Debt Reduction

Grocery shopping on a budget

**Editor’s Note: In an earlier post, I talked about how I’m trying to use cash more than relying on my debit card. The hope is that it will help me spend less money.

The strangest thing happened to me the other day when I went to the store … I got the groceries that were on my list and when it came time to pay the lovely clerk who had run up my purchases … I handed her a twenty dollar bill instead of swiping my debit card.

I know … big deal. But you have to understand – I am 32 years old and I am a recent convert to using cash for daily expenses. Back in my early 20s, I wrote checks for groceries. Ever since I lived in Wisconsin and was introduced to a debit card that I could swipe like a credit card, I’ve used that. This is over a decade’s worth of learned behavior that I’m trying to turn around in my life. I’ll be honest – it’s weird and it ain’t easy for me.

I buy the groceries for my family of two – I will have to do some number crunching, but I’m afraid to do that, because I am fairly confident that the amount of money that I spend on a monthly basis on food is absolutely ridiculous (to be blunt – I think it’s probably between $100 and $200 a month. Sure, we don’t eat out a lot, but who really needs to eat that much food – especially if some of it goes to waste?). Sure – there is a dinner party or two in my expenditures – but when I truly stop to think about what my husband and I eat, the stuff that just sits in the pantry (and maybe gets donated to the local food shelf) and some of the perishables that get pitched? It’s rather atrocious and something that I really need to correct.

So while I am FAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRR from perfect when it comes to actually making a grocery budget and adhereing to it, here are a couple of nuggets ‘o wisdom I’ve gathered throughout my years of reading too much Internet and internalizing the stuff that I read in magazines.

1) First and foremost – don’t go grocery shopping when you’re hungry. Been there, done that and have bought some of the strangest crap that I wouldn’t normally eat if I wasn’t hungry. Moving on …

2) I guess this is also the time where I should confess a new trend that I’ve embraced in my life … while you will never witness me hugging trees, I have read a lot lately regarding the concept of reducing your carbon footprint and I am really trying to buy organic foods when it is affordable and I am a proud member of my city’s local food cooperative. I acknowledge that it is not realistic for most families to go 100-percent organic and in some cases, it is a luxury more than a necessity, but it’s a choice that I make for me and my family. And now after this long-winded introduction, this is what helps me afford organic food … I strive to buy what’s in season (Reducing carbon footprint! Apples from Minnesota versus Chile!) and I buy what we’ll eat. I eat a hard boiled egg every morning and buy free-range eggs from a coworker who sells them to me at $2 a dozen. At any time, I have a ridiculous amount of eggs in my refrigerator – but I eat one daily, I use them in baking throughout the week and I can make more meals building from those eggs than any other item in my pantry.

3) Buy in bulk. I’ll be honest – this isn’t the most solid tip that you’re going to find in this post. And here’s why … I love iced tea. I’ve replaced most carbonated beverages with unsweetened iced tea, but I suck when it comes to making it at home. So when I was at Sam’s Club the other day and found these “pitcher-sized” tea bags that would brew perfect pitchers of tea, I shelled out my money and bought something that is absolutely useless to me. While I like iced tea on an occasional basis, I don’t drink it enough to actually make a pitcher of it and I ended up dumping most of this blessed iced tea that I just HAD to buy. Luckily, the iced tea came in two individually wrapped boxes and I will donate the other box to the food shelf in hopes that someone out there will actually drink it.

Maybe I should amend this – there are times where I like to buy in bulk, but this tip has served me especially well when it comes to buying things like spices, rice, beans and flour at my local food cooperative. The bulk bins are a good place to find some items that you either use often (i.e. – basmati rice, much cheaper for me to buy it at the co-op as opposed to Hy-Vee or Target) or not a lot of (i.e. – pickling spice, peppercorns, more obscure spices in general …)

4) Invest in a basic cookbook. I’ve been thinking about this tip for a couple of days now and here’s my thought process: The better you get a cooking, the less likely you’re going to spend extra money on eating out. For a lot of families, time is a factor when it comes to eating in versus picking up a five dollar pizza from Dominos or Little Caesars (both personal favorites, I might add …). But I would argue that short of trying to perfectly roast a duck, there are a number of recipes that you can master that will make you a more time-efficient cook, as well as save you some money in the long run. Cooking also gives you control of what you’re feeding your families.

Circling back to the cookbook thing … I’m a huge Betty Crocker fan – I learned how to cook out of her basic, orange cookbook that my mom had. My husband has a copy of the “Joy of Cooking.” While I prefer Betty, both are really basic tomes that help the rookie cook learn the fundamentals of cooking. I am also a huge fan of old church cookbooks – these are also a treasure trove for basic recipes.

And to be honest – with the Internet, you don’t even need cookbooks. Some incredible resources include AllRecipes.com, Recipezaar.com and a lot of popular food brands have their own websites that include recipes using their products.

5.) Buy what you’ll eat. You can be the savviest shopper in the world and score all sorts of deals, but that’s all wasted if you let the bagged lettuce rot in your crisper drawer or make interesting science experiments out of tomato sauce.

6.) Keep a tidy fridge. That kind of goes with number five, but I learned that the hard way earlier this week when I discovered that my husband and I had both opened up packages of lunchmeat that both had expiration dates of November 2010. I wasn’t able to use both packages before one of them started looking kind of grayish and acky. Since I don’t appreciate food poisoning, that package got pitched.

7.) Pay attention to serving sizes. I love pasta and I can unabashedly eat a ton of it (and my waistline can attest to that), but it’s amazing how much longer a box of pasta will last if I actually take the time to measure out serving sizes instead of just randomly dumping the pasta into the cooking pot.

Like I said – I really have a long way to go when it comes to actually implementing what I know will save me money in the long run. I am always open to suggestions!

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6 thoughts on “Grocery shopping on a budget

  1. O.K., thank you for this post because this week my wife and I got into it a little bit about our grocery bill. Family of two (me and her) and we spend about 400/month on groceries. And I have no idea if thats high, low, or in between. I have a sneaking suspicion that we can spend about half that much if we really tried but I’m the only one who thinks so – do you use coupons? Just buy the basics? help?

  2. I’m way jealous! I just went shopping today and spent 55.93, for me and the dog. The most expensive was cheese (5.99) and a big tub of yogurt (4.29). I think I would dance a jig if I could only spend 20$ a week, usually I’m happy when I can keep it around 40-50$.

  3. I have come to the conclusion saying you spend X on your groceries is much like saying your house cost X. Whether it’s a low or high number depends on a multitude of factors. For the house it’s mostly where do you live and how big is the house. For groceries it’s at least as complicated. Where do you live, how many in your family, what ages, any allergies or food issues, do you include cleaning products, baby supplies, hygene items etc or not, do you live in an area that has good resources for coupons, do your stores double them, do you have stores with rewards programs, etc etc.

    I think the best you can do is read lots of blogs for ideas, apply what works for your family members, your area and your lifestyle and see how much you can cut your own spending without it becoming unhealthy (or so repetative it’s boring).

    We’re a family of 4 with a 9yr old girl and a 16yr old boy. Feeding my son is like throwing food to a paranah. Apparently this phase passes but it can’t come soon enough for me. We rarely eat out and we all pack our lunches, so our grocery budget is really all of our food. We don’t even budget for restaurants because it happens so seldom. I exclude cleaning and hygene items from the grocery budget. In our area (Ontario, Canada) there are no grocery chains with reward programs, we don’t have CVS or “the grocery game” I keep reading about online. Occassionally I come across a coupon for something I actually use, but it’s not a big part of my shopping. Generally the best you can do here is plan around the sales, buy in bulk, cook from scratch, and if possible garden.

    When I first started tracking our grocery spending it was ranging between $900-1000 per month. Gradually I cut out the processed items, then I started meal planning based on the deals in the weekly sales flyers. For 2010 I’m budgetting $200/wk but attempting to come in below that. For the past 6 months I’ve been averaging $170/wk, so in 2011 my budget will assume $175/wk. I was thrilled today when our weekly order came in at $140, but then remembered we bought no meat this week so we can work on the stockpile in the freezer. Yup, that’s just for fruit, veggies, dairy, bread and 4 frozen pizzas on sale. From what I’ve been able to gather, food prices in general are way lower in most parts of the US and at first it was frustrating to hear about folks with grocery bills that simply can’t be duplicated here. Even the $5 Dominos pizza you refer to doesn’t exist here. I just checked their website (www.dominos.ca) and they have a $6.99 deal but you have to order at least 2. Then add the 13% tax we pay and you’re up to $15.80. In reality there isn’t even a Dominos near us so if we decided to splurge for a pizza we’d get it at the local family run place that makes a heavy duty pie with homemade sauce and loads of toppings. A large combo is about $23 and we also have to get a small peperoni because our daughter won’t eat the other toppings. With taxes etc it’d easily $35 taking the night off from cooking is an expensive proposition.

    Anyway, all this to say comparing what we all spend on groceries is interesting but it’s really only usefull if you’re comparing apples with apples. If you think you could be spending less, check what other similar families are spending in your area. Other than that you’ll make yourself crazy trying to get down to what someone else is spending, and when if you get there you’ll soon hear of someone spending even less.

  4. For my family of 4 – 2 adults, a 6 year old and a 3 year old, we average about $400 a month. I shop once a week and pretty much jump up and down if I come in under $100. We rarely get take out – once every 7-10 days and usually that’s a $10 pizza.
    I agree that feeding a boy is like throwing food into a bottomless pit. And he’s only 3! But he can eat his weight in just fruits and vegetables. We’re getting better at planning meals and using leftovers.
    Now that daughter eats lunch at school that’s a whole other can of worms. It’s $43.00 for a month’s worth of meals…that’s about 20 lunches. When I helped out in the lunchroom I’d see kids with trays that only had a fruit cup, some carrots and a milk. (Because they chose not to get anything else) And I’d think to myslef – ugh, their parents are paying $2.15 for that!! So we watch the menu very carefully and if I don’t think she’ll eat 90% of what’s for lunch – she takes her own lunch.

  5. Hmmm, I don’t think we’re anywhere close to that, especially if you add in pet food and supplies.

    We have made the commitment to buy first local and second organic, and admittedly it is sometimes more expensive, but amazingly less than you’d think. Buying things like flour, sugar, etc. in bulk (and bringing your own containers to the co-op) is actually quite a bit cheaper and healthier than buying those things in their wasteful packaging, and it results in all our baked goods (including bread) being made from scratch and from whole, non-processed ingredients. And buying in-season local produce is almost ALWAYS cheaper (and we’ve even gone to canning some things now, another lost art). We have gone to making our own ice cream, dressings, marinades, and have dried and crushed our own herbs and spices.

    I don’t think we’ll ever get down to $200/month or less on food, but we’ve certainly cut down on the cost while still maintaining the quality and healthful-ness of the ingredients we use. Cooking your own food is definitely a key aspect of all of this – not only is it better for you (and you know exactly what’s in it) but you can prepare a lot more food for a cost than buying it pre-packaged, or certainly getting it from a restaurant or take-out.

  6. Thank you everyone for the comments! It is so appreciative.

    @Matt – I think the biggest thing that keeps my grocery budget down is that I don’t buy a lot of processed food. I stick to staples and build meals from that as opposed to buying pre-made meals. Does that make sense?

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