The Art of Eating a Lot for a Little: Shopping (and Listing) Smart

This post is part three in a four part blog series discussing how to eat well on only $30 a week.  Feel free to check out the first and second parts before diving in here 🙂

Happy New Year!  Welcome to 2013, a year of new adventures and untold possibilities!  I’m sure many of you, like myself, have put together a list of resolutions for the next twelve months.  On that list there are probably things that you’ve already given up on (three days in and I’m behind on my writing :-P) and the things that you feel to be truly attainable.  If spending your money a little more wisely in 2013 is a goal you’re struggling with, I am here to help!  At least with your groceries.  You’ll have to talk to Matt for tips on utilities and rent.

By now I’ve covered the two most important things you need to do in order to prepare for living on $30 a week: getting confident in the kitchen and learning how to eat the same meal multiple days in a row.  Now it is time to take the plunge and discuss how to actually do this.  There are two major components to learning how to shop smart: get to know your local grocery stores’ prices and sales rhythms and construct and stick to a list.

I am going to admit something to y’all here: I adore grocery shopping.  Every week I look forward to settling in on the couch with the local flyers and a marker, circling all of the for-sale items I’m interested in.  One of my greatest stress relievers is just walking up and down aisles stocked with food, even if I do not intend to buy anything.  So I fully understand if these steps are dreadful for you in a way they weren’t for me.  I insist that they are, however, absolutely doable for almost everyone.  (I recognize that this plan has its limits and I will discuss them in next week’s post, I promise!)

It takes a lot of time to have an internal price gauge that informs you whether or not a sale is really worth it or not.  Save your flyers from the past weeks and refer back to them.  Use a notepad or your camera phone to save the non-sale prices of the items you purchase most often (such as flour).  Make a scrapbook or database if that’s your thing.  I mostly just keep the prices in my head.  Once you grow comfortable with your local stores you’ll begin to know instinctively that the nearby IGA is the cheapest place for flour and eggs, but Shaws is really the place to go for when you want pasta and honey.  Chicken and cheese are a toss-up, depending on that week’s sales and how much time you have.  For wine you know to stop by Trader Joe’s when you’re out that way.  And you always, always stop by Market Basket when you’re visiting relatives because butter and cream cheese are just that much cheaper.  This internalized encyclopedia of prices, once you’ve developed it, will make grocery shopping a lot simpler and anxiety-free.

In addition to this price encyclopedia, you should also keep track of what is in your pantry.  If you need to keep an active list (a white board is good for this), do it!  As fun as surprises might sometimes be (I always adore finding a box of mac&cheese hidden at the back of the pantry) they really suck when it means food you’ve spent good money on has expired or gone bad.  If you’re an information person, start a google doc and document everything by type and date.  If you’re visual, organize your pantry in such a way that you can see everything.  Take careful note whenever cooking: am I running low on this ingredient?  Is there more in the freezer/pantry/fridge/cupboard?  How soon should I make replacing it a priority?  Just the simple act of paying attention can save you a lot of money in the long run.

So here’s the scenario we have set up thus far: You’ve become a more confident cook.  You know that buying pasta is more often cheaper than making it (the price of eggs, ugh) but that homemade bread is a worthy commitment of your time.  You have also either grown accustomed or resigned to eating repeat meals.  (Go you!  You are awesome!)  And noooow *appropriately lengthy drumroll* you know where and when to buy the staples you need to cook these meals on the cheap!  Now all you need to do is actually go out and buy those staples so you can start cooking.  And here we have the absolute simplest, but arguably the MOST IMPORTANT part of the $30-A-Week plan:

Write.  A.  List.

It is a documented fact that you spend less money at the grocery store (or any store) just by having a list with you.  Even if you decide not to do anything else in this blog series, I challenge you to list your 2013.

Remember before, when I was talking about sitting down and circling tempting items in the grocery flyers every week?  That’s step one of creating a list.  Sit down with all of the flyers from all the grocery stores in your area.  Include all the “expensive” nearby locations like Whole Foods.  I’m serious!  Sometimes Whole Foods has sales that beat the competition to pieces, or at least tie with them, and many of their items are of much better quality.  Circle everything you like!  Ice cream, chips, that sale on Reese’s–circle it all.

Step two of this process is to write everything–the item and its price–down on a piece of paper, sorting by location.  You’ll end up with multiple mini lists: one labeled SHAWS, one HANNAFORD, one TRADER JOE’S, and so on.  Look through them and eliminated repeated items, leaving only the greatest deal on your list.  Items often go on sale at the same time at multiple places, with only a slight (if any) price difference.  If items have the same sale price, choose the location most convenient to you.

Now comes the hard part.  Sometimes the painful part.  Because now you have this long, beautiful list of delicious food and you want it all.  But you can’t have it all.  I generally start step three by adding up everything I’ve got.  In the beginning it often topped $50, sometimes more.  Now I’m generally good enough that I get with $5 of my projected budget and only have to cut one or two items out.  Once you know how much your list costs you know how much you have to get rid of.  Start with the items you need: look in your pantry and determine what you must replenish that week.  Lock in those items as non-negotiables.  For example, if you are relying on baking bread that week (or three or four times, if you’re us) and you have half a bag of flour left you might need to lock in flour on your list.  If you volunteered to bring macaroni and cheese to a community event pasta, milk and cheese would be your non-negotiables.  You get the idea.  Add up all your locked in items to know how much money you have left to play with.  Some weeks you will have none.  Some weeks you’ll have an awful lot.  Most weeks you’ll have about a third or so left over.

Next you get to the second tier.  Items that are important but not 100% necessary: the things you know you need to start thinking about replacing in the next weeks or month, but you don’t have to immediately.  The olive oil that has about three weeks left in it (start planning now–olive oil is expensive!) or you feel extra coffee would be nice to have for when you have guests.  Add these up with the necessities.  Most of the time you’ll have gone over and need to cut something out.  But somethings–sometimes–you make it to the fabled third tier, the land where ice cream and cookies and chips are not only accessible but affordable.  Choose wisely: it may be a while before you venture into this great land once again.

Finally you have your list.  It is beautiful.  You deserve a good pat on the back for a job well done.  And, best of all, you now get to go grocery shopping!  While you’re there, remember good and well step four: DO NOT BUY ANYTHING THAT IS NOT ON YOUR LIST.  Until you get in this habit you will not be able to even alter your list in the face of a better sale.  Stick. To. Your. List.  I am serious folks.  I’ve said this about a hundred times, but we all know grocery stores are treasure lands filled with delicious things that exist for the sole purpose of poking holes in our carefully-crafted budgets.  (The waistline thing is a discussion for another day.)  A few months into this, when sticking to your budget is something you just do and don’t have to work at, you can substitute things around and make on-the-spot decisions while in the store as long as the amount you spend does not change.  But save that for a bit down the road.  In the immediate future you shop by the list and for the list with zero dalliances or distractions.

Aaand….congratulations!  Walk out of that grocery store proud of how little money you spent, with an entire week of delicious, cheap meals ahead of you.  You are awesome and you deserve all that extra money you’ll be putting away into your bank account.

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