I have a confession to make.
Prior to the current financial situation in this country (you know, the whole “we’re not saying the ‘r-word’ therefore it’s not actually that thing that rhymes with concession!”), even as frugal as I generally am, I struggled to avoid falling into one of two extremely un-thrifty habits.
It seemed like I had two modes of operation: Either I went to the grocery store nearly every day, or—if I managed to keep my shopping to just once a week—I was constantly throwing away food that had gone bad before I had a chance to use it up.
Here’s another confession: I’m still struggling to figure out how to avoid doing this, and I do mean struggling.
I work from home, and my husband takes the kids to school and they ride the bus home. The reality is that many days I don’t drive anywhere. I used to be much more prone to forcing myself to run errands at lunchtime just to make sure I got out during the day, but with gas nearing the $4/gallon mark, that just seems silly. I’m still trying to get out to walk, but I’m not driving on errands as often, anymore.
That means I’m hitting the grocery store less, and that means I’m having to make some hard choices. I want my family’s diet to be balanced and I want us to eat as many foods in their natural state as possible. So while I suppose I could give up on fresh fruits and vegetables in favor of canned, um, ewww. The trick, now, is to buy as much fresh as I can, without overbuying to where I’m throwing food away because it went bad before I remembered to use it. That, of course, needs to be balanced with fewer trips to the store so as not to burn up any potential food savings in unnecessary gas money.
This is the part where I suggest we all live on a large commune together and raise all of our own food! Except I really need to have my own bathroom, so maybe not.
Realistically, how does one balance this?
I’m still working on it, but here’s a few things I’ve been doing.
Embrace frozen vegetables. As much as I want to eat fresh veggies in season—and this, right here, is the most bountiful season in which to do so—I cannot feed my family fresh vegetables every day on reduced grocery store trips, because many veggies simply don’t last a whole week. I keep a generous stash of flash-frozen veggies in my freezer for the second half of the week. They’re the closest thing (in both nutrition and taste) to fresh, and they’re also affordably priced.
Heck, embrace your whole freezer. I’ve talked about my love of my deep freezer before, but in belt-tightening times it’s truly a budget saver. When something freezable goes on sale, I stock up. I never buy meat or fish at regular price; I wait until a sale and I buy extra. There’s always something in my freezer, that way, and I’m never caught feeling compelled to overpay because we have “nothing” to eat. Also keep in mind that you can freeze things like butter and cheese (which tend to be pricey but can be stocked up when you find them on sale).
Have a budget that allows for stockpiling. If your grocery budget is so tight that you cannot afford to buy, say, extra jars of your favorite spaghetti sauce even thought it’s on buy-1-get-1 special this week, something needs to be changed. You should always be able to buy extra of a staple when it’s on sale and is either shelf-stable or can be frozen. Part of my grocery budget is earmarked for these sorts of items. And it’s a losing game if you “can’t afford” to stock up now, because it means you’ll be buying it later for more money. Find a way to get started on stocking your pantry—the first couple of weeks will feel very tight, and then as time goes on you’ll see that your overall grocery bill goes down because you often already have some of the items you need for the week.
Plan meals. I never used to do this, because I figure I’m controlling enough without plotting out a week’s worth of meals at a time. But now that I refuse to just run out to the store whenever I need something, it’s a must. We eat the fresh veggies in the first half of the week so that I’m not fishing wilted greens out of the crisper drawer on Friday and wondering how I forgot about them. I’m also taking thing out of the freezer in the morning to cook later on, rather than realizing at 5:00 that we can have a frozen hunk of chicken or a bowl of rice for dinner.
Plan meals with usable leftovers. I often cook as if there’s twice as many people in my family as there actually are, because my theory is that if I’m going to take the time to do food prep, why not make a whole lot? Over time I’ve discovered that certain foods freeze well or lend themselves to a second dish (most crockpot meals I make, I can freeze half for another time; many of our favorite meals yield awesome pizza topping for another night), and others do not. So I’ll make a giant mess of soup or stew, but if I’m making something more “delicate” I scale back the amount so that I’m not throwing leftovers away later in the week.
Maximize your mileage. I still drive a fair amount, of course. The kids have extracurriculars and doctors’ appointments and occasionally I need to go somewhere. If I’m out, and I know I’m going to go right past the supermarket, I’m allowed to make an extra stop for the week. What I’m avoiding is an unnecessary trip, but if I’m already there, that’s different.
If you do coupons, carry them in your purse. This one makes me feel like a bag lady, but it’s essential. When I kept my coupons in a separate carrier I often found myself at the store without them. If you’re going to stop at the store only when you’re already out, you’d better have everything you need handy. And yeah, that means putting that stupid “shopper’s club” fob on your keys, too, just to make sure you always have it.
What am I missing? How are you managing the intersection between rising food and grocery costs?