An average American family of four spends between $146 and $289 per week on groceries, according to the USDA. That's an annual investment of at least $7500, and possibly as much as $15,000+!
Where you fall within that range depends, of course, on where you shop and what you buy, but it also has a lot to do with how much food you waste. With a little planning and effort, you can save significant money on your grocery bill each year without ever clipping a coupon or hoarding cans from a warehouse store. I call it my 4S approach: Strategize, Shop, Safeguard, and Substitute.
Strategize - Planning out your meals each week will not only save you time but also money. You'll be less likely to resort to expensive takeout or prepared foods if you've got a strategy in place for what to make for dinner. With minimal effort, you can plan your menu around ingredients you already have on hand and not only reduce waste but shorten your shopping list. Pull double-duty on the items you buy to get even more bang for your buck. For example, if you're buying a head of cabbage to make coleslaw, why not plan to make stir-fry that same week and use up the rest of it before it goes bad?
Shop - Creating a shopping list will save you trips to the store for forgotten items, as well as time in the store once you're there. You'll also avoid over-spending on impulse purchases. Build your list as you plan your weekly menu to be sure you have everything you need on hand, and add only what you need for other meals. Take stock of what's already in your fridge and pantry so that you don't duplicate or overbuy. Nothing breeds waste like buying more produce than you'll be able to use before it goes bad. Don't fall victim to deals that aren't really deals. Regardless of the price, if you weren't already planning to buy it, it's not really a deal!
Safeguard - Preserving your perishables until you are able to use them is one of the best ways to lower your bottom line at the grocery store. Instead of allowing excess meat or produce to spoil, prolong its life so you can use it another day by cooking, freezing, or canning it before it goes bad. Peel and freeze overripe bananas for later use in bread or muffins. Microwave and mash extra sweet potatoes for baking. Cut bread ends into cubes and freeze for later use as croutons or breadcrumbs. Protect your produce from premature spoilage with proper cleaning and storage.
Substitute - Switching up ingredients in your favorite recipes to use up what you already have on hand can also save you bucks at the store. Use up that extra yogurt no one wants in place of milk for your muffin recipe or toss that leftover half bag of frozen green beans into your casserole instead of making a separate green vegetable. Get in the habit of freezing your "throwaways" to use as substitutions later. For example, freeze the juice you drained from your can of tomatoes and use that instead of buying tomato juice for a recipe. Use some crushed up cornflakes to coat your fried chicken instead of buying breading.
Look for more outside-the-box ideas for using up what you already have to save you money.
Whether you spend your savings on a special dinner out or some nice wine to go with your home-cooked gourmet meal, the 4S approach will have you laughing all the way to the bank!
Have I mentioned how much I hate grocery shopping? The crowds. The lines. The screaming kids (usually my own). The screaming moms (usually me). The reckless cart drivers. The prices. The physical labor. The MATH! …
Fortunately for my hungry family, I love to eat more than I hate to grocery shop, so I do it anyway. However, I’m not willing to suffer this torture more than once/week if I can help it and, by golly, it’s gotta be worth the effort. This means wasting as little as possible of what I buy. I’m not lugging all that stuff home just to feed the fruit flies or to let it rot in the fridge!
Besides, have you seen the price of fresh produce recently? Eating healthy requires a significant investment of both time and money (neither of which I have in abundance), and protecting that investment is key to successful consumption (something I enjoy). Otherwise, you may as well just throw those apples in the trash as soon as you get home. Let’s face it, work is work…whether you pick those apples from the orchard yourself or pick through them in the produce aisle. And I, for one, want to do as little of that as I can get away with.
The good news is that it doesn’t take a lot of extra time or effort to lengthen the life of your produce. You’ll not only make up that time (with interest) later, but you’ll be more likely to actually eat all the yummy, healthy goodies you lugged home. As soon as you get home, wash and dry your lettuce, fresh herbs, “bowl fruit” (apples, oranges, etc.), grapes and berries before putting them away. They’ll be ready to eat/prepare when you want them, last longer and look more inviting.
If you have the time, go ahead and bag up individual portions of fruits and veggies before putting them away so that you or your family members can grab a healthy snack any time. I find that non-organic cut bell peppers, celery, carrots, and cucumbers will stay fresh for up to a week if stored properly in the fridge. This saves me oodles of time on lunch preparation throughout the week, because I can bag it up as soon as I get home from the store and then just toss it into the lunch boxes each morning. (If you shop organic, the shelf life may be shorter, so you’ll have to figure out what works best.) One cutting board + one knife + one time washing them and putting them away = three reasons for this busy/lazy mom to smile.
Just to be clear, I don’t wash everything before I put it away…just the things I’ve found make a difference. Here are a few tips that have worked well for me:
I hate grocery shopping! Once upon a time it was fun, back when I was young and single and only cooked because I wanted to. Back then, I could meander through the aisles for hours, dreaming about the days when I had a family to cook for and imagining all the tasty, fun foods I'd make. In my little dream world, my well-rounded and appreciative children would be eager to try new foods, and there would always be oodles of time for teaching them to cook in my spacious, always-clean-and-tidy kitchen. It was a Betty Crocker Utopia. Ha!
In reality, grocery shopping with two impatient and whiny kids is like playing Supermarket Sweep, American Ninja Warrior, The Price is Right, and Survivor all at once...where the only prizes you win are gray hair, frazzled nerves and a big fat bill at the end. Oh, and then you get to cart all your stuff home and put it away. And we haven't even come to the Hell's Kitchen part of the show!
The only way I can win this game is to limit the number of times I play to once a week. That means making sure I don't forget anything, which means creating a list. I've tried those pre-printed lists you check off, using electronic lists (many versions) and even creating my own list each week, but nothing seemed quite strong enough to numb the pain to a bearable level. The lists were never comprehensive enough or not arranged the way I liked, and crossing off (or deleting) items as I put them in the cart was too cumbersome a task to perform while simultaneously trying to prevent my kids from hiding in the freezer case or climbing the piles of giant rice bags. And in my frenzied rush to get out of the store before being kicked out by the manager, I was always forgetting some key ingredient I needed.
I finally came up with a solution that's been working really well and has even gotten some positive comments from fellow shoppers, so I thought it was worth sharing with you guys. After consulting my pantry, fridge, freezer and cabinets, I created a comprehensive list of everything I typically buy. (I've been using this list for a few months now and haven't discovered any major omissions yet.) It's organized alphabetically by category. While store layouts vary, the categories are fairly standard. You may skip around from category to category on the list, but you will usually find the majority of items within a category together in the store.
The best part about this list is that it's reusable and easy to check off. You see, it fits on the front and back of a single sheet and thus can be laminated or placed into a plastic page protector and used with a dry erase marker.* Hang it on the fridge and add to it all week long as you think of things you need to buy. Check off any additional items you know you will need before heading to the store. Scanning the list itself will even trigger your memory of things you need to purchase. Then as you shop, simply rub off the check marks with your finger as you put items in your cart. No pen required! (This leaves the other hand free to yank your kids back BEFORE they pull the bottom orange out of the neatly-stacked pyramid.) Hang it back up on the fridge when you get home, ready for next week's round.
Feel free to download this printable PDF and give it a try, or email email@example.com to request a FREE editable version you can customize (created in Microsoft Excel).
And for my fellow suffering moms out there: I've discovered that assigning each kid an item and having them race to see who can retrieve theirs first not only keeps them occupied and teaches them where to find things in the store, it saves my energy for more important things...like chasing the shopping cart they are coasting downhill to the car.
*Laminating the list stiffens it, making it easier to write on or rub off and preventing it from creasing in your shopping bag. If using a page protector, place the two sheets back to back with a piece of cardboard in between to achieve the same effect.
I'm bracing myself for a barrage of hate mail for posting this, but my recent discovery has brought me such freedom that I simply must shout it from the rooftops!
I'd like to think I've proven myself as a reasonably frugal consumer. When I say "frugal", I mean that I am budget-conscious and put some effort into finding decent bargains while also recognizing that my time is at least as limited as my finances.
First an admission: I do not coupon (gasp). I found it to be too time consuming and confusing. On top of that, in order for couponing to work, you have to actually remember to give the cashier your coupons...oops! I used to be a regular shopper at warehouse stores like Sam's and Costco because of the low per-unit price you could get by buying in bulk. But then I realized that while spending $400 in one week for 3 different items may save me money in the long run, my short-term cash flow was precisely that...short. So I began shopping at a discount grocery store that stocks mostly off-brand products but where the prices (and the quality) are at least as good as the coupon and warehouse deals without the hassle or the huge outlay.
Finally, I had managed to secure a low unit cost without having to purchase a high quantity. I began to see the benefits of fitting normal-sized products into my tiny pantry (pictured left...I just love my pantry). Gone (eventually) were the 2-liter bottles of soy sauce and vats of olive oil. Crackers, pretzels and cereal were no longer going stale before they could be consumed. I was able to reclaim part of my garage for storing other items besides overflow food. And it no longer took the National Guard to help me unload all the groceries each week.
Unfortunately, I kept buying more cans and boxes than I actually consumed each week out of pure habit..."just to have some on hand". I still had one large shelf reserved in the garage for storing all my extras. In the garage, mind you...where I hate to go. I would send the kids down to get stuff for me, so I lacked a keen sense of what was actually there. I was always buying things we didn't need and not buying something we did need simply because I assumed we already had more of it down in the garage.
And then something happened to knock some sense into me. I fell down the stairs and dislocated my shoulder...badly. I could no longer carry as many groceries and was forced to shorten my weekly shopping list to only what I knew we would use in the next week or two.
Eureka! Now I can fit everything into my pantry where I can easily see at a glance just what we need. Everything is fresh and actually consumed rather than wasted. Putting the groceries away is quicker and easier, and I now have even more room in my garage. I feel so FREE!
All of this has made me realize that being a "frugal" consumer means respecting not just your financial and time limitations, but your space limitations too. My father used to always say, "Space is at a premium." It surely is a precious commodity to be used wisely. Don't squander your spacial budget just to stretch your financial or time budgets. Find a balance of all three.
How do you balance your financial, time and spacial budgets?
Note: Your Sam's or Costco membership may still be worthwhile for purchasing household items, office supplies, electronics, etc. at a great price or for when you are feeding a large crowd. I am not suggesting you ditch it! Just don't let bulk purchases of regular groceries eat up all your space.
Valerie Sheridan is a professional organizer, wife, mother of two, and Founder/Owner of EasyPeasy Living.