Grocery Shopping on a Shoestring

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One of the first things that I always do soon after we get back from vacation is to grocery shop. If you can plan things right before you leave, you can buy just enough food to get you through the days before you leave, and you leave enough non perishables at home so that you can eek out a meal or two when you get back. Well, we’ve done all of the eeking we could in the three days since we returned from Maine so I knew that Monday would be do-or-die grocery shopping day.

Like I always do I logged onto ShopRite at Home, and began clicking off the things I had on my list. After I got through my list (which added up to about $122 in my “cart”), I headed over to my “master list,” which is a record of everything I’ve ever bought via ShopRite at Home. I find it useful to go through this master list because I’ll often stumble upon items that I’d forgotten to add to the list or which are on sale but that weren’t highlighted in the circular. When I was done clicking through the “master list”–and clicking on items I wanted to add to my cart–I was shocked to see my “cart” total go from $122 to $223. Was it really possible that I needed to buy $100 more?

I couldn’t help but think about the reader who’d posted a few weeks back about how you have to change how you think about using the food you already own, planning meals and making grocery lists. This reader suggested (I’m paraphrasing) that instead of just going to the grocery store each week and just buying the same old things on your list, that instead you really think through when it is that you need to go shopping and what you really need to buy. The idea here is to stretch shopping trips and figure out how to use up what you already have when planning meals–which should help you save money in the long run.

I’d already done a bit of this “using what you have” that day by making a fresh batch of clean-out-the-cupboard chili, which I cooked up in my CrockPot. Three hours and three cans of beans, two cans of crushed tomatoes, some fresh cilantro and spices later, we had a “free” dinner that we could serve over rice. There was enough leftover for a few lunches as well.

Anyway, back to my “cart” and I decided to go through and see if there weren’t things that I could take out of the “cart” to save money. You see, I often find myself following that advice of stocking up on items when they’re on sale–but to an exaggerated length. For example, for a couple of weeks running, granola bars were on sale, and every time I went food shopping, I stocked up. They were on sale again this week, so I automatically “clicked” them into my “cart.” Only problem was when I got up from my chair to go into the kitchen and see how many boxes we actually had, I discovered six of them unopened in the cabinet. Gee, those six boxes should get me through an entire September of packed lunches. So why would I buy more? Out of the “cart” they came.

Other items that I’d added to my “cart” but then removed included a $13.49 box of Lactaid caplets (for my lactose intolerant daughters), four 12-packs of Diet Coke at $12 total (I know we shouldn’t be drinking so much soda and, well, now is a perfect time to cut back) and two $2.99 boxes of cereal that I was buying because they were on sale. Great, except our cereal cabinet currently has six unopened boxes of breakfast goodness. Why would I need to stock up on more? All told I was able to bring my grocery bill down to about $180, and I was feeling pretty good about myself.

Pretty good until I happened to come across a posting over at the Fresh & Easy Buzz blog about “America’s Cheapest Family,” the Economides, who recently were able to buy a ton of groceries and spend just a hair over $100. It seems that this family, which has written a book, has figured out how to spend about $350 a month to feed a family of six. Crap, and I thought spending between $600 and $800 a month to feed a family of four was good. What was I missing?

For starters the Economides are devout coupon users. You can get a bit of a sense of how they use coupons to their advantage on this “Good Morning America” segment:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pwafPIUEXYo&hl=en&fs=1]

However, I’m still left with some questions. For starters, if they’re using manufacturers coupons, how are they getting so many? We get two Sunday papers, and I’m lucky if I can save $8 a week in groceries. Second, it seems like they shop in more than one store. How much are they spending in gas to save on groceries? Third, I noticed in the segment that they bag their groceries in disposable paper bags. Wouldn’t it make sense to use reusable market bags and get anywhere from three cents to 10 cents in credit for each bag used? (Plus that would be very green of them.) I guess I could subscribe to their Home Economiser newsletter, but at $12, I’m a bit too cheap. The one tip from that segment that I found useful was the notion of buying inexpensive, whole cuts of meat and then using a meat grinder to, well, grind the meat so you’re not paying for the more expensive, already ground beef, chicken or turkey.

Obviously, this notion of saving on groceries now that everything costs more has hit a nerve for customers and the stores themselves. No wonder that upscale supermarkets like Whole Foods are offering classes on “shopping on a shoe string.” While it’s nice that a store like Whole Foods wants to help its customers save money, the truth is what they really want is for you to go to its store and spend your money there. It seems other stores are dying to get your business by offering other kinds of get-you-through-the-door promotions, such as free milk or free gas cards.

So far ShopRite hasn’t offered me an money-saving incentives to shop there (except for giving me 10 percent more on my economic stimulus check, when I cashed it at the store months ago). Perhaps it’s time to start looking around at what stores are offering shoppers like me to get me through their doors and to save me money. Also, I think I’ll take a page from the Economides book and start really perusing (instead of just recycling) those grocery circulars when they come in the mail or Sunday paper. Maybe if I start employing some price-matching tactics, I can cut my grocery bill by even more. I’m just not looking forward to driving all over creation to save a buck or two. I guess the trick is not to let the cost of gas eat up any savings I might find at the supermarket.

What about you? What other creative ways have you found to cut your grocery bill without spending more in gas?

6 thoughts on “Grocery Shopping on a Shoestring”

  1. We DO belong to a CSA so we’re getting plenty of fresh produce each week. In fact, the squash, snap peas, green beans and carrots from this week’s CSA pickup were the staples in last night’s stir-fry for dinner. I just had to provide the chicken breast (on sale for $1.99 a pound), rice and stir-fry sauce.

    Thanks for the tip on soy flour as a substitute for egg. I had no idea, and I always have soy flour on hand–it’s what I like to dip the chicken breasts in when I pan-fry them.

    Also, I like the idea of baking things my girls can take in their lunch. Case in point: I picked up chocolate-chip muffin mix for about $1 a box. With that I can make 12 muffins. I’d pay WAY more for prepackaged chocolate chip ANYTHING that I might put in their lunches.

    Great ideas!

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  2. Check the circulars and plan around what is on sale. Make a menu based on “hmm, green beans are on sale …” rather than “… and then we need eggplant, even though it’s $4 each.” And coupons are good, although they’re mostly for packaged foods. Next year, join a CSA if you haven’t already — we pay about $17 a week for about 15 pounds of local, organic veggies. Glean fruit when you can from locals who aren’t using what grows in their yard (ask first). Base meals on grains and veggies rather than meat. Make your own foods for lunches (muffins, cookies, breakfast bars) instead of buying packaged, and save the packaged foods for “emergencies” (like a bad hair day with a cold and you ran out of homemade :). Use substitutions when you cook … 1 Tbsp soy flour plus 1 Tbsp water can sub for an egg (when free-range eggs cost nearly 25 cents each).

    But don’t forget, it also depends where you live. I live in Denver and know my prices inside and out. When we vacationed in Virginia this summer, I was shocked at how high organic foods were — like I pay $4.69 to $5.49 for a gallon of organic milk, and it was nearly $7 in Virginia. Elements like that you can’t control.

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  3. Hmm – very interesting video. Well, in my case, whenever I think I have to buy something that’s not part of my normal grocery list, I first go online to check out if there are any coupon codes for that. That way, I don’t spend too much on items that I’m not sure if I need or not.

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  4. We missed our weekly shopping trip last week, so today when I went to make beef and bean burritos I discovered we were missing the tortillas. I made: pasta. We called it Spaghetti Mexicana. Why not? top it with parmesan or cheddar, depending on which taste you prefer.

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  5. Grocery shopping is one of my least favorite activities. And now having an empty nest the whole shopping thing has changed not to mention that I’m trying to buy “whole” foods rather than processed foods. Last weekend I got sucked into the romance of the farmer’s market and a guy who could sell plums. I made some plum butter and still have a lot of left over plums. I then made a plum cake. Meanwhile I’m going through dishes like crazy and wondering if my water bill is increasing because of all the cooking from scratch. I have 10 bottles of plum butter and a nice moist cake out of healthy ingredients plus more plums for pennies. But now I have to go grocery shopping for more sugar and flour. And as often happens we wouldn’t want to eat this food because we should save it for later day. Then I will find a freezer full of old dead food that didn’t get used!

    So I’m saving money in one way but thinking my money is getting used in other ways such as more water, gas, and electricity.

    Lists are good. It really makes me think about what I’m buying out of habit and what I need. I need to check them over several times and not just by memory plus keep track of the list so it gets to the grocery store. I also think I’ll start using more of my “stashed” food because that’s what it’s there for, to be eaten!

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  6. good for you for thinking before clicking! I do this every week when I make our grocery list, needs vs wants. We gave up soda at home about a year ago, that was a big saving. I shouldn’t drink it for health reasons and my DH has the occasional can at work (it’s free).
    One question though, why buy lactaid tablets for the girls? Why not just avoid lactose?
    Haven’t watched the video segment yet but I do want to say that coupons do nothing for me. I prefer wholesome nutritious foods and those are RARELY the ones with coupons. Has anyone else noticed that? There is one coupon company Mambo Sprouts that offers coupons on wholesome foods, but again most are prepackaged.
    I have yet to ever see coupons for fruits and vegetables 🙁

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