While cleaning out the pantry the other day I found a grocery store receipt from nearly two years ago, and it literally made me laugh out loud. The purchases themselves weren’t that funny — nothing but your average food and household items — but the total amount I paid was ridiculous. For 29 items, I shelled out more than $160.
OK, maybe that’s not really funny; for me, it’s actually quite pathetic. While that price may seem normal for some, it’s far from the way things work around here now. You see, just yesterday while shopping for a week’s worth of groceries, I paid just $58 for 34 items — and that doesn’t include living off of Ramen noodles, memorizing my store’s promotional calendar or clipping a single coupon.
Sound too good to be true? Trust me, it isn’t. Cost saving is a matter of survival, and I take it seriously. I’ve come up with a method for saving big on my grocery bill, which includes household items like toiletries, cleaning products and diapers. The result: I never spend more than $60 a week for a family of three.
It takes some planning and a little extra legwork, but there’s nothing hard about it and anyone can make this method work for them. What’s more, these tips are not only saving me big bucks, they’re seriously streamlining my life and making my family healthier to boot.
Here is my method, broken down into 10 tips for saving big on your grocery bill:
Make a plan. Preparing a weekly menu may sound like a lot of work, but strategic planning is what makes streamlining possible. This is especially true if you’re one of those people who is always a few ingredients short, resulting in an extra shopping trip with extra unintentional purchases. Meal planning not only allows you to zero in on just the items you’ll need for the week, it helps you be strategic about those items and put them to use in multiple ways. For example, you can buy one bag of carrots and one bag of potatoes for less than $10 (or even less than $5, depending on where you shop) and use those ingredients for main dishes, side dishes and snacks for two weeks.
Shop weekly. By making just one shopping trip each week, you’ll stay focused on buying only those items you will need for the coming week. While it’s good to stock up when items are cheap (more on that later), you’ll be setting yourself back if you buy items that expire before you can use them or spend the bulk of your budget on toiletries when what you really need that week are pantry essentials. This only-buy-what-is-necessary mentality will also help you avoid impulse purchases (more on that later, too).
Cut back. It goes without saying that cutting back on what you purchase and how much is key to saving money. Be willing to part with anything that isn't absolutely necessary, and it will immediately — and literally — pay off. In addition to eliminating what you really don’t need, think about using less of what you do usually consume. Reducing the amount of meat or cheese in a recipe (or going meatless entirely), cutting back on snacks and junk food, and skipping soda are ways to not only save money, but also help you be healthier.
Simplify. You don’t need two side dishes, a salad and dessert with every meal, and what you do serve doesn’t need a lot of extras. Preparing simple dinners and occasional casseroles or one-pot meals will not only reduce the number of items on your grocery list, it will keep your costs per meal very low — and keep you from buying expensive items that only get occasional use, like flavoring extracts and spice blends.
Eat and repeat. Don’t cook a new meal for every dinner; have a leftover night (or two). It will keep your grocery list — and the time you spend in the kitchen — much shorter, and it will prevent the waste that comes from throwing out food that’s left to languish in the fridge. In addition, see where you can use items for more than one meal. For example, use Monday’s side dish of steamed carrots in shepherd’s pie on Tuesday, or cut up Wednesday’s grilled chicken breast to use in chicken tacos on Thursday.
Know what to buy where. It may be more convenient to buy everything in one place, but it will not be cheaper. Discount grocery stores like Winco are the best places for food items, and co-ops and farmers markets are great for produce. The best-kept secret for non-food items is the dollar store, where cleaning products, toiletries, paper goods, office supplies, kitchen items and other daily essentials are of surprising high quality at a fraction of the cost. The best dollar stores even have name-brand goods, if you just can’t bear to sacrifice your favorite toothpaste, deodorant or toilet bowl cleaner. And a word about price clubs: Unless you have to feed an army, the value from bargain warehouses is rarely realized for average-sized families. While you may get a better cost-savings deal by buying 200 diapers instead of 50, you’ll be plunking down a lot of cash up front to get it, which only helps your budget in the long run, not now.
Be generic. While you may treasure certain name-brand items you feel you simply can’t do without, remember that when added together, they’ll be costing you dearly. Even the most basic canned goods can cost up to a dollar more apiece, just for the sake of a fancy label. It’s OK not to compromise once in a while when quality is an issue — say, for your favorite brand of toilet paper — but when it comes to saving money, going generic is your best bet. The pharmacy is where this really pays off: Generic medicine is no different than its name-brand counterpart. Every pharmacist will tell you the same.
Stock up the smart way. Having a well-stocked pantry will ensure you don’t have to buy everything you need every week, so keep essentials like flour, canned goods, rice, pasta, and cooking oil on hand and stock up when prices are low. Grocery stores have case lot sales at different times throughout the year, so call your local store to find out when. Also, if you have more expensive items to buy regularly, like baby formula or allergy medicine, stagger those items throughout the month so you don’t have to buy them all at the same time.
Ignore your impulses. Impulse purchases can break a budget in a hurry. If you’re one who falls victim to the glossy allure of gossip magazines or the sweetness of seasonal candy, it’s best to avoid those items — and their respective aisles — altogether. This is especially true when it comes to snack foods. You know junk food is bad for your body; don’t forget that it’s also bad for your budget. Packaged snacks and treats are not essentials and are some of the most expensive items in a grocery store, when priced per ounce, not to mention the most sugar-packed and calorie-laden.
Go DIY. It’s easier than you think to keep a garden, bake bread and can produce, just like in the “old days.” But thanks to blogs and websites like Pinterest, it’s easier than ever to make things you had to buy before, like shampoo, laundry detergent, mouthwash, and cleaning products. And there’s a growing body of evidence to suggest it’s much healthier. Surf the Web for easy ideas, or ask your friends for recommendations.
Whether you use one or all of these tips, remember this: It doesn’t take a lot of sacrifice to save money; a little strategy can go a long way toward keeping your cash in your pocket.