When I started my budget, it gave me a weekly $20 food allowance. This is cash that I can only use for food and groceries. Once it is gone, it is gone. If I run out but have other money available I can use that, but I have to decide whether or not I want to use that money on more food or save it to use on something else. Over the years my food allowance has fluctuated as high as $30/ week. Currently, it is sitting at $25/week. I have developed a bunch of strategies and tips that help me stay within budget each week.
Sales, Sales, Sales
Learn the Sale Schedule
Sales are important to my grocery shopping strategy. The grocery store I shop at has week long sales that begin Sunday at midnight and end Saturday about 11:45 pm. All of their sale signs usually have when the sale ends on them. When I see a deal that I want to think over I check out the end date so I know how long I have to bide my time.
Pick Up on Any Patterns
Since I buy generally the same stuff, I have noticed patterns in my grocery store’s sales. I know that every three to four weeks, my favorite salad dressing will be on sale. I know that once every four to six weeks my favorite ice cream will be over 50% off. Items usually used together will usually never be on sale at the same time. This week pancake mix on sale, next week or the week after syrup will be on sale.
Know Non-Sale Items Prices
I have also learned that there are some foods I like to buy that rarely go on sale. The nuts I buy for breakfast I have never seen on sale. However, I know they’re going to be about $4, so I just budget it in while I shop the sales.
Watch for sale signs that mimic each other by appearing the same but really mean different things. In my experience, 3/$5 means I can buy one of the items for $1.67. However, 3 for $5 means I need to buy three items for the $5 deal, or it is the regular price per item. I also look for the small print. Sometimes the deals are on 16oz-24oz and assorted varieties which I can mix and match. Sometimes the sales are super specific being one size or one flavor.
Deciding What to Buy
Having a Meal Plan
A lot of things I read say to have a meal plan for the week or month. My meal plan is a general understanding of what my diet is and I go from there. I know that I enjoy fruit and nuts or pancakes for breakfast. I know that I have a salad every day for lunch. Dinner usually involves rice or pasta in some way or form.
Keep It Agile
I try to avoid shopping lists for my groceries because I feel bound to it. If my list says pancake mix, and it’s not on sale I would probably still buy it and never see the sale on cinnamon rolls. By having a general idea of what I eat for each meal, I can keep it agile while shopping. I use the sales to guide my meals each week. Sure, I may have wanted pancakes, but cinnamon rolls are delicious and those extra $2 I would have spent on the mix can now be used to buy nuts.
Meals Per Dollar
When I’m buying my food, I try to always think about how many meals I wring out of each item and dollar. I know that a regular box of pancake mix can make about 7-10 meals. I know that one package of nuts lasts about 5 meals. By knowing how many meals I can get out of something, I can determine if that $5 will last me two days or a week and a half.
I often read things about keeping a minimalist wardrobe, where I can mix and match just a few clothing items to make a bunch of different looks. Although my closet still overflows into storage, I have started applying this method to my meals. For dinner, I usually have a rice or pasta, whatever meat looks good and is under $4 and vegetables. Thanks to the internet and spices, the possible recipes are endless. I cook a fresh dinner every night so each meal can be unique like a spinda’s spot pattern and I don’t get bored with having leftovers from Sunday night on Wednesday.
Although six years ago I stopped stockpiling months’ worth of food, I still like to have a few small stockpiles. My meal basics, that don’t spoil if they sit around, are the only things I stockpile and I only buy them when they are on sale and the extra money is available. Pasta and salad dressings are my biggest stockpiles. Rice, pasta sauce and soup follow close behind. Pancake mix and syrup are the smallest stockpiles, but most frequently filled. These stockpiles are nice because they free up money for future weeks’ shopping. They also provide options in the event I don’t like what I have. For example, if I don’t pasta tonight, I can have rice instead.
Other Mind Tricks
I used to buy all of my groceries for a month at a time. Now, I grocery shop 2-4 times a week. I don’t waste food anymore, my produce is fresher and I don’t have food spoiling in the back of my fridge.
Since I know I’ll be back later, I don’t use all of my allowance on the first trip. This helps me not get bored with my food and not feel guilty about it. So later if I don’t feel like having an apple for breakfast, I can buy a pear guilt free.
It also delays my impulse buying by letting me stall. Before frequent trips, ice cream sales sounded like this “I should buy it because it’s on sale now, I am sure I will want it later and who knows if it’ll be on sale when I come back.” Now that I go to the store more frequently ice cream sales sound like this, “Ice cream sale! Good to know. I don’t need it tonight, but I’ll think about it and when I come back for apples in two days I can buy some then. And if I really want it tonight, I can just come back.” Sometimes I return home and budget the rest of my allowance to figure out how to afford three tubs of sale ice cream. However, usually by the time I get home and comfortable, I’m too lazy to go back for the ice cream and I don’t spend the money at all.
Shop at Different stores
Stores don’t usually have the same sales running at the same time. I have also learned that some things are worth less to different stores. When I first started my budget, I bought my fruits from the organic store, my meat from my supermarket and my salad greens from my boyfriend’s supermarket all because they were the most affordable.
My "Only Carry" Rule
A rule I like to follow, I may only buy what I can carry. Although it is out of necessity now because I don’t own a car, it started when I had a car. It was really easy for me to use the cart to bring whatever I bought to my car which had plenty of room in it. Now I grab a basket and I bring my own bag that will carry the same amount as the basket. By limiting how much I buy to what I can carry, I must prioritize what I buy and how I spend each trip. I prioritize the food that I need for my meals for the next couple of days first. Then if there are space and money leftover I may get a snack. If I don’t have space to carry snacks, then I probably have enough food to feed me.
Now there are some things that I want to defog and clear up. The $20-$30 a week budget covers only me. My fiancé buys his own groceries and we don't have kids or large pets. (we have hermit crabs) Usually once each week we have pizza/take out date night which accounts for one dinner, possibly two. Occasionally during the weekend we also go out for lunch or dinner with friends. When I'm hungry because I mismanaged my allowance and don't have money left, I just hope I stocked up on pancake mix because I know I don’t have extra ice cream.
Do you have any questions for me? Are there things you would like me to focus on better for another post? What are your strategies for saving money at the grocery store?
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