40 Painless Ways To Trim The Grocery Budget
Written by Kate Miller
photo credit: KarlOnSea
For the past 3 years, our family of 6 has stuck to a very tight grocery budget. It has gone up $100 since we really started budgeting our food dollars. However, in those three years we have added another 2 mouths to feed and allowed for some wiggle room due to rising food prices. Our current monthly grocery budget is $350.
Here are some of the methods I’ve implemented into my shopping and cooking habits that enabled me to trim our budget and stay on track every month.
- Menu planning. I plan both monthly and weekly to allow for variations and daily taste preferences.
- Master grocery list. Having a list of all the things we usually buy, organized by aisle, really helps to keep me on track when I’m preparing for a trip to the grocery store.
- Price book. My version of a price book is not very traditional. Instead, I list the regular prices right on my master grocery list. Both methods are a great way to track your spending before you ever hit the store though. A price book also helps you decide which store to shop at based on where they have the best sales.
- Coupons. I clip coupons from the usual places (newspaper inserts, magazines, sales flyers, etc.) and I print coupons from the web or upload coupons directly to my store loyalty card. However, I also stick with the mantra that I only use coupons for foods we really, truly need and will want. Even then, I only buy with coupons if the price is less than a generic counterpart.
- Store loyalty card. I save hundreds of dollars every year by using store loyalty cards. Not only do they allow me to get both advertised and unadvertised sales, but they allow me to double certain coupons. Also, some grocery stores send out quarterly coupon booklets to their loyal shoppers.
- Shopping on a full stomach. This makes it much easier to avoid spur-of-the-moment splurges.
- Shopping alone. Again, this makes it much easier to avoid spur-of-the-moment splurges aimed at appeasing impatient children or husbands.
- If #7 is not possible, using alternative methods to keep little hands occupied. I like to print out picture lists for each of my children and they are responsible for getting each item on their list before we leave the store. Often, they are so busy watching for the next thing they need that they don’t even notice the usual enticements.
- Shopping from the list and nothing but the list. I don’t even consider an item unless it is on my list. Even my kids know this and practice it whenever they are at the store with me.
- Shopping less frequently. Currently, I do one large grocery trip just once a month and my husband makes any extra needed stops throughout the month for produce or dairy items. I have noticed that the more trips I make to the store, the more money I have spent by the end of the month.
- Using a calculator. I total the groceries on the list before we ever go to the store. I also keep track of the prices while shopping. This helps to avoid any mistakes at the register and keeps me on task.
- Paying attention to the labels. Sometimes the larger package is a better buy and sometimes it’s the smaller one. The only way to know for sure is to examine the price per unit labels on the store shelves.
- Watching for manager’s specials. Typically I find great deals in the produce, meat and dairy departments on items that are nearing their expiration dates. Then I either freeze the items as is or quickly use them in a dish that can be frozen. However, if I’m unsure if I’ll be able to use or process the item before it goes bad, I’ll pass on the great deal.
- Knowing the store policies. A few of our local grocery stores have a policy that if you find an expired item on their shelves, you can receive the same, unexpired item for free.
- Getting acquainted with store employees. The meat department manager at the store I usually shop at and I are on friendly terms. Because of this, I never hesitate to ask him the regular times when they mark down products or to save bones for me that I can use in stocks.
- Not being afraid to ask. If I see an item that is near its expiration date and is not marked down while other similarly dated products are, I’ll ask the department manager if I can receive the same markdown for the item I want. Usually, they are more than happy to oblige.
- Taking advantage of rain checks. Sometimes it can seem like a hassle to wait in line at the service counter in order to receive a rain check for the sales price on an out-of-stock item. It is time well spent though, especially if the sales price is really good.
- Knowing the sales cycles. I try to pay attention as closely as possible to the sales cycles at my grocery stores. Many sales center around a 6 week cycle. When I see that cycle begin, I try to stock up enough to last until the next cycle.
- Stockpiling. I don’t do this at every trip, but whenever I have a little extra wiggle room in my monthly budget, I stockpile items that are on sale. These extras really come in handy on months when there is absolutely no wiggle room or when the trip to the grocery store has to be delayed.
- Buying generic. For the most part, everything we buy at the grocery store is a generic, store-label product. The quality on these items has really improved over the past few years while the savings ratio has stayed the same. If you are unsure of generics, try at least one different variety on every trip before you write them off completely. Then, continue to choose the generic for everything that passes your taste test.
- Skipping soda. We do not buy soda at our house. It is not a necessity.
- Being smart with organic items. There are many organically labeled products that are just not worth the added expense.
- Cooking from scratch. Scratch-cooking saves our family hundreds of dollars every month over the cost of convenience, pre-packaged items.
- Eating vegetarian meals at least twice per week. There are so many meat-free options for getting a protein rich meal. Often, these options are just a fraction of the cost of meats.
- Stretching whenever possible. I am always looking for ways to stretch our foods. For example, I stretch sloppy joe meat with cabbage, Mexican dishes are stretched with rice, and meatloaf is stretched with lentils.
- Substituting creatively. I am always looking for ways to substitute expensive ingredients for more frugal options. For example, I’ve learned through trial and error that 1/4 cup of nuts can often be used instead of a whole cup in baked goods.
- Ignoring recipes calling for expensive items. Although I like to use a lot of variety in my kitchen, I avoid recipes that call for high priced ingredients.
- Freezer cooking. With 4 young children, I have yet to find the time for a rigorous Once-A-Month cooking session. However, I do double or triple recipes whenever possible and freeze the extras. This really helps keep our food budget down, especially on those busy days when I’d otherwise be tempted to use convenience foods or take out.
- Using up leftovers. I try to make sure all leftovers get eaten. They make a quick lunch on a busy day or a fun buffet-style dinner when there are lots of leftovers. If I know certain leftovers will not be eaten soon enough, I’ll freeze them for a later date.
- Eating healthy and complete breakfasts. When my family starts the day with a nice hearty breakfast, we are all less likely to snack later on.
- Keeping the scraps. I freeze vegetable scraps and peels to use in making vegetable and meat stocks.
- Not letting produce go bad. If I notice some produce is beginning the quick decline to rotten, I will either cook and freeze it or just dice and freeze. This can then be used in casseroles or soups. Frozen fruit is perfect for making homemade smoothies.
- Serving proper portion sizes. Its easy to overeat when a too large plate filled with food is placed in front of us. Besides not being healthy, overeating is not very frugal either.
- Preparing for out-of-season produce. I stock up on summer-only produce when I can and freeze, dry or can it for the winter months.
- Storing foods properly. With a little research, I’ve learned the proper and improper ways to store all sorts of food to prolong shelf life. This prevents things from going bad too soon.
- Making my own stocks. Homemade stocks allow me to get the most out of things that are normally thrown away (bones from meat, vegetable peels, etc.). They also provide a great base for cheap soups or sauces and gravies.
- Making homemade baby food. Homemade baby food is incredibly easy to make, healthier than canned versions, and much cheaper.
- Never being afraid to try. Although some meals will flop, I’m always willing to experiment on more frugal options. The flops aren’t frugal, but they are rare and a worthwhile risk.
- Allowing for treats. Treats make sticking to a frugal grocery budget much easier for the whole family than depriving ourselves things we really enjoy. In our house, that means there is always room in the budget for ice cream.
- Knowing when to stop. Sometimes, there are just no ways left to trim the budget. Instead of feeling defeated, enjoy the money you have been able to save and be happy with your current budget.