Friday, September 27, 2013

Grocery Shopping 101, or Why I Only Shop Once a Month

Before I delve into the story of my first grocery shopping experience in the state of Oregon, let me begin by elaborating a bit on my grocery shopping habits, as I think the series of posts I intend to write following this one will make much more sense if I explain a little first.

When I lived in Cheney, the first couple times I went grocery shopping on my own were kind of a wreck. I either spent way too much on food that I didn’t eat fast enough and so it spoiled, or I didn’t buy enough and would have to go shopping again a couple days later or again the following week.  When I would make a trip to the store multiple times a week, or even once a week, I ended up spending money on things I didn’t need. I often didn’t know what I felt like eating, so I’d buy a bunch of food hoping that some of what I’d amassed in my shopping cart would sound appealing later on. I was wasting money by not planning. Granted, I’d plan a few meals here or there, but by not sitting down and seriously thinking about what I wanted to eat in the coming weeks, I was letting the grocery store drain my bank account.

Around December I checked out a book from the public library called Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half with America’s Cheapest Family. It sounds cheesy, but the book seriously changed the way I shop and plan meals. Now, I know what you’re thinking: the book’s title contains the phrase “America’s Cheapest Family.” As I’ve mentioned in the “About Me” section of my blog, I am by no means a cheap bastard. I did not follow this book to the T, because let’s face it: the Economides family is pretty cheap. Rather, I selected portions of it that fit my lifestyle and schedule and adapted others to better suit me. Some of the practices that the Economides family use may seem a little odd or extreme, such as keeping the pages from old telephone books under the kitchen sink to mop up spills instead of using paper towels, but it’s important to keep in mind that not everyone has the same income or lifestyle. The Economides family is an excellent example, as they have 5 children to feed in addition to themselves, and I am a student living by myself. Totally different lifestyles.

As some of you may know, I worked at a grocery store during all four years I was in college. I’m ashamed to say that it took this book—three years after I’d started college—to shake me out of the habits I saw my customers perpetuating and saw myself carrying on as well. When I finished reading the book, I knew I needed to make some changes to my shopping habits and my budget. Pronto.

I’m happy to say that my monthly grocery bill is now down to about $90, rather than the $150ish it was before. That’s right, I only go shopping once a moth, and I’m proud of it. By going only once a month, I save loads of cash. I get creative with what I have. I eat better.

In a somewhat organized order, here are my tips for slimming down your grocery bill. Keep in mind, this is what works for me. Some of it is stuff I retained from the book, but other tips come from my observations while at work.  If you would like more in-depth information on cutting your grocery bill, I highly recommend you pick up the book from your local library.

Now, without further ado, here are the rules I abide by:

Eat before you go shopping. I can’t stress this enough. So many times a day a person with an overstuffed shopping cart would pull up to my check-stand and exclaim, “I only came in for a few things, I don’t know how my cart got so full! I guess I shouldn’t go shopping when I’m hungry, haha.” It’s the truth. You’re always more likely to impulse buy at the grocery store when you’re hungry, because everything looks good.

Take inventory of your pantry before you shop. During the month, if you run out of something, add it to a running list of what you need to get at your next shopping trip. This saves you from buying things you already have or from making more trips to the store if you’ve neglected to put a particular item on the list.

Plan meals. I found it too stressful to map out an entire month’s worth of meals like the book suggested. It was too rigid a practice for me, as I like a little flexibility. Instead, I make a list of different meals I know I’ll enjoy or recipes I’d like to try over the month. I check to see which ingredients I already have, which ones are already on the list, and which ones I don’t have that should be added to the list. As the week begins (say Sunday or Monday), I start to get a feeling for the weather (example: if it’s going to be hot, I will avoid using the oven) and my schedule is more set in stone (example: night classes or meetings are usually a quick oven dinner before or a Crock Pot meal after), and I am able to choose a few meals from my list that I will make over the course of the week. I like to make big meals so that I have leftovers for lunches, or even hurried dinners if I am super busy and don’t have time to cook. Just pop it in the microwave and I’m set.
Set a budget and stick to it. Since I am living by myself and don’t have to worry about feeding others/be concerned about others eating my food, my budget is set at $100 a month tops, but lately I’ve been averaging under that amount. Hooray for me!

Go to the dollar store first. Canned goods are usually somewhere around 70 cents! Whaaat! Sometimes select ones are 2 for a dollar! That makes them 50 cents each! That is sweet music to my ears, I tell you what. And something even better? You can occasionally find name-brand foods there too. To all my Cheney friends: the Dollar Tree has name-brand Spaghetti-O’s and Campbell’s tomato soup.  I could go on and on about my love affair with the dollar store, but I’m saving that for another post entirely. You’ve been forewarned.

Buy the off-brand. Name-brand is almost always more pricey. And you know what? Most of the time, the off-brand tastes exactly the same. There are certain lines of knock-off products that are hit and miss with taste and/or quality (I’m looking at you, Western Family), but it’s just a matter of trying them out to determine which products you’d rather spend a little less or a little extra on.

Shop sales. Look at the ads (that means you need to check your mail!) and see if anything you need is on sale, or if anything that you regularly use is on sale and could be stocked up on.

Another thing that I recommend is to look for marked down produce. Now, I’m not saying to buy the tomatoes that look squishy and have dark spots. But maybe that bag of lettuce that’s been marked down to 99 cents because it’s looking a teensy bit (hardly at all) wilted? Go ahead, if you think you’ll use it soon enough. Or the green bell peppers that are a little wrinkled on the outside, but in otherwise perfectly edible condition, why not? Plenty of produce is marked down simply because it doesn’t look to be in “peak” condition. Shop the clearance or discontinued bins as well. Prime example: my favorite seasonal tea (shout out to Bigelow) marked down to 99 cents a box last fall. Glorious, I tell you. Glorious.

Stock. Up. When I was in college, so many people found it strange that I regularly freeze so many foods. I was—and still am—shocked that not many other people do this. I mean, why wouldn’t you? Your food stays fresher longer. You can make meals in advance to take out and thaw later, say if you’re having a busy day. You can make extra large batches of chili or spaghetti or stew and store them in a container, and take them out weeks later for the same great taste. YOU CAN BUY FIVE INTERNATIONAL DELIGHT PUMPKIN SPICE COFFEE CREAMERS AND FREEZE THEM TO DRINK FOR MONTHS ON END! Only when they’re on sale, of course. That’s a luxury item, right there.

For non-food items, shop secondhand. Need a kitchen gadget that is not electronic? Goodwill, or any other second hand store, is my go-to place. I almost always splurge and buy brand new on my electronic kitchen gadgets, but for something like a wine corkscrew, a garlic press, or some mixing bowls? Secondhand all the way. You won’t believe some of the prices. Even at antique stores, you can get something really nice for an affordable price.

Steer clear of frozen dinners. I hardly ever buy pre-made or microwaveable foods. 1: Healthier diet. 2: It’s so much more expensive! You can totally make that burrito or meatloaf yourself for much cheaper. And I promise you, it will taste loads better.

Shop what's in season. Contrary to what many people say, fresh fruits and vegetables are not all that expensive. It’s a matter of shopping what’s in season, and as always, paying attention to sale prices. Go find some tasty recipes that use fruits and veggies currently in season! I’m itching to try these pumpkin oatmeal muffins and this delicious looking stuffed zucchini!

Set some rules. I tend to stay away from buying soda, beer, wine, or hard alcohol unless it is a special occasion or there is a crazy deal on some seasonal beer I’m rather fond of. However, these items almost never make it into my shopping basket. 

Same goes for coffee creamer. I prefer to go without it, but once in a while it’s a nice treat and I’ll only buy it if it’s on sale for a reasonable price and I know I’ll use, rather than letting it sit and spoil. I add items like these to the very bottom of my shopping list and label them as “luxury items.” If I haven’t gone over my budget, I may pick up something special like coffee creamer or a bottle of wine.

Get creative. In the middle of cooking and you find out you’re out of some crucial ingredient? Rather than making a trip to the store, do a little research online, you’re bound to have a substitute in your kitchen. Toward the end of the month I’m often out of milk, but I refuse to go shopping until the 1st of the next month. I’m stubborn like that. Sometimes I like to use cream cheese or sour cream in a recipe in place of milk. Baking something and you’re out of butter? You can use applesauce or avocados instead! How neat is that?! The cool thing about it is that you may find you enjoy the finished meal much better with the substituted ingredient.

One practice that I’d like to incorporate into my shopping habits is remembering my reusable grocery bags. That 5 cent per bag discount, y’all! But in all seriousness, you’d think I’d be a pro at this one, after hearing customer after customer tell me how they always forget to bring their bags. When you use reusable grocery bags, you’re wasting or accumulating those icky plastic bags. As if we all don’t have enough of those already, am I right? Using your own bags is way better for the environment too, and if you don’t already know, they hold a ton of stuff. I would know; I’m a pro at packing them. ;)

Be sure to check back soon to hear about my first grocery shopping excursion in Oregon, and to find out what I’ll be writing about for the next few months!  

Hooray for food!

Do you have any rules you abide by when grocery shopping? 


  1. Oh man, I am bookmarking this post. I've actually been worrying recently about grocery bills because I'm pretty terrible at doing smart shopping, and even more terrible at separating necessities from luxury items. We've been doing pretty well at planning/making dinners, but we still go to the store every other day for no very good this post speaks to me on an immediately relevant level! :)

    1. Yay, I'm so glad to hear this will be helpful! It definitely takes some trial and error to figure out what works best for you, as well as a few adjustments, but your wallet will thank you later on. :)


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