10 Things I've Learned From Grocery Shopping on a Budget

By Carrie Kirby on 28 July 2008 (Updated 30 June 2009) 31 comments
Photo: lechn3r

I used to consider myself a frugal shopper, without following the cardinal rule of setting and sticking to a grocery budget. Inspired by this site and others, a few months ago I finally took the plunge and set an $80 a week budget. I know that some people manage to spend as little as half that to feed a family of four (the two kids are little enough that they don't eat much), but for us $80 has been a challenge.

Despite the challenges, I was pleased to find that the budget goal (some weeks it's been merely a goal) has taught me a few things about shopping and about myself:

1. Coupons really do make a difference.

I used to think that coupons would only tempt you into buying more expensive name-brand items, but lately I've learned to do some online research, check my grocery flyers, and match up those coupons with items that are already discounted. I was delighted to learn that most stores will accept coupons even if the items are on clearance. The result is that almost every shopping trip, I get a couple things completely free.

2. It's true that a lot of the cheap food is unhealthy. But a lot of the healthy food is cheap.

When you're using coupons, you'll notice that some of those freebies are for food that a health-oriented person would not touch. Like Lunchables. Then there's the fact that the meat that gets marked down to less than $1 a pound is often fattier and almost never hormone or antibiotic-free, grass-fed or anything at all healthy.

But the flip side of this sad story is that some of the healthiest food is also some of the cheapest. I load up on in-season fruit (lately peaches have been 59 cents a pound) and dried beans, and try to save a little room in the budget for some wild-caught salmon ($4 a pound, frozen, at Aldi a couple weeks ago) or some grass-fed ground beef. If I can't spend $6 to $8 for a pound of the good stuff, I'd rather eat something else, at least when it comes to beef (that's a side effect of just having finished "The Omnivore's Dilemma").

3. When you buy less, less goes to waste.

Seems obvious, no? But I used to feel that I should grab as much as I had time to buy at the grocery store. After all, getting to the store, waiting in line, etc. is time consuming and I wanted to make as few trips as possible.

What I didn't account for is that when you buy more than you can eat fresh in a week, you have to take time to prepare it for the freezer, or you'll be spending time dumping it into the trash. Cleaning out the fridge is work, too -- and if you are regularly dumping leftovers, you are wasting money. Sometimes I open a friend's fridge and I can't see the back or the walls because there is so much food stuffed in there. They don't even know what they have -- so of course a lot of it is going to end up in the garbage.

4. A budget gets you excited about freebies again. Relive your college days!

Remember when all a college group had to do to ensure turnout at a meeting was to post a flyer offering free pizza? When I was a broke college student, nothing (well, almost nothing) made me smile more than a free meal.

This weekend, my in-laws visited and, while I was away for the day, they all shopped and cooked barbecue at my house. I came home to a fridge FULL of leftovers, and I was just tickled pink that I don't have to shop for a couple days. Because that means I'll either be able to go under budget, or I'll be able to spend a few bucks on an indulgence. Which brings me to ...

5. Booze is expensive.

Time and again, I find that the weeks we go over budget are the ones when we picked up some wine and beer. The hubs and I both enjoy a drink after the kids go to bed, and it's not an indulgence we're interested in sacrificing. I know that beer is cheaper than wine, but I've often wondered how a cocktail (we use store-brand seltzer water with a little liquor) compares to a glass of wine. Inevitably all my research notes get mixed up or spilled on and I've not been able to come up with a good economic model on this point.

Solutions? So far the only ones we have are: Get a case of 2-buck Chuck anytime we're near Trader Joe's. Get boxed wine (love the Target wine cube). And, be really nice to people who tend to bring a bottle when they come over.

6. Shopping frugally can lead to cultural adventures.

I used to live in China, and oh did we eat cheap over there. Now, I can't figure out how to make biweekly shopping flights to Beijing work out economically, but I have found that exploring neighborhoods dominated by immigrants can be both money-saving and fun. The budget has pushed me to walk a little farther out of my neighborhood and check out the grocery store closer to a Hispanic community, where there is always fresh chorizo and menudo on display. I love this store! One of the things I love is that instead of putting soon-to-expire foods in the Dumpster for the freegans, Fair Share Foods just puts them on a fire sale. My kids love individual containers of yogurt, and I can usually get them at this store, with a coupon, for 25 cents or less. They'll expire in a couple of days, but they'll be gone by then and yogurt lasts awhile past the date, anyway.

The only thing I don't like about this store is that the shopping carts don't have seat belts, so I usually go with the stroller. But despite the fact that most of the other shoppers do not look or sound like me, I have always feel comfortable and welcome there. So explore a little and, who knows, you might get to try some fun new foods too. In our old city, we also used to hit such a grocery store and our daughter would have a good time riding the 25-cent merry-go-round with little Spanish-speaking friends. In toddlerese, it's all the same language, right?

Similarly, if you live in a city with a Chinatown, you will find produce markets with better prices and fresher goods than the supermarket.

7. Yes, we will eat all that cereal.

When I stocked up on a dozen boxes or more of on-sale cereal, friends always laugh and ask how on earth we will eat it all. C'mon! Cereal lasts forever, has a million uses (especially in a house with little kids), and is normally kind of expensive. Every once in awhile, a store will have a great sale event where it goes for around $1 a box. When that happens, I'm yelling, "Buy, buy, buy!" I will go in with all the coupons I've been hoarding for weeks and I have never bought too much. After all, you can always donate any excess to the local food bank. 

8. A price book would be great, but at a minimum I need to remember targets for staples.

All the smart frugal shoppers keep price books, where they note down the best price they can get for any given item. That's been on my to-do list for, oh, half my life. But since I started shopping on the budget, at least I've been looking over my reciepts at the end of the week and getting a good idea for my target prices for the things I buy the most: cereal, milk, cage-free eggs, chicken and of course produce.

This is actually a big change for me, because in my old, "shop as frugally as possible" mode, I just compared prices IN THAT STORE and ON THAT DAY. That is, I figured I needed at least three pounds of meat for the week, so I would buy the three cheapest meats available. Now that I'm aware that I can pay $1 a pound or less for conventional meat and poultry, if there is nothing under $2 in the store, I just don't buy meat that day. This may seem like a waste of time, since I'll have to hit a different store if we want any meat. But on the other hand, I spend a lot LESS time comparing "price per ounce" to find the absolute best value in the cooler.

9. Just because the caviar's half-price doesn't mean it's affordable.

I used to bring all kinds of goodies back from Costco runs -- ready-to-heat organic mushroom ravioli, for instance. I figured since I knew it was a good deal at Costco, I barely had to glance at the price. But that doesn't work with a limited amount to spend each week, and this has been one of the key reasons the budget helps me spend less. Instead of worrying about getting the best possible deal for a given item, I think more about how to get a week's worth of nutritous and filling meals for my budget.

That means some delicacies are never going to come home with me, unless it's New Year's Eve or it's practically free after a coupon. It also means that I buy a lot more chicken than beef, and that I almost never buy juice or soda.

10. Shopping frugally takes a lot of time, but it's the biggest economic impact I can make on my family WITHOUT hiring a babysitter.

A lot of my friends tell me they don't have time to be frugal. Actually, a friend who is unemployed and has no kids recently told me that, which kind of blew my mind. Personally, I sometimes worry that I'm spending too much time pinching pennies when I could be taking on more work from home and coming out ahead.

However, as a stay-at-home mom to two kids below school age, one thing is certain: I can't make any more money than I already do without spending money on a babysitter. Clipping coupons, making extra grocery trips (on foot with the stroller) to buy loss leaders, reading the sales flyers -- these are all things I can manage with the children with me. At first flipping through a coupon file while controlling the kids in the store was difficult, but now I have the hang of it and it's working out. Actually, my 4-year-old has gotten kind of into helping me, and this is how she now asks for something:

"Mommy, if such-and-such is on sale, and you have a coupon, can we get it?"

That's my girl.

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Guest's picture

I think when one is saving they need to figure out how much it will affect their total budget vs. how much time it takes to save the money, determined by how much their time is worth. For me to clip a coupon takes a lot of time and the savings to my bottom line are miniscule. I wrote an article about this on ptmoney, and like to look at my cost savings on a per hour basis - if saving ten bucks takes me five minutes of work, on an hourly basis that's worth $120 to me. However, if it takes me a half hour to save two bucks, that's only $4/hour. That's not even minimum wage.

Andrea Karim's picture

Yay! Menudo! I really enjoy all the strange animal parts that most Americans don't like to eat. And it's SO much cheaper. Our Chinatown keeps me pretty much cheaply enjoying veggies, too. I'm shocked to go to actual Chinese restaurants and see dishes like pea sprouts, which cost something like 99 cents for a huge bag at the Vietnamese grocery store, going for $12 a plate at our local Cantonese eatery.

With booze, my family has found that wine spritzers are a good way to drink a bit less while still enjoying red wine. Or we'll make big pitchers of sangria, which all in all, is a pretty cheap concoction for a big group.

Guest's picture
pidgeon92

This is so true. I bought a head of green cabbage today to use in a coleslaw. It was a small head, and it cost me $.46. I used it as a side dish for three people, and there is enough for at least three more meals.

Grains are still cheap as well, I've just started adding them to meals each week. I bought two lbs of quinoa for $4, it will be the main part or a side dish for at least a dozen meals.

Guest's picture
sam

The first line in the list says "we need" and the last says "porn"? I'm not really sure if this is part of your regular shopping list*laughs*

But seriously,I agree that healthier foods are cheaper, as in fruits and vegetables.

Sam
Fix My Personal Finance
http://fixmypersonalfinance.com/

Guest's picture

Click my link to get some info about how a farmworker who picked grapes for the wine perished due to heat stroke. The UFW is having a letter-writing campaign against TJ's to pressure them to tell their supplier to improve working conditions. (Don't worry, it's not a boycott.)

Other than that, I thought the article was awesome. Keeping focused on the big picture definitely helps one to cut the pointless goodies, stock up on good staples, and get quality "luxuries".

Guest's picture

Great post!

We write a menu for the week ahead and keep a close eye on what is in our pantry and fridge. We can then write our list with items that are needed. We have been doing this for many years now and keep our shopping budget under control because of it.

Thanks very much.

Guest's picture
Tom

In the UK there's usually quite a few coupons in the Sunday paper's glossy supplement. Many supermarkets will actually redeem the coupons against your total regardless of whether you bought the item. They don't care because they claim the money from the producer any way.

I know Waitrose do it, and I'm pretty sure that Sainsburys do too.

Guest's picture

Great article!

Guest's picture
lori

There's some really good stuff in here, but did you know that "porn" is at the bottom of your shopping list?

Guest's picture
Alex B

I'm 22 and my fiance and myself are as about as frugile as you can get when it comes to grocery shopping. We are both big eaters and never eat out always stay home, still we manage to live on a budget of $100 dollars for grocerys every other friday. Here's a few tricks i've learned; First get the sunday paper and scan throught all the sale ads and coupons, w-mart will match any other prices; Buy in bulk at S-club(usally you'll pay the same prices as anywhere else but you get double the product); Grow a garden(I grow a small garden and we freeze alot for all year around). That's all it takes for us, hope it helps.

Guest's picture
hippykidz

Thanx for the push I have also put off setting the Weekly budget for the food. I tend to do very well and come in right around the same each week.($120-$125 for a family of four)But I know I can do better.The truth is I have the time to clip coupons and watch the fliers I just don't. Well didin't... I do now! Here's a little tip from an ex-Bartender for your booze dilema. Buy a gallon of cheap vodka (wait for it to go on sale 'round the "party " holiday's) pour it into a sun tea jar and add a bag of frozen mixed berries. Now stash it for a few days when you come back the berries will be a cocktail on their own and you cheap vodka will taste great!! Be sure to scoop out the berries. You can just eat 'em they'll keep in the fridge or toss a few in the bottom of your drink but don't leave 'em in the jar they'll disenegrate and well...It's yucky

Guest's picture

I shop on a budget but have never used coupons. I have read so many good things about using them, and how much money I can save. Shame on me. I am going to start now.

Austin Hike and Bike

Guest's picture
Guest

Lately it's been hard to keep a price book as the costs are escalating so quickly. If you take the plunge it may be better to wait until things stabilize a bit.

$80 is reasonable, specially with younger kids. We do it with older ones (20 and 12 year old males) and it includes non food items. Pretty tight. Keeping a pantry helps alot. We may not have ethnic grocers but we do have a bump and dent place near us and a farm stand. Every area has it's advantages. Do other areas have on line grocery flyers? This has been a big help in matching coupons and sale items for us before venturing out. Also Dollar General takes coupons.

Hope this helps.

Guest's picture
Debbie M

I'm working on #9 (half-priced caviar is still not cheap). I've decided that calculating some per-meal costs could be a good idea. If I think two meals are equally nutritious and equally yummy, I may as well make the less-expensive one more often.

Another way to use this strategy is to think of lower-priced alternatives. What else might you like when you're in the mood for caviar, and are any of those more affordable? You talked about this some in #8 (a price book would be good) because you talk about how meat is somewhat interchangeable.

Recently I've learned that my favorite fair-trade chocolate chips are cheaper per ounce than my favorite fair-trade chocolate candy bar, so now I will buy only the chips and use them for both baking and sticking into my mouth plain. Also, my favorite expensive extremely sharp cheddar brick cheese is still less expensive per ounce than my new favorite cheap sliced sharp cheese, so I'll be using that any time I want cheese (cubed for parties, grated for toppings or omelets or sliced for sandwiches). It's so easy to get used to what's a good price for something in one form, forgetting that almost the exact same thing is available in another form.

I like that you include both #3 (buy less to waste less) and #7 (yes, we can eat all that cereal), even though they seem like opposites. We should buy only enough of things that go bad but also stock up on staples that don't go bad when they are a good deal.

Another idea is to have a plan for leftovers. As a single person, I have a lot more flexibility here: I can create dishes that sound okay to me but that I would never ask anyone else to eat. For example, I had some leftover sloppy joe mix that I wasn't too wild about, so I mixed that with my last mediocre-tasting vegetarian hotdog and some leftover beans that were kind of boring and some chili powder. (It's like Tex-Mex beanie weanies, see?) It still wasn't that great, but then I put lots of cheese on top. And rolled it in corn tortillas. And now it's yummy and quick!

Less disgusting ideas include: saving meat, veggies, and pasta for soups; saving meat, veggies, and dairy products for pasta dishes; saving cereal crumbs for pie crusts, and saving bread crumbs for casseroles, bread puddings or other baked goods.

Guest's picture
CATHIE

That's so funny; my kids used to say the EXACT same thing when we went shopping! Now my kids are all older, and it's so thrilling to see them be thrifty.

Carrie Kirby's picture

In college I spent a year in Paris and quit the au pair job that was supposed to support me after just a couple months. After paying rent -- something like $500 for an attic maid's room and it seemed like a fortune at the time -- I was seriously scraping along for food.

 My grandmother sent me a care package with some "American" food and condiments, including an envelop of chili seasoning. Well, I almost NEVER bought meat, but I was getting real, real tired of plain potatoes. So I mixed it into mashed potatoes.

I will never forget force feeding myself that disgusting mixture, because I knew that if I didn't eat that, I was going to eat nothing that night. And the next day. Blech.

Guest's picture
BonzoGal

LOL, Carrie, been there, done that. What a great story.

I tried to make a turkey-heart casserole in a microwave oven during my broke-student days. It was cheap and horrible, and it messed up my microwave. Creativity in cooking is always to be encouraged, but once in a while the results can be blarf!

Guest's picture
BonzoGal

Great post, and very well written. Thanks for the ideas and the entertaining read!

Philip Brewer's picture

One of the really nice things about living within walking distance of the grocery store is that we have the option to go get fresh ingredients every day.  Once or twice a month we do drive to the grocery store and stock up on staples; the rest of the time we just walk.

It means that, before we decide what's for dinner, we can look over any unadvertised sales, and see what looks good among the meat and produce.  Sometimes there are real bargains.  Other times there's something that looks especially yummy.

Probably not practical if you have to drive to the grocery store, but highly recommended if it works for your particular situation.

Guest's picture
pam

Great article. I'd be happy to see our spending max out at $100 a week for 3 people. Right now it's hovering near $140, because of our guilty love of processed foods.

I take about 30 minutes on Sunday to wash and chop veggies, mix cole slaw or 3-bean salad, marinade sale meat, etc. Then, during the week when we're tired at the end of the day, there are the dishes all ready to go for a quick meal. When I'm this practical, I find we eat all the food in the fridge and things rarely go to waste.

I do have one question. Are laundry detergents and other cleaning agents included in your $80 budget, or just food?

Guest's picture
Guest

thanks for the tips. The one I don't do is look for coupons. We don't get the paper and I'm just too lazy to search them out on the internet. Also, I buy almost no processed food or convenience food. We (my hubby and me) eat quite well for $45 a week. I know it doesn't sound like much but I stock up when there are sales and hold myself to the budget. We recently upped it, actually, since food is getting so ridiculous. It is for JUST FOOD, everything else has its own category in our budget.

I also do some OAMC (once a month cooking). The name is a little misleading, I think of it as more "once a month prep work." I work all day so it is nice to have prepared meals to just throw on the stove or in the oven. If you're interested there is a good forum about it on recipezaar.com.

Noticed that bone-in breat halves are 99 cents a pound at HEB this week. Gotta stock up! (I'm a sucker for white meat).

By the way, something seems weird with the captcha thing. It was telling me my addition was wrong for a minute, and, err, I'm pretty sure it wasn't.

Guest's picture
Guest

Hey Carrie,

Great tips, as I'm lamenting the lack of your awesome frugal blog way out here in the middle of the ocean.

I also like your new profile picture! That pig was cute, but you are much cuter :-)

~Laura

Guest's picture
engchik

oh i hear ya with #9..i love trader joe's and costco but i must have spent thousands on individually-rolled chicken breasts with cranberry stuffing (and other similar convenience items)..never mind that they were 2.99 each...or those cute appetizers were 15.99 a box for 25 crabs cakes..they were on sale right!? And I’ll have a party eventually…
Stretching my food by eating (almost) everything in the house before buying new things just because I want them. I've also been mixing beans with just about every dinenr, also dumping in dolalr store peas- very good btw, to fill out a meal- yum! Although now target has ice cream and I have to try really hard to not go there!

Guest's picture
Torrey

One thing my wife and I have learned is buying the generic brands (for most things) taste pretty close to the more expensive name brands. The pennies we save start to add up.

Guest's picture
MelissaC

Ok, I get that I spend too much and throw out too much going on my MONTHLY grocery trip. Figuring out what I need once the pantry is bare is a silly way to do it.

My question though (now that the farmers markets are in full swing and I can get a couple days worth of produce that is fresh) is about bread.

I dont know about you. But they only sell full loaves of bread and rolls and my supermarket, and I have a definite dislike for bread that has been frozen. On top of that I prefer potato bread, which seems to go bad rather quickly. (i just threw out a BUNCH of bread and rolls, which I used ONE peice of.

Cooking as a single person generally sucks. Sure my neighbors love me because I regularly invite them over (and their kids) to eat. I learned to cook from my father, and we prepared meals that were for a family of 10.

I refuse in this economy to eat out every night (which is what I have been doing for years).

Guest's picture
Guest

25 cents for yogurt, seriously? That's awful. I don't buy unless it's under 20 cents, or even better, 15. I live near farm country, I can't believe how expensive food is in some places.

Guest's picture
Guest

You are very lucky because here in the city, a "fantastic deal" on yogurt is 45 cents

Guest's picture
Suz

I use Grocerygame.com to pair coupons with sales (I'm too lazy to do it myself) and I've been able to drop my grocery budget to ~$100/month for two people.

I do, however, love your point about booze. I too find that the only times our budget doesn't make it is when we buy beer or booze. I simply don't, but that's not an option for many. However, we do buy booze and hang out at home with friends instead of going out to bars where it's much more expensive if we're feeling like drinking.

Thanks!
-Suz

Guest's picture
CarrieK

$80 a week is amazing! I have kept us to $100 a week for about 5 weeks now. It's going well, but I don't know how I'd get it down to $80. I struggle with healthy, whole, local food and to that end I am investing (our gov. refund check) in a backyard potager garden. I can shave about $15 off our weekly grocery bill if I can just pick the produce from our own backyard. I am very picky about the meat and fish we buy and I am a raw milk convert. It's expensive stuff, but worth it in the long run. Making a flexible menu plan and sticking to a list has really helped. Next challenge: figure out how buying bulk (grains to grind, berries to can) figures in. Thanks for the info and inspiration.

Guest's picture
mommamoody

I laughed while reading your blogpost, it sounds exactly like my life.
I do grass fed beef, raw milk (when I can afford it and I didn't find organic milk marked down to 2.95 a gallon), eggs from a farmer, some produce from TJ's and then the rest with coupons. I dumpster dive for inserts and have gotten some great deals lately.
20 cents each- 18oz canister of old fashioned oatmeal
16 cents each-mt olive pickles and relish (yes i know it has high fructose corn syrup
in it. however my first attempt at homemade pickles turned out well, but it was time consuming).
1.49 for big can of tahini
1.50 a box for organic cereals
1.99 a bag for 3# of organic apples
My favorite was I got a free chicken (almost organic) because of scan guarantee at the grocery store, it's price rang up wrong at the checkout.

I get a rush from couponing and spend way too much time looking for free or almost free stuff that I actually would use ( I don't use air fresheners, processed foods, etc, so those deals don't interest me, I don't want to buy them just to waste them, although I did get 60 packs of free bread last week and was able to donate some ((of course I kept some too, but i will try not to use it everyday).
However the $120 of lipstick I got last week will make great christmas presents for all my girlfriends.

I have a pricebook (loved the book the Complete Tightwad Gazette).
And am hoping to go and check out the surplus store next week and see what I can buy that was crushed on a pallet!

Peace!

Guest's picture

Very good tips! I agree, coupons definitely matter. You can save so much! It takes time, but it's worth it.