...because we all have our motley moments!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Financial Fun Part 3: Grocery Shopping--How low can you go?

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!


Bryssy said...

Another great blog, Rachel! For me, store hopping just won't work. I don't have the time or energy to jump from store to store - I usually go to Wal-Mart once a week so that I can get everything we need. I use a pre-printed grocery list (SimpleMom has a good one) that has the staples that I usually get every week and a place to add other items I may need.

Also, I save a TON of money by participating in the SHARE program. I purchase all of our meats for the month AND much of our produce for about $40-$50 a month. This also helps with my meal planning - I make a basic outline of what I'll be making based on our meat choices from SHARE.

One exception, is that I like to go to Publix for their organic milk. Now that I am consuming a pint a day - it's worth the trip.

Our weekly budget for groceries (including paper products and other items) is similar to yours, although it is a bit higher during the school year as my energy wains - we tend to need more consumables. I like to bake crackers and bread. I also like to hang my laundry out to dry - but I just don't have the time to do all of that while I'm working 2 jobs.

We also participate in 2 'no spend' months a year where we only use $100 a month for gas, groceries, and all extras. It's an easy way to clean out the pantry and freezer without having food go to waste! I tend to get really creative by the end of the month!

fawnda said...

I have two words: MEAL PLANNING! It makes a world of difference! When I have a meals planned out for the week I know I can stick to the list and we are going to eat well.

We also have scaled down our dinners. I used to make BIG elaborate dinners with meat-potatoes-veggies-and-dessert, all that meat was expensive and some times it would go bad… but now we are simpler:
A bowl of cereal
BLT sandwiches
Grilled cheese
Frozen pizza
Rice meals

Dinner does not have to be a big production. I usually do one big dinner a week. And that keeps us happy! : )

I also shop at Aldi and that saves me SOOOOO much money!

Donna said...

Brystal has gotten me on the SHARE bandwagon, too. I have loved it, so far.

I also plan meals in advance of grocery shopping (ideally), and the last time I shopped, I got two weeks' worth of groceries, used my calculator to figure how much each item on the list was costing me (esp. those produce items sold by the pound and some items I buy multiples of), added up each category as we left that area and kept a running total that way. It worked like a dream! I even put our 6-year-old in charge of the list, finding items and marking how much they cost. He enjoyed having a job and being a helper and I enjoyed not having to do it all myself! And I was modeling and teaching good shopping habits! I earned a gold star on our last shopping trip! Yay, Me! ;)

Rachel said...

Thanks for the great tips! Bryssy, I really like the idea of having no-spend months. What a great way to clean out the kitchen and save money, too--we're going to try that. Fawnda, you had mentioned how you do dinner in a previous post, and I want you to know that it has changed my life! I was always feeling guilty because I thought we had to have a large meal every night and I just didn't have the energy to do it. You're right--simple meals are better! They're probably healthier, too!

When it comes to meal planning, I applaud those of you who do it and do it so well, but I am mentally incapable of doing it myself. My solution has been to keep a steady supply of ingredients like pasta, rice, frozen veggies, etc. on hand that I can turn into dinner quickly. It works for us.

Donna, I love that you engaged your son in the shopping experience--just imagine what his future will look like because his mom taught him how to shop and shop well. You're influencing your family tree! :)

Thanks for the comments today!

Bryssy said...

Our last no-spend month was in October (clearing out the freezer and pantry for the holidays). I am planning our next to be in May (clearing out for summer).

The first time I did it, it almost killed me, but the last couple times, I even had money left over!

Obviously, there is something wrong with me.

Lindsay said...

I plan out all our meals, including breakfast, lunches (I make lunch for dh, and kid #1 to take, and me and the other two kids at home). My dh has to have a specific foods at several meals because of his bloodsugars (if he doesn't get the right combintation he faints....because it motabilism is so high...don't you hate that). I shop 2 weeks at a time, and 1 store (typically winn-dixie). I also use the AngelCare Ministry once a month (love it!). I have a good handle on our grocery bill, it's a lot lower than it use to be and I have 1 more person than I use to.

john said...

Good blog Rach. You're a great CFO for our household. I love you

Bryssy said...

Oh man, John just made me throw up in my mouth a little. :-)

Liz said...

Awwww, I think it's sweet! But I bet Rachel rolled her eyes when she read it. ;)

Donna said...

I love that John appreciates Rachel's commitment to lowering their monthly spending! It's probably what keeps her going strong, month after month, always innovating with her systems and rethinking her spending habits. It can be hard work, so it's nice to know it's appreciated!

Thanks for the post, Rachel! Keep it coming...there's definitely a LOT to be said about grocery spending. It does kinda blow your mind when you realize you spend as much on those groceries as you do on a car payment. We put so much more thought and planning into the car deal than the grocery deal. I'm so tired of "eating" our budget, I guess we need to change the way we think about that big grocery chunk of the the budget!

Rachel said...

I do appreciate John's support with all of this--it would be impossible to do what we have done with our finances without both of us being on board.

I went to the grocery store last night with my calculator, and I came in $4 under budget! Last week I forgot to take it and I was almost $10 over! I'm telling you, it really works for me.

As I was checking out last night the lady in front of me was paying and she said to the cashier as she wrote her check for over $100, "I always come in here to get a few things and I leave with so much more!" She was elderly, and who knows what her income is (she could be a wealthy retiree, she could be on a fixed SS income)but my heart broke for her.

Bryssy said...

I have found myself really feeling bad for those who seem to have so much. I wonder how much pressure they put on themselves to keep up appearances? How far in debt they are to do that? Are they able to sleep at night or are they filled with worry?

One thing that keeps our finances (well, our life really) in perspective for me is that I know I don't deserve anything I have. Not a house, or car, or job, or the life I lead. It is only through the grace of God that I have them. I appreciate them, but know that I don't 'need' them (or more). I have found that to be a very calming influence over me (and our finances).

fawnda said...

The calculator totally works for me too... it makes me look at the price... And I have to think "do I want to add that to our total?" Then having the running total really helps too. When I reach the amount that I came with I am done or I have to take something out.

Great posts! : )