When I started the “Dave Ramsey thing” and created my first monthly budget, I settled on $300 a month for groceries, including cat food and household stuff like dish soap and toilet paper.
So, when I moved in with my co-human, I just doubled it to a budgeted $600. If $300 worked for one person, $600 would be logical for two. We wound up spending upwards of $700 per month on groceries. Yikes. To top that off, comment threads from favorite Facebook pages asking about budgets were showing me that many people were doing a whole foods budget for more people with less money than we were spending. Obviously something was amiss. I discussed this a bit in an earlier post in March.
What was jacking up the cost?
- Lack of planning – buying haphazardly without a plan led to a lot of impulse purchases and even some food waste.
- High standards – I buy only humane animal products and prefer organic foods.
- Luxury purchases – Co-human was really digging some expensive cheese there for several months. Not saying that was the only thing going on (I was also addicted to almond meal cookies) but we were spending a lot of frivolous luxury dollars at the grocery store.
- I was being snooty – I didn’t even LOOK at other grocery stores other than Earth Fare. I admit this was a personal flaw.
Bringing the cost down
Not only did I reduce our budget to below $600, I have even gotten it to a solid $400-$450 depending on the month. I think I can even get it down to $350 if I really put my mind to it. Feeding a whole extra person on only $50 more than I used to budget to feed myself… I shudder to think of what I could have been saving when I lived on my own!
I still shop mainly at higher-end grocery stores like Earth Fare and Heinen’s. I strategize my shopping trips so I only need to go once a week to either of those stores and can supplement if needed at Giant Eagle, which is a mile away and way more convenient. Marc’s has surprisingly come up as another low-budget source – organic sweet potatoes are a downright STEAL at the local Marc’s store.
I still buy whole food ingredients, fresh produce, fresh humane meat, and humane/organic dairy and eggs.
How the heck are you feeding two people your snooty food on only $400?
- Buy in bulk when possible – Rice, beans, oatmeal, flour, nuts, etc. are almost always cheaper when you buy bulk. Bulk also helps you save on meat! This spring, my dad purchased a portion of a local steer and split it with me. I spent $80 on 30-40ish pounds of beef, some of which is still in the freezer. If you’ve got the freezer space and the up-front cash, this is a way to save some SERIOUS dough. I also buy chickens whole and cook them in the crockpot, which is cheaper than buying just breasts. I buy 2lb rolls of butter, divvy it up into mason jars for storage, and save lots of money over buying it in sticks ($8.99 for a 2 lb roll vs. 5.99+ each for a 1 lb box of comparable butter).
- Buy on sale and know your price points – Earth Fare is pretty much the only store I trust for meat, because of their humane treatment policy. But I buy on sale. Grass fed beef is usually $8/lb – I stock up when it’s on sale for $4/lb with a coupon. Ground pork is usually $5/lb, so when it’s on sale for $3 or $4/lb, I stock up on that too. I buy chicken breasts or thighs when they are sale priced around the same cost as buying the whole chicken. Other items can be found strategically on sale too, whether you shop specialty stores or your average neighborhood grocery.
- Compare stores – This requires some preparation and initial time investment. Make a list of EVERYTHING you commonly buy. Then go to several stores and compare the costs. Check online too – sites like Amazon and Vitacost can save you some money on grocery items. I am working on a pretty hefty spreadsheet comparing costs. When you find out which stores have consistently better deals or prices on certain items, strategize your shopping trips to make the most of your dollars.
- Compare products – You need to be sure you are comparing apples to apples when you compare products in the store. You might opt for a bag of frozen organic berries because it’s only $3.29, but it’s eight ounces. That’s $0.41 per ounce. A pound of fresh organic strawberries at $4.99 is $0.31 per ounce. Ten cents an ounce is a lot of savings to buy fresh! Yes, there’s a little more work involved (you must wash and dry, then eat before they go bad or freeze them yourself) but if you have the five minutes to do the work yourself, you can save a bit of money. Same for lunchmeat – a packet of Applegate turkey is more expensive per ounce than getting it by the pound at the deli counter. It pays to do the math.
- Dirty Dozen/Clean 15 – Some items are very important to buy organic. These fruits and vegetables have the highest concentration of pesticides on conventional produce. I always make sure to buy root vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, etc.), berries, grapes, apples, and greens organic. I buy conventional melons, citrus, onions, mushrooms, bananas, pineapples, avocados, and frozen peas. Here’s a list of 48 fruits and veggies listed from “most pesticides” to “least pesticides.” I also purchase summer squash, zucchini, and corn organic or at least non-GMO, as these are common GMO foods.
- Keep inventory – Knowing what you have on hand in your kitchen will allow you to plan better. If you have a bunch of broth, make soup. Beans and tomato sauce? Plan for chili. Don’t just keep buying things because you know you might cook with them someday. It can be very beneficial to have a no-spend week or month in which you use up the food in your pantry and freezer instead of buying additional groceries. There’s been a box of veggie burgers in my freezer for over six months… Oops.
- Meal plan – Plan what you will cook for the week before you do your shopping trip. You can plan for leftovers or low-maintenance nights where you just make a sandwich or soup from a can. I won’t judge you, I do it too. There are “toast for dinner” nights in this house. There are also “cook three things to prep for the rest of the week” nights. Which brings me to my next point…
- Cook smart – If you are cooking ground beef for spaghetti sauce on Monday night, and you’re having tacos on Wednesday, cook all the ground beef at the same time and set aside the stuff for Wednesday. Ta-da, taco meat is pre-prepped, you just have to heat it back up and add spices. Tonight, I made french toast and bacon for dinner. But I also cooked pasta with Italian sausage for tomorrow night. Or maybe the night after. Because…
- Be flexible – If you go off the meal plan, it’s not the end of the world. Sometimes the weather affects my cooking plans (making the meal that requires an oven on a cooler day, for instance – I hate heating up the house in summer, ugh!), sometimes I just don’t feel like cooking, and sometimes I have a lot of leftovers we need to eat up before I cook something new (I hate wasting). It’s all good. Don’t totally abandon it, but be okay with moving some meals around and re-arranging your plans.
- Budget – This is the most important thing. To save money on groceries, you have to plan out the money you will spend on groceries. If it helps you to separate meat, dairy, produce, etc. in your budget, do that to keep yourself on task. Otherwise just plan your trip and budget what you will spend for the month total and for each shopping trip. Use CASH instead of a card to keep yourself accountable – when the cash is gone, no more groceries. Spend wisely.
Sample meal plan and shopping list
Here’s my meal plan and shopping list for the week of 6/1/14:
- Sunday: Italian sausage with pasta
- Monday: Chicken breast, peas and carrots
- Tuesday: Burgers and beans
- Wednesday: Brinner
- Thursday: Chicken nuggets, tater tots, beans
- Friday: Chinese?
- Saturday: Meatloaf, mashed potatoes
- Produce: Apples (3 lb bag), strawberries (1 lb box)
- Water gallon refills
- Dairy: Eggs (3 dozen), milk (1/2 gallon), yogurt (large container), cheese (1 pack)
- Meat: Bacon (1 lb), chicken breasts (coupon for $2.99/lb)
- Grocery: Pasta
- Bakery: Sourdough bread (2 loaves)
- Giant Eagle: Mushrooms, watermelon
That was my whole plan to cook for the week. We already had ground beef, italian sausage, pasta sauce, and chicken nuggets in the house. But… the chicken breasts were sold out and co-human wanted to try a new brand of cheese slices. We opted for bratwurst instead of chicken, and we got two packs of cheese instead of one. I still came in under-budget for the shopping trip.
What I have actually cooked this week:
- Sunday: Bratwurst and bean casserole. My onion in the pantry had gone bad (note: Buy onion on Monday).
- Monday: Bratwurst and bean casserole. Yes, I made it again. It was delicious.
- Tuesday: Cooked myself french toast and bacon, made the man a sandwich. Cooked pasta and italian sausage for Wednesday.
What I expect to cook later this week:
- Wednesday: Italian sausage and pasta (already made, just heat!)
- Thursday: Chicken nuggets, tater tots, beans (weather says a high of 66, so I don’t mind turning on the oven)
- Friday: Burgers and beans (it’s thawing in the fridge. I am cooking it).
- Saturday: Brinner
For breakfast, we usually have eggs, bacon, toast, and coffee. I like orange juice too, but I make half a gallon last two weeks because I buy expensive juice – organic, fresh pressed, no flavor packets, all that jazz. I have switched to Uncle Matt’s organic brand because it’s a few bucks cheaper than my usual brand and has no flavor packets.
For lunches, I pack my partner a sandwich, fruit (bananas, strawberries, and pineapple are favorites right now, but he also enjoys apples), usually a small square of dark chocolate, and sometimes a bag of chips. He works close to home so sometimes he comes home for lunch and has leftovers. I usually have fruit and yogurt, fridge oats, or leftovers for my lunches. I sometimes get takeout on Fridays with other ladies in the office.
Things that are life-changing and wonderful blessings to meal planning:
- An eating partner who doesn’t mind eating the same thing multiple times in a week
- An eating partner who is more thrilled about eggs and bacon for dinner than a complicated recipe that costs $50 to make
Things that I imagine are meal planning wild-cards:
- Children – their picky days, fussiness, specific cravings, hunger strikes, and endless desire to turn meals into arts and crafts. I imagine that would be stressful.