This is part two of my series on reducing your grocery costs.
I returned to cooking regularly a couple years ago. A few years before then I decided to make dinner for two of my kids. I found an interesting recipe on the internet, and I planned some side dishes. I went to our local Jewel grocery store to buy my ingredients. The dish required unusual olives, special spices, and choice meat. I also bought bread crumbs, fresh vegetables, and Parmesan cheese for a side dish. I purchased salad fixings, French bread, and a frozen appetizer. The grocery bill was about $85, and I recall thinking at the time, “Wow, we could have gone out to dinner for this price!”
I had always thought that making food at home was less expensive than going out. However, my above experience seemed to prove me wrong.
Is it less expensive to eat out? I consulted with multiple sources when I was writing this post, and the consensus is clear. It is significantly less costly to make your own food than to eat out. This fact is true whether you are eating in fine restaurants, or buying fast food. Also, in many, but not all cases making food from scratch is less expensive than buying it partially prepared.
So why was my dinner so expensive? The recipe that I chose used a lot of ingredients that were exotic and expensive. Items, like one use spices and other unusual ingredients, were purchased and their remains were never used again. Instead of seeing what things we already had that could be substituted, I went out and bought everything new.
I think the above is a common problem for people who think of cooking as a special occasion event. However, if you do a little planning, you can save significant cash by cooking at home.
In my last post, I talked about saving over 20% of your food cost by not wasting food. In this post, I’ll explore ways to reduce your grocery bill directly. I’m sure that you have heard some of these ideas before. My effort is to put them together in one convenient post.
As humans were are imperfect. We don’t need to be perfect shoppers to save money. Pick and choose from the following tips that fit your own personality and style. Feel free to add and subtract from these suggestions. Remember, any positive change in behavior will yield more money in your pocket, and it is better to make a few lasting changes than to attempt radical changes that you won’t sustain over the long run.
To coupon or to not coupon? That is the question.
My wife sometimes uses coupons, but I rarely do. Yet, coupons can be a useful way to stretch your grocery dollar. It makes the most sense to save coupons for items that you regularly use. Use a paper clip to secure them to your grocery list, so they are at the ready.
Cycle your way to savings.
Grocery stores rotate sale prices on food items in a 6-week cycle. If you can learn about your store’s sales cycle, you can save some extra cash. Non-perishable items are easy to stock up on. You don’t need to buy a case of pasta sauce to save money, you can still benefit from just buying an extra jar or two when they are on sale.
It’s OK to be at a loss.
A loss leader is a sales strategy where a store will actually lose money on a food product in the hopes of attracting customers who will come in and then buy other more costly items. Sometimes a loss leader may be constant, like an always low price on milk or eggs. Customers may think that the other foods in the store are at bargain prices and transfer their grocery shopping to that store.
Sometimes loss leaders are temporary or seasonal. I recently went to the store to buy corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick’s Day, and I was happy to find great prices on most of the items needed to make that traditional dinner. If I had chosen to do so, I could have picked up another bargain corned beef brisket to pop in my freezer for a later date.
A surprising amount of floor space in a grocery store is utilized for non-food and junk-food items. Products like dish soap and garbage bags can usually be found cheaper at big box stores. Junk foods like chips, soda, and other snacks can occupy more floor space than staple items, and their purchase can quickly escalate your check out bill. If you don’t go down an aisle, you can’t buy the things in that aisle.
Take a kiddie holiday.
If possible, shop without your kids as they secretly work for grocery stores, and will do anything possible to get you to buy things that you don’t need.
Never wear a “growl” fit when you go shopping.
If your stomach is growling, you will buy more. Never go hungry to the grocery store!
Pen your grocery dreams.
One of the most important things that you can do to save money is to write a shopping list and stick to it. Studies have shown that if you do this, you will spend much less. If you are like me, you won’t be in the embarrassing situation of going to the store for a gallon of milk and returning home with $100 of groceries and forgetting the milk!
Using a list forces you to check your onboard house supplies. Using a list makes you do at least some meal planning. Using a list protects you from impulsive purchases.
All rules don’t apply to you.
Certain processed foods can actually be less expensive than some unprocessed foods.
Frozen vegetable and frozen fruit can be significantly cheaper than their fresh versions. In some cases, they may be more nutritious as they are quickly processed and haven’t spent long periods degrading in a warehouse or on a shelf. Canned fish is much less expensive than fresh fish. Canned vegetable, including canned tomatoes, can also be real bargains.
However, you still need to be a savvy shopper. Basic frozen kernel corn may be downright cheap, but your price advantage could disappear when you opt for the same item upscaled with butter sauce or other additions. Stick with the unadulterated version for the best price and the greatest flexibility. Another great thing about frozen produce is that you can use only what you need, and reseal the bag for another day.
Back to basics.
Some fresh vegetables and fruits and always good values. Bags of Russet Potatoes, broccoli, onions, sweet potatoes, carrots, green cabbage, bagged spinach, and butternut squash are usually economical. Bananas, oranges, frozen berries, cantaloupe, kiwis, and apples can also be good values.
I love Honeycrisp apples. Unfortunately, they cost about $3 a pound where I live. I did a Google search to find apples that are similar to Honeycrisp, and several other varieties popped up. One of them was Fuji apples, which happened to be on sale for $0.99 a pound at my local market. In other words, they were one-third the price. Are they as good as Honeycrisp apples? No, but they are not bad either.
Staples-that was easy!
Flour, sugar, cooking oil, and other stables are inexpensive. You should have them on hand as they are the foundation of many meals. Beyond the price, I find little difference between the house brand and the name brand.
Other essential items like milk and eggs are real bargains at most stores. Dried pasta is often a dollar a box. Foods like oatmeal, rice, and dried beans/lentils are super values. Although canned beans are cheap, dried beans are more economical. Cook them in a slow cooker overnight and portion/freeze them for future meals.
Cheese is a beautiful addition to many dishes. Check prices, but you can usually save money by buying it in a block and cutting/shredding it yourself. Pre-shredded cheese is usually dryer, less flavorful, and has cellulose added (think wood) to prevent it from clumping in the bag. If you love a particular type of cheese, consider buying it at a warehouse club. My friend, Tom loves Gouda and buys a big wedge at Costco for roughly the same price as a little slice at the grocery store.
Where’s the meat?
One great way to save on meat is to eat less of it (more on this in a later post). Beef is usually the most expensive meat, followed by pork then chicken. You can sometimes save money by cutting up meat yourself. A whole chicken can be less costly than the sum of its parts, but make sure you check the price per ounce first. Remember, it is often possible to substitute one meat for another.
On a recent shopping trip, I picked up a package of turkey lunch meat for my son. One pound was over $5. Thirty feet away was a freezer case filled with frozen turkey breasts at $2.50 a pound. It is easy to put a thawed turkey breast in a crock-pot and let it cook on low for 5-6 hours (or until done). Some of the breast can be carved for sandwich meat, some cubed for a salad or an easy stir fry, some can be shredded for bbq chicken sandwiches, and so forth. Freeze what you won’t consume in few days in meal-sized portions.
I just watched a video where a woman purchased a ham for less than a dollar a pound. In 17 minutes she cut it up into 11 potential meals for her family. She had slices for sandwiches, cubes for main courses, crumbles (remnants) to add to eggs, and the ham bone to make a bean dish. Each meal size portion was sealed in a Zip-Lock bag, and all of the bags were kept together in a larger Zip-Lock bag. By immediately portioning out her food she assured herself that none of it would go to waste.
The above technique can be applied to any other “bulk” purchase. I bought a large package of chicken thighs in preparation for making homemade soup. Half of the chicken was kept in the refrigerator for the soup, and the other half was frozen for a future meal. Total time for me to split the chicken up? About 3 minutes.
Many stores now have aisles of bulk food where you can buy the exact amount of an item that you need. Also, prices can be less, and you avoid a lot of random packing. These aisles are great for singles or couples who often have limited space, limited money, and limited time.
Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink?
Water is good for you, and it is free! You don’t need to buy exotic sounding bottled water that has its true origins in a municipal water supply. If you don’t like the taste of your water consider using an inexpensive filter to de-funk it.
According to a 2016 US Department of Agriculture study, Americans spend more money on soft drinks than any other food item. People may be drinking less soda, but they have replaced it with special waters, and other expensive non-alcoholic drinks. In this category, I would also include a lot of fruit juices, which are basically sugary flavored water. Giving up pop could save you over 7% of your yearly food bill!
Where you shop can have an impact on the overall cost of your groceries. Where I live, we have costly stores (like Whole Foods and Standard Market), expensive stores (like Jewel) and less costly stores (like Aldi, Walmart, and Costco). Baring a discussion on quality differences, if you want to save money shop at a less expensive store.
You can save money even if you shop at only one store, especially if you get to know that store’s sales cycles. However, you may save even more money by shopping for the best values between two stores. In our area, a local greengrocer chain (Fresh Thyme) offers great produce, which is often on sale. Costco is fantastic if you want a bargain broasted chicken, large quantities, or convenience foods like a stack of frozen pizzas. Walmart and Aldi are the places to go for cheap basic groceries in more normal sized quantities.
Be agnostic…brand agnostic.
You may like the taste of a particular brand. However, if you stretch your taste boundaries a little, you can save big money. We sometimes used condensed mushroom soup as a base ingredient in casseroles and slow cooker meals. Campbell’s Mushroom soup is an economical 0.99 cents a can, but the Walmart version is an incredible $0.50 a can. When all the other ingredients are added, no one will know that you went with the house brand.
I eat an enormous amount of peanut butter. I buy large jars of the house band at around seven cents an ounce. The brand name versions range from nine to thirteen cents an ounce, and the gourmet premium peanut butter is an astounding fifty cents an ounce! I’m sure the gourmet brand tastes better, but not seven times better.
Expand your vision.
Grocery stores place more expensive items at eye level and cheaper items above or below eye level. If you want an in instant bargain look up or down.
One ounce at a time.
Packaging is often deceptive, and a box’s size is not a reliable indication of the volume of its content. Most stores will list a price per ounce (or unit) of a product which allows for easy cost comparison. If your store doesn’t do this just use the calculator function on your phone. Divide the cost of the item by the total ounces. Lower is cheaper.
Best value and cheapest cost have different meanings.
Sometimes the cheapest isn’t always the best. I recently bought a very inexpensive dishwashing liquid. It smelled good and was nice and thick. Unfortunately, it didn’t do a perfect job cleaning, and I had to use almost triple the amount to clean the same number of dishes as I would have used with a better product.
When I was growing up, I recall my father buying an entire case of an off-brand canned spaghetti. In those days I liked the Chef Boyardee stuff for lunch. The off brand that he bought was absolutely terrible, and I wouldn’t eat it (which is saying a lot). It would have been much better to have just waited for a sale on the brand name.
Spice up your life.
The use of herbs and spices can turn a mundane dish into a memorable one. However, spices can be expensive. You can often find a better price by buying the same seasoning in the store’s ethnic aisle. Likewise, ethnic stores can be an excellent resource for spices. Avoid buying spices in a giant container from places like Costco. Will you really use all of that nutmeg? Spices in bags can be significantly less expensive than the same quantity in a cute little bottle.
Learn to substitute. Fresh spices taste great, but you can certainly use dried ones with good results. Remember that dried spices are more concentrated, so only use about ⅓ the amount that you would use for fresh. You don’t have Italian Seasoning? Use some Oregano. Out of garlic? Substitute some garlic powder (not garlic salt).
Spice/seasoning combination products are often more expensive and more specialized than individual spices. If possible, stick to the basics for greater flexibility and cheaper costs. Do you really need to buy cinnamon sugar when you can make it in about 2 seconds, and for next to nothing?
We’ve got an app for that!
Some apps will find coupons, determine which store is selling an item at the lowest price, and keep track of your grocery list. You can use your web browser to check a store’s weekly ad, so you know what is on sale before you walk in.
Is bigger better?
I always thought that buying in quantity saved money, but that is often not the case. Buying in large quantities tends to make me use more, waste more, and eat more.
How many times have I bought a large box of something only to find that I didn’t like it. My wife, Julie is quick to remind me of my warehouse store purchase of some abysmal breakfast sandwiches that languished in our freezer until I finally threw them out.
Sometimes a bigger item may actually cost more per ounce. At other times it may be the same cost as a more convenient smaller size.
There are times when buying in bulk can be a good idea. Do you eat rice every day? Are you a regular baker? Is cheese a central part of your meal life? If you are going to use it, why not save a few bucks by buying in quantity.
Stores bring the oldest products to the front of the shelf, for obvious reasons. If you want your food items to be the freshest (and last the longest) reach towards the back.
Become a member of a secret society.
Stores follow protocols, just like any other business. Perishable items that are nearing their expiration date are usually purged on a store-specific schedule. Learn this secret time and save big.
Yesterday’s bread is often discounted early the next morning. Meats and produce nearing their expiration date can be deeply reduced in price. Use them in a day or two, or freeze for future use.
Most stores have a clearance section for items that they are trying to offload. You can find great bargains here but use some caution. There is a reason no one bought that peppermint flavored Spam.
Oh, you impulsive you!
Your grocery store wants you to buy, and they would love it if you purchase high margin items. We have all stopped to grab a free sample. An item that can taste delicious in a tablespoon sized sample may be less impressive when you get home and try to eat a bowl of the stuff.
Stores use music, colors, posters, eye-catching end-caps, and just about anything else that they can think of to get you to buy more. Resist!
When tourists visit the US from other countries, they are often shocked at the huge portion size of our meals. We associate supersizing with value, but is that really the case? Eating regular sized meals not only save money, but they are also healthier for you. Buy less and save more.
It’s not a fast, it’s a feast.
If you are desperately low on cash, your main grocery buying goal should be to achieve basic nutrition at the lowest possible cost. However, most of us have a little extra money to spend. If you feel that you can’t get by without some soda or chips, buy less than you usually would and build a “treat” cost into your budget. Consider snack alternatives. Homemade popcorn (not microwave popcorn) is super cheap and tastes much better than the old stuff they sell in bags.
Be as flexible as a Yogi.
We eat 21 meals a week, they all don’t need to be Pinterest perfect. Substitute and experiment, within reason. Fusion taco bars have sprung up in my town, their selling point is the use of unusual, but tasty ingredients placed in a taco shell. Substitute shredded cabbage for lettuce? Why not. A sauce instead of cheese? OK. Leftover pot roast instead of ground beef? Sure.
Every meal doesn’t need to be nutritionally balanced as long as you meet your daily requirements during the rest of the day.
By allowing yourself to be flexible, you open yourself up to a new saving horizon.
I am hardly perfect when it comes to grocery buying, but I am genuinely trying to become a better grocery buyer. Why don’t you join me and adopt a couple of the above suggestions to see if you can become a more savvy shopper?