Some time ago, I wrote a post about how I’ve managed my horse finances. It hasn’t always been easy. When I first got Tristan, I was making less than $20k a year. I lived on $20 a week for groceries. Read the original post if you want more details.
I’ve mentioned on and off over the years that I still only spend about $40 a week on groceries for the two of us, and people have asked me how we do it. I thought I’d sit down and spell that out.
The following list is not comprehensive, and it’s important to understand that there are a few things that do not count in our grocery bill: toiletries, pet food, and the occasional splurge, which I usually cover as part of my own personal spending. (See also, the $11 jar of locally made hazelnut chocolate spread from the farmer’s market last week. NOT the most efficient use of grocery funds!)
(photos are all public domain, and linked to their originals on Flickr.)
1. Loss leaders
You may have heard this phrase before. “Loss leaders” are items that are on sale that a store will sell at a loss. The goal is to get you in the door for those spectacularly priced items, and then hope that you will buy other things in order to make up the margin. Think the Black Friday sales at 4am.
Here is the trick to loss leaders: don’t buy anything else. In a typical week, I sit down with 2-3 grocery store circulars (the sales ads from newspapers; they’re all available online on store websites now) and skim through them. I make a note of what’s on sale where, and whether it’s worth going to two or more stores. Sometimes it is – if they’re on my route, if the sale is good enough – and sometimes it’s not. This takes about 30 minutes, max. I often do it during lunch at work on a Wednesday or Thursday.
Keep at this and over time you’ll get a sense of a few things. Loss leader sales ($1.99 for boneless chicken breast is a good one up here) repeat at regular intervals. They are located in specific places in the circulars, often mixed among mediocre sales and non-sales. The first page is a good place to start, but look through the whole thing until you start learning instinctively where to look.
So shop for those loss leaders, and don’t get suckered into buying five other things that aren’t even on sale. Eventually you get into a rhythm: you know how much of something that goes on sale regularly you’ll need before the next purchase. I buy, for example, about 5lbs of boneless chicken breast for $10 about every 8-10 weeks. I freeze each chicken breast individually, and since they’re big, they’re about one meal’s worth for my fiance and I. A few weeks ago, I bought 12 boxes of Annie’s mac & cheese for $0.88 a box. It usually retails for $1.99 – $2.59 a box
2. Compare prices
Shopping for loss leaders only works if you have a sense of what a good price is. I could tell you, off the top of my head, the prices for my most commonly purchased items at 4 different grocery stores that are on my regular commuting route. I am always scoping out new items and new prices and cataloging the in my head. It’s one of the reasons my fiance refuses to go grocery shopping with me: I take my time and always look at three times as many things as I end up buying.
It’s part of the game for me. I enjoy food. I like buying it and cooking it and figuring it out. So I’m always curious what’s new on the shelves, how much it costs, how much it would take to make a meal with, and keep that information in my head when I’m thinking about meals for the week.
Corollary to this rule: don’t buy brand name unless you have to. I buy a mix, based on ingredients and personal preference. I’ll always try out a store brand and see how it goes. Sometimes it’s utter crap and we soldier through a box and then never buy it again. Sometimes it’s exactly the same and costs half as much. For example, there is no mayonnaise but Helmann’s mayonnaise and both store brand and Miracle Whip are the devil’s piss. But generic ibuprofen is totally fine. I have a handful of dietary restrictions that mean I buy name brands more often than I like – high fructose corn syrup, for example, triggers my gout, as do many of the preservatives in cheap deli meat – but it’s all about finding that personal balance.
3. Make a list and stick to it
I can’t emphasize this enough. Make a list. Write down the things you need to buy and do not buy anything else. Force yourself to walk out of the store if you have to. When you sit down and look at the grocery store circular, you are in a calm, logical frame of mind. Don’t make the list when you’re hungry, stressed, upset, etc. Reflect on what’s in your fridge and your cupboards, on your week coming up, on any longstanding cravings or curiosities. Peruse the loss leaders.
When I make a list, I do two things, which I admit are a bit obsessive. First, I divide the list by grocery store, and then put items in the order they will be found in the grocery store if I’m making my typical route. See above re exploring the grocery store, getting to know the layout and what’s available. That means that I spend less time going back and forth and am therefore less susceptible to the traps at grocery stores – and I don’t say that lightly. There is actual science in the way that grocery stores are laid out. They are designed to keep you wandering and to attract your attention to buy more food. Don’t let them.
The second thing I do is I make a quick notation of price next to the item. I round up for any cents so I’m sure that there’s overage. Then I skim the list and do a quick mental tally. If I’ve reached the end of my must-haves for the week with room left in the budget, that’s indulgence money. I think about something I want to snack on at work or the barn, something the fiance loves but I rarely buy, or a new ingredient for a recipe I want to try. If it fits in the budget, then I add that to the list. Some people do meal planning; this has never worked for me. Instead, I have a set list of things that I buy on a regular basis, and a variety of ways to combine them depending on mood and time.
Final corollary to this rule: for the love of little green apples, do not go grocery shopping while hungry. Your eyes will get bigger than your stomach and you’ll end up at the register staring at the pile of food you just bought and wondering how in God’s name you will a) afford it all and b) eat it all. See also, the three different kinds of ice cream in my freezer right now.
4. Learn to eat creatively
All of my tips assume that you are at least a semi-competent and/or adventurous cook. If you are buying pre-made foods, pizza, quick and easy stuff, then you’re screwed no matter what. There is simply no way to put together an affordable, healthy grocery shopping trip buying things you can just throw in an oven or microwave. I’m sorry.
Cooking is not difficult. It takes time, sweat, tears, some ruined food, and patience, but it is not a difficult thing unless we’re talking really complicated stuff. Look: if I can spend 9 months killing the rise on every loaf of bread I made, then you, too, can learn basic kitchen skills. Once you do, the world’s your oyster. You can be clever and thoughtful about the ingredients you buy and the way you put them together.
Cooking skills are the difference between “aaaaah, there’s nothing in the cupboard, I have to order a pizza!” and “hm, I have a few weird ingredients but I think I can make something of this.” Learn the flavors you like, and how to play around with food to make them. This will also help you with the loss leaders: typically there are 2-3 items of in-season produce that are dirt cheap. Buying lots of that and learning how to convert it into tasty food is an invaluable skill.
Corollary to this rule: eat less meat. Your bank account and the environment will thank you. I am most emphatically not a vegetarian, but between dietary and budgetary restrictions, I do a lot of experimenting with different kinds of protein. Meat is, for its dietary impact, ludicrously expensive. I only ever buy it on sale. Ever. I really mean that. We eat meat once, maybe twice a week. In the meantime: lentils, beans, eggs, nuts, and other delicious things are great for protein and they’re all cheap.
5. Buy in bulk when you can
Say it with me: price per unit. You don’t even have to be good at math. You don’t even have to have a calculator. Most grocery stores will put the price per unit on the tag on the shelf! The typical grocery store price tag has the name of the item, and the price of the item. To the left of the price of the item is almost always the price per unit – per ounce, pound, gallon, you name it.
Buying small, cute sizes of non-perishable groceries is a fool’s errand. I have lived in tiny, tiny apartments, and so I feel confident in saying to you that no matter how small your kitchen is, you can find some things that make more sense to buy in bulk. We’re not talking Costco levels of absurdity, here. Just looking for a few seconds longer at the label and realizing something like this: that jar of mayonnaise is $3.89, which is a bit pricey when there’s a smaller jar next to it for $1.89. But look! The large jar is more than twice as big, and its price per ounce is $0.15 less. That means that each delicious spoonful of this mayonnaise costs less, and the jar will still fit easily in my fridge. Try not to think too hard about the black magic that means mayonnaise never goes bad.
Obviously, caveats apply: you need to eat these things regularly, you need to have a plan for the food you buy, both for storage and consumption, and you need to be smart about it. Yes, 200 rolls of toilet paper for $0.50 per roll is a great deal but when have moved that same package of toilet paper from three different apartments, you will regret it.
Last piece of this rule is to also think about your price per serving of food. I have rough rules in my head for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and what constitutes a less versus more expensive type of meal. My typical breakfast is $0.50 – $0.75 in food costs: one English muffin ($0.25), 2 tbs peanut butter ($0.15), one mug of tea ($0.10). If I went with an egg and a slice of cheese instead it’s closer to $0.75. Still way less even than the dollar menu at McDonald’s, and tastier besides!
Let’s apply this rule to dinner. I try to stay below $2.00 per person. I most often accomplish this by cooking in bulk and saving servings for lunches later in the week. Chicken casserole, which makes 6 servings: chicken ($1.00), box of pasta ($0.88), chicken stock (free, because I make my own, but for the sake of argument, $1.00), butter ($0.50), flour ($0.25), milk ($0.50). That’s a base of $4.25; typically, I’ll add some kind of in-season vegetable to it, like mushrooms or broccoli or peas. Let’s say that brings it up to $6.00. That’s $1.00 per serving. Maybe I have a glass of milk and a salad on the side – another $1.50.
You can make yourself crazy doing the math for every penny, but the really important thing is to just think about it, a little bit.
So, that is the very long, possibly overly-involved way that I keep our grocery spending to around $40 a week. Some weeks more, some weeks less. With the new house, I went on a bit of a stocking up rampage and spent $110 in one grocery trip, which still makes me slightly queasy. OTOH, we are set through most of June, so there’s that?