One of the attendees of the inaugural League meeting came over the other night for a small gathering. She noticed the snack my daughter was having and said, “Oh yeah! I just bought two packs of those at the Wedge (grocery store) because they were on sale.”
Then she noticed the brand of chips I’d put out. “Oh, and I got some of those too —”
“— Because they were on sale,” we finished together.
It was fun to see a fellow Saver had taken the same frugal steps as I had that day. It also reminded me that I’d meant to write about groceries, and our tips for shopping in a budget-conscious way, because we spent quite a bit of the first League meeting talking about it.
This is an area my family struggles with. Groceries are, of course, a variable (vs. fixed) expense, but I allot a certain amount twice a month (after each payday) and try really hard to get our variable spending to stay within that amount (because if it doesn’t, the money would have to come out of one of our other areas). When our second daughter was born, I was determined to absorb the cost of her diapers and formula into the existing budget rather than take from another category of our budget to make our grocery spending bigger. It was, in many ways, a failure. We ran into the next month most weeks, and occasionally if I had a random windfall I’d allot part of it to groceries to try and make up our running deficit.
But we kept struggling along trying to fit our spending to the inadequate amount of money. I knew there were lights at the end of the tunnel — our first daughter using less diapers as she potty-trained, our baby quitting formula when she turned one — and our grocery budget would feel positively luxurious when those expenses went away. And we’re almost at that point. Already we buy less diapers and formula, and thanks to that and our other tactics, we’re actually on track this week!
I’m no extreme couponer, and we have various dietary needs and wants and morals that make our shopping nonstandard. So we’re by no means living on a dollar a day like this woman or this man each did for a month. But we’ve cobbled together a number of tricks and strategies that help us at least stay on budget.
1. Make a menu and shopping list and buy only what fresh produce is needed for that menu. This doesn’t allow for much experimentation or spontaneity, but it does ensure that virtually no food is thrown away, and not wasting food is one of the best ways to economize.
2. Don’t be brand-loyal. I try out the generic store versions of food and, if they taste just as good, I’ll buy those (unless the brand name is cheaper due to a sale or a coupon).
3. Shop the sales. We don’t get the paper, but the stores we shop at post their sales online too. So if we’re having a lean week, I’ll go through those and note the really good deals, and we’ll try to fashion menus around those sale items.
4. Coupon — to a point. Most of the time, buying generic and from bulk bins, and shopping sales, save us more money than couponing, especially since most coupons are for unhealthy processed foods that we try to keep out of our diet. But there are a few brands we’re loyal to for various reasons, and so we always look for coupons for those if we’re going to be buying them. My favorite bread, for instance, has an online coupon that’s usually available to print once a week. If we see a good coupon for something we buy often, we’ll print it from several computers and keep the extras for upcoming weeks. One of our stores doubles coupons on Saturdays, so we try to use most coupons there for extra savings.
5. Stock up on sale items and pantry staples if there’s extra money in the grocery budget; eat through the pantry if the budget is tight. We lump other household items into our grocery budget, so occasionally we need to buy something that throws off our food spending. This tactic helps us ride out the ebbs in money.
6. Use credit cards that reward grocery spending (and pay the entire balance off every month). For our two main grocery stores, we use an Amex Blue card, which rewards 6% on grocery spending. Even with a $75 annual fee, we net about $25 per month; I take it as a statement credit and that helps our grocery budget. If you don’t spend much in the first place, there are credit cards with no annual fee that give a 3% reward, but if you spend at least $300 at qualifying stores, the 6% is better even with the fee. We also have a Target RedCard that gives you 5% off right at the register, and with no annual fee, so we use that for our Target spending.
7. If you have ethical or health concerns that cause costs to rise, pick your battles! For instance, one meeting attendee would like to eat only organic produce, but it was costing her an arm and a leg. So as a compromise, she buys the “dirty dozen” organic and buys conventionally farmed produce otherwise. We haven’t taken the step toward buying organic yet, but we’ve moved to BPA-free canned tomatoes. We get compostable diapers instead of disposable for daycare; we finally had to admit we couldn’t afford compostable wipes as well, so we stuck with the diapers, figuring they create more waste, and get regular wipes instead. We buy free-range eggs and have started moving toward local cheeses, but we buy the cheapest milk as long as it’s rBGH free. When and if we feel we have more room in the grocery budget, we’ll try to take further steps to healthier, more ethically produced food.
8. If you belong to a couple (or trio, or more), communicate! All the meeting attendees in relationships described issues that had been resolved by talking about the challenges, agreeing on priorities, and delegating certain parts of the planning-buying-cooking cycle so everyone had a role and could give input.
Those are the methods we’ve come up with, and they work fairly well for us, but there’s always room for improvement. What are your most successful strategies for controlling your grocery budget?
(Not a real grocery trip; this is a photo of souvenir food bought during a vacation!)