A reader commented last week about my zero-based budget, but also wondered how in the world I can get away with spending just $75 a month on food (sometimes less).
I’ve actually increased this item in my budget to $85, to (hopefully) make up for rising food prices. This week, I’m keeping track of what I’m actually eating (this should be interesting---I can’t even remember what I had for dinner last night) so readers can see what $75 in groceries means for a single, fairly active woman like myself.
"I would also really like you to post about how you get away with spending just $75.00 per month on groceries (amazing). I just don't get that, even for a single person with no kids. I just went to the store today, and even though I did not need stuff for actual meals (just "fill in stuff") and spent almost $60.00."
Keep in mind that I’m not suggesting that anyone eat like I do, because I suppose I do crave lots of carbs and cheese, and don’t always get the protein and other nutrients that I probably should. Anyway, in advance of sharing my diet for a week (yikes! Why does this make me so nervous?) I’ll share some of the tactics I use to get the most for my dollar without starving or feeling deprived.
- Buy in bulk. I’ve discussed this before, and I’ll say it again: shop the bulk section of your least expensive grocery store first---then do the rest of your shopping. You WILL save money (and packaging) this way.
- I religiously, religiously, check the per ounce or per pound price on the shelf stickers. If your store doesn’t provide this information, ask the store manager about it, or go to another store! By noting how much I’m paying per ounce, I know at a glance whether the 16 oz spaghetti sauce at $1.89 is cheaper than the 20 oz sauce for $2.05 (I should note that I am NOT a math whiz, so doing these kinds of calculations in my head is asking for a miracle).
- Apropos of the first two tips, create a price book. It will take you some time in the beginning (you can also use old receipts, if you keep yours) but is worth it. There’s nothing more satisfying than being able to determine that the “sale” price in a weekly circular is no less expensive than the regular price at a low-cost grocery store.
- I purchase food that is inexpensive, long lasting, and can be used in many different recipes. Example? Potatoes! “Boring, boring potatoes”, I hear you saying. Not so fast! There are literally hundreds of recipes online that incorporate potatoes: casseroles, soups, frittatas, and so on. I recently made a potato casserole with frozen diced spinach, cheese and garlic. It lasted for four or five meals, and probably cost a total of about $2.50 to make. I also eat a lot of beans and rice, in different incarnations. Black beans are a great source of protein, and are fairly inexpensive. I haven’t quite committed to actually cooking my own beans (I buy canned), but am inching my way in that direction.
- I don’t buy much meat or poultry. It’s not that I don’t like beef and chicken; in fact, I love it. However, in the interest of saving money (as well as for environmental and animal rights reasons) I’ve cut my meat and poultry purchases to nearly nothing. I’ll still order meat dishes when I’m eating out with friends, but I don’t use it at home anymore. I make up for the protein loss through beans, cheese, tofu (I’m learning---slowly---to like this) and something called ‘Textured Vegetable Protein’ (TVP) which is a meat substitute for many recipes. See my ‘TVP meatloaf ' post for more information.
- I buy store brands (generics) when I can. This includes sauces, sugar, bread, frozen vegetables, and many other items. There are some products that don’t appeal to me in the store brand (black beans, for one), but if the name brand costs only a few pennies more, I’ll buy it instead. For example, my store brand wheat bread costs .82¢ a loaf. And it’s larger than the name brand loaves that cost $1.99! Sometimes I wonder about the ingredient, possible preservative, and nutrient differences between the two, but for now, the lower priced bread is tasty and fits my budget. Note: a friend gave me her bread machine for Christmas---she and her husband never used it---and I’ve been making a lot of my own bread as well. Last week I made spinach-cheese bread—delicious!
- I shop at a chain called the ‘Grocery Outlet’ for items like shampoo, conditioner, toilet paper, soaps, and cleaning supplies (sometime food, too). I rarely pay more than .99¢ or maybe $2.00 for these products. I’m also starting to use more natural cleaning supplies (which, coincidentally, are also cheaper). White vinegar is a wonder product!
- Check Rite Aid (or CVS, if you’re on the east coast of the U.S.) for ‘buy one get one free’ or even ‘free after rebate’ deals for household items like toothbrushes, toothpaste, and shampoos. There are some great deals in the weekly circulars (which you can view online---Rite Aid even allows you to request your rebates online—no stamps needed). Just be sure that you only purchase the items that will save you money. I don’t know about you, but when I walk through the makeup section of Rite Aid on the way to the shampoo aisle, I have a hard time convincing myself that I don’t need a new lipstick or eyeliner.
- I grew up in a home where dinners consisted of a meat or other protein dish, salad or cooked vegetables (or both!), and almost always bread of some kind. Basically your square meal, hitting all of the four food groups. Here’s where the dieticians are going to scream. I don’t do that. I work 50+ hours a week and take at least two graduate level classes each term---I have neither the time nor the money for a square meal like the kind my dad used to make. Instead, I try to find recipes that include all of these items (usually a casserole, stir fry, or soup of some kind) in one dish. If I can’t do that, then I’ll sometimes make a special purchase of asparagus, other seasonal vegetable, or salad fixings to round it out. Disclosure: I am not known for being a regular vegetable eater! I’m working on this, though, so don’t hate me.
- Snacks for work and school consist of fruit (usually bananas), dried cranberries (from the bulk section), or crackers. Generally, I’m looking for snack food that is inexpensive, easy to carry in my bookbag, and not completely unhealthy.
- Leftovers. I love them. I can eat the same thing for days and days if I’m craving it (like lasagne). Also, bringing food to work keeps me from spending $6.99 on a burrito at Chipotle every day. When I make a meal, I often ensure that there will be enough for leftovers or to freeze for later. Saves time and money!
- “How can you afford to make lasagne”, you ask? I substitute expensive cheeses (like ricotta and mozzarella) with cottage and cheddar cheese. Also, I never, ever buy pre-shredded cheese. I buy a giant hunk of it and shred what I need using my Cuisinart. Yes, it’s a pain to clean up, but boy does it save money! Again, I don’t make meat lasagne—I just found a great recipe for spinach and cottage cheese lasagne that is phenomenal!
- Coffee. I love it. I brew it at home and bring it to work in a thermos and a travel cup, so I never run out. I have a little four cup coffee maker under my desk so if I am desperate, I can heat up some water and have tea instead.
- Free food. Bring it on! Okay, so I work at a university, where the free food is abundant. There are receptions and meetings where the muffins, bagels, coffee, tea, or even cold cuts and salad are available for those who are invited. When I’m at one of these functions, I take full advantage of the opportunity to eat on someone else’s dime. The university pays for this food whether we eat it or not, so I don’t feel bad about filling my plate and even going back for seconds. In fact, last week I was lucky enough to have a free breakfast (board meeting) and free lunch (labor union meeting). When our office was interviewing candidates for an open position a few weeks ago, we had both free coffee and cookies as well as the opportunity to go to lunch with the candidate (the office paid). Also, I work in an office where coworkers will bring in cookies and cakes and other goodies from time to time (I also contribute to this, so I’m not a total moocher)! Whenever I’m invited so some function or other, my second thought (after “hmmm, is this relevant to me?”) is: “will there be food”? Never turn down free food, I say!
- Grow your own! Last summer I feasted on the most amazing tomatoes grown in my yard. This year, I’ve planted the tomatoes plus zucchini and lettuce, and I’m considering trying green beans as well. For other locally grown produce, I’m lucky that there are many, many farmer’s markets in Portland, and one is held every Wednesday (beginning at the end of this month) on my campus. I have to be honest, though: I’ve never actually compared prices between the farmer’s market and the grocery store, so this is something I think I’ll do when the opportunity presents itself.
- I don’t drink much alcohol at home. This decreases my grocery budget substantially. I’ll have a drink or two when I’m out with friends, but this money comes out of my ‘fun’ budget, not from grocery money. If I were a regular at-home drinker, my grocery budget would have to increase. However, the warmer it gets, the more I crave a yummy microbrew on the back deck, so we’ll see how my budget develops through the summer.
- I also don’t drink much soda. Although, in the interest of full disclosure, I am sitting on my back deck as I type this, drinking a diet Pepsi. In my defense, though, it’s from a leftover 24-pack from last summer, which has been stored in my garage all winter.
- Top Ramen: not just for college students! This is a great, low cost base for other dishes. Lose the overly-salty seasoning packet and create your own chow mein using fresh vegetables and the protein of your choice!
Is that all? Probably not. There are so many ways to save money at the grocery store, if you’re willing to cook from scratch, buy in bulk, purchase store brands, and be creative.