Americans average about 100 grocery store visits per year. The ritual is expensive. According to the 2011 CES, households spend $3,838 on food consumed at home, which represents 8.6 percent of a typical budget (after backing out Social Security and pensions). Follow this step-buy-step system.
37.1 Make Shopping Lists
According to a Food Marketing Institute survey, 44 percent of consumers use lists most of the time when they grocery shop for healthy foods. These shoppers are savvy. Lists streamline shopping trips and help avoid impulse purchases. Build your own lists based upon: (1) your immediate needs; and (2) the available savings opportunities.
YOUR HOUSEHOLD’S NEEDS
□ 37.1.1 Inventory Fridge, Freezer, and Pantry
If you’re short any items, add them to the list.
□ 37.1.2 Consider Menu Planning
Plan in advance and shop only for what you intend to eat over the next few days.
□ 37.1.3 Seek Requests From Household Members
This not only keeps the peace, it involves them in the checklists, which increases the odds that they might follow other frugal tactics (they might even turn off the lights once in awhile).
□ 37.1.4 Peruse Weekly Specials
Most grocers publish weekly flyers of current sales. Find them in newspapers or on the internet. Sign up for promotional emails.
□ 37.1.6 Seek Double Coupons
Patronize grocery stores that double your coupons.
□ 37.1.7 Run Your List Through 37.2 and 37.3
Test each item you listed against frugal food choices and alternate vendor options. Substitute cheaper items.
37.2 Consider Lower Cost Alternatives
Change your habits by replacing the foods you eat with less expensive choices.
□ 37.2.1 Buy Generic
Experiment with store brands and save.
□ 37.2.2 Buy Frozen
Fruits and vegetables usually cost less frozen. If fresh happens to be cheaper (as when it’s in season), stock your freezer.
□ 37.2.3 Buy in Bulk
Stock up on sales, look for buy one get one FREE (BOGO) deals, and opt for king sizes. Repackage large quantities into smaller containers.
□ 37.2.4 Buy Dry
Dry foods cost less and provide backups when you run out of fresh. So substitute:
□ Potato flakes for potatoes
□ Dry beans for canned beans
□ Bouillon cubes for canned beef and chicken broth
□ Powdered mix for gravy in jars
□ Boxed mix for pudding cups
□ Tea bags for bottled iced tea
□ Powdered mix for fruit punch
□ Powdered mix for dairy case dinner rolls
□ Flour and tomato paste for frozen pizza
□ 37.2.5 Buy Alternate Foods
A less expensive substitute might meet your requirements every bit as well. So substitute:
□ Home popped corn for potato chips
□ Peanuts for cashews or almonds
□ Oatmeal for dry cereal
□ Leftover bread for stuffing mix
□ Home brewed coffee or tea for soda pop
□ Chocolate chips for chocolate bars
□ 37.2.6 Buy DIY Versions
The more processing your food receives, the more you pay. The markups are often outrageous. Perform small labors yourself and reward yourself with big savings.
□ Shredded Cheese. Grate block cheese.
□ Washed Lettuce. Use a salad spinner.
□ Pre-Cut Coleslaw. Chop cabbage.
□ Bottled Salad Dressing. Mix oil with vinegar or lemon juice with olive oil.
□ Peeled Carrots. Buy in bulk and use a peeler.
□ Trail Mix. Mix the ingredients yourself.
□ Cake from Bakery. Use a cake mix.
□ Frozen Waffles. Mix the batter and use a waffle iron.
□ Breakfast and Energy Drinks. Prepare them yourself in a blender.
□ Bottled Water. Use a water filter.
□ Frozen Pizza. Make from scratch or buy a mix.
□ Snack Popcorn in Bags. Pop your own.
□ TV Dinners. Microwave leftovers.
□ Orange Juice in Cartons. Prepare from frozen concentrate.
□ Store Bought Cookies. Bake them from scratch.
□ Sliced Bread. Run a bread machine.
□ 37.2.7 Buy Organic Strategically
If you buy organic fruits and vegetables, it’s probably to avoid chemical residues. Instead of paying extra for everything, limit your organic purchases to those items that tend to retain the most contaminants. Based upon a study of the Environmental Working Group (EWG.org), here’s a short list of “do buys” and “don’t buys:”
Do Buy Organic:
□ Bell Peppers
□ Blueberries (domestic)
□ Grapes (imported)
□ Kale/Collard greens
□ Nectarines (imported)
Don’t Buy Organic:
□ Cantaloupe (domestic)
□ Sweet Potatoes
37.3 Consider Alternatives to Grocery Stores
Other vendors might undercut supermarket prices.
□ 37.3.1 Join Food Co-Ops
Co-ops deal directly with suppliers for lower prices. Visit CoopDirectory.org.
□ 37.3.2 Join Membership Warehouse Clubs
Shop here for foods you consume in bulk. Combine forces with others to buy gargantuan sizes and divvy them up later. (Look for flour, rice, beans, and sugar in twenty-five pound sacks.)
□ 37.3.3 Shop at Discount Stores
Target and Walmart set competitive prices. Check online ads.
□ 37.3.4 Shop at Dollar Stores
Good for dry foodstuffs and canned goods.
□ 37.3.5 Support Food Producers
Buy direct from farms and ranches.
□ 37.3.6 Support Farmers’ Markets
They don’t always deliver the lowest prices, but usually they deliver the freshest produce. Experiment and decide for yourself.
□ 37.3.7 Grow Gardens
Grow a few herbs or plant a full garden.
37.4 Visit the Grocery Store
Now you’re ready to shop. Follow these tactics to maximize your in-store savings.
□ 37.4.1 Pack for the Trip
Equip yourself as follows:
- Your Shopping List. Naturally.
- A Copy of 37.4. Bring it along until the tactics become habits.
- Coupons. You collected these when you prepared your shopping list, didn’t you?
- Loyalty Card. Most grocers offer them. Sign up for one.
- Canvas Bags. Many stores issue small credits for each bag you supply. These can save about $20 per year.
- The Best Credit Card. Bring along whichever card offers the highest rewards for grocery purchases. If you spend at the national average, a three percent cash back card saves you about $114 per year.
- Calculator. Looks nerdy, but helps you figure per unit prices. Tip: your cell phone has this function installed—pretend you’re checking emails.
□ 37.4.2 Stick to Your Shopping List
It doesn’t stop impulse purchases unless you follow it.
□ 37.4.3 Shop on a Full Stomach
If you visit the grocery store when your stomach is growling, you spend more. Never shop when you have the munchies.
□ 37.4.4 Shop in the Morning
At many stores, night crews mark down prices so products are priced for sale when the doors open. Visit early in the day.
□ 37.4.5 Look for In-Store Bargains
For frugal fringers, no grocery trip would be complete without a look at damaged packages and discounted meats. Troll these areas frequently.
□ 37.4.6 Look Down
Grocers place their most profitable items at eye level. Scout lower shelves for better deals.
□ 37.4.7 Don’t Accept Empty Shelves
If sale items are missing, flag down a clerk and ask whether any linger in the stockroom. If not, seek a rain check.
37.5 Avoid Supermarket Pitfalls
The bad boys of grocery shopping appear below.
□ 37.5.1 Buy Nonfood Items Elsewhere
Usually, cosmetics, cleansers, and other nonfood items cost less at other stores.
□ 37.5.2 Buy in Volume Only What You Use in Volume
Bulk purchases save you nothing if most of it sees the landfill.
□ 37.5.3 Avoid Impulse Items
There’s a special on rutabagas so you add them to your cart. Weeks pass. They languish unloved in your vegetable drawer. Impulse purchases are among the most likely food items to get trashed, so stick to your grocery list.
□ 37.5.4 Think Twice About Specialty Items
Avoid recipes that require unusual sauces or fresh herbs, the bulk of which are predestined to lounge in the fridge—sometimes for years.
□ 37.5.5 Beware Deceptive Packaging
The container may exaggerate the quantity of product within. Always compare prices on a per unit basis.
37.6 Follow Up: Cut Food Waste
According to government estimates, Americans discard about 25 percent of the food they buy. For the average grocery budget, that works out to $960 in losses per year. These tactics begin at the grocery list stage and end at the rim of your trash can.
□ 37.6.1 Plan Ahead
As in making a list (see 37.1) and sticking to it. You waste less if you only buy what you actually consume.
□ 37.6.2 Use What You Have
You inventory the fridge, freezer, and pantry whenever you prepare a shopping list. Use the opportunity to identify anything near the end of its life. Write “EAT ME” on the package and advance it to the front of the shelf. If several items teeter on the edge of doom, plug their names into the recipe finder at Allrecipes.com and cook up something new.
□ 37.6.3 Shop More Often
If planning menus for the week ahead seems like drudgery, shop for the next few meals only. You’ll waste less food because of the shorter time horizon.
□ 37.6.4 Try Before You Buy
Although impulse purchases often lead to waste, life gets boring if you limit yourself to the same old foodstuffs all the time. Go ahead and try new items, but to cut waste sample them first or buy small amounts only.
□ 37.6.5 Don’t Throw Away, Return
If something you bought was spoiled when purchased, don’t be shy, return it to the grocer for a refund. Some supermarkets issue full refunds even when the only reason for your return is that you didn’t like the product’s taste.
□ 37.6.6 Look Before You Toss
Check with ShelfLifeAdvice.com about whether you can scramble around and still use those expired eggs. The site works for any food with an expiration date.
□ 37.6.7 Donate
As pantry items near their “best by” dates, give them to food banks.
□ 37.6.8 Increase Awareness, Decrease Waste
Food waste is notoriously difficult to measure because study subjects become highly “reactive”—they throw out less because the very process of measuring changes their behaviors. This is human nature, and here are several ways to harness it for your own benefit.
□ Log Losses.
Consider tracking your tossed food, at least for awhile. If you throw out the same items repeatedly, a log reminds you to buy less. If you constantly toss leftovers, you learn to have more “rerun” meals. If you burn food often, a log prompts you to take a cooking class. Sample entries appear below. Post something similar at your own trashcan.
04/02 Potatoes 8 tubers Sprouted $2.00
04/03 Pasta 1.5 cups Rotted $5.00
04/06 Apples 2 apples Rotted $1.00
04/08 Cat food 1/2 can Spoiled $1.75
04/08 Toast 2 slices Burnt $ .40
04/08 Cheese 1 block Mold $6.50
04/09 Lettuce 3 heads Spoiled $4.25
□ Compost Biodegradables.
If a log seems like too much work, compost instead. The process will make you more mindful of what you waste.
□ Switch to Pay-As-You-Throw.
Join a PAYT trash removal program (see Chapter 24). When you pay more for each incremental discard, it persuades you to toss out less.
□ 37.6.9 If You Waste Something, Buy a Longer-Lasting Version
If you waste fresh vegetables, buy them canned or frozen instead. If potatoes sprout, buy fewer of them and supplement with flakes.
□ 37.6.10 Try Cryogenics
Don’t toss food into the trashcan, toss it into the freezer instead. For the details about any food’s freeze–ability, visit StillTasty.com.
□ 37.6.11 Discover Mini Spoonulas
These concave silicone spatulas help you scoop the last bit from jars and blenders. Find them on the internet or at gourmet kitchen stores.
□ 37.6.12 Post a Trash Talking Checklist
And encourage other household members to join your quest to cut waste (see Appendix 5).
37.7 Pursue Miscellaneous Meat Savers
Meats—including poultry, fish, and eggs—take the single biggest bite out of the average food budget, a total of $832 per year. If you’re a carnivore or omnivore, chew over these tactics.
□ 37.7.1 Substitute Cheaper Proteins
Occasionally replace meat with protein-rich alternatives:
- Beans [red, kidney, navy, pinto]
- Soy products [tofu, tempeh]
- Protein-rich grains [quinoa, barley, bulgur, brown rice]
- Nuts [pumpkin seeds, almonds, peanuts, walnuts, pecans]
- Peanut butter [also butters of other nuts]
- Protein powders [great for smoothies]
- Cottage cheese.
□ 37.7.2 Stretch Meats
Use common stretchers:
- Recipes that use less meat
- Chicken and beef broths
- Stir fries
- Crackers, breadcrumbs, or grains added to ground beef.
□ 37.7.3 Choose Cheaper Cuts
With the right preparation, they taste great: tenderize, marinate, slow cook, or grill.
□ 37.7.4 Buy a Bone
Add flavor by tossing one into the slow cooker with your next soup.
□ 37.7.5 Invest in a Freezer
If you spend at the national average for meats, a standalone freezer easily pays for itself in two years. (The math: if you average 40 percent off meats with bulk purchases, you save $665.)
□ 37.7.6 Build a Relationship With a Butcher
This isn’t about Sam and Alice of The Brady Bunch. A butcher gives good advice and alerts you to the best deals.
□ 37.7.7 Buy Rotisserie Chickens
Possibly the best food deal in America. At Costco they’re $4.99, which is cheaper than the same birds uncooked. Feeds two people at least three times.
□ 37.7.8 Spend Less Cow!
Meats don’t represent the best of social values—given the wasted water, misallocated food grains, dubious sanitation, and higher cholesterol numbers—but the only values addressed here are those that affect your pocketbook. For the meatiest savings of all, consider the way of the vegetarian. Alternatively, convert yourself into a flexitarian (one who eats meat infrequently). In either case, the interrupting cow will—MOOOOOO!!!—thank you.