When I first got married, I had no experience cooking and no concept of how much anything cost. I still remember our first Walmart trip when we got back from our honeymoon. We were giddy over having enough gift cards left over to cover that week’s groceries, but we were still trying to figure out how we liked to eat when it was up to us (so much “I don’t know, what do you want?”). We grabbed a bunch of random stuff and figured we’d make it work. I don’t remember how much that grocery bill was, but I do remember going home that night and being so proud of ourselves when we calculated that our first dinner at home had only cost about $2.50 per person (even including our splurge on Velveeta shells and cheese!).
It didn’t take long to realize that our willy nilly approach to grocery shopping was, on the whole, needlessly expensive, inefficient, and inconvenient. At a time when we only had one income and I was a grad student taking double the normal full-time course load, that did not fly. Here are some ways we’ve learned to streamline the process and costs (because my brain works in lists).
- Meal plan. Taking 15 minutes to browse your cookbooks or Pinterest boards and plan meals is such a game changer (or maybe more than 15 minutes, after you get back on track from looking at the other pretties… let’s be honest). I plan for at least a week; as soon as I have the time, I go ahead and plan out a whole month. Gone are the days when I want to make something and realize I’m missing a key ingredient. We also don’t have to wonder what we’re eating or wish we had thawed meat earlier. Look at the menu the night before. Boom.
- Make a list. I thought having a grocery list was dorky — until I found Out of Milk, an app that lets you make a list, indicate how many of an item you need, and calculate the cost. It does the math for you and keeps a running total at the bottom so you can see approximately what you’ll be spending, pre-tax, before you even go to the store. This is super helpful for when you need to stick to a budget. There have been times when I’ve seen that the total is going to be too high, so I modify a meal or two to something less expensive. You can also rearrange items once you’ve put them in so that all your produce is together, etc.
- Stick to the list. But really. Don’t come home with extras! If you’re pretty sure you’re going to run into girl scouts and be really tempted, either stay firm or go ahead and plan on it. Write on your list that you’re buying x number of boxes, stick to it, and move on.
- Use coupons…sometimes. Coupons always sound like a good idea, except that if you really get into couponing, it can take for-freaking-ever. How many websites can you check and newspapers can you buy before enough is enough? It may save you a few dollars, but how much time did it take away from other things? Personally, I shop at Kroger and use their app. They have tons of coupons, and within 5 or 10 minutes you’ll have all you need. Once you put your loyalty card number into the app, the coupons you’ve chosen will automatically come out of your total when you shop. They also pay attention to what you buy and send fantastic coupons for things that would normally never have coupons, like carrots, spinach, and eggs — staples in our house. I tried looking at other websites, but for the one or two useful coupons I’d find somewhere other than the Kroger app, it wasn’t worth all the time. Also — if you buy something because you had a coupon for it, but wouldn’t have bought it otherwise, did you really save money? Just keepin’ it real.
- Don’t be afraid of substituting. Have y’all noticed that red peppers are twice the price of green peppers? Why is that? When I have a recipe that calls for different colors of peppers, like this deliciousness, I almost always just make it with green. That alone brings savings of $1 per pepper. It’s the little things.
I wouldn’t say that these are my only shopping strategies, but they are the ones I use most consistently. There’s another strategy I’m excited to try soon — online grocery shopping. For instance, on Amazon you can order things like coffee and olive oil, and you can even set it up to automatically be delivered at regular intervals. It’d be such a time saver (and money saver, from what I hear) to just stick to the perimeter and not have to go down the aisles of the grocery store (especially when Kroger is doing a remodel and rearranges all the things every single week).
What have you tried? What’s worked for you?