We’ve been having to work with a pretty tight budget ever since I made the decision to quit my job. Really, we’d been living quite thriftily before that, but this just took cutting back to a new level. I know it won’t be this way forever, but honestly, I kind of like the challenge of operating our kitchen within the constraints of limited resources. It’s like I’m a competitor in my own personal game show about finding deals and shopping smartly. It’s the twenty-first century’s version of hunting and gathering.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those crazy couponers. I could be – I’m totally not above the weirdness of that – but I just don’t have the time. Or the storage space. Instead, I just do my best to keep our monthly grocery bill low as best as I can. Listed below are my top 5 strategies. Most are pretty simple and those of you already on a tight budget might be like no duh, but for the lady new to shopping on the cheap, here’s a place to start:
TIP #1: Meal Plan and Make a List
Meal planning is the first principle of grocery shopping efficiently – both in terms of time and money. If you do not make a list, you are far more likely to both buy things you don’t need and forget about things you do. In order to make a list, you have to plan out what you’re going to make for every meal. For me it works best to do this once a week, but there’s no reason you couldn’t do it twice a week or once every two weeks. It just depends on how frequently you want to shop. Once you have your list, stick to it. Do not buy items that are not on the list.
TIP #2: Shop Ethnic Grocery Stores
Ethnic grocery stores almost always sell significantly cheaper produce, spices, and meat. From my experience, it doesn’t even matter what ethnicity the store caters to – it’s just cheaper. I do the large majority of my shopping at Food 4 Less, which isn’t technically an ethnic grocery store but caters heavily to the Hispanic population. Their prices and inventory reflect that of the other ethnic grocery stores in our area.
I haven’t ever lived in a place where there wasn’t some sort of ethnic grocery near by, but if I did, I’d either look for other forms of discount grocers – places like Smart & Final, Aldi, or Grocery Outlet.
TIP #3: Buy and Freeze
This is another form of “shop the ads.” Every week I peruse the weekly ads to see what meats are on sale that week and I plan the meals around that. But often times there are things on sale that I don’t necessarily want to cook that week. Instead of passing them up, I buy them and freeze for later. Then the next week when I am building my meal plan, I can choose from the meat that is currently on sale that week or the inventory I have in my freezer.
I use meat as an example because it is typically the most expensive part of a meal, but you can certainly do the same thing with cheese, butter, some kinds of produce, and more. You can also buy canned goods and other non-perishables in advance of need.
Don’t have a second freezer? Look on Craigslist, Close5, or Facebook swap groups near you. You can often find a used one pretty cheap. Ours was free!
TIP #4: Know Your Prices
A sale means nothing unless you know what the regular price of the item is. The fact that ground beef is on sale for $2.49 a pound means nothing to me unless I know that the regular price is $2.99 a pound. Last week I was at Aldi and chicken thighs were $1.19 a pound. That sounds like a good price, except that chicken thighs go on sale for $0.99 a pound at least once a month at Food 4 Less. In order to know when a sale is really good and you should stock up, you have to know the standard prices in your area.
The same goes for buying bulk. We shop at Costco about once a month. Costco offers a lot of items at a discount for buying in larger packages, but not everything is cheaper there. Canned vegetables, cereal, apples, diapers, and condiments are all examples of things you can almost always buy cheaper at the grocery store.
How do you remember the standard price so you can use it as a point of reference? If you’re obsessive-compulsive about saving money at the grocery store like me, you just make mental notes. The more you shop, the more familiar you get with prices. If you aren’t quite so OCD or are new to grocery shopping, open the notes app on your cell phone and start recording the prices of the things you buy most often. This will keep you from “falling for a sale” when the price isn’t really that great.
TIP #5: Don’t Buy Snacks
I’m not big on buying snack foods to begin with because I find they’re the surest way to manufacture picky eaters (more on that here), but it’s also a good way to cut a big chunk out of the weekly grocery budget. Things like goldfish, cheezits, granola bars, fruit snacks, and individually packaged cookies are completely unnecessary parts of a daily diet. This goes for most beverages too – sodas, juice, and energy drinks. We choose to make an exception for alcohol because I consider it to be an investment in my sanity but if you don’t care as much about Cocktail Fridays as we do, you could cut those items out too.
I want to clarify – it’s not that snack foods are BAD – they are just unnecessary. When we finally become rich folk I’ll definitely go back to regularly stocking glass bottles of Coca-Cola and those little 100 calorie packs of Chips Ahoy. But for this season in life when we’re looking for ways to lower our monthly grocery bill, cutting out the things we don’t need is an effective way to do it.
Yesterday I bought a 10lb bag of potatoes for $0.99. I don’t even understand how they can sell them that cheap. Doesn’t it cost more than $0.99 just to ship them to the store? It must. That basically means they’re paying ME to take those potatoes off their hands. With food readily available that inexpensively, I think ANYONE is capable of grocery shopping on a tight budget. Happy Shopping!