6 Ways to Stop Blowing Your Grocery Budget

Saving money on groceries doesn't need to be difficult and it doesn't always mean cutting back.

If you’re like many Americans, a large chunk of your budget is spent on food — maybe 10% or more. Percentagewise, we spend less on food than we did in the ‘60s, but 10% is not an insignificant portion of your income.That’s why so many money-saving articles focus on groceries as a great place to cut back on spending.

And the truth is that grocery spending is so variable. You could spend $200 per month to feed your family of four, or you could easily spend more than $1,000. With all that variability, it can be easy to blow your budget for groceries. If you find that you’re consistently spending more than you’ve budgeted for groceries, following these tips can help with saving money:

1. Figure out If Your Budget Is Even Reasonable

One issue might be that you have an unreasonably small grocery budget. Maybe your budget is inspired by a few articles from Pinterest about feeding a family of seven for a mere $250 per month. Let’s get real, though. Those families (often the moms!) spend hours meal planning, cooking from scratch, clipping coupons and driving to various grocery stores to snag the best deal.

Their results are amazing but that amount of effort isn’t feasible for everyone. As a working mom in a two-income family, there’s no way I can spend that much time saving money on food.

So if you’ve budgeted $150 per month to spend on groceries, maybe that’s not enough. Here’s how to find out:

a. Break Down Your Spending by Category

First, dig out your grocery store receipts from the past several weeks. If you don’t usually keep receipts, make a point to save them from your next few shopping trips. Shop as you normally would for those trips.

Then, break down your grocery spending by category. For instance, you might divide it into meat, dairy, breads and grains, premade items, veggies and fruits, etc. If you purchase items like cleaning products, cosmetics or toilet paper during your grocery shopping trips, divide those into a separate category as well. Remove everything that’s not actually grocery store spending from this category. Fast food and restaurant spending should be dealt with separately.

Once you’ve got your categories, add up what you spent in each category over the course of a month. This may not be a true average, but it’s a starting place.

b. Set a Reasonable Budget

Finally, you can see what you actually spend on food groceries. Now it’s time to see if that budget is reasonable. A good place to start is with the USDA Food Plans, which average the cost of cooking at home each month. In May 2017, the USDA thrifty plan for a family of four was $561 per month. The liberal plan for a family of four was $1,097 per month.

If your food spending is close to the thrifty end of things, maybe you’re actually not spending too much on food. Maybe you’re just setting your budget too low. But if you’re coming out on the high end of food spending — or if you want to outdo the USDA — use the following steps to trim your spending.

2. Look for Savings in Your Highest Spending Categories

Since you’ve got your spending categorized, you can easily find out where you spent the most money. For instance, if you’re consistently spending half your food budget on meat, it’s time to start cutting back there — perhaps by eating meatless meals a few times a week. Or maybe you’re spending a bunch of money on prepared meals that you could make much more cheaply at home.

Once you know where you spend the most, you can target that category for reducing spending. Some options include clipping coupons for items in that category, shopping manager’s specials, or simply cutting back on eating those types of foods.

3. Look Into Different Local Grocery Stores

There’s a reason Whole Foods is nicknamed “Whole Paycheck.” It’s a great place to find certain specialty items. But if you’re doing all your grocery shopping at high-end stores like these, you will spend more.

Our family saves a fortune just by shopping at Aldi, a discount grocery store that’s becoming more common across the nation. We used to do most of our shopping at a local chain but realized we saved a couple hundred bucks a month just by buying what we can at Aldi.

Chances are you’ve got some cheaper grocery options local to you. For instance, ethnic stores can be a fabulous place to pick up exotic spices and basics like rice and pasta on the cheap. Or you may find that a wholesale store membership saves your family a ton on food staples. Plus, you can use reward credit cards while shopping to earn even more deals. (Before applying, remember that most reward cards require a decent credit score — you can check two of yours for free with Credit.com.)

4. Create a Bank of Easy-Fix Meals

If your family is anything like mine, quick to prepare weeknight meals are a necessity. Without them, you fall back on going out to eat. Pinterest is a great place to find recipes for quick and easy meals that rely on whole, healthy ingredients.

Start trying out these types of meals. If you find a hit, keep the recipe close by. Try to find at least a few of these recipes that use ingredients you tend to keep around.

5. Do Some Freezer Cooking

When you find a great sale on expensive ingredients, pick up extra. Then, double up on your recipe, and put half in the freezer. This is a win-win. You get to save on groceries, and you have a meal ready to go for a busy evening!

For instance, if you find a great deal on ground beef, buy enough to make two lasagnas. Make them both at the same time, and pop one in the freezer. If you get into this habit, you could suddenly find yourself spending less on expensive ingredients, and you’ll have a freezer full of delicious meals to choose from.

6. Cut Back on Waste

How much of your grocery budget goes down the drain the form of wasted food? If you’re like most Americans, it’s a lot!

Start keeping a tally of the foods you throw away after they go bad. Keeping track for a month or two could reveal some interesting information. Maybe you’re over-ambitious when you buy fruits and veggies. You think your family will eat them, but you never get through them all. Or maybe you consistently throw away leftovers. It’s time to freeze those leftovers, pack them for lunch or make smaller servings of your recipes.

Cutting back on waste is an amazing way to save on groceries. Make a point to wait to grocery shop until the fridge is nearly empty. You’ll get more specific with your grocery shopping and more creative with your meal plans.

Even if you’re already saving on groceries, there’s usually room to save more. These tips will help you do just that.

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How Millennials Are Changing the Grocery Store

Here's why fewer and fewer millennials are going grocery shopping.

Next time you run to the grocery store for bread and milk, you might find yourself staying for a champagne tasting. Or seduced by Comice Pears. Or perhaps you’ll just stay home and cook the elicoidali pasta and mascarpone cheese from your Blue Apron box.

The digital age has changed how we shop for everything, and now food is front and center on the disruption list.

It’s hard being an old-fashioned grocery store these days. Adults, for the first time since such data was recorded, are spending more money eating out than cooking in. But even when they do buy their food, the market is enduring what analysts coldly call “grocery channel fragmentation.”

Pam Danziger, a luxury goods expert, said simply that young eaters are on the hunt for something “distinctive and different.”

Small, boutique food shops that are part-restaurant, part-brew pub, part-exotic grocer are all the rage.

“I find more and more that millennials are looking for special experiences,” said Danziger, author of the book Shops That Pop. “They are not just looking for products. They want a better quality service experience from people who really know their stuff.”

They don’t just want a good pear. They want to know why that pear goes great with that salad. And they might even want to know who grew that pear.

“There’s nothing like going to specialty wine store where [workers] can really advise you on what you are getting,” she said. “This has happened with food now.”

It’s not just happening in hip urban areas on the coasts. Danziger points to small independent food retailers, like Dorothy Lane Market, in Dayton, Ohio, (with its Comice “Holiday Pear”) as examples of a national trend that seems to have staying power.

The do-everything grocery store is struggling to stay relevant in this environment — that’s why shopping carts have cupholders for craft microbrews sold by the growler now — but don’t make the mistake of thinking huge grocers have always ruled the food world. They are a relatively recent development, dating back to the 1930s, when food preparation time shrank as more women entered the work force. Specialty grocers echo a time before that, Danziger said, when everyone “bought local.”

“In the 30s, everyone went to the local butcher,” she said. “What is old is new again.”

Web-Surfing for Groceries?

Well, not everything. On the other end of the digital spectrum, consumers are increasingly skipping the shopping trip altogether and letting the specialty groceries come to them.

Home delivery isn’t new either: Firms have been trying to find the right formula to ship cereal and produce to homes since the beginning of internet time (Remember Webvan? Perhaps you’re not old enough). Blue Apron and competitors like Hello Fresh and Plated seem to have hit on a winning formula by combining the convenience of delivery with the quest for special experiences.

Unless you’re living under a rock or are over 38, meal-in-a-box firms neatly package ingredients and recipes with dry ice, and send it to your home with simple preparation instructions. For about $10, a fairly small meal and about 30 minutes of work, aspiring chefs can feel like culinary experts.

The rise of the meal-in-a-box business has been meteoric. Blue Apron said it delivered 500,000 boxed meals in 2013, and now it delivers 8 million boxed meals a month. HelloFresh, a German competitor, is eyeing a possible public offering next year.

“I don’t think we’ve seen shopping change so dramatically ever,” Marty Siewert, senior vice president for consumer and shopper analytics at Nielsen, told the Wall Street Journal. “Those things in the past that have been real drivers for grocery in terms of freshness and quality aren’t the key drivers for millennials.”

All these changes are occurring against a dramatically different grocery landscape. The Food Marketing Institute’s annual report is full of data showing how grocery shopping is in the midst of a revolution. For example, the days of one member of a household buying the food at one nearby grocery store are essentially over, the FMI said.

“Shoppers increasingly rely on a broader number of less traditional channels, or claim no retailer as a primary store,” it noted in its report.

Meanwhile, the majority of households now employ “co-shopping” or “shared shopping.” That means both partners in a marriage buy groceries — often because one doesn’t agree with the other’s taste in food, the report said. That means more trips to more stores.

“Traditional grocery store as a primary channel has dipped to just below half of all shoppers,” the report said.

Online shopping is still small but growing. While only 5% of shoppers say they use online-only retailers “regularly,” another 15% say they have done so occasionally, up from 11% in 2015. When you ask only millennials, the market segment uptake is even more impressive: 28% of those 18 to 37 have bought groceries online.

Frugal Foodies

Digital is driving food shopping in other ways, too. Nearly 60% of millennials say they use digital coupons, and 66% say they look up recipes online while shopping. (If you’re looking for frugal meals, by the way, try this 16-cent breakfast.)

And lest you think they are only shopping for high-end arugula, one factor still trumps all others for food shoppers both young and old: price. That holds true for co-shoppers and specialty shoppers alike. All those groups say lower prices are the biggest factor in where they’ll shop, with nearly twice as many shoppers prioritizing savings over variety and quality.

Still, Danziger is sure that food consumers want more than iceberg lettuce and white bread, and the retailers who give them better experiences will survive the changes.

“People are looking for a higher quality of life, that’s what this is all about,” she said. “Retail success will be less about what you sell and more about how you sell it.”

No matter how you choose to grocery-shop, it’s important to stay on budget. High levels of debt, related to artisanal cheese or otherwise, can hurt your bank account and your credit. You can see where your credit stands by viewing two of your free credit scores, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.

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How to ‘Stockpile’ Stuff & Save Money

stockpiling

Many of you have probably seen the television shows about hoarders. When they get done, they find that they have 87 tubes of toothpaste, 120 rolls of toilet paper and 24 toothbrushes. I will admit that in my house you will find 8 tubes of toothpaste, 30 rolls of toilet paper and 5 toothbrushes (other than those we are using). I have even more than that, but I won’t bore you with the full list.

Stockpiling isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. It’s good to plan for the unexpected — a job loss, natural disasters, fluctuating gas and food prices. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you want to create your own stockpile.

1. What Is Considered a Good Deal?

If I can get my item for at least 75% off or more, then that qualifies as a stock-up deal for me.

For exampled, a while back, I found toothbrushes on clearance at a drug store chain for only $1.09. I happened to have several $1.00-off coupons. So, I picked up 9 toothbrushes for only $0.81 or $0.09 each! I didn’t sacrifice the brand I wanted to use — these were the toothbrushes we use regularly.

I actually stockpile when I can get household items and toiletries for $1.00 or less each. When I find toothpaste marked down, and through coupons and deals I can get it for free – or close to it – I’ll pick up several at a time.

2. Where Is the Best Place to Shop for a Stockpile?

Many times you can find toothpaste and other toiletries for free, or nearly free, when you shop at drug store chains like CVS or Walgreens. Yes – your local drug store can be less expensive than even big box stores when all is said and done. How? Through certain rewards programs they offer that provide coupons to save you money on your next purchase. You can, of course, find great deals at your local grocery store or retail chain stores; just always keep your eyes peeled.

3. How Much Is a Good Amount to Have on Hand?

Obviously you can’t stockpile items that will expire soon. However, you can stockpile canned and boxed goods, toiletries, laundry needs, paper supplies, cleaning supplies and anything else that won’t “go bad.” You can even stockpile meat products — as long as you have the freezer space. The quantity of items to keep on hand varies from person to person, but for me anything that is non-food related I like to have at least two years and food items anywhere from six months to one year.

4. Doesn’t This Take Up a Lot of Space?

It can — if you try to buy everything under the sun. You have to determine what space you have to give up to your stockpile. Obviously, if you live in an apartment, what you stockpile will probably be less than someone in a large home.

5. Does Stockpiling Include Travel-Size Items?

It sure does! Many times, you can get travel-size items free with a coupon (unless the coupon specifically excludes that size). So, you can pick up several and have paid absolutely nothing for them. They may be smaller sizes, but they are still free. And, in my book – free is free!

One of the most wonderful aspects of a stock pile (besides saving money, of course), is not having to run right to the store when you are out of something. For us, it seems that my kids eat toilet paper as I am forever changing the roll.  It is great to have it on hand when we need it. Otherwise, it means a trip to the store (where we may not get the best deal).

It also helps with meal planning. I almost always have something to throw together for a great meal as I have a completely stocked pantry. Then, when I plan my weekly shopping list (based upon menus created from my stash), I rarely need many items to actually cook my meals. My list is made up of incidentals and items to add to the pantry.

With a little planning ahead, you can start to create a little bit of a stock pile yourself – and ensure you are paying the price you want for the things you need.

You can find more tips on saving money in your day-to-day life here. You can also keep track of how your spending choices are affecting your credit score by looking at your free credit report card, updated monthly, on Credit.com.

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The Best Things to Buy at the Grocery Store in June

If you appreciate good food, you’ve probably heard the term “seasonal eating.” It’s a fairly recent food term for a lot of people, but it’s how humans ate for thousands of years before corporate agri-business practices and global shipping made it possible for us to buy corn in December, blueberries in January and Brussels sprouts in February.

You probably also know that eating seasonally, just like eating locally, can be beneficial to your health because it necessitates variety, and that it can also be good for the planet because it reduces shipping.

But have you ever considered that it can also be a boon to your wallet?

Seasonal items are cheaper because they’re more plentiful and frequently require shorter shipping distances (think of those January blueberries, typically coming to your local grocer from South America).

Buying seasonally is a tried-and-true trick among chefs. Not only does it allow them to offer variety on their menus, but it helps them to keep down costs so their rate of return on dishes is higher. It’s a trick you can use at home to help you keep your food budget in check.

Christine Nunn, executive chef at Picnic on the Square, in Ridgewood, New Jersey, and author of The Preppy Cookbook, said seasonal items are very important at her restaurant and when cooking at home.

“Summer is a dream time to get great bargains, and better produce, at both the grocery store and at the numerous farmer’s markets that are sprouting up like weeds throughout the country,” Nunn said.

“At my restaurant … and as well as at home (and especially at my lake house), seasonal vegetables are the star of the plate. Spring onions, first-of-the-crop Swiss Chard, and of course, the gorgeous tomatoes that grow in my home state of New Jersey are always a hit, with minimal cooking.”

Squash, Squash, Squash

Chef Nunn’s favorite, though, is the summer squash and, of course, squash blossoms.

“The yellow squash turn a gorgeous bright yellow with streaks of orange and green that make a great presentation when cooked lightly, as it should be,” she said.

A great use for the green summer squash, or zucchini, is in a quick deconstructed ratatouille, Nunn suggested.

“Also, if you simply take a wide peeler, and lay the squash on a cutting board, you can easily create beautiful, colorful squash ribbons that can be sautéed in either butter or olive oil for about two minutes,” she said. “Add some fines herbs, a quick squirt of lemon juice and some salt, then top either chicken or fish with the squash.”

There are plenty of other great seasonal items you should be on the lookout for this June. These are Chef Nunn’s personal favorites:

  • Patty-pan squash
  • Jersey tomatoes
  • Corn
  • Peaches
  • Plums
  • Raniere cherries
  • Garlic scapes
  • Candy stripe beets
  • Peas
  • Cranberry beans
  • Snap beans
  • Ipswich clams
  • Summer fluke
  • Wild, striped bass
  • Soft-shell crabs
  • Scallops
  • Maine lobster

[Editor’s note: Keeping a budget, especially for groceries, will allow you to start saving money, pay down bills, consolidate debt and reach your financial goals. A sound management plan can also alleviate debt. If you’re trying to cut down your spending and want to see its affect on your credit, you can get two free credit scores every month on Credit.com.]

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