Grocery Shopping Hacks
When money is tight it is important that you know how to feed your family on a budget. As a former confessed extreme couponer, I really used to know my way around the grocery store register. But, the TV show and social media made the idea more popular and coupon policies became much more restrictive.
Of course, all of this ‘coupon craze’ was being reeled in just when I lost my job during the last recession. While I had a decent stockpile that lasted us a while, I had to get creative with how I was going to save money on groceries. And coupons weren’t it!
I also was tired of hearing the same old advice of “make a list, and then stick to it!” Um, hello? Those of us who sometimes make impulsive decisions in the moment are not good at this.
How to Feed a Family on a Budget
- Ignore Expiration Dates
Listen closely: Neither the FDA nor the USDA regulates expiration dates on food packages. They are only a food manufacturer’s “best guess” based on their own research. Expiration dates are used for monitoring but are not a guarantee of food safety. You’re smart, right? Do you know what bad food looks like, smells like, feels like? Well, go by that. You should be anyway since a date is not a guarantee that the product will be safe.
I shop at a grocery outlet near me and they sell expired food for super cheap. But, how can you use this hack? I buy expired or ready-to-expire stuff all the time at the regular grocery store, particularly meat and produce. Just find someone and ask, “Hey, this expires today, can you make it half price?” You’ll be surprised–because they either have to risk giving it to you today at half off, or throwing it out tomorrow.
“Hey, these bananas are really brown, do you think you could mark this whole bunch of them for a $1?” And, bananas will last longer in the fridge and can even be frozen for smoothies.
Day-old bread=French toast, eggs in the middle, grilled cheese, toasted croutons in a soup. Bring home that ground beef you just scored at half off and cook it off and use the last hack on the list. All it takes is a little imagination.
- Eat only 2 meals a day.
One of the first and possibly most important things you can do to save money on food is having a meal plan. This will keep you from restaurants and takeout and helps to make your grocery list meaningful.
There are two techniques that I have used over the years. One is to build future meals off of previous meals. Leftover chicken becomes chicken stirfry. But the second one is, eat only two meals a day. You can click that link to get some free printable meal plans for 2 and 3 meals a day.
Of course, this won’t work every day and not when school is in session. But snacks are cheaper than meals at snacktime I find it easier to help my kids make good choices Eat a decent-sized breakfast and then another meal at 2-3 pm. A banana and a protein bar or yogurt make for a decent snack later on, and this meal plan option also solves the evening sports practice dilemmas. It can help reduce obesity, too much sugar and other issues. It seems drastic because “3 meals a day” has been drilled into us for decades. But by whom? (hint: food marketers)
- Grocery Shop Less Often.
If you shop once a week, you may want to reconsider that. The more often you go into a store, the more money you end up spending on food.
Or, don’t grocery shop at all. I mean it, hear me out. Most people wince at the idea of grocery delivery fees. However, I spend less since I started grocery delivery. I’m not in the store, so no impulse purchases. I see my total before I’ve checked out, so I can review my cart and there’s a lot of “yeah, I think we can do without that.” And, I am saving myself 2-3 hours of time, and time is money. With a $10 delivery fee, I am paying myself less than half of minimum wage if I do it myself. I can accomplish much more of value in that time.
- “One More Day”
I had to get myself out of the mindset of “I always grocery shop on Wednesday.” Instead, try the “one more day” trick. Instead of going to the store, ask yourself, “Can we go one more day before I go to the store?” Then add on another, and another. Surprise, surprise, the world does not end if you run out of eggs, bread or milk. And you’ve only made 3 trips to the grocery store that month instead of 4 or 5.
- Waste Less.
The national average is that Americans throw out 40% of the food we purchase. That’s huge. Start monitoring what you throw out often and stop buying it. Or buy less of it. I bet without even trying, most of us could trim 10-25% this way. Add it to the “one more day” tip above: Instead of going to the store today, what should I really eat today before it has to be thrown out?
- Eat and Repurpose Leftovers
If your family doesn’t already do so, embrace the leftovers. They make a great cheap lunch for the following day and in a lot of cases actually taste better than they did the night before. I have found tremendous success when I repurpose them into a different meal. Last night’s leftover pork tenderloin is getting diced up and tossed with rice and broccoli for stir fry. Get into the habit of this when doing your meal plan and your grocery shopping. You buy one packet of chicken, but it’s chicken and baked potatoes on Monday and chicken stirfry on Wednesday. Baked chicken on Sunday becomes chicken soup later on–and all you need for that is a bag of noodles and a few veggies.
- Buy in Bulk only when it makes sense to.
Some of your kitchen staples and should be bought in bulk. Rice, oats, and flour are the most commonly bought things that should be bought in bulk. This also goes for things like canned tuna, cream cheese, and salt. I recommend doing some price comparison between Costco, Walmart, Aldi, and your local ethnic food store. If stored carefully, many products can last for a very long time. I keep many pantry staples like flour in the freezer.
- Have a Few Extra Meals in the Freezer
Remember when I talked about repurposing leftovers? How about freezing them? I made a large batch of sloppy joe a few weeks ago and only got a “meh” response on it. So, into the freezer, it went! Next time we’re tempted to do takeout, we can heat and eat instead. The truth is that no matter how prepared you are, no matter how much you do to make sure your family eats cheaply, there will come a day when you’re too tired to cook or something else has thrown a wrench in your carefully crafted plans. Well, it never hurts to plan ahead for this sort of thing too. Have some meals in the freezer that are already cooked and you just have to heat up. It will keep you from ordering take out on those difficult days. I also freezer leftover meats (think Thanksgiving turkey, a whole roasted chicken) so that I can quickly whip up a pasta dish, stir fry or a shepherd’s pie.
- Cook in bulk when it makes sense to.
If I’m going to cook up a pound of ground beef for tacos, wouldn’t it make sense to just cook up 3lbs, and then freeze the other two? That saves me money per lb when I buy a larger package of meat. And, it saves me time because now the first step is done for two future meals. If I’m going to grill chicken tonight for dinner, why not grill extra that I can chop up and put on salad later in the week? Or, instead of one giant pan of lasagne with tons of leftovers, what if you put it in two 8×8 pans instead? Then you can either freeze one or cook it 4-5 days later (so as not to have the same meal back-to-back).
Grocery Coupons and Apps
So, yes, they exist. If you want you can still find paper coupons in the Sunday paper. Or e-coupons on websites. And there are savings apps too.
I don’t use them for many reasons. One is that they are cumbersome and time-consuming compared to the savings I get. Second is that the apps are a lot of work (take a picture of your receipt, upload it, blah blah) and I want some measure of control over who gets my data (which you forfeit when you download most of these apps).
However, if you wish, I have some of them listed in the “100 Ways to Save Money” post below.