Thursday, September 19, 2013

How to spend less than $400/month on groceries

I've got to be honest - that really could read "less than $300/month on groceries". For my family of 5 - 2 adults, 2 pre-schoolers and a baby - that's what we spend. And while you might count that as 2 full appetites and 2 small ones, truth is, my 2 year old eats as much as I do at dinner time now.
But really, that's what I spend per month to feed our young family. Mind you, that's not really by choice; it's a necessity. We don't have much more at the end of bills and automatic withdrawls to pay for groceries. What does this mean for our family? Do we go without? Are we deprived of quality, healthy, good-tasting food?

Well, you read this blog - you decide.

Truth is, we eat well in our home. I quite enjoy cooking, and experimenting, and trying different flavors and techniques. I like to make my own recipes up, and I've grown to dislike most packaged and frozen foods. In part because, well, we can't afford them. Things like taquitos, pizza pops, chicken fingers and the like... those bad boys cost money. More than I'm willing to pay. And since I started limiting my exposure to them, I've grown an intolerance for their tastes. So really, we eat better because I'm too cheap to pay for the bad stuff.

Now, I know prices vary regionally. Some people may read this and not have access to bountiful, inexpensive produce the same way that I do. Living in Alberta, there will always be some type of fruit for less than $1.20/lb. Living so close to some of the best meat in the world, I can also get high-quality beef, pork and chicken for a reasonable price. But wherever you live, there are some general rules you can hold to, to help you save on groceries. This isn't a specific list of recipes using lower-costing ingredients, because those change, but rather a list of principals, that never change. Stick with these, and you may find you don't need to spend what you've spent in the past. I know it's worked for me.

How to Spend Less Than $400/month on Groceries

Rule #1: If it's not on sale, DON'T BUY IT!
Some households have certain foods that they always keep in their house - be it a favorite cereal, a specific type of snack, even a preferred fruit. Not so, in my house. We constantly have different foods in our house, because sale prices constantly change. It doesn't matter if I love peaches - I'm not buying fresh peaches in the middle of winter when they're imported, flavorless, and $3.50/lb. It won't happen. And if my boys love Lucky Charms, but Lucky Charms aren't on sale, they know we won't have them in the house for a while - and they're okay with that.
I remember when we were on vacation in the mountains and my husband was looking at some item in a gift shop. My oldest boy, who would've just been 3 at that time, walked up and said, "Sorry Daddy - you can't buy that. It's not on sale." My boys have been trained to look for the deal, and they don't feel like they're suffering because of it; they just understand that's how shopping works.
Now, there are a handful of items this rule does not apply to: milk, bread, eggs.... that's very nearly it. If we run out of peanut butter, but peanut butter isn't on sale that week - no peanut butter. If we run out of margarine but it's not on sale that week - dry toast for Mommy for a while.
Things like juice, snack foods, favorite cereals, frozen foods and canned items all fall to the mercy of the sales flyer. I will not pay full price for any of those things, unless someone has asked me to bring a specific item to a meal.
We eat seasonal veggies because that's what's on sale. I have recipes for squash, potatoes and apples in the fall, and asparagus and artichokes in the spring, and beans, tomatoes and peaches through the summer.
We have favorite dishes that are our go-tos, but if we don't have it stocked in the house, and it's not on sale, we won't be eating those for a while! This means I have to be willing to experiment with different foods, but it's worth the money we save. Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts might be an ideal blank-slate for cooking with, but until the frozen 4 kg box goes on sale for $2.99/lb, we won't be eating those. Actually, that's my general guideline: no cut of meat over $3/lb, unless it's a special occasion. And usually I shoot for less than $2/lb.

Rule #2: When it is on a good sale, BUY LOTS OF IT!
If you see a good price - pounce! And stock up! To spend this little on groceries each month, it's basically necessary to have a good freezer. Ours isn't huge; we have a half-sized chest freezer, but it gives us enough room. Warehouse packs of meat often go on the cheapest sales, so if ground beef, chicken thighs or pork loin are on sale, I buy more than just what we'll need for that week. Buy it, portion it, and freeze it! I mentioned my $3/lb meat rule above. Well, when drumsticks hit $1/lb, I buy a couple warehouse packs!
In the summer, lots of produce goes down to $1/lb, or less, so it's not unusual for me to pick up a flat of blueberries, of which 90% of will go into my freezer!
Canned goods that get marked down to $1/can (beans, tomatoes, etc) I will stock up on as well, and I always load up on pasta when it's on a good sale; when everything else is expensive, pasta can be a cheap meal, but if you stock up when it's on sale, it's extra cheap!

Rule #3: Even if it's on sale, DON'T BUY IT UNLESS IT'S A GOOD PRICE!
A local flyer was touting their whole Wild Pink Salmon for $0.89/100 g as their sale price. Sounds good, except I happen to know that the same grocer had them down to $0.39/100 g a month before. When regular price off-season is $1.29/100 g, sure $0.89/100 g looks like a good price, but if you know how low the price can go, and stock up when it gets there, you'll get the goods, but for even less.
I laugh at 'sale prices' sometimes. Sometimes all you need to do is look at the 'Amount Saved' area on the sale tag to notice that the store was just trying to get you in the door; 3 cents saving off a can of tomatoes hardly counts as a sale, but I've seen places do that plenty.
Just because it has a sale tag doesn't mean it's the best deal you can get. Familiarize yourself with pricing cycles (ducks go on sale in the late winter/early spring, fresh fish are on sale in the early summer, beef is often cheapest during grilling season, while pork is often your best bet in the winter), and get to know the best prices for your region.
You see that beans are on sale 2/$5. You know that your grocer has a warehouse sale on in a few weeks where the beans usually go for 5/$5... hold off for the good price.
And don't be fooled by sales for "$1 a pork chop" - what size of chop? Is it a decent cut? It's much safer to shop by price-per-weight than per piece.

Rule #4: Meal plan using flyers
I never know what I'm making 2 weeks in advance. Why? Because I don't know what will be on sale! Sure, ground beef seems like a fairly cheap go-to meat, but what if pork side ribs are down to $1.30/lb that week? Of course we'll be having ribs!
Some people stick with their same rotation of 'low cost' meals, using ingredients that tend to be cheaper than others on a regular basis. The issue with doing this though is that sometimes you'll spend more for that 'cheaper' cut, than you will for a better cut on a good sale.
I have Duck Night on an annual basis. Honestly, who can afford to eat duck? I can - when the sale price goes down to cheaper than their chicken is! A big batch of pulled pork can be pricey when you pay full price, but when pork shoulders go on sale, that's a hefty amount of food for not a lot of money!
I'll never turn down a cut of meat for $1/lb. This week in our flyer, Fresh pork picnic roasts are $0.99/lb. I'm not crazy about ham typically, but I'm sure I can make it taste yummy when it's that cheap. And if you're super adventurous, keep your eye out for unbutchered cuts. One local grocer sells pork legs (literally, the whole leg - hoof and all) for $0.19/lb. If you're not opposed to handling the meat, you can feed a lot of people with that.
Don't miss out on the chance to save on good food, just because you're convinced some meals are 'cheaper'
Oh, and check multiple flyers. I check 4 different flyers each week to see where the best prices are, and while I have a 'regular' store I shop at, I'm not unwilling to drive down the road to another store to save $1/lb on produce.
And even if you're opposed to shopping around at multiple stores, you can watch for sales trends. Grocers get the 'okay' from manufacturers to put items on sale typically. So if Breyers ice cream is $2.50 at one store this week, but $5 at your preferred store - wait a week. Odds are, your grocer got the same deal, they're just waiting a bit to promote it.

Rule #5: Don't compromise on quality
I sent my husband to the store for me this past week. I needed maple syrup, and knowing my take on spending as little money as possible, he bought the store brand syrup for me. That was all well and good until I opened the syrup yesterday (while I was making a special meal for another family, mind you), and I was highly disappointed to find that their was almost no maple smell to my syrup. And syrup was a generous title, actually. It smelled, and tasted, like slightly burnt sugar water. It didn't matter that we saved $1 for the bottle of syrup; in reality, we wasted $8 on a crappy product. There are some things that you can get store brand on - overall I have been very impressed by Compliments brand products at Sobeys. But some things, like Fruit Loops, ketchup, canned beans in sauce, soy sauce, margarine, and boxed macaroni and cheese, need to be bought by brand name. This doesn't change my rule about only buying on sale - it just means I won't always buy the absolutely cheapest thing on the shelf. What's the point if I just feel like throwing it away once I taste it? I eat good food. And I do it cheaply. But I won't let me cheapness affect my culinary expectations.

Rule #6: Keep a couple splurges
Sometimes, you really just need prosciutto. Or goat cheese! Or Modena balsamic vinegar that comes corked in a bottle and you could drink straight if you felt so inclined... It's true, I buy those things. Granted, I also have a cheaper balsamic vinegar on hand, for when you need the taste but the quality doesn't matter as much, but that Modena holds a special place in my cupboard. I had to juggle some grocery purchases the month I got it, same with when I buy my high-end Black Olive Oil; it's not usual for me to spend $20 on a bottle of anything! But it happens from time to time, and I'm so glad I've made the decision to carry on with that. During the summer, it's good steaks. Around Christmas time it's Hickory Farms smoked cheese. I don't let it break my budget, but sometimes I do need to budget around it. But I never feel like I'm deprived when I know I've got the good stuff kicking around in my house. And those Chicken Breasts that finally went on sale in the frozen warehouse pack for $2.99/lb? They taste awesome with some of my Modena poured on top.

Rule #7: Go Vegetarian from time to time
Health professionals recommend it for keeping cholesterol in check. Vegans promote it for awareness of conditions animals are raised in. Chefs suggest you do it to expand your culinary offerings. I'm saying you should do it for your bank account. Quinoa may cost more than rice, but it still costs less to fill up on than steak does. And in a big stir fry with lots of veggies that were leftover in your fridge, no one's really going to miss the chicken strips. A good chili is possible without the beef. And black beans can be seasoned in chili powder to complete your Taco Salad. Give it a try, maybe once a week.

This is how I do it. It's nice not being tied down to habit or feeling stuck in a rut. Really, saving money on groceries is adventurous!

A couple of disclaimers: While I write this, I am not pregnant, which means I am not plagued by cravings or a highly limited list of foods I'm able to keep down. I do not currently have gallstones or another restrictive diet. I do not have a formula-fed baby. This list is NOT intended to make ANYONE feel bad about their current grocery budget! If you have other circumstances in your life that make it complicated, and sometimes even impossible, to spend this little - I get it. You are by no means a bad person for spending more than $400/month on groceries. Location, time of life, circumstances and busyness all affect this. As a stay-at-home mom, I'm blessed with ample time to think on the meals I'm going to make and to actually prepare them.
This list is meant to give help, and hope, to those who wonder how they can cut back. If you're already doing all these things, and you still spend more than I do, you're likely doing all you can. How much we do, or do not, spend on our groceries doesn't determine our degree of success in life. I'm not 'winning' because I spend so little. I spend so little because that's all I have! And if you are in a similar financial situation, and are looking for ways to save a few bucks, I hope you found some helpful tips on this post!

Mrs. VanderLeek ;)

No comments:

Post a Comment

I would love to know what you think of my recipes, or even of my antics! Let me know!