~by Andra Baehr, Shopping on a Shoestring with Kids in Velcro Shoes
I’ve gone back to the drawing board in an attempt to revamp my budget and save some extra money in 2014. I figured a fresh look at some of my family’s largest expenses couldn’t hurt. The grocery bill is always one of the first things that pops into my head when I think of large but necessary expenses.
I get super excited when it comes to all things food. I love eating, cooking, baking, and I truly love grocery shopping. I get a rush when I find a great deal on something I need, when I see the amount I saved at the bottom of my receipt, and when I bring my haul into the house and have so much food that I don’t know what to eat first. I’m a sucker for all of it.
My least favorite part of it, however, is seeing our bank account balance drop in one quick trip to the store. Over the last few years, I’ve had to adjust our grocery budget pretty drastically. In just a few years, my husband and I went from being a two-person, two-income couple renting a home, to homeowners with two small children living on a single income. Long gone are the days when I could walk into the grocery store, grab whatever looked appealing at the moment, throw a bunch of name brand junk food in my cart, and leave with few hundred bucks less and a shameless smile on my face. These days, I am walking through the store with my calculator in hand, comparing the weights and prices of similar items, picking through produce with a fine-toothed comb, and checking my list twice before I checkout.
After a few years of trial and error, I’ve learned a lot of tricks for saving money on groceries, and I’ve tried a few things that just aren’t realistic for me. One of my budgeting goals for 2014 is to implement the tried and true strategies that have proven to work for me in the past. Some of these things require a bit of work, some require time or effort that I can’t put forth, while others are just plain common sense. Here are some money-saving truths that I have learned about myself.
Take Inventory. Look in your cabinets, all the way in the back, in the refrigerator door, drawers, and pantry to see what you already have. When I skip this essential step, I will be in the grocery store wondering, “Do I have elbow macaroni at home? I think I do. Wait, no, I think I used it. Oh well, I’ll just grab a box.” Then, after I get home and start to unpack, I open the pantry and approximately 47 boxes of elbow macaroni fall out of the cabinet. Yes, I could’ve saved that dollar and skipped the pasta.
Make a Meal Plan. For me, this works. Not only does it work, but it very clearly saves me money every time I actually do it. When I decide ahead of time what my family will be eating for the week and write my list accordingly, I am able to buy only things that I need to prepare those meals. I don’t buy things that I don’t need and I don’t make purchases that go to waste. You can make a meal plan that is based around sales at your regular grocery store or based on ingredients you have an abundance of. To take this a step further, stick to the meal plan as well. That part is important!
Make a List, Use the List, Double Check the List. When I skip any of these steps, I end up forgetting things and having my husband run to the more expensive store near his job before he comes home.
Make Sure Your Budget is Realistic. Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, there was a girl who kept wondering why she was incapable of staying within her budget while food shopping. One day, she was talking with a friend about what they each spent on groceries. The girl’s friend gasped in disbelief when she heard the unreasonably low number come from the girl’s mouth. To make a short story shorter, having a $300 monthly grocery budget for a family of four was not realistic. This number included pet food, cleaning items, paper products, and personal hygiene essentials. When broken down a bit further, this budget required that each member of the family be fed completely with only $2.50 each a day. This budget was not realistic, and the girl was inevitably setting herself up for failure. The end result was breaking the budget with each trip to the store which in turn threw off the rest of her finances. If you haven’t figured it out, the girl in the story is me. The moral of the story is that it can’t hurt to reevaluate your budget to make sure it is realistic and meets your needs. If need be, perhaps you can look at your expenses on a larger scale and find somewhere else to cut back.
Clean Out Your Fridge Regularly. When I don’t do this (this is one of my downfalls, but I’ve gotten better), I ultimately come in to unload my groceries and frantically throw all the cold food wherever I can find space for it in the fridge. I end up pushing things to the back and forgetting about them, and often letting them spoil before we get a chance to eat them. I found some surprise broccoli under the potatoes today, and I was grateful I found it today and not next week. I had completely forgotten about it. When I have everything arranged neatly and in a sensible place where I can see it or expect to find it, it takes all the guesswork out and saves me from finding an unrecognizable produce bag full of mystery mush weeks later.
Allow Room in Your Budget for Replenishing purposes. If I spend my entire budget at once, then the following week when we need to run to the store for milk, produce and anything else we run out of, I’ll be spending money that wasn’t within my budget.
Pack a Lunch. If you work outside of the home, pack a lunch the majority of the time. I think this is common sense, but I don’t always do it.
Know Your Strengths, Weaknesses, and Limitations. Accept them. We are human. We cannot do everything. I find that if I take on too much, I will inevitably fail at everything. Okay, that’s a little dramatic. Really though, it’s true. I know for a fact that I could save tons of money by shopping sales at 5 different stores. I know that I could save by pairing manufacturer coupons with those sale items. I know that I could save by stocking up on certain items at a wholesale store. These things work very well for lots of other people. However, I have tried those things and they don’t work for me. I end up buying a name brand item for more with intentions of pairing a coupon with the sale, and forgetting the coupon in my pocket. I will lose my list on my way to the third store, or forget to go to the third store altogether. I will get lost in the wholesale store and walk out wondering what I even went in for in the first place. I hope that one day, perhaps when my children are a little older, I can implement those skills more effectively. Until that time comes, I will accept that I can’t do it all. I will buy mostly store brand items at a lower price, and try to just find coupons for the few specific items that I prefer to buy name brand. I’ll focus on doing the things I know I can handle. My goal is to be realistic. I’m going to make a point to do these simple things more often than not, and let go of the rest.
Oh, and one last thing, I think this applies to all of us- NEVER go to the grocery store hungry!
Andra Baehr lives in Northeastern Pennsylvania with her husband and two sons. She is a mom who recognizes the truth in the old saying “a penny saved is a penny earned.” You can also find her on Tuesdays working at Baehr Family Financial.