Monday, January 9, 2012

Tips for Saving Money on Grocery Shopping

I made cinnamon swirl bread last night. There were two reasons: I wanted something special for breakfast (today was Eldest's last morning here), and there weren't any ingredients in the house for anything else. It came out well, but I would have been better if I'd thought of starting the dough before 9pm; the last loaf came out of the oven at 12:30 a.m.

It's not economical for me to bake bread, because my family eats twice as much of it as store-bought. I can buy a large loaf of fresh Jewish rye at the kosher  bakery around the corner for less than whatever comes pre-packaged at the grocery story, but that goes fast, too. We consume a lot of bread and milk. Most days it seems like we go through a lot of everything. Which is why I am fierce about the food budget.

People ask me how we feed a lot of people on a little budget. I've gotten better at it with time. I don't do coupons, because we don't get any newspapers that carry them, stores here don't accept computer-generated coupons, and I don't buy much in the way of national brands, anyway. There are obvious cost-cutting steps like buying less expensive meats, and making chicken broth each time you have a chicken carcass. Here are some less-obvious tips:

1. Only bring cash to the grocery store. Cash creates an automatic spending limit, and there's no more effective deterrent to impulse buying than the fear that you won't be able to pay for what's in your cart!

2. Set a dollar limit on what you'll spend per pound on produce and meat. I don't buy fruit that's more than $1.69/pound, or meat that's more than $2.99/pound. YMMV (or at least your ceiling prices will), but the concept's good for avoiding spending more than you can afford. On the produce end, it also keeps you focused on buying whatever's in season. We eat a lot of carrots and cabbage in the winter.

3. Plan your meals. This step alone can save you 15% on your grocery bill. I keep a long list, organized by cost (any time/on sale/special occasions), of what my family will eat. In the "any time" category are things like black beans and rice, omelets, latkes with applesauce, pasta with pesto, channa masala, homemade mac 'n' cheese -- mainly starch-based meals (though I cook enough Chinese dishes that we have a number of them in there, too). In the 'on sale' category are entrees that require ground beef or chicken, Italian sausage, pork loin, London Broil. The advantage to the long list is that I can pick up the grocery store circulars, see what's on sale, and plan out the week's meals without having to think too much, and so that we're not constantly eating the same thing.

a) Breakfast is ridiculously inexpensive if you get in the habit of baking. It takes five minutes to toss muffins together, and even less time to scramble eggs. We rarely buy cereal.

b) Lunch can be the most expensive meal of the day if you go the coldcuts route; it's 1/4 the price to make curried chicken salad, and better for you, too. Leftovers, soups, quesadillas, and really simple sandwiches bring down our cost.

c) Snacks: don't buy'em. Drink water, not juice.

4. Reserve a bit of money for buying extra basics when they're on sale. If you bake, buy two pounds of butter or an extra bag of flour when it goes on sale.  

5. Reserve $10 of your budget as 'mad money'. If your whole shopping trip is spent resisting temptation, you'll do well for a couple of weeks and then blow your budget because you run out of self-control. Set aside some money for a weekly mini-splurge, or a gee-my-kids-would-like-ice-cream treat, and you can circumvent a good deal of the emotional erosion.

All the stupidly expensive things like detergent, shampoo, sanitary supplies, TP, and trash bags we get at Costco. I have a wonderful friend who has a membership and will pick these up for me, so that I don't even have to consider making impulse purchases!


  1. Did I tell you about the time I tried to cook a beet in a microwave oven?

  2. Thanks! These are very useful tips.

  3. Thanks, I'm still looking for ways to save on lunches. I too have 5 children in school and we brown bag lunches everyday. It's still cheaper than the school lunch. It's hard to be creative at 6:30am when making sandwiches! Creativity, a budget, and finicky palates make this a very difficult job 180 days a year.

  4. What is the acronym YMMV, please? Also, thanks for the tips. Do you have a favorite recipe book you recommend?