of Debt Reduction

Mighty Bargain Hunter pulled together another holiday carnival and gave my debt-reduction reflection a nice shout out.  Thanks!  Destroy Debt has some good tips for constructing a holiday budget.  I can’t believe it, but that’s just around the corner.  My Journey to Millions puts the tax code into plain English regarding student loan interest.  Yikes!  I had no idea the deductions were being phased out for “high” income earners.  The Digerati Life presents some good tips on saving money on a wedding cake, complete with fun illustrations.  At our wedding, my dear, dear friend made the cake.  We just enjoyed some of the leftovers last weekend.  I can not emphasize enough how great that cake was!

Back to Basics: Replace Bad Habits

This is the third post in a series on the three R’s of debt reduction.  Read the introduction here.  Learn how reflection can help here.  Today, I’m posting on my next step: replacing my bad habits.

Fill Up Your Life!

Once I started seeing the ways that I spent money foolishly, I felt stronger and stronger about my spending choices.  Concurrently, I started looking for new things to do.  As you may remember, “Amy’s new thing” is a bit of a joke with my friends and family.  My “new thing,” be it yoga, backpacking, or scrapbooking, used to eat up lots of my money.  This time, my “new thing” was personal finance.  I threw the same energy that I used to throw into hobbies into debt reduction.  I read; I talked to people; I obsessed over financial improvement.  The one thing that was different was the shopping!  Since I couldn’t go out and buy new things to help me reduce my debt, I started finding alternate ways to fill my time. 

by Michel Filion

by Michel Filion

Here were some of the best:

  • Snowflakes!!  Of course, I can’t sing the praises of PaidTwice‘s method enough.  Briefly, the idea is that you start looking for ways to earn little bits of money.  All those bits add up to new money that can go toward your debt.  A simple example is to cash out all your spare change and send it off to your debt.
  • Sell stuff: organizing your house, running garage sales, selling things online, all of this takes time and effort.   Dedicate a few Saturdays to putting unwanted items on eBay, Amazon, or craigslist.  Plan ahead for a yard sale.  Instead of running to the mall, you’ll be too busy making money.
  • Fill out online surveys.  Rather than surfing the ‘net for shopping, use the time to fill out surveys.  After you sign up for a few sites, you’ll start getting one or two surveys a day.  PaidTwice has a great overview here.  I even did a little bit on mTurk, even though the money is pretty miniscule.
  • Shop your house.  It’s old advice, but it really works.  If you get the urge to buy new clothes, organize what you’ve got and vow to try a new combination every day for a week.  If you think you need something for the garden or the kitchen, look around and try to find a substitute.  All those unused scrapbooking supplies are great for crafts with the kids or making your own cards.  Soon it becomes almost as much fun to find a frugal substitute as it is to wander the aisles of your nearest big-box store.
  • Read, read, read.  Check out personal finance books from your library.  Surf CNNMoney or the world of personal finance blogs every day.  The more you surround yourself with good financial advice, the more foolish some of your earlier habits will seem.
  • Cook or garden.  If you’ve always wanted to become a better cook, now’s the time.  Rather than lounging on the couch or going out to eat, try a few new, simple recipes.  You may quickly find that you’d much rather eat your good food than sit at another stuff-on-the-wall chain.  Grow a few herbs and tomato plants, and you’ll have great resources right outside your back door.
  • Get outside.  This is timeless advice, but it really helped me.  On weekends, the husband and I would try to hike or rollerblade or bike rather than shop.  I love being outdoors, and every time I get in the woods, I remember what my real priorities are in life.

There you have it!  Those were my favorite ways to stay busy during the last six months.  Once I had some healthier habits established, I hardly had time for an afternoon at the mall.  By filling up your life with good things and new ideas, you’ll soon find you don’t have time for the old habits.  For example, I now have so many books from my library that a trip to Barnes and Noble seems really foolish.  Tommorow, I’ll look at the last “R” of debt reduction: renew.  Until then, share your tips for positive habits below.  I’d love to hear them!

Back to Basics: Reflect on Your Debt

This is the second post in a series on the three R’s of debt reduction.  Read the introduction here.  Today, I’m examining what I think is the most important step: reflect.

Take Time to Reflect

by lanuiop

by lanuiop

As I learned, just taking on more debt to wipe out old debt is a no-win situation.  In order to change, I had to really examine what behaviors got me here in the first place.  Without examining my old behaviors and anxieties, I couldn’t really move forward.  By sitting with my emotions and watching for impulse triggers, I was able to come up with solutions that broke my debt cycle.  For example, I often spent money frivilously on little “treats” when I felt uncomfortable.  Sometimes, it was as simple as a cup of hot tea on a cold day.  Other times, it was more expensive, like a new outfit for a blind date or $200 worth of office supplies for a new job.

Sure “Reflect” Sounds Great, But How Do You Do It?

  • Write in a notebook: keep a small notebook with you all the time.  Anytime you spend money, jot down how you feel.  It’s a common diet trick, but works with money as well.  You’ll start to notice patterns as you read back through your notebook.
  • Keep a blog: writing to an audience makes you go the extra mile on introspection.  As I quickly discovered, blogging forced me to compose posts in my head all the time.  Watching my life the way my audience would made me look for things to blog about.  That intropection crystalized patterns that had lingered beneath the surface.
  • Find a network: a support group, be it family, friends, or virtual, can really help you out.  Just talking about money and ways to reduce debt will help you notice things that you can change.
  • Just breathe: this one actually helped me the most!  Everytime I had an impulse to spend, a few deep breaths recentered me and helped me see the motivation behind the impulse.  One day, I walked away from the perfume counter when I realized that bug in my ear was more about keeping up with a friend than about me really needing perfume.

The more that you work to analyze your impulses to spend, the easier it will become.  If you want, take a look at some of my earliest posts.  They’re all about resisting the urge to spend.  As I kept writing, I slowly learned to distinguish my axiety-fueld purchases from more necessary purchases.  How about you?  How do you reflect on your spending habits?

Back to Basics: The Three R’s of Debt Reduction

This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about paying off my credit cards!  While it’s a great feeling to have that debt all wiped out, I also want to make sure that I don’t slide back into the same old behaviors.  Over the past six months, I’ve really changed my relationship with money. 

For most of my credit history, I overspent, took out student loans to pay off debt, and overspent again.  It’s a vicious cycle!  Anyone tempted to follow in my footsteps or take out a home equity loan or consolidate credit will probably discover the same can of worms I did.  Each time, I thought that this was absolutely the last time I would need to use loans to pay off my credit cards.  Then, the next semester, I’d be back in the same old spot.  This time, I feel that I’ve actually made some progress with the underlying behaviors that led to my overspending ways. 

by christopher.woo

by christopher.woo


 Now, I want to keep it healthy!  I’ve identified three key concepts that helped me, the three R’s of debt reduction if you will:

  • Reflect
  • Replace
  • Renew

These three verbs enabled me to change my ways and make it through some rough patches.  In this series, I’ll explain each one in more detail, a three-step approach to my new relationship with money.  It wasn’t simple, and it didn’t happen overnight.  However, it did happen, and faster than I thought it would!  Check in tomorrow to see how important some serious reflection is for successful debt reduction.  Any other R’s come to mind?