I’m taking a momentary pause from home renovations for a grocery post. HOW THRILLING! I mentioned recently that I try to keep my weekly grocery bill under $60, and got a few questions (okay, fine, just one question, geez) about how I keep that number low. And I am nothing if not a giver-slash-overtalker, so I thought about it and identified a few things I do that help out with our grocery budget.
First of all, I’ll eliminate the obvious answer: I have absolutely zero interest in couponing and sale-shopping at the grocery store. I hate the idea of planning my meals around what happens to be on sale that week and driving from one store to another to pick up just 4 sale items at each location and spending hours clipping and organizing coupons. And I know someone is going to comment and tell me how simple and easy and fun!fun!fun! couponing/sale-shopping can be, but I’m sorry. No interest whatsoever. Maybe someday I’ll try that route, but for now, here is my coupon-less, sale-less grocery shopping method. There are probably a zillion other, better tips/tricks out there; this is just what I do and have had success with.
- I always make a menu. For me, not making a menu = spending my life savings at the store as I just pick up whatever looks good and might work for a meal. I spend about 30 minutes a week and plan out 5 days’ worth of dinners (we usually end up with leftovers for a night or two, and/or grab a pizza or fast food on occasion for dinner; I don’t plan out breakfasts [they are always the same] or lunches [always leftovers or sandwiches]). Just as an example, this was my menu from last week:
4. Buttermilk Blueberry Breakfast Cake with scrambled eggs and fruit
I don’t plan my menu around sales/coupons—I just choose whatever I think looks tasty and fun to make and budget-friendly. That means trying to use up items I already have in my fridge/freezer before they go bad (for instance, half a bag of spinach about to wilt might mean veggie lasagna for dinner one night), sticking to seasonal produce, and only including one or two ‘splurge’ dishes in the menu (splurge dishes meaning something with a pricey meat, or an unusually long ingredient list, or an ingredient that I expect to be hard to find and/or expensive).
- I always make a shopping list. Heading to the store sans shopping list is a surefire way for me to overspend on food. As I’m making my menu for the week, I just jot down a list of what I need to buy for each recipe and bring it with me to the store the next day. But the whole point of making the list is sticking to what’s on the list and only what’s on the list. I like to organize my shopping list by aisle/section of the store so I don’t skip anything:
Sticking to the list, for me, includes not shopping while I (or Forrest) am hungry—that’s just begging for disaster to strike. And I’ve learned that I can’t shop with my husband, either . . . he always talks me into all sorts of extra items (frozen egg rolls! pop tarts! fish sticks!) that we don’t need, so he is no longer allowed to come shopping with me. I doubt he misses it.
- I identified the most expensive items on my receipts and tried to get rid of them. Simple enough, right? I noticed over weeks and months and years of grocery shopping that the same items were consistently pushing the bill higher than it needed to be: meat, cereal, and snacks. So I stopped buying most of them.
- I don’t buy much meat. Not really because of health/ethical reasons, but because I was spending way too much money on it. And I don’t love meat-based dishes, either—I’d much rather eat a pasta dish with a few chicken strips mixed in than just a straight chicken breast, for instance—so I tend to choose recipes for my menu that have meat as a component of the whole dish and not the main attraction. I haven’t cut out meat—I just choose recipes that use meat and don’t consist entirely of meat. We never have steak for dinner, for example, but we might have a stir-fry that includes steak. And this will probably get stickler cooks’ panties in a bunch, but I often use only half the amount of meat my recipes call for, and no one has seemed to notice or care so far (for instance, in my beef stir-fry example, I would use 1/2 pound steak if the recipe called for 1 pound, and add extra veggies to make up the difference). This really saves us a lot of money, and the meat that I do buy lasts so much longer when it isn’t the star of every meal.
- I don’t buy cereal. At all. Jeff and I used to eat cereal for breakfast, as an afternoon snack, as a pre-bedtime snack, for dinner when I didn’t feel like cooking . . . we bought probably 3+ boxes of cereal each week, and cereal isn’t cheap. So I just stopped buying it altogether—it’s probably been 2 years since I bought cereal--and we haven’t missed it. I used to spend probably $10/week on cereal, if not more, so that’s at least $40/month that is staying in my pocket now. For breakfast, Forrest and I usually have toast with eggs or yogurt, and Jeff has protein smoothies (Big Mister Muscle Man). It was rather shocking for us to discover there are other breakfast options besides cereal. Who knew?
- I rarely buy snack foods. Forrest would probably complain about this—he loves Teddy Grahams and crackers and granola bars—but that snack aisle is SO expensive, I don’t even walk down it anymore. Even just 2 or 3 items from the snack aisle will tack on another $10-ish to our bill. For snacks, we always have yogurt and fruit and raisins in the house, and I like baking so we almost always have something homemade to snack on (homemade muffins, cookies, quick bread, etc.) and there is nothing in the world Forrest loves more than homemade baked goods, so I think he’s doing just fine without the toddler requisites of Goldfish and Cheerios. When I do buy snacks, I buy the cheapest store-brand ones (graham crackers, saltines, etc.). Everyone seems to be coping all right and I’m sure that with time and some therapy, we’ll all be able to deal with the loss of our precious snack foods.
- If I can make something myself, I do. This is a tip that might not be very practical if you are extremely busy and don’t have much extra time to spend cooking/baking (or if you just plain dislike cooking/baking!), but I save a good amount of money by making most things myself. And since I’m a stay-at-home mom of only one child who is pretty good at entertaining himself while I’m cooking, it’s not a big deal for me to make most things instead of buying them. If we’re having pizza for dinner, I make it myself instead of buying one frozen or ordering it. And since we’re having pizza, I make the crust (which costs something like 20 cents instead of $3 to buy a refrigerated premade package of dough at the store). If I want muffins/cookies/brownies/cake/whatever, I make it instead of buying a box mix or picking it up premade at the store. In my opinion, just about everything tastes better homemade, plus it’s usually healthier and less expensive. I don’t make everything myself, but if it seems reasonable and easy and less expensive to make my own version rather than buying it, that’s what I do.
One of my favorite homemade items is fresh bread. If you had asked me even just a year ago if I would ever consistently make homemade bread instead of purchasing it, I would have laughed long and hard. It just seems so pioneer-ish, and like way too much work for a few dollars of savings each week. But I’ve been making all of our bread for about 6 months, and we all love it. Thanks to the Kitchenaid I got for Christmas, the whole mixing/kneading process couldn’t be easier/faster, so it really doesn’t take much effort for me to make it. I love this recipe for wheat bread and have been making it weekly for months—it doesn’t have the dry, crumbly texture that a lot of wheat breads tend to have, so it’s perfect for sandwiches and toast and whatever other spreading needs you might have that many wheat breads can’t stand up to. I have never been able to find white wheat flour, which the recipe calls for, so I just use 3 cups wheat flour and 3 cups white flour instead. And I ran out of vital wheat gluten a few weeks ago and have been making it without it and getting identical results, so you probably don’t need to panic if you can’t find that, either. The recipe makes 2 loaves, so I just slice them both up and stick one in the freezer, so there’s always a backup. Making my own bread probably isn’t a huge money-saver—maybe $3 per week?—but even $3 per week adds up over time, and we all really prefer the taste of homemade bread, so it’s a win-win.
So, there you have it. For me, it boils down to planning in advance (knowing what I’ll be cooking that week and what I’ll need for it) and eliminating any extras (we don’t need ice cream and Oreos and potato chips, so I [usually] don’t buy them). I can’t say it always works—of course I have weeks when I spend more than I intended, or can’t imagine my life going on without a bag of Red Vines in my future, or I cave and buy a box of Teddy Grahams to keep Forrest happy in the shopping cart—but for the majority of the time, I manage to spend something like $50-60 per week on groceries and I would say we all really enjoy what we’re eating.
Do you have any money-saving grocery tips to add?