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Jul 15

Saving the Grocery Budget

Kyri at one of our farmers markets.

It’s that time of month again where we have our “chat” about our budget and discuss areas in need of improvement. Invariably, our grocery budget always needs discussing. Is it because I love to cook? I don’t know, but we are always over budget in this area. We strive to keep our spending in check, to be responsible and mindful shoppers, but somehow this is still a tough one for use to fix. It seems like such a straighforward endeavor, and on paper our numbers are reasonable. But each month it seems we are hundreds of dollars over budget.

In our discussions, I try to think about all the ways we work to maintain a healthy grocery budget. Below I discuss several things that we are actively doing in our household to try to stay within (or closer to, in our case) our budget. Many of the items I mention are done not only for budget reasons but they obviously impact grocery spending. I’m always looking for ways to improve, so feel free to suggest options I may have neglected to mention.

1. Make a grocery list and stick to it. I actually sat down and put together a master grocery list, divided into categories. I have a copy in my household binder and check things off as I need them. Then on my weekly (ideally) shopping trip I take the list to the grocery store. I have different stores for different items (more on this below) so I usually use the same list, and for the next store, which usually ends up being a different day, I highlight the remaining items. Color coding works for me, but it apparently stresses my husband out. The last time I handed him my color-coded list and asked if he could get the pink highlighted items, he looked at me like I was crazy and had me write him a store specific list. So, how you accomodate separate stores on a master list will depend on your personal preferences.

2. Comparison shop and be willing to shop at multiple stores. I don’t go crazy on this one, like I have seen other people do to save a buck. But I have three or four stores I go to, and I know which store has the better deal for a particular item, and which store is the only one to carry certain items. I don’t do all the stores each week either. My local grocery store is my “go to” store for my weekly (and mid-week) shopping trips. The natural food store downtown carries the bulk items and some harder to find cold items, like Earth Balance and Daiya. I get enough of the items I need  to last a few weeks since I only want to shop here once every couple or few weeks. 

3.  Shop the farmers’ markets. I try to buy mostly organic produce for us, especially avoiding the dirty dozen. I can get organic produce at my grocery store, but it is not necessarily local. Organic is good, but organic and local is better. One thing I learned early on about farmers who sell at the markets is that many or most grow their produce using organic methods. Its just the cost of certification that keeps their product from being certified organic. Talk to the farmers and find out how they grow their crops. I’d rather buy bell peppers grown locally and organically but without the certification than pay for overpriced organic peppers transported from the Netherlands (yes these are where the organic peppers at my local grocery chain originate – I might as well be eating oil!).

4. Join a buyer’s club or co-op. These are found around the country, and the premise is simple. A single buyer probably wouldn’t be able to (or its just not realistic) buy a larger quantity to get wholesale, distributor pricing. But when these individuals get together to organize buys and split up the product and divide the cost, the savings can be substantial.

5. Menu Plan. Planning out a weekly menu (or further out, as I’ve seen some moms do) is a great way to save money. Use your menu to plan your grocery list, and this should help reduce last minute jaunts to the grocery store because you are missing a key ingredient.  To be honest, I have tried planning out for two weeks, but weekly planning works best for me. This comes down to personal preference.

6. Take advantage of deals. Because we mainly buy staples and food that needs to be prepared, I don’t use many coupons. On occasion I’ll see coupons for ziplock bags or something household-y, but coupons are put out by the big companys like P&G to sell mainly packaged goods so we don’t have many opportunities to use those. However, our grocery chain has store coupons on many products that really save us money. I regularly stock up on almond milk, Boca products, even baking items, when our grocery store has their coupons available. Read the grocery store circular for sale items. Again, its often for packaged goods that we don’t really use, but often there’s a gem of a deal.

7. Shop seasonally. This is easy to do at the farmers’ market, but harder to keep up with at the regular grocery store. My family has gotten used to not having fresh berries and tomatoes in winter. We eat a ton of corn and watermelon in the summer, but stick to more root vegetables and greens (and alas, frozen veggies) in the winter. Throughout the year, I try to buy USA grown produce (bananas being an obvious exception).

8. Read the news. This might not seem like a typical grocery budget suggestion, but it really can be! Last year, I kept reading that peanut prices were going to go up significantly because of the poor peanut crop. We buy a lot of natural peanut butter, so when these stories started coming out, we started stocking up. We got some strange looks at the checkout, but we had a pantry full of peanut butter when the cost went up over a dollar per jar last fall. We are finally coming to the end of our stash, but it saved us a ton of money. 

9. Buy in bulk. We are somewhat limited to what we can buy at this time in bulk (we need a better pantry system for bulk items so I’m not buying 50 lb bags of grain…), but we do what we can. This is a great way to get a deal. Compare prices though, sometimes the larger package isn’t always the better deal. Read the price label and compare the unit prices to see whether the larger package is really a better buy.

10. Cook in bulk. Making a huge pot of soup will cover (for us at least) two meals plus a lunch or two in  a week. Or I can freeze portions for those (frequently occuring, it seems) times when I forget to soak beans and my dinner plans are thrown off. Cooking larger portions and either freezing for later use or use as lunches and leftovers later in the week keeps us from wasting food.

11. Stick to the basics and cook from scratch. Because we keep a mostly vegan kitchen (the husband is omni but we have the “outdoor grill only” agreement in place), and honestly, it can be a pain to find prepared grocery items without questionable ingredients, I do mostly from-scratch cooking. Even for non-vegans, this should be the rule and not the exception. Start reading labels and see how many extra ingredients are added in order to extend shelf life or add color. Pasta sauce, soup, bread, muffins – there is little reason beyond convenience to not make these at home. I keep my pantry stocked with canned tomatoes and baking staples. A basic bread (basic but not boring by any means) has flour, salt, water and yeast. No questions about dough conditioners, preservatives, etc. I have one kind of bread I feel comfortable buying from the local grocery store and that’s for “backup” when I don’t have any made. Save your grocery budget by investing in some good cookbooks instead. *** Supermom disclaimer – I have finite time and resources, however, so there are still some items I buy packaged (vegan breakfast sausage is a good example). I am constantly looking for ways to reduce the amount of prepared food we buy, but I do understand there has to be a balance.

Even with all of our good grocery habits, somewhere we are blowing our budget. In analyzing our shopping habits, we have identified several bad habits we both have that really add up. Here are several budget busters that we are working to tackle.

Frequent shopping trips. Its a joke around here that I find reasons to stop at HEB, our local grocery store, on a near daily basis. What usually happens is this: I come up with a list of a few items that we happen to be out of, need to run to the store, and while there realize a few other things we need (as well as items my husband texts me that he thinks we need). Next thing you know, I’ve spent $70 or so for “just a couple of things.” The problem is, three days later, there are a few more things I realize I forgot, and its another trip to the store. As you can imagine, these frequent trips add up and completely blow the budget.

We play favorites. Sometimes we are like little kids on a food jag. My husband wants to grill three nights during the week, or I want to make veggie sausage a couple mornings in the same week. We end up eating the same meals in a short period of time, and don’t use the ingredients in the pantry that we already have. And of course, running to the store for these favorites leads to the problem described above. The result, we end up over budget.

Not planning ahead. Sometimes this happens as a mere oversight, and sometimes (like lately) its because I’ve been too tired to plan out my meals. I prefer to make our bread at home because its a lot healthier and its definitely cheaper. Its also a big pain scouring labels to find a bread that happens to be vegan. But if I don’t prep bread dough because I get busy or tired, we have no bread, and its off to the store if we want any bread. This also happens with beans. If I forget to soak beans and I really need them for a recipe, I end up buying canned beans or as penance (I try not to keep canned beans in the pantry anymore to encourage me to remember to soak beans!) I have to make something else.

Not using a grocery list. This is kind of tied up with number 1, since I usually don’t write down a list if it’s only a few items. But this is a dangerous thing. I can be an aimless shopper and buy random items if I don’t have the constraints of a shopping list. But then I’ll get home to find I forgot something I actually needed.

We are striving to get a handle on our bad habits this month and see if we can stay within budget. How do you keep to your grocery budget?

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  1. Amanda

    I really like your idea of having a “master list”, I’m going to try that out! We kind of have the same budget breaker problems here too, going to the store for one thing….playing favorites. I stay within budget by doing some of the things you listed, buying in bulk, making things from scratch. I suppose a budget breaker here for us would also be when my husband doesn’t like the made from scratch things, he’s omni also, and a connivence food junkie.

  2. jamie

    hello – i am a fellow vegan homeschooler who came across your blog.

    do you have a good recipe for a vegan bread that is good for sandwiches? my son (almost 5) loves sandwiches and while I have an ok bread that I can get at the store – i’d love to cut that out of our lives and make our own… but i haven’t found a simple, delicious wheat bread that is not too dense for sandwiches.

    1. Michelle

      I have been baking my bread from the Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day (Jeff Herzberg and Zoe Francois) cookbook. Its a no-knead method and I usually prep enough for four small loaves. My usual bread from this cookbook is the Light Whole Wheat Bread. Here’s the website http://www.artisanbreadinfive.com/
      I first read about this method in Mother Earth News – http://www.motherearthnews.com/Real-Food/Artisan-Bread-In-Five-Minutes-A-Day.aspx and it has the recipe for the master boule dough. I use the light whole wheat version which replaces 1 cup of the flour with whole wheat flour. I try to keep a batch of dough in the fridge as often as possible. I can tell you it doesn’t last two weeks in our fridge – I usually bake two loaves at a time, so we go through it pretty quick. I would really recommend the book, there are other recipes that you might like as well.

    2. Michelle

      one more thing – I have actually increased the whole wheat content up to 2 1/2 cups and it hasn’t been too dense of a bread. it doesn’t make “sandwich” shaped loaves unless you use a bread pan (I tend to use my stone so its a free form loaf).

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