How to Get the Best Value on Grocery Store Meat

The best way to stretch your grocery budget when buying meat is to buy inexpensive cuts like bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs and tough cuts of beef and pork that you simmer in the slow cooker for hours.

At least, that's what I thought. I was wrong.

After months of blowing our grocery budget, I decided it was time to get back on track to my goal of spending just $285 a month. (If this sounds really low, it's because we go out to eat a few times a week.)

The best way to stretch the budget for two people who like to eat meat at almost every meal turns out to be purchasing boneless, skinless chicken breasts on sale.

You'd never think that a cut of meat that requires more labor--someone, or some machine, has to butcher the bird, remove the bones, remove the skin, and trim off lots of fat and gristle--would be the most economical. But I've found this to be true.

A local, low-budget grocery store puts this cut on sale for $1.59 a pound every few weeks, and we stock up then. We cut all the unsavory parts that remain off the breasts, which takes about 40 minutes for 12 pounds of similar sized cuts of meat that will cook in roughly equal amounts of time. We then freeze them in bags containing 1.5 pounds each, since that's how much we like to cook at one time. Cooking weeknight dinners becomes really convenient, because we now have premium, perfectly trimmed pieces of meat at a fraction of the cost.

But the trimming process leaves about 1-2 pounds of fat with pieces of meat mixed in. We used to toss this out, figuring that we were still coming out ahead overall, and that the time it would take to cut the meat more precisely wasn't worth it (the 80/20 principle). But I've discovered that I can toss all of the scraps into a crock pot on low for a few hours, melt the fat away, and be left with mostly usable scraps of chicken breast that are great for mixing with a sauce or putting in omelets, quesadillas, enchiladas, or any other dish that's good with small pieces of meat. I still lose whatever I paid per pound for the chicken fat, but I lose less than 10% of what I purchased, or about 16 cents per pound.

Bone-in, skin-on chicken legs, on the other hand, cost me 69 cents a pound on sale, and I lose a whopping two-thirds of that in bones, fat, gristle and skin that gets thrown out (maybe you like to use some of these things for stock, but I don't). I have a kitchen scale, so I actually did the math--I'm not just eyeballing it. That means I'm effectively paying $2.10 to get one pound of useable meat, still doing plenty of labor to separate out the edible meat, and getting a less healthy product (though dark meat simmered in its own fat in a slow cooker certainly is tasty!). The same goes for pork shoulder, which might cost $1.69 a pound and similarly loses 2/3 of its weight after subtracting skin, bones and fat.

Would it be cheaper to eat rice and beans, or quinoa, or other vegetable sources of protein? Maybe. But we like meat, so we find ways to make it as affordable as possible.

Photo: quiddle

Ally Weakens the Best Feature of Its CDs

Starting December 7, Ally Bank will increase its early withdrawal penalties for 3-, 4- and 5-year CDs from 60 days' interest to 90, 120 and 150 days’ interest, respectively. 

While these penalties are still lower than those of many other banks, it’s a significant increase in penalty, and means you need to re-evaluate whether to renew or purchase a long-term CD with Ally.

I like Ally CDs because of their clear terms, $0 minimums and simple account-opening process. But I question whether it's the best place for you to hold a CD.

For the foreseeable future, perhaps into 2016, we expect the Federal Reserve to continue keeping interest rates artificially low. Interest rates eventually have to increase, though. You don't want to be locked into a long-term CD when rates go up, because you want to be able to earn the higher rate. But the best way to get the highest rates now is to get a long-term CD. That's what makes low early withdrawal penalties so important to consumers, and a potential source of trouble for Ally. You want the penalty to be low enough that you can close your CD early and still come out ahead by opening a new CD at the higher rate. (You can use an online calculator to see how much higher new CD rates need to be to make paying an early withdrawal penalty worthwhile.) Banks want the early withdrawal penalties to be high enough to discourage you from closing the CD early, so they can keep paying the lower rate. But they still have to keep penalties and rates attractive enough to get your business over their competitors.

The interest rates Ally pays on its CDs are not the highest out there, unless you renew your CD and get Ally's 0.25% interest rate loyalty bump. To find out whether Ally will remain a top choice for 3-, 4- and 5-year CDs after its early withdrawal penalties go up, read my new article at, "Ally Weakens The Best Feature Of Its CDs."

The Citi ThankYou Premier Card's New 50,000 Point Signup Bonus Has a Major Catch

Citibank is now offering 50,000 bonus ThankYou points when you are approved for the ThankYou Premier credit card and meet not one but two sets of spending requirements.

The first is that you spend at least $2,000 within three months of opening your account. If you do, you'll get 20,000 ThankYou points.

The second is that you spend at least $3,000 in months 13, 14 and 15 of being an account holder. If you do, you'll get 30,000 more ThankYou points. But you'll also have to pay the card's $125 annual fee, which is only waived in year 1.

Have you ever seen a card that made you wait 15 months to earn the full bonus? 

You can get more details about the offer in my post over at Bankaholic. But are are some additional details about how much this offer is really worth, depending on how you redeem your ThankYou points.

The application website advertises that the 50,000 ThankYou points are worth up to $500 in gift cards or $625 in airfare.

Given the offer’s spending requirements, the card’s rewards structure and its redemption options, here’s the most and least you could get out of the new Citi Premier deal, taking into account both the bonus points and the 5,000 to 15,000 additional points you'll earn while meeting the spending requirements.

Most: Spend $2,000 on your usual restaurant and entertainment purchases within three months. A lot of people don’t spend this much on restaurants and entertainment in a three-month period, and it would be counterproductive to change your spending habits just to maximize this bonus. But let’s say you and your spouse both eat out for lunch at work every day and go out for more meals on the weekends. You’ll easily earn 6,000 ThankYou points for your spending, in addition to the 20,000 bonus points, for a total of 26,000 ThankYou points.

If you redeem them for travel, they’re worth 25% more, so you’ve got $325 in airfare for the first part of the bonus.

In year two, you do the same thing with $3,000 and earn 9,000 points plus the 30,000 bonus, for a total of 39,000 points worth $487.50 in airfare.

Subtract the $125 annual fee you’ll pay in year two and you’ll net $362.50 in airfare.

All told, you’ll wring $687.50 out of the signup bonus.

But wait, there's more. You'll earn miles when you fly on your free ticket, since it isn't technically a frequent flyer ticket. If you fly from LAX to JFK round trip (4,950 miles) and points are worth 1 penny apiece, that’s another $49.50 earned, assuming you redeem your frequent flyer miles in the near future.

Least: You don’t spend much on dining, entertainment, airfare or hotels, so you earn just 2,000 ThankYou points (1 point per dollar) from the $2,000 you spend in your first three months. You decide to redeem your 22,000 points for gift cards because you rarely fly anywhere.

While you can get $100 gift cards to a few stores by redeeming 10,000 ThankYou points, you don't shop at any of those stores, so you're left with the 6,000 points for a $50 gift card options. You decide to redeem 18,000 points for $150 in Home Depot gift cards, which leaves you with an odd 4,000 points. You decide to use those to pay for an Amazon purchase worth about $30. Citi's Pay with Points feature has a slightly lower redemption rate than the store gift cards do. Unfortunately, there are no Amazon gift cards. So far the bonus has given you $180.

In year two, you earn 33,000 points, which you again redeem for gift cards and a small Amazon purchase, together worth about $275. After subtracting the annual fee of $125, you're netting just $150 for spending that second $3,000. And your total rewards are worth just $330. That's not so great.

If your situation sounds more like the "least" example, consider applying instead for the Citi ThankYou Preferred card, which offers 20,000 points after spending $1,500 within three months of account opening, but doesn’t have the 25% flight redemption bonus and only offers 2 points per $1 spent on dining and entertainment. Or, get the Premier card, but ditch it before the annual fee hits and don't worry about earning the second part of the bonus.

Photo: Philip Taylor PT

Don't get stuck with a tough-to-sell condo

Photo: The Pug Father

Condos are great if you don't want the maintenance hassles of a single family home. They can also be a more affordable option.

But condo life isn't part of most people's long-term home ownership plans. The National Association of Homebuilders says that more than half of condo owners move within six years of purchase.

If you're shopping for a condo, you'd be wise to think about its resale potential before you buy. Do you know which floors, bedroom counts and layouts are the most desirable? Which amenities buyers care about most? Which locations within the condo building your should avoid? My new article, Don't get stuck with a tough-to-sell condo, has answers to these questions and more tips for making the best condo-buying decision.

How to replace your front door

Photo: Ken Doerr

Did you know that replacing your front door is one of the most effective ways to increase your home's value? Your front door is part of your home's curb appeal, and it will influence what people expect to see when they enter your house. In other words, making a good first impression is valuable.

Front doors come in three materials: fiberglass, wood, and metal. You'll also need to decide what color to paint it, whether to add a storm door or a metal security door, and whether to repair or replace your front door yourself or hire a pro.

For help making these decisions and more, see what the real estate and home improvement experts I interviewed have to say about making smart choices for your front door in my article, How to replace your front door.

How to buy a condo with confidence

Photo: Mesa Royale

Buying a condo is trickier than buying a house, because you’ll be sharing living space and financial responsibilities with other condo owners.

Buyers should look at a condo purchase as an investment in not just a property, but also a business: the homeowners association, says Gail Pizetoski, who owns Condo & HOA Smart, which provides due-diligence reports on homeowners associations for prospective buyers.

Make sure the association is not just financially sound, but also structurally sound, by reviewing HOA meeting minutes and talking to building residents, she says.

“Many owners aren’t aware of the full range of their responsibilities before they buy their condo,” Pizetoski says.

After all, the HOA manages the structure, community maintenance and landscaping.
Buyers should ask for the association’s audited financial statements, current statements and budgets to see if there is enough money to fund the operating budget and if enough is being put aside for repairs and long-term improvements, says Katie Wethman, a Realtor with Keller Williams in Washington, D.C.
Learn more in my article that covers 5 smart moves to help you choose the right condo.