Chances are that if you are a budget conscious individual it hasn’t taken long to realize that keeping your loved ones fed and happy (and yes, those two terms most always go together) comes at a large price. In fact, according to the USDA, “households in the middle-income quintile spent an average of $5,799 on food a year, representing 12.4 percent of income, while the lowest income households spent $3,767 on food, representing 33 percent of income.
Although a third of each U.S. food dollar is spent on eating out (a subject for another time) groceries take a large chunk of a family’s budget. So, before heading off to another grocery store, here are some tips to keep you out of the red when it comes to feeding your family.
Assess Your Needs
Check your refrigerator and pantry before shopping. You bought that bottle of anchovies and bag of brown rice months ago for a reason – well, with some spices, veggies and a little help from Google you can conjure up an Asian stir fry dinner in no time! Find ways to use what you already have before you shop, or at least supplement what is in your pantry and refrigerator for your next meal plan.
According to the American Chemistry Council, 76% of Americans throw out food on a monthly basis, and the average household throws out $640 of food each year. Food down the disposal really is money down the drain, so look for creative ways to use what you have, and be sure to assess what you really need before shopping.
Make a Meal Plan
Arm yourself with a meal plan and a list of ingredients before heading to the grocery store. Impulse buying is at its peak when you’ve skipped breakfast and are surrounded by pastries and frozen pizza! After checking your pantry and refrigerator, write down a 5-7 day meal plan using as many ingredients and staples that you already have. Your meal plan needs to be as thorough as possible including breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Make sure to account for plans you have for eating out that week, such as a Friday date night with your spouse, or Thursday’s lunch with coworkers. Also, account for leftovers in your meal plan. With a roll and a side salad, Monday’s leftover lasagna can be Wednesday’s Tupperware lunch.
Don’t overwhelm yourself with too many unfamiliar recipes as it will make it less likely that you will stick with the plan. Choosing a meal or two during the week that is different from your regular menu can give you something to look forward to, but you need enough familiar meals in your plan that will be easy to prepare after a long day at work or a tiring day with the kids. Crockpot meals are usually quite simple and the smell of a homemade meal that has been cooking all day can be very satisfying for you and your family to come home to. If you have a difficult time coming up with a week of meals, start asking family, friends, and coworkers for their top three favorites. There are also plenty of online meal planning sites that cost just a few dollars each month.
After making your meal plan for the week, write out your shopping list. Make sure to include all extra ingredients and staples you will need so that you do not have to make a mad rush to the store half way through the week. Be thorough and precise. While many ingredients will have close to an equivalent substitution, when experimenting with something new, stick to the ingredients on the recipe. The goal is to have a positive experience so that meal planning will become a way of life.
Shop at Your Communities Cheapest Grocery Store
While most grocery stores carry a very similar selection of products, the total at the checkout stand can vary tremendously. In fact, Puget Sound Consumers’ Checkbook compared the average prices at Albertsons, QFC, Safeway, and Fred Meyer and found prices to be substantially lower at Walmart (17 to 19 percent lower) and WinCo (16 percent lower). For a family that spends $200 per week at the supermarket that difference could add up to nearly $2,000 a year!
Consider where you are shopping and what you are paying for. While your local grocery store may offer a vast organic produce selection and great customer service, it can also be quite expensive when comparing it to others in your area that may be a little sparse on specialty foods, but much more cost effective. A recent survey from Consumer Report found these retailers, from a family owned grocery chain, to a large warehouse club, had the most competitive prices according to 50,000 shoppers (all in alphabetical order): Aldi, Costco, Fareway Stores, Market Basket Northeast), Military Commissary, Trader Joes, Winco, and Woodman’s.
Shop the Store Brands
Did you know that according to another survey from Consumer Reports, store brands are typically 15-30% cheaper than their counterparts with some have even greater savings? Even more, while conducting its own taste test, Consumer Reports’ expert tasters judged 33 of 57 store-brand foods as good as or better than the national brand. While nearly a quarter of all products at the supermarkets are store brands, there is more opportunity than ever to save some cash in the small ways we choose our food. While you may be apt to choose the familiar brand you grew up with or have heard advertised most of your life, choosing to take the plunge and shop store brands can help your stay within your grocery budget.
Keep Track of your Spending While You Shop
Have you ever seen a fellow shopper walking around with their cart, shopping list and a calculator in their hand? Although keeping a running tally of your grocery costs can seem overboard, keeping track of your purchases is the best way to keep you budget conscious at the store. Grocery stores are the easiest places to mindlessly spend. That is, if you do not create a meal plan, a list, and a grocery budget, you can find yourselves being very surprised by the tally at the checkout stand.
While we may wrestle with the decision to purchase clothing or an accessory item that costs $25 or $30 in a department store, we rarely blink when we overspend by those figures when we leave the grocery store. And with aisles loaded with mouth-watering items that target impulse buying, and a strategic store layout that promotes the most spending as possible, think about the navigation process to reach the lone gallon of milk you came to the store to buy! Arm yourself with ways to keep our head in the game while at the grocery store. By simply taking the extra step to tally up the items you want to purchase as you shop, you will make conscious spending decisions and will be able to breathe easier at the register.
By being proactive and creating a meal plan and shopping list from the foods you already have, “shopping around” for the right store for your budget, choosing store brands more often, and tallying costs as you go, you will squeeze extra money out of each month which can go towards paying down debt or adding to your savings. It is eye opening to see just how much a few extra dollars in grocery savings can add up. Take a look at our savings account interest rates calculator to see just how fast your savings can grow.