Saving Money on Food - Part I

Boy was I shocked the last time I bought chocolate chips from Aldi. Tim and I split the Aldi shopping. (Actually he does it more often than I do; I'm the regular Kroger shopper.) So it had been a while since I'd purchased chocolate chips. I couldn't believe my eyes: $1.49! A year ago a 12 oz. bag of this Wegener staple was running only $.99. Now while chocolate is something of a luxury (some might argue this!) the prices of so many truly essential items have also been increasing rapidly. The Consumer Price Index for food and beverages rose 5.8% in 2008. Elsewhere I read that food prices have jumped 13% in the past three years.

Tired of sticker shock at the grocery, and seeking ways to feed my ever increasingly ravenous locusts without breaking into college savings accounts (I exaggerate), this past fall I decided it was time to shop smarter and cut costs. I've read online accounts of families with amazing budgets as low as $50-60/week for a family of 4-6. Our budget is not amazing, but we are doing better than we were a year ago. To feed the nine of us at home, guests, one 100# black lab, one small cat, plus purchase cleaning supplies and toiletries, we allot $150/week. (We aim for $140, because this allows us to periodically buy our ground beef from a local butcher and wheat from a coop.)

Want an idea of what an "average" family spends? Check out the USDA Meal Plans. The USDA gives costs, broken down by age and sex, to feed a family based on "thrifty," "low-cost," "moderate cost," and "liberal" meal plans. (The Thrifty Plan forms the basis for food stamp awards.) Adding the numbers up for my family, you come up with $308.70/week on tifty0thrifty meal plan. Then you need to subtract 10% to take into account economies achieved for feeding more than four people, and you arrive at $277.83. This is for food only, not animal food, toiletries, or cleaning supplies. Whew! That sounds pretty generous.

OK - You've heard all the old saws about saving money at the grocery store:
- "Don't shop when you are hungry."
- " Shop the perimeter of the store.
- "Buy generics and store brands."
Sure, these are generally true and will help, but they don't go far enough. What are some other strategies that can ease the grocery store blues? Here are some old and new things that I have found useful:

1. "Shop" at home first.
Don't you hate it when you get home from the grocery to find that you already had plenty of fresh fruit or veggies in your bins? Before hitting any stores, check out your home supplies - pantry, fridge, freezer, shelves. Make good use of what you already have before it spoils and you will save $.

2. Don't buy everything at the same store.
Shopping at just one store of course is more convenient, but will cost more. You don't have to visit a half dozen stores each week to realize savings, either. We make one Kroger and one Aldi run each week, then periodic trips to a bread outlet, Wal-Mart, Sams (we've let our membership lapse), Bloomingfoods, and a butcher shop in a nearby county. People who live in larger cities can often find really great deals from salvage stores.

3. Make a price book.
If you are going to shop at several stores, and if you want to take maximum advantage of store sales, you need to know the bottom price for the items you use regularly. Unless you have a fabulous memory (I sure don't!), you probably can't keep all this data in your head. How do you make good decisions, then? Answer: Create a price book with unit prices for all of the things you routinely buy. Use a leaf-loose notebook (small would be great) and make one page for every item or category. You don't have to do this while you are shopping. Instead, take your store receipts at home and add to your growing resource book. You can find more instructions on how to do this online. Google - create price book.

4. Buy in bulk/Stock up on sale items
Once you know your "buy" price, you want to purchase enough of that item to see you through until the next sale. Be creative in looking for storage space for that extra food, if necessary. Some people use under bed space and under the stairs. We have a pantry in the basement and an extra freezer in the garage. Both make buying in bulk easy. Caveat: The largest size is not always the best buy. Also, just because you find something in a jumbo package at Sams, don't assume it is cheaper than a store brand at a discount store like Aldi. Make sure to check those unit prices. Some things are truly good deals at warehouse store, but many are not. Ditto for bulk purchases from a natural foods store. One more note about buying in large sizes: Studies show that we tend to use more of an item, whether it is shampoo or potato chips, when it comes from a larger container. Kind of like the way we eat more when food is served on a larger plate than we do from a smaller plate. I'm not sure of the best way to deal with this, but maybe just knowing that tendency might help us to be more careful in doling out items from jumbo containers.

5. Shop with a plan.
Having a good list to work from will save you money. To do this you need to know what your meals for the coming week will be. I recently read that up to 40% of grocery purchases are spontaneous. Grocers love to entice us to buy things we hadn't planned on. Other stores do this as well. Michaels craft store makes displays that make me want to stop and consider items I had no intention of buying when I entered the store. (I commented on this to Tim when we were at Michaels recently. Funny - the store didn't have that effect on him at all.) Also - make sure you have a grocery budget as a target each week.

6. Cook from scratch
Take a look at your routine purchases. How much are you paying for convenience? The more you stick with basic ingredients (fruits, vegetables, grains, fats, etc.) and do the prep and cooking yourself, the less you will pay. Yes, cooking from scratch generally takes more time, but your end product is usually superior, and you have more control over things like amount of sugar and type of fats. Here you have to decide what is worth it and what is not. For example. you can make your own crackers (and homemade crackers can taste fabulous), but we all have to balance time and money savings. For me homemade crackers are not worth making on any kind of regular basis. On the other hand, it is worth it to make homemade pancake mix and muffins from scratch rather than from a box.

TO BE CONTINUED. (Eventually)
5 Responses
  1. Thanks for the tips, Anne! Back in our days in Nashville, I shopped at Aldi, Kroger, and Walmart, which was very helpful, but I could never keep it below 80 dollars a week. Here in VA (where the prices are oh-so-high), there is no ALDI (close by, anyway) and no SuperWalmart (anywhere!)

    Anyway, I had read about some families spending 30-50 dollars a week on groceries, but what I came to find was that they ate mostly refined sugars/carbs with almost no fresh produce...I don't think I could do that!


  2. Anne Says:

    Rebecca - Yes, it really does make a difference what stores are in your area! (And the cost of groceries varies a lot from place to place.) I'm really thankful for Aldi. (Jill Crum wrote a great haiku about Aldi after moving to Maryland from Florida where she had not had one nearby.)

    That makes sense about those phenomenally low grocery budgets. I read about one family who only shops monthly, but they eat fresh produce only while it lasts - one week, or two for some items. That'd be a pretty significant sacrifice!


  3. Anonymous Says:

    Anne your grocery budget is impressive! But I agree with Rebecca, when I think of how much higher our food prices are in the Northeast I don't think my budget is too far off, for the number of people we have.

    I would love to know any tips for getting started with successful gardening. How many different things do you grown in your square-foot plots? I'm trying not to get carried away on my first time out.

    Also, I was wondering if you have ever tried cloth diapers with your kids. Did you wash your own? How does the washing cost compare to the cost of disposables? We love the White Cloud Walmart brand but I think with the money I would save maybe I could justify buying a high-efficiency washer?

    Many thanks,

    Lydia Carter (who remains anonymous due to the inability to remember yet another password!)


  4. Kara Says:

    Speaking of cooking from scratch, I recently found out how easy and inexpensive it is to make heath (toffee/chocolate) pieces for desserts! I was so disgusted when I found out those $3 of stale broken pieces are pretty much just caramelized sugar that takes 10 minutes and a thermometer to recreate!


  5. Anne Says:

    Lydia -
    Yes, I know your grocery costs must be much more than ours in the Midwest. Both you and Rebecca live in places with very high costs of living! We have lived in a couple of other states and vacationed in more and seen the sometimes dramatic differences in food costs. Some other places that can be expensive are inner cities and rural areas, where competition is low. Probably a city like Indianapolis might offer some of the best shopping opportunities.

    Cloth diapers - I used them for my first four babies, then stopped during my fifth pregnancy. I haven't run the numbers for a long time, but it would be worth comparing costs. At one point we were able to have a diaper service and it cost less than buying diapers for my baby and toddler. I'm not sure if diaper services exit anymore, or what they run. We have a large front-load washer (Maytag) and I love it.

    Gardening - starting small with a few vegetables which you really enjoy is really a good idea. I'd pick some early crops like broccoli, spinach, and lettuce, then follow those up with warm weather veggies of tomatoes and maybe beans and peppers. If the spinach and lettuce get in early, they can be out of the way in time to fit at least some beans in the same place.

    - Anne