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Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Shopping List on a Small Budget

In a consumer environment where there are so many appealing options, sticking to a budget is never easy. I have found that, for myself, organization and planning is key for maintaining a small grocery budget.

Over the years, I've had larger budgets and smaller ones. When I had a larger budget, the leeway in spending was great enough that I didn't need to plan to the penny. I also didn't need to stick so tightly to a specific number. If I went over by a bit one month, then I tried to keep spending under by a comparable amount the next. My guess is that this is the way that most of us carry out our spending. For now, I need to plan, calculate, and negotiate.

First, I make out my list of wants for the month. That's a pretty quick job. Next, I research the prices, comparing across several stores. To do this, I log into my usual stores online and look up the prices for each item. I note each store's price and record the lowest for each item. If a low price is also a sale price, I record the expiration date on that sale, as well. If the expiration date falls before my budget month begins, then I need to decide if I will pick up that item before the month actually begins and hold it for the days of the remaining month, or let the sale go. (I'm fortunate enough that I am not shopping with cash, but instead I do have flexibility.)

The deciding factors for pre-spending the budget involve necessity and urgency. If the item is needed urgently for good health, then I'm willing to buy and use it before a month begins, for example, if I had no fats in the house (oil, butter, shortening, nuts/nut butters, meat fat). Or, if the item falls on the need-want spectrum closer to need but isn't urgent, then I will pre-spend, but hold the item until the next month begins. An example of this might be something like cheese in contrast to chocolate chips. Even if chocolate chips are at a rock-bottom low, if I have spent my month's allotment, I won't buy them until the new month's budget begins. But cheese does fulfill a nutritional area in my budget, so I am willing to pre-spend but hold off on our use.

Once I've recorded all of the prices for my list, I total the purchase amount. So far, I've not come beneath my budget in this early stage of planning. And so, the mental negotiations begin. What can we live without versus what would improve the quality of our eating for the month? An example, for several months, I decided that we could live without mayonnaise. This month, we finally have enough in the budget to afford this sandwich and salad condiment. However, this month we'll be forgoing soy sauce. In addition, I took chicken leg quarters off of my list again this month. The lowest available price for my area has risen to 60 cents per pound for bone-in meat. From the Texas Agricultural Extension Service, the percentage of thigh/leg that is meat alone averages 62%, which means that the meat-only price per pound of chicken leg quarters is about 97 cents per pound, and that is only if every morsel of meat is cleaned off of the bones. That is still a good deal for meat, but not so good that the price won't be around again, and we do have enough other meat to sustain us through the month. And, I'm now negotiating with myself over my decaf instant coffee. I am thinking that, for one month, I could put the $3.52 expense toward more produce for my family. This is a tough one for me. My husband would still have his regular coffee for the month, so I don't need to consult him on this decision. I would have some decaf instant left from April. If I limited myself to a half-cup of decaf per day, I could drink decaf tea in its place for the rest of the day. (And just so you know, I'm not so self-sacrificing that I would always give up "my thing" for the benefit of the rest of the family. The next time this scenario arises, I will ask another family to give up one of their "things," so long as it's a non-nutritive, unnecessary item.) And so the negotiations carry on over the course of about a week, as I whittle away until my list fits the dollar amount of the budget.

With a whittled-down list, I organize the items by store and begin planning the shopping dates. Although I have the month's purchases planned out before the first of the month, I hold off on some of the shopping until later in the month. This allows me to pick up a few more perishable foods, such as bananas, at a later date. In some months, special occasions and holidays dictate when I will shop and where. For example, Cinco de Mayo is before Senior Discount Day at Fred Meyer (which would be my go-to place for a small package of corn tortillas, but only if with the Senior discount), so I will need to shop at WinCo early in the month (has the best price per unit on corn tortillas, but in a larger package, using more of my budget). With a small budget, ease sometimes takes a backseat.

About unexpected sales and bargains . . .
In my ideal scenario, I would have a small amount of money leftover in the budget for the unexpected deal. I hate to have to pass up savings, but that is what needs to be done at times. I do remind myself that many (but not all) of these deals will cycle through again.

My long-range plan to accommodate unplanned bargains relies on building a stockpile of staples (bought at a low price per unit). With the staples in store, there will be some extra money available for the non-basics each month, as well as for building a little fund for those unexpected deals. I will need to deliberately divert some of the extra money toward this fund, as it is so easy to find ways to spend all of the budget each month. But I do believe that a special fund set aside for picking up bargains could be a benefit for my small budget.

I sometimes come across deals on the items that I had planned on buying, such as with the marked-down milk that I bought last month. When that occurs, I often have a contingency plan for how to spend any savings. In addition, when I buy from the bulk bins at WinCo, I try very hard to stay beneath my price limit for each item. I miss the target by a bit, going over or under, each time. Plus, WinCo gives a refund for bringing my own bags. It's only 6 cents per bag, but that little amount can offset any overages in the bulk area or allow an extra piece of fruit for the month.

The entire planning procedure requires about 5 to 6 hours of my time. I take the same care with precision that I would if this were a business enterprise. I think the common conception is that grocery planning is quickly carried out, minutes before heading out the door. Whether you plan and shop once per month or once per week, planning is a time-consuming activity. However, if  it is done well, it can reap some serious financial benefits. My forecast for the 2019 grocery savings for my household is roughly $1500 above the savings that we had previously experienced.

In case anyone is curious about what is on May's list for my family, here it is. This is the "raw" version of my list and contains notes to myself within the list. I make the list in MSWord and revise and input data as the month progresses. For May, I will squeak in about 25 cents under budget, at $125.25 to $125.30.

Grocery list May, budget- 125.52 (52 cents leftover from April)

^indicates shopping comparison onsite

strawberries for Mother’s Day <$2

C&C-soybean oil–big box, 35-lbs, First Street, stock-up item $18.98
C&C-whole wheat flour, 50-lb bag, ADM, 13.17-stock-up item
C&C-canned whole tomatoes, #10, 2.89 Simply Value
C&C-raisins, 4-lb bag, First Street, 9.37
C&C-cheese, 5 lbs First Street, medium cheddar or cheddar/jack $10.24 until 4/28, Sunday
C&C-mayonnaise, $6.77 First Street 1 gallon
C&C- carrots 25-lb bag, Kern Ridge, 8.95 thru 4/28
C&C-5-lb Fuji apples, 3.35

73.72 at C&C

FM-butter- $2.51,Simply Moovelous, Senior day, 2 lbs
FM-milk- 5 or 6 gals, 4 or 5  2%, 1 whole for yogurt, $10.75/$10.80 (5 gallons total if $2.15, 6 if $1.80 or less), Senior day
FM-orange juice- 1 large, 1.61 each, Kroger, Senior day
FM-hot dogs 3 packs, 75 cents each ($2.25), Heritage Farms, Senior day
$1 any marked-down produce bag
(Check for markdowns: eggs - less than 95 cents/doz, bananas – 39 c/lb)

$20.63, if 5 milk, 20.68 max if milk <$1.80 and get 6

WinCo- bananas 8 lbs, (or Walmart) 42 cents/lb
WinCo- apple juice WinCo 2  99 cents each
WinCo- garlic granules – $1 worth
WinCo- chocolate chips- $1 worth
WinCo- soybeans or white beans -$1 worth
WinCo- corn tortillas- $2.69 big pack , 70 or 80 ct
^WinCo-lentils- Winco if less than 98 cents/lb, get $1 worth, or Walmart 98 cents for 16-oz. bag
^WinCo-marshmallows-1 bag WinCo, or 96 cents for 10-oz bag at Walmart

$12.99 inc lentils, marshmallows

Walmart-bananas, 42 cents/lb
Walmart-eggs- 5 dozen, $4.75
Instant decaf, Walmart, $3.52? maybe not 
^Walmart -lentils- Winco if less than 98 cents/lb, get $1 worth or Walmart 98 cents for 16-oz. bag
^Walmart - marshmallows-1 bag WinCo or 96 cents for 10-oz bag at Walmart

$4.75, eggs alone, bananas above

bought--peanut butter, 4- 40-oz, $2.79 ea, Target, 11.16, stock-up item

total 125.25 to 125.35 (depending on milk)


  1. I’m in Canada, we never see some of the prices you have for food.
    Will you be eating greens from your garden. Wondering about additional fruits and vegetables or do you have frozen/ canned to fall back on?
    Could you get less raisins at a similar price( like bulk) and use the difference for your decaf?
    You always seem to research items. Do you have a yearly overview of when the best pricing is for certain groceries, like ham around Easter and turkey at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
    Eggs are generally a good price now and could be frozen.
    I’d be interested in what you are cooking this month. I think we get ideas from others of what we can produce from our stores in cupboards, canning and freezers.
    I’d also be interested in how you chose what you would stock up on. Because of need, supplies getting low through the month or because they were on sale. Do you date these large packages to see how long they take to get through? Do you have a schedule or plan for what you will stock up on each month through the year.
    Do you use cash back shipping apps to get some additional funds to purchase food ?
    I know it seems like a lot of questions. I’m fascinated by the process.
    I had an awesome mother who was able to make gold from straw and worked her food budget like you.

    1. Hi Teresa,
      Good questions, and I'm happy to share what I'm doing. So, to begin to answer.
      Produce--We have some canned and frozen fruits and veggies, still from purchases in fall and winter. Plus, our garden is now producing, with kale, Swiss chard, watercress, sorrel, and chives. I've got seedlings going indoors, some of which can be transplanted out in about a week or two (lettuce and new kale). Rhubarb is in-season, too, so I will use that as a fruit. The 4-lb bag is the least expensive per unit on raisins. WinCo is our bulk place, and their raisin price really went up last summer. I considered not buying raisins, until I checked the bag from last month and saw that my family had been happily eating them all month. So, I'm happy to continue with this. And I enjoy them, too, in my oatmeal every morning. My aim is to put 2 servings of produce into supper each night, 2 for each lunch, and 1 for breakfasts.
      Meat--I still have some chicken leg quarters, lots of ground beef, ham, canned tuna, frozen salmon.
      I do have a seasonal list that I go by for stocking up. Some of the seasonal items follow holidays, and some follow actual supply and demand.
      Stocking up- right now, I'm focusing on which items will save me the most money to buy in institutional sizes or large amounts. Beans were a good one, as I can serve bean-based meals in place of meat ones, and I saved about $3 by buying the 25-lb bag. The oil this month will save me $1.50 per gallon, or $6.50 in total. I couldn't afford to buy the large size until this month, other wise I'd have bought this in March. I bought 10 lbs of peanut butter, which should last us about 2 to 3 months, and will save 40 cents/lb, or $4. So, for stocking up, I'm most concerned with savings on basic, nutrient-dense items. If I saw a killer sale on cake mixes, I wouldn't stock-up, unless we were talking about a few pennies per box. I figure that the more I save on basic items right now by stocking up, the more extra money I will have in the grocery budget down the road.
      Dating-From past experience, I have an idea of how long everything lasts our family. I know that the 35-lb container of vegetable oil will last 8 to 9 months, a 50-lb sack of flour, 6 months. Occasionally, I consult an old grocery journal to see the interval between buying 1 large container/package, and another.
      I'm trying to remember to post our weekly menus for suppers, sometimes with info on other meals and snacks.
      I don't have a smartphone, so I can't use apps, unless a daughter is with me. (She did load an app for me last week, so I could take advantage of a 15% off coupon.)
      I have heard that US food prices look pretty amazing to folks in Canada. There are some places in the US that have even better prices.
      In other years, I've really stocked up on eggs to freeze. That is definitely a good way to go with eggs, as the price per dozen seems to escalate in summer. I've got 6 dozen left, now, and will be buying another 5 dozen. I don't know how many I will freeze of that amount.
      I think one thing that keeps my own spending so low is that we eat rather plain foods, here. Tonight, we're having baked beans with ham, brown rice w/ ham gravy, spinach/onions, and rhubarb pie. I eat scratch-cooked, non-instant oatmeal for breakfast every morning. Our lunches are often bean spread on whole wheat bread, fruit, carrot sticks, juice or milk, and homemade yogurt for dessert.
      I hope that I answered all of your questions. Anything else? I'm happy to answer.

  2. Not shipping apps, auto correct struck. Shopping apps

  3. I don't like having to pass up on good deals wither, but sometimes the budget requires that. That is where we are right now and I don't like it, but we are doing fine and that is all that matters. You are so right, they will cycle thru again soon. Great blog post, Lili.

    1. Hi Belinda,
      I like your attitude. It's not how we wish things could be, but we are dealing with what is before us. Wishing you well with your budget.

  4. A very detailed post, thanks for sharing your efforts to absorb the financial changes and the impact it's having on the household (grocery budget). I am curious: is there a reason for purchasing the apple and orange juices? I only buy juices when someone is ill, to push extra vitamin C. Otherwise, we reach for the actual whole fruit, with the fiber in the skin such as apples. Are the hot dogs a "fun food" purchase as I call them? I wonder if your nutritional dollars would be better served with getting the chicken leg quarters instead. You could poach the chicken, remove the meat to use in recipes, make broth out of the poaching liquid, bones, skin. Just an idea. You're doing extreemely well on such a small budget. The lowest I can go is $67/person per month, which includes cleaning/laundry supplies (what few I buy), personal care, what little foil/wax paper/Saran wrap/baggies I buy as well, so if just looking at food, probably more like$60/person per month.

    1. Hi Carol,
      I prefer whole pieces of fruit, too. Right now, I can get more servings of fruit in 100% juice for the money than I could get with whole fruit. This should change as the months pass. Already, this month I was able to add a 5-lb bag of apples to the bananas and raisins.
      The hot dogs and marshmallows are for our Sunday evening cook-outs around the fire ring. I see these as weekly family entertainment. For now, I'm trying to balance nutrition with some of the foods which my family particularly enjoys. The cook-outs are a highlight of our time together as a family, so I'll continue with them. Fortunately, I still have some chicken leg quarters in the freezer that I can use for meals, as well as lots of ground beef, some fish, and now ham from Easter.

      Your budget is also very, very low, especially so because of some of the health challenges that your family deals with. I think $60 per month per person, without a vegetable garden or fruit trees, is quite low. My garden and fruit trees/bushes is what is keeping us in fruit and veggies right now. I still have fruit that I froze last summer. And the garden greens have begun already for this year.

    2. To be clear: $60/person per month is during austere times. We currently are at $130/month.

    3. Oh, okay. Still, I believe you have higher grocery prices in your area, just in general.

  5. Your hard work and planning sure pays off! My burning question of the day is .... what are garlic granules? Is that the same thing as garlic powder?

    1. Hi Kris,
      garlic granules (sometimes called granulated garlic) are slightly larger pieces than garlic powder. In my area, garlic granules are cheaper per pound than garlic powder.

  6. Just for info, dollartree sells 2.8oz bottles of instant decaf coffee. I don't know how good it is because I don't drink coffee. But maybe worth a try if an extra dollar turns up.-Kathryn

    1. Hi Kathryn,
      Thank you very much. This is good to know. Have you tried this? The reviews on Dollar Tree's site were mixed. But I guess I could find out for myself and it would only cost me one dollar. The price per pound is quite a bit less that Walmart's Great Value decaf, and that has been the least expensive decaf in my town, until yo mentioned DTs decaf. Thanks again.

    2. Have you compared making decaf at home using ground coffee vs using the instant version, which is very expensive here?

    3. I did a rather informal study of my own coffee consumption. I seem to go through the coffee grounds faster than the instant. That could just be how I make my own coffee, and my preferences for how strong I like brewed compared to instant. Since, a can of store-brand grounds, when on sale, is roughly what I pay for a jar of Walmart instant, this was an easy comparison. The bottom line is I spend more on my coffee when I use grounds in a pour-over style. This may be different if I used a coffee maker. For now, my husband uses the coffee maker for his caffeinated coffee, so my choices are to make coffee with a filter and plastic cone or instant.

  7. You have such a mind for detail and are very good at what you do. Are there others in your family who are good with details and like calculations?

    1. Hi live and learn,
      My dad and his mother were both like this. And I think my son also favors details and mathematics. So, maybe it is genetic. Interesting observation.


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