Whoever loves pleasure will be a poor man;
he who loves wine and oil will not be rich. —Proverbs 21: 7
Groceries are a large percentage of our monthly budgets. They are also, for many people, one of the easier areas to cut. Maybe you want to divert funds to something else, or your income dropped, or maybe you just feel like you are spending too much in this area. A lot of people I’ve talked to don’t know how to decrease their grocery budget when they want, so this post is for them.
People have written whole books on cutting grocery budgets–which I obviously can’t do here. I’m just going to identify areas in which people splurge when buying groceries–because, except for people like Crystal Paine from Money-Saving Mom, [for some reason, I can’t get this page to load. Just search for it if you are interested.] most of us splurge. We like to eat what we like to eat. Identifying where you are splurging can help you cut costs when you want or need.
Disclaimer: I’m not sure I’m qualified to write this post, as I definitely do not have the lowest possible grocery budget. I know everyone is wondering, so I’ll just let you know that it is $450/month for the three [3.5?–I eat for two] of us, and that includes basically everything we buy except clothing, gifts, furniture, entertainment, or home improvement. Even stamps come out of the grocery category. Sometimes gifts come out of that too–depends what category we have extra money in. However, whether you feel like that is high or low, I do feel like I know how to cut it when I need, and our last year of grad school, we had it set at $330/month.
Splurge #1: Throwing away food you already have.
This should be the first area you cut, because it doesn’t change the quality of what you’re eating. Better meal planning can help here. Some of my friends plan their meals on a two-week cycle, so they use up ingredients in later meals. I just plan one week at a time, but I base it on what is already in my pantry, freezer, and fridge, and I make homemade pizza, frittatas, and/or soup once a week to use up vegetables and other things from recipes earlier in the week.
See if there is food you can make from the extras before they go in the trash: Boil your carcasses for stock, make croutons or bread pudding from your bread heels, etc.
If things are going bad and you can freeze them first, do. Just make sure you label what you are freezing and go through the freezer periodically or you will end up throwing it out anyway. You can even freeze extra egg white and egg yolks if you add sugar or salt to them first.
Splurge #2: Beverages.
Other than milk (especially with a toddler), most beverages other than water are a splurge. We like them, but we don’t really need them. If you need to cut costs, and don’t want to lose your daily coffee etc., see if you can just cut back. Use a smaller cup; dilute juice (up to 40% water, and it’s still pretty good); make specialty beverages (read into this as it applies to you) a less-frequent treat.
Splurge #3: Convenience foods.
Other than cake mix, frosting, and tortillas (all of which I like to make from scratch because they just taste better), most foods that are ready-made cost more than the same food does to make at home. Pizza, baked desserts, bread, and guacamole are a few examples. A pound of dried beans costs a little more than a can, but is at least 3 times as many beans after soaking and cooking. (I soak them in my crockpot the night before. and then change the water, add salt, and cook them in the crockpot the day of.) Oatmeal is cheaper than cereal, but you’ll have to get it on the stove a bit before you’re ready to eat–especially if you’re oatmeal snobs like us and only eat steel-cut. Additionally, whenever I have food that is ready to eat in the pantry, it disappears way faster than is cost-effective.
Splurge #4: Shopping at expensive stores or buying expensive brands.
If you want to get super serious here, you can keep a price book of different foods you buy, and see where each store in town sells it the cheapest. I just found the generally cheapest stores and go there for my groceries. For me at this time this is Trader Joe’s and PriceRite–neither of which take coupons, so I don’t have to worry about that. Also, give the no-name brand a try or a look over the ingredient list before you rule it out.
Splurge #5: Buying Items that aren’t on sale.
Another thing I like about PriceRite and Trader Joe’s is that other than manager’s specials, the food stays the same price, so you don’t have to play the only-buy-it-every-six-weeks-when-it-goes-on-sale game. If you go to a grocery store that does, keep track of the prices things tend to drop to when they are on sale, and try to only buy them at that low price.
Splurge #6: Snacks and Desserts.
Other than fresh produce as snacks and desserts, few of these contribute helpful nutrients to your family’s diet. Start eating pan- or air-popped popcorn. Make desserts more of a treat.
Splurge #7: Meat.
We like meat, but I only cook with it about one time per week, and it is usually not in a huge chunk, but spread out in a stirfry or soup. This means we usually end up meatless 3-4 days of the week. This is for a few reasons–one being cost–especially because we like to splurge on organic meat. It is really not necessary to your family’s health to eat meat every day: legumes and grains together provide all your essential amino acids, and eggs are really cheap. For some vegetarian recipe ideas, check out budgetbytes.com, or an Indian cookbook at your library.
Splurge #8: Fresh Produce.
Fresh produce is my weakness, but my grandpa has always eaten what is cheapest, and he is some year of octagenerian, so it can’t hurt you too much to eat frozen or canned. However, I draw the line at the canned peas at his house. I will not eat peas from a can; I will not eat them, Sam I Am.
Another thing with fresh produce–make sure you are not buying more than you can eat (See Splurge #1), and try to buy what is on sale (See Splurge #5).
Splurge #9: Gourmet foods or add-ins.
Many recipes, especially from foodie magazines, have ingredients that seriously rack up the cost, and aren’t really necessary. Most of the time these have a cheaper substitute (sunflower seeds for pinenuts), or they can be omitted (nuts in desserts) without changing the recipe too much. Try cutting the butter in half if it seems non-essential to the recipe (i.e. if it is poured over the top etc., not when you are baking cookies ) or making just the brownies/ cookie bars/ cake and omitting the frosting.
Splurge #10: Buying Organic.
I don’t want to be controversial here, and I do like to buy organic myself as much as possible, but If you’re running out of money at the end of the month, maybe it is time to buy non-organic for a week.
So, decide how much you want to use from the budget to spend on groceries, and figure out which splurges you want to cut first. Can you think of any other ways people splurge? Let me know if anything here helps you!
P.S. Over the next several weeks, I’m going to be linking up to some friends’ blogs with their weekly meal plans, so you can see what different people are cooking and maybe get some fresh ideas. I’m not sure of everyone’s food budget, but at least two of them spend less than I do. The first of those will be tomorrow.