Sure, coupons can save you money at the supermarket, but they’re not the only solution. You can save even more by implementing these 25 tips to keep your grocery budget under control. From The Money Saving Mom’s Budget.
1. Frequent the Dollar Store
Dollar stores can offer a treasure trove of bargains. They usually have great prices on spices as well as plastic bags. I also buy Nature’s Own sandwich bread and hamburger buns for just $1 each at the Dollar Store—which is more than 50 percent off what I’d pay at the grocery store. Do note that not all stores with “dollar” in their name sell everything for $1 each. Also, some dollar store prices are actually more than what you’d pay at the grocery store. Consult the phone book and visit local dollar stores to check the prices against your price book and see if you’d save by making a stop at the dollar store on occasion.
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2. Don’t Be Brand Dependent
I’m not saying you need to give up all your favorite brands and go generic for everything. In fact, if you learn how to use coupons effectively, you can buy your favorite name-brand items often for pennies on the dollar by combining coupons with sales. However, if you are willing to base most of your purchases on the price rather than the brand, your pocketbook will thank you.
For example, let’s say you are running low on shampoo. If you’re stuck on buying only name-brand shampoo, the cheapest you may be able to buy it for (without using coupons) is $3 per bottle when it’s on sale. If, however, you’re willing to look for the lowest price on any brand of shampoo, you probably will be able to find shampoo priced at $1 per bottle on sale (without coupons). While the savings of $2 per bottle of shampoo might not seem too significant, think about how the savings could add up if you saved $2 on 15 different items each week at the grocery store because you chose price over brand. That would be a savings of $120 per month—or $1,440 per year!
3. Buy in Bulk
Buying grains, dried beans, as well as many other basic ingredients with long storage lives in large quantities will usually save you at least 20 percent, if not more. You can go in with a few friends and split the costs if you don’t have enough storage space or money in the budget. It is also normally much more cost effective to purchase meat and staple ingredients in bulk. Call around to local farmers and see what they would charge you for purchasing a quarter or half of a cow. In many cases, it’s at least $1 cheaper per pound to purchase in bulk. Search online or look in the phone book for nearby bulk food stores or co-ops that allow you to buy items in quantity. Remember always to check the price per ounce at your local grocery store, though, as just because it’s a bulk quantity does not mean it’s necessarily less expensive.
4. Use a Crock Pot
A crock pot can be one of the greatest tools in your moneysaving, timesaving arsenal. You can pop ingredients for dinner in it in the morning and have a hot meal all ready by 5:00 p.m. Many of the newer crock pots even have time-delay features on them so that you can set them to turn on later in the day.
Fix It and Forget It is a cookbook filled with crock pot recipe ideas—from soups to main dishes to sides to desserts. I also love the blog Crockpot365.blogspot.com, which chronicles Stephanie O’Dea’s goal of using her crock pot every day for a year. There are over 365 crock pot recipes, complete with pictures and detailed instructions.
5. Have a Meatless Night Once a Week
“Meatless” doesn’t have to mean calorie-free or tasteless! When my husband and I were living on a beans-and-rice budget while he was in law school, we couldn’t afford to buy a lot of meat. We often served breakfast foods for dinner. Or we’d have vegetable soup and bread. I also learned some recipes that I could eliminate the meat from and they’d still be flavorful—like lasagna, baked ziti, and bean burritos. It may take some creativity and a few flops to find out what meatless meals work for your family, but it might be worth the effort.
“A few years ago, I was looking at our grocery expenses for the previous year wondering how I could save money. I realized I was buying two packages of Hormel Black Label Bacon at $4.99 a package and using both each weekend. That’s $10 a week or $520 a year we were spending on bacon. We really like bacon but not at that price. I started only buying it on sale, and we only ate it once a week on Sundays. I also cut each package in half and froze the other half. That made the price about $1.25 for each meal when I got it on sale for $2.50 per package. By doing this, we’ve saved $450.00 each year.”
—Naomi, MoneySavingMom.com reader
6. Bake Your Own Bread (with a Bread Machine!)
I rarely buy bread other than sandwich bread and buns these days. Why would I when I can dump the ingredients in the bread machine, choose the dough setting, and push the button? Within an hour and a half, a beautifully raised lump of dough is ready to be formed into rolls, cinnamon rolls, a loaf of bread, French bread, or cinnamon raisin bread!
Instead of spending $2 to $4 on a loaf of store-bought bread or a pan of cinnamon rolls, I can whip up fresh bread for around 50¢ in just minutes using fresh, wholesome ingredients. In about five minutes, I’m saving $1 or $2 and making something really yummy and healthful for my family. That’s the equivalent of saving $12 to $24 dollars per hour. And it’s something I enjoy doing. If I were making bread by hand, I’d rarely make it because the mixing and kneading takes work and time. but the bread machine makes it super simple. Of course, the initial investment of a bread machine can be pricey. However, you can check local thrift stores, garage sales, or Craigslist to find one that is very inexpensive.
You can also let the bread machine do all the work of baking the loaf for you, but I’ve found that the loaf and crust tend to be harder when baked in the bread machine instead of baked in the oven. And it only takes a minute or two to transfer the dough from the bread machine to the loaf pan, so I prefer to bake the bread in the oven.
Tip: I have delicious recipes for Bread Machine Bread, Buttery Rolls, Cinnamon Swirl Bread, and Cinnamon Rolls in the recipe section on my blog, MoneySavingMom.com.
If you’ve never used a bread machine before, I’d suggest borrowing one to make sure it is something that will work for you before you go out and invest in one. Consider asking for one for your birthday or Christmas, if you have a generous relative who likes buying kitchen gadgets for you! Or you can start by investing in an inexpensive one (Walmart carries some models for under $100). If you make two loaves of bread each week, the machine will pay for itself in around a year. And if you use it to make other types of breads—like cinnamon rolls and cinnamon swirl bread—the machine will pay for itself much faster!
Tip: If you end up making a lot of bread, you’ll want to find a source for bulk yeast as it’s outrageously expensive at the grocery store. Costco and Sam’s Club both have the best prices I’ve found. If you don’t have a membership, you can usually go with someone who does. Sam’s Club also offers one day per year where non-members can get in free. If stored in the freezer, yeast will keep for at least a year.
7. Shop at the Bread Outlet
If you don’t have a bread machine or you prefer store-bought bread for sandwiches, bread outlet stores are a way to get bread for at least 50 percent off the retail price. These stores usually sell discounted bread, hamburger and hot dog buns, english muffins, bagels, and other packaged bakery goods that will expire in a few days. You can stop by the bread store once a month and buy enough bread to last for the next four weeks. Put the bread in the freezer as soon as you arrive home and it should be good for up to six weeks after purchasing it.
8. Look for Marked-Down Groceries
I save a great deal of money every month by buying marked-down groceries. These are typically soon-to-be-expiring items (dairy products, meat, and produce). Not all stores offer markdowns, and store policies can vary widely. The best way to find out is to ask the produce manager what they do with produce, dairy, or meat products that are nearing their expiration dates.
I’ve scoped out all our nearby stores and know the best times to find markdowns, so I try to plan my shopping trips accordingly. The very first thing I do when I walk into a grocery store is to go around the perimeter of the store and look for the orange markdown stickers on items. I hit the produce section first. Then the meat, dairy, and bread items. By starting my shopping trip with looking for markdowns, I then can rework my grocery list if I hit on a great deal. For example, let’s say I was planning to buy carrots and cucumbers for sides for lunches on our menu that week. However, when I walked around looking for markdowns first thing after I got into the store, I found a big bag of marked down colored peppers and cauliflower that were $2 less than the carrots and cucumbers I was planning to buy. By swapping raw peppers and cauliflower for the cucumbers and carrots on our menu, we’d save $2.
My favorite thing about buying markdowns is that they add some variety to our menu. You never know what you might find marked down that week and it’s always fun to see if there’s a way I can work it into the menu and substitute it for something I was planning to buy. Over the years, I’ve stumbled upon all sorts of interesting finds that have added extra pizzazz to our menus—and saved us money at the same time!
By the way, just because an item isn’t marked down doesn’t mean you can’t get it discounted. Unless your store has a strict policy against marking down items, don’t hesitate to ask if the store will reduce that past-its-prime bag of apples or that expiring-in-three-days jug of milk. I’ve rarely been turned down when asking if a store will mark down an obviously-close-to-expiring item. And on a few occasions, they’ve even just given it to me free!
“I buy the majority of my all-natural, additive- and preservative-free groceries from salvage grocery stores in my area. Salvage grocery stores buy damaged items or items that are close to expiring (even if they’re expired, most of them are still good) at a discount from other stores. They then resell them at very low prices. I leave these stores with grocery carts full of frozen organic meats, organic cheese and eggs, and more. Typically, I spend four times less than I would’ve spent had I paid full retail for my organic/natural products.”
—Catherine, MoneySavingMom.com reader
9. Use Half the Recommended Amount
You don’t need to use the recommended amount of laundry detergent, dish soap, or even shampoo! In most cases, much less will do. Train yourself to use two-thirds of the amount you usually do and you’ll save 33 percent. Use half the amount you usually do, and you instantly start saving 50 percent!
Tip: Maybe this is going to sound over-the-top frugal, but it was a trick my mom taught me: when the bottle has almost been used up, add some water, put the lid back on, and shake it up to get the last remains of laundry detergent, salad dressing, dish soap, or whatever the bottle contains cleaned out of the bottle.
10. Serve Meat as a Condiment
I shamelessly stole this idea from Mary Ostyn’s cookbook Family Feasts for $75 a Week because it’s so brilliant. Serving meat in soup or on pizza is going to be a lot less expensive than serving roast and sirloin, especially if you’re buying high-quality meat. If you don’t want to try a meatless meal each week, at least try one or two meat-as-a-condiment meals. You can often cut the meat by 30 percent to 50 percent in most soups, casseroles, pizza, and so many other things without anyone really noticing.
“With two teenagers who can eat seven to eight tacos each, this relatively inexpensive food was becoming out of reach when fixed with ground beef or even chicken! I started using 3/4 part lentils mixed with 1/4 part ground beef for the taco meat mixture. The spices and bit of ground beef cover any ‘beany’ lentil flavor. My family loves it and now I can afford for them to eat seven tacos each!”
—Susan, MoneySavingMom.com reader
11. Stick with Simple Meals That Use Inexpensive Ingredients
When you’re planning your menu, think about how much your recipes will cost you to make. It doesn’t have to be a scientific to-the-penny figure, but just having a good idea that there is a $10 difference between the price of making one meal as opposed to another meal can help you decide whether you can afford to make certain meals regularly or whether you should save them for special occasions only.
12. Eat from the Pantry
On occasion, challenge yourself to see how long you can go without going to the grocery store. When we do this, I often find we have a lot more food on hand than I realized. And I get creative and start pulling things out of the back of the cupboard or freezer and concocting new recipes and meals.
Tip: MyFridgeFood.com will help you make meals out of items you already have on hand.
13. Use Bone-In Chicken Breasts
If you prefer white meat, you can save quite a bit by buying bone-in chicken breasts versus boneless, skinless chicken breasts. You just cut a simple bone off and you have a boneless chicken breast—for 30 percent off what you’d pay for boneless, skinless chicken breasts.
14. Price-Match at Walmart and Target
Do you like the idea of shopping at multiple stores I shared in chapter 6 but you don’t want to hassle with actually going to multiple stores? Walmart and Target both match competitors’ prices. Just bring the competitor’s ad in to verify the price. So if you see a great deal on grapes and bread at the grocery store ten miles away and Walmart is just two blocks away, bring the grocery store’s ad to Walmart and get the same deals. Of course, if you load up your cart with other impulse purchases while you’re at Walmart, it’s not saving you any money!
15. Order Groceries Online
Most people are skeptical that you can truly save money by buying groceries online, but it’s true. Since you should have already set up a price book (see chapter 6) and know the lowest prices you routinely pay at your local stores, it’s easy to determine whether you’ll save by ordering online. In fact, you can even put in the prices you routinely pay to CamelCamelCamel.com and they will track when the price goes below your desired price and send you an email. I’ve found Amazon.com, Soap.com, Diapers.com, and Alice.com sales to all be fairly competitive with local grocery store prices. As I come across these, I post them on my blog, MoneySavingMom.com.
16. Use Your Freezer
I save so much money by using my freezer! I buy soon-to-be-expiring milk, cream cheese, meat, bread, fruit, shredded cheese, and more and freeze it for later use. If I find a great deal on fruit, I buy as much as I can afford in our grocery budget and then I freeze what we don’t consume within a few days to use in smoothies. When I buy almost-expired milk, I freeze it to use in pancake and waffle batter. By stocking up on items when they are at great prices and then freezing them, it gives me more variety to work with when planning our menus and saves us money, too.
Batch cooking is another way I save a lot of money with our freezer. I often cook up a big batch of chicken breasts and chop and freeze them to use in soup, casseroles, on pizza, or in stir-fry. Or I’ll make up taco meat, meatballs, or burrito filling for quick and easy dinners. Just cool and put these in zip-top freezer bags, make sure all the air is out, label, and freeze fl at. When you’re ready to use, just thaw it overnight in the refrigerator. Put forth a little effort on a regular basis to make food in bulk and then freeze it. you’ll find it’s a huge relief and help to be able to whip up a meal in minutes using food you’ve pre-prepared and frozen. Plus, having food at-the-ready in the freezer also cuts down on the urge to grab something at a fast-food restaurant or order pizza on those days when you don’t have time to cook dinner.
Tip: If you can devote an hour or two to prepping things for the freezer on the weekends, it will save you lots of time and work during the week. Or, if your weekends are packed, consider making multiples of a meal at least one or two nights each week. It doesn’t take much more effort to make a triple batch of meatballs, and then you have dinner covered plus two extra meals in the freezer! If you’re new to freezer cooking and wondering how to do it, you can find lots of freezer-cooking recipes and tips on LifeAsMom.com.
17. Don’t Throw Out Your Leftovers
Creatively remaking your leftovers into tomorrow’s lunch or dinner is a great way to stretch your budget and not waste food. Eating leftovers for lunch, instead of sandwiches, or serving a once-a-week Leftover buffet (just set out all the leftovers from the fridge and let everyone dish up their own plates and heat them up in the microwave) are other options. LeftoverChef.com is a wonderful resource if you need ideas for recipes to make with your leftovers. You can choose what items you have and it will pull up recipes you can make.
“Our leftovers were getting lost in the fridge, so we devised two new practices. First, we now have a dedicated shelf for leftovers. Secondly, we use a dry-erase marker to label the contents of the containers. No more finding last month’s lasagna in the back corner of the bottom shelf or wondering what’s in that blue container.”
—Cyndi, MoneySavingMom.com reader
18. Make Your Own Homemade Cleaners
You can save a lot of money by making your own cleaners and laundry soap. While we don’t make all our cleaners, I have used baking soda for many a stubborn job. In addition, we’ve recently been experimenting with homemade dishwashing detergent and homemade laundry soap. Momsbudget.com has an extensive list of homemade cleaner recipes if you’d like to try making them yourself.
Tip: If you don’t want to give up dryer sheets but you want to make them last longer, you can cut them in half or fourths and just use one strip per load. It’s still as effective!
19. Eliminate Paper Products
Disposable products are very handy, and they make life easier, but they certainly aren’t inexpensive. We’ve not completely eliminated all disposable products from our home; we still occasionally use paper plates and napkins and, of course, we use toilet paper. We have learned, however, that you can live just fine without pretty much all paper products but toilet paper (we’re not planning on giving that up any time soon!). We exclusively cloth-diapered for two and a half years, we’ve used rags instead of paper towels for many years, and we’ve gone for long stretches of time without buying any paper plates, napkins, or cups.
Tip: If you’re not ready to give up paper towels completely, try cutting the roll in half down to the tube. Then, instead of using a full paper towel, you’ll find most jobs only require half a sheet.
“I cut up my husband’s old tee-shirts and use them in place of paper towels. They work better than paper towels at cleaning up messes, and they are easy to wash. If a mess is particularly icky, I simply throw away the rag. I have no problem doing so since the tee-shirt was destined for the trash anyway.”
—Becky, MoneySavingMom.com reader
20. Ditch Cereal for Breakfast
Cereal can be a budget buster. Most boxes of cereal are at least $3 each and when you add in milk to pour over the cereal, breakfast of cereal for a family of five can easily cost close to $5. Multiply that by 7, and you’re looking at $35 per week spent on breakfast! If you’re shopping with coupons, you can often get cereal for as low as $1 per box—or even less—but if you don’t want to mess with coupons or you like the idea of feeding your family a wholesome and nutritious homemade breakfast very inexpensively, here are some ideas:
• Pancakes, Waffles or French Toast. As mentioned above, I’m often able to get milk marked down half price when it’s nearing its expiration date. I buy it and we use what we can before the expiration date, and then I stick it in the freezer. When I have an extra hour or two and the motivation, I pull out the frozen milk, thaw it, and use it to make a quadruple batch of homemade pancakes or waffles to stick in the freezer. These are so handy to have on hand and make for quick and easy breakfasts: just pull the waffles or pancakes you need out of the freezer, pop them in the microwave or toaster oven, and you have a delicious and very inexpensive hot breakfast to serve. We like to add in some chocolate chips to the pancake batter and then skip the syrup.
• Instant Oatmeal Packets. Instead of buying expensive individual instant oatmeal packets, make your own! A quick Google search will bring up a plethora of recipes and add-in ideas.
• Smoothies. Smoothies are delicious and nutritious. Plus, if you buy fruit when it’s marked down or on a great sale and then freeze it, smoothies are rather inexpensive—especially when compared to the prices you’d pay at Smoothie King or Jamba Juice!
• Homemade Granola. We like to serve homemade granola over yogurt with some fresh fruit. If yogurt is on sale and you buy fruit in season, this can be a very economical breakfast!
21. Invest in Reusable Water Bottles
If you occasionally buy disposable water bottles, you can save a lot of money by investing in reusable water bottles for each family member. You can find them for a dollar at the dollar store. Just wash, fill, and refrigerate and you’ll save at least 10¢ to 50¢ (or more!) each time you use them instead of a disposable water bottle.
22. Shop Every Other Week
I’ve found that the less I shop, the less I spend. Challenge yourself to shop every other week or every ten days for a two-month period and see if it affects your grocery bill, too!
23. Buy Roast on Sale and Have It Ground
Buy lean cut bottom round roast on sale and have it ground at the meat counter. This makes excellent 90 percent to 95 percent lean ground beef and it’s usually quite a bit less than you’d pay for high-quality ground beef.
“Our store sells turkeys for around 19¢ a pound in November. I stock up on twelve of the largest turkeys I can find! I pull one out of the freezer each month, and cook it. I can get six to eight meals from one $3 turkey!”
—Jennifer, MoneySavingMom.com reader
24. Buy Produce in Season and on Sale
We plan our menu based upon what’s in season and on sale. While this means we don’t always have twenty-three different kinds of fruits and vegetables on hand, it saves money and allows us to enjoy what’s fresh and seasonal during each particular month and season. If a fruit or vegetable is on sale that can be frozen or will stay fresh for longer than a week, I try to buy extra to freeze or to enjoy the following week.
25. Plant a Garden
Produce is typically only pennies per item from your own backyard, it’s tremendously fresh, and you know exactly what you did or didn’t spray on it. Plus, you can freeze or can your extras—or bless your friends and neighbors with them! Have a brown thumb? Find a friend who loves gardening and trade services (babysitting, bread baking, car maintenance?) in exchange for their garden excess.
Tip: Check LocalHarvest.org to find local farms that sell produce to the general public.