I've been at this grocery budget thing for awhile now. Over the years, I've learned a few tricks along the way that help me maximize what I get and minimize my budget.
Here's what I've learned!
1. Shop from your own pantry.
This sounds a little strange, but has gone a very long way in cutting our grocery bill. As you see things on sale, buy what you'd need for 8-12 weeks worth. Sales cycles typically go on about an 8-12 week rotation, so that's what you'll need to get you to the next sale. So, for example, let's say cheese goes on sale. If I go through 1 pack a week, I'd need to buy around 10 packs to get through to the next sale. This way, you're not buying what you need for the week...rather, you're always buying what's on sale!
2. Don't meal plan.
I hear the gasps from bloggers...hear me out. When you meal plan, you typically make a list of things that you need to pick up from the store to fulfill that meal plan (whether they're on sale or not). This costs way more! Instead, plan your meals as you go, using the "shop from your own pantry" method above. Trust me, I'm just as much of a planner as the next person, but it's not the cheapest way! And, if you use #1, you'll have a great selection at your house, so it won't be too difficult to "plan" your meals.
3. Coupons, Coupons, Coupons!
I can't say enough for using coupons. I tried to get into the habit when we first got married, and just couldn't. Then, one day, somebody posted a link to iheartpublix.com, and I never looked back. These sites today make it SO easy to coupon...seriously, they tell you which insert to look in or actually link to the printable coupon. Go here to learn more - she explains it way better than I ever could! One thing I do recommend - don't just use coupons without store sales. Make sure you pair the two up for maximum savings. That link above explains everything!
4. Use and buy convenience foods when needed.
Convenience foods (frozen meals, pre-packaged meals) have their place. There are just times when you don't want to cook...you have three options. Suck it up and cook (which you know you won't), go out and pay WAY too much for fast food/to-go food, or use a convenience meal. Guess which one's the cheapest? You don't want to do this all the time of course, but I definitely keep these around the house. I typically stock-up when you find great sales and coupons to match...after all, they're usually pretty shelf-stable, so you can buy a good bit!
This goes without saying...make a budget and (try to) stick to it. I, personally, aim for $50 a week...that covers meat, produce, groceries, and toiletries for us. Do I always stick to it? Nope. But limits just help you stay at your goal.
A good reference point...I have 3 people eating in my house. We eat almost all of our meals at home, and I like to stick to about $1 per meal. So 3 people times 3 meals a day is around 9 dollars a day...or about $50 a week! So that's my budget.
6. Buy in bulk.
Especially for meat and produce, I've found it's best to buy in bulk. If I find a great deal one week on a veggie we eat, I buy a lot, prep if needed, and freeze...and we have that veggie for months! Of course, the big warehouse stores (Sam's, Costco) are great for this, but I buy my meat through Zaycon foods. They offer great quality meat and really low prices. I have purchased their bulk chicken twice...just divide it into freezer bags when I get home, and we have chicken for quite awhile!
7. Cook in bulk.
I love doing freezer meals. When you're making a recipe, just cook double and freeze it! That way you have a meal ready to be thawed out and served (rather than possibly making those expensive fast food runs). It cuts down on getting sick of leftovers, reduces energy costs (only have to fire up the oven once!), and you can use up some of that bulk purchase you just made. Win, win, win!
8. Make a list.
If you coupon, this will happen...don't go to the grocery store without a list. Wandering through the aisles is the easiest way to throw impulse (read: expensive) purchases in the cart. They can add up quickly! I make my list from the right to the left of the store. You kind of have to know your grocery store to do this, but it makes it easier to stick to the list!
(Updated 1/3/13: for those of you who aren't big on the stockpiling/"shop your pantry" method - you can still save by planning ahead! I recently started using eMeals when I discovered that stockpiling was much more difficult in my new area. I'd recommend checking it out - it makes meal plans for you based on your needs and the coupons at your local grocery store!)
9. Don't go to the store hungry.
I fall victim to this too sometimes. You are SO much more likely to make impulse purchases at the grocery store if you go hungry. Eat before you go!
10. Look for almost out-of-date items at the store.
This is a great trick to saving on produce and meat. A lot of times, grocery stores will mark their perishable items down right before they can't sell it anymore, just to get rid of it. If you know you'll be using it quickly, stock up!
11. Take distractions out of your grocery trip.
Being distracted during a grocery store visit is another easy way to make those purchases you probably shouldn't. Leave the kids at home if you can. Don't go when you have to be somewhere in 15 minutes. Got something on your mind? Put that trip off.
12. Don't be brand loyal.
This is a huge mistake when it comes to grocery shopping. We all have our favorite brands for certain products...throw that out the window. Chances are, your brand rarely goes on sale or has the best coupon for that product. Instead, buy what's cheapest that's a comparable quality.
13. Have a "Use Up" container.
Keep a container in your fridge and your pantry for items that are about to expire...your "Use Up" container. Go through your food about once a week and place items in here that might be about to go bad. Make it a priority to use these items instead of throwing them away!
14. Substitute recipe ingredients when needed.
If you're out of an ingredient for a recipe, don't just go out and buy it...get creative! A lot of times things can be substituted that make little to no difference in a recipe. I always google "substitutions for _____________ in recipes" when I'm in this situation...you'll be shocked how many different ingredients you'll get.
15. If you must buy an ingredient for a recipe, know where to buy it.
Let's say I need a carton of sour cream for a recipe. I always hop online before making the quick trip to the store to see where the best price is. This might not be an option if you only have one grocery store near you, but I have 3 - so I check out the weekly sales quickly to see if anyone has it on sale. I also search the coupon database to see if there are any coupons out there that would make it even cheaper!
Gas cost is also something you have to factor into this. Is it worth saving 20 cents at a store if you have to drive 10 extra miles to get there? No.
16. Know your maximum "buy price."
Before you ever make your grocery list, know what the maximum price you'll buy an item is. This is a great list. Of course, it will vary by region, and you'll need to learn your store's best prices, but don't buy items that are over this price if you can help it.
17. For non-food items...opt for reusable instead of disposable.
This has been a great trick at our house. Instead of using countless rolls of aluminum foil/plastic wrap to store food, we bought a cheap set of Rubbermaid containers to hold leftovers. I also use dish rags instead of paper towels (when sanitary)...paper towels can be expensive if overused!
18. Make your grocery runs in 1 trip.
It may sound odd to spend more per trip to save, but it works. Not only do you not have to pay the fuel cost to get to the grocery store multiple times, but many grocery stores offer coupons to save x amount off of x purchase. For example, I am a big Publix shopper - my Publix takes the $5/30 purchase Winn Dixie coupons from Enjoy the City books. So I can either make 3 $10 runs per week and save nothing extra, or combine those trips and save an extra $5. No brainer! Plus, it's just easier not having to go to the grocery store multiple times a week.
19. Don't be afraid to try something new!
Most of the time, when a manufacturer rolls out a new product, they'll offer big discounts in the form of coupons and store sales to get you to buy it (and become hooked). So take advantage of it! Look for coupons for newer items...usually, there is at least one grocery store in my area that will be running a sale on it too. Plus, it's just kind of fun to try something new! :)
20. Bring those reusable bags.
Many stores give a discount for customers that use reusable shopping bags...take advantage of it! You're also doing your part for the environment this way, and you take up less space in your trash (read: buy less trash bags).
I hope this helps some of y'all...I can all but guarantee it will significantly lower your grocery bill if you implement these! If you'd like to follow along with my weekly grocery trips, click here.