Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Saving Money on Groceries

So many tips on stretching the food budget focus only on using coupons. These can work for many families, but I personally haven't used them often because we don’t usually buy name brands. I prefer to focus on planning ahead, choosing wisely, and stretching what I have. To succeed at this, we need to pay close attention to what we are doing, research our options, and be willing to adjust our habits! You can find some great tips from other ladies in the comment section of one of my earlier blog posts. I gleaned some of these ideas on-line (I read over dozens of articles on the topic, many of them at, but most of them are just from nearly 30 years of grocery shopping experience -- many of these for a very large family!

Meal Planning

Plan your meals ahead of time, but be flexible. If you find a good deal in the store that you know you will use, go ahead and buy it, even if it is not on your list. Your list is your guide, not your master. If you do buy something that wasn’t planned, make sure you have whatever else needs to go with it – such as salsa and refried beans if you buy taco shells, etc.

Make a list of several meals that you might use in a typical week or month. Plan which recipes you want to use most often and find ways to economize on them. For example, you can estimate the cost of fixing a certain recipe by adding the prices of the ingredients. You may wish to factor in the energy costs of baking in the oven versus the stovetop, microwave or crock pot. You might be surprised to see which of your recipes are better deals! There are some “sneaky” ingredients like bottled alfredo sauce and cheese that can really jack up the price. Plan to make each of your cheapest meals every week, and save the "gourmet" ones for occasional use.

Think about what you regularly eat and analyze whether there are any thriftier options, either by substituting another similar food (chicken thighs instead of breasts), buying a cheaper brand (store brand instead of Cheerios), buying in another form or packaging (oatmeal in a large canister instead of small packets) or mixing foods (such as store brand corn flakes with Honey Bunches of Oats, which also cuts the sugar content). You don’t have to analyze all of your food purchases at once. You can do a group of foods each week or month, such as meats, baked products, breakfast foods, etc.

Set up your grocery list on the computer, in order by aisle. This will help prevent backtracking in the store. Print a list and post it on the fridge so family members can mark off what is needed, especially if they use the last of something. Check your cupboards, fridge, and freezer as you make your list so you get everything you need and not what you already have. If it will help, let your spouse check your list to make sure everything looks reasonable.

Learn not to be too picky about what you eat. Be content with a cheaper brand or a different kind of food! We are already so blessed with choices that others in the world don’t even have. If your kids insist on a certain kind of food that is more expensive, let them pay for their own stash of it. (If it must go in the family fridge, they can label it.)

Eggs are a very inexpensive source of protein, and they are great for dinner as well as breakfast. You can buy them in cartons of 18. Make quiche, scrambled eggs, French toast, eggs in a basket (a slice of bread with a hole cut in the middle for the egg, then fried) and strata (slices of bread, ham, and cheese covered with whipped up egg and baked).

Ground turkey is usually cheaper and less fatty than beef, and you won't notice the taste difference in most recipes. I buy it frozen in plastic tubes for $1 a pound at Wal-Mart or fresh for $2 a pound at Sam’s Club.

Switch to fat free (skim) milk. It’s cheaper and not as many fat calories. You will get used to it, I promise!

If there is an ingredient that must be saved for a certain recipe, mark it clearly so no one will use it for anything else. This will save you from running to the store to replace it, during which trip you would probably grab five more things.

Buy an extra freezer if you have space for it. We have a compact chest freezer in our storage room where we store extra fruit, bread, meat and juice. This enables us to stock up on good deals when we find them.

Choosing Where to Shop

Keep a small notebook in your purse so you can jot down the best prices for the foods you normally buy. Then choose where you want to buy that item on a regular basis. Only buy it somewhere else if you can get a better price. Pretty soon you will know the prices well enough that you won't have to look at your notebook.

Get used to shopping at more than one store to get better prices. You can check the newspaper or your store’s web site to get current prices and figure where you can get the better deals. Pretty soon you will get a feel for where the better prices are for weekly shopping, and you can go to the other stores periodically to get “loss leader” items. Though Winn-Dixie generally has higher prices, if I am driving by there and need something quick, I stock up on their Buy One Get One Free stuff while I’m there.

Decide where you want to buy each kind of item regularly. For example, I buy meat, milk, cheese, butter, toilet paper, laundry detergent, and other items at Sam’s Club, which is only 1.5 miles from our house. We go there twice a week. However, Sam’s Club doesn’t have everything we want, and some prices are higher there, so I do a “full run” at Super Wal-Mart once a week. I also shop at the Entenmann’s bread outlet every other week, buying enough to freeze until I go again. I can usually get Arnold’s whole wheat bread for $1 (or even 50 cents) even though it costs over $2 at Sam’s and Wal-Mart. We also buy bagels, English muffins, potato bread and donuts here. I often buy fruit and vegetables at the Family Produce Market near our house. There are certain things I usually buy at the Dollar General across the street from church, too. I just know what things are cheaper there, and what isn’t. My friends tell me that CVS has great deals with their Extra Care savings program. "Discount" grocery stores can be a good option, but not always. A new Save a Lot store just opened up close to us, and I went in there by myself one night just to jot down prices to compare. For most of the things we usually buy, prices were about the same or higher than Wal-Mart, and the selection was poor. But, compared to some of the higher priced stores, there were some good deals.

To save gas, stop by a store where you might not usually shop when you are running other errands, especially if it is for non-perishable items. You could leave a small ice chest in your car trunk or the back of your van for the times when you buy something cold and you aren’t going right home.

Some grocery stores accept store coupons from other chains. One year I got a coupon book that had a dozen $5 off coupons for Albertsons (among hundreds of other coupons for restaurants, etc.) and the person who sold it to me said that Wal-Mart takes Albertson's coupons, too. I saved a bunch of money that year. If I had seen the books for sale this year, I would have bought three or four of them and used one coupon every week!

Drug store chains like Walgreens sometimes advertise cheap milk to get you in the store. This might be a good way to grab a gallon or two when you don't need to buy other grocery items. Sales like this are usually advertised on their outdoor electronic signs.

At the Store
Go shopping in the early morning, which is when stores like Sam’s Club usually sell discounted meat. Your brain will also be fresher then. Don’t go shopping when you are hungry or stressed out, which is when people tend to make impulse and convenience purchases.

When possible, shop without any kids who might encourage you to buy junk. Responsible teenagers can be a real help with shopping, though.

Psych yourself up like a mad woman (or man, if you are of the male gender) for saving money before you walk into the store, and make a game out of how much money you can save, particularly by not buying what you don’t need. Treat it like a business venture, and think of your "profit and loss." You've got to pay attention! Use all of your brain cells here! Every dollar adds up.

Think of what restaurants and other businesses buy when you are looking at what is available. You can get 4,500 dispenser sized napkins for under $18 at Sam's Club, which is way cheaper than regular square napkins anywhere else! We have used these for years, and keep them in a basket on the table. We don't feel at all guilty using 2 or 3 napkins during one meal for a messy child.

If you are using coupons, be sure that they are for items you will actually use and that the price savings on the name brand are better than what you can get from buying an equivalent store brand. Some of my friends use The Grocery Game web site, a service which matches local grocery store sales (like buy one get one free deals) with manufacturers’ coupons in local papers. Here are my friend Brandi’s blog posts about the Grocery Game. There are also a lot of money savings tips on the Grocery Game web site. CouponMom is a free web site where you can get coupons. Keep your coupons organized by category or store aisle. You can usually use a manufacturer's coupon and a store coupon on the same item. Some stores double coupons, too.

If you haven't already seen it, pick up the sale flyer when you walk in the store and check out what the best deals are. Then add what you want to your list before you go any further.

Check the clearance bin for items that you usually buy, or items that you buy if the price is right. Don’t buy it if you won’t use it.

Look for the lower priced items on the bottom shelves. More expensive (profitable) items are right at eye level! Check your unit pricing! You can also compare prices using a calculator. (My cell phone has one, so I don't carry a separate one.)

Buy store brands whenever possible! They are almost always significantly cheaper and the quality is usually just as good.

Check expiration dates on foods and medicines so they won’t spoil before you use them.

Buy bulk or at least in larger containers if you can use it before it spoils, and if the price per unit is lower. Do check your unit pricing on the shelf. At our Wal-Mart store, the larger size of the store brand if peanut butter is actually a higher cost per ounce than the medium size. We always buy taco seasoning, cinnamon, and other spices in larger containers at Sam’s Club because the tiny jars at most grocery stores are outrageously expensive per ounce. This might not work for smaller families. If you bake a lot of bread, buy your yeast in one pound packages at Sam’s Club – it costs so much less for what you get!

Avoid convenience foods unless the price difference isn’t much and the time savings are very substantial. (I occasionally buy frozen lasagna in 96 ounce packages because it is expensive to make it fresh, and sometimes I need something to pop in the oven without prep time. I also buy frozen burritos for about 35 cents each because they are quick for lunch.) Just get in the habit of spending a little extra time preparing meals!

Buy fruits and vegetables that are in season. I buy strawberries only when I can get them for less than $2 per pound, usually in the spring. When the prices go back up, I quit getting them. One of my teenage daughters went strawberry picking with friends this past spring and came back with a huge ice chest full for only $6. We ate some fresh, froze some, and made freezer jam with the rest. That’s the way to buy the berries if you can!

Check the contents of your cart before you go to the checkout. Do you really need everything in it? I have been known to change my mind on something right in the checkout line. I often save my "in doubt" items for the end of checkout, and keep tabs on how the other prices are adding up before I make my final decision. If I decide against it, I hand the item to the clerk and say, "I don't think I want this after all," and she cheerfully plops it right into her "return to shelf" basket. No sweat!

Pay attention to the display at the cash register when the clerk is ringing up your order to make sure the prices (especially on clearance items) are correct and that your coupons work. At the very least, check your receipt before you leave the parking lot. This one tip has saved me a whole lot of money! Don't be afraid to go back in and get the amount adjusted. Ask for the store manager if the clerk has a problem with this.

If you can get by with this, consider doing your main grocery shopping every other week or once a month, then stop in just for perishable, high use items like milk as needed. We still shop at least weekly and often more frequently because our family is so large that we buy huge amounts already.

Meal Preparation

Cook a lot of meat at once and freeze for later in zip bags. You also don’t have to use as much meat for one meal – stretch it! You can use two baking pans in your oven, which saves energy because you are getting more cooked at the same time. You can also use two large frying pans side by side on your stove top. It is as easy to tend two pans as one. (I routinely make dinner for 10-12 people. If you have six people, this would be a double batch for you, and you have an extra meal for later.) For example, recently my 13 year old daughter was making roast for a special meal for my married daughter, who was visiting for the evening. My husband sliced up onions and green peppers to add to a roaster pan full of boneless chicken thighs and baked them at the same time. The next night, I simmered the cooked chicken with fresh broccoli florets and baby carrots, while fixing a large pot of rice on the other burner. I took out some of the chicken mixture to make two potpies for the next day, using up some about-to-expire sour cream and ranch dip from the refrigerator and some canned potatoes from the cupboard. Then I took most of the broth, along with some of the chicken and vegetables, some of the cream sauce from the potpie mixture, and some rice from the pot to make soup for another night. Finally, I used the rest of the chicken, vegetables, and rice, along with bulk-purchased oriental sauce for stir fry that night. We used the potpies for lunch the next day, which was good for a spur-of-the-moment invitation to have friends over after church. When I made Mexican casserole that night (layering torn up tortillas with beans, seasoned ground turkey, cheese, sour cream, etc.), I saved some of the meat for a small batch of chili. Between this chili and the chicken soup I had made the night before, as well as buttered toast, we were able to feed all of us the next night without even heating up the oven.

Learn to cook from scratch. It will save you money or improve nutrition. We really have it pretty easy in this country. We don’t have to butcher our own meat or grow our own wheat! So what if we have to mix up several ingredients or dice some vegetables? If you know you are using the same kind of vegetables tomorrow, go ahead and slice them now while you do some for tonight.

Get your children involved in meal preparation so you don’t have to spend as much time in the kitchen. This will cut down on the I-don’t-have-time-to-cook-let’s-go-through-the-drive-through syndrome. A teenager can easily cook an entire dinner at least one night per week, as well as plan it and let you know what ingredients are needed.

Stretching Food

Drink a lot of water! It’s cheap and very good for you, and it will reduce your appetite for food and other beverages. You can make this more appealing and convenient by keeping a pitcher or dispenser of cold water in your refrigerator. (Bottled water can get really expensive, and we would often find it lying around the house with only a few sips taken. If you go to the gym, bring along your own reusable water bottle.)

Serve juice and other beverages in smaller cups, the way restaurants do. If you use frozen juice concentrate (which is cheaper than fresh), add four or more cans of water instead of three. If you notice any taste difference at all, you will soon get used to it. Most kids drink way too much juice every day anyway. You can also dilute powdered drink mixes.

Substitute more economical ingredients in recipes, such as cottage cheese instead of at least part of the ricotta cheese in lasagna. When baking with chocolate, 3 tablespoons cocoa with 2 ½ teaspoons butter is equal to one unsweetened chocolate baking square.

Find a few good meatless recipes and serve one at least once a week. My daughter Joanna doesn't like to handle raw meat at all, so on her dinner night she usually cooks eggs, quesa dias (grilled tortillas with cheese, beans, etc.), or pasta with sauce. Boxed or homemade macaroni and cheese makes a very economical lunch. You can also use much smaller amounts of meat, especially in spaghetti and chili. Many nutritionists recommend viewing meat as a condiment to add flavor to the other food, rather than as the main ingredient. If you use high fat meats like sausage, cut it into very small pieces and add it to another recipe. We have also done baked potato buffets, setting out toppings like sour cream, butter, shredded cheese, onions, peppers, little bits of meat. For my daughter Mary's wedding reception, we did a Mexican buffet with ingredients like tortilla chips, tortilla shells, different kinds of beans, cheese, sauces, guacamole, ground beef, etc. It turned out to be much more reasonably priced than the meat-intense Italian buffet that we had originally planned, and everyone loved it! Mary is trying to cook with very little meat to save money and preserve their health, which is fine with her new husband, who grew up in a vegetarian home.

Don’t serve as much food! Dish out a reasonable portion for each person at the stove and then put the plates on the table. Consider putting the leftovers away in the fridge immediately so no one will go back for seconds.

Eliminate waste! Use up food before it goes bad. Have a plan for food that is "on the edge" of usefulness. You can use mushy bananas in banana bread, bruised fruits (with the bad parts cut off) for fruit salad, stale bread for French toast or strata or croutons, sour milk for baking, wilted vegetables for soup, slightly old meat for chili, etc. Eat leftovers for lunch or gather up enough leftovers for a smorgasbord dinner. Use extra veggies in soup or a casserole the next day. Recycle a casserole by adding more sauce or cheese before reheating. Plan to use up your fresh lettuce within a few days before it wilts quickly, and save your frozen vegetables for later in the week.

Keep your leftovers in clear storage containers and label them with the date so you can see what's there and use it up before it's too late. Also, keep leftovers in a special section of the fridge so folks can look there first for lunch food.

Keep your baking ingredients in sealed plastic storage containers rather than ceramic canisters with loosely fitting lids. It keeps them from going buggy or stale.

Hide food or at least put it out of sight in a storage area away from the kitchen! Food that is out in the open is more likely to be devoured. If your snack foods must last for a certain time period, put each package in a separate plastic grocery bag, tie it up, and label it with the date it will be available for consumption.

Keep tempting foods out of reach of small children. We keep our containers of cereal up on top of our refrigerator, because otherwise our preschooler would always be sticking her little paws in for a handful! We keep all baked goodies in the freezer, above her eye level.

Don't allow your children (or the adults!) to eat while watching TV. It's amazing how much more food is snarfed down without even being aware of it, not to mention the mess it leaves behind in a carpeted room with upholstered furniture. We try to confine eating to the kitchen and dining room.

If you are low on groceries and it isn't time for a grocery trip, just check your cupboards and fridge and see if you can come up with something using what is already there. For example, if you stocked up on bagels or English muffins at the bread outlet, use these for mini-pizzas. These are fun and easy for little kids to eat anyway! They could even make them by themselves! You can even invent your own recipes. Just think: a basic casserole has a protein (meat, cheese, eggs, etc.), a starch (potatoes, rice, pasta, bread, etc.), and some sort of sauce (tomato sauce, gravy, cream sauce, etc.). You can mix and match using what you have on hand!


I hope that all of this has been helpful to you!



  1. THANK YOU! This is fantastic. I'm sure my husband would appreciate it if I read this every week before shopping. I do a lot of these things but it never hurts to be reminded and learn more!

    Thanks from me (and my husband!),

    Mom of Abigail (7), Ayden (5), Victoria (4), Katie (2), & baby boy due in 19 days!

  2. Kathy McLaughlinJuly 24, 2008 at 3:51 AM

    I am humbled and in awe of you! I have 3 teenage sons who are eating machines. What do you do for snacks???
    Any ideas?

  3. This was helpful, Virginia. :) My parents have a Web site that sounds similar to some of the ones you were reading. It's, and they've posted some similar tips and others about saving money.


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