Your Grocery Budget: Where to Find Savings

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Where to Cut?

Our grocery budget is always high, going over the budgeted amount by $100-200 a month. We are always optimistic that we can feed our family of three on $300 a month (that includes me, my husband, and our 1 1/2 year old son) but lately it seems like we can't meet our budget projections. We try the doing a menu and list, which I know is a major point to success (but I get tired of being the one to always have do it, so eventually I slip up and don't use one). Another factor is I have a picky eater for a son. He will eat certain canned vegetables, hotdogs, chicken nuggets, canned fruit and some fresh fruit--alot of which can get expensive. I haven't had alot of time to comparison shop with a busy toddler--I have tried to do some though. We also belong to Sam's Club and seems to be cheaper for staple items as well as diapers. We need some help with ideas to help us with our food budget, but also on what is a realistic amount to budget for food.
Aileen P.

Scratch-n-Dent Sales

I just recently discovered a surplus food store (dented cans etc). I went in to check it out and they really had a lot of good deals and it's saved me about $50 a month on non-perishables. I have not noticed a compromise in quality.

Once-a-Month Shopping

I feed myself, my husband, and our 5 kids on about $400 a month(that's an average). Here's what I do - first, shop once a month. You will spend less if you don't go to the store as often. Another important tip is to give yourself permission to go over budget - that sounds crazy, but you will SAVE money overall if you don't lock yourself into an I-can-only-spend-this-much mentality.

If I hit a good sale I will sometimes spend $600 in a particular month, but then I'll only spend about $200 the next month. Get yourself a freezer (save your pennies and buy a good used one). Watch for sales, especially on meat. For instance, about every 6 weeks our local discount grocery will sell chicken for $1.49 a pound. When they do, I buy enough to last until it goes on sale again. If we run out, we don't eat chicken until the next sale. I find sales on other kinds of meat on a rotating basis and I stock up.

Find a discount grocery (one that sells primarily off-brands, like Aldi's or SaveALot) and do most of your shopping there. We've found very few off-brand items that we didn't like. If you go to the store for a great sale on pork roast, discipline yourself to buy only the item you went there for. Those little incidentals you throw into the cart really add up.

Related: More on once-a-month shopping

And finally, banish picky eating! That's the biggest money waster there is. I know that toddlers can go on food jags and be incredibly obstinate (my 2 year old is currently trying to help me type this!) but do the best you can. Don't always give him only what he likes. It will not damage him physically or psychologically to insist that he try one bite of a new food, and don't immediately give up on it if he tells you it's "yucky". Most kids have to try a food several times before they decide they like it. At our house, the rule is that you eat what's on the table. I try to include at least one food the kids really like, but they are required to eat at least 1 tablespoon of everything. After that, they can choose how much to eat or not to eat at all, but there is no raiding the fridge for something that looks better. My kids have learned to like foods that they once thought were toxic, and they'v also learned that Mom is not a short order cook! Remember that it's his overall diet that's important, not what he eats at one meal or in one day. He won't die if he skips a meal and he'll be better off if he learns to like a wide variety of foods. It is OK to tell your child what to do - you're the parent!
Cindy, Newbury OH

Discipline Over Planning

As a single parent of two children I know what it means to stretch that grocery dollar. I've found it takes more discipline than planning. I buy only certain treats and snacks which I know I can afford and once those are gone, that's it until next shopping trip. The kids complain at first but usually find something else to eat if they are really hungry, otherwise, they decide they're not that hungry after all. This also encourages better eating habits. Another trick I figured out, being kind of a health nut, is that healthy food such as fresh fruit may initially seem a little expensive but in the longer run is actually cheaper. Healthy, natural foods stay in our systems longer and provide better nutrition. Therefore, you don't get hungry again quite so quickly and as often thereby saving food and money. the added benefit is a healthy family - saving other expenses such as medical, etc.
Sue P.

How We Save

I have four in my family, plus a large (I mean big) cat, and our budget for food, health and beauty supplies and paper items is under $350.00 a month. It can be done, you just have to work at it! I do not impulse buy and I try to shop alone. My children don't whine for things, but they tend to pick at each other and distract me when I am bargain hunting. I always use coupons when and IF the item I am buying is less per ounce than the store brand. If not, the store brand goes into my cart! I am not brand loyal; this costs consumers big bucks.

I buy very few processed foods; "raw foods" ( flour and oil vs. canned biscuits, for example) cost far less and go much further than processed foods. I spend more time in the kitchen than someone using processed foods. For example, I make a pot of soup from scratch in the Crock Pot rather than buying a small can of soup for the same price. I can make a pot of chicken vegetable soup for about a dollar that will feed us two meals when I add homemade focaccia bread.

Related: Ways to make soups from scratch

A Crock Pot will save you incredible amounts of time over the stove and lots of cash at the grocery store! It will turn a shoe leather piece of beef from a very, very old cow into a fall-apart tender meal that people will rave about and beg you for again and again. Ask for one for Christmas or look for a sale on them. I saw them on sale here for under $20.00 last week. You will also spend less time in the kitchen since you will no longer have to watch over the meal as it cooks. This gives you more time with your son.

I rarely pay full price for much of anything. I travel 25 miles (one way!) to a bakery thrift store once every six weeks or so and buy wonderful bread for .78 a loaf! I buy over $15.00 worth each time and pick up extras for friends. I have a Dodge Intrepid with a huge trunk and I fill it completely up each trip. As soon as I get home, into the freezer it goes! A freezer is another frugal kitchen wizard's friend! Even if you only have a top freezer, buy enough meat, bread and veggies to stuff it full. It goes without saying that you will buy all of this on sale and/or markdown. Markdown meats will save you lots of cash and are perfectly safe. The Safeway where I buy my meats guarantees all meat, fresh or day old. In nearly three years of shopping at this store, I have had one package to return. My money was cheerfully refunded!

We also buy little in the way of snack foods. A big bag of regular popcorn and a bottle of oil will cost far less than chips or packs of microwave popcorn. It is also a good source of fiber! We eat popcorn several times a week and love the stuff. Even if you put butter on it, it is still far cheaper than chips, bagel pizzas, Twinkies, etc..
Lori B-L in Oregon

Related: 8 essential money-saving grocery shopping techniques

Modify Plan for Sales

In addition to making a list, you should be sure you use the current grocery store ad in planning your meals. Try your best to never pay full price for meat. Also, try to plan a meatless meal or cut the amount of meat called for in the recipe.

Most stores will rotate their sales on a regular basis. Try to keep track of the store where you shop most often. If you notice that they have a sale on an item you buy regularly, then buy enough to last until the sale comes back. For example, Kroger tends to run their spaghetti sauce every 4-6weeks. Buy enough to last for at least a month.

Compare ads. If there is an item at another store at a better price, have your husband stop off on his way home to pick up those items.

Diapers are always not cheaper at Sam's. They are usually cheaper at WalMart. Be sure to do some comparison. Some items are not cheaper just because they are at a wholesale house.

Teresa P. in Memphis, TN

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Extension Service Helps

The NDSU Extension Service has a series of publications entitled "Eating Well While Spending Less" that include weekly menus, recipes and shopping lists. You can access these publications at Select the publications link and, then look for "Nutrition and Health," then choose Food and Nutrition.

Updated December 2013

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