Since I first moved out on my own, I have been trying to figure out this whole grocery shopping thing – how to eat well without overspending money or time.
I have tried everything – from couponing to rebate apps to stockpiling boxes of granola bars [not healthy, by the way]. I shopped exclusively at Aldi for a time. I followed popular shopping bloggers and ran to the store every time they said there was a good deal.
None of these things worked for me. They were all time-consuming and exhausting and didn’t actually seem to save me much money and on top of all that, we weren’t eating healthy foods.
So I’ve been trying to figure out how to spend less on groceries without sacrificing quality or healthfulness.
After ten years, I have FINALLY reached a place where grocery shopping is no longer expensive, time-consuming, or unhealthy. I spend less time meal planning, less time at the grocery store, and less time stressing over the grocery budget than I ever have.
To give you an idea of how much you can save, here are USDA’s recommended grocery budgets.
They vary based on the number and ages of you family members and based on whether you are living lean [“Thrifty plan”] or high on the hog [“Liberal plan”].
So according to this chart, for my family of five, a thrifty plan would be $561.50 per month, if I don’t count my youngest who is only 18 months old, or $655.60 if I do count her.
Doesn’t really matter because our budget is $400/month. This doesn’t include our eating out budget which is $60/month and allows us to eat out about twice per month. Also, every other month we cut our budget in half [a lengthy explanation of which I may write and post someday]. So, technically, we feed our family for $300/month, if we average it out.
That may sound like a lot or a little to you depending on your situation, but for us, it is less than half of what Brett and I were spending back when it was just the two of us – and we weren’t eating nearly as healthy as we do now.
[I’m harping on the healthy thing because anyone can eat ramen noodles every day and save tons of money, but I have found that I can eat super healthy – I’m talking fresh produce and high quality foods – and still save money. So if you are one of the many people today who believe that eating healthy is more expensive, please read on.]
So how do we feed our family healthy foods with so little money? Well, for starters we buy very few processed foods [for our health] and we do our best to avoid packaged foods [for the health of our planet]. Those two things contribute a little bit to our savings – but I know that they are not the reality for the average American [though I wish they were].
The bulk of the money and time is saved by following these five simple rules:
1. Buy what is on sale.
Rather than creating a meal plan and then buying the ingredients regardless of the price, I let the weekly ads determine what we eat each week. In my area, each Wednesday, grocery stores roll out new ads with new deals. I compare the ads from four different local grocers and then choose the one [or maybe two] with the best sales and that’s where I’ll be shopping that week.
Besides simplifying meal planning, another benefit of this rule is that it saves a lot of time at the grocery store. I know exactly what I’m going in to get. I don’t need to price compare a bunch of different options, or stroll down aisles looking at different food choices, or fall prey to the clever marketing tricks like flashy signs and end-caps. I go in, get what’s on sale, get out.
Bottom line, if it’s not on sale, I don’t buy it.
[As with all rules, there are exceptions. In the case of rule #1, I don’t buy my bulk dry goods on sale because most stores don’t offer regular sales on bulk goods. In this case, I am prioritizing my obligation to the health of the planet over money – ALWAYS a good choice, by the way. But I still save plenty of money.]
2. Set price limits.
Over the past two years I’ve learned what a good sale price is for most items and I have set rules for how cheap they need to be. Simply being “on sale” is not necessarily good enough. Not all sale prices are created equal. For example, it is extremely rare that I will buy produce at Aldi because their sale prices are never as good as my other local grocers. If you [as most people do] assume that Aldi is cheaper for everything simply because it’s Aldi, then you are overpaying.
In order to figure out what a good sale price is, you have to pay attention to sales in your area over a period of months. My price limits are still changing as time goes on. For example, I used to only buy boneless chicken if it was under $2/lb, but after a while I learned that I could find it at least once a month for $1.49/lb. So that became my new price limit.
Here are some examples of my price limits [understand that prices will vary greatly depending on your location]:
I won’t buy produce for more than $1/lb. Sometimes I do buy blackberries at $.88/6oz package and I will buy avocados if they are $.79/each or less, but I don’t make a habit of buying these items because they are so expensive compared to normal produce.
I won’t buy cheese for more than $1.50/8oz package. If cheese is not on sale for this price or less, we just do without cheese. It’s not even really a hardship. In fact, I think it has improved my children’s appreciation for the taste of real foods not covered in cheese.
I won’t buy eggs for more than $1/dozen. Though, I admit, I am going to buy eggs from our farm CSA this summer at $5/carton, but in this case, I am prioritizing supporting local agriculture and health over saving money. I will also be limiting our eggs to one carton per week.
Your rules will depend on what eat, but everything should have a price limit required for purchase. There will always be off cases when you simply must have something – like butter to make buttercream for your son’s birthday cake – and it’s not on sale. Okay. Sometimes we have to bend the rules.
3. Eat less meat…and live longer and healthier lives.
I’m a fitness professional, not a registered dietician or nutritionist, so you don’t have to agree with me on the healthful side of this rule. Eat meat if you want, but know this, meat is WAY MORE expensive than plant-based foods. We used to make two or three chicken breasts for our family of five for dinner. Now, we all share one chicken breast [oftentimes less] and fill the majority of our plates with vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes.
Check out choosemyplate.gov.
This is the USDA’s newest recommendation for healthy eating which has replaced the typical food pyramid we all learned in grade school.
Notice that three quarters of the plate are filled with plant-based foods. Now think about how your dinner plate typically looks. Most Americans eat a meat heavy diet, with the protein being the main course and the vegetables and fruits being “sides.”
If you need further evidence, watch the documentary, In Defense of Food, or read the book with the same title by Michael Pollan.
Time to rethink the way we eat…and hopefully soon because the health epidemic in our country is quite literally frightening. But the good news is, eating more plant-based foods is CHEAPER!
Also, according to the chart below by health.gov, over 85% of the population is not eating the recommended amount of vegetables…
C’mon, people. Let’s eat some more veggies!
[Someday I’ll go into greater detail about how to eat healthy on a budget. It is not hard, folks. I promise you!]
4. Buy less food.
This might sound obvious, but apparently it needs to be stated anyway because we have a bit of an overeating problem in America.
According to the CDC, 39.8% of adults in the US are obese [read about it here.] And, shockingly, according to this article by NPR, 75% of Americans believe themselves to be eating healthy…so why are obesity rates so high?
There are lots of factors that contribute to the obesity issue, but no matter where you look, portion size and overeating are partially to blame.
Nutrition scholar Marion Nestle at New York University says portion size — just eating too much — is an issue. “I’d vote for that as a major cause of obesity,” Nestle told us by email.
“Some of the problem is that individuals pay more attention to getting good things in their diet than they do to limiting overall intake,” adds David Just, a behavioral economist who studies food psychology at Cornell University. – npr.org
The accessibility of food in our society has made overeating too easy. Yes, restaurants serve us too much food, but we also serve ourselves too much food at home. We also stock too much food in our kitchen, making it too easy to eat whatever we want whenever we feel like it.
Let’s all do ourselves a favor and buy less food. There is no reason to stockpile canned goods as if we are fearing an imminent apocalypse…unless you are fearing an imminent apocalypse…in which case, there is no need to save your money because it will be useless when the zombies take over.
Some basic ways to buy less food is:
Go grocery shopping once a week and only buy what you need for that week.
Buy fresh produce so you CAN’T stockpile it. Fresh food is healthier, more likely to be local, and tastes WAY BETTER!
Don’t buy [or buy very little] unhealthy snacks and treats. Don’t spend your hard-earned money on food that is going to make you sick and unhappy in the long run.
Avoid processed and packaged foods – for the sake of your wallet, your health, and the planet.
5. Eat all the food you buy.
Again, this seems obvious…but apparently it’s not because 40% of food in America is thrown away.
In 2012, NRDC published a groundbreaking report that revealed that up to 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten. That is on average 400 pounds of food per person every year. Not only is that irresponsible—it’s expensive [emphasis mine]. Growing, processing, transporting, and disposing that uneaten food has an annual estimated cost of $218 billion, costing a household of four an average of $1,800 annually. – NRDC report by Dana Gunders, source
And before you go blaming it all on grocery stores, this infographic created by the NRDC says that households and restaurants are the biggest generators of food waste [at least in Denver, Nashville and New York].
Of course, on the other hand, we have lots of families in our country who struggle to put food on the table.
So besides the cost of wasted food, I feel just plain terrible knowing that I am throwing food away when some people are not eating today. And I feel like a terrible hypocrite if I talk about our grocery budget being “tight” while I’m throwing food in the trash – or even in the compost bin.
In my home, we do everything we possibly can to avoid wasting food. Some of the ways to reduce our food waste are:
Eat all the leftovers. I set designated days at least once but often twice per week to eat whatever we have that is close to expiring.
Only buy what you need for a week. You may not know what you need for a week, but if you find yourself throwing food out, then you know for next time that you need less. Obviously some things with longer shelf lives, like dairy products and dry goods, don’t need to be purchased weekly. That leads me to the next tip:
Don’t buy more if you still have food to eat. I don’t know why we do this but it seems that it’s totally normal to go buy a full cart of groceries when we still have enough food in our home to feed our family for the next six months. I’m not joking. When we got ready to sell our last home, I started using up all the food that we had in our cabinets and pantry and – oh my gosh – our second freezer. Lo and behold, we had enough food to feed us for months. I decided then and there that stocking so much food in our house was wasteful and expensive and I stopped doing it.
A word on frozen and non-perishable foods: Some people prefer to buy non-perishables because they feel like they throw out more food when they buy fresh – which they really might. The problem is not the fresh food – it’s that there is a disparity between the amount they are buying and the amount they are eating. As I said previously, fresh food is healthier, more likely to be local, and tastes WAY BETTER! Buy fresh food – just not so much – and then EAT IT!
So, this has been a book. If you’ve stuck with me, I hope you’ve found some useful information and, hopefully, some motivation to improve your spending and eating habits.
These are all things I wish someone had told me a lot earlier, but everything I found about saving money on groceries revolved around making a list, not shopping hungry, and clipping coupons. I wanted something that saved me time AND money AND made me a healthier consumer.
For me, this is it.
If you’ve found a method that works for you, share it in the comments! We all have room for improvement!
Happy grocery shopping!
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