Saturday, October 2, 2010

How to blow your grocery budget in five easy steps

Jordan and I have gotten serious lately about grocery shopping. A few weeks ago we ordered a copy of Family Feasts and Jordan, being the better cook, read through it for ideas. (Jordan is fabulously frugal and I love that, although I do think I deserve a little of the credit--I introduced him to yard sales!) He also started taking an accounting class this fall. When he came home he went on and on about how some of the principles he was learning could help us manage our household budget. He started using a free computer program to track spending and see where our money was going. That's when he discovered we were spending, oh, at least twice what we thought we were at the grocery store in a month.

That explained a lot. We had never blown money on the usual things like lattes, manicures, and fast food, but there was obviously a leak somewhere in our budget because, despite our best intentions, we weren't where we expected to be at the end of the month. We are still learning how to tangle with the tricky grocery store and come out on top, but here are a few things we've figured out so far.

How to blow your grocery budget in five easy steps:

1) Don't plan meals or make a list. Just peruse the shelves and let the items you see jog your memory about some of your favorite recipes. Do the best you can to remember all the ingredients. You can always run back to the store later if you forget one.

It's embarrassing to admit we did this because it seems like such an obviously bad idea, but it's not like we did it on purpose. We'd be driving past the store and decide to take the opportunity to stop, desperate to quickly get in and out with our whiny children and have something halfway nutritious to feed them for the next few days. We ended up with nearly all the things we needed to make several different meals. Some of the perishable stuff would go to waste because we never got around to making it.

2) Don't worry about the dollar amount you want to spend on a particular shopping trip. Just buy only what you think you really need and it'll work itself out.

We meant well. We'd go through the produce section, for example, and pick out a bunch of different stuff. It's not that our choices were bad, it's just that we overestimated the amount of fruits and vegetables we could possibly prepare and eat before they rotted. Our eyes (well, mostly my eyes) were bigger than our stomachs. Now we select one or two things from the produce section to eat, plus whatever we know we are going to use for a recipe. If we need more, we can buy more on our get-us-through-to-the-next-big-shopping-day return trip.

Last night was our best shopping trip yet. Before we went, I thought through what I'd like to make for the upcoming week and what we could make to use up things we already had in the kitchen. I estimated prices on the list as well, and came up with a dollar amount we should be able to stay under. We went to the store, got everything on the list plus several things we saw that were on sale, and only spent around $50--a major accomplishment for us!

3) Go through your cookbooks and find at least four recipes you'd like to use for the coming week. Stock all the necessary ingredients during your big shopping trip so you'll be ready.

This one sounds okay at first, but we've proven it's not! Several times we've gotten all "we're responsible now too, just look at our groceries" and done this. It always backfires. We end up with more food than we can use and throw a lot of it out. Often when you're cooking with fresh food, the way we do for pizzas, you don't use up all the ingredients you buy. Those leftover fresh foods could be used to make another recipe. Last week we made our favorite pizza: alfredo sauce, feta cheese, spinach, mushrooms, and black olives. We had alfredo sauce, spinach, and mushrooms left over, so a couple of days later I threw all that plus some carrots in with some pasta and made a cheesy pasta bake. And I was way, way too proud of myself.

4) Let your desire for soda and ice cream justify your irrational urge to take advantage of the "meal deal."

We used to buy Bi-Lo meal deals. They usually consisted of a frozen pizza or two which you paid full price for, and then, for example, you'd get ice cream, soda, microwaveable cheesesticks and perhaps one other thing for free. If you add up the cost of all those items and factor in that you are only paying $10 or so for all of it, then yes, you might have "saved" $10 or more. However, once we realized that we did not need ice cream, soda, or cheesesticks, that with the exception of the ice cream we never buy those things, and that we can make our own (bigger, fresher, better) pizza from scratch for $3 or so per pizza, we saw were actually wasting a few dollars on the meal deal. And yeah, we love soda and ice cream. But we can get the ice cream on sale all by itself, and an occasional off-brand soda, and keep our grocery bill down where it should be.

5) Get all excited about the amount the grocery store tells you you've "saved," and take that as a measurement of how well you've shopped on each trip.

At the bottom of the receipt, below the line that tells you how much you spent, there is usually a number telling you how much you saved. The truth is--for us, at least--the less the grocery store says we saved, the better. We used to go to the store and buy a bunch of BOGO deals and things that were a dollar or two cheaper than usual without keeping in mind overall value. Sometimes we even used coupons. We thought, we like it, it's cheap--let's buy it! A few $5 or $10 impulse buys (hello, meal deal!) that you only get because they seem like such a bargain can lead to a sobering total at the checkout. Deals such as these seem to apply almost exclusively to junk food, convenience food and novelty items--not staples that you can be counted on to buy no matter what. Now when we are tempted we ask ourselves: Is the store brand item a better deal than the pricey sale one? Can we make a decent meal out of this? If this is a treat, is there already a treat or two in our cart and do we really need all of them? Are sneaky marketing tricks working on us?


When we'd picked out all we needed, we strolled up to the checkout with confidence, knowing that our planning (and my OCD, which it turns out is sometimes functional) was going to save us money. We knew what we were going to pay before the lady scanned our items, and it felt good. The best part is, we only spent a little over $50 and are now set for groceries for a while. I know there are others who are way better at this than we are and could probably spend less than that, but we're still learning. We walked happily out to our van and laughed at the low amount ($12 or so) that the store says we saved. Ha. They won't trick us again.

What is your favorite way to save money on groceries?

6 comments:

Amber said...

I like to buy fruit in season at the farmer's market and preserve it. I get frozen blueberries all year for a fraction of the price of buying them frozen already, and they're frequently organic. Plus, I meet the people who grew my food. I love the farmer's market.

Mrs. Money said...

Congrats on your pregnancy!!! How exciting! :)

This is a great post. I have just started meal planning, and it has been a life saver! It really helps me be better organized and learn to cook a little better. I've been making extras so I can take the leftovers for lunch. It's been great!

Would you ever want to guest post on my blog?

Jenny said...

Amber--I need to start going to our local farmer's markets. I'd probably go more often to the one in our town if I didn't have to take my girls by myself! Next year they are considering letting the market run an hour or so later (we'll have time to go after my husband gets off work), which will be perfect.

Mrs. Money--Thanks! I'd love to do a guest post! We also like to make extra. When we make our pizzas, we go ahead and do two while we have the toppings out. They are pretty big and we only eat a little over half of a pizza at once. Then we have excellent leftovers for a couple of days!

Beth said...

Another thing we do is to look at southernsavers.com and peruse the sale ads (they're laid out so much easier to read than the actual paper version). When we make menus for the week I try to make them according to what's on sale (or BOGO). That helps to save a lot of money too (and more stores you don't have to buy two to get them at half price)

Melissa @ The Inspired Room said...

We enjoy going to the local farmers market!

I need to get better at meal planning though.

Cottongirl7 said...

We are pretty much guilty of all the things your family was doing too. Groceries are where our money goes. Its like a slow leaking innertube all month long. We are actually looking at doing the e-mealz program. It looks pretty neat and doesnt cost much, 5 bucks a month. They plan out a weeks worth of recipies and then provide the shopping list for the store you choose. I figure if I print out the recipies and lists for 6 months and just repeat once, that gives me a year of planned meals. A friend of mine is doing it and says it makes his shopping easy and they are saving lots of money. I think I might just give it a try. :)