Monday, March 12, 2012

Ways to Stretch (or Cut Back) Your Grocery Budget

As I stood in the checkout line at my local grocery store on Saturday I almost gasped aloud as the cashier read the total. I couldn't figure it out. I hadn't bought anything unusual. Sadly, the total has become the norm rather than the exception lately, as food prices continue to rise. In just the past few months, my grocery bill has increased by $20 each week – and I'm buying the same stuff I always have.

While bemoaning my food price miseries to my friends, they were shocked too, though for entirely different reasons.

"You only pay what each week? I pay almost double that!" was the common reply.

While talking to my husband about this, I realized we really do have a low shopping bill, but a lot of that has to do with some very conscious choices we make about food. I figured I'd share a few of these.

Tip 1: Go Shopping with Your Husband
My husband goes shopping with me every week. Before you get too ahead of yourself thinking that's so romantic, I think he does it more to check my spending than anything. And it works. Whenever I'm tempted to throw in a bunch of stuff that would be nice, but – let's be honest – I won't use when push comes to shove, he asks me to pause and reevaluate if I really need it. He never tells me I can't get something, but just having someone there to help make decisions makes a big difference.

Another benefit of having a husband with you, besides a nice excuse to hold hands on a really lame, but affordable date, is he knows what the prices are. That way, he won't complain if you don't come home with three packages of steak that week.

Tip 2: Plan Your Meals Around the Meat Deals
Most people go to the store with their meals planned out and suck it up and buy the supplies, even if they are expensive. Don't. Go to the list with a variety of meals in mind, that use a number of different meats. That way, if steak or roast is expensive, go for a pork or chicken meal. If there's a killer deal on chicken thighs, buy them and make a few meals out of them. Sure, you might not make your favorite meal for a couple weeks, but eventually the meat you want will go on sale and you can make it then.

Tip 3: Limit Your Meats
Meat is the number one food item that can skyrocket your grocery bill. And most men have a strange primeval obsession with it. But, when budgets are tight, one of the first places you can cut is in the meat department. No, I don't mean a nicer cut of meat. I mean less meat.

I typically only buy a package of chicken once every two or three weeks and freeze it (granted, only my husband and I actually eat the chicken). Unless there's a good deal on steak or pork, I will usually buy a chub of ground beef and/or a package of bacon. This gets us through the week just fine. Why ground beef and bacon? They are versatile and inexpensive meats that husbands and kids both love. On weeks where the nicer meats are on sale, I don't buy the ground beef or bacon. It's all about balance.

Tip 4: Look to Other Meats
When it comes to meat, steak and chicken immediately come to mind, but there are other types of meat that make great meals and are often a great deal. Think fish. Frozen tilapia is delicious, not overly fishy and can be made quickly. Imitation crab meat can be incorporated into a number of meals and is surprisingly affordable. Then, there's tuna fish and canned chicken (great for chicken salad). These meats may not be part of your repertoire right now, but there are a slew of great recipes online if you want to get started.

Tip 5: Find One Splurge Item
My husband is a soda junkie. His day isn't complete unless he has a drink of Dr. Pepper. So we buy a 12-pack each week, and usually the generic brand. But isn't this an unnecessary spenditure? Honestly, yes. But we have found that if we don't get the soda, he will go to the gas station or McDonalds a few times a week and buy a drink. He rationalizes it by thinking, "Hey, it's only a dollar." And it is only a dollar, but those dollars quickly add up to much more than what we spend on a 12-pack at the store.

The moral of the story is to find a splurge item. Only one. One for you and one for your spouse. That way you both feel satisfied that you got something special and it doesn't seem so bad that you're cutting back in other areas. Plus, it will keep you from eating out throughout the week. My favorite splurge? Cheese-Its.

Tip 6: Spend More at the Store and Less on Eating Out
We love eating out. Love it. Unfortunately, when money is tight, that's the first thing that has to go. And yet, it's a hard habit to break. But we've learned a strange phenomenon. If we spend $20 eating out, it's no big deal. Spending $20 extra at the grocery store? A heart attack. It makes no sense, but overcoming that obstacle has made a big difference. Twenty dollars can buy a lot of stuff. So, if you find yourself eating out a lot and want to cut back, spend a bit more at the store getting food you really enjoy and you'll be less tempted to go out to eat. Mostly...

Tip 7: Make Your Child Choose Their Treat
If you're not careful, your cart can quickly get filled up with treats for your child. That adds up quickly. Cut costs by making your child choose one or two treats. This provides them an opportunity to make choices and take ownership for those choices.

Tip 8: Cut the Meat in Half
Once you're at home, one of the easiest tips to make the food go further is to split the meat. For a small family, a roast can make two meals. Sure, it would be nice to eat it all at Sunday dinner, but the minute the roast is done, I cut it in half and put it away for another meal. My husband complained at first, but now he's used to it and appreciates having roast twice in a week rather than just once. I also cut my package of bacon in half.

Tip 9: Sides Make a Dish Go Further
This tip I learned from my mother in law, who is a pro at stretching a dollar. One of the first things I learned about my husband when we got married was he always expected a side dish or two with every meal. At first, I was offended, thinking he didn't think I had done a good job on the main dish, but I soon realized that was the way he had grown up. His mother made multiple sides for every meal. No, she wasn't some overly ambitious chef. She understood a simple principle: sides make a dish go further.

Here's how it works. Make your main dish how you normally would, only cut down on the meat a bit. To make up for this, add a side of vegetables or rice or potatoes. Vegetables are a particularly good side because they are filling, affordable and good for you. If your family isn't big into vegetables, another great side is bread. My mother in law makes bread all the time, and while I love her rolls, I don't always have the motivation to make them. A simple solution? Buy a pack of Rhodes rolls. They are easy to prepare and make your meal go further.

Tip 10: Make a Little Extra for Hubby's Lunch
Finally, when making a meal, it can be very beneficial to make a little extra so you can save the leftovers for your husband's lunch the next day. Fortunately, my husband will eat just about anything and has no problems eating leftovers. In fact, he looks forward to having leftovers to eat rather than making a sandwich or eating frozen meals. Lunches get expensive really fast, so leftovers can save a lot of money.

Each of these tips were born out of cost-cutting necessity and were tough to implement at first, but now that we're used to them it is no problem at all.

What budget-saving shopping tips do you have?
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