Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Money Talk: Grocery Budget

Because it's my blog and I write what I want and because I really like reading money posts on other blogs, I'm going to do a (rough) series on money every Tuesday in July.  This is how I celebrate my birthday month on my blog.  I am a retired accountant.   And current bookkeeper.  I've spent the last 14 years of my life focused on money, to some extent.  That sounds really old but it was 14 years ago I decided to major in accounting.  YIKES.  Well now I feel old and it's not even my birthday yet.

We've had a budget our whole marriage but didn't really stick to it until we were down to one income.  Looking back, I really wish we had stuck to it the first 7 years because knowing how much we are able to save with a budget and one income now makes me realize how much we could have saved with a budget and two incomes then. (I guess technically we have two incomes now but it's not like I'm making a lot working 3 hours a week.)

One of the first things I cracked down on was our grocery budget.  Thanks to my Money software, I knew how much we had been spending on food a month and I deemed it too much.  I decided $200 a month would suffice.  It's not that that's all we had to spe
nd on groceries a month, that's just what I decided was enough.  And it turned out to be really hard.  We were constantly going over which would stress me out for no good reason other than I thought we should be spending less.  We finally bumped it up to $225 and that has stuck for more than two years now.

For all of 2015 we over for the year by less than $20, most of which was a case of beer Matt bought in a month he worked a lot of overtime and we were out of beer.  I didn't add any of his overtime earnings to the budget but we agreed he had earned some beer.  Otherwise, we did almost our eating, baking, preserving, drinking, on $225/month.  (A few caveats, I call all my Christmas baking "holiday" expense not groceries since it is part of holiday tradition and costs me about $75 to do it all.  And anytime I have to make food for something like a bridal or baby shower, I have a different category for that.  Also, anytime we host a cookout or Luke's birthday party of something.  I have a lot of caveats...)  But, all that aside, I'm pretty proud I could fill our freezer with produce, make a new drink every week, make new ice cream, do all the baking I do, and feed our family of three, for $225 a month.

It still sounds like a lot to me (cost more than $50 to feed our family for a week?!?) but it does come out to $7.50/day or less than $1 per person, per meal, per day (and that doesn't even consider snacks, desserts, alcohol, etc!).  So I guess that's not too bad.  Also helps that Luke is not a big eater.  I know that will change some day.

So, here are some ways we keep our grocery budget low:

I swear by this.  I did a whole post about it 2½ years ago and I still use that same process other than planning for just two weeks at a time rather than the whole month.  I honestly don't know how people grocery shop without a menu plan.  Do you just go to the store and throw random things in the cart?  How do you know what you are eating for supper?  How do you know you have enough food?  How do you know you have the right food??  I honestly do not get it.  I imagine my cart would be pretty random if I went to the store without a plan and list.

You can read the whole original post for my process but basically I figure out what we are going to eat for the next two weeks (how often I go to the grocery), check the cupboards for what we already have, and then buy the rest.  Then we know what we are eating for supper, we know we have all the ingredients, and we shouldn't have a lot of extra.  Having a menu plan is key to our grocery budget and my grocery shopping.  It helps that we'll eat leftovers many nights in a row (Matt always packs sandwiches in his lunch) so I only need to make ~3 meals a week.  In the words of Elephant and Piggie "Having a plan and sticking to it is what I say!" (Paraphrased since that book is currently in the room where Luke is sleeping.)

2) Limiting Grocery Stops
As I said above, I only go to the grocery (Aldi) every other week, when I make a new menu plan.  Matt stops in the off weeks to get milk, produce on sale, and pick out a few things he wants (no matter how much he might try to tell me, it's just easier for him to pick out some of his own cold meat and cereal).  It's super rare we stop more than those once a week trips.  I will stop at other stores in the off weeks but this time of year it's mostly for produce sales.  The less times you go in the store, the less tempted you'll be to add random items to your cart!

3) Eating What's in the Cupboard
With menu planning, most food doesn't stay in the cupboards for too long (baking essentials aside).  But sometimes there are partially used boxes of pasta or rice or things like that.  I try to use up what we have when making my next menu plan, after carrying over any meals that didn't get made for various reasons (over planning typically).  Sometimes that can also mean a partially used bag of frozen chicken or various frozen vegetables gifted from my parents' garden (which I go in spurts forgetting about...we are still eating through last year's green beans which are still quite good.)  I try to start with what's in the cupboard or freezer before moving on to other items.

I know a lot of people who say they do all/most of their shopping at Kroger and it can be cheap.  I need someone to explain to me how it's done because I don't shop there enough to learn all the tricks.  But also, I don't know that I need to learn it all because Aldi.  We love Aldi, as much as one can love a grocery store.  I did a post about our favorite non-staples there and I know I've mentioned it many other times.

The first time I went I was shocked the total was only about $50 when I was expecting closer to $100.  Even on a recent trip a few weeks ago I was expecting another $80-$90 bill and it was $52.  (I should know better by this point.)  It's simply the cheapest place we've found to get most items.  We easily buy 80% of our groceries there, pretty much anything we can, we do. Some items are seasonal and some things they just don't sell (sesame seeds for buns is the only thing that comes to mind at the moment but I know there are more).  There is a small handful of items we prefer from other stores (Kroger's wheat saltines) or I can get cheaper at other places (raisins and vinegar from Target) but those items are very limited.

Also, there produce sales in the summer are top notch.  I do stop at Fresh Thyme or Kroger occasionally to pick up their one super discounted produce (which is supposed to get you to buy other things too but I go buy the one or two really cheap things and that's it) but the vast majority of our produce, both eaten and frozen for the winter comes from Aldi.  Yes, there is the occasional bad piece of fruit but you'll get that anywhere. 

I also like that it's a really small store and there aren't 100 versions of each item.  It's mostly their store brand (which we've never had a problem with) and no other choices.  It makes for quick shopping!  Depending on the checkout line, I can be in and out, for 2 weeks of groceries, with Luke along, in about 20 minutes.  That's it! 

I could keep going on about Aldi but I'll leave it at that.  If you haven't tried it, and there is one close by, please do!

5) Shop Ads/Deals
I mentioned this above with the produce but I do check the weekly grocery ads we get in the mail and will stop at other stores to buy the occasional cheaper than Aldi items.  This is mostly fruit.  Or sometimes Target has really good deals on cereal or whatever.  IBotta doesn't work at Aldi so sometimes with stacking those rebates with Cartwheel, coupons, or sales, I am able to get better deals at Target but it's more work than just going to Aldi!  But the other ads are still worth checking out.

6) (Mostly) Only Buying Produce in Season
For the most part we only buy produce when it's in season.  That means through the winter we mostly eat bananas, oranges, and applesauce for our fruit.  In the summer we eat whatever is on sale and it's wonderful.  I (90% of the time) can't stomach paying $2.50 for a pound of strawberries in the winter when I know I can get them for $1-1.25 in the summer.  This helps us save money and appreciate the fruit when it's here!

7) Limiting Meat
We don't necessarily eat meatless every week but we do a few times a month (I talked about this back here).  Fish or refried beans are favorites.  I really need to learn to make my own refried beans but for now, a can at Aldi is less than $1 and we can make it last two meals.  That's some cheap eating!  Also, refried beans are delicious.  I eat peanut butter for lunch almost every day, probably 29/30 days a month.  We also try to eat more chicken than beef since it's healthier and cheaper (for the most part, the only meat we buy is chicken and beef...and Matt's cold meat...and hot dogs for Matt and Luke...and breakfast sausages sometimes...but I never buy like pork chops or anything like that...I just don't think about it).  

8) Donate
When all else fails, and we've gone over the budget for the month, we donate to our church's monthly food collection.  It's the last Sunday of the month which is about when I am going through my cupboard finding things to get rid of.  I do try to buy things specifically for the collection (iBotta deals help) but there are also a lot of things from our cupboards too. (Then I do a rough calculation of what all that costs and do an adjustment in my Money software to take it out of grocery and into charitable donations...this is very accountant-y of me, I know.  And we don't itemize deductions for taxes so it's just for my own bookkeeping.)

With menu planning there typically isn't a lot extra but sometimes there are meals we didn't get to (leftovers stretched longer than planned or my parents had us over for supper) or things I stocked up on with sales (boxes tea at Target was a frequent one in the spring).  I can always find SOMETHING to donate, even if it means I'll be rebuying the item again next week so I can make that supper that never happened. (I know that might sound a little crazy but it keeps things straighter in my head.)

That's it!  Getting pickier about our grocery budget has made us eat better (less money for snacks), throw away less (we only buy what we know we are going to eat), and keep our cupboards from getting too full.  I've done a lot of reading and working on reducing our "things" and spending less over the last few years and I've found that limitations really are a good things.  The less you buy, the less you throw out, the less that's cluttering your home.  And that holds true for cupboards as well!

What am I missing?  Can anyone convince me to switch to Kroger? (Or Meijer, I know my Mom and one of my sisters are big fans of there)?  Do you eat for less?  Then I'm really curious to hear what you have to say!!

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