It’s tough to feed a five-member household on a shoestring, but that’s what we do. Two of our kids have left the nest, but three still are at home, ages 17 to 26. They all are athletes, and each is a bottomless pit. But we still manage to spend less than $350 a month on groceries—that’s about $2.30 per person per day—without giving up our favorite foods or couponing till we drop. You probably won’t want to use all our techniques, at least not right away. But even the smallest action can save you money. You’ve got nothing to lose but your escalating grocery bill…
- Plan more, shop less. Making weekly menus, complete with recipes, may sound tedious, but when you map out what you’ll eat when, your shopping list will be so focused that your cart won’t bulge with expensive impulse items. What to do: Take a detailed inventory of your pantry and freezer…check the sales circulars from nearby grocery stores…choose one or two stores with the best loss-leaders (items at no-profit prices to lure customers into the store)…decide the menus for the week…and then go shopping.
If you run out of an ingredient or forget an item, substitute something else or make a different meal—just don’t go back to the store. Once you are able to limit your trips to the store to once a week, try taking the next step and stretch your trips to once every two weeks. The less you shop, the more you save. We go shopping only once a month, with one mid-month run to restock fruits and vegetables.
Also, one day a month, we batch cook, making family favorites such as shepherd’s pie, cheese enchiladas and baked ziti, which we freeze in family-size portions. We bought a nine-cubic-foot freezer from a friend, so we have plenty of room for our frozen foods.
- Go outside the box. When Annette discovered that a local dollar store sells deeply discounted day-old bakery items, she asked what day and time the truck comes in so that she can meet it and stock up. Restaurant-supply outlets can be a hidden source of bargains—for example, the one near us sells 25 pounds of carrots (which keep for weeks in the refrigerator) for $5.99.
However, we avoid warehouse clubs. They’re a haven for expensive impulse buying. We call them the “$200 clubs” because you usually can’t get out of those warehouses for less than $200.You go in for some produce and meat and come out with an air-hockey table or a new gazebo.
- Coupon sanely. We fall somewhere between the coupon maven who buys $374 worth of groceries for 50 cents and the not-now-not-ever crowd. You don’t have to be an avid couponer to do very well on your grocery bills. If you’re too tired, too busy, too overwhelmed, skip it or be selective. Ideally, you’ll use coupons when they can be applied to items already on sale. The best coupons come from newspaper inserts—ask friends and neighbors to save theirs for you. You also can find good ones online at www.SmartSource.com and www.GroceryCouponGuide.com. Keep in mind that some stores will accept coupons a few days after the expiration date because there is a grace period for processing.
- Grind your own. We grind our own beef from boneless cuts bought on sale. After experimenting, we learned to leave in a little fat because the taste is better and meatballs and meat loaf hold together better. Even so, our end product is as lean as the 97% fat-free from the store but still cheaper than the 80% hamburger. We use an attachment designed for our heavy-duty KitchenAid mixer.
- Be smart about stocking up. Buy extras of nonperishables on sale—but buy only what you know you’ll use. We once found a great deal on mayonnaise and bought six jars. When we got around to opening the last one, it had gone bad and was so gross that we had to pitch it. On the other hand, we love cocoa for cold nights, so when it’s on sale, we buy three months’ worth—by the time our supply runs out, it’ll probably be on sale again. We always snap up the loss-leaders for the pantry or the freezer, then use a big permanent marker to mark the expiration date on the top of each package.
- Snack wisely and well. Between meals, we eat fresh fruit in season, hard-boiled eggs, celery with peanut butter, nuts bought on sale, homemade trail mix (made with various combinations of nuts, seeds, soy nuts, M&Ms and granola), pickles (we buy them by the gallon), popcorn, pretzels, plain yogurt with fresh fruit added, smoothies, string cheese and salsa with tortilla chips. (Steve’s folks, despite our advice to the contrary, have a warehouse membership, so we ask them to buy us tortilla chips in five-pound bags.) And we hardly ever drink juice and never drink soda—water is healthier and considerably less expensive. We do have a filter on our kitchen tap.
- Buy quality equipment. If you are going to save money by doing more cooking from scratch, you’ll be more efficient and motivated if you have the proper tools. We have a good set of pots and pans. And we don’t use nonstick—we have found that the nonstick ones just don’t last. Our meat grinder attachment, which cost only about $40, has long since paid for itself. Fill in gaps in your equipment by watching for sales on good knives, ceramic CorningWare and Pyrex casserole dishes, storage containers, stainless cookie sheets, a slow cooker and the like.
- Strategize take-out meals. Even with the best planning, sometimes you’re too tired or too grumpy to cook. We keep our eyes open for take-out specials—for example, a nearby grocery with a prepared food counter frequently discounts fried or roasted chicken. With two chickens at $3.99 each, a loaf of bread and a bag of salad, you’ve got a meal for five for around $10 or $12. Another favorite option is Chinese buffet carryout—we go at midday to take advantage of the lunch prices. We fill up four large square Styrofoam containers to the top, which easily feeds us all. (We cook our own rice, to leave more room for the tastier options.)
- Save restaurants for special occasions. When we have sit-down restaurant meals for anniversaries and birthdays, we bring coupons from www.Restaurant.com or the Entertainment book (www.Entertainment.com). Once we’re there, we drink water to save on beverages, split a large portion between two people (you may be charged a bit for the extra plate), and when the server suggests adding things such as cheese, mushrooms or avocado, we always ask, “How much does that cost?” If it is too much money, we skip it.
Another great way to celebrate is to go out just for dessert. There’s a restaurant near our house that serves an incredible mud pie—sharing one giant slice is a sweet night out for the two of us. (To be fair to your server, go when the eatery is not busy and there are plenty of tables.) Or you can plan ahead, and save up for an extravagant meal even if it takes you three months. The anticipation will make the occasion that much more special. At least that’s how it works for us.