10 Strategies to Lower My Grocery Bill – Part 1

Shopping Carts

Our Story: A gluten free diet can be hard on the pocketbook. Wheat is cheap and it’s in almost every single processed food that I used to buy to keep our grocery bill under control. Back in our college days (pre-GF), John and I used to cook all of our suppers for one month with $40 worth of groceries. If you extrapolate that out, we were spending about $120 a month to provide three meals a day for two people. Of course, we didn’t eat very healthfully. Pasta, white rice, and frozen meals were a staple in those days.

$900+ for groceries: Fast forward to 2006 and our grocery bill had climbed to an average of $900 a month. That’s for two gluten free adults, one gluten free, dairy free infant, and two omnivorous dogs. Anything that we buy at Wal-mart is included in that total, so there are probably some clothes hidden in there somewhere. But still! $900 a month is way to much to spend on groceries.

Tightening the Belt: Sometime during the first few months of 2007 I decided that I had to take control of the grocery budget. My goal was $600/month. During the year I tried several strategies to reduce the amount I’m spending on groceries, but I haven’t consistently applied all of them at the same time. Even so, I’ve spent less than $600 during four months, and the spending in the remaining months has decreased considerably. The chart below will give you an idea of how I’m doing. It starts in January of 2006 and goes through December 12th, 2007 (when I started writing this post…groan).

Grocery Bill for last 24 months

A New Year, A New Goal: My goal for 2008 is $400/month. I’ll be applying all 10 strategies that I used this year, but this year I’ll do them all simultaneously. If you’d like to give it a go too, here’s my list:

10 Strategies to Slash Your Grocery Bill

1. Plan your menus.
The first step to smart grocery shopping is to plan what you are going to eat for the week. Check your calendar to see what events you have during the coming week and count how many breakfasts, lunches, and dinners you will need.

Now, take a sheet of paper and make a column for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. Brainstorm ideas for each meal. If you’re stumped, thumb through your cookbooks, check out your favorite gluten free blogs, or ask your family. Be sure to stick this list on your refrigerator so that you have a quick reference of what you’re planning to cook each day.

I’m going to do my best to post my weekly menu on the blog, and also submit it to the Gluten Free Menu Swap, so be sure to check back every Monday for our new menu.

2. Shop with a list.
Shopping from a list is a building block strategy for reducing your grocery spending. The goal is to make a list of ingredients for the meals you’ve just planned, and then only buy the things on the list. I’ve tweaked this a bit and shop from a “pantry list” instead of a regular grocery list.

A pantry list is a pre-printed list of foods that you want to have on hand all the time. I use it as a checklist and go through my pantry and refrigerator every week to make sure I still have everything on the list. If I don’t have something, I mark down how many I want to buy. Once this is done, I add any additional ingredients that I need for the week’s menus, and I’m ready to shop. This strategy alone will keep you from buying item’s you don’t need because you can’t remember whether you have them or not.

3. Set a weekly budget.
My budget for 2007 was $600/month. This amount was allocated out by week – $100 a week for Weeks 1 and 2, and $150 a week for Weeks 3 and 4. This was doable as long as I planned to buy dog food, diapers, and toiletries during the second half of the month. The real problem with sticking to the budget was that I was not good at judging how many $ worth of groceries I had put into my cart. I often got to the checkout counter and discovered (to my horror) that I had bought $200 worth of groceries instead of $150.

My solution to this problem was to bring a calculator and pencil along on the shopping trip. When something goes into the cart I write the price down on the back of my pantry list. At the end of every aisle I find a spot where I won’t be run over and tally up my total. By keeping a running list, I’m better able to determine whether I can buy things that aren’t necessities (like hot chocolate and marshmallows…mmm).

I’ve also started highlighting the items on my list that I don’t have to have and I put these groceries into the top part of the cart (where David would be if he were with me). If I get to the end of my shopping trip and realize that I need to put some things back, they are, at least, easy to find.

4. Track prices.
When I find a pantry item at a good price, I like to stock up. However between blogging, work, and home I can’t keep up with all of the prices in my head. My pantry shopping list can though.

Here’s how it works. The first time that you shop with the list, jot down the price of each pantry item that you purchase in the price column. When you get home, type that price into the spreadsheet so that it will print out on next week’s list. Every time that you shop, check the prices again. When you find a lower price, just mark through the old one, write down the new price and update your list when you get home. Within a few weeks you’ll have figured out the rock-bottom prices at your grocery store and you’ll know a good price when you see one.

5. Monitor “in-between” trips.
Trips to the store during the week are my budgeting downfall. I never save any money for these trips, so pretty much anything we have to buy between big shopping trips is outside of our budget. And we always buy more than we on into the store for.

The only solution that I see to this problem is to do a better job of planning meals and making my grocery list. This year I’ll be saving the receipts from my in-between shopping trips so that I can analyze what I’m buying. I think that I’ll find that I need to add some more items to the pantry shopping list. I probably also need to do a better job of anticipating how much snack food we’ll need. And there may be additional issues that I’m not aware of. Monitoring the receipts should give me some answers, and possible some new strategies for saving.

Feedback:
As I shared earlier this week, I’ve got a lot to learn about grocery shopping. I’m convinced that I can get better and I’m sure that there are people out there in the blogosphere that can give me good advice. I’d love to hear your thoughts on my strategies; let me know in the comments whether you think these will work and what you do go lower your grocery budget. Also, if you’re not shy about sharing, how much do you spend on groceries each month?

Comments

  1. Hi Mary Frances! =)
    This is a great post idea – and timely too all things considering (thinking about the overall economy here). I wonder how much grocery bills vary based on location. I know my love and I spent far less living in the city of Chicago than we do here. Prices in the PNW for everything (even locally raised chicken or produce) is much higher than the prices paid in the midwest. I don’t quite get that.

    What really want to know is this: Where in all cuteness do you shop that they have PINK walls? I love it! It made me smile. LOL

    :)
    Hope you have a great week.
    -Kate

  2. Kate,
    Unfortunately the pretty pink walls are someone elses. I grabbed the photo off of one of the free photo sites. You make a good point about prices varying on location. I was thinking about putting up a poll to see how much everyone is spending, but the whole geography factor would probably skew the results. I’ll have to give that some more thought.

  3. Tip #2 keeping a list is a great way to save. I keep my list online at http://www.grocerywiz.com and it keeps me from straying and buying things I don’t need.

  4. I am so glad you wrote that post.

    I have been trying to figure out ways to save money when I’m grocery shopping and the fact that you put all of your tips in one place is so very helpful! The only thing that has made a dent in my grocery spending is cutting my health food store trips to once a month instead of three or four times a month like it used to be. I end up spending way too much money there are neat looking gluten-free foods (when I could prepare them myself for less money).

    I love your blog, Mary Frances! Great stuff :)

  5. Lizzie,
    Publix and Whole Foods are the same for me. They have so many gluten free foods and I want to try them all at least once =) This past Sunday, I noted the items I was tempted to buy and promised myself that I would work them into menu plans down the road. That really helped me pass them by for now.

  6. There are only two of us in my household, me and FabGrandpa. We eat gluten free, and really try to keep our grocery bill under $75 per week, which comes out to $300 per month. I do the things you do, except that I make a menu for two weeks at a time. After I make my menus, I make a list of all the items I need to make them. THEN, I shop my pantry first, and mark off all the things I already have, and only purchase what is left on the list. I use coupons, but only if it is something I was going to buy anyway. Oh, and if I see something on sale, I get that instead of something else. Like, if I have pork chops on my list, and chicken is on sale for a really good price, then we have chicken instead.

    When I make my menus, I try to include several things that would naturally leave leftovers for another meal. When I get home from the grocery store, I repackage meats into smaller packages, chop veggies and package them in meal size portions. I do this because we live in a travel trailer and don’t have much room, but doing this also helps me make sure to use what I have and not waste anything. If celery or onions get looking old, I chop them and put them in the freezer to use in soups and stews.

    I do not include things like toiletries, paper goods, and cleaning supplies in my food budget.

  7. So what happens if you are bad at spreadsheets (I know I learned it in college but haven’t successfully used them for years)? and do think there is room in a plan like this for a spontaneous purchase buffer? I’m afraid we get too much pleasure around here from the spontaneous purchases we make. And Trader Joe’s does me in everytime. Oh my.

    Thank you for all of this great advice.

  8. I am with you on the sky high grocery bills. For three of us…2 adults and a 3 year old….we spend about $150/week in food. This includes fruits&veggies, meats, canned good, and all the gluten-free foods.

    You are basically doing the same thing I do. Plan weekly meals before I shop and stick to it. Buy what’s on sale. That sort of thing.

    Great post!!

  9. I have got to get that organised – thanks for the tips. It’s the in-between shopping that gets me … “that’ll be useful, I’ll just get that while I’m here”. And the emergency “didn’t I tell you I’ve got cooking class/need a packed lunch today?”

  10. Cris, thanks for reminding me that not everyone’s life would completely fall apart without spreadsheets =) I’ve thought about making my list available for download, but I’m not sure that I’m happy with it yet. In regards, to the spontaneous purchase buffer, that could definitely be part of the plan. We have a $50/month budget for miscellaneous that is outside of our grocery budget, but I don’t see why you couldn’t plan on that inside of your grocery budget.

  11. Karen, Thanks for the advice. I’d never thought of prepping all of my vegetables at once and freezing the items that I won’t need for a few days. That really makes doing a 2 week menu plan and shopping trip feasible.

  12. HeatherHH says:

    Drive by lurker who’s very new to gluten free. Our grocery budget had been $275 a month, or an average of less than $70 a week for 2 adults and 4 children (under 7). Groceries are bought in a city of 100,000 in the Midwestern U.S. I make almost everything from scratch, and rarely even buy a can of beans (that’s a convenience item to us!). With prices for gluten-free items, I anticipate our grocery bill will probably be around $350-$400/mth or under $100/wk.

  13. When I had to switch to gluten free and found out that brown rice flour was $3.00 for four cups I bought a Nutrimill. Fresh brown rice flour for 50 cents a pound, much better. I also grind my own quinoa, flax and almond meal with a coffee grinder. I find that the two best things for the budget are cooking from scratch (including sausages, sauces etc) and buying bulk.
    Sending my husband to the store with a list is a good saver for me as well because he buys what’s on the list and that’s it. I can’t resist stocking up on sales, whether I need to or not.

  14. Hello Mary Frances,

    thank you so much for these great tips! I’m definately going to share these plans with my parents and hopefully we will be able to afford for me to eat right and have the time to do it.

    =)

  15. @Bethany: I hope the tips are helpful. We’ve recently gone an extra step and are buying dried beans instead of can for our protein, and we will be ordering a soymilk maker this week.

  16. Your strategy is a step in the right direction. I ahve been trying to do this for a long time , but had some resistence, but being as we have had to tighten our belts. We are a bit tighter. Also between food allergies and intolerance cooking from scratch is essential. Friday nights are pizza nights and my kids make the Spelt flour pizza (i do not partake any longer-I am still recovering from that one) with toppings of their choosing. they also look in our food storage room for items they need and I try to make sure they have them on hand. I have found that I do better foloowing a more stringent diet not based so much on grain, but more on meat and vegies. I can celiac and have dermatitis herpetiformis, corn and potato alleriges also. This makes for a great combo with my so who can not have eggs, milk whey, or Garlic(yes the spice). I am now in the process oftrying to make things that meet all of these specs to feed all of us the conversion the rice pasta was easy.
    Our food bill averages around $350-$650 month depending the lower months are months we are using food storage and buying only fresh stuff. the higher is when we are stocking up. but then again I still have canned fruit from 05 we are eating our eating patterns go in spurts. Keep chugging along and all will come along
    Angel

  17. Here’s a handy little tip too… if you see a price that looks “special” and you don’t have your list handy – take a pic with your cell phone (most of us have that these days) and even if you don’t remember to do it as soon as you get home, you will eventually run past that pic again….(handy way to remember “stray info too”).
    I did this with shopping for a new stove too… took pics in several dif stores (of the same stove) and then figured the best deal.

  18. Hello! I have just found your website. I am mortified at how much I spend on groceries after seeing all of your small bills! I live in the near DC and spend about $1200 a (good) month on food! This includes vitamins, any herbs and toiletries. I shop 99% of my food at Whole Foods but I do buy their 365 brand mostly and try to just buy snacks that are on sale, although that’s few and far between for gluten free items. I have 2 sons-1 pre-teen and 1 teen plus my husband and myself. They can eat! We eat just about all of our meals/snacks at home-7 days a week. I realize I can cut down on the snack foods but I compromised on this one since my oldest son was diagnosed with celiac last year. By the way, 3 of us are gluten free. I’m glad I ran across this site. I have been talking to my family about over consumption now I’ll spill this on over to food.

  19. @Colleen: It’s tough isn’t it! I like to shop at Whole Foods too, but I find it nearly impossible to stay on budget if I do. It’s great that you’re already eating all your meals at home. I need to work on that more. We’ve reduced the snacks that we eat, and moved to fresh fruit, vegetables, and homemade dips for most of our snacking. But that took some time since our palates were accustomed to more junky food =)

  20. Ok I manage to spend $50.00 a week and that is including a bottle of wine. I don’t know if any of you have a chain called Trader Joes near you, but man I have saved so much money shopping with them. I think I have been buying from them since college. I gave up on regular Grocery Stores a long time ago. I go to Wholefoods once in a while, but not often. I did a price comparison last year with what i usually buy on a weekly basis with Safeway and Wholefoods and Trader Joes. Trader Joes was about $50.00, Wholefoods was about $75.00 and Safeway was about $95.00. Now that is a huge difference. Happy Shopping:)

  21. We r a family of six & 2 of us have newly discovered food allergies including corn & wheat. Our grocery budget is currently $400/month, and we are starting to blow it. With all the medical bills accumulating in this discovery, and my hours being cut at work b/c my boss thinks I’m not “healthy enough to be dependable” anymore, I don’t know what we’ll do. Finding another job would be difficult for me since we also homeschool. Have any advice?

  22. Sharon Cooper says:

    I am a newbie so this site is very helpful. My dr told me it would be expensive but I am not prepared for this. I have been sick with other issues for 2 years and have been unable to work so my budget is 150.00 a month. I realize that is going to be unreasonable, especially at first. The tips are valuable. For me right now I have checked out publix which is cheaper and some items like GF Rice Check, milk ect I can find at Wal-mart. I have not visited WF yet for pricing but I like the fact that at Earth Fare I can take something back if I do not like it instead of throwing it out. This is a major plus in the experimental stage. Thanks for all the info and tips

  23. Loved all your tips!! Very helpful!
    I’m new to gluten free eating and am also facing a huge list of allergies BUT my family and I have been eating healthy, organic, whole grain foods for a long time now and have learned tricks that help us trim our food budget. I am subscribing to the same tricks for helping me with these new eating challenges.
    #1 Homemade is always the cheapest way – we gave up processed, premade items like cold cereals, breakfast/granola bars, protein bars, popsicles, ice cream, most store bought fruit juices, breads, and other such convenience foods from the store. We’ve learned to make it all ourselves.

    #2 Buy in the most basic form available – for example: grind your own grains. (We were grinding our own wheat but will now grind the other alternative grains when I can find them because I can’t see spending the prices they are asking at Whole Foods for all these alternative flours and meals. Crazy!!) Also, if you do dairy (which I’ll no longer be able to do) buy pasture raised, organic, raw milk then make the cheese, yogurt, cream cheese, ice cream, etc. Additionally, get a whole box of fruit at your farmer’s market or local farm in season and dry, freeze, or can it yourself.

    #3 Learn to eat more veggies and beans.

    #4 Grow your own!(or make friends with someone who will grow your food for you and barter with them).

    Take heart this is a great education for ourselves and our children….learning how their ancestors did things and learning to not take food and farmers for granted!

Trackbacks

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