GROCERY SHOPPING SMART
When I was a little girl, I shamelessly played with dolls and dreamed only of being a mommy. Then I grew up, went to college, got married and got a job I actually loved. I never anticipated the transition from working wife to at-home mom to be one that I would wrestle with, but as I learned QUICKLY, life is often not what we expect.
Our son Grant arrived 6 ½ weeks early, rudely interrupting our quiet, organized, predictable and well-planned life. I mean, come on, how could he not know the nursery was still all boxes, that we hadn’t had a baby shower yet and that our “how to give birth” and tour of the hospital classes were scheduled for the weekend AFTER he arrived?
We planned for the financial burden of eliminating one income, but were relieved when I found at-home work that not only supplemented our income, but also gave me an intellectual outlet and something tangible to call my own. Two and a half years later, when I was ready to burst with our third baby, we realized that for the sanity of everyone in our home, I needed to quit my job and focus on organizing the chaos of life with three kids under the age of 3. I loved my promotion to Chief Operating Officer of our home, but the payroll administrator seemed to be on permanent leave of absence, and the on-the-job training manual was no where to be found. Why hasn’t someone written a Gregg’s Reference Manual – Parenting Edition on how to make dinner, answer the phone, feed a baby, and change a diaper all at once?
The lack of a second income, coupled with the exponential growth of expenses, made us realize that we needed to get very creative, very quickly, to make things work. We started with our grocery budget, and with a lot of trial and error, were able to cut our grocery budget in half. Here’s how we did it and the lessons we learned along the way.
The first step is to BE AWARE. I realized that I was oblivious to the prices of items on my grocery list. If we needed it, I bought it. It never crossed my flustered mind to check the price, compare brand prices or compare prices from store to store. Once I started focusing my bleary eyes on what things cost, I was shocked to see how dramatically prices varied from brand to brand and especially from store to store. After a few months of practice, I found I was able to actually recognize a good deal when I saw one, and that felt really good.
The second step is to KNOW YOUR OPTIONS. We happen to live in a suburb of a large city and have hundreds of different shopping choices, which can be overwhelming, but can also be a real advantage. I started asking friends, neighbors, and more experienced moms where they did their shopping, and then I started my test drives.
The high-end grocery stores lured me in with the BOGO (buy one, get one free) specials and were fun to shop because they have chandeliers, multitudes of employees who offered to help me to my car (oh joy!), really cool carts shaped like cars, fire trucks and butterflies for the kids to drive, and Starbucks in the store! However, the prices on the non-sale items were often double, or more, than some of the less-fancy grocery alternatives, and I found that I ended up getting less and spending more than I planned. For us, the ambiance wasn’t a trade-off we could make on our tight budget.
The super-centers were my next stop. These stores are enormous, rather intimidating initially to learn the lay of the land, and slightly irritating when I forget something on my list and have to schlep all the way across the store to retrieve it. The advantages, however, are great. I can make my list for groceries and drug store and get it all in one place, a definite advantage when I was buckling and un-buckling 3 babies into car seats. These stores also offer the monster truck version of a grocery cart – room for a baby car seat, places to strap two other little munchkins, and still a full basket to put groceries in - and you don’t even need a Commercial Drivers License to operate one. The grocery prices were significantly less than the high-end stores and I liked that there were cheaper off-brand options as well as name-brand choices. For us, the advantages of the super-center outweighed the disadvantage and I started making this a regular part of my grocery shopping.
Our next stop was one I put off for as long as possible, the dreaded discount grocery store. I know it’s completely vain and slightly idiotic, but I just did not want the stigma, (whether imagined or real), of shopping at a store that I had to pay 25 cents just to rent a cart. The store was small, with tiny aisle of groceries on pallets, offered primarily off-brand foods, and didn’t have enough choices to complete everything on my list. When I checked out, I realized with horror, that I had to buy grocery bags (I could choose paper or re-usable plastic) and I also had to bag my purchases myself. So why on earth did I ever go back again, let alone begin to make it the first stop on my list? The prices! I could not believe how affordable everything was. We can leave the discount store with a cart heaping with groceries and spend under $100! My husband actually shopped our list at the discount store, then took our receipt and re-shopped the same items at the super-center, writing the price beside each. Most items were at least half the price of the same item at the super-center. As we got more familiar with the items offered at the discount store, we started forming our grocery list around what we knew was available there, and purchasing what was left on our list at the super center.
Somewhere amid all this shopping, I discovered a bakery outlet and WHOA! What a great find! I can leave with 12 items (bread, donuts, bagels, English muffins, cookies, etc.) for $12! We go once a month and stock our freezer. The kids love it because they get a treat at the counter if they have good behavior, and I love it because it’s such an amazing deal.
We also bought a membership to a warehouse store. These stores offer discounted prices on name-brand items, but you have to purchase a yearly membership to use the store (typically around $45-50) and most items come in huge, bulk packages. You definitely need a lot of cupboard, pantry, and refrigerator/freezer space to shop at the warehouse stores on a regular basis. A big drawback for us is that a trip to this store always makes a big dent in our wallet. Since most items come in such large quantities, you can buy 10 items and easily spend over $100, so we don’t use it for our primary grocery shopping. However, we found the discount on produce, milk, and film developing is worth making an extra stop. Plus the carts are over-sized, extra-wide and have two seats with seat belts, which makes it easier to manage the kid chaos. Our kids love eating all the samples and the food court can’t be beat. Where else can you get an oversized hot dog and a fountain drink for $1.50?
A final option that most suburban areas offer is dinner kitchens. The meals are more expensive than I typically spend when shopping on my own, but I’ve found this is a good supplement to our normal routine. I’ll gather a bunch of my girlfriends, we’ll choose our meals from an on-line menu, register for a specific date, and then take a much-needed night out. We meet at the kitchen to prepare our meals and in two hours, I can pre-make 6-9 meals that feed 4-6 people. The ingredients are set up, chopped, diced, and pre-measured and the serving containers are included in the price of the meal. My job is to follow the instruction card on what to do first, next and last, and then put it all in my freezer when I get home. The meals are more tasty than what I typically make and the evening out, with a night off from the bedtime routine, is heavenly! Meals can also be purchased from the kitchen pre-made for an additional fee, a great option for third trimester moms or moms of newborns.
The third step is MAKE A MEAL PLAN. At first I thought this was horribly inconvenient and time consuming to force myself to sit down for 30 minutes and plan out the meals I would make for the next two weeks. After all, I barely know what I want for lunch, much less what I’d feel like eating in two days. However, I realized that the meal plan is actually really helpful and flexible. Having a schedule of meals lets me choose what I’m in the mood to make that day, set the meat out in the morning to thaw, and organize my afternoon to allow for the appropriate cooking and baking time. The time I’ve saved and the anxiety I’ve been spared is well worth the up-front time it takes to make the schedule.
The fourth step is MAKE A GROCERY LIST. Duh. Who doesn’t go to the store without a list? What I mean by this rather obvious point is to make a master grocery list that is organized and easy to follow. I start by making headings for each store I need to go to, and then as I add items to the list, I put them under the store-specific heading. If I’m feeling really ambitious, I’ll even categorize each list by how the store is laid out and lump the produce, frozen goods, and general grocery items together. I usually have some sort of grocery list of items we’ve run out of, so I transfer those items to the master list I’m creating first, and then I tackle the meals. I sit down with my cook books and recipe cards and write down the ingredients needed to make each meal on the plan. Then I double check my pantry to make sure I don’t already have the ingredient in stock, and if necessary, add it to the list. Once the evening meals are listed, I move on to ingredients needed for lunches and ask myself if I have sandwich meat, cheese slices, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, mac and cheese, etc. Breakfast and snack foods round out the list. The finished product takes about 30 minutes to create, but when I’m finished, I have concrete, organized evidence of what I need and where to look for it.
Step five is PLAN YOUR ATTACK. We only go to the grocery store every two weeks, so when I actually shop, it’s quite a process. Ideally, I’ll shop in the evening, by myself, without kids, because it maximizes my accuracy and minimizes wasted time. I’ll map out my route of where to go first, next and last, and I usually base my route on what stores are on the right-side of the road versus making a left-turn. If I have to shop with my kids, I try to go between meals, with them well-fed and well-rested, and will often reward them by taking them out to lunch if they behave. Finally, know how much you can or want to spend and try to stick within that range.
Step six is STICK TO YOUR LIST. I have saved huge amounts of money by limiting my trips to the store and only buying what’s on my list. I allow myself some indulgent items, (I can’t live without Starbucks coffee brewing in my pot at home), but I plan those items into my list and try not succumb to the dark chocolate pecan chunk ice cream that is screaming at me in the frozen food section.
Finally, CELEBRATE YOUR VICTORIES. Following all these steps takes a lot of time, energy and intentionality. But the savings is definitely worth the extra effort. Take time to celebrate the ground you’re gaining and allow yourself to splurge every once in a while.
We now have four kids to shop for, but believe it or not, they actually grow up. They learn how put their shoes on by themselves, get in the car, and buckle their own seat belts. They figure out how to walk by the cart without running up and down the aisles, they help me find things on my list (even if it means I end up with 3 bottles of ketchup), and they can carry grocery bags inside the house. But they’re still young enough to think that a trip to Starbucks means ice water in a tall cup with a straw. Oh the bliss… Starbucks anyone?