Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Food and Dining Out The Minimalist Way

“Hands off my food!” you say, when I suggest that you can trim an extra 5% off your grocery and meal costs.  Yet, those savings can be so subtle that you hardly will notice the difference.
I have a penchant for lists, it seems, and the process of “going lean” on your meals requires another list, or, at least, a record.  But it is simple.  All you need to do is to compile a total cost for your in-home meals, and a total cost for your dining out costs, for a period of six months.  This can be done easily, if you always pay for these items with credit or debit cards.  I recommend two subtotals (one for each section) and an overall combined total.  Divide by six to get your typical monthly costs for in-home food items and dining out events (including alcohol). Your target costs will be 5% less than the total average.  Some months, you may exceed slightly, but by closely monitoring every cost, you can compensate in other months.
The first series of suggestions focuses upon away-from-home meals.
When ordering alcohol (either at a lounge, restaurant or for a social evening at a friend’s home), alternate between an alcoholic and a non-alcoholic beverage.  At a typical cost of $4-7 per alcoholic drink ($2-3 for non-alcoholic), four drinks per evening, one evening per week out, you will saving $48 per month.  To save an additional $3-4 per week, consider having your first alcoholic drink at home, instead of at the event.
By eliminating one meal away from home per month, you will save $40-50 per couple.  Instead of always dining at fancy restaurants, mix a fast food place into the mix.  Sometimes, these meals can even be less expensive than eating at home.  Drop one cup of exotic (or regular) coffee from your purchases each week, or substitute one regular coffee for the usual latte.
Many restaurants and entertainment venues offer discounts of 10-15% for groups of 10 or more, so party with larger groups of friends occasionally, and arrange, in advance, for the group discount.  Use coupons and specials frequently.
The second series of recommendations evaluates ways to adjust your food buying habits to cut costs.
Consider buying on Mondays. These are slower days, and often, culled produce or meats are available at great discounts, yet still are fresh.  Saturday evenings see the array of grocery items depleted, but there may be great deals available, too.  Buy products that are in season.  This does not just apply to produce.  Turkey, ham and fish all have better pricing at specific times of the year.   Produce can be frozen and stored for several months, if prepared properly.  During the off season, frozen vegetables and canned vegetables generally offer the best prices.
While there is no doubt that “buying local” offers great benefit to area producers, there is some doubt as to whether the policy is financially beneficial to consumers.  Certainly, mass-produced products are less expensive per unit, but there is an abundance of evidence that there are losses in nutrition  benefits in many cases.  The prevalence of contaminated food recalls attests to the risk of “assembly line” food production.  If you opt to cut costs here, be certain that you know the tradeoffs involved.
Bulk buying and participating in buying groups or cooperatives is a common strategy for cutting costs, but these options are not always available to urban residents.   Instead, look to buying multiples of items when those multiple unit purchases result in savings.  A corollary to this principle, though, is the need for caution when buying “family size” units, versus smaller sizes.  Many times, the 3-pound tub of margarine, for example, is more costly per unit than 1-pound tubs.  Comparing toilet tissue purchases is even more difficult, since single versus double rolls, or 12 versus fifteen rolls per pack do not give accurate means for evaluating value.  Each manufacturer puts different numbers of sheets per roll in their product, making apple-to-apple comparisons tough to do “on the fly.”  Even more confusing is that each sheet is a different size, or may be one, two or three ply. Watch cost per unit, and know specifically what each unit may be.
Now, I move to suggestions for trimming costs at home.
Start by cutting back on serving size.  I used to use one chicken filet per meal, regardless of the size.  Before long, I found that one-half a medium filet was adequate, and any trimmings left over could be used in stir frys. Then, I consumed only one half a baked potato at each dinner, instead of a whole one.  A half cup of vegetables is sufficient for the average person, instead of a full cup.  The list goes on.   At breakfast, for example, substitute a half slice of whole wheat toast for the usual full slice of white toast, and feel just as full.
Substitute one of your large afternoon snacks for two small ones, consisting of a handful of nuts and a piece of fruit, instead of a pastry, specialty coffee and another side dish. Cut your home coffee costs by saving excess prepared coffee and storing it in the refrigerator.  Use a reusable coffee k-cup (Keurig brand name), instead of the throwaway one-coffee unit. Bring your own snacks to work, and save money, in addition to enjoying snacks that are not readily available on the job.
Prepare many meals in advance, and freeze them.  Use culled fruit and overripe bananas for baking, or in composite desserts.  These produce items often are available at 75% off regular prices.
While this discussion of how to trim 5% from your food budget is far from exhaustive, it provides a very workable guide to saving money.  And where can this money be directed?  Anywhere you choose, from holidays to charitable giving.  Even though your food expenditures still will provide you with filling and nutritious meals, the ability to direct another 5-10% of your budget to worthwhile areas will prove to be fulfilling, instead of just filling! 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Magnifying Your Money

Where I call home, we have people who pay $10,000 for a snowmobile, so they can spend $400 per month on fuel while they tear around the countryside dressed in insulated snowsuits (to keep out the cold) for three months a year in minus 30 weather.  Then, in the summer, they skip across Lake Winnipeg for another three months of the year in $25,000 boats, spending $400 per year on dock privileges and another $1,200 on fuel.  To get their favourite toys where they want, they haul them around in $55,000 trucks, spending $800 per month on fuel and $300 per month on insurance.  But they also complain about being poor!
The problem with this incongruity is that they may be correct.  Poor is a relative state of mind.  I was raised in a household where the annual income never exceeded $3,800 in any year, and averaged $1,500-2,000.  Yet, we were not poor.  I had the most wonderful Huck Finn childhood.  Around us, the rich families earned $12-15,000 per year.  The rest of our province – hell, the rest of our country – branded those elite wealthy of our community as poverty-stricken.  Of course, our province was officially listed by the rest of Canada as one of the half-dozen “have-not” provinces in the dominion.  But wouldn’t the entire population of Haiti think they were in Paradise if they each earned $1,500 per year?  Yes, poverty and wealth are relative.
The issue of wealth really has nothing to do with money.  It has to do with quality, priorities and preferences. Quality, like wealth, is not defined objectively, either.  Instead, the essence of quality is the purpose intended of an item or event versus the cost (money or effort inputted) of that item.  A $1 spatula, intended to be used twice at a family barbeque, may have more relative quality than a $15 platinum spatula, used ten times.  Priorities, again, are subjective, and are determined by evaluating cost, benefit and urgency.  A twenty-five year-old probably will value an $85 concert ticket for his favourite band over the $85 invested at 5% interest and used as retirement money, even though that $85 would be worth $570 by the time the person turned 65.  Preferences require a personal consideration, as well.  The same twenty-five year old may value his guitar at $300 and his band concert ticket at $85, but a chance to have a guitar signed by the band bass guitar player may be worth more than the sum of the two; many times more.  I prefer red wine to white, even though they are priced equivalently.  My red wine, the twenty-five year old’s signed guitar and the barbeque host’s $1 spatula may each represent a form of wealth.
Having presented my case for the idiosyncratic definition of wealth versus poverty, my own interpretation of how to become wealthy without money may well be an easy case to make.  The synopsis of this concept is that we can find the money for almost anything that is truly important to us and that all we need to do is pare down to the core of what we find to be important to us, in order to slough off the excess of what is not vital.
Let me take a sharp right turn in this conversation.  One of the recent hot political topics is the 99% versus the 1% in the USA , and the debate over the disparity in relative earnings of the top 1% of income earners against the bottom 99%.  Achieving what we 99 percenters want, for the most part, may be accomplished simply by uncovering an extra 2% of disposable income.  We may not be able to build a $12m mansion, but, after we complete our economic soul-searching, find our priorities and establish our preferences, we can attain our own personal definition of wealth.
I will discuss how to free up another five percent on your food budget, 10% on your clothing and toiletries, 5-10% on your household upkeep, 10-20% on gifts, and so on.  Perhaps you, too, would like your own snowmobile or boat, or like to enjoy the winter in a tropical climate.  Perhaps you would like to make a difference to the environment or global poverty issues.  This, too, may be possible.  Simply, we will redefine wealth, and show you how you already have the capacity to be richer than you thought possible.