Family Finance: How to Save Money on Groceries

BlogHer Original Post

[Editor's Note: Alanna Kellogg wrote this brilliant strategy post for saving money on food in 2008, predicting food prices would only get worse. Even though the post is a few years old, her tips are still spot-on, and I'm using them as I try to squeeze more out of my family's combined income. -Rita]

Food prices getting to you? Yeah, me too. There's no avoiding that just like it takes a full wallet to fill up a tank with gas, it takes a fat purse to fill up a cart with groceries. The bad news is, there's new concern that the Western world's relatively cheap food supply may be coming to a sudden, and unexpected, end.

Last week, the Canadian newsweekly magazine Maclean's published a story with a foreboding future, "Why Your Grocery Bill Is About to Hurt."

"The question now for the developed world is whether we're seeing a permanent end to an era of relatively cheap food — a shift that could force wrenching change in households across the western world. ... In short, food policy is shaping up to be one the 21st century's political battlegrounds — a fraught landscape on which poor countries backslide into malnourishment and wealthier ones compete for remaining pieces of the global pie."
~ Read Why Your Grocery Bill Is About to Hurt

On Sunday, the New York Times opinion piece "Priced Out of the Market" called the world's food situation "bleak" and pinned blame on a collision of systemic forces.

"Population growth and economic progress are part of the problem. Consumption of meat and other high-quality foods —- mainly in China and India —- has boosted demand for grain for animal feed. Poor harvests due to bad weather in this country and elsewhere have contributed. High energy prices are adding to the pressures. Yet the most important reason for the price shock is the rich world’s subsidized appetite for biofuels."
~ Read Priced Out of the Market

The result is that more and more of us will be looking for ways to stretch our food budgets further, for ways to save money shopping for groceries, for rethinking our food consumption habits, for calculating the very real costs of our seemingly insatiable demand for convenience.

grocery shelf

Image Credit: Blmurch on Flickr


As the daughter of a woman who grew up poor and remained thrifty to her core even when finances were comfortable, I've spent my life watching food prices. In my 20s, I calculated that a sack of groceries cost about $10. In my 30s, I realized that my morning coffee 'n' bagel ritual was a $1,000-a-year habit. In my 40s, I watched in horror as the price of a dozen eggs jumped from $.99 to $2.79 and my favorite cottage cheese from $1.78 to $3.35, even if it goes on sale occasionally for $1.99.

So when BlogHer invited me to take on the subject of "frugal grocery shopping," I was happy to take on the challenge, writing down, for the first time, the direction my internal shopping compass points week in and week out.

Four points before starting:

Please know -- I do not intend to tell someone how to live her life, nor do I pretend to understand the challenges and circumstances that guide each person's decisions. Even so, some of my ideas that follow, even to me, sound a little more than "preachy." I use stark "do this" language in order to challenge the conventional wisdom, to get us all to think, me included.

Please know -- I think the modern food distribution system is a marvel, one that delivers fresh, safe food 99.99% of the time, mitigates the risk of regional food shortages, and provides consumers with so many food choices. In many of the money-saving tips that follow, supermarkets sound like the "enemy." They're not. But as consumers, we must vote with our dollars and our feet -- and yes, as here, with our voices -- what we want from our stores. Grocers are good marketers, they'll adjust.

Please know -- you'll see no mention here of "buy local" or "buy organic" for the very reason that this entire post is directed at saving money for individual households. In 2008, most "locally produced foods" and "organic foods" remain more expensive than their grocery-store counterparts because demand is larger than supply and thus prices remain high. If your food budget allows, and local and/or organic food is part of your value system, by all means, you'll find no quarrel from me.

Please know -- there are many reasons to shop/not to shop at certain stores. I'm concentrating on just three: cost, value and nutrition for the individual household. I recognize that others may well build in other factors: location, ownership, labor practices, fair trade, environment, etc., and I applaud these personal choices. Still, know that for the purposes of this post, I've elected to not make judgment on such trade-offs.

Okay, here we go. Take a deep breath and settle in for some hard talk about how to save money on groceries.

FIRST -- A FRUGAL FRAME OF MIND.

Think "food" not "grocery." List all the places where we buy food. The grocery store and restaurants. But don't forget the soda machine at work, the popcorn counter at the theater, the morning coffee stop, the bottle of water from the c-store when buying gas. We buy and consume food in many locations, and they all contribute. To save money on food, eliminate or limit all except the essentials. Think, "Do we need this? or simply want it?" If you track food expenses, keep track of these incidental expenses separately: They add ++++++ up.

Cook. The first way to save money on food expenses -- let's face it -- is to cook it yourself. Think of it this way: If someone cooks the food for you, how is it much different than hiring a cook or a house cleaner or a lawn mower or a clothes washer? Some times the "cook' is Del Monte or Kraft, and the food is carried home in grocery bags. Other times, the "cook" is McDonald's or Pepsico and is passed through drive-up windows or is delivered to your door. All ways, always, the cost of that labor is included in the prices we pay.

Make frugal food consumption a personal challenge. It's you versus the food companies, and yes, you're David and they're Goliath. Every time a food company takes a commodity food (think "real food," the underlying ingredients) and cuts it, cooks it and packages it, it's all to tempt you to pay several multiples for the "added value" the company brings to a commodity product. It's all to make you buy more, pay more and therefore, work more and save less.

Get good at shopping for food frugally, a week, a dollar at a time. Don't expect to follow all of these tips at once. But if a few make sense, print it out and work the list, one week at a time. To build confidence, start with the low-hanging (ahem) fruit, the stuff that's easiest to incorporate into your own habits and practices. To make the most difference, determine where there's the most to save in your family finances, work those first.

Time is money. So it is -- and many of these tips involve getting a firm grip on grocery expenses in order to exact the most value from the dollars spent. This means time: analyzing, comparing, tracking. Here's an example. What's the price difference between the bag of dried beans that sells for $.89 and the can of beans that sells for $.99? Just a dime? No. The bag yields 7 cups of cooked beans, $.13 per cup. The can yields 1-1/2 cups of cooked beans, $.66 per cup. The canned beans -- as inexpensive as they are -- are five times more expensive than dried beans. Both are protein-rich, an inexpensive source of protein. How easy is it to cook dried beans? Check my recipe for Creamy Slow-Cooker Beans, no soaking required.

SECOND -- COOK. COOK. COOK. COOK. COOK. COOK. COOK.

Cook something every day, every single day. Make soup one day, cook a roast on the weekend. Put together a grain-based salad that will last several days. Every single day, make something. If you reach a point where the fridge is stocked with a few days of food, celebrate by cooking something special, brownies or muffins, say. The objective is to never be faced with cooking an entire meal from scratch, too overwhelming to contemplate at the end of a long workday.

If not every day, find your own rhythm, but do cook with regularity. For some years, my sister had good luck feeding her family by investing much of one weekend day cooking for the entire week. Whatever the rhythm that works in particular circumstances, it's done to avoid the vicious cycle of the drive-through and the convenience of carry-out and delivery. The less we cook at home, the more we pay someone else in order to eat. The more we cook at home, the more we save.

Recycle & repurpose. That soup? You made enough for lunches during the week and some for the freezer, right? That roast, there's enough for sandwiches and a casserole later in the week, yes? Is it the end of the week and all that's left are bits and pieces of more leftovers? Make Saturday Soup. Waste not, want not.

Extract all the value. When we splurge on bacon, save the fat in a jar in the fridge: It adds great flavor to stews and eggs. When we roast a chicken, after supper throw the carcass into a pot with sliced onion, chopped celery and a bay leaf to make chicken stock. If there's not time after supper, place the carcass in a freezer bag and freeze for cooking on the weekend.

Work toward a handful of recipes that feed the family "on air." Call these recipes "ramen for grown-ups." Cooked pasta tossed with cooked onion and frozen peas. A quick tomato sauce. French eggs. Oatmeal with peanut butter stirred in. Then never allow your kitchen to be without one or more of these to be on hand.

Keep a running list. When you're running low or finish the last of a staple, add it to a running grocery list that's handy. I keep mine on the fridge. It's three lists, actually - one for the grocery store, one for my favorite international store, another for Walmart.

Shop your fridge, freezer & pantry first. Before shopping for groceries, what meals can be put on the table without spending a dime? Use up that soup you made two weeks ago. Do turn that roast pork and leftover cheese into tortillas.

THIRD - FINALLY, A GROCERY RUN

"Just food, only food." This is our mantra when planning meals and shopping for groceries. We're only going to buy food, just food and only food. No health and beauty aids (that's "supermarket speak" for shampoo, aspirin and all the other personal care items). No paper products. (Think toilet paper, plastic wrap and paper towels.) No cleaning supplies. (Think dishwashing liquid and laundry soap.) No pet food. As a reminder, call your local store what it should be, a grocery store, not a supermarket. All the other items are considerably cheaper at a big-box discount store. (Think Walmart. Think Target.) If you track family expenses, separate food costs from all the other stuff.

Real food. This tip is perhaps the most important of all. To save money, to be frugal grocery shoppers, this is all we're going to buy. Much "real food" is one ingredient long. Lettuce. Carrots. Milk. Chicken. It's an ingredient. It hasn't been cooked by a company. It likely doesn't have a brand name and a promotion budget. It's real food, it's "whole food." It's at the bottom of the dinner chain.

Shop the priorities first. At the grocery store, fill the cart with "real food" first. This means vegetables and fruit, protein and milk. These departments are nearly always on the outside walls of the store, which is why some people suggest to "shop the perimeter." Now stop. Add up what's been spent so far. Is there money left over?

Bypass the empty calorie aisles. If there's money left over, avoid the temptation of spending it on non-essential commercial foods that are mostly in the center aisles and big budget killers. Think potato chips. Cheap pizzas. Ice cream. Soda. The deli counter -- especially the deli counter. Frozen meals.

Invest in the future. Instead, use any leftover funds to make next week's food dollar go further. Buy an essential food in bulk. (Think a big bottle of olive oil or a huge bag of brown rice.) Buy a pantry item that will enhance the taste of home-cooked food. (Think dried herbs and spices.) Purchase packaging that makes it easier to store and carry food. (Think freezer containers and portion-sized plastics.) Purchase a kitchen tool that makes it easier to cook in large quantities or to save money. (Think a slow-cooker or a Dutch oven.)

Eyes averted, make quick forays into the middle of the store. One "processed" food that delivers value is frozen vegetables. Even so, make sure to buy one-ingredient vegetables -- just peas, just broccoli, just green beans, just frozen spinach. These are my favorites, on sale, they're $1 a pound, worth stocking up on. Other "real food" finds worth our dollars that are in in the middle aisles: frozen orange juice concentrate, canned tomatoes, bags of dried beans, bags of rice, big tubes of old-fashioned oats. Flour, sugar, etc.

Don't shell out for water. It's well known that bottled water is expensive, both on our budgets and on the environment. But think of the other products that contain water. Cartons of orange juice. Juice boxes. Cans of chicken broth. Cans of cooked beans. Low-fat coconut milk. Jello cups. Applesauce. Popsicles. Chicken and pork injected with "flavoring" (think water and salt). Canned soup. Kool-Aid bottles. Soda pop. (Many thanks to Nupur from One Hot Stove for enlightenment about the many places that expensive water is hidden.)

Don't pay for salt. Specialty spice mixes are all the rage - there are dozens of them, especially during the grill season. They're also 90% salt. Instead purchase the base herbs and spices, then make homemade spice rubs.

Speaking of dried herbs & spices. Herbs and spices are "pantry staples" that add flavoring and satisfaction to many dishes. Beware of grocery-store regular prices in the spice department. Sale prices are more reasonable, especially right before Christmas. Avoid temptation of the huge containers of spices at some groceries and especially, warehouse clubs. Herbs and spices have a relatively short shelf life: Try to buy no more than might be used in a year. Better yet, find a good source of high-quality spices. A St. Louis institution is the Soulard Spice Shop -- think 20-30 people lined up to buy herbs and spices on a Saturday morning. It's an old-fashioned shop: no online sales but do take telephone orders during business hours. The number is 314-783-2100; there's no answering machine so you may need to keep trying.

Don't drink up your food budget. No, this isn't an Irish novel where Pa is downing a week's pay at the corner pub. But it's still easy to save money by considering -- and then consciously deciding -- what we drink as well as eat. Coffee. Cans of soda. Bottled water. Even wine. Personal examples: For many years, I insisted on coffee beans from my neighborhood coffee shop. Then a friend introduced me to big tubs of Folgers' 100% Colombian Coffee which costs perhaps 1/10, either on sale at the grocery store or at regular price at Walmart -- and just as satisfying. For some years, I purchased several cases a year of bottled water and soda at Sam's Club -- and I still buy one or so a year, because it's cheaper, in the long run, to have a few bottles and cans on hand for long car trips, when otherwise I'd buy them a bottle or two at a time from convenience stores.

Pay for food, not disposable packaging. It's so easy and inexpensive to make chocolate pudding, why do we buy it pre-cooked in plastic containers? Buy old-fashioned (and whole grain) oatmeal, not instant oatmeal packets. Buy a bag of popcorn kernels, not popped corn or worse, microwave popcorn bags. If a food is heavily packaged, chances are it's not
"real food" and the price is many times higher than the commodity price of the base ingredient.

Pay for nutrition, not snacks. Some of the worst nutrition values in the grocery store? Breakfast cereal. Snack crackers. Potato chips. Taco chips. Breakfast bars. Pie crusts. Boxes of mashed and scalloped potatoes. Mac 'n' cheese. The list is longer than could be listed here: It all makes me weary.

Coupons. Who's ever seen a coupon for broccoli? or milk? Unfortunately, there are few if any coupons for "real food" because there are no "excess margins" (for the consumer, read "savings") Coupons are printed only for the most highly processed foods. If we begin shopping only around the edges of the grocery store for real food, the time spent clipping and sorting coupons will soon become a big waste of time.

Name brands & store brands. Private label (also called "store" brands or "white label" brands) foods are almost always less expensive and -- often but not always -- of the same or acceptable quality as name-brand products. Keep notes on what's good, what's not.

Carry a calculator & a shopping notebook. Okay, sorry, this is admittedly a little nerdy. But unless you're a math whiz in your head, the calculator will help figure unit costs, to help make decisions between brands. The notebook will make it easier to track the sources and prices of the foods purchased most often. Be organized.

For easier comparison, think price per pound. For all foods, not just meat, and for the "edible" portion of the food. For example, chicken thighs and chicken legs are often sold for half or less the price of boneless chicken breasts. Are they worth it? (Nearly always, by the way, they are.)

Watch prices and price tags with an eagle eye. We're in a rush, we've got our list, it's oh-so-easy to just toss food into the grocery cart. Just yesterday, however, I noticed lovely pears on sale for $2.00 a pound at the entry to the produce department; further in, a similar variety of pears were regularly priced at $1.50 a pound -- some sale price, those $2 pears. Later, in the frozen vegetable section, a 10-ounce box of spinach was $1.09 and a 16-ounce bag was $.99. In the cleaning supplies section, a gallon of bleach was $1.54 and a half gallon $1.34. For weeks now, seven of the eight varieties of apples have been $1.80 - $3.00 a pound while one variety, the Empire, a good eating and baking apple, is only $1 a pound. My supermarket is also, ahem, sloppy about placing price signs. I've seen price tags for store-brand butter placed above my favorite and the more expensive Land O' Lakes butter; I've seen a pile of apples priced "$10 for 10lbs" right next a pile of oranges for "$10 for 10" so $.50 an apple versus $1.00 an orange. For what it's worth, when I've pointed out these errors, store personnel have been quick to correct them.

Loose versus bags. On occasion, packaging pays. Bags of onions, apples and lemons are often less expensive than individual onions, apples and lemons - so long as you can use them all.

FOURTH - MORE PLANNING & EXPLORING

Explore world cuisines. In the last year, I've been learning more about Vietnamese, Mexican and other cuisines. The big lesson? Meat is a Western luxury. Our meat portions are huge. Many recipes call for a three-pound roast, say, to serve four or five people or for four chicken breasts to serve four people. In contrast, the standard that the USDA uses, and that I use for protein-based main dishes in my food column Kitchen Parade, is that a pound of meat serves four. This means that a chicken breast, which these days can weigh 8 to 10 ounces, adds up to 2 to 2-1/2 servings. But in these non-Western cookbooks, a pound of meat will serve eight or even ten. Meat is used as an accent, rather than as the primary staple.

International groceries. My experience is that small ethnic groceries often offer prices considerably lower than U.S. supermarkets, especially for ingredients authentic to a particular cuisine.

Know your staples. If your family goes through a dozen yogurt cups in a week, invest in an inexpensive yogurt maker. If hot popcorn is an evening ritual, learn how to make popcorn in a saucepan -- and once you have homemade popcorn, homemade caramel corn is just a few minutes away. Ice cream? A commercial ice cream maker may seem like $50 that doesn't need spending. But homemade ice cream is made only from cream, eggs, sugar and flavoring, all "real food" easy to make at home for just a couple of dollars. What about bread for sandwiches and to fill out a light meal like soup or eggs? With bread $3 to $4 a loaf now, a bread maker may be an investment worth considering.

Eat in season. I remember a Wall Street Journal or New York Times article that claimed that "it's cheaper to eat out than eat at home." Calculating her cost for a single meal, the young reporter included the entire expense for a large bottle of extra-virgin olive oil, even though the meal required only a couple of tablespoons. And her dessert called for fresh blueberries -- hard to find in December and pricey-pricey-pricey. My grocery has blueberries this week -- they're imported from somewhere and cost the equivalent of $10 a pint. In July, when blueberries can be imported from a couple of states away, the regular price will be $3, sale price $2.

Know what's on sale and whether it's a good deal. At Christmas, I bought butter for $3 a pound at the grocery store, pleased at the sale price -- until I discovered the same butter at Target for a regular price of $2.48 although, much to my dismay since, only during the holiday baking season. I also find excellent produce (though not usually quite as picture perfect at the grocery store) from produce dealers selling at an outdoor weekly market.

Consistent pricing. Even better, identify a grocery source whose prices are consistently low. For example, my nearby supermarket will occasionally sell chicken breasts for $2 a pound in five-pound containers, presumably to compete with warehouse-type stores. But seven weeks out of eight, chicken breasts sell for $6 a pound -- even me, I can't believe how often I used to pay that price just because chicken breasts were on the menu that night. But now I've found a small grocery where my most-used meats -- chicken breasts, pork tenderloin, roasts, etc -- are priced the same, week in and week out. I make a trip about once a month and then freeze the meat.

Warehouse clubs. The prices at warehouse clubs like Sam's Club and Costco are tempting. Trouble is, "real food' is relatively rare along those long, tall aisles and often in such large quantities that there's risk of waste. Still, for many families, warehouse clubs provide real value.

Grow your own. Even in a couple of pots and a small side garden, I grow enough garlic for the year, an abundance of fresh herbs and in 2008, with any luck, a bumper crop of rhubarb. For perhaps $10 of plants, I yield $100 of savings. Imagine the value derived from growing much of your own produce during the summer, preserving it for the long winter.

So. There's my list? What say you? What ideas have a chance to make it onto your own list?

Or wait. Do any of my tips deserve rotten tomatoes? Just say so. Do chime in if you disagree.

Better yet, chime in. How do you save money shopping for groceries? Share your top three tips.

Alanna Kellogg practices "home economics' in her food column Kitchen Parade and food blog A Veggie Venture.

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