Food inflation has been in the news for months, but even so, every time I go to the grocery store I’m shocked at the prices. $4.50 for a bag of Doritos? $4.69 per pound for chicken breasts? For my family of 5, I could easily spend upwards of $600 a month. And that’s just not in my budget.
Groceries are one area where I feel like I can make a considerable dent in my monthly budget. My mortgage isn’t going to change, and even though we use lots of energy cutting strategies, the electric bill doesn’t go down all that significantly. With more attention to planning and a little more effort toward actual cooking, I can cut that $600 to about $300 a month.
How, you may ask?
1. Cook meals from scratch. Convenience has its price. You pay more for ease of preparation, and with some convenience foods, you may pay in terms of your health. Processed foods are often higher in sodium and additives. Rather than buying pre-seasoned rice mixes, cook some brown rice on the stove-top or in a rice cooker, add a little butter, salt, and some herbs (a little dried oregano and basil are especially yummy). And rather than buying pre-sliced, pre-chopped vegetables, just buy the real thing and chop it yourself. It’s really not THAT much extra work. The “baby carrots” are more expensive than a bag of whole carrots (even organic whole carrots are cheap!). Save labor-intensive meals for weekends or special occasions, and go with a grilled or baked protein, steamed vegetable, fresh fruit, and (maybe) a starch for dinners throughout the week.
2. Create a meal plan each week. Map out your week’s meals on Sunday afternoon, using what you already have on hand or the sale items you’ve picked up for the week. By deciding what you’ll eat each night, you eliminate the stress of deciding at the last minute what to cook–figuring out what you have to work with, making an extra trip to the store, or (in my case) grabbing takeout just because it’s easier. If your meal plan involves items that are currently frozen and need to be thawed, your meal plan will remind you to put the food in the refrigerator the night before to thaw. You can even do the prep work (chopping, shredding, etc.) the night before if you have time, placing it in a ziplock bag in the fridge for the next day.
3. Eat what’s in season. When I was a kid, you couldn’t get strawberries in the middle of December because they weren’t “in season.” You just had to wait until spring when they began to ripen on farms in your region. When my grandfather was a kid, he’d never even heard of a banana; in fact, he tried one for the first time while in the Army at age 19! We’ve come a long way…modern transportation has enabled us to get pretty much whatever we want whenever we want it. You can have red bell peppers in winter if you want them. Unfortunately, the shipping costs are passed along, too…..you’ll pay $2-$3 for that pepper. In the summer when there are tons of peppers, they’re super cheap (I’ve bought them many times for between $0.33 and $0.50 each). By shopping for fruits and vegetables that are in season in your area (it varies depending on your USDA zone), you’ll pay less. And if you have freezer space or know how to can, you can save yourself money by buying in bulk when foods are in season and then putting them up to use in winter. We’re still eating sliced, frozen bell peppers I bought this summer in fajitas and stir-fry, and working on a 30-lb. box of sweet potatoes I bought in the fall!
4. Plant a garden and grow the EXPENSIVE stuff. This may not be possible for everyone, but you can save a lot of money by growing your own fruits and vegetables (or at least some of them). I’ve gardened for several years, starting with tomatoes in 5-gallon buckets on my back porch. I’ve learned a lot along the way, with the main lesson being that if you can buy it cheaply at the store, DON’T GROW IT. It’s just not worth the garden space. Example: Carrots and peas. Carrots are cheap at the store, and (at least in my experience) take up space with little return. The quality of homegrown carrots isn’t all that superior to store-bought anyway. Peas take up space, and yield very little (though their taste is far superior to store-bought). Cabbage isn’t worth the trouble; it attracts cabbage loopers and is always dirt cheap in the store. To get more bang for your buck, grow heirloom tomatoes, pole beans (they produce a lot!), specialty lettuce (you’ll have more than you can eat), and anything you think you may can or freeze for winter. If you have lots of space, corn is a good idea (it just takes up a LOT of room). Raspberries and strawberries yield a lot, just make sure you have the space to grow them. If not, buying from a “you-pick” farm is a great way to go when they are in season.
5. Buy in bulk. This is a tricky one. Some items are a great deal when bought in bulk, others not so much. Pretty much any fruit or vegetable, when bought in season at a local farmers’ market or farm, is cheap to buy in bulk. Eat your fill, and then freeze or can the rest in various forms. It gets tricky when you start talking about bulk-buying clubs, like Sam’s or Costco. Sometimes those items are cheaper, sometimes not. You have to do a little math and compare the unit price (cost per ounce, per item, etc.). It’s the same with “bulk bins” at grocery stores. I’ve found that bulk spices are generally a good buy at buying clubs and grocery stores, and oftentimes I can buy things like trash bags, paper towels, toilet paper, dish detergent, and laundry detergent at Sam’s cheaper than at the grocery store (although now I make my own detergent, using the Duggar “recipe”……..WAY cheaper!!). You just have to do your homework.
6. Avoid restaurants, unless you have a coupon or there’s a great deal. We really don’t eat out much. I’ve found that most meals I have in a restaurant can easily be replicated at home, MUCH cheaper. Plus, I can control what goes into it and how it’s prepared (usually my recipe is much less fattening!). That being said, I do think my family deserves a night out once in a while. I also think that in order for my children to learn how to behave in a restaurant, they need to actually have the chance to be in one once in awhile. I don’t want them to go to college and have no idea how to speak to a waiter, leave a proper tip, etc. So I look for restaurants that offer free kids’ meals or special deals throughout the week. Most deals are available on weeknights, when the restaurant’s business is slower and they want to entice more customers to come in. Also, be creative with ordering–there’s a seafood restaurant near us that offers HUGE portions, so my husband and I ask for an extra plate so we each can share with our younger children. Some restaurant charge a small fee for sharing, but it’s often not enough to equal another meal (and they’re usually less fussy about it if you are sharing with a child). Another restaurant in our area offers “buy one, get one free” deals on gift certificates around Christmas time. We buy a $50 gift card for $25, and save 50%. There are also good deals offered on sites such as Groupon, Deal Chicken, Restaurant.com, and others. This week, Restaurant.com is offering many $25 gift certificates for just $3 (promo code BEADS…..and be sure to read ALL the fine print to make sure it’s truly a good deal for you). If you’re like our family and can’t go completely without a restaurant experience once in awhile, using these tips can save you a lot of money.
7. When you find a great deal, STOCK UP! If an item you use frequently goes on sale at a great price, stock up if it’s within your budget. For instance, a couple of weeks ago my local supermarket had boneless skinless chicken breasts for $1.69 per pound (the normal price is $4.69 per pound). Rather than just buy a couple of packages, I BOUGHT 10. Yes, 10. You’re right, that’s an ungodly amount of chicken…..but I’m bound to need more chicken soon, and I’d rather buy it now at the cheap price than later at the expensive regular price. I got about 30 pounds of chicken for $55, saving me (according to the receipt) a whopping $86! Now storing all that chicken would be a challenge if I didn’t have a chest freezer, so you might have to scale back a little if you just have your regular refrigerator’s freezer (although I was very efficient with space back when I had just that!).
8. Shop at discount stores. I must admit, this was one I was hesitant to try at first. You know, the “scratch and dent,” close to being past-its-prime stores? The one in our region is the Grocery Outlet, but there are lots of others out there. I was a little grossed out at the thought of buying expired (or close to it) foods. But upon visiting, I was actually surprised to find that you can find some decent food (and deals) at these stores. I will say, I don’t often buy the produce. The produce at my local store is often “gnatty” (it’s not a word, but I know you know what I mean) and soft, and I cannot bring myself to buy it. But I’ve bought canned whole tomatoes (excellent for pureeing into sauce or salsa), giant containers of rolled oats, condiments, salad dressings, and cereals that weren’t that close to the expiration date for dirt cheap. Some items are about the same as the grocery store, so know your basic prices.
Another discount store I love is Aldi. If you’re health-conscious you HAVE to read labels here, but you can find good stuff. I buy a lot of our snacks here, like tortilla chips, pretzel rods, cashews, and hummus. My kids prefer the Aldi hummus to the local gourmet kind I was buying at the health-food store!
9. Coupon, WITHIN REASON. I confess, I did a brief stint as an extreme couponer. Actually, I was an extreme couponer when extreme couponing wasn’t cool (eat your heart out, Barbara Mandrell). For about a year, I devoted an INSANE amount of time scouring the websites for deals……I even did a few coupon trains, bought coupons on Ebay, and at one point bought 30 bags of frozen microwave-steam veggies for tax only. Rolling my CVS bucks and everything, paying next-to-nothing for my food and beauty products……it was like crack cocaine!
Why did I quit? Well, because I was spending more time looking for deals and driving all over town (4-5 grocery stores a weekend, more stores on weekends) than I was with my family! And we were eating food I would never have bought if I was buying based on the actual MERIT of the food. Lots of Fiber One products. And no one in our family even needs extra fiber! The time lost, the gas wasted…..well, what I was saving on groceries I was spending elsewhere in gas and time.
So……use coupons if you can. On products you would buy anyway. Match them up with sales to get extra bang for your buck. But don’t buy food that isn’t healthy for you or that you wouldn’t consider eating any other time, just because it’s free. It’s rare that I use a coupon at all anymore, unless it’s at a restaurant for a splurge night out. And I consistently feed my crew of 5 for about $300 a month (much less in the summer, when the garden is in full swing). Cheaper with my current tricks than with the coupons, and WAY healthier.
10. Make a list, and stick to it. This tip is nothing new. Impulsive buying kills many a household budget. Sit down with a cup of coffee the night before or morning of your shopping day, along with your sales papers (or computer, with the store flyers in view). I do this on a Saturday morning, and make lists for the farmer’s market, Aldi, and Walmart (on Sunday morning, I check the new inserts to see if I need to grab something that’s a crazy good deal on the way home from church). I go to my stores, with list in hand, WITHOUT my children, and do my shopping. I love my babies, but if I go with them I am stressed, rushed, and the temptation is far too great to quiet them with extra stuff. Do not buy anything that you have not put on your list!!
Personally, I also shop for groceries once a month. This may not work with your particular situation, but I find that it really helps me save money. I do make a trip for milk or fresh fruit if needed throughout the month, but that’s it. I freeze a lot of stuff (including breads, cottage cheese, and hummus) to make it last, and it forces me to work with what I have all month. If we don’t have it on hand, it is not an ingredient in what I make. I allow once bottle of juice per week…..it we drink it up, we drink water or tea. We’re running low on snacks this week, so tonight I’m making my own to last the rest of the week……homemade Rice Krispie treats, Chex snack mix (minus the pretzels and bagel chips, because we’re out!), and chocolate chip cookies. And if those don’t last through the end of February, I’m sure I can bake something (I always have baking supplies on hand in the pantry!).
Remember, BABY STEPS. Try implementing a couple of tips in your grocery budgeting, then add as you feel comfortable. Remember, every little bit helps!