Monday, November 10, 2014

The Art of Living Providently, and the Economics of Saving Money

The following is roughly the text that I worked from to make my presentation.


When we talk about “Provident Living” in the church, what do we usually talk about?

  • Food storage
  • Water storage
  • Staying out of debt
  • Having a savings account

Those are all good things, but we’re not going to talk about them today.  Those things tend to fall under the idea of “provident planning.”

What happens if you flip the words around, and instead of “Provident Living,” we talk about “Living Providently.”  What do you think of then?

  • Saving money on a regular basis
  • Paying off debts
  • Being a wise and prudent steward
  • Not being wasteful
  • Couponing
  • Recycling, reusing, upcycling

Provident Living can sometimes induce guilt, or feelings of “not good enough” – not enough food storage, not a good couponer, etc.  We’re going to talk today about being provident on a daily basis – living the idea, instead of just preparing for it.


I’ve been thinking about this class for about a month and a half now, and the best title I could come up with that was the most all encompassing was “Champagne Taste on a Beer Budget,” but I didn’t think that it would be approved as an appropriate title for a church activity.  Other working titles I came up with included:

  • “Not Your Mother-in-Law’s Couponing Class”
  • “Fabric Napkins: Not Just for Guests Anymore”

Here’s what this class isn’t:

  • This isn’t a couponing class.  I’ll talk about coupons, but it’s not a couponing class.
  • This isn’t a budgeting class.  I’m not a numbers girl.
  • This isn’t a guilt-inducing class.  We give ourselves enough grief already.

What I hope to accomplish is to give you some tools that can help you stretch your budget, and to get you thinking about where and how you spend your money.  There’s a scientific principle that says that the act of observing something changes the very nature of the thing.  And that’s how I came to be teaching this class.


How many of you use coupons on a regular basis?  How many of you don’t, but wish that you did?  Why don’t you?  For me, I never had a good system.  I’d forget that I had clipped them, and forgot to bring them with me.  So I bought a small accordion folder, and sorted them into categories.  I stored the folder in a drawer in my kitchen, and forgot to bring it with me.  Finally, I decided that coupons just weren’t worth it for me.

But I know that they can be.  My mother-in-law and sister-in-law are big couponers, for things that they need and use.  And I was raised by a couponing mom.  I’ve seen first-hand what couponing, done right, can do for money saving.  I wanted to make them worth it for me.

For Christmas last year, my sister-in-law gave me a coupon binder.  It’s a copy of her system, and I’m pleased to say that it’s worked for me.  It’s big enough that I can’t just tuck it out of sight and forget about it.  It goes on a shelf in my kitchen, right next to my recipe binder, so I see it and reach it (or next to it) often.  It’s a simple three-ring binder, with divided sections for different categories, and page protectors to hold coupons.  Mine has business card sized sleeves, but baseball card ones would work, too.  The thing that really caught my interest, though, was at the front of the binder: a price comparison sheet.

A brief tangent: I’ve lived in Shaker Heights for seven-and-a-half years now.  I’ve shopped primarily at Giant Eagle, and either Sam’s Club or BJ’s the entire time I’ve been here.  I’ve tried Aldi a few times, but I found it unsatisfying.  I know a lot of people who shop there almost exclusively, though, and love it.  I decided to try an experiment.

Over a month-long period toward the beginning of this year, I visited five different stores, and recorded price information on about 40 grocery items at each one.  I visited Giant Eagle, Aldi, Heinens, GFS, and BJ’s.  I wrote down which brand I was recording, the price, the unit size, and any other notes that I thought might be relevant.  It was a lot of work, especially with a toddler in tow.  But I really felt like it was something I needed to do, if for no other reason than the scientific principle I mentioned earlier.  Once I collected all the data, I put together a spreadsheet to compare things.  I plugged in formulas, cross-referenced, and color-coded.  I calculated the per-unit prices of each of the 40ish items I evaluated, to find out where they were the least expensive.  I found that Aldi and BJ’s had the lowest prices in general, which really came as no surprise.

(By the end of this project, I decided that I had put so much work into it that I couldn’t just keep it to myself.  I knew that others could and would benefit from it, so I sent the spreadsheet to my ward, along with a long explanatory email.  That email is what brought me to the attention of the stake Relief Society presidency, and why I was asked to teach this class today.)

I mentioned before that I found Aldi unsatisfying.  There were too many things that they didn’t carry, so I still ended up going somewhere else to buy them anyway.  And without having an Aldi already conveniently located along my route, plus having to return the cart to get my quarter back while I’ve got a toddler with me in the snow, well, it just wasn’t worth regular visits.

However, I’d now observed how much money I could actually be saving if I shopped at Aldi instead of at Giant Eagle, or somewhere else.  Having seen those numbers, I did change my shopping plans somewhat.  I still do most of my regular weekly (or bi-weekly) shopping at Giant Eagle.  Every couple of months, though, I visit Aldi for a stock-up trip.


At this point, I want to stop talking about numbers, and talk about finding balance in saving money.  Sometimes in life, we find ourselves in the unfortunate situation of having to pinch ever available penny, stick rigidly within a budget, and struggle to make ends meet from one paycheck to another.  I will talk a little later about that.  Other times, we either want or need to save money in order to put it toward a vacation, a car, a gadget, a nest egg, or something else.  Or we just want to live prudently.  In those cases, we sometimes have the luxury of choosing our savings battles.

How many of you are parents?  As a parent, have you ever found yourself on one side of a fight with your child, only to realize that the struggle isn’t worth it?  As parents, we find ourselves constantly choosing our battles – what’s worth arguing over, and what isn’t.  Each family will evaluate these situations differently for them, and often even differently for each child within a family.  Saving money also requires choosing battles.

Will you drive all over kingdom-come just to save two dollars on three boxes of cereal?  Or is that not worth it to you?  How much are you spending in gas, in order to visit four different stores?  How much time?  Do you have children in tow, that make errands longer and more stressful?

We each need to evaluate our own situations, and find a good balance between saving money and saving sanity.

For example, I use a lot of ground turkey in my cooking.  Giant Eagle only carries it fresh, not frozen.  It costs $8.99 for 3 pounds, or $3 per pound.  Aldi carries frozen ground turkey, for $1.69 per pound.  That’s barely over half the cost as Giant Eagle.  That’s a huge difference, and for me, it’s worth making the out of the way trip, and stocking up.  Fortunately, I have a deep freezer, so I’m able to buy a lot of it at once.

By doing a stock-up trip for ground turkey and other things, I only visit Aldi about once every 2-3 months, instead of weekly.  That’s a good balance for me.

Another savings battle to think about is brands.  Do you only buy brand name, or do you buy generic products?  Generic is almost always less expensive, but sometimes it’s also significantly cheaper.  The difference is that you get what you pay for, sometimes.  And sometimes, those savings aren’t worth it.  I, for example, will never again buy a generic brand of plastic wrap.  The last time I did, I probably got to use less than half the roll, because it stuck to itself so badly that I kept throwing it in the trash and getting more.


How many of you create meal plans on a regular basis?  Do you do it based on what you already have in the house, or do you do it before you do your grocery shopping?

Going to the store with a plan in hand will help you save money.  You’ll be less likely to make impulse and/or unnecessary purchases when you have a specific list.  I plan out my family’s dinner meals about a week-and-a-half at a time, and then build a grocery list based on what ingredients I need for those meals, and then round out the list with other household staples (bread for lunch sandwiches, eggs and milk for breakfast, chips for snacks, fruit, etc.).

This is also where you can use coupons more effectively.  Some people clip coupons for anything and everything that catches their eye.  Sometimes I do this.  I don’t actually use all of them though.  The way to do coupons right is to use them for things you’re already buying anyway.  Things you know you’ll use.  Sometimes these things are on your list, and sometimes they’re not.  I mentioned that I shop at BJ’s, which is similar to Costco – it’s just closer to my house.  BJ’s sends coupon books to its members, and one thing I frequently find coupons for in their books is large bags of Craisins.  My daughters and husband love to snack on Craisins.  So even if I don’t necessarily need more right then, I’ll buy them while I have the coupon, because I know that we do and will eat them.

One trick to using coupons effectively is to not marry yourself to one particular brand of anything.  If you only ever buy Ragu pasta sauce for example, you’ll miss out on savings from coupons for Presto and Bertolli.

Another trick is to make sure that you’re actually saving money.  If Ragu is $1.99 for a 24 oz. jar, and Bertolli is $2.49 for a 24 oz. jar, and you have a coupon f or $0.25 off a jar of Bertolli, it’s still cheaper to buy the Ragu.  It may even be less expensive still to buy generic.


I’d like to talk a little bit about what to do when we’re in that situation where we absolutely, positively, have no other choice but to pinch those pennies.

When I was a young teenager, my family found ourselves in dire financial straits.  I won’t go into the details, but I will share a little background.  My dad was making about $103k per year at his job.  Due to a number of reasons, my family moved out of state, and my dad took a new job, making only about $52k per year.  We were a family of five, and he had just taken a 50% pay cut.  This is why I was raised by a couponing mother.  I remember driving around to the three big grocery stores in town, buying the best deals, and maximizing our coupons.  We stacked and doubled them.  (Stores don’t double coupons nearly as much as they used to, and it’s not always easy to find stackable coupons either, which are when you use a store coupon and a manufacturer’s coupon for the same item.)  We had a big food storage.  We had, a few years earlier, come out of a period of unemployment, and weren’t sure we weren’t going to be finding ourselves there again.

My mom went to great lengths to stretch our money as far as she could.  Like I said, there were other circumstances that I won’t go into, which made things a bigger deal that they may sound like on the surface.  We didn’t just use the coupons that came in our Sunday paper or our weekly circular.  My mom contacted the local newspapers, and spoke with the person in charge of whatever department dealt with the coupons, circulars, etc.  She learned that whatever newspapers (and coupons) were printed and not distributed, were just discarded.  All those coupons that could be used, that manufacturers authorized, went to waste.  She made arrangements to come once a week and collect the unused store ads and manufacturer coupons.

A lot of times, store coupons will “limit one per customer per visit.”  There are ways around that, which we did use, but my mom preferred to stay above-board.  I do remember times when she would go through one line, I’d go through another, and my sister would go through a third, maximizing our use of coupons.  One thing I didn’t know then, but that she told me while I prepared for this class, was that she also spoke with the store managers.  When we first started this (perhaps) extreme couponing journey, and each time a store got a new manager, she would approach them, explain our family’s situation, and how she legitimately obtained additional coupons.  In each case, the managers thanked her for being upfront with them, and didn’t object to our methods.  The mantra she lived by at this time was “never take ‘no’ from someone who doesn’t have the authority to say ‘yes.’”

Even within couponing and driving around, she found other ways to save.  One simple way was that instead of buying individual lunch-sized bags of chips, she bought a big bag of Cheetos (or whatever was on sale), and divided them up individually.  That saved so much money in packaging.  At the time, my brother, sister, and I were all in school.  We each packed a lunch.  That’s 15 lunches per week, not to mention my dad packing a lunch to work.  If you assume that we each packed a sandwich, a bag of chips, and some grapes (for example), that’s 45 individual baggies per week.  A 100-count box of Ziploc sandwich-sized bags would be gone in two weeks.  So much for saving on packaging.

This was an area that ended up coming as an embarrassment to us as kids, but that (apparently) saved the family a respectable about of money.

We didn’t not have resealable bags in our home.  We just didn’t use them as often.  My mom saved bags of every stripe, and reused them.  The bag from one loaf of bread, now empty, could be knotted in half, cut just below the knot, and used for two sandwiches.

We washed and reused the resealable bags that we did have, within reason.  If they’d been home to raw meat and marinade, they usually just ended up in the trash.  Same thing with aluminum foil.  As a teenager, I hated all this.  It was embarrassing, it was a hassle, and I just didn’t understand the whole picture enough to know why we needed this.

I was old enough during that time in my family’s life that I remember clearly the way things were.  The sacrifices that we made in the grocery arena allowed us to still maintain a reasonable quality of life in other areas.  We still went out to dinner as a family about once a month.  We still had ice cream and treats.  The scrimping and saving that my mom did, and the hours that she spent obtaining, clipping, and organizing our coupons, she did so that us kids wouldn’t notice a huge change from before.


My mom is a strong woman, and she loves her family fiercely.  She didn’t do all this alone.  I mentioned before that my siblings and I went with her on these grocery errands.  But more than that, she involved us in the process.  Remember that math from a few minutes ago?  Three bags per lunch, 3 lunches a day, 5 days a week = 45 bags?  We talked about that in Family Home Evening once.  We talked about working together to save money, with the bread bag technique, bagging our own chips, and more.

I think my mom involved us kids partly so that she and my dad weren’t alone in the journey, and partly for the same reason I made myself do the grocery price comparison I talked about earlier.  She wanted us to be mindful.  When we knew more, we understood better why we did certain things.  This, I think, is an eternal principle.  The scriptures tell us that “…unto whomever much is given, of him shall be much required.”  We are encouraged to seek knowledge, and greater spiritual understanding.  With those things comes greater accountability to the Lord.  As my mom involved us in the process, we came to better realize the consequences – good or bad – of choices that we made.

While I again admit that I really did not like some of the reusing methods my mom employed at the time, I am forever grateful for the lessons I learned from her and my dad in my youth: lessons of prudence, frugality, stewardship, and hard work.


Alright, to finish up the class, I’d like to talk about some practical real examples of things you can do to save money, and things I do.

Did you know you can make your own dishwasher detergent?  Laundry soap?  Lots of other home cleaners as well.  Not only does this have the benefit of saving money, you also cut down on chemicals in your home.

How about cereal?  I have a homemade granola recipe that it to die for.

How well do you know your over-the-counter medications?  What is the generic name for Tylenol?  Advil?  Aleve?  When you know the generic names (acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen, respectively), you can get them much cheaper by buying generic brands.  I have occasional allergies, not bad enough or frequent enough to need a prescription.  I usually get by just fine with Alavert, which is loratadine, 10 mg.  Alavert, however, is expensive.  The last time I bought some, I ended up getting the generic Walgreen’s brand for about a third of the price.  I don’t know why I’d never looked for the store brand on it before, because I do all the time for pain-type medications.

Do you thrift shop?  I don’t very much.  The size clothing I wear tends to be pretty hideous from thrift stores, if I can find it at all.  I have a lot of friends who are much smaller than I am that find great stuff at thrift stores all the time.  I should still shop there more frequently for my kids, though.  My husband suggested I share his most recent thrift shopping experience.  He wears dressy slacks to work every day.  So he needs several pairs to rotate through.  All his pants seem to wear out at the same time, too, which is frustrating.  A new pair of dress pants for him could cost anywhere from $40-$90, assuming he needed them now, instead of being able to wait for a sale.  With the amount of wear he gets from them, they might last two years.  Instead, my husband spent about 30 minutes at Salvation Army, and came home with three pairs of dress pants.  Total damage: $15.  That’s $5 per pair.  Even if he has to replace them each year, it’s still a savings of $15-$40 per year, per pair of pants.

Group deal sites for entertainment can be great.  Groupon, LivingSocial, Zulily, and Amazon Local/Amazon Daily are popular ones.

There are a lot of “money back” rewards sites out there as well.  Swagbucks, Ebates, and a new app by Groupon called Snap.

If you shop at Target a lot, and you aren’t using Cartwheel yet, you’re missing out in a big way.  It lets you add discounts to things you’re buying, often on top of already reduced sale or clearance prices, and you get to do it without coupons.  If you use a Target RedCard on top of that, you’ve got even more savings.

You can use Fuelperks from Giant Eagle to create additional savings for yourself.  Do you have a big home improvement project coming up soon?  Instead of just going to Home Depot or Lowes and buying your supplies, stop at Giant Eagle first, buy gift cards for those stores, and then go spend the gift cards.  The money spent at Giant Eagle will go toward your fuel perks discounts, and you still get to buy what you need at the other stores.  The only caveat is that you usually can’t use the gifts cards until the next day, so you need to plan a little in advance.  And Fuelperks do expire.  But you can do this for home improvement, dining out, or buying gift cards as gifts.

When you have errands and shopping to do, and you’re gone for several hours, do you usually eat out?  When you know you’ll be gone that long, pack a lunch to take with you.

Do you take long road trips?  Even if it’s only once a year, fast food tabs can add up quickly, especially when you’ve got several children to buy for as well.  This summer, my family drove to California and back.  We took our time driving, taking shorter days so that our girls could have time out of the car each day, instead of all of us going crazy together.  The nights that we were staying with friends or family members, we camped.  Our car was packed with two large buckets containing clothing, shoes, and toiletries; camping equipment including an ice chest, a tent, sleeping bags, pillows, a cot, cooking supplies, a stove, and more; entertainment; and I honestly can’t even remember what else.  We planned meals out in advance for our drive, and tried to eat fast food only once a day.  For lunch each day, we took breaks at rest stops, where we used the bathrooms free of charge, and made our own sandwiches.  We shopped along the way, and restocked our ice daily.  I can’t tell you how much we saved.  Plus, we didn’t have the constant gassy bloated feeling that comes with days on end of fast food and sitting in a car.

Make cookies for your kids’ lunches, instead of buying pre-packaged ones.  One friend of mine baked about ten different varieties in August, before school starts, and freezes them.  She can pull them out of the freezer in the morning, put them in her kids’ lunches, and they’re thawed by noon.  Most cookies freeze well, and you can even freeze the dough, too, if you want a fresher taste for each batch.


Being economical doesn’t mean you have to be stingy.  Figure out why you’re saving money, and work from there.  You may find that you have a little more leeway than you think.

Being mindful of needs versus wants, and having a better understanding of the whole picture can help you make decisions as well.  Involve your spouse, teach your children, and focus on living providently and prudently, instead of just “saving money.”

Remember that sometimes you have to spend money in order to save money.  Growing a garden and canning can be great money savers.  But buying seedlings in the spring can feel like a big expense.  If you’ve never canned before, building up your stock of canning jars is an expensive startup, not to mention the canner itself.  But if you look at the long game, these things can save money.

One other thing I would like to mention is tithing.  I hadn’t initially thought to include tithing in my class, but as I listened to a Sacrament meeting talk on it last week, I realized that it’s vitally important to a topic such as this.  The Lord has promised us that if we pay our tithing, He will “…open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.”  Not all blessings that come from tithing are financial.  In fact, most probably aren’t.  But tithing is one commandment we have been given in which we can be completely perfect in our obedience.  If we are faithful in paying our tithes and fast offerings, the Lord will bless us and see to it that our needs are met, one way or another.

Finally, at this time of year, I’d also be remiss to not tie gratitude into my lesson.  Being grateful – and expressing gratitude – for the things we have can go a long way to being happy and satisfied in life.  Being grateful, in and of itself, won’t improve our temporal conditions.  But it will improve our attitudes, our families, and increase our happiness.

No comments: