Please welcome back our usual Thursday contributor, Laurie from The Frugal Farmer
If you’re like many families, your grocery bill can easily get out of control. Even your best intentions to save money on groceries can fall short. In January of 2013, we started a plan to cut our expenses in order to get out of debt and achieve financial freedom. As we worked through each of our family’s monthly expenses, we realized that one area we wanted to do a lot of saving money in was the grocery expense area.
After lots of planning, re-planning and tweaking, we ended up spending an average of $482 a month on groceries for our family of six in 2013. And we plan to do even more to save money on groceries this year, with a goal of spending an average of $400 a month for grocery costs. People often ask me how we feed six on so little, so I thought I’d share the plan that allowed us to cut grocery expenses in half from 2012 to 2013.
Menu Planning is Key
When you’re trying to figure out how to save money on groceries, one of the best places to start is menu planning. If you’ve got a menu plan all set up when the month begins, along with the coordinating ingredients already in the house, your chances of having to make extra trips to the store, or for takeout, become minimal real quick. Here’s how we menu plan:
We write numbers 1-15 on the top of a sheet of notebook paper (call me archaic if you will. ), and write down 15 meals that we’ll serve twice for dinner in the coming month. Then we proceed, on the bottom half of the piece of paper, to write down all of the ingredients needed for each of those meals, separating them by area of the grocery store for ease when shopping. For instance, we’ll have a section written down for all of the produce we need, one for dairy/frozen foods, one for meats, and one for canned goods.
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The key to good menu planning that won’t be met with pleads for takeout is to pick meals that your family enjoys. Don’t plan to serve beet soup if beets make two out of your four kids dry heave from the mere smell of it. Not everyone will like everything, but try and be somewhat open to making stuff that each person in your household likes, and be open to trying new recipes as well. Then follow the same technique for breakfasts and lunches.
To avoid running for donuts or takeout and save money on groceries, we’re not as detailed with our breakfast and lunch planning as we are for dinner. However, we have a “kinda” plan that the kids can have, on alternating days for breakfast – sweet stuff like oatmeal with brown sugar on one day, and healthier stuff like eggs and fruit on the alternating day. So I make sure to pick up an abundance of eggs and oatmeal when I shop. Again, the key here is to choose items that your family – or you – will enjoy.
Another helpful tip for menu planning is to spend a weekend day making and freezing a few meals for those hectic and harried days when you don’t have the time or energy to cook. Or, plan a popcorn or leftover night to help minimize food waste.
Cut Down on Your Shopping to Save Money on Groceries
We do “big” grocery shopping once a month, gathering all of the items needed for our meal menus, and basic stuff like milk and butter (remember that things like milk, butter and bread can be frozen, allowing you to stock up). Then, when we’re near the store, we’ll have a plan to stop by for more fresh fruit or whatever else we may need during the month. When we shop this way, we find that it helps us to be more organized, making less trips to the store, and helping us to continue to save money on groceries.
Cut the Fat
We do two things to cut the fat out of food spending at our house. First, use cheap ingredients as the mainstay of your meals. Ingredients like rice, pasta, beans and ground beef will cost a lot less than having Ribeye steaks once a week. Not that you have to cut that stuff entirely, but make sure they’re the occasion and not the rule, and plan most of your menus centered around cheaper ingredients.
Having trouble with ideas? Google “best rice recipes” (or best potato, or pasta recipes) for some fun and new ideas.
Second, something that is probably going to have to go (unless you find a great sale) if you want to save money on groceries is processed foods. We don’t eat or buy cereal at our house, unless we find a can’t-pass-that-up sale. The kids eat primarily oatmeal (bought in bulk) or rice with cinnamon for breakfast, or I’ll make up some fried eggs or have hard-boiled eggs waiting in the fridge.
We also save money on groceries by making sure that most of our breads, aside from sliced sandwich bread, is made from scratch, as are other goodies like macaroni and cheese, etc. Chips and pop are on our grocery list occasionally instead of regularly. Any time you buy pre-packaged foods, you’re going to pay more. That is unless you find that terrific, once-a-year-sale or coupon deal. In that case, follow the next tip.
Buy in Bulk and Stock Up During Sales
One of the main ways we’ve really been able to save money on our grocery bill is to buy in bulk, especially things like spices and dairy products (allowing us to save an easy 25% on our grocery bill) and by stocking up on sales. For instance, not too long ago our local grocer had Totino’s Party Pizzas on sale for 98 cents. We regularly pay $1.38 for these at Walmart, and this is one of our “treat” meals, so I bought enough pizzas to last us for six to nine months, saving us nearly 30% on what we would’ve already bought anyway.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking just about this month’s budget, think big and consider your yearly grocery budget as well. Keep in mind that the extra you spend now by stocking up and buying in bulk will be saved later when you don’t have to purchase that item for the next several months. Many grocery expert gurus even have maximum prices they’ll pay for many items, knowing that some time during the year they’ll be able to get a better price.
Which leads me to say that if you get truly serious about your effort to save money on groceries, you’ll likely need at least a small deep-freezer to take full advantage of stock up sales. At least for us, we’ve found it’s worth the expense.
Another tip? Don’t buy stuff you won’t eat just because you’ve got a coupon or because it’s on sale.
Money Saving for 1 or 2
Menu planning and saving money on groceries for 1 or 2 people can be a bit more difficult, as most recipes call for at least a serving of four. How can you plan for 1 or 2 and still save money at the grocery store? Easy: make your dish, divide it into two (or 3 or 4), and freeze the other half for another dinner, or lunch at work.
For instance, I know a single gal who spends Sunday making 1 or 2 big pots of her favorite soups. She then puts them into multiple microwaveable containers, freezes them, and then has ready-t0-go lunches for work. She does the same thing with her favorite dinner dishes, like lasagna. No food waste, and no temptations to grab take-out so she doesn’t have to cook for “just one.”
You can save money on groceries – a lot of money – by taking the time to find the planning and shopping techniques that work best for your situation. We saved roughly 50% on groceries in 2013, compared to 2012, simply by following the above tips month in and month out.
What are some of the more creative methods or tactics you’ve used to save money on groceries? What’s worked well and what hasn’t?
Photo courtesy of: Sodanie Chea