As a very busy mama, I had developed some bad habits when it came to meal planning and grocery shopping. I guess what I really mean is I had practically stopped meal planning and was spending way too much at the grocery store (I won't even give you a figure...it's way too embarrassing). Robert and I both grew up as only children who ate out...a LOT, so even though we have four little kids, eating out - and often - still felt really right (and good) to us. But you know what didn't feel good? Sitting down and looking at our spending each month and seeing that we were spending more money on food than on our mortgage! About 3 months ago we decided to make some BIG changes and by doing so, we've reduced our monthly spending on food by about 60%. I'm not saying it's been FUN, but it really hasn't been too difficult. Here are the basic things we've changed...maybe just by incorporating one or two of these principles you could save some big bucks too!
1. Eat at Home.
We used to eat out a lot. No plan for dinner? Let's go out! Bored on Saturday morning? Let's go out! All we have in the cupboard is a can of tuna...and oops, no bread? Let's go out! We were going out to eat way. too. much. Yes, it was fun and the kids loved it just as much as we did. But it was a money waster and had to stop. We've started eating every meal at home (meals out are now a treat rather than the norm) and you know what? We've actually been having a lot of fun and the ritual of gathering around our dinner table together each night at home has become really comforting and something we all look forward to each night! Robert takes some of the leftovers to work for lunch the next day and the kids and I eat the rest of the leftovers or something else simple at home.
2. Take Cash Out.
We ran in to huge problems using our debit cards. Each month we were shocked to see just how many extra purchases we'd made. "What?! We really stopped at Starbucks TWENTY times?" "When did you go to Baskin Robbins?" etc. Not to mention how much we'd spend at the grocery stores because we weren't keeping track, we'd just "use the card". Now, before we do our weekly shopping, we physically stop at the bank, take out the allotted weekly amount and use that. If we get to the checkstand and don't have enough cash...we put something back. It ain't rocket science!
3. Grocery Shop Once a Week.
We used to go to the store way too often. Like 3-4 times a week at least. I'd end up trolling the cupboards and realize I didn't have this or that to pull a meal together so I'd call Robert and ask him to pick up a few things on his way home...and $30 later he'd come home with my two items and some ice cream... Now, we do a family shopping trip ONCE a week. Usually Friday nights or Saturday mornings. We make it a really fun time. First we go to Costco to buy the staples (our meats, milk, eggs, fruit, etc.) and then we finish up at Trader Joe's where we buy all the "smaller" items. The kids absolutely LOVE going to both places; we treat them to a Polish sausage to share at Costco (a whopping $1.50 out of our food money for the week) and then they get to race around like crazy people with their own little shopping carts at Trader Joe's! Remember: Don't buy anything if it isn't on your list for meals, and don't spend more than the cash you've brought with you! The biggest thing that has made shopping once a week actually work: planning simple meals.
4. Plan 7 Simple Meals.
Okay, for me this has truly been the most difficult part of the whole experience. Our drastically reduced food spending hinges on whether or not I can successfully plan out 7 inexpensive dinner meals before we go shopping for the week - with a goal of still keeping them healthy and GOOD. So, the way I come up with 7 each week is I draw from various sources. I've got a recipe box with a few "favorites" that I repeat often, I've asked friends of mine to share their recipes with me when they come across something special, and I spend a little time on Pinterest each week trying to find one or two fun new things to try (and trust me, the options are endless on there!) Between these three sources, coming up with 7 is usually a piece of cake. And sometimes we don't use all 7 from the week before (leftovers one night, dinner over at the parents, etc.) so I have one or two to "rollover" to the next week. The other thing I try to do is "combine". For example, I'll buy a roasted chicken from Costco for $5 and try to use the meat in at least two or three recipes (plus I use the carcass to make my own chicken stock!) and I never buy more than two types of meat for the week. Good meat costs a lot of money so we try to limit it to just chicken and hamburger - we buy the big bag of frozen chicken breasts at Costco and thaw about 4-6 at a time in the fridge and we use less hamburger in each meal to make it go further. I've found that soups and chilis with a side of rice make inexpensive, easy meals, and that it's really okay to have just BBQ chicken, rice, and a vegetable or hamburger patties in teriyaki sauce and Crash Hot Potatoes one night. Simple can be delicious. Leftovers for lunch, fruit and yogurt for snacks, and simple breakfasts like toast and Adele's Chicken Apple Sausage.
5. If You Can Make It, Don't Buy It.
This one has kind of just been evolving as we go. Now that I'm really paying attention and counting pennies when we do our weekly shopping, not only do I try to buy cheaply (I love that everything at Trader Joe's is their own brand = less options and cheaper than "name brand". Buy their wine for $2.49 instead of a bottle for $9.99 and voila, you've already saved $7.50!), but I try to use what I have even if it's not exact. Like if a recipe calls for a green bell pepper but I'm already buying a red one for another recipe, Ill skip the green one and use half the red one in each. Or if a recipe calls for shredded mozzarella and I'm already buying a bag of shredded cheddar or Mexican blend, I'll just use that. Usually it doesn't change the taste too much (cheese is just GOOD) and why spend $5 on another bag of cheese that is only going in one recipe-? Like is said in #4, I also try to make my own stuff when I can. I don't want to waste $7 on chicken broth for the week when I can make my own for free! I use this easy method here with the leftover chicken carcass from Costco, freeze in several containers and then try to have one ready (thawed out) in the fridge at all times. I've also started saving a few dollars here and there by making my own delicious organic yogurt (which is way easier than you think!) and my own cream of chicken soup to use in recipes. Not to mention the added benefit of consuming less canned food (and toxins such as BPA). If I'm feeling super ambitious and the kids are cooperating I'll make homemade bread to go with our soups and to use for breakfast toast. And instead of buying expensive ice cream / snacks, I'll make these easy granola bars or a simple batch of chocolate chip cookies. Keep a lot of baking supplies on hand - they're pretty cheap and go a long ways!
So, that's pretty much it. And without embarrassing myself too much and letting you know just how excessive our spending was before, let me suffice it to say that we are saving over $700 a month by shopping and eating this way. Yes, SEVEN HUNDRED DOLLARS A MONTH, SAVED.
A lot of that honestly comes from simply not eating out and ceasing to use our debit cards on impulse purchases, the rest is saved by eating simpler and making a few things myself. Just think of what you could do with all that extra money! Like feed a hungry child for just $38 a month and still have $662 EXTRA. We sponsor a beautiful little girl from Ghana, Africa, and praying over her photo at the dinner table each night has become a special part of our mealtime. The kids think she's their sister...and I guess really, she kind of is.
Here are a few of the "favorites" I've been making lately to get you started. Don't feel like you have to do everything I've said or dramatically change the way you shop and eat all at once. Start with one or two changes and save a little. Next week, or month, save a little more. It can actually become kind of addicting to challenge yourself and see just how far you can make things stretch. Like your very own personal shopping game:)
Oh, and one more "tip". You know those 20 trips to Starbucks I was making each month (at about $5 a visit or $100/month)? I now buy 1/2 lb of freshly ground coffee from Starbucks each week (about $6) and a bottle of vanilla creamer from Trader Joe's (about $3 and it lasts at least two weeks!) and am saving about $70 a month just by doing that! And I still get Starbucks coffee - yeehaw!