Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Thrifty Thinkin': On Eating, Food Budgets and Couponing, Etc...

When I moved out here in December, finally able to live with my husband and do exciting dreadful things like grocery shopping I had utterly no idea how much food two people would need in a week, or a month, or a day for that matter, or what a food budget for 2 people trying to eat reasonably healthy should look like. And I loathed grocery shopping, which didn't help much.

I grew up in a frugal family. But I knew not-too-much about grocery shopping. I am good at money saving, but rarely did my homeschooled past teach me about buying grocery staples for two. When there are 10 people in your family it is not common practice to shop in a grocery store, you see. My mom shopped in bulk 98% of the time- Sam's Club, B.Js, etc and belonged to Natural Food Co-ops where food came by the crate. I don't know what my family's food budget was, but come checkout time it was usually $200-$300 + for a single trip.

This left newlywed me slightly confused: what does like...1 item, such as a jar of salsa cost...instead of like 15 of them. How much milk do two people need; probably not like 5 gallons a week. Only my husband eats meat; how much meat does he eat? And on and on...also, I had no idea how to cook for only two people, but that's another story.

Disclaimer: I am still newly married, only 22, and truly probably have no idea about anything. But I'm learning and this post is simply a reflection of those recent learnings.

I live on an Air Force base and I do all my shopping at the commissary here (with an occasional natural food store or farmer's market trip). It is close, convenient, tax free (sale tax in WA is over 9%). Every month my husband and I are allotted ~$348.00 as our allowance for food (aka: "BAS"- we love a good acronym for everything...). Initially, I had no idea if that was enough for two people. Was I supposed to spend all of it? Half of it? Was it only half of what I needed for us?

The first couple shopping trips I was baffled. The first couple months I was way over our BAS. But every month since December I have whittled down our food budget (in our defense, the first month or two we had NOTHING and had to buy all the basic staples. Items like ketchup, all the spices known to man, baking powder and salt. Now we are well stocked).

I have now discovered that our $348 a month toward food is MORE than enough and we are able to put a large chunk of that into savings each month. I aim to keep a well stocked pantry and freezer, and always make sure we have enough fresh foods for a week or so. The pantry and fridge are kept clean and organized so we (I) know what we have.

We don't have a specifically set food budget other than I'll be in trouble if I go over $348, but I try to keep each shopping trip (3 per month) at $80 or less. Meaning, at most $240 a month, which is a savings of about $100 out of our allotted amount. I try and keep the month spending between $200 and $240. That works for us and a newlywed couple (with one furbaby). Obviously this is a slightly different number than what it would be if I was not shopping tax free (and commisary prices are a tad cheaper as well), but hopefully this gives you an idea.

Here is what I have learned in the last couple months of being the chief grocery shopper and cook:'

1. Make a list. Better yet, make the list and bring it with you. And use it. Cross items off as you go. And don't buy extra stuff unless it is extremely justifiable (if I see they are having a sale on a nonperishable/something we eat regularly, I will stock up. Things like that.) I use a pen and paper, but there are also Apps which you can download for grocery lists. Trying to shop without a list is just asking for troubles. You will forget things. You will buy other things you don't need. And then you will have to make another trip to get the stuff you forget, and subsequently buy more things you don't need. Which leads to...

2.The more trips you make, the more you will spend. Simple Concept. I am amazed by some people who can do one grand shopping trip for the entire month. You can save a lot that way, but it also requires a lot of freezer space, which I do not have. I have managed to knock my trips down to 3 times a month, rather than weekly though. I try and plan what I need for meals in advance and shop for a week and halfs worth of food. I am able to freeze some fresh produce and I freeze all of our breads, bagels, etc, as well as our meats so everything keeps as long as possible.

3. Don't bring my husband. Generally he and I are happy to do any boring/tortuous activity together. However, grocery shopping it better alone. He is a bit of a whiner. He is also one to add things to my cart not on my list. Plus, if he is there I am distracted and I forget things. I love him whole-heartedly but it is better to just leave him out of this one.

4. The more junk food I manage to purchase, the more we will eat. This is more of a health tip than a shopping/frugality tip. I have simply noticed if that we have 4 bags of reese's in the pantry they will be eaten up very quickly. If they aren't in the house, we cannot eat them in ridiculous amounts. Simple.

5. Try and shop the outer aisles the most, and the inner ones sparingly. Most of my shopping trips consists of fresh produce, or things like eggs, milk and meat. I try and limit our processed foods in takes pretty seriously. Yes, those items are cheap and on sale, but it isn't worth it for what it can do to my health. I don't buy any freezer meals, premade-anything or ready-made mixes. Convenience costs, always. It may take a bit of time and effort, but making foods from scratch can save a ton! I am not one to try and stick to a diet or certain way of eating, but we try and eat as much fresh, whole, unprocessed, clean, good-for-us food as possible. I always try to make sure that the items in the cart are in majority healthy. Fresh veggies are actually cheaper than microwave meals!!

6. Don't shop on a military pay day: the commissary is a nightmare. This is just a military side tip. I've also learned I much prefer shopping on a weekday afternoon (usually Tuesdays) than I do a weekend or evening. It's a lot calmer; I already hate shopping without having to play bumper-carts with other shoppers. This works with my currently unemployed schedule and it means I get to spend more time on the weekend with my husband. Matter of preference.

7. Buy in bulk, but only when it makes sense. As I mentioned, I know all about shopping in bulk. I can compare unit prices like a boss (a price comparing boss...). However, there are only two of us. Shopping in bulk only make sense if you can eat the item in the amount of time that it is still fresh/ you won't be sick of it from having to eat it daily. I buy all my baking items, flour etc, in the largest quantity available at your average grocery store. I buy large quantities once a month of chicken and beef and carefully freeze it. When buying items like, tomato sauce, I buy the largest jar and keep it in the fridge after opening. Today I bought a 10 pound bag of potatoes (we love 'em!) for 99 cents. If we can eat it before it goes bad then yes, we buy it in bulk. I never want to be throwing out rotten or expired food because I bought too much of it; that isn't savings at all!

8. USE COUPONS! Yes, I am a couponer. Not like *those ones on TV*. Just...a practical one. Couponing for healthy foods is a little tricky. Generally if a company is big enough to offer manufacturer's coupons then they are probably not the best for you. A lot of the stuff is processed and has an eternal shelf-life. However, when possible, I use coupons.

I love You select coupons you'd like and print them at home. I also use (exclusive to military) the Commisary Rewards program, which allows me to select and load coupons to my Commissary Rewards card to be scanned at checkout. I don't get a newspaper, but my kind mother sends me nice notecards full of clipped coupons from home that she thinks I might like. It's fabulous.

I am not getting food for free and I don't have any sort of "stock pile" going, like the TV couponers, but I do save money every trip. Usually only like $5 (off products like Coconut Milk, shredded cheese and bacon), which may seem small, but it adds up. Since beginning my shopping adventures in December I have saved, to date $81.00 in coupons. For us, that is equivalent to 1 weeks worth of food paid for in coupons. And that makes me happy. I have a goal to save at least $200 in coupons by this years end. Again, it is not a lot, but it counts.
I bought a shopping list with file-folder type pockets at Target and I use that for all my list making and couponing needs. In the back I keep a tally of what I spend per month and what I've saved in coupons. It works for me!
Hopefully this post winds up helpful to someone. I've learned a lot, but I am still going to keep learning and trying to better perfect our food spending each month!

*end note: I grocery shop with a debit card. Yes, paying cash is a great technique to keep to a budget, but I am pretty good as calculating costs in my head and making sure I stick to my desired amount. We never, ever shop with a credit card as we are determined to live debt free! We do have a couple, but rarely are they used and they are always paid off by the month's end.

*end note 2: I am not really sure how this effects our budget, but I only buy meat for 1 person-my husband- as I am a vegetarian. I do buy some Morning Star and Boca-type products but I try and get my protein elsewhere. I would *imagine* this keeps our costs down as well.

*end note 3: we rarely, rarely eat out, save for the occasional Friday date night. At most, I'd say twice a month. I enjoy cooking homemade, and JoJo likes eating it. This saves us a lot. We do go out, we are able to use what we are saving on our food budget for a nice dinner.

*the end for real.


Katie said...

This is a great post! Thanks for the tips. I will definitely be keeping in mind some of these things. I know what you mean about only knowing how to cook/shop in large quantities! :)

Jaden Allred @ Irving Burton LTD said...

Had a bit of a chuckle after reading your tip on not bringing your husband. That aside, you've got some pretty good tips that people can learn from. As far as you learn how to budget along the way, it's not about how quick you learn; it's about putting those lessons into good use. :)


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