When my husband and I married, we both worked and we spent lots of money on food. We went to the grocery store and spent $100 easily each trip and we still went to restaurants several nights a week. We threw away produce like crazy because we didn't eat it, and our donations to the food bank were pretty amazing. When we decided to go to one salary, I was charged with finding ways to cut the budget so I went to coupons to save money. I wasted tons of money. I didn't know how to use them effectively, and I bought random "stuff" in the name of "a good deal."
I eventually became a "couponer"--sort of like one of those people you see on TV--but before that I learned how to take on the grocery store and leave with money in my pocket, and that is the conversation I would like to start today. How do we save money on food without clipping coupons?
Time for a little introspection
Ask yourself a few questions:
1. Do you throw away large amounts of produce, meat, or dairy each week because you aren't able to consume what you have?
2. Do you have expired food in your pantry that you never got around to eating?
3. Do you dread seeing how much the "damage" is when you get to the cash register at the store?
Getting ready--do a little math
How much do you actually spend on food? Write down your best estimate. According to many financial experts, the food budget (including grocery shopping and restaurants) should be 5-15% of your total income. Take a minute to calculate how much of your income that would be. How do those numbers compare to what you actually spend? You may want to set a goal of lowering your grocery receipts to put you into the correct percentage range, and if you already spend in that range you may want to try to go even lower still.
How low can you go?
Lowering your food bills is like doing the Limbo. We don't start out two inches from the floor and expect success. Start where you are, then gradually lower your budget until you are spending what you want while still comfortably feeding your family.
Time to shop! Well, in a minute.
Now that we have a goal, it's time to plan to save. Here's what I suggest:
1. Pick a store, and shop there. Choose "your" grocery store based on where you believe you get the best deals overall, how practical it is to shop there, how much you like the staff there, etc. At one time I store "hopped" to get all of the good deals, and I tired of that pretty quickly. My bills are actually much lower now that I only shop at one store, Publix. Only shopping at this one store (one location, too) has allowed me to develop a friendly relationship with the staff as well, which means they are more likely to help me if I need assistance.
2. It's been said a hundred times already, but do not go into that store without a list. Also, estimate how much what is on the list will cost you. Would we buy a house without knowing how much it was going to cost until closing? A car? A car should only cost 10-15% of our income, roughly the same amount as food. If the cash register total is a constant surprise, that's like going to a car dealership, picking out the car we think we want, then going to the front desk and saying, "I'll take it! How much do you want for it?" If it's your first time estimating on your shopping list, estimate high so that the only surprise will be a pleasant one. As you continue to do this your estimates will be more specific and the process will be easier.
2b. I won't go into much detail, but treat your list with care. It's good to have a plan for everything you will buy, and be realistic about what you plan to purchase. Will your family actually eat it? Do you know how to cook it? Do you have time this week to actually cook it and eat it? Can it be frozen if necessary? Is your freezer big enough to hold it? (There is an awesome deal on frozen pizza this week at Publix, but I'm going to restrain myself because my freezer is just too small to hold them.)
3. Take the following to the store: Your list, a writing utensil (I've used a crayon before because it was the only thing in my purse!), a calculator, and your method of payment. As you shop, cross off the list what you buy, make note of any prices you may have mis-estimated, and keep a running total of how much you are spending. Be aware of how much money you have with you if you are paying in cash. Only buy what is on your list. (I do make an exception for milk, bread, and eggs. I am always forgetting to put them on the list, and they are necessary.) If you see something you would like to try, put it on the list for the next trip and include the price. Now you have something to look forward to! ;)
4. Wanna go hard core? Only take the amount you plan to spend in cash, and take no other forms of payment. It takes attention and calculation on your part, but those chocolate bars are nowhere near as tempting when you think you may be short at the cash register if you buy them. When I do this, I actually end up taking things off my list that I don't really need just so that I can stay under budget. It's a challenge, but it's kind of fun, too.
Afraid of getting strange looks from other customers? According to Thomas J. Stanley in his book The Millionaire Next Door, the majority of millionaires in this country are self-made, first generation millionaires who got that way by living well below their means. Seizing control of grocery bills is propelling your family toward unprecedented wealth. The next time someone gives you a funny look at the grocery store because you are actually paying attention to what you're buying, look at that person's overflowing cart of "stuff," smile sympathetically, and think to yourself, "You poor thing. You probably paid WAY too much for your car, too."
Next week let's stay in the grocery store. We'll play Deal or No Deal and tackle a few money-saving myths. Until then, let's hear your tips for how you have lowered your grocery bills!