There’s nothing original here. You already know all of these things, but sometimes it helps to be reminded. It helped me to write it!
I know it can be tedious and time consuming, and I know it saps all spontaneity from our time in the kitchen, but menu planning is a really indispensable component of keeping the cost of groceries in check. And it’s not hard. You just sit down for a few minutes with your calendar, look over your schedule for the coming week, and pencil in some meal ideas based on the time you’ll have available to cook.
It helps to have a plan for the plan, some parameters for each day of the week. Up until about five years ago, I was really good at this! Sunday was a big meal, a roast or nicer dish that took more effort to prepare. Monday was pasta, because pasta is easy, and because it’s Monday. Tuesday was chicken. Wednesday was No-Matter-What Night, in which I would try new recipes, but make dessert, which the children could eat no matter what. Sometimes, recipes were flops. Thursday was pork, and Friday was pizza. Saturday was something quicker or easier to prepare.
That was the plan, but I didn’t always follow that plan. I might have had leftovers from Sunday that got turned into a soup or a casserole or a stir fry, leaving me with an unused meal that I could either recycle for next week or save for those unbudgeted days at the end of the month. Something unexpected might happen during the week, like a child in need of urgent medical care, and so Saturday’s easy meal might be switched out with whatever had been planned for a day gone awry. Having a plan, though, gave me the ability to deviate from the plan, and even on a bad day, I never had to scramble to figure out what we were going to eat for dinner.
You only have to plan dinner in most cases. Breakfasts and lunches are usually pretty standard and simple, and you’ll know what kinds of things you need to add to your list to get through a week. However, if you plan to make a lunch casserole or a special breakfast, make a note of it!
I’ve gotten away from this in the last few years because of all the meat in our freezers. Odd, huh? You’d think that would make it easier. But when I wanted a London broil, I’d just buy a London broil. Nowadays, my butcher doesn’t know which part of a cow the London broil comes from, and I have tongues and hearts and arm roasts and I’m still figuring out how to prepare these things. So instead of making a plan, I rummage in the freezer, pull out something mysterious but promising, and give it a go. It’s a lot more stressful, and I make a lot more trips to the local (expensive) grocery store to get last minute ingredients for the recipe at hand.
Shop Weekly and Shop More Than One Store
You probably do this. I’ve been shopping monthly, but it’s really hard to make a good menu plan for a whole month, and it’s really hard to shop for a whole month. I often overbuy because I don’t want to run out of something, but at the same time, I forget things and have to make unplanned trips to the local (expensive) grocery. So, for May, I’m going to make time.
You probably also have a variety of stores in your area that you can buy food at. I shop at Kroger, a mainstream grocery; Aldi, a discount grocery; a bulk-type health food store; and the military commissary. I also have access to Walmart, Sav-a-lot (another discount grocery) and Sam’s Club.
First, just to reassure you that I don’t have any special military benefits here, the commissary is not that good of a deal. There’s a 5% surcharge, for one thing, on goods that are not usually taxed on economy, and while great deals on real food are occasionally found, and there are, from time to time, some excellent military-only coupons, prices are mostly in line with what can be found outside the gates. In a great many cases, they’re quite a bit higher. We’re also expected to tip our baggers.
I also think you’re wasting your money if you’re shopping at Sam’s Club and similar membership stores. I have found their prices to be ridiculously high, and when you factor in the cost of membership, too, they’re laughing all the way to the bank. As a general rule, you shouldn’t have to pay to shop.
Oh, and there is an interesting place called Restaurant Depot. Ours is in Louisville, and so a little inconvenient for me, and you need to have some sort of business identification, but the manager assures me he’ll let me shop on his guest account no matter what. Their prices can be quite good, but they also offer some atypical items, like whole lambs and high-gluten flour. Also, everything comes in large, food-service sized cans, so you have to be prepared to repackage leftovers once you open one. Last time I was there, though, I got 100# bag of long grain rice for $16. It lasted me nearly two years, and it was a phenomenal deal.
This month, I’m going to add Walmart to my grocery shopping rotation, and I’m going to see about Restaurant Depot. I’ve only been once, and it was a few years ago, but I’ve been meaning to go back.
Start a Pantry
My buy price on peanut butter is 10¢ an ounce. If it’s less than that, I stock up. That’s why we’re still enjoying the peanut butter that went on sale at Kroger last September. But you need to have a place to keep your overstock. When I first started with the budgeting, and I got that first great sale on maple syrup, I mentioned to Davey that I would like to get a sturdy shelf for our laundry room so I could store these things I found on sale. So we splurged on a sturdy shelving unit, which I’m still using. In Illinois, I had an enormous linen closet in the upstairs hallway of my tiny home. I put the linens in the bedrooms and bathroom and used the closet as a pantry. Here, we have a large entrance area which we call the mudroom. I have several shelves on one wall which I use as a pantry.
Be creative and find a place where you can keep extra stuff, and when you catch a particularly great discount, stock up and put it in your pantry.
Make a List
Now that we have a plan, several stores with sale flyers, and a pantry, we’re going to need a list. The trick here is not to deviate from the list! We used to leave three extra blank lines for impulse purchases or unexpected sales, and that was it. Another idea is to designate a specific dollar amount for any manager’s specials you may find to add to your pantry. Whichever way you choose to do it, you have some sort of mechanism to keep yourself from overspending.
Shop With a Calculator
I haven’t done this in too long! If you have a weekly budget of, say, $100, and you are walking through the store, putting things in your cart and adding them up, you’ll do whatever it takes to keep that total from going over $100! You’ll put things you don’t really need back, you’ll choose the less expensive brand, and you might choose ground beef over steak for Wednesday night’s meal. Watching the numbers go up in real time can be quite sobering.
Cook From Scratch
The more you have other people do for you, the more it costs. Flavored rice in a bag is more expensive and less versatile than rice and bouillon cubes, and that’s true in every category. Here’s my favorite link to making your own homemade hamburger helper.
Coupons may or may not be useful. They are usually for prepared, processed food-like items. You can’t provide your family with the nutrition they need if you are spending your money like this. Stick with fresh, frozen, and canned fruits, veggies, and meats, dairy products and baking supplies. You may have luck with coupons for household items, too. Try coupons.com for printables. If you have more than one computer in your house, you can print extras. I’m also experimenting with some cash-back receipt-scanning apps like ibotta, Checkout51, and SavingStar. They actually have offers for real food.
Allowances for the Grown-Ups
If you are on a tight budget – or any kind of budget, really – this can be a lifesaver! To have at least a small amount of money to spend on anything you want without having to justify it can be a huge morale booster, and it prevents overspending in other areas. A person with no personal cash to spend might by extra Oreos or a fancy steak when she can’t really afford it, because it comes under the category of food. But a person who has even a little bit of unaccounted-for money finds it easier to control her impulses when it comes to purchasing non-essentials. Just a little something to consider. Some people are so close to the edge that they can’t even find a little bit to spare like this, but if you can manage even $10 or $20 each, it’ll make a huge difference. David and I swing between $100 and $150, depending on our various other expenses. We spend it on our hobbies or taking the children out for ice cream or sometimes, we just save it for a bigger purchase. I’ve even used mine for unplanned, unbudgeted, minor home improvement jobs! It’s quite a lot of money, actually, and we could do with much less. I’m sure David would protest, though.
And last, but not least:
Consider Using Cash
Go to the ATM and take your proposed grocery budget out in cash. It hurts a lot more to part with real, actual money than it does to swipe a card.
Your turn. What did I miss? What do you do to keep your grocery expenditures down?