Saturday, April 7, 2012

How to spend less on groceries without clipping coupons or resorting to crazy reality show antics

NOTE: I originally wrote this post this past winter and published it elsewhere. I am updating it a bit, but as you are reading it, you may want to turn up the A/C, shiver a little and pretend it's December.

Until recently, I have been feeding my family of 5-now 6- on about $50 a week. We eat, good, healthy wholesome foods. Very little prepared or convenience foods.
In recent weeks, we have had a bit more wiggle room in the budget, and another little mouth has started demanding to be fed non-liquids. I'm up to about $60-$70 a week. That is pretty meager in comparison to most Americans. But I have to say, we eat very well. In fact, to me, this amount feels almost lavish.

This menu is a bit old. I have since cut way back on meat, freeing up a bit of cash for more veggies and fruits, bumped up the quantities a bit and we are now enjoying the abundance of spring. Mid-summer, our meals will look more like the ones listed here, and in the fall and winter, these meals-or ones like them- (minus the meat) will return to our table.

How do we accomplish this impossible feat? Here are some tips.

#1 Meal plan. 

I plan about 12 dinners for 2 weeks. That leaves 2 nights for eating out, D's cooking (which does not come out of my budget), leftovers, etc. I usually don't cook every meal in my plan.

Meal plan tips:

 Pick an excellent cookbook, website or meal planning app. Simple recipes, few ingredients, nothing exotic. I shop at little country stores. If I can't grow it in the back yard, I'm not going to find it here.
It has to be tasty enough that you WANT to cook it, or you won't. If it's daunting, more than 30 minutes or 5 steps, you'll find yourself going for something easier when you are tired, stressed or rushed.

Some recipes are more frugal than others. Choose recipes that have lots of fresh, yummy, healthy foods, but aren't over the top expensive.

 Plan to buy big and split. Buy a whole chicken. Roast it one night. Use the leftovers the next night.
Or freeze them for later in the week. Buy the 20 pounds of potatoes, the 5 pounds of bacon, the 5 pounds of carrots, the 3 lbs of onions. Buy as big as you can store and use before it spoils. (more on this later)

Adapt your recipes. If it calls for asparagus and they are $3 (or more) a pound, sub green beans. Use whatever is in season. Closely related veggies can be subbed for out of season, nonlocal or more pricey ones. I generally do not spend more than $1 per pound on anything. If it is out of season, just don't put it on your list. You do NOT need strawberries in December. Buy a pumpkin instead. Or oranges. Or cranberries.

Some meals are cheaper than others. Soups, stews, casseroles and eggs are cheaper than meat and potatoes or salads in winter. Stretch your meal plan with lots of soups. I plan for 2 soups and at least one very large salad on every menu.

Here's my menu with $$ saving notes:

1. Asian-style wontons and cabbage and sprouted bean stirfry (cabbage is in season, less than 50 cents a pound. I sprout dried beans=free)

2. Chili with corn chips (dried beans are cheap. Cook ahead and freeze, or start early in the day)

3. Keilbasa soup and sweet potatoes (I bought the keilbasa on sale and froze it, sweet potatoes are 78 cents a pound at most, less in bulk)

4. Black bean salad (dried beans, cooked ahead)

5. Teriyaki Beef Bowl (tiny bit of beef, lots of veg, served with brown rice)

6. Western Casserole and Veg (another bean dish, with homemade biscuits. Whatever veg is cheap and in season)

7. Garlic Chicken and spaghetti squash (this was a pasta dish, but I'm serving it with squash instead, since it's in season, cheaper and healthier than pasta, and I won't need an additional veg. I'm growing my garlic = free! I'll save the squash seeds for next year = free!)

8. Honey baked chicken and butternut squash ( local raw honey from a farmer is cheap and wonderful in every way. I have a whole chicken in the freezer. I'll use the leftovers for the above dish. I already have squash seeds-and actually enough leftover squash for this meal, but I'll use it for baking and get another-so I'll roast these seeds for a snack)

9. Rice and ham medley and veg (If I can get a cheap ham-it's the holidays-I'll go with a whole ham. otherwise, I could get a small turkey ham or even sliced ham on sale. We want a ham for Thanksgiving, so we will likely splurge on this and use the leftovers for this dish)

10. 24 hr breakfast (an egg casserole. I buy the 5 pound "ends and pieces" bacon for about half the price of sliced bacon. It all gets chopped up anyway. We cook it all in the oven and freeze. Use as needed over the next week or 2)

11. Salmon noodle casserole (my version of a tuna noodle casserole. I'll be making my own noodles and using canned salmon I already have in the pantry= free! But if I didn't already have it, I'd buy a big can and pick out the skin and bones and feed those to the animals, or catch frozen salmon on sale. Fresh fish isn't fresh unless you are buying locally caught fish from a real fish market. The fish counter is stocked with thawed fish that was frozen for transport. If I want fresh fish, I go to the fish market down the street. I also have salmon in my freezer that I might use here or elsewhere. I will make a dairy-free cream sauce in place of the canned cream of something in the recipe)

12. Supper spuds (twice baked potatoes. Subbing sweet potatoes for white potatoes, using some of the bulk bacon)

Caramel apples (already have caramel kit)

Chocolate almond/walnut torte (a very simple cake.Need chocolate chips and extract. Will sub homegrown walnuts we got from a friend=free!)   

#2 Shopping list

Because you have been buying in bulk, you won't need every ingredient in every recipe. If you have 3 pounds of carrots, don't buy more. Check your pantry, fridge, freezer and other storage to avoid duplication. I once cleaned out my pantry and found 10 pounds of dried beans and 5 different kinds of pasta I didn't know we had.

Organization is key. If your storage is a mess, sort it out. Put all the spices together, all the seasonings next to them, all the baking supplies together, stack the dry goods, sort the cans-fruits, veg, ready made foods, soups, etc. However it makes sense to you. I only have 5 cabinets (including the undersink, which is really just a yucky extra space) and 4 drawers in my kitchen. They hold all of my dishes, bakeware, cookware, spices, seasonings, vases, utensils, cutlery, storage dishes, serveware, drinkware and small appliances, and most of our dry foods. I have dishes for 12 or more and substantial cookware. I have considerable space left over. I have 2 shelves for extra space. One was cheap, the other is ugly. But they hold juice bottles, cereal boxes, large cookware, like the roasting pan and stovetop popper, a case of emergency water, cookbooks, bulk storage boxes, 3 bottles of ketchup, a squash or 3, onions, potatoes, flours, sugars, sundry other items as needed. Right now, I have 10 boxes of stuffing (at 10 cents a piece) tucked under there. Before D built this current, larger shelf, I used the floor of my bedroom closet. My crockpot sits on the floor. I have 2 large 5 gallon buckets in the dining room, tucked into a corner. One holds 20 pounds of dog food, the other 50 pounds of popcorn seeds. Use the space that you have. If you don't have space, find some or make some.

Substitute what you can. Tomato sauce, puree, paste, V8, tomato soup and juice are pretty easily interchangable. If you have 10 cans of soup (on sale for 10 cents a can) and a gallon of V8, don't buy tomato sauce. Use something you have. 

Make everything you can yourself. Raw ingredients will almost always be cheaper and healthier than prepared. Pie crust? make it. Noodles? make it. Biscuits? make them. Instant mashed taters? No ma'am. Mash your own. Don't know how? learn. Use whole grains, fresh ingredients, gluten free, dairy free, soy free, whatever you need. Butternut squash can replace pumpkin, macaroni works just all well as penne, fresh sauage can take the place of ground beef.

Write EVERY THING you need or want on your list. If you want a treat and you don't know what it will be-maybe chocolate, maybe potato chips, maybe dried fruit- write "treat" on your list. Don't know you will want for lunch? write "lunch foods". Seriously. It's important.

Here's why. DO NOT buy anything that's not on your list. Not toothpaste, not laundry soap, not chocolate chips. If you didn't plan for it DO NOT BUY IT. The end. A $100 list can double in minutes if you start tossing random things in your basket because they are on sale (we will tackle this in a minute) or they look really really tasty. Of course they do! Jillion dollar ad campaigns and marketing and product placement exist just to separate you from your money. Don't fall for it. Pumpkin spice coffee creamer? Is creamer on your list? Yes? Grab it! No? Walk on by. Go home and put it on your next list. Buy it then. If it's all gone, then it wasn't meant to be. Try again next year. Your life will not be altered. Or, better yet, MAKE YOUR OWN with real spices, real cream (or not, whatever) and real pumpkin (or butternut squash leftover from last night's dinner. They taste almost the same. Yes, really.)

Plan for the night you don't want to cook. Frozen pizza is cheaper than ordering out. Canned spaghetti sauce and pasta, even the lamest, noncooking hubby can handle that. Avoiding processed foods is ideal, but sometimes, processed foods are the lesser of 2 evils. Or plan breakfast for dinner or freeze ahead. But have something on hand that will keep you OUT of the drivethru. Whatever your usual last minute indulgence is, duplicate it in a cheap, ready to go way. Put it on your list.

Before you put something on your list, ask yourself:
Do I already have this?
Do I have something that can sub for this?
Does the recipe need this? (many dishes call for ground meat and beans. Leave out the meat and use the beans alone. Don't top everything you cook with cheese. Leave the sour cream out of the burritos. It's expensive and unhealthy.)
If the answer to ALL of these questions is YES, put it on the list.

The one exception to this rule, if something is on crazy sale-75% off or more-buy it. IF and ONLY IF it is something you will actually need and use. For instance, the 10 cent tomato soups and 25 cent boxes of stuffing mentioned above. Not on my list. Not necessarily things I had to have. But, definitely things I would use. 10 cans of tomato soup cost me $1, and saved me many dollars of tomato products I would have purchased over the course of the next few weeks. The 15 boxes of stuffing I bought cost me $3.75. I love stuffing. It's maybe my favorite thing. That $3.75 bought me a lot of happiness.

#3 The shopping trip

Check the sales. Go online, read the circulars in the newspaper or the mailbox, or pick them up at the front of the store as you walk in. My local public library often has stacks of sales papers waiting to be sifted through by thrifty shoppers, free for the taking. Stores advertise their best deals. They want you to know what they are offering, because chances are, if you walk through the door, you will buy a lot more than 50 cents a pound tomatoes. One of the stores in my town posts wall-sized circulars on their front windows. Take advantage of the sales.

Do not drive 20 miles to save 10 cents on onions. Don't drive to 15 different stores to get the best possible price on every single item unless you-and any children who are accompanying you-feel like you can handle that without an emotional breakdown. Take into account the very expensive gas you will burn driving all over town.

If you have a discount grocery, start there. If you have a farm stand, definitely hit that up. Fresh, local, not-shipped-across-miles-of-highway-in-a-diesel-guzzling-conveyance produce is better for your body, your taste buds and your wallet. It is more ripe when picked and stores longer. Avoid super-grocery-and-everything-else-you-don't-need-but-can't-leave-without-once-you've-seen-them stores if at all possible. Yes, they might have good prices on some things, and maybe they have odd ingredients you can't get elsewhere. But they are very very dangerous to your carefully crafted budget. If you do have to go for one or 2 items, ONLY pick up those items. Think about it before you go and make sure that anything you might actually need from that store is ON YOUR LIST.

Compare prices per unit. On the grocery shelf tag there are some very very tiny numbers. On of those numbers will have a unit next to it. Something like "0.25 per oz". That is the price per unit. Generally, the larger the package, the lower the price per unit. This is because the most expensive part of the item is the packaging. This is why buying in bulk is good. But this is not always the case. Two items that cost the same may not be the same size. Or the smaller package may be marked down. Right now a lot of manufacturers are reducing package sizes to off-set rising costs. Go look at your coffee. It's probably 12 oz. Last year, it was a pound. Go ahead. I'll wait.
See? You are now paying more per ounce or pound or whatever than you were a year ago. But not all manufacturers are reducing sizes, and not all by the same volume. Always check the price per unit to make sure that you are really getting the most for your money.

Last tip, tally as you go. Use a calculator (there is one on your phone in "tools") to add up every single item that enters you basket. If you live in a place that taxes food (like I do), round up a few cents to account for it. This ensures there will be no surprises at the register. If you find that you are creeping dangerously close to your spending limit, pause and reevaluate. If you have everything you need and there's a good bit of space left over between you and your ceiling, go ahead and treat yourself to the big bag of fish sticks or a candy bar at the register. Or put that money towards a new bottle of nail polish on your drug store trip. Or go home and crow to your hubby that you came in under budget. I promise, he will be happy about it. And so will you.

Most likely, no one is going to use all of these suggestions every week. Maybe some of them are making you roll your eyes. That's ok. My feelings aren't hurt. I don't do every one of these things all the time. But I'm sure that everyone can use some of these tips at least some of the time. You might just find yourself eating better, and saving money at the same time.

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