It’s been a while since I’ve done a budget-saving post, and my last one — “Tips for Keeping Your Grocery Bill Under Control” — got such a great response that I decided it was time to do a follow-up. If you haven’t already seen my “One Week of Eating the Healthy Little Changes Way” post, where I walk you through my process from meal planning to shopping to cooking to help you see my methods in action, check it out first. (And while we’re on the subject, if you have any other questions about my process, please let me know in the comments — and don’t forget to share any genius tips of your own!)
Now, I’m following up with 10 tips for keeping your grocery budget under control — all methods I use and swear by.
I first began finessing my methods in 2011 when I quit the grind to become a stay-at-home mom. (In 2013, I even wrote an article about it for KSL.com, a news website based in Salt Lake City.) The items you’ll find here really are common-sense tips — seriously, this isn’t rocket science. But sometimes you just need to hear them a few times before you decide to make the changes yourself. It takes some planning and occasionally a little extra legwork, but there’s nothing hard about it and anyone can make this method work for them.
Here are 10 tips for saving big on your groceries — without clipping a single coupon.
Make a plan. Preparing a weekly menu may sound like a lot of work, but strategic planning is what makes streamlining possible. This is especially true if you’re one of those people who is always a few ingredients short, resulting in an extra shopping trip with extra unplanned purchases. Meal planning not only allows you to zero in on just the items you’ll need for the week, it helps you be strategic about those items and put them to use in multiple ways. For example, you can buy one bag of carrots and one bag of potatoes for less than $7 and use those ingredients for main dishes, side dishes and snacks for two weeks.
Shop weekly. By making just one shopping trip each week, you’ll stay focused on buying only those items you will need for the coming week. While it’s good to stock up when items are cheap (more on that later), you’ll be setting yourself back if you buy too many items that go bad before you can use them or spend the bulk of your budget on toiletries when what you really need that week are pantry essentials. This only-buy-what-is-necessary mentality will also help you avoid impulse purchases (more on that later, too).
Cut back. It goes without saying that cutting back on what you purchase and how much is key to saving money, but really, it can’t be stressed enough. Be willing to say no to anything that isn’t absolutely necessary and it will immediately — and literally — pay off. In addition to eliminating what you really don’t need, think about using less of what you do usually consume. Reducing the amount of meat or cheese in a recipe (or going meatless entirely, because you don’t need nearly as much protein as you think you do), cutting back on unhealthy snacks, eliminating junk food, and skipping soda are ways to not only save money, but also help you be healthier. You can also easily cut back on disposable goods, too, by using dishtowels instead of paper towels and making your own cleaning products.
Simplify. You don’t need two side dishes, a salad and dessert with every meal, and what you do serve doesn’t need a lot of extras. Preparing simple dinners like casseroles, soups, or one-pot meals will not only reduce the number of items on your grocery list, it will keep your costs per meal very low — and keep you from buying expensive items that only get occasional use, like flavoring extracts and spice blends. Take a look at my RECIPES page for mealtime inspiration.
Eat and repeat. Don’t cook a new meal for every dinner; make your meal plan include a leftover night (or two). It will keep your grocery list — and the time you spend in the kitchen — much shorter, and it will prevent the waste that comes from throwing out food that’s left to languish in the fridge. In addition, see where you can use items for more than one meal. For example, use Monday’s side dish of steamed carrots in shepherd’s pie on Tuesday, or turn the shredded cabbage from Wednesday’s cole slaw into Friday’s stir-fry.
Know what to buy where. It may be more convenient to buy everything in one place, but it will not be cheaper. I’ve got a whole post in the works about this, but here are my basic guidelines: Discount grocery stores like Winco are the best places for food items, and co-ops and farmers markets are great for produce. The best-kept secret for non-food items is the dollar store, where cleaning products, toiletries, paper goods, office supplies, kitchen items and other daily essentials are of surprising good quality at a fraction of the cost. The best dollar stores even have name-brand goods, if you just can’t bear to sacrifice your favorite toothpaste, deodorant or toilet bowl cleaner.
And a word about price clubs like Costco: Unless you have to feed an army, the value from bargain warehouses is rarely realized for average-sized families. While you may get a better cost-savings deal by buying 16 sticks of butter instead of 4, you’ll be plunking down a lot of cash up front to get it — which you may not have or be able to spend, and which only helps your budget in the long run, not now.
Be generic. While you may treasure certain name-brand items you feel you simply can’t do without, remember that when added together they’ll be costing you dearly. Even the most basic brand-name canned goods can cost up to a dollar more apiece, just for the sake of a fancy label. It’s OK not to compromise once in a while when quality is an issue — say, for your favorite brand of toilet paper or if organic is a priority for you — but when it comes to saving money, going generic is your best bet. The pharmacy is where this really pays off: By and large, generic medicine is no different than its name-brand counterpart. Every pharmacist will tell you the same.
Stock up the smart way. Having a well-stocked pantry will ensure you don’t have to buy everything you need every week, so keep essentials like flour, canned goods, rice, pasta, and beans on hand and stock up when prices are low. Grocery stores have case lot sales at different times throughout the year, so call your local store to find out when. Also, if you have more expensive items to buy regularly, like baby formula or allergy medicine, stagger those items throughout the month so you don’t have to buy them all at the same time.
Ignore your impulses. Impulse purchases can break a budget in a hurry. If you’re one who falls victim to the glossy allure of gossip magazines or the sweetness of seasonal candy, it’s best to avoid those items — and their respective aisles — altogether. This is especially true when it comes to snack foods. You know junk food is bad for your body; don’t forget that it’s also bad for your budget. Packaged snacks and treats are not essentials and are some of the most expensive items in a grocery store, not to mention the most sugar-packed and calorie-laden. And although frozen, prepared meals may seem cheaper than buying all the ingredients for a freshly-cooked meal, remember that fresh ingredients can be used in multiple meals, stretching your dollar even further.
Go DIY. It’s easier than you think to keep a garden, bake bread, and can produce, just like in the “old days.” But thanks to blogs and websites like Pinterest, it’s easier than ever to make things you had to buy before, like shampoo, laundry detergent, mouthwash, and cleaning products. And there’s a growing body of evidence to suggest it’s much healthier. Surf the web for easy ideas, or ask your friends for recommendations.
Whether you use one or all of these tips, remember this: It doesn’t take a lot of sacrifice to save money; a little strategy can go a long way toward keeping your cash in your pocket.