I talk about spending seven dollars on breakfast for the month, and everyone wants to know my secret. Oatmeal. Oatmeal is my secret. And our lunches are so cheap. You know why? Because we make them and because we've worked really hard at reducing our expenses. I realize that I've talked a lot about what our budget is, but I haven't spent much time talking about how we got there. Here are five steps that we implemented to reduce our monthly grocery budget to $200.
Pick One Thing to Cut
I know it seems like one day we just woke up and had a $200 grocery budget. But it didn't actually happen like that. We sat at $250 for the two of us for so long, I wasn't sure that there was anything left for us to lose. After looking hard at our list for the week one day way back when, I decided to forgo pretzels. Mr. P already got his potato chips. Did we really need both? It turns out, we didn't. I played this game for a few weeks. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it backfired and I was back at the store. But it's a really effective way to look hard at what you actually enjoy and need versus what you're eating just because it's in the cabinet or pantry.
Replace What You Can Make
It doesn't happen all the time. But a lot of times, I'll whip up cupcakes or a sheet cake for Mr. P's dessert for the week. Even if I go the boxed mix route, it's far cheaper (and tastier!) than anything I could buy. Ditto for bread, cookies, pasta sauce, salad dressing. The list goes on and on. Of course, this really depends on your time. If getting motivated to make your own meals is difficult enough, I wouldn't advise starting with this step. But if you're knocking on the door of your ideal budget, this might be just the strategy you need to get you there.
And I'm not just talking about adding a little water to bottles of salad dressing or barbecue sauce. But I do that, too! I thought I was so discreet until Mr. P handed me a totally empty bottle once and asked if I wanted to add more water to it. Busted. But when it comes to cooking, I love to figure out how to make the most of our meals. If zucchini is on sale, I'll chop it up finely and add it to our ground turkey for tacos. Ditto for adding beans or rice or breadcrumbs to various dishes. When you use fillers that don't have much flavor on their own, they really pick up the taste of the dish. And it's a fantastic way to sneak more veggies into our diet.
As a reformed extreme couponer, I can tell you all about stockpiling. We had enough Minute Rice to feed an army and enough contact solution to be absolutely useless...considering neither of us wears contacts. I can also attest to the fact that when your refrigerator or cabinets get stocked so deep with food, it's easy to forget what meals you intend to make. I've found that shopping once a week makes much more sense than trying to do epic monthly hauls. I can focus more on fresh produce in our dinners and for our snacks, and I can also shop with specific recipes in mind. No more wondering what to do with lone soldier ingredients that won't round out a meal for anything.
Figure Out What You Like
Here's the thing. You'll never land a breakfast for pocket change or an almost-as-cheap lunch if you hate what you make. Don't like oatmeal? Can't shovel it down? Don't buy it. Beans and rice not your thing? Have a peanut butter allergy? There's no shame in it, folks. If the thought of your meal turns your stomach, that's a sure-fire way to land a date with a drive thru or the vending machine. Make something you enjoy, then figure out how to economize the meal whether it's looking for sales, clipping coupons, substituting ingredients, or cooking in bigger batches.
Related: There's no time better than the present to save money
20 Tips for Saving Money at the Grocery Store
20 Tips for Saving Money at the Grocery Store
Stick to sales items.
Many food items go on sale at regular intervals. Stock up when your favorite products are discounted to tide you over until the next sales bonanza.
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Shop in season.
You'll tend to find that your favorite foods are more affordable – and taste better – when they're in season. Consult this chart for a look at when common foods are in their prime.
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Use what you purchase.
When it comes to food, if you don't use it, you'll lose it. Buy fresh ingredients that can be used in a range of recipes so you don't waste them.
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Commit to store loyalty programs.
Many grocery stores offer loyalty cards that earn you deals on in-store items. Some cards may give you discounts on gas or allow you to save digital coupons on your card.
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Try non-grocery stores.
Target, Wal-Mart and other general stores may post competitive prices on food items. Add them to your shopping rotation.
Skip the bottled water aisle.
Stop buying water at the grocery store. You'll pay less for each glass of cold water by using a filter in a water pitcher or on your faucet.
Buy store brands.
Store brands often cost less than their name-brand counterparts – and they often taste exactly the same.
Skip the prepared foods.
Pre-made salads and pizzas and pre-cut fruits and vegetables may look tempting on a busy weeknight, but they come at a high markup.
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Buy in bulk.
Buy large quantities of nonperishables, such as pasta or rice, or frozen items at your favorite supermarket or wholesale store. Just make sure you have room for storage.
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Ditch the meat.
Getting your protein in meat form is an expensive proposition. Ground beef cost $3.67 per pound on average in September 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Dried beans, on the other hand, ran just $1.37 per pound.
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Check out the weekly ad.
Check your weekly circular for sales on your favorite items and plan your meals around those weekly discounts.
Download the store app.
Another way to get the best deal? Download the store's mobile app. Safeway's app, for example, allows shoppers to scan bar codes for deals and load digital coupons instantly.
Compare unit prices.
It's a challenge to compare prices when foods come in different container sizes. Drill down to the unit price when comparing the value between one item and the next to make sure you're getting a true apples-to-apples comparison.
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Leave the credit card at home.
If you need extra motivation to stick to your budget, leave the credit cards at home and just bring cash. It's an old-fashioned technique, but it will keep you from busting your weekly food budget.
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Do a pantry sweep.
Take stock of your pantry before heading to the supermarket. That way, you'll reduce the risk of purchasing duplicates or more than you can eat before items expire.
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Scan the bottom and the top.
Stores routinely place the priciest items at eye-level – and hide the cheaper options on the top and bottom shelves. Make sure to scan the entire vertical length of the shelf before committing to a brand.
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Make nice with the sales associate.
A good relationship with the supermarket workers – especially those who work behind the meat, fish and baked good counters – can yield valuable intel on upcoming sales and deals.
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Don't use coupons right away.
"Stores know weeks ahead of time what product coupons are coming out in the inserts, and they may leave the corresponding products at higher prices intentionally," Jill Cataldo, consumer coupon expert and founder of Super-Couponing, told U.S. News.
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Get in, get food and get out.
Dilly-dallying at the supermarket can cost you more than time. The longer you spend at the store, the more you spend on food. So, get in, stick to your shopping list and get out before temptation gets the best of you.