How to Save Money on Groceries - Part One

Part One

FRUGAL EATING STARTS in OUR HEADS


Frugal food shopping starts inside us, not in the grocery store parking lot. It takes thinking, adjusting and planning before we're even ready to cross the threshold into an actual store. For some, the motivation starts with the reality of our paychecks or our checkbooks. For some, it's just who we are, it comes naturally. For many, it's harder, it's scarier, it's unknown territory. You see, it takes a frugal frame of mind to manage and -- if we're good -- to reduce a family's food budget. For many of us, it takes breaking old habits and honing new skills.

Accept that rising grocery prices are likely permanent. Economists cite a 'perfect storm' when identifying the factors that force a greater share of family income be spent on food.

  • DEMAND Increasing worldwide affluence, especially in China and India, is increasing the worldwide demand for food, especially for a Western-style diet higher in calories and convenience.
  • SUPPLY Poor agricultural harvests in Australia, Canada and other leading food export countries are stressing the food distribution system. In 2008, this summer's flooding in Iowa means much of an entire season's corn and soybean crops are lost.
  • PRODUCTION & TRANSPORTATION COSTS Cheap oil allowed the import of food grown less expensively in far-away places, whether across the country or across the world. With oil at record highs, increased transportation costs and oil-related production costs (think fuel for farm equipment, think fertilizer) are built into the cost of the food itself.

We're seeing the effect with every grocery purchase. Between May 2007 and May 2008, whole milk is up 15.4%, Red Delicious apples up 12.8%, bananas up 25.2%, bread up 14.9%, American cheese up 5.3% and frozen orange juice concentrate up 3.2%. Inexplicably, the price of carrots is down 1.5%. (Source: Wall Street Journal, July 7, 2008)

Think 'food' not 'grocery' List all the places where we buy food. The grocery store and restaurants. But don't forget the soda machine at work, the popcorn counter at the theater, the morning coffee stop, the bottle of water from the c-store when buying gas. We buy and consume food in many locations, they all contribute. To save money on food, eliminate or limit all except the essentials. Think, "Do we need this? or simply want it?" If you track food expenses, keep track of these incidental expenses separately: they add nowhere but up and nearly all can be eliminated.

Eat less. Honestly, 'eat less' should lead this list because it just might be the easiest to accomplish and might well accomplish the most and the most quickly. Nearly all of us carry excess pounds. Our health would improve simply by dropping 10 or 15 or even 30 percent of our body weight. If it's economic factors that finally move us, as a people, to improve our health by losing weight, so be it. Start with the non-essentials, empty calories such as the obvious soft drinks, candy bars, potato chips. Cut out all foods eaten between meals. But then move on: Replace breakfast cereal with oatmeal. Make one-egg omelets and open-faced sandwiches. Serve meat in smaller portions, less often, or both. Make dessert for a special occasion. Avoid the temptation to eliminate entire meals: breakfast is important, so is nourishing our bodies throughout the day.

Cook. After that, the best way to save money on food expenses is -- let's face it -- to cook it ourselves. Think of it this way: if someone cooks the food for us, how is it much different than hiring a cook or a house cleaner or a lawn mower or a clothes washer? Some times the 'cook' is Del Monte or Kraft and the food is carried home in our grocery bags. Other times, the 'cook' is McDonald's or Pepsico and is passed through drive-up windows or delivered to our doors. All ways, always, the cost of that labor is included in the prices we pay.

Avoid the vicious cycle of the Empty Fridge. It's seven o'clock, you're just home from work, you're hungry. The fridge is nearly bare, just a few cups of yogurt, some slimy lettuce, a nearly-empty milk carton. So you eat some yogurt, then a bowl of cereal. The next night, same story, except that you know the fridge is even emptier so you stop for carry-out on the way home. The next night, same. (It happens to me, too, my own risk points are just before leaving on vacation and just after, it can go on for days.) When the fridge is empty of real food, it's just too easy to fall into "let's just order out" mode, perpetuating the cycle. Be prepared for days when this happens: have a really fast, really tasty recipe that can be on the table in minutes after a quick grocery run. At my house, it's this Quick Cauliflower or Broccoli Soup which can be made with either fresh or frozen vegetables.

Okay, so a lot of us are a lot like Maxine. Can we change?

Make frugal food consumption a personal challenge. It's us versus the food companies and yes, we're Davids and they're Goliaths. Every time a food company takes a commodity food (think 'real food', the underlying ingredients) and cuts it, cooks it and packages it, it's all to tempt us to pay several multiples for the 'added value' the company brings to a commodity product. It's all to make us buy more, pay more and therefore, work more and save less.

Get good at shopping for food frugally, a week, a dollar at a time. Don't expect to change everything at once. But if a few of these tips make sense, print them out and work the list, one week at a time, one item at a time. To build confidence, start with the low-hanging (ahem) fruit, the stuff that's easiest to incorporate into your own habits and practices. To make the most difference, determine where there's the most to save in your family finances, work those first.

Time is money. So it is -- and many of these tips involve getting a firm grip on grocery expenses in order to exact the most value from the dollars spent. This means time: analyzing, comparing, tracking. Here's an example. What's the price difference between the bag of dried beans that sells for $.89 and the can of beans that sells for $.99? Just a dime? No. The bag yields 7 cups of cooked beans, $.13 per cup. The can yields 1-1/2 cups of cooked beans, $.66 per cup. The canned beans - as inexpensive as they are - are five times more expensive than dried beans. Both are protein-rich, an inexpensive source of protein. How easy is it to cook dried beans? Check my recipe for Creamy Slow-Cooker Beans, no soaking required.

Consider self-sufficiency. In the past century, we've become a people of consumers, not producers. Think: what would it take to plant a garden? raise a few chickens? For many of us, these skills have been lost for a couple of generations. What resources would it require for communities and families to increase their self-sufficiency?

Think 'home economics' for the long-term. We're a resourceful, adaptive people. We can do this, we can eat well, we can eat healthfully, we can manage to eat within our resources. But saving money on groceries is likely a long-term endeavor, not this year's 'project'. It may well be a life-long study: something we all need to become good at, that we internalize, that we build into our decision-making -- and skills that we teach our children.


HOMEWORK

Feeling motivated? Good! Here are some ways to get started, now, by arming yourself with information and tools.

  • List all the places where money is spent on food. Which are essential? which offer immediate savings?
  • Track food expenses. Consider three categories: groceries, prepared food (for meals that could be made at home but weren't, carry-out, drive-through, etc.) and special occasions.


YOUR TWO CENTS = TWO DOLLARS = TWO HUNDRED DOLLARS = TWO THOUSAND DOLLARS = TWO MILLLION DOLLARS Collectively, Kitchen Parade readers have thousands of their own money-saving tips. Please: do share them, either in a comment or via e-mail. I'll collect reader tips for a special post to close this series. Your two cents, multiplied by thousands of readers, can really add up.

BLOGGERS You know you want to chime in! Write your own post about how you save money on food and groceries, then link to the introduction post of How to Save Money on Groceries. I'll collect your posts to share with readers at the end of the series. Together, we can make a difference!


HOW to SAVE MONEY on GROCERIES

The Introduction
Part One - Frugal Eating Starts in Our Heads (you're here)
Part Two - Frugal Food Shopping Requires a Plan
Part Three - Finally, How to Shop Wisely for Groceries

Part Four - Investing in the Future (coming soon)
Part Five - Reader Tips & More Resources (coming soon)

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"How to Save Money on Groceries" is written by second-generation food columnist Alanna Kellogg, author of the recipe column Kitchen Parade and 'veggie evangelist' at the food blog about vegetables, A Veggie Venture.




There is so much to think about here, my mind is swirling with it all.

I didn't realize that food prices were going to keep going up, it seemed like they might reach a plateau and stay there.

You're really making me think. This is good!
 
Eat less. So obvious and yet no list I've seen before has ever said it so directly. Good work -
 
I read an article that said "the average family tosses 1.28 pounds of food a day, for a total of 470 pounds a year! That's like throwing away $600!" http://www.sparkpeople.com/resource/nutrition_articles.asp?id=1103
I know I am guilty of wasting food. For years I have planned meals for the next 5-7 days and done all the shopping at once, hitting many stores so I could get the best deals. I would guess 9 out of 10 weeks I don’t end up cooking everything I planned before things start to go bad. With cost of everything going up, I probably am throwing away $1000 a year. So to try to remedy my wastefulness of food and money, I am buying weekly staples for breakfast and lunches, but I am only planning 1-2 dinners at a time. This has been working fairly well. I have so much food in my pantry that I have stocked up on in the past so I already have a base (that I would like to slim down too). I have been making dinner choices by choosing a few ingredients that I have on hand and then finding a recipe or two to see what I am missing. I stop on my way home from work/school and pick up whatever last minute ingredients I am missing. I am adding less than 3 miles to my commute 2-4 days a week but I think even with the increased trips to the store, I think I am saving money. There is more of a chance for impulse items since I am going shopping more often, but for the last month I have been able to stick to the list and haven’t thrown out any produce or leftovers. Yay! Also, this has cut down on the amount we have spent on food because there is less planned so there is less food in the kitchen and we are much more likely to eat what we just bought.
 
Cara ~ Excellent, that's just the reaction I hope for, helping people really think about this issue seriously.

Anonymous ~ Thank you!

Jules ~ You make the excellent point how important it is for each of us to find our own rhythm that works for US, not for someone else. I'm not a "by the week" person either but I know people who live and thrive by their system. Thank you for chiming in, I hope you'll write a post of your own to participate.
 
Excellent series! I think you've hit the mark and hopefully people who have been struggling will be able to make a plan that works for them.
 
I lost my full time job in January of this year, and have been temping since then. (Yay Michigan and their highest unemployment rate in the nation). Since my income has been cut in half, I've been squeezing my pennies at the grocery (and everywhere else!).

Luckily, I am as frugal as the day is long. I have not eaten in a sit down restaurant once this year. I have eaten take out (pizza & chinese) on maybe 4-5 occasions since January, because...hey...I'm no saint! No fast food. No sodas at the gas station. No coffees.

I agree that a well stocked pantry is the key to frugal eating. In fact, about every 6 weeks, I declare it a "Pantry Week," and eat meals out of my pantry or freezer. I love the challenge of throwing open the cupboards and just creating something yummy from what is already there. Beans usually figure prominently.

I am looking forward to the rest of this series!
 
My favorite - eat food, don't throw it out! Of course, that requires the plannng and cooking part...
 
I'm a huge fan of shopping once a week, and cooking as often as possible. I go to Trader Joe's, a 45 minute walk from my apt. I turn it into an adventure and make it my exercise for the day. This way my fridge is full of wholesome food the whole week. I feel healthier when i eat in, and good about my savings choices.

For those who don't have time for a big grocery trip once a week, I work for a Consumer group called Consumer United (ConsumerUnited.com) and we offer $10 off grocery delivery when you sign up for Peapod by Stop and Shop. I hope this helps. Noelle
 
I like how you write "Increasing worldwide affluence, especially in China and India, is increasing the worldwide demand for food ..." without so much batting an eye-lid when I've see so many "western world" people waste food that would feed entire families elsewhere in the world. Please try to realize everyone is entitled to a nutritious meal, not just you rich Americans!
 
Anonymous ~ No argument, all people are entitled to a healthful diet. Whether a Western-style diet is more healthful is questionable, even if it's one that's desirable.

No argument, the Western world consumes too much meat and wastes far far too much food. You'll see in the subsequent pages to this post that I advocate against waste.

Please know: I think we're in agreement. I apologize if I've suggested otherwise.

Many thanks for taking the time to comment.
 
Great post. I'm always looking for more and more ways to save some money. Especially these days. I estimate I save about $2,000 per year using coupons and buying things on sale. Not bad for an hour or two's worth of work a week!
 
"eat less".. lol tell that to my family. but nonetheless these are great ideas... empty fridge happens to me at least twice a month. arggh!
 

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Thank you for taking a moment to write! I read each and every comment, for each and every recipe. If you have a specific question, it's nearly always answered quick-quick. But I also love hearing your reactions, your curiosity, even your concerns! When you've made a recipe, I especially love to know how it turned out, what variations you made, what you'll do differently the next time. ~ Alanna