Maximizing Your Budget

I, like many others, live on a budget.  I’ve been pretty successful in saving money while living on a budget so I thought it might help others if I shared a few of the ways I’ve been able to cut back on costs without cutting everything out in order to do so.  I’ll try to not talk about things that are specific to me since that wouldn’t be very helpful at all.

The past few months I haven’t been following my plan to take my lunch to work and consequently I’ve also not saved as much because I went out to eat for lunch every day.  My original plan was to bring my lunch three to four times a week always eating out on Friday with the rest of the team.  On average, in downtown Chicago, I spend on average about $8 per lunch when I go out to eat and I spend more like $10 per lunch if I happen to order a drink other than water.  By taking a lunch from home I save around $8-10 per day I bring my lunch.  That might seem like a small amount that isn’t even worth the effort but think about it this way:  each week I save $24-32 (on average) and carrying this same average throughout the year that could be a savings of up to $2,000 every year!

Likewise many also go out to dinner every night.  Dinner can be very expensive to the tune of $20 per meal!  Throughout the week I make my dinner at home and try to go out to eat for dinner a few times a week, typically on the weekends with friends, to save money.  Cooking at home can have lots of benefits beyond just the money you will be saving like being healthier not to mention the leftover options.  I try to make meals at home for dinner that provide leftovers for lunch and dinner the next few days, or those options that provide leftovers that I can freeze to eat at a later date.  Bringing the same lunch every day can be boring and you’d be amazed how quickly you grow tired of eating a cold sandwich every day.  For example, if I make a casserole for dinner one night I can save the rest to eat the next few days.  Most meals can easily be brought to work or frozen.

Grocery Store
But with all of the cooking at home doesn’t that mean that you won’t really be saving anything because you’ll be spending more at the grocery store?  Not really, although it could.  There are plenty of ways to bargain shop at the store to save money.  I try to buy non-perishable items in bulk (or at least in greater quantities) whenever possible.  I try to wait to buy things like oatmeal and peanut butter and pasta until they go on sale.  Normally once a month or so these items will go on a buy-one get-one sale and that is when I stock up.  Canned goods often times will go on a 10 for $10 deal and that’s a great time to stock up on canned goods.  Canned goods last for years so provided you have storage for them why wouldn’t you buy them when you can?

There are many items which are perishable that I also buy whenever they go on sale and try to buy in greater quantities because they are usually cheaper like butter and meat.  Butter and meat can be frozen for long periods of time and if you can find them on sale or if you buy family packages or packages set to expire in a few days you can really save.  I found a great website a few weeks ago that details all of the items that are safe to freeze for long periods of time as well as tips on how to maximize the length of time these food items can be frozen.  I can’t claim I buy all of these items and freeze everything but I do what I can.

Another great way to save at the store is to buy items that can be used for multiple purposes.  Canned soup can be good for this because you can eat the soup or you can make other items with the soup.  But if you really want to save money on multi-use items then try to buy whole chickens or turkeys.  With a roasting chicken, for example, you can easily have a nice dinner and several days of leftovers.  With those leftovers you can make other items to change up the meals you eat day after day.  Think of Thanksgiving.  You make a turkey and have all these leftovers.  With those leftovers you can make sandwiches and casseroles not to mention just a meal of leftovers.  With one purchase you could easily make five or more meals.

I’ve also been experimenting with store brand items to see if they are as good as name brand.  I admit that I try to stick to brands if I find one that I like but typically you are paying more because of the brand.  Some items just aren’t the same and you have to buy store brand.  Some items, though, taste the same so why not buy store brand for a fraction of the price?  Here is a very short list of store brand items that I’ve found to be the same as name brand:

  • Butter
  • Milk
  • Canned vegetables
  • Frozen vegetables
  • Kitchen trash bags
  • Paper towels
  • Shredded cheese
  • Bread
  • Olive oil
  • Jarred garlic
  • Dish soap
  • Hand soap

Of course that isn’t an all-inclusive list but those are things I buy on a regular basis that are store brand that are the same taste and quality as brand name.  Typically these are much cheaper and if the store you are shopping at has a card savings/rewards program they will often give you even more of a discount for buying these store brand items.

This leads me to the store card.  Many stores have a frequent shopper card that gives discounts.  If these are free to join you would be throwing away money not to join these programs.  Couple these card programs with manufacturer coupons and you can have quite a deal on your hands.  I have, on occasion, been paid by the store because of the coupons and store card usage.  It’s great to be able to get an item for free at the store!

Sometimes there isn’t much you can do with utilities to save money but I have done what I can.  During the summer months I love having the windows open when I can.  Depending on where you live this might not be an option for very long when the summer months really start heating up.  I make sure to decrease the air conditioner before I leave for work to save on electricity.  One way that I have greatly impacted the cost for my electricity is with my computer.  I am one of those people that would leave their computer on all the time.  When I wasn’t using it the screen saver would come on or I’d turn off the monitor but this was such a waste!  What about when I am at work or asleep?  The computer really doesn’t need to be on during those times but I also wanted to be able to use the computer when I wanted to use it.  The answer: hibernate mode.  In the past I haven’t been a fan of this because it seemed to mess up my computer but I quickly learned that it takes some time to configure it properly in order for hibernate mode to work the way it should so when I go to use it the computer turns on and is ready to use within seconds.  This way instead the computer using 600+ kWh of power, it uses around 1 kWh, a significant improvement.  I have seen my electric bill reduced by 40-50% because of this.

In the winter months I make sure to keep the gas bill low by not overheating the house.  I know that I can be comfortable at 66-68 degrees.  When I sleep I have blankets and cooking dinner for myself always produces lots of heat from the stove and oven which will also warm the place so I don’t need to use lots of gas.  I’m lucky in that I have great windows that are double glass to help keep out the cold winter breeze.

Those are a few of the ways I have been saving money on a budget.  I’m sure as I discover more of these ways I’ll post again about this sort of thing.  Hopefully this helps others.

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