Lower Your Grocery Bill + Monthly Shopping (Part 1)

lower grocery billThis past year Jack and I have picked up the speed on our ongoing money-saving mission. Although we don’t make very much money (we each work a normal job, an odd job for extra cash, and go to school full time), we have figured out where we can scrimp and scrape without robbing all the fun out of our lives. Despite bringing in very little money each month we are able to continually put money into savings and still afford a few niceties from time to time. We are not one of those insanely strict couples who never ever strays from the plan because, let’s face it, some days you just need a cheeseburger, but we do try to abide by our little rule set as closely as possible. However, allowing ourselves the flexibility to say, “screw the plan, we need a night out,” has actually given us motivation to stick to our budgeting strategy more consistently.

Now, this post is not meant to be a long lesson on how to save money and budget well, although I may be sharing some of our strategies and tracking sheets eventually. No, I tell you all this to say that our latest step in the long process of living simply and saving money one small piece at a time is to cut down our grocery bill. We don’t spend a lot of money on groceries, especially with just two of us, but we had been noticing that those unexpected mini trips to the grocery store throughout the month were causing the bill to be much higher than necessary. That realization is all it took for me to start researching–have I mentioned how much I enjoy researching? If you don’t believe me you will with this next bit of news…I ordered a book from the library that solely discussed lowering your grocery bill. Let me further emphasize to you how much I enjoy researching, this book was 300 pages long and I read every single page and loved every minute! The book I chose was, “Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half with America’s Cheapest Family.” It was awesome! At first I didn’t think I would actually learn anything because I constantly read about cheap and healthy eating on blogs and I think Jack and I have learned a great deal about saving on groceries but trust me, if you think you know cheap grocery shopping, think again.

Although many methods of saving are presented in this book, you can choose to use just one or combine many of their strategies, for instance, I refuse to cut coupons so I disregarded that chapter of saving tips. The one strategy that has made the biggest impact on our grocery bill is once-a-month shopping. This was/is very appealing to Jack and I and our current lifestyle. Last year was our most difficult school-wise, we both had very full class loads plus work and we felt like we were losing our minds much of the time. Luckily though, I had the idea to make a bunch of freezer meals we could thaw to save time cooking once or twice a week. This idea of once-a-month shopping takes my random amount of freezer meals to an entirely different level. Shopping once a month can seem like a daunting task, but if you check into it with an open mind, I believe you’ll agree it saves time, energy, money and effort.

Last month we spent $90 at the grocery store and $14 in produce for the entire month. Keep in mind this is just for two people but still, with all of our extra trips we were spending about $100 more than that.

The idea with this once-a-month shopping trip is to stock up on items that are on sale and that complement what you already have in your cabinets and fridge. Once you decide what you have to work with, choose a few recipes(6 to 8). You want your recipes to be simple and freezable. Of course, if every single meal is frozen you may find yourself lacking in produce. Jack and I, remedy this by adding a side (salad, rice, red potatoes, or grilled veggies) to every meal. We also have one night a week where we make some sort of breakfast meal, usually something with eggs–eggplant, egg & aioli sandwiches or frittatas. This month we also added BLTs to our weekly mix because turkey bacon was BOGO at Ingles, so for $2.38 we bought 2 packages of turkey bacon (12 slices in each), one is in the fridge and one the freezer for later in the month. Be creative with your recipe selection, although a large portion of your food will reside in the freezer, there are many other ways to incorporate fresh vegetables and other ingredients that won’t break the bank.

The next step is to write a menu for the month (this is the trickier part). Once you’ve chosen your recipes see how many portions each will make and how many meals this will actually amount to for your family. If you made a fabulous vegetable soup that contains 8-1 cup servings, you can scoop 2 cups into a baggie, flatten, freeze and have 4 meals ready to go for 2 people (remember you are pairing this with salad and perhaps a roll, so 1 cup is a normal serving size). Not all recipes end up having exceptional accuracy on serving size so I’ve now reached a point where I make my final monthly menu (actually write the meals on each day of the month) after I’ve cooked everything and seen how many meals it made.

Now that I’ve touched on writing a menu, let me take a moment to address keeping your produce fresh. Shopping once a month has taken a little bit of the variety out of our produce, for instance I don’t experiment too much with the fruits & vegetables we buy and basically just stick to apples and bananas to pair with our lunches. Other great fruits and vegetables that seem to last longer include grapes, carrots, oranges, celery, red potatoes, sweet potatoes, & zucchini. However, you are still able to incorporate those shorter-shelf-life fruits and veggies as long as you plan your menus well. If you buy avocados, buy some that aren’t quite ripe so you can hang on to them a few more days. If you need them to hurry up and ripen, toss them in a paper bag for the afternoon and they’ll ripen up quickly. If you buy them ripe, plan your meal so that you use those items in your first week of meals. Since we buy produce about twice a month, our 1st and 3rd weeks typically have more fresh veggies incorporated into the meals but that is not to say the week 2 and 4 are lacking, it’s just a different type of produce. Make sense? Back to our shopping steps.

Now, of course, you need to go to the store (or brave it before menu writing but after choosing your recipes). We go to 2 stores now. The week that we end up buying food, instead of giving in to the idea of coupon-ing (I just won’t devote that much time), we buy a Sunday paper and look at which store has the most deals with their “club card” that fits the most items on my shopping list. For instance, this month Ingles had about 75% of the items on my list (or some version of them–be flexible!) on sale and most of those were BOGO. We went there first and I purchased the sale items only, then I brought along last month’s receipt from Walmart and checked some of our staple items to see how their prices compared. If the staple item was cheaper than what Walmart had listed last month than I bought it at Ingles, if not, I head over to Wally World and purchase the item there instead. So yes, two stores in one night, it sounds crazy but it only took 20 minutes longer than my old shopping trips used to take AND I am not having to go back to the store ALL MONTH LONG. We shop on Friday nights, if you go later in the evening you can get discounted meats and breads (discounted meat is OK to buy just smell it first, it shouldn’t go bad if you put it back in the freezer–take advantage of the discount!). Friday evenings are also typically a quieter time to go gallivanting about the grocery aisles.

Once you’ve purchased all your items, bring them on home, pat yourself on the back and take a break. I like shopping on a Friday cause I can get beans soaking overnight for chili or to go in our rice and bean lunches and then get to work on the other meals in the morning after a nice long evening of sleep. When you prepare your freezer meals, take extra time at the beginning to get organized. This one day of cooking goes by very quickly if you can recognize ahead of time how many onions you will need to chop up, how much ground beef you need to brown, which casseroles can go in the oven together, what you can place in a crockpot and so on.

Once your meals have cooled, break them into individual or family-sized portions to freeze. If a recipe makes 4 servings and you are cooking for two people, split the meal into two baggies or containers so you only have to thaw what you are going to eat that evening. We have also discovered strategies for making the most of a very small freezer for those of you without a separate one, like us. If you do have a separate freezer, I even more highly recommend reading the book mentioned above. The family has so many more tips for those of you who can buy multiple gallons of milk, cheese, and so on.

Alright, if you are still with me, thanks for hanging in there, we are getting close! If you didn’t write your menu on a white board or some other handy visual prior to shopping, now’s the time to do so. Once again, I now find this easier to do after I have all the food prepared and laid out in front of me. You’ll quickly find that many of the recipes make more portions than you will need in one month. This is when meal planning gets really fun! Now you get to start having more variety in the following months. Example: Last month I made a giant batch of chili and a giant batch of carrot soup so this month I still have 5 packages of each leftover. I can now add those meals into the mix for this month’s menu, make the same amount of new meals to mix in and then, voila! More variety and you guessed it, even more left over the next month. I also like having the extra meals because it makes giving away a meal so simple.

You may be wondering what about breakfast and lunch? Well, here’s where we may vary a bit on pricing. I rarely eat more than a piece of toast and a banana for breakfast and Jack has 1 egg and a slice of toast so we are very boring there. For lunches we typically rotate PB&J, tuna, or a little rice and beans mix (will share recipe later) with a side salad. All very inexpensive lunch items to incorporate into your routine and none of which require making and freezing ahead of time. So, our lunches add extra bread, PB, jelly, tuna, a large bag of rice, and bagged beans to the shopping list. These are almost always on our list and are usually pretty inexpensive even without a sale.

As I mentioned before, our sides typically consist of rice, salad, veggies or roasted red potatoes. I usually just rotate these around with the freezer meals so we aren’t always eating the same main course with the same side–break up that routine. We also bake a batch of homemade dinner rolls to go with our soups each month. These cost next to nothing if you already carry a few basic baking supplies in your kitchen. Which raises yet another point, baking a few items from scratch–bread, rolls, pizza dough–goes a long way to keeping you on budget while giving you variety.

Are you overwhelmed yet? I know it’s a lot of information to take in but I promise 2 months in you’ll be singing it’s praises just like I was. I will leave you to soak in this information but will be posting our first month’s grocery plan with recipes and more details in the next few days. I will also be posting tips on storing all this food in a tiny freezer, showing you menu options and my grocery price tracking system. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little peak into the way we’ve learned to cut our grocery bill in half!