McHenry County Local News

McHenry County residents try to budget during climbing inflation

Families find creative ways to save, make meals last, find best gas prices

Kathy Wendhack prepares dinner for her husband, Kurt, on Tuesday, June 21, 2022, using leftover barbecue chicken and strawberries that she purchased with a digital coupon at their home in Del Webb's Sun City neighborhood in Huntley. Wendhack is trying to fight inflation by using coupons and tricks to make meals last longer.

As the cost of most everything rises, Kathy Wendhack of Huntley has enlisted some tricks to save a few bucks.

The 64-year-old retired bookkeeper has learned to make meals stretch for days, drive slower in the middle lane to save gas and take advantage of senior citizen discounts and reward programs to see movies in theaters for free, complete with free nachos, popcorn and refillable sodas.

Wendhack, who retired early because of the COVID-19 pandemic, currently cares for her husband, Kurt Wendhack, and her mother, JoAnne Pieroni. She lives on a fixed income in a home she recently bought in the Del Webb Sun City community and, like many McHenry County families, is feeling the pinch of cost increases on just about all the basic necessities needed to live.

“I was renting and then last year I bought my home, and everything was going fine, then all of a sudden it crashed,” Wendhack said.

Consumer prices climbed 8.6% from a year earlier, the federal government reported in May.

The continuing inflation has been fueled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, clogged global supply chains, labor shortages and soaring demand for all sorts of services and products, leading the Federal Reserve to increase interest rates and the president to propose a federal gas tax holiday, the Associated Press reported.

High gas prices and the cost of a hotel means Teresa Hawkins, retired and living in McHenry, will not be attending a family reunion in Bloomington this year, missing the first time her family has gotten together since before COVID-19.

Fuel prices on Thursday, June 2, 2022, at the Thorntons gas station at the intersection of Chapel Hill Road and Route 120 in McHenry. Fuel prices reached a new high this week.

She’s found other smaller, creative ways to save money too.

Before going to the grocery store, Hawkins looks in the freezer to see what is left, plans her meals for the week, looks for the sales and always buys store brands. She often buys items just before expiration dates when they’re 40% off. She will either cook those items the day of or repackage and freeze them to ensure they are safe to eat later.

Hawkins, who said she was raised by parents who lived during the Great Depression and passed on many cost-savings lessons, uses a six-part muffin pan when making meatloaf, giving her six mini meatloaves instead of one large one.

She also uses a countertop air fryer to make larger portions that she then divvies up and freezes for another day. If she makes a whole pot roast, she will cut it up and freeze individual portions in baggies.

One other trick Hawkins found to save money is ordering groceries online and picking them up curbside.

“Doing curbside all the time, you don’t impulse buy,” Hawkins said. “During [COVID-19], I didn’t go into a store for months. But when I did, [I] see cookies in the bakery, candy bars in the check-out lane. Those are not the kinds of things you order when you are doing a curbside order. When you are doing a curbside order, you are not getting all the extras, and I lost weight because I was not buying a bunch of crap food.”

Nicole Davis, a single mom of three children ages 17, 15 and 11, also appreciates the cost-saving benefits of ordering groceries online.

Kathy Wendhack prepares dinner for her husband, Kurt, on Tuesday, June 21, 2022, using leftover barbecue chicken and strawberries that she purchased with a digital coupon at their home in Del Webb's Sun City neighborhood in Huntley. Wendhack is trying to fight inflation by using coupons and tricks to make meals last longer.

The 41-year-old McHenry woman adds to her online shopping cart as she notices items are needed and places one order each week on a specific day. When the food is gone, her children know they must wait until the day comes back around to order again.

“It cuts down on the extra spending on food,” said Davis, who took on a second job when she noticed about a $1,200 gap between income and expenses. “I try really hard to limit how many times a day my kids are eating.”

Jennifer Rooney, a consumer education teacher at Woodstock North High School who works with students on budgeting skills, said she tries to help students build a positive mindset about money management, an “extremely important” skill, especially today.

“Knowing exactly how much money you have coming in and tracking expenditures so you can make informed decisions on spending is key,” Rooney said. “With a good budget system, it is easier to recognize discretionary expenses that may be able to be reduced.”

Expenses to consider cutting when necessary are cable, cellphone plans, entertainment, luxury itemsnand eating out, Rooney said.

If Huntley’s Wendhack happens to find she has “a few extra bucks,” she and her husband or daughter will eat out, but they go where she has a coupon or where the restaurant has an app that provides cost savings up front and accumulates discounts for future savings.

Last week, she and her daughter ate at a fast-food restaurant, and because she tracked and accumulated points, they each got a free drink. She said she keeps track of restaurants that offer discounts and point systems.

Kathy Wendhack prepares dinner for her husband, Kurt, on Tuesday, June 21, 2022, using leftover barbecue chicken and strawberries that she purchased with a digital coupon at their home in Del Webb's Sun City neighborhood in Huntley. Wendhack is trying to fight inflation by using coupons and tricks to make meals last longer.

The days of buying name-brand groceries, cleaning supplies, toiletries and other items are gone for her. She buys only what is on sale and what is needed at the time. One thing she will not give up, however, is her favorite coffee.

“We make do with what we have, and I’ve become very inventive with meals,” Wendhack said.

For example, one night she had friends over and made tacos for everyone. The next night, she used the leftover veggies, crunched up the taco shells, added some nuts and created a salad.

Hawkins said she may eat out in a restaurant twice a month, but the day she realized that going out to an inexpensive, sit-down, chain restaurant for a hamburger, French fries and a soda costs $25 “was a wakeup call.”

“For $25, I could buy enough food to make five or six meals for myself,” Hawkins said.

She no longer makes her daily Starbucks run or buys the pricier shampoo for color-treated hair. She has given up her favorite diet soda, unless she finds it on sale, for less expensive iced tea or flavored sparkling water. But she won’t give up is real butter. She buys in bulk and freezes it.

To save gas, Hawkins plans and combines errands, never running out for just one purpose. For example, she normally shops for groceries on the weekend, but recently had a doctor’s appointment in Crystal Lake, so she waited until that day to grocery shop.

Wendhack said she also plans out her errands and buys gas from stations affiliated with big box stores where it tends to be cheaper.

Hawkins said she never lived like this before, especially not when she worked full time and was raising children.

“I worked a lot of long hours,” she said of her 39-year career with Chicago and North Western Railway. “I just stopped wherever on my way home and grabbed what I needed.”