Recently I received a call from a church leader. He wanted to know how I budget my groceries. As a leader, he is often called upon to counsel families and individuals who are struggling—spiritually, financially, emotionally. He knew we run a tight budget and wanted to know how I control things in the grocery store.
So how tight is our budget? I guess that depends on your perspective. We currently feed a family of seven on about $350 a month; and that is a very large increase from just a few years ago when all my children were home and we fed our family of eight on $150 a month.
Outside of a house payment, groceries are the second largest cost of living families encounter. Did you know that? While most bills are fixed and cannot be lowered by much, with a few tips families can dramatically reduce their grocery bill and free up needed money. If you want, or need, to ease your financial outgo look to your food bill first.
Don’t eat out. To take our family out for hamburgers and fries will cost us $40. I can feed my family for several days on that amount. Besides, my children would rather make their own hamburgers at home anyway. We can custom make our own burgers, just the way we want, for less than $10. With savings like that, we can even splurge on something extra--like ice cream. This doesn’t mean we don’t eat out occasionally but we keep it selective and special.
Plan a menu. Each month I sit down and plan out a menu for the entire month. It helps me know so I’m not tempted to resort to quick, more expensive solutions. First I first plan Sunday meals. Since those meals are generally a bit more costly I spread that cost into a second meal as I plan on how to use the leftovers. For example, if we have roast on Sunday, I may plan stew a few days later to use up leftover meat, gravy, and vegetables and I will write that on the menu: use leftovers. Besides adding leftover ingredients to soups or stews, I have learned to add leftover mashed potatoes—even cooked oatmeal--to a loaf of homemade bread or throw vegetables into a new stir-fry or pasta dish. Get creative!
Plan inexpensive meals. During the winter, I serve homemade soup once a week. During the summer, I try to have a meatless or salad night each week. A couple of times each month I schedule breakfast for dinner. Pancakes or homemade waffles are inexpensive and with some homemade chokecherry syrup or fresh fruit and whipped cream on top they produce a meal my family enjoys.
Shop to the menu. After I make my menu, I make my shopping list from my menu and then I take my list with me to the store. I do not deviate from my list very often and my children have learned the importance of shopping to that list and comparison checking for the lowest prices. Two of my children are already turning into price-savvy shoppers themselves and find it challenging to look for the best buy.
Use wisdom in the store. Never grab the first thing you see! The best buys are often way down low or up high. The expensive products are easy to reach. Look harder for the less expensive item.
Don’t buy the label. Buy the product.
Buy in bulk when possible.
Avoid convenient food. You also won’t find individual yogurt, applesauce cups, or pudding cups in my house. If I buy yogurt, applesauce, etc., I buy them in large containers the family can share. No individually-wrapped slices of cheese or small packages of expensive grated cheese, either. At a warehouse store I can buy five-pound blocks of cheese slices for only a few pennies more than a one-pound package of individually wrapped slices at a regular grocery store.
Avoid instant foods. While in the store, a man and his daughter approached me looking for the rice. The inexpensive long-grain rice was right in front of us. “No,” he said, “My wife doesn’t know how to cook that kind.” So I looked and pointed him to the vastly more expensive instant rices. Again he said his wife didn’t know how to cook that. She had only cooked rice in a bag. At which point I couldn’t help him. I’d never picked up boil-in-the-bag rice in my life. He eventually found a package and left. After he left I looked at the price and felt horror. He was paying $4 a pound for the item. I loaded my forty-cent a pound rice in my bag and went home.
Decide about coupons. I used to clip coupons but not any more. Most coupons are for the most expensive brand out there so, unless I’m getting double coupon value, which my area does not offer, I can find generic versions cheaper. In areas that still offer double or triple coupon days or other coupon perks, it may be worth it. Compare prices and decide for your area. Also, be aware of the temptation of using coupons you don't need. Unless the item was originally on your list to buy, using a coupon will cost you money, not save it.
Stock up on good buys. This means you have to know your prices. When you see a good buy, stock up. This keeps you from being forced to buy the same item later, when the price may be high. You can just wait until the price comes back down.
Pay cash. This is the biggest budget controller there is! When you go into the store with $200 cash in your wallet, you can’t go over. It is too easy to add a few extra items to your cart when you are using a credit card, debit card, or writing a check. Cash doesn’t stretch. You have to. That is what makes it the best budget controller around. If I can’t afford it, I get it later. If I have to have it, I put something else back. It’s that simple.