Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Savings Challenge, Weeks 2-3: Eating and drinking

I seem to have fallen a little behind schedule with the 52-Week Savings Challenge I announced last week. At the time, only one challenge was available, but since then, two new ones have been posted. So this week's Savings Challenge entry will cover two challenges—both of them related to food and drink.

Week 2: Create a weekly meal plan

This is a very common piece of money-saving advice that we've heard many times before. The rationale for it, according to the Bankrate article, is that when you don't have your meals planned out ahead of time, you end up having some version of this conversation every night:
"What should we have for dinner?"
"Well, let's see what we've got in the fridge..."
"Oh, let's just order a pizza."
The article quotes blogger Tracie Fobes, founder of PennyPinchinMom.com, as saying this used to happen at her house all the time before she started planning her meals on a weekly basis. "Without a plan," Fobes maintains, "you end up wasting some of the groceries you bought and spend more dining out."

The thing is, Brian and I don't usually find ourselves in this situation. Yes, most nights we have the first part of the conversation, but what comes after "Let's see what we've got in the fridge" is usually something along the lines of, "Well, we've got all these mushrooms, how about a mushroom popover?" or "Oh, there's half a cabbage left, and we have plenty of potatoes; we could make Rumbledethumps." And even when we don't find anything in particular in the fridge that needs to be used up, we have a whole pile of standard recipes that we can make with the staples in our fridge and pantry, from soup to pasta to polenta-crust pizza.

Indeed, I've argued before on this blog that for us, making up our meals on the fly is actually cheaper than planning out—and shopping for—a week's worth of dinners in advance. Instead of planning out a week's worth of meals and then buying exactly what we need to prepare them, we generally check the sale fliers, stock up on whatever's cheap and/or in season, and then decide how we want to use it. Sometimes we do both at the same time: for instance, if we're cruising the produce aisles at the H-Mart, I might spot some snow peas on sale for $1.99 a pound and say, "How about a stir fry?"—which, in turn, might prompt us to pick up some broccoli or tofu to add to it. But with a staple item like potatoes, if we find a 5-pound bag on sale for $1.50, we don't bother to plan out how we're going to use them all; we know that we have lots of recipes in our repertoire that use potatoes, so we just grab the bag and figure it out later.

My frugal role model, Amy Dacyczyn of The Tightwad Gazette (all hail the Frugal Zealot!), also thought pre-planning your weekly menu was overrated. She admitted it was preferable to the "Oh, let's just order a pizza" approach, but she much preferred the "pantry principle": always have your fridge, freezer, and pantry stocked with food that you've bought at rock-bottom sale prices, and shop only to replenish it. This allows you the freedom to plan each day's dinner the night before, considering such factors as the weather, your schedule, what's in the garden that needs to be picked, what's in the fridge that needs to be used up, and just what you happen to be in the mood for. Many of these factors, she argued, "cannot possibly be known 30 days in advance," or even a week before. Planning 24 hours in advance gives you enough time for prep stages like thawing frozen meat, soaking and cooking dried beans, etc., without locking you into a rigid plan that may or may not work once real life comes into the picture.

Still, I thought perhaps that in the spirit of the challenge, I should at least try making one week's worth of dinner menus and seeing whether it did actually lower either our grocery bill or our stress level. But when I suggested it to Brian, he reminded me that back when we were first married, over ten years ago now, we actually did our grocery shopping this way, and we eventually stopped doing it because we found it more stressful. Having to come up with a whole week's worth of meals all at once, instead of just thinking of one each day, was too much pressure; even though we knew plenty of recipes (though not as many as we know now), we always seemed to find ourselves drawing a blank.

He also pointed out that under our current system, we still do meal planning of a sort; it's just much less rigorous. For instance, a couple of days ago, Brian poked through the fridge and noted that we had half a large can of tomatoes to use up. Thinking about ways to use it in a meal, he checked the freezer as well and noted that we had frozen cooked beans and spinach, as well as some grated Monterey Jack cheese, and we'd picked up a packet of tortillas on our most recent trip to Aldi. So, putting that all together, he concluded that if one of us just popped into the local grocery store and picked up a red onion, we'd have everything we needed to make quesadillas and salsa. And there you have it: meal planning the Dacyczyn way. Yes, it involved making an additional trip to the store, but since I go right past it during my daily walk anyway, it wasn't really any extra work. And all we spent was 86 cents for the onion—everything else came right out of the supplies we had on hand. No waste, and no last-minute fast-food runs.

So in one sense, I guess, I never actually carried out the challenge for Week Two. But I prefer to look at it a different way: Brian and I evaluated the challenge and came up with an alternative method that works even better. After all, the real purpose of the challenge is to cook a week's worth of meals at home without resorting to takeout or convenience foods, and that's just what we're doing. We can't tell you ahead of time exactly what each of them will be, but we know what we've got to work with in making them, and we know that none of them will involve a delivery van.

Week 3: Stop ordering alcohol

The purpose of this challenge is to avoid paying the "huge markup" most restaurants charge for any sort of booze: wine, beer, and especially cocktails. The author of the article, Chris Kahn, offers three suggestions for getting around this cost:
  1. Have a drink before you go out to eat, instead of at the restaurant (assuming you're not driving).
  2. Find a happy hour, where you can enjoy drinks at a less ridiculous price.
  3. Bring your own bottle; you may still pay a "corkage fee," but it's a tiny fraction of what you'd pay for the same wine ordered by the glass.
Kahn says he tried Tip #1 and found the result disappointing. Mixing Manhattans at home was kind of fun, but eating Italian food without a glass of wine to accompany it still felt like "eating French fries without ketchup." So he promptly decided that it's actually okay to pay for an overpriced drink "every now and then," to make an occasion feel more special. (Why he didn't decide to switch to strategy #3 instead, which would allow them to enjoy wine with their meal without the high price tag, I'm not sure.)

The thing is, Kahn's list doesn't actually include our favorite strategy, which is to enjoy the meal without the booze. We go out to dinner so seldom that the meal itself is already a special occasion; we don't need a glass of wine with it to reinforce the specialness. We're not really in the habit of drinking any sort of alcohol with our dinner anyway; at most, Brian might enjoy a sip or two of port while cooking the meal, or I might add a little tot of peppermint schnapps to my after-dinner cocoa. I tried hard to remember whether I'd ever actually ordered a drink in a restaurant, and the only time I could remember doing it was on a trip to Legal Seafood in Boston over ten years ago (a wedding gift from my sister). I ordered a gin and tonic, drank only half of it, and had heartburn at the theater afterward. So for us, passing up a drink with dinner is an easy call.

When is a challenge not a challenge? When it's something you were already doing anyway.
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