I’m going to continue forcing the discussion of money by focusing on the grocery budget today. We all have to eat, so food is a necessary expense for everybody, right up there with housing and clothing. Some families manage to survive by what seems like magick to me, on very little money, clipping coupons and growing food in their yards. Others think nothing of not only buying all of their food, but buying it local, organic, free-range, etc., at their local Whole Foods or farmer’s market or food co-op. The differences in food budgets from household to household can be staggering, and what feels like being cash-strapped to one household can feel like luxury to another.
I want folks to share their grocery budgets here, along with the things they value and any tips they have. I want to see specific numbers so that I can have an idea of where I stand in the grand scheme of things, and I want to see all the ideas that are out there for reducing what I spend, even if they are things that may not be practical for me at this time. I want this to be a judgement-free zone, with everybody understanding that we all have different circumstances, different priorities, even different dietary needs. This is for sharing ideas.
I will start us off with my numbers and information, without imposing any judgement on myself.
The United States government Department of Agriculture puts out its own estimates of what each family should be spending based on the cost of various items across the country. These numbers only include food for humans; they do not include toiletries, house or kitchen accessories, cleaners, pet care items, or medicine. According to its charts, as of January of this year my family should be spending anywhere from $1245.50 (thrifty) to $2427.70 (liberal) each month on groceries. Our actual average over the past twelve months has been $1734.83. For my own ease in budgeting and tracking, this includes anything I would be able to buy at a typical grocery store, so it also includes things like cat food, bunny litter, tin foil and plastic bags, dishwasher and laundry detergent, vitamins, toothpaste, hair conditioner, all of that. Every once in a while, I wonder what our actual food budget is, but trying to break it down is always more trouble than I care for. In addition to including non-food items, our spending includes a fair amount of gluten-free processed foods and spelt breads, flour, and pasta, as I try to keep wheat out of my diet.
The single biggest impact on our grocery bill has probably come from meal planning. I have never been able to actually sit down and plan a whole week’s worth of meals on my own. Instead, I subscribe to a menu service such as Menu-Mailer or eMeals. The small monthly cost of these has been more than outweighed by the amount it saves me on the grocery bill. Left to our own devices, we’re liable to get to dinnertime and order pizza, grab boxed meal kits or frozen dinners from the store, or otherwise find a fast, tasty dinner. When I shop ahead, even 2 or 3 meals at a time, knowing that food is in the fridge and having the instructions to prepare it makes it much more likely that I will cook and that we will eat things like…vegetables.
Beyond menu planning, mostly I try to practice being frugal with our food. I serve people small portions to start. I save leftovers, I eat them for lunch, and I will refuse to cook dinner if there are enough leftovers to eat dinner. I have tried harder and harder every year to throw away less food. Sometimes my fridge will be nearly empty, and right after a new menu shopping trip it will be overflowing.
I also shop in bulk whenever possible, which is a more feasible strategy for my family of eight than it would be for a household of only 1 or 2. I can buy enough milk, eggs, toilet paper, etc., at Sams Club (or Costco, if you have one; I don’t) to more than pay for the membership fee. Other things I get cheaper there are butter, sugar, salad, onions, paper towels, parchment paper, aluminum foil, salt for cleaning, vinegar, baking soda, dried cherries…all sorts of things. The key to shopping at Sams for me is to stay the hell out of the middle aisles, no matter how tempting it looks, and to focus on buying ingredients, not pre-processed foods.
I have tried clipping coupons in the past, and I am trying again now. Previously, I subscribed to the Grocery Game and picked up the Detroit Free Press at the gas station (the Lansing State Journal has only a small fraction of the coupons). I went nuts at first, shopping all the stores for all the deals I thought we would ever possibly use. Needless to say, I did not save any money. (I filled up the pantry with cleaning products and smelly candles, though!) Then I switched to no coupons, only buying “stockpile” deals without coupons. This was okay, but I petered out after a couple of years and cancelled the subscription.
Now I am trying again with Coupon Mom and home delivery of the Free Press. Coupon Mom is free, and I am having the Press delivered because we had trouble remembering to get to the convenience store on Sunday mornings. (HabitRPG might be able to help with that now…) I’m sticking to deals that are 50% off or better, that are things we regularly buy or that we would love to have as a treat, and that we are not already overstocked on. I’m also not going out of my way to shop anywhere but my usual stores. We’ll see how it goes.
My couponing is a bit limited. I pull the circulars and keep them in date-labeled file folders. Then I pull coupons one at a time as CouponMom lists the deals. I tried clipping every coupon for a while, but I could not keep up with the effort. I am also too controlling to let the kids do it; the very thought of a coupon I might want slipping through makes my shoulders go up past my ears. Maybe one day I’ll get over it.
So, how does your grocery bill look? What are your tips and tricks for making the most of your grocery dollar?