In today’s shifting economic state, with a recession that has been acknowledged and with the prices of everything from milk to real estate skyrocketing, everyone is trying to be as frugal as possible. Saving money is no longer a pastime for stay at home moms and seniors on a budget, it is now a major interest for the majority of Americans. One of the easiest and quickest ways to save money is at the supermarket. While you may question this, seeing as the price of potatoes has doubled in the past few months, it is a truism. We all have to eat. But we do not have to eat our money. Whether you spend $150 a week or only $50, you can find ways to spend less. Saving money at the supermarket, and on food in general, is a matter of planning. Planning, thinking ahead and being willing to change habits. Here, I will share several strategies for saving money on your groceries.
Budgets, Menu Plans and Inventories
The easiest way to spend too much money at the grocery store is to go shopping with no plan. Wandering down the aisles and picking up a variety of foods that you think you might need or that sound appealing can result in a lot of food in your cabinets but not a lot to eat. You can also end up spending more on convenience foods than you should, just because you are in a hurry or have no idea what to buy. Assign yourself a weekly budget for food. Include in that budget the money to purchase things like coffee at work or a soda at the convenience store if you must have these. My budget includes all groceries purchased and $25 a week for a meal out. For a family of five, our food budget is $100 a week including that luxury amount! When I shop, I try to stay within that budget and if I go under, I can either save the money for another time or pick up something we want but do not need.
Once you have set a budget, the next step is to plan your menus. This may seem silly or like it will take too much time, but it really saves both time and money. I make a basic plan that includes a list of breakfast foods, lunch items and a more detailed dinner menu. This plan can be day specific or open ended. I generally plan what foods to serve each day but stay flexible. If I don’t feel like cooking chicken one day, or I forgot to take it out to defrost, I can pick another meal on my plan and make that instead. But, all of the foods are accounted for, bought in advance and there is no wondering if you have what you need to make a specific dish. There is also no asking what’s for dinner and no staring into your refrigerator trying to decide what to cook.
A sample menu might look like this:
Breakfast – cold cereal, oatmeal, fresh fruit, toast, scrambled eggs, bagels
Lunch – leftovers, pb&j sandwiches, tuna fish sandwiches, chicken nuggets and fries
Dinner – Chicken casserole with green beans, spaghetti with red sauce and salad, leftovers, pork chops mashed potatoes and corn, breakfast for dinner (pancakes, bacon), cowboy baked beans and cornbread, leftovers
After you have made your menu, or before to help plan your menu, you need to take an inventory of what food you have in your house. You don’t want to buy a can of green beans if you already have 4 in your cupboard! I usually make a quick inventory and use that to help plan my menu. If I have two meals worth of chicken in my freezer, I will usually try to eat at least one meal using chicken that week. Why buy it if you already have it?
Shopping Lists, Sales Flyers, Coupons and Reward Programs
Once you know what you need for your meals for the week and what you already have, you can make a shopping list. Never go shopping without a list! You can easily spend two or three times the money in a grocery store without a list that you would with a list. Trying to remember what you need without a list is just too hard. Make a list of everything you need to purchase. Don’t forget things like milk and sugar if you need them!
Next, take a look at the weekly sales flyer for the grocery stores in your area. See if anything you need is on sale and if it is a good sale. Some people plan their menus around what is on sale, and I do that sometimes. It takes time to do but can save you even more money if you make the effort. Keep an eye open for items that are really great sales that you might not need this week but that you use a lot. If boneless, skinless chicken breasts are on sale for $1.99 a pound then I know that that is a good deal. I will buy several weeks worth of chicken and save money in the long run! This is what is known as stocking up. It is a more advanced way to save money but is well worth it.
Coupons are not viewed as being a sign of poverty anymore. There are many families with triple digit incomes that use coupons. They can be valuable if you use them correctly. The basic idea of coupons is to only use them if they are for an item you need to purchase anyway or the savings is so significant that you are getting the item for free or close to free. If you choose to use a coupon for an item that you do not usually use, make an effort to locate a recipe that uses that item or donate it to a food pantry. Coupons can be a difficult thing to make work for you if you do not take the time to search out the ones you need and pair them with sales. I suggest starting small on coupons and checking out Couponmom.com for more information on how to use coupons effectively.
Many grocery stores have rewards programs for their loyal customers. Take advantage of these! They can add up to substantial savings. I am a member of three different rewards programs for my local stores. I generally go to two or three stores when I am grocery shopping and get the best deals at each. This is a strategy that has to be balanced with gas prices and time. If a store is too far away then the savings is not really great since you spent gas money getting there.
Recipes, Cooking from Scratch, Leftovers and More
A huge way to save money is to cook your food from scratch. Many of us depend upon convenience foods on a regular basis. And while they may be, well, convenient, they are not cheap! By cutting back on expensive, and sometimes unhealthy, convenience foods, you can save a lot of money each week. Try replacing one meal a week that you would usually use convenience foods for with a home cooked meal and see how the savings add up. You can find simple, quick and delicious recipes online for many different foods. Try searching recipe databases for specific foods or ingredients to find recipes for foods you need to use up.
I try to serve one meal each week that is meatless. Meat is one of the biggest expenses in any food budget. By cutting out meat in one meal I am saving money. Pasta with red sauce or a vegetable stew can be filling and delicious while still being meat free. Another idea for saving money is to have breakfast for dinner. Breakfast foods are traditionally cheaper than other foods. Try serving a large baked omelet with a hashbrown casserole or pancakes and sausage one night a week!
One of the biggest wastes of food, and therefore of money, in America is the fact that many people do not eat leftovers. They throw away the food that could feed them another meal. Try to serve leftovers once or twice a week. You can use the leftovers to cook another meal, have a “leftover buffet” or even eat them for lunch. By using up your leftovers, you are saving money on buying food.
Remember, saving money on your food budgets each week frees that money up to be used for something else. Whether it be paying off debt, saving for a vacation or even saving for your retirement, every penny should be important. For more information on ways to save money, you can do a web search for such things as menu planning, using coupons or even supermarket savings.