Eek! It's been awhile since I have posted, after being so consistent. My new laptop decided, only a month after buying it, that the motherboard was no good, so she's been in the shop having a new one installed. All better now (I hope!), so back to work :)
Over the last several months I have been honing in on our grocery budget, trying to be as efficient and frugal with it as I can, while maintaining my sanity and our health. We've done pretty well. For example, there is nothing we *need* to purchase this week. Canned tomatoes are on sale at our Fareway at a good stock up price, so I may stop by on Saturday, since I noticed just a couple weeks ago we were nearing our last cans of tomatoes with chiles, but otherwise, we are good. That is such a freeing feeling.
So, we have had to back away some local buying for the winter, as we are also working on paying off all, yes, all, of our debt. I have wanted to do this for sometime, and finally Dad is completely on board. While we are working on that, prices dictate what we buy, and as much as I love to buy local, if it isn't the best price going for now (which, during the farmer's market season, it most certainly can be), we have to eschew it. We still have our bulk meat purchases, but most everything else, minus about one dozen eggs a week from our girls, is coming from local stores.
Even buying from the store can cost you a lot. We, through various local bloggers, found that ad shopping specifically helped out tremendously, as well as being willing to set space aside for stockpiling. We already used a large deep freeze to store meat, but found with the ad shopping it became even more useful. I also had already started to stockpile a little as I wanted to be prepared for the unknown-more economic difficulty, family illness, job loss or zombies-so I just have had to expand this, which I also wanted to do anyway. By those small changes, and the occasional use of coupons, we have whittled our weekly costs down to around $70. That is an average; if there is a lot on sale we may write a check for $150, but then not need to go to the store the next week, or only need milk.
How this works-first of all I have implemented the use of a household notebook. This is a binder where I have a variety of different lists and calendars to track what food we currently have or should have in our pantry and freezer, what has been on sale week to week (so I can track cycles and plan purchases accordingly), envelopes with clipped coupons, bills, and our general schedule. I also have a little notebook I use to track what the lowest price I've found on something is, though I have been slacking on updating it lately. That little book is really important, though. Looking at it often, I now have a good idea of what the best prices for things are, and can walk through the store and spot when something is a good deal. Having the book on hand is always handy, though, too.
Last summer I went shopping at most places in the metro area to compare prices on the things we were purchasing regularly. This included Hy Vee, Fareway, Aldi, Sam's Club and Costco. I have memberships to the latter two set to expire in May. After going back and forth on whether to renew them, just a couple weeks ago I decided not to. Here's why-they cost more than they save, at least for us. I figured costs, adjusting for the cost of membership, and the few, and there are only a few if you know how to shop ads, items that are cheaper do not make up for the cost of membership, time or gas, for us to use these places. If you watch ads, and don't even worry about coupons, you can easily save far more money just stocking up when things are on sale. I also found that prices between Aldi and the warehouses (and often Wal Mart, too, but I thoroughly dislike shopping at Wal Mart; it is too big and too busy and too easy to impulse buy) were often comparable, after figuring the membership fees. So, you can forgo the fees and pay the same price, but for smaller sizes. (Note-I compared price per unit or ounce, so that everything was comparable, no matter what size was being sold. A tricky way to get people to pay more for something is to sell it in the jumbo pack and make it seem like you're getting more for less, when you aren't, actually.)
Now, size is another thing that I found to be important. I don't know about other families, but we use things in smaller, more manageable sizes, far more efficiently. The larger sizes equal a lot more waste, though not intentionally. It just was often the case that things would spoil or deteriorate in quality before we were able to get through them. This was also a major reason we decided that the big stores weren't as big on savings as we thought. A gigantic bag of tortilla chips might be a few cents cheaper (they actually came to 1 cent per ounce cheaper at Costco than Aldi's normal price, and several cents more expensive than watching ads for 99 cent bags, which happened just a couple weeks ago, and stocking up), but because of the nature of tortilla chips, even closing them tightly whenever we were finished with the bag, they still were stale before we got through them. Now, I can use stale chips on casseroles and such, but we don't buy them for that purpose, and we would have to open a new bag to eat with salsa so it wasn't saving us anything. Some things could be frozen, but that meant a lot of work to repackage them into smaller portions for easier use later, and though I absolutely didn't mind, the time and mess involved made it not worth my time. Homeschooling and a newborn has me busy enough.
Not renewing that membership means that come May, no more big box stores for us. That leaves Wal Mart (which I prefer to not go to, but they do have a great price match policy. Many of the other grocery stores in town will match nearby competitors, though, and I generally shop in Altoona where this is the case.), Dahls (too expensive, in general), Hy Vee, Fareway and Aldi. Most weeks we are heading to Fareway or HyVee, depending on who has the better ad. This varies a lot, as often what we are stocking up on is a store brand, so it is more difficult to match prices (though Fareway often does a great job of doing this anyway, and without even having to bring an ad along. They just mark their stuff down to compete.). Often produce will be the breaking point, determining where we head. It is incredible how much more we spend on food because we don't take the time to think about what we're purchasing or planning ahead. I was really, really guilty of it.
Now, I should mention that we make most of our meals at home. Dad, since starting to pay off debt, has even started to take his lunch to work most days. We have a few items that are processed we get, like canned chili, box mac n cheese and cake mixes. All of those are for those times when we are completely frazzled, or we're going camping, or for emergencies when fresh alternatives aren't an option. I don't know what a difference in a grocery bill buying a lot of processed goods would make. We also use cloth napkins and towels, and make most of our own households cleaners. Those we don't make we are pretty picky about, so we splurge a little. Paper products and cleaners can get really expensive.
Something else to keep in mind is the necessity to keep track of the food you have or knowing creative ways to store things on sale. For examples, those canned veggies will eventually not be too terribly palatable. Rather than squinting at a date each time we go down we do two things: rotate stock or face it, as it was called back when I was a grocery store employee, and we also took a tip from a couponing lady, and write in a big black marker on the front of the can what the date it expires is. Easy to read and understand and those rules work for everything. We also keep like items together-canned goods, baking goods, boxed, bagged. We can easily send the kids down to grab something we may need in a pinch.
Creativity is often needed to use or store those store bought items. I posted previously on our solution for mushrooms-making a base for cream of mushroom soup, or even just sauteing them in butter and freezing, or they dry beautifully. The same goes for other produce-often they'll freeze as is, or can easily be made into something else that will store better.
As far as easy to grab meals, we have a few solutions there, too. I splurged on a giant box of restaurant grade food containers, pint size (though I think I'll end up going back for quarts, too), to store single serving size portions of meals in. I generally make more than we need for meals. Not always intentionally, but we never know how hungry we're going to be. Some nights we'll eat an entire pot of beef and noodles, others we'll have a bowl and be satisfied. I am not going to waste that food I worked so hard to get at a good price and prepare, but Dad doesn't eat leftovers (at least not knowingly in their original form, mwah ha ha ha ha ha) and often there will be more than even the kids and I can reasonably eat, so our new MO is to freeze them in those brilliant containers. I know we try to avoid plastics, but there are some places where they are just so handy, and the freezer is one. By freezing in single serving portions, they are perfect for sending in lunches, or if the kids just want sandwiches for lunch but I want something hot, I can pull one out. Another thing they have proved handy in is helping others. Dad's grandpa loves a hot meal, but his grandma is not as nimble as she once was, and it is hard for either to be in the kitchen much. Those single servings are perfect to send an assortment of meals his way (she tends to eat sparingly, and mostly raw fruits and veggies). He can keep them in the freezer for when he needs them, and has instant home-cooked meals handy rather than processed food that often contains far too much salt and sugar for what his varied health concerns necessitate. Big leftovers, like another meal's worth, we freeze in aluminum casserole pans or gallon sized ziplocks for our use later. I hardly call them leftovers, though, as often it is intentional that I make enough to freeze an entire meal for later use.
Another thing we do is include the kids in our food situation. They know that we buy on sale items or items on the list, help us find things on the shelf, count items as we put them in the cart, help carry them to the house and put them away. This helps them understand why we buy what we do and where we store things. This is all training for when they are older, something I didn't have but would sure have enjoyed once I was on my own. Too many families buy on a whim. It is amazing what plans can do! As they get older they will be invited to be more involved in the planning process, too. For now, just talking the entire time we're shopping and putting things away helps them to understand. They also have a great grip on why we buy certain foods and not others. Come this spring they'll help with our garden again, too, and the preservation process. Food is so vital to life and health and yet we treat it so nonchalant. If we put as much time in training our kids about food in our lives (as well as money and God) as we do using technology, it would be amazing what a difference in health and happiness we would see in our country.
It may seem like a lot of work, but once you get a good plan or set up, it really flows nicely and is so worth it. I would rather take the nearly $80 (!) we save each week and take the kids out for an occasional dinner out or buy a movie (or for now, pay a little extra on a bill) than spend it on food. Oh, and I should also mention that we also try to meal plan, too. I don't stick hard and fast to it, but having a basic plan, knowing what we need week to week, helps a lot. It also takes stress off of the "what should we eat" problem that arises around 5 o'clock each day.
Try doing just one thing different the next month and see what happens. We have implemented all these strategies a little at a time-change isn't easy. But, by doing so we have seen major difference and great improvement, in a lot of different areas.