A popular misconception about cutting grocery costs is that it results in consumption of tons of processed junk food and hoarding vast stockpiles of things you don’t need. A recent Wall Street Journal article highlighted budget-conscious grocery shoppers as if they were a strange tribe from Wildest Borneo with their pantries full of hundreds of bottles of Powerade and thousands of boxes of Jello. While I’m sure some people do go a little nuts with stockpiling and buy primarily junk food, I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be that way. You can use couponing and budget shopping principles to lower your grocery bill while still feeding your family a healthy whole foods diet. Here are some of the ways I do it:
Look for marked down items. I shopped at our local stores for years before I noticed how they marked down food nearing it’s expiration date or that the store is overstocked on. It wasn’t until other people pointed out the stickers to me that I started to register how often staples are marked down – especially organic foods that average shoppers pass by thinking they are too expensive. All stores are different, and your local shops might have a different mark down system than mine, but they all have to move the merchandise. Figure out where they put the marked down items (it might not be with the full price stuff or it might be right there on the shelf), start to notice what times of day or week items you buy most get marked down (if you’re really gutsy you can ask the produce manager or meat manager when they do mark downs), and when you see them, buy them.
In the picture above of my recent shopping trip, you can see the bright orange stickers showing that I got organic kefir marked down from $3.29 to $1.69 a bottle (so I got 6 – they don’t expire until next month!), organic milk marked down from $5.99 to $2.99 (I’ll use it to make yogurt with the marked down organic yogurt I got last week), marked down organic mixed salad greens, marked down mushrooms, marked down sausage, marked down turnip greens, and so forth. (You’ll also see powdered sugar and marshmallows in the picture – those aren’t normal purchases, I’m making a cake for a baby shower this weekend!) It’s always a surprise what I will find marked down, and some trips are better than others, but I always find something. Sometimes it’s cottage cheese, sometimes bread, sometimes eggs or fruit or meat. If you’re creative you can find a way to work whatever you find in to your weekly menu plan.
Check the loss leader sales. Even if you don’t stumble on marked down meat, produce, dairy and organic products, you certainly can find good deals on staples in the weekly sales flier. After you have watched them for a while, you’ll start to notice that stores put things on sale in cycles. If you see whole wheat pasta on sale one week, buy enough to get you through until the next sale, or else you’ll wind up paying full price for the same item the following week. For perishable items or things you don’t have room to store, order your menu around what you find on sale and choose recipes that incorporate those items, rather than saving that recipe for the next week when those ingredients might be twice as expensive.
Practice smart stockpiling. Related to the point above, you can stockpile staples when you see them on sale to avoid having to purchase them for full price later, but you do need to find a balance. There aren’t very many deals that only come once a year. So, for example, if apples are 50 cents a pound one week, I buy enough to last us several weeks. Apples keep in the refrigerator, and that way I am not out the very next week buying apples for $1 more a pound than I could have gotten them the week before. What I most usually look for with loss leaders are fruit that keeps well, frozen vegetables, meat (freeze it or cook it all and freeze in meal-sized portions), brown rice, wheat flour, whole wheat pasta and butter. If I can get those things for a good price, I get enough to get me through until the next sale cycle, usually about 6 weeks. I rarely stock up more than that, except in the case of an exceptionally good deal. I just don’t have the space for more and I know from experience that sales come around pretty frequently. There is no need to be manic about filling every nook and cranny of your house with groceries.
Buy in season. In season produce is the cheapest and freshest. I plan my meals around what is in season, which is a healthful and natural way to eat and also quite economical. In the fall, we eat a lot of pumpkin, apples, root vegetables and greens. In the winter we eat greens and cabbage and clementines and grapefruit. In the summer we eat a lot from our garden and have more access to local farmer’s markets, but even the grocery stores offer better deals on fruits and vegetables that are freshest and in season.
Use coupons for toiletries and occasional treats, or if they make something free. Coupons are an excellent way to get things like soap and shampoo and razors and toilet paper for free or very cheap, which frees up more of your budget to be used on whole foods. Money Saving Mom and Mommy Snacks are my go to sites for coupon match-ups at drugstores to help me with those deals. I also use coupons for things like frozen vegetables (often free or nearly free when paired with a sale), spices, yogurt, and pasta. When it comes to convenience and processed foods and treats, I try to be more careful. If I can get a box of cereal for under 75 cents I’ll likely buy it, but if it’s any more than that I would rather use the money to buy a package of oatmeal – you can do more with it, it has more servings, and it’s much healthier. I try to weigh coupon deals on non-staple or non-whole food items that way – it would be pretty lame for me to spend money on soda or chips or gummi fruit snacks regularly and then say I couldn’t afford whole wheat pasta or brown rice or lots of produce, you know what I mean?
Cook from scratch. Another way to make healthy foods affordable is to make them yourself. I’m not a stellar cook, but over the past few years I’ve learned a lot through trial and error about making my own baked goods and meals out of whole ingredients. Making things from scratch takes longer, but if you’re really trying to crunch your budget, you’d be surprised how much it can save you. As an added bonus, cooking from scratch is usually healthier – even organic high fructose corn syrup is, you know, still high fructose corn syrup.
Looking for mark downs, buying loss leaders, practicing smart stockpiling, eating produce in season, using coupons thoughtfully, and cooking from scratch are some of the ways I keep my grocery budget low (although it has taken me a long time to get it as low as it is now, it wasn’t an overnight switch). If you try to balance healthy eating with being budget conscious about food purchases, what are some of your methods?
On this topic, I would highly recommend Money Saving Mom’s ongoing series 31 Days to a Better Grocery Budget. She has lots of great tips about trimming your grocery costs.