Thursday, October 7, 2010

Paring Down the Grocery Bill

My goal is to stay at $200 a month for groceries for the two of us.  We have grown kids and friends that visit, so there are snacks, desserts, and extra portions included in that goal.  To me, it sounds like a lot of money.  I have read that other families have kept their food budget that low, but I have yet to reach it...and eat what we like to eat.  Our grocery bill usually runs $225 a month.  I do stock up when something is on sale, but on the flip side, I'm using from my pantry on a regular basis, too.  A friend, who is really struggling financially, recently told me that she spent almost $350 for groceries for just her last month.  I don't know who gasped louder.. me, when she told me that, or her, when I told her what I usually spend for two people. 

I tried the OAMC (once a month cooking) and it just wasn't for me.   I don't have a Sam's or Cosco a block away.  We live in a rural area, with a little grocery store about 15 miles from here.  Running to the store for just a couple do I say this... just ain't gonna happen.  I can't remember what I needed but didn't have when I started searching 'make your own _____'.  Wow.  Wasn't I surprised!  There are decent substitutions for practically everything you would use in every day cooking. You really can save money AND eat well!

I buy almost no convience foods at all now.  I do buy some things that I could make, but don't want to, like tomato soup (my homemade was so-so at best) and cream of mushroom soup (I don't use enough to warrant trying to keep mushrooms in my frig or yard, either). But I make a pretty good cream of chicken and cream of celery soup.  Soooo simple, too!  Oh, I do buy various cereals and some breads. I don't want to try to make crackers, but I have made flour tortilla chips.  The bulk of my cooking is from scratch...really scratch.

The point here is that there are tons of recipes for making about any convience food that you would buy.  You don't have to do it all at once, either.  I started out with cream of chicken soup mix.  The batch of mix equals 9 cans of soup (and only cost $1.25), so I didn't have to make it again for a while.  When I make noodles, I make enough for several meals and pop them into the freezer. Ditto with soups.  Most of the time I plan for leftovers that I can put in the freezer.  Then I have easy meals for when I don't feel like cooking. Make sure you label everything that goes in the freezer.  Things, especially soups, have a way of looking alike after a while.  I have a cool, low tech labeling system - masking tape and a permanent marker.

I really watch pricing in the grocery store.  When they first started coming out with bulk foods and bigger packages, it was cheaper per ounce to buy.  Now -  ain't necessarily so.  A 2 lb. bag of brown sugar is the most commonly sold size.  Two 1 lb. boxes are cheaper than the 2 lb. bag now.  But, it's cheaper yet in the 4 lb. bag, and I use enough of it to warrant buying that size.  (Edited on 1-4-2011 - I don't even buy brown sugar now, I just make it when I need it, really cheap!)  White sugar is cheaper per pound to buy 4 lb bags where I live.

I also have a garden every year and in a perfect world, I'd can/freeze enough goodies to last an entire year.  I keep trying, but Nature has a way of keeping you humble.

If you haven't tried looking at everything you can make from scratch, get your mouse clicking and head over to  for a starter course.  Just type 'make your own' into their search bar and you'll be on your way to pages of money saving ideas.

Green Cleaners in the Kitchen

Baking soda is my best cleaning friend in the kitchen.  I use it to clean stains, cooked on crud on my glass top stove, in the frig to absorb odors (when I remember to do it) and down the drain before I pour the hot vinegar from cleaning my coffee maker into the sink.

I used to make dishwasher detergent when I made laundry soap - equal parts of washing soda, borax and powdered automatic dishwasher detergent.  Everything gradually started getting cloudy.  'They' say to use less if that happened. (Who are 'they', anyway?)  So I used less.  But Bill is from the 'if some works, more works better' school, so the glassware was getting really cloudy.  Not that I'm going to complain about him doing dishes every so often, but I had to come up with a better plan.  So now I have switched to 1 part baking soda to 1 part automatic dishwasher detergent and everything is getting sparkly clean again.

Automatic dishwasher detergent is good stuff, too.  When the baking soda won't remove cooked on food on the stovetop, a little detergent with a hot, wet cloth on top will do the trick.  I left it on overnight before on a particularly bad one, but it all wiped right off the next day.  I have also soaked dishes in hot water and dishwasher detergent to remove baked on stains.  Great stuff.  But next time I'm going to try something 'greener'.

I keep my labeled sprayers of vinegar/water, bleach/water and Dawn/water under the kitchen sink.  Then they're handy when I need them. I spray the cutting board, sink and my hands with bleach/water after I have been cutting up chicken.  I use the vinegar/water to help remove hard water stains, and the Dawn/ water for cleaning anywhere.

I have a foaming pump dispenser in the kitchen, too.  (1 part Dawn or dish soap of your choice, and 4 parts water).  Besides using it to wash my hands, I also use it when I need just a little soap on the dishcloth to wash a big pot.

Simple stuff, but it works.

The Cost of Green Cleaners and the Bathroom

I love making green cleaners.  They are so easy to make and work well.  I also feel so virtuous, doing what's right for the earth, and hey!  The added bonus is that they're cheap to make!  In one calendar year, I spent about $25 to make a years supply of:

Laundry soap
Laundry pretreat or stain stick
Fabric softener
Dishwasher detergent
Bathroom cleaner
Daily shower spray
Hand soap in pump foam dispensers for kitchen and bathroom sinks
Eyeglass cleaner
General cleaning
Wasp spray
Non toxic bug spray for plants

What I bought:
Zote laundry bar
Washing soda
Baking soda
Dawn dish soap (I'm a huge fan of this stuff)
Rubbing alcohol
Cheap brand of 'Jet Dry' type product

Now then, for the bathroom:

I have labeled spray bottles of the following that I use to clean the bathroom and general cleaning:
Dawn and water - tub, shower, sink and pot
Bleach and water - pot and to spray the shower pan and liner in between washings
Vinegar and water - ceramic tile floor

If there's something that needs a little extra attention, I have a designated box of baking soda for cleaning.  I usually keep some in the bathroom cupboard brush my teeth occasionally, too.

In a closet, I have several bars of bath soap unwrapped so they dry out.  I put them in a basket with a washcloth over them.  They gradually dry out and last longer when you use them.

Daily Shower Spray
The daily shower spray has been a big time saver!  I only have to actually clean the shower about once every 6 months if the spray is used faithfully.
Mix together one-half cup of hydrogen peroxide, one-half cup of rubbing alcohol, about six drops of Dawn, a capful of Jet Dry and twenty-four ounces of water. Using this on a daily basis will keep your shower and liner clean for a long time.

I'm experimenting now with just some Dawn water with alcohol in a spray bottle.  I still haven't decided if that works as well as the other formula.  You can use your regular cleaner that's diluted, too.

The easiest way for me to clean the shower?  Right before I get in it.  I spray the walls with Dawn/water mix, hit it w/ a wet cloth, then turn the shower on.  Undress, hop in to finish rinsing the walls and get to showering.  I wonder if Bill knows that I do that...  I wonder if I can get him to do that in the other shower...probably not.

Foaming Pump Dispenser Refill
Fill it 3/4 the way full with water and give it a good squirt of dish soap.   I like Dawn Green or 7th Generation, but use what you have.  My dispensers have the pump gadget inside the bottle, so I ended up overfilling it the first (two?) time I did this.  What didn't work for me was diluting the 'pearl' looking liquid hand soaps, or melting my own bars.  I put them in the blender and still ended up w/ pieces that would clog up the pump dispenser.  For a regular pump dispenser, the ratio is 4 parts water to 1 part liquid soap.

Eyeglass cleaner:
A safe formula no matter what type of eyeglasses or coatings you have on your lenses:
Fill a spray bottle (any size will do) with 3/4 rubbing alcohol and 1/4 water. Put in a few drops of dish soap.

Laundry Day and the Indian Clothesline

I make my own laundry soap.  I don't plan on ever buying expensive laundry soap from the store as long as I'm able to stir a pot.  There are a million recipes online, but they all use basically the same ingredients.  It's also not rocket science, so variations are allowed.

Our well water here is very hard, even with a water softener.  I wash almost exclusively with cold water, too, so decided to go with a liquid soap instead of the powder.  I also didn't want to mess with a five gallon bucket of glop.  I have used gallon milk jugs, the blue water jugs (from when we had to buy water from the grocery store) and vinegar jugs.  Use whatever you have.

The recipe I use is:
1/2 bar of Zote laundry soap (pink, grates easily)
1/2 cup Washing Soda (not baking soda, found in the laundry aisle)
1/2 cup Borax (20 Mule Team is a popular brand, also in the laundry aisle)

I put 6 to 8 cups of water in a big pot on the stove.  I tend not to measure this.  Heat it until it's really hot but not boiling and stir in 1/2 bar of Zote that you were grating while the water was heating.  Turn the stove off, and walk away for 10 to 15 minutes. 
When the soap has all dissolved, stir in the washing soda.  Then stir in the Borax.  Carefully pour half of this into each of your two jugs.  I use a big measuring pitcher for this, but you can eyeball it in the jugs.  You just want to divide the mixture between the two.  It won't matter if you have a bit more in one jug.  Be careful, it's still pretty hot at this point.  Add a couple cups or more of hot tap water to each jug, put the lid on and shake.  Let the steam out a couple times.  Keep adding hot tap water and shaking until the jug is most of the way filled.  You may have to let the suds settle a bit before you add the last bit of water.  Then just leave the lid off of it until it cools, and Wal-la!  2 gallons of laundry soap!

This will jell somewhat in your jug.  I usually have to take the handle of my wooden spoon to break it up a bit the first time I use each jug.  You need to leave some room in the jug to allow for shaking that first time, too.  After that, it's just a couple of shakes before I use it, measure out maybe 3/4 cup for each load.  Our clothes get pretty dirty here so sometimes I use a full cup.  Clothes that aren't grimy would only require less.  Don't expect to see a lot of suds in your wash water, but it's still working.

I have used the bar of Zote for a stain remover 'stick'.  I also just pour some of the soap onto our jeans that are really grimy for pretreating.

I have to admit, I was a little surprised after I did that first load of clothes.  I was so used to the perfumed scent of commercial laundry detergents, and I wondered if the clothes were actually clean.  They were.  They just smelled like clean clothes with a faint 'Zote' scent that was gone when the clothes were dry. 

Edited to add: And the cost?  At our little country store today (12-1-10), Zote was $1.05 (I'll get two batches, or 4 gallons), the Borax was $3.75 and washing soda was $2.55.  Using 1/2 cup each of Borax and washing soda for every two gallons of finished product...well, I'll get gobs of laundry done.

I don't buy fabric softener sheets, either.  I bought a jug of liquid softener, measured out one cup and added two cups of water.  I dampen a designated washcloth with this solution and toss it into the dryer for the 10 minute drying time before I hang them up.  Most of the time I can use it a second time before I dampen it again.

You might want to start labeling these jugs in case someone else does some laundry.

The Indian Clothesline

Our oldest son, Dan, has traveled overseas a lot.   He spent quite a bit of time in India on one of his first journeys.  Carrying what he needed on his back, everything had to have several uses.  He has a length of para-cord in his pack and he would use that for his clothesline.  He would tie loops, knots, whatever it took to put up a clothesline in whatever was in his space at the time.

While he was here one time, he asked if he could put a couple of small nails on the sides of the window trim in a room to string up his clothesline.  He tied a loop on one end, hooked that over the nail, stretched out the cord across the room to the other nail and made the other loop where it was needed.  Ta-da!  Portable clothesline, easy to put up and take back down.  That's the Indian Clothesline, plain and simple.

He doesn't use clothespins, even when he's here.  He straightens the clothes out and drapes them over the line.  A couple hours later, he'll take the clothes off one at a time and drape them the other direction so there's no crease in the middle.  And do it again.  By the time he takes the clothes off the line, there's no wrinkles and no crease.  I guess he's had a lot of practice.  I'll probably just keep using clothespins.

I wash only full loads, so one line wasn't enough for me, even with draping socks over the sides of the laundry basket.  I can get by with two lines by staggering.  I hang T shirts on the back line first, then go back and hang shorter items on the same line, staggering where I put the clothes pins.  If I run short on line space, I'll hang socks, etc, over the shirts.  If I want to do two loads, I'll put work shirts on plastic hangers and hang them on the line.  If there's shoulder bumps, I'll pat them down with a damp hand when I put it on.

What I like best about doing laundry this way?  I'm saving a boatload of money, doing the green thing, don't have wickedly stiff clothes (read post below and see how) and I can take the dry clothes off the line when it suits me.  I don't have to worry about rain, sun bleaching, blowing dirt, dogs, or wrinkles from sitting in the dryer.