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10 secrets to grocery shopping on a budget

It's easy to eat healthier and waste less food.

By Karen Datko Sep 29, 2009 6:47PM

This post comes from Carrie Kirby at partner blog Wise Bread.

I used to consider myself a frugal shopper, without following the cardinal rule of setting and sticking to a grocery budget. Inspired by Wise Bread and other personal-finance blogs, 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.

Coupons really do make a difference. I used to think that coupons would only tempt you to buy more expensive name-brand items, but lately I've learned to do some online research, check my grocery fliers, 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 on almost every shopping trip, I get a couple things free.

You can get healthy food for cheap. 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 food that a health-oriented person would not touch. 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").

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.

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 flier 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 shopped and cooked barbecue at my house. I came home to a fridge full of leftovers, and I was just tickled pink that I didn't have to shop for a couple days. That means I'll be able to either go under budget or spend a few bucks on an indulgence. Which brings me to ...

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 with 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 Two 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.

Shopping frugally can lead to cultural adventures. I used to live in China, and oh, did we eat cheap over there. 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 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 anyway, yogurt lasts awhile past the date.

Despite the fact that most of the other shoppers do not look or sound like me, I 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 former 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.

Yes, we will eat all that cereal. When I stock 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 a while, a store will have a great sale event where it goes for about $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.

Keep a price book. 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 a budget, at least I've been looking over my receipts at the end of the week and getting a good idea of 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 because 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.

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 that because 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 nutritious and filling meals on 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.

Frugal shopping is worth the effort. Shopping frugally takes a lot of time, but it's the biggest economic impact I can make on my family without hiring a baby sitter.

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 said the same thing, 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 more money than I already do without spending money on a baby sitter. Clipping coupons, making extra grocery trips (on foot with the stroller) to buy loss leaders, reading the sales fliers -- 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 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.

Other articles of interest from Carrie Kirby:

Published Sept. 3, 2008


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