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Saving Money at the Grocery Store - Live Like a Mensch
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Live Like a Mensch

Saving Money at the Grocery Store

 

I was recently asked about suggestions for how to save money on groceries. As far as I can tell, there are three ways to reduce your grocery bill if you are not willing to be a couponer (which I most definitely am not):

1. Meal planning

2. Cherry picking the sales

3. Taking only cash with you to the store

Back when J and I were two footloose and fancy-free young marrieds in the wilds of Columbus, Ohio, I used to do all three. (In fact, I used to clip coupons at the time, as well, but found I almost never used them because they were for food items that did not pass my sodium/nutrition test).

Every other Sunday, I would sit down with my cookbooks and various and assorted clipped recipes and plan out our meals for the next two weeks--including breakfasts and lunch snacks (since we ate leftovers for lunch, I didn't feel the need to plan those). To help me narrow down my meal planning/recipe choices, I'd start by going through our larder to see what we already had so that I could choose recipes that required a minimum of purchases. I would also use the sales circulars for Aldi, Kroger, and Giant Eagle to determine what recipes I could make with sale items.

Once I had my meals planned for the week, I'd write down my list of what to buy at which store. I also kept a running tally of the amount I was willing to spend on each item so that if I found an item that was less expensive than my set price, I'd know to jump on it. (Have you ever been at a store buying an item that you only purchase semi-regularly and found yourself completely unsure whether you're looking at a good price or not? Yeah, I hate it when that happens). Next to each item on my lists, I would write down my set price, so I'd know to buy it at a store other than the one I had planned if the price was right.

After all of these shenanigans were completed at home, I would grab my stash of canvas grocery bags, our cooler and some ice packs, and my $100 in cash and head off for the grocery stores.

I'd always go to Aldi first, since both selection and prices were lowest there. I'd pick up whatever I could there, stash it in the car, and head off to Kroger.

Generally, the Kroger stop was specifically for a handful of items from the circular, although I'd double check on item prices just to be sure.

Finally, I'd end at Giant Eagle. They had a long-standing promotion for saving on gasoline, which is why I'd end up doing the bulk of my shopping there. I'd finish up my purchases, load up the car, and on most trips, then buy gas at the attached gas station using the savings I'd just earned.

Throughout all of my shopping at each individual store, I would carry a calculator and a notebook to record how much I was spending so that I would (and could) not go over the limit of the cash I carried.

At the time, I was able to keep our grocery budget at just under $200 for the month.

However, from the moment I sat down to create the meal plan to the minute I pulled up at the house and hollered for J to come help me unload the groceries, it would take me 7 (SEVEN!) hours to complete two weeks' worth of grocery shopping.

Yeah, I don't so much do all that anymore.

While I still do take the time to create meal plans for a week at a time, and I will often carry cash to grocery shop (although I often end up having to supplement that cash with our debit or credit card once I hear the total), I definitely do not cherry pick the sales anymore. I also only spend about an hour and a half to grocery shop each week. But we're certainly spending much more than $200 per month these days--even discounting the additional cost of a third mouth to feed.

When I was asked about ways to save money at the grocery store, I launched into my explanation of how these three things can really help. (When we were in Columbus, I managed to get our grocery budget down to less than $200 per month from over $400 per month by doing all of this).

I then also asked my listener to please not look at me as though I had sprouted a second head.

It was a lot of work to save all that money. At the time, I saw it as a fun game where I could get one over on the grocery stores. (I also saw it as an excellent excuse for not getting any grading done on grocery shopping weekends, the importance of which cannot be understated).

But with the time crunch I now feel as a mom to a toddler, I value convenience more than I value the grocery savings.

So, I thought I'd put it out to my readers. How do you save money at the grocery store? Is it just something that will be time consuming no matter what, or have you found some fast, frugal grocery hacks?

Comments

 

haverwench said:

We've more or less stopped trying to plan our meals before doing the grocery shopping. Instead, we follow Amy Dacyczyn's approach: we get whatever's cheap (that includes sale items and whatever our garden is currently producing) and make our meals out of that. We also don't have a fixed grocery budget for the week, or even for the month; instead we go through boom-and-bust cycles, buying more when we need to stock up (ideally at sale prices) and eating out of our pantry when there are no deals to be found.

We have certain staple foods that we always keep on hand: flour, sugar, eggs, potatoes, beans, cheese, OJ, cereal, etc. We stock up on these whenever there happens to be a good sale, but if one never comes along, we will pay full price rather than run out completely. That way we always have something that can be put together into a meal.

I keep a price book that shows which of our local stores has the best price on the items we buy regularly. That way, we can (a) recognize when a sale price is better than the lowest regular price, and (b) if we're low on something, make sure to pick it up next time we're at the store that sells it cheapest.

We shop at different stores depending on that week's sales. When the weekly sale fliers and coupon inserts show up on our doorstep, I take about 10-15 minutes to flip through them, circling any sale items that look like extra-good deals. If there are enough deals at one particular store to make it worth a special trip, I set aside the sale flier as a reminder to hit that store during the week (combining that trip with another errand, if possible). So while there are at least half a dozen grocery stores we use, we don't visit more than two or three in any given week--including the one that's within walking distance, which I can hit in the course of my daily walk.

I do coupon a little, but I do it the lazy way. When the coupon inserts come, I give them a cursory glance and clip maybe one or two coupons for items I use all the time; these get filed in my wallet. Then I just mark the coupon insert with the date and file it in a drawer. On Sunday, I check couponmom.com to see if there are any extra-good deals at my local stores. The site can tell me which sale items at my local stores can be matched up with coupons, and which inserts those coupons come from. If I spot a good combo, I'll go back to the filed insert and clip the appropriate coupon. The site even lets you make up a shopping list of all the sale items you're interested in; I just print it out and attach my coupons to that. We almost never manage to get stuff for free or near-free like the extreme couponers you see on TV, but we do minimize the price we pay for each item we buy.

For anything we need that we can't find on sale, we buy store brands almost exclusively. We have a long list of items that we nearly always buy at Aldi, which sells mostly its own store brands, generally at lower prices than any other store's. Cereal, oats, cheese, butter, juice, jam, certain canned goods--these all come from Aldi unless there's a really good sale on them elsewhere. We can usually manage to fit Aldi in on a trip to somewhere else, either south or north, so we don't make a special trip.

We also buy very little meat and almost no convenience foods. The meats we do use, however, are exclusively free-range. We have a couple of different sources we rely on to get the best deals on these: Trader Joe's for chicken and the nearest Amish market for everything else. They're still a lot pricier than your basic supermarket meats, though, so we tend to stretch them out by making meat an accent rather than the centerpiece of a meal. For instance, we might cook a pound of chicken legs, eat two of them one night, and put the rest into a pot pie with lots of veggies.

This might cross the line for some folks, but we use powdered milk exclusively. It's what I grew up with, so it tastes fine to me, and my husband only uses it on cereal and for cooking. Another plus is that we never run out; a big box of powder makes 20 quarts, costs about $13, and keeps for months.

Using all these strategies, we pay just under $240 a month for groceries for the two of us. This is more than your $200 a month, but things do cost a bit more in New Jersey than in Ohio (and there's also inflation to account for).

August 8, 2013 10:33 AM
 

frugal_fun said:

Our newest and best grocery "hack" is to pay close attention to the price per pound for food. We have an expensive diet and that one change lowered our overall bill significantly.

We're at the opposite end of the meal planning from haverwench. :) Our meals consist mostly of some animal product/plant matter. Dairy is a very limited selection of cheese, butter, and some heavy cream. (My husband is lactose intolerant and I have a full out dairy allergy.) We eat a lot of eggs, chicken, ground beef, and pork shoulder/chops. There's a bit of bread and mac & cheese for the kids, but otherwise they eat what we eat.

Anyway, all of that is obviously expensive. By focusing on foods that are $3.50 a pound or less, I can keep the bills from raging out of control. Focusing on that one aspect brought our food bill down about 30%.

Coupons almost never cover what we eat. I've lost count how many times I've tried to plan meals. We get cash back on our credit card, so using cash costs us money.  And grocery buying can't take us 7 hours a week either. ;) )

Anyway, I think it might be a helpful hack even for families on a less restricted diet. If you pay attention to the price per pound, many processed foods become uncomfortably expensive. Plain old potatoes are way below $3.50 per pound, chips, I think are there or more expensive.

We're also working on using all of the animal instead of just the flesh. Offal the like liver, heart, etc are nutritious and cheap per pound because they aren't popular. This has been tougher than "per pound" trick because even my husband is having a tough time getting over the "ick" factor. I'm working on that one. :)

At any rate, making stock out of the bones coming into the house has had a better reception. I also just figured out how to use the crockpot to make stock while we sleep so I'm not burning it, which I may have done a few times. *ahem*

August 8, 2013 7:45 PM
 

haverwench said:

Jeff Yeager, the "Ultimate Cheapskate," says he won't pay more than $1 a pound for any food. (www.aarp.org/.../foods_under_a_dollar_per_pound.html) That seems way too extreme to me. How can you ever use any spices? And also, how do you account for water weight? If you buy, say, a watermelon, you'll pay much less than $1 a pound, but most of what you're buying is water. If you buy, by contrast, a can of orange juice concentrate, it might cost you $2 a pound, but once you reconstitute it with water (which comes out of your tap virtually free), the price drops to about 50 cents a pound.

Frugal_fun, do you have a freezer? Although I don't eat much meat, I do know that it goes through boom-and-bust cycles price-wise, and stocking up when it's cheap (e.g., turkeys right around Thanksgiving) could mean saving a lot long-term.

August 9, 2013 8:43 AM
 

bobi said:

I use a system similar to haverwench: buy on sale and when you do not need an item. When tuna is super cheap for example, buy as much as you have room to store and can afford, same with the turkeys at Thanksgiving. Always think ahead and buy accordingly...saving 50% on a grocery staple that can be stored and will be used is an excellent investment!

Aldi is a great resource and being a sister store to Trader Joes means you're often getting boutique items at discount prices. Another good option is outlet stores. Some people thumb their noses at them and not everyone uses packaged foods, but outlets are a great source for rock bottom prices. For example, I love whole wheat Boboli pizza crusts but they cost over $4 in the grocery store, at my local bread outlet they are always $1! Quite a savings. I think you may have mentioned at one time that LO likes goldfish...at the Pepperidge farm outlet they are just a few cents per ounce. Even if you don't indulge in these foods very often, a trip to an outlet a few times a year for parties and family gatherings is usually worth the trip.

My last suggestion is read store flyers online and sign up for loyalty cards. If you worry about privacy, use a fake name and you can still get the savings. Be sure to sign up for the automatic savings and they will load coupons and offers right to your card and they automatically engage at the checkout so you do not need to cut or print coupons but still get the savings.

August 9, 2013 6:00 PM
 

PurpledSilver said:

When we were doing groceries out of our cash budget, we were paid biweekly so I shopped biweekly.  Process was similar to yours, make a meal plan based on things in the house already to minimize purchased ingredients, and otherwise based on sales in our preferred grocery store.  Do a big trip to get all those things, then on the off week we'd do a tiny trip for milk, bread, bananas, and any other needed perishables that couldn't be bought for a two week period without going bad.  Now, our grocery budget is based on our SNAP benefits, which we receive once a month.  To keep our spending as close to our SNAP as possible and minimize the cash we have to spend towards groceries, we now do a large monthly trip, then small perishables only trips throughout the rest of the month.  Planning for a month vs. 2 weeks doesn't really take much longer as we're more likely to plan repeat meals requiring identical ingredients.  This translates into similar shopping times as well, as selecting bigger packages to last the month doesn't really take any more time than selecting a package to last two weeks.  The bulk buying possible when doing things on a monthly scale rather than a biweekly scale definitely helps us control the budget better.

August 10, 2013 8:25 AM
 

frugal_fun said:

"Jeff Yeager, the "Ultimate Cheapskate," says he won't pay more than $1 a pound for any food. That seems way too extreme to me. "

I agree, it is too extreme for us, too. I don't think you can really eat healthy long term on such a low budget. Our other restrictions (no grains, limited dairy/sugars) naturally lead us to the meat counter and produce aisles with heavy emphasis on whole, fresh foods. $3.50 is the target, really, with lower being a bonus. Since we're buying whole foods, we generally don't need to worry about the issues that make things complicated like reconstituting with water, etc.

We do ignore the $3.50 limit for spices. We buy in bulk at Whole Foods, though. Bulk buying makes them much cheaper than the grocery store, so that works out. I've also recently discovered the spices in the Hispanic section of our local Food Lions. Much more reasonable and fresher than the actual spice aisle for whatever reason.

"Frugal_fun, do you have a freezer? Although I don't eat much meat, I do know that it goes through boom-and-bust cycles price-wise, and stocking up when it's cheap (e.g., turkeys right around Thanksgiving) could mean saving a lot long-term."

We do have a small chest freezer and it's used almost exclusively for on-sale meat. I was at least doing that, but I wasn't really paying close enough attention to the actual cost per pound. I was doing the whole "ooh goody, a sale" routine. Expensive cuts on sale, unfortunately, are still pretty pricey. :(

August 10, 2013 3:15 PM

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