Deal of the Week: 9 tips for budget grocery shopping (on the thrifty food plan)

All over the Web and its print relatives, columnists have been jumping on the food stamp challenge bandwagon.

They wail, “I tried to eat on just $25 a week, and it’s impossible!”

But it isn’t — especially if you bend the rules to follow the rules. (This means that for most men, the weekly allotment on the thrifty plan is more like $39, not $25.) For a great overview of the whole situation, check out Get Rich Slowly’s post on the matter.

Recently, here in Denver, a Rocky Mountain News columnist wrote that he couldn’t have fresh fruit because oranges cost $2 each at his grocery store. Well, you know when oranges are in season in North America? January. And so in June, when he wrote that, sure, oranges weren’t cheap. But this week we can buy a pound of strawberries for under $1. That’s got to be equal in volume to at least four oranges.

Many other writers say they can’t possibly feed themselves on $25 per week, especially not if they buy any fresh fruits or vegetables.

There are two keys here. One, know the real budget. The U.S.D.A. food budget guidelines are at this link. Add up the “thrifty budget” numbers for each member of your family for a good challenge.

For my family, our monthly total is $410. In June, we spent $416, including many organic items and some expensive, organic local berries, plus a couple of stocking-up trips. But a Father’s Day breakfast out and a schmancy date-night dinner added $100 in dining-out bills.

The second key is in the mindset. You can’t save money if you go looking for an orange, or whatever you crave in particular. To save, you must (to quote my daughter’s old preschool teacher) get what you get, and don’t have a fit.

To help you knock out your grocery fits, here are my top 9 ways to save on food bills:

  1. Don’t eat out. Usually, I can avoid big food splurges — it’s the little cravings that kill me. When you can’t resist, in spite of my advice above, fix your craving at the store instead of going out. I love ice cream. If I go out, a cone of hard-serve will cost me nearly $3. On the other hand, I can often buy a half-gallon at the store for a couple of dollars (and then I don’t have to wipe the dab of ice cream off my nose to hide from my family — I can share instead). If I’m ambitious, I can make my own, most likely for even less. If I go out for nachos, I’ll pay $9, but if I make them at home, it’s probably closer to $5 — and that will feed the whole family.
  2. Buy what’s on sale and then decide how you’ll eat it. This seemingly goes against all the advice to plan your meals and shop with a list. Well, not totally. Here’s where sources like The Grocery Game come in — for a fee, this Web site will tell you what’s on sale at your local market and how to save the most. Once you start your list with the cheapies, you can fill in what you’ll need to feed your family for the week. After you do it for a while, you won’t need the site anymore. (I’m about ready to unsubscribe — after more than two years.)
  3. Make a price book. This site gives you a step by step how-to. The gist of it is to write down the cost of each grocery item (at least the ones you buy all the time) so you can compare. This trick can give some great insights.
  4. Know what’s really a sale. For instance, cream cheese goes on sale all the time at my grocery store for $1.25 a brick. But thanks to the price book, I know it often goes on sale for $1 — and more than once, in sync with a 20-cent coupon. After the store doubles the coupon, I pay 60 cents — less than half the “sale” price of $1.25. And I’d only pay full price in a cream-cheese emergency (you know, when someone breaks into your house and threatens to kill the dog unless you give him bagels … with cream cheese).
  5. Clip coupons. It’s worth a few minutes on a Sunday. It’s even worth looking dorky carrying a coupon sorter around (mine is a red nylon Swanson’s-branded number that I got at Goodwill for 99 cents). If you’re really cool, maybe you’ll make your own coupon carrier. Then use the coupons on top of a sale price for a super sale. If you have more than one coupon, buy more than one item. A few months ago I got boxes of granola bars for 40 cents each after sales, coupons and store buy one-get one promotions. The regular price of granola bars is something like $3.69 — not gonna happen in my book.
  6. Buy for value and what you need. Compare prices at different stores. I find Costco is usually not more expensive than King Soopers, but sometimes it’s much cheaper. If the price is the same, I’ll buy bulk to save packaging. But if you don’t have room to store 8,000 light bulbs, and the price is the same, why worry about it?
  7. Grow your own. Food you grow is the cheapest, unless you go crazy with fertilizers and gadgets. Last Friday, we had pasta with pesto and a nice salad — with basil and lettuce from our garden, making it truly a bargain meal, whereas purchased pesto is particularly pricey.
  8. Limit meat. Meat is very expensive. My bargain guideline is $1 a pound. I avoid buying fruits and veggies unless they are $1 a pound or less. (Watch the sales – this week, that price level gave us tomatoes on the vine and organic grapes.) Usually, you can buy tofu for around $1 a pound. But most meet doesn’t go under that threshold — although once I found organic chicken legs at Vitamin Cottage for about $1 a pound (I stocked up for the freezer). But meat won’t be an everyday thing if you’re sticking with a tight budget. Besides, a variety of grains and veggies is better for you!
  9. Buy items where they’re normal. Many Asian cuisines use a lot of fresh vegetables, and Asian markets are renowned for their beautiful produce. Recently, we were at H-Mart, an Asian supermarket in a suburb of Denver. I counted 80 — that’s right, 80 — varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables priced at 99 cents a pound or less. Some items — like cabbage and Asian greens — were 59 cents a pound, and those are very nutritious. Some items were organic — I bought two three-pound bags of organic onions for $1.29 each. That’s $0.43 a pound, when organic onions are often nearly $2 a pound at my grocery store. With 80 items, everyone’s sure to find something they’ll like.

Even a cranky columnist or two.

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One thought on “Deal of the Week: 9 tips for budget grocery shopping (on the thrifty food plan)

  1. Keith says:

    H-Mart rules.

    Sunflower Market in the Highlands just opened. 3 for 1 cantaloupes, 3 for 1 green onions, 2 for 4 packs of strawberries…i had fun picking out fresh atlantic salmon ($3.97 a pound). I got 4 bags of groceries for $30, which, for me, is not bad…because i eat a lot.

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