A year ago, our family’s grocery bill skyrocketed. The twins started eating actual food, I was heading back to work part-time, and well, my little meal-planning system flew out the window! This was a big deal; after all, groceries are the costliest—not to mention, most necessary— consumable budget item. Yet even a $20 weekly budget increase is over $1000 in a year!
During this time of transition in our family dynamic, I tried a lot of things to get our grocery bill down: extreme couponing, making more from scratch, purchasing in bulk, using a very specific meal plan—you name it, I tried it! Eventually I gave in to the fact that I don’t have TIME to make from-scratch tomato sauce, and that my feeble attempts to stockpile resulted in more waste than savings.
I had to get realistic about our life, operate within an immediately attainable food budget, develop an overall shopping strategy, and find small ways to save over time.
A year later, I’m happy to report that we’re wasting less, couponing less (but better), planning less, and spending less. 50% less, in fact!
My goal for this post is to share with you what works for us and give you some ways to adapt these strategies so that you too can find that happy place of significantly cutting costs AND living in reality.
Plan Smarter, Not Harder
I used to think that if I planned seven different dinners with seven nights of ingredients, the meticulous planning would save us money. The reality was that on at least one of those nights something would go awry, whether it was rough day with the kids, I was running behind schedule, or I was just too plain TIRED to cook anything more than scrambled eggs! And what was I going to do with half a jar of leftover olives from Moroccan stew night? I needed simplicity and flexibility.
I’ve found that by planning only five to six meals a week, with a leftovers night and a couple of raid-the-pantry nights each month, we actually use what we buy (novel concept, I know) and I’m not bound to a demanding cooking schedule. I still cook, and I follow a meal plan, but it’s NOT every night and it’s simple, like pressure-cooker teriyaki chicken bowls. Steam some broccoli and rice and you’re good to go.
Secondly, the content of the meal plan is central to cutting costs. Here’s what I do. To start, I browse two stores’ weekly ads, and plan meals based on the sales. I’ll take five minutes to look through the Sprouts’ store ad and print a shopping list (mostly produce because they have awesome sales in my area). Then I head to the King Soopers website and do the same thing.
Before we continue, a word on meat. Meat is the most expensive food category we buy regularly. Don’t get me wrong— we’re a meat-eating family and my husband would classify himself as a devout carnivore, but the numbers don’t lie. Meat is expensive. So I’m become more aware of selecting less expensive cuts of meat and stocking the freezer when it’s on sale.
Even better if you can get your family on board with eating vegetarian once a week: you can save $30 a month (or more, depending on the size of your family) from this small tweak in your dinner planning. Some of our vegetarian favorites are pressure-cooker risotto, pasta dishes, frittata, homemade veggie pizza, and bean-and-cheese burritos. Easy, cheap, (mostly) healthy, and yummy? Check.
I also maintain a stock of basic staples such as oatmeal, fruit, peanut butter, eggs, frozen blueberries (or “bluies” as the twins say), and frozen stir-fry vegetables. That way there’s always something to eat and never an excuse to get takeout because we’re “out of food.” Plus, my planning doesn’t need to be meticulous and perfectly executed to feed my family healthy meals. Another win for flexibility and convenience on the cheap!
Perhaps my favorite part of using the weekly store ad as my guide is the variety of foods we get to enjoy. Simple is NOT the same as boring! If it weren’t for skimming the weekly ads, I would miss out on dirt-cheap organic heirloom tomatoes, perfectly sweet watermelon, delicious hummus, and a lot more because I used to assume those foods were too expensive. It’s all about taking advantage of what’s on sale, and planning with simplicity in mind.
Coupon Less, Save More
Couponing and I have a love-hate relationship. Love the deals, hate the meticulous clipping. And once I realized that time IS money, I had to accept that I am not the world’s most efficient couponer and have no desire to make couponing a part-time job.
That’s why I’m ever-so grateful for the krazycouponlady.com! Heather and Joanie are couponing GENIUSES and they take all the guess work out of it.
All I do is skim their weekly roundup of my favorite stores to see where the best deals are. Best of all, so many coupons are digital or printable, so you can still get amazing deals without buying newspapers.
The rule I gave myself for couponing is that I don’t buy anything that isn’t already on the list. The thing is, I used to be lured by “great deals,” not understanding that this wasn’t helping me achieve my primary goal to save on the bottom line. So now if something has a coupon but isn’t on the list, I let it go. Paying zero is always costs less than a bargain, and there are ALWAYS more coupons for next time.
In addition to a quick skim for coupon deals, take a minute browse the Ibotta and Checkout-51 apps for rebates on everyday purchases. These are my favorites! It takes no time at all and the savings add up FAST.
Finally, when you’re assessing deals and comparing prices, it helps to think about the savings in terms of the percentage, not the dollar amount. For example, you may get an Ibotta rebate on bananas for 25 cents. It’s only 25 cents, but it’s also almost 50% savings on a pound of fruit.
Or what about buying store-brand compared to the name-brand? A box of store-brand crackers costs $2.19, compared to $2.79 for the name-brand. They’re both under $3, so it would be easy to grab the more familiar (and strategically shelved) fancy-pants cracker without a second thought. But, if I calculate the percentage difference, I save 22% buying the store-brand. Hey, why NOT save 22% for switching brands?
The point is, small change adds up quickly with grocery shopping. Focusing on shaving off the cost by percentage translates to big-time savings at the cash register.
Stock Up, But First…
There is nothing worse than getting back from a Costco trip only to realize you have to first clean out old stuff from the fridge to fit the new cartons and boxes of food (it’s embarrassing to admit; please tell me I’m not alone here!), or that you now have ten pounds of baby carrots to munch through.
On any given day, you’ve probably got a lot more food in the house than you think—I know I do! That’s why I started taking inventory of my fridge and pantry every couple of weeks and making a meal out of the odds and ends. We might not all eat the same thing that night, we might end up having banana pancakes for dinner (no complaints with that one), but we are certainly not letting all that food go to waste!
And whatever perishables aren’t consumed that evening get tossed out or incorporated into next week’s meal plan. We’re now wasting A LOT LESS food this way, which of course saves money, but it also feels good to be more conscientious. We’re not perfect by any means but are definitely getting better at this!
Stockpiling is popular in grocery-saving strategy, and I am all for it. But, it’s easy to fall into the trap of stockpiling WITHOUT purging the pantry every once in a while. Before you stockpile, carefully consider what you and your family will realistically be able to eat. Do what makes financial sense. Don’t buy a year’s worth of ground beef to put in the garage freezer if the freezer costs $300 a year in energy to run (true story). Figure out exactly what you’re saving when you buy in bulk versus buying as-needed. Some things are worth purchasing a lot of at once, but not if it goes to waste.
Saving tons of money on your grocery budget doesn’t have to complicated, involve meticulous meal-planning, or require a Ph.D. in couponing. It starts with small, simple changes in both mindset and practical steps. Coupon with intention, use the store ads, purge the pantry every now and then, eat a little less meat, and think in terms of percentages. You’ll be amazed at the savings you can achieve!