Food cost-cutting tools for busy families

Easy Ways to Reduce Your Family's High Monthly Grocery Bill

by Gary Foreman

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Hi Gary,
I am at a loss. My wife and I both work and we have four kids. We make good money between us but are always living paycheck to paycheck. One big problem is our grocery bill. I was looking at last month's expenses and saw that we spent over $1800 in groceries over the month at one grocery store (that is not a typo). There were a few other stops in there as well at some convenience stores. The really sad thing is we aren't eating steak and lobster. We eat frozen burgers three to four times a week and tacos.

As mentioned, we both work, and although I appreciate suggestions about making everything from scratch, that is not feasible for us. Most times during the week we are not eating dinner until 8pm. We try to shop at Costco (Sam's Club, etc.), but all that does is rack up a huge $400-600 bill there and then we still "run to the store" three to four times a week.

I am at the point of seriously considering paying someone to help us plan our grocery spending and meal planning. Anything I can try first?

Darren is right. His family does have a problem. They really should be eating steak and lobster if they're spending that much on their grocery bill each month.

Let's attack our problem on two fronts. First, we'll examine a business tool that will help Darren understand the problem. Second, we'll see if we can't suggest some tactics that will work for his busy family.

The business tool is one that's used by management to help identify and isolate a problem. It's sometimes known as reading a report from the "bottom up." If I were to evaluate my departmental budget, I'd begin by looking at the bottom line. How did the total expenses compare to the planned expenses. If they were as expected, I knew that the budget details probably wouldn't provide many big surprises.

My next step was to look at the major subtotals that made up the budget total. Again I was looking for results that differed from the budget.

Only those areas with a significant difference drew my attention. By checking the subtotals first, I managed to focus my time on the areas where detailed study would pay off. Only then would I really study the individual expenses looking for items that were out of line and needed correction.

It appears that Darren has already done the first step of this process. He has identified that food is the problem. The next step is to figure out where in the food budget things are going wrong.

It will require a bit of work, but nothing too strenuous. Darren will want to take a month's worth of grocery store receipts and place the items into categories. The categories should reflect the type of grocery item. Some possibilities: meats, breads, frozen foods, fruits/vegetables, desserts, drinks, snacks, lunches, cleaning supplies, pet food. Darren will want to use the categories that are most useful for his family.

He can use a computer spreadsheet or a simple note pad (one sheet for each category). Simply put each grocery item purchased during the last month into the best category. Then total the categories.

Darren will focus his attention on the largest categories. He will probably find a few areas that stick out as problems. He can then work on solutions to that more specific problem. What we have done is taken a large, overwhelming problem and turned it into something specific that Darren can work on.

Next, let's look for strategies that match Darren's family. We'll focus on ideas for families that are very busy. He's right. No one is going to come home at 8pm and start cooking from scratch. Fortunately, that's not necessary.

The trick for Darren's family is to shift the cooking so that it's done largely before 8pm. There are a variety of tools and tricks to do that. For instance, it's easy to put a roasting chicken in a slow cooker in the morning and have dinner ready when you get home. Or a roast. Or a stew. A search on "slow cooker recipes" will turn up dozens of ideas for meals that will cook while you're away from home.

The freezer and microwave oven are a great tandem for the busy cook. The freezer allows for meals to be prepared days or even weeks in advance. The microwave allows those frozen meals to be ready in minutes.

Many families use the weekends to prepare complete meals for the freezer. They'll fix three or four meatloaves or a gallon of spaghetti sauce. Meal sized portions are frozen for use in upcoming weeks.

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Some families will even freeze individual meals just like a frozen dinner. That way, any family member can head for the freezer whenever they're ready to eat.

Still others will do all the prep work ahead of time. For instance, they'll brown five pounds of ground beef and freeze one pound packages. Half the work is done the next time they want to make anything requiring ground beef.

The trick is finding methods that shift the work from 8pm to a more convenient time. A trip to the library or Internet should provide many good ideas.

Using these two tools should help Darren take control of their grocery bill without ruining their diet or changing their lifestyle. Now all we need is an invitation to dinner!

Reviewed August 2017

Gary Foreman

Gary Foreman is a former financial planner and purchasing manager who founded The Dollar website and newsletters in 1996. He's been featured in MSN Money, Yahoo Finance, Fox Business, The Nightly Business Report, US News Money, and Gary shares his philosophy of money here. You can follow Gary on Twitter. Gary is also available for audio, video or print interviews. For more info see his media page.

Take the Next Step:

  • Tally your bills to identify where your grocery dollars are going.
  • Create a slow cooker meal this week. You can find some recipes here.
  • Double the recipe and freeze the extras. You'll have an inexpensive convenient meal ready for when you can't cook.
  • Continue to trim food costs by visiting our food & groceries section to get tips and tools for keeping more of your hard-earned dollars in your pocket.
  • Stop struggling to get ahead financially. Subscribe to our free weekly Surviving Tough Times newsletter aimed at helping you 'live better...for less'. Each issue features great ways to help you stretch your dollars and make the most of your resources. Subscribers get a copy of Are You Heading for Debt Trouble? A Simple Checklist And What You Can Do About It for FREE!

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