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?