On last month’s income statement, one reader noticed that we had a particularly inexpensive month when it came to eating, spending $302 on groceries, and $214 on eating out and wrote us.
Hi PoP Family!
So I know you don’t normally go this route with your posts, but how on EARTH do you keep your grocery and food bills so low? Hubby and I just got married, and so far groceries are costing us close to $550/month plus another $200 on restaurants. We’re in Georgia, so the cost of living is a little more than you guys in FL but not by much, so that can’t be all of it! Do you have any “rules of thumb” you usually live by?
While I jotted Ashley a quick reply in the comments (citing my vegetarianism and Mr PoP’s lazy omnivore-ism as quick partial explanations), her question really made me think because compared to many folks who post on the MMM forums, we’re downright gluttonous in our food spending. But then again, I know we spend a ton less than other friends who live right near us, too. Here are some of those thoughts and seven “rules of thumb” that we’ve come to live/eat by.
But first, a few quick things to keep in mind…
First, July was a low spend month for food, largely because we wanted to make up for the “EAT ALL THE THINGS” attitude that we seemed to have in June (when we spent $422 on groceries and $228 on eating out). What we actually aim for on average is $350/month on groceries and $250/month on eating out.
Second, we are grazers. We don’t do the whole “sit down and eat dinner together” every night. That’s just not us at this point in our lives. Instead, I cook up a bunch of food on the weekend and we reheat and eat whenever we are hungry throughout the week. It means we end up repeating the same meals throughout a week, though if we had more freezer space (our usable freezer space is really small because our fridge kindof sucks) I might be able to plan better and use freezing to give us more variety.
Third, not knowing where you live, our food prices are definitely higher than the national averages, so don’t write too much off thinking that our COL for food is super low. Looking at nationwide BLS data for milk and eggs (using this site), our prices on those staples are 10% and 8% higher than the BLS national city average. (Milk: ours $4 average/ nationwide $3.62; eggs: ours $2.09 average /nationwide $1.94). So hopefully even if your average food prices are a bit higher than ours, there’s some info here that can help you get more out of your food spending.
Rule 1: Divide & Conquer
With those caveats in mind, we mostly do a “divide and conquer” approach to the food budget. Mr PoP is pretty much in charge of staying on budget for “eating out”, and I’m in charge of the “grocery” portion. This works for us because Mr PoP tends to consumes 75%+ of the eating out budget. That gets subdivided for him to manage easier as:
- $50 Coffee, which covers espresso beans for his fancy coffee setup + a couple coffees out per month
- $30 Work Cafeteria, here he occasionally buys drinks or snacks or a lunch when he forgets one
- $20 Fast Food, really we could rename this category ice cream and Chik-Fil-A =)
- $150 Restaurants, which ends up being one nice night out in the $80-$100 range (or 2 in the medium range) where we either splurge on ourselves or take friends out, and leaves room for a couple of smaller dates or lunches out with friends and colleagues.
With groceries, I try and stay under $350 overall, inclusive of alcohol and the occasional household items that are better buys at Publix that week or not worth the trouble of a special trip to Target for. (This month there seem to be a lot of these – dishwasher soap, dish soap, laundry soap, shampoo, toilet paper, but it varies.)
We try not to put restrictions on one another veering into the budget the other person is “responsible” for – I don’t need Mr PoP’s permission to go out to dinner with a friend, and he doesn’t need mine to stop at Publix for chocolate on the way home. But we both recognize Mr PoP is a horrible shopper when it comes to getting good values, so I encourage him to stay out of a Publix as much as possible. =)
Rule 2: Convenience and Pleasure Can Matter More Than Cost
To me, that is. Some people will drive to 9,000 different grocery stores to buy loss-leader sale items at each one. They’ll go to stores where employees are vastly underpaid. That’s not now I roll. With very few exceptions, our shopping is done at Publix, Trader Joes, and Whole Foods. Publix for general shopping, and TJs and Whole Foods for more specific items where they are our only option or the best deal on those items. These are all chains known for paying a fair wage and having high quality food and produce (unlike Walmart). My 3 stores of choice all came out very well represented in this survey on supermarkets that came out about a year ago, so clearly I’m not the only one that thinks these stores are tops. I’m also pretty lucky that they are all on (or not too far off) my well-worn path between our house and my office. Soooo convenient!
A note on Whole Foods: One way I keep impulse purchases down in this place where they can get pretty pricey is to not grab a cart or even a basket when I go in. With two hands as my carrying limit, and usually just a few things on my list, I physically can’t add a whole lot of other impulse items to my purchase without dropping something.
Rule 3: Accept the Indulgences & Plan Around Them
While we don’t do the foodie-grade cheeses regularly, we definitely have some “indulgences” within the grocery spending. These indulgences provide little in the way of nutrition, but we still buy them every month and I just can’t see it stopping anytime soon. (PoPs cannot survive on rice and beans alone.)
- $40 fancy beers (~$10/6-pack on average once per week)
- $25 chocolate/chewing gum (some fancy chocolate, some not so fancy chocolate, and Spearmint Extra)
- $15 bakery impulse buys (aka Mr PoP had a bad day at work and needs to comfort himself by consuming a $4 mini apple pie prepared by the Publix bakery for dinner)
- $20 crystal light (Even buying it strictly on BOGO, this is about how much my crystal
methlight habit costs us every month)
So that’s about $100. That leaves $250 left for the rest of the “food” which will actually sustain us and provide nutrition. $250/2 people / 30 days = $4.16 per person per day. With that, we aim to get the bulk of most lunch and dinner meals at around $1/serving to leave money for snacking in between as well.
Rule 4: Eliminate Waste
This is an area we still struggle with, but we’ve been trying to get better. If we’re having trouble finishing up the last couple servings of a batch, I try and intentionally not make anything else until that batch is all gone. Otherwise, knowing us, the older batch will get pushed to the back of the fridge and spoil.
Since getting my electric pressure cooker (which is also a slow cooker and yogurt maker – have I mentioned lately how much I LOVE my Instant Pot?), I’ve also started to keep a gallon sized bag in the freezer where I put scraps of vegetables. Things like carrot tops, ends of zucchini, kale, onion skins. I make sure the stickers are pulled off, and toss all the scraps in the bag I keep in the freezer. Then when the bag fills (~1x/month), I toss the frozen scraps, a bunch of water and a good pinch of salt in the pressure cooker and simmer it for a bit. This gives me the equivalent of ~3 quarts of nice vegetable stock that I freeze and use in soups later. While I haven’t tried it since I avoid cooking meat with bones, I imagine you could do the same thing with the scraps of chicken or something like that.
Rule 5: Keep Track of Regular Prices And Sale Cycles
I maintain a pretty good “mental price book” where I have memorized most of the “normal” prices as well as the typical sale patterns and prices for the items we buy the most often at the three stores I go to. Using this bank of knowledge, I adjust my purchases depending on where I’m going to try and optimize along that. I know some people buy a little pocket notebook to create a hard copy price book if remembering grocery prices isn’t something that comes naturally. But knowing what is a “good deal” vs what the store tells you is a “sale” is definitely useful.
Here’s a couple of examples of how it works in practice when I shop:
- Bananas are cheapest at Trader Joes ($0.19 per banana), but only if they are of a decent size/quality. Otherwise, Whole Foods is the next cheapest ($0.59/lb) for conventional bananas, followed by Publix ($0.69/lb). So if bananas are on the list, and I’m stopping at Trader Joes or Whole Foods that weekend, I’ll try and pick some up there first, leaving Publix bananas as a last resort. We go through ~12-15 bananas per week, so overbuying is tough to do.
- Milk is cheapest at Trader Joes ($3.59), but I never want to stock up too much when I go there because their milk seems to turn bad much quicker than milk from Publix ($4.15). It’s also not worth going out of my way to go to Trade Joes *just* for milk when Publix is right outside of our neighborhood and TJ’s is either a 30 minute bike ride or 10-15 minute car ride away.
- The regular price of Publix brand oatmeal is actually about the same price per ounce as organic rolled oats from the Whole Foods bulk bins. So if we run out and there’s no sale currently, Whole Foods isn’t a bad place to pick up a bit to tide us over until the next BOGO sale on Quaker at Publix (BOGO sales on Quaker Oats being about every 2 months at Publix).
- Our Whole Foods has some items that are insanely cheap compared to what I find elsewhere (dried figs <$2, bulk food items like TVP and organic lentils and split peas, sesame seeds), and if you go when they have free samples of freshly made guacamole or high quality Irish cheddar, all the beddar… err, better.
Rule 6: Sale Shop and Coupon When Appropriate, But Don’t Obsess
Back when I used to buy more packaged foods, sales and coupons played a much bigger role in planning my shopping, though I was definitely never an extreme couponer. Nowadays, it might have a small influence, but mostly in the timing of a purchase (as in I only buy Crystal Light when it’s BOGO) or in helping to pick the fruit and vegetables that are in season (and thus the cheapest) at a particular time. When I look at the flyers and see that chicken breasts are BOGO, I know Mr PoP is getting chicken breast that week. Every so often I look at the site iHeartPublix because they sneak preview Publix’s sale prices the Monday before the flyers are released if there’s something I want just to make sure I won’t regret buying it if it goes on sale 2 days later. =)
But I do still pick up the paper from the corner stand every Sunday (I am obsessed with the local real estate section), and once I get it, I spend 10-20 minutes flipping through the coupons and clipping ones that we might use, especially for household items. Though when most of your cart is full of fresh produce, baking staples, grains, and milk, don’t be too shocked if there aren’t many coupons that will work. If nothing else, for us, Publix seems to run $5 off coupons in the paper about once every 4-6 weeks (usually as $5 off $50 or $5 off $40) good for 7 days, and when that happens I might try and get another newspaper and plan 2 of our bigger shopping trips in the 7 day period.
I’d rather spend my time and energy saving money by cooking than using the same time and energy saving money clipping tons of coupons and running around the a bunch of different supermarkets buying processed food that won’t be as good for us anyhow. I get that this is a YMMV thing, but this is where we are.
Rule 7: Cooking Is Cheaper Than “Cooking”
I used to think cooking was opening a box of mac ‘n cheese – heck I had to get a pot out of the cupboard! And I was *definitely* cooking if I made a “signature modification” to the recipe on the side of the box. Topped with bread crumbs, or with some extra melty cheese thrown in… man, I was cooking!
Now, though, I put all that in the “cooking” category. I still do it sometimes, but more often I aim to cook (without quotes) because it’s better for us, we know what ingredients are in each dish, and most often cooking is cheaper than “cooking”.
As my evidence, I’ll just point to our grocery spending over the last 3 years, which maps pretty directly to my evolution from primarily “cooking” to more cooking (which definitely didn’t happen overnight and is still kindof a work in progress).
- 2012: $449/mo
- 2013: $389/mo
- 2014 YTD: $350/mo
In contrast food prices have been increasing in price faster than the overall rate of inflation, so we’re definitely bucking the trend with this pattern, especially when looking at recent dramatic upswings in the prices of dairy, beef, and chicken. (Seriously, chicken fertility problems causing supply issues?)
Cooking does, however, take more time than “cooking”, so the “cooking” in our house usually happens on weeks when I’m short on time and can’t devote the better part of a day on the weekend to cooking for the week ahead.
Here’s an example of the ingredient cost of a few recipes I’ve made recently:
Healthy Cream of Broccoli Soup – COOKED
- $2.50 – 1 fresh head of broccoli (sale price)
- 0.66 – ~1/3 head of celery at $1.99/head
- 0.75 – 1 large onion
- 0.50 – 2 cups milk (at avg price of $4/gallon)
- 0.30 – butter (we never pay more than $3/lb for butter as it goes on sale so often)
- 0.15 – flour, salt, minced garlic
- $4.86 for 7 16oz servings, gives ~$0.70 per serving (thinner soups I calculate the cost based on larger volumes for the servings)
White Bean Chicken Chili (made for the first time on a coworker’s recommendation this weekend) – COOKED
- $4.00 – 1lb of ground chicken (paying this much for meat not on sale made me gag a little …)
- 0.60 – 1.25 cups of TVP (… so I cut it with half TVP and Mr PoP didn’t notice at all)
- 1.50 – 5 cups cooked Great Northern beans from dried 2lb bag
- 2.00 – 1 bunch of kale
- 2.00 – fennel seed (This stuff was expensive! I’ll try to find a cheaper source if this recipe makes the regular rota)
- 0.75 – 1 large onion
- 0.75 – 1.25 cups frozen corn
- 0.50 – garlic, chicken bullion, other spices
- $12.10 for 15 8oz (1 cup) servings of chicken chili. Realistically, this is probably 10+ meals for Mr PoP, so <$1.21 for a hefty meal with meat
But last weekend I had less time to cook, and ended up “cooking”:
Tofu Red Curry Served Over Quinoa – “COOKED”
- 2.00 – 1 package extra firm tofu
- 2.79 – 1 jar Trader Joes brand red curry sauce
- 0.75 – 1.25 cups frozen corn
- 2.00 – quinoa
- $7.54 for 5 servings, or about $1.51/serving. But these also aren’t as filling as the chili would be and aren’t nearly as chock full of protein.
In a typical week, I’ll cook up one big batch for me (like the broccoli soup), and one for Mr PoP (the chicken chili). Then we supplement those with other more grazing things like Greek yogurt I make in the pressure cooker (<$0.30 per serving + $0.15 for some honey on top), fruit and nut bread (~$4 for a 9”x13” sized loaf, or ~50% the price of what the Publix bakery charges for their version which has less fruit and less nuts), egg muffins (scrambled eggs cooked in silicon muffin tin), fruit/milk smoothies (~$0.50 each), oatmeal with cinnamon and raisins (<$0.25), fresh fruit and veggies, and probably more.
And the last 6 months I’ve also been cooking up a couple of batches of energy bars from my new favorite cookbook every week. The cookbook is called Power Hungry: The Ultimate Energy Bar Cookbook and it is chock full of recipes of energy bars that use all natural ingredients. (One this weekend had oats, sunflower seeds, almonds, natural PB, flax, milk, dates, apricots, cooked white beans, agave nectar, cinnamon and sea salt.) These are quick to grab and are a good balance of satiating not only hunger, but also our sweet tooth while providing a good balance of carbs, fats, protein.
Desk jobs aside, we’re pretty active people, so we try and put food in our bodies that is going to keep us satisfied for a while. And the cooked food seems to do that much better than the “cooked” food, with the cost savings being a definite bonus.
And that’s pretty much everything to know when it comes to our grocery shopping and eating habits. Hopefully that helps!
What are some of the rules of thumb you use when grocery shopping?