When my husband suggested we review the budget on groceries, I immediately took offense. I mean, I was the one that always did the grocery shopping. I thought I was shopping conscientiously. Plus, it was my husband who ate so much and who needed diversity. I could live on eggs, rice and beans for the whole month. When he pointed out to me that we were spending around $700-$800 dollars a month, I didn’t believe him. I kept saying that the month he was looking at was an anomaly. I told him to just look at the month before. Yet, it never really went down, and sometimes was a lot more.
I am going to have to admit that I didn’t have any idea of what we were spending. But the next thought was, “well…what should we be spending?” The answer to this questions varied and vague. According to an online article by NBC the USDA estimates that for a family of four “spending ranges from a “thrifty” $524 per month to a “liberal” $1,014.
We are a household of two adults…and two cats. We only entertained about once every other month, and I’m talking dinner with another couple, nothing lavish. Plus, we did not spend a lot on liquor.
I was stubborn and insistent that we weren’t overspending, not based on our salaries and lifestyle. Plus, did I mention how much my husband eats? No, he’s not fat. But he does exercise and weight train and he needs to consume a lot of food to keep his weight up around 180. He is also a bit fanatical about healthy eating. And as we were trying to eat healthier my costs kept increasing. I was now buying ground turkey instead if ground beef, wheat pasta, a lot more fruits and vegetables, Greek yogurt, and gallons if milk, for example these things were all more expensive than their less healthy counterparts.
I then got to the point where I was looking at the amount of protein rather than price and I was also looking for a lot of convenience items that would be easy for my husband to grab if he were looking for lunch or a snack, like protein bars and sandwich fixings, since he always looked into our full fridge and said there was nothing to eat since we had ingredients versus meals. We also had started making runs to places like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. In my mind, I blamed my husband. Though have you ever tried to walk out of Trader Joe’s or whole foods without stocking up on wine or cheese? Maybe it was partially my fault.
My arguments weren’t swaying my husband. He acknowledged we ate well, he thanked me for the efforts I made to keep him fed, and asked, can we cut this in half? I began to see that he had a point, and begrudgingly answered that we could, of course. He challenged me to bring the spending down to $100 a week. I said fine, but he had to come with me.
Now, this is not a story about advocating extreme couponing. That stuff takes too much time and space. You don’t end up buying what you need, and it’s usually processed and not good for you.
However one of the time-tested techniques which we did abide by was checking out the circulars before we went shopping. Around our house we have the choice of over a dozen chain and independent stores. I would normally go to Jewel, which I always valued for what it was: a big grocery chain that would have a lot of loss leaders, hence great sales. And I could shop there consistently because I wasn’t married to a set list of items.
However, around the time that we decided to meet the challenge, Dominick’s came out with this amazing app (also the same company as Safeway). I had never really shopped at Dominick’s, but this app really appealed to me. It was the kind of app I wish Jewel had come out with. With this Dominick’s app, we could load coupons right onto the card from the smart phone. We could check out what was on sale and plan what we would buy for that week. The app didn’t just have the circulars, it also had items that were deal matches from other stores, specials just for me, coupons, and sometimes free items.
Prior to this app, I would do what most people probably do…cut out coupons and then forget about them. With this app, I didn’t have to clip coupons. Now, the savings were right there. The only thing they could do to improve this app is allow me to scan my coupons from other sources right onto my cars…but hopefully that is around the corner.
Nonetheless, that one step of looking over everything on sale that week, was a big psychological prep. With my husband in tow we set aside a specific time to go to the store.
I quickly realized that this was also one of the problems. Previously, I would go to the store a couple of times a week, either on my lunch break or after work. My shopping trips were unscripted and too numerous. While I didn’t spend a ton each time, it added up quickly. This was part of the reason I didn’t feel I was overspending…because I never was on individual trips. Plus, my husband would also sometimes make a run if he was out of razors, deodorant, or hair stuff.
I was leery of having my husband along. He has the attention span of a five year old and easily gets bored. Luckily, he now saw these trips as a challenge. He kept engaged and interested by running the calculator. This also helped keep to the budget.
On very rare occasions do we go over $100 a week. We stay on budget by buying ingredients rather than processed or boxed foods and by being flexible with the grocery list. Brands do not matter. We just want the best deal. And we are willing to put things back if we go over $100.
We always check our receipt before we leave and have lost our embarrassment about going to customer service and asking for rain checks or refunds of a couple of dollars. One of the things we have learned is to not be afraid to ask. A few weeks back at Dominick’s, we realized that we had lost a $10 coupon we had earned the week before. We looked for it, blamed each other and then basically figured we were SOL. We decided to go to customer service anyway just to see if there was something that could be done. There were a couple more hoops we jumped through, but in the end, they were willing to give us a $10 gift certificate. Incredible.
We are also willing to go to more than one grocery store if we can find a great deal on meat or produce, though we try to avoid that to prevent the temptation to over shop. But to be fair to places like whole foods, there is no better or cheaper place to buy bulk, diverse whole grains, beans and rice. And can you beat three buck chuck from Trader Joe’s for consistent cheap wine?
There were lifestyle changes that we made that helped us save. There were little things like my husband converting to a vintage double edged safety razor and getting rid of the Tassimo. I also don’t buy juice anymore. We just drink water, tea and coffee (we have milk, but we don’t drink it straight). I’ve started to make my own all-purpose cleaner and I have stopped using plastic wrap. We are not willing to give up meat, though we tend not to eat much red meat. I’ve also explored making things like hummus and breakfast bars, which were things that we previously bought thinking that they weren’t expensive. However, when you realize that a bag of dry garbanzo beans costs around a dollar and yields about four cans of beans at around a dollar a piece, or about six tubs of hummus at around three dollars a piece, it’s a huge savings.
At this point we have successfully cut our grocery bill almost in half. But I know there is more we can do. Many people may be reading this thinking that $100 a week is high (though keep in mind that this budget includes toiletries, cat food and litter, household needs like TP, garbage bags, etc). What is important is to take an accounting of what you spend, then take steps to reduce it. Set a goal. It’s easier to make changes gradually as you realize the benefits of making those lifestyle changes. You can’t make comparisons to other families, because everyone is different. But, more than likely you are buying a lot of crap you don’t need, that is not particularly good for you.
According to my own smug advice, now that we know we can shop, with all of our personal, household and feline needs met, at $100, the next step is to reduce it. There is room for improvement, and it may not all be in food consumption. For example, if we can really reduce our waste, we’ll need garbage bags less often. Or, if I can make a pleasant, effective laundry soap, I wont have to buy detergent every other month.
As far as food goes, I am looking forward to summer when we can grow and pick our own produce. I need to learn how to can or freeze foods so I can use what I grow and pick throughout the year. Right now, I buy some frozen fruits and vegetables to supplement our needs because I really haven’t thought through the freezing of fresh items. But if I just freeze the stuff I grow, or at least when it’s in season, then that would be a nice chunk of monthly savings.
We are also committed to increasing our intake of produce and need to decreasing the amount of meat we consume.
Do I miss really good cheese? YES. Do I wish I could always have a bag of brown rice in the freezer without having to cook and divide it? Sure I do. But we are talking real numbers here, not just a couple of lattes, which is my usual measurement for whether saving is worth it. We are saving thousands of dollars a year! And I know we can do better.