Post by Seth Busetti
One thing that will always be on your family budget is groceries. Whether you own a private island or are pinching pennies while climbing your way out of debt, you will need to eat. Food for your family is definitely a need, but certain food behaviors are a want. We have learned that many families struggle to shrink their grocery budgets during what Dave Ramsey calls “Baby Step Two”, aggressive debt repayment. When we first got married we were dirt broke, and our grocery cart was evidence of our feeble financial state. During that time we learned some very valuable lessons that we still apply today, and that we want to pass on to you.
- Get your Grocery List. To stay on budget always prepare before you go. Depending on where you live and the size of your freezer, you can do this once for the whole month, or every week. We go once a week. But the trick is to have a routine, and get everything you need for that time frame: milk, fruit, nail polish remover, toothpaste, dog shampoo, gluten free waffles, sandwich bags, whatever. Write it all on the list. It is helpful to sort by category. Groceries can be sorted by items needed for each meal (3 per day, 7 per week), and then pantry items (like flour and sugar), plus toiletries and other categories. You should be able to very quickly approximate what each item will cost ($3 for peanut butter, $2 for butter, etc.) and get a ballpark grand total. Does that match your budget? If not, find places to trim. For example, replace steak fajitas with hamburgers, or asparagus with carrots. If you stay on the plan you will find that you will make less budget-busting “quick trips” and eat out less.
- Pass on Prepared Food. The grocery stores like to make things handy for you by providing lots of ready-to-eat foods or products where they’ve already done the sous chef work. For example, sliced stir fry vegetables, pre-made kabob skewers, or pre-seasoned salmon steaks. Similarly for pre-packaged frozen lasagna, roast chicken, deli trays, etc. These certainly are time savers, but they can also be budget blowers. When you are on an aggressive debt-repayment campaign, you’ll need to trade convenience for optimized dollar value.
- Skip Single-Serving Selections. A single candy bar at the checkout line tends to cost the same as a whole value pack of the same candy bar in the snack aisle. One Starbucks Frappaccino from the cooler costs twice as much as the per/bottle price of a four-pack in the drink aisle. A small box of Cheerios is more per ounce than the large box. A four pack of individual serving yogurt is much more expensive than the 32 ounce container of the same thing. If you start thinking along the lines of price-per-unit, you’ll find you can trim many dollars over the course of a month.
- Never Mind Name Brands. When you are cutting costs, you are going to need to eat a lot of generic items. I agree, generic Cap’n Crunch isn’t as good as the real thing, but right now every saved dollar counts. Generic milk. Generic canned tomatoes. Store brand bread. Store brand orange juice. You get the picture. If the price is close, then fine, pick your favorite. But $0.50 or $1.00 here and there times 20 items might be the equivalent of a whole day’s worth of food budget. You’ll especially find the savings on things like laundry detergent and medicine (Walgreens, CVS, or Target brand pain killer or cough syrup can be as little as ½ the price of the name brand!).
- Leave out Luxury Items. When you are on the debt repayment push, think of yourself as a prize fighter in training, just for punching debt in the face, not people. This is not the season for Chilean sea bass and free range lamb chops. Try tilapia and chicken thighs instead. Organic milk or apples? Probably not, unless you seriously cut in a few other places. Say goodbye to Whole Foods for a while, you cannot afford to eat like that right now. If you really want to eat more wholesome fresh foods for a better price, try your local farmer’s market.
- Find Flexible Flips. No, not gymnastics, though training for that might change your list up quite a bit. I mean keep your eye out for interchangeable items. If your list calls for hamburger at $3.99 a pound, but Walmart or wherever you buy groceries has turkey burger on sale for $2.99 a pound, switch it! Your recipe calls for grated cheddar cheese, but block cheddar jack is on sale, then go with the cheaper item. Planned to grill out chicken drumsticks but T-bones are on sale for the same price? Then feel free to upgrade your meat! Turnip greens cheaper than spinach this week? You get the picture. Shopping this way will not only save you money over the course of a month, but you’ll learn to be a more flexible and creative chef.
- Remember Repeats. For some of you I’m about to utter the dreaded “L” word. That’s right, LEFTOVERS! This is probably the single greatest tool for overhauling your food budget. I’ll give you an example from this week. Alexis makes this crock pot chickpea and chicken curry dish that goes over steamed rice (send her an email if you want the recipe, firstname.lastname@example.org). The whole meal probably costs less than $15. The four kids and I ate it tonight, which makes for round three (Alexis had other leftovers). That works out to 17 individual meals for $15! Do that each week and watch your grocery budget shrink, and you can use the difference to hammer on some debts.
- Break Out the Beltline Breakfast. Starting the day out with a healthy breakfast is important. But as I get closer and closer to 40, I realize I just don’t need (and my body doesn’t want) a farm hand’s heavy breakfast. Yogurt or cottage cheese and a banana, or a granola bar and an apple, or a fruit smoothie, these seem to be what I need to keep my energy up until lunch, and my weight in a healthy place. And price-wise, it keeps the budget on track too. Oatmeal with some cut up apples is dirt cheap and healthy. Same for eggs and toast, if you prefer. Our kids tend to eat healthy-ish cereal for breakfast, and feeding the four of them corn flakes or Rice Krispies with some grapes or a banana is pretty inexpensive. Try and get your breakfasts down to a $1 per day per person.
- Delete Delicious Drinks. You can really blow a budget fast on soda pop, novelty fruit juice, energy drinks, alcohol, and other specialty beverages. Learn to love water, but also homemade iced tea or coffee. If you like sweet drinks, you can do powdered lemonade for pretty cheap. Our kids like juice, but we almost always stick to apple juice or other inexpensive 100% real juice from the big bottles, and then we water it down by half (both to save money and spare them the sugar). If you like beer or wine, save it for the weekend, pick less expensive varieties, and limit yourself. We like to have wine for Erev Shabbat (Friday night Sabbath dinner), but even now that our budget is more free, we tend to stick to something cost-aware like Yellow Tail or Barefoot. When you’re debt-free and living your dream, then you can practice your sommelier or microbrew proclivities more freely, or explore all the health benefits of the organic blueberry and pomegranate. For now, keep it simple and cheap.
- Eat Less. Let’s face it, America is chronically overweight. Earlier this year I noticed my weight rising slowly. I was 20 pounds overweight and my pants fit uncomfortably, my shirts were snug in the middle, and my kids were joking about my belly. So I finally did something about it, and it took a couple of months to get back to my healthy weight. What did I do? Crash diet? No. Extra hardcore workout sessions? No. Gave up sweets? No. It was this simple, just maintaining 80-90% consistency: First, I started eating healthy, simple breakfasts. Second, I cut out any midday snacks that weren’t a piece of fruit. Third, I eliminated big full-entrée style lunches. Fourth, I stopped going back for seconds at dinner. Fifth, I kept my big (“daddy size”, as we say) desserts for the weekend. This post isn’t about diet, but guess what happens to your grocery budget if you reduce your intake by 20%? Ask yourself if you and your family are overeating, this could be one easy way to reduce your food spending.
If you consistently apply these 10 strategies, we guarantee that you’ll see a dramatic change in your grocery budget. Remember, aggressive debt repayment requires some aggressive strategies. But, I would be willing to bet that if you apply the above approach, you might find that much of it sticks, even after your budget loosens up. One last thing, make sure you and your family are eating together as much as possible. The unity you gain around the table will translate positively into everything else you do, including your financial transformation!