Cutting Down Your Grocery Bill, Part One

Rebecca Currie

Okay, I’m looking at info on the SNAP challenge, which seems to come around every year.

When pledging to do the SNAP Challenge, a person vows to live on a sum equal to or less than the amount of a food stamp benefit. SNAP benefits are commonly known as food stamps. In North Carolina, food stamps for one person are currently $194 per month.

I respect everyone who takes this challenge, and I recognize that often people who are receiving food assistance have problems in their lives that go far beyond merely a lack of money (for instance limited access to fresh food, demanding work schedules, and transportation issues, to name but a few).

The suggestions I am offering here are not explicitly intended for people who are receiving public assistance but are in the spirit of positive support for anyone who might be looking to shop for less than they are currently spending. My goal is to offer specific information on buying on a limited budget that I hope will be useful. I base my opinions on my personal experience of shopping and eating for the past twelve years on a budget of between ninety and one hundred dollars per month.

I will also state that the strategy I describe below is geared primarily towards small households, one or two people, and is not designed for large families living complicated lives involving working parents and kids and extracurricular activities.

Okay, there you have it. Thus ends the disclaimer.

Now for the details.

The first thing you want to do is re-think your shopping strategy.

Most budget experts tout a strategy of only shopping one time per week.

Almost universally promoted as a way to save money, the once-per-week idea hinges on a belief that we don’t have enough willpower. Its proponents say that every time you or I go to the store, we make impulse purchases and bring home lots of things we don’t need. They say that we run into the store for a quart of milk and a loaf of bread, but because of temptation, we later find ourselves walking out the door with five extra bags of groceries and seventy-five dollars less in cash.

Still, some people can do it. In fact, there are those with unbelievable willpower who can go a step further and promote the once-a-month shopping strategy.   

Once-a-week can work, provided you are capable of being an organized person who sits down on Saturday and plans out your week. I think it sounds easier than it is. I am not afraid of the SNAP Challenge. I would be challenged to write a menu for each day’s meals. So, as I said, I have great respect for anyone who can achieve this regimen.

Here’s why it isn’t so easy to do. It entails more than just selecting a week’s worth of entrées. You have to think about side dishes, beverages, and all of the supplemental ingredients that you might need over the course of those seven days. I hope that you will not turn into an utterly impulsive person who loses all self-control when you find yourself in the supermarket fun house surrounded by brightly colored packaging and today-only specials.

I think the once-a-week approach is probably an excellent strategy for people who meet some or all of the following criteria:

(a) you have a regular schedule (b) you are effectively able to gauge how much food you will eat in a week (c) you are capable of developing a weekly menu (d) you are capable of adhering to the weekly menu that you developed (e) you can cook food that gets finished in a timely fashion.

When I had a job outside of the house, I employed this strategy until I finally realized that I am not that person, and gave up on it.

The once-a-week strategy didn’t work for me. I found it difficult for some reasons:

First, my schedule was somewhat erratic. Sometimes I would have a work lunch and wouldn’t be hungry when I got home, sometimes I would have to work late, and sometimes I would go out with friends and get bar food.

Second, I want to eat what I feel like eating. I am rarely able to predict on Saturday what I will feel like eating on Wednesday.

So I was buying food assuming I would be cooking a certain number of meals at home, but often I wouldn’t. I would make fewer. As a result, I let food spoil. Good food landed in the garbage because I didn’t eat it in time.

Sadly, I was not even feeding a worm bin at that point. It was all going straight to the landfill. Oh, it pains me to even think about that.

Throwing out good food is terrible, no good, and very bad.

Whatever you do, you will never throw away food. NEVER. Any food you buy and then do not eat is the most expensive food you can select. It is a complete waste of money.

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When I left my job in DC and started working from home as a telecommuter, I decided I needed to see what I could do to fix this problem. And once I started focusing on it, I saw that I needed a different approach. I know accept that I have trouble gauging how much food I can use in a week.

I decided on two immediate steps that I could take to improve the situation.

First, I committed to always reviews what was in the refrigerator before I went to the store. I know that sounds basic — but no one said this was rocket science.

I understand that some companies now make refrigerators that track the inside of their contents. They have instruments that monitor the eating habits of their owners. The machines know what you like to eat and they can tell what is missing from your regular inventory. Some even can text you a shopping list.

I might buy that refrigerator, except I would never buy that kind of fridge. My goal is to cut down on my food costs. I could buy groceries for thirty weeks, or I could buy one of those appliances.

Secondly, I started planning my near-term menu. As I said, I wasn’t aiming at covering an entire week of eating. I was realistic. I left the store with a list of what I would eat over the next couple of days. Not the rest of the week, mind you, which was unpredictable, just the next two or three days, which I usually had somewhat of a handle on.

So I would look in the fridge to see what I had, and I would think about what I could make with that. I might even refer to a cookbook. Back in the day, when I had time and energy for that kind of thing, I would put together a list of what I needed to buy.

My Advice for You

If you want to start working on this project of spending less on groceries, you should:

Eliminate wasted food. I would say that most people can cut their grocery bill by at least twenty percent by merely eating everything they buy.

I want to emphasize just how little effort this will take. You don’t need to analyze what you’re eating. You don’t need to clip coupons. You don’t need to find a cheaper store. You don’t need to downgrade your diet. You can still shop at your favorite store.

You’re just working on buying precisely the right amount of food.

Second, accept some regularity. I am not a wildly adventurous eater. I like routine, although I do prefer to vary what I eat for dinner. But I will accept a limited rotation of breakfast foods, and my favorite lunch tends to be what was left over from dinner the night before. My second-favorite lunch is what I made for dinner two nights ago.

So what I started doing when I implemented this new strategy was to fill in the gaps for my basic breakfasts and lunches and to get what I needed for the next dinner I was making. To be honest, I came to look forward to my shopping trip. Grocery shopping was often my afternoon break. I would walk to the store and get groceries and walk home and fix dinner.

Note that there are a few key things you are NOT doing when you shop this way.

You are NOT walking up and down every aisle in the grocery store. You are NOT thinking about everything you ever eat and making sure you have some of it in your house. You are NOT worrying about pet food, paper towels, shampoo. You can deal with those later. Just focus on eating for now.

You are merely getting what you need to eat for the next couple of days. You are making sure you have enough — but not too much — for your regular breakfast and lunch staples.

By the way, I advocate that you cook more than one meal at a time. That goes back to the context of this approach, which I think will works better for a smaller household. So, if you are only cooking for one or two people, go ahead and make a family-sized dinner. You should try to prepare at least one, but not more than three, meals worth of leftovers. I draw the line at three meals.

Some people hear about this strategy and say “okay, but I HATE grocery shopping, I hate the grocery store, why would I want to go more often?”

And the answer to that is that you will be shopping more often, but you will apply a laser-like focus to your shopping. As a result, those trips will take much less time and, more importantly, much less mental energy. You are not wandering all over the store in search of everything. You are hitting the sections that have what you need right now. That’s it.

And you are not having problems with impulse purchases because you are just buying what is on the list that you need for the next few days. If you feel a great desire to buy something that is not on the list, you need to use all of your stored willpower to ignore that excitement for the next ten minutes that you are in the store. You can make a mental note of what it is you want and promise yourself that if you still want it the next time you are putting together your grocery list — which will be in three days, you can wait that long — you can add it to the list. And if it is on the list, you can buy it.

But first, you can start working on buying the right amount of food and not throwing anything away.

Contents of this blog originally appeared in Less is Enough. Some portions of the original blog entry have been edited.

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