Stretching your Budget Part 1: How to Shop

With the economy still sluggish, rising prices and uncertainty running rampant through everyone’s finances, it’s becoming more and more common for me to receive the following question from friends and acquaintances: “How do I stretch my grocery shopping budget?”

It’s a great question and unfortunately, most people don’t like to admit that their budget is tighter than they hoped and they just don’t know how to get around that grocery bill hurdle. The first step is changing how you think about your grocery shopping altogether. Most people I’ve had this conversation with tend to shop at just a single store, are brand conscious, rarely comparison shop or pay attention to deals and sales, eat out more often than they really think that they do, and usually don’t buy in bulk. Depending upon what you’re accustomed to, this series of posts might be a bit of a shock to your system, but I guarantee that it’s worth the work. I’m self employed so our financial pendulum has a tendency to swing a lot as our budget is dependent on clients paying their bills on time. As a result, I’ve had to become quite good at stretching our budget to feed a family of five (plus a dog) and I do it on only about $200-$250 a month. (For comparison, an eligible family of 5 can receive $750 in SNAP food stamp benefits. I can’t even begin to imagine what I would do with a budget that large!)

Now keep in mind that the method I’m outlining here is what works where we live in Northern California. You may need to modify it based upon where you live, but for the most part, this should work just about anywhere.

Fruit and vegetables basketIn a traditional grocery store, shop only the edges of the store. It’s where the fresh things are usually located…fruits/veggies, dairy, meat, bakery. For the most part, we avoid eating processed and pre-made foods though I’ll admit we occasionally splurge on favored snacks and treats. There are some things I keep on hand that are canned and frozen, but we skip the crackers, frozen meals, etc. I -never- buy cleaning supplies or food storage (ziplocs etc) at the grocery store.
I get many of our canned goods at a local grocery outlet and their prices are usually 40-60% less than the same size & brand at the traditional grocery store. I also look at other household staples there like shampoo and soap as -sometimes- they are cheaper there.

Big box stores such as Target and WalMart are another great resource if you’re looking to tighten your belt. Now, I hate going to our Walmart. A lot. In our tiny town, it can often be a frustrating and stress-inducing trip and the store always seems slightly in shambles, however when we visit my family near Boise, we go to the Walmart all the time because it’s a really nice place to shop. If you haven’t been in awhile, check yours out and you might be surprised. Luckily, their prices on staples are usually pretty similar to our grocery outlet and the Target, so I minimize my trips there, but depending on where you live, it may be a different situation so check the prices at yours. Additionally, both stores offer coupons which sometimes stack with manufacturer coupons and the Target Cartwheel phone app has saved me quite a bit in the last few months on items I was buying anyway.

One of my favorite places to shop is the local farmer’s markets and fruit stands. I stick to in season fruits and veggies which I can usually get at a lower price from the farmers than the store, but BE AWARE of your store prices. Sometimes things aren’t cheaper at the farmer’s market.

There has been a ton of press about coupons the past few years and they can be a great source of savings but they can be a time suck if you’re not committed. If you get the paper, go through the coupons and cut out ONLY WHAT YOU WOULD NORMALLY BUY. Everything else is trash. I get coupons from Smartsource, and Target and print them out once a week. Many stores accept mobile coupons now which cuts way down on printing and the associated costs in both paper and time. I also set up a junk gmail account to sign up to get other coupons from manufacturers that I like as well as our local grocery stores. Also keep an eye out for coupons at the store as you shop and pick them up for the next time the item is on sale, just keep an eye on the expiration dates. There are many online resources, such as Stephanie Nelson’s Coupon Mom that can help you if you’re interested in getting deeper into couponing.

Finally, never ever shop hungry and just totally avoid the aisles with your temptations. Make a list and stick to it. We use an app called Cozi. It’s free and the list shows up on both our phones so whomever is at the store automatically has the list and we can also easily split up in the store and get it done faster.

In Part 2, we’ll talk about what to buy!

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