How to save money on groceries

1950s grocery shopping lady

To get things rolling at Frugalistic Mom, I’m going to share a series of posts that cover the basics of how I save money. I’ll keep these posts handy in the “How to Save Frugalistically” section at the top of the page, so you can refer to them at any time.

Groceries are usually a starting point for saving money because food is the largest expense in most households that we have significant leeway to change. The USDA estimates that families of four spend anywhere from $141 to $279 on groceries in a week, depending on whether they are “thrift” or “liberal.”

Frugalistic Mom spends less than the thrifty families profiled by the USDA, by the way — I limit my grocery budget to $100 a week and our family of five people and two pets live quite well off that. How do I do it? I share my shopping trips and family meals in the “Feeding 5 on $100 a Week” category of this site.

Frugalistic advice on cutting your weekly grocery bill

Listen, not everyone is going to spend $100 a week on groceries. Some of you probably spend less, and many of you spend more. The point is not to replicate my budget, but to reduce your own spending to a level you’re satisfied with.

1. Set a budget.

If you take no other advice on this blog, take this one step and you will save money on groceries: Figure out what you save in an average week, and then set a fixed budget that is lower than that. I think 20 percent lower is an achievable goal for most families. You’re probably already trying to save money every time you shop. But are you making progress? How would you know if you’re not keeping track?

Think of it like training for a race. People once thought that the 4-minute mile was out of reach for human beings. But once someone ran a 4-minute-mile, that became the new goal for competitive runners and lots of them found they could do it.

So, if you are spending $200 a week on groceries right now, perhaps you want to set a $175 budget. Having that goal — and holding yourself to it — will inspire you to use the savings techniques described here, or think up ways to save on your own. I just finished a great book called Moonwalking with Einstein that explains how, no matter what skill we’re using, we tend to go on autopilot and hit a plateau unless we set new goals for ourselves. That book is about memory competitions, of all things, but the same concept applies to speed typing, running, and, yes — saving money.

2. Cut food waste.

Once you’ve spent your entire budget for the week, you’ll find yourself more motivated to keep leftovers out of the trash can. Cutting the grocery budget also tends to keep your fridge emptier, making it easier to remember what you’ve got in there. Throwing away food makes me feel bad, so avoiding that sinking feeling is a side benefit of the frugalistic savings plan.

This directive always reminds me of an anecdote my grandma likes to tell about raising her family on Grandpa’s small Navy paycheck. One trash pick-up day my uncle looked outside and asked his mom why all the other families had two trash bags on the curb, but they only had one.

“Because,” Grandma told him, “We eat our garbage.”

So, get in the kitchen and cook up some garbage. Throw dried-out carrots into the soup, make the sour milk into pancakes, and when you don’t think you’ll have time to use something before it turns, just throw it in the freezer. I mean, how lucky are we to have this machine in our kitchen that stops time? Use it.

If you have little kids, read this post I wrote for Wise Bread about reducing food waste when feeding children.

3. Divorce your grocery list from your self image.

I buy organic food for items that are at high risk of being contaminated. But I have to constantly remind myself not to use the contents of my kid’s snack bag to show off what a healthy mom I am. Do you find yourself reaching for certain brands because you’ve arrived and your station in life is not that of a lowly store brand buyer? Quit being such a sucker.

4. Take advantage of multiple promotions.

In some marketplaces — say, mattress stores — promotions are more flash than substance. But in grocery shopping, promotions routinely cut 30, 50, even 100 percent off my receipt. It is usually possible to combine different kinds of promotions to get food for much less than the store paid for it. If you feel sorry for stores and food marketing companies because they are losing money on you, this may not be the blog for you.

Soon, I will explain how to exploit all of these promotions to cut your grocery bill:

Coupons

Store member cards

Loss leaders

Catalina offers

Multi-item purchase offers

Buy one, get one free offers

Clearance groceries

5. Choose your grocery store strategically

One negative image people have of frugal grocery shoppers is that we waste time (and gas) shopping at many different stores to skim the best deals from each. While it’s true that people who make smaller, more frequent shopping trips are able to save more, it’s also quite possible to save without increasing your number of weekly shopping trips. But it’s important to carefully choose where your one or two weekly trips will be.

Even if you want to spend zero time researching sales each week, you can save money by deciding to shop at less expensive stores. In the Chicago area, one of the most expensive stores is Whole Foods. (Surprise, surprise.) Among the cheapest are Aldi, Caputo’s, Walmart and Woodmans. A study by Consumer’s Checkbook magazine showed that the difference between shopping at Chicago’s cheapest and most expensive stores amounts to nearly $6,000 in the course of a year!

If you do take time to research the sales each week, use this information to pick which store would be ideal for this week’s visit. This may mean alternating among a few nearby stores.

6. Research (by taking advantage of other people’s work)

You can page through the grocery ads each week, but you don’t even have to do that. If you visit this blog each Wednesday, you’ll find summaries of the top Chicago grocery deals, complete with information about where to grab the coupon that goes with each sale.

7. Stockpile

Stockpiling food and drugstore items is one of those things that makes the extreme couponers look really crazy. During TLC’s first season of Extreme Couponing, I heard many, many people comment that the people on the show should have been featured on the Hoarders show instead. One shopper on the show had jars of spaghetti sauce sitting on industrial shelving in the master bedroom she shared with her husband. Another shopper had turned his garage into a warehouse.

Here’s the thing, though: Done within reason, stockpiling is one of the most valuable weapons in a bargain shopper’s arsenal. Stockpiling is what allows you to never buy anything full price. When breakfast cereal or razors or frozen pizzas are on sale and you have a great coupon, you can buy months’ and months’ worth, ensuring that you won’t have to purchase that item again until the next great deal comes along.

How do you make sure that your stockpiling does not turn into hoarding? One thing that I do is restrict my stockpile to defined areas. I have two Rubbermaid cupboards in my  basement, one for groceries and one for drugstore items. The space below the basement stairs is for bottled drinks for parties and guests. The chest freezer is mostly for bulk meat purchases, but can also accommodate extra frozen foods bought on a great sale.

I also use my stockpile for charity. For instance, last year my daughter’s Girl Scout troop made hygiene kits for a local homeless shelter. I was able to donate most of the supplies, which I had gotten for next to nothing during drugstore promos.

8. Avoid prepared foods

This is a good option for those who feel that couponing results in an unhealthy diet, or don’t like using coupons. You can save quite a lot by cooking more of your meals from scratch, and it’s usually healthier too. One way for working parents to avoid the expense of convenience foods is to cook up meals from scratch in bulk and freeze them in dinner-sized batches.

One item I would definitely target when cutting costs is organic or “natural” processed foods like French toast sticks or toaster pastries. Any health benefit from organic ingredients is probably wiped out by the processing.

There’s quite a range of do-it-yourself-ness here, of course, with some moms considering it totally normal to make their own granola and soap, while others (like me) feel like we’re practically pioneers on the prairie when we make homemade muffins, puree some baby food, or cut up fruit for a picnic instead of buying plastic bags of pre-cut fruit.

9. Choose less expensive ingredients

Some foods that are just as nutritious as others are reliably inexpensive. When I don’t see a great sale on produce, I just buy carrots, because they are always 89 cents a pound (organic, Trader Joe’s). Potatoes, cabbage, dried (or canned) beans, bananas, brown rice and oatmeal are other very affordable and healthy staples. I once read of a frugal couple who made pesto with sunflower seeds instead of pine nuts — much cheaper, and they swore they could not tell the difference.

Naturally, this also means buying fresh fruits and vegetables when they are in season.

10. Add at least one super frugal meal to your weekly menu

You may be in the habit of buying a pound or two of meat for every meal of the week — that’s an opportunity right there to cut costs. Try eliminating meat for at least one dinner, and replacing it with cheaper protein from beans, tofu, eggs or cheese. There’s a Web site called Meatless Monday that encourages people to do this once a week for environmental reasons.

I like the weekly frugal meal because it pushes me to remember to make those cheaper meals without feeling deprived. Besides beans and rice, frugal meals at my house include colcannon (cabbage and mashed potatoes) and all kinds of soups with homemade bread from the bread machine. It helps that my family really loves soup!

Photo CC licensed for commercial use by James Vaughan.

3 Responses to How to save money on groceries
  1. [...] this series about how to save money without wasting your life chasing pennies. Part I outlined some easy ways to save money on groceries, and today I’m sharing my low-maintenance coupon system. You can find the entire Save Money [...]

  2. Sara@Save Money, Live Joyfully
    September 28, 2011 | 8:36 pm

    Great post! Lots of wonderful tips. I especially love the tip about constantly setting new goals for ourselves. Can’t wait to read more of your articles!

  3. [...] Mom’s first series, “How to Save Money Frugalistically.” Also see Part I, “How to Save Money on Groceries,” and Part II, “How to Use Coupons.” You can find all the parts to this series [...]

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