Saturday, February 25, 2012

Lazy savings

Randy and I pride ourselves on spending relatively little money at the grocery store. However, I wasn't sure how we compared with the average person. We rarely use coupons or get our groceries at different stores to maximize all the sales or play the drugstore game or any of the other tricks that people use to save money.

Another store? Think again!
Our reasons are simple: we shop with a toddler and each subsequent store we go to exponentially increases the odds of a Fukushima-esque meltdown; most of the main grocery store chains are 15+ miles away, so making trips on separate days to minimize a Toddler Apocalypse would result in cancelling out any savings with increased gas costs; I am not focused enough to play the drugstore game (although I know it works wonders for some people and at some point, I might try it); and finally, most coupons are for processed foods that we simply don't eat.

So where does that leave us?

According to the government estimates for how much it costs to feed a family (as of December 2011), found here, 'thrifty' plan to feed a family our size costs $461.27/month. Their “low-cost” estimate is $587.90/month.

Their website doesn't clarify any variance by region or whether these are simply food costs, or if this is the entire grocery cost. Since most people combine food/health & beauty/household cleaning expenses into one budget item anyway, I figured we'd do the same thing.

Bonus: really long receipts!
Our total grocery bill for February (including all the non-edibles) was approximately $450.00. We did eat out a couple of times, which is fairly rare, and that added about $45.00. Still, we came in just under $500 for the month, which falls between low-cost and thrifty. And we did it without the up-front effort of couponing or searching out sales.

That isn't to say we don't have tricks or time investments of our own. Here's what we do to save money:

Shop once a month
We live 20 miles or so from WinCo (which has the best over-all prices and therefore is our best bet for a main grocery store) and Costco (for diapers and a couple of other things). The distance means it doesn't make as much sense to drive there on a weekly basis. Also, I only get paid once a month. If we do all the shopping at once, it's a lot easier to budget.

                                                                                   Scour the bulk section
Bulk dry goods in our pantry
WinCo has the best bulk section I've ever seen in a chain grocery store. We get as many of the things we use regularly in bulk as possible. Oatmeal, dried fruit, pasta, any non-all-purpose flours, spices, grains, etc. We don't eat cold cereal much, but they have that, too. Some savings are more impressive than others, but the bonus is that the healthier the product, the more significant the savings over buying it pre-packaged/brand-name, since marketers know people will pay more for whole wheat pasta, etc. and often double the prices of their whole-grain options.

Stock up on fruits/veggies
One of the questions people ask when they find out we only shop once a month is “how do you have fresh fruits and veggies, then?” The answer has two parts. One is that by the end of the month, we don't; we rely on canned/frozen fruit and frozen veggies for the end of the month. However, we also shop smart for the produce we buy.
*We get the makings for a huge salad, focusing mostly on dark green veggies (kale, spinach, mustard greens) because they tend to last a bit longer, and a few other things to add texture (carrots, radishes, celery, etc.). We make all of this into a salad that we store in a giant tupperware container and eat salad with dinner every night for a week or so – until it runs out or gets funky.
*We buy some veggies that will hold for a week or so – zucchini or other squashes, etc. - to use when the salad runs out.
*We buy a lot of the veggies with the longest fridge life – if it's in good condition when you buy it, broccoli will last for two weeks or more, as will brussels sprouts, and cauliflower.

The principles are the same for fruit – I make sure to always get a large amount of apples, since they last the longest, plus I like them. Other fruits depend on what's on sale and what looks good, usually bananas (although I think they're horrifically foul, Zoey loves them) and grapes. Again, we eat the shortest shelf-life fruits first (and if they start to get a little past their prime, figure out how to cook with them or dehydrate them) and then move on to the apples. At the end of the month, we eat canned fruit.

We also buy a Costco-sized bag of frozen berries each month; Zoey has them for breakfast and Randy uses them in protein shakes after he works out.

This has the benefit of helping us eat more healthily for most of the month, at least. We have to eat the vegetables in a timely manner or they go to waste. Since we don't have enough cash to waste food, we have a healthy portion of veggies with each dinner and fruit at lunch.

Repackage/re-purpose meat
We buy whatever meat is cheapest, and make it work. There's no meal-planning (too much effort, and we find that it makes us buy specific ingredients rather than what's cheapest); we figure it out based on what we have on hand. Usually, this means buying family packs and repackaging them into single-meal servings.

However, it also translates into buying more roasts and grinding the meat ourselves, and buying whole poultry rather than packs of individual parts. Turkeys are usually available for about $1/lb and are widely customizable (we made three versions of turkey bratwursts that are now a go-to easy dinner). Again, this comes with some significant cost and health savings: ground turkey is $3+/lb. People pay more partly because it's a healthier option than ground beef.

When things like steak or better cuts of meat go on sale, we buy one package more than we will use during the month so we can stock our freezer. This helps us keep a diverse amount of meat so we don't get bored with our options and feel more tempted to splurge. Everything will go on sale at some point – patience is key.

Make as much as possible from scratch
I am constantly amazed at the claim that it costs more to eat healthily. Granted, we don't generally have the highest-quality cuts of meat, but we don't eat a diet high in fat or sodium, either. The main reason for this is because we don't buy many processed foods. Mainly, we avoid processed foods because they're more expensive than making our own, but the health benefits are nice, too!

This is where most of our time investment comes in. It takes more time to cook from scratch than to add a 'flavor packet' to a dish or to put something frozen in the oven or microwave. However, it usually costs less than half of the pre-made option, and we know exactly what ingredients are in each dish.

As much as we can, we make basic foods in bulk and store them so they're on hand with the convenience of processed foods. This helps isolate the big time investments to a couple of days/month and makes avoiding convenience foods easier – we have our own on hand! Right now, we have a good frozen supply of: bread, bratwursts, burritos, and stock. We also have a dozen or so pints of canned beans ready to add to recipes. The savings aren't always huge, but it adds up, and lets us control what is in the food.

Use Costco for staples only
Costco can be deadly on a budget. There are simply so many good things that are a relatively good deal. However, the vast majority are convenience foods, and ultimately cost more than buying the ingredients and making your own version. We make a set list for Costco and don't let ourselves deviate from it much unless we find something we use regularly for a discounted price. Some things aren't worth buying in Costco-sized packages just because they're there and a deal, but some things are.

Really, there are few things available at Costco that aren't also available at WinCo for similar prices. However, some things are worth the extra trip:
*Formula, for the few months we needed it/will need it is less than half the price as other stores
*Frozen berries
*Tin foil
*Laundry detergent
*Storage containers
*Yeast – worth it because we bake our own bread and will use it before it expires.

We usually get a few other things since they have better quality or are in more conveniently-sized packages for a similar price as WinCo – flour, rice, and bacon on a regular basis, and occasionally other items if they're on sale.

                                                                                   Make a list and stick to it
Our list - by the end of the month, it's pretty long!
We keep a white board on our pantry door so we can quickly write down things we need before we forget. We keep a running list all month and then organize it for our shopping trip. If it's not on the list, we don't buy it unless it's something we overlooked. It helps that our list for the first areas of the store consists of: fruit, vegetables, meat, bulk foods. We only put down specifics for these if there is a special dish we want to make or we are out of something and want to replenish it. That means by the time we get to the middle aisles with the tempting pre-packaged food, our cart is usually full with staples and it's easy to think “Yikes! We might be spending too much – better put this back!”

Limit pick-up trips
The hardest part is limiting what we get after the main shopping trip. We keep milk on hand for Zoey, so we have to go to the store about once a week for a fresh gallon. It's easy to fall into the trap of “while I'm here”, but sticking to the items we MUST have (which is usually only milk) on that follow-up trip helps keep the budget under control. I will say that when we get a little more wiggle room in the budget, I will probably add fresh fruit on one of those trips. The increase in quality over canned fruit is worth the slightly greater cost.

Basically, it comes down to where people are willing to invest their time and what their end goal is – we don't have a lot of patience for putting in effort up front, but enjoy making things ourselves, so we put in the time and effort to can, brew, bake, etc. after a shopping trip. It can take an hour or so to get all of the post-shopping work of re-packaging, sorting, and storing done, but we also only have to do it once a month. Not only does it save us money and give us greater control over our food, it leaves us with a feeling of accomplishment.


  1. These are awesome ideas. I'm quite frankly massively intimidated by the cook from scratch thing. Also: LAZY. I don't want dinner to take me more than an hour to make. I am however, going to be making signifcant changes in our diet soon, so probably I need to get over it.

    1. That's one reason we try to do so much stocking up of basic things - it speeds up the dinner process. I don't mind giving up a few hours on a weekend for a "project" like making bratwursts or canning beans, though. It doesn't take all that long and speeds up the weeknight dinners.

      I'd say I only spend 15-30 minutes of active time for most of the meals I cook. The rest is just waiting for it to cook :)