Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Saving Money At the Grocery Store, Part 2

Note: All the forms and worksheets I refer to in this article are located here, at Apron String’s Kitchen Things.

When I was growing up—and even to this day—my mother would grocery shop by walking up and down every aisle, tossing whatever sounded good into the cart. While this method did provide us with groceries, usually A LOT of them, it was really ineffective in the meal preparation department as my father would have to stop on his way home from work almost every day to purchase an item or three that my mother forgot until she was in the middle of making dinner. I can only speculate as to the astronomical amount my parents must have spent on food over the course of each month.

I can’t remember where I learned about making a meal plan, but I know that when my husband and I where newly married I made out a meal plan every week and then made my grocery list from the meal plan. I would go off to the commissary and spend my $50 on hamburger and frozen burritos and toilet paper and cat litter and be happy as a clam knowing I kept to my budget. I know I did it because I recently found that very first meal planning notebook. Oh how I laughed at that old thing. I am afraid my culinary skill at the time was…uh…nonexistent. I had to look up how to cook a baked potato. I remember how excited I was to discover lemon pepper seasoning. I put it on everything!

Well, I guess I’ve dragged you far enough down memory lane for one day. Perhaps next time we can explore how poor my housekeeping skills were…But for now I’ll get on to what I’m supposed to be talking about: meal planning.

If you are driving somewhere, do you map out the route to save time and money while maximizing the sightseeing value? If you are grocery shopping without a meal plan, it is as if you are driving without a map. You can do it, but it is ineffective. If you are deciding what you are going to be eating all week while walking the aisles, you will forget items, or worse, be suckered into buying everything the store pushes at you.

There is a way of shopping and meal preparation called cooking from the pantry or something along those lines, whereby you buy whatever is on sale in bulk and then just cook from what you have. With all deference to those who can pull this off successfully, I believe it takes more creativity than I at least am able to muster. I’m afraid I’d stare blankly into that full cupboard and order a pizza. If you can do it, God bless you. You don’t need the rest of this article.

I am sharing with you MY way of planning meals. I am not an expert nutritionist. I haven’t taken classes in meal planning. I have 15 years of experience in meal planning and preparation in my own home for my own family that I am offering to share. If you don’t like my way, develop a way you do like. The point is that planning ahead will save you money at the store and time at home.

Firstly, I think it is very important to develop a workable template of meal ideas from which to work. I have seen several ways to do this. I have provided an example of the template I use here. There is also a blank one for you to use if you so choose. A template of meals is simply a list of what kind of meals you would like to have during a week. For example, meatless on Monday, chicken on Tuesday, beef on Wednesday, etc. I also have a template for lunches, provided there aren’t any leftovers, because I home educate and have to prepare a lunch for all the children every day. Since I already have these templates in place, I did one for breakfast. It eliminates thinking before 7 am. My template is a rotating 2-week plan, since I grocery shop every two weeks. You could just as easily plan a whole month.

I use my meal template to make a more specific menu every two weeks. I like to do it this way so I can shop according to what’s on sale, what’s in season and for special occasions. I have seen menu plans done without the template, just listing a month’s worth of meals and repeating it every month, which is a good idea, but it doesn’t provide me with enough opportunity to be creative. It would probably be a great way to get started meal planning, or when tending an infant (eliminate thinking for those first foggy months), or if your entrĂ©e repertoire is limited, or if you just don’t want to deal with planning a new one every month. Either way, the key is to plan ahead. I have provided a blank copy of my meal planning worksheet here. I like to plan side dishes, vegetables, salads—anything I’m going to buy and cook gets written down. If I’m consistent in this area, I ensure my family is getting enough fruit and vegetables, and I’m not buying things that end up not getting served.

When I am ready to plan my meals, I first go to my kitchen cabinets and freezer and pretend I have to shop from what is already there. Usually, I come up with a couple of meals or at least the main part of a few meals. Then I look at the current grocery store fliers to see what is on sale. For example, the local Safeway has boneless skinless chicken breasts on sale this week for $2.18 lb. That is an awesome price in Alaska. They also have frozen hamburger patties for $1.49 lb. Since this is grilling season, I will definitely include those. After the store fliers, I fill in the rest using what I know to be in season, taking into consideration any special meals, like birthdays or holidays.

It is wise to plan to cook more than one meal at a time. For example, a large beef roast cooked in the crock pot all day with a packet of onion soup mix and a can of cream of mushroom soup can be shredded and served over rice on Monday and on toasted buns on Wednesday. Likewise, one or two chickens can be “crocked” and spread out to two meals, and the carcasses simmered down to broth for noodles or dumplings or soup for a third.

When the plan is finished, all that’s left to do is make the actual grocery list. I divide mine by meat, produce, packaged items, bakery, frozen, dairy, and non-food. I have also arranged it by aisle, but I usually get several items in the wrong aisle, so that doesn’t work so well for me.

Just taking a few minutes to plan ahead will save money at the checkout. Your plan can be as simple or as complex as you wish, but having a plan is a guaranteed way to leave the store without feeling robbed.

One final note: I try not to make my plan so inflexible that I miss out on unadvertised sales and specials. Also, my grocer may be sold out of an item and I need to improvise at the last minute. I just try to get something similar or cheaper in price or that will go with the meal as it is planned. For example, if I’ve planned to grill steaks, but chops are cheaper, the substitution is easy. However, if I’ve planned, say, corned beef and cabbage, but there isn’t any corned beef, I may have to get an entirely different meal.

In Part 3, I hope to discuss some good shopping habits.

Warm regards,


Saturday, May 19, 2007

Saving At the Grocery Store, Part 1

This post is at the specific request of my dear husband, who apparently works with people who are completely stymied by the fact that my grocery budget, including diapers and household items, is $500 per month. With my $500, I buy enough food, paper items, bathroom supplies, and diapers for 2 adults and six children, ranging in age from 11 years to 6 months. I also buy cat food and litter for one medium-sized cat.

My husband, like everyone else in America’s military, is paid twice per month, on the 1st and on the 15th. I go grocery shopping around those dates. I try to do all my shopping in one day, as any extra trip to the store will cause me to overspend. I have determined that the amount of willpower required to go into a grocery store or, even worse, into Wal-Mart, for one item is more than the average person possesses. It is far too tempting to buy a few extra things, especially if they are on sale. One gallon of milk ends up costing $20. Better to stay home and drink water.

I do not believe that saving money at the grocery store requires a family to survive on beans and cornbread, unless that’s what they like to eat. What I do believe is that smart shopping habits, a plan, and an understanding of the whole retail grocery industry will result in saving without much change in the way a family eats. Of course, some food is just plain cheaper, beans being one of those, and working in more cheap food will bring down the bill even further.

First I want to address a few things about the grocery industry in general. Did you know the grocery industry produces a professional journal? Further, did you know that said journal provides its readers with constantly improving ideas for wringing the last penny out of the shoppers’ pockets? They do a tremendous amount of research on how shoppers shop in order to get them to spend more. You MUST be aware when you enter the store that millions of dollars are spent by the grocery industry to entice you to buy. You MUST be smarter than the average shopper or you will succumb to their tactics. Like all retailers, grocers are in the money making business and are not past using deceit to make as much of it as possible.

For example, do you buy from the special displays that are just inside the entrance or stacked at the end of the aisles? Do you bother to check the prices on those “specials” against the same or similar items on the shelf to see how “special” the price really is? Chances are that the “special” price is just the regular price in a different location and may even be higher than a similar item in the regular spot. The manager is counting on the fact that most people will never bother to check the price. Most people will ASSUME the price is good. After all, it’s stacked at the end of the aisle! However, stacking it at the end of the aisle, also called the endcap, is just their way of screaming “HERE, BUY THIS!!”

Here is another example. About twice a year, the military commissary hosts a huge “case lot” sale. They erect a giant circus tent in the parking lot and fill it with cases of all sorts of grocery items, mostly things like canned vegetables, paper towels, laundry soap, snack foods, bottled water and the like. Sometimes, they stage it in the warehouse to give it even more of a “special” feeling. They hype it for a month beforehand, putting up signs and handing out fliers. It is a very big deal for the store. The implication is that by buying things by the case, you will save money. It is the same idea as shopping in a members-only warehouse chain like Sam’s or Costco. However, they are relying on the IMPLICATION that the prices are better and that the consumer will FEEL they are getting a good deal. Unless you are shopping with a calculator and know the prices of what you normally buy, you will be suckered into overspending in ways you were not expecting.

This example is from the actual case lot sale my local commissary is hosting this weekend. My husband likes to drink those no-calorie flavored waters. I found a brand of them that regularly costs $1.75 per 6-pack. There were cases of a similar drink “on sale” by the case for $11.88. I pulled out my calculator and quickly determined that the by-the-case price worked out to $1.98 per 6-pack! So, the case was actually MORE than the off-the-shelf price by $1.38 for the same amount. The fact that there were coupons on the shelf with my regular brand made the deal even sweeter. Those took another $.75 off every 2 6-packs, saving me another $2.25 off the by-the-case price. In total, the 36 drinks that were $11.88 in the case cost me $8.25 by the 6-pack. This is just one example, there were many more instances where I found the same kind of hidden mark-up. You can find this same thing at warehouse stores if you are looking for it and are armed with a calculator.

The other problem with by-the-case and bulk pricing in general is that you are temped to buy things you wouldn’t normally buy because you think it is a good deal. For instance, I noticed a lot of snack food items like little individual pouches of chips and puddings and other “lunch box” items, which are outrageously overpriced to begin with. Someone who ordinarily wouldn’t buy that sort of thing might be tempted if they thought they were getting a better price. Some shoppers might also be tempted to buy more of something than they really need. By this I mean that if you buy a case of paper towels, you are apt to use more paper towels because you know you have so many of them on hand. Excess often leads to wastefulness if you are not vigilant.

Do you see what I mean about the subtle ways you are being coerced into spending more than you need to?

Now, I am not saying that it is never good to buy by-the-case or in bulk. The truth is that there are often very good deals to be had. There are questions you must ask yourself, though, before you buy the gallon of mustard or the case of toilet paper. First, will I use this much before it goes bad? In the case of paper items, sure, they store forever. But with perishables in giant containers, you may have to repackage and freeze the extra until you need it. Secondly, can I find a cheaper brand not in bulk? My water bottle deal is an example of that. Thirdly, is this something I even need to buy at all? I priced out a case of Capri-Sun drink pouches at a savings of $.25 per 10-pack. That is a good deal, except I don’t need Capri-Sun drink pouches. I would have wasted $10.44 to “save” $1.50. Better to keep the $10.44 and buy a packet of lemonade mix for a quarter, or forget the whole thing and drink water.

Coupons are another trick of the grocery industry. Coupons are generally designed to generate brand-loyalty. Manufacturers will issue coupons for huge savings on items to get you to buy the item. Once the initial purchase is made, you are much more likely to continue to buy that item even when you have no coupon. Please don’t do this. You are not married to Proctor and Gamble. You won’t hurt their feelings if you use them for their coupon, and then buy the store brand next time. Kellogg’s isn’t going to call and ask you why you didn’t buy the $4 box of cereal this time, even though you bought it last time. Most coupons are issued for non-essential and overpriced items, as well. When was the last time you saw a coupon for, say, ground beef or broccoli? I bet you’ve seen a bunch for cold breakfast cereal and disposable cleaning items, though. Most of the time, you can locate a similar item that is still cheaper, even if you used the coupon.

Brand loyalty should become a thing of the past if you are trying to save grocery money. I buy VERY few specific brands. Most branded items are pretty much the same anyway. You may perceive a difference, but honestly, they are all very similar. That being said, you can often save quite a bit by buying the generic or store brand of many items with no noticeable difference in quality. Where there is a difference, you have to decide on what your level of comfort is and go with the item that is the cheapest for that level. Toilet paper is the prime example here. The very cheapest brand I can find is $4.07 for a 24-pack. That works out to just under $.17 per roll. However, it shreds and disintegrated when wet. Not a good property in toilet paper! So, I moved up to the next best price: $4.99 per 24-pack. That’s a little over $.20 per roll. It does what it needs to, no frills, but who needs frills on toilet paper. It really just has to do the job without sanding off skin, right? This level is acceptable to us, so this is the one I buy. However, if someone needs more out of there toilet paper, they may need to move up to the next best price until they reach their lowest acceptable comfort level.

This works for most items, not just toilet paper. Here is another example. We eat quite a few saltine crackers. The children use them as snacks and my husband likes them in soup. The cheapest box of saltines I can find are $.99 at Wal-Mart. They are acceptable, but not exactly what we need in a cracker. They are mostly broken, which is fine in soup, but hard to have peanut butter or cheese on. So I buy the next best price, which is $1.07 per box on sale at the commissary. If there are no brands on sale there, I buy the Wal-Mart ones or skip it and adjust the menu so we don’t need crackers.

A final word on the grocery industry: use their tactics against them. Every week, I get sale fliers from the two main grocers in my town. Sometimes there is a really good price on one or two items at each store. Often, I will go and buy just that item and nothing else. As I said earlier in the post, though, it takes a HUGE amount of effort and willpower not to buy anything else. I do not make a special trip to do this. Buying the extra gas would negate all but the very deepest of discounts. However, both those stores will price match exact items, so sometimes it only takes one stop. You must be careful not to eat up potential savings buying extra gas or unneeded items. By the way, walk right past that refrigerated soda case next to the register, and use the aisle without the candy display. One soda and candy bar twice per month is over $52 per year. You can buy 26 pounds of hamburger for that!! Small savings make a huge difference in the end.

In the next installment of this series, I will address the need to plan your family’s menu to maximize your food dollar.

Warm regards,