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021: Money Saving Mom Cuts Your Grocery Bill – Crystal Paine

Crystal Paine is the founder of MoneySavingMom.com, host of The Crystal Paine Show podcast, New York Times bestselling author of Say Goodbye to Survival Mode and author of the book, Money-Making Mom. She started MoneySavingMom.com in 2007 to provide practical strategies to help women cut their grocery bill and and live on less than they make. It has grown to be one of the top personal finance blogs on the web averaging over 1.5 million unique visitors per month.  

In 2017, Crystal started another blog, YourBloggingMentor.com, to teach beginning to intermediate bloggers how to make a part-time to full-time income blogging. She offers courses and blog coaching at YourBloggingUniversity.com.

Crystal has been featured on Good Morning America and FOX Business, she’s been spotlighted in articles in Woman’s Day and All You magazine; and has earned nods via The Today Show, National Public Radio, CNN, USA Weekend, Shop Smart magazine, Real Simple magazine, and numerous other national outlets. Her desire is to help women across the globe live with more passion, purpose and intention in their everyday lives. She lives in the Nashville, TN area with her husband and three kids.

In This Episode, You Will Learn:

  • How Crystal feeds her family of five for $70 a week or less.
  • The top areas where families can cut costs.
  • How to save $50 on your grocery bill this week.

Connect with Crystal:

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Interview Transcript

Crystal, thank you so much for taking time to hang with me today.

I’m so excited to talk about money today. It’s one of my favorite topics.

Not only money, but saving money. That’s the key.

Yes.

Tell me, why are you so passionate about cutting expenses and saving money?

My husband and I got married over sixteen years ago and we had set this audacious goal for him to go through law school and we were going to stay out of debt while he was doing it. We both come from families who really modeled wise money management for us. My parents actually paid off their house when I was about seven years old. They saved up, we sold the house we were living in and we moved out into the country into this construction trailer that did not have air conditioning, it didn’t have an oven and we lived in there for a number of months while my dad was the general contractor and we built a house, debt free. 

Watching my parents make those financial decisions and seeing how staying out of debt and being wise with their money, gave them the ability to be able to give more generously. It also took the stress out, that finances can cause on marriage. That really was the catalyst for my husband and I to say, “We want to stand on their shoulders and we want to take this even further.” So, we set this audacious goal for him to go through law school debt free. That, then catapulted us into setting the goal to pay cash for our first house. And as I’ve been sharing that journey online, I just realized that if people are intentional with their finances, it makes such a difference. And we can make such a difference in the world when we have our finances in order. 

When you say you paid cash for your first house, are we talking about a single-wide trailer here? What are we talking about? Are we talking about an RV?

My husband did end up going through law school debt free, so it was exciting for us to have that happen. That just inspired us to take the next step and so, our big goal was to pay cash and we decided that we were going to live on a very small income. When he was in law school, we were living on about $12,000 to $20,000 a year. So, then after he was out of law school and he graduated, he got a better job and I had started some online business stuff, so our income significantly increased. Well, it felt like it had significantly increased.

You were rich!

Yes, it was like, “Oh my word. We’re making $36,000 a year!” We realized if we just continued to live on very little, we were able to save and set aside. So, we just started saving really aggressively. We set a goal that within five years we could pay cash for a starter home in Kansas. Which, you can find a decent starter home in Kansas for about $100,000 to $120,000.

So, we’re talking to a lot of moms today and they’re saying, “This feels overwhelming.” I went to your website the last week and I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the last week and it’s like this massive black hole of saving money. I mean, there are so many resources. It is so rich and you pulled me in. What are the top areas where a family can cut expenses pretty significantly right off the bat if this is something new for them?

I always say to start with groceries because everyone has to eat and everyone has to buy groceries. This is a way for a mom to find some big wins and to then be inspired and motivated to look for other ways to save. I encourage people not to overhaul the grocery budget overnight, because if you say you’re going to cut your grocery bill by 50% overnight, you’re going to crash and burn in about four to six weeks or earlier. 

Instead start with, “We’re going to shave off one to three percent every single month.” It’s not going to feel all cool and fun and exciting, but if you consistently do that over the course of ten months and twenty months, you will have shaved so much off your grocery bill and you won’t even have noticed that you’ve done it.

Now as you have been sharing this for a long time, what are the primary objections that people start to bring up to you when you bring a message like you just shared?

 “I can’t do that.”

 “You don’t understand.” 

“We eat gluten free.” 

“We live way out in the country.” 

“I have five teenage boys.” 

“My husband would never eat beans and rice.” 

On and on and on and on. I have found that people are so quick to make objections, because they don’t want to change their life. If you can say, “I can’t do that,” then you don’t have to step back and say, “Well, what can I do?” So maybe you can’t cut your grocery bill by 40% because you live in Alaska or you live somewhere where groceries have to be flown in by helicopter, but you can do something. I try to really challenge people by saying, “Stop focusing on what you can’t do, and let’s become really creative with what you can do.”

Let’s talk about grocery shopping then, because this is where you want us to focus right off the bat. What are my first steps? I know you’ve got a lot of resources on your website, so we’re going to point people to that, but help us out today. If there were just a couple of things that I could do this week, where would you want me to begin?

I always tell people to start with a budget. I know that’s like, “Oh, man. Can’t we do something fun? I don’t want to do budgeting.” But if you don’t know how much you’re spending; you’re not going to know if you’re actually saving money. Start with the reality of how much you are actually spending. If you use a credit card or a debit card, you can go back and look; how much have you actually spent at the store the last three to four months? And pay attention to that. 

It might be scary and it might really discourage you. But at least you have a starting point to say, “Okay, we’re spending “X” amount on groceries every single month right now. How much is that per week? Okay, let’s set up a realistic grocery budget based upon those numbers, that we’re going to say, ‘We’re going to try to cut just a little bit off of that this month’.” Start with knowing your numbers. 

Okay, so you’re saying grocery budget, but I live in Southern California and the grocery budget might be small and the big budget is eating out. 

It depends, because every family is different. People are like, “Well, should it include all my food and not include food that somebody else makes for me?” You have to figure out what works for you. So, if it’s easier for you to say, “All the food that we eat,” then go for that. But for some people, just starting with groceries might be a great place. 

And then, in four months from now, you’re going to say, “Okay, now we’re going to actually have an eating out budget and a grocery budget. We’re going to pay attention and look how we can shave our eating out budget down a little bit,” and then you can get creative there. By then, maybe you will have learned some things by cutting your grocery bill, where you can say, “Oh, well if I would make two more dinners at home every week, we could actually save $40,” or more than that. 

So, I feel like when you start with things that are going to give you big wins, then it’s going to motivate you and it’s going to be progressive and all of a sudden, you get super excited, “What else can we save? What else can we do? Where else can we cut so that we can then pay off debt or be able to save for something, to stop having to just live on credit?” It will get you excited and motivated.

Step number one, look at how much you’re spending. That’s the first step, look at that budget amount. 

Yes, and then step number two is going to be planning a menu. And as part of planning that menu, you could say, “Okay, we’re going to eat out three times this week.” Plan that in, and if you want to include that in your budget or have that as a separate budget, that’s up to you and whatever works for you is great. We actually keep it as a separate budget, just because a lot of times we are very creative with how we do that and we’re looking for deals.

Plan your menu. Because if you have a plan, you know what you’re going to eat. If you don’t know what you’re going to eat, you’re going to eat, but you’re probably going to spend top dollar for that. So, when you have a plan and you work the plan, it’s going to save you money. 

So, number one is knowing my budget. Number two, plan my meals. There are lots of meal planning tools out there, but you offer some meal planning options as well. Is that correct?

Yeah, and there’s one that I really love for busy families if you don’t have time to plan your own menu. I typically always planned my menu because it’s going to be cheaper to do that. If you do it yourself, it’s always cheaper. But if you don’t have time and you’re like, “I’m not going to plan a menu unless somebody does it for me,” one that I love is Eat at Home Cooks. They offer four different menu plan services for one price. You get access to a traditional menu plan and a wholesome pan, which is more whole foods. You also get a no sugar, no flour menu plan and then a crockpot/Instapot plan. I love the crockpot/Instapot menu plan, because you can literally put dinner in the crockpot in the morning before you head out the door, and then when you get home, dinner is done. You can basically just sit down and eat. 

That is a great service if you feel like, “I need someone to do that for me,” because you get all those menu plans. You also get a color-coded grocery list and they have a choice between a small family and a large family menu plan. If people are interested in this and they want to see how this works, I actually have a series where I show you how this has worked for us. I show you the menu plan and I show you the grocery list, so you can get a really good idea. If you go to www.crystalpaine.com/eatathome, there’s a free thing that you can sign up for, where you’ll get five days and you can see how that menu plan works.

So, they’re not sending you the food? They’re giving you a list and helping you put that recipe together, so that you can make it?

Yes.

It’s kind of like Get Your Pretty On, who we just interviewed; Alison Lumbatis.

I love her, yes. My outfit today is part of her spring capsule wardrobe.

So, similar thing, but now with food. Great, alright, so what other tips would you give us? I’ve got a budget. I’m planning my meals. Now what’s next?

This is where it starts to get exciting. You’ve put the foundation in place and now you get to start building the walls and doing the décor and all the fun stuff. You’re going to start figuring out ways that you love saving money and figuring out what works for you. 

I would start paying attention to the stores that you have in your area. You might live in a really rural area and you might only have one store. That’s going to limit what you’re going to be able to do. So, instead of learning how to use digital coupons or instead of learning how to get deals at the drugstore by playing what we call, “The Drugstore Game”, which is using cashback and rebates to do that; you’re just going to say, “I’m going to start planning a menu based on what’s on sale and based upon what is inexpensive.” So instead of choosing meals that have all these expensive ingredients, you’re going to stick with that.

But if you live in an area that has more options, then I would encourage you to slowly start exploring those options and think outside the box. It might be looking at a dollar store. It might be looking at a scratch and dent store. I get grocery deals at Big Lots. It might be an Asian market. Slowly start paying attention to what your options are, and then I encourage you to pick one or two or three, that you like and that work for you. Maybe it’s on your way to going somewhere every single week, and really easy for you to just run in there and buy groceries.

Once you’ve found the stores that work for you, stick with those and figure out how to work the system for those grocery stores. Every grocery store has different things. Some of them have digital coupons. Some of them have a different rebate program. Some of them have different things where you can use printable coupons plus digital coupons. So, learning the system at your grocery store will help you to save a lot of money. 

Are you suggesting that I find out what’s on sale first, and then plan my menu? Or do I go buy the things that are on sale and then plan? How do I know what to plan, if I don’t know what’s on sale or so forth?

This is a great question and I really think it depends upon your personality. It also depends upon your store. This is more of an advanced type of thing, so start with the basics. Make sure you’re sticking with that budget and you’re planning a menu and that you feel really confident in that. Once you’ve gotten that, then you can plan your meals based upon what is on sale at the store, by going to your stores website before you plan your menu or while you’re planning your menu. That way, you can see what is on the homepage of the store’s website, because typically what is advertised on the homepage of their flyer, is what is called a “Loss Leader”. That means that they are taking a loss to get you into the store. 

You’re going to want to game the system by stocking up on those things, so that you are getting your items 50% off or less. Essentially, you’re planning your menu based on what meat or what other items, like produce, is on sale at the loss leader. By doing that, you are really able to save money. 

Once you’re comfortable doing that, you can take it to an even more advanced level and you can do what I call, “Reverse Meal Planning.” I don’t plan a menu based on what is on sale at the store, but I buy what is marked down and what is on sale every week. Then I plan my menu based upon what I already have. So, usually when I go to the store, I’m going to buy some fruit and I’m going to buy some milk and sometimes I’ll have to pick up a few other things, but by and large, I’m planning our menu based upon what I already have in the cupboards, what I already have in the freezer and what I already have in the fridge. And because I’ve gotten those items that I have at rock bottom prices – we’re talking maybe it was free or maybe I even got paid to buy it or it was for sure 50% off; then I’m always saving so much on our grocery bill, but we’re also able to have a lot of variety. 

We stick with a $70 grocery budget and we eat really well on that $70 because I’m probably getting $350 to $400 worth of groceries a lot of weeks, for $70. I’m buying the things when they’re on their lowest price and when they’re marked down and I’m stacking coupons and rebates with them.

How many meals does that $70 purchase? Are you eating breakfast at home? Lunches for the kids? And how many nights are you eating at home on that?

Typically, we are eating at home every night but one. On rare exceptions more than that, but typically we only eat out once a week and we plan that in our budget and our meal plan like I talked about. The kids have a few lunches at school, but for the most part, they’re bringing their lunches and breakfasts are at home. So, most all of our meals for our family of five are on that $70 a week. 

Okay, so here’s one of the biggest objections that I know that you must hear. I work for myself from home, I’m hustling, I’m making things happen with my businesses, my wife is a fulltime kindergarten teacher. We have a 19 year old daughter, a 16 year old son, they both live at home. For my wife and I to talk through this, the issue is time. So many people must bring to you the issue of time. This feels so overwhelming Crystal. Are you kidding me? How much time am I going to have to spend to do this?

I really encourage people, when you are thinking about any type of money saving tactic, you have to think about how much you’re saving per hour. When I go to the grocery store, I’m typically saving at least $40 to $50 per hour by going to the store. That’s tax free money too. So, if you think about, what’s a good hourly wage for you? Is it worth it for you to invest 30 minutes to save $25? If it’s not and if you’re making $500 an hour, maybe it’s not worth it and maybe it would be better for you to focus on just making more money and for you to go out to eat every meal. But for a lot of families, if they can invest 1 to 2 hours per week and it can save them $50 to $100 per week, that is worth your time.

I always think about, “How much am I saving per hour?” I was just talking about this the other day because some people are saying, “You should garden.” I’m like, “I did the math on gardening and by the time I buy the stuff, plan the garden, plant the stuff, water, weed, harvest and all this, I would probably be saving about $2 an hour and that’s just not worth my time.” If you love gardening and that’s something you’re passionate about and you want to do that, great. But if you’re just doing it to save money, make sure that’s it’s actually saving you money. Focus on the big wins and less on the small things, unless you just don’t have any money and you’ve got a lot of time.

And then your nails are going to be all jacked up. I mean, come on. Who has time to garden?

And have to take two showers a day.

Okay, what about health and beauty and household supplies? I know this whole thing that you’re calling “The Drugstore Game” is really fascinating. Give people a taste of that.

It used to be really amazing and they’ve kind of cracked down because people got really good at this system. When my husband was in law school, I discovered “The Drugstore Game” and at that point they had no limits. So, every week at CVS, you could literally go in and you could buy, for example, toothpaste. You would buy the toothpaste and then it would print out what was called the “Extra Care” box. It was this reward that you could use like cash the next time you went to shop. So, you could spend $2.99 for the tube of toothpaste and then you would get $2.99 back and you could do that as many times, for as many tubes of toothpaste they had on the shelf. 

No one else had discovered this at the store, so I was literally the only one who was doing it. Then I would use coupons and there would be a $0.75 off coupon, so I would use a coupon to buy the toothpaste. So, it turned out I would be making money every time, because I’d just role this. There would also be coupons that would print from their store coupon machine that sometimes would be $5.00 off a $15 purchase. So, I’m just going in there and I’m getting $50 worth of stuff every single week and I may be spending $0.27. I just kept increasing it. We got thousands of dollars’ worth of stuff and we literally had amassed 100 tubes of toothpaste that I’d gotten paid to get every single one of them. I sold them at a garage sale and made money on them as well. 

The system doesn’t work quite like that anymore. They do have limits, they’ve gotten smart. But at Walgreens, Rite Aid and CVS, every week they’re going to have certain things, that if you buy them, you’re going to get some type of rebate back and you can also use coupons with this as well. Sometimes they will have a $5.20 coupon that you can stack as well. That’s more complicated and it’s more complex. It’s for people who love strategy and they make this their hobby. A lot of times it will be the hygiene products, it will be makeup, hair products and sometimes the higher end products, but there are ways where you can really get it for pennies on the dollar if you’re really smart with how you do that.

When I was a kid, the main big box store was K-Mart and they had their “Blue Light Special”. You’re probably not old enough for this, but they actually had a blue light that would flash and people would literally run to that section of the store in order to see what the Blue Light Special was and then buy it because of their fear of missing out. K-Mart is so uncool in our area. Nobody goes to K-Mart anymore. I can’t even believe the thing’s open; everybody goes to Target.

Are there even K-Mart’s? Didn’t they close a whole bunch of them? I didn’t even know places had K-Mart anymore.

Yes, I know. There’s still a K-Mart near us. They have an app, where they’re constantly giving away money, “Spend $50, get $25 back in cash”, or something like that. I’m not a big saver like you are, but I’m inspired by this. I’d tell my wife, “Look at this. They’re giving us money to go shop there. This is crazy. I can’t believe they’re actually doing this.” We bought Christmas gifts there for kid’s toys – it’s the same toy, okay? Nobody has to see me going into K-Mart. I’m not going to be embarrassed here. Or we’d buy household supplies, whether it’s toilet paper or whatever. So, I get where you’re going here. 

You have a lot of resources on your website, but I know you’ve got one that’s just come out that I think would be really helpful for people. Tell us a little bit about that.

For people who are just getting started with this and they’re like, “Can you just give me some tangible, practical ways that I can cut my grocery bill today, this week?” I have this freebie that you can download, it’s called Ten Ways to Save $50 on Your Grocery Budget This Week. In this, I walk you through some of my top ten tips. Some of them are ones like budgeting, but other ones are really outside the box of how I use Swag Bucks and earn free Amazon credit to buy groceries, so that you can get free groceries. So, some tips like that. If you to go www.moneysavingmom.com/grocerybudget, you can download that completely free.

Great, www.moneysavingmom.com/grocerybudget; Ten ways to save $50 every week, that is awesome. Crystal, I’m inspired. You’ve got me wanting to save money now. I eat out all the time, my goodness, what am I going to do? I don’t know what you’re doing to me. You’re changing my life and you bought a house for cash, what the heck? Did you just show up with a bag of ones or something, like a piggy bank?

It was really funny; we’ve since then upgraded and we’ve bought multiple houses. But the first time, it was so funny. They were like, “Wait, hold up. We don’t have to work with the bank? We don’t even have to worry about the lender thing?” They were so confused. They couldn’t figure out how to have this transaction happen. 

But we were just laughing because we drove our old van there  – this clunker. We drove to our new house in this clunker and we paid cash for it, but we were just happy. This is how it goes; we prioritize the house and eventually we’re going to get a new van. Priorities people. It’s okay, you can drive that clunker car until it can’t be driven anymore. But it was really fulfilling to work so hard for a goal and to live so frugally for so long. We learned so much about contentment, because now that our income has changed significantly, we’re just happy with little, because we learned that stuff isn’t what equals happiness. 

That totally makes sense. I love that. Crystal, thank you for all that you’re doing. You’re making a huge difference in families lives and I just appreciate that and I love your energy and passion for helping us save money. Thank you.

You’re so welcome. I feel like I have the best job in the world, because I get to do something that I’m so passionate about. I get to help families and I get to stay at home with my kids while I do it.  


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