Lately I’ve been taking greater care to stay on a grocery budget, and the process has been quite enlightening. Though I never went hog-wild buying cartloads of groceries, I often found myself buying things in advance that we didn’t yet need, or lots of one thing, like fruit, without thinking about how much bread and protein foods we would need later in the week. In other words, I wasn’t planning well, despite having a list.
Here are some tips that helped me:
1. Keep track of the bill as you shop. I kept my list and my cell phone together and entered each item in the phone’s calculator. It’s a pain when the calculator accidentally zeros out on you once in a while, but after entering the prices of everything for a few weeks, I found that I can look at the list and very closely estimate the cost before I shop. If I have 10 things on the list and I know they will come to about $30, I know how to estimate from there if I decide to add ice cream as an impulse purchase — or decide that this week, I really shouldn’t.
2. Know your prices. I know what yogurt, tofu, beans, and even some chips cost at every market where we shop. If there’s a sale on yogurt or canned beans, I’m all over it because that’s two items we eat nearly every day. Be careful about package size — sometimes an item will cost the same amount at Trader Joe’s as it does at Costco, but at Costco you get twice as much. Which is great ONLY if you will consume twice as much. Here’s an example: Costco has 6 heads of conventionally grown baby Romaine lettuce for $2.99 — the price for three organic heads of baby Romaine at Trader Joe’s. I like organic, but when money’s tight, sometimes we do without. If you’re a family of four, it’s 100 degrees outside and you’re eating salad until November, this is awesome. If you live alone and don’t have a herd of pet rabbits, it doesn’t work at all.
3. Keep track of what you spend. Our weekly budget for groceries is $150 (covers 63 meals for we three). I have an Excel sheet divided into four weeks and I enter each receipt to keep track of the week’s total (along with everything else we spend). A simple memo pad where you can jot down the amount for each trip will help you keep track, or you can use the Evernote app. But if you shop in more than one place you need to find somewhere to record what you spent at Ralph’s or Whole Foods before you hit Costco, Walmart or Target and blow the budget completely.
4. Pay cash. Nothing forces you to stick to the budget more than seeing the greenbacks visibly leave your hand.
5. Be careful to make the best of coupons and weekly specials. Coupons are terrific, but if I have to buy an three of something to save any money, it had better be something I use a lot of the time. Cut coupons only for the products you know you will need this week or next week so you’re not overwhelmed with paper, and stop kidding yourself about what you “might” need to buy. There will be more coupons later for that.
There are deals all the time that say “3 for $10” or “10 for $10,” but you don’t have to buy the full amount to get the deal! If you look closely at a place like Target it will say, in small print, “$3.33 each” or “$1.00 each,” and this is the case in most grocery stores as well. Don’t feel that you have to buy a ton of stuff to get the deal, because you don’t.
Circulars in our neighborhood are delivered with half a pound of junk mail on Tuesdays, but the grocery store lists its bargains for the next day so I’ve already got my picks organized. Yesterday, for example, at Ralph’s (Kroger), Fage yogurt was $1 each, beating even the Costco price, tofu was $1, navel oranges were $.99 a pound, and ice cream was $2.99. Check the Target circular online or with the paper if you get one for all the deals for the coming week.
6. Buy less processed/pre-made food. Pre-made dishes always cost more than raw ingredients. If the only alternative is buying lunch at a restaurant, sometimes you can make it worth the effort if you split the $4-5 pre-made dish (like pre-made lasagna, ravioli, or sandwiches at Trader Joe’s) and add a homemade salad. Now you have a healthier version of the meal and you have lunch to take to work tomorrow. Watch the sodium content of frozen meals, and be sure they really are a better deal than making the dish yourself. Finally, processed snack foods are very dry and it takes a lot of them to get you full — so you eat more of them. They aren’t especially cheap, are often unhealthy and loaded with salt, fat and sugar. But my point is that they leave you hungry, which leaves you eating more, which ends up costing you more.
7. Learn how to cook the basics. Boiling water will get you spaghetti, oatmeal, cooked cereal, beans, rice and vegetables and even hard-boiled or poached eggs. You can do that, I know you can! Buy a 10″ -12″ regular (not non stick) skillet, toss the vegetables in there with a quarter cup of water and a little bit of olive oil or butter or some kind of fat, start tasting them after 5-7 minutes. Look at you! You’re awesome! And soon you’re going to be rich because of all the money you saved buying unprepared food. Look online for basic recipes. You CAN do this.
8. Cheat a little and make food from a mix. I order masa flour and cornbread mix by the case. Four packages of cornbread mix runs about $13 on Amazon. One package makes a large skillet of cornbread, which feeds the three of us four times. I divide (into four pieces) and conquer by freezing the leftovers and as a bonus, I get to bake once and reheat 3 times in a hurry (which is very helpful when the weather is over 100 degrees). Each package of cornbread mix runs about $3.25 and requires a couple of eggs and a cup of milk and a bit of sugar. Even at $5 per skillet of cornbread, each serving costs $.55. Masa flour runs about the same price as the cornbread and I make all of our corn tortillas fresh on a skillet with nothing more than boiling water, a skillet, a tortilla press and a piece of plastic wrap — you really can’t put a price on how good they taste, but with a can of refried beans and a bit of cheese, it’s as cheap as it gets.
One caveat: check the mix, whether it’s for tortillas or cakes, and make sure that there are no dodgy ingredients like hydrogenated fats that are of no help to you at all, no matter the cost.
9. Buy more frozen fruits and vegetables that are unprocessed. Frozen fruits and vegetables are very high in nutrition because they’re flash frozen with all the nutrients intact. They’re also very easy to make, leave very little or no waste, and cost less than fresh. A 5.5 bag of frozen mixed vegetables at Costco is $6.50, and if you get invited out for a hot date, they won’t rot. Frozen corn, peas, green beans and spinach are around $2 a bag at Trader Joe’s, and you can combine them when you’re cooking.
Fruits for smoothies require less milk and other stuff when the fruit is frozen and are delish. Or: Toss some into your bag lunch and let them keep your sandwich cool until lunch time. I find that buying a bit of fresh fruits and vegetables, then relying on frozen extends the time between shopping and comes in really handy when I’m in a rush to get dinner on the table.
Canned fruits generally taste like metal and have too much sugar, while frozen vegetables are floating in a briny salt sea. Go frozen.
Buying fresh potatoes, slicing them up and tossing them in oil before sending them into an oven at 425 for a spell is usually cheaper than buying frozen french fries (except Trader Joe’s sells french fries for about $1.99 and they’re quite the deal, so sometimes it can’t be helped). You’ll generally have a few potatoes left over after making fries for a few bonus baked potatoes, though, so just saying.
10. Plan ahead, but not too far ahead. Plan for no more than a week. This keeps things simpler to plan for, to keep track of, and to look at when you open the pantry, refrigerator or freezer. The likelihood of your needing a garage filled with food is very small. It’s far more likely that your 5 half-gallons of ice cream you got on sale will become icy with age/loss of electricity, along with the 7 pounds of ground beef you brought home to add to the garage freezer. Unless you have six kids. In which case I don’t know how you do it and I should be relying on you for advice, not the other way around.
I used to buy loads of cans of beans, spaghetti, fruits and vegetables without any plan in mind. While none of this is a crime, when I later realized that I needed different vegetables for the stir fry than the ones that I bought, or that I forgot to buy the one loaf of bread we needed, I’d return (wasting time) and spending more money. Now I have a very specific list, and if we’re getting near the top of the budget for that week, that half-sugar lemonade that the kid likes, or my next stash of tea bags will have to wait a few more days (provided I still have enough to get me over the hump; $5.50 for my sanity is a small price to pay). It’s okay to let the sale dictate what’s for dinner, just don’t buy more than you can eat or you’re not really saving money.
11. Bring your own bags. I know they only pay you $.05 per bag, and that’s not a lot of cash, but at five grocery bags a week, that’s a buck a month and at the end of the year you can go buy a nice big Frappuccino and a scone while you polish your halo.
12. Buy in bulk from Whole Foods or anywhere that sells food in bulk — Whole Foods has good deals on oatmeal, rice and dry beans, which are dirt cheap if you make them yourself. I should be making more beans from scratch, but guilty as charged, I often turn to canned. Costco has excellent deals on dry beans and rice, but I’d rather not eat just black beans for roughly a year from the 20 pound bag so for us this makes little sense. Whole Foods ain’t cheap, so if you’re filthy stinking rich (why are you reading this, and, okay,), stay and shop, but if you can’t afford a $2 tomato (heirloom, organic, but still $2!), get the heck out of there after checking for a few choice deals. The refried black beans from Whole Foods are delicious — delicious! — and are about $1.29. You can save 10% when you buy a case of anything in the store, just ask.
Don’t buy into the idea that eating out is cheaper. Eating junk can be pretty cheap, but it’s not pretty. Usually the food you can get cheaply isn’t very good for you. Like this is news.
Anything I missed? I would love to hear your suggestions! As a vegetarian, I’m guessing there is a lot I’m missing about how to save money on meats and other good stuff.