A little while ago I wrote about how we have been working on our budget and how I use Quicken to track our finances. I love the Savings Goals category and it has helped us tremendously the last few months to keep track of how much we have available for our bigger expenses that happen a few times a year. Another way we have been trying to wrangle our budget is by cutting back on our food spending. We rarely eat out. We stopped many years ago when we first started looking at our budget and now that we have food allergies it is nearly impossible to find something that works for everyone. Mr. Oscoey is also an excellent cook and usually when we eat out we are left with the feeling that the money was not worth eating food that we could have made better at home so now we just eat out maybe 5 or six times a year for special occasions.
When we first started looking at our expenses many years ago about the time of the recession of 2008 we did what most people were typically doing around that time. All of our focus went towards paying down debt and getting ahead in our careers. We cut out many things. All of our remodeling plans were on indefinite hold, vacations had to be done on the cheap and we brought our own food for lunch, new clothing was something that required great discussion and personal reflection as to whether it was necessary and we rarely spent money on family activities. We kept our grocery budget tight and managed to spend about $400 for three people and two small dogs. Our food got a little predictable but we got really good at making meals out of whatever was in the fridge. We followed these simple rules to keep our grocery budget in check.
Frugal Food Spending Basics
- Eating out should be saved for a few special occasions a year. (Birthdays do not necessarily count)
- Shop sales and buy frequently used items in bulk.
- Plan you meals around what you have in the house.
- Buy produce that is in season and buy a lot of it to can, freeze or dehydrate.
- Buy meat that has not been cut into convenience sized pieces and cut it yourself. (whole pork loin, pork shoulder, bone-in/skin on chicken thighs)
- Spend a limited amount of money on junk food and cook/bake the rest.
- Going out for coffee counts as one of your rare “eating out” times and should be avoided if at all possible.
- Learn how to cook your own food, believe me it is worth it!
- Keep portion sizes under control.
- Pack your lunch every day.
- Planned leftover dinner nights help prevent food waste.
I look back on that time with my husband with fondness. We really worked together as a family to make things work. Our oldest daughter swam competitively and we spent our family time in the cheapest hotel room we could find wherever her competitions were located. The three of us spent a lot of time hanging out at home and going on walks with the dogs. Life was pretty simple and even though we didn’t have a lot of wiggle room with our finances we still had a bunch of fun.
Everything changed when we had our second daughter. Our grocery budget doubled when she started solid foods and we were still buying whatever was on sale, mostly non-organic foods that were not processed. Slowly our super tight budget began to slip as our expenses grew. We moved a couple of years ago and then promptly had our son who was super high needs as a baby. Let me tell you when you are up all night with a screaming child and then trying to stay awake all day with kids that do not nap (even your six month old) it is really easy to give in and buy whatever you can microwave for the kids to eat. By the time dinner rolled around I was too exhausted to cook and since our kids needed to eat before Mr. Oscoey came home from work he could not cook dinner either. Needless to say our grocery budget went out the window and one day after the one year old started sleeping through the night I looked over our budget and was shocked by how much we were spending.
The first thing I did was to focus on what we were eating and when we were buying our food. It turned out that we were not really paying attention at all to what we actually needed but buying things willy-nilly when we were in the mood for them which resulted in a lot of uneaten food and things being buried in the back of the pantry. We were going to the grocery store almost every day to pick up one or two items and ending up with a basket of food. This my friends is not a good way to keep your grocery budget in check!
Once I figured out why we were spending so much I started to try and figure out how to fix it. I spent some time on Pinterest building up my Frugal Living board where I got some great tips, started paying attention to prices when I went to the store and started working on a grocery list every week. We buy most of our groceries at Costco so I when I pre-entered my scheduled transactions every month in Quicken I started adding my weekly grocery budget in there as well. This way I had a rough idea of how much we could spend every week and I definitely adjust it based on the previous week. Some weeks we only buy meat and a starch and others we stock up on most of our basics so it really varies but it is ok as long as we stay within our monthly budget.
What has worked for us so far is to have a rough idea of what we are eating for dinner that week and I try to buy as little as possible and make it work. If something is on sale I will stock up and most of our grocery money will go towards that item. We are mostly dairy and gluten free and the kids can’t have nuts packed in their school lunches so it gets a little tricky when I am trying to figure out what to send. I am required to send milk with the littlest one and he will only drink chocolate soy milk so I have been watching the prices on the individual Silk Soy Milk cartons and when they are below $1.00 each I buy as many as possible. Fred Meyers had them on sale a few weeks ago for $4.49 for a pack of 6 when you bought four so I bought four of them and got an excellent deal! I would have bought another four but I bought the last four they had. We also base what we are going to eat off of what is on sale. This week we bought a whole pork loin at Costco because they had them on coupon. It is much cheaper to buy the whole loin and cut it up yourself than to buy the pre-cut pieces. We have done this for many years and it is a great way to save money on meat!
Once I figured where our money was going I spent a couple of more months slowly building up our pantry so that we had items on hand when we could not go to the store due to either time constraints or when we had reached the end of our budget. This readily available stash of basics also serves as our emergency food supply. Everyone should have a couple of weeks worth of necessities stocked up! Here in the Pacific Northwest we worry about earthquakes and windstorms primarily but your emergency food supply can also be used in times of financial stress such as if you lose your job or are injured and paying large amounts of money for medical care. I buy one or two items a week to add to the pantry for leaner times. This week we bought some pre-made Spanish rice packets on clearance at Target. They were about $1.50 each and we bought three of them so our total was about $5.00. We also bought some sardines on sale at Costco which my husband and kids love to eat for lunch with avocados. To stock up we just bought two packs instead of one. They should last until the next sale and we can use them if the power ever goes out for a quick meal. It is really important that you stock your emergency food supply with items you will actually eat in every day life otherwise you will end up with a lot of food you will never eat. If we happen to buy something that we don’t end up eating I usually donate it to the local food bank or to someone in need on our Buy Nothing group.
When figuring out our monthly food budget I also looked at what type of things we were eating and tried to add more cheap carbs such as potatoes, cereal, beans and rice to make our dollar stretch farther. We now do a vegetarian/low meat meal at least once a week and usually it consists of a soup (lentil, bean, or noodle based) with vegetables that are needing to be eaten and home made chicken broth from leftover chicken bones, spaghetti with leftover meat and extra veggies added to the sauce or burritos made with rice, beans and leftover meat. I try and have the kids eat cereal or oatmeal a few times a week and they eat eggs almost every day for breakfast as well. We stopped buying junk food and are all eating healthier as a result.
Another way we tried to save money on our grocery bill was to grow a garden. This year was our first year so we had to buy a lot of gardening supplies such as plant boxes, soil, trellises and hoses so we definitely spent more than we saved but I think over time our costs will go down and we may begin to save a little money. It was well worth it for us to see the magic in our kids eyes when they eat the food they helped grow and we are eating more organic foods because we do not use pesticides. Every day my kids ask to pick ground cherries and that is their afternoon snack. All of our ground cherry plants are freeloaders that sprouted from last year’s $3.00 plant sale find so that was definitely money well spent! We haven’t really had to buy vegetables for a few weeks and we are overrun with tomatoes at the moment so I have really been enjoying the savings on our grocery bill! I would recommend starting out small if you haven’t ever grown a garden before and be mindful of how much water you will be using since that is a hidden cost of gardening.
Overall our quest to reduce our groceries has mostly been about awareness and working on not overspending. Every time we go to the store we ask ourselves if we really need whatever item or if we could just use something on hand. We are really working hard at not wasting our food and building our weekly shopping trip off of what we already have, not what we would fancy at the moment. Our bill has gone down a little and we still need to work on that but we are headed in the right direction and now that we are more aware it is becoming so much easier to keep track! My focus over the next few months is to reduce our grocery bill by about 25% which is a lot going though the holiday season. We host Thanksgiving, birthdays and events for our friends over the next few months so not going overboard with the cooking will be a welcomed challenge.
How are you cutting back on your grocery bill?