Tuesday, June 27, 2017

How We Save On Groceries To Have More Money For Vacations



When we made up our budget years ago, (you can read about it here) we made sure we had the funds we needed for everything from high priority expenses like the mortgage and electric bill all the way down to funds for going out occasionally.  The amount of money we decided that we needed to buy groceries and pay for gas for our cars (we lump them together into one category) has a history that started when gas prices reached over $4.00 a gallon in 2008.  We felt the crunch at that time for sure. We had two boys in college so money was tight as it was.  I remember spending $100.00 to fill up the van in Buffalo after visiting our younger son, Mike, when he attended the University at Buffalo.  The money we budgeted for groceries and gas was definitely not enough to cover the high cost of gas then.  The only choice we had was to take money we had allocated for entertainment and vacations to pay for gas.  Soko's raise that year went straight into the grocery/gas budget.  After all the tweaking of our budget, we finally had enough in our grocery/gas account to cover the astronomical cost of gas but no money to go to a movie!  Well eventually, as we all know, the price of gas finally came down. But we never lowered the amount we set aside for groceries/gas because I was so worried that the price of gas would get ridiculous again one day.  So now we are way over budgeted for gas but we are ready for when gas climbs to over $4.00 again!

Most months we have a surplus in our grocery/gas account because of the over budgeting.  But sometimes we actually use the extra money to buy extra groceries when we have guests staying with us.  Or we need the extra to pay for gas when we take a road trip.  But what do we do with the surplus when we have it?  Put it in our vacation fund!   More vacation money equals more vacation!  Because I am conscience of the fact that the less we spend on food and gas, the more we can spend on vacation, I try to spend the least on groceries and gas as we possibly can.

So what are some of our strategies for spending less on gas.  One way we save is to have a mapped out plan of all our stops when we are running errands.  We think of the most direct way to get to each stop and go in order of which stop is next on the route without backtracking.  If I think of something else I need when I am out and it is way off my route I usually tell myself it can wait so I don't have to waste gas getting there.  Another way we save on gas is to find Pilot Flying J gas stations when we are on one of our road trips. You can read why here.

There are a few ways we save money on groceries.  First, I go grocery shopping every week and stick to the list I've made (mostly!)  I try not to start putting things in my cart that are not on my list because they are usually snack items that I really don't need and it wastes a lot of our grocery money. I usually do this when I'm hungry so I try to go after lunch!   Second, I will look for items on sale that I use regularly.  So when I need shredded cheese to make tacos for dinner, I use the cheese that I bought from Harris Teeter when it was buy 2 get 3 free.  (Make sure you have all your grocery stores reward cards to qualify to receive their sale prices).  I only pay $8.00 for 5 bags compared to paying $4.00 for one bag at regular price.  Buying sale items saves us tons of money and that strategy alone probably gets us enough for at least one vacation a year.  Third, once I decide which store I'm shopping at I will check livingrichwithcoupons,com for coupon match ups on sale items at that store. The website has links to the printable coupon needed for the sale item or will let you know where you can find the coupon if it's not a printable.  Then I check drugstoredivas.net to see if Lisa, my daughter, has found any good deals for the week.  This week she let her readers know that Kroger's has a free Milka Oreo chocolate candy bar deal.  She also has links to printable coupons. My new NC doctor told me about dellysdeals.com so I will look at her site before I go shopping. The deals she finds are at the local stores in my area though unlike the other two websites that are nationwide. Using coupons can save me a good amount of money each week especially if I go to Harris Teeter because they double coupons up to $.99 (unless they have a super double event going on and will double coupons up to $2.00!)

The apps that I use to get cash back for the groceries I buy are Ibotta, Checkout 51 and Saving Star. I check these apps to see what items they are giving cash back on before I go shopping.  Also, I might have been alerted by Living Rich With Coupons or Drugstore Divas that there is a good cashback deal at one of those sites.  Once I have bought the cashback item, I will need to take a photo of the receipt with the item listed then scan the UPC of that item.  The cashback money accumulates over time and when I have made at least $20, Ibotta deposits those funds in my PayPal account.  Saving Star will deposit to my PayPal account when I request it without a minimum.  I need to have made at least $20 to cash in at Checkout 51 and they will send me a check.  I get paid to buy groceries and that money goes to my PayPal account and from there into my savings account and right into our vacation fund!   What could be sweeter than that!

Another great app I use regulary is Walmart's.  They have a program called Savings Catcher.  How it works is Walmart will check their competition to see if any of them has a lower price on the items I bought at Walmart.  They will refund the difference in price if they find a lower price.  The refund gets put into my account.  The next time I shop at Walmart, I use Walmart Pay to pay for my groceries and if I have any refund money in my account it gets used first then the credit card I registered gets charged.  This is another easy way to get paid for buying groceries and for paying less when I buy groceries.


Nothings easier than using a credit card when shopping (as long as you pay off the balance every month).  This is where I earn the most money buying the groceries and gas I have to buy anyway.  I have to say I love the cash rewards that I get from my bank, Bank of America, for using their credit card.   You can get 1% back on anything you buy, but more exciting is that you can earn 2% back at grocery stores and wholesale clubs (that means Costco for us) and  3% at gas stations. But that's not all! Every time you transfer your cash reward into your Bank of America savings or checking account, they will give you 10% more as a bonus.  If you are a Preferred Rewards Client you can receive 25 - 75% extra back.  So every time you transfer $100 cash rewards money into your savings account you can get up to an extra $75!  You probably saw this coming, but guess where my cash rewards go!

Do you own a Fitbit?  I am registered in Walgreens Healthy Choices Program.  I can earn up to 1000 points a month just by walking.  Once I earn 5000 points I have $5.00 to spend at Walgreens.  That's another $5.00 less grocery money I've spent.

I don't buy less groceries to save grocery money I just find ways to spend less on the groceries I do buy.

Do you have any money savings strategies when it comes to buying groceries?  I would love to hear about them!

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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Charleston, SC - Day 2



Day 2 - Our second day in Charleston, SC started off at a slower pace than Day 1 because our daughter-in-law, Nicole,  had some work to do in the morning.  Our son, Joe, had a scheduled call with a client later in the afternoon but assured us that he could take the call while we were out. Laptops and cell phones are great inventions and essential to life these days but it means there is no vacation from work anymore. The kids are used to it though and oftentimes they earn a vacation day back.  I keep forgetting they are "at work" and talk to them.  They are very patient with me but I'm sure that I make their work days longer!

The first thing on our agenda for the day was to eat lunch at Rodney Scott's BBQ.  Joe and Nicole had first heard of  Rodney Scott when he appeared briefly on Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown.
Rodney Scott is well known in BBQ circles and Bourdain says "sought after world wide for his whole hog barbecue."  Scott cooks his hogs slowly, which means all night in the pits for 12 hours. Scott recently left his dad and son in charge of the family's place in Hemingway, SC so he could open up shop in Charleston.  Walking up to his restaurant was not what I expected.  It looks like your typical fast food place.  You look up at the menu above the cashiers and order your meal. But take one bite out of your smokey, juicy sandwich and you know this is not fast food.  Me and Nicole had the Fried Catfish Fillet and Soko and Joe had the Whole Hog BBQ sandwich.  We all chose a different side but, of course, had to pass them around so we could try a bite of each one.  We chose mac & cheese, hush puppies, cole slaw and baked beans.  Scott makes the traditional North Carolina barbecue sauce which is a thin vinegar based sauce.  He says that mustard should only be put on a hot dog so he doesn't make the traditional South Carolina mustard based sauce.  We were stuffed but really wanted to try the barbecued ribs and chicken so we decided to order them as take out and warm them up later in the kitchen of our airbnb.  We caught a glimpse of Rodney Scott when he briefly made an appearance in the dining area but we weren't able to get our phones out quick enough to get a picture.  I heard afterwards that he will take a picture with you if you ask.  So nice! We will have to go back one day for more of the amazing food and maybe a picture next time!


After our delicious lunch it was time to enjoy nature at Magnolia Plantation & Gardens.  It is one of the oldest public gardens in America opening up in 1870 for all to appreciate.  Their claim to fame is their selection by Travel & Leisure Magazine as one of "America's Most Beautiful Gardens".   It cost $15.00 each to get into the gardens.  If you wanted to take a ride on the Nature Train, do the House Tour, take the From Slavery to Freedom Tour or Nature Boat ride you would pay extra.  We decided to walk the gardens, which included a petting zoo, and then decide if we wanted to do anything else.
It was very calming taking the leisurely walk along the garden paths which were numbered, so very helpful for navigating the gardens.  We saw all kinds of animals along with flowers, trees, shrubs and even bamboo.  The gardens are not formal.  They are kept in a more natural state.



                                                         
Midway through our walk we came upon a turtle who was digging a hole near a tree.  We stood there watching him take his right foot, put it in the hole to dig out some dirt then take his left foot and dig with that one.  He kept alternating between his right and left foot and the hole got to be about three inches deep.  We were fascinated because we had never seen a turtle so active before.  "What was he doing" we wondered?  We took pictures and a video.

                                                         

We left the turtle to check out a wooden tower that was two stories high.  It looked out over a few acres of marshland.  The tower was a little shaky so we didn't stay up there too long.  Before we left the area we backtracked along the garden path to take one last look at the turtle and then we saw it. She, not he, was laying her eggs!  It was so incredible!  We couldn't believe how lucky we were to be witnessing such a special event!  It was amazing!

                                                             

Before we left Magnolia Plantation we stopped at their petting zoo. Most of the animals were roaming freely around the zoo.  We fed the goats and watched the peacock trying to get the attention of the peahen.  She was not interested!

                                                                       

We had seen a lot on our walk through the gardens so decided not to do any of the other tours.  We also were getting hungry for the ribs and chicken we knew were waiting for us at the airbnb.

                                                     

The ribs and chicken were what you hope to get when you are hungry for barbecue for sure.  It took me awhile, (we've been living in NC for 1 1/2 years now) but I am now starting to really like the NC style BBQ sauce, and especially loved Scott's.  It's totally different from the thick, sweet BBQ sauce that I was used to having in NY.

After dinner we were ready to explore the downtown Charleston area.   Our airbnb was only about a 15-20 minute walk to downtown.  Since we wanted to have an after dinner drink this worked out perfectly.   No need to decide who the designated driver would be tonight!  We wound up at The Rooftop Bar at Vendue.  We enjoyed a great view of the city while we had our drinks.

                                                                     

After drinks we headed for the Charleston City Market.  It spans 4 blocks and there are over 300 local merchants selling their wares.  We saw lots of basket weavers weaving amazingly beautiful baskets. You can also find certified authentic, 100% made in Charleston items here.


                                                                   
From the market, we walked to the French Quarters where most of the buildings had historical markers on them in this old section of town.   Among the beautiful old buildings is St. Philip's Episcopal Church.  It was built in 1836.  It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1973.


Rainbow Row, a couple of blocks south of the French Quarters, is not to be missed with its colorful row houses.


Go to Charleston, SC if you ever feel like you want to travel back in time.


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Charleston has all the southern charm that we would hope for when visiting the south.  There was so much to see, do and eat that we couldn't do it all in two days.  We hope to return someday soon!


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

On The Road Again - Charleston, SC


Our older son, Joe and daughter-in-law, Nicole visit us in NC a couple of times a year.  This year they thought that it might be fun for the four of us to take a 2 1/2 hour road trip from our house to Charleston, SC.  Joe made all the arrangements, including finding an incredible airbnb,  It seems like only yesterday that it was my job to find things to do on vacation and I have to say being the follower instead of the leader is so much easier!  I have too much to say about my first experience with airbnb so I will tell you about it soon in a separate post.  Here's one preview picture of where we stayed that I'd like to share though.


Day 1 - We arrived in Charleston at lunchtime and just had enough time for a quick bite because we had a lot to do and only two days to do it.  Our first stop was the South Carolina Aquarium.  It's always fun to get a close up view of our beautiful underwater world.  I had never seen an albino alligator before so that was pretty interesting.  And I have never held a purple sea urchin before and I got to do that. I'm really surprised that I didn't scream and drop it when it moved, because I am weird like that, but it was so small that I barely felt his little feet as he walked off my hand.


Can you tell the real eagle from the lego eagle?


There were lego replicas of many of the fish and animals scattered around the aquarium.  Each one more amazing that the next.  


We all agreed that the South Carolina Aquarium was one of the best aquariums we have ever been to. 

Now it was time to take a 5 minute walk to climb aboard the Carolina Belle for a 90 minute tour of Charleston Harbor. (We were able to buy a combo ticket that included these two attractions and saved $5.00 per person)!


When we boarded the Carolina Belle we had a choice of either heading down into the air conditioned room or up to the outside level.  As you can see, Nicole has the fairest skin of anyone I know and it doesn't take long for her to burn to a crisp in the sun!  We chose to head towards the air conditioned room.  It was very hot on this particular day so we were very thankful that the boat had ice cold drinks available for purchase.  

We settled in and off we went into the harbor.  Me, Soko and Joe climbed the stairs to go outside for awhile.  There were many sites to enjoy.  We especially liked getting a glimpse of Fort Sumter where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.  One day we will get back to Charleston to take a tour of the fort.  Another piece of history along the harbor is the USS Yorktown which is an aircraft carrier that was built and used in WWII.  We also were in awe of the beautiful homes that lined the harbor. We learned from our narrator that Reese Witherspoon and Bill Murray are owners of a couple of those homes. 



The boat ride, aquarium and harbor were a good time.  Now it was time to find the Pineapple Fountain!

I was reading a blog post that someone had written about their stay in Charleston and she mentioned the fountain.  I had to see it!  I love finding things to see when we are on vacation that might be a little unusual.  When we were in Seattle we had to find the giant-sized Fremont Troll.  That thing was really awesome (I will share my pictures soon!) 

The Pineapple Fountain is a focal point in Waterfront Park.  Waterfront Park is located along the Charleston Harbor in downtown Charleston.  We didn't realize that we were able to splash around in the fountain so that was a nice surprise when we got there on a very hot day.



From the park we were able to walk to Husk.  The restaurant was not open, it was too early, but their bar which is in a building next to the restaurant, was. Joe was able to make lunch reservations at Husk for Day 2 of our stay here, but couldn't get dinner reservations for either of the days we were going to be in South Carolina.  Having dinner at Husk was a big part of the reason why we were vacationing in Charleston.  Joe and Nicole had first heard of the restaurant when it was featured, along with Chef Sean Brock,who runs the restaurant, on Anthony Bourdain's series, Parts Unknown. They liked the fact that the menu would change depending upon what the local businesses were supplying the kitchen with at any given moment.  Also any food that comes into the restaurant has to come from the south so they were excited about enjoying some unique southern cooking.  Joe had heard, and our waitress at the bar confirmed, that if you showed up to the restaurant by 5:15 you could possibly get a walk-in reservation.  Joe and Soko headed next door to the restaurant at 5:00 while me and Nicole finished our drinks.  There were three groups on line already when they got there but, thankfully, Joe was able to get us a 7:30 reservation!  That gave us just enough time to check into our airbnb and run back out. Joe wanted to make sure we were near the restaurant asap because there was a chance he could be called earlier than 7:30.  He was called at 6:30!

Joe had looked at the Husk menu beforehand on their website and decided he wanted us to try the Selection of House Made Meats if it was available and it was. The presentation of the meats on a log was very cool.  We had fun comparing the different meats and giving our critiques about each one.  I have to admit that the Whipped Beef Lardo was not my cup of tea, but I really enjoyed the Peppermash Salami.  I took a look at the menu and saw Southern Fried Chicken Skins and thought we really had to have them.  I think that the best part of the chicken is the skin and then to have them fried perfectly in an amazing batter and served with a delicious ranch dressing sounded (and tasted) like heaven to me.   


We each ordered our own entree but of course we had to try a bite of each others.  Starting at the top left is Joe's entree Carolina Heritage Pork, Nicole's entree Mark's Wreckfish, my choice Confit Duck Leg and Soko's NC Chicken.  The sides that came with the proteins were so well thought out and worked perfectly with the meats and fish in each of our dishes.  We all agreed that we enjoyed Nicole's choice the most.  None of us had ever heard of wreckfish, but we learned on the episode of Parts Unknown that Chef Brock will use fish most other restaurants won't.  I described the wreckfish as having the right amount of fishyness (which is not even a word!).  It was delicious!  We all rated Husk five stars!  But five stars usually means that if you are trying to be frugal this might not be the restaurant for you. The entrees range from $30 - $34 so not too bad.  If you do plan to indulge in one extravagant meal, though, as we did, during your vacation in Charleston, SC, I don't think you will be disappointed spending your money here.

We had a long Day 1 in Charleston so it was time to relax at our airbnb.  Look for our Day 2 in next Tuesday's post where I'll tell you all about the unexpected special event we were treated to!    

















Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Using Rewards Cards At Your Favorite Gas Station



We travel by car a lot.  It suits us and our frugal lifestyle.  It is cheaper than flying and when we get to our destination we don't have to rent a car.  Since we are on a retirement budget now we really have to find the most economical ways to do things.  Sometimes we are driving to a vacation spot but most likely we are either traveling 10 hours to our snowbird home in Florida or traveling 10 hours to visit our family and friends in New York.  We stop a few times along the way for gas and coffee.  We've done these trips so many times now that Soko knows which exits in each state we need to get off to get to our favorite gas station, Pilot Flying J!



We started looking for Pilots because we noticed that they always seemed to price their gas a few cents less than the other gas stations.  Exit 104 off I95 in Virginia is where the Pilot station with the cheapest priced gas on our route to NY is located.  On our way to Florida, we'll stop at the one in Florence, SC. for the best price.  Usually a lower gas price would be enough for us to be loyal to a gas station, but now we have discovered more reasons to stop here.

Awhile back when we stopped for gas, coffee and to use the restrooms, which are always clean, we noticed that they sold a large 20 oz. coffee mug.  The sign said that this mug could be used for refills that will only cost $1.19.  Without the mug, a 20 oz. coffee costs $1.79.  We could save 60 cents every coffee stop!  On an average trip to NY Soko will stop 2 - 3 times for coffee.  I will usually only join him once during the trip.  If Soko drinks 3 cups of coffee we save $1.80.  That pays for my coffee making my coffee free!  The initial cost of the mug is $2.99 which is $1.20 more than a 20 oz. coffee costs but it definitely pays for itself after only a couple of coffee stops.


(Yes, that's Dunkin' Donuts coffee.  At the Virginia Pilot this is the coffee they brew but most of the gas stations have Pilot's exclusive coffee blends to satisfy your coffee craving.)



Pilot's great coffee deal gets even better if you have their rewards card. (You can get a card simply by asking the cashier for one).  We just give the cashier our card when we pay for our coffee and he/she updates it to include the one or two cups we just purchased.  Then we get a free 10th cup of coffee after we buy 9. On a recent road trip we actually got our two coffees for only $1.08 total.  We were not sure why though so I researched and found out that they often have weekly deals for card holders. Soko's coffee must have been free (his 10th cup) and my small $1.49 coffee was probably the weekly deal.  It was a pleasant surprise for sure!



Last, but not least, we are now getting 3 cents off a gallon when we use our rewards card.  This just happened on our last road trip.   Before Soko started to pump the gas it asked if he had a rewards card.  Then all he had to do was insert the card the same way he would our credit card and we got the reduced price. It was that easy!



There are other gas stations that have similar deals, like Wawa for one, so definitely check with your favorite station.  We signed up to join the rewards club with BP, our neighborhood gas station, and was earning cents off the price of gas but for some reason it is not working anymore and we haven't checked it out to see why.

If you like to live a frugal lifestyle like we do and get excited about saving money any way you can, you will love using your gas station reward card!