Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Why do I keep the grocery budget so tight?

I know you must wonder this.

My answer is two-fold. Here's my thinking on grocery spending.

1) It's the only budget category that I have complete (and I mean complete) control over. No one in this house ever goes grocery shopping, besides me.

I can't really control our water bill (I can nag people to get out of the shower, but unless I'm in there with them, with my hand on the shower faucet, ready to turn it off, I don't have complete control). I can't control what my husband might charge at the drugstore or online. I can "suggest" better places to shop, or price points to look for, but I can't control his spending. I can't even control how much electricity we use. Again, I can nag everyone to turn off lights, etc. But without coin-operated light switches, I really can't control use.

But, as I said, I *can* control grocery spending. And we can still eat very well, even when not spending very much on groceries. I can make sure that what we keep in stock is healthful, wholesome and has variety enough to make pleasing meals for the whole family. And still do this on a tiny grocery budget.

And 2) It's the area of our budget that I can make the greatest difference. At $175 per month (my current budget), I'm spending $2100 per year on food.

The USDA currently estimates a "Thrifty Food Plan" for our family of 5, based on age and gender of each member, to cost $862.30 per month, or $10,347.60 per year.

So, here it is, my savings, by cooking and shopping/procuring food in the frugal manner that I do:

I save our family $8247.60, per year on food.

I can't shave $8000 off of our heat bill, electricity costs, insurance, property taxes, or gas costs for the cars. But I can save this amount on our food expenses.

(And these calculations were, indeed, based on the least expensive estimate. I checked and double-checked. Just for fun, I ran the numbers on the "Liberal Food Plan". For our family of 5, we would be spending about $1700 per month, or over $20,000 per year. I think if I spent that amount, there would be a lot of waste in our home, or else we would gain a tremendous amount of weight. Perhaps if we were all training for marathons, year round, we could eat that amount of food.)


So, when the overall budget is under stress, the first area I usually look to reduce spending, is groceries. Basic, (and I do mean very basic), food items are not expensive. I just need to have the willingness and time to turn those basic ingredients into interesting meals.

I choose to spend my "work time" in the kitchen. I think of it as a productive hobby. I could spend most of my "work time" cleaning, ironing, doing laundry, or decorating. For me, though, cooking is the most pleasant of all of my homemaker duties.

So, when you wonder why I make the budget choices that I do, when we could spend more on food, and less on other areas, like education or travel, that's my answer.

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34 comments:

  1. I am now 60 and I have been living my life by your philosophy for over 30 years. It works. We educated our kids without them having to have loans, paid off our mortgage in 7 years, bought cars with cash and we were able to retire early. I take part of the credit for all of that due to keeping the food costs in line. We too were never able to hit the thrifty spend point and still don't even with some health issues that we now have to accommodate. I wouldn't live any other way even if I could change my habits now.

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    1. Hi Sandy,
      Thank you for sharing your success story. Your story helps me stay on track, too.
      I wish you continued success in your future.

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  2. Lili, thank you for being an inspiration to me and so many other readers! Posts like this help me stay on track with my grocery budget and meal planning.
    Jo Ann

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    1. Hi Jo Ann,
      Thank you. As I said to Sandy, above, hearing from others also helps me. I believe we help and inspire each other!

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  3. Your grocery budget is the most frugal I've ever seen. And by comparison we are crazy spenders, although we spend far less than many. I am constantly amazed at how you do it and it is indeed inspiring as Jo Ann said above. But I have one question. What is your budget for non-food items, the types of products often included in a trip to the grocery store; laundry products, cleaning products, paper products, toilet paper, etc? Where do those items fit in your overall budget?

    My monthly "grocery" budget includes all of those items as well.

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    1. Hi Linda,
      Ha ha! I laughed at the thought of you being a "crazy spender".

      to answer your question --
      My non-food items fall in 3 other categories. I have a category labeled "non-food grocery". This is for cleaning products, bath tissue, paper for the printer, facial tissue, shampoo, toothpaste/floss, laundry/dish detergent, bar soap -- that sort of thing. I'm currently budgeting $25 per month for those items. (I buy dish detergent, but make laundry soap, extra mild stuff for my eczema). I actually don't buy many of these items at the grocery store. Mostly I shop the dollar store and drug and discount stores for most of this kind of stuff. In our area, the same stores that have great loss leaders on food items, have poor prices on non-food groceries. So, I comparison shop for all of the above items, and it seems my best prices don't usually come from traditional grocery stores.

      If I buy cosmetics, hair color products (or the rare hair cut services), or face cream (it's expensive, but lasts a long time, helps with my eczema),or, clothing, that comes out of a beauty and clothing budget. That amount has varied quite a lot over the past couple of years. It's an "if there's much leftover" sort of budget. We have a surplus there, so currently, we are setting aside $5 per month, but I would guess that we are averaging $20 per month, including clothing, maybe $8-10 for things like hair color, cosmetics and face/skin care products, combined.

      The third category is our medical category. In addition to copays, prescriptions and OTCs come out of this budget. I also take vitamins and supplements from this budget, as we use those as preventative healthcare, as well as addressing individual deficiencies (which are not really due to dietary situations, but more of medical issues). This amount fluctuates quite a lot from month to month, and has not been separated out from the medical copays (which are high for us, right now with ongoing treatment), but I would guess that we are spending about $45-50 per month on rx, OTC and supplements.

      We don't have pets, right now, so no pet food/care items.

      We all seem to have different ways that we think of our purchases. Some folks include rx and OTC, while others think strictly in terms of food, or food and cleaning products. I've always kept the food items separate from the rest.

      Hope this answers your question, Linda.

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    2. Thanks Lili, that does give a bigger picture. We've always included all paper products, laundry and cleaning, and hair/skin care in our "grocery" budget but like you those items aren't necessarily bought at a typical grocery store. Like you I shop sales, discount stores, and make my own laundry detergent which is a huge savings.

      And compared to you I really am a crazy spender! We eat lots more meat which is a huge food expense. Until I started following your blog I had no idea corners could be cut so much!

      Thanks so much for sharing all you do. It really does show the rest of us that it can be done!

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    3. Linda, yes, the price of meat really drives grocery costs up. Just before our income was cut drastically (2 years ago), I had been planning to use meat in meals more often, increasing our grocery budget by about $40 per month (from the $210 I did have per month at that time). That idea has been postponed for the time being. Maybe next year. I would like to have more beef around here. :-)

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  4. Wow! I have looked at the spreadsheet I keep my expenses on and my groceries (all inclusive--paper products, food, prescriptions, cat food, litter, etc.) comes to $5538 per year or $461.50 per month. Since we get this all at the same kind of store, I don't split them up so I don't know if I stay under $175 per month for food alone. I should split that up for a month or two to see where I'm at.

    Kids were home for Spring break and we had to buy a few fresh items but other than that we ate from freezer and pantry.

    Alice

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    1. Hi Alice,
      Yes, if you split the food from the rest for a month, you'd likely see a super low spending amount on food, as well! The USDA guidelines go strictly on food for a family, and don't include any of the other items.

      Good job on mostly using items from your pantry and freezer! This time of year that's a real money-saver. I'm looking forward to good prices on produce, again. I hope you all had a great time together, with kids home for spring break.

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    2. Alice, we have four cats and I can tell you that cat litter is very expensive. It adds a lot more than one might think at first glance to the budget.

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    3. live and learn, and Alice (and anyone else with cats), have you ever tried using torn newspaper for all or part of the cat litter? When I was growing up, my mom tore newspaper for the bottom part of the cat litter, then added a lesser amount of litter on top. I would guess it halved the amount of cat litter we used. When I had my own cat, we did the same thing. It was something I had to train my cat into using. At first, a lot of litter small amount of shredded paper, then working to mostly paper, little litter. Nowadays with home paper shredders, this would be even easier, I'd think.
      Just a suggestion.

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  5. Hi Lili,

    Your calculations remind me of the time Amy Dacyzyn (Tightwad Gazette0 did this calculation.
    I have thought identical to you that I am the prime purchaser in our family.
    About 8 years ago I wanted to save a significant amount of money. I set up a virtual account and told my husband. He sort of forgot about it. 18 months later I had achieved my goal. Blew him out of the water. The vast majority of it was from groceries .The gift, clothing and household maintenance areas were also reduced.
    Only yesterday I was thinking of my hobbies, knitting when there is downtime and always something cooking. This morning it was hamburger buns ( double batch) and meat mixture preparation before I left the house to do a school meeting.

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    1. Hi Teresa,
      Oh good for you! The savings on groceries can be really significant, but as you found out, the savings' mentality also bleeds over into other budget areas, and even more can be saved. Where there's a will, there's a way . . .
      Great job!

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  6. I was smiling as I read that no one else in your household grocery shops. My husband periodically makes some food purchases, so I really don't have total control in that area--but he typically is making a cost-effective purchase, so I don't mind. He works by a grocery store that is out-of-the-way for me. This store often has 1-day specials and he can take advantage of them (for instance, 10# bags of chicken quarters for 69 cents/pound--that's way cheaper than I can pay anywhere else and that includes Aldi). You and The Prudent Homemaker have amazing skills at saving money on food and while I've always considered myself more of a saver than a spender, I am nowhere near your level of thriftiness. I have tightened up some of my spending as a result of reading your blog and I thank you.

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    1. Hi Kris,
      It's just as well that I'm the only grocery shopper in the family. That is great that your husband can pick up things convenient to his work/commute. I would take advantage of that as well, if I could. You and your husband have a nice partnership. I was thinking about how he picks apart chicken and turkey carcasses, so you don't have to. And he takes care of the vegetable garden, freeing you up to participate in your own frugal specialties (shopping clearance, baking, cooking, knitting, crafting, decorating projects). That's a great partnership!

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  7. Ditto what everyone else has said...you are an inspiration. I enjoy reading a lot of your past posts since finding your blog a month ago. Also like others have said, I thought I was already pretty frugal (compared to everyone that we know), but I know now that I can do better. I should be saying "we" since my husband is the chief cook around here. I do all the paperwork (including taxes, though I have given in to software about 10 years ago) while he likes to do the physical, manual work in the home. I keep track of all spending, comparing prices, and planning purchases, but we both shop together since I don't like to drive. So in my case, I am not in complete control of our food spend, but since we have slowed down our work life to a trickle my husband is less apt to call my suggestions..."nags". Realistically, living in a high cost of living area, I don't think I could reduce our food spend to less than $150/mo for three people. I would be happy to spend only twice that, so for now my goal is $450, and as I get better at this, $300. This means we have to drastically cut our portions (today, I'm going to start a daily food dairy), limit mindless snacking, limit alchohol to special celebrations, limit ingredients to bare minimum and find cheaper substitutions (just so a soup can be called soup not water lol), limit stockpiling snack type foods... besides the already frugal food shopping I do (coupons, rebates, sales). Our nonfood spend per month averages about $30. So even cutting that amount out, we still need to tighten our belts by half our waist size lol I couldn't have found your blog at a better time in our lives...we are taking the opportunity a year and a half before SS (husband will be 64, and I will be 62) to cut our expenses and learn new frugal habits. I told my husband that now is the time, when our income has dropped by two thirds to force ourselves to learn. Basically we can live off our savings, but we choose not to. So we have a lot of incentive to do it well and be like you.

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    1. Sorry...^^ YHF

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    2. Hi YHF,
      I wouldn't expect you to be able to spend as little as we do, as you live in a very expensive part of the US. And I think that should always be taken into consideration. Sometimes there are limitations that we can't do a lot about.

      Where you live, do you have space for a vegetable garden? I know a lot of retirees spend some of their new-found tim gardening. You can grow a lot in pots, if you don't have ground space.

      This will surely be a learning experience for the 3 of you, as your time-use has changed with retirement. I wish you the best of luck with making your changes.

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    3. OK...my third attempt at typing this. I hope it is not my third comment lol We have a rather large lanai that sits above our garage where we can grow in pots. My dad rules our yard for now with his endless projects (he's 92 yo and still going strong). We manage to grow Kang Kong (or ong choy) in two pots, that serves an endless supply of nutritious greens for our diet. I recall in my nutrition class in college, a guest speaker came to class with Kang Kong clippings and really sold me on growing this vegetable. I can still hear him today saying this is the most nutritious, easy to grow plant (and the seed package even describes this plant as a noxious weed). It grows very well in wet climates. It can be used as a spinach in recipes, deep fried in batter and eaten like a tempura, and the stems are wonderful in soups, as well as in stir fry dishes.
      You've got it right about time-use. It's the hardest thing. It might sound crazy, but I am trying to let go of the feeling that I am wasting time if I don't make a material contribution to our existence. I just want to work on my craft projects and do what my intuition tells me. I figured if I can learn some good frugal habits, my existence will be taken cared of that way, and time will be my oyster to work on my "art" (not there yet, but learning).

      YHF

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    4. Oh, that sounds nice, YHF, a lanai. I would guess that you could be growing veggies for use year round, there. What a luxury!

      Time use. I sometimes get bogged down into feeling like I'm not being productive enough, or I'm not successful enough, because I don't meet someone else's expectations of productivity or success. It's only been recently that I've begun to just appreciate the contribution that I do make. Only a portion of what I do each day has some sort of monetary reward attached to it. Being a decent human being and helping others is as important or more than what I do that contributes financially. But, we do need to pay those bills. . .
      Good luck to you and you sort this all out for yourself!

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    5. Luxury to have the nice weather we have but as far as our structures...well far from desired. It's been added on so many times the cheapest way...
      I hear you completely about feeling productive enough. I have not had the usual career jobs, left the workforce early in my thirties. For the past 20 years I have been somewhat redeemed working with my husband in self employment (nothing to be proud about but the money was OK). I think that's why I became so frugal and a compulsive saver. I have been fortunate in other ways too, so today I have no regrets. I agree with you that there is more to the meaning of one's life than making money, other values are important, like exactly as you said being a good person and helping others. For me, I have always wanted to be an artist, but baled out of an art major and ended up with a degree in Food and Nutrition. I think I have lived the last 40 years in anticipation of returning to my artistic pursuit. We'll see if I have enough talent. Our son has a BFA and is a graphic artist and quite successful at that...so far I don't have his approval so maybe I have no talent ...sigh

      YHF

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    6. YHF,
      about "having enough talent" -- my drawing instructor said talent is more in having the passion to work at your art, more than having an innate ability. And my daughter's art professors have said about the same thing to her. So, go for it! Don't worry about what anyone else says about whether or not you have "talent". Your skills will improve and fine-tune with practice and experience. But your talent/passion is already there.

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  8. What a fortunate blending of the area of your expenses that you have the most control over and the area where you like to spend time--in the kitchen. Otherwise, this could be a necessary but miserable process for you. However, you are such a determined person, I'm sure that you would make it work anyway.

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    1. Hi live and learn,
      You are right on that. I would be one unhappy camper if I hated cooking. It's hard for me to imagine what that feels like for someone who really doesn't enjoy cooking, but needs to cook from scratch always, for budgetary reasons. I'll just count my blessings.

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  9. Lili,
    I have taken Jan. and Feb. and broken mine up into food, health, cat, presc. and other categories. We're really bad! $450 - $475 per month in food, $35 to $55 for health and beauty, cat $7, presc. 0, other $10.

    I clearly need to work on the food part. If you do this for $175 a month then you are a queen in my book. I doubt I could ever get down to that. I will try though because I think it's a great challenge to myself and it seems insane that we spend $450 a month for food.
    Alice

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    1. Hi Alice,
      Well, something to consider, too, food preferences and dietary requirements can vary considerably from one family to the next. If my family wanted or needed more meat, well my spending would be much higher. And if I had a family that naturally burned a lot of calories daily, that would also add to our spending.

      And I also live in a great area for grocery shopping opportunities, such as a restaurant supply nearby where I can buy wholesale, a great produce stand open from late March through the first of November, a mild climate for gardening, and far enough from the city so we have a large lot, for planting a mini orchard. So, I do have advantages, that some folks do not have.

      I also would add, that if I had a bit more per month for food, like $210 or $220 per month, I would feel less of a pinch (that's what I used to have per month, up until summer of 2013).

      And, your $450/month is still almost half of what the USDA recommends for the Thrifty Food Plan!!! And that's something to feel good about!

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  10. You food prices are way lower then mine in PA. I pay 3.49 for a half gallon of store bought lactaid milk for my son and he goes through 3 of them a wk. My husband wants meat at every dinner, doesn't need steak but meat is expensive here too. He doesn't eat ground chicken or turkey and a lb. of ground round is $3.99 lb. I also only eat chicken, red meat once a wk for me. I spend a wk what you spend a month, I can't image what we would eat. Guess we are big eaters here and the cost of food is very high.

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    1. Hi Cheryl,
      It has been my understanding that food prices are generally higher in your area of the country. Somethings you just can't change. So, my perspective is to work to change those things that I can.

      Ground beef is crazy expensive here, too these days. Fortunately for all of us, chicken and pork prices are already seeing a bit of a decline from last summer, and beef prices should come down a bit in another year.

      But if I were in your circumstances, I may consider finding alternative sources of red meat, like finding someone to buy a share of beef with, or buying venison through a butcher that deals with hunters, but finds himself "stuck" with unwanted meat (as with some hunters who hunt for sport and don't really want the meat).

      And maybe you're the frugal sort who can find other areas in the budget to make cuts. We each have our own priorities and comfort levels, and that's totally fine. I hope I don't imply in my blog posts that my way is the only way. :-)

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    2. I did buy a quarter side of beef last yr. and payed over $650. I never believed you think you think your way is the only way. I do believe I am over buying, having a real hard time with only cooking for 3 now, not 4. I have so many leftovers it isn't funny. The cost of food, no real discounts on meat, none on dairy, I really need to watch better. Cheryl. p.s. would you mine giving some ideas what you cook for dinner? That would be helpful.

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    3. Hi Cheryl,
      Dinners are fairly simple around here, most nights. We have about 3 or 4 nights per week of meat-based meals and 3-4 nights per week of vegetarian meals. Last week,I roasted a whole turkey, so we had turkey in gravy 2 nights, turkey and cheddar sandwiches 1 night, and turkey minestrone. Those were the "meat" nights. The non-meat -- olive, onion and cheese pizza one night, hummus on fry bread other, plain cheese pizza on a busy night (yeah, pizza twice this week, as we had an incredibly busy day on Saturday, and I had a cheese pizza made in the freezer), garbanzo bean soup (a pureed soup with onions, carrots, garbanzos and garlic, with fresh chives).

      I try to use a minimum of prepared foods, as they add up quickly. Things like taco shells or boxed pasta or packaged seasonings, and I just find alternatives. If we want tacos, I buy corn tortillas and fry the shells with the protein part of the filling (often rice and beans, but sometimes meat), right in the folded over corn tortilla, then add whatever fresh items, plus cheese or sour cream. Instead of pasta, I often make a casserole with cooked rice and whatever pasta sauce I would have used for something like spaghetti. Boxed white flour pasta is at the cheapest 66 cents/lb, here, whereas, raw rice is about 45 cents/lb for brown rice, bought in a large sack.

      We eat a lot of soups, as I can extend the amount of meat used considerably in a pot of soup.

      So, for our leftovers, besides taking them in for lunch the next day, I've begun cooking fewer dishes with dinners, and giving 1 or 2 family members some of the leftovers with their dinner. Specifically my husband needs to put on a couple of pounds, so for example, last night we had hummus on fry bread, with cole slaw and cake. I had a cup of the soup leftover from 2 nights ago, so his diner had that extra cup of soup, whereas the rest of us just had the smaller meal. He needs the extra food, the rest of us do not, so I add to his dinner this way, and use up the leftovers. And the cole slaw last night, was fresh cole slaw, mixed with some leftover pasta salad from a couple of nights ago. Plus, I keep a plastic container in the freezer, and small amounts of leftovers go into it. We call this "crazy soup". Once a month, I add water and maybe some seasonings, and it becomes soup for dinner. It's a good way to use odd leftovers, like a spoonful or two of rice, or a half cup of soup/stew, or leftover cooked veggies/meat/beans that otherwise wouldn't get eaten in time.

      Hope something in these ideas sparks with you. Good luck.

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  11. Holy Moly! I spend more feeding my cats than you do on your entire family! At some point I will try to rectify that situation, but not until they're all healthy.

    Anyhow, since it's snowing again today I think I'll take the opportunity to make some squash soup - it's a good day to simmer... thanks for the inspiration! :-)

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    1. p.s. I love the idea of coin operated light switches... perhaps I should look into coin-op cat food cans? :-)

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    2. Hi cat,
      I am waiting for the inventions of both a coin-operated light switch and a coin-operated shower!

      With sick kitties, I totally understand the need to spend a lot on their diet. I would think a sick cat would cost almost as much to feed as a small child.

      Your soup sounds delicious! Enjoy the indoor day!

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I'm so glad that you stopped by today. Please comment, and let me know what you're thinking.