Food, the Wiggly Budget

T-minus 4 days until hubby’s payday. He’s paid monthly which makes budgeting easier for practicality’s sake but more difficult in other ways. It’s refreshing but painful to know you have $$ for groceries for the entire month, that there won’t be another influx of dollars in two weeks.

The same thing happens to me every single month about this time, I go to bed worrying. Will there be enough money to add to savings this month? Will there be enough to eat more than beans and rice the last week of the month? Is there an unnecessary expense I forgot about? What if a kid gets sick? As if that’s not bad enough I usually wake up with numbers running through my head, and they usually ain’t pretty folks.

So, about this time every month I sit down and write our expenses down and figure out what is flexible for the month and come up with the same answer: food.

We’re a family of 7 and a big dog. Our children include two teens, two elementary-aged and a preschooler. This is 21 meals and 14 snacks every day. This is a lot of food. This leaves a lot of wiggle room.

I’ve managed to rein in our expenses quite a bit, even as our children’s appetites grow. Five years ago we were spending $200/week on food and living in a place that offered double coupons. Today we spend about $130/week, in an area where coupons don’t make much of a difference. How?

Well, in no particular order:

1. Meal planning. I will eventually write about our method of meal planning, but there’s already lots of great information on the net. Use your local sale ads to help in your planning.

2. Make a list and stick to it.

3. Stock-up. If something is at a great price buy lots. Let’s say you see chicken breast on sale for $1.99/lb (the best sale price here, it happens about twice a year) and you want to stock up. If you have a little extra money available in your savings account, use some. If you don’t have or want to spend savings see how much extra you can devote to chicken. If nothing else go through your list and see if there is anything you can skip or compromise on and use the difference to buy chicken. Ideally you should buy enough of the item to last you until the next sale, but your budget and storage situation will dictate how much extra you buy in the end.

4. Store loyalty, as in have none. We have two grocery stores within a 2 mile radius but they’re the same chain. If we expand to 12 miles we add in a discount grocery store and two big-box superstores (and 2 more of the chain grocery stores, they’re everywhere!) You can get some really good deals at the chain store but everything else is always cheaper at the discount grocery store. I try to avoid the big-box superstores as much as possible, they just aren’t worth fighting the parking lot crowd and product quality is usually lower. Once in a blue moon (as in maybe twice a year) the best price for an item is at a drugstore.

If I just need a few things driving 12 miles to save $3 isn’t really worth the time and transportation costs to get there, but as I do one or two big shops a month (and save about 25%) the drive is definitely worth it.

5. Coupons as a tool, not a shopping list. Coupons can save you big bucks if you use them correctly. As I mentioned above, I used to live in a double coupon area and it allowed fantastic savings! I rarely paid more than $.10 for any condiment, $.20 for toothpaste and shampoo, you get the idea. The upside was excellent savings. The downside was that we were eating more boxed dinners (and try as you may you just can’t make a decent meal out of shampoo and toothpaste!)

We don’t live in a double coupon area now but our food spending has actually decreased. Part of this is because we do some shopping at the discount store, we end up saving more and they don’t accept coupons. The only time I use a coupon now is when an item is cheaper than store brand with it and if I was planning on buying it anyhow. If it’s something I wasn’t planning on buying it must be at least 75% off with sale/coupon, and something I has planned on buy in the next few weeks, and something I have the extra money for (even if costs just $.50) before I put it in my cart. If the deal is remarkable I may change my meal plan on the fly to incorporate this item. I used to shop with hundreds of coupons a month, now I use maybe 20.

I currently only use the following coupons:
-Dollars off total order (these are pretty rare)
-Competitor coupons (our chain store accepts coupons from 3 other stores)
-Manufacturer’s coupons – usually only when they can be combined with store coupons and BOGO sales
-Store coupons – again, usually only when combined with manuf. coupons and BOGO sales

6. Proper storage and no waste – There is nothing worse than opening your fridge, reaching for that roast, and finding out that it’s gone green. Or finding slimy lettuce. Ewww. Meal planning will help with this, as will proper storage. Inspect perishables before buying and store them properly, immediately. If it’s able to go in the freezer, put it there. I’d much rather spend the time thawing something than throwing it into the trash.

Every second or third day check your fridge for items that need to be used and incorporate them into your meal plan. If you can’t use them throw what you can into the freezer in a “freezer soup” container, pretty much anything but fish will work (and fish can go into it’s own bag for fish chowder). Freezer soup is our very last meal choice when we have nothing else but it’s still 1 day until pay. Simply toss everything into a pot or slow cooker, cover with broth or water, and let it simmer all day long.

7. Homemade is usually cheaper – and rarely takes longer than a boxed mix and it’s healthier. And it will help you build a great pantry without spending any more money. When it’s the last week of the month and all of your grocery money is gone it’s very reassuring to look in your fridge and pantry and find enough leftovers and staples to provide several meals.

8. Flexibility. You need to be open to change, trying new products and recipes, learning how to cook differently, finding new places to store items. In order to save the most you can’t set anything in stone. This will drive some people crazy at first, but it’s actually quite freeing once you realize how much easier it is to just “go with it”.
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