Groceries tend to be the area of the budget that can always get out of hand. It makes sense. Given the choice between the family “starving” and going over budget, people are always going to rationalize going over budget. Fortunately, there are steps anyone can take to gain control of this money monster.
Start every month with a plan
One of the biggest budget busters when it comes to food are the last minute runs to the grocery store. There will always be fresh items, such as milk and bread, that need to be purchased weekly, but these items should be part of the plan. What needs to be eliminated is the daily look at the pantry to decide what additional ingredients will be needed for tonight’s dinner or that dash into the store to find something quick, convenient and likely expensive. At the beginning of the month, write out a dinner menu. Since most families tend to repeat meals frequently, this list may need very little change from one month to the next; but, writing it out will provide the opportunity to decide if new meals can replace some of the more costly repeats. Convert the menu to a grocery list, adding breakfast and lunch items also. When done, compare the list to the current items in the pantry to avoid overbuying. The first trip to the store each month will result in purchasing all the non-perishables for the month and the fresh items for the first week.
Figure out who has the lowest prices
Many people run from store to store for the sales, trading grocery savings for additional gas expenses; but, at the end of the day, where was the best place to purchase the items that were not advertised? Traditional grocery stores are usually not the most cost effective place to shop, using advertised loss leaders to get customers in the store while overcharging for related items. Look into discount food stores, such as Aldi, or mass merchandisers, such as Wal-mart, for doing at least the initial monthly shopping. Wal-mart price matches competitors’ ads and accepts coupons. If the least expensive store is too inconveniently located to do weekly grocery runs, figure out which of the more convenient stores consistently has the best prices and get their discount card if they have one.
Coupons and generic brands and buying in bulk
While not all generics are created equal, most are more than adequate and the cost savings usually outweigh any perceived benefits from name brand items. In some cases, the generic is actually made by the same company as the name brand. Regardless, generics provide the easiest way to save money. Even if buying mostly generics, though, look through the coupons. Coupons are for name brand items; but, occasionally a coupon will result in the name brand costing less than the generic. Keep in mind a few rules when dealing with coupons:
-Only clip coupons for items on the grocery list. While it is okay to go back and change the monthly meal plan to accommodate an item that would have been too expensive to even consider without the coupon, there is no point clipping coupons for items that are not in the plan to use at all.
-Only buy the quantities needed, regardless of the coupon. Coupons often give a discount for buying in multiples, but buying more than what is needed does not result in saving money. Buying beyond this month’s needs will require additional planning and extra money to spend.
-Only use a coupon if it actually results in the best priced item. When using coupons, people have a tendency to buy the item for which they have a coupon because it creates a “great deal” on that brand; but, a coupon does not mean that it is actually a good price for the item.
A third way to save can be purchasing larger packages; but, it is important to compare the cost per serving when buying in bulk. Sometimes stores will increase the cost per serving in large packages counting on customers to assume cost savings. If it is cheaper to buy more, keep in mind how much you actually need. The family size package of macaroni may be a good deal if you usually make two boxes at a time. The gallon size jar of ranch dressing may be more debatable unless you have a big refrigerator and your family goes through large quantities in a short amount of time. You will not save money if your bulk items spoil.
Time the trip right
Most people will impulse buy when shopping right before meals because they are hungry. Try eating a snack before leaving home or moving trips to be right after a meal. Going when tired may also be a problem because tired people have less self-control and are less willing to argue over what items should not be added to the cart. Try shopping earlier in the day or taking a nap.
Stick to the list
After all the work put in at home, the most obvious money saving trick is also the most violated. If it did not get put on the grocery list, do without it. While this behavior takes a large amount of discipline, it is important to only buy what is needed. What is needed is on the list. If the package of Oreos is really a necessity, next month it will show up on the list.
Finally, plan on price checking. This principle applies not only to obvious competitors sitting adjacent on the shelf, but also to similar items that can substitute for each other in a meal. Consider canned, fresh or frozen produce. Canned is the cheapest option for buying produce; but, it is also lacking in almost any nutritional value. If nutrition was a consideration when planning the meal, compare fresh and frozen. Most of the year, frozen will be less expensive than fresh; but, there may be exceptions such as when foods are in season. Even though they are on opposite ends of the store, these two groups are worth comparing.
The important issue when making money stretch, especially with food, will always be planning. Write out a plan and stick to it. Shop with a strategy. Saving money while stocking the pantry does not require the family to undergo complete dietary changes. What it does require is paying attention to how much money is being spent and avoiding purchases that occur out of a sense of urgency.